Articles By Athlon Sports
When Austin Meadows tries to balance what’s left of his high school experience with the demands of being one of Major League Baseball’s next great center fielders, he’s got a sympathetic ear just down the hall at Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga.
Meadows is classmates with Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s top overall college football prospect for the class of 2013. Meadows is a 6'3", 200-pound left-handed outfield prospect whom some analysts have projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB Draft (June 6-8).
“We’re both really blessed to be going through these situations right now. We’re each doing our own thing, but we’ve talked about how special it is,” Meadows says.
Meadows is currently wrapping up his senior season at Grayson amidst the constant presence of MLB scouts and baseball media from across the country. But it’s nothing new around Grayson, as Nkemdiche’s talent made the campus a preferred destination for a who’s who in college football coaching over the last two years.
“I think it made me a little bit more prepared for what was coming with Austin,” Grayson baseball coach Jed Hixson says. “Every day on campus you’d pass Kirby Smart or see Nick Saban. When it came time, I met with Austin’s parents and talked about the scouts and attention, and what to expect. He’s responded to it great. Austin’s one of the most humble kids I know.”
Grayson High School and the greater community of Gwinnett County are a fertile crescent for athletes in 2013. Nkemdiche’s recruitment became a national storyline for well over the standard year-long recruiting cycle. Originally a verbal commit to Clemson, Nkemdiche was courted by every major program in the country for his rare combination of size (6'5", and a “raw” 260 pounds before college conditioning) and speed. Unlike game-changing South Carolina defensive end and likely 2014 NFL Draft No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, Nkemdiche was also a proficient running back for the Rams.
During a nationally televised press conference at Grayson on the morning of National Signing Day (Feb. 6), Nkemdiche chose to join his older brother Denzel at Ole Miss.
“It’s a relief that it’s over now, but I had fun in the process,” Robert Nkemdiche says. “Now it’s all about focusing on what’s ahead and proving myself.”
While both players are considered among the absolute best in their age group in their respective sports, their wooing has differed greatly. Nkemdiche and his family were largely in control of the recruiting process, selecting which schools the game-changing strong-side end would visit and consider.
Meadows, who is committed to play at Clemson, is at the mercy of MLB team needs and his landing spot is still unknown.
“I don’t really like getting caught up in all the evaluations. I just stick to playing baseball and keeping a level head. Different people might criticize me but that just makes me work harder,” Meadows says.
That has included working on his bat speed and his throwing. Meadows says that he’s worked extensively with coaches and his father, a former punter at Morehead State, on creating “comfort” throwing from the outfield.
“I’ve said to him, ‘Stay positive. Keep your nose clean and stay humble, and put God first.’ That’s what I go by,” Nkemdiche says.
Hixson credits the land-rush style settlement of the greater Loganville area in the last decade as well as a strong relationship between the area’s public schools and parks programs as the reasons why so many top-tier athletes are coming through the Rams’ various athletic programs.
“The prospects we’ve had here create a chain for kids to come. They’ve brought more and more exposure and that helps the players following them,” Hixson says. “It’s been kind of cool to have the attention Austin has brought for other kids in the program. Certainly some burdens are expected, but they’ve been outweighed by the exposure he’s brought to his teammates.”
One thing is for certain: Meadows and Nkemdiche are considered pinnacle prospects at their respective games, but there won’t be any Bo Jackson cross-sport action from either student. If there’s a downside of too many top-tier athletes in the same high school, it revealed itself when Meadows, once a running back at Grayson, had to attempt to block Nkemdiche in practice. “It was just one time in practice, I had to block down on him, thankfully, but he went right by.”
For his part Nkemdiche said he wouldn’t want to run against Meadow’s arm in the outfield. “I’d probably be out,” he admits.
by Steven Godfrey
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. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s 9-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned driver strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.
NASCAR makes its first of two visits to Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania Sunday for the Party in the Poconos 400. With a race name like that, Clint Bowyer would appear to be the early favorite, right? Not so fast, says the following stringent analysis. Jump in, make your picks and, hopefully, make us look like we know what we’re talking about.
A-List (Choose two, start one)
After blowing a tire at Dover and smacking the wall, Hamlin’s summer scramble to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup felt the pressure intensify just a bit more. Good thing he’s coming to Pocono, where in 14 starts he’s moved to second in Pocono wins among active drivers. Expect Hamlin to both start (average 5.6) and finish (average 10.7) up front Sunday — especially after the blemish on his Pocono resume handed down in July last year when he was caught in Jimmie Johnson’s late-race crash. In total, Hamlin has led right at one of every four laps that he’s run at Pocono. That’s stout.
Gordon has plenty of glowing career statistics that aren’t so reflective of how well his No. 24 has performed in recent seasons. Such is the break of his astounding period from roughly 1995 to 2002. But stats enhanced long ago muddying the current waters isn’t the case for Gordon at Pocono. Three of Gordon’s last nine wins on the Sprint Cup tour have come at Pocono, and four of his last five starts have resulted in top-10 finishes. The five-race rate bests a career top-10 average at the 2.5-mile triangle of 70 percent.
Also consider: Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth
Dover International Speedway, a high-banked one-mile concrete oval, and Pocono Raceway, a 2.5-mile asphalt triangle with three wildly different corners, are two tracks that shouldn’t warrant much comparison.
Tony Stewart, who slumped through the first third of this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season and broke out with a victory last week at Dover, hopes that the contrary is true. The manner in how he won last Sunday emulates a lot of his past success at Pocono, including his two most recent outings on the “Tricky Triangle.” If Stewart can translate what worked at one place into working at another, all of a sudden his flash-in-the-pan win last weekend (it wasn’t undeserved, but he’d be hard-pressed to duplicate the feat) becomes the ignition of a summer hot streak.
How big of a shock was last week’s win? How did he do it? And do his numbers suggest a second consecutive victory?
41st Prior to his win at Dover, Stewart ranked 41st out of 47 drivers in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) at the mile track.
In the five races leading up to the weekend, Stewart didn’t earn a finish at Dover better than 20th. Suffice to say, his win was a bit of a shock. Considering he averaged a 15th-place running position for the afternoon, the victory wasn’t one that seemed a foregone conclusion for those at home watching the race. One of the reasons that he pulled off the victory was because he dialed back the clock and found an element of his repertoire that made a younger Tony a Stock Car superstar.
54.05% Stewart’s single-race pass efficiency at Dover was 54.05 percent, above his season-long efficiency of 48.44 percent.
The three-time champ’s minus-passing for the year (“minus” is anything below 50 percent) has hindered his plodding approach at success in most races this season. Passing is a large part of what makes Stewart a future Hall of Famer, and what allowed him to surge from 12th to first in the final 40 laps to secure his first win at Dover since 2000.
Stewart fans might take comfort in the fact that one of his best racetracks is next on the schedule.
5.500 Stewart ranks third in Cup Series PEER at Pocono with a 5.500 rating. He is the only driver that secured top-5 finishes in both races there last year.
2012 was the first season that saw Pocono’s new pavement put to use. Historically, Stewart doesn’t fare well on new surfaces or new tire combinations. Pocono was different. Similar to his run last week at Dover, Stewart improved on his average running position by 10 spots in the spring race (from 13th to third) and eight spots in the summer race (from 14th to fifth). Can he capitalize on superb passing and a plodding approach once again? If last year was any indication, it is possible. He earned a 59.38 percent pass efficiency on 256 encounters across both races there last season.
44.9% Jimmie Johnson led 44.9 percent of last summer’s race at Pocono, but ultimately finished 14th.
If it wasn’t for a hurried rain-imminent finish that prompted Johnson and Greg Biffle to collide and take them out of the running for the win, it’s likely that the No. 48 team would have kept cruising.
In spite of that result, Johnson ranks fourth in Pocono-specific PEER with a 5.000 rating. A driver that probably should have two top-5 finishes on the new surface could right his perceived wrong from Dover — he was penalized for jumping the final restart — this weekend.
A quick look at the leaderboard, 140 laps through Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover gave you a clear indication of who would be winning this race … or so it seemed. Kyle Busch was first, Matt Kenseth was second and the rest of the field was on another planet. For a good hour that duo swapped the point while only a handful of drivers, between cautions, remained within 10 seconds of contact. Meanwhile, the trio of Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya remained far back, dealing with various handling and track position issues that made a push for victory seem like a virtual impossibility.
Fast forward to the final 20 laps, perhaps the time you woke up from a mid-race nap once Busch and Kenseth’s pairs ice skating routine lulled you to sleep. The top 3, heading down the stretch, were none other than Montoya, Johnson and Stewart, until the No. 48 got a black flag for jumping the final restart. Suddenly, a heavyweight battle was at hand between the remaining duo, there was an on-track pass for the lead in the final five laps and one of the deepest slumps in the garage — Stewart’s 30-race winless streak — was torn to shreds at a track where he typically runs like a tow truck driver. For those who missed those hours in between thinking Busch and Kenseth were going to run away with it, three letters came to mind when looking at the final results sheet: W, T and F. (You can figure this one out.)
That’s a good thing for the sport, even though the quality of racing from NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis left something to be desired at Dover. For if the drivers can’t battle side-by-side for position to captivate an audience, at least you want to create an aura of unpredictability — that the guys you see running up front on lap 200 aren’t going to be the ones there at the finish. So far this season, NASCAR’s last five winners (Harvick twice, David Ragan, Matt Kenseth and Stewart) have led an average of 11 laps during their respective trips to Victory Lane; to me, that means mission accomplished.
Now, if only we could get this Gen-6 running right everywhere, a problem Mr. Stewart still faces as we go up through the gears after the Monster Mile.
FIRST GEAR: What does this win do for Stewart?
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s clear even Stewart knows this surprise victory, stolen with what was probably a 10th-place car, won’t suddenly make his self-owned team a pack of title contenders. Indeed, on the same day he was sitting there celebrating, teammate Ryan Newman was in hiding, leaving without comment after blatantly dumping David Gilliland on-track, wrecking both drivers out of the event. Danica Patrick, by comparison, nearly took out the field twice within the first 25 laps before a series of unscheduled pit stops to fix handling problems that left her well off the pace and on a “test session” the rest of the day.
