Articles By Matt Taliaferro
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: Kobalt Tools 500
Track: Phoenix International Raceway
Location: Avondale, Ariz.
When: Sunday, Nov. 13
TV: ESPN (3:00 p.m. EST)
Specs: 1-mile oval; Banking/Frontstretch: 3°; Banking/Turns 1 and 2: Variable (10°-11°); Banking/Dogleg: Variable (10°-11°); Banking/Turn 4: Variable (8°-9°)
February Winner: Jeff Gordon
2010 Winners: Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards
2011 Race Length: 312 miles/312 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 137.279 mph (Carl Edwards, 2011)
Race Record: 118.132 mph (Tony Stewart, 1999)
From the Spotter’s Stand
Jeff Gordon looked and sounded more like an unlikely 20 year-old Daytona 500 winner than a 20-year veteran with four titles in Phoenix International Raceway’s Victory Lane in February. Gordon broke a 66-race winless skid by moving past Kyle Busch with nine laps remaining to post the win.
While Gordon’s car was strong that day (138 laps led), don’t pencil him in for another win too fast. Phoenix has been repaved and reconfigured since the Cup Series’ last visit. It’s expected that until a second groove is rubbered-in, this may be a single-file show — something the drivers certainly don’t want to see — but if it races like the “old” Bristol, the fans may pleasantly surprised.
“It’s not just that there was not a second groove,” Gordon says of the Phoenix tire test conducted in August. “It was if you got a foot outside of that groove, you were either in the wall or you were going to lose a lap. It took that long to get back in the groove and clean the tires off and get back up to speed. That is the part where I say things could be very interesting and challenging.”
Two-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick agrres, painting a rather grim picture of what the racing could look like:
“If the second groove doesn’t come in, it is going to be a fuel mileage, single-file, tough to pass race. It will be a track position game with lots of wrecks.”
The desert also ended droughts for both Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards in 2010. Newman had gone 77 races since winning the Daytona 500 in 2008 before taking the checkers — after taking two tires rather than the full four — at Phoenix in April.
Meanwhile, Cousin Carl hadn’t back-flipped after a Cup win in 70 races prior to squeezing every last drop out of his fuel tank and dusting runner-up Newman by 4.77 seconds to take back-to-back Cup and Nationwide wins at the one-mile Avondale oval in November. This race will forever be burned into Denny Hamlin’s mind as the event where his team lost a championship. Yes, Hamlin and the team still had a shot the next weekend at Homestead, but after this bungled finish, they were mentally beaten.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Turns 1 and 2 are completely different than Turns 3 and 4 at Phoenix, which makes it difficult to find the right balance in the setup. And with a new surface as well as a reconfiguration, it’ll be all about track position. One groove — on the bottom — will probably make for a single-file race until some serious rubber gets worked into the track. Certain drivers — Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch come to mind — sort of know the tricks there. It takes a pretty talented driver to be willing to experiment out there, and Phoenix rewards the ones who find the tricks.”
Looking at Checkers: You have to figure Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards are going to pull out all the stops.
Pretty Solid Pick: Jeff Gordon led a race-high 138 laps here in February.
Good Sleeper Pick: Martin Truex Jr. typically notches top-15 runs in the desert.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: David Ragan needs some solid showings to end the season in order to score a 2012 ride, but his 26.1-place average finish here is nasty.
Insider Tip: Friday and Saturday practice sessions may be the most critical of any all season. Pay close attention.
Classic Moments at PIR
For the first time in 13 years, The King returns to Victory Lane. Bobby Hamilton, driving Richard Petty’s No. 43 STP Pontiac, leads 40 laps in the 1996 Dura Lube 500 at PIR to earn his first career Cup win.
Hamilton loses the lead on pit road, falling to fourth for a lap 266 restart, but he blows by Mark Martin and Terry Labonte within seven laps, and gets by Geoff Bodine 10 laps later to secure his first of three career cup triumphs.
“I’ve told a lot of people, there’s Dale Earnhardt fans or Bill Elliott fans, but when those guys fall out of the race, they’re still Richard Petty fans,” Hamilton says. “I thought it was pretty cool to win this race for him.”
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Momentum has clearly swung in Smoke’s favor. He’s always been a streaky driver, and now that he’s “on” it may be hard for Carl Edwards to hold him off.
2. Carl Edwards Averaging a 5.6-place finish in the Chase, but Stewart is blowing Cousin Carl’s doors off in the wins department. Still, NASCAR’s points format rewards consistency over winning, so is it advantage: Carl?
3. Matt Kenseth Talladega and Martinsville were considered the tracks that could derail Carl Edwards’ championship hopes. Turns out, they bit Matt.
4. Kevin Harvick It looked as if Harvick was going to pull another miraculous “Where’d he come from?” finish at Texas. However, a two-tire pit call dropped him to 13th, effectively ending his championship hopes.
5. Jimmie Johnson Johnson’s four finishes outside of the top 10 in this season’s Chase are more than in the last three Chases combined. That’s amazing.
6. Kasey Kahne Kahne has only one finish outside the top 15 in the last eight races. Credit the lame-duck driver and the Red Bull Racing team (who may lose their jobs at season’s end) for not throwing in the towel.
7. Brad Keselowski Since Keselowski and the No. 2 turned things around at Indy, they’ve recorded 11 top-12 runs in 15 races, winning twice. Unfortunately, Cinderella’s slipper isn’t going to fit.
8. Jeff Gordon Returns to the track where he won in February. Unfortunately for Gordon, the track has been repaved, reconfigured and has only one good racing groove. He better qualify well.
9. Deny Hamlin Was looking for a fourth consecutive top-10 run, which would have been his best string of finishes this year. Brad Keselowski saw to that, though.
10. Clint Bowyer Would be seventh in the standings had he made the Chase. Woulda, shoulda, coulda, right? It will be interesting to see if he can elevate Michael Waltrip Racing to the next level in 2012.
by Matt Taliaferro
Tony Stewart is putting together a run in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship as impressive as any seen in its seven-year history. Stewart’s win in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway was his fourth in eight Chase races, and finds him just three points shy of Carl Edwards as the Sprint Cup Series heads to the penultimate race of the season in Phoenix.
What is even more impressive is that until Stewart won the first race of the Chase in Chicago, he was winless in the 26-race regular season and largely dismissed as a title contender. Even Stewart, the organization’s driver and co-owner, doubted his chances.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, at this point of the deal, if we’re going to run this bad, it really doesn't matter whether we make the Chase or not,” Stewart said after the Michigan race in August. “We’re going to be occupying a spot in the Chase that somebody else who can actually run for a championship is going to be trying to take. Our stuff is so bad right now that we’re wasting one of those top 12 spots right now.”
What a difference a month makes, as 29 days and four races later, Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb notched the Chicago win, a victory earned by saving fuel. The same events transpired the following week in New Hampshire, while a strong finish in Martinsville in the Chase’s seventh race found Stewart in Victory Lane for a third time.
Much akin to his first two victories, the last two have come in similar fashion: with powerhouse moves on late-race restarts on the high side of the track — largely considered the unconventional line.
At Martinsville, Stewart surged by five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. In Texas, he got the jump on chief-rival Edwards with five laps remaining and stormed off to a 1.092-second win.
“We’re aggressive right now,”?Stewart said of the restarts. “I’m taking charge and trying to control my own destiny. I think the restarts today showed what our intentions are and what we’re about for these next two weeks.”
Edwards held on for second, while Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle rounded out the top 5.
“I was surprised they (the No. 14 team) were able to put together two weeks that were so good,” Edwards admitted. “That was really good work on their part. There’s nothing saying that that will play into another solid two weeks, but it very well could.
“From the way practice went and everything, I thought we’d have a little advantage tonight. They did all their jobs very well.”
The circuit heads to the newly-repaved and reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500. With a new surface and on a track with a different layout than in the past, many are calling it the ultimate “wild card” race in the playoffs.
“I think that Phoenix is still a huge unknown,” Edwards said. “We really think next week has a larger opportunity, by a landslide, to change the outcome of this Chase. If Tony and I run 1-2 at Homestead, there’s not going to be much points change if we run like we did tonight, but Phoenix has the potential to be huge.”
That may be so, but judging by the last few weeks, it doesn’t matter where the series races — Edwards and Stewart have separated themselves as the class of the field. And Stewart, for one, is feeling the confidence a hot streak at just the right time is bound to instill:
“I’m pretty sure what we did on the racetrack said everything we needed to tell (Edwards) today. I mean, I don’t know how you top that. He knows. Trust me, he knows.
“The fun thing is I don’t feel like I have to say anything — I feel like I already got it done.”
by Tom Bowles
It’s been a little over 48 hours since Jeremy Mayfield’s final NASCAR chapter — filled with drugs, guns, allegedly stolen equipment — and the stench of an ugly lie has been revealed. It’s the last bit of content for what will be a 500-page, tell-all book someday, but now with the wounds still fresh I can only summarize two years of Mayfield mayhem in just one word:
I’m sorry for fans, hundreds of thousands who put this athlete on a pedestal he never deserved. Competing in the number one racing series in America, Mayfield drove for some of the sport’s best car owners (Roger Penske, Ray Evernham) while racking up five wins and making the Chase for the Championship twice. You don’t accomplish that without inheriting the role model tag, as kids sitting at home watched this Kentuckian muscle his way to the front and labeled him a hero. When you move Dale Earnhardt, of all people, out of the way to earn a trip to Victory Lane (see: Pocono, 2000) you’re going to earn a degree of admiration and respect. When vaulting from promising youngster to public figure, living up to lofty expectations becomes a necessity.
Instead, it’s all too often the first chapter that hooks you through admiration while the athlete starts a tragic play. Fans attached to that quirky, aggressive personality, tricked by the hallmark of Mayfield’s career on the circuit to the point they never thought it would bring him down. Yes, speaking out led to pink slips along the way for Mayfield, but to those who loved him they were battle scars for brutal honesty in an age of political correctness.
