Articles By Matt Taliaferro
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: @DustinLong
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
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: @NASCARBowles
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.
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 ...
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
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.
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.
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 …
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
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.
2012 Daytona 500 Entry List
by Matt Taliaferro
Forty-nine teams are entered for the 54th annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. Forty-three cars will qualify for The Great American Race. The front row for the event will be determined in qualifying on Sunday, Feb. 19. Positions 3-39 will be set in the Gatorade Duels on Thursday, Feb. 16. The final four spots will be based on Pole Day qualifying speeds of cars that have not already earned a starting position. If there is an eligible Sprint Cup Series past champion entered who has not already qualified, that past champion will receive the 43rd and final position. If there is more than one past champion eligible for this berth, it goes to the most recent champion.
Driver, Number, Manufacturer, Team
Kenny Wallace, No. 09 Toyota, RAB Racing
Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Dodge, Penske Racing
Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 6 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Robby Gordon, No. 7 Dodge, Robby Gordon Motorsports
Marcos Ambrose, No. 9 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
Danica Patrick, 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
Robert Richardson III, No. 23 Chevrolet, R3 Motorsports
Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Tony Raines, 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
Terry Labonte, No. 32 Ford, FAS Lane Racing
Elliott Sadler, No. 33 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
David Ragan, No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
Dave Blaney, No. 36 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing
Mike Wallace, No. 37 Ford, Rick Ware Racing
David Gilliland, No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
Ryan Newman, No. 39 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
Michael Waltrip, No. 40 Toyota, Hillman 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
David Reutimann, No. 93 Toyota, BK Racing
Bill Elliott, No. 97 Toyota, NEMCO Motorsports
Michael McDowell, No. 98 Ford, Phil Parsons Racing
Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
Kyle Busch: Will fallout from “The Texas Incident” tame the rowdy youngster?
For someone to learn from a mistake, the consequences must always be strong enough to make them think. Is that what really happened in the case of Kyle Busch after he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday in the fall Texas Truck event last season?
Sure, there was a one-race parking on the Sprint Cup level, but Busch’s title hopes were slim to none by then and Joe Gibbs Racing was already in the midst of a Chase implosion. And when sponsor M&M’s made a statement by pulling its funding for the final two races of the year, Interstate Batteries stepped right in as the sponsor superhero. “Don’t worry, Kyle! We’ll save you … and take all the publicity that comes with it!”
Now, M&M’s full-time return to the fold in 2012 looks cheap, like it just jumped on a Christmas discount. And in the midst of it all, unlike brother Kurt, there is no sports psychologist or stripping of a top-tier ride for Kyle to think about. Instead, it’s only the prospect of starting the slate clean at Daytona, going after another championship and a “wink, wink” from the powers that be who, while scolding of such aggressive behavior, seemingly reminded Busch he adds an extra zero to their paychecks, so it’s all good.
The educated guess is that under the tutelage of Joe Gibbs, we’re likely to see a slightly milder version of Busch going forward — if not for the near-loss of a major sponsor. But did Tony Stewart, put in similar hot water at JGR in 2002, transform overnight? Absolutely not, and in some ways, because of these similar circumstances, never did.
If Busch avoids any 2012 probation over 50-some odd races in the Cup and Nationwide series this year, it should be considered a surprise.
Has NASCAR’s “wave-around” rule made earning a solid, lead-lap finish too easy?
Think nothing in life is free anymore? You haven’t seen a NASCAR race, where “gift laps” are given out more cheaply than product samples at an at-track display.
It used to be that losing a lap, at anytime, constituted a crisis. Under the old double-file restart rule, some of the best competition surrounded those cars trying to desperately muscle their way back into contention. But now? You can lose a lap in the first three-quarters of the race, choose not to pit with everyone else during a late caution and take a wave-around to get back on the lead lap. A few moments later, another yellow flag comes out and you’re suddenly in contention for a top-5 finish after spending all day running 25th.
That loophole, parlayed into top finishes by everyone from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Carl Edwards in 2011, eliminates any advantage a dominant leader has early in the race. Why try to pull out to a 10-second lead, lapping as many cars as possible, when they’ll all be back in contention at the end, anyway? It contributes to a growing NASCAR problem: no sense of urgency for much of the race’s first two hours, which leads to single-file “stroking.”
So how about keeping the sport’s real “free pass,” giving the first car off the lead lap one back every caution but limit it to one per opponent, per race. And if a car doesn’t pit under a caution flag? Let ’em start in front of the leader like the old days. If a fan can’t figure out who the leader is after watching the whole race they should probably give back that elementary school completion certificate.
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.
As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
Did Kentucky Speedway do enough to appease dissatisfied fans after its Cup debut disaster? And how will this affect its future on the circuit?
Kentucky Speedway fought for years to land a coveted Sprint Cup Series race, only to be blocked with every shot it took. So when Speedway Motorsports, Inc. bought the venue, then awarded it a date formerly housed at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it was a slam dunk, a Bluegrass bonanza for hardcore Southern supporters who waited over a decade. But for 100,000 ticketed fans, their dream come true turned into a hellish nightmare on July 9, 2011. Traffic flow and infrastructure shortcomings plagued the inaugural Cup date to the point that Kentucky Speedway may hold the title of having hosted the most disastrous major sporting debut in history. Traffic was so bad some estimates claimed as many as 20,000 people never made it to the speedway, while others sat idle for up to seven hours, then parked three miles away to get in.