“Just making the Chase, that’s not good enough,” said the three-time champ, who put himself in “wild card” position with the victory. “I would rather miss the Chase and be in the process of building our program. I want to get this whole program turned around to where all three drivers are feeling like they have an opportunity to go out and have a good result.”
Smoke’s got the right attitude for his team, and — aside from a brief rebuke at a media member surrounding rumors about possible crew chief changes — left Sunday in a picture perfect frame of mind. Sunday’s race, in which crew chief Steve Addington used pit strategy to work Stewart up through the pack, could be a turning point for a duo who’s had their share of hard luck. The summertime is typically when Smoke catches fire anyways, with the lion’s share of his 48 career victories occurring after June 1. They’ve got Hendrick chassis and horsepower, (and know-how, as HMS has proved to have mastered the Gen-6 with Johnson atop the points) and the resources and quality of personnel are there to at least turn the No. 14 into a success story.
“I think, as an organization, we have a lot to be proud of,” Stewart continued. “It gives Ryan and Danica and I confidence as a driver (that a Stewart-Haas car won). It gives the three crew chiefs confidence that we are making forward progress.”
Keep in mind we’re also in early June. The last time Stewart won a title, in 2011, he stumbled through July and August, barely made the Chase field and looked like he was going to embarrass himself in the postseason. Instead, he left holding the hardware. It’s the mark of being one of the sport’s great drivers: you can never count him out.
SECOND GEAR: Johnson’s botched restart … and Knaus’ cryptic code.
The debate from Dover is whether Johnson jumped the final restart of the race. Check out the footage for yourself. It’s clear the No. 48, against NASCAR rules, made it to the finish line first, despite restarting second and then never gave the position back to Montoya. Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton claims it’s an open-and-shut case, a Grand Canyon-like divide from where the No. 48 team was on the issue.
“I was half-throttle for the whole frontstretch,” Johnson claimed. “And at some point, I gotta go. NASCAR has the judgment to decide if you jumped it or not. But I’m like, he’s (Montoya) is not even going. So I’m not sure if his car broke or if it was off power or he spun the tires … I don’t know. So I’m running half-throttle down the frontstretch waiting for him and he never comes. And then, we were called on it. So, a bummer way to lose a race.”
Johnson had some support from fellow drivers, coming up to him after the checker flag and expressing their displeasure. Chad Knaus also chimed in, via radio to make their position clear: “They (NASCAR) don’t want you to win this race. You know that.”
But the winner, Stewart (who in a sense is a de facto teammate of Johnson) had no issues with how Montoya brought the field down.
“I feel bad for Jimmie,” Stewart said. “He didn't deserve to be in a situation at the end, but at the same time, he knows what the rules are, and he knows that the leader has to cross the start/finish line first. Juan is smart enough to not let the second place guy take advantage of the restart, and that's what he did.”
Stewart said a possible solution to the controversy would be to widen the restart zone, allowing the leader more leeway in when they accelerate and lessening the advantage for second place so they don’t get out in front. But in this case, I think it’s a combination of Montoya’s savvy and a little cheerleading from Knaus that went to Johnson’s head. Check out this transmission I caught just before the final restart:
“You're a lot faster than Montoya, we’ve seen that ... he's just a pain in the ass to pass. Get out there and check the f**k out.”
Johnson, back to second after Montoya beat him off pit road, might have been a little overeager. And the Colombian, not used to being up front, might have spun the tires or even intentionally stayed slow once Johnson jumped knowing if the No. 48 never gave the position back, he’d be black-flagged and the race would play out in his favor. Either way, it’s no harm, no foul for the points leader; he’s got a 30-point edge, is solidly in the Chase and showed he had the car to beat for the return visit to Dover in the fall. I’d forgive, forget and chalk it up as a lesson learned.
THIRD GEAR: Toyota’s engine woes … How will the affect things going forward?
For the second time this season, Matt Kenseth was in position to win until the motor in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota went kaboom. Out before the race’s midpoint, after having dominated up front with Kyle Busch, he was soon joined in the garage by fellow top-5 runner Martin Truex Jr. of Michael Waltrip Racing. It was a rough day for the Camry powerplants, which have blown up at a rate nearly six times that of rivals Ford or Chevrolet.
“I mean I feel like JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) has three of the strongest teams in the garage,” Kenseth said. “It seems like we got the best cars out there — or equal to the best. But, you know you have to finish these things. Obviously, there’s been some issues in that department.”
The veteran’s done a great job at keeping his composure, the perfect role model for teammate Kyle Busch as they hurtle towards the Chase as top contenders. But the 11 percent failure rate for JGR this season has to be alarming. That’s roughly one out of every nine races, meaning in the postseason they’re guaranteed to give up 40 points to a blown engine. It’s a mulligan they can’t afford, especially against a Hendrick opponent known for ironclad equipment.
The problem Sunday was a valve-train issue, but at this point it’s irrelevant. What Toyota needs are solutions for these things, and they need them now.
Ever since Lance Armstrong lost his Tour de France titles, I have been wondering if the people who came in second in those races were awarded the titles.
— Irene Paul, Northfield, N.H.
That would be the simple solution, but the ubiquity of doping in cycling renders such a simple solution impossible. The sport’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), stripped Armstrong of his titles in late 2012 following the report from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that implicated Armstrong (among many others) and chose not to award those titles to other riders.
How would legendary athlete Jim Thorpe compare to today’s top performers?
— James A. Clark, Ardmore, Okla.
It’s an age-old debate: How would athletes from past eras compare to today’s outsized, highly trained, mega-talented superstars? Could Babe Ruth hit a homer off Clayton Kershaw? Could Jim Brown crack 100 yards against the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens? Without a time machine, it’s impossible to know for sure, but in Thorpe’s case, his unparalleled versatility would indicate an ability to thrive in any era. Thorpe was a world-class track and field athlete who won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Summer Olympics; he played football, basketball and baseball at the professional level; and he’s a member of both the Pro and College Football Halls of Fame. Give the 6'1", 202-pound Oklahoma native a few months in a modern weight room and at a 21st century training table, and he’d take his place alongside today’s greats. The best part of this is, you can never prove us wrong.
LSU Tigers and SEC fans alike have grown to know and love "LSU Freek." The message board legend has been building hiliarious and creative GIFs for years.
However, he might have topped himself. The picture of Les Miles to the right surfaced on Thursday and it might be the greatest photo ever taken of the The Hat. Twitter fell out of its chair laughing when the LSU head football coach geared up to rappell off of a 24-story building in downtown Baton Rouge for charity (Over the Edge for Adoption).
Miles, to his credit, doesn't care what you think. And we should all be able to laugh at ourselves if it means helping someone else in need. So Miles certainly doesn't care what LSU Freek has to say either. But we do... and this is likely Mr. Freek's finest work to date: "Miles Impossible: Geauxst Protocal."
Miles appears to be channeling his inner Tom Cruise, and, with special assistance from Mike the Tiger, has saved the day once again as only Leslie Miles can:
What does NASCAR do with the money from the fines they levy against the owners and drivers?
— B. Linely, Morristown, Tenn.
Thankfully, it goes to a good cause and not back into the sport’s already deep pockets. Beginning in 2008, NASCAR mandated that all fines from competitors go to the NASCAR Foundation, which raises funds and increases volunteerism to support nonprofit charities and charitable causes with an emphasis placed on initiatives that affect children.
Of course, since owners and drivers are essentially making a charitable donation, it begs the question whether the money is tax-deductible. Or worse, if penalty checks — typically somewhere between $50,000 and $200,000 per major offense — are written directly to NASCAR, can the sanctioning body itself write off that money? It certainly makes one wonder.
1. Crew chief returns to No. 2 as Brad Keselowski rides streak of poor finishes
Just a few hours before Brad Keselowski was slated to start the seventh race of the year at Texas Motor Speedway in his blue No. 2, all seemed to be fine. After a disappointing 23rd-place finish at Auto Club Speedway two races prior, Keselowski had rallied at Martinsville Speedway to score his fifth top 10 in the series first six races.
Then, as both he teammate Joey Logano's car rolled through pre-race inspection in Fort Worth, things started to fall apart. Both cars were required to make substantial changes in pre-race after NASCAR ruled a new rear suspension to be illegal. Keselowski rallied again to a Texas top 10 and a top 10 the next week at Kansas, but then bad luck started to bite.
Ultimately crew chief Paul Wolfe, his car chief and lead engineer were expelled from being at the track three total races (two points events) after an appeal for the Texas incident. Keselowski's finishes following the sixth-place Kansas run dropped considerably as he recorded results of 33rd, 15th, 32nd and 36th.
Wolfe and the rest of Penske's suspended crew make their triumphant — and sorely needed — return this weekend at Dover. Keselowski said after wrecking in last week's race at Charlotte that he hopes it's a good luck charm.
"I’m very proud of everyone that stepped up during the last three weeks," Keselowski said. "We’ve really improved our depth at Penske Racing, but now everyone can go back to their normal jobs. Hopefully that means we can get some of our mojo back.”
Keselowski, of course, is Dover's most recent winner thanks to Wolfe's fuel mileage gamble last fall. Otherwise, last year's champion has a best Dover finish of 12th in six Cup starts.
2. Kyle Busch thinking sweep of NASCAR triple-header weekend
All three of the top NASCAR national series — Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck — will be in action this weekend at Dover. That marks the first time all three series will compete in a three-day period at the same track since the season-openers for all at Daytona International Speedway in February.
It also marks the second opportunity of the season for Kyle Busch to aim for three race wins in one race weekend, as he'll pilot his self-owned No. 51 in Friday's truck series event, Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 54 on Saturday in the Nationwide 300-miler and JGR's No. 18 on Sunday in the Sprint Cup 400-miler.