Perhaps the greatest example is his departure from Evernham’s car in 2006; as a parting shot, he blew the car owner’s cover concerning a romantic relationship with another driver within the organization, Erin Crocker. For months, the media had kept it quiet, as fear of retribution (Evernham was divorcing, Crocker was half his age) drove their silence. But Mayfield, pushed by poor performance and alleged mistreatment, had no problem blazing his own trail without fear.
So it was no wonder, then, on the heels of a positive test for methamphetamine so many bent over backwards to believe him. Since that fateful May day in 2009 when one failed urine sample led to an indefinite suspension by NASCAR, Mayfield has been trumpeting his innocence loud and clear. “It was a setup,” he claimed, accusing NASCAR chairman Brian France of being out to get him while alleging the sport’s drug handling methods were so sloppy, kindergarteners could do a better job. Claiming a combination of over-the-counter mediation, Claritin-D and an ADHD drug, Adderall, caused the mix-up, Mayfield came up with a plausible story that Joe Fan on the street could believe. It was the classic tale of the blue-collar worker trying to start his own business, but being railroaded by the big, bad, greedy white-collar men in suits.
Even when his own stepmother backed up NASCAR’s claims, Mayfield was able to turn the public court of opinion in his favor. He was the double-jeopardy victim, haunted by an unwanted family member. Hanging on every word, fans’ hearts were broken and a select few even turned their back on the sport over a punishment many felt was simply unwarranted.
How do all those people feel now? Sick to their stomach, as their loyalty was repaid by lies. It’s hard enough to handle mistrust when it happens within your day-to-day life. But when a role model breaks the code? It’s somehow harder to handle, your version of a perfect example turning forever flawed.
I’m sorry for Jeremy’s wife, Shana, who may be facing a reality check she can’t turn away from, although it’s uncertain whether she was an accomplice or unknowing victim. Even on her Twitter feed this week, Shana Mayfield was alleging a set up. But 50 guns, 1.5 grams of meth and a potential $100,000 in stolen items — all found on Mayfield’s property — don’t just magically appear. Call me crazy, but if the big, bad NASCAR men tried to haul gigantic pieces of metal onto the property and plant drugs in the house, I don’t think she and Jeremy would sleep through it.
Let’s hope the wife, of all people, wakes up before it’s too late. Sometimes, for drug users it’s the main enabler screaming, “Stop!” that makes the difference between abuse and recovery.
I’m sorry for many of the media, including myself, along with several garage insiders who read of Mayfield’s arrest and wondered what, if anything, we could have done differently. Journalists are taught to report without bias, but the degree of 50/50 reporting, in hindsight, showcases how many of us were sucked into this mythical web. From May 2009, when Mayfield filed a lawsuit to try and get his indefinite suspension lifted, to early July, when Judge Graham Mullen granted a temporary injunction, many in NASCAR’s garage area came out in support of the driver. Even the judge appeared sold in his initial ruling, concluding the possibility of a false positive “was quite substantial” based on the way NASCAR’s drug lab, Aegis Laboratories, handled the sample. How could you not have seeds of doubt in your head, to the point you’re asking people if the sport is ready to change their drug policy in light of a possible mistake?
Weeks later, a second positive test for meth caused Mullen to quickly reverse that ruling, but the Mayfield damage had already been done. For some, no amount of positive testing would alter his innocence, as the driver became a symbol of the one man that stepped up to fight the establishment.
And that’s where I’m sorry for NASCAR. In a two-year span, its drug policy — instituted with the best of intentions — was publicly dragged through the mud. David Black, the head of Aegis for a time, was made out to be an arrogant fool, mishandling samples while accused of ignoring others to persecute the NASCAR-selected guilty. The sport’s CEO got it worst of all; Mayfield tried to out anything and everything about France, from his divorce to financial issues to insinuating he had his own past history of drug use. As the mainstream media caught on to the madness, it was nothing less than a black eye during a time when attendance, TV ratings and a sport’s reputation were already taking punches from other sources.
It took two years for closure to come, but the knockout punch landed squarely on Mayfield himself. But who can trump victory here? Ugly wars don’t come with squeaky-clean finishes. Instead, it’s the victims who are left to clean up the mess and move forward. And while you’re sorry and I’m sorry, the only person not apologizing is the one who stirred up all these feelings in the first place.
“Mr. Mayfield has no knowledge of either stolen property or methamphetamine being present on his property,” says Daniel Marino, the latest attorney for the driver (some of his predecessors still haven’t been paid, yet another sign ignored through the strength of Mayfield’s lies). “He denies the accusation that he was in possession of methamphetamine or any illegal drug, and he denies any suggestion that he knowingly received or possessed stolen property.”
Here we go again. In the face of certain disaster, Mayfield goes back to the one tried-and-true method he feels has kept him afloat these past two years: lying, straight-faced to the public.
The problem is no one believes him anymore. That means Mayfield can no longer win … and neither can anyone else.
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 and Nathan Rush
Race: AAA Texas 500
Track: Texas Motor Speedway
Location: Fort Worth, Texas
When: Sunday, Nov. 6
TV: ESPN (3:00 p.m. EST)
Specs: 1.5-mile quad-oval; Banking/Turns: 24°; Banking/Quad-Oval: 18°; Banking/Straightaways: 5°
April Winner: Matt Kenseth
2010 Winner: Denny Hamlin won both races (April and November).
2011 Race Length: 501 miles/334 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 196.235 mph (Brian Vickers, 2006)
Race Record: 151.055 mph (Carl Edwards, 2005)
From the Spotter's Stand
It was a Ford-type of evening at Texas in April. Jack Roush's Fusions took four of the top seven positions, led by Matt Kenseth, who led a race-high 169 of 334 laps to break a 76-race winless skid.
Tony Stewart put himself in position to take the checkered flag late, but was busted for speeding on pit road, relegating him to a 12th-place finish. Kenseth took it from there, leading 32 of the final 58 laps en route to his second career win at TMS.
After perfecting the Texas two-step, Denny Hamlin joined Carl Edwards (2008) as the only drivers to sweep at Texas since the track became a biannual stop in 2005. Kenseth (2), Cousin Carl (3) and Jeff Burton (2) are the other multi-win drivers in the 21-race history of TMS.
In April 2010, Hamlin beat runner-up Jimmie Johnson to the line (.152 seconds) after pole-sitter Tony Stewart (74 laps led) lost control and started a nine-car pileup that also wrecked Jeff Gordon (124 laps led).
The other boot dropped in November, when Hamlin earned his second spurred trophy and series-best eighth win of the year — leaving Ft. Worth in first in the Chase, 33 points ahead of JJ with two races to go.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Texas is all about downforce, and generating it in race conditions — with cars all over the track — is tricky, yet paramount. Speed at Texas is important, but so is a good shock and suspension package that allows the car to handle the bumps that have formed in Turns 1, 2 and 3. The exit of two and the entrance of three are the trouble spots, both from a driver’s and a mechanic’s perspective. It’s one of those places where, in my mind, strange things happen. I’m always extra wary when we go there.”
Looking at Checkers: It’s hard not to like the way Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth have performed on the big intermediates — particularly Texas — throughout their careers.
Pretty Solid Pick: Denny Hamlin’s track record in Texas is good and the team is looking to finish 2011 strong.
Good Sleeper Pick: Jeff Burton has two wins and nine top 10s here in 21 starts. Yippee ki-yay, cowboy!
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Brian Vickers has yet to record a top-10 finish at Texas in 13 starts.
Insider Tip: Sticking with Hamlin, Kenseth or Edwards is smart, but keep an eye on a surging Tony Stewart.
Classic Moments at Texas
Texas Motor Speedway’s first two Cup dates are brutal affairs. The 1997 Interstate Batteries 500 and ’98 Texas 500 are plagued by savage wrecks — one that nearly ends Greg Sacks’ career and another that sidelines Mike Skinner for weeks — and weepers that cancel practice and qualifying sessions. The mayhem even leads to whispers, though not verified, that Texas would have its single date stripped.
Therefore, following the ’98 race, track owner Bruton Smith purchases a share of North Wilkesboro Speedway to move one if its two dates to his track in Texas. He has the track repaved and reconfigured and installs a new drainage system. The results are immediate, as TMS stands as one of the great facilities on the circuit.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards
Talladega and Martinsville were the wild card tracks, and the two Edwards and crew were most apprehensive about. They went into ’Dega with a five-point lead and left Martinsville up eight.
2. Tony Stewart
There is something to be said for a driver winning the championship by going out and actually winning races. That’s what Stewart is doing, with three victories in seven Chase events.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick gained five points on Edwards in the standings at Martinsville, but he’ll need to do better than that over the final three races to catch the 99, much less pass it.
4. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth was the points leader with 40 laps to go in Martinsville. Then it all went south, as a spin bashed his Ford to the point where he’s now 36 back and basically out of title contention.
5. Jimmie Johnson
Credit Johnson for a fine run at Martinsville — only Brian Vickers’ aggression kept him out of Victory Lane — but even sweeping the last three races may not be enough at this point.
6. Brad Keselowski
Like Kenseth, BK’s late spin was costly. The Deuce may have lost up to 12 points in the standings after a solid top 10 went up in tire smoke. The difference between -15 an -27 is massive.
7. Denny Hamlin
Comparable to Edwards’ late-season performance improvement in 2010, Hamlin and the boys have strung together consecutive runs of ninth, eighth and fifth. Another win may be around the corner.
by Matt Taliaferro
Prior to NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, Tony Stewart stated that his inclusion in the playoffs may simply be wasting a spot in lieu of another, more worthy contender. Three victories later, the two-time Cup champion finds himself in the thick of the title hunt after a win in the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
“I felt like there were some things that were missing,” Stewart said of his No. 14 team’s regular season performance. “I think our Chase run here — obviously Dover (25th) was not what we were looking for — but every race since then, we have been a contender. The result hasn’t always shown at some of these races. But we’ve been pretty solid in this Chase.
“I don’t know what changed. The guy beside me (crew chief Darian Grubb) is the guy to ask that. He’s the guy that’s orchestrating it, organizing the people to do the job. It doesn’t matter what it is that’s changed — the good thing is that it has and it changed at the right time when we need it. That’s all you can ask for.”
