Articles By Matt Taliaferro

Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/2012-daytona-500-entry-list

2012 Daytona 500 Entry List
by Matt Taliaferro

Forty-nine teams are entered for the 54th annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. Forty-three cars will qualify for The Great American Race. The front row for the event will be determined in qualifying on Sunday, Feb. 19. Positions 3-39 will be set in the Gatorade Duels on Thursday, Feb. 16. The final four spots will be based on Pole Day qualifying speeds of cars that have not already earned a starting position. If there is an eligible Sprint Cup Series past champion entered who has not already qualified, that past champion will receive the 43rd and final position. If there is more than one past champion eligible for this berth, it goes to the most recent champion.

Driver, Number, Manufacturer, Team
Kenny Wallace, No. 09 Toyota, RAB Racing
Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Dodge, Penske Racing
Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 6 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Robby Gordon, No. 7 Dodge, Robby Gordon Motorsports
Marcos Ambrose, No. 9 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
Danica Patrick, No. 10 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing
Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Casey Mears, No. 13 Ford, Germain Racing
Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Joey Logano, No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Trevor Bayne, No. 21 Ford, Wood Brothers
AJ Allmendinger, No. 22 Dodge, Penske Racing
Robert Richardson III, No. 23 Chevrolet, R3 Motorsports
Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Tony Raines, No. 26 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
Paul Menard, No. 27 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
David Stremme, No. 30 Toyota, Inception Motorsports
Jeff Burton, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
Terry Labonte, No. 32 Ford, FAS Lane Racing
Elliott Sadler, No. 33 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
David Ragan, No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
Dave Blaney, No. 36 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing
Mike Wallace, No. 37 Ford, Rick Ware Racing
David Gilliland, No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
Ryan Newman, No. 39 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
Michael Waltrip, No. 40 Toyota, Hillman Racing
Juan Pablo Montoya, No. 42 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Aric Almirola, No. 43 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
Bobby Labonte, No. 47 Toyota, JTG Daugherty Racing
Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
J.J. Yeley, No. 49 Toyota, Robinson-Blakeney Racing)
Kurt Busch, No. 51 Chevrolet, Phoenix Racing
Mark Martin, No. 55 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Martin Truex Jr., No. 56 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Regan Smith, No. 78 Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing
Landon Cassill, No. 83 Toyota, BK Racing
Joe Nemechek, No. 87 Toyota, NEMCO Motorsports
Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
David Reutimann, No. 93 Toyota, BK Racing
Bill Elliott, No. 97 Toyota, NEMCO Motorsports
Michael McDowell, No. 98 Ford, Phil Parsons Racing
Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing


<p> The Entry List for the 2012 Daytona 500.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 16, 2012 - 14:42
Path: /columns/garage-talk/10-tough-nascar-questions-part-5

As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.

Kyle Busch: Will fallout from “The Texas Incident” tame the rowdy youngster?

For someone to learn from a mistake, the consequences must always be strong enough to make them think. Is that what really happened in the case of Kyle Busch after he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday in the fall Texas Truck event last season?

Sure, there was a one-race parking on the Sprint Cup level, but Busch’s title hopes were slim to none by then and Joe Gibbs Racing was already in the midst of a Chase implosion. And when sponsor M&M’s made a statement by pulling its funding for the final two races of the year, Interstate Batteries stepped right in as the sponsor superhero. “Don’t worry, Kyle! We’ll save you … and take all the publicity that comes with it!”

Now, M&M’s full-time return to the fold in 2012 looks cheap, like it just jumped on a Christmas discount. And in the midst of it all, unlike brother Kurt, there is no sports psychologist or stripping of a top-tier ride for Kyle to think about. Instead, it’s only the prospect of starting the slate clean at Daytona, going after another championship and a “wink, wink” from the powers that be who, while scolding of such aggressive behavior, seemingly reminded Busch he adds an extra zero to their paychecks, so it’s all good.

The educated guess is that under the tutelage of Joe Gibbs, we’re likely to see a slightly milder version of Busch going forward — if not for the near-loss of a major sponsor. But did Tony Stewart, put in similar hot water at JGR in 2002, transform overnight? Absolutely not, and in some ways, because of these similar circumstances, never did.

If Busch avoids any 2012 probation over 50-some odd races in the Cup and Nationwide series this year, it should be considered a surprise.

Has NASCAR’s “wave-around” rule made earning a solid, lead-lap finish too easy?

Think nothing in life is free anymore? You haven’t seen a NASCAR race, where “gift laps” are given out more cheaply than product samples at an at-track display.

It used to be that losing a lap, at anytime, constituted a crisis. Under the old double-file restart rule, some of the best competition surrounded those cars trying to desperately muscle their way back into contention. But now? You can lose a lap in the first three-quarters of the race, choose not to pit with everyone else during a late caution and take a wave-around to get back on the lead lap. A few moments later, another yellow flag comes out and you’re suddenly in contention for a top-5 finish after spending all day running 25th.

That loophole, parlayed into top finishes by everyone from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Carl Edwards in 2011, eliminates any advantage a dominant leader has early in the race. Why try to pull out to a 10-second lead, lapping as many cars as possible, when they’ll all be back in contention at the end, anyway? It contributes to a growing NASCAR problem: no sense of urgency for much of the race’s first two hours, which leads to single-file “stroking.”

So how about keeping the sport’s real “free pass,” giving the first car off the lead lap one back every caution but limit it to one per opponent, per race. And if a car doesn’t pit under a caution flag? Let ’em start in front of the leader like the old days. If a fan can’t figure out who the leader is after watching the whole race they should probably give back that elementary school completion certificate.

Visit each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season. 

<p> As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running each day throughout the week.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 15, 2012 - 18:30
Path: /columns/garage-talk/10-tough-nascar-questions-part-4

As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.

Did Kentucky Speedway do enough to appease dissatisfied fans after its Cup debut disaster? And how will this affect its future on the circuit?
Kentucky Speedway fought for years to land a coveted Sprint Cup Series race, only to be blocked with every shot it took. So when Speedway Motorsports, Inc. bought the venue, then awarded it a date formerly housed at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it was a slam dunk, a Bluegrass bonanza for hardcore Southern supporters who waited over a decade. But for 100,000 ticketed fans, their dream come true turned into a hellish nightmare on July 9, 2011. Traffic flow and infrastructure shortcomings plagued the inaugural Cup date to the point that Kentucky Speedway may hold the title of having hosted the most disastrous major sporting debut in history. Traffic was so bad some estimates claimed as many as 20,000 people never made it to the speedway, while others sat idle for up to seven hours, then parked three miles away to get in.

SMI’s response? An apology two days later and a ticket-exchange offer to any of the remainder of its 2011 dates (including upcoming Truck Series and IndyCar events at Kentucky Speedway) or free admission to this season’s Kentucky date.

Did that heal the wound? Not even close. What SMI CEO Bruton Smith failed to understand was that for many, that weekend was it. That was the vacation, the time off from work, the hotel reservation, the gas money, the time, effort and planning … that weekend — not one seven weeks later at Bristol — that many hard-working fans saved for and invested in.

