Articles By Matt Taliaferro
by Matt Taliaferro
Saturday was a date that over 10 years in the making for Kentucky Speedway. Following years of litigation, lawsuits and a buyout, the track finally landed a cherished NASCAR Sprint Cup race under the guidance of parent-company Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Unfortunately, the event will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
In what may be the most atrocious debut of a major-league sporting venue in North America, a sellout crowd in the neighborhood of 107,000 waited for hours to gain access to the speedway, only to see 400 miles of lackluster racing. Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team unloaded on Thursday with the fastest car and held serve throughout the weekend, leading 125 of 267 laps en route to a dominant win in the Quaker State 400.
But the race itself was secondary — an afterthought to the thousands who waited for hours in 20 miles of gridlock traffic on the lone interstate leading into the facility. Many did not make it to the grounds by the drop of the green flag, and many more — a figure thought to be in the 5,000-person range — were turned away from the track by state police who had to begin setting up the exit route once the race passed its half way mark.
For the fans that found a parking space on the property — the track reportedly had parking for 33,000 vehicles — the “fun” was only beginning. Social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter were flooded with complaints, ranging from a lack of porta potties in the grassy parking areas where fans tailgated, to a “no coolers” policy, to price gouging for bottled water once inside and an inability to accept credit cards.
Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger issued a statement during the race, addressing the situation.
“Kentucky Speedway regrets the traffic conditions surrounding the Quaker State 400. We’re committed to working with NASCAR, state and local officials and traffic experts to assure that this never happens again. The details of these improvements will be announced over time as they are formulated.
“We also recognize the traffic problems resulted in some fans not being able to attend the Quaker State 400. We are gathering information on this and will announce a policy for these affected fans within seven days.”
On Monday, the release was amended, replacing the word “regret” with “apologize.”
The facility, under the ownership of SMI’s Bruton Smith, was expanded by 41,000 seats to 107,000 when he announced he would move one of his existing Sprint Cup dates from a struggling Atlanta Motor Speedway on Aug. 10, 2010.
NASCAR principles all but disappeared after the event. CEO Brian France released a statement on Sunday, saying, “While NASCAR was thrilled by the incredible response to our inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Kentucky, we also are extremely disappointed by the traffic problems and inconveniences endured by fans who wanted to be part of our races at Kentucky Speedway.
“NASCAR will be in close communications with Kentucky Speedway and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. to see that they work to resolve the issues. This situation cannot happen again.”
As for the race, it witnessed zero lead changes that did not involve pit stops under either green- or yellow-flag conditions. Busch held off a hard-charging David Reutimann after a lap 260 restart, when a caution was thrown for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s blown tire. Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
The win was Busch’s third of the season and catapulted him to first in the Sprint Cup championship standings.
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by Mike Neff
North Wilkesboro Speedway was one of the racetracks that was on the very first schedule for the fledgling sanctioning body known as NASCAR in 1949. There were eight tracks on the schedule then, but only two — Wilkesboro and Martinsville — are still in existence. Unfortunately, that number has shrunk to one since the temporary closing of North Wilkesboro became permanent on June 30. Speedway Associates, the track’s ownership group, announced it was unable to arrange further financial backing to run the track and abandoned the property less than a year after reopening its gates to racing after 14 years of silence.
The effort to restore North Wilkesboro has been a labor of love from so many people from not only Wilkes County, but all over the country — and even outside of the United States. People traveled from as far as British Columbia, Canada, to participate in races at the rejuvenated speedway last year. There was no question that the place was in no shape to host a race when the keys were handed over to Speedway Associates. While the racing surface was ready to go after a dousing of weed killer, there was a lot more work necessary to make the remainder of the facility race-ready.
After many gallons of paint, plumbing, metal work, carpentry and general blood, sweat and tears, the track held its first race on Labor Day weekend in 2010. The first driver to return to the unique Victory Lane on top of Wilkesboro’s Media Center was Mack Little, who won the Limited Late Model race. Chase Elliott then won the PASS race to take the first major touring series win at the track since 1996.
That first weekend’s events brought memories flooding back to the racing die-hards who traveled to Wilkesboro, despite the fact that many upgrades were still needed to return the historic facility to its former glory. Looking around the track and seeing faded and chipped Winston, First Union and Holly Farms signs instantly brought back visions of everyone from Lee Petty to Jeff Gordon circling the aged pavement.
As more renovations were completed over the next few months, the place looked fresher and more modern, while still possessing the historic feel similar to the air around Martinsville or Indianapolis. The crowds were bigger for every race and the track seemed to be building momentum but, unfortunately, there was an undercurrent behind the scenes that would eventually cause all of the effort to come to a screeching halt, while breaking the hearts of everyone involved in its resurrection.
After “THE RACE” for the PASS cars took place in April, funds started to run thin. As the June race date for the UARA Series drew closer, the insurance premium on the track was coming due and there wasn’t enough money to make the payment. The powers-that-be at Speedway Associates were forced to make the decision to close the track until more funding could be obtained. The reality began to set in that unless corporate partners stepped forward to assist in the revitalization effort, the resources just weren’t available to bring the track back.
When the idea of revitalizing the track was originally floated by the principals of Speedway Associates, it was promised some local corporate involvement in the process of restoring the complex to viability — but when the rubber hit the track the donations never arrived. While volunteer labor got the track back to a serviceable level, there was a greater need that only materials — or cold hard cash — could fix.
After the track was closed, the management group set out to try and get an infusion of capital to jumpstart the project before the end of June. The word was that there were three different sources of funding that were seriously interested in putting some money into the track, and it was only a matter of picking the best one and having lawyers work out the legal wranglings. Once that was all hammered out, the racing could continue as the track’s facelift made it into a modern facility. Whether that was truly the case or just an effort to keep the legion of volunteers encouraged, it never materialized.
As June 30 rolled around, there wasn’t any deal. The choice of funding turned out to be an empty tin cup and the people making the decisions threw in the towel. What started with so much promise, after so many fits and starts and empty promises, turned out to be the reality check that so many never again wanted to face.
There isn’t one answer when looking at what would have made North Wilkesboro’s resurrection work, but there is certainly some blame to go around for why it didn’t. The businesses in the Wilkes County area and around the country should have jumped on board to make this effort a success. The track has the potential to be a media darling in a time when NASCAR continues to turn its back on its roots. With the right companies putting their name on the walls and billboards around the track, the races would have likely been picked up by television and returned their investment many times over.
Instead, some of the larger local companies are rumored to have made promises to the management group only to back out when the heat was turned up. If the local companies did back out they should be ashamed. But even if they did not, they should be embarrassed for not getting behind the efforts when the local economy is so depressed — and has been since the last Cup cars turned laps in anger around the track.
Bruton Smith and the folks at Speedway Motorsports, Inc. are confusingly complicit in this failure. For whatever reason, SMI maintains that it wants $12 million for the facility — the price Smith paid for it some 15 years ago. The purchase price then included two Cup Series, one or two Nationwide and one Truck Series date. Most economic “experts” maintain that a Cup date is worth $4 million, while a Nationwide or Truck race is in the $1 million range. Two Cup visits and a pair of support-series dates would account for 10 of the $12 million paid for the track. Add to the fact that those dates are no longer there as well as the 14 years of deterioration without even routine maintenance being performed, and there is at least another million dollars that has been wiped out of the facility.
The basic math would make the track’s worth in the $1 million range — a far cry from the $12 million that SMI is so adamant about receiving. There is no one that is going to pay that price for a few acres of land in Wilkes County, N.C., let alone a plot of land that has a racetrack on it that would have to be razed in order to build another business on them.
The continuous demand for that exorbitant amount of money for the track is certainly keeping shrewd businessmen from putting money into the property. An infusion of $10-15 million would have the track up to the standards of today’s premier facilities. Unfortunately, no one in their right mind is going to put that amount of money into a track when the specter of an additional $12 million payout is looming.
Why the leaders at SMI will not budge off of that asking price is still a mystery. There must be some benefit to having a business property sit idle instead of receiving a fair market price for it — no one at the company is explaining its reasoning. Perhaps SMI will actually come in and try to do something with the track now that it has proven successful races can still be held there. Fans of the track can only hope.
The other large amount of blame for the track’s failure goes to the fans who complained about the track being closed in 1996 (and since), but did not support it with their attendance when racing returned. The 2010 Labor Day race drew roughly five- to seven-thousand people, despite seating for 40,000. More fans turned out to the next race weekend, but nowhere near the capacity of the track.
There is a cry from the fan base every time a race track is closed or dates are taken away from historic tracks around the country — especially in the Southeast — but those same fans fail to support said tracks when they attempt to rise again. Exhibit A is North Carolina Motor Speedway — a.k.a. Rockingham — which had just over 500 people show up for its UARA/Pro Cup double-header race earlier this season.
Five hundred people.
The folks trying to make a success out of Rockingham can’t be blamed for giving up, and the same is true at North Wilkesboro. Fourteen years of neglect didn’t hurt the racetrack as much as Smith would like you to believe, but it took a huge toll on the rest of the facility. The limited number of suites are in drastic need of upgrades and the restrooms could use some modernization, to say the least. The fans are the ones who can make those upgrades possible by showing up in droves and supporting the races that are held. But to this point, that has not happened.
The racing at North Wilkesboro was great when it was on the Cup schedule and it was just as great when it returned last year. The track is unique and history oozes from every pore of the facility from the moment a fan walks through the gate. It is a living piece of NASCAR’s history that needs to be preserved. And everyone needs to embrace the efforts to make that happen.
by Matt Taliaferro
Quaker State 400
Location: Sparta, Ky.
Specs: 1.5-mile tri-oval; Banking/Turns: 14°; Banking/Tri-oval: 8°; Banking/Backstretch: 4°
Race Length: 400 miles/267 laps
2010 Winners: None (Inaugural Cup race)
From the Spotter’s Stand
It was a long and winding road with speed bumps and yield signs at every turn, but Kentucky Speedway finally has a spot on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule.
The 1.5-mile track is centrally located in Sparta, Ky. — roughly halfway between Louisville and Cincinnati — and is the first new track added to the Cup circuit since Chicagoland and Kansas in 2001.
“Racing fans, I don’t think you’ll find an area of the United States that is more ready than this one is,” said Speedway Motorsports CEO and Kentucky Speedway owner Bruton Smith, during his official announcement. “Go back and look at how many fans we’ve had here for Nationwide, Trucks, and you’ll see what we can do.”
Since opening in 2000, Kentucky Speedway has an excellent track record and a strong fan base, drawing as many as 70,000 for Nationwide and Truck events.
A $40 million expansion is underway to prepare for the July 9 Cup race. The ambitious plan calls for an increased capacity to an estimated 116,000 as well as across-the-board upgrades that will include moving pit road closer to both the track and stands. But after the facility fought to secure a Cup race for a solid decade, it will be worth every penny once the green flag finally drops on the 400-mile race this summer.
In 2005, track co-founder Jerry Carroll sued NASCAR for violation of antitrust laws in an effort to acquire a Cup race for Kentucky Speedway — a date he claims was promised him by the France family. When the case was thrown out in 2008, Carroll sold the tri-oval track to Smith, whose company also owns seven other tracks on the Cup schedule. After further legal wrangling, Smith moved an existing date from Atlanta Motor Speedway to Kentucky, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Normally when a new track comes onto the circuit it takes a while to figure out, but Kentucky shouldn’t be that much of an unknown for two reasons: One, because it’s built in the classic ‘cookie cutter’ mode where aero and downforce are keys. And two, because there are plenty of notes available from the Nationwide races. The organizations that run full Nationwide teams — Gibbs, Roush and Childress through Harvick’s operation — will be the ones that start with a leg up. That said, it won’t take the others to long to figure out the nuances.”
