Articles By Matt Taliaferro
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
by Matt Taliaferro
The top two drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings were the two drivers to beat in the FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson combined to lead 324 of the first 364 laps and were poised for a late-race showdown with late-comer Clint Bowyer.
However, a late-race caution punctuated what was an otherwise staid event and, like last weekend’s Southern 500, pit strategy turned the field — and the results — upside down.
Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson took the time to take four fresh tires during the caution, while Mark Martin stayed out to inherit the lead. Meanwhile, a slew of teams elected to put on only two tires, including the No. 17 of Matt Kenseth, who led the pack off pit road.
And just as the Southern 500 proved that track position trumped fresh Goodyears, the FedEx 400 solidified it, as Martin and Kenseth sprinted away, while those who dominated the race remained mired in heavy traffic. By the time Kenseth slipped under Martin, only 31 laps remained on the fast, one-mile oval, and he ran away uncontested for a 2.122-second victory, his second career win at Dover.
“I know we were both thinking about the same thing,” Kenseth said of he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig’s two-tire strategy. “In the back of my head, I was thinking, ‘Man, I should almost just drive by pit road and start in the front, see what happens.’ But I saw the guys in front of me. I looked at everybody in the mirror, I saw everybody on the apron, I thought it wasn't going to be good for me if I did that and restarted and finished about 15th.
“We came down pit road. As I slid into the stall, I said, ‘Jimmy, are you sure you don't want to try two?’ He didn't even hesitate. He's like, ‘Two tires, two tires,’ in plenty of time before the guys took off. It was not problem. It went smooth, almost like we planned it.”
Martin held off Marcos Ambrose for second, while Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers rounded out the top 5.
“Matt had two tires there and had a little advantage on us for a little bit,” Martin said of the final 40 laps. “Then after a little bit, we seemed to start breaking even. I know he had a little bit left, but I had enough speed to be right there without tires. All the guys behind me were dropping off.
“You know, we've had racecars this good this year. Every time we turn around, something goes against us. It was nice to have things go our way.”
As for the race’s three strongest cars, Bowyer, who ran on point for the 29 laps prior to the final caution, finished sixth, while Edwards was seventh. Johnson, who led a race-high 207 laps, settled for a ninth-place showing.
“I guess in our minds we didn't think that would take place — so many guys taking two," Johnson said. “I knew, basically from the numbers we were in trouble when we left pit road and there were so many guys in front of us.
“We led a lot of laps (more than half the race). But unfortunately not the one at the end that counted.”
Edwards holds a 24-point lead over Johnson in the standings. Kenseth’s second win of the season vaults him to sixth in the standings and acts as insurance in case he should slip outside of the top 10, as the final two Chase spots will be filled by the drivers with the most victories.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Dover, Del.
Specs: 1-mile oval; Banking/Turns: 24°; Banking/Straightaways: 9°
2010 Winners: Kyle Busch (May); Jimmie Johnson (Sept.)
2011 Race Length: 400 miles/400 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 161.522 mph (Jeremy Mayfield, 2004)
Race Record: 132.719 mph (Mark Martin, 1997)
From the Spotter's Stand
Jimmie Johnson has been rock solid at the concrete 1-mile oval in Dover, and last year was no different. The 48 dominated for the sixth time at “The Monster Mile” — and for the third time in four races — by starting on the pole, leading a race-high 191 laps and taking the checkers by a 2.637-second margin over runner-up Jeff Burton in the second race of the Chase.
Earlier in the year, Johnson led 225 laps but could not hold it together after being busted for speeding on pit road while going mano a mano with wild child and eventual winner Kyle Busch. Rowdy led 131 laps before raising the “Miles the Monster” trophy in Victory Lane for the second time in his career.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Dover is an all-concrete track and is banked all the way around; even the straights have nine degrees of banking. Therefore, right-side tire management is a race-long concern.
“Dover provides drivers with multiple grooves from which to choose, but normally, the best cars are the ones that will run the low line around the track. The transitions from turns to straights are unique. Drivers call it ‘falling down’ in the turns.
“Back in the 1990s, it was asphalt, but it was so rough it was more like a gravel road. Concrete has its pluses and minuses, but it made this track a lot better.”