Stewart, winless in the 26-race regular season, snuck into the Chase seeded ninth, but swept the first two races at Chicagoland and Dover. His victory in Martinsville was the 42nd of his Cup career, placing him 16th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list, two ahead of Mark Martin and two shy of Bill Elliott in 15th.
Stewart had to beat Jimmie Johnson to get to Victory Lane — an uneasy task considering Johnson is a six-time Martinsville race-winner who had led the previous 60 laps.
Stewart lined up to Johnson’s outside on the front row on a restart with three laps remaining and was able to make the line work, nosing ahead of Johnson coming off Turn 2 and clearing him in Turns 3 and 4.
“When I was inside of Tony, I went down in the corner (Turn 1) and thought that eight tires would be a lot better than four,”?Johnson said of the final restart. “I changed my mind. With where he is in the points, what’s going on, the fact we raced throughout the day today (and) he never touched me, I had a hard time doing that (getting physical).”
Johnson finished one car length back in second. Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.
The most notable finish of the afternoon — aside from Stewart’s win — was points leader Carl Edwards’ ninth-place showing.
On two occasions Edwards fell off the lead lap, the victim of an ill-handling car. However, he was able to make up both laps thanks to well-timed cautions that allowed him to get back on the lead lap over the event’s final 100 circuits. The result was Edwards maintaining the Chase lead by eight over Stewart.
Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski, who entered the event 14 and 18 points behind Edwards, had late-race spins while running in the top 10 that damaged their playoff hopes. Keselowski now sits 27 points back in fourth, while Kenseth’s title bid took a damaging hit, as he is now 36 markers off Edwards’ pace.
Harvick’s fourth-place run allowed him to gain five points on Edwards, vaulting him from fifth to third in the standings.
But Stewart, who started the afternoon 19 points shy of Edwards’ points lead, was the undisputed benefactor of what was a chaotic race. He dodged and weaved his way through 18 caution periods, and applied verbal pressure — as well as the physical heat the point standings now profess — to the ultra-consistent Edwards:
“Carl Edwards better be real worried,” Stewart said with a sly grin in Victory Lane. “That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to sleep for the next three weeks.”
by Vito Pugliese
There’s a reason why Talladega continues to endure and endear itself to NASCAR Nation. Vito Pugliese provides a first-hand account of this past weekend’s racing from the 2.66-mile behemoth.
While some experiments and initiatives in NASCAR have not performed as expected, there are some constants that continue to produce. One of them has been producing for over 40 years: Talladega.
As I have written here and elsewhere quite often, everyone loves nostalgia — going retro is all the rage. From the newest versions of the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang, to the endless ’70s and ’80s remakes that are cranked out of Hollywood like P-51s during WWII, the past is always in style, and for those who fancy old-school NASCAR, it’s hard to beat Talladega — and last weekend’s Good Sam Club 500 was no exception.
Well, at least for the last 25 laps. Even Tony Stewart suggested cutting it down to 40 if most drivers were just going to cruise for the majority of the afternoon. But I digress.
One of the facets of NASCAR that permeated from the 1950s to the 1970s, was that of manufacturer loyalty among fans and racers alike. That aspect became relevant once again on Sunday, as team (and manufacturer) orders were apparently delivered — both internally and externally.
Ford’s Trevor Bayne was in position to help his childhood hero and racing idol, Chevy’s Jeff Gordon, to the finish in the final laps. Gordon’s teammate and BFF drafter, Mark Martin, got mangled with eight laps to go when Gordon, Martin, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano stacked up coming off Turn 2. Bayne committed to Gordon over the radio under caution, but then the partnership dissolved halfway down the backstretch, with Bayne betraying his bumpership, and falling in line with the Ford of quasi-teammate Matt Kenseth.
In this era of two-car tandems that have dictated that a driver work with whomever and whatever goes fastest, it is refreshing to see the element of manufacturer loyalty return. That’s not to say that I was happy to see Gordon get smoked on the white flag lap on what more or less was a lie on Bayne’s part (told to Gordon, who went out of his way to help the youngster during Speedweeks in Daytona). But when I first started following NASCAR intently, a Chevrolet driver working with a Ford driver was something just short of heresy.
Back in the heyday of manufacturer involvement, it was the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega that inspired competition between brands — so much so that Dodge and Ford developed wildly-successful models named after each respective track. In 1969, Dodge released two models specifically to better compete on the fast tracks: the flush-grilled fastback Charger 500, and later the Charger Daytona and Ford’s Torino Talladega.
During the 1990s, the same philosophy was echoed throughout the field. You wouldn’t see Dale Earnhardt drafting with Geoff Bodine in a Ford (OK, bad example), or Bill Elliott’s Ford partnering with Rusty Wallace’s Pontiac. As much cross-pollination as you could expect would be an Oldsmobile or Pontiac working with a Chevy Lumina. The Ford teams were islands unto themselves for the most part — which wasn’t a bad thing a couple of years later when it seemed everyone ran a Ford Thunderbird.
There were also orders of another kind at Talladega, namely Chad Knaus instructing Jimmie Johnson to ding up the rear of his car if he won to avoid any post-race template troubles. Considering the suspensions that were levied to the Michael Waltrip Racing teams for unapproved windshields last weekend, it’s probably for the best that ol’ Five-Time got drilled in the door by Andy Lally late in the going. A bit coincidental, considering the winner was Clint Bowyer, whose title hopes were dashed a year ago after having 150 points docked following a win at New Hampshire for what was alleged to be damage suffered by getting a push from a wrecker that caused his car to be out of tolerance.
One couldn’t help but be reminded of the 1985 Winston, when Darrell Waltrip just happened to blow the engine (some would claim the over-sized engine) in his Junior Johnson-prepared Monte Carlo SS immediately after taking the checkered flag.
The racing itself on Sunday was a bit 1980s-ish, as well. Speeds hovering consistently around 200 mph meant that the track, which was the first to honor the stock-car mark, was once again being used for what it was designed. We saw packs break away and catch up, as well as single-file racing, not unlike the days when cars had to lift through the corner as drivers sawed on the wheel — not so much driving as they were keeping their cars from lifting off and trying to feel where the front tires were pointed. Racing at speeds which most aircraft go wheels-up, that big blade on the back has to be a bit comforting, particularly when getting shot head-on into a wall at these speeds.
Reagan Smith’s impact in his black Chevrolet was both sobering and eerily reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash at Daytona in 2001. It was a testament to how far the sport has come safety-wise, as SAFER Barriers, HANS devices and any other acronym that has prevented the unthinkable from happening the last decade is one area where waxing poetic about open-faced helmets, smock dipped in some sort of concoction which was allegedly fire retardant (though most likely just Epsom salt) falls flat on its exposed face. It is nothing but dumb luck or divine intervention that prevented more drivers from dying during the 210-plus mph era of the late ’70s and mid- ’80s.
What is unique about Talladega is that it was conceived during an era when all of the tracks were different; each with its own idiosyncrasies. It’s kind of like NASCAR itself. What other track was said to have been built on a Native American burial ground, is allegedly cursed, had a driver boycott before its first race and, even though cars nearly ended up in the stands twice in virtually the same spot, routinely witnesses fans buying tickets to sit up front, right where said cars tore into fencing?
More than that, the track is as big a part of the racing story as the title bout it was hosting.
The wildcard of the Chase pulled a fast one on the front-runners and their title hopes. Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick all took huge hits, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all but had their Wonka tickets punched. In the end, it wasn’t about fuel mileage or a 30-car junkyard — it came down to two teammates with no championship implications whatsoever. And no one seemed to care one way or another that no Chasers were contending for the win.
We’ve since grown accustomed to seeing wide swathes of open seating, some tracks going so far as to widen the seats to help fill up the empty spaces where fans used to shoehorn in, or going so far as to remove entire sections of grandstands. Not so in Eastaboga, Alabama.
This go ’round I took to the seats rather than the media center. Sure, I had my Garage Pass in hand but decided to watch the race with the fans. And by “the fans,” I mean fans that still have a rabid appreciation for the sport, as every single seat that was available in the Birmingham Tower was filled.
What economic downturn? Those Occupy Wall Street miscreants couldn’t hold down much more than a wet fart if their lives depended on it in comparison. They’ve got nothing on my people (particularly in the hygiene department).
There were more bodies seated, on time and ready to go than there are at my church on most Sundays. Couple that with a flyover by a pair of F-22 Raptors (including a super slo-mo pass over the backstretch that looked like it was going about 100 mph courtesy of thrust vectoring) and a Kenworth pulling a massive American flag. There was a bit of relief amongst the chaos that is Talladega that at least here, things still make sense.
It’s not often you see and feel what racing was like 15 or 20 years ago — literally. A fat, sweaty stranger mere inches from you is gross, but once the race starts and everybody is standing, there actually is a bit more room. And if you knock back a few pops, your own breath and BAC trumps anyone else’s BO. Sure, those seats might be metal and some are a bit rusty, but every one of them was filled, and it was elbow-to-elbow. And no one seemed to mind. (A side note: Talladega is in the process of redoing the seating, expanding each seat to 22” so feel free to go nuts this holiday season and embrace your inner Adam Richman.)
There is a reason why even in the midst of yet another recession, where people are careful where and how they spend what little discretionary income they have right before Thanksgiving and Christmas, that many still make time for Talladega. With all of the talk of fuel-mileage races dictating a championship and conspiring to ruin racing, Sunday was an old-fashioned superspeedway race, where two of the fastest cars ran up front all day, pulled away from the pack at the end and settled it amongst themselves.
It’s not that hard to see why people keep showing up to Talladega in droves as they always have and why its two dates continue to be the most popular of the year:
Because it just plain works.
by Mike Neff
On Wednesday, SBNation.com’s Jeff Gluck reported that prior to the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega on Sunday, crew chief Chad Knaus was overheard on NASCAR.com’s RaceBuddy telling Jimmie Johnson that, should he win the race, he needed to inflict some damage on the car’s rear end during his victory celebration. While there wasn’t a post-race celebration for Johnson, this conversation has certainly stirred the pot that always seems to swirl around Knaus and his history of pushing the envelope of NASCAR’s rule book. Johnson’s car passed three different inspections last weekend, so it was certainly within the parameters set by the sanctioning body — but hearing dialogue between crew chief and driver is going to cause people to, once again, point the “cheater finger” at Knaus.