Winning the triple certainly is not out of reach of Busch as he showed in 2010 at Dover. Then, a mechanical issue dropped him out late in the truck race after leading 174 of the scheduled 200 laps. He went on to win the next two races of the weekend. A few months later he finally became the first driver to pull off a three-race weekend sweep at NASCAR's other concrete track — Bristol Motor Speedway.
Busch's odds to finally get the clean sweep of Dover stand to be pretty good. In the Nationwide Series, Busch has won six of the 10 events this season. And in Sprint Cup, Busch returns to the track where he led more than 300 laps in last fall's race before getting beat in a fuel mileage finish.
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.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its first visit to the other DIS — Dover International Speedway — this weekend for 400 miles around, as one driver calls it, “a one-mile roller coaster.” Delaware’s standard oval features corners lower than the banked straightaways, giving drivers the sensation that they “drop” into the turn and “climb” back up to the straights.
Choosing a fantasy lineup for Dover can sometimes be just as random as a card shuffle at the track’s backstretch casino thanks to the tight confines of the track occasionally producing massive multi-car accidents that wipe out a slew of contenders in one stroke. Still, we’ll take a stab.
Note: This fantasy preview is a bit different this week as we try a new format. Instead of ranking every driver at Dover, we’ll make it easier on you by telling you which drivers to call up and be ready to start for Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.
A-List Drivers (choose two, start one)
With consideration for many players conserving starts for Johnson until later in the season when he inevitably gets hot, Dover is almost a no-brainer time to have Johnson in your lineup for race day. Consider this: in the last 16 Dover races going back eight seasons, Johnson is averaging 121 laps led per race.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver has averaged a finish of sixth in that period (his average career finish in all races is 11th) and has turned the fastest lap 878 times, which is good for nearly 400 more than the second-most fastest laps in that period by Carl Edwards. Oh, one other thing: Johnson’s seven career wins at Dover are three more than any active driver. Beyond the wins, he has four more top-5 finishes and nine more top-10 finishes.
Sure, you could bet he’ll have an off weekend at a track he dominates in the name of conserving the No. 48’s start until the fall. But is that really wise a week after Johnson wrecked by himself at Charlotte? If anyone is coming back with a vengeance, it’s Mr. Five Time.
So you’ve used Johnson a few too many times to your liking this early in the year and you’re looking for a suitable replacement? If you haven’t overused Matt Kenseth to this point (I hope you’ve used Matt Kenseth plenty at this point), he’s your guy. But one driver who likely has plenty of starts remaining on your fantasy roster is Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer is riding a Dover streak of four straight races where he’s finished in the top 10 — moderately impressive considering the span included races with both Michael Waltrip Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Bowyer has led just 30 laps in those four starts, but those finishes and overall performances contributed to make him the third-best Dover driver among A-Listers during the last eight seasons.
Matt Kenseth (Average running position of eighth; 18 top 10s, 2 wins)
Jeff Gordon (Four career wins; 73 percent of laps in top 15 during last eight races)
B-List Drivers (choose four, start two)
Would you believe Carl Edwards was one spot away from making it four straight top-10 finishes last week? Quietly and steadily, Edwards and Roush-Fenway Racing seem to be making inroads on catching the dominance of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Dover should continue the recent positive trend.
Edwards crashed in the spring Dover race a year ago and wound up 26th, marking his first finish of worse than 11th at the concrete oval since 2006. He was one win in that period and his fifth-place run last fall marked his eighth career top 5 at Dover. Only Johnson and Kenseth have a better Dover driver rating than Edwards in the last 16 Dover races.
Thanks to his limited schedule, you’ll probably not run through all nine available starts for Mark Martin this season. That makes him an easy choice at Dover.
Last year, Martin had two top-15 finishes at the Monster Mile — including a third-place run in the fall that tied for his second-best finish of the 2012 season. Beyond that, Martin has been good at Dover both recently and throughout his career. In the last eight seasons, he has an average finish of 11th and has spent more than three-fourths of his laps in the top 15. He’s tied with Jeff Gordon for the second-most Dover wins among active drivers (4) and he hasn’t finished worse than 23rd there since 2002.
Last year Dover — land of local seafood restaurants featuring fresh catches from the nearby Atlantic Ocean — proved to be the Sea of Heartbreak (hat tip, Don Gibson!) for Kyle Busch. The No. 18 blew an engine in the spring race just past halfway as Joe Gibbs Racing cars are wont to do. Busch stormed back in the fall in his missed-Chase rage to lead 302 laps before a fuel mileage finish dropped him to 14th. It was a leave-the-track-without-comment kind of day for Kyle.
Even with those issues — and two other blown engines at Dover in his career — Busch’s numbers there make him a good bet Sunday. In his last 16 Dover starts, Busch has led the third-most laps of any active driver.
Biffle is another driver you’ve likely used sparingly this year, waiting for RFR to finally find fourth gear amid a mostly middling start. Remember, at his point one year ago Biffle held a 10-point lead in the series standings. Now, he’s 13th and 121 points back.
Dover has long been good to the Biff with a recent average finish of 9.6 and an average running position of 10th. His percentage of fastest in-race laps in that 16-race period is the highest among B-Listers. Though he has struggled some recently at the track where he’s won twice, Biffle is due to jumpstart his season after three finishes of 31st or worse in his last four races. That team is too good to continue a poor streak like that.
Ryan Newman (Three career Dover wins; second-best track for career average finish)
Kurt Busch (Surging team returns to site of Kurt’s last win)
Martin Truex Jr. (Site of lone career race win in 2007; two top 10s in 2012)
C-List (Choose two, start one)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Undoubtedly, you’ve used Stenhouse plenty this season thanks to the lack of other consistent, quality talent in the C-List. He’s still the best pick for Dover among the group — and he’s likely better than almost half of the B-Listers. Stenhouse finished 12th in his lone Sprint Cup start at Dover, five spots ahead of his 17th-place start.
At a place like Dover, Smith seems to be as good a bet as any in the C-List. He drives for James Finch’s team for the seventh time this year Sunday following his 17th-place run last weekend at Charlotte. No, that car hasn’t had noteworthy speed and, no, a top 20 isn’t guaranteed. But Smith has yet to come home worse than 25th in that car this season. Better yet, he’s finished nine of his 10 career Dover races.
David Reutimann (Average Dover finish is 20th)
David Ragan (Average Dover finish is 24th)
by Geoffrey Miller
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter @GeoffreyMiller
“The Monster Mile” isn’t just a title for the purposes of ticket sales. It is a fine summation of a truly unique racetrack that causes fits for the majority of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver roster twice a year.
Dover International Speedway is a one-mile, high-banked attention grabber of a facility with fast closing speeds and diminished reaction time. It also offers some of the greatest lore in modern day NASCAR.
Jimmie Johnson is supremely dominant; so dominant, in fact, that it’s said he can’t be beaten, unless fuel mileage becomes a factor. Denny Hamlin is admittedly awful, so bad that he had to consult a sports psychologist prior to last fall’s race just so that he wouldn’t be mentally defeated before ever making the trip to Delaware.
The numbers from recent seasons seemingly back the mythology. For Hamlin, it is a troublesome track. For Johnson and others, it’s a tremendous coliseum.
5.958 Jimmie Johnson’s 5.958 PEER at Dover is the best in the Cup Series.
With four wins in the last eight races, Johnson is arguably better at Dover than any driver at any other track — Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen offers a valid opposition — and easily ranks as the series’ most productive racer. This stems not only from winning, but winning with gusto. His affinity for pacing the field on the Monster Mile is of legendary proportions.
65.6% In his four victories at Dover during the CoT era, Johnson had an average laps led percentage of 65.6.
This means Johnson doesn’t just win. He dominates. That’s sort of his general modus operandi when it comes to Dover, considering he has led 52.5 percent of the total laps there dating back to the 2009 spring race. In that time frame he averaged a running position of third place or better. Dover delivers a hectic day to most drivers, so it figures that Johnson has dwindled his competition down to about one or two other drivers in races there the last few years. This is also evident in his passing numbers.
78 Johnson converted 39 pass encounters out of a comparatively low two-race total of 78 into green-flag passes during the 2012 races at Dover.
That 50 percent passing efficiency on a low number of encounters is a byproduct of running in the front of the field all day. That he was able to avoid “for-position” traffic for the majority of the races at Dover is fairly advantageous for a team looking to take care of its car and come away with a victory. Aside from lapped traffic, Johnson didn’t often find himself in harm’s way that much last season.
75.5% Kyle Busch did his best Johnson impression at Dover in last fall’s race, leading 75.5 percent of the race’s total laps. He did not win.
Instead, a rare fuel mileage-predicated ending awarded the win to Brad Keselowski, but Busch demonstrated that he was perfectly able to do “Kyle Busch things” on the dicey one-mile oval. Taking into account how dominant he has been in 2013, Busch is a win threat this weekend despite his sixth-best Dover-specific production rating (3.042).
4.833 Tied for second in Dover PEER with a 4.833 rating is Matt Kenseth, who might serve as a potential spoiler for this weekend’s event.
It takes me aback that there are those that are surprised by Kenseth’s success behind the wheel of a Joe Gibbs Racing car early this season. Kenseth has always been a savvy driver from track to track, but now he is piloting equipment that offers a bigger “home run” threat, so to speak, compared to his former Roush Fenway Racing digs. It appears that JGR is benefiting from the Gen-6 more than a lot of the other heavyweight teams in the sport, so the always-reliable Kenseth is in a plum position to score wins at tracks on which he has always been a skilled producer. Dover is one such track.
Fourteen leaders. 68 lead changes. A three-wide battle coming off a restart that decides the race. Read those two lines and you’re probably thinking, “typical NASCAR race at Talladega.”
Nope. Instead, those stats defined what could be the best Indianapolis 500 in a generation. As we look back at the Coca-Cola 600, it’s important to stop and recognize open-wheel’s glory day because the event was everything NASCAR was not. There was a sentimental winner, Tony Kanaan, whose post-race celebration from teams and crews became reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 “monkey off his back” victory of 1998. There was passing paired with a sense of urgency — and not just on Lap 190 of 200 — but throughout the entire event. Cautions were scarce, resulting in the fastest average speed in history, yet they weren’t needed to define and/or add excitement to the race. Oh, and should I mention a car even crashed on pit road and IndyCar kept the race under green?
