Articles By Matt Taliaferro

Path: /columns/garage-talk/long-and-short-it-nationwide-renaissance-gordons-flip-baby-otis

by Dustin Long

Have you noticed the oddity already taking place in NASCAR this season?

Don’t see it?

Look at the Nationwide Series where all three races have been won by drivers not competing full time in Cup this year.

James Buescher won at Daytona, points leader Elliott Sadler at Phoenix and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Las Vegas last weekend.

Consider that only six of 34 Nationwide races last year were won by drivers not competing in Cup full time. In 2010, only one race was won by a Nationwide regular not competing in Cup.

The odds are likely that the current streak will end this weekend at Bristol. Kyle Busch has won the last three Nationwide races there and is entered, along with Cup drivers Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano.

Still, a tide is turning.

Sadler, who did not win a race but finished second in the points in 2011, is excited about his chances of winning multiple races this year.

“I feel like when we show up every week, we’re going to be very, very fast,” he said. “We’re going to haul butt at Bristol. They’re taking my favorite car. It’s neat to have this confidence in this race and it’s neat this race team has this confidence in me.”

Others can relate.

The first three races show what the Nationwide Series can become a way to showcase its drivers, particularly the younger ones. Buescher is 21, Stenhouse is 24.

It’s not just them having success.

Look at what 20-year-old Cole Whitt and 21-year-old Austin Dillon have done so far.

Whitt was fourth at Daytona, 13th at Phoenix and sixth at Las Vegas. Dillon was fifth at Daytona, fourth at Phoenix and seventh at Las Vegas. They’re the favorites for the rookie of the year title and, based on how they started the season, could make that an interesting race.

It’s already been quite a start to the season for Whitt, who might be better known as the driver who bumped teammate Danica Patrick at Daytona, causing her to wreck. He hit the wall during qualifying at Las Vegas, but the team repaired it instead of going to a backup.

“I didn’t want to start that way with Danica,” Whitt said. “I messed up. Hopefully, over time I can earn that respect back from them. That, obviously, put a lot of limelight on us, a lot more than I wanted. Obviously, I felt a little bit of the pressure. Hopefully, with a clean race (at Las Vegas) and run as good as we did, we keep pulling those off and earn the respect of the veterans.”

The challenge for the series, though, remains, finding a way to make it affordable for teams to provide younger drivers quality rides. That’s not easy in this economic climate, but that’s what it will take for the series to gain more attention and interest from fans.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 13:02
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/nascar-horsepower-rankings-9

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Greg Biffle  Biffle’s team was the one under the Roush Fenway banner that laid low during the offseason. The result has been third-place finishes across the board. Bristol is usually good to them, too.

2. Jimmie Johnson  It’s highly unlikely Chad Knaus’ appeal is overturned, but by appealing, Hendrick Motorsports bought Johnson a pair of top-5 finishes. Win or lose with the committee, this team remains a lock for the Chase.

3. Denny Hamlin  We’ll take the 20th-place finish at Vegas as a hiccup. Although, after fourth- and first-place runs at Daytona and Phoenix, the dip at an intermediate track was notable.

4. Tony Stewart  “Hey Darian, anything you can do, I can do better!” One week after Stewart’s former pit boss earned his first win with Hamlin, Stewart and new boss Steve Addington even the score.

5. Kevin Harvick  Worst finish so far this season is 11th. Harvick and the re-tooled No. 29 team have an uncanny knack for always being “there.” A couple wins in the next month or so could be on tap.

6. Matt Kenseth  Kenseth was on the business end of a Carl Edwards late-race move once again. For some reason, those never work out too well for the 2003 champ.

7. Carl Edwards  “The Aggressor” raced on to a fifth-place finish, his second top 10 of the year. Strangely, Edwards has yet to lead a lap this season. Is another hangover in store for last season’s championship runner-up?

8. Mark Martin  Says he’s OK with Dale Earnhardt Jr. after their dust-up in Vegas. The odds of anything spilling over to Bristol would have already been long — and those odds are off the board since Martin won’t even run there.

<p> Greg Biffle tops Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 11:17
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/tony-stewart-hits-jackpot-vegas

by Matt Taliaferro

It took 27 races for Tony Stewart to find Victory Lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last year. Four additional wins followed in the remaining nine weeks and Stewart earned his third Cup championship in one of the more dramatic finales in the sport’s history.

Stewart made it known on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that his No. 14 team will not only be a force in the Chase, but in NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, as well. Stewart dominated the Kobalt Tools 400, leading a race-high 127 laps, holding off all challengers through three restarts in the final 34 laps to score his first win of the 2012 season.

“It seemed like if we could get six or eight laps under our belt, we could start building that margin out again,” Stewart said of leading the field in the closing laps. “As soon as you started pulling away, the caution would come out again. You hate having to reset it like that, knowing for the first three laps you had to be spot on and not let them take advantage of a restart like that.

“You sit there and go, ‘How many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart? Something is going to get taken away from us because of this.’ It's very nerve-wracking.”

Stewart’s eventual race-winning move came on the first of the final three restarts. When the green flag waved with 34 laps remaining, Stewart, lined up in row three, shot his car to the tri-oval apron and around Brad Keselowski for the lead in Turn 1.

“The big thing was, that was when Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie (Johnson) had taken four tires and we had taken two. We knew if we could clear those guys, it would give us a little bit of a buffer and have some lap cars that would keep them occupied. We didn't know we were going to have three or four restarts after that. It was key to get out front right away and try and build a gap.”

Johnson held on for second, his second straight top-5 finish after a disappointing 42nd in the Daytona 500. Greg Biffle inherited the lead in the point standings with his third consecutive third-place run. Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.

The win was notable for Stewart in that it was his first career Cup triumph as Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway (which was added to the Cup schedule last season) are the only two active tracks where Stewart has yet to notch a Cup win.

“I take a lot of pride in being good in different types of cars, at least being competitive in different types of cars, being competitive at different racetracks,” Stewart said. “This is one we've been close a couple times and it got away. To finally check this off the list … that's what makes today so special — not so much the time of year we're getting it, just the fact we finally got this one.”

Encouraging run for Earnhardt  Dale Earnhardt Jr. started second in the Kobalt Tools 400. By the exit of Turn 2, he wrested the lead from teammate Kasey Kahne and held it for the next 43 laps. So dominant was his Chevy that Earnhardt chose to not report a tight condition on his car because the speed was so good.

“Knowing how it drove that first run, even though it was really fast, we should have worked on it and I should have told Steve (Letarte, crew chief) more about it,” Earnhardt said. “I should have let him understand what was going on.”

The car tightened up further once in traffic, and he was never able to fight back to the point. He finished 10th. Still, his 70 laps led bested the 52 he led in the entirety of the 2011 season.

Watch what you say  Brad Keselowski saw a good run go bad when his car appeared to run out of fuel on a restart with 17 laps remaining while running second.

Keselowski was fined last year for criticism of NASCAR’s new Electronic Fuel Injection system.

“We're not doing this because it's better for the teams,” Keselowski said in November. “I don't think we're really going to save any gas. It's a media circus, trying to make you guys happy so you write good stories. It gives them something to promote. We're always looking for something to promote, but the honest answer is it does nothing for the sport except cost the team owners money.

“Cars on the street are injected with real electronics, not a throttle body (like in NASCAR). So we've managed to go from 50-year-old technology to 35-year-old technology. I don't see what the big deal is.”

Following the 32nd-place finish in Vegas, Keselowski took to Twitter, noting that the problem he experienced was not an empty gas tank, but a lack of fuel being delivered to the engine: “Just to be clear. On the last restart the engine ran out of fuel, the fuel tank still had gas. This means the fuel system had a problem.”

Play nice, teammates  Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards may need to have a meeting of the minds before drivers take the gloves off at Bristol.

Edwards dove beneath Kenseth on the race’s final restart with four laps remaining while both ran in the top 5. The move put Kenseth in a precarious middle-lane position as the bunched-up field maneuvered through Turns 1 and 2. Kenseth’s car broke loose on corner exit and sideswiped the wall. Edwards drove on to a fifth-place finish while the damage dropped Kenseth to 22nd.

“Carl just laid back and got me three-wide, and it just didn’t seem there was a lot of room getting into (Turn) 1,” Kenseth said. “And then I did get clear behind him and he just stopped in the middle of the corner. I don’t really know what happened.”

“Matt spun his tires a little bit (on the restart) and I got a run on him, “Edwards explained. “And then Greg (Biffle) and I went around him and he ended up getting wrecked. I feel terrible.”

Follow Matt on Twitter:

<p> Tony Stewart won the Kobalt Tools 400 from Las Vegas Motor Speedway.</p>
Post date: Sunday, March 11, 2012 - 22:25
Path: /columns/garage-talk/how-do-you-stop-nascar-monopoly

by Tom Bowles

After five years of skydiving downward in both ratings and relevance, 2011 appeared to be the season NASCAR pulled out the parachute. A white-knuckle championship battle, ending in a tie between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, led to a double-digit audience increase in the Chase. Five new first-time winners showcased the parity of competition, while the upcoming car models for 2013 are reported to put the “stock” back in stock cars. (What do we call them again? The Car of Tomorrow, Tomorrow?) Even with a disastrous start to 2012, courtesy of Mother Nature, the rain-delayed Daytona 500 pulled an 8.0 in the Nielsens, with a total of 36.5 million people tuning in for at least some portion of the event — making it the second-most watched stock car race in history.

But as evidence mounts that NASCAR is headed in the right direction on-track, its position in company boardrooms across America remains in a precarious position. Last year’s Daytona 500 champion, Trevor Bayne — despite being charismatic, youthful (21), and trouble-free — failed to secure a primary backer to run the Cup Series full-time this year. Even now, he’s positioned to start no more than 12 races, despite being paired with the legendary Wood Brothers while watching funding for his AAA-baseball type Nationwide ride dry up completely.

Matt Kenseth, this year’s 500 champion and a top-5 finisher in last year’s Cup Series point standings, remains without funding for a whopping 41 percent of this season’s schedule. Even teammate Edwards, who fell just short of the title, lost full-time backer AFLAC and is using a potpourri of a half-dozen primary sponsors to make it through.

Why does the financial bleeding refuse to stop? All other major sports continue to rake in the dough for everything from stadiums to postseason tournaments, watching their “recession revenues” skyrocket. According to Forbes’ yearly evaluations in the four major stick-and-ball sports, the average value of a franchise went up over the past 12 months: 7 percent in MLB, 6.5 percent in the NBA, 5 percent in the NHL and 4 percent in the NFL. And NASCAR? Its average value within the top nine teams declined 3 percent, down to $141 million — a number that pales in comparison to even the $240 million average value of a hockey franchise. So if “it’s the economy, stupid,” as many NASCAR executives like to claim, why are people and advertising dollars beefing up elsewhere? Money still makes the world go round, and even in the cases where there’s a limited amount, people are choosing to spend it in other places.

It’s because fixing the sport’s business model is harder than it looks. Every organization is a private contractor, meaning the sport has no control over everything from how they spend their money to how many races they enter. During NASCAR’s “boom” years, in the 1990s, that was a good thing: any Joe Schmo off the street with a license could come in with a racecar and attempt competition at even the sport’s top level. But as the price to play increased, NASCAR’s lack of leverage bit it as a “country club” level of elite owners gathered exorbitant amounts of money and resources to compete. Opening up their own engine shops, chassis centers and hiring the Best Buy geek squad of aerodynamic specialists, their price to play became bloated compared to the $5 million it took to win in the mid-’90s. Suddenly, $25 million for a sponsor was what a small, single-car team needed to match the amount a four-car organization was paying its glutton of 400-plus employees.

That’s important, because as the sport enters 2012 a decline in both owners and revenues continue to give us one crucial exception to the rule. Take a look at how the top 5 NASCAR race teams in value have evolved over the last five years since Forbes first rated them in mid-2006:

Forbes’ Most Valuable NASCAR Teams: 2007
1) Roush Fenway Racing - $316 million
2) Hendrick Motorsports - $297 million
3) Joe Gibbs Racing - $173 million
4) Evernham Motorsports - $128 million
5) Richard Childress Racing - $124 million

Total value of the top 9 teams in the sport: $1.444 billion
No. 1 Team (Roush Fenway Racing): 21.8 percent of that total

Forbes’ Most Valuable NASCAR Teams: February 2012
1) Hendrick Motorsports - $350 million
Percentage Difference: +17.8 percent

2) Roush Fenway Racing - $185 million
Percentage Difference: -41.5 percent

3) Joe Gibbs Racing: $155 million
Percentage Difference: -10.4 percent

4) Richard Childress Racing: $147 million
Percentage Difference: +15.6 percent

5) Stewart-Haas Racing: $108 million
Percentage Difference: N/A

Total value of the top 9 teams in the sport: $1.267 billion (8.7 percent decline)
No. 1 Team (Hendrick Motorsports): 27.6 percent of that total

You’ll notice that Hendrick, which was second before Jimmie Johnson racked up the first of five straight titles, now has nearly double the value of any other Cup Series organization. That’s not unusual in sports; in baseball, for example, the Yankees’ value ($1.7 billion) is almost twice that of the second-place Boston Red Sox. But in baseball, where every team is franchised, the Yankees pay a penalty for spending too much money, a luxury tax that benefits other teams and helps keep the sport’s competitive balance intact.

