Articles By Athlon Sports
One of the knocks on NASCAR in recent years has been that it’s too predictable Well, not anymore. Try telling that theory to Las Vegas bookies this week while they’re busy recovering from heart attacks. In the final 10 laps at Richmond, you had a driver with 75/1 odds out front as well as a man who’s never won a race on an oval and without a top-10 finish for 10 months. Moments later, the lead was surrendered to the equivalent of a 15 seed in the NCAA tournament — 100/1 odds, no laps led to that point in the season and no victories in nearly five years. Add in three types of tire strategies and a green-white-checker finish and you had a double-file restart where one of about 15 different drivers, many of them underdogs, had a chance at the win.
It’s the perfect snapshot of why Richmond is one of NASCAR’s best facilities, worshipped by both fans and drivers alike. In the end, that was the only predictable part after a wild week off the track; this .75-mile oval, every time out, forces us to focus on nothing more than what happens on it.
Once the dust settled, Saturday’s winner could certainly relate to that theory as well. We delve into his shocking upset while shifting “Through the Gears” on Richmond storylines …
FIRST GEAR: And it’s Harvick for the steal
There’s a reason Kevin Harvick’s nickname is “The Closer.” Just two years ago, he won three races early in the season by leading a total of just nine laps. Saturday night’s trip to Victory Lane was another classic example of how Harvick has a knack for stepping up late. Starting 17th, his No. 29 Chevrolet was a 10th-place car through lap 300. It took a little strategy — pitting off sequence than other frontrunners for four fresh tires along with one final tweak — to loosen the car up that gave them an extra boost of speed.
“We probably made more adjustments on the car than we’ve made in any race in a couple years,” said crew chief Gil Martin. “But it was right when it needed to be.”
So was the luck. While shot out of a cannon, climbing up to second during the final 50 laps, Harvick would never have passed Juan Pablo Montoya unless a final yellow flag, flown for Brian Vickers’ wreck, to set up a free for all green-white-checker finish. The leaders, sitting ducks on old tires, were forced to pit in a move that jumbled the field. When the dust settled, after choices ranged from staying out to full-service stops, Harvick found himself on the inside line, seventh with four fresh tires while Montoya was stuck on the outside. That made the difference; when the cars came up to speed, “The Closer” had the room to throw his fastball, darting through traffic on the inside while Montoya wound up cornered by the wall.
“We were fortunate to have it all line up,” Harvick said. “I drove it in there, hoped for the best. Figured four, eight, 12 … whatever was on the outside tire-wise would be plenty to lean on and by the time we got to the backstretch, everything had cleared out.”
By the white-flag lap Harvick had moved up six spots, disposing of teammate Jeff Burton, and darted off to the win. His three laps led, total, tripled his total output in that category after a miserable first eight races of 2013.
That’s why this win is so big. Harvick, for all his bravado about dumping the “lame duck” status, is moving on from Richard Childress Racing at the end of the season. Outside the top 10 in points for much of the year, his No. 29 team has been little more than a top-15 car — six of his ninth finishes, in fact, are between 12th and 14th. Making the Chase was far from a guarantee, especially when considering his pending departure. Now, he and a penalized Matt Kenseth may be forcing struggling veterans like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and the injured Denny Hamlin to capture at least two victories should they use up those “wild card” spots.
There are hundreds of pictures of totally insane and gross bodybuilders around the Internet. Some of them are real, some of them are fake, and all of them are ridiculous. Here are our favorites.
1. I wonder if he shops at "Big and Tall...And Insane."
2. Is it a good sign when your giant bicep is bleeding? (Short answer: No.)
3. Remember these scene in Men In Black whent he alien's head weas shrunk? Now look at the guy on the right.
4. Pretty sure he has that dog for protection.
5. "Does this bandana make my body look retarded?"
7. Do you think he's looking in the mirror thinking "My arm is awesome." or "I've ruined my life."
8. I bet he was arrested by the GNC police for "forearm negligence."
9. I bet the guy in this ad for steroids is staring at his crotch and wondering where his testicals went.
10. According to Karl Lagerfeld, balloon arms are so 2011.
11. Just one question: How does he sleep?
12. Bubble man!
13. That's as far as he can turn his head.
14. Hey, wait, is that him sleeping? Question answered!
15. May want to chillax on the tanning spray, Chief. No amount of iron-pumping can take away your freakish face.
1. Beaten down Joe Gibbs Racing should come out swinging
Matt Kenseth suffered perhaps the most crushing penalty NASCAR has ever assessed that isn't a driver suspension. Kyle Busch has a strong memory of team mistakes killing his chance to qualify for last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. And Denny Hamlin, the best Richmond International Raceway driver by advanced statistical measure in the last five-plus seasons, won't even get to suit up for Saturday night's race.
Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't had a good week, and it will be extremely interesting to see how it responds. Because it's Richmond, thinking that JGR will fold under the pressure seems almost impossible.
Since Busch joined the team in 2008, JGR six wins at RIR, just under half of the laps led (1,945 of 4,010) and 15 total top-5 finishes. It’s figured something out in the .75-mile track seemingly beyond other teams. It might have to do with Busch and Hamlin sharing similar demands from a race car at the short track, unlike other Cup venues.
"We do like similar setups there, unlike other mile-and-a-half tracks or two-mile tracks where we don’t run very similar setups," Busch says. "Richmond is one of those places where we both know what it takes to get around and we’re both similar to one another in that we both run well.”
Expect JGR to continue a streak more than a decade old Saturday night: having at least one car lead a lap. The last time that didn't happen? The fall of 2001.
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit up the road to Richmond, Va., on Saturday for the Toyota Owners 400. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Goeffrey’s fantasy predictions for Richmond ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Clint Bowyer
Fourteen career Richmond starts. Two wins. Eight top 10s. Thirteen lead lap finishes. Don't tell me you're gonna pick against Clint freakin' Bowyer — in anything — on a Saturday night.
2. Tony Stewart
Smoke has the most points scored in the last four races at RIR, and is the only driver with four top 10s. One would think, because it's not a 1.5-mile track, that Stewart won't continue his early season stink.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick, twice a winner at Richmond, has led two of the last four races there. But he's only got one top 10 this year, and a grand total of one lap led. His 15 career top 10s at RIR are the most of any track on his Sprint Cup resume — even with Ricky Rudd stealing one away prior to a hood stomping in ’03.
4. Jeff Gordon
In 40 career starts, he boasts the best average starting spot (7.9) of any current driver and the most Richmond top 5s (16) of all current full-time drivers. Oddly, he hasn't won there since Bill Clinton was president (2000).
5. Jimmie Johnson
Led just three laps at Richmond last season and his last win at RIR was in 2008. Most widely celebrated Richmond moment was when he wrecked Kurt Busch intentionally in 2011. More people have him on their Richmond roster than any other driver, though.