There is definitely a history of Knaus pushing the limits in NASCAR’s infamous gray area (and some of the black and white areas, as well), so it is certainly justified for people to question what might have been going on with the 48 car’s rear end. Remember that Knaus was told to leave the track days before Johnson won the 2006 Daytona 500 thanks to a design on the car that allowed the rear window to be changed when it appeared a wedge adjustment was being made to the car. While it might have appeared to fall within the gray area of the rule book, NASCAR felt it was altering a piece of the car that was not supposed to be touched, thus an expulsion and suspension.
Knaus found himself in hot water at Infineon Raceway shortly after the Car of Tomorrow was introduced in 2007 when his team massaged the fenders of the car between the points where NASCAR’s inspection “claw” touched the body. While the car passed the requirements of touching the template at all of the required points, it was different from other cars in the areas between the points, and therefore, was deemed to provide an unfair advantage. It must be noted that there is room for debate as to whether this instance was actually cheating or simply working within the gray area, but Knaus was fined $100,000 and suspended for six races, an example of NASCAR sending a message to the garage area to be mindful of it’s hard-line CoT specs.
There was also “Shockgate” at Dover in 2005, when the shock absorbers on Johnson’s car actually raised up after use rather than sank, as shocks normally do. The shocks were perfectly legal within the rules as far as parts and compression rates, but the way they were assembled and how that ultimately made them function was not in the spirit of the rules. NASCAR quickly issued a rule change to prevent that from ever happening again, but it was a classic gray-area play by Knaus.
These are but a few examples of Knaus’s ingenuity — he’s had at least seven violations with at least four being technical in nature that have resulted in no less than $190,000 in fines. Interestingly enough, he has not been fined since 2007.
No one but Knaus and his team know if there were any shenanigans going on with the No. 48 last weekend. Knaus explained that his pre-race “request” to Johnson was based on the fact that there is a tremendous amount of bumping that takes place during tandem racing at plate tracks. With the tight tolerances that NASCAR imposes on restrictor plate tracks, it would be very easy for a car to get knocked outside of those measurements simply through the aggressive bump drafting that occurs at 200 mph.
While that certainly seems like a plausible enough explanation, it would seem as though NASCAR’s technical inspectors would take that kind of contact into account and allow for some leeway. Then again, Richard Childress Racing claimed that Clint Bowyer’s car was knocked out of alignment by a tow truck at New Hampshire last season but NASCAR didn’t buy that explanation — so better safe than sorry, right?
Of course, it’s also very possible that Knaus was just trying to cover his bases, reasoning that it would be better, should his car win the race, to make an on-track modification that would prevent any post-race scrutiny rather than have to deal with the inspection nuances over the position of the rear bumper.
It is sad that the current “spec” environment in NASCAR has come to the point that teams will consider damaging their racecars rather than have them probed, measured and dissected so closely after winning a race. Fortunately, that does mean that the playing field is as level as it can possibly be — and that ensures that the racing is as fair as NASCAR can make it.
In the end, even if the No. 48 was legal from tip to tail, it might have been in Knaus’s best interest to keep his mouth shut and let the chips fall where they may. Because as another rule-breaker once said, “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: Tums Fast Relief 500
Track: Martinsville Speedway
Location: Martinsville, Va.
When: Sunday, Oct. 30
TV: ESPN (1:30 p.m. EST)
Specs: .526-mile oval; Banking/Turns: 12 degrees
April Winner: Kevin Harvick
2010 Winner: Denny Hamlin won both races.
2011 Race Length: 500 miles/263 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 98.084 mph (Tony Stewart, 2005)
Race Record: 82.223 mph (Jeff Gordon, 1996)
From the Spotter's Stand
Kevin Harvick rained on Junior Nation's parade at Martinsville in April, when he slid by Dale Earnhardt Jr. wqith four laps remaining to earn his first Martinsville Grandfather clock.
Kyle Busch led a race-high 151 laps before Earnhardt brought back images of his legendary father, executing a textbook “bump 'n' run” to get by his arch-rival. However, 17 laps later Harvick made the race-winning pass — his first of two over Earnhardt this year for the win with less than five to go.
Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have combined to win 14 of the last 17 races at the shortest track on the Cup circuit — with only Kevin Harvick (2011), Tony Stewart (April 2006) and Rusty Wallace (April 2004) breaking the trio’s impressive streak.
Last year, Hamlin was the Mayor of Martinsville, leading 172 laps in March, but needing a late charge on a green-white-checkered restart to beat runner-up Joey Logano and seven-time winner Gordon (92 laps led).
Hamlin won his third straight and fourth in six runs at Martinsville during the return trip in October, edging out runner-up and two-time winner Mark Martin and taking the first of his two checkers in the Chase.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Brakes, brakes, brakes. Being able to get good forward bite off the corner allows for passing and plenty of speed in the straightaways, then braking hard twice a lap at the entrance to Turns 1 and 3 takes its toll. It’s not nearly as fast as Bristol, but we have as much contact at Martinsville as we do at Bristol. There aren’t as many incidents because the pace is slower. The faster you run, the more you’re on the edge of grip. When you lose grip, you make more contact. It’s inevitable, but a driver has to keep cool. The ones who don’t like to be touched don’t do well here.”
Looking at Checkers: Prior to a 12th in April, Denny Hamlin had averaged a 2.4-place finish in his last nine Martinsville starts.
Pretty Solid Pick: Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are the other two you have to keep an eye on.
Good Sleeper Pick: This is one of Junior’s favorites, made evident by his 12 top 10s in 23 starts.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Quite a few, led by Greg Biffle and David Reutimann.
Insider Tip: It’s best to stay with the Big Three of Hamlin, Johnson and Gordon.
Classic Moments at Martinsville Speedway
The media in attendance for the 1960 Virginia 500 are treated to a luxury unheard of in the formative years of stock car racing: An air-conditioned press box — a NASCAR first.
It’s another NASCAR first as well, as Richard Petty wins his first of a series-best 15 races at Martinsville Speedway.
Petty leads laps 316 through 333, but relinquishes the lead to Bobby Johns, who takes over for the next 48 laps until he suffers a rear-end failure.
Jimmy Massey assumes the lead but is overtaken by Petty one lap later. The King leads the final 116 circuits to capture his second career Grand National win. Petty wins three races in the 1960 campaign and finishes second in the standings. It is another four years until he breaks through for his first title.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards No one driver wins the Chase at Talladega, but many lose it. Edwards did neither, which is a good thing for him. Expect top-10 runs from here on out.
2. Matt Kenseth Edwards’ teammate and the 2003 champ, Kenseth, sits just 14 points back in second. Both are good (Texas, Homestead) and weak (Martinsville) at the same tracks.
3. Kevin Harvick At 26 points out, is Harvick done? Probably not, but his chances are on life support. The car his team is bringing to Martinsville this weekend has two wins in six starts — including at Martinsville in April.
4. Brad Keselowski Survives big, bad Talladega, notching the best finish (fourth) among all Chase drivers. At 18 points back in the title hunt, you have to like the kid’s chances.
5. Jimmie Johnson Food for thought: The last time Johnson had two straight finishes outside of the top 20 during the Chase, he won the next three races.
6. Tony Stewart Has elbowed his way back into title contention with consecutive runs of eighth and seventh. At fourth in the standings and 19 points out, Smoke may be that final driver with a good look at a title.
7. Kyle Busch Making up 40 points in the standings with four races remaining is unrealistic, and that’s where Kyle and the boys find themselves. Don’t be surprised if the lifted weight propels Busch to a win or two.
by Matt Taliaferro
And then, there were five. So it seems. Maybe. The one thing that is beyond debate is Clint Bowyer’s continued strength on NASCAR’s plate tracks. Bowyer made a last-lap pass of teammate Jeff Burton in the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday to earn his first win of the 2011.
It was Bowyer’s second victory in the last three Talladega events and third straight finish of first or second. It was also his final plate-track start for team owner Richard Childress, as Bowyer will head to Michael Waltrip Racing at season’s end.
“It’s just so important to me to be able to cap off such a good relationship with Richard,” Bowyer said. “Everybody at RCR — it’s like family over there. (It) meant a lot for me to be able to win before we end this deal.
“The stars were lined up today with having the 100th anniversary of Chevrolet (paint scheme) on the racecar. If I won the race, it was going to be Richard’s 100th win. Too many things meant to be for it not to be. I’m excited that it was.”
Childress stood to pick up his organization’s 100th win one way or another. Bowyer and Burton, who combined to lead 51 laps on the afternoon, led the field to green with two laps remaining following a vicious wreck involving Regan Smith, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose, Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya.
The duo’s restart was flawless, and they quickly drafted away from a snarling pack of cars jockeying for position.
“Right at the split second I touched his bumper, one of the Red Bull cars hit me in the butt,” Bowyer said of the final restart. “It just launched us out there. The rest was history. I was able to get up through the gearbox, shove him (and) it got us away. At that split second, they came to a halt and split up and were racing two- and three-wide. We were able to drive off into the sunset.”
The tandem of Dave Blaney and Brad Keselowski — who worked with one another all day — finish third and fourth. Brain Vickers and Kasey Kahne were fifth and sixth.
Points leader Carl Edwards and teammate Greg Biffle stayed hooked together throughout the afternoon, as well. The Roush Fenway pair lagged back, staying out of harm’s way and avoiding three accidents in the race’s final 25 laps. Edwards increased his lead in the championship standings with an 11th-place showing. Matt Kenseth, who slipped to an 18th-place result, is second, 14 points back. Keselowski’s top-5 run slots him third, 18 points behind Edwards, while Tony Stewart’s seventh-place finish has him 19 markers out of the Chase lead.
“I don't know that I’ve ever been excited about 11th place,” Edwards said. “This race was one that is nerve-wracking for everyone. We came in here with a small points lead and we’re leaving with a bigger one. That’s a huge day for us.”