Let’s compare that with Sunday night’s Charlotte event, one that will forever be defined by a piece of nylon rope. That snapped camera cable, from a FOX setup overhead, injured 10 fans, stopped the race and damaged three cars, including top contender Kyle Busch. Of the race’s 11 cautions, six were debris related and a few were positioned well by hot dog wrappers to bunch up the field in order to heighten the race’s entertainment. In a race 100 miles longer than Indy’s 500, there were just 11 leaders, 24 lead changes and three drivers (Busch, Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth) led 338 of 400 laps.
Does that mean Indy was perfect? Far from it; the race ended under yellow, drafting made it impossible for a strong car to pull away and there’s still too much homogeneity between teams. NASCAR had strong moments, including a surprise winner of its own in Kevin Harvick. But while the ratings likely won’t show it, in terms of pure competition, Sunday was the first time I can remember where IndyCar, head-to-head with the racing rival that unseated it from “top dog” inside the U.S., turned around, wound up and punched stock cars back, smack in the face in a bid to regain supremacy.
That won’t do much … yet. But at some point, that’s going to resonate with viewers and NASCAR would do well to pay attention. Turnarounds start with little victories like these.
Back to Charlotte…
FIRST GEAR: Kevin Harvick stole himself a Chase bid
He’s led 33 laps all season, good enough for just 17th on the Sprint Cup charts. Among those drivers listed ahead of him: Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin and Greg Biffle. But what none of those drivers have is a Cup win, let alone two. Harvick pulled another rabbit out of his hat on Sunday, the “Closer” playing it perfectly by taking two tires on the final caution while the leader, Kahne, stayed on track.
“It came down to a restart,” Harvick said bluntly, slotting in second after the stop and knowing clean air was all that was needed. “In the end, it was good enough to win the race.”
It’s also likely good enough to make the Chase. Now seventh in points, the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing team likely doesn’t have the speed to stay inside the top 10 long-term — not with Busch, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski among those sitting behind them. Over the course of the 26-race regular season, though, those two victories will be more than enough to snag a “wild card” position and put the pressure on Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and those who we know need the victories. It’s possible that those on the outside of the top 10 will have to come up with three wins to sneak into the postseason, which is not an easy feat with 14 races left.
As for Harvick’s unexpected victory? He survived; the epitome of what this race is all about. While problems befell the favorites, from the Busch brothers to Matt Kenseth to even a weakened Jimmie Johnson, the No. 29 car was put in position to win. As veteran Jeff Burton has slyly pointed out, that’s all you need. Sometimes, circumstances dictate the rest.
SECOND GEAR: The rope snap heard around the world
Until Sunday night, most people thought CamCAT was some sort of military DefCon mission or secret weapon you’d acquire in Call of Duty. Instead, it will forever stand for the camera whose ropes came toppling onto the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway, snapping into pieces on Lap 121 in an incident that sent three fans to the hospital, injured 10 and turned Kyle Busch’s front end, among others, into a mangled mess.
The technology, around since 2000, was being utilized by FOX for just the second time in NASCAR, following a successful Daytona 500 debut. One reason for its scarceness is the setup. It takes five days, including two cranes mounted on different sides of the track in Turns 1 and 4.
Three ropes make the camera tick, allowing it to slide above the track and deliver the type of breathtaking views fans love. But when one of those ropes broke, chaos broke loose and the snapping of the cable could have easily killed someone as debris kicked up everywhere. For the second time, NASCAR got lucky through a freak accident (see: February’s Nationwide race in Daytona) and was able to throw a red flag, clean up the mess and get fans treated (all have been released). It’s also to NASCAR’s credit that teams were allowed to fix cars torn apart by the cable. It’s one thing when a random event happens, like a hot dog wrapper or an overcooked engine that changes the course of a driver’s race. But when a TV crew broadcasting the event is involved in affecting the outcome through an equipment failure I think trying to reconstruct the race the way it was is perfectly reasonable.
Certainly, there’s some inconsistency within that, as Robby Gordon has lost a race in the past (Watkins Glen, early 2000s) through a TV malfunction. However, in this case NASCAR made the right call. And FOX is doing the right thing by suspending the camera going forward. The best thing to do here is chalk it up to “one of those freak things” and move on.
THIRD GEAR: Mark Martin’s rocky road
It’s been a long time since we’ve worried about the competitiveness of Mark Martin. But since late April, the now 54-year-old has done some things that make you scratch your head. At Richmond, he was involved in a heated incident with Kahne in which it looked like the veteran initiated contact. At Charlotte, it was another surprising mistake, as one of the sport’s cleanest drivers stuck his nose in the wrong place at wrong time, sparking a wreck that took out Chase contenders Jeff Gordon and Aric Almirola while hampering the nights of several others.
Suddenly, Martin’s year doesn’t look so rosy, with just one top-5 finish (third, Daytona) and zero laps led since February at Phoenix. A “lame duck” at Michael Waltrip Racing, you wonder if the impending departure will now begin to take its toll. After all, since leaving Roush, his sophomore campaigns at other teams, from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports, have always resulted in a downturn in performance. The big difference? None of them involved these types of uncharacteristic mistakes on the racetrack. Could this year finally be the one where Martin decides to call it quits?
There are few families whose names are more inextricably linked to the history, heritage and heartbreak of the Indianapolis 500 than the Andrettis. While the Unser Family has the record for most Indianapolis 500 victories with nine, the Andretti Family has encountered more adversity than success at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Mario Andretti’s Indy 500 career spanned from 1965-94, and he often delivered dominating performances only to drop out of the race with one mechanical failure or another. His 1969 win is the only time an Andretti has won the race.
Mario’s son, Michael, also dominated the race in his career (1984-2006), yet he never won the Indy 500. Michael has been a team owner since 2003, and two of his drivers have won the Indy 500 — the late Dan Wheldon in 2005 and Dario Franchitti in 2007.
Michael’s son, Marco, represents the current generation of Andrettis in IndyCar and nearly won the Indy 500 in his very first attempt in 2006, blowing past his father on a restart with five laps remaining. Marco was within a few hundred yards of the checkered flag before Sam Hornish Jr. raced past him to win in one of the most dramatic finishes in Indianapolis 500 history — the first time the race-winning pass was made on the final lap.
Mario represents the “Then” and Marco the “Now.” Before the green flag drops on this weekend's race, Athlon Sports had a chance to talk to both drivers about the Indianapolis 500 — then and now.
What is your first recollection of the Indianapolis 500?
Mario Andretti: I was still in Italy, and there was a movie, “To Please a Lady,” that starred Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck, but the title in Italy was “Indianapolis.” I was really curious. I had no idea what Indianapolis was and I went to see that movie. At that time I was 12 or 13. The next time I heard of Indianapolis was when driver Bill Vukovich was killed in 1955. In Italy, they publicized that. That is when I became aware of Indianapolis. That year’s 500 was just a few weeks before my family came to America. The race was on May 30 and we arrived in the United States on June 9.
Marco Andretti: It was the old Speedway Motel for me. That’s the first thing that sticks out because we spent a month there every year of my life back then so it was a second home for me. Playing on the ledge and listening to the cars go by and (announcer) Tom Carnegie on the PA saying, “It’s a new track record.” I was probably 3 or 4 years old then.
How has the Indianapolis 500 changed from when you started competing to today?
Mario: The only things that have changed are the cars and the technical side, and the interest factor is a little bit different now. It seems strange to see Indianapolis advertise for tickets when tickets used to be the most sacred thing there. Still, Indy remains Indy, and I’m thankful for that. … I think it is coming back to the glory days.
Marco: The biggest thing I have to commend them for is the safety with the SAFER Barriers. For a driver it makes us feel more secure. They aren’t exactly pillows, but it helps.
What remains the same about the Indianapolis 500 over time?
Mario: The fact everyone still considers it the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The other part is the technical side and the driving. Nothing has changed there from the commitment of the drivers.
Marco: You still have to make the car last 500 miles. It is more of a sprint race now. You have to be on your game the whole time, and the whole field is on the lead lap at the end of the race.
All three generations of the Andrettis converged on the final five laps of the 2006 Indianapolis 500, but it all ended when Sam Hornish Jr. made the race-winning pass just a few hundred yards from the checkered flag. Did that one race encapsulate the Andrettis at the Indianapolis 500?
Mario: We’ve been so close so many times. Between Michael and myself we have dominated that race more times than four-time winners. Does that mean we have a bitter memory of it or feeling? No, it’s just the opposite. I think of nothing but positive thoughts as far as the Indianapolis 500 is concerned mainly because of how competitive I was every time I competed there.
Marco: I think so. We have been knocking on the door and leading a lot of laps and being competitive but falling short on that one important lap — the last one. That whole month we were asked what would happen if it came down to the two of us. It was literally a fairy tale ending, but there was a third party involved. Still, to this day I will never wrap my head around where Sam got that speed on the last lap. It was the fastest lap of the month on cold tires. It’s a little fishy to me.
How important is the Indianapolis 500 to the Andrettis?
Mario: Extremely. We have been striving to win that for a half a century. We only have one win to show for it. We are trying like hell to make it happen. I’m happy that Michael, after having so many disappointments after dominating that place and was denied even one victory, is enjoying some success as a winning team owner.
Marco: It’s my life. Even my grandfather said it would be a hell of a party if I were able to win that race. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world. We live our lives around that event.
What keeps the Indianapolis 500 as the greatest race in the world?
Mario: The best open-wheel racers not just in America but from around the world are there.
Marco: I think tradition. They keep a lot of the traditions the same, and that is why it is what it is. The fan base and the support we have for the number of fans that come is really unbelievable.
Mario, discuss your 1969 victory.
