Articles By Matt Taliaferro
by Tom Bowles
So what would you do with $13 million? In this economy, that’s a dollar amount that makes most middle-class Americans drool. It’ll certainly make major athletes jealous, too, after all, that’s more than the highest-paid NHL, NBA and major league baseball players earn, and fairly competitive with sport’s “holy grail” these days, the NFL.
For Clint Bowyer, that money proved the key in extending his career past a free agency desert. 5-Hour Energy is dishing out the cash to sponsor a new, third car at Michael Waltrip Racing with Bowyer at the wheel. Surely, with the decline in attendance and viewership, that amount would be capable of funding all 36 races next season, right?
In fact, that $13 million covers 20 — yes, just over half — of the 36 events on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup schedule for 2012. As a result, the newly-numbered 15 Toyota has marketers working overtime, making cold calls and begging for pocket change to get enough money to “finish out” its primary sponsorship package. In fact, Bowyer’s other option — and current team — Richard Childress Racing, was so disgusted by the financials, it reacted like Bowyer was trying to offer team owner Childress a ’95 Chevy Lumina to compete with. The “thanks, but no thanks” meeting Childress and Bowyer had precipitating their divorce after six years together in Cup sounds like the owner felt he was getting jipped by a used car salesman.
A look behind the numbers, though, shows Childress has reason to be apprehensive. If you do the math, Bowyer’s new team thinks it needs a total of $23.4 million to remain competitive on the Sprint Cup market. A middle-tier team, with no postseason appearances to date, MWR’s final number is just 10 percent lower than AFLAC’s three-year, $78 million dollar deal that is coming to a close at Roush Fenway Racing this season with top-tier superstar Carl Edwards. That shows the market price for sponsors hasn’t declined — if anything, it’s gone up. Childress, knowing he didn’t have full-time deals in place that were competitive for current drivers Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick (Budweiser sponsors only 20 races on Harvick’s No. 29 car) felt there were too many millions for his marketing company to find in side deals between now and Daytona, 2012. By Childress’ figures, running a $13 million team would either lead to layoffs or diluted competition. Because as Rusty Wallace says, “Money buys speed.”
But how do these prices make any sense? When AFLAC signed on board at Roush Fenway at the end of 2008, it was at the beginning of an economic decline that’s only gotten worse. NASCAR ratings since then, while bottoming out last season, are still off more than 15 percent from three years ago; declining attendance, consumer spending and national exposure (see: moving races from ABC to ESPN) has also cut into the sport’s marketability. For all intents and purposes, the “cost bubble” to support one of these teams should have burst years ago.
You can’t blame the sponsors. They recognize the cracks in the armor. Home Depot, the longtime backer of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota, announced Thursday that it’s scaling back to a 24-race deal next season, as Dollar General will cover the other dozen races on Joey Logano’s slate. Home Depot joins a growing trend of longtime sponsors like Budweiser, UPS, Interstate Batteries, DuPont and Caterpillar not exiting the sport but either downgrading their marketing dollars or refusing to increase the budget. Those that remain realize they’re getting more bang for their buck than ever before: at 20 races, for example, people recognize Budweiser as the primary sponsor for Harvick, maximizing exposure for the company without having to shell out the big check that goes with it. The diecasts still get made, sponsor appearances stay the same and companies can lowball, playing one team against the other until they get the leanest, most streamlined deal possible. Others companies, like Crown Royal, Red Bull and perhaps even AFLAC, are choosing to not even bother — scoffing at the price, they’re leaving the car-sponsorship game altogether.
These partial deals, on the surface, are good enough to run a program full-time if multi-car teams were willing to reshape the way they do business. They should be driving down the price … but they’re not. Instead, owners like Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske and others have refused to change their modus operandi. Instead, as the asking price stays the same, their response is to poach sponsors from smaller teams for lesser prices to fill the slate. The Joe Gibbs Racing/Dollar General deal is the perfect example. JGR needs filler money so it can keep the same price — plus the bloated shop of 300-plus employees to do a job that was done by one-third of the personnel a decade ago — without lowering the budget. The success of the Gibbs program, with drivers Logano, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin combined with the media exposure of being a top-tier operation, allows Gibbs to go out and get the money needed to continue.
But the “trickle-down” effect is beginning to take a toll. There are only so many sponsors to go around, and now 20 or 25 companies are being asked to come together to fund full-time operations of just six to eight cars. That means for the lower-end teams, there’s little to no money available, yet the cost of competition hasn’t been cut; the transition to start-and-parking, like Robby Gordon Motorsports’ No. 7 operation in Sprint Cup, becomes the necessary result. Owners enter survival mode, leaving the lower end of the garage a wasteland where teams exist not to please the fans, but use them for a paycheck through parking a three-year-old car five laps into a race. It’s either that or pull out of the sport altogether.
Those “start-and-park” efforts — cars that pull in before the first pit stop — have come as a result of NASCAR’s economic slowdown. Six or seven cars pulling off has been something that fans could handle, but in the wake of these sponsorship cutbacks, the current estimate for 2012 is 10-12, a number that’s one-quarter of the 43-car grid. That’s because this “outpricing the market” mentality has worked its way up to even the top levels of Sprint Cup competition. Both Childress and Roush, 2011 winners and former owner champions, are reducing their fleets from four cars to three. In Roush’s case, he’s watching full-time sponsor UPS, which once covered all the races for David Ragan’s No. 6 team, move over to a lesser, multi-race deal with Edwards’ No. 99 group next year.
Yet Roush, like all the other owners, refuses to drop his asking price. The top-tier group, consisting of five to seven men and two-dozen cars, won’t call the other’s bluff. Each expects to need a certain amount of money to compete. How can Roush spread all that Edwards money around, funding a fourth effort, if $10 million less gives them an engine program with 20 less horsepower than Hendrick? No owner wants to risk their success by cutting costs — and since NASCAR is made up of private contractors, no profit sharing or salary cap in the name of competitive balance is possible.
It’s an ugly scene, this business model that keeps inching towards a crisis mode. And until the owners in question work on cost-cutting, not competitive advantages, it’ll be a game of survivor until the end. Should this pattern continue — and it shows no signs of stopping — what does the final owner standing win, you ask? A chance to start a new stock car league. Because the one we have, NASCAR as we know it, will be dead — no matter how many fans watch TV or hit the stands each Sunday.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jimmie Johnson Haven’t we seen this movie before? Summer turns to fall and the 48 team shifts into another gear that no one else has, and that it seemed to be hiding all along.
2. Carl Edwards Edwards’ tough-it-out third- and fifth-place finishes the last two weeks are the type of performances that championships are made of. Dare we call them “Johnson-esque?”
3. Brad Keselowski Keep doubting. Yes, this ranking may seem high, but Keselowski has averaged a 5.8-place finish since the Brickyard 400 in late July. Pressure just doesn’t seem to affect the kid.
4. Kevin Harvick It’s hard to proclaim that the driver sitting second in the point standings (by one point, no less) is flying under the radar, but that argument could be made for Harvick. And that makes him all the more dangerous.
5. Matt Kenseth Consecutive runs of sixth, fifth and fourth find Kenseth right in the middle of this fight. However, he’s already used his mulligan in a 21st-place, fuel-mileage run gone bad in Chicago, so staying on point is important from here on.
6. Tony Stewart Smoke somehow salvaged a Chase-saving 15th-place run in Kansas, but his 25th the week prior will be the one that bites him. Not out yet, but like Kenseth, out of mulligans.
7. Kyle Busch Despite reasonable finishes of 11th, sixth and 11th (offset by a 22nd) in the Chase, it feels like Kyle and the boys have quietly made their playoff disappearing act already.
8. Kurt Busch All the guys on this list have Kurt to thank for poking the sleeping dog, as Jimmie Johnson is once again proving that he’s the one getting in others’ heads — not vice versa.
9. Jeff Gordon Gordon and the 24 team could still post a win and some nice numbers going forward, but at 47 points out, it’s likely they’ll go into R&D mode in preparation for 2012.
10. Clint Bowyer It seems Bowyer’s performance has improved since it became clear to him where he’ll be driving next year, as evidenced by three runs of eighth or better in the last four races.
11. Kasey Kahne Probably should be ranked higher after four straight top 15s, but it’s hard to trust the organization.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. The hard fact is, on a day when fuel mileage stays out of the equation, the 88 is a 12th- to 16-place car.
13. Greg Biffle It’s hard to pin this team down. They’re as capable — and likely — of running third as they are 27th.
14. Marcos Ambrose Consecutive ninth-place runs here. Credit him for continuing to run hard when others may not be.
15. Ryan Newman His supposed drop in performance during the Chase may speak to others dogging it late in the regular season.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr.
Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @MattTaliaferro
by Matt Taliaferro
For those who have followed Jimmie Johnson’s five-year reign in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, his performance in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup is none-too-alarming. A deceptive 10th-place run to start the playoffs, followed by an 18th-place hiccup placed the five-time defending champion in a 29-point hole out of the gate. Were fans, pundits and competitors watching and wondering intently? Of course. Were they writing off Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus as afterthoughts under a new, simplified, points-format. Absolutely not.
Johnson and Knaus proved why they are not to be counted out with so many miles left to go in NASCAR’s grueling 10-race Chase marathon, making statements with second- and first-place showings in the latest two events. The win — a dominating run in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway — landed Team 48 in third place in the Chase standings, a mere four points behind Carl Edwards, who has proven to be the playoffs’ most consistent driver thus far in 2011.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff,” Johnson said of any naysayers. “If you’re watching and reading all the headlines, you can get caught up in a lot of stuff that just really isn’t important.