SMI’s response? An apology two days later and a ticket-exchange offer to any of the remainder of its 2011 dates (including upcoming Truck Series and IndyCar events at Kentucky Speedway) or free admission to this season’s Kentucky date.
Did that heal the wound? Not even close. What SMI CEO Bruton Smith failed to understand was that for many, that weekend was it. That was the vacation, the time off from work, the hotel reservation, the gas money, the time, effort and planning … that weekend — not one seven weeks later at Bristol — that many hard-working fans saved for and invested in.
Perhaps it's hard for a billionaire to comprehend. Regardless, Smith offered no ticket refunds in a rambling, bizarre press conference the following weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, he laid blame on everyone from the state and local police, the company hired to direct traffic in the parking areas, local and state officials who did not bend to his roadway demands, local residents who parked cars on their property to — get this — the fans themselves for not planning properly!
The scary part of this mess was that Smith had traffic and parking issues at his Las Vegas and Texas tracks on opening Cup weekends in the past, plus Kentucky track officials had concerns going into the July date. Did SMI know what was coming? Would it allow a debacle on this scale to unfold simply to force state officials to invest in roadway reconstruction around the track? It certainly felt that way.
As to how this will affect Kentucky’s future events, it’s impossible to foresee. SMI has made improvements to the facility with expanded parking areas, additional restroom facilities and plans to widen the interstate and ease incoming traffic to the track itself. Time heals all wounds and, obviously, NASCAR did not yank its 2012 date. However, 100,000 fans were treated not like paying customers, but more like pawns in a multi-million dollar game of chicken, pitting SMI against the Kentucky state legislature. Let’s hope no one — even those who did not suffer that day — forgets that.
What steps should NASCAR take to curb start-and-park efforts?
In 2009, NASCAR referred to start-and-park teams as a “passing phase.” But as we enter year four of the collect-a-check experiment dominating the back of the Sprint Cup pack, it’s clear these profiteering teams aren’t going anywhere. In fact, the practice is only getting worse. As many as eight cars pulled in early during races last fall — that’s nearly 20 percent of the grid showing up with no intention of competing.
And why should they? In the last three years, Joe Nemechek has only finished five of his 97 starts but collected a cool $7.8 million in purse money. While saving on engine, pit crew and chassis costs, the only penalty the driver/owner may get is an occasional teardown as being selected for post-race inspection. Even then, a rebuild three or four times a year isn’t enough to wreck the profit margin. It’s become a big enough business that those who were initially putting up an honest effort, like Robby Gordon’s No. 7 outfit, have decided to join in.
That disturbing trend is why NASCAR needs to act. Either come up with a system of paying on a per-lap basis — reducing the profiteering of these teams — or simply reduce grid size to represent the number of cars showing up to compete. Dropping from a field of 43 to 36 increases the purse for each participant, ramps up the qualifying competition (maybe drop from 35 to 25 locked-in spots?) while better reflecting the number of fully funded cars. You can always expand back over time, as the NASCAR economy improves, right?
The question, of course, then becomes whether the sport’s television deal allows it to do that — a question that’s been disputed for years and whose answer lies within a contract no one’s allowed to see.
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.
2012 Budweiser Shootout
by Matt Taliaferro
Thirty three drivers are eligible for NASCAR's 2012 Budweiser Shootout. The Shootout, which unofficially kicks off Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, will be televised on Saturday, Feb. 18 on FOX at 8:00 pm EST. Those eligible for the event this year include all drivers within the top 25 in the final 2011 championship standings, past Bud Shootout winners and past Daytona point-race winners.
Eligible Drivers, via top 25 in 2011 standings (Car number):
AJ Allmendinger (22)
Marcos Ambrose (9)
Greg Biffle (16)
Clint Bowyer (15)
Jeff Burton (31)
Kurt Busch (51)
Kyle Busch (18)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88)
Carl Edwards (99)
Jeff Gordon (24)
Denny Hamlin (11)
Kevin Harvick (29)
Jimmie Johnson (48)
Kasey Kahne (5)
Matt Kenseth (17)
Brad Keselowski (2)
Joey Logano (20)
Paul Menard (27)
Juan Pablo Montoya (42)
Ryan Newman (39)
David Ragan (34)
Tony Stewart (14)
Martin Truex Jr. (56)
Trevor Bayne (2011 Daytona 500 winner)*
Geoff Bodine (past Daytona 500 and Shootout winner)*
Derrike Cope (past Daytona 500 winner)*
Bill Elliott (past Daytona 500, Coke Zero 400 and Shootout winner)*
Terry Labonte (past Shootout winner)*
Jamie McMurray (past Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 winner)
Ken Schrader (past Shootout winner)*
Michael Waltrip (past Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 winner)
The few notable drivers that do not meet eligibility requirements include Dave Blaney, David Gilliland, Robby Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears, David Reutimann and Regan Smith.
* Not entered as of Feb. 13th.
Was the nail-biting finish to the 2011 Chase a result of the new points system, a one-year anomaly … or a sign of things to come?
At some point, NASCAR’s tinkering, toying and manipulation of the point system had to produce the desired effect, right?
Thus, the culmination of eight years worth of “creative engineering” — point resets, format changes, wild cards, point allocation changes — gave NASCAR CEO Brian France his Austerlitz: a title fight that not only came down to the last race and last lap, but that ended in a tie, forcing a “most race wins” tiebreaker, validating his claims that wins, indeed, are more important than ever.
