Articles By Matt Taliaferro
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…
by Matt Taliaferro
Brad Keselowski had sniffed the lead all night long, but it wasn’t until the final restart of the Irwin Tools Bristol Night Race that he finally grabbed it and took it as his own. Keselowski shot past Martin Truex Jr. on the race’s final restart, and with clean air and a clean windshield, cruised to an impressive win at Bristol Motor Speedway’s famed night race.
Keselowski — the hottest young phenom on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit — used crafty pit road work by himself and his No. 2 Penske Racing team to position himself on the outside of the front row beside Truex after the race was flagged for its final caution period. And when the green flag waved with 80 laps remaining, his four tires propelled him past Truex’s two, and the Michigan native walked away with his third win of the season.
“The Bristol Night Race!” An ecstatic Keselowski yelled from Victory Lane. “This is a race like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt win — this is a race of champions! There’s races that pay more, there’s races that might have a little more prestige, but this is the coolest damn one of them all. We won today!”
Truex, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top 5.
Keselowski’s win is the latest result in a hot streak out of the second-year Cup driver that has witnessed runs of ninth, first, second, third and first in the last five races. In that time he has vaulted up the Sprint Cup championship rankings, from 23rd to 11th, just 21 points out of the final spot in the Chase for the Championship standings. Whether he catches Tony Stewart in 10th is almost irrelevant, as Keselowski’s three wins all but guarantee him a wild card slot in NASCAR’s Chase playoff system. However, wild card entries into the Chase are not awarded bonus points for wins, so if Keselowski fails to qualify via points, his victories — and the 30 points he would receive for them — would be voided.
“Twenty-one points is still a lot of points,”?Keselowski said. “That means you’ve got to beat the guy (in 10th) by over 10 positions over the course of two races. Beating Tony Stewart by an average of 10 positions over two races — that’s going to be pretty tough to be honest.
“I’m just happy with what we’ve done here tonight and I hate to look too far ahead, but having those (bonus) points for three wins would be huge in the Chase.”
Keselowski’s unlikely run began with a ninth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his fifth top-10 run of the season. But a broken ankle sustained in a practice crash at Road Atlanta looked to derail his Chase hopes. However, Keselowski soldiered on, notching a surprising win at Pocono just days later and followed that up with an even more unlikely runner-up showing at the road course in Watkins Glen. A third-place run at his home track in Michigan was his career best finish on the two-mile oval and preceded the unlikely Bristol triumph on Saturday.
“Keselowski (and) those guys are on a roll right now,” the four-time champ Gordon said. “We all have to keep our eye on him. He’s strong. They’re to me as strong of a team out there as there is.
“Since (the Road Atlanta crash) he’s been on fire. He proved to all of us he’s tougher than we thought. We always knew he was a great racecar driver.”
Johnson’s fourth-place finish tied him atop the point standings with Kyle Busch, who had an uncharacteristically off night at Bristol, finishing 14th.
The top 5 in the standings — Busch, Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick — are all locked into the Chase. Denny Hamlin currently occupies the final wild card spot courtesy of his win at Michigan in June.
by Vito Pugliese
The question that has been on everyone’s mind in NASCAR was finally answered last Thursday. No, not why Kyle Busch is suddenly sporting a demure part in his hair versus his normal spikey doo (you have to at least give the impression of being a mature, 26-year-old solid-citizen when zapped at 128 mph in a 45 while driving a loaner), but the announcement that has been nearly three years in the making: Danica Patrick is finally headed to NASCAR, full-time. Lock, stock and barrel.
Hmm, that’s odd … nobody really seems that surprised.
Clearly, the announcement was a bit anti-climatic. Ever since Patrick first wheeled something with fenders in a Daytona ARCA race in 2010, executing one of the best "Look-Ma-No-Hands!" saves through the infield grass, it was a foregone conclusion that the second-biggest name in North American motorsports would be heading south.
After starting off a bit rocky in her rookie season on the Nationwide trail in 2010 — that saw an early exit in the season opener at Daytona followed by laps-down runs and an average finishing position of 28th in 13 races — many thought that it would merely be a flash-in-the-pan performance and yet another reality check for open wheelers who have found the going tough in stock car country.
Not so fast. What former teammate and fellow IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti gave up on following half a season in 2008, Patrick is committing to for the entire 2012 season and beyond. She will run the full Nationwide Series schedule next season in the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for JR Motorsports as well as eight to 10 Sprint Cup Series races for Stewart-Haas Racing.
So with her future no longer in doubt, what should Patrick’s main concern be at the moment? It may just be to temper expectations.