“I’ve known in my heart the speed that we’ve had as a race team when we were in Chicago and unfortunately finished 10th because of fuel mileage. I know we were a heck of a lot better than 18th at New Hampshire but the damage to the car put us in 18th; Dover we were strong, and then (the win) here.
“Again, I don’t pay attention to that stuff that’s out there — I live in my little world, and I know what my team is capable of. We showed today what we’re capable of when we’re all performing at the top of our game, and hopefully we can do that for six more weeks.”
The praise Johnson heaped on his team was well deserved. His pit crew — at times the Achilles heel of the operation and Knaus’ target for multiple changes — was spot on throughout the day, maintaining all-important track position.
The event came down to a green-white-checker restart — NASCAR’s version of overtime — when Johnson’s teammate, Jeff Gordon, suffered a blown engine. The field was bunched up for what would be the deciding three laps, and Johnson wasted no time in disposing of second-place (and eventual runner-up) Kasey Kahne, on the restart and cruised to a .548-second win. Brad Keselowski was third, followed by Matt Kenseth and Edwards.
Edwards had an especially eventful day, realizing just two laps into the 272-lap affair that he and crew chief Bob Osborne had missed the setup. His No. 99 team diligently went to work adjusting his Ford, and although they lost a lap at one point, screamed through the field late to record the top-5 finish.
It was the type of effort that wins championships, though Edwards was more apt to shrug it off as good old-fashioned racing luck.
“We’re lucky because we had to have luck go our way,” he said. “We had two cautions that were timed perfectly, so that was a big deal. But we’ve messed up enough in the past that I’m pretty proud of our ability to just kind of take our bad days and just keep plugging along. It’s kind of a little test when you go through something like this to see if somebody melts down or if you can kind of keep going through it, and I’m glad it worked out today, but there was a lot of luck involved, as well.”
Kevin Harvick, who sits second in the point standings, was sixth. Last week’s winner, Kurt Busch, was 13th, now 16 points out of the Chase lead.
Gordon, whose blown engine with three laps remaining brought out the final caution, finished 34th and fell a whopping 47 points back in the standings with six races remaining.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: Hollywood Casino 400
Location: Kansas City, Kan.
TV: ESPN (2:00 p.m. EST)
June Winner: Brad Keselowski
Specs: 1.5-mile tri-oval; Banking/Turns: 15°; Banking/Tri-Oval: 10.4°; Banking/Turns: 15°
Race Length: 400.5 miles/267 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 180.856 mph (Matt Kenseth, 2005)
Race Record: 138.077 mph (Greg Biffle, 2010)
From the Spotter’s Stand
Brian France is doubling down on Kansas Speedway, bringing a second Cup race to the 1.5-mile tri-oval in Kansas City, an annual late September or early October stop since 2001. And with a sparkling new casino, the hope by NASCAR and its track operating wing, International Speedway Corp., is that Kansas will draw in more fans despite its cookie-cutter configuration and penchant for aero-racing.
In June, Bard Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe rolled the dice in a high-stakes game of fuel strategy and hit the jackpot, outlasting Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
Keselowski’s Penske Racing teammate, Kurt Busch, led a race-high 152 laps after starting on the pole. However, the fuel mileage wasn’t as kind to the Las Vegas native, and he slid to ninth at the finish.
Last year, Greg Biffle made winning at Kansas look like easy money, taking the checkers by 7.638 seconds ahead of 2008 winner Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and two-timer (2006, ’09) Tony Stewart. In his past four stops in K.C., Biffle has two wins and a pair of thirds.
Crew Chief’s Take
“As with many of the circuit’s 1.5- and 2-mile ovals, bump stops on the shocks play an important role at Kansas. A team must find an optimal setting for the bump stops or the car will be negatively affected by being too low — which drags the splitter and affects handling — or too high — which gets air under the car and results in a lack of front-end downforce. Kansas is a simple track, which means there are probably more teams that can win there than at most places.”
Looking at Checkers: Kurt Busch sat on the pole and led 152 laps before fuel mileage bit him to the tune of a ninth-place finish.
Pretty Solid Pick: If Greg Biffle has a win in him this season, this is where he’ll get it.
Good Sleeper Pick: If it comes down to fuel mileage, Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't a bad pick.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not that he’d be on your squad anyway, but Joey Logano averages a 26.8-place finish here.
Insider Tip: Brad Keselowski won the June race here on fuel mileage. It’ll likely come down to that again.
Classic Moments at Kansas
Kansas Speedway has been the site of many oddball finishes, and with its traditional date in the Chase, it’s often had championship ramifications. The 2006 Banquet 400 is no different.
Jimmie Johnson has led 105 laps on the day and leads late when fuel mileage comes into play. Johnson surrenders the lead with four laps remaining to Tony Stewart, who runs out of gas on the backstretch of the final lap. However, with pit stops ongoing, Stewart has a nearly 20-second lead over Casey Mears and coasts the final half-lap to win with an empty fuel cell.
Johnson’s title hopes appear to take a fatal hit when he is caught speeding on pit road while coming in for a splash of gas and two tires. His 14th-place finish finds him 165 points out of the Chase lead. He rebounds, though, averaging a third-place finish over the final six races to win his first Cup.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jimmie Johnson Attention race fans: Do not count Jimmie Johnson out of the Chase until he is mathematically eliminated (which probably will not happen). Thank you. That is all.
2. Carl Edwards The preseason favorite to unseat Johnson had a quiet regular season but has pieced together six straight top 10s — including runs of fourth, eighth and third in the Chase — to tie for the points lead.
3. Tony Stewart Stewart seemed resigned to the fact that Dover would be unkind ... and it was. Expect the team to regroup at Kansas, where Stewart has two wins and was eighth earlier this season.
4. Jeff Gordon Gordon came into the Chase hot, but has cooled with finishes of 12th and 24th sandwiching a fourth-place run. You have to figure his No. 24 team will get it together, but the performance bears watching.
5. Brad Keselowski The eight-week breakout run Keselowski enjoyed — which may be the story of the year in the sport — comes to an end. However, this team’s strength remains that it doesn’t know it shouldn’t be here.
by Matt Taliaferro
Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson entered Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway ranked ninth and 10th in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup — in 28- and 29-point holes. Many were already throwing dirt on Johnson’s bid for a sixth straight championship, while Busch was merely an afterthought in the title hunt.
That all changed in the Chase’s third race.
Busch got the jump on Johnson twice during late-race restarts — the first with 42 laps remaining and again with 35 to go — and never relinquished it, winning his second race of the 2011 and his first career on Dover’s high banks.
“My guys on pit road did a phenomenal job to be consistent, to be smooth, and to put us out there where we needed to be,” Busch said. “And I was able to wrestle the lead away from the 48 car (Johnson) and got to his high side and took the lead. And then with the final pit stop, Steve (Addington, crew chief) was thinking four (tires), I was thinking four, but we switched to two tires, and that was the perfect call.
“We beat Johnson out of the pits, had the inside lane on the final restart and we just took it to him. I knew we needed to get that jump on the restart and we never looked back.”
Johnson held on for second, while Carl Edwards overcame a mid-race pit-road violation and charged through the field to finish third. Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 5.
Tony Stewart, who won the first two races of the Chase and came into the Dover weekend the points leader, struggled throughout the day and finished 25th. That, along with the top-3 runs by Busch, Johnson and Edwards, tightened the standings up. Kevin Harvick and Edwards now sit tied for first, although Harvick’s four wins trump Edwards’ one in the tie-breaker. Stewart and Busch are now tied for third, nine points out, while Johnson jumped five spots to fifth, only 13 points in arrears.
“Are we out of it, still?” Johnson joked with the media afterwards. “Last week I was considered done.”
Johnson’s 157 laps led were the most any driver on the day, although Edwards seemed to have the best car early, having led 116 of the first 176 circuits. His pit-road speeding penalty dropped him two laps off the pace, though, and he spent the remainder of the day making up ground.
“It’s really easy to say (that) if we would not have made that mistake we would have won,” Edwards said of the penalty. “I definitely took myself out of position to fight for the win by doing that. So that’s something that painful, and I’m going to think about it — I’m going to think about it all the way home.”
The top-nine drivers in the standings are all still alive for the title with seven races remaining. Jeff Gordon, in ninth, is only 19 points out of the lead, while Kyle Busch (eighth) in 15 back and Kenseth and Brad Keselowski are tied for sixth, just 14 out.
Keselowski’s magical nine-race run — he had recorded nine straight top-12 finishes, including two wins — came to an end when his Penske Dodge threw a power steering belt. Until then, he had been a consistent top-10 car and had led two laps. Like Edwards, the malfunction dropped him two laps down and, while he was able to make it back onto the lead lap, he ran out of time and settled for a 20th-place finish.
by Mike Neff
For the last four years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, the mantra has been the same at the start of the Chase: Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have another title in him this season. Or crew chief Chad Knaus is behind the times. Or this will be the closest Chase ever. Or, quite simply, Johnson’s luck will run out. Yet somehow in each of the last four seasons, Johnson and Knaus have mastered the last 10 races better than the rest of the Chase field.
