Articles By Matt Taliaferro
Change is inevitable – except from a vending machine.
— Robert C. Gallagher
These days, longtime fans, analysts and anyone with a NASCAR license is drawn into constant debate about the “good old days.” With well-documented, often-rehashed concerns surrounding everything from attendance to ratings to competition. Social media brings us a 24/7 argument of whether we’re heading in the wrong direction, with a constant refrain from the sky-is-falling crowd that “Things were better when …”
But were they? People tend to romanticize, not harp on past experiences; how would your life be if you focused on everything that went wrong? NASCAR throws statistics out virtually every week about statistical records — parity to the point that every 500-miler is suddenly the best race that there ever was. In a world of extremes, there has to be some middle ground that leads to truth… right?
Let’s investigate. On the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Day it seems fair to take a moment and pull off a simple comparison. How much has NASCAR really changed in a decade? Consider…
Eight races into 2001 … Dale Jarrett was leading the points, followed by Jeff Gordon, Sterling Marlin, Johnny Benson Jr., Steve Park, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Hamilton, Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott and Elliott Sadler.
Eight races into 2011 … only one of those 10 drivers still runs in the series full-time (Gordon). Jarrett and Wallace are ESPN analysts, Elliott and Park run part-time when they can find rides while Marlin, Benson and Rudd are retired. Sadler is trying to simply survive in the Nationwide Series, while Bobby Hamilton? Cancer victim, before he even turned 50 years old.
Eight races into 2001 ... Carl Edwards wasn’t yet 22 years of age, dropping out of Missouri, substitute teaching and hoping for a shot at a dream. Jimmie Johnson was in his second year full-time in the Busch Series, winless and hoping for someone to give him a better shot. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in his second year of Cup competition, fighting through the devastation of losing his father. Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch were unproven Cup rookies, Kyle Busch was a promising 15-year-old under the watchful eye of Jack Roush, while Ryan Newman was an ARCA and Busch Series driver and Matt Kenseth was fighting off a sophomore slump in the Cup Series. Juan Pablo Montoya was a rookie — in Formula One. Clint Bowyer? I don’t think anyone knew that 21-year old’s name outside of Kansas. Combined, they had a total of five Cup Series victories to their credit.
Eight races into 2011 … those 10 drivers would make the Chase if the season ended right now.
Eight races into 2001 … two of the top-10 drivers in points were under 30.
Eight races into 2011 … that number stands at one (Kyle Busch). Shocking considering the “young gun” movement, right?
Eight races into 2001 … the sport was still grappling with the death of Dale Earnhardt two-and-a-half months earlier. Another driver was behind the wheel of that car, with a different color and number, but for millions their love for the sport died the second the No. 3 went head-on into the Turn 4 wall. Even worse, there was no replacement on the grid for the Intimidator – just an empty hole that everyone expected would take time to fill.
Eight races into 2011 … the sport is still grappling with the death of Dale Earnhardt. That same replacement stays behind the wheel, finally emerged from a legend’s shadow but, fair or not, he will never adequately fill those shoes. New fans have appeared, many of whom know stories but have never seen a No. 3 on-track, except for the occasional Dale Jr. sentimental moment and a kid named Austin Dillon. Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart try their best, but there is still no replacement for the Intimidator – just an empty hole in the garage in terms of leadership, charisma an candor.
We’re still waiting for it to be filled.
Eight races into 2001 … the races had been won by five drivers and five organizations: Yates Racing (Dale Jarrett – three times), the Wood Brothers in a sentimental upset (Elliott Sadler at Bristol), Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (Michael Waltrip at Daytona and Steve Park at Rockingham), Hendrick Motorsports (Jeff Gordon), and Richard Childress Racing (Harvick, in just his second start replacing Earnhardt at Atlanta).
Eight races into 2011 … the races have been won by seven drivers and five organizations: Roush Fenway Racing (Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth), the Wood Brothers in a sentimental upset (Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500), Hendrick Motorsports (Gordon, Jimmie Johnson), Joe Gibbs Racing (Kyle Busch – Bristol), and Richard Childress Racing (Harvick, the only driver to have won twice). Yates Racing and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. are no longer standalone teams, dissolved with mergers upon mergers to the point they’re run by other teams.
Eight races into 2001 … only one four-car team existed (Roush Racing). Hendrick Motorsports was at three cars, along with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. while the rest? No one had more than two. In the most recent race (Martinsville), a total of 24 different owners fielded cars; 11 different owners finished inside the top-15 spots.
Eight races into 2011 … only 24 different owners all season have fielded a car (25 max, depending on how you count blurred lines and satellite teams). Three teams have at least four cars (Hendrick, Roush and Childress) while Joe Gibbs Racing has three. If you mix in Richard Petty Motorsports with Roush and Stewart-Haas with Hendrick – teams that “information share” along with getting chassis and engines from Big Brother – you can say four teams are in control of 19 cars on the circuit, nearly half a 43-car field each week. In the most recent race at Talladega, eight different owners finished inside the top 15. Only 11 different organizations (eight if you count those engine/chassis tie-ins) are represented inside the top 28 of driver and owner points.
Eight races into 2001 … the series was averaging 22 lead changes a race with an average margin of victory of 0.598 seconds. Keep in mind that back then, there were no green-white-checker finishes, “overtime” races or double-file restarts.
Eight races into 2011 … the series is averaging 39 lead changes a race, but is armed with a margin of victory of 1.58 seconds. That number includes a tie for the closest margin ever at the stripe — .002 seconds between Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer at Talladega.
Eight races into 2001 … start-and-parking would make race fans scratch their head and say, “What’s that?” There was not a single instance during that portion of the year where any car pulled in early for financial reasons.
Eight races into 2011 … an average of four cars on the 43-car grid pull in early each week. At the sport’s most recent race – Talladega – where forced parity makes everyone a contender, three cars pulled in within five laps to collect a total of $237,061.
Eight races into 2001 … every event was experiencing double-digit ratings growth in the first year of the FOX/NBC television package. The sport was averaging a record 6.9 in the Nielsens, with an overnight high of 8.4 for that year’s Daytona 500.
Eight races into 2011 … the Daytona 500 pulled an overnight high of 8.2. Through eight races, FOX is averaging a 4.9, a 29 percent decrease from its first year covering the sport.
Eight races into 2001 … the FOX announcing team consisted of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds in the booth with Jeff Hammond and Chris Myers in the Hollywood Hotel. Pit road coverage was provided by Steve Byrnes, Matt Yocum, Dick Berggren and Jeanne Zelasko.
Eight races into 2011 … pretty much everything has remained the same, for better or worse. Only Zelasko is gone, replaced by Krista Voda. It’s one of the longest-tenured groups of on-air broadcasting in professional sports.
Eight races into 2001 … Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch were battling hard for rookie of the year honors. Casey Atwood, Jason Leffler and Ron Hornaday were also in that class, each of whom would go on to impact one of NASCAR’s top three series in their own way.
Eight races into 2011 … Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne isn’t eligible to win the award under NASCAR’s new rules. Andy Lally and Brian Keselowski, both of whom have yet to crack the top 15 in any race, are busy battling out for the award while trying to scrape up enough money so each can finish the season.
Eight races into 2001 … the sport was averaging about eight cautions a race. Sixteen of those yellow flags were for debris or oil on the racetrack; that averaged out to about two per race.
Eight races into 2011 … the sport is averaging about eight cautions a race. Seventeen of those yellow flags were for debris or oil on the racetrack; that averages out to about two per race.
See? Some things never change… as for the rest, I’ll leave it up to you to be the judge. Certainly, in some ways the sport is better off, but there’s no denying the NASCAR of today has become dramatically different than it was just 10 years ago. The key for the sport, and for fans is whether they’re willing to embrace change or through their longing for nostalgia, outright reject it. You certainly can’t go back, but is there enough excitement remaining for fans to move forward?
by Matt Taliaferro
Life can be tough at the top. Or even near it. And in the world of professional auto racing — where speed is not measured in horsepower, but dollars — it can be downright impossible to break through.
Don’t tell Blake Koch, though. The 25 year-old Florida native is attempting to make his mark in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series despite a lack of dollars that equate into miles per hour. Koch and his McDonald Motorsports team are fighting the good fight against the series’ powerhouse teams — think Roush Fenway and Joe Gibbs Racing — and they’re doing it the right way.
Koch has made eight career starts in the Nationwide Series since making the jump from NASCAR’s K&N West Series in 2009 — five this season — and he’s finished every one. In a climate where start and park entries are all but accepted in all three of NASCAR’s touring series, that’s saying something.
“At the beginning of the year I was paying all my own expenses,” Koch said prior to the 300-mile Nationwide race in Nashville. “Now Randy (McDonald, team owner) can help me out, but I still cover 90 percent of my own expenses. There’s no salary, no percentage of race winnings.”
Still, he’s willing to sacrifice now in order to find success later, regardless of the personal expense required.
“It’s difficult for my wife and I, but it’s what we love and we’re going to keep going with it.”
Does he feel some sense of resentment, though? After all, do Cup regulars Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, et al, really need to log Nationwide miles and collect hardware? Those big names attract big money, leaving table scraps for young teams and drivers trying to get a foothold in the sport.
“I don’t think it’s a huge impact for sponsors,” Koch shrugs. “I think it’s big that we can tell our potential sponsors that we’ll be racing against Dale Earnhardt Jr. this weekend or Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards or Trevor Bayne.
“I think it’s an advantage for us to tell them (sponsors) that we’ll be in the same race with those guys. We’re a low-budget team, and those lower-budget companies can get in the same race with the big-budget companies.”
In the meantime, Koch and McDonald have the backing of Daystar Television Network, a media company focusing on religiously-based programming. It’s a partner Koch and McDonald view as more than just a sponsor, but a belief and a way of life.
“Randy McDonald has the same vision we do,” Koch says. “We’re all believers in Christ and we like to take that platform out into the community.”
Still, all the belief and vision in the world won’t make up for a lack of funding, so Koch’s short-term expectations are modest ones.
“My expectations vary,” he says. “Typically, my expectations are to qualify top 25 and finish top 20 — but my goal is to finish top 15. But money buys speed, so … today, I hope to qualify 22nd.”
He just missed that, rolling off 30th in the Nashville 300 and finishing 25th. Still, the team has had its moments, like the 17th-place run in Memphis in 2009 and a 16th at Talladega last weekend. The Talladega race — his first at the superspeedway — was impressive on a number of levels.
“With the weather and trouble in tech, we missed the whole first practice and all but 15 minutes of the second practice,” he explained. “So NASCAR told us we had to get on the track for at least one lap or we couldn’t qualify.
“I’ve never even seen the track or played it on a video game, so I just had to go out there with pure faith and get it done. I didn’t get to bump draft at all (in practice), so come race time, that was the first time I’d been around cars. Luckily, Joey Logano picked us up on the second lap (in a two-car draft) and got us from 30th to 13th in like 28 laps.”
Koch kept his cool the rest of the day in recording his career-best finish. And with his hunger, a committed team and a supportive sponsor, it’s likely those career-best showings will continue to come.
by Vito Pugliese
Ever notice how everything that’s about 25 years old comes back in style again? There are many sayings that help corroborate the observation: Everything old is new again. Nothing is original – steal from anywhere. Heck it’s even in the Bible in Ecclesiastes 1:9: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Even Yogi Berra chimed in, saying, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
In NASCAR’s case however, Yogi might be mistaken.