Mario: Midway through the 1969 race my engine started overheating like crazy. I started in the middle of the front row and ran up front all day and figured I wouldn’t finish. But we finished the race with the water temperature at 250 and the oil temperature at 280. Go figure. But it was a big weight off of my back when I won it because I felt how important it was to win that race by how you are judged career-wise even though that can be unfair. You are judged by that race.
Why is the Indianapolis 500 more than just a race?
Mario: It’s an event. Why is the Kentucky Derby more than just a horse race? Why is the Super Bowl more than just a football game? It’s the importance of it, and the whole world knows that race is happening. I don’t know any other motor race that is as popular today as Indy is worldwide. It’s the only race in my opinion that is as precious as winning the championship. If you ask any driver today which would you rather win — the championship or the Indy 500 — most every driver will say Indy.
Marco: It’s all the history that has happened there. To go back to 1911, that’s a long time. The history with our family alone is unreal there. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs. We’ve seen the glory there and how things can be terrible there. That in itself is what makes the history there and what makes it so important and gives you the goosebumps you feel when you drive into that place. It’s really what has happened there in the past and all the greatest race car drivers that ever lived competed there, and only a few of them get to say they are champions.
—By Bruce Martin
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit runs the longest race of the year Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600. 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, Geoffrey’s fantasy predictions for Charlotte Motor Speedway ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
Jimmie Johnson stirred up the masses with his second straight Sprint All-Star Race win on Saturday. Johnson, historically dominant at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track that was once referred to as “his house” when his car and the facility shared primary sponsor branding, now looms large as the driver to beat in this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600. At least that’s the narrative, as I understand it.
The truth is, the All-Star Race and the 600 don’t correlate. As we learned in this space last week, in 13 tries dating back to 2000, the winner of the All-Star Race has gone on to 600 glory just three times. One of those three was Johnson in 2003, but it shouldn’t have any bearing for two reasons.
First, the short-burst speeds that excelled last weekend won’t help in this Sunday’s 400-lap motorized marathon. The two races are practically different disciplines for drivers and teams.
Second, Johnson isn’t the Johnson of old. If Charlotte is his house, then quite a few squatters have thrown house parties unbeknownst to him. The difference from the old Johnson at Charlotte and the Johnson now is a matter of pavement.
Charlotte was repaved in 2006 after a botched diamond-grating job in 2005. A repaved track usually means that old setup and strategy notes are thrown out, because the tricks that used to work now do not. That is why Johnson is no longer the clear-cut class of the field. His average finish helps tell the story.
6.67 Johnson and the No. 48 team averaged a 6.67-place finish in nine races prior to the 2006 repaving project.
Five of those nine races resulted in victory for Johnson, who led 22 percent of the 3,882 total laps in that time frame. There was very little doubt as to who the car to beat was in the pre-repave era at CMS.
That quickly changed.
16.92 In the 12 races since the repave, Johnson and team have averaged a finish of 16.92.
Johnson does have a win to his credit (Oct. 2009) in the “new era” of Charlotte, but his sheer dominance is a distant memory. The No. 48 bunch has finished third or better in five of those 12 races, but the eclectic nature of his results — his 13.97 finish deviation in these races suggests his finishes ranged from good to bad to middle of the road — means he is no longer the consistent win threat he once was.
A few other drivers have made waves recently at Charlotte, including one driving alongside Johnson under the Hendrick Motorsports banner.
Say what you want about Jimmie Johnson. Critics have a long list of rebuttals for why he’s not the greatest driver of this era: Chad Knaus, superior equipment and more money through sponsor Lowe’s than his closest rivals. But it’s hard to argue the stats on paper. Johnson’s fourth win in the All-Star Race, a NASCAR record, launched him past teammate Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.
With five Cup championships, 62 wins and another decade or so to add to that total, it’s time to give the man his due. Yes, he may be paired forever with a political correctness label that leaves him scorned by much of the fan base. Surely, Knaus and owner Rick Hendrick’s “New York Yankees” model of having the best of the best in all positions helps immensely. But someone still has to drive the car. Johnson had to hold off a hungry Kasey Kahne, side-by-side and initially charge forward from a starting spot of 20th place. That was no easy feat, a goal that could only be reached by a select few.
This All-Star Race was another reminder that, like it or not, Johnson is clearly in the “Greatest Driver of His Era” category. A decade from now, when all is said and done in his career, Saturday night will surely not be the only record he’ll leave behind.
Other gears to shift through after NASCAR’s greatest exhibition include…
FIRST GEAR: The All-Star Race Needs a retool
The All-Star Race has long been billed as one where sparks fly, rivalries ignite and drivers let it all hang out. So what have we gotten these last nine years during the Chase era? A total of one pass for the lead within the last five laps. There have been few, if any, incidents of close racing let alone contact between drivers that would spark fan interest. On Saturday night, Johnson needed two laps to fully dispose of Kahne before cruising to the checkers, part of a 90-lapper that had only one major incident (Mark Martin being spun out by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.). Not exactly the type of marketing the sport needs for an exhibition race, right?
Clearly it’s not all the driver’s faults. Charlotte has struggled as a racetrack since a 2005 “levigation” experiment gone awry, producing asphalt that’s left Goodyear in a pickle. In the first race run after the process, a 500-miler was nearly stopped as tires blew every 15-20 laps; in response, the tire company has acted more scared there than a five-year-old without a nightlight in his room. The rubber they produce, every time out, has been far too conservative, forcing the drivers to race the same, as little falloff (creating similar lap times) combined with high speeds make passing difficult at best.
With that in mind, Saturday night still felt like a missed opportunity from a garage that’s not too happy with each other right now. From Kasey Kahne-Kyle Busch to Denny Hamlin-Joey Logano, the list of drivers who feel they “owe” somebody for some past on-track issue is lengthy; Don King could have a field day with a Friday Night Boxing Special on HBO. So with a chance to take a “free shot,” all these drivers did … was nothing. Absolutely nothing but ride around, make laps and watch as the prohibitive favorite (Johnson) entering the event took control and pulled away. It was anticlimactic, paired with a staggering amount of empty seats and with a format based on best average finish for the final segment that left fans referring to an abacus. Add in a graphical mistake by SPEED that made it look like NASCAR was manipulating the rules for “Five-Time,” and the whole show took on the feel of a debacle.
Clearly, major changes for this race need to happen, and they need to happen now. Stick ‘n’ ball sports are struggling with All-Star formats too, but no one seems to need to go back to the drawing board more than NASCAR.
SECOND GEAR: Kurt Busch proving his worth
Furniture Row Racing, as a single-car team, has just one victory in its near-decade of NASCAR competition. Expect that to change soon. Kurt Busch is on a tear, winning the pole for the All-Star Race (as well as the pole at Darlington the week prior) and winning two of the first four segments of the race. Only a slow pit stop kept the No. 78 from Victory Lane, as Busch lost track position for the final 10 laps and was forced to settle for fifth.
In the past, that incident would cause the once-tempestuous driver to explode. Make no mistake, Busch has had his in-race moments in 2013, but Saturday night was another example of Busch keeping those mood swings in check. Yes, he let his frustration be known over the in-car radio, but the fury was nowhere near on par with past outbursts, and there certainly was no throwing the crew under the bus — instead, he was roundly complimentary.
No doubt, that belies a level of confidence the driver feels with this program, more heavily linked with Richard Childress Racing than ever before, as the big man himself considers potentially placing the driver in a top-tier ride in the RCR camp come 2014.
Still in the top 20 in points, Charlotte’s 600-miler presents one of several opportunities for this team to steal a win in the coming weeks (Michigan, Sonoma and Daytona are others that come to mind). With a “win or wreck” mentality, Busch is likely to run around 20th in points, which means he’s the biggest roadblock for Denny Hamlin should this team break out and reach Victory Lane multiple times.
The “wild card” race is about to ramp up.
THIRD GEAR: Ford’s failure
Brad Keselowski, blowing a transmission on the second lap, said it all for a Ford contingent that’s looking a step behind. Despite adding two cars to its roster this offseason through Penske Racing, Fords have only won twice this season in 11 starts (plus a 12th opportunity in the All-Star Race). For every feel-good story (Carl Edwards’ return to prominence, David Ragan’s Talladega miracle, Aric Almirola’s top-10 surge) there’s been a long list of tough ones. Greg Biffle has been maddeningly inconsistent, hitting the wall at Charlotte Saturday night and once again being a non-factor. Ditto Joey Logano, although his charg to a strong second behind Johnson in the closing laps of the All-Star Race was admirable. Marcos Ambrose was once again invisible and will need to rely on road course expertise to make the Chase.
With Hendrick and Gibbs clicking on all cylinders for Chevrolet and Toyota, respectively, there’s not one top team you can rely on across the board at Ford right now. They really need to take the two weeks while at home in Charlotte to study their notes, retool and get it together for NASCAR’s grueling summer stretch.
1. All-Star race, qualifying format changes in store
The most exciting NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying event of the season happens Friday night at 6:00 pm EST.
That's a fact even without the new hair-raising rule change allowing drivers to speed both away from pit road (like always) as well as enter it without a speed limit (new).
Qualifying for drivers in the Sprint All-Star Race is unique in that it demands three total laps around the track and must include a four-tire pit stop. In the past, that's been plenty exciting because NASCAR hasn't enforced a pit road speed limit after the pit stop — forcing drivers to manage 800-plus horsepower hooking up to their rear wheels from a dead standstill.
Now, they'll be doing the same coming to pit road. Lassoing a race car from the corner banking to pit road while slowing down is an event right on the edge. Nursing it down without scrubbing speed has the potential to go flying over that edge.
Additionally, NASCAR initiated the "Johnson Rule" for this season after last year's winner Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus played the strategy too well. Johnson won the first of four segments in 2012 to earn the pole for the 10-lap heat race at the end. In the remaining three segments, he sandbagged to keep his car in one piece.
This year, NASCAR will use a method that makes sense but one without a thought to how fans at the track will be able to compute it. Essentially, the 10-lap finale returns after a mandatory pit road visit. But instead of individual segment winners getting automatic priority, NASCAR will set the pre-pit road lineup by average finish.