So before you stick a fork in the five-time defending champion — who happens to be in a 29-point hole after two Chase events — you might want to remember that this isn’t the first time the No. 48 team has faced playoff adversity. Taking a little trip down memory lane just may help freshen the memories of the doubters who are certain that this is the year Johnson’s dynasty crumbles.
In 2006, the first year of his five-year run, the Chase started at Loudon and Johnson not only stumbled out of the gate, he fell straight on his face. Johnson came home 39th, the bottom finisher of the title contenders and ahead of only Jeff Green, Morgan Shepherd, Ted Christopher and Bobby Labonte for the afternoon. Things didn’t get any better over the next three races, as Johnson finished 13th, 14th and 24th — the last of which came courtesy of a wreck at Talladega that included teammate Brian Vickers and future teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
However, from that point until Homestead, Johnson and his team were nearly perfect. They didn’t finish worse than second over the next five races and only finished ninth at Homestead because that was all they had to do to clinch the title, which they did by 56 points.
The following season was the year where even those fans who don’t like Johnson had to admit they never really felt like he was going to lose it. He finished outside of the top 10 twice during the final 10 races, both of which were 14th-place runs. Six of the final 10 races he finished in the top three, and four of those were consecutive wins from Martinsville through Phoenix. Even though his Chase performance was one of dominance that season, he was third in the standings after the first two races. That said, there’s no question that ’07 was the most dominant of Johnson’s five Chase wins.
Another strong year came in 2008, as Johnson cruised through the Chase with only two finishes outside the top 10, but they were both 15th-place showings. He began the Chase with second- and fifth-place finishes, but still sat third after two events. By the time the checkers fell at Homestead, though, Johnson had three wins and six top 5s in the playoffs and beat Carl Edwards by 69 points for his third championship.
Edwards was supposed to lay it on Johnson in 2009, but faltered to an 11th-place points finish. Instead, it was Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Mark Martin, that went toe-to-toe with the mighty 48. Johnson started the Chase off in a better position than the previous years, with a fourth and a first in the first two races. Still, Johnson ranked second to Martin through two.
However, Johnson beat Martin into submission from there, scoring single-digit finishes in all but one of the playoff races to win his fourth title by a comfortable 141 points.
Last season presented another foe for Johnson to outlast — check that, it brought two foes, in Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Johnson started the Chase with another bad run at Loudon, coming home 25th. He followed that with a win in Dover, but still in a 35-point hole to Hamlin. As is usually the case, Johnson and Knaus went on a run from there, averaging a 4.5-place finish over the final eight races to turn the tables on a choking Hamlin, and winning title No. 5 by 39 points.
The Chase for the Cup in 2011 has not opened up like a house on fire for Johnson, who is staring at his worst points position in since the beginning of the dynasty. And for all the talk of a rift between Johnson and Knaus, it could just as easily be the case that the two make a run like a scalded dog the rest of the Chase and everyone forgets about the talk of discord.
The only way we’ll find out is to run the rest of the races. Because while it may not appear so now, as long as the 48 team is in the playoffs it’s the team to beat.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: AAA 400
Location: Dover, Del.
TV: ESPN (2:00 p.m. EST)
May Winner: Ryan Newman
Specs: 1-mile oval; Banking/Turns: 24°; Banking/Straightaways: 9°
Race Length: 400 miles/400 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 161.522 mph (Jeremy Mayfield, 2004)
Race Record: 132.719 mph (Mark Martin, 1997)
From the Spotter’s Stand
Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson combined to lead 324 of the first 364 laps and were poised for a late-race showdown with late-comer Clint Bowyer in May. However, a late-race caution punctuated what was an otherwise staid event and pit strategy turned the field — and the results — upside down.
Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson took the time to take four fresh tires during the caution, while Mark Martin stayed out to inherit the lead. Meanwhile, a slew of teams elected to put on only two tires, including the No. 17 of Matt Kenseth, who led the pack off pit road.
And just as the Southern 500 the week prior proved that track position trumped fresh Goodyears, the FedEx 400 solidified it, as Martin and Kenseth sprinted away, while those who dominated the race remained mired in heavy traffic. By the time Kenseth slipped under Martin, only 31 laps remained on the fast, one-mile oval, and he ran away uncontested for a 2.122-second victory, his second career win at Dover.
Jimmie Johnson has been rock solid at the concrete 1-mile oval in Dover, and last year was no different. The 48 dominated for the sixth time at “The Monster Mile” — and for the third time in four races — by starting at the pole, leading a race-high 191 laps and taking the checkers by a 2.637-second margin over runner-up Jeff Burton in the second race of the Chase.
Earlier in 2010, Johnson led 225 laps but could not hold it together after being busted for speeding on pit road while going mano a mano with wild child and eventual winner Kyle Busch. Rowdy led 131 laps before raising the “Miles the Monster” trophy in Victory Lane for the second time in his career.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Dover is an all-concrete track and is banked all the way around; even the straights have nine degrees of banking. Therefore, right-side tire management is a race-long concern. Dover provides drivers with multiple grooves from which to choose, but normally, the best cars are the ones that will run the low line around the track. The transitions from turns to straights are unique. Drivers call it ‘falling down’ in the turns. Back in the 1990s, it was asphalt, but it was so rough it was more like a gravel road. Concrete has its pluses and minuses, but it made this track a lot better.”
Looking at Checkers: It’s hard to overlook Jimmie Johnson’s six wins at Dover.
Pretty Solid Pick: Mark Martin has made no secret of his love of Dover. His four wins are proof of it.
Good Sleeper Pick: Guys turn it up a notch when racing at their home track, and this is Martin Truex’s turf.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Juan Pablo Montoya has led only five of the 3,415 laps he’s completed at Dover.
Insider Tip: Trouble happens quick here. Having a good qualifier who stays up front is a bonus.
Classic Moments at Dover
Proving his shocking win in the Daytona 500 earlier in the season was no fluke, Derrike Cope leads 93 laps and wins the 1990 Budweiser 500 in Dover.
Cope shoots to the lead by lap 160, but a miscalculation by his crew chief causes his No. 10 Purolator Chevy to run out of gas while pacing the field, dropping him off the lead lap.
Cope has a strong car, though, and races his way back onto the lead lap (without the aid of Lucky Dogs or wave-arounds). A fast pit stop under a lap 421 caution bumps him up to second, and on lap 446, he passes Rusty Wallace, who leads 131 laps in the Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac, for the lead. From there, Cope holds off Ken Schrader to earn his second, and final, career victory.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Difficult to place him anywhere else. Smoke has two consecutive wins and an average finish of fourth over the last four weeks. Lean & mean after shedding the dead weight.
2. Jeff Gordon Probably had the best car in New Hampshire, but the fuel calculations were off. That most likely cost him six valuable championship points, which could come back to bite.
3. Jimmie Johnson Yes, he’s in a hole, but do you dare kick dirt on his grave yet? Johnson, Knaus and the boys are at their best when fighting for points at playoff time.
4. Brad Keselowski In case you needed any further convincing, Keselowski and the No. 2 team are for real. And they’re a dangerous third in the point standings.
5. Carl Edwards Edwards is riding a five race top-10 streak and sits fourth in the standings. This team has been able to post numerous wins in short order in the past. Can they do it again?
6. Kevin Harvick Will Harvick fall back into the seventh- to 14th-place swoon of mid-summer? Not likely, but worth keeping in mind as the Chase heats up.
7. Matt Kenseth Carl to Matt after race: “OK, go ahead, fake punch me. I deserved this one.”
8. Kyle Busch Still dangerous, but looking mortal following 22nd- and 11th-place showings to start the Chase. Is a “Come to Coach Gibbs” meeting in order?
by Matt Taliaferro
Most had written off Tony Stewart as a legitimate 2011 championship contender — including himself, if you believed his words in the midst of a 27th-, ninth- and 28th-place string just six weeks ago. After all, his No. 14 team was winless through NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, averaging a pedestrian 14.2-place finish with only three top 5s.
Then the Chase for the Championship hit and, inexplicably, Stewart and his team have come alive. Stewart won his second straight race — the second of the Chase — in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, and in the process, assumed the points lead.
Stewart passed Clint Bowyer as Bowyer’s fuel cell ran dry with two laps remaining, reversing last season’s New Hampshire Chase outcome that saw Bowyer capitalize on Stewart’s empty gas tank.
“It’s amazing that it’s happened like that,” Stewart said. “But Clint was one of the first guys that called last year and, as happy as he was that he won the race, he knew how disappointing it was for us.
“You don’t want to win them that way (on fuel mileage) and you don’t want to see guys lose them that way. This is a sport that guys have a high level of respect for what happens and how it happens. To have a win get away from you that way, it’s disappointing for anybody.
“We may not have been the best car at the end — Clint was just a tick better than us. I definitely did not know he was in a situation to worry about fuel. So the good thing is Darian told us we were two, three laps to the good. I got to run hard all the way to the end.”
To be fair, Stewart’s car was good enough to win the race, and having the mileage to get there was just icing on the cake. He finished second at New Hampshire in July to his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Ryan Newman, in a fuel mileage duel, and won last week at Chicagoland under the same circumstances.
However, the one car that may have been better than his was Jeff Gordon’s No. 24. Gordon led a race-high 78 laps, but ran out of gas coming to pit road under green-flag pit stops with 70 laps remaining. It took the team valuable seconds to get the machine refired, and even then, they did not get the car full of fuel.
That forced Gordon into conservation mode. He backed off down the stretch to avoid running out of gas and settled for a fourth-place finish. Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle were second and third.
