Articles By Matt Taliaferro

Path: /nascar/nascar-indianapolis-need-marquee-winner-bolster-slumping-brickyard-400

In a decade of skyrocketing growth for the sport of NASCAR, no single event in the 1990s topped its first visit to the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 1994 Brickyard 400.


However, 20 years later, amid sagging attendance and television ratings and a weekend diluted with Nationwide and nondescript sports car ancillary races, the Sprint Cup Series’ annual visit is a shell of its former self.


Make no mistake, the sparse nine degrees of banking in Indy’s four nearly-90 degree turns have never yielded great returns for fendered stock cars. In fact, the storylines have always overshadowed the actual on-track action. 


Jeff Gordon’s coronation in the premier race, the larger-than-life Dale Earnhardt fittingly victorious in Indy’s winner’s circle, Tony Stewart finally capturing a win at his beloved home track — all made for great copy, but it was the narrative of “big-name driver winning at the epicenter of racing” — check that, “household name winning at the epicenter of racing” — that ruled the day. Only the best drivers from the premier level deserved a shot to lead the field across the yard of bricks, regardless of motorsports discipline. And only the one-percenters of that group should prevail at day’s end.


The sobering reality of NASCAR’s lost luster at the Brickyard was driven home last year when the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series made its inaugural trip to the quaint half-mile Eldora Speedway in tiny Rossburg, Ohio. Running the Wednesday prior to what is billed as the “Super Weekend at the Brickyard,” a high-banked dirt track — owned by Stewart himself — stole the racing headlines all week.


It was an odd yet telling twist that the most historic speedway in the world was upstaged by NASCAR’s “third series” running an event — complete with heat races, a last-chance qualifier and an “A-Main” feature — at a track that harkened race fans back to their roots. The Eldora event was a smashing success: competitive, unique, entertaining. Oh, and run in front of a packed house.


The Cup Series’ stop in Speedway, Ind., four days later was cloaked in pageantry, yet the on-track product was all-too-familiar, as the crowd of roughly 70,000 (down from a reported 280,000 five years prior) could attest. Aero-dependent racing at the monstrous facility was in stark contrast to the “racin’” enjoyed at Eldora. 


Fans raved about the excursion on dirt for weeks. Yeah, Indy's cool, but did you see that Eldora race?!


Still, it is important for NASCAR’s top series to count Indianapolis as a regular tour stop. As stated earlier — and with apologies to Daytona and Monaco — the Brickyard is the world’s best-known speedway. Not having North America’s most popular motorsports series at a track centered in its heartland is just a poor marketing play by both the track and the series.


But a race once reserved for Hall-of-Fame caliber winners — Gordon, Earnhardt, Stewart, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, Jimmie Johnson — has seen a new type of victor in recent years. Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman have won three of the last four Brickyard 400s. All deserving in that they played the game better than 42 others on their given day, but the wins lacked luster. They lacked headline-power. They lacked the storylines and larger-than-life personalities that once almost single-handedly carried NASCAR’s day at the “grand old speedway.”


THE CHASE  |  The race to NASCAR's bubble begins


Yet, despite its often-mundane on-track product, NASCAR needs the Brickyard and the Brickyard needs NASCAR. Though what both need now more than ever is for a rousing, intriguing storyline — a household name along the lines of Danica, Gordon, Earnhardt or Stewart — to not only prosper, but win in the most dramatic way possible. Because no longer does the sparkling pre-race hype, the in-race confection or the simple and notable fact that NASCAR is racing at the Brickyard carry the day.



Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.



NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway need an intriguing storyline and big-name driver to carry the day at the struggling Brickyard 400.
Post date: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 16:47
Path: /nascar/balance-power-fords-nascar-camp-has-shifted-team-penske

After playing second fiddle to Chevrolet and powerhouse NASCAR organization Hendrick Motorsports for a decade, Ford Racing seems to have found its groove with four consecutive race wins in the Cup Series. And it’s led by a face familiar to the sport but new to Ford’s roster.


Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski, who won the 2012 Sprint Cup championship while driving for Dodge in its final season in NASCAR, is hitting on all cylinders. The 30-year-old driver and crew chief Paul Wolfe have reeled off two dominating victories in the past three weeks, with wins at Kentucky Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Further, since the beginning of June, their No. 2 team has recorded five runs of third or better in seven races.


“I think in a lot of ways we’re stronger than (2012),” Keselowski said after Sunday’s win in Loudon, N.H. “I don’t think we’ve had this much speed before. We had tremendous speed today, and I think there’s potential left. So that’s all very encouraging to me.  Brad Keselowski


“I feel like I’m in a really strong rhythm right now. I think some of last year’s struggles put me in a spot to work harder and become a better race car driver, and I think we’re combining all those things and we’re seeing the fruits of that labor with, like I said, more to come.”


Traditionally, Ford’s Cup success was dependent on Roush Fenway Racing and drivers such as Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. However, it has not enjoyed a championship season since Busch won the inaugural Chase for the Championship in 2004. The company’s future performance is also in question, as Edwards is expected to bolt at season’s end, while Biffle’s contract status hangs in limbo.


Enter Team Penske. After a year of acclimation in 2013 when the organization switched to a new manufacturer, a new engine supplier and welcomed a new driver-crew chief combo in Joey Logano and Todd Gordon, it’s overtaken RFR as the Ford flag bearer. Keselowski and Logano have combined for five wins in the season’s 19 events and are locks for NASCAR’s postseason.


“We had to understand the aerodynamics, the new package, putting together an engine program with Roush-Yates where we were not the ones that made the calls every day,” team owner Roger Penske says. “We have a team that is working together, I think is very transparent with Ford what we’re doing, and at the end of the day, I’d have to say it was the right move.”  Roger Penske


Keselowski echoes the sentiment and, having gone toe-to-toe with six-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the past and won, understands that it takes something extra to win the Chase.


“We’re executing, which is really important. We have a lot of momentum and I think we have a lot of potential still left in our team that we’ve got to keep working to get to because everybody is going to turn it up a notch when the Chase comes. We need to have another gear to grab to be able to run for a championship here in 2014.”


To get that championship, Keselowski and Logano will have to go through Hendrick Motorsports’ vaunted four-car team of Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Prior to Ford’s current four-race win streak — its longest since 2001 — Hendrick’s trio of Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt tallied five consecutive victories over a commanding early-summer stretch. 


At the time, Keselowski quipped that Hendrick’s engine department could be as much as a year ahead of the competition. It seems apparent, though, that Team Penske has found something that has shifted the balance of power — a combination of horsepower gains and aerodynamic know-how.


Heading into an off-weekend before a crown-jewel showdown with HMS at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Keselowski says his team will have the luxury of enjoying the recent success:


“For me personally (and) I know for the team, to have about eight days to really soak it in before we head off to Indy, I think that’s a real pleasure for us and something that we can enjoy — and obviously a little bit of rest is never a bad thing. 


“I think we’re close, but I want to keep pushing, and I’m committed to getting another championship. I know Roger and Paul sitting next to me are committed to it, and we want to make it happen.”



Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.


After playing second fiddle to Chevrolet and powerhouse NASCAR organization Hendrick Motorsports for a decade, Ford Racing seems to have found its groove with four consecutive race wins in the Cup Series. And it’s led by a face familiar to the sport but new to Ford’s roster: Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski.
Post date: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 - 10:23
All taxonomy terms: Aric Almirola, Richard Petty, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/almirola-rpm-win-saved-nascar-forgettable-daytona-weekend

Thirty years ago, everything lined up just right for NASCAR.


The 1984 Fourth of July weekend witnessed the sport’s all-time winningest driver, Richard Petty, score his milestone 200th win. He did so at stock car racing’s cathedral, Daytona International Speedway in a near photo finish — and as if it needed a kicker, with the President of the United States in attendance.


Who could have foreseen then that it would be three decades before Petty’s No. 43 would once again grace Daytona’s famed victory circle — a location it had visited nine times prior?


History shows that was indeed the case, as on Sunday, 30 years after Petty’s final NASCAR victory, Aric Almirola drove the Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 machine to his first Cup Series win in the rain-delayed and rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at the “World Center of Speed.”


In all honesty, though, Petty’s 1984 triumph and Almirola’s 2014 victory have little in common. Yes, the stylized number survives, but little else remains. In ’84, Petty drove a Pontiac; today, Almirola sports a Ford. The iconic STP logo and paint scheme adorned Petty’s ride; Almirola was cloaked in a fitting Air Force blue hue. 


Maybe the most glaring difference lies in the team itself: Petty ­didn’t win No. 200 under the Petty Enterprises banner; that season, he took his number and sponsor to a team fielded by Mike Curb before returning in 1986 to Level Cross, N.C. Almirola didn’t hang one for Petty Enterprises, either. The winningest organization in NASCAR history was no more following the 2008 season when it evolved, thanks to a series of mergers and investors, into what is known today as Richard Petty Motorsports. “The King” has his minority stake in the operation — and is still as passionate about the sport as ever, at the track nearly every weekend — but is largely a figurehead for the team.


Unlike that July Fourth weekend 30 years ago, nothing could go right for NASCAR at Daytona this year. It battled sporadic rain from the moment the circus hit the beach on Thursday. That rain forced the postponement, cancellation and delay of nearly every planned event — from practice and qualifying sessions to the Cup race itself.


Even when the green flag dropped, it seemed NASCAR could not catch a break. A grinding 16-car wreck eliminated many heavy hitters just prior to the 20-lap mark. Another, on lap 99, thinned the field further. By the time the race was mercifully red-flagged for rain on lap 112, 36 of the 43 cars had officially been involved in one (or both) of the melees.


DAYTONA | Did You Notice? Kentucky's Woe's, Surging Rookies and a Dominant Team Penske


But, now as then, one constant rose above all else on these two very different weekends: The silhouette of NASCAR, Richard Petty — complete with Charlie 1 Horse, wrap-around shades and tea-cup-sized belt buckle — gave the weekend its appropriate send-off. In 1984, he himself reached an unreachable number. In 2014, his driver, Almirola, achieved the life-long goal he’d set forth: to win at NASCAR’s highest level. 


And in the process, he drove the sport’s most famous car number onto the sport’s most hallowed slab of real estate: Daytona’s Victory Lane.


“I couldn’t have dreamed of a better place to get my first win,” Almirola said following a soggy victory celebration. “Of all the places I could pick to win, I would pick Daytona because I grew up two hours away. I’ve sat in these grandstands — the Daytona 500, the Firecracker 400s. As a young kid, coming over here and watching, (I) dreamed about what it would be like to have a chance to race at the highest level at this racetrack.


“Not only have I done that, I’ve went to Victory Lane. I’m very appreciative of that — I think it’s very cool that we won on this weekend. It’s 30 years to the weekend that ‘The King’ won his 200th race with the president here. That’s really special.”


“Well, 30 years ago is history and today is today,” Petty said. “So to be able to win the race, win it for the Air Force, Fourth of July, you know, the whole thing is just great.”


With that in mind, maybe this year’s long, soggy July Fourth weekend lined up better for NASCAR than originally thought.



Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Aric Almirola's win in the Coke Zero 400 was the first for a car numbered 43 in NASCAR at Daytona since Richard Petty in 1984.
Post date: Monday, July 7, 2014 - 18:30
Path: /nascar/nascar-gettin-bumpy-kentucky

Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. With Geoffrey presently enjoying a well-earned vacation, Matt Taliaferro leads us through the five storylines to watch at Kentucky Speedway for the Quaker State 400.



Big weekend on tap for Joe Gibbs Racing?  Joe Gibbs

There are plenty of things currently on Joe Gibbs Racing’s plate. A rumored fourth team, its interest in landing free agent Carl Edwards, the loss of longtime sponsor Home Depot at season’s end, negotiations with current sponsor Mars/M&M’s, getting driver Matt Kenseth a Chase-locking win and the continued development of Truck and Nationwide series talent Darrell Wallace Jr.


So when the company sent a release early this week with news that it would hold a press conference at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday … well, take your pick as to which slot on the Roulette wheel the ball will land.


Don’t count on a bombshell, though. Speculation continues to swirl that Edwards will land at JGR’s long-rumored fourth team, however talk of a clause in his current contract prohibiting an announcement until September likely takes this option off the board.


A more reasonable hypothesis is that JGR has sponsorship news on tap. On Monday, The Sports Business Journal reported that Home Depot would leave the sport at the conclusion of the season. While the home improvement giant has taken a less notable position on JGR’s No. 20 Toyota over the last few seasons, it served as one of the more prominent primary sponsors in the Cup Series since 1999, winning titles with Tony Stewart in 2002 and ’05.


Meanwhile, Dollar General has ramped up its role with the team, serving as primary sponsor on Matt Kenseth’s ride for 17 races in 2013 and 27 this year. Might the burgeoning company intend to extend and/or expand its successful role with JGR? Probably so.


That said, across the shop the spotlight has landed on the Mars/M&M’s sponsorship on Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota. That association began in 2008 and has had its share of rocky moments with the mercurial driver, though generally it’s considered a successful and stable partnership. 


However, an odd transmission on the team’s radio was picked up following the Sonoma race in which Busch asked if the M&M’s contract had been signed, to which he was told it had not. In the face of reports that M&M’s would serve as the primary sponsor on JGR’s fourth team with Edwards, the organization stated that M&M’s would return to the 18.


And then there is Monster Energy, which has diligently backed Busch’s efforts with his Kyle Busch Motorsports program, as well as Gibbs’ Nationwide entries after KBM became its de facto minor-league squad. Might Monster be ready to take the next sponsorship leap?


Tune in at 4:00 pm EDT on Saturday to find out. The money here is on Dollar General.



Meanwhile, on-track, JGR looks to get … well, on track

JGR knows its way around Kentucky Speedway. The organization has won in two of the Cup Series’ three trips to the Sparta, Ky., facility (Busch, 2011; Kenseth, 2013) and boasts three triumphs in the Nationwide Series with former driver Joey Logano (2008, ‘09, ’10).


However, the organization has been a clear step behind series powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports on the intermediate tracks in 2014, of which Kentucky is one. Since the start of May, HMS entries have swept the races on the so-called “cookie cutter” tracks, with Jeff Gordon winning in Kansas and Jimmie Johnson taking checkers at Charlotte, Dover and Michigan (HMS also scored the win at the flat Pocono track with Dale Earnhardt Jr.).


It seems the larger the track where horsepower and engineering come into play, the more advantages Hendrick and its affiliated teams enjoy.


“We all have got a little bit of work to do because it's pretty obvious that the Hendrick engines are way ahead of everyone else,” Ford’s Brad Keselowski said after Johnson’s Michigan win. “Usually that's not something you catch up with in one season. As far ahead as they are right now, they're probably a full season ahead of everyone.”


Not everyone is as forthright when discussing Hendrick’s supposed advantage. Kenseth, in his typically understated manner, deflected the horsepower issue while trumpeting Toyota Racing Development’s engine durability.


“TRD has done a really great job of making good power, and then last year once we got to about the middle of the year they really worked hard on durability because we had a few durability issues early in the year,” the defending Kentucky winner says. “I think they've done a good job of trying to balance that. Obviously, if you're not running on the last lap you can't win, so I think they've done a good job of getting the durability better, on average, from where we were and still trying to develop more power at the same time.”


It’s said the championship is won and lost on the intermediates, as six banked tracks one mile in length or larger make up the 10 Chase races. Through the Kentucky race in the 2013 season, JGR had notched six intermediate wins (four by Kenseth alone) to its one this year (Busch, Auto Club). The Quaker State 400 should prove a handy barometer to measure if JGR — as well as Team Penske and Roush Fenway Racing — have cut into the HMS stranglehold.



Gettin’ bumpy in Kentucky

Every racetrack likes to carve out its little niche in the NASCAR world — particularly those 1.5-milers that, to the casual television viewer, all look basically the same. A little identity is a good thing, right?


Kentucky Speedway’s hook? It’s NASCAR’s “roughest track.”


Not an endurance Coke 600-type rough or a physically-demanding 500 miles at Darlington rough. The track itself is rough. In fact, it’s so rough along the start-finish line that Ryan Blaney got a bloody nose while hop-scotching through the wavy pavement in the tri-oval during Truck Series practice on Wednesday.


“I actually had a nosebleed during practice,” Blaney said. “It's definitely one of the roughest places we go, but that's what gives the race track such great character.”


The bumps, though unique, don’t necessarily make for more competitive racing.


“The pavement is losing grip, so you can slide around more and tires drop off more — and new tires are a big reward — that's the kind of stuff I think we all like as drivers,” Matt Kenseth says. “I think a lot of us are under the opinion that makes better racing, more passing, that type of thing.


“Just being bumpy doesn't necessarily do that. It's definitely the roughest track in NASCAR — it's really, really bumpy — but I think there's a couple lanes there you can pass. It is a unique mile-and-a-half. The Turn 4 exit is different than any other mile-and-a-half we go to.”


Kenseth, though, was quick to dispel any notion that the track needs a fresh coat of smooth pavement:


“I definitely never said it needed paving. I don't know where the line is for what's too rough and what's too bumpy. But I do know, unless somebody changes the asphalt and makes an aggregate they use and all that stuff, that paving a track does not make for instant good racing. It typically takes years and years before it gets back to being what I would consider real good.”


Bottom line: the bumps will not adversely affect the Truck, Nationwide or Cup races. Each track presents its own set of challenges and the bumps are simply part of what a driver must deal with at Kentucky Speedway. You’ll hear plenty more complaints, though. And when you do, think of the alternative: a silky-smooth surface that plays host to an aero-dependent parade. 


PHOTOS | Frontstretch Photo Funnies: It's all sticky ...


43: It’s the magic number

Or is it? For NASCAR fans that came along since the turn of the century, the 43-car field has been standard. Only once since 2000 has there been a starting field with less than 43 drivers, and that came under unusual circumstances at New Hampshire, which had been rescheduled for the end of the season due to the events of 9/11. 


This weekend, though, only 42 Cup cars are on the entry list.


So what’s the deal with the number 43? How did NASCAR land on such a seemingly arbitrary number? 


The standard 43-car field was not mandated until 1998, after races in the early- and mid-90’s were run with fields ranging from 36-43 competitors, based mainly on the size and location of a racetrack. In 1997, NASCAR decided to standardize the number of cars and came up with the number 42, due to factors such as the weekly number of entries at the time, garage and pit space, event purses and number of teams running a full schedule. The 43rd entrant was awarded to a past champion. 


The qualifying and provisional formats have changed on a number of occasions since, but the cap of 43 has remained. So, like many things in NASCAR, the 43-car field is simply a number that seemed right to the sanctioning body and has no true “cannon law" significance.


Unless, of course, you believe that NASCAR is bound by television contracts to supply a “full field” of 43 cars. The sanctioning body has adamantly denied this for years, but if a small team not currently scheduled to run this weekend just happens to show up … well, let’s just assume it probably received an all-expense-paid trip to the entertainment mecca of Sparta, Ky.


By the way, The Sporting News’ Bob Pockrass had some great insight as to the significance of this weekend’s 42-car field. I’d encourage you to give it a read.



Checking Johnson’s to-do list  Jimmie Johnson

The last time Jimmie Johnson checked off a bucket list win, another followed in short order. 


The year was 2010 and the track was Bristol. Though Johnson had won four consecutive championships and collected the career grand slam, he’d not visited victory lane at NASCAR’s most beloved half-mile. That changed in the March race, when he finally cashed in, leading the final seven laps en route to his first and thus far only Bristol win.


Eleven weeks later, Johnson crossed another nemesis off the list by surprising everyone with a win on the road course in Sonoma, Calif. Like Bristol, it’s a track where he has yet to win since.


That brings us to 2014. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus finally exorcised their Michigan demons two weeks ago, after 24 trips full of ever-so-close moments. Next up on the dwindling roster of racetracks where he’s yet to win in the Cup Series? Kentucky Speedway.


Will Johnson and his 48 team, like in that six-win 2010 season, scale two previously untamed mountains in one year?


If not at Kentucky — where Johnson owns a solid 6.0-place average finish in the small sample size of three races — the opportunities to do so begin to thin. After Kentucky, the only other venues where Johnson could nab a first-time triumph include Watkins Glen, Chicagoland and Homestead.



Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. With Geoffrey presently enjoying a well-earned vacation, Matt Taliaferro leads us through the five storylines to watch at Kentucky Speedway for the Quaker State 400.
Post date: Thursday, June 26, 2014 - 18:45
Path: /nascar/free-agent-carl-edwards-wins-nascar-trip-sonoma

For those looking to bury a supposedly slumping Carl Edwards and his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team, the message delivered in Sonoma, Calif., was clear: You haven’t kicked enough dirt on the grave yet.


Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig improvised on strategy, inheriting the lead of the Toyota-Save Mart 350 with 26 laps remaining. The driver did the rest, outwheeling NASCAR road-racing king Jeff Gordon to earn his first career Cup Series road win and second victory of the 2014 season. The win, coupled with a triumph at Bristol in March, assures Edwards of a spot in the 16-driver Chase for the Championship.


“Halfway through the race I did not think we were going to win it,” Edwards said. “I was driving my heart out and I wasn’t going anywhere, but Jimmy made the right adjustments, he made the right call to get us out front, then he reminded me to leave nothing out there and to drive as hard as I could, and that was what I needed.”


“We had a plan to start,” Fennig said. “We were going to do a two-stop race, and what happens is you kind of have to stick to your plan going in.


“But at the beginning we got a yellow and got trapped out there, and that hurt us quite a bit. But what we did at the end there, we were going to be pitting on lap 71, and figured, well, we’ll just come a lap early because we know (we can) stretch it because we worked on fuel mileage with Carl in practice. So we came one lap early and, fortunate enough, the yellow came out as soon as we were done with our pit stop. But we stuck to our plan. We were getting beat up out there, but the end result worked out to our favor.”


Roush Fenway Racing — and the Ford camp in general — has been beat consistently through the late spring and early summer by Hendrick Motorsports-powered Chevrolets, which had won five consecutive events dating back to May 10 at Kansas Speedway. The divide between Hendrick and the Ford teams of Roush Fenway and Team Penske had gotten glaring enough that Brad Keselowski, driver of Penske’s No. 2 Ford, framed the dilemma at Michigan one week ago.


“We all have got a little bit of work to do because it’s pretty obvious that the Hendrick engines are way ahead of everyone else,” Keselowski said. “Usually that’s not something you catch up with in one season. As far ahead as they are right now, they’re probably a full season ahead of everyone.”


Enter the Sonoma Raceway road course, where driver finesse and solid brake package can mask some horsepower deficiencies. While Hendrick engines placed five drivers in the top seven, Edwards was able to ward off Gordon’s late-race charge.


“I could really get into Turn 11,” said runner-up Gordon of the final lap. “I was just trying to get (Edwards) to overdrive the corner and get up off the bottom. There’s such an advantage to hook around those tires that had he missed it — which he did about two laps before — that I thought I might be able to make it interesting. He did lock up going in there, but he made the corner, and that was it.”


Edwards also happens to be the biggest free agent on the Cup Series market. Speculation has swirled that he will leave RFR at season’s end for a fourth team at Joe Gibbs Racing. Edwards’ former teammate, Matt Kenseth, made the transition prior to the 2013 season and enjoyed a sterling seven-win campaign in his first year with the Toyota-backed organization.


The Missouri native acts as his own agent and has been mum on the subject. When asked how his current team has handled any distractions stemming from his possible defection, Edwards brushed it off in his typical fashion.


“I think you guys (in the media) worry about that more than we do,” Edwards said. “We come out here and race every week and the mission is to win the championship. So for me it’s really simple — I just have to give the best I can every week, and that’s it.”


During Edwards’ last free agent courting session, in 2011, it was a virtually accepted belief that he would jump ship at Roush for JGR’s No. 20 ride. A major push by Ford Racing kept him in-house, though, and Edwards, who notched one win and 19 top-5 finishes that year, enjoyed the points lead through much of that summer. He finished strong, losing the championship in a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. Since that season, he has totaled only 16 total top-5 finishes.



Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.


Carl Edwards wins the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' Toyota-Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
Post date: Tuesday, June 24, 2014 - 13:04
Path: /nascar/johnsons-intermediate-acumen-will-pay-nascars-chase

It’s said that racetracks don’t owe anyone anything. Rarely, if ever, will you hear a driver, following a victory, proclaim that “this old place owed us one” after a string of disappointments finally results in paydirt.


In racing it’s taboo to suggest that the reason one loses is because of the track. Instead, a driver and team take the onus upon themselves; they should have prepared harder, executed better or employed a different strategy. Take credit when you win, take the blame when you lose. There are no excuses.


And surely no one is “owed” anything.


Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus know this all too well. The most successful and feared driver-crew chief duo in NASCAR have won nearly everything there is to win in the sport over a dominant 12-plus-year reign. 


Six championships. Four wins each in the Brickyard 400 and the All-Star Race. Two apiece at fickle Darlington and treacherous Talladega. And, of course, a pair of Harley J. Earl trophies courtesy of Daytona 500 triumphs. If it’s prestigious and pays big money, their No. 48 team has conquered it.


That’s what made their unfortunate luck at Michigan International Speedway over the years so peculiar. On a number of occasions the team has seen defeat clutched from its seemingly victorious hands. Flat tires, blown engines, empty fuel cells — the one team that’s consistently made its own luck elsewhere has had it thrown back in their face in 24 previous visits to the Irish Hills.


As fate would have it, Johnson, Knaus and crew slayed their white whale on a day when they didn’t have the fastest car. For once, the hills smiled down on them. The Quicken Loans 400 is no “crown jewel” NASCAR event, but it is one of the last few new triumphs the group that has won most everything can enjoy.  


“I heard 10 (laps) to go, and I’ve been there before with the lead,” Johnson said of his poor Michigan luck. “I heard 5 to go — I’ve been there before and didn’t win;  (I’ve) taken the white (flag) with the lead and didn’t make it back. So I wasn’t taking anything for granted on that final trip around, and about 200 yards before the finish line I knew if the car exploded I’d still slide across the finish line and it didn’t matter.


“That’s finally when I relaxed and let it go.”


Perhaps Johnson should “relax and let it go” at the four other tracks where he has yet to cash in. His record at Chicagoland Speedway, with seven top 5s in 12 starts, is impressive yet there are no W’s. Also, it’s now NASCAR’s first stop in the 10-race Chase for the Championship — and the 48 team’s ability to turn it on when it counts is legendary.


An absence of wins at Kentucky Speedway is excusable in that the sample size is a mere three events. Watkins Glen, the tricky-fast road course in upstate New York, has played host to a pair of Johnson pole wins, yet no Sunday victories.


And then there’s Homestead-Miami Speedway. His lack of a trophy here is explained away in the fact that Johnson has never had to win on the 1.5-mile track. In six of his 13 starts he’s simply had to finish seventh, ninth, 13th ... whatever ... to wrap up a title. There were bigger matters on the agenda.


Johnson’s 2010 season was a “bucket list” year of sorts. Nine years into his undeniable Hall of Fame career, Johnson tamed the bullring of Bristol and the Sonoma roadie (if there is one flaw in this driver’s arsenal, it’s his road course acumen) en route to a record-extending fifth consecutive title.


With three wins at aero-sensitive venues already in the bag this year, might the 48 team — a team suddenly hitting on all cylinders — score an additional win on a similar intermediate-size oval?


NASCAR’s new game show of a championship format is expected to reward winning (as opposed to consistency) above all else — at least that’s the narrative. A victory in the opening round at Chicagoland is an automatic transfer to the next round. And the ultimate triumph — in a winner-take-all showdown in Homestead, Fla. — would most likely deliver a record-tying seventh championship to the team.


Obtaining those bucket list wins would have meaning far beyond simply checking a heretofore accomplishment off the to-do list.



Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.




Jimmie Johnson finally scored a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win at Michigan International Speedway. Can he parlay that into a record seventh Chase for the Cup championship?
Post date: Tuesday, June 17, 2014 - 12:53
Path: /nascar/dale-earnhardt-jr-reverses-trend-win-pocono

Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not have the fastest car at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, but NASCAR’s 11-time most popular driver had strategy, determination and a little bit of luck on his side. And Earnhardt parlayed those attributes into his second win of the season in the Pocono 400.


The situation was all-too-familiar for the 2014 Daytona 500 champion. In his six-plus year association with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt has scored 16 runner-up finishes to a paltry four victories. As the laps wound down at Pocono, it appeared he would have to settle for yet another second-place showing. However, when leader Brad Keselowski picked up a piece of trash on the grille of his Ford — causing it to overheat — Earnhardt suddenly found himself in a position to buck the tendency of a career that has found him to be a consistent performer, not a prolific winner.


Keselowski attempted to unhinge the debris by momentarily drafting behind the lapped car of Danica Patrick. When he did so, his momentum slowed and Earnhardt blew past on the inside. In clean air, the No. 88 car led the final five laps en route to the driver’s 21st career Sprint Cup victory.  Dale Earnhardt Jr.


“I don’t know what his (engine) temperatures were, but they must have been very, very hot for Brad to do that,” Earnhardt said. “I knew right then when he did that, he was so slow, I thought we were going to pass him — we’re going to take the lead, we’re going to have four laps to go, and if I just run tidy corners, he would have trouble with the dirty air and wouldn’t be able to get to us.”


In hindsight, Keselowski’s radical move may have not been needed. The engine in his No. 2 Ford lasted the distance.


“It was definitely a mistake because the engine made it, but it probably shouldn’t have,” Keselowski said. “It was one of those deals, I think I was going to get passed because I was really down on power down the straightaway. I don’t know — it’s hard to say.”


Earnhardt’s win was notable in that it marked the first time since the 2004 season, when he recorded six victories, that Earnhardt has notched multiple wins in one season. The performance has the 16-year veteran — a driver historically at the mercy of the ebbs and flows that momentum brings — brimming with confidence.


“I think we have not peaked as a team performance-wise, but we’re certainly at our highest ceiling,” said Earnhardt, who sits third in the point standings and a lock for NASCAR’s Chase. “We’re doing some of our best work, certainly, right now. We should — we have a lot of passion and there's a lot of emotion, considering this is Steve’s (crew chief Steve Letarte) last year, and I think that also adds some drive and determination to the team to do as well as we can.


“So that can be dangerous for everybody else if we win to get better. We’re still not the best team — we can always improve, and there’s areas where we can improve. But we’re doing some great work, and I feel like what we do is really dependable. I think our team is very dependable and mistake free, so hopefully we can maintain that.”


The circuit visits a track where the performance can be maintained — Michigan International Speedway — where Earnhardt recorded the last two wins of his career prior to the 2014 season. Back-to-back victories are a lot to ask out of any team in the Sprint Cup garage, and last year’s 37th- and 36th-place showings for Earnhardt at the 2-mile track don’t paint a rosy picture. Still, stopping at a facility where he has experienced success is reason for optimism, right?


“A win gives you a lot of confidence, but you know how difficult those are to come by and how competitive this garage is,” Earnhardt admitted. “But man, when you win two in a row ... that sets you apart a bit from your competition. That would be a great thing for us.”



Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. scores his second win of the 2014 season by passing Brad Keselowski to win the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway.
Post date: Monday, June 9, 2014 - 15:54
Path: /nascar/joey-logano-coming-his-own-team-penske

The NASCAR Sprint Cup weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, started wet, got wild, settled down, then ended with a bang. Through it all, 23-year-old Joey Logano was in the thick of the action.


Logano led a race-high 108 of 340 laps in the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway en route to  collecting his first win of the season and second under the watchful eye of motorsports icon Roger Penske.


More and more, he’s proving to be the right man for Penske’s No. 22 Ford after getting the call to join the organization prior to the 2013 season.


“Over the years I’ve been able to kind of hone in who I am as a driver, who I am as a person,” Logano said of his progression. “When you’re 18 years old (his age during his rookie season), you got to grow up — you’re not quite done growing up at that point. I may not be now (but) I feel like I’m getting closer.


“I was able to go to Team Penske, get that fresh start, be able to take everything (I) learned (prior, at Joe Gibbs Racing), but not be taken as an 18-year-old kid anymore. I came over when I was 22. You’re looked at a little bit more as a man than an 18-year-old kid that was still in high school.”


Logano was viewed as a phenom during his rapid ascent to the Sprint Cup Series. Hailed as the sport’s “future” as a 14-year-old by respected NASCAR veteran Mark Martin, the hype and expectations surrounding Logano grew to near unattainable levels.


A rocky four seasons at powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing — with incompatible teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin — in which Logano tallied two wins, 16 top 5s and zero Chase bids, found him on the outside looking in following the 2012 season. When his contract, as well as that of Ford rival Matt Kenseth, came up the sponsors of Logano’s No. 20 ride were in favor of greener pastures. Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champ was in, Logano was out.


However, a confidence-building landing pad came in the form of Team Penske and its defending champion, Brad Keselowski.

It was Keselowski who openly lobbied the Penske brass to hire Logano.


“Brad Keselowski played a really big role in getting me in here and getting a meeting with Roger Penske,” Logano told USA Today shortly after his hire. “He was the one who called me and said, ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity for you.’


“That means a lot to have a teammate that really wants you there.”


Logano’s character also factored into the hire, as Penske’s No. 22 seat had previously been a hot one. Kurt Busch was released from the organization after multiple on- and off-track run-ins with team members and the media. His replacement, AJ Allmendinger, was promptly removed from the ride just half a season later when he failed a drug test. That left mega-sponsor Shell-Pennzoil demanding the right man step into the role.


And that’s when Keselowski’s earlier suggestion to consider Logano piqued the interest of team president Tim Cindric.


“I can’t say enough about how supportive Shell-Pennzoil has been through a little bit of turmoil that we’ve been in the last nine months,” Cindric said in September 2012, shortly after Logano’s hire. “We had to be even more in concert with them than we have ever been with a sponsor in terms of trying to understand what the right fits are to ensure we get it right.


“There was an extra sensitivity around ensuring that we had someone with the right character in the car.”


Logano hasn’t just been the right fit from a PR perspective; the Connecticut native, now in his sixth full season in the Cup Series, is delivering on the earlier expectations.


A first-time Chase entrant in his first season with Penske, Logano now has two wins and 15 top 5s in 42 starts behind the wheel of the No. 22 Ford. That equals his win total and is only one top-5 shy of his marks over a 144-race tenure at JGR.


“(It’s a) completely different situation now,” Logano said after his Texas win on Monday. “I’ve been able to take advantage of (experience), kind of walk in the doors of Penske the first time and say, ‘Here is who I want to be, here is what I want to do, here is how I feel like we can win races, do it together.’”


NASCAR Mailbox: Team Penske's success an unexpected twist


In Monday’s rain-delayed Texas event, “win races” is exactly what Logano did — and he held off the best to do so.


Outdueling current teammate Keselowski, former teammate Kyle Busch and four-time champion Jeff Gordon in a green-white-checker finish, Logano followed through when it mattered after exhibiting the dominant car of the day; promise delivered.


“I was able to follow (Gordon) through, get to second, get a run off of (turn) four, cross him over, get the lead — then we get the win,” Logano said of the final two laps of his most-recent triumph. “We’ve been in contention every race this year to win these things. To get the Shell-Pennzoil Ford in Victory Lane, it means a lot.”


Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photo by Actions Sports, Inc.



Texas race-winner Joey Logano has found success at Team Penske in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 - 17:50
All taxonomy terms: Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/martinsvilles-magic-why-it-remains-best-track-nascar

NASCAR's short tracks often bring out the best and worst of the sport. The best being the tight, aggressive nature of the racing — a style rarely seen on the giant intermediate palaces of speed whose aero-dependent layouts dominate the circuit.


The same aggressive nature that so entertains fans can bring out the worst in the very competitors that wheel their 3,300-pound vehicles around the tracks for hours on end. But of course, that's part of the reason the fans show up in the first place.


Of NASCAR's three short tracks — Bristol, Richmond and Martinsville — the latter packs more physical action into an afternoon than the others combined.


That's not a knock on the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway, a track that has transcended NASCAR consciousness on the sporting landscape. Yet, Bristol's rousing physicality has been neutered by pure speed; the high banks encourage Evernham-like engineering over Earnhardt-esque manhandling.


Nor is it a slight to Richmond International Raceway, which strikes the best balance of what the paying fan vs. the paid driver enjoys most out of a racetrack. However, even Richmond's three-quarter mile layout — much like Bristol — has fallen prey to higher banking and thus, higher speeds and the fine-tuned geometry they coax.


That leaves Martinsville Speedway, a half-mile jewel that has fought off a sanctioning body's one-time desire to take from the facilities that “got it here” and move events to big-market locales where new fans, new money and a decidedly different style of racing exists.


Quaint little Martinsville, in tiny Ridgeway, Va., is as throwback as they come. It was one of eight tracks on the sport's inaugural 1949 Strictly Stock season — the forerunner of today's Sprint Cup Series. Then a dirt track, Martinsville is now part concrete, part asphalt. 


Yes, the speeds have increased, but it's nearly flat turns have disallowed the head-spinning speeds seen at the two aforementioned venues. Its seating capacity is now roughly five times what it was then, but train tracks still line the countryside just outside of the backstretch and its “world famous” hot dogs can still be had for two bucks.


It's ironic — and devilishly appropriate — then, that the shortest track with the largest character still plays host to the most intense 500 laps that NASCAR enjoys each spring and fall. Money and sparkling new amenities can buy entry, but they cannot guarantee quality.


On Sunday in the STP 500, the field of 43 failed to make it two laps before the torquey straightaways and hairpin turns got the best of it. The event was interrupted only once for NASCAR's infamous debris caution (a method the powers-that-be use to bunch up the field to spike the entertainment ante).


Make no mistake, there was debris everywhere — rubber from tires, bits of sheet metal, hot dog wrappers, loose nuts and bolts — but there was no need for action-encouraging hijinks from the control tower.


Instead, Martinsville's no-frills, short-track confines once again forced race fans to reflect on the tracks they grew up visiting on hot summer evenings — the little quarter-mile joint out in the county, whose frontstretch (such as it was) was lined with old wooden bleachers. Martinsville provides the same intensity — 33 lead changes on Sunday — but does so at the major league level. And it does so every single time the circus comes to town.


Couch Potato Tuesday: The race ESPN didn't cover


Race-winner Kurt Busch's car would have been a half-second off the pace on one of NASCAR's 1.5-mile monstrosities; he never would've stood a chance. An early-race run-in with Brad Keselowski damaged each car and played witness to the “right” kind of payback that only a short track affords. Busch was able to soldier on, though, because aerodynamics mean little at Martinsville.


He eventually ran down, passed and held off mighty Jimmie Johnson — an eight-time Martinsville winner — in an ending that easily rivals the season-opener on the plate track in Daytona Beach.


“That's an epic-type battle at a short track, with a six-time champion,” Busch said. “To go back and forth and exchange the lead, a couple taps, a couple moves, a little bit of a chess game - that was the hardest 30 laps I ever drove not to slip a tire in my life.”


A couple taps, a couple moves, a little bit of a chess game. That's Martinsville, where time-tested results continue to stubbornly trump the allure of NASCAR's modern-era glitz and glamour.


Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.



Martinsville Speedway's STP 500 provided NASCAR fans with the best flag-to-flag action since the season-opening Daytona 500.
Post date: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 - 00:17
Path: /nascar/strategy-play-keselowski-outduels-earnhardt-las-vegas

The Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway came down to a calculated risk between two of the hottest teams early in NASCAR’s 2014 season.

The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports bunch and driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. had finishes of first and second entering the event. Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske crew weren’t far behind, with consecutive third-place runs to open the year.

Fittingly, the strategy that came into play focused on these Chevrolet and Ford flagbearers.

Just don’t call what happened in Vegas a “gamble” or any other clichéd racing term typically reserved for results in the famous gaming town.

No, the call Earnhardt’s crew chief Steve Letarte made in the final 60 laps of the affair was simply the logical one: Use pit strategy to obtain all-important track position and push fuel mileage on the No. 88 Chevy to the limit. It was a call not too different than what propelled Matt Kenseth to the win in the very same race last season.

It worked for Kenseth; in only his third race with Joe Gibbs Racing, he hit paydirt in 2013 on a track-position play. In Earnhardt’s case, the strategy came up a half-lap short.

That’s when the car sputtered — on the backstretch of the final lap — and handed victory to Keselowski, whose gameplan was to have plenty of fuel and two fresh tires to apply pressure to Earnhardt over the final 42 laps.

“I could tell he was saving a little bit (of fuel) based on the lines he was running compared to where I had seen him earlier in the day,” Keselowski said. “Once I saw that, we ran him down (in) 10, 15 laps and forced him to kind of get up into his speed line, and that was just taking fuel from his car.  Brad Keselowski

“It was going to play out one of two ways: He was going to have to get in fuel conservation mode and I think I could have passed him and drove away or he was going to have to burn fuel to keep me behind him. At that point it was just a matter of whether a yellow came out or not because it was just a ticking time bomb, and it worked in our favor today.”

The win all but guarantees Keselowski of a Chase berth in NASCAR’s expanded playoff format. Earnhardt, whose win the Daytona 500 two weeks ago gave the team the freedom to utilize such a strategy, coasted to a runner-up showing.

“I just couldn’t (gain) any ground, and we fought the car all day,” Earnhardt said of battling traffic in the field. “The air is so dirty behind everybody, the further back you get you’ve got less and less grip. Once we got the lead, it was like driving a Cadillac.”

Letarte used pit sequencing slightly off-kilter to get Earnhardt to the point on lap 223 of 267. He led until Keselowski rocketed by on the final lap.

“It did pay off,” Earnhardt said. “Not the ultimate prize, but we did run second. As much as you want to win — and believe me, we were out there trying to win — you do take pride in a good performance, a good finish, and we weren’t going to run in the top 5 if we hadn’t have used that particular strategy. If we’d have run the same strategy as our competitors, we would have probably run just inside the top 10 where we were all day.”

Translation: This was no crew chief gamble gone wrong — it was solid race strategy that a team confident in its playoff standing has the ability to employ.

“It gives us freedom, and it’s nice to have that freedom to do the things that we did today even though we knew our odds weren't good. We really shouldn’t have made it (on fuel), and we didn’t, but we got to try.”

Paul Menard, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.

For his part, Keselowski, who failed to make the Chase last year after winning the title in 2012, relishes having the same freedom Earnhardt’s team exhibited Sunday.

“I think that shows some of the opportunities that come up and how they can be stress-free days, “Keselowski said. “I’m looking forward to being able to take those same opportunities, because believe me, I’m not scared to take them, and I know Paul’s not, so look out.  It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.




Brad Keselowski beats Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a fuel mileage finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' visit to Las Vegas in the Kobalt Tools 400.
Post date: Monday, March 10, 2014 - 13:06
Path: /las-vegas-motor-speedway-previewing-kobalt-tools-500

The Kobalt Tools 400
Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Track Specs
1.5-mile tri-oval
Banking/Turns: Progressive (18°-20°), Banking/Tri-oval: 9°, Banking/Backstretch: 3°  Las Vegas Motor Speedway

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Sunday, March 9
TV: FOX (3:00 pm EST)
Race Length: 400.5 miles/267 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 190.456 mph (Kasey Kahne, 2012)
Race Record: 146.554 mph (Mark Martin, 1998)
2013 Winner: Matt Kenseth

NASCAR Nationwide Series
Boyd Gaming 300
Date: Saturday, March 8
TV: ESPN2 (4:15 pm EST)
2013 Winner: Sam Hornish Jr.

Crew Chief’s Take
“Track position seems to play more of a role in Vegas than most any of the other 1.5-mile tracks we go to. It’s fast, and aero-issues come into play, which puts passing at a premium. And there’s a fine line between having a good handling car and having one that’s wrecking loose. It’s also different from the other SMI ovals in that it’s a tri-oval and not a quad. I’ve never thought to ask why that is. Of course, everyone loves going out to Vegas — it’s like an early-season working vacation because of the strip and all there is to do. Keeping the team focused is important here.”

Fantasy Stall

Carl Edwards Edwards (left) won twice in the last six Las Vegas races (in which he averaged a series-best 6.8 finish) and finished fifth in 2012 and ’13, the latter being an increase over his 8.1-place average running position.

Greg Biffle Despite his four top-10 finishes in Vegas races dating back to 2008, Biffle ­doesn’t have a win to show for his ample production. Still, he has been a frequent frontrunner; he has led in four of the last five races there.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
 Earnhardt is the only driver to accrue five top-10 finishes in the last six Las Vegas races. His 8.8-place average finish — a series-high in that span — has translated into only one top-5 result. He’s past due for a breakthrough performance.

Runs on Seven Cylinders
Kurt Busch 
Omit a ninth-place finish in 2011, and Busch has averaged a 30.2-place result in the CoT/Gen-6 era at his hometown track. While it’s reasonable to believe that his fortunes would improve driving for SHR, his results there with Penske Racing — three finishes of 23rd or worse — weren’t inspiring.

Classic Moments at LVMS
When the race is on the line, there are few drivers as good as Jimmie Johnson. We found out just how clutch he would prove to be over his career in the 2006 UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400.

With crew chief Chad Knaus on the sidelines after a rules infraction at Daytona, many questioned how well Johnson would start the ’06 season. However, he won at Daytona, was a close second to Matt Kenseth at Fontana, and looked like he was going to finish second again at Las Vegas. That was before a caution on lap 265 sent the race into an overtime two-lap dash to the finish.

Johnson stalked Kenseth — who led a race-high 146 circuits — on the first of the two green-flag laps, fading to the inside as they came to the white flag. On the last lap, Kenseth — seeing what Johnson did the previous lap — guarded the low line, but that didn’t matter to Johnson as he powered around the outside to nip Kenseth at the stripe by 0.045 seconds, or about a half a car length.


Previewing the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' Kobalt Tools 500 from Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Post date: Friday, March 7, 2014 - 10:52
All taxonomy terms: Kurt Busch, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/kurt-busch-attempt-indy-500coca-cola-600-double

Kurt Busch has a busy Memorial Day weekend planned. The 2004 NASCAR Cup champ announced on Tuesday that he will attempt “The Double” by running IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, May 25.

“I enjoyed the era of drivers racing different cars and testing themselves in other series,” Busch said. “It is tough to do now for a variety of factors, but when the opportunity is there, I want to do it.

“It’s literally a dream come true. To go to the famous Brickyard with the iconic Andretti name, it doesn’t get much cooler or better than that.”

Busch, in his first season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, will pilot an Andretti Autosport Honda at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Andretti fields full-time IndyCar efforts for Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz.

His NASCAR manufacturer, General Motors, had to sign off on his racing for another car company.

Busch will be the first driver to attempt the feat since 2004, when Robby Gordon ran both races. Gordon, John Andretti and Busch’s NASCAR co-owner, Tony Stewart, are the only three drivers to have pulled “The Double.” Stewart, who in 2001 finished sixth at Indianapolis and third in Charlotte, is the only driver to have completed all 1,100 miles.

“It’s great having Tony as the co-owner of my NASCAR team as, in the weeks leading up to the month of May, it gives me a chance to talk with him about his personal experiences with “The Double” — to anticipate what’s next and have things checked off the list so that I’m mentally and physically prepared for the challenge,” said Busch.

Although Busch, who has 24 career Cup victories including the 2010 Coca-Cola 600, has yet to start an IndyCar event, he obtained his license in the series last year when an Indy 500 bid first became a possibility.

While sponsorship has not been announced for the IndyCar ride, Busch is dedicating the effort to members of the U.S. military. His girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, is the president of the Armed Forces Foundation, which supports injured troops and military families.

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro


Kurt Busch will attempt to run the Indianapolis 500 - Coca-Cola 600 "Double" on Memorial Day weekend.
Post date: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 - 13:13
Path: /harvick-dominates-desert-wins-nascars-trip-phoenix

Judging by garage chatter and practice speeds at Phoenix International Raceway there was really no doubt that Kevin Harvick was the driver to beat in what turned out to be the aptly named “The Profit on CNBC 500” … that, of course, if the spelling of the race sponsor were “Prophet.”  Kevin Harvick

Regardless, Harvick and his new No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team was far and away the strongest bunch in the desert after a speedy NASCAR Speedweeks in Daytona, winning in just their second race together.

Harvick led a race-high 224 of 312 laps — after topping the speed charts in Friday and Saturday practice sessions — and commandingly held off a top 5 that consisted of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon over four restarts in the final 61 laps to notch his first Cup win in a car not owned by Richard Childress.

“This just solidifies some many things — so many decisions,” Harvick said of his defection from Richard Childress Racing, where he had spent his entire 13-year Cup career, to good friend Tony Stewart’s team. While driver of the No. 29 Chevy at RCR, the Bakersfield, Calif., native garnered 23 wins in the Sprint Cup Series, including the 2007 Daytona 500, 2003 Brickyard 400 and two victories in the Coca-Cola 600 (2011, 2013).

Harvick was the cause of a final-turn crash in last weekend’s Daytona 500, where he placed 13th, but had no such dramatics in Phoenix. Harvick took the lead for the first time on lap 74 on Sunday and surrendered it for only 15 circuits over the remainder of the afternoon. Try as they might in the final four restarts of the race, the competitors were mostly resigned to be racing for second.

“We were a little faster at the end, but (Harvick was) stellar,” said Earnhardt, who followed up his Daytona 500 win with a second-place finish in Phoenix. “Those guys were two-tenths (of a second) faster than anybody all weekend in practice. They were just phenomenal. To be able to run with them as we did all day was a big confidence builder for us.”

It was Harvick’s third win at PIR in the circuit’s last four visits and fifth overall.

“The back of Kevin’s car says ‘Freaky Fast’ and they weren’t lying!” said Logano, referring to Harvick’s Jimmy John’s sponsorship decals. “Such a fast car — he’s got something figured out here.”

Thus far, Harvick’s 2014 showing has resembled Matt Kenseth’s 2013 performance as a driver who jumped to a new team after earning tenure elsewhere over the first 13 years of his Cup career. Kenseth left Roush Fenway Racing following the 2012 season and enjoyed a career year last season, registering seven wins and a runner-up points showing with Joe Gibbs Racing.

“They were really prepared,” third-place finisher Brad Keselowski said of Harvick’s team in the offseason. “We saw it all the way through testing, that they were dominant. They showed it when they came to the actual racetrack to race.

“I would look for big things out of that team. They looked a lot like the 20 car (Kenseth) did last year at this time. They have that honeymoon syndrome going on and taking full advantage of it.”

If there were one team besides RCR where Harvick would seem a natural fit, it’s SHR, which is co-owned by his good friend, Stewart.

“It wasn't that I couldn't be a part of the championship before, it's just that we hadn't won a championship before,” Harvick said. “We do this to win. You want to win races. We've been fortunate to do that in the past, but in this arena it's about winning championships and trying to be competitive on a weekly basis. I felt like I needed that enthusiasm to show up to work. I get to do this with a lot of my friends, with Tony.

“As we’ve gone through time, I've sat and talked with Tony about what's expected. He expects me and Rodney (Childers, crew chief) to help lead the charge on the competition side as to what needs to be the direction.”


NASCAR's Drought in the Desert: A case of bad timing


Meanwhile, Earnhardt and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports bunch seem poised to make crew chief Steve Letarte’s final season with the team — he’ll abandon pit box duties at the end of the year — a successful one. Earnhardt’s first- and second-place showings in the season’s first two races signify the best start of his 16-year Cup career.

“Our team is performing so well — got a lot of great chemistry and good communication going back and forth,” Earnhardt said. “Everybody's confidence is very high. Everybody's mood and morale is really high. Hopefully we can maintain that and not have any bad luck or make any mistakes and continue to keep working towards winning more races.

“If we run second enough, we're bound to at least trip into one or two. We ran second quite a few races in the last 10 or so (last season). I feel really good. I feel like we're coming around the corner, peaking at the right time this season to try to run for the championship.”

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.



Kevin Harvick won NASCAR's The Profit on CNBC 500 in a dominating performance over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Post date: Sunday, March 2, 2014 - 21:14
All taxonomy terms: Funny, Jeff Gordon, videos, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/jeff-gordon-gets-revenge-pepsi-max-test-drive

NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon may have a supermodel wife, a tony New York City pad overlooking Central Park and a lifetime contract with the most powerful organization in the sport with Hendrick Motorsports, but he knows how to get his redneck on.

And he knows how to get revenge.

When longtime sponsor Pepsi spoofed Gordon test driving a car with a “terrified” car salesman about a year ago, many called foul. And for good reason — much of the ad was staged using a stunt driver (oh, the irony!). Among those most critical was Jalopnick writer Travis Okulski.

So with a little help from Okulski’s bosses, Gordon, a six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion with 88 race wins in the sport’s premier series, donned, as he described on Twitter, “sideburns, a mullet and a taxi cab” to, as Jalopnik explained, “scare the crap out of our @tokulski.”

According to Okulski’s Twitter feed, “This is real thing. It really happened. It’s not fake. At all.” We tend to believe him. So sit back and enjoy the ride, folks. And pray — for Jalopnik’s sake — that this time, nothing was staged.




by Matt Taliaferro

Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Jeff Gordon's Pepsi Max spoof ad, which gets revenge on Jalopnik writer Travis Okluski.
Post date: Friday, February 28, 2014 - 00:04
Path: /nascar/daytona-500-dale-earnhardt-jr-wins-thriller

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - For a sport facing such drastic change — change that has not necessarily been accepted by an obstinate fanbase — NASCAR needed a dose of familiarity. In its marquee event, the Daytona 500, it got just that. Favorite son and this generation's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., broke a 55-race winless skid with a thrilling victory in the Great American Race, giving NASCAR Nation a brief moment of serenity.Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“Man, winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport, aside from accepting the trophy for the championship,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again.”

The win was his second Daytona 500 victory, the first earned 10 years prior. The triumph juxtaposed with the return of the No. 3 car, a symbol made famous by his late father who lost his life in this very race in 2001.

The event was also reminiscent of great Daytona races of the past. A tweaked rules package promoted passing, and the evening’s cooler temperatures — a six and a half hour rain delay pushed the bulk of the event into prime time — increased grip and speed. The result was an action-packed show that witnessed seven cautions, four of which came in the final 32 laps that set up pit strategies that further escalated the drama.

“I think it was the (rules) package and the way you were having to race to stand your ground,” Earnhardt said of the competitive nature of the race.

The sport’s heavy hitters were front and center, as well, slugging it out at the front of the field as the laps wound down. Earnhardt dueled with teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, the Fords of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski, and the week’s heretofore strongest contingent, the Toyotas of Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. If NASCAR needed its brightest stars to showcase its biggest event that begins its most dramatically altered season in decades, the boys delivered in fine form.

A chaotic final two-lap dash to the checkered flag found Earnhardt out front, fending off the dogged challenges of Hamlin, Keselowski and Gordon who, along with Johnson, ultimately rounded out the top 5. When the pack failed to formulate a drafting run on the Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy, he muscled his way to the win as the caution and checkers flew simultaneously due to a crash in Turn 4.

“Tonight it was about not giving an inch; not running fifth,” Earnhardt said. “It was a unique race. We were all pushing the envelope out there and asking a lot of each other.

“Everybody was climbing on top of each other and we all really put each other in difficult situations — but it was really fun. I felt like that for the first time in a long time we were able to see just how talented everybody is.”

“I think everyone raced a hard 500-mile race,” Keselowski agreed. “I never saw a lull in the action from where I was sitting. That has to be the hardest 500 race ever — probably one of the best.”

The competitive race and electric finish, coupled with Earnhardt’s popularity, found the crowded grandstand at a fever pitch on his victory lap. The result was a weight lifted off the shoulders of not only the driver, but that of his massive fanbase.

“It’s a weight when you’re not able to deliver. When people say that you’re the face of the sport and you’re running fifth or 10th every week it’s difficult because you want to deliver,” Earnhardt said. “This bring me a lot of joy.”

It was a joy others felt as well. Jeff Gordon, the sport’s “wonderboy” turned elder statesman, summed up the collective feelings of NASCAR Nation, which has endured droves of change — seemingly for the sake of change — over the past month.

“Congrats to Junior,” Gordon beamed. “All's right in the world!”

For at least one glorious Sunday night in Daytona Beach, mere miles from the sands where the sport was established, all was right in the world of NASCAR.


Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins NASCAR's Daytona 500
Post date: Monday, February 24, 2014 - 02:04
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/confusion-reigns-twitter-rain-delays-daytona-500

What happens when the Daytona 500 goes to a rain delay and FOX decides to re-air the previous year’s race?

When confused viewers take to social media, Twitter hilarity ensues.

The Daytona 500 was red flagged at 2:12 pm EST due to heavy rain in Daytona Beach, Fla. After some live coverage of the delay and quickly running out of content, FOX simply re-aired the 2013 edition of the Great American Race.

Steve Luvender (@steveluvender) took to Twitter, retweeting over three hours worth of viewers who had been fooled into thinking what they were watching was live. It’s unclear why FOX did not “stamp” the screen with a “REPLAY” designation, but we’re glad they didn’t.

Thank you for this brilliance, Steve. Now sit back and observe quickly it can all go wrong .... and the majesty of a confused viewing audience:







Not surprisingly, Danica Patrick got a lot of play. The best part of the above tweet? Danica finished eighth last year, not ninth. Fricking unbelievable, indeed.












As with any new season, drivers, numbers, sponsors come and go. Thus, no 500 run this year for Jeff Burton and Mark Martin — just to clear up any confusion. And that 3 car? Yeah, I heard something about it returning as well…






Actually, Meagan, the really cool people knew better.






Wrong 500 AND wrong sport!






Hanging with the big boys in the motor coach lot, that is.




Why yes, yes it is.

And the crème de la crème … FOX News (yes, the same organization that pays millions to broadcast NASCAR) claims to be fair and balanced, but that's a tall order when they obviously weren't keeping track of the day's events:


Twitter confusion over 2014 NASCAR Daytona 500 rain delay
Post date: Sunday, February 23, 2014 - 18:50
Path: /nascar/hype-builds-daytona-500-favorites-emerge

A week of pomp and circumstance is nearly over in Daytona Beach. On the eve of NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500, Cup cars roar around the historic 2.5-mile superspeedway in the final practice session of the week — known as Happy Hour — looking for that last little bit of speed. Or handling. Or integrity. Or answers of some sort.

Denny Hamlin has been the week’s big winner thus far, posting wins in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition last Saturday and his qualifying Duel 150 on Thursday. Amongst those in the garage, the performance of Hamlin’s No. 11 team — and his Joe Gibbs Racing outfit as a whole — has managed to unseat another popular storyline: The return of Richard Childress’ No. 3 car.

Austin Dillon cornered the publicity market last Sunday when he won the pole while campaigning the number made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt after a 13-year hiatus.

Meanwhile, some of NASCAR’s traditional heavy-hitters have bent more sheet metal than collected hardware during Speedweeks.

Defending series and Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson has destroyed two cars, one in the Sprint Unlimited, the other in a Duel 150. Johnson’s chief rival in 2013, Matt Kenseth, has been involved in two wrecks of his own, though he rebounded for a Duel win on Thursday. Others, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, have shown flashes of speed but have little to show for it thus far.

Last year’s Speedweeks sweatheart, Danica Patrick, has been far from invisible, having weathered a storm that arose when Richard Petty made pointed observations about her stock-car credibility. However, the 2013 Daytona 500 pole winner’s 13th-place run in the 25-car Duel field and crash in the Unlimited were mundane showings, to say the least.

With that in mind, it’s well past time to seriously examine which drivers have a realistic shot at winning stock car racing’s most celebrated race. When the green flag flies at 1:30 pm EST on Sunday, the media-run of the week prior, the exhibitions and qualifiers, will fall prey to the reality of performance on race day.

Denny Hamlin  Denny Hamlin
The aforementioned Hamlin is undefeated since last season’s penultimate race, having won the season finale in Homestead, Fla., and his two races this week.

Though his qualifying speed on Sunday was only 22nd fastest, his JGR team has found single-car speed since and the No. 11 Toyota seems to do whatever its driver commands in the pack. In 35 years, no driver has pulled the Daytona trifecta — winning the Unlimited, a Duel and the 500 — in the same year, though 13 have won the two prelims.

“I think the biggest challenge we'll have is keeping the reins back for 400 miles, 450 miles,” Hamlin said of the difficulty in sweeping Speedweeks. “(The Daytona 500 is) a much longer race. Obviously, when you go out here and you perform the way we have over these last few races, it's hard not to just want to go out there (and) show that you're still on top and still the best right on lap one.

“I think that will be my challenge within myself, is keeping the reins back and realizing how long this race is, trying to be as patient as I can.”

Thus far, when the reins have been released it’s been Hamlin riding the fastest horse.

Matt Kenseth
A two-time Daytona 500 champion, Kenseth is as stealthy-strong as any plate racer on the circuit. Yes, he’s torn up some race cars this week, but the lessons learned may have only made him better. A masterful win in Thursday’s second Duel wasn’t proof of that, but it was sweet redemption.

“Honestly, I was kind of embarrassed to walk in the garage,” said Kenseth of the two wrecks where he’d been at ground zero. “I feel like they're looking at you cross-eyed when you're walking by.

“To get the car in the front (in the Duel) and keep it there, win that thing, certainly builds confidence.”

Even more encouraging for Kenseth and teammate Hamlin is that as good as they’ve been, the duo has yet to truly work with one another in race conditions.

Kevin Harvick  Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick can identify with Denny Hamlin. Last season, it was Harvick who entered Sunday with an unblemished Speedweeks record. His hopes for a second 500 win wasn’t to be, though, as his Richard Childress Racing Chevy — one very similar to the Chevy Austin Dillon will drive this year — was swept up in an accident not of his making.

Starting anew at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, he’s shown strength throughout the week, running second by a nose to Kenseth in the first Duel. Crew chief Rodney Childers says the team is ready.

“I feel like we’re good to go,” said Childers following Happy Hour. “Kevin’s really happy with the car. Didn’t have any vibrations, tire wear has been good.

“It’s a new group of guys. We have to do our jobs, not make mistakes and we should be good.”

Brad Keselowski
Keselowski typically doesn’t make this list. His career-best, fourth-place run in the Daytona 500 boosted the 2012 series champion’s average finish at the track to 22.1. However, Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford has shown muscle in the pack throughout the week.

Second to Hamlin in the Unlimited, another showdown between the two was shaping up in the second Duel when a pit road speeding penalty and subsequent flat tire spoiled a promising run.

“I have the best (Cup) car I’ve ever had down here,” Keselowski quipped following a runner-up finish in the Nationwide Series race.

If the car matches the confidence, that average finish could continue its positive trend.

Jamie McMurray  Jamie McMurray
Looking for a darkhorse? McMurray, in a back-up car after the big Duel wreck, fits the bill. Third on the board in final practice, McMurray’s Chip Ganassi Racing team ran 27 laps on Saturday.

“The car has been running better today,” crew chief Keith Rodden said. “We had to get the back up out and we didn’t get much time on the track yesterday. So today we ran in a small pack. It sucked up good (in the draft) and we ran by ourselves to try a few things just for raw speed and Jamie is pretty happy.”

If Rodden may have questions about the car, but there are none surrounding the driver. Four of his seven career Cup wins have come on the plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. And as McMurray showed in the 2010 Daytona 500, the annual unexpected contender sometimes actually goes to Victory Lane.

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Pre-race favorites and storylines for NASCAR's Daytona 500.
Post date: Saturday, February 22, 2014 - 16:43
Path: /nascar/kenseth-hamlin-win-budweiser-duel-daytona

The Budweiser Duel at Daytona, NASCAR’s twin qualifying races that set the field for the Daytona 500, enjoyed its first setting in prime time on Thursday evening. While the week leading up to the event witnessed practice crashes that forced seven teams to back-up cars, the Duel was a comparatively composed affair — until the final turn of the night.

A grinding crash that swept up seven cars marred an otherwise clean night of racing. Those involved included defending Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson, front-row qualifier Martin Truex Jr., Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, David Ragan and Michael Waltrip.

Meanwhile, Joe Gibbs Racing continued its impressive Speedweeks as Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin swept the Duel events, making its three-car stable the prohibitive favorite for Sunday. Hamlin also won Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race.

The first Duel was a clean event, run entirely under green. However, the calm nature turned dramatic, as two distinct drafting lines — one led by Kenseth, the other by Kevin Harvick — turned into a scrum coming off Turn 4 of the final lap. When Kasey Kahne dipped low in the tri-oval, the trio crossed the line in three-wide formation.  Matt Kenseth

“I saw Kevin making that move. You weren’t going to be able to block it without wrecking, “ Kenseth said. “I just tried to get back to him and, thankfully, I had enough time to get that run to the finish line.”

Kenseth, who led two times for 31 laps, nosed out the win by a miniscule .022 seconds. Harvick and Kahne crossed the line second and third; Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top 5.

Harvick’s No. 4 car failed post-race inspection, cited as exceeding the maximum split on the track bar. Thus, his result was thrown out and he transferred into the 500 via 2013 owner points.

Austin Dillon, who is on the pole for Sunday’s 500, led the first 14 laps of the first Duel but faded to a 19th-place showing.

The second Duel was largely a single-file show. Hamlin’s Toyota led following the field’s pit stop with a row of Chevrolets manned by Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray lying in wait. They made their move on the backstretch of the final lap, as Johnson and McMurray jumped to the high lane, while Busch and Gordon remained low with Hamlin.

As the field exited Turn 4, Johnson’s car, low on fuel, sputtered and was clipped by McMurray. The melee ensued from there. As Bowyer’s car flipped and Waltrip nosed into the pit wall, Hamlin fended off Busch and Gordon to collect his second career Duel win.  Denny Hamlin

“I saw with Kenseth in the first race (that) he stayed on the top line until he got off of Turn 4 coming to the checkered flag,” Hamlin said. “I thought what would be best for me is to take the bottom (lane) early and to make those guys (Busch, Gordon) make the decision to go high. Once it jumbled up the field it gave me a good defensive position.”

For Johnson, who was unhurt in the last-lap crash, the incident cost him a second car in Speedweeks, as he spun into the inside wall in the Sprint Unlimited.

“I tried to get out of the way; I had my hand out of the side,” Johnson said of warning those behind him he was slowing. “But last lap, coming to the checkers — there is so much going on right there, so much energy in the pack. I knew I was going to get run over if I ran out.”

Dillon will start on the pole for the Daytona 500. Martin Truex Jr., who qualified second, will start in the rear of the field after going to a back-up car following his involvement in the accident. Kenseth and Hamlin will line up in the second row; Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kahne and Gordon will comprise row three.

By Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin win NASCAR's Budweiser Duel at Daytona; field for the 2014 Daytona 500 set.
Post date: Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 23:45
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-limiting-cup-driver-participation-nascars-lower-series

Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?

While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.

In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.

Should some sort of cap be placed on how many Nationwide and Truck series races a Cup driver can participate in? How can a lower-series team explain to a company’s marketing director that a 10th-place finish in an NNS or CWTS race — in a field littered with Cup competitors — is often times a de facto win?

Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News@bobpockrass): Yes. Limit a Cup driver to 5-10 races. But with a caveat. Increase to 10-15 if the team the Cup driver competes for fields the car the remainder of the season for a non-Cup driver. That way, sponsors and teams are encouraged to support both a Cup driver and a development driver.

Ryan McGee ( The Magazine@ESPNMcGee): I like the idea of a 10-15 race cap for any driver who has declared that they are running for the championship in a higher series. The problem is that these marketing directors you speak of are the problem. Nationwide and Truck series team owners tell me that sponsors want names, not young up-and-comers. So it’s a heckuva Catch-22. Attendance and TV ratings are down because the big-name moonlighters keep stomping the young guys, but the big-name moonlighters are who owners have to put in the car. I think once we went through a growing-pains year of that entry cap, those marketers would come around. But then again, I don’t own a race team and don’t have to take that risk.

Nate Ryan (USA Today@nateryan): It seems like a great idea, but track owners would hate it. Much of the gate (such as it is) for a Nationwide or truck race depends on having established and marketable talent. As Brad Keselowski has noted, the problem isn’t allowing Sprint Cup drivers to race in lower-tier series, it’s allowing Sprint Cup organizations to field farm teams. The Nationwide Series lost its identity when erstwhile upstart teams such as ppc Racing and Brewco Motorsports were squeezed out of existence. Any serious discussions about reform must start there.

Mike Mulhern (; @mikemulhern): No, there doesn’t need to be a cap on drivers, but there needs to be more financial equity in NNS and Trucks. I would institute a financial cap on each team to keep mega-teams from milking the Friday and Saturday shows. The problem is not that Cup drivers are so much better than NNS or truckers, but that the Cup drivers can run for teams with a lot more money to spend. Solve that part of the problem. And a big part of that problem is right under the hood. This sport desperately needs more independent engine men, not huge engine factories in Los Angeles or wherever.

Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): A limit should absolutely be in place. I understand companies in a lower series wanting to sponsor a Cup driver, and those drivers should not be banned from competing. But if you declare for Cup points, you shouldn’t be allowed to drive in more than 15 total Nationwide or Truck series races per season.

It will open up more well-funded rides for young drivers who may be forced to take a start-and-park ride just to stay in NASCAR. Plus it will help establish careers for more drivers who may never make it to the Cup Series simply because there are only 43 spots.

And it’s also something that lower-series teams can’t explain easily, especially to a company who may be unfamiliar to NASCAR. If you were that company, wouldn’t you want to go with the driver who is in victory lane, especially if he’s more recognizable?

That’s why a limit makes sense. A company can have an instant brand with a Cup driver and also have the opportunity to simultaneously build one with a promising and less-recognizable one.

Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): The business of the sport trumps the logic of keeping Cup regulars out of the Nationwide and Truck series. Sponsors dictate the decision more often than not and NASCAR finds itself in a Catch-22 situation. I’d like to see a cap of 5-10 races to shine the spotlight on the regular drivers in both divisions but without the Cup stars in the mix a lot of sponsorship dollars will dry up.

Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): In a perfect world, each of the three series would be limited to drivers who choose to participate full-time on that tour, with maybe a handful of starts open to “guests”. That isn’t realistic, however, for numerous reasons, among them the fact that Sprint Cup drivers attract fans to second- and third-tier races. The competition isn’t exactly fair, but solutions beyond what NASCAR already has put in place are convoluted and messy.


Photo by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro


NASCAR writers discuss the whether a cap should be placed on how many starts Cup drivers can make in the Nationwide and Truck series.
Post date: Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 12:47
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-forcing-drivers-sit-after-concussion

Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?

While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.

In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.

The long-term effects of head trauma in the NFL, along with other sports, are just now beginning to be realized. This year, NASCAR has mandated baseline cognitive testing for its drivers — a move applauded by some (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and questioned by others (Brad Keselowski). The question to you: Is NASCAR opening a Pandora’s box? How will the sport enforce sitting a driver not cleared by doctors when championship and future sponsorship considerations are on the line? Can this objectively be accomplished?

Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): Like it or not NASCAR has to be proactive in this area given the NFL situation and now a similar one in the NHL. Drivers aren’t going to like being told to sit out should they fail the baseline test, but the bottom line is the health and well being of all competitors and not putting anyone else at risk. Athletes get injured and are forced to the sidelines. It should be no different in NASCAR.

Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): What we know now is exponentially more than what we knew 10 years ago, and what we’ll know in 10 years will be exponentially more than what we know now.

If there was any question if NASCAR couldn’t enforce a concussion policy, the doubts should have been washed away when Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat out two races in 2012. If the sport’s most popular driver can sit out two races in NASCAR’s playoffs and the sport survives, we needn’t worry about the consequences of anyone else missing a race.

Outside of being extremely complicated, we all know our brains are the most important part of our lives. That life outside of NASCAR should always be considered. If NASCAR institutes an independent doctor or panel of doctors to be in charge of all concussion and head-related examinations and injuries both before and during the season — with approval from many of the sport’s most influential drivers — there should be minimal controversy.

Nate Ryan (USA Today@nateryan): Any professional sport potentially featuring violence must seem proactive in ensuring its athletes are of sound mind. Earnhardt’s concussion (in 2012) proved that the NASCAR industry is ready to accept its stars being sidelined for the greater good. It’s hard to envision sponsors raising vociferous objections to a driver benched because of a brain injury, but it is worth considering if championship dispensation should be given. Though Keselowski raises some valid points, it will be hard for drivers who lack college degrees making the case that they somehow are better suited to evaluate their well-being than board-certified physicians. Yes, there will be circumstances that make the process tricky, but it’s better for NASCAR to err on the side of caution instead of facing the PR nightmares endured by the NFL.

Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News@bobpockrass): NASCAR owes it to the 10-year-old boy sitting in Row 10 that its drivers’ minds are in the game. If they are not, they must err on the side of caution to prevent accidents that could impact fan safety and driver safety. Whatever the cost of possibly being wrong in sitting the driver is worth it when considering the cost of possibly being wrong and letting a driver race.

Mike Mulhern (; @mikemulhern): The issue of concussion in NASCAR is long overdue for more study. Maybe we could put Jerry Nadeau, Ernie Irvan and Bobby Allison on a committee to help. NASCAR has access to black boxes that record G-force impacts; that’s an easy-to-read number that a doctor could use. By the way, what was the G-force impact of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Kansas crash?

Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): It’s a good move. As is often the case in other sports, athletes sometimes have to be protected from themselves. In a tight point race late in the season, a driver probably would try to start a race with two broken arms and double pneumonia. It could result in some tough calls — do you block a popular driver from competition if his injury is borderline? — but NASCAR is in the tough-call business.

Ryan McGee ( The Magazine@ESPNMcGee): Listen, the days of taping one’s eyelids open and going racing are over. It’s easy to romanticize those moments now, but the reality is that they were stupid and we’re lucky no one got killed because we let them happen. This is a not privacy issue. This is a life-or-death issue. And the practice of establishing baseline medical stats so that on-site medical teams and local doctors have a better understanding of their sudden patients is nothing new. Other race series have done it for years. I have covered many an IndyCar race where a driver has had to sit-out a race because they suffered a concussion or blacked out the week before and doctors ordered them to sit. At the time, that’s not fun for the racer or their fans. But the motive isn’t a conspiracy. It’s to keep the racetrack as safe as possible. Oh, and help make sure your favorite lives longer.

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro


NASCAR writers discuss the delicate topic of how the sanctioning body could force drivers to sit out a race after suffering a concussion.
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 23:58
Path: /nascar/dillon-no-3-car-pole-daytona-500

The stylized No. 3, made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt, has made its way back to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. And it has done so in a big way.  Austin Dillon

Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, who fielded Chevrolets for Earnhardt until his death in the 2001 Daytona 500, drove the No. 3 livery to the top of pylon in Sunday’s Daytona 500 pole qualifying.

Dillon’s team has shown intimidating speed at Daytona International Speedway since the series tested in early January. That speed has carried into Speedweeks.

“You want to perform with the No. 3; everyone wants to see it perform,” said Dillon, who won the pole with a lap of 196.019 mph (45.914 seconds). “It’s a long season and this is one of the top points. You want to carry that momentum going forward.”

Teams with Childress-powered engines have been near the top of the speed charts since the sport made its return to the beach late last week.

Martin Truex Jr., whose Furniture Row Racing Chevy runs Earnhardt-Childress Racing powerplants, qualified second, just .039 seconds behind Dillon.

Ryan Newman (fifth) and Paul Menard (10th) helped ECR horsepower secure four of the 10 fastest speeds on Pole Day.

Dillon’s run marks the first time the No. 3 car has sat on the pole in Daytona since Earnhardt posted the fastest speed for the 1996 Daytona 500. Earnhardt finished second that season but won “The Great American Race” two years later.

“You know, the 3 is special to all of us,” Childress said. “The (Childress) family, the Earnhardt family — to every one of us. But I think it’s special because Austin, our family, is in the car. You know, the emotion will fly if the 3 rolls in there (to victory lane) on Sunday. I won’t hold it back, I promise.”

The 23-year-old Dillon will run for the Rookie of the Year award in the Cup Series this season. He has already campaigned the No. 3 to two NASCAR national touring series championships: the Nationwide Series (2013) and Camping World Truck Series (2011).

Being the man to bring the vaunted No. 3 back to NASCAR’s premier level, though, presents a new set of tasks. To his credit, Dillon grew up with the number and is all too familiar with the gravitas that comes with being the first driver to don the stylized No. 3 in 13 years.

That sentiment was echoed by none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.:

“I look forward to seeing it out on the racetrack,” Earnhardt said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders. I would be worried if I didn’t think he’d respect it or not understand the legacy, but he does. I know he does. He appreciates it.”

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Austin Dillon in the No. 3 car wins the pole for NASCAR's Daytona 500.
Post date: Monday, February 17, 2014 - 13:22
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-nascar-reaching-unattainable-goal

Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?

While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.

In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.

NASCAR continues to search for a more exciting form of racing. On this topic, Jack Roush stated that, “It's an impossible thing (NASCAR is) looking for, to make the (racing) increasingly exciting. Because there is only so much you can do with four tires and a 3,400-pound car.” Aside from simply trying to improve its “on-track product,” is NASCAR reaching for an intangible goal that’s simply not attainable? Or should this be the sanctioning body’s priority?

Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): Fascinating question. NASCAR is never going to be able to have every race finish with two cars mere inches from each other, nor will it be able to eliminate fuel mileage races and other things that a vocal bunch doesn’t care for. And that’s fine. Every other sport has blowouts and unentertaining games, and it’s those events that make the close and exciting ones so special and breathtaking.

Ryan McGee ( The Magazine@ESPNMcGee): Mr. Roush isn’t wrong. There are a lot of folks out there who think that every finish — heck, every lap — should be like the final lap of the 1979 Daytona 500. But here’s the thing about that race … it was awful until the last few laps. If they ran that race today, Twitter would collapse under the weight of all the complaints. You can’t blame the sanctioning body for wanting to make everything awesome all the time, but no matter whether you are at your local short track or the Bristol night race, “riding around” until you get the car right or the checkers are in sight is just part of a real race experience.

Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): NASCAR has to bring in new customers to an aging fan base, and if it means changing some long-standing practices or procedures, so be it. The 3-point shot, designated hitter and shootouts in hockey were born out of the same goal, and big-league stock car racing simply has to change with the times in order to entertain and remain relevant.

Nate Ryan (USA Today@nateryan): Roush makes a hugely incisive point. Jimmie Johnson has made it more subtly in noting that NASCAR should consider fixing racetracks after putting so much of the onus on teams and Goodyear to ‘fix’ the cars with the aim of improved racing. Rather than expend so much effort on chasing an unattainable goal, it might be wiser to launch a clever marketing campaign that would redefine competitiveness and help manage the unrealistic expectations of incessant excitement in a sport that can be inherently boring.

Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News@bobpockrass): Yes and yes. Much like safety, there is only so much one can do. But NASCAR must continue to find ways to improve the product. There’s no harm in trying.

Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): This is a difficult issue for NASCAR because its “playing field” changes so much from week to week — from very short tracks to gigantic ones, from fresh asphalt to aging surfaces, from 200 miles per hour to half that. Developing the perfect car for such a wildly varied schedule is virtually impossible. The best approach would be to fit the car to the 1.5-mile tracks — because there are so many — and let teams work out the resulting issues at other tracks.

Mike Mulhern (; @mikemulhern): Jack is wrong, and considering the problems Team Ford had last season, it’s understandable why he’s is aggravated.

One easy way to make the racing more exciting is to eliminate the rules that give such an advantage to the race leader — drop the wave-around, for one, and leave pit road open the entire race, for another. There is no good reason for closing pit road; that is a rule that dates back to the early 1990s when scoring miscues at North Wilkesboro, Pocono and elsewhere, led NASCAR to just “stop pit stops” until the scoring tower could sort out the running order. That is no longer an issue. Keep pit road open and let the teams take their chances when the caution comes out. There’s nothing wrong with “chance” playing a role in this sport, the way it did for so many years.

Another way to make racing more exciting is to slow the durn cars. The slower a car, the “wider” the track, thus the more opportunities to pass, and the less the effects of aerodynamics. Simple physics.

Yet another way to make racing more exciting: Cut into the Chevrolet advantage. Check out how many races Chevrolet has won the past 10 years, compared to Ford and Toyota and Dodge. And maybe ask Dodge execs why they really decided they didn't need NASCAR marketing any more. When a performance car company drops NASCAR, there’s something wrong somewhere.

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

In an offseason full of drastic changes, is NASCAR trying too hard to improve its on-track product?
Post date: Sunday, February 16, 2014 - 23:50
Path: /nascar/nascar-sprint-unlimited-what-we-learned-daytona

Denny Hamlin is loaded for bear. The winner of the 2013 season finale in Homestead, Fla., Hamlin won all three segments of Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway in an event that unofficially kicked off NASCAR’s 2014 season.

Hamlin sat out four races last year when an accident at Auto Club Speedway left him with multiple fractures in his lower back. His title hopes gone, Hamlin was relegated to a test driver down the stretch for his Joe Gibbs Racing team, which fielded cars for championship contenders Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch.

Was that Homestead victory a sign of things to come? Judging by Saturday’s performance, it very well could be. Richard Childress Racing cars have shown the most pure speed at Daytona through offseason testing and Speedweeks — and are favorites for the the front row — but there was little doubt who had the piece to beat in race trim.

“The best car won, that’s for sure,” said Hamlin in Victory Lane. “That was survival of the fittest for sure. With three (laps) to go we were at the tail end of a small pack and it’s really tough to get a run — but this car was phenomenal.”

Phenomenal it was. Hamlin led 27 of 75 laps – easily a race high — staying in front of the mayhem that played out in the pack. And survival it was as well. With attrtition high, only eight cars lined up for a final five-lap dash to the finish.

“Passing's going to be tough no matter what aero package they have in these cars,” Hamlin continued. “The fewer the cars, the tougher it is to get runs. That's probably what saved us at the end of the race is that the few guys that were left were fighting each other versus lining up and getting a run on us once we got out there so far.”

As others battled for position over the final five circuits, Hamlin used a push from Busch to launch into the lead. He held off the small pack from there, scoring his second career Sprint Unlimited victory. Brad Keselowski, Busch, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 5.

Full moon fever
What was learned that could translate to next weekend’s Daytona 500? Well, when a wreck eliminates all but nine cars at the halfway mark, the lessons are relative. With that in mind, the aero package for the Cup cars may have changed — with more intense racing throughout the event being the goal — but don’t expect a three-wide, nine-deep battle for 500 miles.

“The reason we were all racing around (was because we) could go anywhere we wanted to — there was more space,” Busch said of the thinned field. “Less cars, more space gives you opportunity to do stupid things, I guess you'd say. You can't make moves like that bottom to top, top to bottom, when there's 30 cars out there.”

Like last year’s Daytona 500, drivers will mind their manners until “go time.” The field ran in single-file formation through a large portion of the first segment not because drivers were pigeonholed into doing so, but because it only made sense. Winning demands one be there at the end, so why do anything too crazy, too early?

Well, actually, it did get too crazy, too early. When Kenseth dipped to the low side and clipped Logano in Segment 2, he set off a grinding crash that eliminated seven competitors.vThat left nine drivers to battle it out in what was a virtual all-star race with only a trophy and cash on the line.

Blocking and daring passes will surely shape the closing laps in the Great American Race, but don’t expect the intensity to be at a fever pitch until the final 100 miles.

Popular attrition
Drivers involved in the second segment’s “Big One” on lap 35 included Kenseth, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick, Kurt Busch and Harvick (though he was able to continue), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (who smashed into his girlfriend after she had seemingly made it through the mayhem), Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards.

Jimmie Johnson crashed on lap 28 of the first segment, ending his evening. Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired after tangling with Marcos Ambrose, and then the wall, with 10 laps remaining in the final segment.

By the final sprint to checkers, only Hamlin, Keselowski, Logano, Kyle Busch, Harvick and Jamie McMurray were left to spar for the win. Expect a group three times that size to be jockeying for the Harley J. Earle trophy next week.

Smoke is Stoked
Sidelined since August with a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash in Iowa, Tony Stewart was chomping at the bit in his return to racing.

Not satisfied with running a high-speed parade in the Unlimited, Stewart didn’t hold back in the event’s first segment, jumping out of line multiple times while the rest of the field seemed content to take it easy. His moves didn’t always pay off, but they served a purpose: Stewart was afforded the opportunity to work some pent-up adrenaline out of his system before the racing that really matters unfolds later in the week.

“I waited seven months to race,” Stewart later quipped. “I damn sure wasn’t going to ride around in line.”

For Stewart, the storybook ending never materialized; he was swept up in Kenseth’s crash on lap 35 and eliminated but emerged from the car under his own power and showed no ill effects.

Protect your line
The low line again appeared to be the preferred groove at Daytona. While Stewart noted that side drafting made passing difficult, there was no shortage of action. Taller rear spoilers have increased the closing rate while making cars less stable in the pack. Being out front and protecting the low groove was the most secure place to be.

“There was some interesting moments where the inside lane started going (when) guys were trying to make the outside lane go,” Kyle Busch said. “Seemed like more guys were trying to get the third lane going up against the wall, that kind of killed the middle lane a little bit, so the bottom persevered.”

Johnson used that low line to win his second Daytona 500 last season while most ran in formation on the high side. Prior to his crash on lap 28, Johnson worked his way from 18th to third by passing on the low side.

Not even the pace car was safe
In one of the evening’s most bizarre moments, the pace car caught fire while leading the field prior to Segment 3. A battery pack in the trunk used for the external caution lights overheated, causing the fire. I’ll save the comparisons between pace driver Brett Bodine and Daytona jet-dryer destroyer Juan Pablo Montoya and simply say that with a full moon presiding over an exhibition race on a plate track, was the pace car going up in flames really that surprising a development?

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro


Rundown and reaction from the NASCAR Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
Post date: Sunday, February 16, 2014 - 01:13
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-catering-television-vs-honest-competition

Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?

While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.

In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.

Sticking with the parity theme from yesterday’s Roundtable question, some claim that today’s Cup cars are too closely matched and that “wave-around” and “Lucky Dog” rules keep the field more tightly grouped. Is this simply a product of “sports,” circa 2014? Has the importance of catering to a television audience trumped honest, on-track/on-field competition?

Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree):In a word, yes. But NASCAR always has been about “manufactured” racing, to a degree. In a perfect racing world, a driver who works hard to build a two-second advantage on the track during green-flag racing should retain that margin after a caution. That isn’t feasible, of course, and entertainment value certainly is boosted by repeated green-flag restarts. The wave-around? A bit ridiculous.

Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News@bobpockrass): Yes, it caters to television and is a product of sports circa 2014. But so what? You need rules that keep fans interested. The free pass and wave around do that, and they also play a key safety role as drivers don’t race back to the start-finish line when the yellow comes out. The wave-arounds also keep a nearly lapped-down car from racing the leaders on a restart. There’s nothing wrong in giving a driver who has a flat tire early in the race a little more hope thanks to these rules.

Nate Ryan (USA Today@nateryan): It’s the product of a governing body that might be too attuned to the whims of its followers. More tricks have been added in the past decade of NASCAR’s premier series than in its first 55 years. Though it’s wise to be mindful of fans’ demands, it’s a fine line of catering to entertainment at the expense of competition. NASCAR can’t roll back many of the changes that have been made, but eradicating the “free pass”/wave-around rule and the three attempts at a green-white-checker finish (one is plenty) would be a good start.

Ryan McGee ( The Magazine@ESPNMcGee): When I talk to the old-timers, these lead-lap rules drive them nuts, way more than stuff like the Chase or the new points system. NASCAR has gotten ripped over the years for being such a dictatorship, but perhaps their biggest flaw in recent years is that they’ve reacted to fan feedback a little too much. That’s where some of all these parity-driven policies have come from — hits and misses. But what’s fascinating to me is that no matter how hard they work at creating that mythical 43-wide finish, the best teams still win the most races and championships. And I can tell you firsthand the catering-to-TV theories are overstated. If that was the primary impetus for all decisions, then no race would last longer than three hours.

Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): Continuing with the “close doesn’t always equal competitive” theory, I’ve never taken an issue to NASCAR’s institution of the wave-around and Lucky Dog rules. It replaced a gentleman’s agreement of racing back to the caution flag; an agreement that had different terms each time it happened. The equal terms of the official rule is more important than any perception of parity-forcing.

But I’m not sure how those rules are catering to a television audience rather than a common sense simple major-league sports move. It was only natural that NASCAR was going to have to increase rules and regulations when teams started to spend more and more to find speed.

Mike Mulhern (; @mikemulhern): NASCAR Cup racing has become a made-for-TV show; at-track fans have been all-but MIA. The sport's decline since 2007 has been striking, and it's unclear why Daytona/NASCAR has been unable or unwilling to make the major changes to shake things up. The wave-around rule was a bad idea to begin with, and it's become a terrible part of the sport — one big reason for lack of competition on Sundays — because the leader always gets clean air on restarts instead of having to fight his way back to the front. The “Lucky Dog” is OK, as Dale Jarrett and many others, like Bobby Allison, can attest. Yes, the Cup cars today are way too tightly regulated, which plays right into the hands of the mega-teams that can afford engineering armies. You ask why the Hendrick teams dominate? Just look at the rulebook ... and count the engineers on the Hendrick payroll. NASCAR is changing the rules for 2014? Then expect another Jimmie Johnson championship.

Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): I think NASCAR has done a good job in walking that fine line between competition and entertainment but it’s not going to get any easier in the coming years. The sport simply has to cater to a new breed of fans' expectations while maintaining its core of long-time supporters. Tough balance to say the least.

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Are today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup cars are too closely matched so that “wave-around” and “Lucky Dog” rules keep the field more tightly grouped. Is this simply a product of “sports,” circa 2014? Has the importance of catering to a television audience trumped honest, on-track/on-field competition?
Post date: Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 23:58
All taxonomy terms: Carl Edwards, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-carl-edwards

By the close of last year’s Daytona 500, Carl Edwards had already wrecked four of his Fords five times in the 2013 calendar year.  Carl Edwards

It wasn’t exactly the auspicious start Edwards had hoped for as he tried to snap a winless streak that reached 70 races over the course of the prior two seasons. And it wasn’t the start his team needed during the early period of NASCAR’s transition to its Gen-6 car, in a shop already working overtime to fine-tune the new pieces.

But good track position and horrible passing conditions rectified that a week later at Phoenix International Raceway, where Edwards drove the No. 99 to Victory Lane after leading 122 laps. He snapped that winless streak — the longest of his 10-season Sprint Cup career — and seemed to make a statement that Roush Fenway Racing had corrected the issues that kept him out of the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“I think we have a lot of great things to look forward to,” Edwards said days later. “A win right off the bat is really, really good for us.”

Alas, it was a bit of a mirage in the desert.

Yes, Edwards did improve in 2013 on his personal-worst 2012. He did return as a qualifier for the Chase. He also saw an increase in important statistical averages.

In 2012, Edwards finished 15th in points, without a win, and with just three top-5 finishes while racing only 56.2 percent of the season inside the top 15. Last year, he nabbed two wins — you’ll excuse most fans who forgot about the fact that he was the winner of the oh-so-controversial regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway — while pushing his top-5 finishes to nine and piling on a 12.7 percent increase in his laps run inside the top 15.

All told, Edwards’ driver rating jumped to 92.5 after a dismal 84.2 in 2012. The cumulative effect of Edwards’ strength was most notable after that second Richmond race. Without the Chase format causing a reshuffle of the point standings, Edwards would have left Richmond one point ahead of Jimmie Johnson with 10 races left.

It was those final 10 races, however, that ultimately left Edwards in a non-speaking role at last season’s Las Vegas awards banquet. In fact, he was dead last in the Chase when the checkered flag flew on the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. An average finish of 16.9 in the Chase will do that to a driver.

But the way Edwards came about that horrible, no-good finish to an otherwise nice season of team improvement is exactly why it makes sense to believe that he’ll do better this season.

No, Edwards was never really championship material — his strength all year was consistent finishing, not necessarily overpowering wins. However, his Chase run was marred by two mechanical failures. First, he suffered a wheel hub issue at Dover that left him 15 laps down in 35th after starting fourth and leading. Later, he lost an engine at Texas Motor Speedway, a track where Edwards is traditionally a favorite.

Those failures were combined with an uncharacteristic shortage of Chase top-10 finishes — Edwards had only three. There was also a blown opportunity for a Phoenix sweep, but he ran out of gas and was ultimately relegated to 13th in the point standings.

If his team can just put its bad luck behind him, Edwards figures to improve his position this year. He’ll also be in his second season with crew chief Jimmy Fennig, personally requested after a tumultuous 2012 left Edwards searching for a team leader.

The relationship between Fennig and Edwards was easily the biggest question mark before last season, but the Type-A personalities seemed to mesh amazingly well. Fennig, despite his military style, managed to avoid stepping on the toes of his driver, while Edwards managed to align to Fennig’s straight-and-narrow style of team leadership.

All told, it’s a relationship with a minimal amount of unicorns, rainbows and butterflies, but one that seemed to work without fireworks in 2013. That’s exactly what team owner Jack Roush was hoping for. But as Ford’s No. 1 wheelman, signed to a multi-year extension in 2011, Edwards needs to step it up one more notch. Since the signing, he’s won only twice, finished outside the top 10 in points the last two years and fallen outside the marketing limelight. There’s too much money getting paid out here for executives to be satisfied with that.

With a year of fine-tuning under their belts, Edwards and Fennig should improve. But 2014 can be no mirage.

What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
There may have been behind-the-scenes questions about Carl Edwards’ personality in the past, but none of his rivals currently question his desire.

“He is a very consistent driver who is truly passionate about the sport,” one crew chief says. “He’s driven for performance and physical fitness. When he was in contention for the title, he was so competitive, almost to a fault.”

“The tide of success with the Gen-6 car seemed to be against Edwards and the Ford camp,” another rival notes. “They’re making some crew chief changes and moving some stuff around over there that will probably make them better. He needs to have success early and then ride the wave to the Chase next year.”

From a media perspective, one member values Edwards’ insight and honesty: “I don’t always personally agree with Edwards’ opinion on every topic, but I sincerely appreciate the fact that he’ll lay it on the line with you. Carl isn’t gonna BS you. And he really takes ‘this side’ of his job seriously — not all drivers are as willing to give an honest effort in communicating with the media like he does.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
His 2013 wins came on a three-quarter-miler and a one-miler, but 11 of his 16 triumphs in the CoT/Gen-6 era have come on the intermediates.
Pretty Solid Pick: See that 6.6-place average finish at Homestead in the chart above? He’s in the zone when others are mentally on a beach in the Caribbean.
Good Sleeper Pick: We’ve covered his intermediate prowess, so how about that 7.9-place average showing in the seven races at Watkins Glen in the CoT/Gen-6 era?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Has averaged a 17th at Talladega dating back to that scary catchfence-tumble in 2009, cracking the top 10 only twice.
Insider Tip: We love Jimmy Fennig, and Edwards is a fascinating thinker, but is the 99 team still a feared unit?

No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Owners: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Jimmy Fennig
Years with current team: 11
Under contract through: 2015+
Best points finish: 2nd (2008, ’11)
Hometown: Columbia, Mo.
Born: Aug. 15, 1979



Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Athlon Sports’ 2014 “Racing” annual delivers full driver profiles as well as complete 2014 NASCAR coverage. Click here to view more.

For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro



Previewing the season of Car Edwards on the NASCR Sprint Cup circuit.
Post date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 23:55