Looking at Checkers: Look no further than the 48’s six wins in 18 career Cup starts.
Pretty Solid Pick: Mark Martin has made no secret of his love of Dover. His four wins are proof of it.
Good Sleeper Pick: Guys turn it up a notch when racing at their home track, and this is Martin Truex’s.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Juan Pablo Montoya has led only three of the 3,222 laps he’s completed at Dover.
Insider Tip: Trouble happens quick here. Having a good qualifier who stays up front is a bonus.
Classic Moments at Dover
Proving his shocking win in the Daytona 500 earlier in the season was no fluke, Derrike Cope leads 93 laps and wins the 1990 Budweiser 500 in Dover.
Cope starts 15th, but shoots to the lead by lap 160. However, a miscalculation by his crew chief causes his No. 10 Purolator Chevy to run out of gas while pacing the field, dropping him off the lead lap.
Cope has a strong car, though, and races his way back onto the lead lap (without the aid of Lucky Dogs or wave-arounds). A fast pit stop under a lap 421 caution bumps him up to second, and on lap 446, he passes Rusty Wallace, who leads 131 laps in the Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac, for the lead.
From there, Cope holds off Ken Schrader to earn his second, and final, career victory. Dick Trickle, Mark Martin and Sterling Marlin round out the top 5.
Another notable feat that occurred during this race was when Dale Earnhardt’s engine blew, his No. 3 crew actually repaired it, and the car returned to competition. Predictably, though, the engine fatally expired later in the event, marking Earnhardt’s only DNF of the 1990 season.
by Vito Pugliese
Of all of NASCAR’s greatest assets, there are two current active drivers who rank near the top of that list — though in some circles, the “t” in “assets” might be removed from that descriptor. Be it on the radio or on pit road, Kyle and Kurt Busch have been the source of many a memorable scene and sound bite over the years. As different as the two Las Vegas, Nev., natives have become, there are some strikingly similar characteristics between the two brothers.
Older brother Kurt burst onto the scene in the 2000 season, replacing then-driver Chad Little in Jack Roush’s No. 97 John Deere Ford for seven races. He promptly managed to piss of NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., at Rockingham, and was thrust into general American conscious while giving an explanation of his on-track tiff with Junior as part of MTV’s “Real Life” series about Driver 8.
It would be two years, with his backside-slapping and pointing to Jimmy Spencer at the 2002 Brickyard 400, and “decrepit old has-been” blast that followed shortly thereafter, when he became a fixture as one of NASCAR’s more “entertaining” characters.
While Kurt’s NASCAR past is as colorful as his bright yellow and red Shell Dodge Charger, his radio traffic the past few years has been as well, peppered with enough F-bombs and salty language to make Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey blush. Here are some highlights:
After being struck while leaving his pits at New Hampshire in 2009 after disagreeing with the decision to stop, and suffering significant right side damage to his car:
Spotter: “Uh, I can’t see the right side from here …”
Kurt Busch: “We’re on the f***in’ back straightaway, f***in’ Einstein!”
Dover 2010, after being penalized for speeding entering pit road:
“It’s gotta be about f***in’ half way, that’s when we usually FALL APART.”
Pocono 2010, after hitting the wall off of Turn 2:
“Just got in the wall pretty hard, f***ed it all up … not that it was any good anyway.”
“I’d love to hit the fence right now, head-on, and get knocked out because this is f***in’ bull****.”
"We look like a monkey f***in’ a football. The f***in’ Penske cars are a f***in’ joke. f*** everybody! F***!"
Crew chief Steve Addington, prior to a pit stop: “You want to put a round of wedge in it?”
Kurt Busch: “Go ahead … knock yourself out …”
Where else are you going to get this kind of comic relief in motorsports?
To Kurt’s consternation, it has been a perplexing state of affairs at Penske Racing. For the team that started with dominant performances at Daytona, it has dropped from leading the point standings to eighth in the last six races. The No. 22 Dodge has shown no signs of being anything more than a mid-pack car, finishing in the top 10 just once during that time frame — a 10th at Texas in early April.