Don’t take that as a knock against her — if anything, it is the polar opposite. For much of her IndyCar career, Patrick has been the main attraction for a struggling series that saw a distinct lack of American talent — and a proportionate amount of American eyes. Ever since the CART/IRL debacle of the mid 1990s, the Coca-Cola 600 has slowly become the premier Memorial Day weekend race on this side of the pond, as open-wheeled racing in America slid into obscurity. It was Patrick’s arrival at the Brickyard in 2005 as a rookie — and a female that finished fourth — that stood the racing world on its ear and made people take notice of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing once again.
Since then, the knock against Patrick has been that she simply hasn’t won anything and was quickly becoming auto racing’s Anna Kournikova. The comparisons and criticism was unfounded and way out of line, often thrown about by stick-and-ball beat writers who have next to no knowledge of the intricacies and nuances of motorsports. It’s one thing to question why Shaquille O’Neal can’t put a ball in a hole that he’s practically eye-level with and 15 feet away from; it’s another to ask somebody why they’re .10 seconds off a 220-plus mph pace against some of the greatest names in auto racing while driving for a late night talk show host.
Patrick’s peers have not had the easiest go of it in NASCAR, either. Paul Tracy made a handful of starts in the Nationwide Series in 2006, averaging nearly a 34th place finish — one of which was a 37th-place effort at the road course in Mexico City. Dario Franchitti averaged a 17.4-place finish in ’08, buoyed in part by a fifth at Watkins Glen. Franchitti ran 10 Sprint Cup races the same season for Felix Sabates (now Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing), failing to qualify twice while posting a best finish of 22nd at Martinsville, of all places. Most of his entries were miserable runs that resembled start-and-park efforts; consistent finishes in the mid- 30s and 40s, prompting his return to IndyCar.
Formula One winner Juan Pablo Montoya has found the going tough in NASCAR, too, posting only a pair of wins since entering the Cup Series full-time in 2007 — both coming on road courses. His average finish in his fifth full season is hovering around 20th, and he has only made the Chase once (2009). Another Formula One competitor, Scott Speed, has also struggled in stock cars, battling desperately to stay involved in the sport after showing promise in ARCA his first year out, and winning a Truck Series race in only his sixth start. Even former Ferrari ace Kimi Raikkonen had a hard time taming a Toyota Tundra at Charlotte this year in a Truck Series race.
Patrick, on the other hand, has a hard-fought fourth-place run (Las Vegas) and a pair of 10th-place showings (Daytona, Chicagoland) in seven starts this year. The Daytona run, in particular, was promising as — much like late in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 — she was leading with just four laps to go. So clearly she has the chops for this — more so than some of the other guys she is following from the same ranks.
One could argue that “Danicamania” in ’05 was the “Greatest Spectacle” the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had seen in nearly a decade. Leading with seven laps remaining in her first shot driving in the biggest race on the planet, Patrick ended up fourth, garnering more attention that day, and in the subsequent weeks, than the race winner — much to said-winner Dan Wheldon’s chagrin.
At the next race, Wheldon showed up sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “I Actually Won The Indy 500.”
In a sense, Patrick is in a similar position now as a full-time NASCAR competitor — albeit in the stepping-stone Nationwide Series. NASCAR’s former feeder series had over the course of the last seven or eight seasons been less about driver development than it had been about Cup teams and drivers getting an extra tire test on Saturday. With the recent revisions to the point system allotted and the introduction of a unique next-generation car featuring musclecar nameplates of Dodge’s iconic Challenger and the ubiquitous Ford Mustang, the NASCAR’S triple-A division has begun to generate its own identity and garner renewed focus. And with Patrick on board for 2012, there will be many more taking a second look on Saturday.
However, the appetizer on NASCAR’s weekly menu is just setting the stage for her eventual main course: the Sprint Cup Series. Running a third of the races in 2012, it will be yet another steep learning curve for Patrick. While 2013 marks the expected graduation to the top-level in NASCAR, it also marks the debut of the next generation CoT for the Cup Series — one that looks to evolve from its current incarnation, incorporating many of the features and attributes found on the current Nationwide CoT. This will help serve to prevent the confusion of trying to learn two different stock cars at once, which was part of the problem for Montoya in ’07 and Franchitti in ’08.
Also helping to sustain Patrick in this new venture is the fact that it would do the sport well to see her succeed. As if the daily "Drudge Report" headlines aren’t enough to remind you that we are one errant move away from collapsing the entire Jenga! stack that is our economy, finding money to fund race cars isn’t exactly at the top of every company’s to-do list. Since she arrived in 2010, Patrick has been coached and mentored by the best in the business. Veterans like Mark Martin, Johnny Benson Jr., Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all taken time to get her up to speed before and during races to accelerate her learning curve and curtail some of the stumbles that befell her first few races last season.
