Articles By Matt Taliaferro
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.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Concord, N.C.
Specs: 1.5-mile quad-oval; Banking/Turns: 24°; Banking/Straightaways: 5°
2010 Winners: Kurt Busch (May); Jamie McMurray (Oct.)
2011 Race Length: 600 miles/400 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 193.216 mph (Elliott Sadler, 2005)
600-mile Race Record: 151.952 (Bobby Labonte, 1995)
From the Spotter's Stand
After opening the year with a Daytona 500 win and then taking the checkers at the Brickyard 400 in Indy, big-game Jamie McMurray earned his third victory of the season with an exciting Saturday night showdown with Kyle Busch at the 1.5-mile Concord quad-oval in October.
McMurray led 65 laps in his second win at Charlotte, passing Rowdy on Lap 314 of the 334-circuit race and holding on for his third trophy of a breakout season.
Kurt Busch felt like “a million cool ones” after taking the check at the All-Star Race. Then, the 2 car turned the double-play — leading 252 laps to beat runner-up McMurray and little bro Kyle — for a second straight win in Charlotte the following week in the 600.
Crew Chief’s Take
“The 600 in May and the 500 in October present their own set of unique challenges. Varying track conditions and temperature shifts at each race add to the fact that each end of the track is significantly different from the cockpit. The challenge becomes adapting, and particularly in the case of the Coca-Cola 600, the races are really long there. The key is to survive the early stages, when the sun is out, and be in position to battle for the win at night.
“Horsepower is a necessity, as is engine durability, particularly in the 600, when the distance puts an added strain on the equipment.”
Looking at Checkers: Jimmie Johnson has six points-paying and two All-Star Race wins.
Pretty Solid Pick: Jamie McMurray had finishes of first and second at CMS in 2010.
Good Sleeper Pick: Kasey Kahne is going to break through with Team Red Bull at some point, and Charlotte would be a good place.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: They don’t call him “Wall-mendinger” for nothing.
Insider Tip: The 600 has a reputation for giving drivers their first career Cup wins — think David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte and David Reutimann.
Classic Moments in the 600
The first of David Pearson’s 105 wins comes in the second annual World 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 1961. Pearson, in his second year on the Grand National circuit, leads 225 laps in a John Masoni-owned Pontiac en route to the victory. Pearson owns a two-lap lead on the field when he blows a tire with one lap remaining and limps around to the start/finish line. Fireball Roberts finishes second.
Ralph Earnhardt leads 75 laps in the middle stages of the race in a car owned by Cotton Owens, marking the most laps he leads in any single Grand National event.
Tim Flock makes his 187th and final start in this race, after a Hall of Fame career during which he amasses 39 wins and 129 top 10s.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards Not that an exhibition All-Star Race factors too heavily into the Horsepower Rankings, but Edwards was on top of the list before the race, then he won the race, and therefore, holds serve.
2. Kyle Busch Kyle was cited for careless and reckless driving in Iredell County while doing 128 mph in a 45 mph zone. Funny, he got paid $258,300 for doing the same thing on Saturday night … and he still couldn't catch Carl!
3. Jimmie Johnson And this is where the trend ends, as Johnson faded to 11th on Saturday, yet maintains his ranking at No. 3. He may be higher by this time next week.
4. Kevin Harvick Things haven’t been quite so rosy since back-to-back wins at Auto Club and Martinsville speedways. Those two races are fading in the rearview mirror, but we’ll give him another week in the top 5.
5. Clint Bowyer Bowyer has improved his points position 15 spots in the last seven weeks. The higher you get, the tougher the sledding, but this team is capable of sliding into the top 3.
6. Matt Kenseth The upcoming Coca-Cola 600 is Kenseth’s and crew chief Jimmy Fennig’s kind of race: Lay low, save the equipment, be smart with the strategy.
7. Greg Biffle Biffle is gangbusters one week, totally pedestrian the next. And his 21 laps led in 2011 has got to improve. There’s just no excuse for that.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior’s performance — whether he and crew chief Steve Letarte were testing or not — was so bad in the All-Star Race that he slips a spot here.
9. Denny Hamlin Only one top-10 finish for Hamlin at Charlotte in the last seven races. If you’re looking for a good fantasy play this week, look elsewhere.
10. Kasey Kahne Five runs of ninth or better for Kahne and his Red Bull team are offset by three finishes of 36th or worse. If they clean that up, they’ll be tough.