While some of these claims can be argued, the point is that NASCAR, after years of striving for France’s “Game 7 Moment,” finally got what it wanted. And the reality is, we may never see a better finish to a season. After all, how could it get any closer?
The short answer here is it’s probably all three. The point system undoubtedly tightened things up; it took Chase winner Tony Stewart to win half of the playoff races to stay anywhere close to runner-up Carl Edwards; and yes, this incarnation of NASCAR’s Chase lends itself to providing tight title tussles, which we should expect going forward.
The only fear many now have is that since NASCAR got its all-important “last-lap championship duel,” more changes will follow in years to come that ensure we’ve not seen the absolute best its Chase can provide.
Why has NASCAR taken one of the fans’ favorite venues on the circuit at Lucas Oil Raceway, and replaced it with a track that typically does not host the most exciting brand of stock car racing?
Money, of course. The .686-mile short track was one of only seven tracks (Bristol, Charlotte, Darlington, Daytona, Dover and Richmond) that has hosted a Nationwide/Busch Series event each year since the series debuted in 1982. But with Cup races at the Brickyard bleeding out attendance on a yearly basis, IMS and the France family decided to bring NASCAR’s junior circuit, as well as the Rolex Grand Am Sports Car Series, to the hallowed grounds beginning this year.
Of course, many fans were in an uproar when the announcement was made. LOR (aka, IRP, ORP) has played host to some of the best short track action in NASCAR’s three touring series over the years. And the Brickyard, while a prestigious facility steeped in tradition, has simply not proven able to stage entertaining stock car races. Add in the 2008 tire debacle, and attendance struggles to reach 50 percent capacity.
To be fair, there was talk of NASCAR’s increased sanctioning fees being a reason LOR could no longer sustain an NNS race, money problems that were scoffed at by officials. In the end, though, that may have been a moot point. Waning fan interest at IMS equates to less dollars, and if NASCAR has been consistent on one point throughout its history, it’s that decisions are made solely with the bottom line in mind. If more suits can be wined and dined, more sponsorship programs sold and activated, and more concessions sold, it’s a no-brainer for the sanctioning body — competition level be damned.
So once again, a short track is sacrificed as the sport kneels at the altar of aero-dependent monstrosities. LOR holds 40,000; IMS is said to hold 270,000. When a Cup date can’t fill up half of those seats on Sunday, can you imagine the ghost town that the Brickyard will be on Saturday? Speaking of ghost towns, one of the most exciting venues on the circuit will turn into one, the victim of a speedway’s and a sanctioning body’s greed.
What was the reason for the rash of 2011 postseason crew chief changes on championship-caliber teams?
A perfect storm of circumstances and a desire to stay ahead of the competition at all costs.
Steve Addington had been berated enough, thank you, and saw greener pastures with one of the few more talented drivers in the sport. Darian Grubb’s fate was sealed prior to the Chase and no one — including his shopmates — saw a championship coming. Once on the market, Grubb, along with Nationwide Series mainstay Jason Ratcliff, were Joe Gibbs’ solution to the puzzling dilemmas that are the Nos. 11 and 20 teams. Of course, there were more, but these elite-level talent-swaps illustrate what happens when the competition is so tight. What was once thought of as radical — changing pit bosses on championship-caliber teams in December — is now a necessary step for success.
Why? As NASCAR forces teams into a smaller box in which they can operate from a mechanical perspective, they’re left with few alternatives to gain an edge on the competition. One, though, is dabbling with team chemistry. And with most sponsor contracts tied into the driver’s long-term deal, he’s not going to get the heave-ho — after all, the driver is the face of the corporate entity. Therefore, it’s hard for team owners (or drivers) to not fall in love with the successful head wrench across the way.
Will 2011 stand as a watershed moment in today’s NASCAR? Will true December offseason, headline-grabbing moves become the norm? A definitive and hard-lined “yes,” may be presumptuous, but it seems headed that way.
NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne has apologized for comments he made on Twitter after seeing a mother breastfeeding in a supermarket.
Kahne’s initial tweet stated, "Just walking though supermarket. See a mom breast feeding little kid. Took second look because obviously I was seeing things. I wasn't!"
He then went on to tweet that, “I don’t feel like shopping anymore or eating,” using the hashtag “nasty.”
One upset mother, who goes by the Twitter name of @KnittingRad, responded, “Wow, you’re kind of a douchebag, where would you propose that baby eat, the restroom? Would you eat in the restroom?”
Kahne tweeted back, calling her a “dumb bitch.”
The tweets, which he deleted, were followed by an apology made on his Facebook page, where Kahne said, "I understand that my comments regarding breastfeeding posted on Twitter were offensive to some people. For that, I apologize. It was in no way my intention to offend any mother who chooses to breastfeed her child, or, for that matter, anyone who supports breastfeeding children. I want to make that clear.
"In all honestly, I was surprised by what I saw in a grocery store," Kahne said in his apology. "I shared that reaction with my fans on Twitter. It obviously wasn't the correct approach, and, after reading your feedback, I now have a better understanding of why my posts upset some of you.
"My comments were not directed at the mother's right to breastfeed. They were just a reaction to the location of that choice, and the fashion in which it was executed on that occasion. I respect the mother's right to feed her child whenever and wherever she pleases."