Perhaps it's hard for a billionaire to comprehend. Regardless, Smith offered no ticket refunds in a rambling, bizarre press conference the following weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, he laid blame on everyone from the state and local police, the company hired to direct traffic in the parking areas, local and state officials who did not bend to his roadway demands, local residents who parked cars on their property to — get this — the fans themselves for not planning properly!

The scary part of this mess was that Smith had traffic and parking issues at his Las Vegas and Texas tracks on opening Cup weekends in the past, plus Kentucky track officials had concerns going into the July date. Did SMI know what was coming? Would it allow a debacle on this scale to unfold simply to force state officials to invest in roadway reconstruction around the track? It certainly felt that way.

As to how this will affect Kentucky’s future events, it’s impossible to foresee. SMI has made improvements to the facility with expanded parking areas, additional restroom facilities and plans to widen the interstate and ease incoming traffic to the track itself. Time heals all wounds and, obviously, NASCAR did not yank its 2012 date. However, 100,000 fans were treated not like paying customers, but more like pawns in a multi-million dollar game of chicken, pitting SMI against the Kentucky state legislature. Let’s hope no one — even those who did not suffer that day — forgets that.

What steps should NASCAR take to curb start-and-park efforts?
In 2009, NASCAR referred to start-and-park teams as a “passing phase.” But as we enter year four of the collect-a-check experiment dominating the back of the Sprint Cup pack, it’s clear these profiteering teams aren’t going anywhere. In fact, the practice is only getting worse. As many as eight cars pulled in early during races last fall — that’s nearly 20 percent of the grid showing up with no intention of competing.

And why should they? In the last three years, Joe Nemechek has only finished five of his 97 starts but collected a cool $7.8 million in purse money. While saving on engine, pit crew and chassis costs, the only penalty the driver/owner may get is an occasional teardown as being selected for post-race inspection. Even then, a rebuild three or four times a year isn’t enough to wreck the profit margin. It’s become a big enough business that those who were initially putting up an honest effort, like Robby Gordon’s No. 7 outfit, have decided to join in.

That disturbing trend is why NASCAR needs to act. Either come up with a system of paying on a per-lap basis — reducing the profiteering of these teams — or simply reduce grid size to represent the number of cars showing up to compete. Dropping from a field of 43 to 36 increases the purse for each participant, ramps up the qualifying competition (maybe drop from 35 to 25 locked-in spots?) while better reflecting the number of fully funded cars. You can always expand back over time, as the NASCAR economy improves, right?

The question, of course, then becomes whether the sport’s television deal allows it to do that — a question that’s been disputed for years and whose answer lies within a contract no one’s allowed to see.

Visit each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season. 

<p> As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running each day throughout the week.</p>
Post date: Monday, February 13, 2012 - 18:59
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/2012-budweiser-shootout-eligibility-list

2012 Budweiser Shootout
by Matt Taliaferro

Thirty three drivers are eligible for NASCAR's 2012 Budweiser Shootout. The Shootout, which unofficially kicks off Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, will be televised on Saturday, Feb. 18 on FOX at 8:00 pm EST. Those eligible for the event this year include all drivers within the top 25 in the final 2011 championship standings, past Bud Shootout winners and past Daytona point-race winners.

Eligible Drivers, via top 25 in 2011 standings (Car number):
AJ Allmendinger (22)
Marcos Ambrose (9)
Greg Biffle (16)
Clint Bowyer (15)
Jeff Burton (31)
Kurt Busch (51)
Kyle Busch (18)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88)
Carl Edwards (99)
Jeff Gordon (24)
Denny Hamlin (11)
Kevin Harvick (29)
Jimmie Johnson (48)
Kasey Kahne (5)
Matt Kenseth (17)
Brad Keselowski (2)
Joey Logano (20)
Mark Martin*
Paul Menard (27)
Juan Pablo Montoya (42)
Ryan Newman (39)
David Ragan (34)
Tony Stewart (14)
Martin Truex Jr. (56)
Brian Vickers*

Also eligible:
Trevor Bayne (2011 Daytona 500 winner)*
Geoff Bodine (past Daytona 500 and Shootout winner)*
Derrike Cope (past Daytona 500 winner)*
Bill Elliott (past Daytona 500, Coke Zero 400 and Shootout winner)*
Terry Labonte (past Shootout winner)*
Jamie McMurray (past Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 winner)
Ken Schrader (past Shootout winner)*
Michael Waltrip (past Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 winner)

The few notable drivers that do not meet eligibility requirements include Dave Blaney, David Gilliland, Robby Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears, David Reutimann and Regan Smith.

* Not entered as of Feb. 13th.

<p> Eligibility list and entered drivers for the 2012 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona.</p>
Post date: Monday, February 13, 2012 - 14:02
Path: /columns/garage-talk/10-tough-nascar-questions-part-3

Was the nail-biting finish to the 2011 Chase a result of the new points system, a one-year anomaly … or a sign of things to come?

At some point, NASCAR’s tinkering, toying and manipulation of the point system had to produce the desired effect, right?

Thus, the culmination of eight years worth of “creative engineering” — point resets, format changes, wild cards, point allocation changes — gave NASCAR CEO Brian France his Austerlitz: a title fight that not only came down to the last race and last lap, but that ended in a tie, forcing a “most race wins” tiebreaker, validating his claims that wins, indeed, are more important than ever.

While some of these claims can be argued, the point is that NASCAR, after years of striving for France’s “Game 7 Moment,” finally got what it wanted. And the reality is, we may never see a better finish to a season. After all, how could it get any closer?

The short answer here is it’s probably all three. The point system undoubtedly tightened things up; it took Chase winner Tony Stewart to win half of the playoff races to stay anywhere close to runner-up Carl Edwards; and yes, this incarnation of NASCAR’s Chase lends itself to providing tight title tussles, which we should expect going forward.

The only fear many now have is that since NASCAR got its all-important “last-lap championship duel,” more changes will follow in years to come that ensure we’ve not seen the absolute best its Chase can provide.

<p> As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running each day throughout the week.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 - 17:46
Path: /columns/garage-talk/10-tough-questions-part-2

Why has NASCAR taken one of the fans’ favorite venues on the circuit at Lucas Oil Raceway, and replaced it with a track that typically does not host the most exciting brand of stock car racing?

Money, of course. The .686-mile short track was one of only seven tracks (Bristol, Charlotte, Darlington, Daytona, Dover and Richmond) that has hosted a Nationwide/Busch Series event each year since the series debuted in 1982. But with Cup races at the Brickyard bleeding out attendance on a yearly basis, IMS and the France family decided to bring NASCAR’s junior circuit, as well as the Rolex Grand Am Sports Car Series, to the hallowed grounds beginning this year.

Of course, many fans were in an uproar when the announcement was made. LOR (aka, IRP, ORP) has played host to some of the best short track action in NASCAR’s three touring series over the years. And the Brickyard, while a prestigious facility steeped in tradition, has simply not proven able to stage entertaining stock car races. Add in the 2008 tire debacle, and attendance struggles to reach 50 percent capacity.