They say a rising tide floats all ships, and it is in NASCAR’s best interest for Admiral Patrick to set sail successfully, otherwise there are going to be a lot of teams, drivers and sponsors knocking each other over to get to the nearest lifeboat should their be red sky at morning in 2012.
So what should be considered a successful 2012 Nationwide Series season for Patrick?
A top-15 finish in the points is more than doable, considering the sparse amount of legit full-time entries running for a championship. She could even pull off a win at a restrictor plate track with a little help from her bevy of teammates in and around the Hendrick Motorsports/JR Motorsports/Stewart-Haas Racing umbrella. If she gets the feel and balance of the cars figured out, a win at an intermediate track isn’t totally out of the question either — and of course, there’s no shame in winning races on fuel mileage. Based on that criteria, Patrick would be in pretty solid standing — heck, just ask Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski or Brian Vickers.
Her biggest test will simply be learning all the tracks, how the car changes during a race, what to look for, what to ask for, staking her flag in the ground and not giving way to other drivers just because she’s “a girl.” Patrick has already done that twice in 2011 with James Buescher and Ryan Truex. Those two incidents didn’t turn out so hot, but they did serve to prove that she can take a hit and keep getting back up.
Besides, if all else fails, she’ll still probably fare better than Steven Wallace and not run into too many other cars. But God help them if anyone tries to pull her hair …
by Matt Taliaferro
Dancia Patrick is coming to NASCAR full-time. The current IndyCar Series driver and “GoDaddy.com girl” announced on Wednesday that she will leave the open-wheel series at the conclusion of the 2011 season to drive the JR Motorsports GoDaddy.com No. 7 Chevrolet in a full Nationwide Series campaign in 2012. JR Motorsports is owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Patrick and GoDaddy.com CEO Bob Parsons held a press conference in Phoenix, Ariz. — Patrick’s and GoDaddy.com’s hometown — in which they each signed the driver/sponsorship contract and unveiled her 2012 paint scheme.
Patrick says they are planning a partial Sprint Cup Series schedule in 2012 in a Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy, but would not speculate on rumors that she will run in the season-opening Daytona 500 (though it is widely believed she will). Patrick stated she will likely run eight to 10 races, and that a full-time Cup schedule in 2013 is the goal.
As for the 2012 Indianapolis 500, Patrick said she was “still uncertain” as to whether she will participate.
In 20 NASCAR Nationwide Series starts in 2010-11, Patrick has one top-5 finish — a fourth at Las Vegas in March — and two additional top 10s (10th-place runs at Chicago and Daytona in 2011).
Currently in her seventh season on the IndyCar circuit, Patrick has one career win (Montegi, 2008) and 61 top-10 runs in 111 starts.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Kyle Busch “The Surgeon” begins to pull away … kind of like he’s going 128 mph and the rest of the field is doing the 45 mph speed limit.
2. Jimmie Johnson To those harping about how Johnson is ripe for the taking, take notice that he has only six finishes worse than 11th (in 23 races) this year and sits second in the point standings. Blue 48, prepare to make your Chase run.
3. Jeff Gordon The four-time champ has averaged a seventh-place finish since the calendar turned to June. And in this point system — even more than the last — consistency is key.
4. Brad Keselowski The Keselowski Express rolls on with a third-place showing at Michigan on the heels of first- and second-place showings. Is he a title contender? Let’s not go there yet, but man, is he turning heads.
5. Carl Edwards A stalwart atop the Horsepower Rankings throughout the season, Edwards’ performance was supposed to improve after he re-signed with Jack Roush, not plateau off in mediocrity.
6. Matt Kenseth Led a largely-disappointing Roush contingent at Michigan — one that saw teammate Greg Biffle win the pole and lead the most laps. But in the end, Kenseth’s 10th was the best Uncle Jack could muster.
by Matt Taliaferro
There was no fuel mileage or weather-related strategy involved in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway — only pure, unadulterated horsepower. And Kyle Busch had the most of it, pulling away from Jimmie Johnson on a green-white-checker restart to win his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of 2011, and in the process, take the lead in the championship standings.
Of course, the first order of business for Busch was disposing of Johnson, whose ascension to the top of the pylon was a fortuitous one. He was the first driver to make his regularly scheduled pit stop under green flag conditions with 32 laps remaining. As he exited his stall, the yellow flag was displayed, and when the rest of the lead lap cars hit pit road under caution, Johnson assumed the lead.