You’ll find no better example of this than the 2011 season. The year started with Daytona getting its first repave since the Carter Administration, and the irony in that should be lost on no one with regards to our similar economic climate. The result was a Daytona 500 that was as impactful as the 1979 version that had a captive East Coast and Midwest audience glued to the tube as America got its first dose of flag-to-flag NASCAR coverage. And we haven’t looked back since, other than to marvel at where the sport came from, and confirm where it’s headed.
Trevor Bayne’s win in a Wood Brothers Ford stoked vivid memories of an era, team, car and driver long gone — and much lamented. Seeing the No. 21 Motorcraft Ford in all its mid-70s Purolator regalia — red, white, and true glory — warmed the cockles of even the most cynical fan’s heart.
It was a popular win not only because of the character of those who won, but that the all-American work ethic and success story that is so intrinsically intertwined in NASCAR was brought back to the forefront.
Witness too the return of — dare we say it — RACING. The Car of Tomorrow now more closely resembles the Car of Yesteryear, with the deletion of the Erector Set front splitter and Top Fuel Dragster rear wing. A blade in the back, and a more traditional integrated lip spoiler that is a bit reminiscent of those of the 1980s has emerged, and we are all better for it. Don’t think so? When was the last time you saw a three-way battle for the win and a last-corner pass for the checkers at California? How about Phoenix with a race-winning pass with eight laps to go courtesy of a legend we hadn’t seen in the Winner’s Circle for quite some time?
Martinsville is the oldest track on the circuit and one of the last links to NASCAR’s storied past. And, as if on cue, it produced a fantastic final few laps which culminated in the Earnhardt name returning to relevance once again, as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. showed the racing community that he hasn’t hung it up just yet. Talladega was further proof of that.
Ah yes, Talladega. The 2.66-mile behemoth is always good for a rollicking good time and photo-finish. And last weekend’s race was no exception, coming down to eight cars battling for the win, with Jimmie Johnson eeking out a victory over Clint Bowyer by .002 seconds, tying the closest finish in NASCAR history.
Going back to the future hasn’t just been limited to the Cup Series, either. In the Nationwide Series, Challengers have replaced Chargers and Mustangs run wild where the Taurus used to tread and the Fusion once, uh … fused things. Chevrolet still hasn’t gotten the memo on what is cool, and Toyota pulled the plug on the Supra a couple of years ago, so it has to make due with a butched-up version of its bread-and-butter grocery getter.
We’ve even seen a few faces from the Busch Series-glory days make an impact this year, with the all-time series wins leader — 52-year old Mark Martin — taking a win on the last lap at Las Vegas, while Mike Wallace and Joe Nemechek were up front and in contention at Talladega (just before Wallace suffered an old school Talladega blow-over on the backstretch). Even newcomer Danica Patrick — who endures her own army of detractors — has shown promise, posting a fourth-place effort in Vegas, in part from some prime-time coaching from 1995 Busch Series champion Johnny Benson Jr.
Other than that … well, yeah, count on Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards winning everything else. Brad Keselowski’s Dodge should get back in the mix too, once it stops blowing right front tires on a weekly basis.
The Camping World Truck Series has started to get in on the throwback act, as well. Last year the series seemed to degenerate into Kyle’s playground, bringing into question the validity of the third-tier division that originally served two purposes: to sell pickup trucks and provide short-track drivers a new place to play while getting some exposure in a NASCAR touring series.
There are some new names on the Trucks Series horizon — Cole Whitt and Austin Dillon to name a couple. Both show tremendous promise, the latter currently driving a black Chevrolet bearing a number three in a very familiar font. They are joined on the tailgate tour by a crop of youngster you’ll be hearing from in the not too distant future — namely, Parker Kligerman, Clay Rodgers, Miguel Paludo and Timothy Peters.
There is also some guy who used to ride dirt bikes that is coming of age on four-wheels — Ricky Carmichael — and yet another Earnhardt (Jeffrey), who bears a startling resemblance to photos of his granddad as an up-and-coming short tracker. He’s really going to blow some minds if he can one day muster a mustache.
That’s not to say that everything has been a big candy machine full of sugary-good memories.
Goodyear tire problems have reared their ugly head on a couple of occasions, most notably at Bristol, where teams were limited to a set of tires for practice until more could be rushed in. Dodge is struggling to remain relevant in the sport, with all of two legitimately solid teams in the Sprint Cup Series (Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski) under the Penske banner. Robby Gordon’s game of musical manufacturers has fallen on Dodge this season, but he is consistently on the cusp of falling out of the top 35 in owner points.
There are also just barely enough cars to fill the field of 43 every weekend which is good, in that not many teams have had to go home this year — but cars absent from the starting grid point to some serious concerns with the model of the Cup Series, and hint that, perhaps like in the early 1990s when NASCAR experienced it’s stratospheric growth and rise to national prominence, that less may actual be more with regards to field counts. And perhaps the number of races on the schedule.
The ratings also tell a troubling tale. Over the first seven races, ratings were, on the surface, up four percent from last year, with Talladega numbers still incomplete. Three of those 2010 races were run on Monday due to rain delays, and Talladega’s preliminary numbers are off about six percent from lat year. Those 2010 Monday races in question were some of the best of that season, as well.
But for now, I say no need to fret about the future, just simply enjoy it for what it is while we can.
Like Sarah Connor’s foreboding of what Terminators lay ahead, unseen past the horizon, there is another looming economic collapse that could cripple the sport — and much more beyond that. With fuel prices set to spike past $5.00 a gallon come Memorial Day, might the Summer Stretch of races be best viewed from the comfort of your couch, whose gallons per mile is measured in cola, beer and bottled water? What if the manufacturers — particularly those fresh off a Federal furlough — decide that driving around in a circle is not a responsible way to spend limited capital? It happened on a couple of occasions for each of the Big Three during the 1960s.
Should that come to pass, remember that NASCAR has weathered this storm before in the early- and mid- ‘70s. It wouldn’t be the first time the sport suffered challenges that forced it to improvise, adapt and overcome. And it won’t be the last.
After all, there is nothing new under the sun. And our best ideas are those we’ve had before.
by Matt Taliaferro
Restrictor-plate racing at NASCAR’s two largest ovals in Daytona and Talladega has always been known as a high-speed chess match — one that, more often than not, produces tight, thrilling finishes.
At no race was that more evident than at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, where Jimmie Johnson won by .002 seconds over Clint Bowyer in the Aaron’s 499, tying the record for closest margin of victory since NASCAR adopted electronic timing and scoring.
But Johnson and Bowyer were only two of the central characters in a frantic 11–lap dash to the finish. Four “pods” of teammates — Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bowyer and Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle — diced their way through a final lap that concluded with a nearly four-wide scramble at the finish line. The Johnson/Earhardt duo made the race-winning move to the low groove in the tri-oval, flirting with a yellow-line, out of bounds penalty, to complete a thrilling come-from-behind victory.
And in a style of racing that requires cooperation among competitors in hopes of victory, corporate teammates are an invaluable part of the equation. Exhibit A: Johnson and Earnhardt. The Hendrick Motorsports drivers stayed hooked together from the drop of the green, leading early, then dropping to the back of field in the mid-stages, only to make a run to the front late.
“He (Earnhardt) was committed, as was I, and it showed today,” Johnson said. “Neither one of us were selfish and we worked as a group. And at the end, he felt like the 48 car (Johnson’s) leading was faster; we agreed.
“We had a plan coming into the race, and stuck to it and learned a lot as the event went on, really Junior and I did, on how we would communicate, on what runs we could make, how we could set them up, how we could pass, how to have the guy push and could cool his car. Really, there was a lot of learning that went on through all of the laps throughout the race.”
So vital was the teamwork to orchestrating Johnson’s victory that he gave Earnhardt the checkered flag in lieu of a trophy.
“I handed it to him and he said, "Man, I don't want that,’” Johnson explained. “I said, ‘Well, I have to give you something for the push and working with me.’
“He said, ‘No, that's what teammates do.’ I smiled and I said, ‘Take the damn flag. I'll give you the trophy, too.’ He says, ‘No, I don't want the trophy. I'll take the flag, though.’”
Earnhardt joked that, "It'll be the one checkered flag I got that ain't mine!”
Earnhardt credited lessons learned from the previous day’s Nationwide Series race with Sunday’s game plan. In that race, he was separated from his JR Motorsports teammate, Aric Almirola, which resulted in eighth- (Earnhardt) and 10th- (Almirola) place finishes.
"We all had commitment phobia. Nobody really wanted to go all the way," Earnhardt said. "So I told (Johnson) today, ‘We gotta stay committed no matter what happens. Every lap. Every restart.’ And it worked out."
A third Hendrick driver — Gordon — was credited with third. Behind him, Earnhardt, Harvick, Edwards, Biffle and Martin rounded out the top 8.
When asked if there was any solace in knowing he lost by a record margin, runner-up Bowyer laughed, saying, “Hell no, that sucks! It's never very good to know you made NASCAR history by losing. Sooner or later I need to start making history by winning. That guy's won enough.”
The same cannot be said for Earnhardt, whose 100-race winless skid reached 101 with Sunday’s near-miss. However, the chemistry between he and crew chief Steve Letarte is undeniable, as evidenced by their seventh top-12 run in eight races. And with a return to Daytona’s plate action on the July Fourth weekend, maybe Johnson can return the favor.
“I think we take the exact same approach and see how it shakes out the end,” Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus said of the strategy for the next plate race. “If we get to Daytona and the roles are reversed that will be it — we will follow him across the line with sparks and fire a-blazing.”
by Mike Neff
Scientifically Treated Petroleum has been a staple of shade tree mechanics since 1953, but the product is perhaps best known for its involvement in motorsports. STP teamed up with Richard Petty in 1971, beginning a 29-year relationship that is the second longest in the history of motorsports. And after a decade’s hiatus, the iconic brand is coming back to NASCAR in a big way, encompassing more than just car sponsorship beginning in June.
In an era when many companies are reigning in motorsports budgets, it is refreshing to see a major commitment coming from a corporation that has been so identifiable with NASCAR through the years.
STP was started in 1954 by Charles “Doc” Liggett, Jim Hill and Robert DeHart with $3,000, a garage and a dream. The three men packaged their oil treatment product during the evenings and then loaded it into their trunks to sell during vacations and business trips. The initial product was designed to keep oil from thinning when operating at high temperatures, which made it an ideal aid for race teams. The success of their efforts — the product’s reputation spread primarily by word of mouth in the racing industry — allowed them to expand their business into gasoline treatment in 1960.
The company was so successful, in fact, that Studebaker bought it in 1961 and hired Andy Granatelli to be the CEO. Granatelli’s gregarious personality was infectious and made him a fan favorite when the company started sponsoring cars in open wheel racing, where Mario Andretti carried the colors to an Indianapolis 500 win in 1969.
The company’s involvement in stock car racing coincided nicely with NASCAR’s evolution into its modern era. STP first appeared on Richard Petty’s hood at Riverside Raceway in 1971, then adorned the now-iconic No. 43 for an eight-win ’72 campaign.
The partnership between STP and Petty Enterprises was as recognizable a marriage of driver and sponsor as there has ever been in the history of the sport. The combination of the Petty Blue and the STP Day-Glo Red made the No. 43 one of the most instantly distinguishable cars on the track and off. Petty scored 60 of his record 200 career wins and three championships flying the STP banner until his retirement in 1992.
The path to STP’s departure from the sport began in 1998, when the Clorox Company purchased First Brands, which at the time was the parent company of STP. Marketing decisions made in a boardroom — where bottom-line numbers outweigh emotional ties — ruled the day, and by the mid-point of the 2000 season, the No. 43 was without a big red oval on the hood.