While the struggles of Dodge’s flagship — and arguably only — team in the Sprint Cup Series are less than amusing to the driver, a timely Kurt Busch freak-out broadcast across the airwaves always provides more than enough fodder for discussion. The focus of the latest freak out — at Richmond — was directed at Penske Technical Director Tom German, who has announced he is to leave the organization at the end of this month to enroll at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
Team beratement aside, Kurt has also had some run-ins along the way (besides his notorious tiffs with Spencer). He and Jimmie Johnson have had a couple of on-track dust-ups the last few seasons. He’s also scrapped with Tony Stewart — a longtime Kurt antagonist — which resulted in a punch being thrown in the NASCAR hauler at Daytona in 2008 after an incident … in practice … for an exhibition race!
Who else elicits this type of reaction?
1. Carl Edwards Calm and cool in the chaos that was the conclusion of the Southern 500, Edwards rolls to a runner-up showing, his eighth finish of sixth or better this season. Congrats on the kid, by the way.
2. Kyle Busch I always knew the “New Kyle Busch” was one late-race dust-up away from reverting back to, well, “Same Ol’ Kyle Busch.”
3. Jimmie Johnson Some don’t recognize it, but Johnson is willing to get physical on-track when he feels he’s been wronged. Mr. Montoya, prepared to get roughed up.
4. Kevin Harvick Did anyone else notice that Harvick didn’t make a move on Kyle Busch on pit road (or in the garage area) until his team showed up? I mentioned this because that’s not the first time it’s happened.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Was pit-road cone away from another top 10. Still, Junior and the boys kept their wits about them and finished with a lead-lap, top-15 run.
6. Clint Bowyer One of the hotter drivers on the circuit, Bowyer looked to have another top 5 in hand until he got swept up in Round 1 of Busch vs. Harvick.
7. Denny Hamlin Lost amid a wacky Darlington finish was Hamlin’s sixth-place finish. For those who thought he was done, a quick scan of the point standings find him only 19 markers out of 10th.
8. Ryan Newman Word is he punched Juan Pablo Montoya in the NASCAR hauler at Darlington. Bet he got a better shot in than Harvick did on Rowdy.
9. Kasey Kahne Sat on the pole and led a race-high 124 laps at Darlington but settled for fourth by night’s end. This team has a win coming pretty soon.
10. Tony Stewart For about the fourth time this season, Stewart lined up at the front of the field for a late-race restart. And for about the fourth time this year, Stewart couldn’t take advantage.
11. Jeff Gordon Gordon’s roller coaster season continues. That Phoenix win is looking good for the Chase, though.
12. Greg Biffle Biffle is climbing the ladder with six top 15s in the last seven races.
13. Matt Kenseth Hasn’t sniffed the top 10 since his Texas win four races ago.
14. Kurt Busch Being the only factory-backed Dodge operation has its benefits and banes.
15. Mark Martin Despite leading only one lap this season, Martin still sits on the edge of Chase inclusion.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Paul Menard, David Ragan, Regan Smith, Martin Truex Jr.
by Matt Taliaferro
As NASCAR’s oldest track on the schedule, Darlington Raceway is often compared to Fenway Park or Wrigley Field — venues steeped in tradition that provide links to the sports’ celebrated pasts.
However, NASCAR visits Darlington but once throughout its 36-event slate, while the old ballparks, hockey arenas and football stadiums like Lambeau Field get aggressive workouts during their hosts’ respective seasons. And while every major league baseball diamond is a 90-foot square and every football field 120 yards in length, Darlington’s unique characteristics — 1.366 miles, egg-shaped, single-grooved — make it an anomalous beast in a sea of common-template NASCAR ovals.
And it’s Darlington’s singular nature that often makes for a most bizarre race.
Such was the case on Saturday evening in the Showtime Southern 500, when a grueling 367-lap event hinged on a two-lap, green-white checker finish that produced wrecked racecars, post-race fights and a first-time winner.