He also posted an apology via Twitter to the offended party, saying, “I wanted to apologize for saying what I said to you yesterday. It was out of line."
Kahne’s NASCAR team, Hendrick Motorsports, made a brief statement, saying, “We appreciate that he chose to follow up with his fans and others who were upset by the comments.”
NASCAR did not comment on the situation.
by Tom Bowles
Since NASCAR’s Chase was introduced in 2004, only three drivers have won a title under its playoff format: Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch. Not surprisingly, this trio doubles as the only Cup Series drivers to win at least one race every season since 2002. Johnson and Stewart, with eight championships and star power, are names expected to be on that list … but Busch? That might be a bit of a surprise. Typically, younger brother Kyle grabs more of the attention — recently for all the wrong reasons — yet it’s Kurt who occupies this rarified air. Since pairing with Penske Racing in 2006, he’s won a respectable 10 times, captured six poles and gone four-for-six in postseason appearances.
But that success, impressive as it may be, has come at a cost to his current employer, Roger Penske. Indeed, one of the sport’s best drivers of the past decade has acted like a high school dropout when it comes to the school of public relations. The latest incident is perhaps his most vile; a YouTube video going viral shows Busch mouthing off at a 30-year veteran of the racing business, ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, for simply requesting a post-transmission failure interview. Busch’s transmission was supposedly run over by championship contender Tony Stewart, but when watching the video, you fear Punch is the one about to get run over by Busch.
In response to the incident, Busch issued a brief statement Tuesday, apologizing for his behavior to race fans, Penske Racing, his sponsors and Punch himself. Usually, that’s step one in controlling the damage; the problem is, we’ve read this statement before, to the point those words are meaningful in a boy-who-cried-wolf way. This type of incident, in particular, is the fourth for Busch this year involving a media corps member. His divorce announcement from soon-to-be-ex-wife Eva over Independence Day sparked one; contact with Jimmie Johnson, and the resulting stories written about it by the press corps left him dancing around several others. At Richmond, he nearly came to blows with one reporter over questions surrounding (again) Johnson, and then ripped up the paper another was holding and stormed out of a post-race press conference. Let’s just say Busch’s anger management skills could qualify under the category “needs improvement” — as in improvement through a crisis session with Dr. Phil.
Just ask former crew chief Steve Addington, who endured weekly radio sessions that bordered on outright verbal assault about Busch’s antics. The driver’s feedback arsenal consists of team putdowns, swear words and threatening surrender over the car’s horrific handling — and that’s just in the first 50 laps of this weekly horror film. Amazingly enough, Addington lasted two years under the constant tirades before packing his bags and marching out on Monday. The replacement (if they can find one brave enough) will be Busch’s fifth crew chief since 2006, not exactly the consistency you’d expect with a driver that has skins on the wall that he does.
The truth is Busch has been cantankerous, rude and obnoxious in both private and public over the last few years. That won’t win you friends, although it doesn’t send you to jail either; in fact, in sports where you compete as an individual, rage might fuel success at times. But the difference in the world of family-friendly NASCAR is twofold. First, and most important, is that racing is a team sport. Busch doesn’t go anywhere without crewmen setting up his racecar, then pitting it over a 500-mile event where their focus could mean the difference between fifth and 35th. And why would these people, working for a man who revels in berating them, want to put their best foot forward for him every week?
In hindsight, some of Busch’s late-season issues, with the team being consistently late to pre-race inspection, may have come from crewmembers sending a silent message: “No more.” Even the transmission failure in the season finale, dropping Busch to 11th in points, could have been carelessness caused from people whose motivation has been stripped by being mortified by the driver they’re partnered with.
And that brings us to the second key difference for racers that may soon tip against Busch’s favor: sponsorship. The big companies that pay the big bucks don’t like to see internet postings from fans saying they’ll no longer buy their product. After this latest incident, you could go to every type of racing site and find dozens, if not hundreds, of postings saying “Pennzoil is off the shopping list.” Younger brother Kyle’s behavior may have hurt here — after a one-race parking for bad behavior, Mars/M&M’s responded by pulling its backing for the rest of the year although Kyle’s suspension was never extended – a bitter taste in the mouths of many people who wanted him fired.
Kurt’s rant comes as a case of bad, brotherly timing for those fans tired of this kind of behavior.
Ultimately, in Kyle’s case, Joe Gibbs Racing and the M&M’s brand knew where the bread was buttered. The younger Busch remains the winningest, most marketable driver on JGR’s roster and the long-term choice — as I said a few weeks ago — was not to damage the product. The elder Busch has been able to use that leverage in the past; time and again — as recently as this spring at Richmond — he’s been able to use verbal tirades to make personnel changes and command the type of cars he wants. That’s because for years, Busch was the only successful driver at Penske — whose marketability and overall success ultimately meant more than responding to consistent cases of abuse.
But a sponsor change in 2011, from Miller Lite to Pennzoil, no longer gives Busch that type of security blanket. Owner Penske has his backer involved in several side deals, to the point what driver they have in the car won’t change the millions they’re making outside of NASCAR. More importantly, Busch has some friendly competition within the team for the first time since ’06. Brad Keselowski, who boasts three victories, a fifth-place finish in the final standings and a swear-free record with the media outclassed Busch on the racetrack and in the garage area this season.