6. Kasey Kahne
Held off Stewart for his first career victory at RIR in 2005 before performing a miracle at the .75-mile track in 2011: earning a top-3 finish in a Red Bull Racing car. Average finish of 8.5 last year in Hendrick equipment, and potentially still has Richmond beef with Marcos Ambrose.
7. Brad Keselowski
As long Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans — still angry about him "causing a caution" that hosed the No. 88 at Kansas — don't run him out of town, Keselowski figures to be average in Richmond. Two top 10s last year were his best yet, but he's still never led a lap at RIR.
8. Matt Kenseth
One top 5 since 2006 at Richmond for Kenseth doesn't make Saturday night's race look promising. However, he did race unusually well at Martinsville, so perhaps the JGR equipment can help him again. Don't expect that advantage to come from the engine, though.
9. Denny Hamlin
Not racing, but still has a better chance to win at Richmond than most. Obviously, take a pass this week.
Size, speed, stats and awards don’t matter if a prospect is Physically Unable to Perform. Here are biggest health concerns in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Matt Barkley QB, USC (Shoulder)
After suffering a sprained AC joint in his right (throwing) shoulder on Nov. 17, Barkley missed USC’s final two games of the season and was unable to throw at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February. Arm strength was already an issue for Barkley, whose draft stock has plummeted from the preseason projected No. 1 overall pick to that of anxious prospect just hoping to hear his named called on Thursday night.
Jarvis Jones OLB, Georgia (Neck)
Jones was a freshman at USC when it was discovered he suffered from spinal stenosis — an abnormal narrowing of the spinal column. The Trojans’ medical staff refused to give Jones medical clearance, going so far as to suggest he retire from football due to his condition. He was among the SEC’s most feared defenders after transferring to Georgia. Now NFL teams must decide just how far they’re willing to stick their neck out with Jones’ medical risks.
Marcus Lattimore RB, South Carolina (Knee)
After missing half of the 2011 season with an ACL tear in his left knee, Lattimore suffered a torn ACL and LCL in his right knee on Oct. 27 last fall. Despite a decorated high school and college career — as well as the recent rehab success of runners such as Adrian Peterson — there is still cause for concern when drafting a back who has had devastating injuries to both knees in consecutive seasons.
Star Lotulelei DT, Utah (Heart)
A routine medical test at the NFL Scouting Combine uncovered an abnormally low ejection fraction for Lotulelei, whose left ventricle of the heart was pumping blood at a reported 44 percent, compared to the normal 55 to 70 percent. Rapid weight loss has been the rumored cause of the problem. Before drafting the versatile Lotulelei, teams will need to feel certain that the 320-plus-pounder has a healthy heart.
The NFL is interested in expanding its presence internationally, and the world is reciprocating by providing talent for league teams. Kansas City Pro Bowler Tamba Hali (Liberia), standout Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski (Poland) and Giants end Osi Umenyiora (England/Nigeria) are just a few of the many imports found on NFL rosters last year. Expect that number to swell in 2013, thanks in part to these four top prospects.
Every year the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits a stretch of the season in which it is premature to judge the championship hunt, but cogent enough to pinpoint problems with underperforming drivers and teams. It’s an odd stretch, for sure. Through eight races we have seen some unexpected strong performances from non-household names, while also getting much of the same from the usual title-contending suspects, some of which you will read about below. It’s been a crazy, competitive year that has provided plenty of statistical fodder.
As usual, that’s why I’m here. Use this knowledge to increase your understanding of the sport, to strengthen your fantasy roster or to look the like the smartest NASCAR fan at any race-watching party you attend. I prefer the third option, but warning: you’ll be perceived as annoying after a while. Resort to chips and dip if that happens.
4.5 Busch’s 4.5-place average finish in the last six Richmond races is the best in the series by three whole positions.
He also has three victories and five finishes of sixth or better in those six starts. He has twice led over 50 percent of the race (spring 2010 and spring 2011) and his lone win in a lean 2012 season for the No. 18 team came on the .75-mile track. With hometown favorite Denny Hamlin potentially still sidelined due to injury, Busch is Richmond’s heavy-footed favorite.
15.7 Kyle Busch’s No. 18 team holds the most inconsistent finish deviation (15.7) in the Cup Series.
In a season thus far bookended by finishes of 34th at Daytona and 38th last weekend in Kansas, Busch has scored five top-5 finishes which include two victories. The winning is good; never knowing when the fickle No. 18 will flip from Jekyll to Hyde isn’t. After five consecutive top-5 runs, two crashes prompted by an ill-handling car highlighted his afternoon at Kansas. It’s a good thing Richmond is next on the schedule, considering Busch ranks as the track’s most productive driver, with a 6.250 PEER there in the last 12 races.
I’m wondering if there is a Major League Baseball player that played on a championship Little League World Series team and a championship College World Series team and a championship Major League Baseball team.
Which of my three favorite golfers — Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson — has the most holes-in-one?
Two years ago, J.D. Gibbs came within a front bumper of stealing Carl Edwards away from Roush Fenway Racing. Then Ford’s hot young star, Edwards would have bumped Joey Logano out of the No. 20 ride to the tune of a reported $10 million.
Turns out, that could be the best money Gibbs ever saved.
What happened? Edwards got a sweeter deal, including stock options from Ford, to remain at RFR, then came within a whisker of the championship (losing to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker). But he’s won just once since, stuck in rebuilding mode after losing longtime crew chief Bob Osborne, and hasn’t found a full-time sponsor to replace AFLAC, causing multiple companies — and occasionally Ford itself — to foot the bill.
In the meantime, the money thrown at Edwards, combined with patchwork sponsorship for Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 effort, made the latter ripe for the taking. JGR, with Logano still struggling a year later, grabbed Kenseth for an undisclosed amount – but likely a fraction of the Edwards price — saving backer Home Depot from potentially jumping ship completely. In the meantime, Gibbs’ outgoing driver won once more before handing the keys to a car that desperately needed a veteran’s help.
Where are we now, eight races in? Kansas’ Victory Lane offers a clue as we go Through the Gears:
FIRST GEAR: Matt Kenseth could be Joe Gibbs Racing’s missing piece.
Observers felt that Kenseth, looking for a fresh start after 13 years with Roush Fenway Racing, would click with the No. 20 team. But no one expected this type of start: two wins and six races led in eight starts for a team that’s been downright dominant at times. A driver known for consistency as opposed to controlling races, Kenseth already has led more laps this season (482) than he did throughout all of 2012. And it’s not like he was off the pace in his last year with RFR; Kenseth captured three victories, including the Daytona 500, and landed seventh in series points.
“I think it can always go better but things have been pretty good from a performance standpoint,” was his comment on Sunday concerning 2013. “I’m really, really happy. I think as an organization one of our cars — if all the stars would have aligned — could have won every race this year if everything would have worked out.”