Jimmie Johnson’s bid for a sixth consecutive Sprint Cup championship may have taken a fatal blow. Johnson and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. were paired as drafting partners, but when it came time for one final run to the front, they stalled out, finishing 25th (Earnhardt) and 26th (Johnson).
“As we went to make our switch, the pack was organized and with the green-white-checkered situation, there’s not a lot of time to get organized,” said Johnson, now 50 points behind Edwards. “We lost our momentum there and got to the outside and kind of stalled out up on the top and finished far worse than we had hoped to.
“We’ll just keep fighting. Every position counts. Every spot counts. And I want to finish as high as I can in the points. If it isn’t the championship, I want to finish as high as I can possibly finish.”
by Tom Bowles
So what would you do with $13 million? In this economy, that’s a dollar amount that makes most middle-class Americans drool. It’ll certainly make major athletes jealous, too, after all, that’s more than the highest-paid NHL, NBA and major league baseball players earn, and fairly competitive with sport’s “holy grail” these days, the NFL.
For Clint Bowyer, that money proved the key in extending his career past a free agency desert. 5-Hour Energy is dishing out the cash to sponsor a new, third car at Michael Waltrip Racing with Bowyer at the wheel. Surely, with the decline in attendance and viewership, that amount would be capable of funding all 36 races next season, right?
In fact, that $13 million covers 20 — yes, just over half — of the 36 events on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup schedule for 2012. As a result, the newly-numbered 15 Toyota has marketers working overtime, making cold calls and begging for pocket change to get enough money to “finish out” its primary sponsorship package. In fact, Bowyer’s other option — and current team — Richard Childress Racing, was so disgusted by the financials, it reacted like Bowyer was trying to offer team owner Childress a ’95 Chevy Lumina to compete with. The “thanks, but no thanks” meeting Childress and Bowyer had precipitating their divorce after six years together in Cup sounds like the owner felt he was getting jipped by a used car salesman.
A look behind the numbers, though, shows Childress has reason to be apprehensive. If you do the math, Bowyer’s new team thinks it needs a total of $23.4 million to remain competitive on the Sprint Cup market. A middle-tier team, with no postseason appearances to date, MWR’s final number is just 10 percent lower than AFLAC’s three-year, $78 million dollar deal that is coming to a close at Roush Fenway Racing this season with top-tier superstar Carl Edwards. That shows the market price for sponsors hasn’t declined — if anything, it’s gone up. Childress, knowing he didn’t have full-time deals in place that were competitive for current drivers Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick (Budweiser sponsors only 20 races on Harvick’s No. 29 car) felt there were too many millions for his marketing company to find in side deals between now and Daytona, 2012. By Childress’ figures, running a $13 million team would either lead to layoffs or diluted competition. Because as Rusty Wallace says, “Money buys speed.”
But how do these prices make any sense? When AFLAC signed on board at Roush Fenway at the end of 2008, it was at the beginning of an economic decline that’s only gotten worse. NASCAR ratings since then, while bottoming out last season, are still off more than 15 percent from three years ago; declining attendance, consumer spending and national exposure (see: moving races from ABC to ESPN) has also cut into the sport’s marketability. For all intents and purposes, the “cost bubble” to support one of these teams should have burst years ago.
You can’t blame the sponsors. They recognize the cracks in the armor. Home Depot, the longtime backer of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota, announced Thursday that it’s scaling back to a 24-race deal next season, as Dollar General will cover the other dozen races on Joey Logano’s slate. Home Depot joins a growing trend of longtime sponsors like Budweiser, UPS, Interstate Batteries, DuPont and Caterpillar not exiting the sport but either downgrading their marketing dollars or refusing to increase the budget. Those that remain realize they’re getting more bang for their buck than ever before: at 20 races, for example, people recognize Budweiser as the primary sponsor for Harvick, maximizing exposure for the company without having to shell out the big check that goes with it. The diecasts still get made, sponsor appearances stay the same and companies can lowball, playing one team against the other until they get the leanest, most streamlined deal possible. Others companies, like Crown Royal, Red Bull and perhaps even AFLAC, are choosing to not even bother — scoffing at the price, they’re leaving the car-sponsorship game altogether.
These partial deals, on the surface, are good enough to run a program full-time if multi-car teams were willing to reshape the way they do business. They should be driving down the price … but they’re not. Instead, owners like Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske and others have refused to change their modus operandi. Instead, as the asking price stays the same, their response is to poach sponsors from smaller teams for lesser prices to fill the slate. The Joe Gibbs Racing/Dollar General deal is the perfect example. JGR needs filler money so it can keep the same price — plus the bloated shop of 300-plus employees to do a job that was done by one-third of the personnel a decade ago — without lowering the budget. The success of the Gibbs program, with drivers Logano, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin combined with the media exposure of being a top-tier operation, allows Gibbs to go out and get the money needed to continue.
But the “trickle-down” effect is beginning to take a toll. There are only so many sponsors to go around, and now 20 or 25 companies are being asked to come together to fund full-time operations of just six to eight cars. That means for the lower-end teams, there’s little to no money available, yet the cost of competition hasn’t been cut; the transition to start-and-parking, like Robby Gordon Motorsports’ No. 7 operation in Sprint Cup, becomes the necessary result. Owners enter survival mode, leaving the lower end of the garage a wasteland where teams exist not to please the fans, but use them for a paycheck through parking a three-year-old car five laps into a race. It’s either that or pull out of the sport altogether.
Those “start-and-park” efforts — cars that pull in before the first pit stop — have come as a result of NASCAR’s economic slowdown. Six or seven cars pulling off has been something that fans could handle, but in the wake of these sponsorship cutbacks, the current estimate for 2012 is 10-12, a number that’s one-quarter of the 43-car grid. That’s because this “outpricing the market” mentality has worked its way up to even the top levels of Sprint Cup competition. Both Childress and Roush, 2011 winners and former owner champions, are reducing their fleets from four cars to three. In Roush’s case, he’s watching full-time sponsor UPS, which once covered all the races for David Ragan’s No. 6 team, move over to a lesser, multi-race deal with Edwards’ No. 99 group next year.
Yet Roush, like all the other owners, refuses to drop his asking price. The top-tier group, consisting of five to seven men and two-dozen cars, won’t call the other’s bluff. Each expects to need a certain amount of money to compete. How can Roush spread all that Edwards money around, funding a fourth effort, if $10 million less gives them an engine program with 20 less horsepower than Hendrick? No owner wants to risk their success by cutting costs — and since NASCAR is made up of private contractors, no profit sharing or salary cap in the name of competitive balance is possible.
It’s an ugly scene, this business model that keeps inching towards a crisis mode. And until the owners in question work on cost-cutting, not competitive advantages, it’ll be a game of survivor until the end. Should this pattern continue — and it shows no signs of stopping — what does the final owner standing win, you ask? A chance to start a new stock car league. Because the one we have, NASCAR as we know it, will be dead — no matter how many fans watch TV or hit the stands each Sunday.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jimmie Johnson Haven’t we seen this movie before? Summer turns to fall and the 48 team shifts into another gear that no one else has, and that it seemed to be hiding all along.
2. Carl Edwards Edwards’ tough-it-out third- and fifth-place finishes the last two weeks are the type of performances that championships are made of. Dare we call them “Johnson-esque?”
3. Brad Keselowski Keep doubting. Yes, this ranking may seem high, but Keselowski has averaged a 5.8-place finish since the Brickyard 400 in late July. Pressure just doesn’t seem to affect the kid.
4. Kevin Harvick It’s hard to proclaim that the driver sitting second in the point standings (by one point, no less) is flying under the radar, but that argument could be made for Harvick. And that makes him all the more dangerous.
5. Matt Kenseth Consecutive runs of sixth, fifth and fourth find Kenseth right in the middle of this fight. However, he’s already used his mulligan in a 21st-place, fuel-mileage run gone bad in Chicago, so staying on point is important from here on.
6. Tony Stewart Smoke somehow salvaged a Chase-saving 15th-place run in Kansas, but his 25th the week prior will be the one that bites him. Not out yet, but like Kenseth, out of mulligans.
7. Kyle Busch Despite reasonable finishes of 11th, sixth and 11th (offset by a 22nd) in the Chase, it feels like Kyle and the boys have quietly made their playoff disappearing act already.
8. Kurt Busch All the guys on this list have Kurt to thank for poking the sleeping dog, as Jimmie Johnson is once again proving that he’s the one getting in others’ heads — not vice versa.
9. Jeff Gordon Gordon and the 24 team could still post a win and some nice numbers going forward, but at 47 points out, it’s likely they’ll go into R&D mode in preparation for 2012.
10. Clint Bowyer It seems Bowyer’s performance has improved since it became clear to him where he’ll be driving next year, as evidenced by three runs of eighth or better in the last four races.
11. Kasey Kahne Probably should be ranked higher after four straight top 15s, but it’s hard to trust the organization.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. The hard fact is, on a day when fuel mileage stays out of the equation, the 88 is a 12th- to 16-place car.
13. Greg Biffle It’s hard to pin this team down. They’re as capable — and likely — of running third as they are 27th.
14. Marcos Ambrose Consecutive ninth-place runs here. Credit him for continuing to run hard when others may not be.
15. Ryan Newman His supposed drop in performance during the Chase may speak to others dogging it late in the regular season.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr.
Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @MattTaliaferro
by Matt Taliaferro
For those who have followed Jimmie Johnson’s five-year reign in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, his performance in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup is none-too-alarming. A deceptive 10th-place run to start the playoffs, followed by an 18th-place hiccup placed the five-time defending champion in a 29-point hole out of the gate. Were fans, pundits and competitors watching and wondering intently? Of course. Were they writing off Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus as afterthoughts under a new, simplified, points-format. Absolutely not.
Johnson and Knaus proved why they are not to be counted out with so many miles left to go in NASCAR’s grueling 10-race Chase marathon, making statements with second- and first-place showings in the latest two events. The win — a dominating run in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway — landed Team 48 in third place in the Chase standings, a mere four points behind Carl Edwards, who has proven to be the playoffs’ most consistent driver thus far in 2011.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff,” Johnson said of any naysayers. “If you’re watching and reading all the headlines, you can get caught up in a lot of stuff that just really isn’t important.