Busch, 33, is now six years older than his contemporary, yet finds himself the second-best driver in the two-car Penske shop. His owner, who’s won more Indy 500s than anyone else and is one of the most respected people in the motorsports industry, no longer feels backed into a corner. Sam Hornish Jr., a step below in the Nationwide Series, is winning and thought to be a possible title contender next season. Parker Kligerman, a young prospect, is also just a year or two away from possibly breaking out. Add it all up, and it’s an ugly total threat to Busch: the man whose success had once defined this race team is now easily expendable.
So for Kurt, this offseason needs to be a quick study in learning how to socially interact. Kevin Harvick — once no angel himself — likes to relate what he learned from his own one-race suspension in 2002. When brought into the NASCAR hauler, Harvick said officials made it clear that no matter how successful a driver is, this sport could survive without him. For years, it has. It has survived without many a driver. Even past-champions.
It seems Kurt Busch may feel entitled, but NASCAR Nation knows he’s one step away from ending a career. Let’s see if the driver realizes what everyone else does before it’s too late.
Agree with Tom? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @NASCARBowles
by Matt Taliaferro
With apologies to Bill Elliott and the late, great Alan Kulwicki, the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season finale may be the best the sport has ever seen.
Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards entered the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway separated by a scant three points in the championship standings, and each man’s clutch performance over the 10-race Chase almost guaranteed a showdown unlike any other in Homestead.
They did not disappoint. In fact, they somehow found a way to elevate their performance.
Edwards sat on the pole and led a commanding 119 laps while Stewart was forced to sacrifice valuable track position on two separate occasions, but in the end, Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb had the car to beat. Running first and second throughout much of the second half of the race, Stewart led the final 36 laps over Edwards to win the Ford 400, creating a tie at the top of the standings. A tie-breaking scenario then came into play, and Stewart’s five victories bested Edwards’ one, and he was awarded his third career Cup championship.
“I would have lost every bet in the world if people would have said when you got in the Chase, that we were going to win a race or we were going to win five races and win this thing,” Stewart said. “I would have bet against us. And I learned a big lesson with our organization and how strong a program we have people-wise. I mean, everybody has good cars and good equipment, but I’m sure Darian’s mentioned it, it’s the people you have that make the difference.”
Edwards, who finished second in then race and in the standings, handled the outcome with a level of class not often seen in professional sports.
“This night is about Tony Stewart,” Edwards said after exiting his car. “Those guys rose to the occasion and beat us fair and square — that was all I had at the end. We came here and sat on the pole, led the most laps and Tony still managed — him and Darian — to do a good job with their strategy, come out in front of us … and that’s it, that’s all I got at the end. That’s as hard as I can drive.
“I told my wife, ‘If I can’t win, I’m going to be the best loser NASCAR’s ever had.’ So I’m gonna try really hard to keep my head up and know that we’ll just go next year, and we’ll just be as hard to beat next year.”
Stewart had his fair share of adversity to overcome in the season’s final 400 miles. While running 10th, he had a hole punched in the grille due to a piece of debris early in the going. A quick repair job under caution found him 40th when the green waved, while Edwards coolly paced the field. An additional stop under the next caution to complete service on the nose saw him 35th when racing resumed.
He drove through the pack to the lead by lap 123 of 267, but as darkness fell a slow pit stop on lap 136 dropped him to ninth. Twelve laps later, though, Stewart was back in the lead, having dodged and weaved his way through a wild restart. Almost as quickly as he found the front, Stewart was again snakebit under caution and while on pit road when, as before, a hung lug nut dropped him from the lead to ninth on lap 157.
Undeterred, Stewart drove his Chevy back to second behind Edwards when green flag stops cycled through with roughly 77 laps to go. Stewart and Grubb, planning on the potential of a long green run to end the race, pushed their fuel mileage, staying out 10 laps longer than Edwards. By the time Stewart finally pitted for four tires and fuel, Edwards and his two fresh tires had nearly lapped the No. 14 machine.
Then Stewart’s big break materialized — the one that gave him the track position he could keep and, in the process, win a championship: it started to rain one lap after his stop.
As the shower hit the track and NASCAR waved the caution flag, Stewart found himself over 23 seconds behind the leader, Edwards. However, knowing he needed one more stop to complete the distance, Edwards — along with a host of others — ducked to pit road as NASCAR dried the track. As they did, Stewart advanced from 15th to third and, for all intents and purposes, that was the ballgame.
On the restart with 37 laps remaining, Stewart pushed Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski three-wide into Turn 1, taking the lead one lap later, and scampered away from Edwards — who restarted fifth but quickly made his way to second. It looked like pole day from there, as both championship contenders hung it out on every lap, but Stewart’s four tires trumped Edwards’ two, and he led the rest of the way, winning by 1.3 seconds.
“I didn't question what the plan was or why the plan was,” Stewart said of the fuel mileage decision. “I just stuck to what he (Grubb) told me, and you know, the lap that he called us in, he called us in going into Turn 1, and when I came off Turn 2, the fuel pressure dropped, the motor laid down a little bit but was still running.
When I got to Turn 3, I shut it off, coasted around to Turn 4, kicked the switch, kicked the clutch (and) drove down pit road. We did the stop and he’s like, ‘Keep it revving, keep it running,’ and I’m staring at a fuel pressure gauge that’s not building.
“We dropped the jack, leave, get 50 feet from the last time line and it dies — I mean, it’s dead; it’s out. And I’m like, ‘We just lost this thing,’ and we roll about a hundred feed and it takes off and the needle goes up and it’s like, ‘Wow, that is the call of the race, the call of the Chase,’ and it gave me the opportunity to do what I love doing best: letting it all hang out and putting it all on the line with the restart.”
It was Stewart’s fifth win of the season, all of which came in the Chase. Edwards’ lone 2011 victory came at Las Vegas in March.
Most cite the 1992 finale as the greatest race and championship conclusion in NASCAR’s modern era. Kulwicki and Elliott settled that title in Atlanta, with the former winning his only Cup championship by leading more laps than the latter (despite running second to Elliott) to win by 10 points.
History will certainly mention the 2011 version in the same breath as, for the first time ever, the championship standings went to the number-of-race-wins tie-breaker. The two contenders finishing first and second in the all-important final race only added to the comparisons to ’92, as did Stewart’s status – like Kulwicki’s — as an owner/driver.
“Tony has taken on a hat of being an owner, and unfortunately there’s a lot of responsibilities that come with that as far as personnel changes and personnel problems, human resources and paying paychecks and all that stuff,” team co-owner Gene Haas said. “Tony takes that to heart and I think it can upset the way he races. So myself and Joe (Custer, co-owner) and all of the management at Stewart-Haas Racing, what we really tried to do in the last year or so was just isolate him from that; make sure that Tony just concentrated on the driving part.”
As the 2011 season wound down in Homestead, Fla., Tony Stewart was all driver, putting on what was arguably the greatest single performance of pure wheelmanship NASCAR has ever seen.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: Ford 400
Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway
Location: Homestead, Fla.
When: Sunday, Nov. 20
TV: ESPN (3:00 p.m. EST)
Specs: 1.5-mile oval; Banking/Straightaways: 4°; Banking/Turns: Variable (18°-20°)
2010 Winner: Carl Edwards
2011 Race Length: 400.5 miles/267 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 181.111 mph (Jamie McMurray, 2003)
Race Record: 140.335 mph (Tony Stewart, 1999)
From the Spotter’s Stand
NASCAR takes its traveling road show to South Beach for the last stop on the Cup schedule. And home sweet Homestead is the only race where it’s possible to see two teams celebrate victory.
In 2010, Carl Edwards back-flipped and chilled with the crowd after winning his second straight race of the Chase and earning his second Homestead win in three years. Cousin Carl led 190 laps and gained plenty of positive momentum that has translated into a title run this season.
But the driver who did donuts after the race was the runner-up. Jimmie Johnson led just one lap, but it was enough to finish No. 1 in the standings — 39 points ahead of Denny Hamlin — and clinch a record fifth straight Cup title for Rick Hendrick’s top team.
Make no mistake, this race will be the “Tony and Carl Show,” as the two hit South Florida separated by just three points in the standings. This championship battle could go either way: Edwards gets marks for his performance since Homestead’s reconfiguration and Stewart has been running so well regardless of track that a win is possible on any given weekend.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Long straightaways transition into corners where speed must be maintained — at least partially — to set up a pass in the center (of the corner) off. A car that can pick up the throttle quickly off the corner is one that can pass.
“That track was such a disaster when it opened. They shaped it like Indy, only smaller, but didn’t realize that squared-off corners are just dangerous on a track that’s a mile and half, not two. So they rounded the corners, and then stage three was tapering the banking. It took a bunch of money and revamping, but they got it right.”
Looking at Checkers: Points leader Carl Edwards has two wins and six top 10s in seven starts at HMS.
Pretty Solid Pick: Tony Stewart is going to be on Carl’s bumper all race long. Or maybe in front of it.
Good Sleeper Pick: AJ Allmendinger has yet to win a Cup race, but that may change on Sunday. He’s never finished worse than 11th in Homestead.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Kyle Busch has typically thrown in the towel by now. This year is probably no exception.
Insider Tip: This one’s for all the marbles. Your lineup needs to include either Edwards or Stewart.
Classic Moments at Homestead-Miami Speedway
The 2004 Ford 400 in Homestead marks the final race of NASCAR’s inaugural Chase for the Championship.
Kurt Busch enters the event 18 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and 21 up over Jeff Gordon, but on lap 93 the wheels come off. Literally. Busch loses his right front wheel while running second to Greg Biffle, when the hub completely detaches from the car. Luckily, Busch has already ducked to the pit access road, although he nearly hits the pit road wall in the process.
Amazingly, Busch never loses a lap, and wins a game of points-leader leapfrog, finishing fifth while Johnson is second and Gordon third. Eight points separate Busch from Johnson, marking the tightest points finish in NASCAR history.
by Vito Pugliese
Just three points separate Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards as they settle the 2011 Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But is this really the greatest (or even the closest) title fight ever? Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese takes a look back at the greatest last-lap championship finishes in NASCAR’s history.
Much has been and will be made this weekend about the “closest championship battle ever.” Many pundits have bandied about how the 2011 Chase for the Championship is “the greatest championship fight ever,” “the closest title fight ever” or “the best Chase yet.” That might not be true if your name is Kyle Busch — or if you were watching the sport before Jimmie Johnson decided to make a career out of destroying records and invalidating a number of title formats.
This year marks the first time somebody other than Johnson will win the title since before vampire movies were relevant. So let’s reflect back on some of those “other” championship battles that went down to the final race. After all, if this year is supposed to be the greatest and most dramatic championship ever, it would have to be gauged against the following five title bouts.