“It’s a bit of a surprise we ran out under green,” Gordon said. “We were expecting to get a couple more laps.
“We’re making great horsepower, but we’re not getting good fuel mileage. But Tony is figuring out a way to do it, so give those guys credit — those guys have the same engines we have and we have to do a better job at it. I have to do a better job at it.”
Defending five-time champion Jimmie Johnson got into a fender war with Kyle Busch with 21 laps remaining. Although neither wrecked, something in Johnson’s steering system was bent, and he finished 18th.
“Today we just didn’t have the speed,” Johnson, who is 29 points behind Stewart, said. “And track position was so important and we didn’t have some pit calls go our way.”
Johnson’s main competition last season, Denny Hamlin, had his second straight frustrating race. His No. 11 Toyota ran out of gas with three laps to go, despite the fact his crew chief, Mike Ford, assured him they could make it the distance. He finished 29th and, after a 31st-place showing last week, is 66 points out of the Chase lead and all but eliminated.
As for the points leader, though, his faith is renewed. “These guys have never quit,” Stewart said. “These guys have never given up and we got a shot at this thing.”
by Tom Bowles
NASCAR is a sport defined by individual success. Just one driver and team, not an entire motorsports operation, gets crowned with a series title. But like it or not, team cars working together at NASCAR’s highest level have had subtle impacts on the championship Chase for years. Every time the same pair of Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing pit together, allowing them to hold the draft at Talladega, someone gets a little extra edge over a single-car opponent left out to dry. Every time two Fords from Roush Fenway Racing swap positions up front, allowing both drivers to score a bonus point for leading a lap, the rival running third can only watch as Dancing with the Cars plays out ahead. Even before the era of 400-employee, four-car operations, the old championship battles were filled with owners trying to grab that little extra edge. In 1993 and ’95, respectively, Richard Childress and then Rick Hendrick entered “dummy” cars in the Atlanta season finale that could park, finish 43rd and preserve an extra three points should something happen to their championship-contending driver.
But as the stakes rise in the 2011 Chase roulette — perhaps the most wide-open battle for the title since Jimmie Johnson first won it five years ago — the worries over multi-car collusion have never been higher. Already, we’ve seen more drama in the last two weeks than during the entire regular season. Paul Menard, a Richard Childress Racing driver not involved in the postseason, was accused of spinning out intentionally during the regular season finale at Richmond, causing a caution that allowed teammate Kevin Harvick to close, pass and eventually defeat Jeff Gordon for another three Chase bonus points. Some have claimed Menard’s radio transmission was filled with chatter about whether a yellow flag was needed for the team, a charge repeatedly denied not only the driver, but by Childress himself.
“There were no team orders despite all the speculation in the media,” the owner said in a written statement last Friday, forced to respond to building controversy that even had Gordon openly questioning the ending while NASCAR investigated. “I know Paul Menard well enough that he wouldn’t have spun out on purpose even if he had been asked.”
It didn’t take long to show Childress wasn’t kidding around. For him, a “great start” meant maximizing the performance of Harvick, whose No. 29 team was the only one within his four-car operation to make the cut. Not worried about infuriating outgoing sponsor General Mills, Clint Bowyer’s pit crew was raided, the best people realigned with Harvick, while Bowyer was forced to swallow the “B” team which, in theory, could prevent him from winning races and getting his backers extra exposure. It’s like thanking Cheerios executives for their years of support by taking them to dinner at Taco Bell and then choosing to sit with new potential sponsor Post at another table.
Then, as the checkers flew at Chicagoland, the specter of team orders switched to Roush Fenway Racing and Ford. Matt Kenseth ran out of gas on the final lap and was desperately searching for any way to make it to the finish line. Enter J.J. Yeley, a fellow Blue Oval driver whose Front Row operation gets engine and chassis support from RFR. Suddenly, the underdog was the perfect candidate to play Superman; Yeley who claims he was “just trying to do Kenseth a favor” pushed the driver through Turn 3 of the final lap before backing off. The problem, of course, is that’s a NASCAR no-no; the mistake left Kenseth penalized, the first car one lap down in 21st but raised suspicion Yeley might have been asked to help, as the principles involved simply forgot the last-lap “no push” rule was still in existence. Several fans this week claimed they heard radio transmissions on NASCAR’s RaceView in which Kenseth was urging the maneuver, a charge both men have denied and will be impossible for anyone to verify.
“He didn’t ask me to push him,” Yeley said after the race, the official comments carried live on SIRIUS XM. “He just ran out of fuel in front of me and I was just trying to help out.”
How Good Samaritan-like. Still, there were plenty of people running out of fuel on the white flag lap, a number of drivers running around the apron who needed help. Even if those comments are taken at face value, what a coincidence that Kenseth happened to be the one Yeley chose, right? It’s not like these two are blood brothers separated at birth, since when have you heard of them hanging together off-track?
In the end the maneuver backfired, and Kenseth lost 17 championship points due to the penalty. But with nine races left, including the two-car tandem (regardless of the new rules) that’ll somehow resurface at Talladega, it’s clear the battle for NASCAR supremacy will include using every bullet — and driver — one has in their arsenal. Each organization has a different tantalizing option: for Hendrick, with three cars in the postseason plus a strong alliance with the Stewart-Haas duo, Mark Martin (car number six) could be used as a guinea pig for experimental setups if needed. After all, neither sponsor GoDaddy nor Martin is returning in the same capacity come 2012.
The other seven cars are a breakdown of just four teams: two from Penske (Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski), two from Gibbs (Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin), two from Roush Fenway (Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards) and RCR’s lone entry with Harvick. Among those, it’s interesting to note only Penske and Gibbs have their sponsor and driver combinations secure across the board for 2012. RFR, still searching for a sponsor for Kenseth is missing one for David Ragan, too, while continuing to work on a full-scale package for Edwards. RCR, losing the backing on Bowyer’s car (and Bowyer as well, it appears), is also saddled with putting funding together for Austin Dillon’s Nationwide effort next year — along with absorbing at least some of Kevin Harvick, Inc.’s 140 employees in a minor league merger.
I mention Silly Season sponsor talk because NASCAR economics affecting the upper class puts a greater sense of urgency towards on-track performance. Sure, the gap between first and second in points is steep — a difference of $3.175 million in posted awards last season. For these mega teams, that money creates additional exposure and funding which goes a long way when cars have the same price tag to sponsor them but few, if any, companies are stepping up.
That’s left jobs on the line, again, financial futures that often blur competitive ideals of loyalty, integrity and trust (see: NCAA conferences, all). As Chase teams like Kenseth’s try to simply survive in 2012, the necessity to win in any way possible threatens to overshadow “every man for himself.” After all, with millions on the line and extra teammates at your disposal, capable of acting as anything from an obstacle to an information filter, to even — gasp! — an “accidental” bulldozer to widen the gap amongst your rivals, how easy would it be to hide behind “Boys, Have At It,” collect the cash and survive to fight another day?
I’ve talked to so many in the NASCAR garage who feel the worst possible outcome of this Chase is if Jimmie Johnson wins the title. But I wonder if in the alternative — five men shooting for the title at Homestead — we don’t end up with something worse in the name of desperation.
For now, I’ll stay optimistic even in the face of these ugly warnings (ones that NASCAR will be powerless to stop … and what are they going to do? Dismantle the teams?). One just has to hope that when push comes to shove, respect for this sport, its fans and founders would cause everyone to play by the rules when it matters.
The sport simply cannot afford any other way.
Agree with Tom? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @NASCARBowles
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: Sylvania 300
Location: Loudon, N.H.
TV: ESPN (2:00 p.m. EST)
2010 Winners: Jimmie Johnson (June); Clint Bowyer (Sept.)
July Winner: Ryan Newman
Specs: 1.058-mile oval; Banking/Turns: 12°; Banking/Straightaways: 2°
Race Length: 317.4 miles/300 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 133.572 mph (Brad Keselowski, 2010)
Race Record: 113.308 mph (Jimmie Johnson, 2010)
From the Spotter’s Stand
Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart flexed their muscles early and often in Loudon, N.H. in July. Both were top three cars throughout the event’s three practice sessions and followed that by sweeping the front row in qualifying, with Newman edging Stewart for the pole.
The duo then led 167 of 301 laps en route to first- and second-place finishes, with Newman — having milked a tank of gas for 41 laps — winning the day.
Clint Bowyer made the most of his opportunity as the last man in the Chase last season, leading 177 laps on his way to ending an 88-race winless drought by conserving fuel and holding off a charging Denny Hamlin. On the other side of the fuel gauge gamble, Smoke turned to fumes when Tony Stewart (100 laps led) ran out of gas and sputtered to a disappointing 24th-place finish.
Bowyer’s car was later found to be out of tolerance when NASCAR took his Chevy to its R&D Center. His RCR team claimed the car was damaged when it was pushed by a wrecker when the fuel cell ran dry while doing victory burnouts. NASCAR didn’t buy it and, while the win was allowed to stand, docked his team a title-crippling 150 points.
Earlier in 2010, Kasey Kahne’s Richard Petty Motorsports Ford was the car to beat until the engine grenaded after leading 110 laps. Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch took control from there, leading a combined 135 laps. However, in the end Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch played bumper cars in a shootout that got physical. The 48 got the last bump ’n’ run in, and won for the second straight week with its third checkers at Loudon.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Track position is the order of the day at New Hampshire. Cars generally have one to one-and-a-half lanes to play with, making passing — especially lap-down machines — difficult at best. Rubber buildup is widespread in the turns, and that determines where the driver can and can't run. If he can't run the line he wants because of the rubber buildup on the track, it makes it frustrating. Usually two or three teams hit it right, and if it doesn’t rain and it doesn’t come down to fuel, one of them is going to win it.”