In NASCAR, there is no such thing, meaning as other teams fall further behind Hendrick can still charge top dollar for everything from advertising space to engines and chassis. Its equipment has now won six straight titles; even Stewart’s win last year, with his Stewart-Haas Racing team, came through the grace of Hendrick sheet metal and horsepower slapped on the side. As revenues increase, there are no consequences for Hendrick to consider cutting spending or streamlining its business. In fact, with the SHR partnership throwing an assist to “satellite” organizations, it only increases its value. And it’s A-plus marketing department, with statistics to sell, continues to rack up worldwide deals: they’re on the verge of getting a Chinese company, Trina Solar, to back Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 for nine events.

Does that mean money buys championships? Not necessarily, but the important thing is it appears that way to the owners who matter. Kenseth is the perfect example: he already has three sponsors in Best Buy, Zest (a new company) and Valvoline that, if Roush Fenway Racing lowered its operating costs could back him in all 36 events. Their presence is a sign the Fortune 500 isn’t completely ignoring the sport, they’re just putting their foot down and saying, “We’re not giving you a blank check anymore.”

But with the top team still pushing the envelope, how could Roush lower the price tag? No wonder Edwards has more logos on the side of his uniform than that guy with the pieces of flare in Office Space. Broken apart, then sold on particular drivers’ talent, that fleet of companies could back nearly 25 percent of the 43-car grid. But the price to play, uncontrolled, remains high enough that RFR believes the strategy must be to filter funding straight to their sponsor’s dream.

The same applies to an owner looking to enter the sport from the outside. No one wants to enter racing to run second, and right now, the impression is to run first, based on stats, you need to spend at a rate that creates a $350 million NASCAR organization. Even beyond Hendrick, the value for a team like Richard Childress Racing suggests an operating cost per team approaching $50 million.

Certainly in Hendrick’s case, considering Johnson left Daytona with negative points, the actual truth to that statement – money buys championships – is far from a guarantee. But the one place where NASCAR is right about the economy is too much money scares potential owners away, from Red Bull Racing bailing back to Europe to former Cup champion Robert Yates, who chose to retire rather than fall further behind the country club crowd.

This year, Forbes stopped short of ranking the top 10 NASCAR franchises because it only found nine that stood above the fray. What’s the solution? Some say franchising — the first step towards some sort of “salary cap” or “luxury tax” model the other major sports have employed. Others say an expansion of NASCAR’s one rule it tried to use to stop uncontrolled growth: a four-team “limit” per owner. Reducing that to two, plus outlawing the sales of engines and chassis to teams you do not own could limit information sharing, although it would do little to nothing to cut costs. Others feel like putting creativity back in the hands of the mechanics, like relaxing rules for the 2013 model and reducing dependence on aerodynamics, will give underdogs the ability to compete once again at the fraction of the cost. If it’s proven they can win — consistently, to the point a single-car team is making the Chase — perhaps the economics would magically reverse themselves.

There is no perfect solution out there right now. But it’s clear there’s a problem, and the quicker NASCAR stops denying it, blaming a dragging economy and starts working towards long-term fixes, the better off it’s going to be.


<p> Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles examines the economics of NASCAR, where corporate funding makes the cars go 'round.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 8, 2012 - 15:34
Path: /columns/garage-talk/backseat-drivers-fan-council-0

by Dustin Long

The Backseats Drivers Fan Council is back! While NASCAR and tracks have their own fan councils, most people don’t see the results of what fans are asked. That’s why I started a fan council last year where anyone could answer questions about the sport and see the results, along with comments fellow council members made.

Was NASCAR’s punishment of Chad Knaus fair? Do car brands matter anymore to NASCAR fans? Will rising gas prices force some fans to attend fewer NASCAR races? Those were among the topics members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debated in this week’s survey.

There’s much to discuss, which Fan Council members did, so, let’s get to what was said:

NASCAR announced that it would suspend crew chief Chad Knaus six races, fine him $100,000 and dock Jimmie Johnson 25 driver points, among other penalties after issues were found with Johnson’s car at Daytona in the first day at the track. Fan Council members were asked what they thought of the penalties, which Hendrick Motorsports is appealing.

44.4 percent said the penalty was appropriate
41.4 percent said the penalty was too harsh
14.2 percent said the penalty was not severe enough

What Fan Council members said:

• It's about time that they start looking at the body of work and not individual events for the 48 bunch. Has a year gone by in recent history when they weren't caught trying something? They were warned not to mess with the body and they have repeatedly. Time to drop the hammer and let the chips fall where they may.

• NASCAR officials seemed to talk a lot in the off-season about being more transparent and consistent with the fans, but I don't think this decision is very transparent. I believe that this punishment is about more than just C-posts. It's no big secret that NASCAR has been unhappy with how far Knaus has pushed the limits of the rules, so it appears to me that they are trying to 'put him back in place' with the suspension and fine, rather than just respond to the C-post issue.

• Innovation has always been part of racing, why kill it altogether. Not a 48 fan, but come on NASCAR, give the teams a break.

• I feel like there is either more to this story we don't know or this is too harsh.

• I think NASCAR is way out of line on this one. I figure what makes a good crew chief is a natural talent for figuring things out. Their goal isn't to cheat, but to figure out how to go faster. NASCAR believes its job is to rein them in, but I believe it's wrong for NASCAR to penalize them for being innovative. Tell them no, we don't like that, go change it, but a suspension and penalty like this is just way over the top.

• Chad is a repeat offender. He didn't learn from his previous penalties so it is only right that NASCAR make these penalties more severe. Bottom line is that Chad Knaus was cheating and he got caught and he was punished appropriately.

• Should 100% be overturned on appeal.

• It's impossible for fans to know the true violation without some kind of evidentiary support. Until NASCAR does a 5-minute video presentation on why it was illegal or not, fans will never completely understand what was wrong and how bad it was or wasn't. Have to trust the sanctioning body on this one.

<p> The Backseat Drivers Fan Council gives its opinion on NASCAR's penalty and manufacturer importance.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 8, 2012 - 12:26
Path: /columns/garage-talk/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-las-vegas

by Jay Pennell

While our 2012 fantasy season got off to a great start in Daytona, last weekend's race at Phoenix International Raceway proved even the hands-down favorite — in this case Kasey Kahne — can find trouble and ruin a fantasy day.

Anything can, and will, happen throughout the course of a race, making NASCAR one of the toughest fantasy sports to predict.

This weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits the desert for the second time in as many weeks, as the early season schedule rolls into the Sin City for the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Simply looking at the statistics, it is easy to see which team will head into Sunday's race the favorite. In a town built on gambling, this weekend's safe bet is Roush Fenway Racing. In the speedway's 14-year history, no organization has had more success than the Roush cars.

The “Cat in the Hat” Jack Roush has had one of his drivers celebrating in Victory Lane in seven of the 14 Sprint Cup events held at the venue. Carl Edwards earned his lone victory of the 2011 season on the 1.5-mile track, beating an otherwise dominant Tony Stewart in the process. Edwards was coming off two impressive performances at Daytona and Phoenix, although a wreck at PIR led to a 28th-place finish. This year, another Roush Fenway Racing driver finds himself in a similar situation.

Greg Biffle has a renewed confidence in 2012, after an extremely disappointing performance last year. He has been candid in his comments and criticism of the team’s 2011 showing and also outspoken about its upcoming trip to Vegas. With consecutive third-place finishes to open the season, Biffle seems poised to make his return to Victory Lane this weekend at a 1.5-mile venue where he’s clicked off five top 10s in eight starts. Biffle tops the list as this week’s fantasy favorite.

While Biffle’s teammate, Edwards, went to Victory Lane in last year’s Vegas race, his No. 99 Ford was not the most dominant car that day. That honor went to the aforementioned Stewart.

Leading 163 of the 267 laps, Stewart had to come through the field after a pit road penalty sent him to the back of the pack. Taking two tires to regain track position, Stewart was forced to take four tires on the final pit stop while Edwards took two.

Las Vegas is one of only two tracks currently on the Cup schedule where the defending series champion has yet to win (the other being Kentucky Speedway). After last year’s disappointing second-place finish, Stewart is eager to knock Vegas off his yet to win list.

Stewart was on par for a strong finish last Sunday in Phoenix, but an issue with the Electronic Fuel Injection system led to a 22nd-place finish (following a 16th at Daytona). Given their disappointing finish last weekend, I expect Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew to put up a solid finish this week, making the defending champion my safe play of the weekend.

<p> Fantasy NASCAR predictions for the Kobalt Tools 400 from Las Vegas Motor Speedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 8, 2012 - 10:50
Path: /columns/garage-talk/long-and-short-it-new-crew-chief-engines-and-outlook-working-logano

by Dustin Long

Joey Logano says he’s worked with the same sports psychologist teammate Denny Hamlin has, but that’s not the only reason why Logano could do something in Sunday’s Las Vegas race that he hasn’t in more than a year.

After finishing ninth in the Daytona 500 and 10th last weekend at Phoenix, Logano will seek to score his third consecutive top-10 finish — something he hasn’t done since his late-season charge in 2010.

A new attitude is important, as Logano admits, but it also helps to have better equipment, which Joe Gibbs Racing is providing.

If Logano’s early success continues, it could take some of the pressure off. He’s in a contract year and knows he needs to deliver on the potential that led Gibbs to put him in a Cup car full time when Logano was 18 years old.

Now 21 and able to legally walk through the Las Vegas casinos, Logano is learning what it takes to be a successful driver. He understands a key part is mental.

On the advice of Gibbs last year, Logano began talking with sports psychologist Bob Rotella. Hamlin credits Rotella for giving him a better outlook after his struggles last year. Logano also has seen the benefits after his talks with Rotella.

“(It) just kind of gives you some more answers and gives you some tools to be able to deal with certain situations and how to talk to people in a positive way, in a motivating way to keep everyone going,’’ Logano said. “All that stuff there is very, very important. It's people skills really, leadership skills.’’

That’s an area that Logano admits he was not prepared for when he moved to Cup. Then again, how many 18-year-olds are?

Logano’s struggles, compounded by the problems his team had last year, beat him down. He’s learned from talking with Rotella, known for working with several top PGA golfers, how to better handle such situations.

“The thing is you’ve got to show up at the race track with the right mindset and knowing that you can go out there and win the race and not going out there to finish in the top 10,” Logano said. “When you’re goal is to finish in the top 10, the best you’re ever going to finish is 10th. You need to focus in on winning.”

Better equipment also helps.

Engine woes saddled Gibbs’ team last year. Logano had to start at the rear of last year’s Daytona 500 because of an engine change and then blew an engine at Phoenix the following week. It started a season-long slide for the team. He finished on the lead lap twice in the first 11 races and by then was all but out of Chase contention. With Gibbs getting its engines from Toyota Racing Development this season, things seem to be better so far.

Logano helped Gibbs place all three cars in the top 10 at Phoenix with Hamlin winning and Kyle Busch placing sixth — something Gibbs did not do last season.

This year, Logano is one of only five drivers to open the season with consecutive top-10 finishes (the others are Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin).

Two races doesn’t guarantee anything and Logano understands that. Still, it’s a good way to start the season with a new crew chief, as Jason Ratcliff takes over after Greg Zipadelli left in the offseason to be the competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing.

One of the things Logano mentioned in the offseason was that the crew chief change would allow him to take on more leadership with the team. With what he’s learned talking to a sports psychologist, Logano says he’s taking a greater role this year.

“My attitude’s different,” Logano said. “I feel like I walk around with a lot more confidence in myself. That carries through the whole team. Granted, we’re only two races into this deal. But we need to stay focused and keep our eye on the prize like we’ve been doing.”

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 - 17:11
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/entry-list-nascars-kobalt-tools-400

Kobalt Tools 400 Entry List
Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Entry list for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Driver, Number, Make, Team
Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Dodge, Penske Racing
Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Robby Gordon, No. 7 Dodge, Robby Gordon Motorsports*
Marcos Ambrose, No. 9 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
David Reutimann, No. 10 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing
Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Casey Mears, No. 13 Ford, Germain Racing
Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Joey Logano, No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Trevor Bayne, No. 21 Ford, Wood Brothers*
AJ Allmendinger, No. 22 Dodge, Penske Racing
Scott Riggs, No. 23 Chevrolet, R3 Motorsports*
Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Josh Wise, No. 26 Ford, Front Row Motorsports*
Paul Menard, No. 27 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
David Stremme, No. 30 Toyota, Inception Motorsports*
Jeff Burton, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
Ken Schrader, No. 32 Ford, FAS Lane Racing
Brendan Gaughan, No. 33 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
David Ragan, No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
Dave Blaney, No. 36 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing*
Timmy Hill, No. 37 Ford, Max Q Motorsports*
David Gilliland, No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
Ryan Newman, No. 39 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
Juan Pablo Montoya, No. 42 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Aric Almirola, No. 43 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
Bobby Labonte, No. 47 Toyota, JTG Daugherty Racing
Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
J.J. Yeley, No. 49 Toyota, Robinson-Blakeney Racing*
Kurt Busch, No. 51 Chevrolet, Phoenix Racing
Mark Martin, No. 55 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Martin Truex Jr., No. 56 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Regan Smith, No. 78 Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing
Landon Cassill, No. 83 Toyota, BK Racing
Joe Nemechek, No. 87 Toyota, NEMCO Motorsports*
Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Travis Kvapil, No. 93 Toyota, BK Racing
Michael McDowell, No. 98 Ford, Phil Parsons Racing*
Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing


*Not in Top 35 in Owner's Points. Must qualify on speed.