Regan Smith, driving the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy — a single-car operation in its 137th start in the Cup Series — won the prestigious race, out-strategizing and out-racing points-leader Carl Edwards
A caution for oil on the track dropped by Jeff Burton’s No. 31 Chevy with 10 laps remaining set the wild finish in motion. Edwards and second-place Kasey Kahne, along with the majority of the lead-lap cars, hit pit road for tires — either two or four — and fuel. Regan Smith, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart elected to gamble, staying on the track on used rubber, and brought the field to green with five laps to go.
Smith jumped out to the lead, with Edwards dicing his way to second as cars in the pack beat and gouged for position. The field got only one lap under its belt before a three-wide duel turned ugly when Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer ran out of room off of Turn 4. The contact sent Bowyer head-on into the inside wall, while Busch blatantly hooked Harvick’s Chevy after the caution was thrown, sending it spinning into the outside wall.
Talk of payback filled Harvick’s radio chatter as the field lined up for the green-white-checker, still led by Smith with Edwards to his outside. Smith’s black Chevy darted away when the green waved, but Edwards pulled to his bumper with one lap to go as the two slid off Turn 2. As a two-car wreck filled the backstretch on the final lap, Smith held off Edwards to earn his first career Cup victory in one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races.
“I can’t (describe what this means),” an emotional Smith choked in Victory Lane. “My mom comes to every race that I run, just about, and she missed this one. She’s in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, saving animals after the tornadoes.
“These guys (Furniture Row Racing team) have stuck behind me for three years now. We’ve had some major ups and major downs — I think this will be classified as a major up for sure.”
Smith’s Furniture Row team is a single-car effort based in Denver, Col., that relies on chassis and engine support from Richard Childress Racing.
Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Kahne and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.
Meanwhile, the action continued on pit road, as Harvick blocked Busch’s entrance into the garage. Harvick exited his car to confront Busch, who nosed the unmanned No. 29 Chevy into the pit wall. Harvick managed to get one left jab into Busch’s window before he pulled away. Pushing and shoving ensued between Harvick’s RCR group and Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing crew, as both drivers, as well as their respective team owners, were called to the NASCAR hauler.
Each driver was relatively composed in post-race interviews, with Busch blaming Harvick, saying the contact leading up to the spin was “uncalled for — unacceptable racing.”
He later claimed his No. 18 Toyota had lost its reverse gear, and he had no choice but to push Harvick’s car out of the way or “get punched in the face and then wait for Harvick to get back in his car for me to go.”
Harvick was a bit more demurred in his comments after meeting with NASCAR officials and Busch, stating, “We were racing hard, doing what we had to do there at the end, and um, things happen. That’s it … what do ya do? Racing, I guess.”
When asked what was discussed in the hauler, he simply stated, “Not much. I don’t have anything to tell you but ‘not much.’” And, “You saw the end,” when pressed as to whether things were settled between he and Busch.
NASCAR officials did not comment on whether penalties would be handed down. Typically, the sanctioning body releases such rulings on Tuesday.
by Mike Neff
An accident in Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond International Raceway once again highlighted the fact that improving safety in professional motorsports is a never-ending fight.
On lap 302, Jeff Gordon was tagged in the left rear and spun into the inside wall, where he hit driver-side first. The impact knocked the wind out of Gordon, but fortunately didn’t cause serious injury. He was lucky to have walked away uninjured, in that the portion of wall he hit was not protected by a SAFER Barrier, so that the full brunt of the impact was absorbed by Gordon’s car — and ultimately his body. In the modern era of stock car racing, it is truly unacceptable to have any section of wall exposed to the racetrack that is devoid of some kind of energy-absorbing device to lessen impacts from vehicles that find their way into them.
In the early days of NASCAR, there were all sorts of barriers utilized to keep cars within the confines of the racing area. Hay bales were some of the first “devices” utilized, followed by used tires. Eventually, tracks employed corrugated steel guardrails, which were generically dubbed “Armco barriers.” These were useful for short tracks that were the predominant venues in the formative years of racing, but as track sizes and speeds increased, Armco barriers became less effective to the point they were replaced with concrete walls. While the concrete walls were far more successful at stopping cars from leaving tracks at high speed, they took a tremendous toll on the drivers. As early as 1991, Smokey Yunick developed a “soft wall” using old race tires, plywood and canvas, but the people who made decisions about installing such a device dismissed him and his revolutionary product.