To be fair, there was talk of NASCAR’s increased sanctioning fees being a reason LOR could no longer sustain an NNS race, money problems that were scoffed at by officials. In the end, though, that may have been a moot point. Waning fan interest at IMS equates to less dollars, and if NASCAR has been consistent on one point throughout its history, it’s that decisions are made solely with the bottom line in mind. If more suits can be wined and dined, more sponsorship programs sold and activated, and more concessions sold, it’s a no-brainer for the sanctioning body — competition level be damned.

So once again, a short track is sacrificed as the sport kneels at the altar of aero-dependent monstrosities. LOR holds 40,000; IMS is said to hold 270,000. When a Cup date can’t fill up half of those seats on Sunday, can you imagine the ghost town that the Brickyard will be on Saturday? Speaking of ghost towns, one of the most exciting venues on the circuit will turn into one, the victim of a speedway’s and a sanctioning body’s greed.

<p> <span>As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running each day throughout the week.</span></p>
Post date: Sunday, February 5, 2012 - 16:57
Path: /columns/garage-talk/10-tough-questions-part-1

What was the reason for the rash of 2011 postseason crew chief changes on championship-caliber teams?

A perfect storm of circumstances and a desire to stay ahead of the competition at all costs.

Steve Addington had been berated enough, thank you, and saw greener pastures with one of the few more talented drivers in the sport. Darian Grubb’s fate was sealed prior to the Chase and no one — including his shopmates — saw a championship coming. Once on the market, Grubb, along with Nationwide Series mainstay Jason Ratcliff, were Joe Gibbs’ solution to the puzzling dilemmas that are the Nos. 11 and 20 teams. Of course, there were more, but these elite-level talent-swaps illustrate what happens when the competition is so tight. What was once thought of as radical — changing pit bosses on championship-caliber teams in December — is now a necessary step for success.

Why? As NASCAR forces teams into a smaller box in which they can operate from a mechanical perspective, they’re left with few alternatives to gain an edge on the competition. One, though, is dabbling with team chemistry. And with most sponsor contracts tied into the driver’s long-term deal, he’s not going to get the heave-ho — after all, the driver is the face of the corporate entity. Therefore, it’s hard for team owners (or drivers) to not fall in love with the successful head wrench across the way.

Will 2011 stand as a watershed moment in today’s NASCAR? Will true December offseason, headline-grabbing moves become the norm? A definitive and hard-lined “yes,” may be presumptuous, but it seems headed that way. 

<p> <span>As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running each day throughout the week.</span></p>
Post date: Friday, February 3, 2012 - 16:19
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/kasey-kahne-apolopgizes


NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne has apologized for comments he made on Twitter after seeing a mother breastfeeding in a supermarket.

Kahne’s initial tweet stated, "Just walking though supermarket. See a mom breast feeding little kid. Took second look because obviously I was seeing things. I wasn't!"

He then went on to tweet that, “I don’t feel like shopping anymore or eating,” using the hashtag “nasty.”

One upset mother, who goes by the Twitter name of @KnittingRad, responded, “Wow, you’re kind of a douchebag, where would you propose that baby eat, the restroom? Would you eat in the restroom?”

Kahne tweeted back, calling her a “dumb bitch.”

The tweets, which he deleted, were followed by an apology made on his Facebook page, where Kahne said, "I understand that my comments regarding breastfeeding posted on Twitter were offensive to some people. For that, I apologize. It was in no way my intention to offend any mother who chooses to breastfeed her child, or, for that matter, anyone who supports breastfeeding children. I want to make that clear.

"In all honestly, I was surprised by what I saw in a grocery store," Kahne said in his apology. "I shared that reaction with my fans on Twitter. It obviously wasn't the correct approach, and, after reading your feedback, I now have a better understanding of why my posts upset some of you.

"My comments were not directed at the mother's right to breastfeed. They were just a reaction to the location of that choice, and the fashion in which it was executed on that occasion. I respect the mother's right to feed her child whenever and wherever she pleases."

He also posted an apology via Twitter to the offended party, saying, “I wanted to apologize for saying what I said to you yesterday. It was out of line."

Kahne’s NASCAR team, Hendrick Motorsports, made a brief statement, saying, “We appreciate that he chose to follow up with his fans and others who were upset by the comments.”

NASCAR did not comment on the situation.

<p> <span>NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne has apologized for comments he made on Twitter after seeing a mother breastfeeding in a supermarket.</span></p> <p> <span>Kahne’s initial tweet stated, "Just walking though supermarket. See a mom breast feeding little kid. Took second look because obviously I was seeing things. I wasn't!"</span></p> <p> <span>He then went on to tweet that, “I don’t feel like shopping anymore or eating,” using the hashtag “nasty.”</span></p> <p> <span>One upset mother, who goes by the Twitter name of @KnittingRad, responded, “Wow, you’re kind of a douchebag, where would you propose that baby eat, the restroom? Would you eat in the restroom?”</span></p> <p> <span>Kahne tweeted back, calling her a “dumb bitch.”</span></p> <p> <span>The tweets, which he deleted, were followed by an apology made on his Facebook page, where Kahne said, "I understand that my comments regarding breastfeeding posted on Twitter were offensive to some people. For that, I apologize. It was in no way my intention to offend any mother who chooses to breastfeed her child, or, for that matter, anyone who supports breastfeeding children. I want to make that clear.</span></p> <p> <span>"In all honestly, I was surprised by what I saw in a grocery store," Kahne said in his apology. "I shared that reaction with my fans on Twitter. It obviously wasn't the correct approach, and, after reading your feedback, I now have a better understanding of why my posts upset some of you.</span></p> <p> <span>"My comments were not directed at the mother's right to breastfeed. They were just a reaction to the location of that choice, and the fashion in which it was executed on that occasion. I respect the mother's right to feed her child whenever and wherever she pleases."</span></p> <p> <span>He also posted an apology via Twitter to the offended party, saying, “I wanted to apologize for saying what I said to you yesterday. It was out of line."</span></p> <p> <span>Kahne’s NASCAR team, Hendrick Motorsports, made a brief statement, saying, “We appreciate that he chose to follow up with his fans and others who were upset by the comments.”</span></p> <p> <span>NASCAR did not comment on the situation.</span></p>
Post date: Friday, December 30, 2011 - 13:26
Path: /columns/garage-talk/public-relations-enemy-no-1

by Tom Bowles

Since NASCAR’s Chase was introduced in 2004, only three drivers have won a title under its playoff format: Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch. Not surprisingly, this trio doubles as the only Cup Series drivers to win at least one race every season since 2002. Johnson and Stewart, with eight championships and star power, are names expected to be on that list … but Busch? That might be a bit of a surprise. Typically, younger brother Kyle grabs more of the attention — recently for all the wrong reasons — yet it’s Kurt who occupies this rarified air. Since pairing with Penske Racing in 2006, he’s won a respectable 10 times, captured six poles and gone four-for-six in postseason appearances.