“I’ve known in my heart the speed that we’ve had as a race team when we were in Chicago and unfortunately finished 10th because of fuel mileage. I know we were a heck of a lot better than 18th at New Hampshire but the damage to the car put us in 18th; Dover we were strong, and then (the win) here.
“Again, I don’t pay attention to that stuff that’s out there — I live in my little world, and I know what my team is capable of. We showed today what we’re capable of when we’re all performing at the top of our game, and hopefully we can do that for six more weeks.”
The praise Johnson heaped on his team was well deserved. His pit crew — at times the Achilles heel of the operation and Knaus’ target for multiple changes — was spot on throughout the day, maintaining all-important track position.
The event came down to a green-white-checker restart — NASCAR’s version of overtime — when Johnson’s teammate, Jeff Gordon, suffered a blown engine. The field was bunched up for what would be the deciding three laps, and Johnson wasted no time in disposing of second-place (and eventual runner-up) Kasey Kahne, on the restart and cruised to a .548-second win. Brad Keselowski was third, followed by Matt Kenseth and Edwards.
Edwards had an especially eventful day, realizing just two laps into the 272-lap affair that he and crew chief Bob Osborne had missed the setup. His No. 99 team diligently went to work adjusting his Ford, and although they lost a lap at one point, screamed through the field late to record the top-5 finish.
It was the type of effort that wins championships, though Edwards was more apt to shrug it off as good old-fashioned racing luck.
“We’re lucky because we had to have luck go our way,” he said. “We had two cautions that were timed perfectly, so that was a big deal. But we’ve messed up enough in the past that I’m pretty proud of our ability to just kind of take our bad days and just keep plugging along. It’s kind of a little test when you go through something like this to see if somebody melts down or if you can kind of keep going through it, and I’m glad it worked out today, but there was a lot of luck involved, as well.”
Kevin Harvick, who sits second in the point standings, was sixth. Last week’s winner, Kurt Busch, was 13th, now 16 points out of the Chase lead.
Gordon, whose blown engine with three laps remaining brought out the final caution, finished 34th and fell a whopping 47 points back in the standings with six races remaining.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: Hollywood Casino 400
Location: Kansas City, Kan.
TV: ESPN (2:00 p.m. EST)
June Winner: Brad Keselowski
Specs: 1.5-mile tri-oval; Banking/Turns: 15°; Banking/Tri-Oval: 10.4°; Banking/Turns: 15°
Race Length: 400.5 miles/267 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 180.856 mph (Matt Kenseth, 2005)
Race Record: 138.077 mph (Greg Biffle, 2010)
From the Spotter’s Stand
Brian France is doubling down on Kansas Speedway, bringing a second Cup race to the 1.5-mile tri-oval in Kansas City, an annual late September or early October stop since 2001. And with a sparkling new casino, the hope by NASCAR and its track operating wing, International Speedway Corp., is that Kansas will draw in more fans despite its cookie-cutter configuration and penchant for aero-racing.
In June, Bard Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe rolled the dice in a high-stakes game of fuel strategy and hit the jackpot, outlasting Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
Keselowski’s Penske Racing teammate, Kurt Busch, led a race-high 152 laps after starting on the pole. However, the fuel mileage wasn’t as kind to the Las Vegas native, and he slid to ninth at the finish.
Last year, Greg Biffle made winning at Kansas look like easy money, taking the checkers by 7.638 seconds ahead of 2008 winner Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and two-timer (2006, ’09) Tony Stewart. In his past four stops in K.C., Biffle has two wins and a pair of thirds.
Crew Chief’s Take
“As with many of the circuit’s 1.5- and 2-mile ovals, bump stops on the shocks play an important role at Kansas. A team must find an optimal setting for the bump stops or the car will be negatively affected by being too low — which drags the splitter and affects handling — or too high — which gets air under the car and results in a lack of front-end downforce. Kansas is a simple track, which means there are probably more teams that can win there than at most places.”
Looking at Checkers: Kurt Busch sat on the pole and led 152 laps before fuel mileage bit him to the tune of a ninth-place finish.
Pretty Solid Pick: If Greg Biffle has a win in him this season, this is where he’ll get it.
Good Sleeper Pick: If it comes down to fuel mileage, Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't a bad pick.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not that he’d be on your squad anyway, but Joey Logano averages a 26.8-place finish here.
Insider Tip: Brad Keselowski won the June race here on fuel mileage. It’ll likely come down to that again.
Classic Moments at Kansas
Kansas Speedway has been the site of many oddball finishes, and with its traditional date in the Chase, it’s often had championship ramifications. The 2006 Banquet 400 is no different.
Jimmie Johnson has led 105 laps on the day and leads late when fuel mileage comes into play. Johnson surrenders the lead with four laps remaining to Tony Stewart, who runs out of gas on the backstretch of the final lap. However, with pit stops ongoing, Stewart has a nearly 20-second lead over Casey Mears and coasts the final half-lap to win with an empty fuel cell.
Johnson’s title hopes appear to take a fatal hit when he is caught speeding on pit road while coming in for a splash of gas and two tires. His 14th-place finish finds him 165 points out of the Chase lead. He rebounds, though, averaging a third-place finish over the final six races to win his first Cup.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jimmie Johnson Attention race fans: Do not count Jimmie Johnson out of the Chase until he is mathematically eliminated (which probably will not happen). Thank you. That is all.
2. Carl Edwards The preseason favorite to unseat Johnson had a quiet regular season but has pieced together six straight top 10s — including runs of fourth, eighth and third in the Chase — to tie for the points lead.
3. Tony Stewart Stewart seemed resigned to the fact that Dover would be unkind ... and it was. Expect the team to regroup at Kansas, where Stewart has two wins and was eighth earlier this season.
4. Jeff Gordon Gordon came into the Chase hot, but has cooled with finishes of 12th and 24th sandwiching a fourth-place run. You have to figure his No. 24 team will get it together, but the performance bears watching.
5. Brad Keselowski The eight-week breakout run Keselowski enjoyed — which may be the story of the year in the sport — comes to an end. However, this team’s strength remains that it doesn’t know it shouldn’t be here.
by Matt Taliaferro
Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson entered Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway ranked ninth and 10th in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup — in 28- and 29-point holes. Many were already throwing dirt on Johnson’s bid for a sixth straight championship, while Busch was merely an afterthought in the title hunt.
That all changed in the Chase’s third race.
Busch got the jump on Johnson twice during late-race restarts — the first with 42 laps remaining and again with 35 to go — and never relinquished it, winning his second race of the 2011 and his first career on Dover’s high banks.
“My guys on pit road did a phenomenal job to be consistent, to be smooth, and to put us out there where we needed to be,” Busch said. “And I was able to wrestle the lead away from the 48 car (Johnson) and got to his high side and took the lead. And then with the final pit stop, Steve (Addington, crew chief) was thinking four (tires), I was thinking four, but we switched to two tires, and that was the perfect call.
“We beat Johnson out of the pits, had the inside lane on the final restart and we just took it to him. I knew we needed to get that jump on the restart and we never looked back.”
Johnson held on for second, while Carl Edwards overcame a mid-race pit-road violation and charged through the field to finish third. Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 5.
Tony Stewart, who won the first two races of the Chase and came into the Dover weekend the points leader, struggled throughout the day and finished 25th. That, along with the top-3 runs by Busch, Johnson and Edwards, tightened the standings up. Kevin Harvick and Edwards now sit tied for first, although Harvick’s four wins trump Edwards’ one in the tie-breaker. Stewart and Busch are now tied for third, nine points out, while Johnson jumped five spots to fifth, only 13 points in arrears.
“Are we out of it, still?” Johnson joked with the media afterwards. “Last week I was considered done.”
Johnson’s 157 laps led were the most any driver on the day, although Edwards seemed to have the best car early, having led 116 of the first 176 circuits. His pit-road speeding penalty dropped him two laps off the pace, though, and he spent the remainder of the day making up ground.
“It’s really easy to say (that) if we would not have made that mistake we would have won,” Edwards said of the penalty. “I definitely took myself out of position to fight for the win by doing that. So that’s something that painful, and I’m going to think about it — I’m going to think about it all the way home.”
The top-nine drivers in the standings are all still alive for the title with seven races remaining. Jeff Gordon, in ninth, is only 19 points out of the lead, while Kyle Busch (eighth) in 15 back and Kenseth and Brad Keselowski are tied for sixth, just 14 out.
Keselowski’s magical nine-race run — he had recorded nine straight top-12 finishes, including two wins — came to an end when his Penske Dodge threw a power steering belt. Until then, he had been a consistent top-10 car and had led two laps. Like Edwards, the malfunction dropped him two laps down and, while he was able to make it back onto the lead lap, he ran out of time and settled for a 20th-place finish.
by Mike Neff
For the last four years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, the mantra has been the same at the start of the Chase: Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have another title in him this season. Or crew chief Chad Knaus is behind the times. Or this will be the closest Chase ever. Or, quite simply, Johnson’s luck will run out. Yet somehow in each of the last four seasons, Johnson and Knaus have mastered the last 10 races better than the rest of the Chase field.
So before you stick a fork in the five-time defending champion — who happens to be in a 29-point hole after two Chase events — you might want to remember that this isn’t the first time the No. 48 team has faced playoff adversity. Taking a little trip down memory lane just may help freshen the memories of the doubters who are certain that this is the year Johnson’s dynasty crumbles.
In 2006, the first year of his five-year run, the Chase started at Loudon and Johnson not only stumbled out of the gate, he fell straight on his face. Johnson came home 39th, the bottom finisher of the title contenders and ahead of only Jeff Green, Morgan Shepherd, Ted Christopher and Bobby Labonte for the afternoon. Things didn’t get any better over the next three races, as Johnson finished 13th, 14th and 24th — the last of which came courtesy of a wreck at Talladega that included teammate Brian Vickers and future teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
However, from that point until Homestead, Johnson and his team were nearly perfect. They didn’t finish worse than second over the next five races and only finished ninth at Homestead because that was all they had to do to clinch the title, which they did by 56 points.