The beginning of the development of the SAFER Barrier — which is now utilized at all of the oval tracks that host NASCAR touring series races — was in 1998. The barriers were first installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002 and, because of the expense, were only installed in the locations that were most susceptible to receiving an impact from a racecar. Eventually, the soft walls were installed at all of the tracks but, as was the case at Indy, the expense prevented track owners and operators from installing the impact-absorbing barriers on every retainer within a venue.
In 2008, Gordon was involved in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where he hit an angled portion of inside walling on the backstretch that was so violent it knocked the transmission out of his car. By the time the series returned a year later, Speedway Motorsports, Inc., had installed SAFER Barriers in the location where Gordon made contact.
If drivers have proven one thing in the 60 years of NASCAR’s existence, it’s that they can find a way to impact any section of fencing — regardless of how unlikely the scenario may seem. The outside walls of a speedway are the obvious locations for SAFER Barriers, but there are walls on the inside of the tracks (and on some sections of straightaways) that are currently not covered with the Steel And Foam Energy Reduction Barriers. Gordon’s impact Saturday night was the latest instance where one of those unprotected walls had a very good chance to injure a driver. The accident should be enough proof for track owners to spend the extra money needed to cover all exposed walls with the soft-wall technology.
There is no question that there is a major expense involved in putting SAFER Barriers in place at a racetrack. Dustin Long, a journalist with the Virginian-Pilot.com, quoted Dr. Dean Sicking — one of the innovators of the SAFER Barrier at the University of Nebraska — who said that when the barriers were designed some 10 years ago, the price of installation was $300 per foot. However, serious injury, or the death of a driver, is a far greater price to be paid than a few thousand feet of steel and foam totaling half a million dollars.
NASCAR has mandated HANS devices, kill switches, even designed an entire racecar with the express purpose of keeping competitors safe in a sport where no one is ever totally safe. The time has come to take that one step further and require all tracks on the national touring schedules to have SAFER Barriers or some other form of energy-absorbing device on all walls that are exposed to the racing surface. The potential for loss of life for something that can be so easily remedied is simply inexcusable.
Ultimately, the idea is to have every track operator — possibly with subsidizing from the sanctioning body — install SAFER Barriers at all NASCAR-sanctioned facilities. For now, though, NASCAR and the tracks that host touring-level races must step up to the plate before the next superstar is cut out of a car and Mike Helton is forced to step up to a microphone to make the hardest announcement he’s ever made in his life.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Darlington, S.C.
Specs: 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval; Banking/Turns: 23° and 25°; Banking/Fronstretch: 3°; Banking/Backstretch: 2°
2010 Winner: Denny Hamlin
2011 Race Length: 501.3 miles/367 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 180.370 mph (Jamie McMurray, 2010)
Race Record: 140.350 mph (Kyle Busch, 2008)
From the Spotter's Stand
Denny Hamlin was in total control of the “Track Too Tough to Tame,” as he became the first driver to sweep the Cup race and Nationwide stop in the same weekend at Darlington since Mark Martin in 1993.
Hamlin edged runner-up Jamie McMurray by 1.908 seconds, but the main competition for the No. 11 Toyota was seven-time Darlington winner Jeff Gordon (110 laps led) and two-time Palmetto State champ Jeff Burton, both of whom made costly mistakes on pit road before finishing fourth and eighth, respectively.
Regardless of his late-race miscues last year, Gordon is still the driver to beat at Darlington. The 24 car has a seven-race streak of top-5 finishes at the track.
Crew Chief’s Take
“The key to surviving Darlington is patience. A driver must race the track, not the competitors for the first 100 miles just to be assured of being around at the end. It is, mentally and physically, one of the toughest race tracks, and it’s unforgiving.
“It’s most challenging for the driver, but it’s really challenging for the team, too. There isn’t much margin for error, and you just can’t get the car really right because of that damned egg shape and narrow groove. But if you’re a competitor, it inspires you, and the drivers and teams that excel here are the ones that love the old place.”
Looking at Checkers: Only the best win at Darlington. Go top shelf with your pick(s).
Pretty Solid Pick: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle. In that order.