<p> Entry list for the NASCAR Kobalt Tools 400 from Las Vegas Motor Speedway.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 - 11:26
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/nascar-horsepower-rankings-8

by Matt Taliaferro

Like every other NASCAR landing page on the web, Athlon Sports has a little fun each week ranking the drivers and teams of the Sprint Cup circuit. Our rankings go beyond how each finished the weekend prior and/or where they sit in the official championship standings.

The rankings you’ll see here represent what we (read: I) think are the strongest overall teams on tour, from top to bottom, based on performance, resources, strength of team/organization, overall talent of driver and, yeah, a tip of the cap to a job well done if they won the last race. Think of it as Athlon’s NASCAR version of the college basketball Top 25.

Keep in mind these are subjective, and often done somewhat tongue-in-cheek (depending on my mood), so have some fun with them and take them for what they are: a weekly spin around the circuit, highlighting the best teams and their drivers.

Oh, and our rankings have a cool name … why no one thought of “Horsepower” Rankings before is beyond me. That said, kick back for five minutes of leisurely reading that require no real thought on your part. Agree? Disagree? Have a better witty comment for any given driver? Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the page.

1. Denny Hamlin  Let’s not overreact here, but Hamlin and new crew chief Darian Grubb led the most laps at Daytona prior to finishing fourth and followed it up with his first win since June 2011. Solid start for a team that needed one.

2. Greg Biffle  Consecutive third-place runs to start the season from a team that had only three top 5s all season in 2011. And with Vegas on the horizon, it’s no stretch to think that Biffle may improve upon those results.

3. Kevin Harvick  Seventh- and second-place showings for the driver some have made a championship favorite this year (ahem, myself included). That’s all the more impressive considering he has a new crew chief and retooled pit crew.

4. Matt Kenseth  On SPEED’s post-race show following Phoenix, Kenny Wallace told Hamlin that his fourth- and first-place finishes to start the season were “unprecedented.” I bet Kenseth’s 2009 season would take exception to that.

5. Jimmie Johnson  Johnson and the boys did what they needed to do at Phoenix (fourth) after a disastrous Daytona — which included wrecking on Lap 2 and possibly losing the crew and car chiefs to NASCAR-mandated vacations.

6. Mark Martin  Back to a partial schedule, Martin has kicked off his tenure with Michael Waltrip Racing is style, with finishes of 10th (Daytona) and ninth (Phoenix). Don’t kid yourself, a big part of that is the driver.

7. Joey Logano  Logano, also with a under the guidance of a new crew chief, is getting off to the start he needed in a contract year. His ninth- and 10th-place runs are the best results to start the season in his young career.

8. Kyle Busch  Rowdy was strong at Daytona — leading 52 laps — before finishing 17th when the craziness started near the end. A sixth at Phoenix was a respectable follow-up. Dare I say … Kyle is flying under the radar?

9. Carl Edwards  Edwards and company will find their footing soon enough, but having led zero laps with eighth- and 17th-place finishes to their credit is a little more quiet a start than anyone expected.

10. Brad Keselowski  Much like Busch, Keselowski’s shot to win the Daytona 500 was ruined late but he rebounded nicely with a fifth-place run in the desert.

<p> Denny Hamlin leads the Sprint Cup Series pack with a strong run out of the gate to begin the 2012 NASCAR&nbsp;season.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 - 10:25
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/desert-redemption

by Matt Taliaferro

The second race of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season — the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway — served as a weekend of redemption for Denny Hamlin.

Fuel-strategy-gone-bad at PIR wrecked his championship hopes in 2010, when Hamlin's tank ran dry and he fell from first to 12th on the pylon. It was a blow from which Hamlin would not recover, as he lost the title to Jimmie Johnson the following week and a 2011 hangover that cost crew chief Mike Ford his job, ensued

So Hamlin took a different approach to the 2012 season by seeing a sports psychologist and getting out of the NASCAR hub that is Charlotte, N.C. Ironically, it was to the Phoenix area that Hamlin retreated, spending a relaxing offseason on the golf course and basketball courts for a warm winter away from all-things NASCAR.

And after a strong fourth-place showing in the Daytona 500, Hamlin and new crew chief Darian Grubb — who won the 2011 championship with Tony Stewart — put the series on high alert that their pairing may be a potent one. Hamlin conserved just enough gas in the waning laps at Phoenix on Sunday, outlasting Kevin Harvick to grab his first win of the 2012 season.

“This is as good as it can get for me,” Hamlin said. “I consider this my offseason second home. I’ve got a lot of friends and whatnot out here now, and so coming back to the track where essentially we did lose the championship in 2010 … it just feels so good to come out and be competitive again.

“We’ve been non-existent for 14 months, and now, here we come.”

Jimmie Johnson led 55 laps and was the dominant player through the event’s halfway point. However, a loose wheel dropped him deep in the field and he spent the rest of the afternoon methodically working his way through it. Instead, it was Hamlin and Harvick that battled for the win over the final 60 laps. When Harvick’s fuel tank ran dry with one-and-a-half laps remaining, Hamlin cruised to his 18th career Cup win.

Greg Biffle, who ran third in Daytona, Johnson and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 5.

“I don’t know that I could get to him,” Harvick, who led a race-high 88 laps, said when asked if he could have gotten by Hamlin if not for the fuel issue. “Our cars were so evenly matched. He was a little bit better on the restarts than I was. If I could get out front on the restart and have enough room to slide my car around, then I could take off after that. But he was able to get out there and get in front of me.”

As the series stays out west for a trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Hamlin, Grubb and their Joe Gibbs Racing team look to be the early-season squad to beat — a surprising and scary notion considering they have all of two points-paying races together.

“We haven’t even gotten some things in our racecars that Darian wants to put in them,” Hamelin said. “The chemistry and all is still so new — Darian is still learning the system within JGR. There’s a lot of reasons why we’re going to be going forward even more in the next few weeks. So to start out a year like this with a fresh new relationship with him … it’s just a great feeling. I can’t really put it into words.”

Follow Matt on Twitter:

<p> Denny Hamlin and new crew chief Darian Grubb win the Subway Fresh Fit 500 from Phoenix International Raceway.</p>
Post date: Sunday, March 4, 2012 - 20:01
Path: /columns/garage-talk/chad-knaus-appeal-ingenuity

by Vito Pugliese

As if starting out the 2012 NASCAR season by getting turned mid-pack on the second lap of the Daytona 500, it was announced Wednesday that Chad Knaus, crew chief for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, will be suspended for six races and fined $100,000 for tinkering with the C-posts of the car prior to qualifying for Daytona. Also on involuntary leave will be car chief Ron Malec, another key cog to the five straight championships Jimmie Johnson and team won from 2006-10.

Should the suspensions hold up — team owner Rick Hendrick has stated they will appeal the penalties — Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t exactly hurt for a talent pool from which to pull. It is rumored that a potential replacement atop the pit box could be No. 48 lead engineer Greg Ives, or Mike Baumgartner, former car chief on the No. 24 team of Jeff Gordon.

“Our organization respects NASCAR and the way the sanctioning body governs our sport. In this case, though, the system broke down, and we will voice our concerns through the appeal process,” Hendrick said in a statement following the announcement of the penalties.

Chief among Hendrick’s concerns (as well as mine): If what NASCAR found was repaired before the car went onto the racetrack, why are suspension being handed down? That’s akin to slapping a radar detector on the windshield, but never actually pulling onto the highway at 90 mph.

The C-post sheet metal on a Cup car is a manufactured and stamped piece that is produced for the teams, and in NASCAR terms, not something they encourage be modified and fiddled with — even though there were some cars during Speedweeks in Daytona that had similar modifications, though not to the same degree as the No. 48.

The way the infraction was discovered seems a bit obtuse, as well. While there wasn’t a stated specific rule against what was used, the first statement regarding the piece was that NASCAR “didn’t like how it looked.” Further explanation from competition director John Darby that NASCAR, “did some additional inspections with gauges and stuff,” which resulted in the pieces being cut off, replaced, and more in line with what NASCAR wanted to see on that area of the Lowe’s Chevrolet.

Which brings me back to my original point of contention, as well as that of Hendrick and many in the garage: If the part was never used in competition, was identified and remedied during inspection for the biggest race of the year, where really is the justification for such a staunch set of penalties?

Adding further fuel for confusion is the track history this particular car had established over the last year, having won a race (Talladega) and competed in three others. The car had also been taken to the NASCAR R&D Center for evaluation, where apparently nothing egregious or objectionable was discovered. There was not a statement from NASCAR that the car was ordered to never come back to the racetrack, nor was it confiscated and held for evaluation like the tail section of the stealth helicopter used by SEAL Team Six in the Bin Laden raid and as one of Tony Stewart’s JGR Chevrolets was several years ago when NASCAR didn’t like what it saw.

Knaus is a bit of an anomaly in NASCAR. Name one other crew chief that is given the credit (or even recognized) for the success of a driver and race team as much as he has been since 2002. It’s usually the driver who gets the credit and the crew chief who shoulders the blame if things go wrong when a pilot is unable to produce. Not until Johnson won his fifth straight title did the driver start to receive due credit for actually winning these things; most attributed it to Knaus building a better mouse trap than his competitors — including the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports (and Stewart-Haas Racing) stablemates.

While improved safety was the initial focus when NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow was rolled out in 2007, it was also engineered to prevent the mangled and twisted bodies of the previous generation of NASCAR racecar. The Bizzaro World smeared and bent bodies were constructed to develop maximum downforce and sideforce while in the corners did not remotely resemble anything on a car dealership lot. These machines also required a substantial amount of time and dollars spent in the wind tunnel, money that has been long in coming since the economic downturn of 2008.

With the dawn of the second iteration of the CoT, the 2013 machines legitimately do look like their street-going counterparts, and in the interest of cost control and maintaining aesthetic integrity, further body massaging on NASCAR racecars will continue to be discouraged more than close contact at a high school dance.

Part of the allure and lore of NASCAR, that has been missing in recent years, has long centered on the trick cars and pieces that have actually been on the track in competition — and won. From Junior Johnson’s “Flying Banana,” to Bill Elliott’s 9/10-scale Thunderbird that dominated the super speedways of the mid ’80s, to Smokey Yunick driving his car away after NASCAR had removed the gas tank as a result of questions about its fuel mileage, it used to be the individuals who prepared the cars were recognized as much as those who wheeled them into Victory Lane.

That Knaus is routinely singled out for trying to exploit the rules and simply build a better car — some of which never even make it into competition — flies in the face of NASCAR’s efforts the last few years of returning to its roots, and getting back to the formula that worked so well in the past. He also seems to be singled out for simply doing a better job than his competition, which is to build faster racecars that win races and championships. If there isn’t a specific rule against it, how is it illegal? And if something is out of tolerance during pre-race inspection (key word: “pre”), and is then brought up to code, what is the justification for suspending the guy for a month and a half?

While fines and suspensions are bad enough, even more damaging is the 25-point docking in both driver and owner points, levied, putting Johnson in the awkward position of having -23 points going into the second race of the season. It has been a rough start to 2012 for HMS, with virtually every affiliated car suffering damage or falling out of the Daytona 500 (the exception, of course, being Dale Earnhardt Jr.).

So what does this mean for the No. 48 team at Phoenix? Is the season over before it even really started? Knaus and Malec will still be allowed to show up and compete until the appeal process runs its course. The potential for distraction is clearly evident, though, as these types of penalties for a championship-caliber team will likely overshadow anything revolving around Danica Patrick or Matt Kenseth’s second Daytona 500 victory.

It might also provide some foreshadowing as to the future of Knaus within the walls of HMS.

As the stress and friction of the 2011 season took its toll, Knaus took a rare vacation and extended time away from the shop prior to the start of the 2012 campaign, going on an African safari. Knaus’ time, effort and expectations of his team are legendary (and borderline obsessive compulsive). With as much success as he has had overseeing operations on the No. 48, might he want to pull back off the road and move into a leadership role within Hendrick Motorsports as a whole?

While a $100,00 fine is nothing to sneeze at — relative to sponsorship dollars, race winnings, exposure and championships that have been generated since Knaus and Johnson were united in 2002 — it is a pittance compared to what has been generated since then. But is Knaus going to tire of the constant hen pecking, suspension, fines and bad press that come whenever he tugs on a fender or is in the lab of his little shop of horrors trying to put together the missing piece for “The Fix for Six”?

In the end, should the suspension hold up and Knaus is sent home for six weeks, NASCAR might just have woken a sleeping giant. If he’s not at the racetrack, that simply leaves him more time to cook up new ideas of Lex Luthor-like diabolical proportions.

Follow Vito on Twitter:

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese examines the penalty levied by NASCAR on crew chief Chad Knaus for actions at Daytona.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 1, 2012 - 19:15
Path: /columns/garage-talk/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-picks-phoenix

by Jay Pennell

Few could have predicted the 2012 season would open with such historic and unforeseen events taking place at Daytona. Rain delays, prime-time racing on a Monday, jet dryer explosions … I‘m surprised the Mayan calendar didn’t signal the end of civilization when the checkered flag fell.