The following season was the year where even those fans who don’t like Johnson had to admit they never really felt like he was going to lose it. He finished outside of the top 10 twice during the final 10 races, both of which were 14th-place runs. Six of the final 10 races he finished in the top three, and four of those were consecutive wins from Martinsville through Phoenix. Even though his Chase performance was one of dominance that season, he was third in the standings after the first two races. That said, there’s no question that ’07 was the most dominant of Johnson’s five Chase wins.
Another strong year came in 2008, as Johnson cruised through the Chase with only two finishes outside the top 10, but they were both 15th-place showings. He began the Chase with second- and fifth-place finishes, but still sat third after two events. By the time the checkers fell at Homestead, though, Johnson had three wins and six top 5s in the playoffs and beat Carl Edwards by 69 points for his third championship.
Edwards was supposed to lay it on Johnson in 2009, but faltered to an 11th-place points finish. Instead, it was Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Mark Martin, that went toe-to-toe with the mighty 48. Johnson started the Chase off in a better position than the previous years, with a fourth and a first in the first two races. Still, Johnson ranked second to Martin through two.
However, Johnson beat Martin into submission from there, scoring single-digit finishes in all but one of the playoff races to win his fourth title by a comfortable 141 points.
Last season presented another foe for Johnson to outlast — check that, it brought two foes, in Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Johnson started the Chase with another bad run at Loudon, coming home 25th. He followed that with a win in Dover, but still in a 35-point hole to Hamlin. As is usually the case, Johnson and Knaus went on a run from there, averaging a 4.5-place finish over the final eight races to turn the tables on a choking Hamlin, and winning title No. 5 by 39 points.
The Chase for the Cup in 2011 has not opened up like a house on fire for Johnson, who is staring at his worst points position in since the beginning of the dynasty. And for all the talk of a rift between Johnson and Knaus, it could just as easily be the case that the two make a run like a scalded dog the rest of the Chase and everyone forgets about the talk of discord.
The only way we’ll find out is to run the rest of the races. Because while it may not appear so now, as long as the 48 team is in the playoffs it’s the team to beat.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: AAA 400
Location: Dover, Del.
TV: ESPN (2:00 p.m. EST)
May Winner: Ryan Newman
Specs: 1-mile oval; Banking/Turns: 24°; Banking/Straightaways: 9°
Race Length: 400 miles/400 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 161.522 mph (Jeremy Mayfield, 2004)
Race Record: 132.719 mph (Mark Martin, 1997)
From the Spotter’s Stand
Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson combined to lead 324 of the first 364 laps and were poised for a late-race showdown with late-comer Clint Bowyer in May. However, a late-race caution punctuated what was an otherwise staid event and pit strategy turned the field — and the results — upside down.
Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson took the time to take four fresh tires during the caution, while Mark Martin stayed out to inherit the lead. Meanwhile, a slew of teams elected to put on only two tires, including the No. 17 of Matt Kenseth, who led the pack off pit road.
And just as the Southern 500 the week prior proved that track position trumped fresh Goodyears, the FedEx 400 solidified it, as Martin and Kenseth sprinted away, while those who dominated the race remained mired in heavy traffic. By the time Kenseth slipped under Martin, only 31 laps remained on the fast, one-mile oval, and he ran away uncontested for a 2.122-second victory, his second career win at Dover.
Jimmie Johnson has been rock solid at the concrete 1-mile oval in Dover, and last year was no different. The 48 dominated for the sixth time at “The Monster Mile” — and for the third time in four races — by starting at the pole, leading a race-high 191 laps and taking the checkers by a 2.637-second margin over runner-up Jeff Burton in the second race of the Chase.
Earlier in 2010, Johnson led 225 laps but could not hold it together after being busted for speeding on pit road while going mano a mano with wild child and eventual winner Kyle Busch. Rowdy led 131 laps before raising the “Miles the Monster” trophy in Victory Lane for the second time in his career.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Dover is an all-concrete track and is banked all the way around; even the straights have nine degrees of banking. Therefore, right-side tire management is a race-long concern. Dover provides drivers with multiple grooves from which to choose, but normally, the best cars are the ones that will run the low line around the track. The transitions from turns to straights are unique. Drivers call it ‘falling down’ in the turns. Back in the 1990s, it was asphalt, but it was so rough it was more like a gravel road. Concrete has its pluses and minuses, but it made this track a lot better.”
Looking at Checkers: It’s hard to overlook Jimmie Johnson’s six wins at Dover.
Pretty Solid Pick: Mark Martin has made no secret of his love of Dover. His four wins are proof of it.
Good Sleeper Pick: Guys turn it up a notch when racing at their home track, and this is Martin Truex’s turf.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Juan Pablo Montoya has led only five of the 3,415 laps he’s completed at Dover.
Insider Tip: Trouble happens quick here. Having a good qualifier who stays up front is a bonus.
Classic Moments at Dover
Proving his shocking win in the Daytona 500 earlier in the season was no fluke, Derrike Cope leads 93 laps and wins the 1990 Budweiser 500 in Dover.
Cope shoots to the lead by lap 160, but a miscalculation by his crew chief causes his No. 10 Purolator Chevy to run out of gas while pacing the field, dropping him off the lead lap.
Cope has a strong car, though, and races his way back onto the lead lap (without the aid of Lucky Dogs or wave-arounds). A fast pit stop under a lap 421 caution bumps him up to second, and on lap 446, he passes Rusty Wallace, who leads 131 laps in the Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac, for the lead. From there, Cope holds off Ken Schrader to earn his second, and final, career victory.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Difficult to place him anywhere else. Smoke has two consecutive wins and an average finish of fourth over the last four weeks. Lean & mean after shedding the dead weight.
2. Jeff Gordon Probably had the best car in New Hampshire, but the fuel calculations were off. That most likely cost him six valuable championship points, which could come back to bite.
3. Jimmie Johnson Yes, he’s in a hole, but do you dare kick dirt on his grave yet? Johnson, Knaus and the boys are at their best when fighting for points at playoff time.
4. Brad Keselowski In case you needed any further convincing, Keselowski and the No. 2 team are for real. And they’re a dangerous third in the point standings.
5. Carl Edwards Edwards is riding a five race top-10 streak and sits fourth in the standings. This team has been able to post numerous wins in short order in the past. Can they do it again?
6. Kevin Harvick Will Harvick fall back into the seventh- to 14th-place swoon of mid-summer? Not likely, but worth keeping in mind as the Chase heats up.
7. Matt Kenseth Carl to Matt after race: “OK, go ahead, fake punch me. I deserved this one.”
8. Kyle Busch Still dangerous, but looking mortal following 22nd- and 11th-place showings to start the Chase. Is a “Come to Coach Gibbs” meeting in order?
by Matt Taliaferro
Most had written off Tony Stewart as a legitimate 2011 championship contender — including himself, if you believed his words in the midst of a 27th-, ninth- and 28th-place string just six weeks ago. After all, his No. 14 team was winless through NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, averaging a pedestrian 14.2-place finish with only three top 5s.
Then the Chase for the Championship hit and, inexplicably, Stewart and his team have come alive. Stewart won his second straight race — the second of the Chase — in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, and in the process, assumed the points lead.
Stewart passed Clint Bowyer as Bowyer’s fuel cell ran dry with two laps remaining, reversing last season’s New Hampshire Chase outcome that saw Bowyer capitalize on Stewart’s empty gas tank.
“It’s amazing that it’s happened like that,” Stewart said. “But Clint was one of the first guys that called last year and, as happy as he was that he won the race, he knew how disappointing it was for us.
“You don’t want to win them that way (on fuel mileage) and you don’t want to see guys lose them that way. This is a sport that guys have a high level of respect for what happens and how it happens. To have a win get away from you that way, it’s disappointing for anybody.
“We may not have been the best car at the end — Clint was just a tick better than us. I definitely did not know he was in a situation to worry about fuel. So the good thing is Darian told us we were two, three laps to the good. I got to run hard all the way to the end.”
To be fair, Stewart’s car was good enough to win the race, and having the mileage to get there was just icing on the cake. He finished second at New Hampshire in July to his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Ryan Newman, in a fuel mileage duel, and won last week at Chicagoland under the same circumstances.
However, the one car that may have been better than his was Jeff Gordon’s No. 24. Gordon led a race-high 78 laps, but ran out of gas coming to pit road under green-flag pit stops with 70 laps remaining. It took the team valuable seconds to get the machine refired, and even then, they did not get the car full of fuel.
That forced Gordon into conservation mode. He backed off down the stretch to avoid running out of gas and settled for a fourth-place finish. Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle were second and third.
“It’s a bit of a surprise we ran out under green,” Gordon said. “We were expecting to get a couple more laps.
“We’re making great horsepower, but we’re not getting good fuel mileage. But Tony is figuring out a way to do it, so give those guys credit — those guys have the same engines we have and we have to do a better job at it. I have to do a better job at it.”
Defending five-time champion Jimmie Johnson got into a fender war with Kyle Busch with 21 laps remaining. Although neither wrecked, something in Johnson’s steering system was bent, and he finished 18th.
“Today we just didn’t have the speed,” Johnson, who is 29 points behind Stewart, said. “And track position was so important and we didn’t have some pit calls go our way.”
Johnson’s main competition last season, Denny Hamlin, had his second straight frustrating race. His No. 11 Toyota ran out of gas with three laps to go, despite the fact his crew chief, Mike Ford, assured him they could make it the distance. He finished 29th and, after a 31st-place showing last week, is 66 points out of the Chase lead and all but eliminated.
As for the points leader, though, his faith is renewed. “These guys have never quit,” Stewart said. “These guys have never given up and we got a shot at this thing.”
by Tom Bowles
NASCAR is a sport defined by individual success. Just one driver and team, not an entire motorsports operation, gets crowned with a series title. But like it or not, team cars working together at NASCAR’s highest level have had subtle impacts on the championship Chase for years. Every time the same pair of Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing pit together, allowing them to hold the draft at Talladega, someone gets a little extra edge over a single-car opponent left out to dry. Every time two Fords from Roush Fenway Racing swap positions up front, allowing both drivers to score a bonus point for leading a lap, the rival running third can only watch as Dancing with the Cars plays out ahead. Even before the era of 400-employee, four-car operations, the old championship battles were filled with owners trying to grab that little extra edge. In 1993 and ’95, respectively, Richard Childress and then Rick Hendrick entered “dummy” cars in the Atlanta season finale that could park, finish 43rd and preserve an extra three points should something happen to their championship-contending driver.