Looking at Checkers: A beefed up Martinsville, NHMS favors Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.
Pretty Solid Pick: When Kurt Busch isn’t highly irritated with his crew chief, spotter, over-the-wall gang, owner or another driver, he’s good here.
Good Sleeper Pick: David Reutimann will roll the dice when the weather turns wet.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The RCR duds may have changed, but Paul Menard performance here has not.
Insider Tip: Lingering feuds could play out in the tight confines.
Classic Moments at New Hampshire
It looks as if two of NASCAR’s bright young talents are going to decide the 2002 New England 300. However, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is dumped by Todd Bodine with 12 laps to go, and Matt Kenseth suffers a flat right rear tire with 10 laps remaining, clearing the way for the old guard.
Ward Burton, who won the Daytona 500 five months prior, records his final Cup victory in a race plagued by tire issues and spins in Turns 3 and 4 on the newly redone racing surface.
“There’s just something about the actual racing surface that needs some help,” Burton says. His brother, Jeff, agrees, saying, “I hate it to say it, but the racetrack was better the way it was before.”
Second-place finisher Jeff Green, driving Richard Childress’ No. 30 AOL Chevy, records his best career Cup finish.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. unveiled his 2012 Diet Mountain Dew paint scheme — pictured top right — on Wednesday via Facebook, rolling out a predominantly silver Chevy with Mountain Dew’s familiar green, red and black accents.
AMP Energy, co-primary sponsor of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car following the 2007 season, will take on a reduced branding role next season. PepsiCo, whose contract with Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 88 teams runs through 2012, is the parent company of both AMP and Mountain Dew.
“The story is really about opportunity,” George Cox, Mountain Dew brand manager, told the Sports Business Journal. “With Dew, Dale and NASCAR there’s this awesome marriage. Dale is the embodiment of the person we’re trying to target with Diet Dew. We wanted to tap into that equity Dew has in NASCAR and put it into overdrive with Dale.”
The National Guard is expected to return for 18 races on Earnhardt’s car next season.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jimmie Johnson Looked like the typical Chase race for Johnson ... until he was bit by the fuel bug. Still, how many teams do you know can run out of fuel on the final lap and still finish 10th?
2. Kevin Harvick True to form, “The Closer” was running down Tony Stewart in the closing laps at Chicago. However, this time he came up short. Still your championship leader, though.
3. Jeff Gordon We’ll give Gordon a mulligan for being so far off at Chicagoland. The way he was running, you know he was thinking, “Where’s Menard when you need him?”
4. Carl Edwards Edwards was one of a few Chase drivers who benefited when gas tanks started running dry. Mainly because his did not.
5. Brad Keselowski Keselowski’s unlikely run continues. Like Edwards, he was the beneficiary of a race finishing on fumes. Were he allowed to use his 30 bonus points, he’d be the points leader.
6. Tony Stewart Smoke finally nabbed his first victory of 2011. And give him credit — his pit crew was solid, the car was fast and it got good mileage. This one was no fuel mileage fluke.
7. Ryan Newman Newman finds himself sixth, just 14 points out of the Chase lead, after an eighth in Chicago. Odds are he’ll be one of the drivers to beat this weekend.
by Matt Taliaferro
Just days ago, Tony Stewart called himself an underdog in the Chase for the Championship. Two weeks prior, he wondered aloud whether his No. 14 team even deserved a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs. On Monday, Stewart proved he’s no underdog — and he surely belongs in the company of title contenders — as the two-time Cup champion kicked off the Sprint Cup Series’ Chase by saving enough fuel to outlast the field in the GEICO 400 from Chicagoland Speedway.
Stewart, who co-owns the Chevrolet-backed Stewart-Haas Racing organization, entered the Chase in a four-way tie for last in the 12-driver field. However, his No. 14 team had shown encouraging signs of competitiveness since a head-scratching 28th-place run at Bristol on August 27, with a third at Atlanta and a seventh in last weekend’s regular season finale in Richmond.
“I’m not sure one weekend can do that,” Stewart said in reference to a change of outlook. “But I feel better about it, obviously. We’ve had three good weekends in a row. Today doesn’t change my mind, but the last three weeks definitely make me feel better about it.
“We’ve still got nine hard weeks to go. And we have some tracks that have been a struggle this year, so we’ve got a long way to go but this gets us off to the right start.”
Stewart’s No. 14 crew did not get off to a good start at Chicago. Although he said the car felt good in practice, they only qualified 26th. A methodical march through the field found him at the front after a restart with 62 laps remaining. But a long green-flag run over the event’s final 50 laps had every crew chief on pit road calculating fuel mileage to the last drop.
Stewart, Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth swapped the lead numerous times over the final run, but when Truex pitted for fuel, Stewart only had to feather the throttle and hold a pretty wheel — even with Kevin Harvick in hot pursuit.
A number of Chase contenders — including Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch — ran out of gas on the last lap, while others — Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch — had just enough to bring it home.
As such, Harvick, Earnhardt, Edwards and Keselowski rounded out the top 5.
“I felt like we had saved a fair amount of gas under caution in the first 15, 18 laps, and (I) never really had to push my car very hard and just kind of maintained the pace that I was running,” Harvick said. “And as we got a couple of gaps we were able to shut it off five or six times. And when Gil said ‘Go,’ I guessed it about right, (because I) ran out off pit road there after we took the checkered flag. Good calculation by the guys and good solid day.”
Like Stewart, it was Harvick’s third consecutive top 10. He capped off the regular season with a win in last weekend’s Richmond race and entered the Chase tied for the No. 1 seed with Kyle Busch.
Harvick maintained the position with his second-place finish, and sits seven points in front of Stewart in the standings.
Denny Hamlin took the biggest points hit in the Chase. After squeaking in as a wild card entry, Hamlin’s day quickly deteriorated when he was forced to pit on lap 86 with a vibration, falling two laps off the pace. After earning one lap back, a shredded left front tire dropped last season’s Chase runner-up three laps off the pace. He finished 31st and finds himself 41 points out of the Chase lead — almost one full race worth of points.
The other Chasers finishes included Kurt Busch (sixth), Newman (eighth), Johnson (10th), Kenseth (21st), Kyle Busch (22nd) and Jeff Gordon (24th).
by Matt Taliaferro
NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship gets rolling this weekend in New Hampshire … no, wait … Chicago. Yeah, that’s right, Chicagoland Speedway. Answer me this: Could the sanctioning body have awarded the date to a track more devoid of character? I get that it’s a facility struggling in attendance and ratings numbers. A marquee date may help (or at least can’t hurt), but at what point does NASCAR think in the macro and not the micro? The sport benefits from an exciting Chase start, especially after last week’s action-packed Saturday night in Richmond, and this is the ultimate momentum killer.
Anyway, this column is supposed to be more of a Chase preview as my boy Vito Pugliese is taking track preview duties, so before it totally gets away from me, I’ll hit the brakes Starsky and Hutch style and refocus.
Any Chase preview column begins and ends with Jimmie Johnson. It doesn’t matter where he’s seeded or who else is currently loaded for bear. When you’re the five-time defending champion you get the nod. So, does Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have the magic in them for a sixth crown after an atypical one-win regular season?
I tend to agree with the contingent that says until the 48 team gives me a reason to pick against them, I won’t. I use to have the same conversation with our MLB editor here at Athlon. My beloved Atlanta Braves were in the midst of a 14-year division title streak, yet for two or three years, the thinking was to try and foresee the downfall by picking them to miss the playoffs in our preseason annuals.
Didn’t happen. Not until 2006. And by then we’d gotten tired of getting burned and actually hopped back on the bandwagon when they finally petered out. Same line of thinking with Johnson.
That’s not to say there aren’t some worthy candidates to knock off Johnson. In fact, this field looks as dangerous as any I can remember — but I seem to say that every year. Let’s start at the top:
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Ironic, isn’t it? You can just feel the love here. Actually, the Harvick/Busch tie at the top helps Kevin’s cause. Harvick admits to thriving on controversy, stirring the pot, fanning the flames. And he seems to take particular delight in needling Busch. From a performance standpoint, Harvick has the experience, the team, the machinery and the demeanor to be a champion. So what’s missing? Good question, but best I can tell it’s just a break here or there. The 29 team maneuvered through its roller coaster of a summer and seems to have come out stronger on the other side, as its last two finishes can attest.
But Johnson stands in his way, and Harvick has yet to prove he can beat J.J. heads-up. But he’s close.
by Vito Pugliese
NASCAR’s version of the playoffs gets started this weekend in Chicago, just as Major League Baseball is winding down, the NFL regular season is heating up and fantasy football geeks are going berserk. I say that lovingly mind you, as I am pretty pumped about my acquisition of Robert Meachem at wide receiver for this weekend. Like any responsible owner, you need to game plan each race, and see what key player will perform there. That means pouring over stats, reviewing game tape and dissecting Athlon Sports' Fantasy Football page.
Hey I’m a company guy — but don’t worry, because I’ve put together a comprehensive guide for each race in the 10-week Chase for the Sprint Cup. I’ve listed a winner and drivers to watch. If you have a fantasy team or an all-consuming gambling addiction, please take the following into consideration before you cash out what’s left of the 401k or the kid’s college fund.