Although the racing was a bit unpredictable and the potential for danger (i.e., bad fantasy days) lurked around every corner, hopefully our advice was able to set you apart from the other fantasy players in your league.

Our “safe bet” pick of the week, Matt Kenseth, took home his second Daytona 500 trophy; our “fantasy favorite,” Dale Earnhardt Jr., made a last-lap move to finish second; and our “darkhorse” pick of Joey Logano scored his first top 10 in The Great American Race with a ninth-place run.

Not a bad start to the long season that is fantasy NASCAR.

With Daytona finally in the rearview mirror, teams were forced to make a quick turnaround this week to get their equipment to Phoenix International Racing for Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500.

While most weekends the teams would use a plethora of notes from past races, Phoenix is still a bit of a wild-card track. Repaved after last February’s event, the Sprint Cup Series returned to a freshly-paved and reconfigured PIR in November.

This weekend, teams will be relying on notes that are only one race old.

Last time the stars of NASCAR hit the newly-configured track in the desert, Kasey Kahne took the win in now-defunct Red Bull Racing equipment. Despite knowing the organization was shutting down and the support from the team was not what it once was, Kahne persevered and was able to save fuel and take the checkered flag out front.

Now driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne enters the 2012 season with long-time crew chief Kenny Francis once again at his side. Finally piloting reliable and consistent race-winning equipment, many are looking at Kahne to have a strong year — even possibly contending for the championship.

The initial part of the season has not gone as planned for Kahne, however. First, he missed his time in the bright lights of the NASCAR Media Tour while serving a jury duty requirement, then he had surgery on his knee before heading to Daytona. He promptly wrecked early in the Budweiser Shootout, was forced to a backup car after sustaining damage in practice for the Daytona 500, and was caught up in one of the many incidents late in the race.

So perhaps there could be no better track for Kahne to visit than the site of his only win in the last 83 races. Kahne has the potential to begin his breakout year this weekend, so keep an eye on him to be a strong play among fantasy ranks.

While Kahne took the checkered flag last November, defending series champion Tony Stewart had the dominant car that day. Leading 160 of the 312 laps, Stewart was on a mission and coming off a strong win in Texas the week prior. In the closing laps he chased down Kahne, title contender Carl Edwards, and took third from Jeff Burton, earning another all-important point in the Chase.

This weekend, Stewart could once again be among the strongest cars in the field.

Heading to the first race of the rest of the season, Stewart’s newly-assembled team — with crew chief Steve Addington and competition director Greg Zipadelli — will show their true colors as they are forced to deal with the short turn-around time. Seasoned and successful veterans in their own right, this week’s performance will show how they are able to cope with adversity in new surroundings and produce results on the track.

Stewart is a driver that gets the job done no matter the circumstances, and I’ve got him as another strong fantasy driver this weekend.

By looking at the numbers and finishing order from last November’s race at Phoenix, one might hesitate to go with the driver I am suggesting for my “safe bet” pick. But for the second week in a row, I think Roush Fenway Racing’s Matt Kenseth will be the safest play to rack up fantasy points.

Is it because he won the season-opening Daytona 500? Not really, although it helps his momentum and the No. 17 team’s confidence early in the year — but that’s not the reason.

Last November, Kenseth sat on the pole and led 49 laps with a strong Ford. Running at the front of the field much of the day, his finish was ruined late when Brian Vickers drove him into the outside wall as a payback from an incident at Martinsville a few weeks before.

This weekend, Kenseth is coming off a strong Speedweeks, plus Vickers is not in the race. I look for him to have yet another solid run Sunday in Phoenix, making for a safe bet when it comes to your fantasy lineup.

Aside from the favorites, I also have my eye on two drivers that are flying a bit under the radar this weekend: AJ Allmendinger and Martin Truex Jr.

Allmendinger enters the weekend off a disappointing start of the season in Daytona. Pumped about his new opportunity with Penske Racing, an incident on pit road ruined his chance to run up front and contend for the win.

Heading to Phoenix, Allmendinger returns to a track he scored a sixth-place finish at in November after starting on the outside of the front row.

Along with his strong run that day, Penske Racing’s No. 22 with Kurt Busch had a great day going, leading 57 laps, until he ran out of fuel late in the race. Partner Allmendinger’s solid showing with the No. 22 car’s ability to get up front and lead laps, and this weekend has “darkhorse” written all over the Dinger.

For Truex, last November’s Phoenix race went about how the majority of his races transpired. After starting fifth, the team was able to stay up front and show its strength, but was caught a lap down in the pits late in the going to finish 20th.

This year, Truex believes he has a car capable winning the race. Also, he is running out of excuses. It is a contract year for the New Jersey native, and Truex simply cannot afford another lackluster season.

With the overhaul that has taken place at Michael Waltrip Racing, Truex is now the senior driver on the team (not by age of course — Mark Martin wins in that category) and is confident in his team’s abilities. This week, I think it starts to show.

Follow Jay on Twitter:

<p> Fantasy NASCAR predictions for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 1, 2012 - 12:56
Path: /columns/garage-talk/backseat-drivers-fan-council

by Dustin Long

The Backseats Drivers Fan Council is back! While NASCAR and tracks have their own fan councils, most people don’t see the results of what fans are asked. That’s why I started a fan council last year where anyone could answer questions about the sport and see the results, along with comments fellow council members made.

So on to Year 2 of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council.

Members had much to talk about with the Daytona 500, especially the idea of the race being held on a Monday night after rain forced this year’s event to be held then. Here’s what members had to say about that and other topics.

With the Daytona 500 being held on Monday night this year, should Daytona change its race schedule to have the Trucks run on Saturday night, Nationwide on Sunday night and the Daytona 500 on Monday night?

72.4 percent said No
27.6 percent said Yes

What Fan Council members said:

• That would be great!

• No. You do this and you decimate the at-the-track experience on which the sport is built. In its essence, it is not a TV sport, (it) is a live spectator event.

• I'd rather see Trucks Thursday night (Duel earlier in the afternoon) and Nationwide Friday night and Daytona 500 on Saturday night with Sunday open for a rain delay.

• YES, YES, YES! It was magical! It is such a big event it deserves a big prime-time slot!!! If the networks can show every other sport on primetime, surely NASCAR can show one or two races a year in the prime-time slot!

• Why do we constantly want to change something that has worked for many, many years???

• Got to ask, WHY? Fans travel great distance to see the 500 and by racing on Monday night it would be hard on many. If it ain't broke don't fix it!

• It would be too hard to get people to attend the race. A scheduled Monday night race is an interesting idea, but it needs to be tried at a track where there is enough potential local fans to make it work, not a place like Daytona, where the majority of fans travel a great distance. I would suggest Texas, Charlotte, or Richmond. Las Vegas might also work, as it not only has a large population, but most of the people who are traveling there aren't trying to do it just for a weekend.

• No, leave it scheduled as it. Do they play the SuperBowl on Monday night?

• Worst idea ever.

• Worth contemplating!

• I'm not sure this is the savior or the sucker. I will say that holding the race on Monday night in primetime gave a big boost to coverage for the non-racing fan. I had non-racing friends calling me all day ... to explain things to them. It was great. They all want to go to a race now!

• I love getting off work and coming home to the excitement of the truck race. It starts my race weekend on the right note. Friday night races provide an awesome transition from work week to weekend. Also, the Daytona 500 is too long to run on a 'school night.’

Should the Daytona 500 ever move to a Monday night, Fan Council members were asked if they could get time off to attend the race or would they be forced to watch it on TV.

54.7 percent said they could NOT get time off from work to attend a Monday night race.
45.3 percent said they could take time off from work and would go to a Monday night race.

What Fan Council members said:

• I've never been to the Daytona race, but I'll be going next year. When I travel from the West Coast to races on the East Coast, I always give myself a few extra days after the race to enjoy the area (and hopefully cover rainouts)!

• It wouldn't change my mind about coming at all. The Daytona 500 is special and worth taking vacation days.

• In order for me to attend a race on Monday night, I would have to take Monday and Tuesday off. I haven't been to Daytona yet, but the chance would be even less if it switched to Monday night.

• It doesn't matter when the Daytona 500 is. It could be scheduled for a Wednesday for all I care - I'm there. However, it is TONS easier if it's a Sunday night.

• I wouldn't try to get time off from work to attend. Weather in Florida is unpredictable as it is. Navigating the nighttime temperatures in Florida in February would virtually guarantee that I would not attend the Daytona 500. The idea of heading into the Florida sunshine, taking a warm break and watching the finest drivers in the world, sounds a lot like heaven. Spending a chilly night in open grandstands makes me want to be in front of my television and I can stay home and watch television. I've attempted to work it into my plans the past two years, but that would take it out of my plans.

• When I go to races, Mondays off are often required for travel. For Daytona, I'd take Tuesday too! But I wouldn't take two days off for every race on the schedule.

• It would be sold out either way, but why penalize hard working people by making them take an extra day from work when the race can be run on Sunday, which won’t cost them a vacation day?

• My Boss would say no cause he’s a jealous baby.

Fan Council members were asked what was the best race during Daytona Speedweeks. This is how they voted:

43.4 percent said the Daytona 500
27.5 percent said the Budweiser Shootout
12.3 percent said the Nationwide race
11.1 percent said the Truck race
4.1 percent said the qualifying races
1.6 percent said the ARCA race

What Fan Council members said:

• I can't say it was the 500. Even with all of the crazy things that happened (jet dryer accident and all), I just didn't think the racing was that exciting. The Shootout and the Duels were better in my opinion.

• I enjoyed all the racing! Every race has its own excitement. Honestly, I enjoyed the 2 hour delay. Twitter was hilarious & got some crazy texts from my friends!! Best start to the 2012 season ever!! :)

• Actually, none of the above. I don't like pack racing and the resulting "Big One" crashes. In my opinion, the restrictor plate racing and the tracks that require them have outlived their usefulness. Daytona and Talladega just allow the cars to go too fast and with the plates the cars either are forced to run in big packs, or the 2-car tandem that most fans, myself included, do not like. When running in packs, the tiniest mistake, which would not be an issue on other tracks, cause the huge crashes that take out many other cars. ... I am probably a minority of one with this opinion, but I think both restrictor-plate tracks should be demolished and replaced by 1-mile tracks that can provide great racing.

• The 500 had a little bit of everything for everyone. If people didn't like this race (sans the timing) then they need to stop watching NASCAR!

• I thought trucks were most exciting. I especially. loved that rookie John King went to Victory Lane.

• Daytona 500 hands down. Even though the finish of the Budweiser Shootout was probably better, the energy that comes with the 500 cannot be beat. Every lap you are on edge seeing your driver navigate the field. There was a whole lot of action, early drama, bizarre events, and an exciting finish. Great race.

• The Nationwide race seemed to just capture the spirit of Daytona and sure has set the stage for a different looking Nationwide series this year (I hope).

• I think all the work that NASCAR and the teams put into fixing the plate racing over the offseason was dead-on. There was just enough of pack racing, side-by-side and just a bit of tandem stuff to keep your attention throughout the race. They should be very proud of what they were able to do for the race fans.

• Sorry NASCAR, you made the Sprint Cup race boring.....

• Finally NASCAR has taken the time to listen to the drivers and fans and get back to the pack style of racing!

Fan Council members were asked how they rated this year’s Daytona 500. Here’s how they voted:

50.9 percent called it Good
33.4 percent called it Great
13.8 percent called it Fair
1.9 percent called it Poor

What Fan Council members said:

• I really liked having The Pack racing back, as opposed to the Pod racing of the last 18 months. Still couldn't watch the entire race without putting my hands over my eyes a few times (close calls!), but it was very exciting!

• The racing was awful. Two lines, no one could really pass. The most exciting thing was the explosion and resulting fire. Seems like NASCAR can't get racing back in "racing.’’

• I was worried that the solution to the 2-car tandem would be worse than the 2-car tandem but was thankfully proved wrong!

• The 'events' were eventful, but the racing was fair. I'll probably remember the jet dryer incident for years - if not forever, but I won't remember the actual racing.

• I'm still speechless about it.

• The pack is back, which is somewhat lame.

• I attended the race, as well as the rain delays! This was in no way a great race. There was very little great racing action. But then again, I never really expect great racing action from Daytona.

• It was nice to get away from the "pairs competition" we had been seeing. However, there was not much ability to pass or control one's destiny. NASCAR still has some fixing to do on this package.

• Anyone thinking that 43 cars running in a single pack is the way to go then they are the same ones who love the big wrecks!

• I thought I’d seen it all until (Monday) night! One of the best!!

• The racing was awesome!!!

Since the Daytona 500 can provide momentum for the sport, Fan Council members were asked if they were more excited or less excited about the NASCAR Sprint Cup season after this year’s 500:

84.0 percent said they were More Excited
16.0 percent said they were Less Excited

What Fan Council members said:


• Neither, actually, but that was not an option.

• Just glad the new season is here & Daytona is behind us

• Matt Kenseth is my driver and he won with a dominant car after winning his duel race, so I'm definitely more excited about the coming season.

• Junior is in second place ... what’s not to be excited about?

• Actually probably about the same but that wasn't an option. Definitely not less.

• This really pumped me up for the upcoming season. 

• I love Matt Kenseth, but he just isn't the right winner to carry the momentum NASCAR had from last season. Carl or Tony, even Denny or, of course, Dale Jr would have been great winners to carry some excitement and momentum into 2012. I'm excited for this season, but the 500 isn't the reason why.