But that success, impressive as it may be, has come at a cost to his current employer, Roger Penske. Indeed, one of the sport’s best drivers of the past decade has acted like a high school dropout when it comes to the school of public relations. The latest incident is perhaps his most vile; a going viral shows Busch mouthing off at a 30-year veteran of the racing business, ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, for simply requesting a post-transmission failure interview. Busch’s transmission was supposedly run over by championship contender Tony Stewart, but when watching the video, you fear Punch is the one about to get run over by Busch.

In response to the incident, Busch issued a brief statement Tuesday, apologizing for his behavior to race fans, Penske Racing, his sponsors and Punch himself. Usually, that’s step one in controlling the damage; the problem is, we’ve read this statement before, to the point those words are meaningful in a boy-who-cried-wolf way. This type of incident, in particular, is the fourth for Busch this year involving a media corps member. His divorce announcement from soon-to-be-ex-wife Eva over Independence Day sparked one; contact with Jimmie Johnson, and the resulting stories written about it by the press corps left him dancing around several others. At Richmond, he nearly came to blows with one reporter over questions surrounding (again) Johnson, and then ripped up the paper another was holding and stormed out of a post-race press conference. Let’s just say Busch’s anger management skills could qualify under the category “needs improvement” — as in improvement through a crisis session with Dr. Phil.

Just ask former crew chief Steve Addington, who endured weekly radio sessions that bordered on outright verbal assault about Busch’s antics. The driver’s feedback arsenal consists of team putdowns, swear words and threatening surrender over the car’s horrific handling — and that’s just in the first 50 laps of this weekly horror film. Amazingly enough, Addington lasted two years under the constant tirades before packing his bags and marching out on Monday. The replacement (if they can find one brave enough) will be Busch’s fifth crew chief since 2006, not exactly the consistency you’d expect with a driver that has skins on the wall that he does.

The truth is Busch has been cantankerous, rude and obnoxious in both private and public over the last few years. That won’t win you friends, although it doesn’t send you to jail either; in fact, in sports where you compete as an individual, rage might fuel success at times. But the difference in the world of family-friendly NASCAR is twofold. First, and most important, is that racing is a team sport. Busch doesn’t go anywhere without crewmen setting up his racecar, then pitting it over a 500-mile event where their focus could mean the difference between fifth and 35th. And why would these people, working for a man who revels in berating them, want to put their best foot forward for him every week?

In hindsight, some of Busch’s late-season issues, with the team being consistently late to pre-race inspection, may have come from crewmembers sending a silent message: “No more.” Even the transmission failure in the season finale, dropping Busch to 11th in points, could have been carelessness caused from people whose motivation has been stripped by being mortified by the driver they’re partnered with.

And that brings us to the second key difference for racers that may soon tip against Busch’s favor: sponsorship. The big companies that pay the big bucks don’t like to see internet postings from fans saying they’ll no longer buy their product. After this latest incident, you could go to every type of racing site and find dozens, if not hundreds, of postings saying “Pennzoil is off the shopping list.” Younger brother Kyle’s behavior may have hurt here — after a one-race parking for bad behavior, Mars/M&M’s responded by pulling its backing for the rest of the year although Kyle’s suspension was never extended – a bitter taste in the mouths of many people who wanted him fired.

Kurt’s rant comes as a case of bad, brotherly timing for those fans tired of this kind of behavior.

Ultimately, in Kyle’s case, Joe Gibbs Racing and the M&M’s brand knew where the bread was buttered. The younger Busch remains the winningest, most marketable driver on JGR’s roster and the long-term choice — — was not to damage the product. The elder Busch has been able to use that leverage in the past; time and again — as recently as this spring at Richmond — he’s been able to use verbal tirades to make personnel changes and command the type of cars he wants. That’s because for years, Busch was the only successful driver at Penske — whose marketability and overall success ultimately meant more than responding to consistent cases of abuse.

But a sponsor change in 2011, from Miller Lite to Pennzoil, no longer gives Busch that type of security blanket. Owner Penske has his backer involved in several side deals, to the point what driver they have in the car won’t change the millions they’re making outside of NASCAR. More importantly, Busch has some friendly competition within the team for the first time since ’06. Brad Keselowski, who boasts three victories, a fifth-place finish in the final standings and a swear-free record with the media outclassed Busch on the racetrack and in the garage area this season.

Busch, 33, is now six years older than his contemporary, yet finds himself the second-best driver in the two-car Penske shop. His owner, who’s won more Indy 500s than anyone else and is one of the most respected people in the motorsports industry, no longer feels backed into a corner. Sam Hornish Jr., a step below in the Nationwide Series, is winning and thought to be a possible title contender next season. Parker Kligerman, a young prospect, is also just a year or two away from possibly breaking out. Add it all up, and it’s an ugly total threat to Busch: the man whose success had once defined this race team is now easily expendable.

So for Kurt, this offseason needs to be a quick study in learning how to socially interact. Kevin Harvick — once no angel himself — likes to relate what he learned from his own one-race suspension in 2002. When brought into the NASCAR hauler, Harvick said officials made it clear that no matter how successful a driver is, this sport could survive without him. For years, it has. It has survived without many a driver. Even past-champions.

It seems Kurt Busch may feel entitled, but NASCAR Nation knows he’s one step away from ending a career. Let’s see if the driver realizes what everyone else does before it’s too late.

Agree with Tom? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Tom on Twitter

<p> Kurt Busch's latest outburst at the NASCAR media makes Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles wonder if his chances are running out.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 - 04:21
Path: /columns/monday-recap/tony-stewart-wins-nascar-sprint-cup-title

by Matt Taliaferro

With apologies to Bill Elliott and the late, great Alan Kulwicki, the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season finale may be the best the sport has ever seen.

Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards entered the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway separated by a scant three points in the championship standings, and each man’s clutch performance over the 10-race Chase almost guaranteed a showdown unlike any other in Homestead.

They did not disappoint. In fact, they somehow found a way to elevate their performance.

Edwards sat on the pole and led a commanding 119 laps while Stewart was forced to sacrifice valuable track position on two separate occasions, but in the end, Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb had the car to beat. Running first and second throughout much of the second half of the race, Stewart led the final 36 laps over Edwards to win the Ford 400, creating a tie at the top of the standings. A tie-breaking scenario then came into play, and Stewart’s five victories bested Edwards’ one, and he was awarded his third career Cup championship.

“I would have lost every bet in the world if people would have said when you got in the Chase, that we were going to win a race or we were going to win five races and win this thing,” Stewart said. “I would have bet against us. And I learned a big lesson with our organization and how strong a program we have people-wise. I mean, everybody has good cars and good equipment, but I’m sure Darian’s mentioned it, it’s the people you have that make the difference.”

Edwards, who finished second in then race and in the standings, handled the outcome with a level of class not often seen in professional sports.

“This night is about Tony Stewart,” Edwards said after exiting his car. “Those guys rose to the occasion and beat us fair and square — that was all I had at the end. We came here and sat on the pole, led the most laps and Tony still managed — him and Darian — to do a good job with their strategy, come out in front of us … and that’s it, that’s all I got at the end. That’s as hard as I can drive.

“I told my wife, ‘If I can’t win, I’m going to be the best loser NASCAR’s ever had.’ So I’m gonna try really hard to keep my head up and know that we’ll just go next year, and we’ll just be as hard to beat next year.”