Ten years later, in 2010, Avista Capital Partners acquired ArmorAll and STP from Clorox and renamed the business arm the Armored AutoGroup. The divestiture away from Clorox once again opened the door for STP to return to racing — and the brand is jumping back in with both feet.
STP’s renewed involvement will again revolve around one of the best-known slogans in the history of motorsports: “STP — The Racer’s Edge.” It will kick off its new campaign by sponsoring the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races at Kansas Speedway on its June 4-5 race weekend, as well as Chicagoland Speedway’s races — which includes the first Chase date — in September. Capitalizing on the popularity (and familiarity) of Petty’s affiliation with the brand, the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Ford will sport the classic 1972 paint scheme.
STP is also partnering with International Speedway, Corp. as a track sponsor at Daytona, Talladega, Chicago, Michigan, Kansas, Richmond and Darlington. In addition, the company has inked a deal with Speedway Motorsports, Inc., as a track sponsor at Infineon Raceway, which includes title sponsorship of its Wednesday night drag racing events.
Outside of NASCAR, the company will sponsor Tony Pedregon’s Nitro Funny Car NHRA entry at Las Vegas, Houston and Infineon and will serve as an associate sponsor for the remainder of the season. Lastly, STP will continue to sponsor Tony Stewart’s World of Outlaw Sprint Car with Donny Schatz behind the wheel, as well as providing additional sponsorship in the series.
In a time when NASCAR — and North American motorsports in general — is losing more sponsors than it’s gaining, STP’s renewed, aggressive re-entry into the sport is, hopefully, a sign of things to come. With NASCAR’s hardcore fan base eroding over the last decade due to a perceived interest in attracting newer fans (at the expense of the loyalists) having such an identifiable sponsor from “the good ol’ days” is the perfect way to kick-start the old school fan’s love affair with the sport.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Talladega, Ala.
Specs: 2.66-mile tri-oval; Banking/Turns:33°; Banking/Tri-Oval: 18°; Banking/Backstretch: 2°
2010 Winners: Kevin Harvick (April), Clint Bowyer (Novemebr)
2011 Race Length: 500 miles/188 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 212.809 mph (Bill Elliott, 1987)
Race Record: 188.354 mph (Mark Martin, 1997)
From the Spotter's Stand
Drivers went after the checkers at Talladega last season like a spider monkey all hopped up on Mountain Dew, with a pair of too-close-to-call races that Ricky Bobby’s entire family — even Walker and T.R. — would be proud of.
Kevin Harvick beat Jamie McMurray by .011 seconds in a photo finish that was well worth the three attempts at a green-white-checkered flag finish it took to seal the deal in April. Along the way, Cup records were set for the number of leaders (29) and lead changes (88).
“The Big One” hit on the final lap in October, delaying the official announcement of Clint Bowyer’s victory — which came over Harvick, after “Shake ’n’ Bake” style help from Juan Pablo Montoya on Lap 187 of 188.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Being at the right place at the right time and picking a dancing partner wisely are the ultimate keys to winning at Talladega. While horsepower and aero are important, the CoT evens the playing field in the aero department, and the restrictor plates do so (although not to the same extent) under the hoods.
“Talladega is the track where you don’t have any control, particularly sitting on pit road. So much can happen. The driver’s got to be smart, and there can’t be any lapses. Even if there aren’t, he’s just in the hands of fate out there. They call it a high-speed chess match, and that’s pretty appropriate.”
Looking at Checkers: He hasn’t won at Talladega, but Kurt Busch certainly has a knack for avoiding the big wreck here. Sometimes that’s fantasy gold.
Pretty Solid Pick: Ah, to be young and hungry. Right Kes?
Good Sleeper Pick: Gotta mention Jamie McMurray somewhere, don’t we?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Mark Martin and Ryan Newman are known for their dislike of the place.
Insider Tip: A total crapshoot. Right place, right time, right dancing partner; right push at the end.
Classic Moments at Talladega
Local legend has it that the ground Talladega Superspeedway is built on was cursed by a medicine man from a tribe of Native Americans that were driven from its valley.
It’s hard to argue this logic — as strange occurrences have been the norm here throughout the years, from driver boycotts to car sabotage to drivers hearing voices inside their cars.
The inaugural event in 1969 is boycotted by most of the top drivers of the time due to safety concerns. A newly formed (yet short-lived) drivers’ union, led by Richard Petty, cites tire issues associated with speeds as the reason.
The race goes on with “scrubs,” however, and is won by Richard Brickhouse. Thus begins a pattern of drivers getting their first and/or only career win at Talladega.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Kyle Busch After runs of first, third and third, Busch slumped to 16th in Texas, courtesy of a persistent loose wheel. It can’t be a good feeling to run 200 mph into a turn knowing that a wheel could come off.
2. Carl Edwards If Kyle is No. 1, Carl may be No. 1a. It’s a toss-up at the top really, as their stats are near-mirror images through seven races this season.
3. Kevin Harvick Looking for three wins in a row, Harvick had pit-road issues all evening, getting pinned in a couple times and receiving a penalty on a third. Not that it mattered — he didn’t have the speed anyway.
4. Matt Kenseth Suddenly, we’re all wondering where Kenseth came from. Truth is, his only finish outside of the top 12 all season was when he got caught in the Big One in the Daytona 500.
5. Jimmie Johnson Johnson is averaging a 10th-place finish this season — including a runner-up and two thirds — while quietly lying in wait for that first victory.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK, this might be getting serious. Since a wreck at Daytona with six laps remaining, Junior has strung together six consecutive top-12 showings. Something’s working.
7. Kurt Busch To listen to him spew complaints and profanity on the radio during races, you’d think Busch was driving a Pinto. In actuality, he’s tied with little brother and Edwards with five top 10s this season.
8. Clint Bowyer Bowyer has finally found “it,” having racked up three consecutive top-10 runs, capped by a strong runner-up showing in a race at Texas that no one but Kenseth was going to win.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya Montoya has developed a knack for restrictor plate racing, and next up is Talladega, where he finished third in both events last season.
10. Ryan Newman A four-race top-10 surge has given way to 20th- and 14th-place runs. This weekend will be big for Newman, who has made his dislike of Talladega no secret.
11. Tony Stewart Another sure-fire top 5 slips through his fingers. This is beginning to become a habit.
12. Paul Menard He’s not race-winning caliber yet, but Menard sure is showing improvement at RCR.
13. Jeff Gordon Throw out the Phoenix win and Martinsville top 5 and it isn’t too pretty for Mr. Gordon.
14. David Ragan Records consecutive top 10s for the first time since late in the 2008 season.
15. Greg Biffle Running fourth on a big intermediate is exactly what Biffle is supposed to do. A sign of things to come?
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
by Matt Taliaferro
So much has been made of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless skid and the just-broken streak of Jeff Gordon that Matt Kenseth’s 76-race bout of futility has largely been overlooked. Not that Kenseth complained — after all, who wants a losing streak advertised? No, Kenseth flies under the radar, so even if he pieced together a four-race victory run, it likely wouldn’t get much play.
Kenseth didn’t fly under the radar on Saturday night. Instead, he took the bull by the horns at Texas Motor Speedway, leading a race-high 169 of 334 laps en route to a win in the Samsung Mobile 500 — his first since back-to-back triumphs that kicked off the 2009 season.
“We’ve had a couple (wins) like this, but not a lot,” Kenseth said. “Vegas is one that comes to mind, and that was a long time ago. It was, I think ’03, where we felt like we were a straightaway ahead all night, and the car was just about perfect.
“You don't get a lot of days in today’s competition level where you can lead that many laps and dominate a race and get a win.”
It wasn’t just a dominant performance by Kenseth, but by his Roush Fenway Racing team in general, as its three other drivers — Carl Edwards (third), Greg Biffle (fourth) and David Ragan (seventh) — all led laps and finished in the top 10. A fifth driver — Marcos Ambrose — registered a sixth-place run in his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, which receives engine and chassis support from RFR.
Richard Childress Racing’s Chevrolet entries of Clint Bowyer (second) and Paul Menard (fifth) were the only two finishers in the top 7 not under the Ford Racing banner.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do in 2011,” team co-owner Jack Roush said. “You know, we tuned up our engineering program with Ford’s help over the winter and we got a new Ford nose. Everybody got a new nose this year, but our new nose was better than our old nose, I think. And we’ve had our FR9 engine really up to speed.”
Ford’s FR9 engine was phased in last season to initially disappointing results. No Ford-supported team won until Biffle’s No. 16 bunch went to Victory Lane in August. He won again in October, but it wasn’t until Edwards took the last two races of the season that the kinks appeared to be worked out of the powerplant.
The 2011 season finds the Blue Oval brigade off to a flying start, having won three of the first seven races — including the Daytona 500 with the Wood Brothers’ iconic No. 21 entry.
That’s not to say that the Ford gang — led Saturday by Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig — were never challenged. Roger Penske’s Dodges of Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski combined to lead 82 laps. Busch, along with Tony Stewart, also tried to stretch their fuel mileage in a race that was slowed only five times for 24 laps. In fact, Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb appeared to have played the gas game to a tee, but were busted for speeding on pit road during a green-flag pit stop on lap 277 and had to serve a pass-through penalty, handing the lead back to Kenseth.
Kenseth held serve during the final round of pit stops and drove away nearly unchallenged over the event’s final 40 laps to record his 19th career Cup Series win.
“Those kind of races are fun when you’re the leader and the first one on pit row as long as there’s not a caution, because us know every lap they stay out there, you’re eating their lunch pretty bad,” Kenseth said. “Even if they pit a lap after you, you usually make a whole second on them.”
The Cup Series visits Talladega next weekend for a white-knuckle extravaganza before taking its annual Easter weekend vacation.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Fort Worth, Texas
Specs: 1.5-mile quad-oval; Banking/Turns: 24°; Banking/Quad-Oval: 18°; Banking/Straightaways: 5°
2010 Winners: Denny Hamlin won both races (April and November).
2011 Race Length: 501 miles/334 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 196.235 mph (Brian Vickers, 2006)
Race Record: 151.055 mph (Carl Edwards, 2005)
From the Spotter's Stand
After perfecting the Texas two-step, Denny Hamlin joined Carl Edwards (2008) as the only drivers to sweep at Texas since the track became a biannual stop in 2005. Cousin Carl (3) and Jeff Burton (2) are the only other multi-win drivers in the 20-race history of TMS.
In April, Hamlin beat runner-up Jimmie Johnson to the line (.152 seconds) after pole-sitter Tony Stewart (74 laps led) lost control and started a nine-car pileup that also wrecked Jeff Gordon (124 laps led).
The other boot dropped in November, when Hamlin earned his second spurred trophy and series-best eighth win of the year — leaving Ft. Worth in first in the Chase, 33 points ahead of JJ with two races to go.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Texas is all about downforce, and generating it in race conditions — with cars all over the track — is tricky, yet paramount. Speed at Texas is important, but so is a good shock and suspension package that allows the car to handle the bumps that have formed in Turns 1, 2 and 3. The exit of two and the entrance of three are the trouble spots, both from a driver’s and a mechanic’s perspective. It’s one of those places where, in my mind, strange things happen. I’m always extra wary when we go there.”
Looking at Checkers: It’s hard not to like the way Carl Edwards has performed on the big intermediates thus far this season.
Pretty Solid Pick: Two wins and a runner-up in the last three Texas Cup starts for Denny Hamlin.
Good Sleeper Pick: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has only one finish outside the top 12 this season (Daytona), and actually runs well at Texas, where he got his frist career Cup win.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Juan Pablo Montoya averages a 25th-place finish here.
Insider Tip: At some point, Kyle Busch’s Nationwide domination at TMS will translate to Cup, right? Until then, it’s best to stick with Edwards, Hamlin, et al.
Classic Moments at Texas
Texas Motor Speedway’s first two Cup dates are brutal affairs. The 1997 Interstate Batteries 500 and ’98 Texas 500 are plagued by savage wrecks — one that nearly ends Greg Sacks’ career and another that sidelines Mike Skinner for weeks — and weepers that cancel practice and qualifying sessions. The mayhem even leads to whispers, though not verified, that Texas would have its single date stripped.
Therefore, following the ’98 race, track owner Bruton Smith purchases a share of North Wilkesboro Speedway to move one if its two dates to his track in Texas. He has the track repaved and reconfigured and installs a new drainage system. The results are immediate, as TMS stands as one of the great facilities on the circuit.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: (@MattTaliaferro)
by Tom Bowles
In sports, as in life, success and failure have an undeniable history of rotating in cycles. But for superstars, like MLB’s Derek Jeter or even NASCAR’s own Jimmie Johnson, they stand out by clinging to a bright side continually balanced in their direction more than most. The key? It’s an innate ability to keep believing in themselves in the worst of times, even when the majority of others are convinced their best days have simply passed by for good. Like clockwork, they use intense, internal motivation to get the most out of everyone around them, pulling out of slumps faster than most faced with adversity.
Denny Hamlin was seemingly predestined to acquire that lesson in 2010. During the first four years of his career, the knock on Hamlin was that he was too emotional, prone to either inappropriate outbursts or breakdowns in self-esteem that wouldn’t allow sustenance of the 10-race success rate NASCAR’s championship format requires. There was the infamous dustup with Kyle Petty at Dover, a disastrous shouting match en route to a last-place Chase debacle in 2007. The next season there were the summer doldrums of dysfunctional engines, a public confidence crisis in which his crew was called out on its way to an eighth-place points finish without a hint of championship contention. And then in 2009 — the kicker — Hamlin’s self-inflicted wound came courtesy of a spin while leading at Fontana before two additional mechanical failures finished off his ailing postseason bid.
So a NASCAR life of unfulfilled expectations is where Hamlin stood heading into Texas one year ago, saddled with the unrelenting pain of ACL surgery just three weeks earlier. There had been some bright spots — like an unlikely Martinsville victory before going under the knife — but after slogging through a painful 30th at Phoenix the Saturday prior, simply making the postseason was a legitimate question for his short-term future. Clearly, labeling him Johnson’s next rival for the championship was about as likely a proposition as Butler putting the ball in the basket against UConn.
So when Hamlin qualified 29th the next weekend at Texas — and with substitute driver Casey Mears still on standby — some wondered whether the 500-mile distance would be too much for his recovering body. As Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart led the majority of the race, little thought was given to a driver behind them that spent the first 450 miles having an eye-opening, albeit behind-the-scenes, run towards the front — despite still struggling to walk outside the car.
But after a field-decimating, multi-car wreck on lap 319 of 334 changed the scope of the race, it was the No. 11 FedEx Toyota that became the best car still standing, so to speak. Leading the final 12 laps, the emotional trip to Victory Lane was as shocking as it was strong enough to turn the table on that cycle of life; suddenly, a career of failing to overcome adversity had been halted, a two-tire call by crew chief Mike Ford creating the perfect synergy for this prizefight between driver and team.
“We’ve never hit the panic button,” Hamlin claimed that day. “We’ve never been down on ourselves because we haven’t gotten to the expectations a lot of people put on us at the beginning of the year and I put on myself.
“My expectations, where I thought I could be at the end of this year still can happen.”
Suddenly, the internal motivation the superstars use with regularity had appeared. Hamlin had a bum knee, painkillers and at Phoenix, even went against the proper medical advice of doctors on his comeback. But he also had the Texas trophy to prove them wrong, along with the respect of a crew that now stood behind its driver’s every move.
Fast forward to the fall race at Texas, where the 2010 season had become Mr. Hamlin’s playground. Five victories had followed that April renaissance, sending the No. 11 team soaring into the Chase combined with the consistency and experience needed to contend. Playing the postseason perfectly, Hamlin survived the wild card of Talladega, maximized opportunities at his best tracks (Loudon and Martinsville) and put the pressure on a No. 48 team that had nearly forgotten the meaning of the word.
Texas, Part Deux, seemed to put the final touches on what would be the crowning masterpiece of taking this career to the next level. Starting 30th, Hamlin’s march to the front was as methodical as Johnson’s team collapse proved mesmerizing. Poor pit stop after poor stop facilitated Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, to actually replace part of their championship crew in-race, simply to salvage ninth as Hamlin blew by Mark Martin, dominated the last 29 laps and pulled off the season sweep going away. Leaving the speedway, his lead stood at 33 points over Johnson, the title firmly within his grasp if only the team could make it through the next two weeks unscathed.
It was then that ugly cycle-of-life thing, which separates established superstars and hope-to-be ones, turned the wrong direction. Mr. Johnson was in his down cycle, attempting to overcome adversity when it was Hamlin’s own organization that chose to mess with that seesaw.
“We saw them making mistakes, saw them studying us real hard, and when you put your focus on watching other people, you make mistakes, so I was glad to see that they are watching us and paying attention,” crew chief Mike Ford said of Knaus’ move to change the pit crew. “That means they are chasing. And they made mistakes in doing so. I think it was kind of a desperation move.”
Ouch. Not exactly the words of endearment for a then-four-time championship team that awoke to the reality the No. 11 team hadn’t won anything yet – so why were they talking?
“I think in Texas,” Johnson would say two weeks later. “The gloves came off.”
The punches that followed were ones Hamlin struggled to absorb, betrayed by the team that had made the mortal mistake they accused Johnson of: focusing on others instead of themselves.
The following week, it was Ford who made a faulty call to pit for fuel at Phoenix, donating points to their rival and setting a championship finale everyone knows: the No. 11 team, not the 48, spinning and self-destructing on the public stage. There’s been zero victories, zero top-5 finishes and plenty of griping in the eight races since — from motor problems, to poor pit stops, to simply bad adjustment calls by the driver/crew chief duo.
“We need to work on who we’re going to have change tires for us,” said Hamlin Sunday, after ugly Martinsville stops caused Ford to pull his front tire changer for teammate Joey Logano’s mid-race – copying the “desperation move” he saw across the way last fall. “At this point, I’m just happy we finished the race, being everything that’s going on.”
Which brings us full circle and back to Texas, where Hamlin has a chance to rewrite history once again. The time to salvage this season is ticking, problems mounting while rivals like Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and teammate Kyle Busch rack up wins and points. History, the type that loves to repeat itself, stands firmly against Hamlin’s resurgence. None of the five championship runner-up finishers to Johnson climbed higher than fourth in points the following year. So far this season, the 1.5-mile ovals have handed the No. 11 car a nondescript seventh (Las Vegas) and a 39th-place DNF (Fontana) after the engine went sour. The team, for all intents and purposes, seems to have never recovered from its late-season collapse — with the relationships in most need of mending centering around driver and crew chief.
So no, the only thing left right now to aid Hamlin’s recovery is that internal motivation, showcased by the superstars he aspires to emulate but has failed to match as of yet. To do it, he’ll need to start by taking a deep breath, remembering this race one year ago and what it meant to everyone around him.
“The choice (at Phoenix) to not get out of the car, that would be the easy thing to do,” Hamlin said back then of his ACL injury. “That would be the thing, you know, hey, our day's shot to hell. Easiest thing to do is just get out and let him (Mears) take over.
“But maybe the pit crew doesn’t give me the best stop, I don’t get out of the car and just say, ‘Hell with it. Someone else drive it.’ That’s not the way to be.”
But for much of 2011, that’s been the way it is internally at Joe Gibbs Racing, the type of attitude that perpetuates the cycle, not change its course.
There’s so much talk at JGR about the “new” Kyle Busch, who has changed his immature ways and currently leads the point standings. But really, the story now becomes whether the old, mature Hamlin can come back before it’s too late. That “superstar” label may depend on it.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: (@NASCARBowles)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Kyle Busch Young Rowdy nabs the top spot from Carl Edwards this week thanks to four top-3 finishes in the last five races. He’s led a race-high 151 laps in each of the last two, to boot.
2. Kevin Harvick Back-to-back wins make it hard to keep Harvick out of the top spot, but Kyle’s body of work over the course of the last month trumps the recent Harvick hot streak.
3. Carl Edwards Martinsville is one of Carl’s worst tracks, so it’s no surprise he faltered to an 18th-place showing. Things will be different this weekend ... he may just win in Texas.
4. Jimmie Johnson This ranking may be unfair, as Johnson probably would have won Martinsville had he not gotten busted for speeding on pit road. However, he did not because he did, thus he’s fourth.
5. Ryan Newman There’s a big drop off from fourth to fifth. Newman has been more consistent than the proceeding bunch, so he gets the nod — but it’s tenuous.
6. Juan Pablo Montoya Montoya is coming on strong with consecutive top 10s, including a surprising fourth-place run at Martinsville ... typically not one of his better venues.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Also coming on is Junior, who has only one finish outside of the top 12 this season — and that was a 24th at Daytona when he was swept up in a later wreck not of his making.
8. Matt Kenseth Kenseth seemingly lives under the radar. Bet you didn’t know he’s recorded consecutive runs of fourth, fourth and sixth.
9. Kurt Busch Dropping faster than a lugnut on a pit stop, Busch started the season strong but has limped to mid-teen finishes the last two races, looking lost in the process.
10. Jeff Gordon His two top 5s this season have come at Phoenix (first) and Martinsville (fifth) — two flat and relatively short tracks. The next flat track is at Pocono, a mere two months down the road.
11. Tony Stewart Not sure what’s going on here, but the last three weeks haven’t been pretty.
12. Kasey Kahne Kahne gets a pass this week for being the victim of someone else’s stuck throttle.
13. Mark Martin This is a 10th- to 20th-place team right now. That won’t cut it.
14. Clint Bowyer After a slow start Bowyer is gaining momentum with consecutive top 10s.
15. Paul Menard Menard is going the other way with 16th- and 38th-place runs the last two weeks.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Brian Vickers
by Matt Taliaferro
Kevin Harvick’s new nickname, “The Closer,” is a well-earned moniker. Harvick rallied late in the afternoon at Martinsville Speedway to overtake Dale Earnhardt Jr. and win the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 on Sunday.
The victory was Harvick’s second straight, having taken checkers the week prior at Auto Club Speedway in similar fashion. The Bakersfield, Calif., native has led a total of seven laps — the final one at ACS and six in Martinsville — en route to career triumphs No. 15 and 16.
“I’m just glad we led more than one lap this week,” Harvick joked afterward.
A caution with 35 laps remaining on the historic half-mile track brought the lead-lap cars — led by Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson — in for a splash of fuel and fresh tires. Johnson, who had knifed his way through the field to challenge Busch, was nabbed for speeding on pit road, relegating his strong No. 48 Chevy to the rear of the pack on the restart.
That left Busch to settle the race with Harvick alongside and Earnhardt in arrears when the green waved with 30 laps to go. Earnhardt slid by Harvick with ease and then used the bump ’n’ run on Busch to take the lead with 21 circuits remaining.
“I was holding him up,” Busch said of the move. “I sucked, so it was good for him. I mean, he took the lead. No harm, no foul.”
Harvick’s hard charging No. 29 slid by Busch seven laps later and set its sights on Earnhardt. When Earnhardt wiggled coming off Turn 4 with four laps to go, Harvick squeezed by on the inside, taking the lead for good despite a bump from the No. 88.
“We slipped off into (Turn) 1 and he got under me — or we slipped into 3 and he got under me and I thought the only chance I had was a little bit of a crossover in (Turns) 1 and 2,” Earnhardt explained. “I tried to make it work but I couldn’t get really up under him enough. He crowded me the way he was supposed to do (in the) next corner down here in 3 and 4 and went on. And that was that.”
Busch challenged Earnhardt for the runner-up spot on the final lap but settled for third. Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 5.
It was the second race in a row that Busch led a race-high 151 laps only to be denied during a late-race, short green-flag run.
“We had one of the best runs here we have ever had,” Busch said. “And I probably had the best car here today. Unfortunately, just didn’t win with it. Coming down to the last run of the race here, kind of a short run, and we just didn’t quite have the car to do it on a short run. Every time we had the lead off pit road, we lost it and took about 28 laps to get going again.”
Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, recorded three straight wins at Martinsville entering Sunday’s event. He led 89 laps through the first half of the race but a pit-road miscue cost his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team valuable track position.
“We need to work on who we’re going to have change tires for us,” a dejected Hamlin said. “At this point you either work with what you’ve got or try to find someone that maybe can do a better job. You just don’t know right now and we don’t know what to do.”
Poor fuel mileage also required Hamlin make a stop with 43 laps remaining — much earlier than other cars on the lead lap.
“Our mileage just sucks real bad,” he said. “It sucked at Phoenix (last year) and it sucks here. We just have to figure it out. All of the things we need to do to be a championship team, we don’t have all those parts together right now.”
by Vito Pugliese
The U.S. Navy SEALS have a certain code and mantra they live by: Not dead, can’t quit.
That came to mind when looking back on the storied carrier of one of NASCAR’s most recognizable personalities. This Sunday marks a milestone for one of the storied names in NASCAR history, as Mark Martin makes his 800th career start fittingly enough, at Martinsville. Not unlike Charlie Sheen’s antics of late, it’s been a run that would have killed most mortals, and truly embodies what “winning” is all about.
As humble a man as Martin is, it truly is a minor miracle that he’s gotten to 800 starts, which places him eighth on the all-time starts list. It is a career that has endured triumph and tragedy, smiles, tears and a never-say-die attitude that has seen him rise from the ashes of being virtually bankrupt and washed up as a 24 year old to one of the most respected and revered drivers in the sport.
Ironically, Martinsville is not one of Martin’s favorite tracks. He once remarked prior to a race that if he won, he’d run through the grandstands in his underwear. While Martin may not threaten to streak through the grandstands in his whitey tighties this weekend if he wins, he might just military press the now-familiar Grandfather clock to celebrate, as his last win came a while back, at New Hampshire in the fall of 2009. That particular weekend went quite well, but one of his other milestone races – his 600th consecutive start in 2003 – came at New Hampshire as well. That weekend he was honored with a special golden paint scheme, but he ended up laying a golden egg, finishing 33rd.
While Martin was able to shield the fans from the pale whiteness that go round, he brought some fire in 2005 when a cooked brake at Martinsville blew out a tire and sent him headlong into the wall, a crash that would signal the end of his title hopes that season. A year later, while sitting just 102 points out of the lead with five races remaining, he was in the catbird’s seat, running in the top 5 with 25 laps to go. However, a piece of debris shot through his grille and radiator, ruining the day with a 24th place finish – and crushing his title hopes yet again.
That isn’t to say his trips to everyone’s favorite paper clip have been completely fruitless. His first career top-5 finish came at Martinsville in September 1981, when he finished third. In April 1992 he won the Hanes 500, outlasting the competition on a day when virtually everyone was sheering axles and blowing out rear end gears from excessive camber settings. In 2000, a tire-strategy call by then-crew chief Jimmy Fennig propelled Martin to his only victory that season.
Martin’s luck turned a bit darker around 2003. A winless ’03 season saw Martin mired 18th in points in the final standings – the worst of his Sprint Cup career. Meanwhile, teammate and protégé Matt Kenseth was in the process of winning the final Winston Cup championship under the “traditional” points format.
A slow start the following season stymied by engine woes facilitated a scramble to make the Chase in the debut year for NASCAR’s new point system, as well as to help ensure sponsorship stayed secured on the side of the car. The stress of several sure-wins lost in the final laps through failed pit strategies the following seasons helped justify the actions of announcing a career change in late ’04.
It was then that Martin announced that 2005 would be his final full-time season in Cup competition. Regardless of what the media continues to purport, he is not the Brett Favre of NASCAR – his announcement specifically denied any rumor of retirement. It was simply an opportunity to take a step back and reassess things and spend some time with his son Matt, who at the time was in the midst of beginning a burgeoning racing career. After nearly 20 seasons of running wide-open and expending untold amounts of physical, mental and emotional energy (and misery), it was time to put his career in neutral while leaving the engine running.
During this breather from full-time competition, Martin nearly won the Daytona 500 in a controversial last-lap finish driving for a team that would cease to exist six months later. He helped keep Dale Earnhardt, Inc. afloat long enough for it to merge with Ganassi Racing following the departure of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Then, as luck would have it, Martin joined Earnhardt at Hendrick Motorsports in 2009, returning to full-time Cup competition for the first time since ’06. His encore performance was nothing short of remarkable, notching five wins with his new No. 5 team — a mark bested only by his seven-win 1998 season.
Martin’s second-place finish to Jimmie Johnson in the Chase was a feel-good story for a sport that hadn’t had much to crow about in the midst of a ratings and attendance downturn, coupled with the economic struggles that plague virtually every industry that helps support it.
The 2010 season proved to be a difficult one for Martin’s squad as well as those of teammates Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. A three-way team swap that paired Martin with crew chief Lance McGrew brings us to start No. 800 in what is scheduled to be his final full season in the Cup Series.
Martin has stated since last summer that he has no plans beyond this year, though has a five-race deal with Turner Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, one that produced a win in his first start at Las Vegas two weeks ago. The all-time Nationwide Series wins leader now leads Kyle Busch by four victories overall, while in the Cup Series he sits 14th in points, just 10 markers out of ninth.
It isn’t often you find someone that has been doing the same thing for over 25 years, and certainly not to the standards set by Martin. He’s taught a generation of drivers how to compete with a code while helping launch the fitness and conditioning revolution that has swept through the garage, inspiring a number of drivers to eschew beers and burgers (and this weekend’s famous pink Martinsville hot dogs). He has done as much to shape the image of drivers as athletes as any one figure in NASCAR, and is a testament to preparation and clean living as the path to longevity and success.
Much of this has already been written about Martin, and for good reason, as it will most likely be retold when he makes his 1,000th starts at some point in the future. Yeah, even at 52 years of age you can pretty much bank on Martin getting to that point.
He’s not dead, and can’t quit.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards One win, three top 5s, four top 10s, two poles, an average finish of 7.8 and leading the point standings. There’s really no doubt who the man to beat is through five races.
2. Kyle Busch A couple late cautions in Fontana prevented Kyle from scoring his second straight win. He, along with Jimmie Johnson, look like Edwards’ main threats thus far.
3. Ryan Newman Newman is not the fireworks-like driver Busch is, but his consistency is nearly unmatched, having not finished outside of the top 10 since the Daytona 500.
4. Jimmie Johnson Anyone realize that J.J. hasn’t won a race yet? Of course, he’ll find Victory Lane soon enough, and in the meantime he’s finished second or third in three of the last four races.
5. Kevin Harvick Notched his first win of the year showing up out of nowhere like Houdini on the last lap at Auto Club Speedway. More W’s to follow.
6. Kurt Busch Busch was out to lunch from the moment his team unloaded in California but managed a 17th. He was top 10 in the first four races, but it’s hard to be sold on the championship caliber of this group.
7. Kasey Kahne The performance with his one ’n done Red Bull Racing team keeps getting better, with four consecutive top 15s.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior and new crew chief Steve Letarte have been an eighth- to 12th-place combo thus far. You have to figure that’s only going to improve with time.
9. Tony Stewart Late-race pit miscues are killing this team. If they get that figured out, it’ll be back to top-5 showings for Smoke and Co.
10. Matt Kenseth Hasn’t finished worse than 12th since Daytona, with consecutive fourth-place finishes in the last two events. Look out Carl, there’s some competition in your own stable.
11. Juan Pablo Montoya It’s the “Every Other Weekend” theory for JPM. Good, bad, good, bad, good, bad ...
12. Paul Menard Menard has been 17th or better in every race this year. Nice start, now keep it going.
13. Jeff Gordon Throw out the Phoenix win and 2011 hasn’t been very pretty for the 24 gang.
14. Martin Truex Jr. He’s led 84 laps through five races this season after leading 88 laps total in 2010.
15. Brian Vickers He looks good on the big intermediate tracks. Not so much anywhere else.
Just off the lead pack: Marco Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin
by Matt Taliaferro
As the saying goes, the only lap that matters is the last. And in no race was that more evident than Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
Kevin Harvick pushed Jimmie Johnson into Turn 3 — loosening the five-time Cup champion — and burned by, using the high line as the duo came to the checkers, to lead his only lap of the day, giving Harvick his first win at Auto Club Speedway and first of the young season.
An accident on lap 187 of 200 set up a three-man, nine-lap dogfight consisting of Harvick, Johnson and Kyle Busch. Busch, who dominated the event to the tune of 151 laps led, led the field to green and, along with Johnson, sprinted away from the field. However, as the two battled side-by-side, Harvick caught them by keeping his momentum up working the high groove.
By the time Johnson slid past Busch with two laps remaining, Harvick was there. He quickly disposed of Busch and set his sights on the leader.
“We led the right one, that’s for sure,” Harvick said. “We were able to keep pace with them (Busch and Johnson) for a few laps. When they started racing side-by-side, we made up the ground. Kyle started to get loose (and I) drove around him.”
Harvick pulled flush with Johnson’s bumper on the backstretch of the white-flag lap, shoving the leader into Turn 3. He then sailed high and passed the No. 48 Chevy, which had led only three laps throughout the afternoon.
“I knew if I was going to hit the wall today, it wasn’t going to be till Turn 4 coming to the checkered,” Harvick explained. “It was tight, but it was the right time to go.
“I really had a good run coming off of Turn 2 and he (Johnson) rolled up in front of me, so I just laid on the back bumper all the way down the back straightaway, gave him a couple seconds to think about what was going to happen going into Turn 3. The reason I did that, I just needed the one lane up top. I knew what I was going to do. I was hoping he would just roll through the middle of the racetrack or on the bottom or something.”
He did, and Harvick blew by and beat Johnson to the line by .144 seconds.
“Him (Harvick) being that close and kind of breaking the plane of our bumper, certainly affect(ed) how my car drove,” Johnson said. “When he got to my bumper down the back, I felt like if he turned into the bottom and followed me, I was in trouble. I kind of wanted to run the bottom coming to the checkered flag. Felt like that was the place to be.
“When I went off into (Turn) 3 with the extra speed, had my car kind of sideways getting in there, I couldn’t get a real good arc into the corner. I heard that he was looking outside near the middle of the corner. Once he got there and broke the plane of my bumper, spotter said, ‘Outside,’ I was dead in the water.”
Busch had been the only story of the day until the final dramatic laps. He first jumped to the point on lap 22, when he passed his Joe Gibbs Racing teamamte, Denny Hamlin. He lead 151 of the next 175 laps but took the loss as well as could be expected.
“Just real, real unfortunate and frustrating and disappointing — all in one — that we weren’t able to seal the deal today,” Busch said afterward. “(It) just came down to the last few laps there with Jimmie first and then Kevin got into it, too, with us.
“You ask a little bit more from your racecar at the last moments, (and if) it doesn’t have anything left to give, you’re essentially a sitting duck waiting for those guys to drive by you. Couldn’t get any more out of the car. That was it.”
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Fontana, Calif.
Specs: 2-mile oval; Banking/Turns:14°; Banking/Straightaways: 11°
2010 Winners: Jimmie Johnson (February), Tony Stewart (October)
2011 Race Length: 400 miles/200 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 188.245 mph (Kyle Busch, 2005)
Race Record: 155.012 mph (Jeff Gordon, 1997)
From the Spotter's Stand
Jimmie Johnson’s first successful drive for five of 2010 came at Auto Club Speedway — the site of JJ’s first win of the season, first career win and 48th career victory. The 48 car led 101 laps and capitalized on a little pit road luck to claim Johnson’s fifth win of the first 21 races in the 14-year history at the Fontana track.
After the race, runner-up Kevin Harvick claimed that Johnson and Chad Knaus “have a golden horseshoe stuck up their…” uh, tailpipe — referring to a caution flag that gave the 48 valuable track position.
In October, Tony Stewart kept his Chase hopes alive with his first win at Fontana. But this year, the second Cup stop at “Cali-boring-ya” has been eliminated.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Getting the car to turn in California’s long, sweeping, flat turns after carrying a ton of speed down the straightaways is the real trick to winning. From a setup point of view, it’s hard to get a car dialed in there, and front end geometry equates to good finishes. Plus, it’s probably the hardest track on engines, hands down, and Michigan is the only track that’s even close. The difference is probably the California heat. Drivers like to run the high groove, but the stopwatches say the bottom is better, so you’ve got to persuade them to try that.”
Looking at Checkers: If you’re picking against the 48, you’re picking wrong. Three of those wins have come in the last five races.
Pretty Solid Pick: Three of the four Roush boys (Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth) make fine picks this week.
Good Sleeper Pick: David Reutimann has taken to the big intermediates.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Marcos Ambrose, no matter the sheet metal.
Insider Tip: Bottom line is they’re going to have to go through Jimmie and Carl.
Classic Moments at Bristol
A tense race weekend turns emotional at what was then known as California Speedway in 2001.
On Friday, rumors spread that defending Cup champion Bobby Labonte has been fatally injured in a plane crash. Putting those false reports to rest, Labonte goes out and wins the pole for the NAPA Auto Parts 500.
In the race, Rusty Wallace is clearly the man to beat, and the cagey veteran doesn’t disappoint. Wallace outduels Jeff Gordon by .27 seconds to win on what would have been Dale Earnhardt’s 50th birthday. Wallace salutes his fallen friend by flying an Earnhardt flag out the driver-side window on his cool-down laps.
Wallace’s 54th career win also marks his 16th straight season with at least one victory. That streak would come to an end the following year.
by Mike Neff
Bristol Motor Speedway is sometimes referred to as the “Cathedral of Racing.” For years obtaining tickets to the events at the alter of speed was harder than getting the homecoming queen to give it up on prom night — after all, there were divorce settlements where people took the Bristol season tickets over the 401k account. However, that all changed last March when the 53-race consecutive sellout streak at the world’s fastest half-mile came to an end. While there’s been continued debate over what, exactly, is keeping the fans away, the inarguable fact is that they are staying away in droves.
Speedway Motorsports, Inc., purchased Bristol in 1996 when the seating capacity was roughly 71,000. Over the next 10 seasons, track general manager and president Jeff Byrd along with the deep pockets of owner Bruton Smith, more than doubled the capacity to somewhere in the neighborhood of 160,000 seats.
NASCAR was relishing its biggest boom in popularity at the time. And since every seat was continually filled, there was no question the additional investment was paying off. Unfortunately, just prior to those seats being completed, the sanctioning body switched to the Chase format and ultimately the new style of racecars, which took away much of the personality of the vehicles on the track and impacted how they raced.
In 2007, the track’s surface was beginning to crumble due to years of hot summers and cold winters in the area, so while the track was resurfaced with new concrete, it was also reengineered to have progressive banking, allowing for side-by-side racing. Couple these fundamental changes with one of the most damaging economic downturns in the history of the United States and the end result was a drastic reduction in attendance that culminated with a just over half-full venue at last weekend’s Jeff Byrd 500.
There is no exact answer as to which of the different changes had the most impact, but it may very well be certain parts of all of them. What’s obvious is that people who used to spend their money at the track are now choosing to keep it for other uses.
The Chase format definitely had an impact on the racing at Bristol. The track once offered single-file racing, which encouraged — no, mandated — bump-n-run maneuvers that set tempers boiling and passions flaring. With the advent of the Chase, a more conservative, “good points day” mentality prevailed, as the goal of the drivers in the early spring and again in early fall is to simply qualify for the playoffs. Tearing up one’s equipment going all-out for a win is a fool’s way of missing the cut.
The new car design has presented a problem not just at Bristol, but across the circuit. The lack of personality and its IROC-feel have been complaints of the fans (and some drivers, behind closed doors, of course) since it was introduced at Bristol in 2007. Television ratings and attendance across the entire schedule have gone down for the most part since the new car rolled out. The sanctioning body is working hard to bring brand identity back into the series, and the redesign of the car that will be rolled out in 2013 may bring back a feeling that the cars on the track are at least somewhat identifiable with the cars fans drive on the street. While racecars have evolved too far to ever get back to the point that they look exactly like street cars, the folks in Daytona now know that distinguishing a Chevy from a Ford is paramount in the eyes of the sport’s lifeblood — its fans.
Despite cries from the government that the recession has ended (or at least the economy is beginning to rebound), NASCAR and much of its largely blue-collar fanbase wouldn’t know it. Staffers at Bristol that contacted fans who did not renew season tickets stated that the majority coming to Bristol travel over six hours, and with gas prices up and lodging rates on race weekends gouged, they simply can’t afford to make the trip.
Bristol is a “destination race,” meaning the sole destination for the incoming race fan is the track itself. There is no NASCAR Hall of Fame, Vegas Strip or big city nightlife to act as a two-in-one vacation. If a fan is going to spend a mortgage payment on a race weekend, said fan can at least belly up to a blackjack table or cruise the Sunset Strip by choosing other races.
The last factor is one that brings up the most disagreement between fans, media and competitors alike: The aggressive nature of Bristol — which is no longer evident — brought fans to the track. The bumping and banging, bent sheet metal, flying sparks, heightened tempers and occasional fisticuffs defined what many felt was true short-track racing. However, when the track was reconfigured with progressive banking added, the racing groove opened up, allowing cars to run from the bottom of the track to the top. No longer do drivers have to follow one another nose-to-tail and “move” the car in front in order to advance. Drivers can now spend multiple laps running door-to-door around the half-mile racing surface, and while contact does take place, it isn’t a continual activity. Drivers say the “new” Bristol provides great racing, but they fail to understand that fans also require great entertainment.
Multiple fans voiced their opinions on countless internet forums after last weekend’s empty seats were so evident. The vast majority maintained that the reason they aren’t interested in attending races at Bristol anymore is because the racing has changed and they no longer enjoy it. They’re basically saying that the repaving project that gave the drivers multiple racing grooves and allowed for more passing and lead changes is not what they want at Bristol. Ironically, the racing at Bristol now resembles that of Richmond, which is typically touted as the track that provides the best racing (and facility) on the schedule.
Apparently that’s not what fans want from Bristol, and they’re speaking with their wallets.
There is no question that Bristol is an amazing venue with a half-mile oval surrounded by bleachers that reach some eight stories into the sky. It’s an awe-inspiring sight that should be on any true sports fan’s bucket list. Unfortunately, as competitive as the racing is, it doesn’t appear to be what fans are interested in watching.
While the speedway is not likely to rip up the surface again any time soon, the aging of the concrete may result in the loss of some grip, eventually returning it to a single-file battle royale. When that occurs the fans that left will return, but there may be another faction of fans — the ones who don’t need carnage to enjoy good racing — and they might slowly fill up the coliseum as the economy continues to heal.
In the meantime, one thing is for sure: Although the stands may have been only half-full, Bristol still welcomed over 80,000 people. And that’s in a down year. Better times are ahead.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards The train kept a rollin’ ... Edwards and crew churning out great runs, with five finishes of second or better in the last six races dating back to last season.
2. Kurt Busch Going about things in a totally different way — but equally as effective — is Busch, who leads the point standings with unspectacular, yet solid, top-10 showings.
3. Kyle Busch And then there’s younger brother Kyle, who once again stepped up at Bristol and did what he does best: Sweep the weekend’s Nationwide and Cup events.
4. Tony Stewart Smoke’s final results have been up and down, but Bristol was honestly the first race of the season that he wasn’t in contention at the end.
5. Jimmie Johnson Two third-place runs in the last three races prove Mr. Five Time and the boys are this close to hitting paydirt. And Auto Club Speedway is one of the 48 team’s best tracks.
6. Ryan Newman Sits third in the point standings, but has gone about his work quietly, notching runs of fifth, fifth and 10th in the last three races.
7. Paul Menard If you haven’t heard of the The Paul Menard Empire, you need to check it out on Facebook. The month of “Menarch” has been kind to him thus far.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s been an eighth- through 11th-placer so far this season, which is certainly an improvement from the last two seasons. Will Junior Nation finally accept a crew chief not named Tony Eury?
9. Kevin Harvick The fact that he drove back from a late spin at Bristol to finish sixth tells us he probably had something for Busch, Edwards and Johnson if only he'd had more laps.
10. Juan Pablo Montoya Third- and sixth-place finishes offset by 19th- and 24th-place runs this year. If he’s ever able to put it all together, look out.
11. Matt Kenseth Three consecutive runs of 12th or better and heading to Fontana, where he’s always tough.
12. Jeff Gordon Yeah, he has the Phoenix win, but the 24 team has been on a roller coaster otherwise.
13. Kasey Kahne Making the most of his brief association with Red Bull Racing.
14. Martin Truex Jr. Truex and crew chief Pat Tryson are quietly turning the 56 team around.
15. Mark Martin Steady as she goes for “the crazy old man” and his No. 5 group.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marco Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Bobby Labonte
by Matt Taliaferro
Domination at the tough Bristol bullring in East Tennessee doesn’t come often, but when it does, it tends to run in streaks. Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch have gone on rolls of varying lengths over the last 35 years at the world’s fastest half-mile, and Kyle Busch is in the midst of his own.
Busch scored his fourth Cup win in the last five visits to Bristol on Sunday, leading 153 laps and pulling away from pole-sitter Carl Edwards and defending race-winner Jimmie Johnson down the stretch in the Jeff Byrd 500. But Busch was the first to admit that it wasn’t all about the drivers’ brilliance, rather, fast pit work that gave his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota the lead late in the race.
“Our guys on that last pit stop won this race coming out of the pits first,” Busch said of the stop with 71 laps remaining. “I don’t know if I could have gotten by Carl — Carl was good. Our car was definitely better on the longer run.”
Jimmie Johnson led to that point, with Busch content ton run second. However, when the field hit pit road under caution, crew chief Dave Rogers made the call for two tires, allowing Busch to beat Edwards, Greg Biffle and Johnson onto the track for the restart. The young Las Vegas native never looked back from there, fending off multiple challenges from Edwards over three separate restarts before eventually sprinting away to a .946-second victory.
When Edwards was asked what he could have done different, he referenced his dust-up with Busch three weeks ago in Phoenix, saying, “It’s simple: I should have hit him harder (on the final restart). He’s still got one coming from Phoenix, but it was too far from the end to start racing like that. I really thought I could get by him clean, but then his car took off and mine was loose. I still got one (payback) in my pocket.”
Johnson, who earned his first career Bristol win in this race last season, was forced to settle for third despite leading a race-high 164 laps.
“Oddly enough, clean air is important here,” Johnson said. “It makes a big difference. I knew the 18 and I were relatively equal and whoever had clean air could get a little gap … and that was kind of it. It came down to that last pit stop; we didn’t get off pit road first and that’s really where the race was gone at that point.”
Matt Kenseth and Paul Menard rounded out the top 5. For Menard, it was his best Bristol performance, and only his second career top-5 showing in the Cup Series with a car that was later revealed to be down a cylinder.
“I had a fast racecar all weekend,” Menard, in his first year with a new fourth team at Richard Childress Racing, said. “What’s cool is we’ve been to four different race tracks and had strong runs at all four. It’s a testament to Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) and everybody at RCR. There’s a lot of talent there and Slugger has built a helluva race team and we’re having a lot of fun right now.”
Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman comprised the rest of the top 10.
Through four races in the 2011 season, Kurt Busch clings to a one-point lead over Edwards in the point standings, followed by Tony Stewart, Newman and Menard.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Bristol, Tenn.
Specs: .533-mile oval; Banking/Turns: variable (24°-30°); Banking/Straightaways: 16°
2010 Winners: Jimmie Johnson (March), Kyle Busch (August)
2011 Race Length: 266.5 miles/500 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 128.709 mph (Ryan Newman, 2003)
Race Record: 101.074 mph (Charlie Glotzbach, 1971)
From the Spotter’s Stand
Kyle Busch tripled his fun in his Doublemint Toyota at Bristol last August, capping off a historic weekend by winning the Cup race on Saturday after taking the checkers at the Nationwide race on Friday and the Truck Series event on Wednesday — becoming the first driver to sweep all three series in the same week. Rowdy bullwhipped the half-mile concrete bullring, leading 283 laps en route to his fourth career win at Bristol. Busch has won three of the last four runs at the high-stress, high-banked Tennessee track.
Jimmie Johnson spoiled both Busch brothers’ day in March, breaking up Kyle’s streak and upsetting Kurt (278 laps led) for JJ’s first victory at Bristol and 50th win of his career.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Having a car that handles well in the center of the corner off is a key to working through the pack. Track position is a key as well. As the race winds down, most crew chiefs opt for position over new tires, as getting through traffic quickly is next to impossible.
“For a driver, it's like walking a tightrope. If you’re tense, nervous or uncomfortable, you can’t function there. The great drivers say that if you can get settled in and get comfortable, everything seems to slow down, but there aren’t many with the skills to really reach that point. Most of them just say they do.”
Looking at Checkers: Kyle Busch is taking his turn as the Beast of Bristol. It runs in waves.
Pretty Solid Pick: Since Jimmie Johnson doesn’t qualify for “Sleeper” status anymore ...
Good Sleeper Pick: Junior qualifies, though — and makes a nice top-10 candidate.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Even in his heyday, Bobby Labonte never quite figured out Bristol.
Insider Tip: They’re going to have to go through Kyle, one way or another, and races on the new surface are a lot easier to predict.
Classic Moments at Bristol
In the early- and mid-1980s, the only thing more certain than Darrell Waltrip winning the booing contest in pre-race introductions is his winning trophies at Bristol. Waltrip wins an astounding seven straight at the half-mile bullring between March 1981 and April 1984.
However, the streak comes to an end in August ’84 at the Busch 500. Waltrip leads 144 laps early but is plagued by myriad of issues late in the race. Instead, Terry Labonte battles back from two accidents — one a foreshadowing of things to come in the 1990s with Dale Earnhardt — to break Waltrip’s Bristol streak.
It’s Labonte’s fourth career victory and one that catapults him by Earnhardt into the championship lead. Labonte pulls away down the stretch from Harry Gant to win the 1984 Winston Cup.
by Vito Pugliese
The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is but three weeks old, yet off to one of its best starts in a decade. A genuinely thrilling Daytona 500 helped remind us why we started watching NASCAR to begin with, while Phoenix saw a legend rise from the ashes to greatness once again. Las Vegas was … well, Las Vegas — largely uneventful, save for several notables stubbing their toes at precisely the wrong time. But with so much momentum and good will having been built up in just under a month, what does NASCAR do?
Pull the plug on it.
The back-to-back West Coast weekends can be a bit of a strain for some teams, so NASCAR takes a week off right around the same time colleges are on Spring Break. While I wouldn’t advise travel to Mexico for anyone right now, some teams could probably benefit from a vacation, while others would like to keep the party going. With the concrete cereal bowl known as Bristol up next, let’s take a look at who’s good to go, and who should just sit this one out.
Kurt Busch Last year he often lamented that he felt on an island unto his own, being essentially the only Dodge of substance in the Sprint Cup field. With Penske still promoting Pentastar pride with Busch and teammate Brad Keselowski, not much has changed since 2010 — except that Sam Hornish isn’t spinning out and hitting things.
With the series heading into an off-weekend, it is probably welcome relief for Busch and his Steve Addington-led team, who got off to a strong start at Daytona, winning the Bud Shootout, Duel 150 and led 19 laps in the 500, while leading another 31 laps at Phoenix. A little botched brake bias led to a spin and positions and points lost in Las Vegas, and a weekend to regroup might be best for Busch heading into Bristol, a track where he has five career Cup Series wins.
Off-Week Plans: Book the vacation … to the Gatornationals.
Tony Stewart Driving what is often cited as “a fifth Hendrick car,” owner/driver Tony Stewart finds himself in an awkward position. Will he ever be able to truly contend for a title against the likes of Hendrick heavy hitters Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin (sorry, I’m not convinced he’s leaving), when he sources chassis and engines from the mothership? While he is still certainly more cool, calm and collected as any owner these days (at least while stateside), Mount St. Smoke was about ready to erupt Sunday after having led a bundle of laps, yet finished second to Carl Edwards.
Stewart was felled by a pit road penalty when an air gun hose got hooked on his car and exited the pit box. He was quite vocal about having to take the week off, wanting instead to get back to racing and maintain the momentum his team built with finishes of 13th, seventh and second. I’ll take his word for it. Besides, I don’t want to get cracked in the face.
Off-Week Plans: Staycation. Bummer for Smoke.
Juan Pablo Montoya He has the most followers on Twitter of any NASCAR driver, yet rarely says anything controversial or critical. It is normally just a statement about playing golf, going swimming or how awesome his radio-control plane is. Something else that is awesome is the start to his 2011 season, which echoes that of his ’09 campaign, which saw him contend for the title deep into the Chase. Finishes of sixth, 19th and third are a good indication that JPM is back on track after a dismal 2010 season that, a Watkins Glen win aside, was host to yet another failed Brickyard 400 attempt. Instead, his teammate, Jamie McMurray came away the victor. I’m not saying Juan isn’t a team player, but it has to sting a little.
I would say this off week would be a negative considering how the No. 42 team has performed, but if you check his Twitter feed this weekend, you will probably see it is for the best.
Off-Week Plans: Fly the friendly skies … RC style.
Carl Edwards It wasn’t that long ago that everyone wondered what was going on with Carl Edwards (and the entire Roush Fenway team) — and Ford as a whole, for that matter. While Jimmie Johnson still hasn’t lost a championship since gas was $2.40 a gallon, fortunes have definitely changed for the Blue Oval brigade. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that if for a little bit of luck, Edwards and the Bob Osborne-led No. 99 team would have five wins in a row, dating back to the last two events of 2010. A runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, and a Phoenix car that was untouchable — except when touched by Kyle Bush — were prologue to his win Sunday in Vegas.
Many more back flips are to follow in 2011, but not this weekend — and that’s only because there isn’t a race.
Off-Week Plans: Skip the break. Summer is coming soon enough. Back and bi’s, bro!
Jimmie Johnson What’s this? Superman is 13th in the point standings? This must be the year! Finally, Chad and Jimmie have been vanquished, and not even an oddly-timed pit crew swap can save them!
Pffft … please. Figures lie and liars figure.
The 48 got whacked in the Big One at Daytona, had a car capable of winning at Phoenix and a bit of experimenting was in play in Las Vegas with a long-run late-race setup that actually showed some promise, but was not reflected in the final finishing order. It’s kind of silly to count this team out anywhere, and Johnson is the defending champion for the next race at Bristol.
I don’t think anything short of a tornado during a race would do much to fluster this bunch. They’ve seen, done and beat it all — including coming from behind in the last race to win their fifth straight title last year.
Off-Week Plans: This bunch doesn’t take vacations.
Kyle Busch Kyle Busch has had a decent start to the season, but the first two races really could have been wins. Normally, that kind of missed opportunity would be cause for a Tiger Blood-fueled rant from the driver who Mike Joy insists on calling “Wild Thing” — which, if current events had happened a few years ago, would be strangely appropriate.
Much has been made of the “New Kyle,” as his outbursts and tantrums have been dialed down a bit (that is, until the Chase starts and all hell breaks loose). Maybe getting married in the offseason has mellowed him out a little bit, making for a calmer Kyle. Then again, is that what you really want? Heck no — you want a full-on, narcissistic, Carlos-Estevez-peaking-on-seven-gram-rocks-esque-tirade, ripping out radio cords and fake-drinking NOS Energy syrup.
Off-Week Plans: Duh … Bi-vacationing.
Jeff Gordon Jeff Gordon has had quite an up and down year so far. After the in-house swap that moved Gordon over to Mark Martin’s No. 5 team with Alan Gustafson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. inheriting Gordon’s No. 24 group, it was generally accepted to be for Junior’s benefit and little else. But to quote John McClane, “Errrghhh!!! Wrong answer, Hans!”
Gustafson is the worst best-kept secret weapon at Hendrick Motorsports, and already has paid huge dividends this year. Gordon qualified on the front row for the Daytona 500 and won in just his second outing with Gustafson in Phoenix. All of that momentum came to a screeching halt in Las Vegas when a blown tire sent the No. 24 into the wall and back to the garage on lap 193, dropping him to 14th in points.
However, I seriously doubt the Vegas lick will have much of an impact. This is a team and driver that have traditionally bounced back from such an event in fine form. Normally I would say he’d be itching to get back to business as soon as possible, but he’s kind of an old guy now and has two kids.
Off-Week Plans: Load up the Family Truckster, Ingrid. We’re going to Wally World!
by Matt Taliaferro
Like every other NASCAR landing page on the web, Athlon Sports has a little fun each week ranking the drivers and teams of the Sprint Cup circuit. Our rankings go beyond how each finished the weekend prior and/or where they sit in the official championship standings.
The rankings you’ll see here represent what we (read: I) think are the strongest overall teams on tour, from top to bottom, based on performance, resources, strength of team/organization, overall talent of driver and, yeah, a tip of the cap to a job well done if they won the last race Think of it as Athlon’s NASCAR version of the college basketball Top 25.
Keep in mind these are subjective, and often done somewhat tongue-in-cheek (depending on my mood), so have some fun with them and take them for what they are: a weekly spin around the circuit, highlighting the best teams and their drivers.
Oh, and our rankings have a cool name … why no one thought of “Horsepower” Rankings before is beyond me. That said, kick back for five minutes of leisurely reading that require no real thought on your part:
1. Carl Edwards Edwards has three wins and a second in his last five races going back to 2010. It’s like the boy has tiger blood and Adonis DNA. #Winning (I promise, that's the last Sheen reference I'll ever make.)
2. Kurt Busch The only driver to have recorded three top 10s in the three 2011 races, Busch is somehow flying under the radar while being tied for first in the point standings.
3. Tony Stewart Smoke just can’t close the deal. For the third consecutive race, he was in it to win it in the closing laps, only to come up short.
4. Ryan Newman If you said you realized Newman was running fifth in the standings on the strength of two top 5s (and that he led the most laps in the Daytona 500), you'd be lying.
5. Juan Pablo Montoya Another early-season surprise, Montoya has two top 10s and is tied with Edwards for third in the standings. He's first in the Twitter standings, though, with 276,821 followers.
6. Jeff Gordon The right side of his car has been taking a lot of abuse this season. Three races, three crumpled fenders. Of course, he still managed to win one of those.
7. Kyle Busch Ran eighth and second in the first two races, then blew up in Vegas. Despite the two solid runs, he dropped from first to 14th in the standings with the 38th on Sunday. That’s harsh.
8. Jimmie Johnson In Johnson’s last eight Vegas starts he has four wins and four finishes of 16th or worse. Not sure how to quantify that.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior Nation showing measured optimism after consecutive top 10s with new crew chief Steve Letarte. The smart money says he’ll be good at Bristol, too.
10. Denny Hamlin Hamlin’s face is off the milk carton after a seventh at LVMS. Honestly, it was a quiet seventh, so maybe his mug is still there.
11. Kevin Harvick Last year at this time Harvick was leading the point standings. This year? Not so much.
12. Mark Martin He looked like an older version of Kyle Busch in winning the Nationwide race in Vegas.
13. Paul Menard Don’t tear up your equipment and log some solid finishes — just what the new owner likes.
14. Martin Truex Jr. Truex and crew chief Pat Tryson are only getting stronger at Michael Waltrip Racing.
15. Kasey Kahne Clearly still learning the ropes with his new team, but things look good so far.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte
by Matt Taliaferro
In Las Vegas, the hand you’re dealt doesn’t have to be great, just better than those you’re playing against. Such was the case on Sunday, when Carl Edwards outran a dominant Tony Stewart, who fell victim to a pit road penalty that dictated his strategy for the remainder of the event and ultimately doomed his chance at a win in the Kobalt Tools 400. Edwards, in turn, led the final 22 laps and cruised to a 1.2-second win at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“I think Tony was the car to beat all day,” Edwards said. “That car was just lightning fast. But those guys (Stewart’s crew) took two tires with 60 or 70 laps to go, and he took off, so Bob (Osborne, crew chief) said, ‘Hey, let’s try it, let’s take two tires.’ We came in, we pitted, the guys did a great job — I barely beat Juan Montoya once we got back on the race track — so this pit stop was key. If it would have been a half-second longer we would not have won the race.”
Ah, yes — back to Stewart. As Edwards referenced, it was his miscue — or rather, his misfortune — that set the tone for the remainder of the race.
Stewart started 15th, but worked his way into the lead on lap 99 and imposed his will on the field from there, leading 124 laps until a caution on lap 151 changed the complexion of the race. During the ensuing round of pit stops, Stewart pulled a lug wrench air hose out of his stall and was issued a pass-through penalty for taking equipment outside his pit box, dropping his No. 14 Chevy out of the lead and into 27th on the restart.
When a caution on lap 195 precipitated another round of yellow-flag stops, Darian Grubb, crew chief for the No. 14 team, made the call for two tires when the majority of the field took four in an effort to gain track position. Stewart won the battle off pit road as a result, and pulled away from the field when the green waved with 66 laps remaining.
When the fuel window re-opened with 32 laps to go, Stewart again hit pit road and was forced to take four tires, while others who had taken four on the previous stop — namely Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman — took two. That relegated Stewart to third when the stops cycled through, and handicapped his track position.
“I honestly think we had the car to beat today, we just gave it away,” Stewart said. “I don't know what happened on the pit stop there, but we had a miscue and had a penalty and had to go to the back, and unfortunately it kind of dealt our cards for us. Darian made a good call getting us the track position back, but it also showed everybody else that they could do it, too (take two tires), and we couldn't run two and a half runs on a set of left-side tires.”
Stewart’s assertion was accurate, as Bob Osborne, crew chief for Edwards’ No. 99 Ford, made the final two-tire stop based how the No. 14 pulled away from the pack in clean air with two tires.
“It definitely didn't hurt the decision-making process to see them (Stewart’s team) run extremely well with two tires,” Osborne said. “So yeah, I guess I was taking notes. Their car was very good regardless, and I thought our only opportunity was to leapfrog them on the racetrack and hope we were able to hold them off.”
Edwards did just that, leading the rest of the way for his second career win at LVMS. Stewart rebounded to finish second, while Montoya, Ambrose and Newman rounded out the top 5.
Stewart has been in position to win all three races thus far in the 2011 season, but has yet to close the deal. A similar two-tire stop at Phoenix ruined his chances last week when many in the field took four, and he lost his drafting partner after restarting second in a green-white-checker finish in the Daytona 500. Does he take solace in the fact that he now holds a tie for the points lead and is close to finding Victory Lane?
“I probably should, but that's not in my makeup,” Stewart said. “I mean, it kills me to throw a race away like that, especially at a place we haven’t won at yet. This was a big deal today, and when you lead that many laps (163 of 267) and have a car that’s that fast and you lose it … I’m sure tomorrow when the emotion dies down we’ll look back and say it was a great weekend, but man, it does not sit good right now.”
Stewart will have to wait to turn his near-misses into a victory, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit takes one week off before returning to action at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 20.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Las Vegas, Nev.
Specs: 1.5-mile tri-oval; Banking/Turns: 20°; Banking/Tri-Oval: 9°; Banking/Backstretch: 3°
2010 Winner: Jimmie Johnson
2011 Race Length: 400.5 miles/267 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 188.719 mph (Kurt Busch, 2010)
Race Record: 146.554 mph (Mark Martin, 1998)
From the Spotter’s Stand
Jimmie Johnson’s four of a kind beat Jeff Gordon’s pair — of fresh tires, that is — in a classic Las Vegas heads up showdown that came down to strategy on the final pit stop of the 267-lap dance.
Although Gordon (219 laps led) had the big stack for most of the day, he and crew chief Steve Letarte limped in with a two-tire move late, while Johnson and Chad Knaus went all-in with quads when the chips were on the line. The move allowed Johnson to burn rubber past Gordon on Lap 251 before popping bottles of champagne to celebrate the fourth win in his last six trips to Sin City.
But at least Gordon didn’t lose a tooth or have a run-in with a tiger and Mike Tyson. Right?
Crew Chief’s Take
“As with any ‘cookie cutter’ track, downforce, track position and clean air will all play a major role in how a team gets around Las Vegas. It’s surprising how rough the track is, seeing as how they just repaved it a few years ago. Unlike the other Speedway Motorsports tracks (other than Bristol and Sonoma), it doesn’t have that Bruton Smith blueprint of a tri-oval that’s squared off. When Vegas was redesigned, they didn’t just go back to the drawing board. It was more like they improved the track without tearing it completely apart.”
Looking at Checkers: Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus like to pile up a couple wins early so they can test during the summer, thus the four wins in nine starts.
Pretty Solid Pick: Matt Kenseth always factors, regardless of who’s on the pit box.
Good Sleeper Pick: If not for a vicious wreck in ’08, Jeff Gordon would have six straight top-6 runs.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Juan Pablo Montoya. You’ve been warned.
Insider Tip: Hendrick and Roush typically jump out of the gate fast once the boys leave Daytona.
Classic Moments at PIR
NASCAR’s annual trip to Sin City takes a sinister turn in the 2008 UAW-Dodge 400.
Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth dominate the second half of the event, and it appears the two Roush drivers will settle the race between them. However, Kurt Busch’s hard crash — Tony Stewart had suffered the same violent impact earlier in the day — bunches up the field for a five-lap shootout led by Edwards.
On the restart, second place Dale Earnhardt Jr. spins the tires, allowing Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth to drive past. When Gordon washes up the track in Turn 2, they make contact, sending Gordon’s car hard into the inside wall.
Edwards goes on to the win, but is found to have a detached oil lid cover in post-race inspection. The win stands, but Edwards is docked 100 points for the infraction.
by Mike Neff
Generally speaking, everyone points to the 1979 Daytona 500 as the seminal point in the evolution of NASCAR as a sport of the masses. The famous end to that race, when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the final lap, only to brawl afterward (along with Donnie’s brother, Bobby) forever etched the sport into the fabric of America.
Most current fans don’t realize that the ’79 race was not the first race covered flag-to-flag, though. That distinction falls to a 200-lap race held at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in 1971. However, the race that very well could be more important than either of those is the 1981 spring race from Rockingham, which was the first broadcast by ESPN. While that race was not shown live, it was the first one carried on what today is self-glossed as the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” and laid the foundation from which all modern television broadcasts are based.
Bob Jenkins was the play-by-play announcer along with legendary radio broadcaster Eli Gold. Interestingly, Gold replaced longtime radio voice Barney Hall, who decided to back out of the broadcast at the last minute. Along with Jenkins and Gold, Ned Jarrett was patrolling the pits for the fledgling sports network and expanding his already established broadcasting career, which ultimately played a factor in his election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The race itself included some compelling storylines from several of the biggest names in the sport. Cale Yarborough dominated the race early, leading the most laps before slipping at the end to finish second. Richard Petty looked to have the race in hand, but needed to stretch his fuel to the finish. When Petty’s tank ran low with just three laps to go, he was forced to pit and ultimately came home in third place. Darrell Waltrip capitalized on Petty’s misfortune to snare his second victory in a row and one of 12 race wins en route to his first Winston Cup title.
That first broadcast on ESPN set the stage for all of the innovations that would come in race broadcasting, most of which evolved from the network itself. Thursday Night Thunder brought us the first in-track camera decades before “Digger” came to FOX. While CBS installed the first in-car cameras, which at the time were the size of a small child, it was ESPN that implemented high-definition cameras that are utilized for every angle from the over-the-wall crew cams to the main cameras shooting the races. In-car communications, race line-up scrolls, draft track and telemetry have all been advancements in the technology that brings the race experience to the fans — and it all started from those ESPN broadcasts of the ’80s.
When today’s race fans turn on the weekend show they expect to know exactly how many laps are completed, who is on the lead lap, how far behind the leader their favorite driver is running, along with myriad other statistics. When the folks at ESPN broadcast that race in 1981, they were just figuring out how to post the top 5 names on the screen when the broadcast went to break. There were many times in those first years of coverage that the announcers were not even sure who was leading a race.
During the infamous North Wilkesboro race in 1990, NASCAR scoring was still a manual system, and a miscue by the race director caused the pace car to pick up Dale Earnhardt instead of Brett Bodine as the leader of the race during a caution period. Bodine was able to get fresh tires before NASCAR realized its mistake and the tire change gave Bodine the advantage to win his only Cup race. Now live timing and scoring is fed directly into the race broadcast thanks to the efforts of all of the different broadcast partners of NASCAR.
Obviously, modern technology has made more information available to race fans both on their own and through the television broadcasts. The television partners of NASCAR have made many notable advancements in production in their efforts to try and bring better products to the viewing audience. And every one of those advancements is a direct result of the initial seeds that were planted in Rockingham on a chilly March weekend in 1981 by the pioneers at ESPN.