• Nothing about this sport has really excited me for years now. Generic cars, generic drivers and generic racing.

Fans can join the Backseat Drivers Fan Council by sending Dustin an email at [email protected].

Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.

<p> The Backseat Drivers Fan Council gives its opinion on Daytona Speedweeks.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 19:34
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/nascar-penalizes-hendrick-motorsports-crew-chief-chad-knaus


by Matt Taliaferro
NASCAR has suspended Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec six races for C-posts on the No. 48 Chevrolet that the sanctioning body did not approve of in pre-qualifying inspection in Daytona. Both will also be on probation until May 9. In addition to the suspensions, Knaus has been fined $100,000 and driver Jimmie Johnson and car owners Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick have been penalized with the loss of 25 driver and 25 owner points.
The suspensions will be deferred, however, until an appeal hearing is completed.
A statement released on Wednesday stated: "The No. 48 car was found to be in violation of Sections 12-1 (actions detrimental to stock car racing); 12-4J (any determination by NASCAR officials that race equipment used in the event does not conform to NASCAR rules detailed in Section 20 of the rule book or has not been approved by NASCAR prior to the event); and 20-2.1E (if in the judgment of NASCAR officials, any part or component of the car not previously approved by NASCAR that has been installed or modified to enhance aerodynamic performance will not be permitted -- unapproved car body modifications)."
A closer look at the NASCAR Rulebook reveals this about Rule 20-2.1E: "Streamlining the contours of the car, beyond that approved by the series director, will not be permitted. If, in the judgment of NASCAR officials, any part or component of the car not previously approved by NASCAR that has been installed or modified to enhance aerodynamic performance will not be permitted."
Hendrick Motorsports responded with a statement of its own, saying it plans to appeal the penalties.
“Our organization respects NASCAR and the way the sanctioning body governs our sport,” said owner Rick Hendrick. “In this case, though, the system broke down, and we will voice our concerns through the appeal process.”
<p> NASCAR nails crew chief Chad Knaus for infractions in Daytona.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 14:58
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/long-and-short-it-dissecting-daytona

by Dustin Long

For a moment, well, actually about two hours on Monday night, it appeared as if the Daytona 500 would conclude one of the greatest weekends in racing upsets.

As crews doused a jet fuel fire and then washed Turn 3 with Tide, Dave Blaney was in the lead. Rain appeared on its way. The race was past the halfway mark. If it was called, Blaney, who had to race his way into the 500, would be the winner.

It seemed a fitting end to what had been a crazy few days at the track. Wild rides, wild finishes and unlikely winners made Daytona a place where dreams come true — instead of that Disney place about an hour down the road.

It began with the Camping World Truck race when John King, making only his eighth career series start, won and upon climbing out of his truck in Victory Lane, said: “Man, I’m a rookie, I’m not supposed to be here. Oh my gosh. This is unreal.’’

King, in his first race for Red Horse Racing, had never finished better than 15th in a Truck race before Daytona. He called Friday’s victory “feature win number three’’ for his career, noting he’d won one dirt late model racing and one late model race.

His victory didn’t come without controversy, though. Contact from King’s truck caused leader Johnny Sauter to crash during the second of the three attempts to finish the race under green.

“I’ve never pushed in my life,’’ King said of the drafting at Daytona. “I apologize from the bottom of my heart.’’

The next day, the Nationwide Series topped King’s dramatics when James Buescher, running 11th in the final corner of the final lap, won. Yes, he was 11th on the final corner and won the race when the 10 cars in front of him wrecked.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Buescher said of his victory.

It was hard to believe, considering those collected in the crash among the leaders included Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

So, it was with those finishes as a backdrop, the sport faced a trifecta of upsets with Blaney in first as the clock moved beyond 11 pm EST on Monday.

But the track was repaired, the rain didn’t stop the race and Blaney didn’t win (finishing 15th). Instead, Matt Kenseth held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle in a car that had overheating issues, fuel problems, a bad tachometer and radio woes throughout the race to score his second Daytona 500 victory. Kenseth’s victory brought a sense of order — the Roush Fenway Racing cars had been strong all week and Kenseth won his qualifying race — amid all the chaos of Speedweeks.

PRIMETIME  Sunday’s rainout and rain Monday afternoon gave the sport and its fans a chance to see what it would be like to have a prime-time weeknight Cup race.

It’s something some fans have called for in recent years. The theory being that it would draw a larger TV audience than a Sunday afternoon race or a Saturday afternoon race.

FOX reported that Monday night’s Daytona 500 drew an 8.0 rating, down eight percent from last year’s race, which was held on Sunday afternoon. Monday night’s rating was up four percent from the 2010 Daytona 500, which was twice delayed by a pothole.

FOX also reported that the total audience watching at least a portion of Monday night’s race was 36.5 million, up from last year’s 30 million.

So, let the debate continue if it’s worth it for the sport to run a prime-time weeknight race.

FUNNY BUSINESS?  Did Greg Biffle protect teammate Matt Kenseth, who was leading, from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the green-white-checker finish that decided the Daytona 500?

Here’s what Earnhardt and Biffle had to say about the final lap:

Earnhardt: “I know that they're teammates, but his group of guys that specifically work on that car or travel down here to pit the car during the race, his crew chief, Greg himself, they work way too hard to decide to run second in a scenario like that. I'm pretty sure that … if (Biffle) had an opportunity to get around Matt and had a chance to win the Daytona 500, he would have took it immediately.

“He's trying to do what he could do. If I were him, I can't imagine what his game plan was in his head, but if I were him, I would have tried to let me push him by and then pull down in front of Matt, and force Matt to be my pusher and then leave the 88 for the dogs.’’

Said Biffle: “Once (Earnhardt) got against my bumper ... I was about three-quarters throttle, and then once we got straight I pushed the gas down. I thought that we would drive up on the back of (Kenseth’s car) without a problem. It must have just pushed enough air out in front of my car that it pushed (Kenseth’s) car out about five or six feet in front of me and I couldn’t get any closer.

“We were all going the same speed, so when I moved over, Matt moved over real easy and Junior is against my back bumper. So, I am trying not to wreck because he is shoving on me, and I am doing this down the back(stetch) thinking, ‘I am not going to be able to get a run at him.’

“The only thing I could have done was got real straight down the backstretch and pushed the brake pedal down and kept going straight and slow our cars down a fair enough and then let Junior make a run at Matt around (turns) three and four and we could have moved up beside him coming off the corner and then Junior and I would have had to dice it out to the line. That is probably what I should have done.’’

PIT STOPS  Matt Kenseth collected $1,589,387 for winning Sunday’s Daytona 500. David Ragan, who finished last, collected $267,637. Ragan ran one lap before he was eliminated by a crash. ... Last year, eight of the 12 drivers who made the Chase finished 20th or worse in the Daytona 500. That could be good news for Jimmie Johnson (42nd Monday), Jeff Gordon (40th), Brad Keselowski (32nd), Kasey Kahne (29th) and Ryan Newman (21st). ... The difference in limiting the tandem draft? Last year’s Daytona 500 featured 74 lead changes. Monday night’s race had 25 lead changes.

Follow Dustin on Twitter:

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long dissects the week that was at Daytona International Speedway.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 23:11
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/primetime-thriller-kenseth-wins-wild-daytona-500

by Matt Taliaferro

The 1979 Daytona 500 is considered by many to be the most noteworthy in the event’s 54-year history. A snowstorm blanketed much of the East Coast, providing a captivated audience; a last-lap battle for the win, ending in a wreck and a surprise winner; and of course, an infamous post-race fight in the infield between Cale Yarborough and brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison.

The 2012 edition of The Great American Race did its best to top it. And just may have done so.

Rained out for the first time ever, the Daytona 500 took NASCAR’s premier turn on a weeknight, prime-time slot on network television, and it didn’t take long for the storylines to develop. A wreck on Lap 2 eliminated five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, along with Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick, Trevor Bayne and David Ragan.

A somewhat subdued period followed, as drivers filed in line, ran in formation and waited to make their moves as the possibility of rain kept crew chiefs chewing their pencils. A Ryan Newman single-car spin, a blown engine in Jeff Gordon’s Chevy and another blown powerplant, this in David Stremme’s ride, punctuated a largely two-by-two affair.

And then, it all went up in flames.

While under caution for Stremme’s blown engine, Juan Pablo Montoya’s rear wheels locked up as he was catching up to the field due to a faulty transmission. His No. 42 Chevy crashed violently into a jet dryer that was blowing debris off of the track, igniting the safety vehicle into a ball of jet-fueled fire. Two hundred gallons of jet fuel burned on the track as safety personnel attempted to put out the blaze and then remove the vehicle while questions circulated that the race may not be resumed.

A two hour and five minute red-flag period ensued while NASCAR and track personnel repaired the surface, cleaning the spilt fuel and patching damaged areas of the surface. Meanwhile, drivers exited their parked cars on the backstretch, taking to Twitter — Brad Keselowski is believed to have gained 55,000 followers during the break — huddling around unlikely leader Dave Blaney’s car and doing television interviews.

Once racing resumed — at midnight in the eastern time zone — and with 40 laps remaining, Matt Kenseth inherited the lead. And it was a lead he would hold for the duration, which included two additional wrecks, the first with 13 laps to go that involved seven cars and the second, an eight-car affair that took the race into a green-white-checker finish.

In the two-lap overtime conclusion, Kenseth held off teammate Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the pair failed to piece together a run that could dethrone Kenseth’s powerful Ford.

“It was like the 17 (Kenseth) had more motor at the end,” an incredulous Biffle said. “It was like he floored it and we couldn’t catch him.

“I thought Junior would push up to his back bumper and I’d side-draft him (Kenseth) and go by him and then it’d be me and Junior over here at the (finish) line. But it wasn’t meant to be.”

Earnhardt squeezed by Biffle for second. Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 5.

The win was Kenseth's his second of Speedweeks 2012 after taking checkers in his Gatorade Duel race on Thursday, and his second Daytona 500 triumph in the last four years. It was also earned under difficult circumstances, as his Ford experienced water system issues early in the race (nearly falling a lap down) and radio problems late.

“Our car, for some reason, was a lot faster out front than it was in traffic,” Kenseth said. “It took a long time to get to the front, but like Thursday (in the Duel) once we were in the front, it was hard for anybody to get locked onto you.

“My car was one of the faster cars, so it was harder for some of the cars to push you and stay locked onto you. And I learned a little bit on Thursday about the last couple laps there, and kind of what to do and what not to do and what this car liked. And we had enough speed once we took the white (flag), I felt sort of OK about it, but I still thought they were going to get a run and pass me. By the time I got to (Turn) 3 and could see they couldn't get enough speed mustered up to try to make a move.”

So while the final lap may have lacked the fireworks seen in the ’79 edition, the rest of the event certainly had more twists, turns and downright surreal circumstances. Earnhardt, for one, was just happy to get out of a long Speedweeks with a clean car and a solid finish.

“You know, you bring such a nice car down here, and the chances of you tearing it up is pretty high. Odds are always kind of high you get caught up in something like what we saw at the end of the race. But I was really happy to be able to take the car home in one piece, and liked the way the motor ran, liked the way the car drove.”

And in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, following a race that was supposed to be completed on Sunday afternoon, Earnhardt summed up a marathon weekend well: “It was a little bit of a bizarre week with the rain and all that, but you know, we stuck around and got it all done.”

<p> Matt Kenseth wins the first weeknight Daytona 500 run in prime time.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 08:57
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/why-rain-daytona-could-mean-sunshine-nascar

by Matt Taliaferro

For the first time in its 54-year history, the Daytona 500 has been postponed. A soggy scheduled Sunday start time of 1:00 pm EST drug into Sunday afternoon and, when the rain just kept coming, to Monday at noon.

Now, NASCAR president Mike Helton has announced that the sanctioning body plans to drop the green flag at 7:02 pm EST on Monday evening. And with a nation at work on Monday, moving the start time to prime time may be a blessing in disguise. Whether more credit should go to NASCAR, Daytona International Speedway or Mother Nature is debatable, of course. What is without debate is that this unique circumstance could be a turning point for the sport.

I’ve said for the last few years that a weeknight, prime-time slot would be a boon for NASCAR — particularly during its 10-week Chase for the Championship, when the title is being decided and all eyes should be on the sport. Instead, NASCAR’s Chase has gone head-to-head with the mighty NFL on Sunday afternoon and, in many cases, ignored.

As NASCAR Hall of Famer and current FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip so eloquently put it last year, “If there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room, run away from it!”

Truer words were never spoken. NASCAR will never beat the 800-pound gorilla that is the NFL in ratings — that’s a simple fact. So this unintended prime-time race — which just so happens to be the most prestigious of the season — may be the ultimate trial balloon. If the ratings soar, the sanctioning body will have no choice but to explore whether the option of regular weeknight prime-time slots should be explored.

My bet is this will be a ratings bonanza unlike any NASCR has ever seen. And that’s sunny news.


<p> Monday evening's running of a rain-delayed Daytona 500 could be a ratings boon for NASCAR. And a road map for the future.</p>
Post date: Monday, February 27, 2012 - 11:04
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/race-day-thoughts-daytona-500

by Matt Taliaferro

The forecast isn’t great for today’s Daytona 500, with rain expected in the Daytona Beach, Fla., area, but hopefully at 1:29 pm EST the green flag will fly over NASCAR’s Great American Race as scheduled — and the race will be run the scheduled distance.