Good Sleeper Pick: Read the next line, then come back. OK, Brad Keselowski is the exception.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: If they don’t have at least three years under their belt, pass on ’em.
Insider Tip: Interestingly, Tony Stewart has never won at Darlington. You have to figure this is one of those bucket list races for him at this point in his career.
Classic Moments at Darlington
Tim Richmond enjoys his most successful NASCAR season in 1986. And on Labor Day weekend, he scores his most prestigious Cup win in the Southern 500.
Nine different drivers lead at least one lap throughout the afternoon, but Richmond (168) and Geoff Bodine (162) are the drivers to beat. After Bodine slips late with darkness falling and in damp conditions, Richmond dirt-tracks his No. 25 Folger’s Chevy by Bill Elliott with five laps to go and streaks away to score his fifth win of the year.
Richmond wins two more races in 1986, but his battle with AIDS wrecks what’s left of his career. He competes in only eight races in 1987, winning the first two he enters, at Pocono and Riverside. Richmond passes away on Aug. 13, 1989.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards Kyle Busch has been flashy, but Edwards continues to put top-6 runs on the board. He’ll put up a few more wins before it’s over with, too.
2. Kyle Busch Still not convinced of this “New Kyle Busch” thing, but he certainly appears to be much more forgiving on his equipment these days. Is he, at long last, true title material?
3. Jimmie Johnson If Johnson and the 48 team can bounce back from a horrid start at Richmond to finish eighth, well, everyone else may be running for second over the long haul once again.
4. Kevin Harvick “The Closer” didn’t close in Richmond. Still, a 12th-place run on a night when only nine cars finished on the lead lap isn’t anything to fret over.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Although not a closer like Harvick, Junior has been more of a “hang-in-there” entry thus far. That said, the technique has him slotted fourth in the point standings.
6. Clint Bowyer The workman-like Bowyer has strung together a top-10 streak that’s into its fifth race. Look out Harvick, you may not be atop the Childress totem pole for long.
7. Jeff Gordon Everyone agrees with you Jeff (except the track owners) — there’s no reason to not have SAFER Barriers on every wall at every track.
8. Matt Kenseth Matt, you’re going to love Randall Cobb. Take it from a Kentucky grad.
9. Denny Hamlin Had a big weekend back home in Richmond, winning his charity Late Model race, doing the same in the Nationwide event and finishing second in the A-Main that doubled as the Cup race.
10. Kurt Busch Heard any good monkey and/or football jokes lately?
11. Tony Stewart Came out of nowhere for a solid top 10 at Richmond.
12. Ryan Newman Live by the bumper, die by the bumper.
13. David Ragan Finally delivering on promise for his sophomore season ... which was three years ago.
14. Greg Biffle He’s coming around to the tune of top 15s in five of the last six races.
15. Mark Martin Was a sure-fire top-5 car in Richmond until he joined Gordon and Kenseth in the “The Wreck.”
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Brian Vickers
by Matt Taliaferro
Saturday night’s Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400 from Richmond International Raceway was a tale of two teams within one race shop.
Storyline No. 1 was Kyle Busch and his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team — a driver and team surging early in the 2011 NASCAR season, and in search of their third straight spring Richmond win.
Storyline No. 2 was Denny Hamlin. Also a JGR entry, he and his No. 11 JGR team stumbled out of the gate this season after battling Jimmie Johnson tooth and nail for the 2010 Cup title. Hamlin had already won his own charity race at RIR on Thursday night and followed it up with a dominating run in Friday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race.
As it turned out, both teams delivered big showings, as Busch led a race-high 235 of 400 laps en route to his second win of the season, while Hamlin notched his best run of the year in second, after leading 35 laps at his home track. Both kept a keen eye on fuel mileage, though, as a long green-flag run capped off the evening, requiring the JGR operation — along with the remainder of the field — to conserve gas to reach the finish.
“It was important to save fuel there under the cautions. Fortunately we had that long caution flag,” Busch said of a 12-lap caution period with just under 100 laps to go. “That probably saved us. If we didn't have that, most likely we would have went to the end but probably come up a little bit short.