Stewart had his fair share of adversity to overcome in the season’s final 400 miles. While running 10th, he had a hole punched in the grille due to a piece of debris early in the going. A quick repair job under caution found him 40th when the green waved, while Edwards coolly paced the field. An additional stop under the next caution to complete service on the nose saw him 35th when racing resumed.

He drove through the pack to the lead by lap 123 of 267, but as darkness fell a slow pit stop on lap 136 dropped him to ninth. Twelve laps later, though, Stewart was back in the lead, having dodged and weaved his way through a wild restart. Almost as quickly as he found the front, Stewart was again snakebit under caution and while on pit road when, as before, a hung lug nut dropped him from the lead to ninth on lap 157.

Undeterred, Stewart drove his Chevy back to second behind Edwards when green flag stops cycled through with roughly 77 laps to go. Stewart and Grubb, planning on the potential of a long green run to end the race, pushed their fuel mileage, staying out 10 laps longer than Edwards. By the time Stewart finally pitted for four tires and fuel, Edwards and his two fresh tires had nearly lapped the No. 14 machine.

Then Stewart’s big break materialized — the one that gave him the track position he could keep and, in the process, win a championship: it started to rain one lap after his stop.

As the shower hit the track and NASCAR waved the caution flag, Stewart found himself over 23 seconds behind the leader, Edwards. However, knowing he needed one more stop to complete the distance, Edwards — along with a host of others — ducked to pit road as NASCAR dried the track. As they did, Stewart advanced from 15th to third and, for all intents and purposes, that was the ballgame.

On the restart with 37 laps remaining, Stewart pushed Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski three-wide into Turn 1, taking the lead one lap later, and scampered away from Edwards — who restarted fifth but quickly made his way to second. It looked like pole day from there, as both championship contenders hung it out on every lap, but Stewart’s four tires trumped Edwards’ two, and he led the rest of the way, winning by 1.3 seconds.

“I didn't question what the plan was or why the plan was,” Stewart said of the fuel mileage decision. “I just stuck to what he (Grubb) told me, and you know, the lap that he called us in, he called us in going into Turn 1, and when I came off Turn 2, the fuel pressure dropped, the motor laid down a little bit but was still running.

When I got to Turn 3, I shut it off, coasted around to Turn 4, kicked the switch, kicked the clutch (and) drove down pit road. We did the stop and he’s like, ‘Keep it revving, keep it running,’ and I’m staring at a fuel pressure gauge that’s not building.

“We dropped the jack, leave, get 50 feet from the last time line and it dies — I mean, it’s dead; it’s out. And I’m like, ‘We just lost this thing,’ and we roll about a hundred feed and it takes off and the needle goes up and it’s like, ‘Wow, that is the call of the race, the call of the Chase,’ and it gave me the opportunity to do what I love doing best: letting it all hang out and putting it all on the line with the restart.”

It was Stewart’s fifth win of the season, all of which came in the Chase. Edwards’ lone 2011 victory came at Las Vegas in March.

Most cite the 1992 finale as the greatest race and championship conclusion in NASCAR’s modern era. Kulwicki and Elliott settled that title in Atlanta, with the former winning his only Cup championship by leading more laps than the latter (despite running second to Elliott) to win by 10 points.

History will certainly mention the 2011 version in the same breath as, for the first time ever, the championship standings went to the number-of-race-wins tie-breaker. The two contenders finishing first and second in the all-important final race only added to the comparisons to ’92, as did Stewart’s status – like Kulwicki’s — as an owner/driver.

“Tony has taken on a hat of being an owner, and unfortunately there’s a lot of responsibilities that come with that as far as personnel changes and personnel problems, human resources and paying paychecks and all that stuff,” team co-owner Gene Haas said. “Tony takes that to heart and I think it can upset the way he races. So myself and Joe (Custer, co-owner) and all of the management at Stewart-Haas Racing, what we really tried to do in the last year or so was just isolate him from that; make sure that Tony just concentrated on the driving part.”

As the 2011 season wound down in Homestead, Fla., Tony Stewart was all driver, putting on what was arguably the greatest single performance of pure wheelmanship NASCAR has ever seen.

<p> Tony Stewart completed one of NASCAR's most unlikely championship runs, beating Carl Edwards in the Ford 400 to clinch his third Sprint Cup title.</p>
Post date: Monday, November 21, 2011 - 03:37
Path: /columns/track-tap/homestead-miami-speedway-0

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Race: Ford 400
Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway
Location: Homestead, Fla.
When: Sunday, Nov. 20
TV: ESPN (3:00 p.m. EST)

Specs: 1.5-mile oval; Banking/Straightaways: 4°; Banking/Turns: Variable (18°-20°)

2010 Winner: Carl Edwards

2011 Race Length: 400.5 miles/267 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 181.111 mph (Jamie McMurray, 2003)
Race Record: 140.335 mph (Tony Stewart, 1999)

From the Spotter’s Stand
NASCAR takes its traveling road show to South Beach for the last stop on the Cup schedule. And home sweet Homestead is the only race where it’s possible to see two teams celebrate victory.

In 2010, Carl Edwards back-flipped and chilled with the crowd after winning his second straight race of the Chase and earning his second Homestead win in three years. Cousin Carl led 190 laps and gained plenty of positive momentum that has translated into a title run this season.

But the driver who did donuts after the race was the runner-up. Jimmie Johnson led just one lap, but it was enough to finish No. 1 in the standings — 39 points ahead of Denny Hamlin — and clinch a record fifth straight Cup title for Rick Hendrick’s top team.

Make no mistake, this race will be the “Tony and Carl Show,” as the two hit South Florida separated by just three points in the standings. This championship battle could go either way: Edwards gets marks for his performance since Homestead’s reconfiguration and Stewart has been running so well regardless of track that a win is possible on any given weekend.

Crew Chief’s Take
“Long straightaways transition into corners where speed must be maintained — at least partially — to set up a pass in the center (of the corner) off. A car that can pick up the throttle quickly off the corner is one that can pass.

“That track was such a disaster when it opened. They shaped it like Indy, only smaller, but didn’t realize that squared-off corners are just dangerous on a track that’s a mile and half, not two. So they rounded the corners, and then stage three was tapering the banking. It took a bunch of money and revamping, but they got it right.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Points leader Carl Edwards has two wins and six top 10s in seven starts at HMS.
Pretty Solid Pick: Tony Stewart is going to be on Carl’s bumper all race long. Or maybe in front of it.
Good Sleeper Pick: AJ Allmendinger has yet to win a Cup race, but that may change on Sunday. He’s never finished worse than 11th in Homestead.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Kyle Busch has typically thrown in the towel by now. This year is probably no exception.
Insider Tip: This one’s for all the marbles. Your lineup needs to include either Edwards or Stewart.

Classic Moments at Homestead-Miami Speedway
The 2004 Ford 400 in Homestead marks the final race of NASCAR’s inaugural Chase for the Championship.

Kurt Busch enters the event 18 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and 21 up over Jeff Gordon, but on lap 93 the wheels come off. Literally. Busch loses his right front wheel while running second to Greg Biffle, when the hub completely detaches from the car. Luckily, Busch has already ducked to the pit access road, although he nearly hits the pit road wall in the process.

Amazingly, Busch never loses a lap, and wins a game of points-leader leapfrog, finishing fifth while Johnson is second and Gordon third. Eight points separate Busch from Johnson, marking the tightest points finish in NASCAR history.

<p> Athlon previews this Sunday's Ford 400 from Homestead-Miami Speedway, which will decide the NASCAR's 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup.</p>
Post date: Thursday, November 17, 2011 - 17:13
Path: /columns/garage-talk/chasing-nascars-best-championship-battles

by Vito Pugliese

Just three points separate Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards as they settle the 2011 Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But is this really the greatest (or even the closest) title fight ever? Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese takes a look back at the greatest last-lap championship finishes in NASCAR’s history.

Much has been and will be made this weekend about the “closest championship battle ever.” Many pundits have bandied about how the 2011 Chase for the Championship is “the greatest championship fight ever,” “the closest title fight ever” or “the best Chase yet.” That might not be true if your name is Kyle Busch — or if you were watching the sport before Jimmie Johnson decided to make a career out of destroying records and invalidating a number of title formats.

This year marks the first time somebody other than Johnson will win the title since before vampire movies were relevant. So let’s reflect back on some of those “other” championship battles that went down to the final race. After all, if this year is supposed to be the greatest and most dramatic championship ever, it would have to be gauged against the following five title bouts.

1973: Benny Parsons vs. Richard Petty vs. Cale Yarborough
It was the early ’70s. Music sucked, the cars were getting slow and everybody wore their hair and dressed like a dirtball or a terrorist. It was also a time when Richard Petty began to build upon the legacy that would earn him the nickname “The King,” having won back-to-back titles in 1971 and ’72.

Going into the final race at Rockingham, Benny Parsons held a 194.5-point lead over Petty. Parsons, driving a Chevrolet for L.G. DeWitt, qualified fifth and was running by his lonesome when a car spun on the backstretch. Parsons clipped it, ripping the entire right side off of the car — including the roll cage. There was only one other car that didn’t qualify for the event and that was still at the track — a car owned by Ralph Moody of legendary Ford-tandem Holman-Moody fame. Moody’s car became a donor for Parsons’ mangled machine.

BP returned to the action 136 laps down, but was able to hold off Cale Yarborough in the championship battle by 67.15 points. It would be the only Cup title for Parsons, whose feat prevented Petty from winning five consecutive championships.

1979: Darrell Waltrip vs. Richard Petty
As the worst decade ever came to a close, a new age in NASCAR dawned. Darrell Waltrip brought a brash attitude and trash-talking to the stock car scene, while The King was not quite ready to abdicate the throne. While DW may have pulled a slide job on Petty to win at Darlington in the Rebel 500, the championship would come down to the final event in Ontario, Calif. — the spiritual sister track to The Brickyard.

Petty trailed Waltrip by two points heading into the final race (a true two-point margin, mind you; Tony Stewart would trail Carl Edwards by 15 points under this same system). On the 38th lap of the event, a car spun in front of Waltrip, who also spun in an effort to avoid hitting what may have been in the cloud of smoke ahead of him. This was before the era of any sort of electronic timing and scoring or transponders, and Waltrip believed he was the leader, having pitted just once to the leaders’ two stops. Later, Waltrip’s crew chief would confirm his greatest fear: he was actually one lap down.

Petty would finish fifth to Waltrip’s eighth that day. It was the seventh and final championship for Petty, and an improbable one at that, as 10 races prior, Petty was 227 points out of the lead. Considering how out to lunch Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team were stumbling into the Chase this season, the final 1979 race in Ontario should provide some inspiration for the owner/driver of Stewart-Haas Racing.

2004: Five-Way Chase Race
There were a lot of naysayers when the term “The Chase” entered the NASCAR lexicon following 19 seasons of sensational championship showdowns. Unfortunately, two of the final four NASCAR seasons were less than thrilling, with Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth conspiring to give credence to a new points format — one that the “casual sports fan” would be more accustomed to.

While many bemoaned the very idea of change and cursed the billion-dollar network television deal which spawned this hideous monster, come Homestead in November 2004, there were five drivers with a shot at the first Nextel Cup.

Kurt Busch entered the event with a scant 18-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin mathematically in contention for the crown. As cheesy as it sounds, the wheels of Busch’s championship chase literally did come off of Lap 93, as a loose right front wheel gave way on his car. Busch, sensing something was amiss, ducked to pit road as the wheel separated itself from the machine, and he narrowly missed hitting the pit road barrier. The errant Goodyear Eagle then bounded down the frontstretch, brought out a caution and, as a result, Busch remained on the lead lap.

A late-race, two-lap scramble saw Busch’s teammate, Greg Biffle, win the event, preventing Johnson from gaining a position and leading a lap — and ultimately falling short of a championship. Had Johnson gotten by Biffle, he would have won by two points. As it stands, the first Chase season was the closest ever and, in hindsight, nearly thrust Johnson within but one title of immortality alongside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty’s seven Cup titles.

1990: The Blue Oval Brigade vs. Dale Earnhardt
Rusty Wallace and the No. 27 Raymond Beadle-owned team did everything humanly possible to lose the championship in 1989, but somehow outlasted Dale Earnhardt by 12 points. While Wallace jumped up and down on his hood, the Intimidator went and sulked in his tree stand.

The 1990 season was supposed to be all Earnhardt, as he looked to finally win the Daytona 500 and his fourth championship. The 500 ended with the checkered flag in sight for Earnhardt and a piece of Ricky Rudd’s bell housing slicing open his tire. There was also the matter of an upstart Ford team, which a year earlier served notice that a Midwest short-track ace getting his second shot at stardom and a Michigan-based engineer with a road- and drag-race background were going to be sticking around for the foreseeable future in the form of Mark Martin and Jack Roush.

Martin and Earnhardt emerged during the summer months as the two title contenders, with Martin assuming the points lead in June despite a dubious 46-point fine regarding a welded intake spacer that was technically legal after Martin won the third race of the season in Richmond. There used to be a week off prior to the final race in Atlanta, and the Ford teams had one mission: defeat General Motors and deny it a championship. While the No. 6 Roush team had won the August event at Michigan, all of the Ford camps colluded during the week of testing prior to the final race to conjure up the ultimate Thunderbird — the original Roush/Yates collaboration.

What resulted was a good idea gone awry: A car that pushed like an Amish haycart and had air in the brake lines. Earnhardt finished third, Martin sixth, and the Intimidator took his fourth Cup title by 26 points.


1992: The Greatest Championship Battle and Single Race in NASCAR History.
There are certain sports highlights that are ingrained in the minds of fans everywhere. If you’re a baseball fan, it’s Kirk Gibson hobbling around second, fist pumping, after going yard on a bum wheel. If you’re a football fan, it’s Montana to Clark in slow motion. If you’re a NASCAR fan, it’s everything that happened in the 1992 Hooters 500.

We’ve all become accustomed to the pre-race flyover, but it isn’t often that you have AH-64 Apaches pacing the field around the track.

It was Jeff Gordon’s first race and Richard Petty’s fiery finale, replete with on-air demands of safety workers to, “Get the ****in’ fire extinguisher!” (little wonder where Kurt Busch gets it from). Six drivers entered the final race with a shot at the championship: Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison (despite nearly getting killed twice in racing accidents that year), Mark Martin, Kyle Petty and Harry Gant.

Martin dominated the middle stages of the race before succumbing to a burned piston, while Allison was taken out by a swervin’ Ernie Irvan. That left it to Awesome Bill and the Kulwicki’s Underbird. Kulwicki needed to lead one more lap than Elliott to prevent him from leading the most laps — had he not, Elliott would have won the tie-breaker based on wins (five victories to Kulwicki’s two).

If Tony Stewart is in need of any sort of motivation this weekend as he attempts to eclipse Carl Edwards in the Sprint Cup standings, he should pop in a tape of this race. The original stock car engineer, who kept St. Christopher wings under his seat and a comb in his pocket, realized the unlikely dream when he set forth down south from Greenfield, Wisc., six years earlier. Kulwicki finished second to Elliott in the race, but won the big prize by 10 points — ending the greatest championship battle and single race in NASCAR history.

<p> <span style="font-size:12px;">Just three points separate Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards as they settle the 2011 Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But is this really the greatest (or even the closest) title fight ever? Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese takes a look back at the greatest last-lap championship finishes in NASCAR’s history.</span></p>
Post date: Thursday, November 17, 2011 - 16:53
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/nascar-horsepower-rankings-7

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Tony Stewart  It’s tough to rank Stewart ahead of Carl Edwards or vise versa, but Smoke gets the edge here because he’s throwing wins on the board — and that’s fun to watch.

2. Carl Edwards  His consistency — highlighted by consecutive runner-up showings — is unquestioned. Edwards won the season finale in Homestead last season. Winning a second straight would clinch the title.

3. Kasey Kahne  Kahne and his Red Bull team have been as good as anyone in the Chase — well OK, outside of the two guys above. Had he made the playoffs, he’d still be mathematically alive.

4. Matt Kenseth  Led 49 laps at Phoenix before the brakes started to fade. Then Brian Vickers did neither himself nor Kenseth any favors by flagrantly exacting some revenge.

5. Kevin Harvick  Harvick will come up just shy of a championship once again, most likely finishing third. But that’s OK Kev, you still have the coolest paint scheme on tour.

6. Jimmie Johnson  Johnson’s five-year reign may be over, but let’s not proclaim the Jimmie Johnson Era over. J.J. and Chad Knaus will probably just come back more focused and determined next season.

7. Brad Keselowski  Keselowski’s three wins in 2011 are more than Penske’s No. 12 team have enjoyed in the six previous years combined. It’s possible he could double that number next year.

<p> It's a two-man race as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its final stop of the season. Predictably, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart top Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Thursday, November 17, 2011 - 04:03
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/draw-desert

by Matt Taliaferro

Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart entered Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway separated by three points at the top of NASCAR’s championship standings. And after finishing second (Edwards) and third (Stewart), they’ll go to the season finale in Homestead, Fla., still three points apart.

Stewart led the most laps in Phoenix, and appeared to be headed toward his third consecutive victory, but surrendered the lead on lap 294 when he was forced to pit road for a splash of fuel.

That handed the lead to Kasey Kahne, who has been on a tear of his own lately. Kahne led the final 14 laps, beating Edwards to the finish line by .802 seconds. The win was Kahne’s eighth top-15 run in the last nine races — an admirable feet for team that likely will not exist next year due to Red Bull pulling out of NASCAR’s ownership ranks.

“It feels great to get a win for Red Bull and get a win in the 4 car,”?Kahne said. “It’s something new for both of us (Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis) to come over and have a one-year deal. It takes time to get familiar with things and the people and working together. To win a race at this level, as competitive as everything is right now, for myself, to see how happy all the pit crew guys were, it was pretty cool.”

Meanwhile, Edwards and Stewart are locked in a razor-thin battle for the title, using different means to achieve the same goal.

Edwards has used consistency to claim the top spot in the point standings — his worst finish since Bristol in late August was an 11th at treacherous Talladega. He and the No. 99 team have seemingly tip-toed through the Chase, averaging a 5.2-place finish thus far. He grabbed the lead at Dover in the Chase’s third event, but still has yet to win a playoff race.

“(It’s) a zero sum game, one of us is going to win, one of us is going to lose,” Edwards says. “It’s neat to me that Tony and the guys on the 14 (team) are running so well, won so many races, performing on a high level. It’s going to mean more if we’re able to beat them in this championship because of that.

“We haven’t gone out and got the trophies that we have in other Chases, but we’ve performed better than we ever have. If they’re beating us, they’re beating us at our best, and I think that’s pretty neat.”

Stewart, on the other hand, has attacked the playoffs with reckless abandon, throwing caution to the wind, ripping off four playoff wins to pull just shy of even with Edwards with one race remaining. His performance is in stark contrast to the 26-race regular season when Stewart’s No. 14 team failed to sniff Victory Lane.

“We’ve had one of those up-and-down years and we’re having a run in this Chase now where we’re hungry,” Stewart said after his third Chase win. “We’re hungry for this. I feel like our mind set into these next three weeks, we’ve been nice all year to a lot of guys, given guys a lot of breaks. We’re cashing tickets in these next three weeks.”

One final weekend, two determined drivers and three points separating them.

May the best team win.

<p> Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart will settle NASCAR's 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup in Homestead, Fla. on Sunday.</p>
Post date: Monday, November 14, 2011 - 13:39
Path: /columns/garage-talk/money-talks

by Tom Bowles

A lot of verbiage was spilled into the microphone at Phoenix International Raceway on Friday. Taking turns, Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs spent precious moments making public amends, celebrating their corporate marriage while embracing the changes needed to keep their partnership afloat. Cupid wasn’t visible, but boy, did he work overtime Thursday night spewing arrows of affection in all the right places.

“We know where his heart is,” said owner Joe Gibbs, attempting to wipe away Busch’s Texas torment of Ron Hornaday with every word. “We think he’s one of the gifted people when it comes to just being an athlete.

“When you’re put in a situation like this, you really can make one of two decisions. I think the one would have been devastating and I think really discouraging for everybody associated with Kyle — everybody around him and for the sport. What I’ve chosen to do, I want to support Kyle and I feel like this could have a positive impact on Kyle and I’m committed to him as a person.”

Cue driver, returning heart-shaped Hallmark card of appreciation, stage right.

“Joe has been there and has stuck by my side and has held my arm through this whole deal,” Busch said. “I can’t say enough about the man sitting next to me.

“There’s an opportunity for me to become a better person, to grow and learn from this and I’m looking forward to those days.”

But actions speak louder than those pretty words. NASCAR is a business, after all, political correctness borne out of necessity as those who make mistakes face the wrath of Fortune 500 companies. Already, Busch’s tap of terror has cost far more than NASCAR’s $50,000 slap on the wrist. Primary sponsor M&M’s bailed for Busch’s final two Cup races; in addition, Nationwide backer Z-Line Designs opted out for Homestead. Team owner Gibbs made reference to additional penalties through his press conference, all internal and likely based off the loss of income Busch’s ill-timed, Ron Hornaday wall slam caused his three-car operation.