In the meantime, some thoughts, notes and predictions on race day morn.

Update: Due to rain, the Daytona 500 has been postponed to Monday. NASCAR president Mike Helton says the sanctioning body is planning for a 7:00 pm EST start time. The race will air live on FOX. 


A Bunch of Big Ones
Friday’s Camping World Trucks Series and Saturday’s Nationwide Series races were marred by late-race accidents. An odd hybrid of tandem and pack drafting — particularly at the end of the events — has given way to a scrap metal salesman’s dream. In each race, virtual unknowns (or at least outgunned underdogs) in John King and James Buescher have come out of nowhere for unlikely wins.

Thus, the question is whether the closing laps of the Cup Series’ 500 will resemble either of the previous two events. My feeling is that it will not be anywhere near as messy. The Truck Series field has a much more diverse mix of youth and experience, lending some to take actions that are over their heads. The Nationwide pack, by race’s end, was comprised mostly of Cup Series cherry-pickers who had nothing to lose by laying it all on the line. Bring me the steering wheel or the trophy, as the saying goes.

Expect an elevated level of skill and decision-making out of the Cup drivers — even when the pressure gets racheted up with 10 laps to go. And keep in mind that if the 500 is cut short due to rain, the drivers and teams may not even know that they’re in the final 10 laps.

It’ll get crazy, no doubt, but we’ve seen the most destructive finishes Speedweeks has to offer already.

Speaking of Unlikely Winners …
… Can Danica Patrick actually pull the upset and win in her first Daytona 500 start? The honest answer is yes, she could (see: Trevor Bayne, 2011), but she will not.

Bayne’s monumental upset last season came in a different form of Daytona drafting. Tandem drafting and pack racing are two very different animals. Patrick has yet to show she is 100 percent comfortable in the giant pack (or in yesterday’s tandem/pack hybrid). There remains a level of timidity she has shown that will make her odds long to even finish the 500, much less be in the right place at the right time as the laps wind down to be in a position to win.

There’s no doubt she’ll have plenty of help on Daytona’s 2.5-mile track throughout the day, but when it’s “go time,” the experienced drivers she’ll be looking to for help (Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr.) will be looking out for No. 1. That may leave Patrick sinking, not surging, through the field.

Engine Concerns
Water and oil temperatures have kept engine builders tossing and turning late into the night at Daytona since January’s test sessions. The Fords, with their FR-9 powerplants, have run cooler than any other make, and that has to play to their favor. However, staying up front and in clean air will alleviate this problem regardless of manufacturer. That, of course, is easier said than done.

NASCAR has allowed teams to change the PSI on the radiator pressure release valve from 25 psi to 28 psi. That will help with cooling, but water was seen spewing from overflow valves in the Duels — and those were only 150-mile affairs. A 500-mile race will eventually take its toll. Expect some big names to battle this all afternoon, and some to fall victim to overheating.

The Favorites
Unquestionably, Tony Stewart. Smoke lost the Bud Shootout by inches last weekend, won his Duel race on Thursday and most likely would have won the Nationwide race had Kurt Busch not thrown an ill-advised block that decimated the lead pack.

Stewart has a swagger this season, carried over from last year’s Chase performance and a handful of non-NASCAR wins over the offseason. He earned his 17th career Daytona win on Thursday, though none have come in the 500. It’s his 14th start in NASCAR’s Super Bowl and he’s driving the No. 14 Chevy. Hey, it worked for Darrell Waltrip in 1989.

Roush teammates Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards have all shown plenty of speed over the last week. Kenseth won a Thursday Duel, Biffle has consistently been near the top of the pylon in practice sessions and Edwards is the pole-sitter.

At least one of these Roushkateers should find himself in contention by race’s end. And the smart money here goes on Kenseth — although Edwards has been as quietly fast and under-the-radar as any pole-sitter I can remember. Edwards also has the advantage of occupying pit stall No. 1, meaning he has clear track ahead when exiting pit road.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking to snap a 129-race winless skid in the Cup Series. He’s made no secret that he prefers pack racing to tandem drafts, and the feeling (whether real or imagined) that he controls his own destiny may be the edge he needs.

Like Edwards, Kevin Harvick has been quietly fast throughout Speedweeks. Harvick would just as soon lay low until it’s time to show his cards, and that’s exactly what he’s done thus far. Harvick is a pied-piper of sorts on the plate tracks, and that should be the case once again today.

The Darhorses
Joey Logano, himself mired in an ugly winless skid, has shown speed and savvy all week and his Joe Gibbs Racing mount will be good enough to win on Sunday (or Monday, or Tuesday). He’ll have to stay out of trouble, though. But that can be said for 42 other drivers, as well.

Marcos Ambrose has third-place showings in the Shootout and his Duel race in 2012. Not known as a plate master, Ambrose’s two Speedweek runs have come in lighter fields than the 500’s 43-car lineup. So while the career numbers may not back up the claim, Ambrose remains a darkhorse — and the fact he’s manning a Ford, and the Fords have not shown the tendency to overheat as other makes have — place him as a sneaky fantasy roster play.

Since the “unlikely youngster coming out of nowhere” theme has persisted through the weekend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. gets a shout-out here. The defending Nationwide Series champion will drive a powerful Roush Fenway Ford, so the equipment is there. He’ll also have plenty of on-track assistance, as he claims Biffle, Edwards, Kenseth and Trevor Bayne (among others) as blue-oval buddies in the draft.

And in the End…
My pick is Tony Stewart. That’s hardly going out on a limb, but as stated previously, he has a potent mix of swagger, speed and savvy. And make no mistake, the rest of the field knows it. Anyone, regardless of manufacturer loyalty, will be more than willing to align themselves with the three-time champion throughout the day — and especially when it’s money time.

Stewart has learned where he needs to be on the race’s final lap — the hunter, not the hunted — and will parlay that into his first Daytona 500 crown.

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<p> Matt Taliaferro contemplates what's to come in Sunday's Daytona 500.</p>
Post date: Sunday, February 26, 2012 - 11:02
Path: /columns/garage-talk/garage-talk-nascar-tweet-your-own-risk

by Tom Bowles

Athletes in America have always been held to a higher standard. Role models for children and idolized by adults, their unflinching popularity comes partnered with unrelenting pressure. Fans become emotionally attached to the point that on-field accomplishments are only part of a “friendship” connection they feel. A full understanding of someone’s true personality is needed; an opportunity to relate as in many cases the investment in an athlete fans follow, representing their own dream they hope — or hoped — to achieve.

Of course, when perfection is expected, all you can do is fail. When the ugly truth comes out that athletes are real people and not the drummed up fantasies so many fans desire … that’s when reality provides a cruel reminder.

NASCAR gave us a taste of that this offseason, a classic case of a sport and its fans getting what they wish for — then working hard to give it up. It came through Twitter, which in the last few years has opened the door as a haven for fans and athletes to connect in a way never before seen. For the next generation, a 140-character “Happy Birthday” message has now replaced the autograph as a fan’s preferred trophy. A response to a child’s Twitter handle makes him or her an automatic fan for life. When done right, it leaves each side with a feel-good ending — no two-hour wait in line for the fan and no forced meeting when the athlete had a bad day.

NASCAR has taken full advantage of the craze, pushing its drivers to social media as a way to keep the lines of communication open. More than any other sport, it’s a “must have” to see who says what after a wreck or to follow one of your 43 favorites consistently when the TV broadcast remains focused on the battle up front. Just yesterday, I learned Juan Pablo Montoya had the flu and Kevin Harvick is antsy. Heck, at times we’ve even seen drivers post their feelings from the cockpit. An opportunity to see their true thoughts, away from the watchful (and reformist) eyes of PR representatives can be refreshing.

But for NASCAR vets, using the medium to speak their minds has also forced them to open their wallets. Criticism about anything from debris cautions to electronic fuel injection led to now-public “secret” fines — a practice NASCAR has since reversed. Suddenly, fans accustomed to hearing their driver’s opinion wind up with politically correct, canned responses where a wall gets built between the guilty party and his true personality. And for a sport looking to connect with a new audience, generic just won’t cut it.

But in the midst of NASCAR giving the smackdown, doling out at least $25,000 fines to Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski within the last two years, the fans themselves are not blameless. Take this series of controversial “maternity” tweets from Kasey Kahne as an example, posted over the offseason when he was walking through a grocery store:

“See a mom breastfeeding little kid. Took second look because obviously I was seeing things. I wasn’t!”

“One boob put away one boob hanging!! #nasty

“I don’t feel like shopping anymore or eating.”

As always, controversial comments breed anger from those who disagree. Within hours, Kahne found himself on the defensive, and later, tweeted an apology. Now under the Hendrick banner, he’ll be taught better than to “step into the shadow of negative publicity,” but the reaction it spawned sealed the deal. Expect a lot of “at the track,” “this race was great,” and “at my [insert sponsor here] special reception. It’s a lot of fun and I can’t thank them enough!”

Already, we’ve seen once-outspoken drivers like Hamlin tone down the rhetoric following their incidents, but the fan furor here ignites an additional debate. Certainly, for many, Kahne’s comments weren’t in good taste but they were also an opinion; nothing more, nothing less. Isn’t that what you want from your athletes? The chance to express who they really are? They have beliefs and opinions and crack jokes just like everyone else, and often times, they’re not going to be like yours.

But when fans hold athletes to the fire, reviling them for expressing an opinion, what type of message does that send? “We’re happy to hear from you… but only if we like what you have to say.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for a driver to speak his or her mind in the future. Because where do you draw the line? Will someone who hunts, then tweets about it, be forced to apologize by a barrage of PETA protesters? Sounds ridiculous, but in a world where a single 140-character statement can become a national furor, well, in the hands of the wrong, crazed fan, anything is possible.

But that’s the danger with fans getting too close to their idols: They can’t dream up who they are anymore. So the second they say something off base, it hurts 10 times more than a random person on the street saying it. An ugly pattern evolves, one seen with famous people several times over the last few years. One Twitter comment is made, people disagree, and a witch hunt ensues; they have to apologize. The fan has to be reminded their athlete can be whom they envision. They’ll settle for nothing less.

Ultimately, fans have to decide what they want. Politically correct, boring tweets are becoming the norm and not the exception these days in NASCAR Nation. But if race fans can’t handle another driver’s opinion, maybe that’s all they need to see.

In the meantime, we’ll always have @KylePetty.

Follow Tom on Twitter:

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles examines how the social networking site Twitter can be a double-edged sword to high-profile athletes.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 24, 2012 - 12:00
Path: /columns/garage-talk/long-and-short-it-smoke-and-kenseth-win-danica-bruised-ok

by Dustin Long

For whatever reason, Daytona International Speedway enjoys playing with some of NASCAR’s most successful drivers, making them endure years of anguish before winning the 500. Darrell Waltrip waited 17 years, Dale Earnhardt 20. Tony Stewart is at 13 and counting.

Waltrip and Earnhardt showed how much their Daytona victories meant when they finally achieved them. Waltrip danced. Earnhardt exclaimed. “Yes!’’ Earnhardt said as he climbed from the roof of his car after winning the 500.

 “The Daytona 500 is ours,’’ Earnhardt said in Victory Lane that day in 1998. “We’ve won it. We’ve won it. We’ve won it.’’

Those are experiences Stewart can’t share. Maybe some day. Maybe even Sunday.

Stewart again will be a favorite to win the 500 after another sterling Speedweeks where he finished second in the Bud Shootout before winning his qualifying race Thursday.

Of course, Stewart’s success during Speedweeks is not new. It’s the 500 that he has problems with. Just like Kyle Busch finds ways to falter in the Chase, Stewart has misfortune in the 500.

He is the only driver in NASCAR history with three or more championships who does not have a Daytona 500 victory.

Consider that he was winless in five attempts at the Indianapolis 500, and, for as talented as he is, Stewart is without a victory in the crown jewels of two racing series that he has won championships.

Stewart likely will never get another chance to win the Indy 500 but for how long will the Daytona 500 frustrate him?

Recently asked where winning the Daytona 500 ranked among his personal bucket list, Stewart said: “Very high on it.’’

Stewart can win any other race at Daytona — his 17 overall victories put him second on the all-time wins list there behind Earnhardt’s 34.

While not as dramatic as some of Earnhardt’s Daytona defeats, Stewart’s disappointments have been nearly as great.

Last year, he was beside Trevor Bayne on the final restart but got detached from Mark Martin, who was pushing him, and fell back in the field.

In 2007, Stewart won the Shootout and his qualifying race only to finish last in the 500 after he was wrecked by Kurt Busch. In 2008, Stewart’s worst finish in all of Speedweeks was a third-place showing — in the 500.

It continues.

In 2005, Stewart led a race-high 107 laps, falling out of the lead in the final laps and engaging in a spirited duel with Jimmie Johnson that continued after the race and sent both to the NASCAR hauler to meet with series officials.

In ‘04, he led a race-high 97 laps only to watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. take the lead with 20 laps to go and beat him by a few yards. In ‘02, Stewart won the Shootout, placed second in his qualifying race and then finished last when his engine blew on the third lap.

It is this past that keeps Stewart from boasting even after the week he’s had.