He held that position — followed by Busch — after the green waved until a hard-charging Busch passed the five-time champion with 18 laps remaining. Busch drove away from there, but was drawn back to the field when his brother, Kurt, blew a tire and hit the Turn 1 wall with four laps to go.
Under the ensuing caution, the top 8, including Busch, Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, stayed on the track while a number of cars — led by eighth-place Ryan Newman — hit pit road for tires.
No amount of new tires, yellow flags or green-white-checker restarts would stop Busch, though. He dusted Johnson at the line when the green waved and walked away for a .568-second victory.
“I saw the 2 (Keselowski) was going to restart on the inside,” Busch said of the final restart. “I didn't know whether he was going to push the 48 (Johnson) or try to make it three-wide. I figured I'd just give myself the best opportunity to win, and that was just to run the topside, keep my momentum rolling up through Turns 1 and 2.
“When we got down in there (Turn 1), we were side-by-side a little bit. Jimmie had to pinch his car a little bit too much being the inside guy. Whether you get tight or loose, it's going to be hard to hold yourself off that outside guy. I figured I'd just give myself all the room that I needed to my outside in case I needed to run as high I could. There wasn't much debate from my side.”
With the win, Busch became the first driver to clinch a Chase berth and now leads the series with four wins this year.
“I feel like it's anybody's game right now still,” Busch said of the championship. “Although the 99 (Carl Edwards) had problems today, they can still come back. (The) 48 is going to be tough; 29 (Kevin Harvick) is going to be good. Hopefully, we can get our teammate in there with the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and he'll be good, too.”
Edwards and Hamlin — two drivers that had experienced a plethora of success at Michigan over the last few years — were both snakebit on Sunday. Edwards had engine issues early that dropped him 28 laps off the lead lap and finished 36th. Hamlin hit the wall with 71 laps to go when a tire went down and wound up 35th.
The poor showing dropped Edwards from the points lead to a tie for third, 39 markers behind Busch. Hamlin’s day may prove to be much more costly. Already on the playoff bubble, last year’s Chase runner-up slipped to 14th in the standings; his only saving grace being a win that — as of this week — would qualify him as a wild card Chase participant.
The other current wild card qualifier is Keselowski, who finished third, marking his third consecutive top-3 finish. At 12th in the standings, he owns two wins which lead any driver outside of the top 12 — and with apologies to Busch and his No. 18 crew, may be the hottest driver and team on the circuit.
“One good run breeds another good run,” Keselowski said. “I'm not sure how to quantify that — how or why. I think I'm probably a little too close to the fire to truly understand it. But (the last three weeks have) been amazing. It's been more than I could ever ask for and exactly what we were looking for out of our team here at Penske Racing and everyone that supports us.”
Three races remain in NASCAR’s regular season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart sit ninth and 10th in the standings and, despite not having a win, would be the final two to qualify for the Chase via points. Clint Bowyer is 11th, 24 points behind Stewart, but does not have a wild card win to fall back on as of yet. Keselowski, in 12th, is 72 back of Stewart, followed by Greg Biffle (-58), Hamlin (-59, one win) and AJ Allmendinger (-62). Paul Menard and David Ragan are the only other two drivers ranked 11th-20th that have a wild card win, but they sit mired in 18th (Menard) and 20th (Ragan).
by Mike Neff
Word this past week that Rockingham Speedway is taking a step toward increased driver safety has sparked interest that the historic track could be moving a little closer to having NASCAR national touring series races return. The management of the facility has announced that SAFER barriers will be installed in two phases by the end of the year, ultimately covering the turns and the inside wall on the backstretch. Whatever the reason for the improvements to the facility, it is a very positive step for the track and any drivers who will compete there.
Rockingham Speedway is a one-mile track with high-banked corners that hosted NASCAR events from 1965-2004. Its high banking makes for high speeds that can translate into dangerous situations for drivers making contact with walls that are made of concrete or metal. This past spring, Brian Keselowski had a big wreck during the USAR Pro Cup race when a tire blew heading into Turn 1 — the fastest portion of the track. Whether they get a Nationwide and/or Truck race, putting SAFER barriers on the walls is a terrific move for the safety of anyone competing at the facility.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: Pure Michigan 400
Location: Brooklyn, Mich.