So on Friday, while sitting at the microphone in Phoenix, Busch had no choice but to act remorseful, his pledge to change contingent upon keeping his cash — the wallet has already gotten light enough. It’s notable that among those in the garage paddock, majority consensus appears to be he has been forgiven. Title contender Brad Keselowski tweeted Thursday that Busch had been punished enough, a one-race parking last weekend consistent with several other penalties for outrageously bad behavior doled out over the past decade. Even Hornaday himself, who Busch claimed “still invited (him) over to the house to stay on the couch if I need it,” seems to have cooled off from a banzai move that ultimately cost him an opportunity to win a fifth Truck title.

So like it or not, with probation for just two more races, the punishment of Kyle Busch ends now. The question is, on the heels of the majority of fans calling for Busch’s firing — 55 percent during Sunday’s ESPN telecast — whether the consequences were effective enough for this 26-year-old aggressor to learn a lesson. From the start, I’ve felt the only way that happens is if Busch feels true fear, acknowledging his job could be in jeopardy. What better motivation to become a better person then the thought of facing unemployment?

Once again, his words lead you to believe Busch spent the week running scared. But was he?

“Was there a point in which I thought, ‘Do I have a ride?’” he said. “Of course there was. Yeah, I thought that. Was there a point in which Joe (Gibbs) ever told me that, ‘Hey, we’re looking at terminating this?’ No.”

Uh oh. That, to me, is where words of Busch’s conviction start turning into, well, confusion. Just take a look at how the sponsors reacted. On the surface, M&M’s put up a valiant front in the wake of a possible Busch firing. A company in the business of catering to children, Busch’s R-rated on-track behavior had to be proven unacceptable in the public eye.

“As a proud member of the racing community, Kyle’s recent actions are unacceptable and do not reflect the values of Mars,” said Debra A. Sandler, Chief Consumer Office of the company, when announcing they wouldn’t back the driver again until February 2012. “We believe our decision will have a positive impact on Kyle and will help him return next season ready to win.”

Hmm. So by that statement, it’s clear M&M’s “felt” Kyle needed two more races to sit and think about what he’d done. Yet that’s not what’s happening. Interstate Batteries has backed the No. 18 this weekend, part one of a two-race act that covers Mars’ financial decision to back out. Instead of Kyle getting benched, he was actually rewarded by another company who felt the need to support him.

“We feel NASCAR took the appropriate action with Kyle, and we think he will become a better person for it,” said Norm Miller, Interstate Batteries president. “As founding sponsor of Joe Gibbs Racing, we felt it was the right thing to do to support JGR, Kyle and the No. 18 team during this difficult time.”

OK, so let me get this straight: one company says Kyle will be a better person by sitting. Another company says Kyle will be a better person by driving on Sunday. Meanwhile, Gibbs talks some threatening talk through the week, even contacting Aric Almirola to drive the car. But, when push comes to shove it’s all for show: his primary driver was back in the car as soon as humanly possible.

Confused? If that’s not doublespeak, I don’t know what is. I can tell you one thing, though: we’ve seen a whole lot of great business decisions. Interstate gets a little more exposure at a bargain price. M&M’s saves two races’ worth of money while looking like they’re taking a stand against this horrible driver who they’ll continue to make millions off of in three months. And Gibbs keeps his troubled three-car team financially viable, saving face while hanging on to the best wheelman he’s got.

So yes, Friday was a day filled with plenty of people saying all the right things for their wallet. But will that cause Kyle to actually change? A mixed message of “you've been a bad boy, but here’s more money for you to go and play” isn’t exactly a hard-line stance.

“We’re going to set out to do whatever we think is best going forward,” Gibbs, in closing said on Friday.

What that appears to be, according to their actions, is returning to the status quo as quickly as possible. So we’ll see. If last week’s slap was enough to scare Kyle then take all that cash to the bank. But if it doesn’t, no need to feel sorry for everyone except the driver himself. He needs a personal adjustment, not just for him but the safety of others he’ll race with. Unfortunately, this week’s lesson had absolutely nothing to do with that. It’s because even in the face of disaster, there’s one quiet voice that speaks louder than any other:

The almighty dollar's.


Agree with Tom? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Tom on Twitter

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles dissects the Joe Gibbs/Kyle Busch press conference and wonders if any penalty was actually assessed.</p>
Post date: Saturday, November 12, 2011 - 13:36
Path: /columns/track-tap/phoenix-international-raceway-1

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.”

Fantasy Stall
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.”

<p> Athlon Sports previews the Kobalt Tools 500 from Phoenix International Raceway.</p>
Post date: Friday, November 11, 2011 - 05:57
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/nascar-horsepower-rankings-6

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.

<p> Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart have separated themselves from the field in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup. But who's the real man to beat?</p>
Post date: Wednesday, November 9, 2011 - 17:04
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/tony-stewart-wins-texas

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.”

<p> Tony Stewart held off Carl Edwards to win his second straight race in the AAA Texas 500.</p>
Post date: Monday, November 7, 2011 - 08:00
All taxonomy terms: arrest, drug test, jail, Jeremy Mayfield, meth, NASCAR, NASCAR, News
Path: /columns/garage-talk/sordid-tale-jeremy-mayfield

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

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles examines the long, sad plight of banned NASCAR driver Jeremy Mayfield — and the latest twist in what seems to be a never-ending saga.</p>
Post date: Thursday, November 3, 2011 - 18:08
Path: /columns/track-tap/texas-motor-speedway-1

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.”

Fantasy Stall
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.

<p> Athlon Sports previews Sunday's AAA Texas 500 from Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR's eighth race in the Chase for the Championship.</p>
Post date: Thursday, November 3, 2011 - 13:30
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/nascar-horsepower-rankings-5

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.

<p> Is it a two-man battle? Not yet, but Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart have certainly separated from the pack in the Chase standings and in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - 13:11
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/tony-stewart-wins-martinsville

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.”

<p> Tony Stewart passed Jimmie Johnson with two laps remaining to win the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.</p>
Post date: Monday, October 31, 2011 - 12:52
Path: /columns/garage-talk/tackling-talladega

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.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese admits that there are issues with plate racing, circa 2011, but states that regardless of the circumstances, Talladega just works.</p>
Post date: Thursday, October 27, 2011 - 16:33
Path: /columns/garage-talk/cool-hand-knaus

by Mike Neff

On Wednesday,’s Jeff Gluck reported that prior to the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega on Sunday, crew chief Chad Knaus was overheard on’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.”

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff examines Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus's checkered past in NASCAR, and reasons that the latest talk of "creative engineering" on the No. 48 Chevy is justified.</p>
Post date: Thursday, October 27, 2011 - 15:21
Path: /columns/track-tap/martinsville-speedway-0

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.”

Fantasy Stall
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.

<p> Athlon Sports previews NASCAR's sixth race in the Chase, the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, October 27, 2011 - 13:56