It's a smart fix, but a silly one all at once thanks to the calculators required to know who even leads.
2. Johnson aims for All-Star record
Defending All-Star race winner Johnson is bound to get plenty of coverage this weekend as he guns for a fourth win in the midseason exhibition race. A checkered flag for Johnson — or teammate Jeff Gordon, for that matter — would set a new bar for the most wins in the event.
Only one other driver has ever scored three wins in the race for not much else than money and pride. Of course, that's Dale Earnhardt.
Gordon and Johnson, however, haven't had the best of relationships with the All-Star event in recent seasons. For Gordon, a top 10 in the exhibition race hasn't happened since his third-place run in 2006 and he hasn't won since his epic 2001 victory in a back-up car after a rain shower on the first lap caused a massive Turn 1 crash.
Johnson, meanwhile, went three seasons (2009, ’10 and ’11) without an All-Star top 10. That's not exactly futility, sure, but we are talking about Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3. Gibbs still looks for first All-Star win
One of the greatest oddities left in the always odd weekends produced by the All-Star Race is that Joe Gibbs Racing has never been to Victory Lane in the event.
It's not like JGR has paraded slouches into the race. The lack of checkered flag success has occurred despite drivers like Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett all giving it a go.
JGR, though, will be the hot pick this weekend. A week after a near-miss on a 1-2-3 finish at Darlington Raceway, the Toyotas from that camp have proven to be the fastest machines this season despite reliability. Matt Kenseth, riding high off win No. 3, should be the team's primary favorite.
It will also be worth watching how the recently returned Hamlin will compete Saturday night. Will he be willing to take major chances for a win so soon after his return from his back injury?
We'll find out.
4. Using the All-Star Race for Coca-Cola 600 knowledge
The All-Star weekend festivities are the traditional kickoff of the Charlotte region's own version of Daytona's Speedweeks. Between the opening of Sprint Cup practice Friday for participants in the All-Star Race and the start of the Coca-Cola 600 next Sunday evening, drivers and teams are scheduled to have four hours and 50 minutes of open practice.
That doesn't even include the race conditions teams will get to experience Saturday night.
The result of all of this track time is often a line of thinking saying the teams who fare well this weekend have the inside line to a win — or at least record a good finish — in the 600 next weekend. Results, though, tell a different story.
In fact, five of last 10 All-Star Race winners haven't even finished in the top 10 of the following Coca-Cola 600. Plus, the last 10 years has produced an average of just four drivers scoring top-10 finishes in both events.
Whether you chalk it up to the normalization of racing or blame the effects of a 600-mile race, the result stays the same: a good run Saturday night doesn't guarantee a good one the following Sunday.
5. NASCAR remembers fun-loving, hard-charging Dick Trickle
News that former NASCAR driver Dick Trickle took his own life Thursday in North Carolina spread across the sport in a startling, sad fashion. By the evening, words from every corner of the sport were spoken, typed or sent expressing remorse.
The grief for Trickle, both for his death and in the somber realization of the extreme personal baggage he carried in the waning period of his life, had no bounds and reflected the wake he left in his now long-retired career. The most remarkable part of Trickle's impact, of course, is that his NASCAR numbers were never remarkable.
Trickle didn't drive a full season in today's Sprint Cup Series until he was 47 years old in 1989. Just three times — 1990, ’92 and ’95 — did the Wisconsin short track ace ever qualify for every race on a season's schedule. He made 303 Cup starts, scoring just 15 top-5 finishes and never a Cup win. He did rope two career Nationwide (then Busch) Series wins (1997, ’98).
Trickle's mark on the sport came in both his legend from his midwest short track days and the number of drivers he raced along the way. Of course, his trademark of enjoying a cigarette during a race's caution flag was unforgettable to even casual race fans in the 1990s.
It's not a stretch to wonder if today's NASCAR — good or bad — would ever have room for a character like Trickle that helped the sport's narrative in ways that leading laps and hoisting trophies could never do.
by Geoffrey Miller
Follow Geoffrey on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race isn’t a typical all-star event.
Unlike the stick ‘N’ ball all-star “breaks” that feature lackadaisical effort and are more celebrated for the parties that supplement the fan activities rather than the actual contests, the Sprint Cup Series version of an all-star event pits recent race winners and champions in a race comprised of dash-style formats which has a $1 million carrot dangling on the end of a stick. It’s wild, unpredictable and in no way resembles a normal NASCAR race.
It also doesn’t have much bearing on the following week’s Coca-Cola 600, which, like the All-Star Race, takes place at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3 in 13 Dating back to 2000, a span of 13 races, the All-Star Race winner has gone on to win the next week’s Coca-Cola 600 just three times.
Though they take place at the same facility, the two races don’t actually coalesce. The 600 not only requires a car capable of thriving on extended green-flag runs, but also a team that has built a setup to survive in both day and night conditions. The All-Star Race simply requires a setup for short runs, making the drivers and teams that excel at such a thing instant favorites.
3.2 Matt Kenseth has the highest average race rank (3.2) among all drivers in speed early in green-flag runs.
Kenseth, who also ranks first in the series in speed on restarts, has been a juggernaut at the drop of the green flag and for the ensuing 25 laps. While the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team has been stellar on intermediate tracks this season — two of its three wins came at Las Vegas and Kansas — it will be its affinity for immediate speed that separates it from the rest of the field in Saturday night’s event.
6 in 13 In the last 13 All-Star Races, six were won by drivers that had visited victory lane at an intermediate track in one of the prior races that same season.
The fact that Kenseth has captured two 1.5-mile (intermediate) track victories this season provides no guarantees for Saturday. It doesn’t take numbers — just common sense — to understand that this race is its own beast. A stout intermediate program like the one JGR is currently flaunting is always good to have, but the varying formats of the race don’t lend it to easy prognostication. If Kenseth becomes the victor, it will be because of the combination of car strength and short-run ability.
The Southern 500, while no longer held on Labor Day is still looked at as one of NASCAR’s biggest races. Darlington remains the place where, in 1950, an egg-shaped, awkward-looking asphalt track gave birth to superspeedway competition. Thirty-five years later, a million-dollar Chase by a man named Awesome Bill was another notch in the sport’s belt that wrapped the racetrack into our national consciousness. Like golf’s Masters, purists regard it as one of the sport’s crown jewels.
“I don’t know that I’ve had a win that feels bigger than this at this moment,” said Matt Kenseth on Saturday night. Keep in mind, the former Sprint Cup champ has had plenty of ‘em; well over two dozen, including two of the last five Daytona 500s. “There’s a lot of tradition here. This is one of the most storied and historic races anywhere, not just in NASCAR.”
To those Kenseth’s age and older, that will always ring true. The key is getting a new generation to embrace it. Overnight ratings at Darlington, for the 18-to-49 crowd according to zap2it.com lost out to the NBA Playoffs on ABC. “The Lady In Black” can tear a Chevrolet apart, but the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony? He slam dunks right in her face.
It’s a shame, as an initial marketing push for Darlington’s May date designed to keep the seats filled has faded through the years, leaving the “Track Too Tough To Tame” a “Track Too Easy To Forget.” For one of the most important races on the schedule, getting tucked into Mother’s Day weekend on a Saturday night makes the race now seem lost, not loved. The importance of the Chase has diminished its overall worth on the schedule; right now, it’s just another event, with no Winston Millions or even an extra $100 bill attached to the trophy. Having a track-position yawner of a race Saturday didn’t help, either, as Goodyear seems like it’s missing the mark here more often than not.
People say NASCAR has been losing its place on the national sports landscape for several years. Perhaps it’s because of simple decisions like this one, making a race its most dedicated supporters love just another notch on a long, monotonous conveyor belt. While Kasey Kahne feels like he deserves an apology this Monday, Darlington is looking for something much more simple: attention.
FIRST GEAR: Gibbs vs. Hendrick, anyone?
The brief moment sparks flew at Darlington between Hendrick’s Kahne and Gibbs’ Kyle Busch could be a sign of things to come down the road. In virtually every category you could come up with, their two organizations — totaling seven cars — have put a whooping on the 2013 Sprint Cup field. Kenseth’s win, earned when Busch had a right-rear tire go bad down the stretch, was his third in 11 races, a series high. Busch has tacked on two additional victories for JGR, as the teammates have combined for a series-leading 1,521 laps led – more than the next eight drivers on the list combined. Kenseth has been especially impressive, seizing opportunities (Las Vegas, Darlington) late in the race where others have dominated. And he did it this time with a temporary crew chief in Wally Brown, as Jason Ratcliff serves out a downgraded NASCAR penalty after an appeals court turned his Kansas engine issue into a blip on the radar screen.
Hendrick has countered with Jimmie Johnson, fourth on Saturday night and on virtual cruise control on top of the point standings. Winning twice, Johnson has just one result outside the top 20, remains a contender at every type of track and, this season, has avoided the sting of NASCAR’s inspection process. Teammates Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all look strong enough to make the Chase on points meaning 50 percent of the postseason field, at minimum, will be comprised of these two multi-car giants.
How dominant have these teams been? Just three of 11 races this season have been won by other organizations, and each can easily be explained away. Carl Edwards took Phoenix for Roush Fenway Racing in the second Gen-6 race, where rock hard tires meant no passing and track position roulette. Kevin Harvick captured Richmond for Richard Childress Racing, but he led just three laps in a bizarre, roll-the-dice green-white-checker ending. And David Ragan’s Talladega triumph last week? We know how much that race acts like your state’s lottery number machine.
So it’s clear that on the Chase tracks where handling, horsepower and head wrenches actually make the difference, HMS and JGR stand head and shoulders above the rest. With the season nearly halfway complete, it’s time for everyone else to start stepping up.
1. Darlington celebrates a pair of 10-year milestones, good and bad
Darlington Raceway is the first place NASCAR ever raced on pavement, all the way back on Sept. 4, 1950. That event, the first Labor Day Weekend Southern 500, saw Johnny Mantz win his only NASCAR race as he beat Fireball Roberts and 73 other competitors by at least nine laps.
Saturday night's race will also be known as the Southern 500, but it'll mark the 10th season of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at Darlington without the race being held on the traditional end of summer weekend. NASCAR's shift of that race initially to a November date in 2004 and then completely off the schedule in favor of a second Auto Club Speedway race in 2005 remains one of its most controversial decisions of the past decade.
The race name returned to Darlington for the now-annual Mother's Day weekend race, but much of a the tradition hasn't. The Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend carried a certain swagger thanks to its holiday weekend placement and typically unforgiving daytime temperatures. It was a race every driver wanted to win thanks mostly to the cachet it awarded.
Saturday night's race also marks the 10th season since Darlington produced arguably the most riveting finish in the last decade, if not further. During the 400-mile 2003 spring race, Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven bounced off one another for much of the final three laps. Their tires worn and their cars growing ever more damaged, the pair came together for a final time exiting Turn 4 on the final lap.
Craven nipped Busch at the line by .002 seconds — a mark tied for the closest NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finish in history.
2. Denny Hamlin’s big return
Denny Hamlin's return to the driver's seat of his No. 11 a week ago at Talladega Superspeedway was short-lived, a bit contrived and ultimately unsuccessful in helping him claw back toward Chase for the Sprint Cup competition. Friday at Darlington, however, should mark the return of a full-time Hamlin to the series following his back injury at Auto Club Speedway on March 24.
He couldn't return to a better track, personally. Hamlin has a sterling average finish of 5.9 on the egg-shaped oval, and has led more than 50 laps in three of his seven Darlington starts. To follow up his career-worst 13th-place Darlington finish in 2009, Hamlin responded with his only win there in 2010.
Last year, Hamlin led 56 laps before falling to Jimmie Johnson by .781 seconds.
Saturday night's start marks the beginning of a critical stretch for Hamlin if he wants to bounce back from missing four starts so far in 2013 and qualify for the season's title fight. He's now 31st in points, 76 points behind 20th place and a possible wild card birth.
Should Hamlin nab a couple of wins and get inside the top 20 by Richmond in September, he'd be in excellent position to continue his seven-year streak of Chase qualifications.
"There is a formula," Hamlin said. "When this happened and we started figuring things out of missing races, if we just did what we did last year we would make it. But nothing is a given."
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to venerable Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Saturday evening. 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, Geoffrey’s fantasy predictions for Darlington ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least surviving an evening of dancing with the Lady in Black.
1. Jeff Gordon
The four-time champ survived two wrecks at Talladega to squeak out an 11th-place finish. In Darlington, he hits a track where he leads all active drivers with seven wins and 18 top 5s. In the last eight Darlington races, Gordon has a series-high average position of 8.3.
2. Jimmie Johnson
How will Jimmie screw up Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race this week? He could do it by replicating 2012 at Darlington when he led 134 laps and took the checkered flag. His two other Darlington wins came back-to-back in 2004.
3. Kasey Kahne
Kahne has yet to score a Darlington win, but he's done something nearly as impressive: Kahne has finished all 10 of his Darlington starts. We'll see if Kyle Busch has anything to say about that statistic Saturday night.
4. Matt Kenseth
All 19 of Matt Kenseth's Darlington starts have netted him a mediocre average finish of 17th, but those were also in Roush Fenway Racing cars. How will the Joe Gibbs Racing setups treat one of the strongest drivers on the circuit?
5. Denny Hamlin
He's been better than Gordon in the last seven Darlington races, but it's still not clear if Hamlin will finish Saturday night's race. That makes you wonder if he can grab top 10 No. 7 at Darlington — a feat he's accomplished in 85 percent of his starts there.
6. Kevin Harvick
NASCAR's self-proclaimed lame duck has averaged 223 laps per race in the top 15 in his last eight Darlington starts, but has just two top-5 finishes and zero wins.
7. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski's never led a lap in his four Sprint Cup starts at Darlington. That's probably legitimate because he hasn't taken to Twitter to blame another competitor for the lack of performance.
8. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer's average Darlington finish is worse than drivers like Ambrose, Bliss, Montoya, Ragan and Sadler. His 11th-place finish last season was his first lead lap Darlington result since 2008.
9. Tony Stewart
Smoke has 20 starts at Darlington since 1999, completing 6,567 laps. He's never won, though, and has led a total of only 20 laps in that period. Combine that with his No. 14's performance in 2013 and … well, you get the point.
Denny Hamlin’s much-discussed return to the seat of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry became an afterthought at Talladega once Brian Vickers climbed into the seat and provided Hamlin with a paltry 10 points thanks to a crash-caused 34th-place result. Ouch.
Hamlin’s actual return comes at a racetrack which he’s enjoyed a fair share of success. His go-to tracks are commonly considered Martinsville and Richmond — rightfully, so — but Darlington Raceway has been a fixture in Hamlin’s career, rooted in significance. The driver made his first NASCAR Nationwide Series start there in 2004 when, as an unknown aspiring NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racer, he finished eighth. He’s had the attention of the stock car industry ever since.
This weekend, it will provide another key moment in the career of a potential champion. Just the return from serious injury in any sport is a monumental occurrence, but in Hamlin’s case, the track that he has chosen to make his full-race return might have bigger aspirations in store, so says this week’s numbers.
5.100 Welcome back, Denny Hamlin. The driver of the No. 11 is returning from injury at a track where he ranks first in driver production with a 5.100 PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating).
The storybook ending is entirely possible, and no, NASCAR doesn’t have to “rig the playing field” to make it happen. Hamlin is staggeringly adept at the 1.366-mile track. He is the only driver to score top-15 finishes in each Darlington race of the CoT era. This also gives him the highest average finish (5.8) in the series during that time frame.
27.58% Think Denny Hamlin can’t make the Chase? Think again. He currently has a 27.58 percent probability of qualifying into the Chase via an automatic top-10 spot, which is the 16th-best percentage among 33 eligible drivers.
Yes, he’s six spots out of a desired top-10 position, but it’s unlikely, based on relevant past averages, that he’ll qualify for the Chase in this manner (he is currently 31st in the point standings). His entry into NASCAR’s playoff would be by way of a wild card spot. In order to land one of these two golden tickets, a driver must first be in the top 20 in points (which the probability suggests he will be by the conclusion of Race 26 at Richmond). Then, the driver has to have the most or second-most wins out of drivers that meet the prerequisite. Hamlin will have to compile wins and that realistically could start as soon as this weekend.
322 Kyle Busch has led 322 laps, the most in the series, in the last five Darlington races.
Leading just over 17.5 percent of the laps through a five-race span usually results in winning. It did for Busch, who put on a spectacular display of car control in the 2008 race. It’s normal for Busch, who ranks second in Darlington-specific PEER (4.800), to lead a large quantity of laps, but he is strong in the finish column as well. He is one of two winning drivers to have earned three top-10 finishes during the CoT era.
Since it opened in 1969, Talladega has been NASCAR’s racetrack of extremes. When right, the sport’s decision to slap restrictor plates on brings out maximum excitement, the best opportunity for 43 teams to compete on a level playing field. Feel-good stories emerge, like the case of Bob Jenkins, a restaurant owner who has filtered more money into his three-car team just to run 25th, than most will make in a lifetime. Since 2005, he has toiled — once suffering through a season with more than 30 DNQs — and posting only two top-5 finishes in 403 starts prior to Sunday. The dream was to pursue a Sprint Cup victory, but a look at the stat sheet would point one towards financial self-destruction … or a man in need of mental help.
Now, Jenkins can point right back at his critics and towards a trophy that is rightfully his. Jenkins’ Front Row Motorsports drivers Ragan and David Gilliland produced the first 1-2 finish in team history in the Aaron’s 499, outclassing the Goliaths they race against through smarts and speed. At no other track — even Daytona, with NASCAR’s handling package — would such a victory be remotely possible. (Previous best finish for this team in 2013: Ragan’s 20th at Richmond.) It’s the type of victory that brings attention to the sport, giving executives something to sell, potential new car owners justification to compete and the backside of the NASCAR garage a reason for hope. No one will change the way these men feel about plate racing now; heck, you could strap a parachute to the car at Daytona and they’d be happy based on the parity that gives them a chance.
On the other side of the fence sits Ryan Newman whose season, if not more, was mere feet from being cut tragically short on Sunday when an entire car landed on the windshield of his No. 39 Chevrolet. As chaos unfolded in front of him, Kurt Busch’s Chevy entry landed, then rolled over Newman’s car in the midst of a 12-car melee that’s become all too common at Talladega. It’s not the first time the driver has been in physical danger; four years ago, this nasty flip (LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxE1_VZkQKI) left the roll cage bent mere inches from his head.
“We had a race here in the spring, complaining about cars getting airborne,” Newman said then. “I wish NASCAR would do something. That’s not what anyone wants to see.”
Four years later, he’s saying the same words again, this time more viciously after not feeling that NASCAR has lifted a finger on the rules. No one will change the way Newman feels about plate racing now, he just doesn’t want himself or a competitor to end up dead.
Talladega. The land of extremes, where guilt, grief, miracles, merriment, disaster, disgust, rage and redemption come together as one. It’s why everyone is pushing for change, but as they do human nature makes it impossible to look away – keeping us in the same cycle forevermore.
FIRST GEAR: Two Davids snookered the field
Make no mistake, Ragan’s slice ‘n’ dice to the front of the pack would not have been possible without two things. One: Teammate David Gilliland, sitting on his back bumper and not letting go until the two cars were sitting out front. Those feeling like the “push” of tandem drafting was completely dead need to take a second look on how these cars were stuck together like superglue down the stretch.
“I know he wishes that he was sitting in my shoes right now,” said Ragan of his teammate, now winless in 232 Cup Series starts. “I kind of wish that he would have had a chance to win the race, too.”
I’m not sure Gilliland cared much, though. His whole family was in attendance to watch Ragan’s post-race presser, a sign of the teamwork atmosphere this underdog organization has pushed since the beginning. Fact: Ragan now has as many wins with this team (one) in just 15 months as he did in five full seasons driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Turns out all the money in the world can’t buy that all-important chemistry needed for those moments when people need to bring out the best in each other.
“He was driving for a top-tier team, had UPS as a sponsor and when he left, he bought into what we were trying to do at Front Row,” said Jenkins. “His expectations of himself and his team never changed. He didn't look at it as if, ‘Hey, I'm taking a step down here, I realize I'm going to be a back marker.’ He continues to expect a lot out of himself and a lot out of his team, and I think what happened is people bought into that and they followed behind him and we've seen results.”
That belief system brings me to point No. 2: it wasn’t shared by his Sprint Cup competitors. Go ahead, you have my permission to review that final lap. Notice how Matt Kenseth drifts up on the backstretch to draft with Carl Edwards as if he needs to stick with the No. 99 to have a shot. Had he stayed in the middle, the FRM duo would have been blocked and we’d be talking about a different winner today. As for Edwards, he just didn’t see the freight train until it was too late, taking a prime opportunity to win a plate race away from a man who’s been victimized far too often there.
“David just got us,” Edwards said. “He did his job. As long as I’m not upside down, in the fence, it was pretty clean.”
For an organization who, just a few weeks ago stated they needed extra sponsorship for several races the outcome at Talladega was nothing short of incredible.
SECOND GEAR: Is it all getting to Brad Keselowski?
One driver, though, was crying foul over Ragan’s miracle moment. Brad Keselowski, in several tweets after the race, felt his rival lined up in the wrong lane for the final restart. Several photos showed the cars trying to pass each other for position on the backstretch under yellow before NASCAR made the final call as to where Keselowski, Scott Speed and Ragan would line up. The verdict was Speed eighth, Keselowski ninth and Ragan 10th based on where they were at the last scoring loop when the caution came out. Were they right? Judge for yourself at the 2:42 mark of this clip. My take is that’s it’s far too close to call.
Either way, Keselowski was presumptuous to predict one change in lane would have earned him a victory – or cost Ragan one. Plate races are so unpredictable that you’ll get 1,000 different endings per 1,000 green-white-checker finishes. I just wonder, after a disappointing 15th-place finish, whether pressure is starting to get to the reigning champ. The final appeal for his Penske team is Tuesday, where 25 points and suspensions of his top four crew members appear imminent. Winless this season, he’s also posted back-to-back finishes outside the top 10 for the first time since Michigan and Sonoma last June. Every superstar, no matter his or her mental strength, goes through adversity; now might be Keselowski’s time, sitting fifth in points with just a single lap led over the last six events.
He just didn’t have to drag David Ragan into his own psychological hell.
THIRD GEAR: The racing was … what it was
I know. It sounds like a copout. Well, if you ask Newman, who joined Busch in the ranks of “Big One” Demolition Derbys, NASCAR racing here needs to be thrown in the trash bin:
"I am doing this interview to let everybody know I'm alright,” said Newman, who if NASCAR has any consistency (Denny Hamlin, anyone?) will be fined for the comments that follow. “They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls. But they can't get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the race track, and that's pretty disappointing. I wanted to make sure I get that point across. Y'all can figure out who 'they' is. That's no way to end a race ... I mean, you got what you wanted, but poor judgment and running in the dark and running in the rain.”
To be fair, most didn’t share the driver’s sentiment about the conditions of the track itself down the stretch. Only sprinkles could be felt in the final minutes and, while dark, the race ended earlier than the Nationwide Series event the day before. It’s the other part of Newman’s diatribe — the plate package — that would be under greater scrutiny if not for Ragan’s headline-saving win. I felt like Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it best:
“I don’t really know,” he said. “I don’t know – I thought it was alright, I guess.”
A classic “C, C+” type of response, and clearly not what NASCAR wants out of one of its fan-favorite facilities, especially after Earnhardt raved about the racing in Daytona. But that’s the truth. 30 lead changes were the least since 2002, when Earnhardt laid waste to the field. The draft, while handling multiple grooves unlike its sister track, had a tendency to “stop ‘n’ start.” There would be times when drivers would get stir crazy, and others — like for 30 laps after the rain delay — where they fell in line and passed the time.
It still seemed like, apart from the final lap, the line that had the most cars could make a difference, with the outside groove still holding a substantial edge. There’s work to be done here, although different rules can only do so much. Drivers are smarter. They know nothing matters at these races until less than 20 laps to go. Trying to force them to stay aggressive in the wake of what happened to Newman and Busch is like throwing them in the lion’s den and asking them to play.
1. Should Denny Hamlin really return this weekend?
Denny Hamlin will likely start Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway, his first since his back injury in March at Fontana. He's not expected to finish, much less make it past lap 20. Still, he's hoping it will help his Chase for the Sprint Cup odds.
Simultaneously, the idea is both genius and insane.
Hamlin only received clearance from both his personal doctors and NASCAR officials Thursday to actually get in the car this weekend. He and the No. 11 team initially plan to take advantage of the NASCAR scoring rule that awards championship points only to the drivers who actually start the race. In a Joe Gibbs Racing perfect world, a caution will wave inside the first five laps and Hamlin can come to pit road and hop out in favor of a relief driver. Hamlin will then be credited with the points earned by wherever the relief driver finishes.
Hamlin, who has been injured in a crash at Talladega before, doesn't want to further his injury at one of NASCAR's most wreck-prone racetracks. It's a line of thinking that makes perfect sense in NASCAR's point structure. But it also makes zero sense when factoring in how unpredictable that both racing and race cars can be. Even if Hamlin dropped a half-mile behind the pack at the race's start, there's still plenty that can go wrong in a hurry.
Because of that, it seems incredibly questionable as to why NASCAR would clear Hamlin to participate when he's fully acknowledged he's not prepared to run the whole race. Points about the strategy making a mockery of the sport aside, Hamlin seems to face some legitimate danger of only making his back injury worse.
Talladega, after all, isn't simply a morning commute.
2. Talladega style of racing still an unknown commodity for NASCAR's new car
What can we expect to fill Talladega's 500 miles on Sunday? As of now, it seems pretty wait-and-see.
Much like Daytona in February, Talladega brings another first for NASCAR's new car. At Daytona, the over-hyped machine produced largely flatline racing for much of NASCAR's signature event thanks to myriad factors like cool temperatures and tires failing to show signs of wear. By and large, drivers were fine with the aerodynamic package — many felt more in control at Daytona than in years past — and only wanted to mix it up at the end when the money bell was ready to sound.
Talladega could easily bring more of the same, if only because these teams have learned that leading a lap for one bonus point isn't quite enough to get aggressive early in the race. The result of such actions is often abundantly clear at Talladega and Daytona and it takes the form of the “Big One.”
Sunday's weather forecast also has the implication that it could limit the show's total product. Cool temperatures in the mid-60s are expected, meaning the track will have more grip in every lane. That reduces tire wear over a run and makes it less likely for handling to factor while racing in a pack. When handling is an issue, drivers often have little choice to start passing and getting a bit more daring.
One thing does seem sure for Sunday, however: Tandem racing has been largely abolished in the Sprint Cup Series thanks to the new car design with irregular front and rear design assemblies. If you're looking for that, check out Saturday's Nationwide Series race.
3. Harvick buoyed by Richmond success just wants to finish
Kevin Harvick was one driver who ultimately left Daytona Speedweeks in February disappointed with his luck in the Daytona 500. The No. 29 had seemed to assert itself as a pre-race favorite with commanding performances that became wins in the Sprint Unlimited and a Gatorade Duel qualifying race.
Instead he finished a lowly 42nd after being swept into a multi-car crash on lap 47.
“I like restrictor-plate racing, but our luck hasn’t been that great lately on that style track. Last season, we thought we were going to have a chance to win coming to the checkers during the second races of the season at Daytona and Talladega, but we wound up coming in on a wrecker," Harvick said. "We just haven’t gotten the finishes we thought we would at those tracks, even though we’ve had good runs."
Harvick followed Daytona with several races of mediocre to decent racing, but never looked like a contender to win. The late-race yellow changed that last week at Richmond International Raceway when Harvick benefited from a good final pit stop and a solid car to steal a win on a green-white-checker finish. He led just three laps all night.
Now inside the top 10 in Sprint Cup points for the first time in 2013, Harvick could continue his upward swing at a track where he's fared pretty well. Harvick's rate of finishing at Talladega is over 93 percent, easily the highest among active drivers with more than 10 Talladega starts. He otherwise has a win, six career top-5 finishes and 10 career top 10s at Talladega. You can also bet he'll find the lead at some point Sunday: he's led a lap at Talladega in seven straight races.
4. Puzzle pieces starting to fit for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Don't worry, you're reading this right: Juan Pablo Montoya dominated the closing stages of a NASCAR short track race.
Yes, Montoya, the road racing expert and otherwise decent if unlucky oval racer finally seemed to show some flashes of what we really expected from him in this, his seventh year of full-time Sprint Cup racing. Montoya ultimately led 67 laps and wound up with a third-place finish for his efforts after a late caution flag threw last Saturday's night's race into a dizzying finale of pit stops and track position.
It was Montoya's best finish since a third-place run more than two seasons ago at Las Vegas. For Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, the finish was its fourth of the season inside the top 10 after a 2012 campaign where it collected just five. Montoya's teammate, Jamie McMurray, may be the best candidate to tie the team's 2012 performance Sunday at Talladega.
Last fall, McMurray led a race a race-high 38 laps. A crash with just a handful of laps to go then took him out of the race and pushed him to a disappointing 34th-place finish. Still, McMurray has built a bit of name for himself on restrictor plate tracks in recent years. The 2010 Daytona 500 winner has a win at Talladega and five top-5 runs.
A win or decent finish for McMurray — he's now 12th in points — could have him pretty close to (if not in) the top 10 in the series point standings. A year ago, McMurray never was higher than 16th in points and finished in 20th.