When: Sunday, Aug. 21
TV: ESPN (1:00 p.m. EST)
2010 Winners: Denny Hamlin (June), Kevin Harvick (Aug.)
June 2011 Winner: Denny Hamlin
Specs: 2-mile D-shaped oval; Banking/Turns: 18°; Banking/Frontstretch: 12°; Banking/Backstretch: 5°
Race Length: 400 miles/200 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 194.232 mph (Ryan Newman, 2005)
Race Record: 173.997 mph (Dale Jarrett, 1999)
From the Spotter's Stand
Denny Hamlin had one Heluva Good! run at the June 2010 race with the sour cream dip sponsor, leading 123 of 200 laps and cruising to his second straight win — after taking the checkers at Pocono the week before — with a 1.246-second margin over runner-up Kasey Kahne and pole-sitter Kurt Busch (60 laps led).
The August trip in 2010 to the 2-mile oval in Brooklyn, Mich., was a little more exciting. Kevin Harvick became the first driver to clinch a spot in the Chase after outdueling runner-up Hamlin, passing the 11 ride on Lap 190 before taking a 1.731-second victory. Despite not taking tires on the final caution, Harvick was able to handle well enough for his first MIS win.
Earlier this season, it was Hamlin again finding Victory Lane. Although Greg Biffle led the most laps (68), but Hamlin's FedEx crew got the No. 11 Toyota on track first under a round of yellow-flag stops with under 10 laps remaining. He then outran Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards to grab his one and only win of the year thus far.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Michigan is a track that demands a driver hit his marks lap after lap, setting the car up for a run into the next corner. If the momentum is lost, the lap time goes with it. A delicate combination of balance, using downforce and grip, ultimately separates the contenders from the mid-packers. Drivers love Michigan, and a large part of that is because it’s easy. It’s wall-to-wall racing. The driver can run low, high or in the middle. It’s easy to pass. It’s not the fans’ idea of a perfect track, but it’s pretty close for the drivers. Michigan’s pavement has very low grip, but it’s not too big a problem because the track is so wide and there’s so much room.”
Looking at Checkers: Carl Edwards’ 12 top 10s in 14 starts (two wins) at MIS is ridiculous.
Pretty Solid Pick: Carl’s Roush Fenway Racing teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth.
Good Sleeper Pick: Red Bull Racing’s Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers could turn heads here, as each has one Michigan win already on the resume.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Despite being red hot lately, Brad Keselowski has been ice cold at his home track.
Insider Tip: Fuel mileage will come into play. Know which teams get good MPG and have crafty crew chiefs.
Classic Moments at Michigan
It’s Awesome Bill’s most awesome performance at what may be his best racetrack, as Bill Elliott drives the iconic No. 9 Coors Melling Thunderbird to its fourth consecutive win at Michigan in the 1986 Champion Spark Plug 400.
Elliott leads 125 of 200 laps in an event that isn’t without controversy. A hard-charging Tim Richmond falls from second to fifth late in the race after confusion over when a caution is displayed. Richmond races back to second after the restart but is not able to run Elliott down on the last lap.
The race is also notable in that David Pearson makes his final NASCAR start. Pearson, who won a record nine races at MIS, finishes 10th in the No. 21 Chattanooga Chew Chevy.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Kyle Busch Leads the series in top 5s (12) and is tied for the lead in wins (3) and top 10s (14). He also leads all drivers in best looking wife/girlfriend (and there’s some stiff competition there).
2. Jimmie Johnson Kurt Busch never got close enough to J.J. at the Glen for sparks to fly, but Bristol and Richmond are coming soon, so maybe these two will help us forget about Boris Said vs. Greg Biffle. By the way, Said vs. Biffle? Really? No offense to either, but who really cares?
3. Jeff Gordon Quiet day for JGo at the Glen. Still, he finished 13th, which was Gordon’s ninth top-15 finish in the last 10 races. This team is dangerous.
4. Carl Edwards Edwards’ last six races have netted an average finish of 14.6. On the bright side, he’s got the contract negotiations behind him and still leads the point standings.
by Matt Taliaferro
A green-white-checker finish, savagely wrecked racecars, a fight in the garage and a first-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series.
No, this wasn’t Bristol, it was Watkins Glen — one of two road courses, which have become NASCAR’s new destination for can’t-miss excitement. And the person most excited following Monday’s rain-delayed Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen was Marcos Ambrose.
Ambrose became the fifth first-time winner in Cup competition this season after getting by Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski in the first turn of the final restart at Watkins Glen International.
It was a daring move executed by Ambrose, a road-racing ace from Launceston, Tasmania, Australia. Starting on the outside of the front row alongside Busch, he was rooted out of the way when the green waved by Keselowski. However, Ambrose fought back, opening a hole in between the two and driving off from there.
One-half lap later, a violent crash occurred when Boris Said and David Ragan got together. Ragan slammed an angled wall, then skidded back onto the track where he caught David Reutimann’s machine, tipping it sideways, rolling it over and into another wall.