Compare that to Roush Fenway Racing, which has half the wins and just 207 laps led thus far. How ironic was it that Kenseth’s final on-track pass for the lead came at the hands of his old car, the No. 17 driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Clearly, JGR got itself the better end of the deal, one it feels includes a leader within its stable of high-profile drivers.
For Kenseth, it’s more that the pressure’s off, with sponsorship secure and no mentoring needed for teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The 2003 Cup champ has 10 times the experience than Logano, and add in top-15 finishes so far this season at every track that also hosts a Chase date (even Martinsville, once kryptonite), and it’s clear this addition could bring not just the 20 team, but the entire JGR organization into serious title contention this fall.
SECOND GEAR: Kyle Busch is cursed by Kansas.
Everyone talks about Kyle Busch’s newfound maturity. But the one person Busch still needs to see, fresh off an Anger Management appearance with Charlie Sheen, is a wizard. Kansas Speedway has been Busch’s Achilles Heel, the one track where he has yet to score a top-5 finish and a place where he’s been cursed for two-plus years. The spell was in full effect this weekend, as Busch wrecked three times — from practice through the race — en route to destroying two cars and winding up in 38th place.
“Spun twice on our own,” he quipped after the race-ending incident. “Just don’t know what to do with Kansas.”
Maybe one extra apology to David Reutimann would be a start. That driver, angry over the way Busch bumped him out of the way at Bristol in 2010, chose to get his revenge at Kansas later that season — at a crucial point in the Chase — which proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back on Busch’s title run. The Las Vegas native was wrecked by Reutimann, ran 21st and has done no better than 10th at the 1.5-mile oval since.
That remnant of “Old Kyle,” along with the mental frustration attached to it, still comes out on The Plains. That needs to stop, considering this track’s second date remains smack dab in the middle of the Chase.
THIRD GEAR: There is such a thing as too fast.
While Kansas put on a far better race compared to Texas a week ago, both experienced the same set of problems that hindered side-by-side competition. Average speeds in both cases were well over 190 miles an hour; straightaway speeds at Kansas approached 210. If NASCAR saw that high of a number at Daytona — considering what happened in February — restrictor plates would be replaced with parachutes attached to each car’s rear end.
So why didn’t NASCAR even blink at Kansas? For now, its answer to “slowing the cars down” is providing a safe, rock-hard Goodyear tire compound so that if a driver spins, it’s his or her own fault — sort of a weird way to deflect blame. But considering that’s exactly what’s happening — half-a-dozen cars spun out on their own Sunday — isn’t the risk failing to provide a reward? With the current compounds, cars can run upwards of 200 laps on left-side tires and have little to no falloff. That makes a car like Kenseth’s the best all day unless you can nip it through pit strategy to gain track position, which limits passing and excitement for fans.
The Gen-6 car, when provided a softer tire compound, has proven to be racier than the Car of Tomorrow. Restarts at Kansas showed its true potential, with cars four-wide at times in the desperate battle to gain positions before everyone bottomed out at the same speed. The pieces of the puzzle are there, NASCAR just has to find a way to slow the cars and pair them with a softer compound tire so the drivers can actually use them to their advantage.
1. NASCAR honors victims, heroes of Boston Marathon explosions
Just as it did after the large-scale attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NASCAR will serve in the role of honoring those affected by Monday's horrific events at the Boston Marathon. Beyond the expected emotional pageantry of Sunday's pre-race ceremonies at Kansas Speedway, two Sprint Cup teams with unique ties to Boston and its annual road race have even made plans to recognize and support the victims and heroes in various ways.
Roush Fenway Racing, the NASCAR venture tightly partnered with Boston's Fenway Sports Group, will carry a unique "B-Strong" decal on each of its cars this weekend. Team owner Jack Roush has also pledged to donate $100 per lap led by his team to relief efforts in Boston. Fenway Sports Group, of course, owns the Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park and other Boston sports enterprises.
Meanwhile, Michael Waltrip will recognize his personal tie to the Boston Marathon by having each of his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota's sport car numbers this weekend in the same font as the marathon's bib number system.
“The news coming out of Boston this week was very personal to me,” said Waltrip. “When I ran the Boston Marathon in 2000, I remember thinking about what a privilege it was to be able to participate and all the hard work it took to be there. When you can see those international flags flying in Copley Square, you know you are about to complete your journey. I know the joy those runners were feeling at that moment when their worlds changed."
Undoubtedly, expect many in the garage to be sporting Boston Red Sox gear, too.
2. Streaking Kyle Busch hopes to avoid 2012 mistake
This season, when Kyle Busch has found the lead, there's been at least two times in seven races when he hasn't looked back. In three others — now good enough for a career-best streak — Busch at the very least hasn't fallen from the top 5 when the checkered flag fell.
A top 5 for Busch on Sunday would push that top-5 streak to six and, more importantly, overcome a major gaffe he had at Kansas just last fall. It'd also mark his first top 5 at the 1.5-mile track.
Busch was just about to assume the lead of last October's event on Kansas' newly-repaved surface when he lost control exiting Turn 4. He made slight contact in the process, but the damage was enough to steal any good handling from his No. 18. A later crash sealed his fate for the day in 31st.
"Hopefully, we have a good car like that this time around and I don’t make a mistake like that," Busch said.
Busch, of course, wasn't the only driver to fall prey to a tricky Kansas track. The caution flag waved a track record 14 times in October — good for a series high among all tracks in 2012.
3. Martin Truex Jr. has had enough second fiddle
If you didn't sense his disappointment after Saturday night's race at Texas Motor Speedway, let's make one thing abundantly clear: Martin Truex Jr. is straight tired of finishing second. It happened again at Texas, and it happened twice last season at Kansas.
Truex was by far more dominant in the spring race last season before the re-pave, leading 173 laps. The Texas runner-up meant it has been 210 races since Truex won his only career Sprint Cup race at Dover in 2007 for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. If you'll remember, Truex's win that day came in a Monday race after a Sunday washout and was overshadowed by antics between Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart that left both wrecked and Busch parked by NASCAR.
See why Truex might be a bit tired of playing back-up?
"We had a good run in (Las) Vegas, and ran well at Texas," Truex said this week, more removed from his disappointing Saturday night. "It seems like our mile-and-a-half, big track program is pretty good and kind of like Kansas, so (I) look forward to going there."
4. Almirola returns to site of best career Sprint Cup run
Predictions for Aric Almirola to run well in the season's first 1.5-mile track race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway fell way short, but a very solid seventh-place finish last weekend at Texas should bode quite well for the No. 43.
Leading 69 laps in last fall's Cup return to Kansas, Almirola fell out of contention from the lead when he began suffering tire issues. Eventually, despite turning the race's second fastest laps and proving to be a top-5 car by speed both early and late in green flag runs, a tire exploded on Almirola and put him in the Turn 4 wall.
He finished 29th.
It was both a glimmer of hope and a knotting defeat for the underdog Richard Petty Motorsports team. Almirola, still searching for his first career win and just his third career top-5 finish, admittedly hasn't stopped thinking about a return.