Chicagoland has had a stigma as being a cookie-cutter track, another 1.5-mile oval that resembles many others on schedule. Looking back at who ran well this season at tracks that have a similar layout — Kansas and Kentucky — there are a couple of names that stand out. Kurt Busch dominated Kansas in June, leading 152 laps before teammate Brad Keselowski grabbed the win on a fuel-mileage gamble. Denny Hamlin led for 34 laps and finished third, while Carl Edwards led for 29 circuits and came home fifth. Busch led 41 laps in Kentucky in July, while his brother, Kyle, checked out and wasn’t really seriously challenged for the win until the final restart, leading 125 laps on the day. Kansas winner Keselowski led for 79 laps and ended up seventh, while Edwards posted another fifth-place run.
Prediction: A guy named Busch wins. Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin are solid selections as well.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway
You know things have moved along in NASCAR when we’re talking about a championship playoff format and a one-mile oval as a short track. Short tracks are supposed to be under a mile, but nobody listens to me anyway. The definition of a short track now is, if you can still run competitive with a wrinkled fender — and New Hampshire, the track that Kyle Petty once suggested could be filled with water and made a bass lake — has in recent years produced some of the best racing and closest finishes. The Magic Mile got demoted from being the Chase kickoff for 2011, but second billing’s not bad either.
With the struggles that Stewart-Haas had getting into the Chase — well OK, Tony Stewart had getting into the Chase — Loudon will be welcome relief for this two-car team. Smoke should have won here last year for the third time before running out of fuel on the final lap, while teammate Ryan Newman won here in July for the third time in his career. Kurt Busch led for 66 laps that day before slipping to 10th, while Denny Hamlin has a win here and came home third. Kyle Busch’s Chase hopes have been dashed here in years past, so even though the 18 car is fast everywhere, I’m leery of looking in his direction in New Hampshire. Jeff Gordon has speed and the 24 team won here as the No. 5 team in 2009 with Mark Martin at the helm, and the Gordon Renaissance started this year at Phoenix, the other flat-mile track on the schedule.
Prediction: Tony Stewart remembers he’s Tony Stewart. Then Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin in that order.
Dover International Speedway
The white cliffs … er, banks … of Dover pose a different kind of challenge to drivers. It’s basically a big Bristol, with the straights feeling like they’re banked more than the corners. “Concrete” Carl Edwards is hard to handle at Dover, as is his Roush Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth. Edwards led 119 laps earlier this year while Kenseth, who is looking for sponsorship in 2012, took the win. Kyle Busch posted a top 5, but the real “five” you need to watch for is ol’ “Five Time”. Jimmie Johnson decimated the field in May, leading 207 laps, before sliding to ninth by day’s end, and has six of his 54-career wins here. Not a toughie to figure this one out.
Prediction: Jimmie Johnson wins but Carl Edwards makes him earn it. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick follow.
Clint, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore! Actually, I don’t think you’re at RCR anymore, but that doesn’t mean your teammate, Kevin Harvick, is in any better position to win in Kansas. While Kurt Busch ran away with things here in July, Brad Keselowski conquered on fuel (not consisting of corn), and was the fastest car on the track late in the going at Michigan — a similar layout — in August. Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied from disaster after spinning to a second-place run that day, highlighting another pitfall for this track. Things can get spread out in the wide-open spaces of the Great Plains, and there aren’t usually many cautions to slow the action. If you get into trouble here, you’re most likely done — but you if can stay the first car one-lap down, you might be able to salvage your day — or sneak one out on gas mileage.
Prediction: Keselowski wins but this time on speed. Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch round out the top 5.
Charlotte Motor Speedway
The Queen City and capitol of the NASCAR city-state marks the midpoint of the Chase, and is usually the barometer to determine who’s in and who’s out as the playoffs hit their “second season.” No longer Lowe’s Motor Speedway, it is also no longer the 48’s house, and others have been able to prosper on what was once Jimmie Johnson’s personal playground like that episode of South Park when Cartman buys an amusement park.
Downforce is king at 1.5-mile tracks, and Fords have that aplenty with their cool-running FR9 engines allowing the front ends to be sealed up while still hauling the mail. Matt Kenseth set sail for 103 laps in the Coca-Cola 600, while Carl Edwards was next in line leading 61 laps. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevy had the checkered flag in sight but his car coughed through Turn 3, running out of fuel as he surrendered his first win in three years to Kevin Harvick, to the heartbreak and unfathomable sorrow of Junior Nation. Jeff Gordon won in Atlanta, which is kind of like Charlotte, holding off Johnson. This could be a Hendrick Motorsports affair in Charlotte once again, just like the old days when it was their house.
Prediction: Carl Edwards reigns supreme, and does not tear the front end off the car doing victory donuts. Jeff Gordon is in the conversation, as is Jimmie Johnson. Junior doesn’t win here, but starts to build some momentum. Kyle Busch is dangerous anywhere.
With the advent of two-car tandems, just about anybody could win at Talladega. Don’t think so? Ask Brad Keselowski, who won his first race here in 2009 with James Finch’s part-time team. This one is a crapshoot — you could literally pick anyone in the top 15 with 10 laps to go and have a shot at getting it right. What it sets the stage for, however, is a very big win that will be very popular for a lot of people, which means a lot of stuff is going to get thrown onto the track afterwards.
Prediction: By the grace of God, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins and the infield resembles Woodstock ’99. His Hendrick teammate, Jimmie Johnson, follows, with the Stewart-Haas sister cars of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: Geico 400
Location: Joliet, Ill.
When: Sunday, Sept. 18
TV: ESPN (2:00 p.m. EST)
2010 Winner: David Reutimann
Specs: 1.5-mile tri-oval; Banking/Turns: 18 degrees; Banking/Tri-Oval: 11 degrees; Banking/Backstretch: 5 degrees
Race Length: 400.5 miles/267 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 188.147 mph (Jimmie Johnson, 2005)
Race Record: 145.138 mph (David Reutimann, 2010)
From the Spotter's Stand
In last year’s Windy City run, David Reutimann won his first Cup race without an asterisk while old man Jeff Gordon made the 600th Cup start of his career.
Reutimann seemed apologetic after stumbling into a rain-shortened 227-lap win at the Coca-Cola 600 in 2009. But no one could question the Tums 00 Toyota after a gut-wrenching race to beat Carl Edwards and Gordon to the line in a green-white-checker finish.
Jimmie Johnson led the opening 92 laps of the night. But uncharacteristic miscues led to a 25th-place finish. Expect the 48’s mistakes to be corrected, however, as the 1.5-mile tri-oval of Chicagoland Speedway will (inexplicably) host the first Chase race in 2011.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Negotiating a smooth entry into Chicago’s sweeping turns sets the car up for a good exit, which is where the passing is going to take place. Chicago is all about handling on the track’s surprisingly weathered surface. Racing at night normally increases grip on a cool track surface, but Chicago’s bumpy ride doesn’t guarantee that. It’s close to Kansas, but thanks to a back straight with a really gradual, almost unnoticeable curve, it’s unique in its own way. I don’t really think that curved back straight makes any difference at all in terms of setting the car up.”
Looking at Checkers: Jeff Gordon, with a win and seven top 10s in 10 Chi-Town starts.
Pretty Solid Pick: Richmond winner Kevin Harvick, who won the first two races here.
Good Sleeper Pick: Do not overlook Brian Vickers’ stats at Chicago.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: You’d think this would be a Greg Biffle-type track, but it’s not.
Insider Tip: We’re in the Chase now, so teams like the 48, 18, 24 and 99 will come to play.
Classic Moments at Chicagoland
Before Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon swapped pit crews at Texas last year, the most notable team swap in NASCAR came at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2005.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters the USG Sheetrock 400 mired at 16th in the point standings while his teammate, Michael Waltrip — and former crew — ranks 17th. Although Matt Kenseth thoroughly dominates the race, Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Hmiel, makes a gutsy two-tire call during the final caution period, giving the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy valuable track position. Junior holds off Kenseth in clean air over the final 13 laps to earn his only win of the campaign.
Following the race, Jeff Gordon gives Mike Bliss a black eye at the airport after the two tangled to bring out the final caution that set the table for Hmiel’s pit call.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jeff Gordon The four-time champ has averaged a 3.25-place finish over the last month. Gordon is looking like the “Wonderboy” of old at just the right time.
2. Jimmie Johnson It looks as if his biggest threat in the Chase may come from within — as in within Hendrick Motorsports in the form of the aforementioned Gordon. Haven’t we seen this movie before?
3. Kyle Busch The best part of the Kurt vs. Jenna press conference? Watching Kyle, sitting next to brother Kurt, smirk. You can almost hear him thinking, “Thank God ‘Old Kurt’ is back!”
4. Brad Keselowski The top-10 streak is over, but Keselowski still looks solid after a 12th at Richmond. They say water finds its level, and that could be the case here but he gets the benefit of the doubt for now.
5. Carl Edwards Consecutive runs of ninth, fifth and second prove the testing has been over for about three weeks for the No. 99 team. We’ll see how the notes transfer into the Chase.
6. Kevin Harvick Another team that is rounding into form, Harvick’s group brings the momentum of a Richmond win into the Chase. And — OMG! — he got to meet Snooki in Victory Lane!