Both walked away sore but otherwise uninjured.
When NASCAR threw the yellow flag for the incident, the field was frozen and Ambrose, Keselowski and Busch cruised to the podium finishes well under full throttle. Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano rounded out the top 5.
“We survived today,” Ambrose said. “We fought our way back to the front. We had a late race restart. You know, fought and gouged our way to the front and got the win — just a dream day, and very thankful for the opportunity that I’ve got to be here and that I’ve made the most of it today. ”
As Ambrose and Keselowski were handling their post-race media obligations, Said and Greg Biffle were taking care of unfinished business in the garage area.
Biffle, who was directly behind the last-lap skirmish that eliminated his teammate, Ragan, confronted Said. Biffle reportedly got a couple of punches into Said’s window as he sat with his helmet on.
Said then exited the car, tracked down Biffle when yelling and shoving match amongst a scrum of crewmen ensued. Said had harsh words for Biffle in an interview with ESPN:
“(Biffle is) the most unprofessional little scaredy cat I’ve ever seen in my life. He won’t even fight me like a man. If someone texts me his address, I’ll go see him Wednesday at his house and show him what he really needs. He needs a friggin’ whooping — and I’m going to give it to him.
“I went over there to go talk to him, and he wouldn’t even let me get out of the car. Throws a few little baby punches and then he runs away and hides behind some big guys. But he won’t hide from me for long. I’ll find him. I won’t settle it out on the track – it’s not right to wreck cars — but he’ll show up with a black eye one of these days. I’ll see him somewhere.”
Biffle later typed a response on Twitter:
"1st of all I want to make sure everyone sees the wreck between David (Ragan) and David (Reutimann), now that's coming from a guy (Boris Said) that says I am unprofessional.
“Let me tell u something Boris, “the roadcourse ringer” caused that wreck. He did the same thing to me earlier in the race off the carousel.”
"The same place Sam (Hornish) got off & caused the horrific wreck with (Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton in 2009). Thank God, they paved that run off.
"Then Mr. Class pulls in behind my truck after the race today?! Shouldn't you go check on David & David? How unprofessional & disrespectful!''
The point standings were shaken up after the wild affair. The third-place finisher, Busch, is now tied with Carl Edwards (12th) atop the standings. Keselowski, who has consecutive finishes of first and second since suffering a broken ankle, moved into 14th after being mired in 23rd just four races ago.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen
Location: Watkins Glen, N.Y.
When: Sunday, Aug. 14
TV: ESPN (1:00 p.m. EST)
2010 Winner: Juan Pablo Montoya
Specs: 11-turn, 2.45-mile road course
Race Length: 200.9 miles/82 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 124.580 mph (Jeff Gordon, 2003)
Race Record: 103.030 mph (Mark Martin, 1995)
From the Spotter's Stand
Road warrior Juan Pablo Montoya ended a 113-race winless streak, earning his second career Cup victory here last August. Montoya’s win at The Glen was his first since taking the checkers at Sonoma in June 2007 as a rookie, making the crossover from open wheel racing to stock car competition on the Cup circuit.
The 2000 Indy 500 winner showed off his road course chops at the 11-turn upstate New York track, with his 42 Chevy leading 74 of 90 laps en route to beating runner-up Kurt Busch and Marcos Ambrose — who is the three-time reigning Nationwide champ at The Glen — by a 4.735-second margin. “It’s about time,” Montoya said, after ending a frustrating drought.
Tony Stewart is the unquestioned King of the Glen in NASCAR circles. Stewart's five wins in upstate New York lead the series.
Marcos Ambrose is bound to grab a Cup win at the Glen at some point. Ambrose has three Nationwide Series wins here in four starts to go along with three top 5s in three Cup starts.
Crew Chief’s Take
“The faster of the two road courses on circuit, Watkins Glen demands braking, balance and control. Infineon is a finesse track, but a driver has to ‘attack’ the Glen. The brakes must sustain the abuse of high-speed to tight-corner transition; balance in that the car needs to behave well in the turns; and control — as in driver control — so as not to over-rev, wheel hop or just plain overdrive. High-end horsepower is much more important at the Glen because the driver is ‘in the gas’ a lot more than Sonoma.”
Looking at Checkers: Tony Stewart’s five career Cup wins at the Glen are the best of any driver — active or retired.
Pretty Solid Pick: Marcos Ambrose has done everything but win a Cup race here. It’s coming.
Good Sleeper Pick: AJ Allmendinger’s three career runs of 13th, 11th and fourth are encouraging.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Surprisingly enough, Jeff Burton.