"I've been looking forward to Kansas since last October when we left there. We were so good last fall. To have it all taken away with some blown tires really stung," Almirola said.
A solid run at Kansas would be extra nice for Almirola due to sponsor Farmland being headquartered nearby. He'll do battle in a brand new chassis built by RPM.
Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe traveled to The White House recently, as part of the recognition for winning the 2012 Sprint Cup championship. As it is, it might be the last time Keselowski and Wolfe do much celebrating for a while. NASCAR found the rear end housings in both the No. 2 and No. 22 Penske Fords to be “not within the spirit of the rules” – whatever that means. Actually, what it really means is both Keselowski and Joey Logano are docked 25 points and will be without their crew chiefs (each fined $100,000), car chiefs and team manager for the next six weeks – pending their appeal. While crew chiefs bear the brunt of being put across NASCAR’s knee, drivers are not immune as well. Let’s take a look at the 10 most memorable NASCAR driver punishments.
10. Dale Earnhardt Sr. – Coca-Cola 600 1993 – Held 1 lap for rough driving
There was a time when even “The Intimidator” got a little too rowdy for NASCAR’s liking. As this clip shows, Earnhardt got a little close to Greg Sacks on the 1993 Coca-Cola 600, causing him to spin off Turn 4. Earnhardt was held one lap for rough driving, much to the chagrin of an animated Richard Childress. Check out the tint job on that No. 3 car. Just what does Lumina mean anyway? Loosely translated, it means 1993 Champion and eventual winner of the Coke 600 despite spotting the field a lap. For Earnhardt, this penalty wasn’t so much a punishment as it was a slap on wrist.
9. Kyle Busch – AAA 500 – Held 3 laps for speeding on pit road/unsportsmanlike conduct
Kyle Busch and the No. 18 team put a hurtin’ on ’em last Saturday night at Texas, but it was a different story during the 2010 Chase. Recovering from a spin in the AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Busch was penalized a lap for speeding for what NASCAR took as him keeping from going to go a lap down. After initially refusing to come in, then going Walter Sobchak and invoking Constitutional rights, Kyle gave the official working his pit double No. 1’s — and earned himself an additional two laps in the Hole. Earmuffs …
8. Greg Biffle – 1999 Truck Series Championship – Intake manifold, 125-point fine
The Biff has been with the Cat in the Hat ever since the late Benny Parsons told Jack Roush he needed to take a look. During the 1999 Truck Series season, Biffle was in a tight points battle with Jack Sprague and Dennis Setzer, with Biffle having just won his ninth race of the season at Las Vegas – the biggest payout race of the season. He came into the race with a 125-point lead and left with a 10-point deficit to Sprague. The reason? An issue with the intake manifold – one Biffle and crew chief Randy Goss maintained was an off the shelf part they had been using all season long. The fine proved costly, as Biffle lost the championship by a scant 8 points. Biffle would rebound to win the Truck Series title in 2000, and his nine-win ’99 season remains a record in the series to this day.
7. Robby Gordon – 2007 Pennsylvania 500 – Suspended one race for disregarding a black flag
I’ve always said that NASCAR would be a better place if it had more drivers like Robby Gordon. He’s a throwback if there ever was one, leaving the comfy confines of RCR to start his own team in 2005. You’d be hard pressed to find a better driver when right turns are permitted, and such was the case when NASCAR went north of the border in 2007. Gordon was running the Busch Series NAPA 200 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal when he got into it with Marcos Ambrose in the final laps, nerfing Ambrose and earning a black flag in the process. Instead of heeding a black flag, Robby kept his foot in it and assumed he had one the race. It was an awkward sight, seeing two cars perform victory burnouts – Kevin Harvick the official winner, and Robby Gordon who maintained that he won after the race. The next day, NASCAR suspended Gordon, not allowing him to drive in the Cup Series race at Pocono.
6. Kyle Busch – 2011 AAA 500 – Suspended one race for rough driving
What is it with Kyle Busch in Texas? It literally is checkers or wreckers with Kyle in the Lone Star State, and this incident with Ron Hornaday in 2011 is a perfect example. Truck regular Hornaday was in the midst of a title fight while Busch was running a truck for the team he owns with M&M’s sponsorship on the tailgate. On lap 15, Hornaday gets loose going around a lap truck, and forces Busch up into the wall. The caution comes out and Busch retaliates, driving Hornaday head-on into the wall, ending his night and title hopes. NASCAR parked Busch for the Cup race two days later in the middle of the Chase, was fined by his own team and received a final warning from sponsor M&M’s. Irony of ironies, Hornaday lost it and did the exact same thing this weekend at Rockingham to rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. who was driving the No. 54 Toyota that is normally Busch’s for Nationwide duty – but was a Joe Gibbs Racing truck. Oops.
5. Kurt Busch – 2012 Pocono 400 – Suspended one race for disrespecting media while on probation
What would a top 10 list of anything be without the best sound bite in NASCAR history? Kurt Busch had an up and down 2012 season. He was out at Penske and signed on with Phoenix Racing before the season started. They had decent equipment at Daytona, but wiped out four cars in the process. He had a top 10 going in the Southern 500 only to be felled by tire going down late — then engaged in a shouting match with Ryan Newman’s pit crew. That incident landed him on probation, which is when this incident with Bob Pockrass of The Sporting News occurred following a Nationwide race at Dover. Kurt was seated for the next race at Pocono. I know Kurt hates to dwell on the past, but this is top 10 material.
4. Carl Long – 2009 Winston Open – $200,000 fine/Banned from competition until paid
They say you can’t fight City Hall – and Carl Long is living proof. In 2009, Long was fined 200 points and $200,000 for an engine that was .17 cubic inches over the 358 limit – and down over 50 horsepower to the contending teams. The engine lasted all of three laps before Long was out of the event. Long was initially suspended for 12 weeks but was then reduced to eight; however since he has been unable to pay the four-year-old fine, he is not allowed to compete in the Cup Series in any capacity. He currently is a crew member in the Nationwide Series, but is still locked out of the Sprint Cup garage until he can pay the fine for his long deceased engine.
3. Jeremy Mayfield and Aaron Fike – Suspended indefinitely for drug use
Two of the sadder stories of the past decade involve two drivers who were once considered rising stars. Jeremy Mayfield was one of the up and coming drivers for Ford in the late 1990s before defecting to Dodge to help establish the groundwork for its 2001 return. After public criticism of team owner Ray Evernham’s personal affairs got him booted from the No. 19 Dodge midway through the 2006, he made a handful of starts for Bill Davis and tried to start his own team. In ’09, Mayfield was suspended for testing positive for methamphetamine. He has endured a host of legal and financial woes since, but maintains his innocence.
After Aaron Fike was working his way through the Truck and Busch series in the mid-2000s, and was sitting eighth in points in 2007 when he was arrested at an amusement park with his girlfriend, cooking up heroin in their car. He later admitted to having competed under the influence.
2. Curtis Turner – 1961 – Banned from competition for four years after supporting a driver’s union
Curtis Tuner is one of the most legendary figures in NASCAR history – more for the way he lived then for gaudy records or highlight-reel finishes. He was a lumber baron who drove cars because he liked to, not out of necessity. His parties were the thing of legend, often taking a break just long enough to go run the race – and then return to the house to get back at it. In 1961 however, he was seeking to protect his fellow drivers by attempting to organize a driver’s union along with fellow 2013 Hall of Fame nominee Tim Flock. This did not sit well with Big Bill France, who essentially banned both for life. The ban was rescinded after four years, during which time Turner built the Charlotte Motor Speedway – with the help of some creative financing and a Smith & Wesson to get the bulldozers rolling again.
1. Mark Martin – 1990 Winston Cup Championship – 46-point fine, Richmond
Under the new Chase points system, anything that happens in the first 26 races is often long forgotten by the time the final 10 events roll around. Under the system used from 1975-2003, it was a cumulative season-long fight with race No. 4 holding just as much value as race No. 30. In 1990, it would be the third race of the season that proved pivotal. A technical bulletin was issued that weekend with regards to welding and bolting a spacer plate to the intake manifold. Mark Martin’s No. 6 Ford passed inspection on three occasions that weekend without incident. It wasn’t until he won the race and Richard Childress phoned Bill France Jr., who was at home nursing a broken leg, protesting the win. As Jack Roush recounts, Childress made the claim to France, who was unaware of the bulletin and promised him that action would be taken. This was at a time when NASCAR was still leery of outsiders, and a Ford engineer who won championships in drag racing and SCCA road racing would meet that criteria — and Livonia, Mich., isn’t exactly North Wilkesboro, N.C. Martin and his Roush Racing team were fined 46 points and $30,000. He would ultimately fall short in the championship by 26 points to — who else? — the No. 3 Goodwrench team of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Kansas Speedway was the site for one of the weirdest races of the year in 2012. On a newly paved surface with an unfamiliar tire compound, the race offered drama (Jimmie Johnson crashing), comedy (Danica Patrick attempting to wreck Landon Cassill, but wrecking herself instead) and action (Matt Kenseth stormed to the front late in the race – there is more on this below – to scoop up the surprise win).
Statistically, one race is really, really tough for information-gleaning purposes, but we can try. There are a few hot drivers leaving Texas, one under-the-radar performer last year at Kansas and a driver with a lot to lose, desperate for a sound Sunday run.
56.29% Kyle Busch is the most efficient passer in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with a 56.29 percent passing efficiency.
The winner in two of the last three Cup Series races is Busch, who also happens to be the most adept navigator through traffic in the new Gen-6 car. Ironically, Texas, the site of his most recent win, served as the only reliable race in which his pass efficiency was negative — 44.12 percent — but he started on the pole and averaged a 1.58-place running position en route to a fairly easy victory. Two of his three best single-race efficiencies, 56.25 percent at Fontana and 55.91 percent at Las Vegas this season came large intermediate tracks on which high horsepower matters, not totally unlike Kansas.
42.5% Martin Truex Jr. led his first laps of 2013 at Texas, pacing the field for 42.5 percent of the race (142 laps).
He didn’t get the victory, but it was a strong showing for Truex, who has had a forgettable season thus far, finishing 24th or worse in three out of seven races. He heads to Kansas Speedway this weekend with two consecutive runner-up finishes, coming on both old and new pavement iterations of the track. There’s a caveat to that, though…
10.09 He finished second, but Truex only averaged a 10.09-place running position in last fall’s race at Kansas.
Truex is going to receive a lot of attention this week as a win favorite and a fantasy pick, but is the hype to be believed? He wasn’t nearly as polished on the freshly paved Kansas surface as he was on the old track. That 10.09 was the sixth-highest average running spot in a race that was caution-filled and as jumbled as your run-of-the-mill restrictor plate race. He might very well be a contender for the win on Sunday, but he isn’t nearly the lock as many will suggest.
128 Last fall’s Kansas race winner, Matt Kenseth, didn’t take the lead until lap 128. He led 78 laps on way to earning his only non-restrictor plate win of 2012.
I don’t think anyone expected Kansas to be a 1.5-mile version of Darlington. There were 14 cautions for 66 laps, meaning 24.7 percent of the race was run under caution. Patience was key and Kenseth’s approach to the race proved brilliant. None of the drivers that led in the first 100 laps of that race finished in the top 15. It’s not a guarantee that this kind of craziness will repeat itself, but understand that early leaders clearly aren’t impervious to adversity on this fast, frantic track.
It’s hard to believe that last year Kyle Busch went a whole season and won just once in NASCAR’s top three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Trucks. Why? Two months into 2013, he’s on pace to win 28 times across the board, lead over 2,000 laps in Cup and shatter any Nationwide Series record he hasn’t already.
But it’s the average start for Busch this season, on the Cup side, that’s making the biggest difference. Armed with a league-leading 5.4-place average start, his latest pole became the crucial difference in a tit-for-tat battle with Martin Truex Jr. at Texas. That first stall, a huge advantage on any stop, got him out first on the race’s final caution and made the last few minutes a coronation for a man who’s come full circle. It was at this 1.5-mile oval one and a half years ago when a wreck with Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Truck Series got Busch parked, left sponsor M&M’s questioning it’s commitment and left one of the sport’s most aggressive drivers at a crossroads with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Now? As we awaken this Monday morning, it’s Hornaday involved in the middle of a Truck Series mess, accused of deliberately wrecking another competitor while Busch is sitting on top of the NASCAR world. Funny how things come full circle, right?
Let’s go “Through the Gears” on what we learned from a weekend in Fort Worth …
FIRST GEAR: Texas + Gen-6 = Tough Sledding
You know when the biggest story of a race weekend is a sponsorship issue that is raised before the start of the event, you’ve got a problem. Texas, while giving us some decent racing back in the pack, was every bit the snoozer Fontana was not. The Gen-6 car, credited for improving racing at intermediates in 2013, seemed to take a time machine that morphed it back into the Car of Tomorrow. The second a driver claimed clean air, it was all she wrote, as Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to lead 313 of 334 laps. The aero advantage was so pronounced, Truex admitted afterwards that dropping back to second was too much to overcome.
“The race was over when we got beat out of the pits,” Truex said. “The bottom was so fast for a couple laps and I was really worried, honestly, that I was going to lose second because Carl (Edwards) was on the inside of me. I was just somehow able to run (turns) one and two wide open and get him cleared. Just the guy that gets clean air is hard to get. It’s hard to catch (them) in 10 laps.”
Others, like Greg Biffle, used dreaded race-killer terms like “track position” and “aero” Sunday night on SPEED’s Wind Tunnel when describing their struggles to move through the field. Even a flurry of cautions for what seemed like nothing — only three of the seven were caused by accidents — did nothing to tighten a field that, at the 450-mile mark, had only 15 cars on the lead lap. It’s the latest reminder that the Gen-6 is not an automatic miracle worker; week-to-week, there will be some tracks where improvement takes time.