But as the stakes rise in the 2011 Chase roulette — perhaps the most wide-open battle for the title since Jimmie Johnson first won it five years ago — the worries over multi-car collusion have never been higher. Already, we’ve seen more drama in the last two weeks than during the entire regular season. Paul Menard, a Richard Childress Racing driver not involved in the postseason, was accused of spinning out intentionally during the regular season finale at Richmond, causing a caution that allowed teammate Kevin Harvick to close, pass and eventually defeat Jeff Gordon for another three Chase bonus points. Some have claimed Menard’s radio transmission was filled with chatter about whether a yellow flag was needed for the team, a charge repeatedly denied not only the driver, but by Childress himself.
“There were no team orders despite all the speculation in the media,” the owner said in a written statement last Friday, forced to respond to building controversy that even had Gordon openly questioning the ending while NASCAR investigated. “I know Paul Menard well enough that he wouldn’t have spun out on purpose even if he had been asked.”
It didn’t take long to show Childress wasn’t kidding around. For him, a “great start” meant maximizing the performance of Harvick, whose No. 29 team was the only one within his four-car operation to make the cut. Not worried about infuriating outgoing sponsor General Mills, Clint Bowyer’s pit crew was raided, the best people realigned with Harvick, while Bowyer was forced to swallow the “B” team which, in theory, could prevent him from winning races and getting his backers extra exposure. It’s like thanking Cheerios executives for their years of support by taking them to dinner at Taco Bell and then choosing to sit with new potential sponsor Post at another table.
Then, as the checkers flew at Chicagoland, the specter of team orders switched to Roush Fenway Racing and Ford. Matt Kenseth ran out of gas on the final lap and was desperately searching for any way to make it to the finish line. Enter J.J. Yeley, a fellow Blue Oval driver whose Front Row operation gets engine and chassis support from RFR. Suddenly, the underdog was the perfect candidate to play Superman; Yeley who claims he was “just trying to do Kenseth a favor” pushed the driver through Turn 3 of the final lap before backing off. The problem, of course, is that’s a NASCAR no-no; the mistake left Kenseth penalized, the first car one lap down in 21st but raised suspicion Yeley might have been asked to help, as the principles involved simply forgot the last-lap “no push” rule was still in existence. Several fans this week claimed they heard radio transmissions on NASCAR’s RaceView in which Kenseth was urging the maneuver, a charge both men have denied and will be impossible for anyone to verify.
“He didn’t ask me to push him,” Yeley said after the race, the official comments carried live on SIRIUS XM. “He just ran out of fuel in front of me and I was just trying to help out.”
How Good Samaritan-like. Still, there were plenty of people running out of fuel on the white flag lap, a number of drivers running around the apron who needed help. Even if those comments are taken at face value, what a coincidence that Kenseth happened to be the one Yeley chose, right? It’s not like these two are blood brothers separated at birth, since when have you heard of them hanging together off-track?
In the end the maneuver backfired, and Kenseth lost 17 championship points due to the penalty. But with nine races left, including the two-car tandem (regardless of the new rules) that’ll somehow resurface at Talladega, it’s clear the battle for NASCAR supremacy will include using every bullet — and driver — one has in their arsenal. Each organization has a different tantalizing option: for Hendrick, with three cars in the postseason plus a strong alliance with the Stewart-Haas duo, Mark Martin (car number six) could be used as a guinea pig for experimental setups if needed. After all, neither sponsor GoDaddy nor Martin is returning in the same capacity come 2012.
The other seven cars are a breakdown of just four teams: two from Penske (Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski), two from Gibbs (Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin), two from Roush Fenway (Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards) and RCR’s lone entry with Harvick. Among those, it’s interesting to note only Penske and Gibbs have their sponsor and driver combinations secure across the board for 2012. RFR, still searching for a sponsor for Kenseth is missing one for David Ragan, too, while continuing to work on a full-scale package for Edwards. RCR, losing the backing on Bowyer’s car (and Bowyer as well, it appears), is also saddled with putting funding together for Austin Dillon’s Nationwide effort next year — along with absorbing at least some of Kevin Harvick, Inc.’s 140 employees in a minor league merger.
I mention Silly Season sponsor talk because NASCAR economics affecting the upper class puts a greater sense of urgency towards on-track performance. Sure, the gap between first and second in points is steep — a difference of $3.175 million in posted awards last season. For these mega teams, that money creates additional exposure and funding which goes a long way when cars have the same price tag to sponsor them but few, if any, companies are stepping up.
That’s left jobs on the line, again, financial futures that often blur competitive ideals of loyalty, integrity and trust (see: NCAA conferences, all). As Chase teams like Kenseth’s try to simply survive in 2012, the necessity to win in any way possible threatens to overshadow “every man for himself.” After all, with millions on the line and extra teammates at your disposal, capable of acting as anything from an obstacle to an information filter, to even — gasp! — an “accidental” bulldozer to widen the gap amongst your rivals, how easy would it be to hide behind “Boys, Have At It,” collect the cash and survive to fight another day?
I’ve talked to so many in the NASCAR garage who feel the worst possible outcome of this Chase is if Jimmie Johnson wins the title. But I wonder if in the alternative — five men shooting for the title at Homestead — we don’t end up with something worse in the name of desperation.
For now, I’ll stay optimistic even in the face of these ugly warnings (ones that NASCAR will be powerless to stop … and what are they going to do? Dismantle the teams?). One just has to hope that when push comes to shove, respect for this sport, its fans and founders would cause everyone to play by the rules when it matters.
The sport simply cannot afford any other way.
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 and Nathan Rush
Race: Sylvania 300
Location: Loudon, N.H.
TV: ESPN (2:00 p.m. EST)
2010 Winners: Jimmie Johnson (June); Clint Bowyer (Sept.)
July Winner: Ryan Newman
Specs: 1.058-mile oval; Banking/Turns: 12°; Banking/Straightaways: 2°
Race Length: 317.4 miles/300 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 133.572 mph (Brad Keselowski, 2010)
Race Record: 113.308 mph (Jimmie Johnson, 2010)
From the Spotter’s Stand
Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart flexed their muscles early and often in Loudon, N.H. in July. Both were top three cars throughout the event’s three practice sessions and followed that by sweeping the front row in qualifying, with Newman edging Stewart for the pole.
The duo then led 167 of 301 laps en route to first- and second-place finishes, with Newman — having milked a tank of gas for 41 laps — winning the day.
Clint Bowyer made the most of his opportunity as the last man in the Chase last season, leading 177 laps on his way to ending an 88-race winless drought by conserving fuel and holding off a charging Denny Hamlin. On the other side of the fuel gauge gamble, Smoke turned to fumes when Tony Stewart (100 laps led) ran out of gas and sputtered to a disappointing 24th-place finish.
Bowyer’s car was later found to be out of tolerance when NASCAR took his Chevy to its R&D Center. His RCR team claimed the car was damaged when it was pushed by a wrecker when the fuel cell ran dry while doing victory burnouts. NASCAR didn’t buy it and, while the win was allowed to stand, docked his team a title-crippling 150 points.
Earlier in 2010, Kasey Kahne’s Richard Petty Motorsports Ford was the car to beat until the engine grenaded after leading 110 laps. Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch took control from there, leading a combined 135 laps. However, in the end Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch played bumper cars in a shootout that got physical. The 48 got the last bump ’n’ run in, and won for the second straight week with its third checkers at Loudon.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Track position is the order of the day at New Hampshire. Cars generally have one to one-and-a-half lanes to play with, making passing — especially lap-down machines — difficult at best. Rubber buildup is widespread in the turns, and that determines where the driver can and can't run. If he can't run the line he wants because of the rubber buildup on the track, it makes it frustrating. Usually two or three teams hit it right, and if it doesn’t rain and it doesn’t come down to fuel, one of them is going to win it.”
Looking at Checkers: A beefed up Martinsville, NHMS favors Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.
Pretty Solid Pick: When Kurt Busch isn’t highly irritated with his crew chief, spotter, over-the-wall gang, owner or another driver, he’s good here.
Good Sleeper Pick: David Reutimann will roll the dice when the weather turns wet.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The RCR duds may have changed, but Paul Menard performance here has not.
Insider Tip: Lingering feuds could play out in the tight confines.
Classic Moments at New Hampshire
It looks as if two of NASCAR’s bright young talents are going to decide the 2002 New England 300. However, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is dumped by Todd Bodine with 12 laps to go, and Matt Kenseth suffers a flat right rear tire with 10 laps remaining, clearing the way for the old guard.
Ward Burton, who won the Daytona 500 five months prior, records his final Cup victory in a race plagued by tire issues and spins in Turns 3 and 4 on the newly redone racing surface.
“There’s just something about the actual racing surface that needs some help,” Burton says. His brother, Jeff, agrees, saying, “I hate it to say it, but the racetrack was better the way it was before.”
Second-place finisher Jeff Green, driving Richard Childress’ No. 30 AOL Chevy, records his best career Cup finish.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. unveiled his 2012 Diet Mountain Dew paint scheme — pictured top right — on Wednesday via Facebook, rolling out a predominantly silver Chevy with Mountain Dew’s familiar green, red and black accents.
AMP Energy, co-primary sponsor of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car following the 2007 season, will take on a reduced branding role next season. PepsiCo, whose contract with Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 88 teams runs through 2012, is the parent company of both AMP and Mountain Dew.
“The story is really about opportunity,” George Cox, Mountain Dew brand manager, told the Sports Business Journal. “With Dew, Dale and NASCAR there’s this awesome marriage. Dale is the embodiment of the person we’re trying to target with Diet Dew. We wanted to tap into that equity Dew has in NASCAR and put it into overdrive with Dale.”
The National Guard is expected to return for 18 races on Earnhardt’s car next season.