Insider Tip: Only seven active drivers — Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Robby Gordon and Kevin Harvick — have notched wins at the Glen.
Classic Moments at Watkins Glen
The history books show Geoff Bodine as the winner of the 1996 Bud at the Glen, but most longtime fans remember the weekend for the toughness shown by the great Dale Earnhardt.
The Intimidator suffered a broken collarbone, sternum and bruised pelvis in a savage wreck at Talladega two weeks prior. Putting the pain aside, Earnhardt not only sits on the pole at the Glen, but also sets a new track record prior to a sixth-place finish.
Bodine’s path to the win is dizzying. Bodine does not pit during a lap 54 caution, instead stopping on lap 62 in an attempt to complete the race in one fewer stops than the field.
A caution coincides with the lap 62 stop, essentially giving Bodine a free stop. Restarting 10th and with fresh tires, he blows through the field and makes the race-winning pass of Ken Schrader with seven laps to go.
by Tom Bowles
It happens in every sport, every year: the end-of-season playoff push causes fans to lose focus on what’s really important. With so many teams battling simply to make it into the postseason, others that have dominated for months get ignored faster than anything Bruce Pearl ever said while at Tennessee. Are you the top seed? 14-2? Clinched your spot and a first-round bye this winter? Sorry, NFL Franchise, but your fans don’t care about you until the next game that actually matters.
In the eighth year of NASCAR’s Chase format, the same philosophy rings true for the sport’s top contenders. If not for “Kurt Busch/Jimmie Johnson Catfight XII” both drivers would be far down the list of plotlines heading to Watkins Glen; their Chase spots all but clinched, it’s win-or-who cares all the way from now to Richmond in September. Indeed, it’s a weird year for the postseason format in that points-wise, seven of the sport’s top 10 in the standings are more than a full race’s worth of points ahead of 11th-place Denny Hamlin. Barring some sort of unforeseen collapse — as in five consecutive DNFs — title contenders Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon have already clinched their spot in the postseason a month early. Another, Ryan Newman, is a whopping 40 points up on Hamlin — the difference between winning, leading the most laps and 36th place — so he’s in a rather comfortable position as well.
That means for the Dog Days of Summer, these drivers will sit back and watch the public converge on three major stories — none of which involve them. Number one, will Dale Earnhardt, Jr., 10th in points, finally summon up enough consistency and confidence to make the postseason, making just his second Chase since 2008? Number two, will Hamlin, last year’s runner-up finisher to Johnson, suffer such a hangover he won’t even make the cut for the title chase this year? And finally, there’s the “wild card” system, NASCAR’s phenomenal decision to award the final two spots in the field of 12 to whoever is 11th to 20th in points with the most wins. Right now, Brad Keselowski in 18th, seems to have a handle on a spot while the other appears wide open — anyone from Paul Menard, to David Ragan, to even the ageless Mark Martin can pull a used-car-sale type of steal.
But how much do those stories ultimately matter in the grand scheme of things? Come September, it’s unlikely anyone struggling to 18th in points, despite two wins could contend for the title when they’re running under the same system that rewards consistency, not race-winning trophies in the postseason. Junior, for the 10 steps he’s taken in the right direction, is still on pace to lead less than 100 laps all season — hardly a number that screams “title contender.” And Hamlin, with his team in such disarray they pulled a “come to Jesus” meeting inside the Joe Gibbs Racing shop this week, hardly seems capable of putting together a run that brought Johnson to the brink of losing his mojo last November. For now, their battle to stay on the radar screen makes a mighty good story, but by late fall the box office draw will have moved over to someone — and something — else.
Which is why it’s worthwhile to sneak a peek at NASCAR’s Chase itself, in desperation mode after ratings have dropped 44 percent since its 2005 peak (last year, the ratings mustered only a 2.6, compared to a 4.7 back then). Even the Johnson-Hamlin-Harvick battle, leaving the title in question until the last laps of the 2010 Homestead finale, failed to salvage the audience, leading to major change: a revamped, 43-to-1 point system that would supposedly bring the field closer together. And it’s working. Right now, the top six drivers in the standings, from Edwards to Kenseth, are within just 26 points of each other heading to Watkins Glen. It’s the first time in the history of the Chase Era one of six different drivers enters the 22nd race of the season with a chance to leave as the points leader. Even better, it’s the first time in NASCAR’s modern era that’s it’s been the case, making this regular season — as meaningless as the final point totals are — the closest points race in NASCAR history at this point.
Just sit there and digest that for a second. The cruel irony this season is NASCAR doesn’t actually have to reset the point totals to make the championship exciting. If it just let the system play out, any one of those six along with a fast-closing Gordon, would have a chance. And, with a full three months to go you can already make a case for any one of them to come out on top.