Texas is certainly one of those, which is unfortunate, considering its grandstand capacity produces a six-figure crowd. Goodyear would be prudent to hold a test there before the fall event in the Chase, to come up with a tire that has more pronounced falloff, produces slower speeds and helps reduce aero dependency. Too many drivers were running the same speed, lap after lap, with little chance of being able to gain on anyone else. That produces the single-file parade witnessed Saturday night that hopefully, fans won’t be victim to much more.
For the first time ever, Athlon Sports is letting fans choose the Georgia Bulldogs cover of our 2013 SEC College Football Preview magazine. Fans can choose between quarterback Aaron Murray and running back Todd Gurley.
For the first time ever, Athlon Sports is letting fans choose the Texas A&M cover of our 2013 SEC College Football Preview magazine. Two great shots of quarterback Johnny Manziel are available to choose from.
For the first time ever, Athlon Sports is letting fans choose the Ohio State Buckeyes cover of our 2013 Big Ten College Football Preview magazine. Two great shots of quarterback Braxton Miller are available to choose from.
Fans can vote once a day through April 22, with the winning cover hitting newsstands at the end of May.
1. NASCAR finding Texas race sponsor to be questionable fit
When Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage announced the naming rights to Saturday night's race, eyebrows were raised in circles far wider than those just in the NASCAR garage. That'll happen when you allow a political group on one side of this country's hottest political debate to stake it's name to an event broadcast on national TV.
The buzz over the National Rifle Association's sponsorship of the NRA 500 this week has picked up steam once again, and NASCAR released a statement Thursday that seemed to indicate that it will review such sponsorships in the future. Tracks procure naming rights deals themselves, but each are subject to approval from the sanctioning body.
“The NRA’s sponsorship of the event at Texas Motor Speedway fit within existing parameters that NASCAR affords tracks in securing partnerships,” said NASCAR spokesman David Higdon in a statement that also noted NASCAR takes no stand in the gun rights debate. “However, this situation has made it clear that we need to take a closer look at our approval process moving forward, as current circumstances need to be factored in when making decisions.”
NASCAR's review of the approval likely stems from how the sport is being viewed by outsiders and, perhaps more importantly, by new fans. But it's a fine line for the sport to walk that has a considerable section of the fan base — especially in Texas — who share the same political views of the NRA.
NASCAR can't afford to alienate both sides of this debate or any other. How it handles situations such as these will be quite fascinating to watch.
Meanwhile, Gossage thinks the scrutiny is overblown.
"The only questions are coming from less than 10 reporters," Gossage said Thursday. "The public isn't asking (us) questions."
2. Let's hope you like the Gen-6
Back on track, NASCAR made another interesting announcement Thursday during the half-day open test afforded to teams as a way to get a better handle on NASCAR's latest model. Basically, don't expect major rule changes on the Gen-6 platform anytime soon.
"I think we're in a fairly good spot," NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said. "The teams — one of the things we've learned over the years is if you keep moving the targets, people have a tendency to … it's harder for them to keep chasing that. We feel like the playing field is fairly level."
After the small sample size of the latest two races for the Sprint Cup Series, shying from changes makes sense. Auto Club Speedway put on a show easily rivaling the best ever at the track for stock cars, and Martinsville Speedway seemed unfazed by the new body style. That's a good thing.
Pemberton's remarks bring the Gen-6 car nearly full circle after the sanctioning body used a test at Texas last fall at the track to narrow down what kind of speedway aerodynamic and mechanical package would be in use with the new car. That day, teams experimented with various levels of downforce and multiple tire combinations. Today's product isn't far from what the drivers tested that day.
"As long as the input is (that) it's still pretty rock solid as far as being positive, they've got plenty to work with. We feel like there's no reason to move the target on them right now," Pemberton said.
As you watch Saturday night's race and judge the Gen-6 on its third intermediate track visit of the season, remember that last year's spring Texas race was the impetus for many to wonder why NASCAR had lost the number of incidents and cautions everyone was used to. The caution flag waved just twice for 10 laps in last year's 334-lap event, both times for debris.
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Lone Star state this weekend for the NRA 500 from Texas Motor Speedway. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Texas, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Matt Kenseth
Among the favorites at Texas. He’s scored five consecutive top-5 finishes at that track, including a win in April 2011. He’s led 274 laps in those five races. He won at Las Vegas — a similar 1.5-mile oval — last month. Finished seventh at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, which crew chief says was their worst race of the year.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Points leader has nine top 5s in 19 career starts at Texas, including a win last fall there. Led 48.4 percent of the laps run in both Texas races last season. Finished sixth at Las Vegas in the only race so far on a 1.5-mile speedway this season. Coming off Martinsville victory.
3. Kasey Kahne
One of the hottest drivers on the circuit with four consecutive top-10 finishes. He placed second at Las Vegas (leading 114 laps), won at Bristol, took ninth at Auto Club Speedway and is coming off a fourth-place finish at Martinsville. Has two top 10s in his last three Texas starts.
4. Brad Keselowski
Finished second to Johnson in last fall’s race at Texas. It marked his first top-10 finish there in nine starts. Has finished worse than sixth only once this year. Placed third at Las Vegas in only race so far on a 1.5-mile speedway in 2013.
5. Clint Bowyer
Has four top-10 finishes in his last five Texas starts. Has three top-10 finishes this season but all have come on tracks 1 mile or less in length.
6. Kevin Harvick
Outside his 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500, he’s finished between ninth and 14th in every race. He’s coming off a 13th-place finish — his third such finish in six races — last weekend at Martinsville. He finished ninth in both Texas races last year.
7. Jeff Gordon
Has two top 10s in his last seven Texas starts. Car seemed to be off at Las Vegas (where he was 25th) and Auto Club Speedway (11th) earlier this season.
8. Tony Stewart
Has two top 10s in his last six Texas starts but one was a win (Nov. 2011) and the other was a fifth-place finish in last fall’s race there. Struggled at Las Vegas with a late rally allowing him to finish 11th in only race so far at 1.5-mile track this season.
Ranking college football coaches is no easy task. Judging coaches simply on their record isn’t a true indicator of how successful they were at a particular program. Components such as resources, tradition, how the job stacks up against the rest of the conference and staff are valuable factors that are often lost in judging head coaches.
Athlon ranked all 125 college football coaches for 2013, with Alabama’s Nick Saban, Kansas State’s Bill Snyder and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer ranking as the top three.
However, on the other side of the rankings are a handful of coaches struggling to make their mark.
And considering there are 125 coaches, there’s plenty of bad options that just aren’t cut out to be a head coach.