11. Jeff Gordon Once again, Gordon is uncompetitive at a 1.5-mile track. That has to change.
12. Tony Stewart On the other hand, Smoke’s team looked like it may have turned a corner in the All-Star Race.
13. Ryan Newman Newman’s four fifth-place showings are carrying his season thus far.
14. Mark Martin Like Kenseth, Martin could be a guy to watch in this weekend’s 600.
15. Brian Vickers A couple nice runs overshadowed by a dud in the All-Star Showdown. That’s what Vickers does.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
by Matt Taliaferro
The 2011 Sprint All-Star Race certainly wasn’t as dramatic as past editions. The conclusion was no where near as exciting — or destructive — as 1992’s “One Hot Night;” there was no race-defining moment, like Dale Earnhardt’s “pass in the grass” in ’87, and tempers didn’t flare as they did in ’89 when Rusty Wallace used the “spin to win” method of getting by Darrell Waltrip with a handful of laps remaining.
But as Earnhardt once said, “It pays more to win.” And that’s all Carl Edwards cared about. Edwards and his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team put on a clinic Saturday evening, leading 29 laps — including every one of the final 10-lap shootout — to collect a race-record $1.2 million and a Sprint All-Star Race trophy at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“You have to remember, you’re not always going to have side-by-side, three-wide finishes,” Edwards, who earned his first All-Star Race win, said. “I think that tonight our car was superior. It ended up being a race that we were able to pull away from (the field). But one little thing being different, one different bump-stop combination, track bar height, tire pressure thing (and) it could have been a much different race.
“I believe, as much as we ended up winning the race by, I think that’s a rarity in this event. I think with a 10-lap shootout at the end, four fresh tires, nine out of 10 times it’s going to be a much closer finish. I know I was really nervous about that last run. I did not feel like we had it in the bag by any means. So it just so happened to turn out that way.”
by Tom Bowles
If fans are fascinated with an athlete’s rise to greatness, they’re guilty of being further fixated on the fall. It’s the strange way dynasties work in competitive sports — people cheer them until too much success turns excitement into indifference at best, boos at worst, except for the hardest of hardcore supporters. Legends turn a certain age, and they’re a ticking time bomb. Every missed opportunity and uncharacteristic failure becomes the basis for fans to slide him or her straight from royalty into retirement.
But in most cases, the regression of an athlete’s career is far more complex, packaged without that type of “made-for-TV” moment historians crave. Perfect example: Jeff Gordon, NASCAR’s former “Wonderboy” who turns 40 this summer, and is in the midst of one of the worst starts to his great career. Attached forever to the sport’s record growth, Gordon’s — and NASCAR’s — futures were once thought to be bright for decades, but are now increasingly unclear.
As the circuit heads to Charlotte for the All-Star Race, it’s the perfect time to sit down and take stock of it all. For a time, this race was the crown jewel in Gordon’s NASCAR empire. Who could forget 1995, that “changing of the guard” moment where Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip wrecked while battling for the lead, sparks flying while a certain No. 24 dove underneath to dodge the melee. That was Gordon who scooted by, winning the race en route to his first Cup Series championship and a rarely seen six-year reign atop stock car racing — with four championships, a Daytona 500 victory and the Winston Million, among other accomplishments. All-Star victories were added in 1997 and 2001, tying him with Earnhardt for most all-time, and if it wasn’t for running out of fuel in ’98, the T-Rex car would have been the dinosaur that chomped up the field and spit it out while leaving the record squarely in Gordon’s camp.
But now, as we head to the sport’s 2011 exhibition event, Gordon’s bid for a fourth All-Star win is overshadowed, as he ranks fourth on his own team. The house this Rainbow Warrior built at Hendrick has picked up and left without him this season. At 14th in points, he sits lower than Jimmie Johnson (second), Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (fourth) and even 52-year-old Mark Martin (11th). With just three top-10 finishes through 11 races, a pace like that projects Gordon with 10 top 10s at the end of the year – easily the worst total of a full-time career that’s into its 19th season.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Gordon, supposedly rejuvenated in the offseason with a new shop, away from former-protégé-turned-professor Johnson and a new crew chief (Alan Gustafson) armed with the engineering knowledge to match the original Four-Time’s old-school skill set. That pairing sprinted off the starting line, qualifying on the Daytona 500 front row before dominating Phoenix the following week. With 138 laps led and most of his competition demolished in an early, savage wreck, the No. 24 found itself waltzing to Victory Lane. It was career win No. 83, leaving him tied for fifth all-time and left “championship contender” rolling off the tip of the tongue.
But that’s where the good vibes stopped. A wreck at Las Vegas sapped momentum that hasn’t been easily recovered, with just two top-5 finishes offset by two ugly, crash-induced DNFs that included one of the hardest hits Gordon has ever taken at Richmond. While remaining in contention for a “wild card” Chase spot, playoff bids are window dressing if you can’t kill them with consistency, and Gordon hasn’t put back-to-back top-10 finishes together since October 2010.