There’s Edwards, newly re-signed with Roush Fenway Racing and by far the most consistent driver this season. You have Johnson, five-titles strong who remains the slight favorite until he’s knocked off the pedestal. Kyle Busch has gone from the sport’s most temperamental driver on-track to someone capable of recovering from adversity, turning Sunday’s Pocono spin into a second-place finish. Kurt Busch, a former champ himself has shown the perfect mix of ruffling feathers to get proven results (despite borderline abuse of his crew on the radio). Harvick, the only Richard Childress Racing car in serious title contention has the experience of last year’s Chase plus the information sharing of four cars focused on the title for him at his disposal. Kenseth, the 2003 champ has quietly won twice and can top 10 anyone to death — the key to succeeding under this point system. And Gordon, having a renaissance season under crew chief Alan Gustafson, is one of the sport’s hottest drivers of late — he’s posted six straight top-11 finishes while flashing speed at every type of track.
Unfortunately, as much as you’d love NASCAR to leave well enough alone, the Chase system will still be reset, meaning each of these seven drivers will be even closer once the green flag flies at Chicagoland Speedway. That means, in theory, after three-to-four years of entering the Chase with a limited number of favorites, more than half the field should be in contention for the title down to the wire, clearly a first under this postseason format designed to include almost everyone. Each of them would be a worthy titleholder, since they could have won it under the “old” system as well as the “new” and as we’ve seen anyone from Johnson, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch or Harvick that no one’s afraid to ruffle feathers along the way. Honestly, a stock car racing public relations person couldn’t draw up a better postseason scenario if he or she tried.
Which means, clearly, this postseason becomes make-or-break for an eight-year format that screams, “For fans, their passion over who wins the ‘championship’ overshadows everything else about the sport.” If NASCAR can’t find an audience now, with this type of setup it’s hard to sell the Chase ever working without some sort of drastic revision.
So sit tight for now, and enjoy the sport’s “double bonus” this season: a fight for postseason spots among the sport’s favorites and then a championship battle that would be tight under any system NASCAR put forth. And if you’re still bored by the end? Postseason haters may finally get the drastic revisions they’ve been wanting for years.
How could you possibly justify any other decision?
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Kyle Busch For the second race in a row, Busch overcame issues that hindered his early-race gains to post a top-10 finish. The runner-up at Pocono finds him just 11 points out of the points lead.
2. Jimmie Johnson Entertained us all by engaging in a “I-don’t-really-wanna-fight” shouting match with Kurt Busch following his fourth-place finish at Pocono. Oh, and he did so with a faulty clutch (which was clutch).
3. Jeff Gordon The June Pocono winner wasn’t nearly as stout on Sunday, but he’ll gladly take the sixth-place run and move on to a road course. Have we mentioned Gordon is NASCAR’s “road course king?”
4. Carl Edwards OK, so the contract thing is behind Edwards and he still sits atop the point standings. The only question is whether any damage was done within the team that may bite him down the road.
5. Kurt Busch Kurt tried to play off the incident with Johnson as simple “hard racing.” Problem is, it sometimes seems Busch is putting on his media-friendly face and feeding us a line.
6. Ryan Newman His 5.5-place average finish over the last month is as impressive a stat as you’ll find in the series, but maintaining that level of performance over the next 17 weeks will be close to impossible.
7. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s slide is the polar opposite of Newman’s, as he’s averaged a 15.5-place showing in the last four events. History shows he’ll finish stronger, though.
8. Matt Kenseth Eighth may be a bit low for Kenseth, but that’s probably the way he prefers it with his low-key nature. Could make for a nice Chase darkhorse.
9. Brad Keselowski I said last week Keselowski probably wouldn’t make the Chase this year but was a shoe-in for 2012. I stand correct: He’s not only a shoe-in for 2012, but for this year as well.
10. Tony Stewart Something is amiss with Smoke. Still, would it surprise you if he and the No. 14 team rattled off a win at the Glen this weekend and defended their Atlanta title three weeks later?
11. Denny Hamlin That’s two Pocono races that have gotten away this year. Sunday’s shouldn’t have happened.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Just when we were throwing dirt on his grave, Junior rolls to a top-10 finish.
13. Paul Menard Follows his big Brickyard win with a 10th at Pocono. We’ll see what the Glen holds ...
14. Greg Biffle Consecutive top 10s for Biffle and the new crew chief. However, they needs wins. A couple.
15. Joey Logano A win evaporates like the water on the track. As do his Chase hopes.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, David Ragan