Looking at Checkers: It’s hard not to lean towards Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards due to their experience in the Nationwide Series.
Pretty Solid Pick: Joey Logano has three straight NNS wins here. We’ll see if it translates.
Good Sleeper Pick: Not really a sleeper, but the 48 team usually adapts quicker than most.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: See the Insider Tip and act accordingly.
Insider Tip: It’s your typical 1.5-mile track. Look to Kansas and Chicago for an accurate race preview.
Classic Moments at Kentucky
It’s an inauspicious start for NASCAR at the sparkling new Kentucky Speedway on June 17, 2000.
Bryan Reffner leads the 36-truck field to green, but a wreck on the first lap quickly slows the field. Greg Biffle battles Reffner throughout the race, leading 53 laps to Reffner’s 50.
A lengthy rain delay halts the action, forcing ESPN to drop its coverage of the event and resume programming.
Kurt Busch, in his rookie campaign, leads 12 laps but crashes hard with 44 laps remaining, and it’s his Roush Racing teammate, Biffle, whose No. 50 Grainger Ford is dialed in down the stretch, as he leads the final 42 laps to win.
Biffle goes on to win the Trucks Series title, while Busch finishes second.
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by Matt Taliaferro
1. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s 2011 season is beginning to resemble his 2010 campaign. The new points leader rides consistency to the top spot with a few wins thrown in for good measure.
2. Kyle Busch Not to hammer the “consistency” theme into the ground, but if there is such a thing as a “new” Kyle Busch, that’s what it’s being defined by.
3. Kurt Busch Recovered from a late-race accident at Daytona to notch his seventh consecutive top-15 finish. Sits only 16 points out of the lead in the championship standings, to boot.
4. Carl Edwards Runs of fifth and third are offset by an ugly pair of 37th-place showings for Edwards in the last four events. Every team has a slump of some size, and if this is the worst the 99 has coming, it isn’t that bad.
5. Matt Kenseth Hendrick Motorsports should look to the Kenseth/David Ragan execution of team orders the next time the circuit hits a plate track.
6. Jeff Gordon It was mentioned that Gordon’s job was to push Mark Martin to victory at Daytona. However, by the end of the night, it looked like an every-man-for-himself scenario.
7. Jimmie Johnson Oh, to be a fly on the wall at Hendrick Motorsports’ weekly competition meeting. I wonder how Chad Knaus is going to explain that “dump the teammate and pit by ourselves” strategy.
8. Denny Hamlin Went from second to 13th during the green-white-checker finale at Daytona. And did anyone else find his choice of drafting partner — Chevy’s Ryan Newman — peculiar?
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Looked to be a Chase lock just one month ago, but a three-race slide is raising doubts. A win would go a long way towards securing a playoff bid.
10. Clint Bowyer For as good as Bowyer is at Talladega, he can’t seem to catch a break in Daytona. Like Earnhardt, a win would go a long way for a driver squarely on the Chase bubble.
11. Tony Stewart Couldn’t make it four wins in Daytona’s July event. Settled for 11th instead.
12. Paul Menard Being Harvick’s bitc … er, drafting buddy at Daytona pays off to the tune of an eighth-place run.
13. Brad Keselowski David Ragan’s win may have hurt BK’s Chase chances but this team is trending in the right direction.
14. Joey Logano Worked well with Kasey Kahne to scratch and claw his way to a third-place showing at DIS. Then he smiled real big.
15. Ryan Newman From the lead to 23rd in the blink of two green-white-checker restarts. And Newman was the driver saying he felt he had more control over his own destiny with the two-car drafts.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, David Ragan
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
The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has been the year of first-time winners. Trevor Bayne stunned the sport with an unlikely win in the Daytona 500. Regan Smith followed suit at Darlington in Southern 500, and in the circuit’s return trip to Daytona for the Coke Zero 400, David Ragan celebrated his first career Cup win on the Fourth of July weekend.
Ragan’s win was a dose of redemption at the speedway where a late-race penalty cost him a shot at a Daytona 500 win just five months earlier. In that race, Ragan led the field to a green-white-checker restart. However, he changed lanes prior to crossing the start/finish line in an attempt to draft with Bayne. The resulting pass-through penalty dropped him from the lead to a heart-breaking 14th-place showing.
Saturday’s mid-summer classic at Daytona took on many of the same characteristics as the February edition, with two-car drafting and an overtime finish highlighting the evening. The first green-white-checker attempt came when NASCAR threw a caution flag with three laps to go when Jeff Gordon slid sideways in Turn 4, although he saved the car and no others were damaged.
The tandem of Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin led Ragan and teammate Matt Kenseth to the green. Ragan and Kenseth nosed into the lead as nearly a dozen cars wrecked coming out of Turn 2, dashing the hopes of Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, among others.
Ragan and Kenseth led the pack of survivors to green for the second green-white-checker finish. On this try, the field made it one and a half laps before the wrecking started again. Five cars were collected in an accident in Turn 3, while another crash broke out involving eight cars as the pack entered the tri-oval with the checkered flag in the air.
Through it all, Kenseth never left Ragan’s bumper, and the duo crossed the finish line first and second, edging Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne, who finished third and fourth.
“We made a pact with our teammate, Matt Kenseth, that we’re going to work together through thick or thin,” Ragan said. “I was a little worried about that, too. Sometimes falling to the back and to the front, you get jammed up throughout the race, so I didn't know if that was the right decision or not. But bottom line, our car was fast. That's what wins these races. You've got to have luck, you've got to have pit stops and all that stuff goes into effect. But you've got to have a fast car, and our UPS Ford was fast.”
The teammates did work together through thick and thin, and when they found themselves nose-to-tail coming to the checkers with the field in their rearview mirrors, they remained in line.
“If I would have made a move on David, Joey (Logano) would have passed us both or we all would have wrecked or something — something would have happened,” Kenseth said. “So when I came off (turn) four, and I looked to see where Joey was, I could see he had good speed. I could see he was being pushed. Me and David were on the same radio and I wasn't standing on the yellow line. I'm going to keep pushing you. I'm not going to leave you and try to pass you, because I knew that one of us weren't going to win.”
Carl Edwards lost the points lead after an accident on lap 24 relegated him to a 37th-place finish. Kevin Harvick, who finished seventh, inherited the lead in the championship standings, sitting five points ahead of Edwards. Ragan joins Hamlin as driver ranked 11th-20th with wins that could qualify them for the Chase via wild card slots that award race-winners.
by Tom Bowles
Is NASCAR’s glass half-empty or half-full?
As the sport gathers for its traditional version of the halfway mark — Daytona’s spectacle under the lights this Fourth of July weekend — the answer to that question, a lynchpin to its future direction remains increasingly unclear. From the season’s very first race, when Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 only to fall off the grid ever since stock car racing has turned into a wishy-washy first date, so full of mixed messages you leave with no clue whether they like you or not.
Of course, in NASCAR’s defense it could say exactly the same thing about its fans. Attendance has been more up-and-down than your local Six Flags roller coaster: solid increases at places like Daytona, Charlotte and yes, even Fontana — not to mention a rare sellout coming at Kentucky — offset alarming losses at once-automatic sellout zones in Dover and Bristol. Ratings, up through the sport’s first 16 events, are only so because of a natural boost at both Daytona and Las Vegas; neither race had to deal with a giant pothole or the U.S. vs. Canada hockey game, respectively, from 2010. And while the sport’s target age group, men ages 18-49 are seemingly tilting upward for the first time in years, the time they spend at the track continues to dwindle. Walk through any infield sans Talladega and you’ll feel like you’re part of the Sahara Desert, not the 24/7 Friday-Sunday party it used to be.
Competition-wise, the races have taken on a bit of a familiar feel. NASCAR’s “fourth quarter” is almost always great — even the fuel mileage finishes have come attached with their own bit of specialty drama that keep people guessing until the final lap. But in the first three quarters (i.e., two-plus hours) too much “passing the time” instead of “passing cars” comes into play, combined with some aerodynamic issues that remain exacerbated — not eliminated — by the Car of Tomorrow. The new front ends give those vehicles greater identity, but that’s not enough. How can they do more?
At least fans will have a postseason fight to look forward to. Indeed, Sprint Cup’s Chase for the Championship appears to be a study based on equality. Carl Edwards leads, Jimmie Johnson is the slight favorite, but in reality the race is wide open. Johnson’s six-peat could be stymied by anyone from Kevin Harvick, to the cantankerous Kyle Busch to even a certain Most Popular Driver making noise. The problem is, for all the talk of “wild cards” and “wins,” the faces in the crowd remain the same. Barring an upset by Kansas victor Brad Keselowski, the Chase will have no first-time participants for the second year in a row.
So what about the new guys, you ask? After all, there is a “next generation” busting at the seams to get its chance. Bayne’s upset win is just one example of a trend, the ringleader within a handful of talented youngsters finally on the cusp of Sprint Cup success. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has won in the Nationwide Series, remaining perhaps the prohibitive favorite to take the season points title, while Justin Allgaier is right on his heels. Youngster Cole Whitt is second in Truck Series points, posting five top-10 finishes as a rookie while Austin Dillon sits comfortably in title contention as a sophomore. Yes, there’s even (cough, cough) a certain woman in a GoDaddy uniform that has been spotted running inside the top 5 in Nationwide Series events.
But here’s where the going gets tough: of those six, only Dillon and Danica Patrick are guaranteed a ride next season, neither one of which will be in Sprint Cup. With a limited number of options at the top level, contracting teams mean it’s more difficult than ever to give freshmen their chance to fit in. In fact, this year’s likely Rookie of the Year winner in Sprint Cup isn’t the Daytona champ but a driver, Andy Lally, whose team’s limited resources have left him with one lead-lap finish in 13 races. Hardly a way to show up on the radar screen, right?
Lally’s not alone in his struggle for sponsorship, though, which is a telling stat in the biggest public relations fight NASCAR’s had on its hands in years. It makes Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch look like babies fighting over a lollipop by comparison (and maybe they are… but that’s a story for another day). For years, the sport has blamed its shrinking starting grids, now deluged with the disease of start-and-parkers, on a sagging economy. “Companies can’t spend money,” was the woe-is-me line of the day, a philosophy with a “do nothing” strategy attached for this, too, shall pass. One can understand why they think that — after all, Kyle Busch, according to Joyce Julius and Associates, generated $28.4 million in exposure for his sponsors during the first third of the season alone. Combine that with underdog success stories, from Regan Smith/Furniture Row’s single-car triumph at Darlington to Brian Keselowski’s shocking Daytona 500 start remind corporate America that they, no matter the level of advertising budget available, can cash in for a bargain price.
So why isn’t corporate America buying it? In just the past two weeks alone, two financially healthy companies — Red Bull and Crown Royal — have indicated they’ll cut NASCAR funding from teams effective at the end of the season. Others, like Home Depot and Cheerios, are rumored to be cutting back, leaving financial failure making its way through the poor and up towards the rich. The reasons could be variable, from owners trying to charge too much money to executives simply putting their foot down and believing the sport is past its prime. Whatever the answer, the right people need to find it because these teams and their employees can’t run without funding; and as owners drop like flies, it’s not a prudent long-term approach to let the equivalent of five New York Yankees – Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress and Roger Penske – either own or supply chassis and engines to the entire grid.