1973: Benny Parsons vs. Richard Petty vs. Cale Yarborough
It was the early ’70s. Music sucked, the cars were getting slow and everybody wore their hair and dressed like a dirtball or a terrorist. It was also a time when Richard Petty began to build upon the legacy that would earn him the nickname “The King,” having won back-to-back titles in 1971 and ’72.
Going into the final race at Rockingham, Benny Parsons held a 194.5-point lead over Petty. Parsons, driving a Chevrolet for L.G. DeWitt, qualified fifth and was running by his lonesome when a car spun on the backstretch. Parsons clipped it, ripping the entire right side off of the car — including the roll cage. There was only one other car that didn’t qualify for the event and that was still at the track — a car owned by Ralph Moody of legendary Ford-tandem Holman-Moody fame. Moody’s car became a donor for Parsons’ mangled machine.
BP returned to the action 136 laps down, but was able to hold off Cale Yarborough in the championship battle by 67.15 points. It would be the only Cup title for Parsons, whose feat prevented Petty from winning five consecutive championships.
1979: Darrell Waltrip vs. Richard Petty
As the worst decade ever came to a close, a new age in NASCAR dawned. Darrell Waltrip brought a brash attitude and trash-talking to the stock car scene, while The King was not quite ready to abdicate the throne. While DW may have pulled a slide job on Petty to win at Darlington in the Rebel 500, the championship would come down to the final event in Ontario, Calif. — the spiritual sister track to The Brickyard.
Petty trailed Waltrip by two points heading into the final race (a true two-point margin, mind you; Tony Stewart would trail Carl Edwards by 15 points under this same system). On the 38th lap of the event, a car spun in front of Waltrip, who also spun in an effort to avoid hitting what may have been in the cloud of smoke ahead of him. This was before the era of any sort of electronic timing and scoring or transponders, and Waltrip believed he was the leader, having pitted just once to the leaders’ two stops. Later, Waltrip’s crew chief would confirm his greatest fear: he was actually one lap down.
Petty would finish fifth to Waltrip’s eighth that day. It was the seventh and final championship for Petty, and an improbable one at that, as 10 races prior, Petty was 227 points out of the lead. Considering how out to lunch Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team were stumbling into the Chase this season, the final 1979 race in Ontario should provide some inspiration for the owner/driver of Stewart-Haas Racing.
2004: Five-Way Chase Race
There were a lot of naysayers when the term “The Chase” entered the NASCAR lexicon following 19 seasons of sensational championship showdowns. Unfortunately, two of the final four NASCAR seasons were less than thrilling, with Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth conspiring to give credence to a new points format — one that the “casual sports fan” would be more accustomed to.
While many bemoaned the very idea of change and cursed the billion-dollar network television deal which spawned this hideous monster, come Homestead in November 2004, there were five drivers with a shot at the first Nextel Cup.
Kurt Busch entered the event with a scant 18-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin mathematically in contention for the crown. As cheesy as it sounds, the wheels of Busch’s championship chase literally did come off of Lap 93, as a loose right front wheel gave way on his car. Busch, sensing something was amiss, ducked to pit road as the wheel separated itself from the machine, and he narrowly missed hitting the pit road barrier. The errant Goodyear Eagle then bounded down the frontstretch, brought out a caution and, as a result, Busch remained on the lead lap.
A late-race, two-lap scramble saw Busch’s teammate, Greg Biffle, win the event, preventing Johnson from gaining a position and leading a lap — and ultimately falling short of a championship. Had Johnson gotten by Biffle, he would have won by two points. As it stands, the first Chase season was the closest ever and, in hindsight, nearly thrust Johnson within but one title of immortality alongside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty’s seven Cup titles.
1990: The Blue Oval Brigade vs. Dale Earnhardt
Rusty Wallace and the No. 27 Raymond Beadle-owned team did everything humanly possible to lose the championship in 1989, but somehow outlasted Dale Earnhardt by 12 points. While Wallace jumped up and down on his hood, the Intimidator went and sulked in his tree stand.
The 1990 season was supposed to be all Earnhardt, as he looked to finally win the Daytona 500 and his fourth championship. The 500 ended with the checkered flag in sight for Earnhardt and a piece of Ricky Rudd’s bell housing slicing open his tire. There was also the matter of an upstart Ford team, which a year earlier served notice that a Midwest short-track ace getting his second shot at stardom and a Michigan-based engineer with a road- and drag-race background were going to be sticking around for the foreseeable future in the form of Mark Martin and Jack Roush.
Martin and Earnhardt emerged during the summer months as the two title contenders, with Martin assuming the points lead in June despite a dubious 46-point fine regarding a welded intake spacer that was technically legal after Martin won the third race of the season in Richmond. There used to be a week off prior to the final race in Atlanta, and the Ford teams had one mission: defeat General Motors and deny it a championship. While the No. 6 Roush team had won the August event at Michigan, all of the Ford camps colluded during the week of testing prior to the final race to conjure up the ultimate Thunderbird — the original Roush/Yates collaboration.
What resulted was a good idea gone awry: A car that pushed like an Amish haycart and had air in the brake lines. Earnhardt finished third, Martin sixth, and the Intimidator took his fourth Cup title by 26 points.
1992: The Greatest Championship Battle and Single Race in NASCAR History.
There are certain sports highlights that are ingrained in the minds of fans everywhere. If you’re a baseball fan, it’s Kirk Gibson hobbling around second, fist pumping, after going yard on a bum wheel. If you’re a football fan, it’s Montana to Clark in slow motion. If you’re a NASCAR fan, it’s everything that happened in the 1992 Hooters 500.
We’ve all become accustomed to the pre-race flyover, but it isn’t often that you have AH-64 Apaches pacing the field around the track.
It was Jeff Gordon’s first race and Richard Petty’s fiery finale, replete with on-air demands of safety workers to, “Get the ****in’ fire extinguisher!” (little wonder where Kurt Busch gets it from). Six drivers entered the final race with a shot at the championship: Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison (despite nearly getting killed twice in racing accidents that year), Mark Martin, Kyle Petty and Harry Gant.
Martin dominated the middle stages of the race before succumbing to a burned piston, while Allison was taken out by a swervin’ Ernie Irvan. That left it to Awesome Bill and the Kulwicki’s Underbird. Kulwicki needed to lead one more lap than Elliott to prevent him from leading the most laps — had he not, Elliott would have won the tie-breaker based on wins (five victories to Kulwicki’s two).
If Tony Stewart is in need of any sort of motivation this weekend as he attempts to eclipse Carl Edwards in the Sprint Cup standings, he should pop in a tape of this race. The original stock car engineer, who kept St. Christopher wings under his seat and a comb in his pocket, realized the unlikely dream when he set forth down south from Greenfield, Wisc., six years earlier. Kulwicki finished second to Elliott in the race, but won the big prize by 10 points — ending the greatest championship battle and single race in NASCAR history.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart It’s tough to rank Stewart ahead of Carl Edwards or vise versa, but Smoke gets the edge here because he’s throwing wins on the board — and that’s fun to watch.
2. Carl Edwards His consistency — highlighted by consecutive runner-up showings — is unquestioned. Edwards won the season finale in Homestead last season. Winning a second straight would clinch the title.
3. Kasey Kahne Kahne and his Red Bull team have been as good as anyone in the Chase — well OK, outside of the two guys above. Had he made the playoffs, he’d still be mathematically alive.
4. Matt Kenseth Led 49 laps at Phoenix before the brakes started to fade. Then Brian Vickers did neither himself nor Kenseth any favors by flagrantly exacting some revenge.
5. Kevin Harvick Harvick will come up just shy of a championship once again, most likely finishing third. But that’s OK Kev, you still have the coolest paint scheme on tour.
6. Jimmie Johnson Johnson’s five-year reign may be over, but let’s not proclaim the Jimmie Johnson Era over. J.J. and Chad Knaus will probably just come back more focused and determined next season.
7. Brad Keselowski Keselowski’s three wins in 2011 are more than Penske’s No. 12 team have enjoyed in the six previous years combined. It’s possible he could double that number next year.
by Matt Taliaferro
Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart entered Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway separated by three points at the top of NASCAR’s championship standings. And after finishing second (Edwards) and third (Stewart), they’ll go to the season finale in Homestead, Fla., still three points apart.
Stewart led the most laps in Phoenix, and appeared to be headed toward his third consecutive victory, but surrendered the lead on lap 294 when he was forced to pit road for a splash of fuel.
That handed the lead to Kasey Kahne, who has been on a tear of his own lately. Kahne led the final 14 laps, beating Edwards to the finish line by .802 seconds. The win was Kahne’s eighth top-15 run in the last nine races — an admirable feet for team that likely will not exist next year due to Red Bull pulling out of NASCAR’s ownership ranks.
“It feels great to get a win for Red Bull and get a win in the 4 car,”?Kahne said. “It’s something new for both of us (Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis) to come over and have a one-year deal. It takes time to get familiar with things and the people and working together. To win a race at this level, as competitive as everything is right now, for myself, to see how happy all the pit crew guys were, it was pretty cool.”
Meanwhile, Edwards and Stewart are locked in a razor-thin battle for the title, using different means to achieve the same goal.
Edwards has used consistency to claim the top spot in the point standings — his worst finish since Bristol in late August was an 11th at treacherous Talladega. He and the No. 99 team have seemingly tip-toed through the Chase, averaging a 5.2-place finish thus far. He grabbed the lead at Dover in the Chase’s third event, but still has yet to win a playoff race.
“(It’s) a zero sum game, one of us is going to win, one of us is going to lose,” Edwards says. “It’s neat to me that Tony and the guys on the 14 (team) are running so well, won so many races, performing on a high level. It’s going to mean more if we’re able to beat them in this championship because of that.
“We haven’t gone out and got the trophies that we have in other Chases, but we’ve performed better than we ever have. If they’re beating us, they’re beating us at our best, and I think that’s pretty neat.”
Stewart, on the other hand, has attacked the playoffs with reckless abandon, throwing caution to the wind, ripping off four playoff wins to pull just shy of even with Edwards with one race remaining. His performance is in stark contrast to the 26-race regular season when Stewart’s No. 14 team failed to sniff Victory Lane.
“We’ve had one of those up-and-down years and we’re having a run in this Chase now where we’re hungry,” Stewart said after his third Chase win. “We’re hungry for this. I feel like our mind set into these next three weeks, we’ve been nice all year to a lot of guys, given guys a lot of breaks. We’re cashing tickets in these next three weeks.”
One final weekend, two determined drivers and three points separating them.
May the best team win.