7. Matt Kenseth Kenseth was sponsored by “Ollie’s Bargain Outlet” at Richmond. And the way he ran, you’d think they bought the car there.
by Matt Taliaferro
The final 300 miles of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ regular season were some of the most intense of 2011. Chase bubble boys Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin were involved in a lap 8 wreck; Chase longshot Marcos Ambrose spun three times; and Chase locks Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson continued a feud that has slowly festered over the last two seasons.
In the end though, the top 12 drivers going into the Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway were the same 12 that came out, as Earnhardt, Hamlin and Tony Stewart held on to secure bids to NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.
Oh, and by the way, Kevin Harvick held off Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon to capture his fourth win of the season. It may be difficult to look past the Chase scenarios, implications and results, but the race itself was a thriller — chock full of short-track aggression topped off with a dramatic conclusion.
Gordon was hunting for his second consecutive victory, leading on lap 384 when a spin by Paul Menard brought out the evening’s 15th caution. When the field hit pit road, it was Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing crew that won the race off. He lined up for the restart in the front row alongside Gordon, and when the green flag waved, pulled away. Edwards was able to get by Gordon, though, and quickly narrowed the gap Harvick had built.
Whether Edwards would have capped a night of physicality off with a bump ’n’ run is unknown. Edwards’ No. 99 Ford was never able to get to Harvick’s bumper, and the Bakersfield, Ca., native held on for his second career Richmond win.
“The guys on pit road had just a great last pit stop and were able to get us the track position,” Harvick said. “I struggled on the restarts getting going with the races that we had, so to be in control of that last restart I felt like it was pretty important to get going.
“Our car was really good all night on the restarts, and that last run there we were actually too tight and Carl was actually a little bit better. And then with about three or four laps to go, I just locked it on the bottom and hoped for the best there, so it all worked out.”
Gordon finished third, while David Ragan and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 5.
Busch had to recover from a pair of incidents with Johnson en route to his solid finish. The first accident came on lap 186, when Busch locked up his front brakes going into Turn 1 while battling the five-time defending champion for position. Johnson spun and restarted 24th while Busch continued unimpeded.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: Wonderful Pistachios 400
Location: Richmond, Va.
When: Saturday, Sept. 10
TV: ABC (7:30 p.m. EST)
2010 Winners: Kyle Busch (May); Denny Hamlin (Sept.)
May 2011 Winner: Kyle Busch
Specs: .75-mile D-shaped oval; Banking/Turns: 14 degrees; Banking/Frontstretch: 8 degrees; Banking/Backstretch: 2 degrees
Race Length: 300 miles/400 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 129.983 mph (Brian Vickers, 2004)
Race Record: 109.047 mph (Dale Jarrett, 1997)
From the Spotter's Stand
Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin did it again in 2010, splitting the Richmond runs in déjà vu-all-over-again fashion. For the second straight year, Rowdy won in May and Denny celebrated a September win — only this time, with Busch on his bumper as the runner-up.
Each thoroughly dominated his respective race. A pole-sitting Busch led 226 laps to outrace runner-up Jeff Gordon (144 laps led) on a restart with five to go. Meanwhile, Hamlin led 251 laps to edge out Busch and rival Jimmie Johnson to clinch the top seed in the Chase in the final race of the “regular season.”
The song remained the same in May 2011, when Busch and Hamlin rolled over the field. This time, it was Busch's turn, as he led for a race-high 235 of 400 laps to beat Hamlin by nearly two seconds.
All told, the JGR duo have combined to win the last five Cup events at RIR. That stat will most likely change to six in a row this weekend.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Getting the car to roll through the center of the corner is the key to a fast lap at Richmond. While that tends to cause a drop in speed off the corner, a car that turns well in the center uses less brake, and that’s a good thing on a short track where brakes can get hot. Most teams run a short track brake package even though Richmond runs faster than its 3⁄4-mile layout suggests. If you want to talk about a balance between what the drivers like and what the fans like, Richmond probably strikes the best balance in NASCAR. There aren’t many races that teams look forward to more.”
Looking at Checkers: Kyle Busch, with an astounding 11 top 5s in 13 Cup starts at Richmond, makes him the natural choice.
Pretty Solid Pick: His teammate, Denny Hamlin, always turns it up a notch when he’s racing in his home state of Virginia.
Good Sleeper Pick: Marcos Ambrose has runs of 11th, ninth and fifth in only five career RIR Cup starts.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Brad Keselowski, although he only has four Cup starts here.
Insider Tip: Junior raves about this joint, and Steve Letarte knows how to tune the car here. Only problem is that they'll most likely run conservatively — as they have for the last month.
Classic Moments at Richmond
The old .542-mile Richmond Fairgrounds layout is home to an early season shocker on Feb. 21, 1982, in the Richmond 400.
A crash by leader Joe Ruttman on lap 244 brings out the caution, and the leaders head to pit road — except for one. With thick, black clouds in the area, Dave Marcis’ crew chief, Jerry Darling, instructs his fourth-place driver to stay out as Richard Petty, Benny Parsons and Dale Earnhardt pit.
The strategy works, as the sky opens and a torrential rain falls, forcing NASCAR to call the event.
“During the red flag I didn’t exactly pray for the rain to continue,” Marcis says. “But I said if the Good Lord ever wanted to help a poor ol’ independent driver who fields his own cars and builds his engines, then this was His chance.”
by Tom Bowles
Kermit the Frog may have it tough being green, but in the muppet-like drama of NASCAR I’m betting it’s 1,000 times tougher to be driving the red No. 42 Target Chevy these days. Indeed, every driver appears to see a bulls-eye on Juan Pablo Montoya’s back, past the point of marriage counseling and consulting every lawyer possible to see if they can initiate stock car divorce.
“You can’t race around the jackass,” Clint Bowyer said as the “Oh, Snap!” quote of the shortened Sprint Cup week when he was eliminated in an ugly Tuesday wreck courtesy of Montoya’s front bumper. “You never can. Anybody in this sport knows what you’re up against when the No. 42 comes up. He dive-bombs the starts and bullies his way up in there and before you know it, he’s in the way and wrecking with somebody. I’m tired of it. Everybody in the garage area fights him. He’s just an idiot.”
Some may dispute that version of events — including Montoya himself, who wasted no time pulling his patented “counterpunch” where taking blame was the last item on the agenda. “I heard that Bowyer wasn't too happy,” he posted on Twitter. “I guess next time he'll give me a little room.”
Who’s really at fault? I don’t think in matters, because in looking back at this incident, there’s one quote I find hard to disagree with Bowyer on: no one seems to be on Montoya’s side, regardless of truth. Shockingly enough, in this “peace and love” era of NASCAR where information sharing is second nature, Montoya really has become the sport’s red herring — the one man few, if any, can stand.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick cross-section of those not on Montoya’s Christmas card list. Grab a cold one and get settled in, because this one could take awhile …
Jamie McMurray (teammate) McMurray’s partnership with Montoya was ruined on a rare occasion where the Colombian became a clear victim. But after McMurray wrecked out the No. 42 at Las Vegas in the spring of 2010, it was Montoya who stepped over the line.
“I'm sure [McMurray] is going to say, 'Oh, I didn't mean that,'” he said after heading to the garage early. “Every time I'm around him, he wants to run the s--t out of me. I don't know if it's OK to say that but I just did [laughing]. He's just trying to prove to people he can drive a race car and I guess he isn't doing too many favors on this team.”
Montoya’s wife, Connie, even went a step further, insinuating in Spanish that McMurray “drives like a giant chicken” on Twitter. The two have supposedly made up since, but when your co-worker says that to you is it really so easy to forgive and forget?
Brad Keselowski Montoya’s disgust with Keselowski began earlier this year at Sonoma when the No. 2 Dodge used the No. 42 for “Target practice” en route to a fifth-place finish.
“We (went) through the corner and I just got on his bumper a little bit and moved him a little,” Montoya said of the pre-wreck contact. “Got a good run and I guess he didn’t like it. I mean, it is just hard to run with people who have never run well on road courses or have no experience at it.”
As expected, Keselowski hardly waved the white flag of surrender in response.
“The body language of Juan’s car said he was going to wreck me,” he explained. “I just made sure that didn’t happen.”
Kasey Kahne Just laps earlier in that same Sonoma event it was Kahne who ended up wounded after Montoya drove through his No. 4 Red Bull Toyota. That caused the Washington native, normally as quiet as can be, to get personal.
“Montoya just drove through me at the top of the hill … that’s just obvious,” he said. “Last year when [the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing] cars were really, really good and Jamie McMurray was the man, Juan still couldn’t win a race. That shows about what he can do here in NASCAR anyways.”
Mark Martin For years, Martin’s been known as one of the cleanest drivers this sport has ever seen (although I’ll admit 2011 has been a black mark on that reputation). But try telling that to Montoya, who’s complained at times that the gray-haired veteran becomes a moving obstacle on-track.
“He didn't like the way I passed him there on the last lap,” Martin said after the two had issues in Chicagoland last year. “[Called it] borderline stupid driving and suggested I take some smart driving lessons from him.” Montoya also complained about Martin’s driving style when — gasp! — the No. 5 car held its winning line during the closing laps of a fall 2009 Loudon race where the No. 42 wound up second.
Tony Stewart It’s been awhile since Smoke, err … blew his top. But remember the 2009 Homestead season finale? He turned racing with Montoya into a high-speed game of bumper cars with disastrous results. The two haven’t exactly been friends since.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jimmie Johnson Two runner-up finishes in the last three races but no wins since Talladega in April. It’s almost Chase time, though, and Johnson finds himself leading the pack (albeit in a controlled four-wheel drift) as September begins. Surprise, surprise.
2. Jeff Gordon Win No. 85 was a hard-fought victory for Gordon, and possibly one of the best finishes this season. The 24 team is going to be hard to handle in the playoffs. (Sorry folks, no ‘stache and mullet jokes. There’s plenty of those hack jobs on every other power ranking post this week.)
3. Kyle Busch The handle on Kyle’s car went away prior to halfway at Atlanta and never came back. After three consecutive top-3 runs at Pocono, the Glen and Bristol, the 18 team has showings of 14th and 23rd. Will rebound at RIR.
4. Brad Keselowski The “Top 3 Streak” came to an end, but Keselowski still stood strong, notching a sixth at Atlanta. His average finish over the last six races is 2.8.
5. Carl Edwards It’s hard not to figure the 99 team has been in R&D mode. That may be over, though, after Carl turned up the heat at AMS, duking it out with the leaders all day and finishing fifth.
6. Matt Kenseth Kenseth makes for a popular sleeper Chase pick but he’s straight faded in the closing laps the last two weeks and that can’t happen in the Chase.
7. Ryan Newman Newman was more or less out to lunch at Atlanta after seven pretty nice looking performances. We’ll chalk it up to not being able to have a good day every day.
8. Denny Hamlin Denny would have to choke harder at Richmond than he did in last year’s Chase to miss the playoffs. Yeah, that’s harsh but it’s the truth.
by Matt Taliaferro
It’s been almost 19 years since a 20-year-old Jeff Gordon made his first NASCAR Sprint Cup start. The day was November 15, 1992; the race the Hooter’s 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And it would go down as the most notable of the sport’s modern era.
Gordon making his first start, Richard Petty his last; six drivers entered the season finale with a mathematical shot at the title; the underfunded, single-car outfit of Alan Kulwicki edged Junior Johnson’s powerhouse team headed by Bill Elliott for the championship by outsmarting it. It’s a race talked about to this day and revered for its significance.
Fast forward to a 40-year-old Gordon, now a four-time champion and elder statesman of the sport. He may never catch Richard Petty’s unattainable 200 wins, but win No. 85 placed him alone in third on NASCAR’s all-time wins list — and the sight of the achievement came at a track that will always be linked to Gordon: Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“I’ve always enjoyed this racetrack,” Gordon said. “Running my first race here, winning some big races here, celebrating championships here — this place has always been a place I’ve enjoyed going to.”
Gordon fought protégé teammate and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson in a thrilling dogfight over the final 11 laps at AMS to win the AdvoCare 500.
“To me (this race) is going to stand out in my mind because it’s a great victory,” Gordon said. “And certainly when you’re battling with a guy as talented as Jimmie and a team as good as they are, it’s definitely going to be one (a win) that’s significant.”
The race was delayed nearly two days after heavy rains from what was Tropical Depression Lee saturated the Atlanta area, postponing Sunday’s Labor Day weekend race to Tuesday morning. Gordon, who started fifth, found the race lead by lap 46 and led 100 of the next 156 laps. On lap 202, the race went into a rain-induced caution and red-flag period. Another yellow for rain followed just one lap after the field had gone back to green.
Matt Kenseth, who led 64 laps, had taken control of the race by then, followed closely by Gordon, Johnson and Carl Edwards.
An accident involving Mark Martin and Regan Smith on lap 251 brought out the event’s final caution. Johnson, Edwards, Kenseth and Gordon occupied the first two rows when the race went green, and Johnson sprinted out to a decisive lead.
Gordon picked off the contenders one-by-one, though, passing Kenseth for third with 64 laps to go and Edwards for second with 60 remaining. Eleven laps later, he squeezed by Johnson and led for eight laps.
Green flag pit stops for fresh tires and gas found Gordon with a shrunken advantage over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate as the field’s stops cycled through. And although the duo sparred, slid and roared door-to-door through the race’s final dozen laps, Gordon never relinquished the lead.
“I just didn’t have enough to get by (Gordon),” Johnson said of the final duel. “I got inside of him a couple times, got to the outside once, and just didn’t have enough regroup to kind of get there and stay there. The time I got to the outside of him, I felt I was going to be in good shape. But I think we had a lap car get in the way there and use me as a pick a little bit, couldn’t complete the pass.”
Tony Stewart charged through the top 10 over the final 70 laps to finish third. Kurt Busch and Edwards rounded out the top 5.
Brad Keselowski finished sixth, but more importantly, secured one of the two wild card spots in the Chase. Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman also clinched Chase berths based on points earned.
by Tom Bowles
Jeff Gordon, 40-years-old now, was just a wide-eyed 20-something when his biggest challenge was to topple the man they called “The Intimidator.” Dale Earnhardt Sr. called him Wonder Boy; Gordon often simply called him on the phone, angry, once the race was over after the Man In Black had used his bumper to make a point. Together, they clashed in one of the series’ most compelling rivalries: Gordon denied Earnhardt a record eighth championship in 1995 and went on to win two more over the next three seasons while Earnhardt began a precipitous decline.
Off the track, the two gradually became friends and business partners — but on it? The battles for position were filled with ferocity. Earnhardt, who detested the multi-car system — he never believed in the modern conception of a “teammate” — was forced to adapt as Richard Childress Racing expanded to combat the burgeoning Hendrick Motorsports dynasty. On-track, the sparring clearly went Gordon and Hendrick’s way in the end: 52 victories for the No. 24 compared to 17 for Earnhardt’s team from 1994-2000. Even now, in 2011, Earnhardt’s RCR organization has yet to win another title since Gordon’s first, always a step behind in the expansion from two cars, to three, to four.
And as for Hendrick? They’ve become the class of Sprint Cup’s elite, with five straight titles and nine overall since the beginning of the 1995 season.
I bring this all up because Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., has just inked his legacy with the very team that tortured his father on-track during the 1990s. I guess if you can’t beat ‘em … join ‘em. Earnhardt Jr.’s deal, running through 2017, means he’ll spend at least a decade driving for Hendrick Motorsports, running the No. 88 until the ripe old age of 43. That easily eclipses eight-plus years driving for his father’s former company, DEI, and becomes the place through which his NASCAR career will be forever judged. There will be no magical transfer to Richard Childress Racing or running the No. 3 car that made his father famous. And there will be no resurrection of his father’s company, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Instead, JR Motorsports, a non-Hendrick entity pretty much in name only keeps the extended family employed and the dollars rolling in to the Hendrick hub. Danica Patrick’s full-time addition to that roster in 2012 pretty much sealed the deal on an extension everyone knows was Earnhardt’s only desire for months.
“It’s great to have it all wrapped up so quickly and far in advance,” Earnhardt said in a press release announcing the signing. “Rick and I were on the same page from the first time we talked about it, so there wasn’t any sense in waiting. There were never any questions or hesitations from either of us. It was just, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’
“I’m really happy at Hendrick Motorsports and enjoy working with everyone here. The team’s been very competitive this season, and we’re all excited about the direction of things. I want to make sure we’re giving our fans something to cheer about for a long time.”
And so Junior smiles, for reasons unknown, as he has a single victory and 18 top-5 finishes in his first four years driving the No. 88. In comparison, Earnhardt, Jr. had six wins, 16 top 5s, and 21 top 10s in a single season driving his No. 8 DEI Chevrolet in 2004, a year he won the Daytona 500 and came just one Atlanta misfortune away from a title. With Johnson, Gordon and the incoming Kasey Kahne on the Hendrick roster for 2012, you wonder whether there will ever be room for Earnhardt to achieve such gaudy numbers again. Even this year — a promising rebuilding season under crew chief Steve Letarte — he’s on track to lead fewer laps (less than 100, in fact) than any season in his 12-year Cup career.
Of course, DEI was no longer an option the second Earnhardt, Jr. had the infamous falling out with stepmother Teresa. Fantasy endings for NASCAR’s favorite son, long a part of the “old guard” of millions of Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans, went out the window at that moment and Hendrick swooped in where the figment of their imagination left off. What’s left of that old DEI organization is being run almost exclusively by Chip Ganassi, signing on as a partner at the conclusion of 2008; even Earnhardt, Jr.’s nephew, Jeffrey, is now out of the fold, having signed to run Grand Am next year with Rick Ware Racing.
Meanwhile, Childress changed his focus long ago from reuniting with an Earnhardt to helping one of his grandsons develop into a champion. Austin Dillon, along with younger brother Ty, will hold the key to the organization’s success or failure over the course of the coming decade. Austin, contending for the Truck Series title, is even rumored to one day drive Dale Sr.’s former No. 3 at the Cup level. Of course, there’s only so long a car owner can wait for an opening. By 2017, Childress will be 72, possibly retired and handing the keys to son-in-law and longtime right-hand man Mike Dillon.
So who knows what the next six years will bring for Earnhardt at Hendrick. But all we know now is a man whose father set a path for his future will finish it the one place no one thought he’d ever be: behind the wheel of the team that brought his father down. In the end, when they write out this career resume, Hendrick and Earnhardt — names once on opposite sides of the spectrum — will join together for the legacy of the sport’s Most Popular Driver this century.
Yes, you wonder if the Intimdator is watching it all unfold, and how he must be reacting upstairs. God help his rivals in tonight’s Friday Night Short Track Spectacular up in Heaven…