See why is the half-full/half-empty question so hard to answer? No wonder Daytona executives are working overtime these days. With their due diligence, plus the right personnel shifts the sport appears closer than ever to turning a corner. But, as we’ve learned with everyone from Mauricia Grant to Jeremy Mayfield, just one minor incident is all it takes to tip the scales.
This time, the NASCAR brass better hope it tips their way.
Coke Zero 400 Preview
by Matt Taliaferro
Location: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Specs: 2.5-mile tri-oval; Banking/Turns: 31°; Banking/Tri-oval: 18°; Banking/Backstretch: 3°
2010 Winners: Jamie McMurray (Feb.) and Kevin Harvick (July)
2011 Winner: Trevor Bayne (Feb.)
2011 Race Length: 500 miles/200 laps (Feb.); 400 miles/160 laps (July)
Track Qualifying Record: 210.364 mph (Bill Elliott, 1987)
Race Record, 500 miles: 177.602 mph (Buddy Baker, 1980)
Race Record, 400 miles: 173.473 mph (Bobby Allison, 1980)
From the Spotter’s Stand
It may have been the greatest upset in stock car racing history — certainly it was the most unexpected result (with apologies to Tiny Lund) in the storied history of the Daytona 500. Trevor Bayne’s unlikely win in February’s Daytona 500 driving the Wood Brothers Ford remains the feel-good story of the year in NASCAR. And it proved that Daytona and Talladega are still the most unpredictable tracks on the circuit.
Keep a close eye on Kurt Busch this weekend. He’s never won a point-paying plate race, but he’d never won a road course event, either … until last weekend. Red hot at the moment, Busch was the pre-race favorite at the beach leading up to the 500 in February. Busch won the Bud Shootout and his Gatorade Duel leading up to the big show, then looked to be on his way to victory until losing momentum entering Turn 3 of the final lap and finishing fifth. Expect him to be just as strong on Saturday evening.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Daytona typically conjures images of speed, and with a repaved surface, that’s what it’s going to take to win — that and a good drafting partner. Although the track won’t lose grip like it did on the old surface, it’s still a relatively narrow track, so drivers and spotter’s must be on their toes, this year more than ever before.
“Turn 2 has always been Calamity Corner, and it will be interesting to see if that remains the case. My guess is it will because of the tight confines off. The January test sessions were big for everyone this year, learning new characteristics that could make a difference.”
Looking at Checkers: Whoever gets the push at the end. We’ll say Kevin Harvick.
Pretty Solid Pick: Whoever gets the push in the second pack at the end. We’ll say Kurt Busch.
Good Sleeper Pick: This could go a lot of different ways. How about David Ragan?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: His 500 win in 2008 aside, Ryan Newman hasn’t had much luck here.
Insider Tip: Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a good track record at Daytona, he is not a fan of the “tandem drafting” that has replaced the big 30-car packs.
Classic Moments at Daytona
In arguably the event’s most compelling storybook ending, Tiny Lund wins the 1963 installment of the Daytona 500 in relief of an injured Marvin Panch.
Days before the 500, Panch is severely burned in an accident while testing a Maserati for the race that today is known as the Rolex 24. Lund, in Daytona looking for a ride, sees the violent crash and rushes to the car, pulling Panch out seconds before the fuel tank explodes.
Lund is given Panch’s seat in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, and by using only one set of tires throughout the 500 — and pitting one time fewer than his competitors — Lund takes the lead when Ned Jarrett runs out of gas with three laps to go. Despite running out of fuel on the final lap, Lund is able to notch his first career win.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards Edwards and crew did what a championship-laden team is supposed to do as it continues to build steam: Stay above the fray and bring it home clean with a top-3 finish.
2. Kurt Busch Speaking of staying above the fray, Busch’s car and strategy at Infineon were so spot-on, he won by keeping the mayhem in his rearview mirror.
3. Kyle Busch Did Kyle Busch really get out of his car at Infineon, walk over to Kevin Harvick and shake his hand after the race?! Yep. The devil must be wearing a winter coat and shoveling snow.
4. Kevin Harvick The recipient of Busch’s gratitude admitted to being somewhat confused by the gesture, saying on Twitter that it was “bizarre.” He then went on to say the feud was not over.
5. Jimmie Johnson And then there is Johnson, quietly running seventh on the road and staying well within striking distance. His lone win this season came on a plate track, and that’s where they’re heading next.
6. Jeff Gordon Gordon and the 24 bunch are tough to figure. A win at Pocono was followed by a pedestrian 17th in Michigan. Then they ran second in Sonoma. Good luck pinning them down.
7. Matt Kenseth Overcame a couple on-track incidents at Infineon to finish 14th, which must feel like a win for Kenseth, who has never taken to the road courses.
8. Denny Hamlin Hamlin said he got “‘Dinger’d” at Infineon, which is NASCAR-speak for paying the price for racing too close to AJ Allmendinger.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK Dale, that’s two sub-par showings in a row that have dropped you to seventh in the standings ... let’s not give Junior Nation a reason to be suicidal.
10. Clint Bowyer Although he has no wins at Daytona, he leads everyone on the Sprint Cup circuit not named Trevor Bayne with a 13.2-place average finish on the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
11. Tony Stewart The king of NASCAR hypocrisy complained about drivers racing like idiots, then blatantly spun Brian Vickers in front of the field. Shades of Daytona '06.
12. Ryan Newman At this rate, Newman is a bump-draft-gone-wrong from losing 10th place in the point standings.
13. Greg Biffle The potential is there for the 16 team, the results — for some reason — are not.
14. Brad Keselowski Juan Pablo Montoya finally messed with the wrong man on Sunday ... and paid the price.
15. Paul Menard You heard it here first: Paul Menard could very well win the Coke Zero 400 this weekend.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr.
by Vito Pugliese
With news that Red Bull Racing is ending it’s five-year run in the Sprint Cup Series at season’s end, the Chase chatter that typically becomes the matter of obsession during NASCAR’s Summer Stretch will no doubt take a back seat to the Silly Season speculation that is now running rampant through the garage area.
While Red Bull has said it is leaving the series as a team, that is not to say it will not stick around as a sponsor in some capacity. It’s a situation that Team Red Bull General Manager and Vice President Jay Frye has found himself in before, with what was the MB2/MBV Racing teams from the late 1990s-2006. Sponsor Valvoline wanted to have an ownership stake in the series, and essentially made the worst moves possible in the process by first abandoning longtime driver Mark Martin in 2001, and then opting to not continue its association with Johnny Benson Jr. following the ’03 season. It eventually led to the demise of the team, and its acquisition by real estate developer Bobby Ginn — which later merged with Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
Rumor has it that Red Bull all but issued its PIN number to Carl Edwards in a Hail Mary effort to land the most sought-after free agent in NASCAR, a deal that obviously never materialized. Toyota still wants to keep the current Red Bull team in the fold, having made the leap into Sprint Cup with the automaker in 2007.
While the Red Bull situation will likely be decided over the course of the next few months as inventors are lined up to keep the struggling boat afloat, the main issue at hand will be if Edwards decides whether to remain with Roush Fenway Racing and the Ford Motor Company, which plucked him from relative obscurity and thrust him into the forefront of motorsports. And Edwards has always been a loyal and vocal supporter of the Blue Oval, more so than virtually any driver has been to a car company since the late Dale Earnhardt to Chevrolet.
Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs tried to defuse the rumors of a JGR push for Edwards in a fourth car, saying, “We learned over the years, probably when we started the 11 car, (that) unless you have all those parts together — a sponsor, the right driver and team — don't do it.
"We're not in any hurry to do it. Carl is a gifted driver. He's doing great where he is. From our standpoint, we're going to focus on Denny (Hamlin), Joey (Logano) and Kyle (Busch). When we get that going right, we can worry about other stuff in the future (a fourth team). Right now that's all we're kind of focused on."
Hmm. Well, words tend to mean things. That’s not to say that Edwards would be the right fit for a fourth team specifically, but what about the third JGR car? In this case, the third wheel has become the No. 20 team. Logano has had a bit of a learning curve to overcome on the Sprint Cup side of things, and has not produced as quickly or with the quantity of success that teammates Busch and Hamlin have. Might Logano be the odd man out? After all, Home Depot hasn’t exactly gotten much bang for its buck since Tony Stewart’s tenure with the team from 1999-2008. And to rub salt in the wound, Jimmie Johnson has been busy winning five straight titles with rival Lowe’s Home Improvement as the primary sponsor.
Gibbs went on to say that Logano was not going anywhere in 2012. Granted, similar statements were made in 2008 when Stewart was rumored to be looking elsewhere, although the circumstances for his departure were drastically different.
So what’s to believe and who may end up where?
I think the Red Bull operation stays afloat and ultimately survives — albeit under a different name. If the rumored Frye/Mark Martin connection comes to fruition, it would be a potent combination, remencient of the Ginn Racing venture of 2007 that paired Red Bull principles Frye and Ryan Pemberton with Martin. The team was leading the points four races into the season with Martin on a part-time schedule and would have won the Daytona 500 had NASCAR kept its practice of throwing caution flags when the entire field had wrecked and cars were flipping upside down and on fire.
One thing Red Bull has always lacked is veteran leadership in the driver department, the type of stabilizing force that Martin provided during his near two-decade tenure at Roush, the Ginn/DEI venture and even at Hendrick Motorsports. Being a two-car operation means that a second driver would be needed to fill the other seat. Virtually anytime Martin has been asked this year to evaluate or comment upon up-and-coming talent, one name continues to top his list: Cole Whitt. Martin speaks as often and as highly of the development driver as he did of Logano prior to his arrival in the NASCAR ranks. In nine Truck Series starts this year, Whitt has a pole at Darlington and five top 10s, including a second at Dover and a third-place effort at Charlotte. In his past roles of mentoring and splitting seat time with drivers such as Regan Smith, Aric Almirola and even Danica Patrick, the results have been impressive and quantifiable.
If Logano were to fall out of favor at JGR, pairing him with the driver in Martin who discovered and originally wanted him as a replacement in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford might not be a bad thing either.
Will Edwards actually leave Roush Fenway Racing? While it makes for great media fodder, I don’t really see the upside. UPS wants Carl, Aflac wants Carl, Ford wants Carl … and that’s not a bad thing when you’re negotiating a new contract. While there really is no clear leader at Roush Fenway Racing — other than Jack Roush — Edwards seems to have positioned himself to be just a step ahead of teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. By going to JGR, he would form a formidable foursome with Busch, Hamlin, and Logano (assuming he remains), but would it put him in any better of a position to win than now? Unlikely, at best.
Edwards is as savvy with the business side of racing as he is the performance portion, and is smartly working to find the best long-term deal. After all, these aren’t exactly stable economic times, and there is nothing on the horizon to suggest that the glory days of bountiful sponsorship of the early- and mid-1990s is going to materialize anytime soon. Roush turned 69 years-old in April, and has had many a brush with mortality in recent years, bringing into question the succession plan and sustainability of his race teams when the Cat does, indeed, hang up his hat.
Another thing to keep in mind regarding sponsorship at Roush Fenway is that the only deal that has been shored up so far is with 3M’s extension with Biffle’s No. 16 team. UPS is still waiting in the wings, and Crown Royal’s sponsorship has not yet been finalized. Fourth driver David Ragan is clearly not long for what once was the flagship No. 6 car, so feel free to pencil in Trevor Bayne or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for that seat in 2012. Ford is serious about racing again and has the funds to do it now that it is the most profitable car company in Detroit — and became that way without a dime of taxpayer funding. This bodes well for Edwards, not so much for Ragan.