“Even though we had success today, it’s no guarantee that can happen Sunday,’’ Stewart said of the 500, moments after his Duel win. “I think we showed the rest of the field that we have a car that has good speed. That’s a really strong point, just like Trevor Bayne showed last year he had a strong car, so people wanted to go with him. Hopefully, that will work for us on Sunday, too.’’

Maybe this will be Stewart’s year. Then again ...

<p> Athlon Sports contributor talks all things NASCAR as Speedweeks in Daytona reach a fever pitch.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 24, 2012 - 09:50
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/2012-daytona-500-starting-lineup

2012 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup

 1. Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
 2. Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
 3. Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
 4. Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
 5. Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
 6. Regan Smith, No. 78 Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing
 7. Marcos Ambrose, No. 9 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
 8. Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
 9. Jeff Burton, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
10. Elliott Sadler, No. 33 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
11. Michael McDowell, No. 98 Ford, Phil Parsons Racing
12. Joey Logano, No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
13. Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
14. Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
15. AJ Allmendinger, No. 22 Dodge, Penske Racing
16. Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
17. Robby Gordon, No. 7 Dodge, Robby Gordon Motorsports
18. Ryan Newman, No. 39 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
19. Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
20. Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
21. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No 6 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
22. Mark Martin, No. 55 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
23. Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Dodge, Penske Racing
24. Dave Blaney, No. 36 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing
25. David Ragan, No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
26. Martin Truex Jr., No. 56 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
27. Aric Almirola, No. 43 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
28. Kurt Busch, No. 51 Chevrolet, Phoenix Racing
29. Danica Patrick, No. 10 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing
30. Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
31. Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
32. Bobby Labonte, No. 47 Toyota, JTG-Daugherty Racing
33. David Gilliland, No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
34. Joe Nemechek, No. 87 Toyota, NEMCO Motorsports
35. Juan Pablo Montoya, No. 42 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
36. Casey Mears, No. 13 Ford, Germain Racing
37. Paul Menard, No. 27 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
38. David Reutimann, No. 93 Toyota, BK Racing
39. Landon Cassill, No. 83 Toyota, BK Racing
40. Trevor Bayne, No. 21 Ford, Wood Brothers
41. David Stremme, No. 30 Ford, Inception Motorsports
42. Tony Raines, No. 26 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
43. Terry Labonte, No. 32 Ford, FAS Lane Racing

Did Not Qualify: 09 – Kenny Wallace; 23 – Robert Richardson III; 37 – Mike Wallace; 40 – Michael Waltrip; 49 – J.J. Yeley; 97 – Bill Elliott

<p> The starting lineup for the 2012 Daytona 500.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 20:11
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/stewart-kenseth-win-gatorade-duel-daytona

by Matt Taliaferro

As is usually the case, there was one wild and crazy Gatorade Duel race at Daytona International Speedway, and one much more staid. Such was the case on Thursday, when the field was set for the 54th annual Daytona 500.

Tony Stewart won the first race — the wilder of the two — that ended under caution when Danica Patrick and Aric Almirola got together on the final lap. Patrick’s car made hard contact with the inside SAFER Barrier, but she emerged unhurt.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have had something for Stewart, who led 21 of 60 laps, on the last lap had the race not ended under yellow. Stewart jumped out to a big lead as the field took the white flag. Two drafting lines — the top led by Kevin Harvick and the bottom by Earnhardt — formed behind the reigning series champion.

As Earnhardt and Jeff Burton drafted in the low groove off of Turn 2, it appeared Earnhardt’s Chevy had the momentum to pass Stewart. However, Jamie McMurray made contact with Almirola’s Ford while battling in the pack for ninth place. Almirola then hit Patrick, who slid sideways across the paved-over “infield” on the backstretch, hitting the inside wall and completely destroying her No. 10 Chevrolet.

“It happened really quick,” Patrick said. “We were just looking to finish, to be honest. Unfortunately that was not the case. It felt pretty big … I don’t know what it looked like.”

Patrick will start 29th in Sunday’s 500.

The win was Stewart’s 17th at Daytona, though none have come in the Daytona 500.

“The fact that we’ve won 17 times here and not won on the right day is proof it's good momentum, but it's no guarantee, obviously,” Stewart said. “It's nice to come here, especially for Steve (Addington, crew chief) and I, being our first race together, to be able to come out and have two really good strong and solid races back to back is an awesome start for us.”

Robby Gordon (fourth), in his self-owned No. 7 Dodge, and Michael McDowell (fifth), in a Whitney Motorsports Ford, transferred into Sunday’s field by virtue of racing their way in via the first Duel.

Two other accidents in the first race eliminated the machines of Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard, David Gilliland and Michael Waltrip. Waltrip will not race in the 500, as his Sunday qualifying speed was too slow, thus he had to race his way in through the Duel. Montoya, Menard and Gilliland are guaranteed spots but will go to back-up cars.

The second Duel was tame in comparison. There were zero cautions and only five lead changes, as drivers flew in formation for the majority of the event.

Greg Biffle’s powerful Ford started on the pole and led 40 laps. He found himself atop the pylon, leading a single-file, seven-car freight train, until Jimmie Johnson stepped out of line with three laps remaining. Johnson hooked onto Matt Kenseth’s back bumper and the duo made its way to the point as the white flag flew. Biffle threw a block, but the momentum of the Kenseth/Johnson draft was too great.

Biffle faded as a mad scramble for the second spot ensued in Kenseth’s rearview mirror. As Johnson and Regan Smith traded paint, Kenseth separated and drove to a .209-second win, the first for car owner Jack Roush in a Gatorade Duel in 25 years of trying.

“Jimmie Johnson just got hooked to me and was really good to me there and pushed me for that lap and a half and got us up in that position,” Kenseth said. “I was able to get a big run there and hang on to that.

“By the time I got to Turn 2 (on the final lap) I lost Jimmie and I have no idea what happened behind me. Then I was concerned about being too far in front and thankfully nobody was able to really get lined up and make a run on us because I was out there all by myself. I figured I might be a sitting duck.

Regan Smith, Johnson, Elliott Sadler and Biffle rounded out the top 5.

Joe Nemechek raced his self-owned car into the 500 via the second Duel. Dave Blaney, in a Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy, also earned a spot for Sunday’s race.

Roush Fenway teammates Carl Edwards and Biffle locked themselves into the front row for the Daytona 500 by posting the fastest speeds in Sunday’s qualifying round. Drivers that failed to make the race include Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Robert Richardson III, Kenny Wallace, Mike Wallace and J.J. Yeley.

<p> Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth won Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 19:06
Path: /columns/garage-talk/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-daytona

by Jay Pennell

Sunday’s running of the 54th annual Daytona 500 begins the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and it also marks the beginning of the 2012 NASCAR fantasy racing season. Fans across the land will be preparing their teams week-in and week-out, hoping to celebrate with a championship of their own at season’s end.

As the 2012 fantasy racing season gets underway, I wish you the best of luck. I will attempt to bring you the best advice and updates on a weekly basis throughout the year, providing information that will help you determine which drivers to start, which to avoid and which to keep an eye on.

With the rule changes put in place by NASCAR during the offseason and throughout Speedweeks, the “pack is back” at Daytona. No longer will drivers rely on another car for the entirety of the 500-mile event, instead they will be more in control of their destiny to work their way through the giant, 30-car snarling packs, akin to the “traditional” restrictor-plate races that have drawn some fans’ ire, yet always deliver on excitement.

This is a change for many that have become accustomed to tandem racing on the plate tracks, but is a welcomed sight to this week’s fantasy favorite: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The 2004 Daytona 500 champion has not enjoyed the same success during the tandem drafting era of restrictor-plate racing as he did in the “pack racing years,” when he won a total of seven points-paying races at Daytona and Talladega from 2001-04.

Earnhardt admits that he “never felt really great about” about the tandems, and that was never more evident than in last October’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, when he and teammate Jimmie Johnson hung around the back of the pack until the end. By the time the two attempted to make their charge, it was too late. Earnhardt finished 25th that day and vowed to never use that strategy again.

However, with pack racing back, Earnhardt says he feels “more confident” and has a better ability to formulate a plan to get to the front at the end. Expect the perennial fan-favorite to dice it up in the pack throughout the entire race (see: the 2010 Daytona 500) and be a factor in the final laps.

“I want to go up and win the race,” Earnhardt said earlier this week. “I just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about riding in the back. I don’t waste a minute of the day doing that.”

While Earnhardt may be the favorite for Sunday’s win, my safe-bet pick for the week is 2009 Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth.

The Roush Fenway Racing driver was strong throughout Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout, coming back into contention after sustaining damage in an early-race incident. In addition to his calm, cool and collected driving style, Kenseth also has the advantage of Ford power under the hood of his No. 17 car.

Throughout Speedweeks, the Fords have once again shown they are able to stay cooler longer while tucked behind another car in the tandem draft. And while pack racing will rule 95 percent of the day at Daytona, the final laps of Sunday’s race will see drivers pairing up in pairs once again, throwing caution — and water temperatures — to the wind in an attempt to drive to the win.

When drivers partner up at the finish, expect Kenseth to be among those at the front with a bevy of teammates (and quasi-teammates) — think Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and David Gilliland — from which to choose.

My dark horse pick of the week is Joe Gibbs Racing’s Joey Logano. While the 21-year-old has had a poor record in the Daytona 500 in his first three attempts (average finish: 28.6) , I feel the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota will be a factor throughout the day.

Before being involved in one of the three “Big Ones” in the Bud Shootout, Logano was among the strongest cars in the field. Despite his relative inexperience with pack racing, he looked at ease in the middle of the pack and had the ability to move to the front. And his teammates’ seeming unwillingness to work with one another — when was the last time Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch actually assisted one another on-track? — means Logano will serve as the perfect dancing partner.

In addition, Logano enters his first year without veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who moved to Stewart-Haas Racing during the offseason. While the loss of a two-time, championship-winning crew chief would seem detrimental to most teams, it may by the opposite for Logano. For the first time in his young career, he truly feels the team is his own. With Zipadelli calling the shots up until now, Logano was living in the shadow (and accomplishments) of former driver Tony Stewart. Now that Zipadelli has moved on, Logano, believe it or not, is the leader of his own team. And JGR’s veteran Nationwide Series crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, should fill the vacated head wrench role nicely.

While he may not win his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, I fully expect Logano to score a solid finish — and provide ample fantasy points.

Momentum is a powerful thing in NASCAR, and as the season goes on I wish you all the best of luck. I encourage your feedback and comments, and apologize in advance if my observations do not pan out (a timely “Big One” can easily knock out an entire fantasy roster). If I could predict the future, I think I’d live in Las Vegas and be a lot richer …

Here’s to a great 2012 season for NASCAR, the competitors, and the fantasy racing participants.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell examines favorites, steady plays and dark horse picks for your fantasy NASCAR team as the season opens with the Daytona 500.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 10:48
Path: /columns/garage-talk/year-20-exclusive-qa-jeff-gordon

by Dustin Long

Athlon Sports: You had gone three years without winning multiple races in a season before 2011. How did 2011 revitalize you?
Jeff Gordon:
That is definitely the proper phrase. It has. This team has revitalized me. I see it happening in other sports, and I’ve watched my career … and the experiences that I’ve had and you go back through your most successful years and races and you try to think, what was happening there, why did this success happen? What I see in (2011) is that this team, as I came in, they believed in their driver and they had confidence in me as a driver and they had confidence in what they were doing as a team to provide cars that can win. When you have that, and you start to put the good performances together, it just starts to build and build confidence and momentum and that’s what we did.

What I will take out of (last) year is just the ability this team has to have winning racecars, to have what it takes — pit crew, strategy, speed, track position — to get into Victory Lane, not just luck into it one time. What I love (about what we did last) year is we did it on a lot of different types of tracks. I wish we could have thrown the Brickyard in there, too, because that would have been incredible. You’ve got Pocono, Atlanta and Phoenix. I look at Richmond and Bristol. We’ve run good on a lot of different tracks.

There was a spell at one point where you were winning at only particular types of tracks, like the short tracks or the restrictor-plate tracks.
Exactly. That’s usually the sign that your career is getting ready to come to an end. I’ll never forget watching other guys: Yeah, they’re successful in the plate tracks, (but) can’t win anywhere else. Those plate tracks — that’s usually a bad sign. I didn’t want to be in that position. These guys have revitalized me in my belief in myself and in what we’re capable of doing.

Considering how long your racing career has been, when you say you were revitalized, do you feel you were, in a way, in a rut before?
I didn’t do anything different (last) year than I did any other year, other than just trying to work harder communicating with these guys. That’s a little bit of what happens when you come into something new like I did (in 2011 with a new team). You get put into what they do as a team, and it’s a little bit unique and different.

For instance, we have a meeting every Tuesday morning that lasts a couple of hours, and it’s our engineers and myself and we break down the race that we just ran and then look ahead at races or tests. I love that, even though it’s over my head a lot of times because I can’t keep up with the engineering side of it, it’s great to be involved in those and understand what’s going on to another level. Like what I love sometimes, (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) will say, ‘We’re in the trust tree.’ So what happens is you’ve got to man up in those meetings, you’ve got to be willing to lay it out there whether you made mistakes, didn’t make mistakes, calling other people out, calling yourself out, whatever it may be — that’s that area that we can be honest with one another, and I think it allows us to be better because of it.