With that in mind, Athlon is taking a look an in-depth look 10 coaches who rank near the bottom of the 125 rankings. Of course, these coaches don’t necessarily rank at the bottom of the 125 poll. Considering some coaches like Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck or Kent State’s Paul Haynes rank near the bottom of the 125 list and considering they are in their first season, it’s hard to consider them for this list. UMass’ Charley Molnar also deserves a pass, as the Minutemen are transitioning from the FCS to FBS level.
Put it this way, this is a list of 10 coaches we wouldn’t consider if we were the athletic director at any school needing to find a replacement for 2013.
College Football’s Top 10 Worst Coaches for 2013
Tim Beckman, Illinois
Considering Beckman’s 21-16 record in three years at Toledo, it’s hard to put him on this list. However, his one season at Illinois was simply a disaster. The Fighting Illini went 2-10, which included a 0-8 record in Big Ten play. While a transition can be expected under a new coaching, Illinois had too much talent returning to not win a game in conference play. Beckman made good adjustments to his staff this offseason, which should help the Fighting Illini improve their win total in 2013. However, if Illinois goes 2-10 or 3-9, there’s a good chance he won’t be back for 2014. Beckman deserves credit for his Toledo tenure, but a disastrous first season puts him on the list going into the 2013 campaign.
Norm Chow, Hawaii
Chow earned a lot of respect for his time as an assistant at BYU, NC State, USC, UCLA and Utah. However, he didn’t land his first head coaching opportunity until he was 65 years old. As a Hawaii native, Chow is a good fit for the Warriors, but his first season left a lot to be desired. The Warriors won just three games last season, and the only victory in conference play came against a struggling UNLV team. Hawaii has some nice pieces returning for 2013, so Chow could have the Warriors more competitive in the Mountain West. While it’s only Chow’s second season at Hawaii, the early signs are troubling for the Warriors.
Dan Enos, Central Michigan
Let’s give Dan Enos credit: He did get Central Michigan to a bowl game last year. However, the Chippewas were arguably the worst team to qualify for the postseason in recent memory. Central Michigan knocked off Iowa on the road, but its other four regular season wins in FBS play came against Akron, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and UMass – a combined 8-40 in 2012. Outside of last year’s 7-6 mark, Enos is just 6-18 as a head coach with the Chippewas. Enos made some gains last year, but we aren’t convinced he’s a top-tier coach in the MAC.
Bobby Hauck, UNLV
Hauck had a tremendous run at Montana, recording an 80-17 record in seven years. However, his tenure at UNLV has been a disaster. The Rebels are 6-32 under Hauck’s direction and have failed to exceed two victories in each season. UNLV has been a tough place to win at, so it’s hard to fault Hauck for everything that has transpired over the last three years. However, the Rebels really haven’t made a lot of progress and will be picked near the bottom of the Mountain West once again in 2013.
Tony Levine, Houston
Levine was tasked with a tough assignment when he was promoted to head coach, as Kevin Sumlin left big shoes to fill after a 12-1 season. Making matters worse for Levine was his lack of head coaching or coordinator experience, which certainly was tested after Houston’s 0-3 start. Levine served as a special teams coach under Sumlin and worked as an assistant special teams coach with the Panthers before coming to Houston. The Minnesota native was a curious promotion for a program that hit home runs with the hires of Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin. Levine was a popular hire among the players but still has much to prove after underachieving with a 5-7 record in 2012.
Doug Martin, New Mexico State
Considering the timing of DeWayne Walker’s departure to the NFL and New Mexico State’s conference situation, Martin is probably the best the Aggies could find in a head coach this season. The former Kentucky quarterback went 29-53 in seven years as Kent State’s head coach but never had a record over .500. It’s not easy to win at Kent State, but the Golden Flashes never showed much improvement under his watch. Martin is a good coordinator, but his lack of success at Kent State doesn’t bode well for his future at an even tougher place to win (New Mexico State).
Carl Pelini, FAU
Pelini’s debut at FAU had its share of highs and lows. He managed to avoid a disastrous loss to Wagner in the season opener and defeated Western Kentucky in mid-November. Despite losing nine games, the Owls did show some progress on the scoreboard in 2012, as three losses were by a touchdown or less. Considering how important recruiting is, hiring a coach that had no ties to Florida was a bizarre move for FAU. However, Pelini reeled in a class that ranked second in the Sun Belt according to Rivals.com. FAU faces a tougher road in Conference USA in 2013, and the roster was hit hard by departures on the offensive line and at quarterback. Pelini did some good things in his first year, but the jury is still out on just how successful he will be as a head coach.
Don Treadwell, Miami (Ohio)
As a former receiver at Miami (Ohio) and a successful stint at Michigan State as the team’s offensive coordinator, there was a lot of enthusiasm surrounding Treadwell’s hire in Oxford. However, Treadwell has fallen short of expectations in his first two years. The RedHawks recorded back-to-back 4-8 seasons and finished 2012 by losing six out of their last seven games. Treadwell inherited a team that won 10 games in 2010 and had quarterback Zac Dysert - a likely selection in the 2013 NFL Draft - leading his offense. Treadwell has a solid resume, so there’s a good chance he can turn Miami (Ohio) back into a consistent winner. However, eight wins in two years at a program with a lot of tradition is enough to earn Treadwell a spot on this list.
Ron Turner, FIU
FIU made a colossal mistake when it decided to fire Mario Cristobal and replace him with Ron Turner. Although Turner has experience as a head coach on the collegiate level, his overall record at Illinois was 35-57. Over his last three seasons with the Fighting Illini, Turner recorded a 9-26 record, which included a horrendous 1-11 campaign in 2001. In fairness, Illinois isn’t the easiest job in the Big Ten. However, Turner went to just two bowl games and had only one winning season in Big Ten play. For a program that averaged just 13,634 fans at each home game in 2012, hiring a 59-year-old retread coach is simply a bad idea.
Charlie Weis, Kansas
After the failed two-year stint under Turner Gill, Weis was a strange hire for Kansas. The New Jersey native certainly isn’t a long-term answer for the program, especially after going 16-21 in his final three years at Notre Dame. While the Fighting Irish aren’t as dominant as they were in the past, it’s unacceptable to have two losing seasons over a three-year period. The Jayhawks were winless in Big 12 play last season and lost non-conference games against Rice and Northern Illinois. Although Kansas was more competitive in Big 12 games than it was in 2011, the Jayhawks are still clearly the league’s worst team. Making matters worse for Weis is a heavy reliance on junior college prospects in 2013. There’s a good chance Kansas will hit on a few impact transfers, but it’s risky to not build around freshmen. Weis clearly ranks at the bottom of Big 12 coach rankings.
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I hope you all enjoyed restrictor plate action (or in this year’s case, inaction), short track madness and whatever it is we’re calling Fontana now, because all of that is in the rearview mirror. The intermediate tracks, referred to by some fans as “cookie cutters,” provide a semblance of statistical normalcy. Speed and strategy reins on these 1.5- and 2-milers, and while last year’s fall race at Texas Motor Speedway — this weekend’s destination — was an action-packed affair, the top finishers at these tracks are anything but random. We know who the key players will be, thanks to their statistical history on the tracks that comprise the bulk of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.