Perhaps the most overlooked driver in all of this speculation is the one whose name popped up during the Red Bull drama: Clint Bowyer.
His current sponsor, General Mills, has taken quite a liking to its driver, though it was noted that Red Bull was very far down the line into negotiations with Bowyer prior to the announcement that they were throwing in the towel on NASCAR. Why Bowyer would bolt from Richard Childress Racing is a bit confusing. Last season, his No. 33 RCR team was championship material until the now-infamous tow truck tango cost him 150 points and any chance of competition for the Sprint Cup. Perhaps some lingering bitterness from first being bounced from the No. 07 car to make room for Casey Mears back in 2009 — and then having his team swapped with Kevin Harvick’s after said fine — is manifesting itself.
Then, of course, there is the 400-pound gorilla in the room — or more specifically, the 102-pound face of open wheel racing that will soon be spending a significant amount of time in Charlotte: Danica Patrick. When it is finally announced that 2012 will be Patrick’s first full year of NASCAR racing in a Nationwide Series entry, the idea is that Patrick would also make a handful of Cup starts — think Daytona, Indianapolis, Charlotte and Phoenix. But for what team will she bring a plethora of sponsorship dollars?
Patrick’s connection with JR Motorsports would give her the inside line to virtually any Chevrolet team, however when the bidding begins for real, it will be dollar signs that ultimately determine where she ends up. With the recent rumors that Andretti Autosport (Patrick’s current Indy Car Series team) would entertain entry to NASCAR, it will add additional ethanol to the fire.
Silly Season took a bit of a breather last year, but has returned full-force in 2011. There are several high-profile rides available, a solid team on the threshold of becoming a top tier team on the brink and high-dollar sponsors that have yet to commit for the future. But while the splashy headlines and rumor-mongering make for entertaining speculation, it’s easy to overlook the sad prospect that as many as 200 people could lose their jobs if the eye of the Silly Season storm — the future of Red Bull Racing — takes a disastrous turn.
by Matt Taliaferro
The Infineon Raceway’s annual NASCAR Sprint Cup date has seen its share of aggression the last few seasons. And Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 was no different, with a number of flared tempers, paybacks and plenty of bent sheet metal. So how does one go about winning at the Sonoma, Ca. road course? Stay in front of the fray.
That’s exactly what Kurt Busch did, leading a race-high 76 of 110 laps en route to his first Sprint Cup Series road course win and his first victory of the season.
“We had to conserve our rear tires,” Busch said of his team’s strategy to make only two pit stops when many others made three. “Once we had enough fuel mileage to make it, I started to pick up my pace.
“(The car) allowed me to do everything at an ‘A’ level. There's times when you can be A-plus on forward drive off or on your gear ratios for saving mileage, then you would have to save on overall speed for your speed ratios. Then you have the turn left, turn right. My car gave me the ability to do all areas very well.”
A 19-lap green-flag run to conclude the race enabled Busch to pull away from the field and beat Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose to the finish by 2.685 seconds on the 1.99-mile, 12-turn course. And although the final dash to checkers was caution-free, the event was marred by a series of incidents on the winding layout.
The first major scrap occurred in the tight, hairpin Turn 11 when Tony Stewart turned Brian Vickers, which collected a number of cars. Though none appeared seriously damaged, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the worst of it, as his contact with a sideways Vickers knocked a hole in the radiator, eventually causing the engine of his No. 88 Chevy to expire.
Vickers enacted revenge late in the race, when he used his injured vehicle to dump Stewart in the same turn on lap 88, which brought out the final caution.
“I probably had it coming, because I dumped him earlier,” Stewart said. “But I dumped him because he was blocking, so if anyone wants to block all year that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”
“(Tony) may not have noticed, but the 18 (Kyle Busch) was off the racetrack,” Vickers said of Stewart’s claim of blocking. “I was trying to avoid the 18 and I was on the inside of the car in front of me, so Tony was the least of my concern. But that’s what he felt it was and he sowed his oats and he reaped them.”
Juan Montoya had run-ins with a few drivers throughout the day, most notably Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski, while attempting a late-race charge to the front with fresh tires.
“They just don’t give me any room,” Montoya said. “It’s hard when people don’t know how to race on road courses and they think they do.”
Kahne didn’t share Montoya’s assessment, saying, “Montoya just drove through me. Last year when his cars were really good and (his teammate) Jamie McMurray was the man (winning three races), Juan still couldn’t win a race. It shows what he can do in NASCAR anyways.”
After the Kahne incident, Montoya attempted to get by Keselowski. However, when it got physical, Keselowski did not wait to be the victim.
“The body language of Juan’s car said he was going to wreck me,” Keselowski said. “I just made sure that didn’t happen.”
As a result of all the contact, Kahne was relegated to a 20th-place finish, while Montoya was 22nd. Keselowski survived to post a solid 10th-place showing.
Edwards increased his championship lead to 25 over seventh-place finisher Kevin Harvick. Jimmie Johnson sits third, 33 points back, and one point ahead of Kurt Busch. Earnhardt suffered the worst points-hit, falling from third to seventh, 65 points out, after finishing 41st with the blown engine.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Sonoma, Calif.
Specs: 12-turn, 1.99-mile road course
Coverage: Sunday, June 26; TNT (3:00 p.m. EST)
2010 Winner: Jimmie Johnson
2011 Race Length: 218.9 miles/110 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 99.309 mph (Rusty Wallace, 2000)
Race Record: 81.413 mph (Ernie Irvan, 1992)
From the Spotter's Stand
California kid Jimmie Johnson was finally king of the road at Infineon Raceway after winning his first race at the 12-turn, 1.99-mile Sonoma track last June.
Although Johnson’s 48 car did not cross the finish line in reverse, the five-time Cup champ did back his way into the victory thanks to Marcos Ambrose, who fell from first to seventh under caution after he shut his engine off while cruising uphill while attempting to conserve fuel.
As a result of the mistake made with five laps to go, Ambrose’s lead over Johnson faded away, becoming an easy 3.105-second victory for JJ — ahead of runner-up Robby Gordon, Kevin Harvick and pole-sitting 2009 Infineon winner Kasey Kahne.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Road races, particularly at Infineon, are strategy-fests. The trick is to count the laps backward, so a crew chief can calculate when to stop if the race comes down to a fuel-mileage battle.
“Infineon is not as fast as Watkins Glen, so a driver must have a car that gets a lot of mechanical grip — and he must feel comfortable with that grip — to negotiate all 12 turns. If you want to get right down to it, the biggest key to winning in Sonoma is keeping all four wheels on the ground all the time, and the cream usually rises to the top.”
Looking at Checkers: Don’t overthink this. Go with Juan Pablo Montoya.
Pretty Solid Pick: Of course, Tony Stewart isn’t a bad way to go, either.
Good Sleeper Pick: Betcha didn’t realize Greg Biffle is a pretty good little road racer.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a beer drinker, not a connoisseur of wine country.
Insider Tip: At some point, a road-race ringer may break through for a win, but the series regulars have gotten so good at turning left and right that it’s not advised you stray from them.
Classic Moments at Infineon
Jeff Gordon fights Bobby Hamilton tooth and nail in the 1998 Save Mart/Kragen 350 to earn his first win at what is then known as Sears Point Raceway.
Gordon and Jerry Nadeau, in the No. 13 FirstPlus Financial Ford, start on the front row. Nadeau, though, overshoots Turn 2 on lap 13 and suffers a violent crash that sends him to the hospital.
In a physical duel with Hamilton as the race nears its conclusion, Gordon gets by on lap 102 of 112 and holds the spot despite a dogged attempt to reclaim the point by Hamilton in his No. 4 Kodak Chevy.
Gordon’s win is his first at Sonoma, and second of a six-race winning streak on NASCAR’s two road courses.
By Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards No broken valves for Cuz at Michigan. As is usually the case, the Roush contingent was strong on the 2-mile oval, with Edwards padding his championship lead to 20 points — or about a JGR oil pan’s worth if converted to pounds.
2. Kyle Busch Consecutive third-place runs give Rowdy eight top-5 finishes on the season — a number matched only by Edwards.
3. Kevin Harvick Climbed to second in the point standings, in part due to Jimmie Johnson’s and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s sub-par finishes. Though you’d think, with three wins, he’d already be first.
4. Jimmie Johnson The Michigan jinx strikes Johnson again. MIS is one of four tracks — Chicagoland, Homestead and Watkins Glen being the other three — where Johnson has not won.
5. Matt Kenseth The Kenseth/Jimmy Fennig combo is looking more dangerous each week. Until this coming weekend, that is, when Kenseth will run 25th on a road course. Not even Boris Said atop the pit box will change that.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior doesn’t go after other drivers in the media often, which is why his assessment of teammate Mark Martin’s “careless” driving at Michigan was so surprising.
7. Denny Hamlin From 21st in the point standings to ninth in 10 races. And with the win, Hamlin becomes the sixth driver in the top 10 to earn a victory. Bonus points will be big.
8. Kurt Busch They’re doing something right at Penske Racing. Busch has three consecutive poles with finishes of fourth, second and 11th.
9. Jeff Gordon Gordon’s on-again/off-again routine is ongoing, as he follows up a win at Pocono with an uninspiring 17th at Michigan. Or as Gordon might say, “The car wasn’t awesome.”
10. Tony Stewart Random stat of the day: Smoke’s last four runs have netted finishes of 17th, eighth, 21st and seventh. Heck, he finished 20th at Eldora. I can’t explain any of that.
11. Greg Biffle Led the most laps at Michigan (68), but faded to 15th at the finish. This is a better team than its 13th-place points ranking would indicate. Or it should be.
12. Ryan Newman Ran a stealthy sixth at Michigan. Somehow hanging in at eighth in the point standings.
13. Clint Bowyer Rebounds from running in the mid-teens the three races prior to eighth at Michigan. Like Biffle, this bunch should be better than that.
14. Mark Martin “Junior, don’t be mad at me ... I might need a ride with JR Motorsports next season!”
15. Paul Menard Nabs a fourth at Michigan, his best finish since a runner-up at Talladega in 2008.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Juan Pablo Montoya, 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
The old racing adage that states “the best car doesn’t always win” has applied to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series more often than not in 2011. Fuel mileage, pit strategy and late-race track position have been the deciding factors through the spring and early summer, trumping good old fashioned horsepower.
Denny Hamlin, fresh off Sunday’s win at Michigan International Speedway, can relate.
“We were truly dominant one year ago in this race,” Hamlin said following the Heluva Good Sour Cream Dips 400. “(Today) we were a second- to third-place car. In the fall (August, 2010) we finished second. But today we actually were a little worse. But we got a win.”
“We” being the operative term. Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew bested those of Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch under a round of yellow flag stops with less than 10 laps remaining. When the green flag waved with five circuits to go, Kenseth — lined up on the front row to Hamlin’s inside — spun his tires. Hamlin got the jump he needed, and in clean air held off a charging Kenseth for a .281-second win.
“I was kind of painted in a box where my car was so tight the last few laps I had no choice but to make sure I cleared him (Kenseth) on corner exit (off of Turn 2),” Hamlin explained. “If he got beside me on corner entry, that was OK, as long as I was able to get back to the gas sooner than him.”
Kenseth, whose team had fueling problems earlier in the race that nearly cost him an opportunity to race for the win, admitted the final restart was key.
by Mike Neff
Stock car racing has been around for nearly a century, and NASCAR has been responsible for a vast majority of the growth of the sport since the early 1950s. From its humble beginnings — when Bill France Sr. pieced together an organization that ensured competitors received just payouts for risking their lives on-track — to today’s multi-million dollar purses and corporate sponsorships for most every aspect of the race weekend, the sanctioning body has made many positive advancements for stock car racing throughout its storied history.
Unfortunately, it has also made some incredibly bad choices that have served to alienate the fans of the sport and, from the sound of it, NASCAR may be on the verge of making another one.
One of the biggest complaints from fans today is that the national touring series have gotten away from their roots — focusing on mega 1.5- and 2-mile monstrosities — in lieu of the short tracks that made the sport what it is. This decision was initially made back in the 1970s, when new series title sponsor R.J. Reynolds pressured NASCAR to remove all races under 250 miles from the schedule. The result was a mass expulsion of tracks under a half-mile in length — including the last two dirt races on the schedule.
Since 1972, there have only been five racetracks on the Cup schedule that are under one-mile in length. The Nashville Fairgrounds (.596 miles) was on the docket through 1984, while North Wilkesboro Speedway (.635 miles) was raced by the top series through 1996. There are now only three tracks on the Cup schedule under one-mile and, since 1971, no dirt races. And as the series grew in popularity — especially in the ’90s — races were moved away from the traditional cradle of stock car racing in the southeast, where smaller towns historically supported the series, and placed across the country at larger venues in bigger markets designed to house more fans and increase exposure. This regional exodus removed much of the identity and character the series possessed, replacing it with a sterile, generic product at facilities that, for all intents and purposes, looked the same.
In the early part of this decade — at the height of the sport’s popularity — while television contracts were renegotiated, the NASCAR principles in Daytona also decided to chase the stick and ball sports, altering the way the series champion was crowned. While there have been many different point systems throughout the history of the sport, the one constant was all the prior systems based its champion on a full season of competition; sustained excellence was rewarded. That changed when the Chase for the Championship format was implemented in 2004. A “playoff format” placed drivers’ title hopes in a final 10-race block, of which, only 10 drivers (now 12) were eligible. While there have been many different factors at play in the decline of NASCAR’s popularity, the Chase is frequently cited as the main reason fans have abandoned the sport.
Shortly after the implementation of the Chase, the sanctioning body rolled out a new car design, which not only made the cars — regardless of make — aesthetically identical (except for headlight, grill and tail light decals), but also invoked ungainly front splitters and rear wings that resembled sports cars, not stock cars. The outcry from fans was so loud, NASCAR was forced to replace the wing with a traditional spoiler while hiding the splitter with a redesigned front valence. It should be noted that the new “Car of Tomorrow,” as it was known upon its inception, is a safer machine, although it’s widely believed the same safety improvements could have been made to the “old” car.
Now that NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series appears to be regaining some momentum from an attendance and television-ratings standpoint, and the Nationwide Series begins to show more strength of its own with a new, series-specific championship format, the sanctioning body is in discussions to screw up what may be the Nationwide Series’ most competitive and compelling event — the annual 200 lapper at the .686-mile Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly the Indianapolis Raceway Park).
Since 1982, when the Nationwide (then Budweiser) Series was formed from the Grand National Sportsman division, Kroger has sponsored the race, making it the longest running sponsorship of a racing event in the country, as well as one of the most successful partnerships in the history of stock car racing. While the sponsorship in and of itself is impressive, the competition on the race track simply provides the best Nationwide race of the season each and every year. This year’s race will mark the 29th anniversary of the event but, if the folks at the big track at 16th and Georgetown have their way, the last to take place at the historic little short track.
Reports by The Indianapolis Star indicate that Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials are in negotiations with NASCAR to move the Nationwide race to the 2.5-mile IMS for a Saturday afternoon race. The theory behind the move is that it will bolster the overall attendance at the big track for the entire weekend, although that logic would seem incredibly flawed.
The Cup race at the Brickyard has gradually lost attendance over the years for a few different reasons. When the track hosted its first Cup race in 1994, there were no other Cup races within 250 miles of the track — Michigan International Speedway was the closest venue where people could attend a Cup race. Now there is a new race at Kentucky Speedway just three weeks before the Brickyard 400, one at Chicagoland Speedway less than two months after the event, and a track in Kansas City with two dates which attracts many of the Midwestern fans that once traveled to Indianapolis.
Adding to the decline in interest is the Goodyear tire debacle of 2008, which continues to leave a bad taste in many long-time fans’ mouths. Also, with an economy that has yet to turn around for race fans, the racing dollars do not go as far as they once did, forcing fans to either attend a venue closer to home, one with more bang for their buck, or not at all. The end result is that the attendance at IMS — while still routinely in the top three crowds of the year — will most likely be south of 100,000 this trip, which will look horrendous in a venue with a seating capacity hovering around 250,000.
In short, moving the Nationwide race to the big track is going to have absolutely no impact on attendance at IMS. The people in town to see the Nationwide event are already in town — they’ll go to the Brickyard if they choose. Holding the support series race at IMS will only serve to reduce the number of people who attend the Nationwide event — think along the lines of 40,000.
There is no question that racing in the cozy confines of Lucas Oil Raceway results in close-quarter, full-contact racing, but it also affords the fans the opportunity to view the racing around the entire track. That, in contrast to attending a race at the behemoth 2.5-mile speedway, where sight lines restrict viewing of the large majority of the track — not to mention the quality of racing, which lends itself to single-file, aero-dependent parades.
Racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is special. There is a reason the Indianapolis 500 has been dubbed “the greatest spectacle in racing.” However, the racing at IMS is less about the exciting nature of the race, and more about history, spectacle and the ghosts of racers past. The more events IMS hosts, the more the uniqueness of running at such an historic venue is diminished and the draw of seeing the top series loses its luster. The focus should be on getting people back in the stands by promoting the event, the history and the experience rather than trying to stuff more events into a place that, for the better part of 83 years, held only one race per year.
The races at Lucas Oil Raceway are consistently the best on the schedule of both the Truck and Nationwide series. Two years ago, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch started 41st and 42nd in the Nationwide event and passed every car on the track en route to first- and second-place finishes — one doesn’t see that at IMS.
The loyal fans that have supported the series for 30 years deserve to keep “their” race the night before the Brickyard, at Lucas Oil Raceway, as it has been for 17 years. Just because the deep pockets in Gasoline Alley can throw around greenbacks doesn’t mean loyalty should be ignored. The time has come for NASCAR to remember its roots and stop ripping the sport up by them.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards Edwards had the most telling line of the weekend at Pocono: “What’s the point of having the points lead if you don’t use it?” Think about that. That’s deep stuff.
2. Jimmie Johnson A dearth of wins through the spring was a little surprising, but a summer lull is not. We’ve seen this before, right? He’ll be at full bore as the Chase starts.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. A legitimate case could be made for Junior to sit atop these rankings. The cold, hard fact is that you have to win before you’re the man to beat. And as close as he’s been, that hasn’t happened yet.
4. Kyle Busch We understand your sponsor may not be in agreement, but you can’t continue to let the boys at RCR push you around. Your brother’s “keep smiling” line is poor advice.
5. Kevin Harvick Speaking of the RCR bullies, here sits Harvick, fresh off probation and looking to stir the pot — as long as he’s in the safety of a 3,400-pound racecar or has his crewmen standing behind him.
6. Kurt Busch Whatever ailed Penske Racing seems to have been remedied. Kurt’s consecutive poles and finishes of fourth, ninth and second prove that.
7. Matt Kenseth Led 103 laps only to finish 14th in the Coca-Cola 600, which is his lowest result in the last four races — included in that a win at Dover.
8. Jeff Gordon The win at Pocono — his second of the season — likely locks him in as a wild card, at worse, for the Chase. Throw in some consistency and we got ourselves a legit contender.
9. Denny Hamlin The best car at Pocono was done in by a flat left rear tire. On a more positive note, at least his crew chief isn’t talking smack again.
10. Tony Stewart There’s a precipitous drop from ninth to 10th. Stewart had finished in the top 3 at Pocono in four of the previous five visits, so his 21st-place showing on Sunday is worrisome.
11. Clint Bowyer This team is a tough one to figure. Could still turn it on as Chase approaches and be dangerous.
12. Greg Biffle Like Bowyer, Biffle is riding a roller coaster. Is it time for some internal changes on the 16 team?
13. Kasey Kahne Kahne’s team must learn how to finish. It’s as simple as that.
14. Ryan Newman Sitting ninth in the point standings because no one has decided to take it away from him.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya Has led laps and looked racy in four straight events. Like Kahne, he has to finish.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Brad Keselowski, 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
You know something big has happened when Jeff Gordon hits a career milestone. Gordon, NASCAR’s active leader in career victories and a four-time Cup champion, has a portfolio to rival any driver in professional motorsports worldwide.
But in winning the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, Gordon reached yet another mark — in fact, two — by earning his 84th career Cup victory, tying him for third all-time with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. The win was also his fifth at Pocono, which ties him with Bill Elliott for the most all-time wins at the 2.5-mile triangle.
“I really can't even express in words what it means to tie Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison at 84 wins,” Gordon said. “I just never thought it would ever happen for me, or really when I got in this sport for anybody to win that many races is amazing.”
It was win Gordon had to fight for in a grueling three hour and 26 minute race that witnessed more mechanical issues than accidents. The most noteworthy failure was a tire on the No. 11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin, a four-time Pocono winner, led 76 of the first 101 laps with a car that seemed to have the perfect balance of speed and handling. However, a flat tire with 42 laps remaining while the field circled under caution dropped him to 21st on the restart. That opened the door for Gordon, who took the lead from Juan Pablo Montoya when the green flag waved. He then led 37 of the remaining 41 laps — surrendering the point only under green flag pit stops — to bag his second win of the season.
“When we left pit road and have a flat tire … it’s just not your day,” a disappointed Hamlin said. “When it did that, it just sheared the tire, broke a brake line so I had no brakes… just a slew of problems.”
Pole-sitter Kurt Busch finished second, 2.965 seconds, behind Gordon.
“I’m exhausted,” Kurt Busch said. “It was a great, hard-fought battle with Jeff Gordon at the end. It started about 130 laps in, about 70 to go, where we were able to take the lead, stretch it out. Then there was a caution (and) the 24 beat us out of the pits.
“I thought we could gain on him after 15 laps into the run — we were able to do that most of the day. We were able to do that again at the end, but we just couldn't close the gap far enough. The old ‘Golden Boy’ had it in him today. He ran strong.”
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Long Pond, Pa.
Specs: 2.5-mile tri-oval; Banking/Turn 1: 14°; Banking/ Turn 1: 8°; Banking/ Turn 3: 6°
2010 Winners: Denny Hamlin (June), Greg Biffle (Aug.)
2011 Race Length: 500 miles/200 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 172.533 mph (Kasey Kahne, 2004)
Race Record: 144.982 mph (Rusty Wallace, 1996)
From the Spotter's Stand
Denny Hamlin’s fourth career win at Pocono was the least exciting news from the 2.5-mile tri-oval in June. A nine-car wreck on the next-to-last lap at Long Pond resulted in a green-white-checker finish and a post-race shouting match between Hamlin’s teammate, Joey Logano, and then-points leader Kevin Harvick, who Logano claimed did not wear the firesuit in the family.
There were emotions of a different kind in August, when Greg Biffle dedicated his first win in 64 races to his ailing owner, Jack Roush, who was resting at the Mayo Clinic after being injured in a plane crash. After a rain delay, Biffle beat pole-sitter Tony Stewart to the line by 3.598 seconds to win one for the Cat in the Hat.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Low-end horsepower is needed exiting the three corners, and top-end muscle is needed on the long straights. Making the car turn in just one corner is difficult enough, and making it comfortable in all three turns of varying length is next to impossible. You always hear people talk about a ‘driver’s track.’ This one is a mechanic’s track, or maybe an engineer’s track. The reason people compare Pocono to a road course is because the road courses are the only other places where all the turns are radically different. It’s getting harder because the pavement’s deteriorating and the bumps are getting worse.”
Looking at Checkers: Throw out two stinkers (’08, ’09) and Denny Hamlin has been nearly unbeatable.
Pretty Solid Pick: Smoke has 10 top 10s in his last 11 starts on the coathanger (we’re trying, at all costs, to use the term “tricky triangle”).
Good Sleeper Pick: Since Juan Pablo Montoya figured the place out, he’s been pretty good.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Marcos Ambrose, who’s been 30th or worse since a sixth in his first time out.
Insider Tip: Fuel mileage and rain often factor. A crafty crew chief is a plus.
Classic Moments at Pocono
After missing the first four months of the 1987 season due to a then-undisclosed illness, Tim Richmond wins in his second race back (his first was the All-Star event at Charlotte), the Miller High Life 500 at Pocono.
Richmond’s No. 25 Folger’s Chevy passes Dale Earnhardt on lap 153 of 200 and leads the final 47 after sitting on the point for a total of 82 circuits throughout the day. Richmond beats Bill Elliott to the line by one second. In Victory Lane, an emotional Richmond admits that he never saw the checkered flag through the tears in his eyes.
Richmond wins the following week at Riverside but runs only six races thereafter. He retires after the 1987 season and passes away on Aug. 13, 1989, from complications due to AIDS.
by Tom Bowles
It’s hard to believe that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is already halfway through its regular season, but as the circuit heads to the melting mountains of Pocono, Pa., (seriously … it’s pushing 100 degrees up in these parts) that’s exactly where we stand.
It’s 13 races down, 13 races to go until the Chase in a year that’s already seen all four manufacturers win, three green-white-checker finishes, two first-time winners (in marquee races, no less) and one AARP owner who we also learned still packs a punch. But in this “renaissance season” that 2011 has become, with television ratings finally ticking upwards in the midst of unprecedented parity, the important number to remember for the playoffs is zero. That’s right, zero new Chase participants — Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s return aside — would be eligible if the postseason started today, a number that showcases that, for all the Trevor Baynes and Regan Smiths of the world, they’ve yet to break back into the sport’s “most important” part of its season: the playoffs.
What drivers, facts and figures deserve mention at this point? Let’s review where we stand at the halfway point:
Biggest Surprise (Race): Without a doubt, Trevor Bayne in the season-opening Daytona 500. The rookie impressed throughout Speedweeks, pairing up with veteran Jeff Gordon in the Duel 150s, but I don’t think anyone expected the rookie to actually win. Bayne’s perfectly-timed moves left him out front when pseudo-teammate David Ragan jumped the gun on a restart; from there, it was smooth sailing to becoming the youngest winner in the history of the Great American Race.
Ever since? It’s been “one-hit wonder” time for Bayne, with zero top-15 finishes paired with a serious, month-long illness that kept him out of the car and critics chanting “overrated!” while writing “get well soon.” But considering his age (20) and big-money backer (Roush), I’d say it’s highly unlikely Bayne becomes the second coming of Derrike Cope. And the fact he’s more innocent than a Disney movie, preaching faith and “straight edge” in a sport that pitches itself as a family product? It’s an added bonus — the type that makes executives drool, considering NASCAR’s ratings were up for three straight weeks after Bayne pulled into Victory Lane down in Florida.
Runner-Ups: Who you’d expect: Regan Smith, winning the Southern 500 and Brad Keselowski winning at Kansas.
Biggest Surprise (Season): Dale Earnhardt Jr. No, he hasn’t won, but check out the other statistics for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver turned … dare I say it … one of NASCAR’s most competitive drivers. Three top-5 finishes, matching his 2010 total, show crew chief Steve Letarte has turned this team around faster than anyone expected. And the consistency — long Earnhardt’s Achilles? heel — is what’s most impressive. A calm and collected driver and crew are now delivering the right adjustments on the final stop, not just the first, to ensure the highest possible result. But here’s what you’re not hearing about Junior: his 22.2-place average start in 2011, second-worst in his career, is paired with a 10.3-place average finish, his best. That’s right — better than the years he was actually contending for titles, back when Bud was on the hood and Jimmie Johnson was that guy who could never finish the job.
So is this the year Earnhardt makes his mark, contending for a title, at Hendrick? No, although making the Chase is a foregone conclusion. But considering the recent rash of “just misses,” you get the sense that when the No. 88 finally breaks through to Victory Lane, it’s going to be in bunches. After all, Earnhardt doesn’t issue a full-scale apology to his crew for nothing! (Or so his marketing machine says).
Runner-Up: Matt Kenseth (two wins, zero crew chief changes).
Biggest Disappointment No. 1: Joey Logano With a run of seventh-, sixth-, fifth-, fourth- and third-place finishes during the 2010 Chase, most expected the third season to be the charm for NASCAR’s “next generation” leader.
We’re still waiting. With one top 5, two top 10s and some ugly crew chief change rumors (denied) Logano’s sitting 25th in the standings, a whopping 82 points — nearly two race’s worth — behind 10th-place Ryan Newman. Barring a remarkable run of summer victories, he’ll miss the Chase for a third straight year in a ride, manned by Tony Stewart for a decade, that whiffed just once before his arrival. But perhaps most important of all, in a year where “young guns” are trying mightily to maintain some sort of relevance once again — think Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Cole Whitt — Logano has fallen into the background. On a team where Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin stand out, for different reasons, the man handpicked to lead his generation is simply a quiet face in the crowd.
That, of course, begs a major question for sponsor Home Depot, who’s watched Jimmie Johnson in a Lowe’s Chevy win championships for the last five years: How much more patience will Joe Gibbs Racing’s loyal backer have, particularly with free agents like Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer on the market? Could it wind up leaving the sport altogether, the latest sign of the sport’s economic times? It’s amazing to think at this point, with all the hype and seemingly unlimited potential, that Logano could be fighting for his career, but it’s hard to imagine 25th or lower in points being an acceptable way to end the season for the No. 20.
Biggest Disappointment No. 2: Jamie McMurray With the way the No. 1 team tackled 2010 — winning three major races and pulling the “feast or famine” approach — the 2011 “wild card” Chase rule change would have been perfect for their playoff chances. In fact, most everyone expected that McMurray would not only win this season, but he’d make the playoffs on merit after five top-11 finishes in the final 10 weeks in 2010 showed marked consistency.
Well, come 2011 this Earnhardt-Ganassi outfit has been consistent, all right … consistently terrible. Owner Chip Ganassi looks preoccupied with IndyCar’s 2012 chassis, teammate Juan Pablo Montoya’s getting into fights with Ryan Newman and McMurray seems without the support, horsepower or handling needed to be successful. Other than a pole at Martinsville that looked impressive, he’s totaled as many DNFs (2) as top-10 finishes, sitting 27th in the standings so far back that even the wild card is a virtual impossibility. As the kicker, tornadoes destroyed the driver’s hometown of Joplin, Mo., last month in a cruel twist of fate that showcases how the world only leaves you sitting at the top for so long.
Breaking Down the Current Chase
Locks: Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth (two wins in case he falls out of the top 10) and·... Dale Earnhardt Jr. That’s right — at third in the standings, just one man (Elliott Sadler, 2005) has been this high through 13 races and then failed to make the playoffs.
Probables: 1) Tony Stewart Typically a guy who doesn’t get going until June, Stewart’s actually overachieving at this time of year at eighth in points. The only reason to have a shadow of a doubt: the recent firing of Bobby Hutchens, SHR’s Vice-President of Competition, which certainly raises some questions.
2) Kurt Busch Until the last few weeks, people were afraid to light a match in front of this combustible Busch for fear the poor man might explode. It’s been an R-rated spring on his radio, with public tirades and private tongue-lashings from Busch leaving Penske Racing on its toes. But with two straight top-10 finishes, combined with 155 laps led and teammate Brad Keselowski’s Kansas win, it looks like new engineering has worked to the point where he’ll be safe.
3) Clint Bowyer You never want to see someone’s car owner in the news for punching a driver out. But that $150,000 fine should hardly derail the efforts of Bowyer, who if not for an ugly start (zero top-10 finishes the first four weeks) would be right up there with teammate Kevin Harvick in the standings. The only worry is his pending free agency. What if Childress doesn’t offer a contract, he can’t find a sponsor or vice versa? As Mark Martin showed last season, those sort of circus-level distractions can disrupt your rhythm.
4) Denny Hamlin Welcome to the Jimmie Johnson Hangover Club, Denny! It’s happened to the best of them (Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin to be precise). On a serious note, considering how badly this team began the year it’s a miracle Hamlin’s pulled it to 11th in points. They’re far from out of the woods, though — engine problems still reign over at Joe Gibbs Racing — and after the Pocono/Michigan swing some of Hamlin’s shakier tracks remain. And the relationship between driver and crew appears inconsistent. Hamlin probably needs to buckle down and win Pocono twice to feel safe.
Vulnerable: 1) Ryan Newman Tenth in the point standings, he’s already on shaky ground, although the promotion of former crew chief Matt Borland helps (he’ll replace Hutchens at Stewart-Haas). Not a guy who wins all that often — just twice in the last three-plus years — and considering the quality of drivers behind him in the standings, that has to change.
2) Jeff Gordon Who knew the pairing of Alan Gustafson would work out to be the borderline worst of Hendrick’s three crew chief changes? Since a Phoenix win, the No. 24 car has been on a roller coaster ride until Kansas last weekend. Bad luck hasn’t helped (doesn’t it seem he hits the wall without a SAFER Barrier every time?), but that’s no excuse for several races where this team was plain out to lunch. At 13th in the standings, he sits poised in the “wild card” spot with that win for now, but he’ll need a second (and probably third) to feel secure.
Who Can Sneak In: 1) Greg Biffle Like Bowyer, Biffle suffered through an ugly start until a fuel-filling debacle at Las Vegas lit a fire under him. Twelfth in points and armed with Ford’s high-horsepower, low-cooling engine — and with a list of strong tracks ahead — this perpetual Chaser should knock someone out.
2) A true “Wild Card” Other than the Biff, well that’s pretty much it for a points Chase that has 13 drivers (two of which are the current “wild cards”) battling for those 10 spots. But, as we saw with Keselowski’s victory, this new system does open the door for a big surprise. Among those drivers capable of scoring two victories, which is what I almost guarantee you’ll need to make it through: Juan Pablo Montoya (15th in points, two road courses coming up), Kasey Kahne (18th in points, can win most anywhere), Marcos Ambrose (19th in points, again, the two road courses) and Brad Keselowski (tied for 21st, could add a second win at Daytona).
Stat That Should Shock You: Kevin Harvick has led the circuit with three wins this season but only led a total of 108 laps. That, more than anything, represents the way things have gone, with the first 85 percent of the races having little to do with dramatic twists in the end — as pit strategy, circumstances and pure sandbagging have handed victories to seemingly unlikely suitors.
Stat That Should Not Shock You: Jimmie Johnson, despite only one victory, is right on pace for consecutive title No. 6. He’s projected to have about the same number of top-10 finishes as last year (22 in ?11 vs. 23) along with the same number of laps led (1,307 vs. 1,315). And his average finish, at 10.6 through 13 races, is his best since 2008.
Six Questions To Ask Heading Into the Second Half of the Regular Season:
1. Did Roush Fenway Racing and Carl Edwards peak too soon? We’ve seen in years past that there’s a danger (Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart) to being far out in front of the standings before “go” time.
2. What will certain sponsors (UPS, Home Depot) do with drivers that have potential rather than real stats to back up their multi-million dollar contracts?
3. Is the glass half-full for this sport or half-empty? There are a record number of start-and-parkers each week … but TV ratings have inched upward. Attendance is down at places like Bristol, but up at others, like Charlotte, where a master marketing plan was enacted. Development drivers can’t find rides … but others, like Cole Whitt, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are finally moving their way towards Sprint Cup, leaving hope there might actually be a 2012 rookie class.
4. Where will the line at “Have At It, Boys” be, and does it involve someone being actually, physically hurt to draw a suspension? I’m not judging on the penalty here, but being totally serious. By not suspending Childress, NASCAR set a precedent that punching someone in the garage after the race is fair game. Is that a good or a bad thing over the long-term?
5. Will we end the year with the “New” Kyle Busch (mild-mannered, “everybody says he’s changed” version) or “Old” Kyle Busch? (the speeding ticket, Kevin Harvick-wrecking, Childress-tantalizing one that’s appeared over the last month.)
Three Questions We're Tired Of Hearing:
1. Will she or won't she come to NASCAR? (Take a guess).
2. Will Mark Martin finally retire?
3. Will Jimmie Johnson win that sixth straight championship?
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards Leads the series with seven top 5s and 10 top 10s through 13 races, including his most recent masterful performance — a fifth at Kansas.
2. Jimmie Johnson Considering his reputation, one would think Chad Knaus would have a few extra yards of fuel line in the 48 Chevy.
3. Kevin Harvick You have to figure Kevin Harvick had a good laugh when he heard his team owner, Richard Childress, fed Kyle Busch a knuckle sandwich after Saturday’s Truck Series race.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior admitted his car was more of a top-10 machine than a runner-up, but smart strategy that works is the sign of a strong team.
5. Kyle Busch Wonder what hurt Kyle more: The bruised ego from getting passed by a rookie out of Turn 4 on the last lap of the Truck race or Richard Childress’ fist bruising his face.
6. Matt Kenseth Kenseth was sponsored by the “Affliction” clothing line last Sunday. That pairing makes about as much sense as a candy maker sponsoring Kyle Busch. Oh wait ...
7. Denny Hamlin Hamlin ascension up the point standings (11th) continues with a third-place run in Kansas. Note to Ryan Newman: Don’t get too comfortable in 10th.
8. Greg Biffle Biffle, with three career wins, had been the man at Kansas, but oddly enough, never so much as led a lap on Sunday after nearly winning in Charlotte the week prior.
9. Kurt Busch No truth to the report that younger brother Kyle called older brother Kurt this week, asking how he handled getting beat up by on old guy.
10. Kasey Kahne Ever wonder if the Red Bull Racing drivers actually have Red Bull in the little bottles they’re constantly sucking on? Bet Kahne will fill us in next year.
11. Tony Stewart Respectable eighth for Smoke in Kansas. We’ll see how organizational changes effect team going forward.
12. Jeff Gordon Gordon’s proposed new sponsor: Drive to End Fuel Mileage Races.
13. Clint Bowyer Not the happy homecoming he had in mind in Kansas. Aside from the Truck Series race, of course.
14. Brad Keselowski That win was coming, fuel mileage or not. And no one ended up in the catchfencing, so all the better!
15. David Ragan This team is getting closer. A win would be huge for its Chase hopes, unfortunately, they aren't that close.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Brian Vickers
by Matt Taliaferro
For the second week in a row, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte played the fuel mileage game. And for the second week in a row, they came up just shy.
In the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Earnhardt’s gas tank ran dry on the final lap, allowing Kevin Harvick to appear out of nowhere to steal a win. In Sunday’s STP 400 from Kansas Speedway, Earnhardt had the fuel, but not the track position. Instead, Brad Keselowski conserved enough gas over a lengthy green-flag run to coast to the checkered flag nearly three seconds in front of Earnhardt’s No. 88 machine.
“I was pushing really hard the run before and drove up to seventh or eighth place, I think,” Keselowski said. “And we were a legitimate top-5 car. We needed to get the clean air to be a car to win the race. I quite honestly felt like Kurt (Busch, teammate) and I were pretty equal. It was just a matter of being up front and having the right track position.
“But, you know, we didn't qualify as well as we’d like to, so we never really found that. Kurt had ’em covered on speed. We had ’em covered on strategy. And at the end a Penske car was going to win and that’s just what happened.”
Busch indeed had the car to beat. His No. 22 Dodge sat on the pole and led a race-high 152 of 267 laps — including 42 of the last 50. However, it was the eight laps he didn’t lead — the final eight — that mattered.
Busch was forced to pit road for a splash of gas on lap 258, handing the lead to Keselowski. Behind the eventual race-winner, Earnhardt slid under Denny Hamlin to take second. With both Earnhardt and Hamlin in good shape fuel-wise, it was only a question of whether Keselowski had saved enough gas to maintain the lead.
“As guys started pitting, I kind of looked at where our lap times were, and it seemed like we started picking up a bunch of speed,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said of his decision to keep Keselowski out. “It was almost a no-brainer for me because we were only losing three to four tenths (of a second, per lap) to the guys on new tires, where normally when guys start short pitting seems like you’re losing over a second a lap.
by Vito Pugliese
Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 was its typical showcase of endurance, stamina and mechanical frailty — peppered with an F-bomb — and the cries of favoritism and foul luck for NASCAR’s most popular driver. Also on display during the course of the final few laps were three drives who will prove to be pivotal players throughout the 2011 season, as well as determine the Sprint Cup landscape for 2012.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
As the field stacked up, trying to avoid the rapidly decelerating No. 4 Toyota of Kasey Kahne, on the lap 400 final restart, it appeared that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would finally break the string of 105 races without a win and all would once again be right in the Banana Republic known as Junior Nation.
Halfway down the backstretch on the white flag lap, amongst the debris being shed from Brad Keselowski’s clobbered Dodge, the No. 88 Chevrolet drew its knees into its chest, gasped one last breath of air and atomized Sunoco Green E15 race fuel, falling silent. Coming out of Turn 4, the sad reality set in that on Memorial Day Weekend, the National Guard would be denied a win for the second time in five hours – and 1,103 miles.
As his car coasted across the finish line, Dale Jr.’s first comments were, “What’d we end up, seventh? Eh, that’s ‘aiiight.’” As Steve Letarte apologized across the radio for being 500 feet short, Earnhardt tried to reassure his crestfallen crew chief, imploring him to “be proud, man, be proud.”
It is a far cry from the traffic heard across the airwaves the previous two seasons. Gone are the days of constant bickering and resentment and the suggestions that he was laying down on the job. Earnhardt has matured more as a driver and a leader in the past five months than the previous five years combined.
If fans were expecting a Kurt Busch-esque tirade across the radio, they would be highly disappointed in Earnhardt’s post-race interview. If they were expecting an old-school “It-don’t-mean-$***-Right-Now-Daddy’s-Done-Won-Here-Ten-Times” blast, they’d be even more taken aback by his reasoning that if they had won, it would have been “a gift.” For those that have lamented that Earnhardt isn’t anything like his late father, they may want to take a second look. He is clearly serious about not just winning, but winning consistently.
One win won’t erase the ills and missteps of the past several seasons, but it will serve as a stepping stone to making him relevant in statistics other than souvenir sales, as well as getting what was the former No. 24 team back to the level it was in 2007, when Jeff Gordon posted six wins, 30 top-10 finishes and would have won the championship by over 350 points had the standard points system been in play.
Junior’s Outlook: Gets a win prior to the Chase, qualifies for Chase, wins a race in Chase, finishes fifth in final standings. Nobody will notice because they will be either fawning over Jimmie Johnson’s sixth title or a monumental meltdown that sees his drive ending at five.
On the opposite end of the Coke 600 spectrum is Kevin Harvick, who has well earned the nickname “The Closer.” Many — think Greg Biffle, Bobby Hamilton Sr., Joe Nemechek, Ricky Rudd, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Kyle Bush —have bestowed other, less flattering nicknames for Harvick, a guy who thrives on being in the center of controversy.
It has been a remarkable turnaround for a driver who most had all but written off as returning to Richard Childress Racing following a 2009 season that had him openly feuding with his team — and team owner — over the radio during the race.
It had been a fall from grace of sorts for Harvick, who went through a dry spell not quite unlike Earnhardt’s. If not for the controversial end to the 2007 Daytona 500, it would have been over three years since Harvick had won a race as the 2010 season began. However, a contract extension with RCR (when all other options dried up) turned things around. Since the start of the 2010 season, Harvick has made a habit of leading the right laps to win races – i.e., the last few.
A quick check of the laps lead of his last seven wins tells the tale:
2011: Auto Club Speedway: 1 lap led; Martinsville: 6; Charlotte: 2
2010: Talladega: 2 laps led; Daytona: 28; Michigan: 60
2007: Daytona: 4 laps led
Not exactly Jimmie Johnson-like domination, but that kind of opportunism — where Harvick and team find a way to put themselves in a position to win — is exactly what championship-winning teams have a knack of doing.
Don’t get me wrong – Harvick is far from the feel-good cheerleader. He still routinely lambastes his team on the radio if the car is not up to snuff immediately, and will probably rub another 10 drivers the wrong way over the course of his career. Say what you will, though, when it’s all said and done, Harvick has the hardware: Daytona 500, Coke 600 and Brickyard 400 wins; two Nationwide Series titles; a pair of Camping World Truck Series title as an owner. And if things keep going the way they are, a Cup title in 2011 is a distinct possibility.
Not bad for a guy who was all but considered unretainable a year and a half ago.
Harvick’s Outlook: Wins two more regular-season races leading less than 10 laps combined. Easily makes the Chase as regular-season points leader, but falls just shy of a Cup once again.
It seems like yesterday when David Ragan was being derided by Tony Stewart as “a dart with no feathers” at Martinsville — but that day was actually over five years ago. Ragan has been a work in progress of sorts, though most organizations usually don’t wait half a decade for talent to come around, particularly when they are piloting what once was the flagship car of an organization entering it’s 24th season of Sprint Cup competition.
Ragan was tabbed to replace Mark Martin in the Roush Fenway No. 6 Ford for the 2007 season. His first act of defiance was losing control in one of the Daytona 500 qualifying races while getting up to speed after exiting pit road and running head on into the backstretch wall. Ragan’s sophomore season faired a bit better, barely missing the Chase, and he was an odds-on pick to make it for sure in 2009, as well as secure his first of many career victories. While he did win a pair of Nationwide Series races, Ragan floundered on the Cup side, dropping to 27th in points, albeit during a time when Roush Fenway had no idea that its simulation software was engineered on a Commodore 64 and apparently metric.
The 2010 season wasn’t much better, with only three top 10s to the 6 car’s credit and an anemic ranking of 23rd in the final points standings.
This year was off to yet another lackluster start, and rumors began to pick up that this was Ragan’s make-or-break season – odd, considering the previous two would have broken pretty much any other driver not named Jamie McMurray. His first top 10 of the year was at Martinsville – the same track where Stewart’s radio transmission became favored fodder for many in the media. He followed up with a pole a week later at Texas Motor Speedway and another top-10 run.
The good times kept rolling after the requisite Talladega crash took him out halfway through the event with a fourth-place finish at Richmond. While the team did fall off at Dover and Darlington (after peeling off the side of Brian Vickers’ car like a can of sardines), something seemed to click at Charlotte. He was fast from the get go on All-Star weekend, winning the Sprint Showdown. He was steady all night during the Coca-Cola 600 – narrowly missing out on winning his first career race at a track and event that favors first-timers. Had eventual race winner Kevin Harvick not received pushing assistance from teammate Paul Menard (who was not supposed to be behind Harvick in the running order) under caution, Ragan would have likely won by default had the No. 29 ran dry in its pursuit of Earnhardt.
So what does this all mean for the second-generation Cup driver from Georgia? Right now, not a whole lot. Ragan needs to win this year, and potentially make the Chase to secure his services at Roush Fenway Racing next season.
Rumors now have sponsor UPS pushing hard to get Carl Edwards down with brown, and Ragan may have further competition internally for his seat from current Roush-affiliated driver and Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, as well as Roush Nationwide pilot Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who has emerged as one of the two or three fastest rising starts in stock car racing.
After five years, now is the time for Ragan to deliver on the potential and history of success the No. 6 car has historically known. It was the foundation upon which Jack Roush built his racing empire, after all, and if Ragan can’t deliver this season, he might be the Jenga block that gets removed.
Ragan’s Outlook: Wins a race in 2011, but it will be too-little, too-late, as Ragan is replaced by either Bayne or Stenhouse in a No. 6 car that is adorned with new decals in 2012.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Kansas City, Kan.
Specs: 1.5-mile tri-oval; Banking/Turns: 15°; Banking/Tri-Oval: 10.4°; Banking/Backstretch: 5°
2010 Winner: Greg Biffle (Oct.)
2011 Race Length: 400.5 miles/267 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 180.856 mph (Matt Kenseth, 2005)
Race Record: 138.077 (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. NASCAR is betting that the first weekend in June will pay off for the track that also offers a high-end casino over Turn 2.
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: Greg Biffle is absolute cash money in Kansas.
Pretty Solid Pick: You want solid? Take a look at Jeff Gordon’s eight top 10s in 10 starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: Dale Earnhardt Jr. suddenly looks like a contender on the big intermediate tracks.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Joey Logano’s success in the Nationwide Series at Kansas — two wins in three starts — have not translated into Cup glory.
Insider Tip: Two races at Kansas mean double the success for Biffle, Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart … and double the boredom for the fans.
Classic Moments in Kansas
Kansas Speedway has been the site of many oddball finishes, and with its traditional date in the Chase, its 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. Carl Edwards The day faded to night at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Edwards’ car struggled to keep up. Regardless, he’s the man to beat on most weekends.
2. Kevin Harvick No one but Harvick is quite clear where he came from to win the Coke 600, but in typical “flare for the dramatic” fashion (see: 2007 Daytona 500), he managed another crown jewel win.
3. Jimmie Johnson The 48 car doesn’t blow up very often, but when it does, crew chief Chad Knaus tells the world how unhappy he is, via FOX’s live in-car radio feed.
4. Kyle Busch The Lexus brand doesn't usually get much play in NASCAR-land, but Kyle saw to that last week. What’s all this talk about the “New” Kyle Busch, again?
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Losing the Coca-Cola 600 coming out of Turn 4 with a dry fuel tank has to hurt ... and for the second time this season, in a cruel bit of irony, it was the Budweiser car that robbed him of what looked to be a sure-fire win.
6. Matt Kenseth May have had the best car in Charlotte, but when a rash of cautions and wacky fuel strategy came into play, Kenseth was relegated to a 14th-place finish.
7. Greg Biffle Lost in fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s disappointment was Biffle, who gave up the lead prior to the green-white-checker finish for a splash of gas and a safe points day. The stop dropped him from first to 13th.
8. Denny Hamlin Continuing a trend, Hamlin also was the victim of an empty gas tank. And for those that were throwing dirt on his grave a month ago, noticed he’s quietly worked his way up the standings to 12th.
9. Kasey Kahne Unlike Biffle, Kahne stayed out for the green-white-checker finish, led the field to green and then ran out of fuel. The difference? He needs wins to make the Chase. And eight positions in the final rundown.
10. Clint Bowyer Bowyer battled an evil car throughout most of the evening in Charlotte, but was able to muster a 15th-place run.
11. Tony Stewart Expected more out of Stewart in the 600 after it appeared his team found something previously lacking in the All-Star Race.
12. Jeff Gordon Lucky for Gordon, only five 1.5- to 2-mile ovals remain until the Chase.
13. Marcos Ambrose The schedule sets up well for him, with two road races coming up shortly … and those five intermediate stops that have been Gordon's bane have been Ambrose's bread 'n' butter this year.
14. David Ragan Earns his career-best Cup finish (second) at Charlotte. For a driver with an uncertain future, that doesn't suck.
15. AJ Allmendinger In case you haven’t noticed (and you probably have not), the 'Dinger sits only 18 points out of the final Chase spot.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Brian Vickers
by Matt Taliaferro
Jimmie Johnson was still celebrating in Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway on Feb. 21, 2010, when runner-up Kevin Harvick addressed the media and uttered a quote that still bring impish grins to this day.
Harvick’s assessment of Johnson’s luck involved a golden horseshoe that was stuck in, well, use your imagination.
Johnson would win the next weekend in Las Vegas and again two races later at Bristol, the first three of six wins garnered last year.
However, for all the luck Johnson seemingly has enjoyed en route to five consecutive Sprint Cup titles, he can’t hold a candle — or a horseshoe — to Harvick’s 2011 fortune. And Sunday evening’s Coca-Cola 600 was the latest example for last season’s third-place championship finisher.
Harvick conserved enough fuel down the stretch, and zipped past Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his empty gas tank off of Turn 4 on the last lap at Charlotte Motor Speedway to earn his third win of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
In those three victories — the other two coming, ironically, at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville — Harvick has led a grand total of nine laps.
“It’s one of those deals where you get toward the end of the race and I feel like we can take the car to another level and we always have something left,” Harvick said of his three wins. “You’ve got to be there at the end to make something happen. It’s just never been our style to lead a bunch of laps.”
As fate would have it, Johnson was partly responsible for getting Harvick into a position to capitalize when his engine expired with five laps remaining. Awaiting a green-white-checker finish, race leader Greg Biffle was forced to pit road for a splash of fuel. Kasey Kahne inherited the lead, with Earnhardt lined up to his inside and Harvick fifth.
When the green flag waved Kahne’s car sputtered, then stalled, creating a logjam in the outside lane. Jeff Burton spun as a result, but the race remained green. Earnhardt sprinted away, seemingly assured of his first win in 104 races, but as he entered Turn 3 on the final lap, the fuel cell of his No. 88 Chevy went dry as well, and Harvick, who had diced his way past Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, screamed by as the two exited Turn 4.
by Mike Neff
Racing means many things to many people. There is the spectacle of the entire event, the crowds of people, the sounds and smells, strategy and pure speed. Perhaps the oldest — and most accurate — description that has applied throughout the history of auto racing is that it is a test of man and machine.
One hundred years ago, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted a 500-mile race which set the standard for most major races over the next century — that is, until the ADD crowd of casual fans infiltrated auto racing and started asking for shorter races. And while the Indianapolis 500 remains “the greatest spectacle in racing,” this weekend hosts ultimate test of man and machine for the stock car set, as the Coca-Cola 600 takes place at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
For years the challenge of running a 500-mile race was building a car and all its components that would last the distance — as well as a driver who could persevere. Cars routinely broke during the final 100 miles of races, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when small, seemingly inconsequential parts ended the day of a dominant racecar. Over that last 20 years, the manufacturing processes and material development has resulted in cars that rarely have faulty parts said causing failures. Add to that the systems that are in place that make drivers more comfortable than ever before, and the test of man and machine is not nearly as formidable as it once was — but it is still a test.
Driving a racecar is not an easy task, no matter how many creature comforts are built into a driver’s compartment. Cool boxes and ventilation hoses certainly make the temperatures more tolerable, but they are still quite high inside of a racecar. During a typical NASCAR race a car’s interior temperature can easily soar into the 120-130 degree range. When the cars slow under caution periods, the temps will get even higher because the amount of airflow through the car is reduced. In addition, the cars are made much more aerodynamic, which allows less air to flow into the driver’s area.
In the early years of racing — and especially in the early years of NASCAR — things were not nearly as comfortable as they are now. Drivers had loose seats which allowed them to slide around, forcing the pilot to use shear brute strength to hold themselves as needed to be positioned behind the wheel. The cars didn’t have power steering, either, so the drivers were forced to manhandle the cars around the track with incredible fatigue on their upper bodies. They also didn’t have the efficient cooling systems that engines have in the cars today, which resulted in the overall temps of the cars being very high, further sapping energy from the drivers.
In 1960, Charlotte Motor Speedway held its first 600-mile race, a distance chosen for a couple of reasons. First, track operators wanted to differentiate its event from the others on the NASCAR schedule by establishing it as the longest race held each year. Secondly, they wanted to not only rival, but exceed, the mighty Indianapolis 500.
The early years of the race frequently saw half of the field fail to finish all 600 miles. Drivers had to massage their cars and run race strategies designed to make the machines last until the finish, rather than worry about trying to lead laps during the race. The discipline required to allow drivers to pull away, knowing that his own car had to be run at a specific pace to be able to survive, required great will power because, after all, taking it easy is contrary to a driver’s makeup.
Today, cars are easily able to make race distances — even the annual 600-miler — making the request to shorten races is contrary to the basic premise of major races. If anything, more races should go greater distances so that the potential for failure, driver mistake and strategy have the chance to fully play out. The drivers won’t run flat out for the entire race distance, but that, in itself, is part of the intrigue of racing great distances; different teams are able to employ different philosophies and approach the race with different mindsets.
There are hundreds of short tracks across the United States which host races for many different racing series that run races of short distances. If a fan wants to see a “sprint” race, odds are, they won’t have to go far. However, the elite level of racing should put on a lengthy show to fully allow the cream to rise to the top.
Prior to last weekend’s Sprint All-Star Race, Carl Edwards was asked about the short distance of the exhibition race during his weekly media availability. He voiced an opinion inconsistent to what most drivers seem to espouse these days.
“I have been working out. I like those long races,” Edwards said. “You can’t make them shorter. I don’t know if that is what fans like or don’t like. I think there is a vocal group that doesn’t like the long races, but I know as a kid if you turn on the TV on Sunday and watched the 500-miler from somewhere, there was something about that event — it was a marathon of man and machine trying to persevere through this hot, demanding race. I thought that was really neat.
“I think there are other series that run short races and that’s OK. Their races are shorter (but) I like the long races.”
Racing is about having the best machine that is able to run the full length of a race paired with a driver who is able to run the proper pace and keep his car in the necessary condition to last. There are many races on the Cup schedule today that are less than 500 miles, which is a shame. Are fans that complain of races that are too long also going to complain if they have to pay the same amount of money to attend an event that is 100 or 200 miles shorter? Odds are, most are going to expect to pay less because they’re seeing less action. That is not going to benefit the racetracks or the competitors, because purses will be cut in order for the tracks to make money.
Five hundred miles result in some pretty amazing feats of man and machine, and need to be the minimum length of Cup Series races. Imagine 993 laps around the half-mile paper clip of Martinsville. Conquering that would truly separate the men from the boys — and that is what racing at the top level of a sport should do.
For those that don’t want to watch races that stretch for such a trying distance, the Truck and Nationwide series, as well as local short tracks, host events of a shorter fare. But the premier series in the country should continue to run 500-mile races to crown a true champion.