But you’ve been through that before.
I’ve never done it like that before. I go in there in person most of the time. Now living in North Carolina helps me do that. I’ve been absent from being in North Carolina (in the past) … because I didn’t have the home. Now, I have the home and family and everything and now we’re there a lot more, so I can make it to these meetings in person.

It, just to me, makes a difference. Plus, just when we started the season out, the effort these guys were putting in to get me comfortable — the seats, the new dash design that we had, the whole driver compartment and then going and testing and the things we were going through — just made me feel really comfortable. I love to see the effort they put out. With that, as well as going to the race track and having competitive cars, it just helps build my confidence not only in myself, but in them. It has to go both ways. The team has to believe in their driver, and the driver has to believe in the team.

What’s happening, talking about those last three years, we just were gradually doing like this (his hand arcs downward). This year it was nice to turn that corner back up. I think it’s important to have the valleys because it makes you know how bad you want it, makes you think about it, how hard you’re going to work, how bad you want it, how much does it mean to you — and it’s good. It brings the passion back. Sometimes you can lose that a little bit and get a little complacent. It helped make me realize how bad I want it and how much I enjoy being competitive.

Isn’t it easy to say it’s good to have the valleys when you’re moving up?
When you’re in the valley it’s no fun, but I say it because when you come through it … it’s good to struggle, you need to struggle to appreciate the good times, to understand what it takes to climb the mountain.

I went to this event (in 2011), I was really inspired by it, it was amazing. It was a charity event in New York that was honoring Ralph Lauren. Even though it’s not sports and it’s not our industry, he mentioned about losing his company. He almost lost his company two or three times, and he said that those were some of the most valuable lessons that he had and what really got him to where he is. I believe that. I think you have to experience what it’s like to be successful to win, but then you have to lose some, as well, to grow and really make sure you keep that passion, that you keep that desire and that you keep that work ethic. And also sometimes it forces you to make some changes whether it be team changes or maybe even some things you’re doing yourself.

So when I say I’m not doing anything different, at the race track I don’t do anything different. Away from the race track, yeah, I would say that I’ve definitely communicated much closer and more than I ever have before, trying to stay in better shape. My commitment is to these guys, but I have to balance out family and business because that’s the life that I have, so I have to balance that out, but these guys are definitely a priority to me.

In your career you’ve driven different styles of cars, with different tires and under different rules. Is it easier or harder to drive these current cars than what you’ve done in NASCAR?
The competition is so much greater, so these days you’re dealing with much smaller increments of gains. Every detail matters and every hundredth of a second matters, so, to me, in that sense it’s harder. Track position is so important these days (that) once you get it, it’s almost easier (to run). To get out front and stay out front is so much easier today — if you get there. If you start in the back, it’s much harder. If you start up front, it’s much easier. That didn’t used to be the case.

The other thing is that from lap one to the final lap, you race as hard as you can. There’s no holding back. Very rarely do I ever have to say, ‘My brakes are a little hot and I’m going to ease back here (or) the fuel load I have right now, I need to take it easy and wait for it to come to me.’ You go. You go as hard as you can and you do it for every lap of every run.

In mentioning your first Cup start in 1992 …
I wrecked.

Did you keep anything from that first start?
Yeah. I’ve got the money clip that Richard Petty gave in the drivers meeting (since that was Petty’s final Cup race). That’s cool. The other day, I was thinking about that, I wanted to know where that is because I know I have it. I went into my archives and I found it. I actually was carrying it with me for a little while because I wanted to show some people. I’ve put it back in a safe place now. I’ll never forget getting that. All I have is that and some video.

You didn’t keep the uniform or anything?
Oh, good question. I’ve got a lot of stuff. I’ll have to go back and check to see if I have the helmet. I might have the helmet.

It’s one thing for past success to provide a form of motivation for some people, but how do you keep past success from being a burden?
It’s a burden at times. I think what’s more of a burden is just that I’m competitive, and I’m competitive because I know what it’s like to have won and had a lot of success. I’ve maintained that confidence in myself that I still have what it takes to have that success. When the car is not driving the way I want it to, if that continues to happen throughout the race or throughout weeks, you get very frustrated — and I don’t know if that’s a burden that is coming from my previous success or just my desire to be competitive.

But that does get frustrating if it happens for a length of time, because you’re sitting there going, ‘My teammate is running good over here and he’s winning races and I’ve got the same equipment, so is it me or is it him or what is it?’ That can be tough at times. I’ve gone through that, and that’s what I like so much about this year. I haven’t really changed anything. I switched over to Alan (Gustafson) and his group and I’ve fit into how they’re going about things, but as a driver what I’m doing on the race track is not any different and we’re running good and we’re having success. That’s comforting to me because it makes me realize that I don’t need to change what I’m doing, I just need to continue to work hard and give the best information that I can.

I’m more thankful and appreciative of what I’ve accomplished than anything else, so when I feel that burden and I get mad and I’m pissed because we’re not running as good or we’re not winning championships, I usually am pretty good at reminding myself shortly after that of how thankful I am to have had the success that I’ve had in the sport, and it doesn’t matter if I never win another race or another championship, it’s been amazing. I do have to fall back into that mode from time to time.

It’s been documented with your crashes that you have found places that didn’t have SAFER barriers. With your clout in the sport, why don’t you seem to play a more vocal role in safety, or do you do it more behind the scenes?
I would say I do more work behind the scenes. What I’ve learned over the years is that doing it in the public and in front of the media, while it has results, it also has consequences to the sport. I care a lot about the sport and the safety of it, yet I think sometimes it can be equally as damaging to do it publicly. Usually when drivers are doing it publicly, it’s out of frustration, and that’s usually not the best time to voice your opinion — when you’re frustrated.

When it was all said and done, was turning 40 in 2011 that big of a deal to you?
(The party) was awesome! I had a great time. It was great spending time with friends. To me, turning 40 has been fun. I like being 40.

I feel very settled in a good way. Two kids, amazing wife. Life is good, and racing (last) year was really good, I mean the Chase … eh. The three wins and the way we ran (in the regular season) — turning 40, friends, family, the charitable work we’ve done — it was a good year.

You went on a fact-finding mission to Congo last year with your work through the Clinton Global Initiative. What is going to come out of that? What will your role become now that you’ve been there and the seen the conditions?
We’ve got a plan in place. There’s a couple of different products we’re going to help fund and get them out there to that area. Those sticks that purify water (and) there’s some mosquito netting — those are like the small first steps that we can do immediately and then we’re working through the long-term plan.

It’s a slow process. You can just jump on something and say we’re going to fund this and do this, but I think it will get lost in the shuffle. We’re doing some of those things that will immediately help a lot of people, but if you want to truly save lives and really reinvigorate their economy and get involved with the government, it takes time.

We went to Rwanda with the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation — Ingrid, myself and Ella. We went in December after the (championship) banquet. That was for children’s pediatric cancer. What we’ve funded is a pathology lab. What’s happening is there’s a lot of misdiagnosis going on over there. They don’t really know what the children have because they don’t have the proper equipment. We’re actually helping to transport some equipment over there.

While you’ve been involved with children’s charities for years, how did that work change once you had children?
It’s made me realize how important the work is, and there’s certainly a portion of that in seeing what life would be like as a parent to go through that and how tough and devastating that must be.

What I see is the work that I’m doing and the effort being put into it — how it is affecting Ella, my daughter. She is just fascinated with people that have injuries, and she’s like, ‘What’s wrong with them? Can I help them? Why are they here? What are the doctors doing?’ She’s just really interested. Just like going to Rwanda, we said to her, ‘We’re going to help some children and we’re going to go over there and visit them.’ She’s like, ‘Can I go? I want to go.’ We said, ‘You have to get shots.’ At first, she was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want shots.’ We said if you really want to help these children, then you have to have shots. (She said) ‘OK, I’ll do it, I’ll do it for the kids.’

My parents, while they were really good people and taught me how to treat others, we didn’t go that far into philanthropy, and I think that what they did helped me get to where I am and now I can take that to the next level and help my children. Especially for my kids, because I didn’t grow up with the luxuries that my kids are going to grow up with.

I think the only way you can balance that out where they don’t get spoiled or take that for granted and not appreciate it, is for them to volunteer, to go see what is happening in the rest of the world — especially when it comes to sick children, because I think that it will inspire them to want to help, but it also will balance out the lifestyle that they have and make them understand that that might not always be the case, that there are other people suffering and it could happen to them as well.

How can your relationship with Alan Gustafson grow in his second year as your crew chief?
I’m really excited about (2012). I feel like we’ve really jelled. The chemistry is there. I really like him as a crew chief, his personality, as well as how hard he works and the team he’s surrounded himself with. He’s already been making some adjustments and some changes in plans for (this) year to make us better. Those are things that would be happening whether we were leading the points or not leading the points (during the Chase). That’s how he works. So, I’m very excited about (2012).

This season will be your 20th full season at the Cup level. How much do you have to reinvent yourself or keep up with the young guys? How much is the sport changing, and what do you have to do to keep up?
I think the thing that I look at that I can do better for these guys is give more detailed and valuable information. We started doing a numbering system this year where you break down the levels of tight and loose in three or four different segments of each corner, and that’s kind of new to me. I want to progress with that a little more. They’re looking at sections of the race track that are in 100 feet, in shocks and springs and loads and all those things; so the more detail I can get with them on, the better they can tune the car.

What I’ve learned this year is if I give them the right information, they have the tools to fix it or at least make it better. I think what some of the top drivers are doing in this series are doing a good job of that. Let’s be honest, the cars are extremely important: They have to be pretty close when you unload. You can only do so much, but in those moments when you’re not right on, all they have is me to give them information. I want to be able to give them the proper information. I’m getting older. My body is definitely not what it was 15 years ago, so I have to stay sharp with that as well. I think that we’re very capable. I think we showed (last) year that we can be stronger this year. 


Follow Dustin on Twitter: @DustinLong

<p> Jeff Gordon sits down with Athlon Sports to talk racing, family and an offseason well-spent ... though not necessarily in that order.</p>
Post date: Monday, February 20, 2012 - 19:12
Path: /columns/monday-recap/kyle-busch-wins-shootout-carl-edwards-500-pole

by Matt Taliaferro

Kyle Busch won a crash-filled Budweiser Shootout on Saturday evening, kicking off Daytona Speedweeks in spectacular fashion.

Busch’s .013-second win over Tony Stewart (right) was the closest finish in the Shootout’s 34-year history. In route to the win, Busch found himself completely sideways on two occasions, but was able to save his Toyota — itself a backup car rolled out after an accident in practice — each time.

“I was trying to push (Ryan) Newman and hook up with him, then he was hooked up with whoever was in front of him,” Busch said of his final charge to the front. “I’m like, ‘All right, fine.’ The hole opened up behind Stewart. I ducked in behind there knowing he had a fast car, (and) pushed him.

“We got up through there. He made the way to the outside and everything. Coming to the line — I’ve been in that situation in reverse before with Tony (and it) hadn’t ended up so well. This time it turned out all right. We made it past him and beat him to the line, so it was cool.”

Busch earned nearly $200,000 for the victory.

While the ending came down to Busch and Stewart teaming up in a tandem draft to separate from the field, the majority of the race witnessed “pack racing.”

Fan displeasure with the two-car tandem drafts that had become the norm at Daytona and Talladega prompted NASCAR to make changes to the cars’ plate, grille and spoiler sizes as well as the max radiator pressure. The result was cars bunched together in three-wide packs.

“It was definitely a lot more fun and you felt a lot more eager to be engaged in the race this way than in the two-car deal,” Stewart said. “I actually had fun racing at Daytona again which I haven’t had for a while, so I’m really, really appreciative to the work that NASCAR has done in the offseason and the test session and even after the test of the changes that they made to try to make it better for us out there.”

Marcos Ambrose, Brad Keselowski and Deny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.

An eight-car wreck with eight laps remaining resulted in Jeff Gordon on his roof. That incident, which also included Jimmie Johnson, AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, sent the event into a green-white-checker finish. Busch and Ambrose were also involved, but continued after minimal repairs.

“It was just getting down to the end of the race and it was time to go,” Gordon said. “Me and Jimmie were looking good there. We knew those guys were coming, and once Kyle got in front of me, I was just trying to keep Jimmie on me and trying to stay with Kyle.

“Every time I got to Kyle’s bumper, he just started getting so sideways, like he was a lot tonight. And I thought he was going to wreck. I saw him start to spin, so I went wide, not knowing someone had gotten to my outside. That got me into those guys and into the wall and along for a ride.”

Edwards on Pole  Carl Edwards will lead the 43-car field to green in Sunday’s Daytona 500. Edwards topped Sunday’s qualifying session with a fast lap of 194.738 mph (46.216 seconds). Edwards nipped his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Greg Biffle, by .155 seconds. Both are locked into the front row.

It was Edwards’ first Daytona 500 pole.

Positions 3-39 will be determined in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel races. Four additional spots will be awarded to the fastest qualifiers on Sunday that did not qualify via the Duels. The 43rd spot will likely go to a past champion, although if all former champions qualify in the Duels or on speed, the final spot will be awarded to the fifth-fastest Sunday qualifier not already in.

<p> NASCAR's Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway kicked off over the weekend with a first-time Bud Shootout winner and a first-time Daytona 500 pole winner.</p>
Post date: Monday, February 20, 2012 - 18:14