“Thankfully, it played out the way that it played out and I saved just enough. I thought I was going to be better than that. I thought we were going to have — we did make it to the end, so you can say you made it to the end — that’s good enough, right?”
Hamlin, the only driver that seemed to have anything for Busch, was happy to notch a solid finish on a track he was expected to excel at — something he has not done to this point in the season.
“It was a good weekend,” Hamlin said. “We came up one spot short, but it was to a teammate. When you look at what we need to work on, we yarded the rest of the field by about 10 seconds, we just didn’t have enough to get to our teammate.”
The win also marked the twelfth win in the last 15 short track races in the Cup Series where either Hamlin or Busch has gone to Victory Lane.
“We know when we come to these racetracks we’re going to be contenders for a win,” Hamlin said. “I never even thought about one struggle that we had earlier in the year when we come here to Richmond. It's like, ‘OK, we should win, regardless of what's happened, how bad we ran up until this point.’ You forget about all that when you go to a racetrack that you have a lot of success. Hopefully this is the point in which we turn it around.”
Kasey Kahne’s third-place showing was his best with Red Bull Racing, while David Ragan, in fourth, scored his best finish since October 2008. Carl Edward rounded out the top 5.
Edwards continues to hold a nine-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson in the top spot in the point standings. Busch moved into third, 30 points back, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. is fourth and Kevin Harvick fifth.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Richmond, Va.
Specs: .75-mile D-shaped oval; Banking/Turns: 14°; Banking/Fronstretch: 8°; Banking/Backstretch: 2°
2010 Winners: Kyle Busch (May), Denny Hamlin (September)
2011 Race Length: 300 miles/400 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 129.983 mph (Brian Vickers, 2004)
Race Record: 109.047 mph (Dale Jarrett, 1997)
From the Spotter's Stand
Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin did it again, splitting the Richmond runs in deja vu all over again fashion. For the second straight year, Rowdy won in May and Denny celebrated a September win - only this time, with Busch on his bumper as the runner-up.
Each thoroughly dominated his respective race. A pole-sitting Busch led 226 laps to outrace runner-up Jeff Gordon (144 laps led) on a restart with five to go. Meanwhile, Hamlin led 251 laps to edge out Busch and rival Jimmie Johnson to clinch the top seed in the Chase in the final race of the “regular season.”
Don't be surprised if the Joe Gibbs duo is roaring at Richmond for a third straight year in 2011.
Crew Chief's Take
“Getting the car to roll through the center of the corner is the key to a fast lap at Richmond. While that tends to cause a drop in speed off the corner, a car that turns well in the center uses less brake, and that's a good thing on a short track where brakes can get hot. Most teams run a short track brake package even though Richmond runs faster than its 3⁄4-mile layout suggests.
“If you want to talk about a balance between what the drivers like and what the fans like, Richmond probably strikes the best balance in NASCAR. There aren't many races that teams look forward to more.”
Looking at Checkers: Kyle Busch has averaged a 2.25-place finish at RIR over the last two seasons.
Pretty Solid Pick: If Denny Hamlin is to get his season on track, this is the place where it needs to happen.
Good Sleeper Pick: Marcos Ambrose was 11th in his first whirl around RIR and ran ninth and fifth in 2010.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: It's been tough sleeding thus far for Jamie McMurray, and Richmond isn't going to help.
Insider Tip: Junior raves about this joint, and Steve Letarte knows how to tune the car here.
Classic Moments at Richmond
The old .542-mile Richmond Fairgrounds layout is home to an early season shocker on Feb. 21, 1982, in the Richmond 400.
A crash by leader Joe Ruttman on lap 244 brings out the caution, and the leaders head to pit road - except for one. With thick, black clouds in the area, Dave Marcis' crew chief, Jerry Darling, instructs his fourth-place driver to stay out as Richard Petty, Benny Parsons and Dale Earnhardt pit.The strategy works, as the sky opens and a torrential rain falls, forcing NASCAR to call the event.
“During the red flag I didn't exactly pray for the rain to continue,” Marcis says. “But I said if the Good Lord ever wanted to help a poor ol' independent driver who fields his own cars and builds his engines, then this was His chance.”