This week’s statistical cavalcade bridges Martinsville, where Jimmie Johnson showcased his short track mastery, to Texas, a track favored by a certain blue oval-backed racing organization.
69.2% Jimmie Johnson led a whopping 346 laps (69.2 percent of the race) last Sunday at Martinsville, en route to this eighth win at the facility.
We are used to Johnson’s sheer dominance on the half-mile paperclip-shaped track, but in seven previous wins he never threw down a performance like the one witnessed last weekend. It was a showing of team strength and driving expertise. As he did last fall, Johnson departs Martinsville’s Victory Lane for Texas, where he won following an exciting late-race battle with Brad Keselowski.
64.56% Danica Patrick recorded her best single-race passing efficiency, winning 64.56 percent of her pass encounters in her debut race at Martinsville.
The 12th-place finish was aided by her plus-passing — her pass differential for the day was plus-23 — after starting from the rear of the field due to an engine change. On a track that isn’t often kind to first-time racers (ask Ricky Stenhouse), Patrick had, arguably, her best Cup Series performance to date.
5.700 In the 10 CoT races that took place at Texas Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth amassed a series-high 5.700 Production in Equal Equipment Rating.
A beacon of consistency in the Lone Star State, Kenseth has finished ninth or better in nine of the last 10 races for an incredible 6.2-place average finish (backed by an amazingly consistent 5.5 finish deviation). Strangely, his average green-flag speed and his finishes at TMS don’t often coalesce; the one time he had the fastest car at Texas, he won (April 2011), but it is more typical that he radically out-performs his equipment, like his fourth-place finish last fall while averaging the 10th-best green-flag speed, or under-performs, like his ninth-place score while averaging the fourth-fastest speed in the spring of 2008.
Joey Logano. Tony Stewart. Denny Hamlin. Clint Bowyer. Jeff Gordon. The list of NASCAR drivers ticked off, for one reason or another, entering Martinsville could even knock the former Jersey Shore castmates down a peg. Add in a half-mile paperclip oval — one of the sport’s best — two weeks to ponder what’s gone wrong and Sunday was supposed to be an all-out explosion of revenge.
Instead? I’ve seen senior center bingo arguments come off with more energy than how it all panned out. (I guess maybe that’s what you get when a 54-year-old steps into Hamlin’s seat?) For all those expecting fireworks of historic proportions, somebody forgot to tell the watchman responsible for lighting that fuse.
Part of the problem was that some of these drivers never even got close to one another. Logano and Stewart, for example, had just a handful of opportunities where they were racing bumper-to-bumper. But in a sport where the championship — or more accurately, the playoff — is front and center, drivers are thinking about consequences even early in the season. Just like Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson won’t show their cards now when the results matter less, there’s no reason for a struggling Stewart to risk wiping himself out, digging a deeper hole to climb up when it comes to what really matters for paying sponsors: the Chase.
Such is the nature of the NASCAR beast these days. Bottom lines mean every race can’t turn out like your wildest dreams — matching the sanctioning body’s hype — as drivers sometimes choose to use their head over their heart. It’s a shame, though. Most times, this race at Martinsville, with plenty of action throughout the pack, would get itself a “B” grade or better without hesitation. But we’re in 2013, which is quickly becoming a year of high expectations. A race at one of the best tracks on the schedule should be an automatic A-plus under the circumstances.
Anything less? Feels like a missed opportunity … even though the “temper, temper” moments could well come back into play this fall.
Let’s go through the gears…
ONE: Jimmie Johnson owns Martinsville.
For exceptional athletes, there’s always one venue that fits their style better than any other. Tiger Woods has Augusta, Roger Federer has a set of tennis courts in Queens and Michael Jordan once thrived in Madison Square Garden.
For Jimmie Johnson, that magical place is Martinsville, Va. With eight victories in 23 career starts, third to only Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, the half-mile oval launch his performances into another stratosphere. Sixteen times he’s finished top 5 or better, and a 34.7 percent winning clip basically guarantees a victory once every year and a half there. Considering 43 Cup competitors start each race and those types of odds happen oh, about next to never.
“His car is so much better than everybody else,” explained sixth-place finisher Brad Keselowski, “That he just plays with everybody the whole race just to make it look good.”
No one encapsulated this day any better. Even when Johnson was being challenged by Martinsville 0-fers Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, the vibe still leaned his way. Not once for a single lap did the No. 48 put itself in position to run outside the top 5, simple history dictating the track would eventually come to him.
“It’s probably the most calm, relaxed thought-out weekend that we've had as the 48,” said the winner. “We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that.”
The end result now sees Johnson with 14,000 laps led overall in the Cup Series, a career best 2,327 of them at Martinsville. In comparison, peer Jamie McMurray, a six-time Cup winner in his own right, has led just 1,416 laps during his whole career. It seems between pit road, crew chief strategy and driver ability, this short track brings out the best in the five-time champ – the sport’s new points leader, to boot.
SECOND: See Hendrick go. See Gibbs go. See everyone else watch and get jealous.
The new Gen-6 car, while promoting parity, is bound to be figured out by a few organizations quicker than most. A look at Sunday’s laps-led totals reaffirm the answer: 2013 is developing into Hendrick, Gibbs and then every man for himself.
Only Marcos Ambrose, who led lap 1 and Travis Kvapil, who paced the field a single lap under yellow, broke the 498-lap spell up front rotated by HMS’ Jimmie Johnson, JGR veteran Kyle Busch and newcomer Matt Kenseth. But their performances are far from one-hit wonders. This trio, along with JGR’s Denny Hamlin and HMS’ Kasey Kahne, make up the top 5 in laps led on the circuit, six races into a young season.
Yes, Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards has a win at Phoenix. And Brad Keselowski over at Penske Racing has kept up that championship consistency. But by and large, the teams showing the most strength these days are coming squarely out of two race shops. Of the seven drivers, Kenseth, has been the most surprising, leading more laps at Martinsville Sunday – one of his worst tracks – then in his 13-year career at the track up to that point. If they can make him into a contender here, that bodes well for the 1.5-mile ovals right in his wheelhouse coming up next.
Louisville had overcome a 12-point deficit against Wichita State, but a questionable call in the final 10 seconds helped seal the Cardinals' win in the Final Four and a trip to the national title game.
Luke Hancock, who was one of Louisville's heroes with 20 points, missed a free throw with 8.8 seconds left. Wichita State's Ron Baker grabbed the rebound, and Hancock clutched for the ball. After the two players wrestled for the ball, Baker passed to teammate Malcolm Armstead.
Before Armstead took possession, officials called for a held ball, which kept the ball in Louisville's possession. The call denied Wichita State a chance to take a potential game-tying three-point shot.
Here is the call on video, judge for yourself: