Articles By Matt Taliaferro

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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.”


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Teaser:
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
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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 (ESPN.com/ESPN 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.net; @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

Teaser:
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
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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
 

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Teaser:
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
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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 (ESPN.com/ESPN 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.net; @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

Teaser:
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
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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
Sponsors:
Fastenal/Subway/Aflac/Kellogg’s
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

 

 

Teaser:
Previewing the season of Car Edwards on the NASCR Sprint Cup circuit.
Post date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 23:55
All taxonomy terms: Greg Biffle, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-driver-profile-greg-biffle
Body:

Greg Biffle earned his sixth berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year, and it’s not lost on the Ford driver just how important making the sport’s postseason actually is. In fact, he believes the Chase is what offers the sport’s top drivers and teams a sense of legitimacy.  Greg Biffle

“What makes up the face of this sport is the Chase, and the Chase guys,” Biffle says. “That’s what everybody talks about from the Daytona 500 on is the 12 or 13 cars that are gonna be in the Chase. It’s really important, and that’s been our focus. Let’s face it, you can’t win the championship unless you’re in the Chase.”

This season, Biffle should expect to earn his seventh appearance in the NASCAR championship format and sixth in a row. While making a legitimate run at the title seems unlikely, it will be another postseason berth based on Biffle’s sterling consistency and strong ability to find a way to Victory Lane. Of his 11 full-time seasons, Biffle has failed to win a race just twice.

Last year, Biffle notched just one victory — he held off a hard-charging Jimmie Johnson in the June race at Michigan International Speedway — but he ultimately didn’t need it for his Chase qualification effort. Still, Biffle knew at the time that the insurance was awfully nice.

However, making the show is one thing; succeeding is another task altogether. Biffle ultimately finished ninth last season in points due in large part to a Chase effort that garnered only three top-10 finishes, one of which was a top 5. As it so often is with Biffle, his No. 16 was good enough to be within the select group of drivers, but not quite good enough to make a legitimate title run. He hasn’t been a serious candidate down the stretch since 2005.

That’s a crucial point, because Biffle enters 2014 at age 44 in the midst of a contract year with longtime Roush Fenway prospect Trevor Bayne waiting in the wings. Bayne’s progress has been tediously slow, but he has driven for Biffle’s sponsor, 3M, and has been searching for a full-time Cup opportunity since winning the 2011 Daytona 500. As we saw with Kenseth two years ago, Roush has a history of going younger as a way of doing business. Biffle’s job this year is to show that he’s still the best option.

It’ll take improvement on Biffle’s part to make that happen, despite a solid history of regular-season success. Consider that, overall, Biffle’s 2013 was a one-win affair with just four top-5 finishes and 13 top 10s. Those numbers were substantially off from the prior season and similar to 2011, a year that found him outside the Chase picture.

Even if Biffle does not improve, he’ll likely breeze into a 16-team Chase this season, though once there may be surpassed by a competitive slate of drivers who weren’t in Chase competition last fall (Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart). It’s a hungry trio, backed by the off-track PR hype that has never quite seemed to attach itself to Biffle.

A good note is that Biffle’s crew chief relationship survived some offseason reshuffling at RFR. Biffle and Matt Puccia will now work their third full season together, although you have to wonder what kind of production Roush will require early in the season’s slate. He has to have concerns that Biffle’s average start dropped more than six spots last year, the worst result in years for a driver who struggles in traffic.

Some of that problem may also be attributable to the Fords Biffle drove. While consistent (Biffle finished every race last year), he often talked about how the team was playing catch-up. Ford drivers won just six times overall and didn’t finish higher than eighth in series points.

However, the Ford camp did spend time last season lobbying NASCAR for some undisclosed concessions. The manufacturer was primarily concerned that some of NASCAR’s in-season car modifications across all makes had unfairly caused a disadvantage among the Blue Oval brigade. No direct evidence was ever made available, though.

NASCAR never made any public announcement about new allowances for the Ford teams, but at the very least, a new grille molding will be used. If it did — or if Ford found some speed through good old-fashioned research and development — then Biffle and RFR could stand an improved chance.

Otherwise, it’s difficult to envision Biffle being more than another mid-level Chase competitor in 2014. Does that mean free agency’s next up?


What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Biffle knows how to win — he’s a proven champion in the Truck and Nationwide series,” one crew chief says. “And he can win on any type of track, although he hasn’t won on a road course. Biffle runs a street stock race on his farm every year and builds the car himself. That knowledge helps him share pertinent information with his race team.”

Another crew chief points to some inhibiting factors that could derail any hopes for a NASCAR “title trifecta” — at least in 2014: “While he can win, he can be very inconsistent. His personality can be a drawback, too. He is a rather dry individual. And he’s in Roush equipment, which — if you look at the success that Matt Kenseth had this season — appears to be an inhibiting factor.”

A media member who has watched Biffle his entire NASCAR career still believes in the Washington native’s talent: “I’ve always thought Biffle was a helluva wheelman. He really came out of nowhere — like, literally, the Great Northwest — to win his two championships (NNS and CWTS), but the Cup level is something entirely different. I think he has the ability, but the Roush program has been a step off since Edwards’ missed title bid in 2011.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
We all know the “intermediate” story on Biffle, who has recorded 16 of his 19 career Cup wins at seven tracks: Auto Club, Darlington, Dover, Homestead, Kansas, Michigan and Texas.
Pretty Solid Pick: In the CoT/Gen-6 era, Biffle has managed to score five top 10s in six starts — with two third-place runs in the last four years — at Indy.
Good Sleeper Pick: Hey, have we mentioned Biffle’s success on seven specific tracks?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Martinsville is the obvious choice, but strangely enough, Biffle has bucked the intermediate trend at Kentucky, where he’s averaged a 25.3-place finish.
Insider Tip: He’s not an A-lister, but he makes a fine selection out of the B-list when the circuit visits seven very specific tracks.


No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Sponsors:
3M/American Red Cross/Fastenal/American Dental Association
Owner: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Matt Puccia
Years with current team: 12
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 2nd (2005)
Hometown: Vancouver, Wash.
Born: Dec. 23, 1969


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

Teaser:
Previewing the 2014 season of NASCR Sprint Cup driver Greg Biffle.
Post date: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 23:52
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-grading-performance-gen-6-car
Body:

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.


With its inaugural season of competition now in the rear-view mirror, grade the performance of the Gen-6 car. And what, if anything, would you do to enhance said performance?


Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): The Gen-6 car gets an A for appearance but a C for performance. In reality there wasn’t much difference in the on-track product than previous incarnations. Somehow NASCAR has to find a way to enhance the competition and produce more side-by-side racing, especially at 1.5-mile tracks.


Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): Gen-6 gets a C-plus. Good on some tracks, not close to “passing” on others. There is no easy fix, but “dirtying up” the car with a shorter spoiler and less front-end grip should help. The car looks good on the track, but performance lags.


Mike Mulhern (MikeMulhern.net; @mikemulhern): I'd give it a C-plus, no more. The new 2013s didn’t improve the action on the track; if anything, the excessive speeds, especially at the 1.5-milers, worked against the premise of improving competition. After spending several years in development, clearly the men designing the Gen-6 didn’t come up with something to make the action better out on the track.

How to improve things? Slow the cars 15 mph, probably by cutting cubic inches, with a new, smaller engine block; a 280-305. Robert Yates was pushing for such smaller engines 20 years ago, before Ernie Irvan’s first bad crash. NASCAR is 20 years behind the curve here. Why drivers have to run into 14-degree-banked corners at 208 mph is absurd.


Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): The car doesn’t deserve a failing grade, simply because we all knew that there would be growing pains. However, the car wasn’t an instant hit either, so let’s go with a C-minus. As much as NASCAR wants to tout the increase in total green-flag passes, passes for the lead were down measurably and races on intermediate tracks still got strung out significantly.

This non-engineer would take away a significant amount of aerodynamic downforce and make the cars much less reliant on the air around them. Fans would gladly trade a spate of qualifying speed records for drivers who are able to control their cars side-by-side with each other for more than a few laps after a restart.


Ryan McGee (ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine; @ESPNMcGee): First half of the year: B-plus.  Second half of the year: B-minus. I never hated it like so many others seemed to. And no matter how much you disliked it, you have to admit it was an improvement over the CoT shoebox. As for “fixing” it, I think that anything NASCAR comes up with, the teams will find a way to tunnel around. That’s what happened with the Gen-6 car in 2013. To me, it might be as simple as slowing the cars down (though I like the higher speeds) and shortening the races, especially on the mile-and-a-half tracks. If you chop down the distance between green and checkers, it always dials up the intensity. Just ask New Hampshire.


Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News; @bobpockrass): B-minus. It gets an A-minus for looks and a C for racing. The racing at the start of the year was pretty decent but then teams all got on the same page. I don’t often agree with Carl Edwards, but in this case I do — I would take away rear downforce.


Nate Ryan (USA Today; @nateryan): On aesthetics, it earns an A-minus. On action, it’s a C. Green-flag passes were up in 2013, but lead changes — the true currency of competition in NASCAR — were down. The answer to improving it is whatever makes it easier for drivers with strong cars to retake the lead after a mediocre pit stop or restart, instead of getting stalled in traffic as many are now. Less downforce seemingly might help despite the vociferous objections by drivers (and in the inversely proportional world of racing, what’s good for them often is bad for fans). The current tinkering with slowing the cars also might bear fruit.

 


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


Teaser:
As part of the 2014 NASCAR season preview, Athlon Sports sits down with seven of the sport's leading journalists to grade the Gen-6 race car that was introduced to the Sprint Cup Series in 2013.
Post date: Monday, February 10, 2014 - 23:55
Path: /nascar/nascar-media-roundtable-legacy-richmond-scandal
Body:

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.


Undoubtedly, the biggest story of the 2013 NASCAR season was the actions and ensuing fallout from the Richmond race. Five years from now, what will the legacy of “Spingate” be for the sport of NASCAR?


Ryan McGee (ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine@ESPNMcGee): The lesson learned is that you have to think big picture before acting. One idiotic idea made the entire sport look awful for weeks. Past that, the legacy will be embarrassment. I think back on incidents like the nitrous oxide mess at Daytona in 1976 or the “jet fuel” disaster of ’07, even Richard Petty’s 198th career win, which came via an illegal engine at Charlotte. All of the people involved in those, from Darrell Waltrip to A.J. Foyt to Michael Waltrip, still get questions about those, even now, years later.

Over time it’ll fade and the topic will come up less, but this will be like the “black spot” for Michael, Clint Bowyer and Ty Norris. It’ll never fully go away. I just hope we don’t look back and say this was the night that Martin Truex Jr.’s career died.


Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News@bobpockrass): The legacy will be more scrutiny over every maneuver by every driver at Richmond and Homestead. Just listening to Brad Keselowski’s radio in the Nationwide race at Homestead and his asking about what he should do (with Penske teammate Sam Hornish Jr. in a championship battle) — and the reaction of fans that followed — means that this is not over. It is the nature of teammates to do subtle things to help teammates.

NASCAR has opened up a quagmire that it could have prevented if it just had penalized Clint Bowyer for intentionally spinning under caution. It also has opened itself up to scrutiny with an ambiguous “100 percent” rule as well as the precedent of adding an additional driver to the Chase.


Nate Ryan (USA Today@nateryan): In late September, in the wake of the announcement of NAPA’s impending departure, I’d have said the team orders scandal at Richmond International Raceway probably would rank as triggering the biggest sea change in 21st century NASCAR competition. But as with most Sprint Cup controversies that have a half-life of roughly three to five days, Richmond faded much more quickly than anticipated.

Aside from the Michael Waltrip Racing repercussions, its impact seemed negligible by the midpoint of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Its legacy will be more about how it challenged perceptions and changed the personas of the major players — Brian France taking charge and weathering crisis with his predecessors’ iron-fisted panache; Michael Waltrip facing the greatest escape act in a career filled with them; Clint Bowyer stripped of the happy-go-lucky charm that made him a favorite of fans and peers — than whether it significantly influenced philosophies in the long term.

Richmond will stand among the most apocryphal tales in recent NASCAR history, and it’s unlikely that such dirty pool ever will unfold that way again. But the multi-car business model and consistency-based points structure still ensure there will be future scandals of a similar ilk.


Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): Unfortunately for NASCAR, it will be the way that the incident was handled by the sanctioning body, simply because there will forever be a 13th driver listed in the (Chase) box score. Whether it’s via teammates moving over for another to lead a lap or a start and park car being entered to pull off the track early, manipulation isn’t a new phenomenon. No other sport would add another team to its playoffs, and the addition of Jeff Gordon will be forever annotated.


Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): Tighter scrutiny. It often takes an outlandish event like this to spur serious action by NASCAR, but, once it’s in place, it’s generally productive. Radio chatter isn’t as much fun.

 

 

Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): As much as some want to sweep it under the carpet I think the Richmond scandal will hang over the sport for years to come. The actions by MWR and NASCAR’s response by altering the Chase with a 13th driver will go down in history as a couple of dark days in the sport’s legacy while the “100 percent rule” is fraught with complications.

 

 

Mike Mulhern (MikeMulhern.net; @mikemulhern): No, the biggest story of 2013 was Brian France pulling off the multi-billion-dollar NBC TV deal and getting FOX to also agree to funding the sport through 2024. “Spingate” will hardly be recalled next season, except as just one more poorly handled issue by NASCAR and the Daytona brass.

 

 


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

Teaser:
As part of the 2014 NASCAR season preview, Athlon Sports sits down with seven of the sport's leading journalists to answer the question of how the sport will deal with the legacy of Michael Waltrip Racing's “Spingate” scandal at Richmond in 2013.
Post date: Sunday, February 9, 2014 - 22:36
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR News & Notes, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/potential-nascar-chase-changes-sacrificing-credibility-bottom-line
Body:

Stop, NASCAR. Just please, stop right now. Hit the pause button. Let’s all take a breath and ponder for a moment.

 

NASCAR, we know you’re wont to send up trial balloons every so often, and the leaked proposal to drastically alter the Chase for the Championship playoff format — and thus the very sport itself — is obviously a zeppelin-sized stethoscope on the chest of the fanbase.

We know you are closely monitoring fan reaction; that Fan and Media Engagement Center is getting a workout about now. Caller feedback on SIRIUS XM’s NASCAR channel is being noted and measured. Hopefully, folks are filling your inbox with thoughts and opinions via email that you’re tabulating. And hopefully, the brass safely tucked away in that ivory Daytona Beach tower are in the process of measuring twice before cutting once.

 

All that said, allow me to wander for a bit.

 

NASCAR, please, just stop. ... You’re not a stick ‘n’ ball sport. However, Your unwavering determination to become one has us teetering on the brink of divorce.
See, there’s a fine line in what I do. I was a fan of NASCAR long before I could attach a “media” designation anywhere near my name. I’ve played the professional role the best I know how for the last 12 years. I’ve learned how to parry the “but come on, deep down I know you have a favorite driver!” question (mine retired years ago, so no problem there). I transitioned to watching, commenting on and writing about races and current events in the sport as a third party. In fact, I feel I’ve evolved into as unbiased a viewer of all-things NASCAR as anyone you’ll find. I have no allegiance except to the readers.

 

But every now and then a situation arises that challenges those “fan vs. professional” pitfalls that have been dutifully and strategically programmed into my brain. The Charlotte Observer’s report late last week has managed to dodge and weave said mental pitfalls like Indiana Jones carrying a golden statuette in a South American rainforest.

 

So for the first time in over a decade, I’m putting my professional hat aside. If the Observer’s report is, in fact, a method for CEO Brian France, president Mike Helton, vice president of competition Robin Pemberton, et al, to gauge fan reaction then I’ll bite. After all, my passion for the sport, built over 25 years, led me to where I’ve been the last 12 years and what I do today.

 

So NASCAR, please, just stop. Your obsession with appealing to a new demographic has cost you the diehards that once filled your racetracks; it has cost you a television audience that was once there, but no longer is. You’re not a stick ‘n’ ball sport — and that’s why we fell in love with you in the first place! However, your unwavering determination to become one — and line your already deep pockets in the process — has us teetering on the brink of divorce. These points, though, have been discussed ad nauseam over the years, so I will not dwell.

 

France has often cited “Game 7 moments” as the goal for what his 10-race Chase format would provide. There have been a couple: Kurt Busch’s wheel coming plum off in the inaugural edition and the classic 2011 clash of Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards are two unforgettable moments in the first 10 years of your playoffs, NASCAR.

 

That isn’t a bad percentage as “Game 7 moments” go. In fact, it’s just about right. After all, Joe Carter — though technically a Game 6 moment — doesn’t belt a walk-off home run to win the World Series every year. If he did, “the amazing” would become “the expected” and the wonderment of “Game 7 moments” would render said moments non-existent.

 

See NASCAR, that’s what has perplexed me over the last 10 years. As a fan, the ‘80s, ‘90s and early part of this century were magical times. Cars were racy, drivers were renegades and crew chiefs were salty, stubborn men I’d never cross. You truly didn’t know what mayhem would transpire each week, and every so often something like a Kulwicki vs. Elliott season finale mesmerized us all — I mean absolutely topped any crazy scenario I dreamt while using Hot Wheels to run the Kitchen Table 500. Your sport was still niche, but I was part of the niche, so it was high times. I was hooked, I’m telling ya.


Athlon Sports' 2014 Racing Preview hits newsstands Jan. 21. Order online

 

But then you went and started taking yourself too seriously, NASCAR. You’re like the rock ‘n’ roll bands of my youth: There was an edge and excitement that drew me in, but once you felt you’d hit the “big time,” it was more about the money, merchandise and endorsements than the music. As the great racing scribe Ed Hinton once noted, “greed does not regress.” The outlaw nature of the sport that appealed to me had been replaced by a safeness that guaranteed middle-of-the-road semi-popularity and lots and lots of cash.

 

However, NASCAR, once you realized that you didn’t actually have 75 million fans, sponsors were no longer plunking down $30 million to back teams and television ratings were no longer in the stratosphere, a playoff system was hatched in an attempt to mirror what worked for the National Football League. I was never fully sold because I was more interested in a rightful and deserving champion than how much money could be made. And I’ve never felt that tournaments work in a sport like auto racing. Make no mistake, the NFL playoffs and the NCAA’s basketball tourney are about making money just as much as they are about crowning a winner, but they work organically. The old “apples and oranges” adage applies well here.

 

Oh, but that first Chase was a doozy; I’ll give you that, NASCAR. It actually worked. But then you started tinkering with the system. And you haven’t stopped. Any changes that are announced over the coming weeks — and changes are coming — will mark the fourth points tweak in 11 years. That averages to a change to the playoff format — the way you determine your champion — once every two and three-quarter years! How are fans expected to view the championship (not the champion, mind you) with legitimacy if it’s ever-changing?

 

That brings me to the present day. Potentially, we could see an expanded Chase field (it’s gone from 10 drivers up to 12, then 13 and now possibly 16), built-in eliminations (although those happen naturally as-is) and, worst of all, points resets that would climax in a four-driver, winner-take-all, one-race setting for the championship.

 

NASCAR, a scenario such as this is nothing more than a blatant gimmick to attract viewers who, at best, will give you a ratings bump in four select races. Oh, you’ll have your “Game 7 moment” each year, but at what cost? At what point will those moments become the norm and not the memorable? And therefore, at what point will you, NASCAR, conclude that further tweaking must be done once again to satisfy your short-term advertising and ratings goals in an effort to wow the masses?

 

An emphasis on winning is great, but these reported changes are about much more than that. These changes shine a light on a sanctioning body more concerned with its bottom line than a sport’s credibility. And competition without credibility is simply entertainment, not sport.

 

The truth is that we don’t know what changes will be made to the Chase, only that change in some form seems likely. It may play out in the radical terms that the Observer outlined or fan feedback may talk NASCAR off the ledge. I hope it’s the latter. I so hope it’s the latter that I’m willing to push aside my professional duties and speak purely as a fan.

 

If gauging fan reaction is the goal of this most recent report then NASCAR, consider this article feedback from a life-long fan.


Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
 

Teaser:
Potential tweaks to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' Chase for the Championship format rooted in a sanctioning body's bottom line, not the sport's credibility.
Post date: Sunday, January 19, 2014 - 15:38
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-sprint-cup-series-schedule
Body:

The official 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule with dates, start times, television information and defending winners.

 

Teaser:
The official 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule with dates, start times, television information and defending winners.
Post date: Monday, January 13, 2014 - 13:31
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-nationwide-series-schedule
Body:

The official 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule with dates, start times, television information and defending winners.

 

Teaser:
The official 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule with dates, start times, television information and defending winners.
Post date: Monday, January 13, 2014 - 13:28
Path: /nascar/2014-nascar-camping-world-truck-series-schedule
Body:

The official 2014 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule with dates, start times, television information and defending winners.

 

Teaser:
The official 2014 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule with dates, start times, television information and defending winners.
Post date: Monday, January 13, 2014 - 13:16
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR News & Notes, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/forty-great-johnson-wins-sixth-nascar-sprint-cup-championship
Body:

It was hard to envision Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team fumbling away a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship on Sunday.

Entering the season finale in Homestead, Fla., the group that won five consecutive titles from 2006-10 held a comfortable 28-point cushion over Matt Kenseth in NASCAR’s Chase standings. In four of those championship seasons Johnson held serve with the points lead in the final race. In a fifth, he overcame a 15-point deficit in the final event to win “one for the thumb.”

In the Ford EcoBoost 400, Johnson’s Chad Knaus-led team — in typical workmanlike fashion — proved that when it controls its own destiny, may be the best the sport has seen. Having to finish 23rd or better to clinch the championship, Johnson and Knaus engineered a solid seventh-place finish and claimed title No. 6 for team owner Rick Hendrick’s No. 48 team.

“We were in position to win a lot throughout the course of the year,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, we gave a bunch away. But at the end of the day we won the big prize. That helped us through some of those races that got away — focusing on the big prize.

“We didn't leave many points on the table (in the Chase). I can look back on a few tracks and think we could have had a few more points, but it really was a strong 10 weeks. Last year we had eight great weeks and didn't come up with it. Matt had nine (this year). You have to have 10 great weeks to be the champion and we got it done this year.”

His chief rival, Kenseth, ran as sterling a race as one could. Having won the pole, he spent a large part of the South Florida afternoon leading the field, logging a race-high 144 laps on point. He could not follow through with the win — not that it would have mattered in the championship picture. Instead, that went to Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin, who was winless in 2013 prior to Sunday.

“Obviously it's been a great year, best year I've ever had,” Kenseth said of his first season with JGR. “It was a great night. Jimmie and that team are obviously unbelievable — never seen anything like this in the sport and probably will never see anything like it again. It's amazing with as tight as the rules are, multi-car teams, information sharing, and all that stuff, it's amazing they can figure out how to do that year after year.”

Johnson’s 48 and Kenseth’s 20 teams were the class of the field throughout the season, even if the standings didn’t always reflect it. The duo combined to win 13 of the 36 races beginning with the season’s opening event, the Daytona 500. In that race, Kenseth lost an engine while leading around the mid-point, which opened the door for Johnson to earn his second victory in the “Great American Race.” Kenseth answered two weeks later with a win in Las Vegas … and the race was on.

By the time the Chase began in September, the two were positioned atop the standings after NASCAR’s points reset. Kenseth drew first — and second — blood, with consecutive playoff wins in New Hampshire and Chicagoland. Predictably, Johnson returned with a victory volley in Dover.

Kenseth’s final statement came in Martinsville in Chase race No. 7. At one of Johnson’s best tracks, the No. 20 team out-pointed the 48 to tie the pair at the top of the standings in a performance many considered an upset. True to form, though, Johnson responded resoundingly, thoroughly dominating the next race in Texas.

It was in the season’s penultimate event where Kenseth finally stumbled. A crippling 23rd-place run in Phoenix, on an afternoon that found Johnson third, all but made the finale’s title tilt in Homestead a formality.

While Johnson did not lead a lap on Sunday, it was largely an incident-free affair for his team. Only a quirky restart that witnessed contact between the two point leaders gave anyone reason for pause. Though Johnson crunched a wheel well in the scramble, a caution period just laps later gave his crew the chance they needed to repair the minimal damage.

From there, it was simply counting down the laps — at which point, the comparisons began. Johnson’s sixth title finds him one short of the record seven earned by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. And while comparing and ranking competitors of different eras in any sport is largely an exercise in futility, that rarely stops the masses from doing so.

Johnson, a California native raised in a working-class family, has never quite known how to respond to the “all-time greats” inquiries. That didn’t change following yet another championship at NASCAR’s premier level.

“It's not like me to think in that light. It's just not me,” Johnson shrugged. “I guess I need to open my mind to it because the numbers speak for themselves. I find myself in a touchy situation at times where my quiet approach can be looked at as arrogant or cocky, and that is the furthest thing from the truth in what I'm trying to portray.

“Honestly, I'm just trying to, I don't know, say the right things and keep my mind in the right space. I haven't let a lot in and it's led to more success. It's kept my work ethic intact — kept me honest and humble. I like that about myself. I don't know if I want to open my mind and let it in, where I stand in the sports world. It's not time for that in my eyes.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t welcome a fun rivalry with a fellow great or two.

“Michael Jordan has given me a hard time that I only won five,” Johnson said with a broad smile. “I can't wait to send him a text and say, ‘Hey, buddy, I've caught up!’”

Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Michael Jordan. Jimmie Johnson. Maybe it’s simply within the company one’s name is mentioned that’s most telling. Regardless of rank, it’s rarified air.


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

Teaser:
Jimmie Johnson holds off Matt Kenseth to win his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Post date: Sunday, November 17, 2013 - 22:41
Path: /johnson-firing-all-cylinders-texas-win
Body:

Something is beginning to look familiar about this NASCAR championship chase.

One season ago, Jimmie Johnson was engaged in a dogfight atop the Sprint Cup Series point standings and emerged from Texas with a seven-point lead over rival Brad Keselowski after a commanding 168 laps-led performance. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has a different adversary this year, but the results from a Sunday shootout in Texas were the same. In fact, they were even more impressive.

Johnson pulverized the field in the AAA Texas 500, leading 255 of 334 laps to snag his sixth win of the season and second of the Chase. In the process, the five-time champion leaves with an all-to-familiar seven-point advantage over his closest competitor, Matt Kenseth, who finished fourth.

Of course, last season Johnson lost his points lead the following week in Phoenix when a tire failed and he hit the wall. The ensuing 32nd-place finish found him 20 points behind Keselowski, a deficit he was not able to overcome.

“I hope history doesn’t repeat itself,” Johnson said.

Honestly, it’s hard to imagine that happening twice to a team as prepared — and successful — as the No. 48.

“We really focus on what it is we need to do,” crew chief Chad Knaus explained. “We can all say that Phoenix was the culprit last year why we didn’t win the championship. The fact of the matter is we had a mechanical problem at Homestead that took us out of it. If we had won Phoenix and went to Homestead and still had a mechanical problem, we’d have lost the championship.”

Regardless of whether history does or does not repeat itself, Johnson’s performance put the sport on high alert. Even a slow pit stop on lap 238 that dropped Johnson from the lead to fourth couldn’t derail his efforts. Within 20 laps he had driven back to the point.

Concurrently, a pit road mistake by Kenseth seriously hindered his cause. Penalized for speed entering the pits on lap 173, Kenseth dropped from second to 16th and spent the remainder of the race making up ground.

“I sped trying to be aggressive, which was all on me,” Kenseth said. “Still came back and got a top 5. The day could have been a lot worse. It was a good day for us, really.

“If I hadn’t messed up, maybe we could have finished second.”

Second; not first. That’s how clear it was that Johnson was in another zip code.

Runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. and third-place Joey Logano said as much afterward.

“We had a fast enough car to keep track position, but the 48 was in another class and nobody had anything for him,” Earnhardt said.

“We can’t be disappointed with a third-place finish,” Logano said. “Just the 48 car was ridiculously fast.”

However, oftentimes in racing, the fastest car does not win. And that fact was not lost on Johnson:

“When you have a dominant car, it is so stressful because you’re just waiting for that thing that can get you, whatever it is. Chad said it once on the radio, ‘Just keep a positive mindset here, and things are going to work out.’ We did that. We stayed focused and got the job done.”

Even with last season’s championship defeat still fresh, don’t expect Johnson to consider this a knockout blow to a veteran such as Kenseth.

“At this point of the season if you’re in contention, you’ve got more pressure than you ever wanted — it’s just there,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if this puts any more (on Kenseth). They were able to get some points on us last week. We got some on them this week.”

And Kenseth, for his part, left with an optimistic outlook at the season’s final two events:

“The math works out if you win the last two races, so it’s still in our hands. It’s not like we have to have somebody have trouble. If we can go out there and outrun everybody for two weeks, we’ll just go with that mindset.

“We’re still in this thing after eight weeks and we’re going to try to get it.”

One more Texas-like performance out of Johnson and that math changes.


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

Teaser:
Jimmie Johnson wins the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway and increases his lead in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup to seven points over Matt Kenseth.
Post date: Monday, November 4, 2013 - 13:18
All taxonomy terms: Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, NASCAR
Path: /nascar/fantasy-nascar-picks-charlotte-motor-speedway
Body:

To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its Sprint Cup Series driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s nine-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned drivers strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.

Next: Bank of America 500 (Charlotte Motor Speedway)
Race: 501 miles, 334 laps (1.5-mile track)
May 2013 Winner: Kevin Harvick



A-List (pick two, start one)
Kasey Kahne  Kasey Kahne
After Kasey Kahne's opening to this version of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a fantasy start of NASCAR's most popular blue-eyed wheelman may seem laden with danger. Kahne has crashed and generally struggled in the first four races of the postseason battle. He's all but out of the running for the 2013 title.

But those struggles should have no bearing on his weekend at Charlotte. Kahne is flat good at the 1.5-mile track. A four-time Charlotte winner, Kahne has finished no worse than eighth in his last four starts. He won the Coca-Cola 600 last year and, save for a poor restart with 10 laps to go this year's 600, would have made it two straight wins in the prestigious race. Kahne ultimately ran second to Kevin Harvick after leading 161 of 400 laps. Don't be surprised if he does it again.


Matt KensethLet's be clear: picking Jimmie Johnson this weekend is a smart move. He's a six-time Charlotte winner and needs to lead just 30 laps led Saturday night for his Charlotte total laps led number to surpass the total laps led Jamie McMurray in his entire career.

But Matt Kenseth may actually be the safer pick based on more recent results. Johnson has finished worse than 21st in four of the last seven Charlotte races including in May when struggled and spun during the race. Kenseth, meanwhile, has scored top-15 finishes in each of the last nine Charlotte events including his 2011 win. More, Kenseth's 15th-place finish in the May race was a complete misnomer to the strength of his car. After leading 112 laps, Kenseth got caught by a late yellow flag while pitting that trapped him two laps down for the final 100 laps. Judging how well Kenseth has fared at other 1.5-mile tracks (excluding Kansas last week thanks to the curveball new tire) he should stand as a great pick Saturday night.

Also consider: Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson


B-List (pick four, start two)
Kyle Busch

The medicine of revenge often induces free flowing adrenaline in the human body which, for Kyle Busch, can have varied effects. He can make bad outings worse by driving past his limit (see: Kansas) or he can nail a restart and hold down hard chargers behind him to take the win (see: Watkins Glen). We're likely bound to get one form of that Kyle Busch this weekend thanks to his miserable, Chase-dampening race in Kansas and his desire to finally knock down a Charlotte Cup win. He came close in May with a car that led 65 laps before losing an engine. A top 5 would mark his sixth in his last eight Charlotte starts.


Kurt Busch  Kurt BuschThe May race actually presented nice opportunities for both Busch brothers to leave Bruton's crown jewel with the shine of a Coca-Cola 600 trophy. Kurt, unlike brother Kyle, managed to finish in the May race and placed third after leading eight laps and averaging an on-track position of fifth throughout the event. Kurt's key to success Saturday night will be his qualifying acumen. In May, that put him second and gave him an excellent pit stall. Last week, he crashed in practice and started at the tail-end of the field. With a car prepared to run up front, Busch could make some noise.

Carl Edwards
The B-List is full of drivers just wanting to be picked in hopes of scoring an unexpected win or top-3 finish. Carl Edwards could certainly be that guy Saturday night at Charlotte. Edwards has finished 11th or better in his last four Charlotte starts, and in May pulled down the race's sixth-best average in-race running position. More, Edwards has become one of the series' better late-race drivers at Charlotte. He's averaging 3.9 spots gained from the race's halfway point to the end. Only Joey Logano, in nine Charlotte starts to Edwards' 17, is doing better. So if you pick Edwards, don't lose hope on him at halfway — he’ll close well.


Martin Truex Jr.A disappointing September and the unsettled future of Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 56 has obviously caused a bit of unrest for his Michael Waltrip Racing team. Truex is busy looking for a ride in 2014 and his crew chief just asked for a release from the team at the end of the season. Fortunately, Charlotte seems like a reasonable spot for the whole crew to mesh and find a balance suited to Truex's liking. Truex finished ninth at Charlotte in May and has been noteworthy in many of his other 1.5-mile track appearances this season. All told, Truex has finished 12th, 10th and ninth in his last three Charlotte starts.

Also consider: Jeff Burton, Joey Logano


C-List (pick two, start one)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

There's a lot to like about Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Charlotte beyond the fact that he was the top C-List driver at the track in May. He was 14th in that race after starting 30th and actually made a big charge at the end to score the top-15 run. But Stenhouse's success at Charlotte expands beyond May performance. In a one-off start during his rookie season in 2011, Stenhouse scored an 11th-place finish for the Wood Brothers team. He hoped to back it up last year but lost an engine after just 190 laps.

David Gilliland
Gilliland was by no means strong in May at Charlotte, but he was consistent enough in the 600-mile event that hopes of a repeat performance of a solid C-List finish seem possible. Gilliland finished 20th in the race after starting 26th and running no better than 19th the whole night. By average running position, the race was Gilliland's sixth-best of the 30-race season to date.

Also consider: David Ragan, Danica Patrick


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photos by Actions Sports, Inc.
 

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Kevin Harvick, NASCAR
Path: /nascar/nascar-numbers-game-6-amazing-stats-charlotte-motor-speedway
Body:

Have yourself a day, Kevin Harvick.

The lame-duck, beer-and-sandwich-stealing vulture turned NASCAR’s Chase on its head when he tamed the unpredictable Kansas Speedway last weekend, something you were warned about, by leading over half of the race as his competition spent the weekend executing more triple axels than you’d see at a figure-skating event.

This weekend, he heads to Charlotte Motor Speedway as the track’s most recent winner. He ranks seventh in Charlotte PEER — a measure of a driver’s production in equal equipment — and is a two-time victor in the CoT/Gen-6 era, but has never won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the 1.5-mile facility outside the month of May. He’s not an outright favorite, but he’s favorite-ish. If he can enact his plodding ways in a more expedited process — Saturday night’s race is 100 miles shorter than the mammoth Coca-Cola 600 — he could be reckoned with in a late-race scenario.


5.2  The difference in Harvick’s clean average finish — his average result of races in which he did not suffer a race-altering accident or mechanical failure — in the CoT/Gen-6 era between May’s Coke 600 and October’s Bank of America 500 is 5.2.

His seventh-place clean average finish in the 600 is stout; his 12.2-place average in the 500 isn’t quite impeccable, but in five-race snapshots, Harvick is five positions worse in the fall. Does this mean fans of the 29 team should panic? Not necessarily, but it might mean that Harvick’s keen passing ability is a slow-burn process. With 100 extra miles, it makes sense that a good passer like him will obtain more spots.


53.7%  With a 53.7 percent mark, Harvick is the most efficient passer in the Sprint Cup Series.

The next-best passer is Kasey Kahne (52.63 percent), leaving Harvick in a percentile by himself. He’s a tremendously efficient passer and one fun to watch navigate through traffic, but with 100 less miles to pull off his game plan, he’ll have to speed up the position-earning. A fast car could aid in that effort. So could restarts, as was the case in this year’s 600.


90% and +11  Harvick retained his position 90 percent of the time on double-file restarts in the spring race at Charlotte, and used them to gain a total of 11 positions.  Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne

He cemented the win when he turned Kahne, a relatively poor restarter, to a disheveled mess on the race’s final restart, passing for the lead out of the non-preferred, low groove. Double-file restarts were created to artificially inflate the sport’s passing numbers, but for a driver like Harvick who is both an elite passer and a superb restarter, the statistically imbalanced concept fits firmly in his wheelhouse. He could take advantage on Saturday night, and likely will have to go through Kahne once again.


5.273  Kahne, with a PEER of 5.273, was the most productive driver in Charlotte races dating back to 2008.

Kahne, who has won a total of four points-paying races at Charlotte and finished eighth or better in each of the last four events, is the most reliable frontrunner at the track since Jimmie Johnson was neutralized following the most recent repave. Like Harvick, Kahne is a good passer (mentioned above). Also like Harvick, he’s been more victorious in the 600 (three wins) than the 500 (one win, 2006). In desperation mode four races into the Chase, there might not be a better place for Kahne and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team to swing for the fences.


787  Kyle Busch has led a series-high 787 laps across the last 11 races at Charlotte, but has failed to win a Cup Series race there.  Kyle Busch

Amazing, right? He ranks second in Charlotte PEER, thanks mostly to seven top-5 finishes in the aforementioned span. With two DNFs omitted— a crash in the 2011 spring race and a blown motor earlier this year — he averaged a fourth-place finish in the nine remaining races. Why hasn’t he sealed the deal? The two Charlotte races are both heavy in length, 600 and 500 miles, and only six of Busch’s 28 Cup Series victories have come in 500-mile races. The better explanation might have to do with dumb luck. It’s difficult for any driver to win any race, but when a television camera falls from the sky and lands on Busch’s car, like it did during this year’s 600, it sure doesn’t make life easier. Charlotte Cup races are just an odd thorn in Busch’s side. Eventually, he’ll crack the code that unlocks the gate to victory lane.


0.100  Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a replacement-level producer at Charlotte with a PEER of 0.100, which ties him with Dave Blaney for 39th out of 50 drivers with three or more starts there since 2007.

Earnhardt claimed Charlotte victory in his first All-Star Race attempt in 2000, and that turned out to be his best day at the track. The presence of Steve Letarte has been a boost to his results-padding ways — he finished seventh in the 2011 600 and sixth in 2012’s fall race — but outside of two finishes, he scored results of 19th or worse in seven of his last nine races there. He isn’t a lost cause, though. His 39th-place effort this spring was the effect of being a blown-motor casualty, a rare hiccup from a Hendrick powerplant. With a smart setup and a capable motor, he could finish comfortably in the top 20. Still, those looking to place race-win bets on the most popular driver in the sport this weekend would be better suited to take their money elsewhere.


For PEER and other metrics with which you may be unfamiliar, check out David’s glossary of terms on MotorsportsAnalytics.com.

David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projections, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
 

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - 13:00
All taxonomy terms: Kevin Harvick, NASCAR
Path: /nascar/harvick-wins-wild-one-kansas-buschs-nascar-chase-hopes-take-hit
Body:

Kevin Harvick won from the pole at Kansas Speedway on Sunday. It was clear he and sixth-place finisher Jimmie Johnson had the fastest cars. But for half the race, they were battling mid-pack, stuck in traffic and on restart roller coasters while the rest of the field took delight in seeing them trapped.

It didn’t have to be that way. Correct that, it should never have been that way.

The troubles for Harvick and Johnson started when NASCAR threw a caution for debris in the middle of green-flag pit stops on lap 88. The timing of the yellow was such that it hit a few feet before Johnson was officially on pit road. It left the No. 48 team trapped between a rock and a hard place. Already committed, they couldn’t pit under the rules since the pits were closed under yellow. But they couldn’t accelerate, either, which caused a painful, 35 mph jaunt that let half the field go by them without a stop for tires and fuel. At least they were luckier than Harvick; he had already made his stop, which trapped the No. 29 car a lap down and forced the team to use a wave-around in order to restart the race within striking distance of the leaders.

Working through traffic, then, was the order of the day for both drivers — along with strategy that eventually got them back to the front (Harvick won on 110-lap old left-side tires). But what was the “terrifying safety reason” to cause the yellow? According to sources, a brake-type hose under the white line at the exit of Turn 2.

Really? NASCAR couldn’t wait until after green-flag stops were complete, when the field would be solidified in place to go throw a yellow and pick that one up? Better yet, why have a caution at all?

One could make the argument that this piece of equipment, if run over by a driver accelerating after a pit stop, could have blown a tire or even cut an oil line. At the same time, no one would hit it unless they were slowly coming up to speed. Don’t the best drivers in the world have some basic common sense? A piece that far out of the groove causing a yellow that changes the outcome of the race based on the timing in the middle of green-flag stops was simply overboard. NASCAR officials should have a rule about debris: there should be no caution flag for it, especially at such a crucial point in a race, unless there’s a 10-foot piece of metal with spikes sticking out at the start/finish line. To make such rulings from the tower stinks of the type of manipulation and “playing fair” antics pointed out at Richmond that led to “Spingate” and this Chase being run, in part, with a giant asterisk over four drivers.

NASCAR did a good job of preaching in the wake of that scandal about how everyone must stay above the line. Now, they’ve simply got to practice that.

Let’s head up “Through the Gears” to see what Kansas taught us …



FIRST GEAR: Kyle Busch beat himself  Kyle BuschFor three weeks, plenty of ink has been spilled about a three-man title Chase amongst Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. Heading to Kansas, a “cookie cutter” intermediate, it’s the last place you’d think of for one of those three to knock themselves out.

Unfortunately, Mr. Busch had other plans based on his own mental fears. The track has always been a nemesis of sorts for him; 12 career starts and zero top-5 finishes at this 1.5-miler was his resume heading into Sunday. You could tell throughout the weekend those demons were clearly in the driver’s head. Wrecking in practice, he was forced into a backup car and had to start from the rear of the field.

During Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, he tangled with Brad Keselowski, wrecking his rival and creating an angry post-race scene. If there’s a list of people you want to enrage, the reigning Cup champ – who has nothing to lose during these playoffs – shouldn’t be among them. Keselowski was so incensed, he even asked during Sunday’s driver’s meeting if the sport’s “100 percent” policy would be violated by intentional wrecking.

In the end, though, it wasn’t Keselowski but Busch himself who committed Chase suicide. Never comfortable with the handling of his race car, the No. 18 vacillated between mid-pack and top 5, depending on pit strategy, yet never had the feel of a front-running car all day. Eventually, contact with Juan Pablo Montoya — another aggressive driver Busch had no need to irritate — led to the No. 18 taking a spin through the frontstretch. That seemed to tip Busch’s mental state off balance again, leading to another terrible mistake. An awkward restart, where Busch came down directly onto Carl Edwards’ bumper, sent him into the wall – and sealed his fate.

“I have no idea what happened,” said Busch, transitioning into the immature driver of old when the microphone was thrown in his face. “All I know is we’re in Kansas, right? That’s what we do here. We just crash.”

It’s a mental block that, in the end, will have mashed this year’s title dreams to pieces. Now 35 points back of teammate Kenseth, and sitting fifth in the standings, Busch is out of it without some major help.



SECOND GEAR: Is Harvick back in the title Chase?A “lame duck” year by Harvick, leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing come November, has been defying conventional wisdom. Picking up his third win Sunday while leading 138 laps (his highest total in two years), the “Closer” has better stats on paper than anyone on his team-to-be.

The quality performances, while surprising, have come from an unwavering dedication on both sides to not let impending divorce ruin their dreams. All along, Childress has been vocal that this team could challenge for a title. But the cold reality of what these splits typically do have left them virtually ignored. Both sides are known to have a temper; one bad run could be all it takes to derail them straight through November.

At the same time, it’s hard to count RCR out completely. The Cup Series heads to Charlotte next, where Harvick was victorious in May. Next comes Talladega, a “wild card” due to its big wrecks, but a place where Harvick has also been wildly successful. Next on the list? Martinsville: a short track, which also serves as this organization’s specialty.

I still think it’s unlikely Harvick climbs himself back up into the race. Then again, an entire group of media, fans and other teams have doubted this bunch since February, when a Daytona 500 wreck left them 42nd and seemingly ready to coast all year. So who knows …



THIRD GEAR: What championship drives are made of  Matt KensethFor Kenseth, driving the “evilest race car he ever drove” threatened to leave him 20th or worse Sunday. Sliding through the field in the race’s second half like he was running on seven cylinders, a pit road speeding penalty finally threw him at the back of the pack. That’s when crew chief Jason Ratcliff went radical, changing everything but the kitchen sink inside the No. 20 Toyota. Miss on those fixes, and the risk was great; with a record 15 caution flags, so many cars were on the lead lap Kenseth could have wound up outside the top 30.

Except he didn’t. A terrific final drive during the last 20 laps saw Kenseth rise to 11th place. And when rival Johnson had a minor hiccup with the engine that dropped him to sixth, it was Kenseth who somehow held the point lead despite an awful day.

“We struggled a little bit and still salvaged,” he explained. “Proud of this team — they didn’t give up on me. They worked really hard on it. We’ll go racing next week.”

And come Homestead, those extra positions they earned could make the difference between first and second in points.



FOURTH GEAR: Kansas’ rough roadRecord-setting cautions. Rock-hard tires. Weird spinouts. Sure, Kansas has become its own animal, especially since a recent repave at the 1.5-mile intermediate oval. But the end result was a type of odd roulette game, where pit strategy and positioning on restarts determined your finish. Yes, passing was possible, which is more than we can say at some of the other intermediate tracks. But being able to maneuver in the first few laps of the run ultimately determines where you finish; good cars are not completely able to work their way up through the pack without help. That’s a problem several drivers still want addressed.

“With the combination of the cold temperatures, the tires, it made it treacherous when you were around other cars,” said runner-up Kurt Busch. “We always hope we can have more grip, be able to race side-by-side and have a comfort level to reproduce a show where fans want to come out and we see sellouts. We need to put on a better show on the track. And for that to happen, we just have to have Goodyear, the drivers, the teams, the tracks on the same page. Right now we're close, but I think we swung and we missed on tire combo this weekend.”

The proof? How Harvick won on those old left-sides, while two-or-four tire stops late in the race made little difference. Instead, it was about track position and how quickly you could dispose of cars in front of you on those restarts … or be trapped four, five, six seconds back of the leader for failing to do so.


OVERDRIVE
Kurt Busch
and Jeff Gordon had a rough conversation, post-race over how the two raced each other on a late restart. Gordon felt that Busch made contact, cutting him off unnecessarily. In the end, the two seemed to agree it was good, hard racing. Both were calmed down by their post-race press conference. … After a weekend of good practices, Danica Patrick didn’t even make it through one corner in the race at Kansas. Making a three-wide move on the start, she clipped David Reutimann, got loose and started a multi-car wreck. It’s the fifth DNF for her based on a crash this season, tied for the most among full-time Cup Series drivers. … Dale Earnhardt Jr., eighth Sunday, now has three top-10 finishes and 107 laps led the last three weeks. Think he might want that race back from Chicagoland? As it is, he sits 54 back of championship leader Kenseth and will likely spend the offseason wondering what might have been. … Brian Vickers had a scary wreck off Turn 2 in which the No. 55 Toyota went airborne. Reminiscent of another crash for the car, at Texas a few years ago with Michael McDowell, drivers were so worried they were actually calling on spotters to make sure the rescue crew got there as quickly as possible. Luckily, despite heavy impact, Vickers walked out of the car unscathed.


Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, October 7, 2013 - 17:00
All taxonomy terms: Chase, Kansas Speedway, NASCAR
Path: /nascar/nascar-chase-searching-water-cooler-moment-kansas
Body:

1. Still waiting for a Chase water cooler moment
A palpable buzz is non-existent heading to Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ championship fight is now four races old, yet the potential drama of a season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway seems months away.

Three drivers — Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch — have vaulted in front of the field with an appreciable 27-point gap from Busch’s third-place ranking to the next contenders. Each race has been pretty systemic without late caution flags, incidents or wonky NASCAR officiating calls to toss a wrench in the whole show. Danica Patrick remains slow.

Why has this Chase started in such a ho-hum manner? When is something worthy of a SportsCenter highlight going to occur?

They’re questions without answers right now. That’s unfortunate. They’re also telling of a postseason process lacking an inherent and built-in punch of excitement. Right now, the whole thing is just riding along, seemingly waiting for the final pit stop.

Who’s going to be watching by then?


2. Kenseth isn’t the biggest fan of Kansas’ new tire  Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth has won two straight Cup races at Kansas since the track was repaved last summer. He even did it with two different race teams. Change, it seems, wasn’t too big of an issue for the ever-cool driver.

Then Goodyear brought a new tire combination to Kansas on both the left and right sides of the car — the rights being a second incarnation of the “multi-zone tread” featuring two tire compounds on the same wheel — and it threw his No. 20 for a bit a loop in additional testing time offered to teams Thursday afternoon.

“I would have rather left everything alone for us, especially after today,” Kenseth deadpanned Thursday.

“We’ve got a lot of stuff to look at it, but (Thursday) was kind of a struggle. Whenever anything is working good for you, you kind of like to leave everything the same.”

Kenseth being who he is and the No. 20 team being who it is, it’d be surprising if he’s not back at the front by the time Sunday’s race reaches its critical points. That’s just how good they have been as a group this season. He’s leading the Chase, after all.



3. Summer tire test may key Kyle Busch Kansas rebound  Kyle Busch and Jimmie JohnsonThings didn’t go so well for Kyle Busch during his last race weekend visit to Kansas.

He spun in practice. He spun exiting Turn 2 on lap 6. And then, to top it all off, he spun in Turn 4 and was broadsided by Joey Logano, ending his day.

He finished 38th. Repeating that finish Sunday could be disastrous to his hopes of staying in the Chase fight with Kenseth and Johnson.

Fortunately, Busch was one of the four drivers who helped Goodyear select the tire compounds that gave his teammate Kenseth some fits on Friday. The tire supplier brought Kyle, brother Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman to the track in July for a nighttime selection test.

Ahead of the weekend, Busch was looking forward to the change on the left side of the car.

“I thought we learned some things and went really well for us and I think for Goodyear, as well,” Busch said. “They changed the left-side tire compound, so we’re not on that treacherous left that everybody spins out and crashes on, including myself three times.”



4. Aric Almirola expects to turn heads SundayIn his last two starts at Kansas Speedway, Aric Almirola has started in the top 10. In the spring he finished eighth. But last fall? Amirola’s car was surprising everyone.

His No. 43 led 69 laps and set the fastest pace 48 times — second only to eventual race winner Kenseth’s 50 — only to suffer a crash caused by a blown tire. He finished 29th but made an impression that day that likely went a long way in getting Richard Petty Motorsports to extend his contract. Kansas City-based sponsor Farmland also had to be impressed.

Naturally, Almirola is confident that his team could play spoiler as a dark horse in Sunday’s race.

“For whatever reason, we run really well at Kansas,” Almirola said. “We take some of the stuff from Kansas to the other mile-and-a-halfs but don't run as well as we do in Kansas.”

Crew chief Todd Parrott was even higher on the No. 43’s prospects.

“We have learned some things since April and hope to build on those during the test on Thursday,” Parrott said earlier this week. “I think we have the potential to be the best car this weekend and bring that No. 43 back to Victory Lane."



5. Michigan may be a good Kansas predictorWhile Almirola may feel confident going into the weekend and Kenseth may be looking for the right combination to match the new Kansas tire, what track features the same characteristics that might offer a solid prediction about Sunday’s race?

The easy answer is Chicagoland Speedway — a venue built to nearly identical specifications as Kansas originally, save for a curved backstretch. But if you ask Mark Martin, the answer sits a few states east and north of the Kansas City, Kan., track: Michigan International Speedway.

“I think you should be able to use a lot of your setup logic from Michigan to apply because of the paving and the smoothness,” Martin said. “Even though they’re shaped differently, I think that a lot of the loading and a lot of the characteristics will be very similar. So, I think you need to look at your notes from what you did at Michigan.”

NASCAR has raced twice at Michigan this year. If teams are using a setup logic that is similar, it figures many of the same drivers will run up front at Kansas that did at Michigan. In the two Michigan races, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard scored the best average finishes. As for Michigan laps led, Biffle (76 laps led), Logano (72), Kurt Busch (64), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (54) and Martin Truex Jr. (23) led the way.

Of course, both Michigan races weren’t too kind to Jimmie Johnson. In June, he blew a tire in the final laps chasing Greg Biffle for the lead and in August the No. 48 lost an engine.

Obviously that’s one Kansas predictor Johnson would sure like to prove wrong.


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, October 4, 2013 - 17:00
Path: /nascar/fantasy-nascar-picks-kansas-speedway
Body:

To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its Sprint Cup Series driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s 9-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned drivers strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.


Next: Hollywood Casino 400 (Kansas Speedway)
Race: 400 miles, 267 laps (1.5-mile oval)
April 2013 Winner: Matt Kenseth


A-List (Pick two, start one)
Are you out of starts for Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth? Because I'm out of starts for Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. It doesn't matter. I'm still picking them for this column. I'm opening new Yahoo accounts just for that purpose.

Jimmie Johnson
I realize there are people who hate Jimmie Johnson. They hate his winning ways. They hate that mostly full beard that seems to fill in with ease. They hate that he's better than Dale Earnhardt Jr. And they hate that I'm picking him for like the 93rd consecutive week. Sorry. I have to.

Johnson knows Kansas better than Dorothy. He's won two races there and hasn't finished worse than 14th at the track since Joe Nemechek went to Kansas' Victory Lane. Yes, Nemechek. Johnson owns an absurd 7.4 average running position at the 1.5-mile track and has spent just 11.4 percent of his laps in the last 11 races outside the top 15. Sure, go rogue and pick someone else. It won't work.

Matt Kenseth  Matt Kenseth
It'll frankly be a surprise if Matt Kenseth doesn't contend for the win Sunday at Kansas Speedway. Not to him of course — Kenseth isn't the type to call his shot — but to any else aware of how past performance is a nice predictor of future success.

Kenseth is the two-time defending winner on Kansas’ new pavement, with the most recent coming on a cold April weekend. Kansas is going to be cold again this weekend, but Kenseth shouldn't have trouble. He does own the second-best average running position of all A-List drivers at the track (9.5) but that's not the best reason to pick him. The best reason? Consider where the trophies from Kansas, Las Vegas and Chicagoland have all gone this season.

Also consider: Jeff Gordon (9.7 average running position), Kevin Harvick (12.7 ARP)


B-List
Kyle Busch

There are a lot of reasons to avoid Kyle Busch this weekend. Two of them are the pair of spins he took in the spring race at the track thanks to his No. 18 just simply never finding the right handle. He ultimately didn't finish when the second spin collected Joey Logano and caused a jolting crash.

But Busch is riding a wave success in the Sprint Cup Series right now after he's scored three top-5 finishes to start the Chase. He also had a car capable of winning at Chicago before his teammate, Kenseth, swept in for the glory. Picking Busch this weekend is all about how well he's run lately, not about his past Kansas record.

Martin Truex Jr.
Martin Truex Jr., still driving blindly toward a very uncertain future in the Sprint Cup Series, sure could use a second win in 2013 to boost his profile. It would add a dose of good news to the driver most slapped around (though least deserving of it) from the fallout of Richmond's spin-gate.

Kansas could be just the place. Truex has finished second, second and fourth in the last three Kansas races. He led in two of them for a total of 219 laps. In April, he posted the third-most fastest laps of the race (27) with only race-winner Kenseth and third-place Johnson notching more.


Greg BiffleI've not been very high on Greg Biffle making a legitimate run in the Chase thanks to his mostly ho-hum regular season. I still feel the same way three races in.

But Biffle could be an unexpected contender this weekend. Consider that his average running position in the last 11 Kansas races is 8.2 — good for second-best in the series. He's also a two-time winner on the 1.5-mile track. Biffle's win this season came at Michigan, a track with pavement only one year older than Kansas. But do be warned: Biffle started 11th and finished 19th at Kansas in April. Ho-hum.

Carl Edwards  Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth
Carl Edwards finished 17th at Kansas Speedway in April. That's enough to think he didn't have a front-running car, right? Wrong. Edwards was a top-5 car much of the day in the spring race before he was one of several victims of a caution flag that waved as the final round of green flag pit stops was beginning. In fact, Edwards was the third-best driver in the race by average running position. He led 19 laps.

More encouraging for Edwards this weekend may be how well his car handled early in the race at Atlanta on the new tire compound Goodyear unveiled that weekend. He qualified second and led 68 laps in the early stages before falling back. The new tire type returns for the first time Sunday at Kansas.

Also consider: Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch


C-List (Pick two, start one)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The same caution flag that bit Edwards and other drivers in the spring Kansas race also consumed Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s best chance yet to record his first Sprint Cup Series win. Stenhouse wound up 11th at the finish after leading 26 laps just before the race's final pit stop.

With the Chase at full steam, it's unlikely that Stenhouse will find a way to break into the top 5 at the end of Sunday's race, but it's a good bet that he'll be the top scoring C-List driver by the end of the 400 miles.

Danica Patrick
Danica's second half of her rookie Sprint Cup season grew more disappointing when she struggled to a finish six laps down at Dover last week. It's plainly obvious that her experience and knowledge to go fast in stock car racing is still far below what it takes to compete in the top division. However, Kansas might be a track where a savvy C-List pick of the No. 10 could earn a finish close to 20th. Patrick finished 25th at Kansas in June and rolled off a 20th-place run at Chicago just three weeks ago.

Also consider: David Gilliland, Casey Mears


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

 

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Kansas Speedway, Matt Kenseth, NASCAR
Path: /nascar/nascar-numbers-game-5-amazing-stats-kansas
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Don’t call it humdrum. The new Kansas Speedway, repaved following the 2012 spring race, went from milquetoast rom-com to grind-house flick with the addition of fresh asphalt.

In last year’s Chase stop at Kansas, a whopping 24.7 percent of the race was run under caution (the highest percentage of the 2012 Chase), thanks to 14 caution flags for a slew of chippy, ill-advised moves on a tire compound that manufactured such slam-bang action. In this year’s race, Goodyear brings a multi-compound tire similar to the one that drivers used Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, which allowed drivers to lane-hop with more ease.

Crazy track, plus a tire that allows a driver to move from groove to groove untethered? Expect the unexpected.

In a two-race sample size at Kansas, there isn’t much on which anyone can reliably bank. One driver, who fancies this particular 1.5-mile track type, stands a head above the rest. He happens to be leading the standings with seven races remaining in the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.


3 for 3  Matt Kenseth is undefeated in races at soft intermediate tracks — Kansas, Kentucky and Chicagoland — this season, going three-for-three.  Matt Kenseth

Dating back to this race last year, he has won the last four out of five races (Homestead 2012 is the outlier) on soft intermediates, which are 1.5-mile tracks slower than the Bruton Smith-signature quad-ovals at Charlotte, Atlanta, Texas and Las Vegas. In other words, he’s a titan on this specific track type.

So how well does his team hold up?

In three soft intermediate races driving the No. 20 entry for Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth’s car ranked first, second and second in single-race average green-flag speed. He’s had the outright fastest car just once (Kansas), but was aided in a Jason Ratcliff call to forego pitting in the final laps of the Kentucky race. There isn’t any reason to think that the team won’t supply Kenseth with a competitive race car and smart strategy on Sunday.


+8  Kenseth retained position 100 percent of the time in nine restarts in the Kansas spring race, gaining a total of eight positions in the first two laps after the green flag.

The amazing thing about Kenseth’s plus-8 is that those positions were all gained from the treacherous non-preferred groove, where it is about 30 percent more difficult for a driver to merely retain the position. He didn’t gain in the running order from the preferred groove, but that’s only because he started P1 on all five of those restarts. There is plenty to love about Kenseth’s driving ability, but his prowess on restart position retainment might be his best attribute. To other drivers, he is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a fire suit.


0.750  Kevin Harvick is a replacement-level driver in the two races on Kansas’s new surface, with a 0.750 Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER).  Kevin Harvick

Don’t toss aside his chances at a point-padding finish, though; two races is an awfully small sample size and he could have scored a top-10 finish in the spring race at Kansas had he not lost two positions from the non-preferred groove on the race’s final restart (he ultimately finished 12th). He finished 10th at Kentucky and a sprightly third at Chicagoland.


-15  Since the repaving of Kansas Speedway, Greg Biffle’s average finish there is 15 positions worse.

Prior to Kansas becoming a 1.5-mile version of Darlington, Biffle was a reliable racer, averaging an eighth-place finish and scoring two wins. In the CoT era, he never finished worse than 10th. In the two races on the current surface, he averaged a 23rd-place finish (scores of 27th and 19th), suggesting he and crew chief Matt Puccia haven’t yet cracked the code of how to navigate around the new pavement. Because of his past accolades at the facility, he’ll pop up as a favorite for this weekend, but the reality is that in the two-race sample size we have for “New Kansas” suggests he’s more likely to be stymied on Sunday.


8 out of 10  Out of Kyle Busch’s 10 NASCAR Nationwide Series victories this season, eight of them rank among the 10 most dominant victories in the series.

The No. 54 team, with Busch as its driver, holds the top four percentage-of-laps led totals this season. While the Penske Racing No. 22 has scored more victories — 11, with four different drivers — the No. 54 has been the most dominant in its victorious showings. The most dominant outing? A romp at Chicagoland — a track shaped similarly to Kansas — where Busch led 97.5 percent of the laps. Busch finished sixth in the Cup Series companion event at Kansas last season, driving for his own race team. Now with JGR firepower and a penchant for passing out woodshed whippings, he returns as the driver to beat on Saturday.


For PEER and other metrics with which you may be unfamiliar, check out David’s glossary of terms on MotorsportsAnalytics.com.

David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projections, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.


 

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 - 18:00
Path: /nascar/dover-dominance-johnson-wins-tightens-nascar-chase-battle
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“I think Jimmie is probably the most underrated champion we have in this industry. He is by far the most powerful driver over the course of the last 25, 35 years in this sport.”

Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus is not known for his use of hyperbole. Knaus is thoughtful, measured and well-spoken when interacting with the media. And the man’s a genius at his trade: making cars go fast.

So when the champion crew chief heaps that sort of praise on a driver — even if it’s his own — people have a tendency to stop, look and listen.

“He’s able to dig deeper, pull out his cape, make things happen in winning moments of these races that other people cannot do. It’s pretty spectacular,” Knaus continued.

His statements, of course, were directed at Jimmie Johnson, with whom Knaus has won 65 races and five NASCAR Sprint Cup titles. They said following another masterful performance by both driver and crew chief, this at Dover International Speedway, where the No. 48 team laid waste to the field, leading 243-of-400 laps in the AAA 400 en route to its first victory of the 2013 Chase. It was also Johnson’s record eighth career win on Dover’s high banks.  Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus

Despite the praise and the accomplishment — Johnson surpassed Richard Petty’s and Bobby Allison’s seven Dover wins on Sunday — it was his smooth, workman-like effort that has come to define a driver that will go down as this generation’s best in NASCAR.

“You’ve got to win when you’re at your best track,” Johnson said matter-of-factly. “That being said, we had to win here today. I think any points (gained) on the 18 (Kyle Busch) or the 20 (Matt Kenseth) would have been a very good day, (but) max points? It’s an awesome day.”

In order to score the win, Johnson had to outrun teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the event’s closing laps.

A caution flag 29 laps from the race’s conclusion brought the field to pit road. There, Knaus made the call to change two tires while many of the leaders — including Earnhardt — bolted on four. The quick work in the pits found Johnson lined up first, with the preferred outside groove, alongside Earnhardt. When the race resumed with 25 laps to go, Johnson eased out into the lead and never faltered, leading the rest of the way to score a .446-second victory.

“I felt like as we got (into) traffic, Jimmie was starting to struggle a little bit in the last couple of laps,” Earnhardt said. “My car actually got better the longer I ran and drove better. It wasn’t quite clicking just yet, (but) our car was starting to come around.

“I think the difference in the tires between our two cars was about to show. But the race is 400 laps.”

Johnson’s quest for a sixth title was bolstered by the win, as he leapt over Kyle Busch for second in the championship standings and gained six points on leader Matt Kenseth. Johnson sits eight points behind Kenseth; Busch is 12 back.

Kenseth, who has found success at Dover in the past, finished seventh after winning the first two Chase races. Busch was fifth, his third top-5 showing in NASCAR’s playoff.

“Overall, for how bad I felt like we struggled with the car, that was a decent finish,” Kenseth said. “(But) when you look up, it’s everybody that finished in front of you. (They are) all the cars that you’re racing for points.

“I feel like this is one of our best racetracks and you want to do better than seventh at one of your best tracks. Overall, it was a solid day, but we wished for a little more.”

While Busch gained two points on his teammate, Kenseth, the  fifth-place run still left him with a hollow feeling.

“It’s certainly appealing and you could be happy with it, but we’re a little disappointed at the same time,” he said. “We felt like we wanted to come in here, we wanted to run better — we could run better here. We have before, and we just could never really get the feel that I was looking for the whole weekend.”

With Kenseth, Johnson and Busch having separated themselves from the Chase pack, Dover’s race winner is narrowing his focus.

“My whole thought process was just how tough this championship’s going to be,” Johnson said. “They’re bringing their best and doing their best. You’ve got to deliver. That was my mindset when I was racing with both of those guys for three-quarters of the race.

“We need to win at our best tracks, and we did that.”


Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, September 30, 2013 - 14:00
Path: /nascar/will-dover-throw-curve-nascars-chase-favorites
Body:

1. Jimmie Johnson has to be the early favorite
There were two surprising events for Jimmie Johnson during the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Dover International Speedway in June. But it was the second one that bit harder.

First, Johnson turned in his worst qualifying performance at Dover since 2007 when his lap of 155.206 mph left him nearly a half-second off of Denny Hamlin’s pole-winning pace and starting the 400-mile race in 24th. It ultimately didn’t matter; Johnson took the lead just after the race’s halfway point.

What really cost Johnson at Dover in June wasn’t a poor pit stop or bad handling as the race wore on. Instead, Johnson left a win on the table when he was ruled to have jumped a late restart. Forced to pit for the penalty, Johnson finished a lap down in 17th. He vehemently disagreed with the penalty but his opposition didn’t sway NASCAR officials.

Despite the miss, Johnson still led 143 laps in June and looked ready to add win No. 8 at Dover to his ever-growing list of NASCAR achievements. Should he win Sunday, Johnson will take the title as winningest driver in Dover history, breaking a tie with Bobby Allison and Richard Petty.

Oh, and one other thing: the last two times Johnson won the fall race at Dover (2009 and 2010), he went on to win the championship.


2. Three straight wins for Kenseth not out of the question  Matt Kenseth
Considering Matt Kenseth a solid contender for Sunday’s race isn’t a surprise, either. He has, after all, won two straight to start this edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. It’s been a commanding performance.

But don’t think about Kenseth’s Dover chances solely in the mode of sustained momentum.

Kenseth had a fruitful streak at Dover during his time with Roush-Fenway Racing. He scored two wins, 13 top-5 and 18 top-10 finishes in 28 starts with the Ford team. That Kenseth has been good at Dover in the past is a bad omen for teams hoping his strong start will cool off, as Kenseth has seemingly picked up his game enough that even his poor tracks (like New Hampshire Motor Speedway) aren’t too poor anymore.

Making matters worse for those hoping to catch him in the point standings is knowing that Kenseth was leading the race at Dover in June when his engine blew. A mediocre run for the No. 20 Sunday would be the bigger surprise.


3. The steep fall of Denny Hamlin
While Kenseth and teammate Kyle Busch have been the sport’s high-flying duo at the most critical of times in the season, it has been plenty strange to see the third driver in the Joe Gibbs Racing camp conspicuously absent from the front of the field.  Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin, a Chase participant a year ago that had his season standings position dashed when he was forced to sit out several races due to injury in the spring, hasn’t had a top-10 finish since the calendar said June. What in the world is going on?

Judging by his lack of good finishes, it’s hard to tell if Hamlin even knows. He’s even struggled at tried-and-true tracks for the No. 11 like Richmond and New Hamsphire. You can bet the sleepless nights for crew chief Darian Grubb have been plentiful.

Maybe it turns around Sunday for Hamlin. Dover started well for him in June. He sat on the pole and led 41 laps.

But just like the rest of his 2013 season, it didn’t pan out. Hamlin crashed and didn’t finish.



4. Who can we count out?NASCAR’s point system hates mulligans. It hates drivers who have a single bad race. And it hates drivers trying to make a comeback.

That’s why it took five wins from Tony Stewart in 2011 to score the championship despite the fact his worst finish was 25th during the 10-race Chase. And that’s why after just two races there are already several drivers who have basically been eliminated from contention with finishes no worse than mediocre.

Who is on that list? Start from the bottom. Kasey Kahne is 71 points out after his New Hampshire crash and doesn’t have a fighting chance to make up nearly two races worth of points in the final eight events. Joey Logano (-69) knew when his engine blew at Chicagoland that his title hopes were going to be brief. Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked this week about being close to a win (he’s winless in 2013) but even that wouldn’t do much for his 62-point deficit.

Next we get to those drivers on the edge of competition and in desperate need of a three-car crash at Dover taking out Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Johnson. Those include Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer, and based on the recurring bad luck we’ve seen from Jeff Gordon all year, he’s on the list, too.

Counting Kurt Busch out makes sense because that team seems too unreliable for a title shot, and doing the same for Greg Biffle seems plausible because he’s run in top 5 with little regularity all season.

That leaves us with Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards as the main contenders to Johnson, Busch and Kenseth. Things may change, sure, but this is a five-man championship battle — optimistically — right now.



5. Fuel mileage race repeat at Dover?Brad Keselowski fired the first shot of the 2012 Chase with his unexpected win at Chicagoland Speedway in the opener. He turned his battle serious by scoring the win in the third race of last season’s title fight at Dover.

But Keselowski was hardly dominant at Dover last fall. That title fell to Kyle Busch, as the No. 18 lead a whopping 302 laps of the 400-lap race and looked like he was going to cruise to victory. But the race, like so many last season, played out in a fashion befitting fuel mileage gamblers.

That’s how Jeff Gordon finished second and Mark Martin third. Busch wound up seventh, one lap down.

Guessing how Sunday’s race will play out is never possible, but there’s a pretty decent chance it will end on a longer green flag run. The last 12 events at Dover have averaged the final caution flag waving with 62 laps to go.

A late-race shakeup like last season could be just what some of the outside-looking-in drivers need to boost their title hopes. Don’t be surprised if a few gamble in hopes of that happening.


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
 

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, September 27, 2013 - 16:00
Path: /nascar/fantasy-nascar-picks-dover-international-speedway
Body:

 

To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its Sprint Cup Series driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s 9-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned drivers strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.


Next: AAA 400 (Dover International Speedway)
Race: 400 laps, 400 miles (1-mile oval)
June 2013 Winner: Tony Stewart



A-List
Jimmie Johnson  Jimmie Johnson
Look at that No. 48 Chevrolet, with driver Jimmie Johnson, silently waiting in the wings of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. After two races, he's third behind Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch and ready to pounce, just 18 points back after the front two have stolen all of the playoff headlines. Don't be surprised when it's Johnson up front late in the going Sunday afternoon at Dover International Speedway. Remember, it was Johnson in June who looked destined to notch another win at Dover before NASCAR ruled he jumped a late restart. The cost? Johnson finished 17th after leading 143 laps and missed out on his eighth career Dover win.

Matt Kenseth
Why fight it? Matt Kenseth is two-for-two in the Chase. Heck, he's Jimmie Johnson-ing this thing. You have to expect that to continue at Dover — a track where Kenseth's statistics far outrank those at Chicagoland Speedway or New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Kenseth is a two-time Dover winner and has 13 top-5 finishes in 29 starts. Kenseth's average running position at Dover in the last 17 races ranks as the second-best in the series (we've already listed the top performer) and he's returning to a track where he led 29 laps in June before his engine expired.

Also consider: Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick


B-List
Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch blew an engine at Dover in the spring 2012 race, and that was significant for more than just being another in a long list of Toyota-built issues. That 29th-place finish in 2012 marked the first time since the fall of 2009 that Busch had finished worse than sixth at Dover. In the two Dover races since, Busch has gotten back on track. He was seventh last fall (and would have won without a finish determined by fuel mileage) and ran fourth in June. Oh, and Busch has led 452 of the last 800 laps at Dover. He's a no-brainer start for Sunday.


Greg BiffleThe most unheralded finish in Sunday's race in Loudon was Greg Biffle's third-place run. Biffle had the second fewest top-5 finishes among Chase-eligible drivers before the playoffs began, and used the run to jump to fifth in the standings. He may be able to pair the solid finish with another at Dover where he's been a consistent performer. By career average finish, the Monster Mile is Biffle's fourth-best track — a measure he's proven with two wins and six top-5s. Biffle hasn't been as solid at Dover of late, finishing 15th in June. But he was also 15th in the first NHMS race of the season before his third-place run in the return.

Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards, like most Roush-Fenway Racing drivers, likes Dover. Like his teammate Biffle, the one-mile track counts as Edwards' fourth best in terms of career average finish. Edwards is also a former winner at Dover, and during his near-miss season in 2011 he led 233 laps in the two Dover races. Edwards was an average 14th at Dover back in June, but he's hard to pass up for Sunday's race among B-list drivers thanks to a career average running position at the track of 10.3. That's good enough for third-best among all active drivers.


Juan Pablo MontoyaUndoubtedly, Juan Pablo Montoya doesn't seem like much of a favorite at Dover. His average running position at the track is quite low among the B-list types (19.7). He's finished worse than 22nd at Dover in five of the last seven races at the track. But Montoya, destined for a return to IndyCar next season after his contract with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing wasn't renewed, was just a couple of laps from winning at Dover earlier this season. A lot went right to get him a second-place finish in July, but it didn't happen with a poor handling car. Combine that result with his third-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway just five weeks ago, and Montoya may be the lucky pick for a team scrapping the barrel for results from drivers with plenty of fantasy starts left.

Also consider: Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr.



C-List
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.  Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse quietly ended his two-race burst of top-10 finishes last week with a 24th-place run at NHMS, but that shouldn't leave you wondering if he's back to the often-struggling Stenhouse of early 2013. If you've got starts left for the rookie at this point, he's still the best bet available among C-list competitors. Consider, too, that Stenhouse is making his third-career Dover start this weekend after successful outings of 12th and 13th in his first two. If Stenhouse can work out a similar finish on Sunday, that'll be plenty good for the toughest list to pick in 2013.

Casey Mears
The June Dover race brought an unusual number of C-list drivers into the race's top 25 (five in all) and the second-best among them was Casey Mears. Mears was 16th that day, and was actually statistically better throughout the race than Stenhouse who finished just ahead of him. Mears' average running position was 17th, one spot ahead of Stenhouse. That average position number was also Mears' second best of the season (he averaged 16th at the July Daytona race) to date.

Also consider: David Ragan, Ryan Truex


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
 

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Dover International Speedway, NASCAR
Path: /nascar/nascar-numbers-game-free-agents-look-make-splash-dover
Body:

Mark Martin has competed in 875 races at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series level. He won 40 of those. He turns 55 years old in 2014 and while his seemingly endless production has provided multiple teams — the now-defunct Ginn Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Michael Waltrip Racing and, now, Stewart-Haas Racing — with value, his Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) this season stands at a replacement-level 0.643, the worst season-long mark of his 30-year career.

Is it over? Has the value diminished?

The longevity we’ve seen from him is practically unparalleled in sports, but eventually we will see the day when he can no longer produce admirable results. The good news for Martin fans is that this Sunday’s race at Dover shouldn’t be that day.


3.865  In PEER specific to Dover, Martin ranks fourth (3.865 PEER) among all Cup Series drivers on the concrete speedway.

Though he hasn’t won at the track since 2004 (the Gen-4 era), he has earned eight top-10 finishes in the 13 races since the CoT’s inception. He also happens to be stepping into a No. 14 car for Stewart-Haas that won at Dover with the fast-closing Tony Stewart in the spring. Martin won’t have the win expectancy of, say, Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth, but his past numbers suggest he could be a king among the non-Chasers.

For a driver who is unsure of his 2014 job prospects, it could be a day that extends his stay in the sport. Like Martin, there are other drivers looking at Dover as a potential audition site for a new job next season.


227  Martin Truex’s 227 laps led at Dover ranks as the sixth-most among all drivers dating back to 2007.  Martin Truex Jr.

A native of nearby Mayetta, N.J., Truex has enjoyed his share of success on the Monster Mile, compiling a 1.923 PEER (ranks 10th out of 52 drivers) and a win, his first in the Cup Series, which came in 2007. It’s a handy track for him to come to, considering his sponsor announced last week it wouldn’t return to Michael Waltrip Racing following the post-Richmond penalties. He has been on something of a tear in the last four races this season, with three top-10 finishes — he led 98 laps last weekend at New Hampshire — and the best PEER (3.875) among non-Chasers in that time frame. With no sponsorship for 2014 and permission to seek other rides, Truex is driving his price up as a potential free agent. His pay grade could rise with another swell run at Dover.


23.9  David Ragan, with two wildly different race teams, has averaged a disappointing 23.9-place finish in 14 Cup Series starts at Dover.

That includes 11 races under the Roush Fenway Racing banner in which the best Monster Mile finish he could muster was a 14th-place effort in 2007. Currently in Year 2 at underfunded Front Row Motorsports, Ragan would undoubtedly like to leap back into a ride with a more relevant race team. His -0.346 PEER at Dover doesn’t exactly bode well for an audition; however, he did finish 22nd in the spring race, about four positions better than his average finish this season (25.8).


14.3%  The No. 30 Swan Racing team, with former driver David Stremme and current crew chief Steve Lane, finished in the top half of the field 14.3 percent of the time in 21 races together this season.

This, or their 29.8 average finish, is believed to be the bar in which one of the young whippersnappers — Kevin Swindell was in the car last weekend, while Cole Whitt takes the reins at Dover — are expected to clear in this 10-race tryout period team owner Brandon Davis is giving. Whitt has a good shot of out-producing Stremme at Dover, considering his predecessor’s PEER in nine races on the high-banked mile (-0.583) ranks 51st out of 52 drivers with three or more starts in the Gen-5/Gen-6 era. Only Kyle Petty (-0.667) is a less productive Dover driver than Stremme.


6 of 3+  Dating back to the first NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland Speedway this season, Sam Hornish Jr. has amassed six finishes of third or better in the last 10 races.  Sam Hornish Jr.

The Penske Racing driver is both on the hunt for his first Stock Car title and, potentially, a job next season. It seems as if the Penske inn is about to be without vacancies, leaving Hornish to fend for himself in the world of fenders. His recent march to the Nationwide title has been quite impressive; omitting an DNF due to overheating at Indianapolis, his clean average finish in nine of the last 10 races is 4.1. The good fortune could continue this weekend. He qualified on the front row and finished seventh in the Dover Nationwide race in the spring.


For PEER and other metrics with which you may be unfamiliar, check out David’s glossary of terms on MotorsportsAnalytics.com.

David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projections, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.

Photos by Actions Sports, Inc.

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Post date: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 - 14:00
All taxonomy terms: Matt Kenseth, NASCAR
Path: /nascar/kenseth-rolls-loudon-scores-second-nascar-chase-win
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It should come as no surprise that a driver who has spent a career  flying under the radar in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is at his best while the sport churns in a chaotic whirlwind of controversy.

Welcome to winning, Matt Kenseth-style.

As fallout from a Richmond rumpus continues to rain down on the sport, Kenseth just keeps on winning — while staying well above the fray.

The first-year Joe Gibbs Racing driver won Chase race No. 2 on Sunday in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, his second straight victory in as many playoff events. He did so in his milestone 500th Cup start — a feat the 41-year-old summed up in his classic deadpan manner, saying, “All this really means is that I’m old.”

If experience equates to success, then the 13-driver Chase field should be on high alert. Further, Kenseth’s wildly successful maiden voyage in JGR’s Toyotas — the victory in Loudon was his career-best seventh of the season — should have the competition downright nervous. After all, he already holds a full race-worth of a points lead over one-third of the competition. Not that Kenseth is preoccupied with such stats.

“My outlook or approach is really not any different, honestly,” Kenseth said of his hot start to the 10-race playoff. “I know it’s kind of cliché, but it really is one week at a time, especially right now. If you get down toward the end (of the Chase) and you’re lucky enough to have a lead or something, maybe you start looking at that more.”

His tempered approach is predicated on a points format that awards consistency; where poor finishes are more damaging than sterling finishes rewarded.

“Two whole months of racing is a lot of racing, and in this system one bad finish and you’re behind, said Kenseth.”

When examining the upcoming slate of races, though, poor finishes aren’t the first thing that come to mind for Kenseth. He has two wins at Dover, the next stop on tour; he’s won the last two visits to Kansas; was a 2011 winner at Charlotte and is the defending race-winner at Talladega.

“Again, anything can happen anywhere,” said Kenseth, downplaying the advantageous schedule. “You can be at your best track and have whatever happen and get a bad finish. But certainly (I) have a lot of confidence in the next three tracks coming up.”

The first speedbump — Talladega’s crapshoot aside — comes fives weeks down the road, when the sport hits the half-mile Martinsville Speedway. It’s a venue where Kenseth has yet to record a win and has only three top-5 showings in 27 starts. Even then, he doesn’t seem overly concerned, saying, “I’m actually pretty confident going to Martinsville.”

And why not? Four of Kenseth’s 2013 wins have come at racetracks  — Chicagoland, Darlington, Kentucky and now New Hampshire — where he’d failed to post a win previously. So what’s different this season than in year’s past?

“I think a lot of this sport is about combinations,” Kenseth explained. “When you think of Jimmie (Johnson) and Chad (Knaus), Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon, there wasn’t anybody that could beat them. It has to start with the organization that has the fast cars and have all that stuff — but you’ve got to have the right group (of people), and I’m really fortunate right now to have the right group.”

Included in that “group” — though relatively distanced — has been Kenseth’s chief Chase challenger, teammate Kyle Busch, who finished second the last two weeks to the No. 20 car. And that’s kept Kenseth honest.

“Matt is just executing at the end of the (race), which is what you’re supposed to do,” Busch said.

“I won eight of the first 26 (in 2008) and then fell flat on my face (in the Chase). Matt is doing a really good job — he’s put it all together.”

So while the questionable events that transpired in Richmond’s transfer race continue to demand a white-hot spotlight within the sport, the pre-Chase favorites of Kenseth, Busch and the sleeping giant of Johnson methodically rack up top-flight finishes.

That fact isn’t lost on the current points-leader:

“When you look at what the 48 (Johnson) can do and the 18 (Busch) — and they’re going to be good everywhere — you’d better be good everywhere if you’re thinking that you’re going to be a contender.”

There are still eight long weeks remaining in NASCAR’s 2013 championship chase, but as is typically the case, those contenders have already put the field on notice.


Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
 

 

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Post date: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 - 10:47

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