It’s a slump, for sure, but a look at the numbers over the last four years begs a bigger question: Will Gordon ever grab that fifth title he so craves? Since Johnson beat him down in ’07, tipping the Chase format his way despite Gordon’s record 30 top-10 finishes, the elder statesman has entered that state of “gradual decline” that eventually comes for everyone. He has two wins now since February 2008, one less than Earnhardt in that time frame and 19 behind the pace of Johnson. Hendrick dominance led to third-place finish in the ’09 title Chase, but it’s his only top-5 points finish the last three years.
And while the No. 48 continues to run circles around him, it’s the success of the No. 88 team that is raising eyebrows. There on Earnhardt’s pit box sits Steve Letarte, chastised by Gordon fans throughout a five-year tenure of making the wrong decisions at the wrong times while manning the 24 team’s box. Criticism intensified during a “poor pit strategy” campaign of 2010, where seemingly every call made during a late caution flag went against them. Yet, here we are, six months after a Gordon-Letarte divorce and it’s the head wrench earning high acclaim, on the verge of leading Earnhardt back to Victory Lane while – gasp! – the much-maligned fan favorite is even considered a longshot title contender by some.
That title talk has long faded for Gordon, as he simply fights for relevance with an increasingly crowded field at the top. Some have said the new car’s to blame, but it’s hard to believe that theory – Gordon’s record-setting year of 2007 came during its introduction. Perhaps the biggest change during this stretch is a transition to family life; a wife and two kids he loves dearly may or may not have affected that inner desire to be the best at all costs. More realistic is the shop Gordon’s walked into, a second-tier Hendrick warehouse (despite claims to the contrary) that only once last decade produced a title contender (Mark Martin, 2009).
Along the same lines — and in a cruel touch of irony — NASCAR’s early popularity boost this season has faded, too, and the stories of Gordon and Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne (illness) have been pushed back by the success of others who also happen to be the “same old, same old” at the top of the point standings. Yes, turns out there was a changing of the guard several years ago, as Johnson was joined by Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin as perpetual title contenders. All, with the exception of Busch, have a better finish in the championship race the last four years.
Can Gordon make it back on that list? He’s got three, maybe four years left in him as long as that fickle back doesn’t fire up in pain again. You never quite know when legends can find a way to use up what’s left in the tank. But if he doesn’t, if five years from now he’s sitting comfortably with Ingrid and the kids in a New York apartment, you can look back to this stretch and say that’s when it all started to slip away.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards The bad news: Edwards’ finish at Dover was his worst since early April. The good news: He finished seventh. Yeah, that’s the type of year it’s been for Carl.
2. Kyle Busch Rowdy’s run at Dover was as impressive a performance as we’ve see from him all season in the Cup Series. The kid drove from 43rd to third in an uncharacteristically understated manner.
3. Jimmie Johnson Johnson has led 1,192 of the last 2,000 miles at Dover and bagged three wins. He would have had a fourth if he’d only taken two tires on Sunday.
4. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s consistency has been a little off of late, but you just know he has the capability to jump up and snag a win most any week, on most any type of track.
5. Clint Bowyer Honestly, Bowyer may be the most dangerous driver on the circuit at the moment. His last two finishes (one being a sixth at Dover) were disappointments.
6. Matt Kenseth Win No. 2 of the season for Kenseth basically punches his ticket to the Chase. Even if he were to slip out of the top 10 in points, the victories will most likely give him a wild card berth.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior’s average finishing position is four spots higher this year than through 11 races in 2010. Of course, his issue over the last few seasons is sustained consistency, so we’ll see ...
8. Denny Hamlin The higher in the standings you get the tougher it is to make headway, but Hamlin has jumped to 13th in the standings, just 24 points out of the 10th-place Chase transfer spot.
9. Greg Biffle After averaging a fourth-place finish at Dover from spring 2006 to spring 2009, Biffle has slumped to a 14.25-place average showing. It’s tough to explain that.
10. Kasey Kahne When the equipment matches this driver’s talent, he’s a top-5 contender. When it doesn’t ... well, look no further than Dover, where a sour engine precipitated a 36th-place result.
11. Jeff Gordon Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson should be a dynamic duo. So what gives?
12. Tony Stewart Smoke taught us all a few new words while describing his Chevy over the in-car radio on Sunday.
13. Ryan Newman Finished 21st at Dover without the aid of Juan Pablo Montoya.
14. Mark Martin Martin’s second-place finish highlights why more crew chiefs should roll the dice near race’s end.
15. Brian Vickers Look who has 10th- and fifth-place runs in two of the last three races ... Welcome back, BLV.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro