Articles By Matt Taliaferro
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Concord, N.C.
Specs: 1.5-mile quad-oval; Banking/Turns: 24°; Banking/Straightaways: 5°
2010 Winners: Kurt Busch (May); Jamie McMurray (Oct.)
2011 Race Length: 600 miles/400 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 193.216 mph (Elliott Sadler, 2005)
600-mile Race Record: 151.952 (Bobby Labonte, 1995)
From the Spotter's Stand
After opening the year with a Daytona 500 win and then taking the checkers at the Brickyard 400 in Indy, big-game Jamie McMurray earned his third victory of the season with an exciting Saturday night showdown with Kyle Busch at the 1.5-mile Concord quad-oval in October.
McMurray led 65 laps in his second win at Charlotte, passing Rowdy on Lap 314 of the 334-circuit race and holding on for his third trophy of a breakout season.
Kurt Busch felt like “a million cool ones” after taking the check at the All-Star Race. Then, the 2 car turned the double-play — leading 252 laps to beat runner-up McMurray and little bro Kyle — for a second straight win in Charlotte the following week in the 600.
Crew Chief’s Take
“The 600 in May and the 500 in October present their own set of unique challenges. Varying track conditions and temperature shifts at each race add to the fact that each end of the track is significantly different from the cockpit. The challenge becomes adapting, and particularly in the case of the Coca-Cola 600, the races are really long there. The key is to survive the early stages, when the sun is out, and be in position to battle for the win at night.
“Horsepower is a necessity, as is engine durability, particularly in the 600, when the distance puts an added strain on the equipment.”
Looking at Checkers: Jimmie Johnson has six points-paying and two All-Star Race wins.
Pretty Solid Pick: Jamie McMurray had finishes of first and second at CMS in 2010.
Good Sleeper Pick: Kasey Kahne is going to break through with Team Red Bull at some point, and Charlotte would be a good place.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: They don’t call him “Wall-mendinger” for nothing.
Insider Tip: The 600 has a reputation for giving drivers their first career Cup wins — think David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte and David Reutimann.
Classic Moments in the 600
The first of David Pearson’s 105 wins comes in the second annual World 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 1961. Pearson, in his second year on the Grand National circuit, leads 225 laps in a John Masoni-owned Pontiac en route to the victory. Pearson owns a two-lap lead on the field when he blows a tire with one lap remaining and limps around to the start/finish line. Fireball Roberts finishes second.
Ralph Earnhardt leads 75 laps in the middle stages of the race in a car owned by Cotton Owens, marking the most laps he leads in any single Grand National event.
Tim Flock makes his 187th and final start in this race, after a Hall of Fame career during which he amasses 39 wins and 129 top 10s.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards Not that an exhibition All-Star Race factors too heavily into the Horsepower Rankings, but Edwards was on top of the list before the race, then he won the race, and therefore, holds serve.
2. Kyle Busch Kyle was cited for careless and reckless driving in Iredell County while doing 128 mph in a 45 mph zone. Funny, he got paid $258,300 for doing the same thing on Saturday night … and he still couldn't catch Carl!
3. Jimmie Johnson And this is where the trend ends, as Johnson faded to 11th on Saturday, yet maintains his ranking at No. 3. He may be higher by this time next week.
4. Kevin Harvick Things haven’t been quite so rosy since back-to-back wins at Auto Club and Martinsville speedways. Those two races are fading in the rearview mirror, but we’ll give him another week in the top 5.
5. Clint Bowyer Bowyer has improved his points position 15 spots in the last seven weeks. The higher you get, the tougher the sledding, but this team is capable of sliding into the top 3.
6. Matt Kenseth The upcoming Coca-Cola 600 is Kenseth’s and crew chief Jimmy Fennig’s kind of race: Lay low, save the equipment, be smart with the strategy.
7. Greg Biffle Biffle is gangbusters one week, totally pedestrian the next. And his 21 laps led in 2011 has got to improve. There’s just no excuse for that.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior’s performance — whether he and crew chief Steve Letarte were testing or not — was so bad in the All-Star Race that he slips a spot here.
9. Denny Hamlin Only one top-10 finish for Hamlin at Charlotte in the last seven races. If you’re looking for a good fantasy play this week, look elsewhere.
10. Kasey Kahne Five runs of ninth or better for Kahne and his Red Bull team are offset by three finishes of 36th or worse. If they clean that up, they’ll be tough.
11. Jeff Gordon Once again, Gordon is uncompetitive at a 1.5-mile track. That has to change.
12. Tony Stewart On the other hand, Smoke’s team looked like it may have turned a corner in the All-Star Race.
13. Ryan Newman Newman’s four fifth-place showings are carrying his season thus far.
14. Mark Martin Like Kenseth, Martin could be a guy to watch in this weekend’s 600.
15. Brian Vickers A couple nice runs overshadowed by a dud in the All-Star Showdown. That’s what Vickers does.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
by Matt Taliaferro
The 2011 Sprint All-Star Race certainly wasn’t as dramatic as past editions. The conclusion was no where near as exciting — or destructive — as 1992’s “One Hot Night;” there was no race-defining moment, like Dale Earnhardt’s “pass in the grass” in ’87, and tempers didn’t flare as they did in ’89 when Rusty Wallace used the “spin to win” method of getting by Darrell Waltrip with a handful of laps remaining.
But as Earnhardt once said, “It pays more to win.” And that’s all Carl Edwards cared about. Edwards and his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team put on a clinic Saturday evening, leading 29 laps — including every one of the final 10-lap shootout — to collect a race-record $1.2 million and a Sprint All-Star Race trophy at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“You have to remember, you’re not always going to have side-by-side, three-wide finishes,” Edwards, who earned his first All-Star Race win, said. “I think that tonight our car was superior. It ended up being a race that we were able to pull away from (the field). But one little thing being different, one different bump-stop combination, track bar height, tire pressure thing (and) it could have been a much different race.
“I believe, as much as we ended up winning the race by, I think that’s a rarity in this event. I think with a 10-lap shootout at the end, four fresh tires, nine out of 10 times it’s going to be a much closer finish. I know I was really nervous about that last run. I did not feel like we had it in the bag by any means. So it just so happened to turn out that way.”
by Tom Bowles
If fans are fascinated with an athlete’s rise to greatness, they’re guilty of being further fixated on the fall. It’s the strange way dynasties work in competitive sports — people cheer them until too much success turns excitement into indifference at best, boos at worst, except for the hardest of hardcore supporters. Legends turn a certain age, and they’re a ticking time bomb. Every missed opportunity and uncharacteristic failure becomes the basis for fans to slide him or her straight from royalty into retirement.
But in most cases, the regression of an athlete’s career is far more complex, packaged without that type of “made-for-TV” moment historians crave. Perfect example: Jeff Gordon, NASCAR’s former “Wonderboy” who turns 40 this summer, and is in the midst of one of the worst starts to his great career. Attached forever to the sport’s record growth, Gordon’s — and NASCAR’s — futures were once thought to be bright for decades, but are now increasingly unclear.
As the circuit heads to Charlotte for the All-Star Race, it’s the perfect time to sit down and take stock of it all. For a time, this race was the crown jewel in Gordon’s NASCAR empire. Who could forget 1995, that “changing of the guard” moment where Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip wrecked while battling for the lead, sparks flying while a certain No. 24 dove underneath to dodge the melee. That was Gordon who scooted by, winning the race en route to his first Cup Series championship and a rarely seen six-year reign atop stock car racing — with four championships, a Daytona 500 victory and the Winston Million, among other accomplishments. All-Star victories were added in 1997 and 2001, tying him with Earnhardt for most all-time, and if it wasn’t for running out of fuel in ’98, the T-Rex car would have been the dinosaur that chomped up the field and spit it out while leaving the record squarely in Gordon’s camp.
But now, as we head to the sport’s 2011 exhibition event, Gordon’s bid for a fourth All-Star win is overshadowed, as he ranks fourth on his own team. The house this Rainbow Warrior built at Hendrick has picked up and left without him this season. At 14th in points, he sits lower than Jimmie Johnson (second), Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (fourth) and even 52-year-old Mark Martin (11th). With just three top-10 finishes through 11 races, a pace like that projects Gordon with 10 top 10s at the end of the year – easily the worst total of a full-time career that’s into its 19th season.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Gordon, supposedly rejuvenated in the offseason with a new shop, away from former-protégé-turned-professor Johnson and a new crew chief (Alan Gustafson) armed with the engineering knowledge to match the original Four-Time’s old-school skill set. That pairing sprinted off the starting line, qualifying on the Daytona 500 front row before dominating Phoenix the following week. With 138 laps led and most of his competition demolished in an early, savage wreck, the No. 24 found itself waltzing to Victory Lane. It was career win No. 83, leaving him tied for fifth all-time and left “championship contender” rolling off the tip of the tongue.
But that’s where the good vibes stopped. A wreck at Las Vegas sapped momentum that hasn’t been easily recovered, with just two top-5 finishes offset by two ugly, crash-induced DNFs that included one of the hardest hits Gordon has ever taken at Richmond. While remaining in contention for a “wild card” Chase spot, playoff bids are window dressing if you can’t kill them with consistency, and Gordon hasn’t put back-to-back top-10 finishes together since October 2010.
It’s a slump, for sure, but a look at the numbers over the last four years begs a bigger question: Will Gordon ever grab that fifth title he so craves? Since Johnson beat him down in ’07, tipping the Chase format his way despite Gordon’s record 30 top-10 finishes, the elder statesman has entered that state of “gradual decline” that eventually comes for everyone. He has two wins now since February 2008, one less than Earnhardt in that time frame and 19 behind the pace of Johnson. Hendrick dominance led to third-place finish in the ’09 title Chase, but it’s his only top-5 points finish the last three years.
And while the No. 48 continues to run circles around him, it’s the success of the No. 88 team that is raising eyebrows. There on Earnhardt’s pit box sits Steve Letarte, chastised by Gordon fans throughout a five-year tenure of making the wrong decisions at the wrong times while manning the 24 team’s box. Criticism intensified during a “poor pit strategy” campaign of 2010, where seemingly every call made during a late caution flag went against them. Yet, here we are, six months after a Gordon-Letarte divorce and it’s the head wrench earning high acclaim, on the verge of leading Earnhardt back to Victory Lane while – gasp! – the much-maligned fan favorite is even considered a longshot title contender by some.
That title talk has long faded for Gordon, as he simply fights for relevance with an increasingly crowded field at the top. Some have said the new car’s to blame, but it’s hard to believe that theory – Gordon’s record-setting year of 2007 came during its introduction. Perhaps the biggest change during this stretch is a transition to family life; a wife and two kids he loves dearly may or may not have affected that inner desire to be the best at all costs. More realistic is the shop Gordon’s walked into, a second-tier Hendrick warehouse (despite claims to the contrary) that only once last decade produced a title contender (Mark Martin, 2009).
Along the same lines — and in a cruel touch of irony — NASCAR’s early popularity boost this season has faded, too, and the stories of Gordon and Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne (illness) have been pushed back by the success of others who also happen to be the “same old, same old” at the top of the point standings. Yes, turns out there was a changing of the guard several years ago, as Johnson was joined by Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin as perpetual title contenders. All, with the exception of Busch, have a better finish in the championship race the last four years.
Can Gordon make it back on that list? He’s got three, maybe four years left in him as long as that fickle back doesn’t fire up in pain again. You never quite know when legends can find a way to use up what’s left in the tank. But if he doesn’t, if five years from now he’s sitting comfortably with Ingrid and the kids in a New York apartment, you can look back to this stretch and say that’s when it all started to slip away.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards The bad news: Edwards’ finish at Dover was his worst since early April. The good news: He finished seventh. Yeah, that’s the type of year it’s been for Carl.
2. Kyle Busch Rowdy’s run at Dover was as impressive a performance as we’ve see from him all season in the Cup Series. The kid drove from 43rd to third in an uncharacteristically understated manner.
3. Jimmie Johnson Johnson has led 1,192 of the last 2,000 miles at Dover and bagged three wins. He would have had a fourth if he’d only taken two tires on Sunday.
4. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s consistency has been a little off of late, but you just know he has the capability to jump up and snag a win most any week, on most any type of track.
5. Clint Bowyer Honestly, Bowyer may be the most dangerous driver on the circuit at the moment. His last two finishes (one being a sixth at Dover) were disappointments.
6. Matt Kenseth Win No. 2 of the season for Kenseth basically punches his ticket to the Chase. Even if he were to slip out of the top 10 in points, the victories will most likely give him a wild card berth.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior’s average finishing position is four spots higher this year than through 11 races in 2010. Of course, his issue over the last few seasons is sustained consistency, so we’ll see ...
8. Denny Hamlin The higher in the standings you get the tougher it is to make headway, but Hamlin has jumped to 13th in the standings, just 24 points out of the 10th-place Chase transfer spot.
9. Greg Biffle After averaging a fourth-place finish at Dover from spring 2006 to spring 2009, Biffle has slumped to a 14.25-place average showing. It’s tough to explain that.
10. Kasey Kahne When the equipment matches this driver’s talent, he’s a top-5 contender. When it doesn’t ... well, look no further than Dover, where a sour engine precipitated a 36th-place result.
11. Jeff Gordon Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson should be a dynamic duo. So what gives?
12. Tony Stewart Smoke taught us all a few new words while describing his Chevy over the in-car radio on Sunday.
13. Ryan Newman Finished 21st at Dover without the aid of Juan Pablo Montoya.
14. Mark Martin Martin’s second-place finish highlights why more crew chiefs should roll the dice near race’s end.
15. Brian Vickers Look who has 10th- and fifth-place runs in two of the last three races ... Welcome back, BLV.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
by Matt Taliaferro
The top two drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings were the two drivers to beat in the FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson combined to lead 324 of the first 364 laps and were poised for a late-race showdown with late-comer Clint Bowyer.
However, a late-race caution punctuated what was an otherwise staid event and, like last weekend’s Southern 500, pit strategy turned the field — and the results — upside down.
Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson took the time to take four fresh tires during the caution, while Mark Martin stayed out to inherit the lead. Meanwhile, a slew of teams elected to put on only two tires, including the No. 17 of Matt Kenseth, who led the pack off pit road.
And just as the Southern 500 proved that track position trumped fresh Goodyears, the FedEx 400 solidified it, as Martin and Kenseth sprinted away, while those who dominated the race remained mired in heavy traffic. By the time Kenseth slipped under Martin, only 31 laps remained on the fast, one-mile oval, and he ran away uncontested for a 2.122-second victory, his second career win at Dover.
“I know we were both thinking about the same thing,” Kenseth said of he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig’s two-tire strategy. “In the back of my head, I was thinking, ‘Man, I should almost just drive by pit road and start in the front, see what happens.’ But I saw the guys in front of me. I looked at everybody in the mirror, I saw everybody on the apron, I thought it wasn't going to be good for me if I did that and restarted and finished about 15th.
“We came down pit road. As I slid into the stall, I said, ‘Jimmy, are you sure you don't want to try two?’ He didn't even hesitate. He's like, ‘Two tires, two tires,’ in plenty of time before the guys took off. It was not problem. It went smooth, almost like we planned it.”
Martin held off Marcos Ambrose for second, while Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers rounded out the top 5.
“Matt had two tires there and had a little advantage on us for a little bit,” Martin said of the final 40 laps. “Then after a little bit, we seemed to start breaking even. I know he had a little bit left, but I had enough speed to be right there without tires. All the guys behind me were dropping off.
“You know, we've had racecars this good this year. Every time we turn around, something goes against us. It was nice to have things go our way.”
As for the race’s three strongest cars, Bowyer, who ran on point for the 29 laps prior to the final caution, finished sixth, while Edwards was seventh. Johnson, who led a race-high 207 laps, settled for a ninth-place showing.
“I guess in our minds we didn't think that would take place — so many guys taking two," Johnson said. “I knew, basically from the numbers we were in trouble when we left pit road and there were so many guys in front of us.
“We led a lot of laps (more than half the race). But unfortunately not the one at the end that counted.”
Edwards holds a 24-point lead over Johnson in the standings. Kenseth’s second win of the season vaults him to sixth in the standings and acts as insurance in case he should slip outside of the top 10, as the final two Chase spots will be filled by the drivers with the most victories.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Dover, Del.
Specs: 1-mile oval; Banking/Turns: 24°; Banking/Straightaways: 9°
2010 Winners: Kyle Busch (May); Jimmie Johnson (Sept.)
2011 Race Length: 400 miles/400 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 161.522 mph (Jeremy Mayfield, 2004)
Race Record: 132.719 mph (Mark Martin, 1997)
From the Spotter's Stand
Jimmie Johnson has been rock solid at the concrete 1-mile oval in Dover, and last year was no different. The 48 dominated for the sixth time at “The Monster Mile” — and for the third time in four races — by starting on the pole, leading a race-high 191 laps and taking the checkers by a 2.637-second margin over runner-up Jeff Burton in the second race of the Chase.
Earlier in the year, Johnson led 225 laps but could not hold it together after being busted for speeding on pit road while going mano a mano with wild child and eventual winner Kyle Busch. Rowdy led 131 laps before raising the “Miles the Monster” trophy in Victory Lane for the second time in his career.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Dover is an all-concrete track and is banked all the way around; even the straights have nine degrees of banking. Therefore, right-side tire management is a race-long concern.
“Dover provides drivers with multiple grooves from which to choose, but normally, the best cars are the ones that will run the low line around the track. The transitions from turns to straights are unique. Drivers call it ‘falling down’ in the turns.
“Back in the 1990s, it was asphalt, but it was so rough it was more like a gravel road. Concrete has its pluses and minuses, but it made this track a lot better.”
Looking at Checkers: Look no further than the 48’s six wins in 18 career Cup starts.
Pretty Solid Pick: Mark Martin has made no secret of his love of Dover. His four wins are proof of it.
Good Sleeper Pick: Guys turn it up a notch when racing at their home track, and this is Martin Truex’s.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Juan Pablo Montoya has led only three of the 3,222 laps he’s completed at Dover.
Insider Tip: Trouble happens quick here. Having a good qualifier who stays up front is a bonus.
Classic Moments at Dover
Proving his shocking win in the Daytona 500 earlier in the season was no fluke, Derrike Cope leads 93 laps and wins the 1990 Budweiser 500 in Dover.
Cope starts 15th, but shoots to the lead by lap 160. However, a miscalculation by his crew chief causes his No. 10 Purolator Chevy to run out of gas while pacing the field, dropping him off the lead lap.
Cope has a strong car, though, and races his way back onto the lead lap (without the aid of Lucky Dogs or wave-arounds). A fast pit stop under a lap 421 caution bumps him up to second, and on lap 446, he passes Rusty Wallace, who leads 131 laps in the Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac, for the lead.
From there, Cope holds off Ken Schrader to earn his second, and final, career victory. Dick Trickle, Mark Martin and Sterling Marlin round out the top 5.
Another notable feat that occurred during this race was when Dale Earnhardt’s engine blew, his No. 3 crew actually repaired it, and the car returned to competition. Predictably, though, the engine fatally expired later in the event, marking Earnhardt’s only DNF of the 1990 season.
by Vito Pugliese
Of all of NASCAR’s greatest assets, there are two current active drivers who rank near the top of that list — though in some circles, the “t” in “assets” might be removed from that descriptor. Be it on the radio or on pit road, Kyle and Kurt Busch have been the source of many a memorable scene and sound bite over the years. As different as the two Las Vegas, Nev., natives have become, there are some strikingly similar characteristics between the two brothers.
Older brother Kurt burst onto the scene in the 2000 season, replacing then-driver Chad Little in Jack Roush’s No. 97 John Deere Ford for seven races. He promptly managed to piss of NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., at Rockingham, and was thrust into general American conscious while giving an explanation of his on-track tiff with Junior as part of MTV’s “Real Life” series about Driver 8.
It would be two years, with his backside-slapping and pointing to Jimmy Spencer at the 2002 Brickyard 400, and “decrepit old has-been” blast that followed shortly thereafter, when he became a fixture as one of NASCAR’s more “entertaining” characters.
While Kurt’s NASCAR past is as colorful as his bright yellow and red Shell Dodge Charger, his radio traffic the past few years has been as well, peppered with enough F-bombs and salty language to make Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey blush. Here are some highlights:
After being struck while leaving his pits at New Hampshire in 2009 after disagreeing with the decision to stop, and suffering significant right side damage to his car:
Spotter: “Uh, I can’t see the right side from here …”
Kurt Busch: “We’re on the f***in’ back straightaway, f***in’ Einstein!”
Dover 2010, after being penalized for speeding entering pit road:
“It’s gotta be about f***in’ half way, that’s when we usually FALL APART.”
Pocono 2010, after hitting the wall off of Turn 2:
“Just got in the wall pretty hard, f***ed it all up … not that it was any good anyway.”
“I’d love to hit the fence right now, head-on, and get knocked out because this is f***in’ bull****.”
"We look like a monkey f***in’ a football. The f***in’ Penske cars are a f***in’ joke. f*** everybody! F***!"
Crew chief Steve Addington, prior to a pit stop: “You want to put a round of wedge in it?”
Kurt Busch: “Go ahead … knock yourself out …”
Where else are you going to get this kind of comic relief in motorsports?
To Kurt’s consternation, it has been a perplexing state of affairs at Penske Racing. For the team that started with dominant performances at Daytona, it has dropped from leading the point standings to eighth in the last six races. The No. 22 Dodge has shown no signs of being anything more than a mid-pack car, finishing in the top 10 just once during that time frame — a 10th at Texas in early April.
While the struggles of Dodge’s flagship — and arguably only — team in the Sprint Cup Series are less than amusing to the driver, a timely Kurt Busch freak-out broadcast across the airwaves always provides more than enough fodder for discussion. The focus of the latest freak out — at Richmond — was directed at Penske Technical Director Tom German, who has announced he is to leave the organization at the end of this month to enroll at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
Team beratement aside, Kurt has also had some run-ins along the way (besides his notorious tiffs with Spencer). He and Jimmie Johnson have had a couple of on-track dust-ups the last few seasons. He’s also scrapped with Tony Stewart — a longtime Kurt antagonist — which resulted in a punch being thrown in the NASCAR hauler at Daytona in 2008 after an incident … in practice … for an exhibition race!
Who else elicits this type of reaction?
1. Carl Edwards Calm and cool in the chaos that was the conclusion of the Southern 500, Edwards rolls to a runner-up showing, his eighth finish of sixth or better this season. Congrats on the kid, by the way.
2. Kyle Busch I always knew the “New Kyle Busch” was one late-race dust-up away from reverting back to, well, “Same Ol’ Kyle Busch.”
3. Jimmie Johnson Some don’t recognize it, but Johnson is willing to get physical on-track when he feels he’s been wronged. Mr. Montoya, prepared to get roughed up.
4. Kevin Harvick Did anyone else notice that Harvick didn’t make a move on Kyle Busch on pit road (or in the garage area) until his team showed up? I mentioned this because that’s not the first time it’s happened.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Was pit-road cone away from another top 10. Still, Junior and the boys kept their wits about them and finished with a lead-lap, top-15 run.
6. Clint Bowyer One of the hotter drivers on the circuit, Bowyer looked to have another top 5 in hand until he got swept up in Round 1 of Busch vs. Harvick.
7. Denny Hamlin Lost amid a wacky Darlington finish was Hamlin’s sixth-place finish. For those who thought he was done, a quick scan of the point standings find him only 19 markers out of 10th.
8. Ryan Newman Word is he punched Juan Pablo Montoya in the NASCAR hauler at Darlington. Bet he got a better shot in than Harvick did on Rowdy.
9. Kasey Kahne Sat on the pole and led a race-high 124 laps at Darlington but settled for fourth by night’s end. This team has a win coming pretty soon.
10. Tony Stewart For about the fourth time this season, Stewart lined up at the front of the field for a late-race restart. And for about the fourth time this year, Stewart couldn’t take advantage.
11. Jeff Gordon Gordon’s roller coaster season continues. That Phoenix win is looking good for the Chase, though.
12. Greg Biffle Biffle is climbing the ladder with six top 15s in the last seven races.
13. Matt Kenseth Hasn’t sniffed the top 10 since his Texas win four races ago.
14. Kurt Busch Being the only factory-backed Dodge operation has its benefits and banes.
15. Mark Martin Despite leading only one lap this season, Martin still sits on the edge of Chase inclusion.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Paul Menard, David Ragan, Regan Smith, Martin Truex Jr.
by Matt Taliaferro
As NASCAR’s oldest track on the schedule, Darlington Raceway is often compared to Fenway Park or Wrigley Field — venues steeped in tradition that provide links to the sports’ celebrated pasts.
However, NASCAR visits Darlington but once throughout its 36-event slate, while the old ballparks, hockey arenas and football stadiums like Lambeau Field get aggressive workouts during their hosts’ respective seasons. And while every major league baseball diamond is a 90-foot square and every football field 120 yards in length, Darlington’s unique characteristics — 1.366 miles, egg-shaped, single-grooved — make it an anomalous beast in a sea of common-template NASCAR ovals.
And it’s Darlington’s singular nature that often makes for a most bizarre race.
Such was the case on Saturday evening in the Showtime Southern 500, when a grueling 367-lap event hinged on a two-lap, green-white checker finish that produced wrecked racecars, post-race fights and a first-time winner.
Regan Smith, driving the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy — a single-car operation in its 137th start in the Cup Series — won the prestigious race, out-strategizing and out-racing points-leader Carl Edwards
A caution for oil on the track dropped by Jeff Burton’s No. 31 Chevy with 10 laps remaining set the wild finish in motion. Edwards and second-place Kasey Kahne, along with the majority of the lead-lap cars, hit pit road for tires — either two or four — and fuel. Regan Smith, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart elected to gamble, staying on the track on used rubber, and brought the field to green with five laps to go.
Smith jumped out to the lead, with Edwards dicing his way to second as cars in the pack beat and gouged for position. The field got only one lap under its belt before a three-wide duel turned ugly when Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer ran out of room off of Turn 4. The contact sent Bowyer head-on into the inside wall, while Busch blatantly hooked Harvick’s Chevy after the caution was thrown, sending it spinning into the outside wall.
Talk of payback filled Harvick’s radio chatter as the field lined up for the green-white-checker, still led by Smith with Edwards to his outside. Smith’s black Chevy darted away when the green waved, but Edwards pulled to his bumper with one lap to go as the two slid off Turn 2. As a two-car wreck filled the backstretch on the final lap, Smith held off Edwards to earn his first career Cup victory in one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races.
“I can’t (describe what this means),” an emotional Smith choked in Victory Lane. “My mom comes to every race that I run, just about, and she missed this one. She’s in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, saving animals after the tornadoes.
“These guys (Furniture Row Racing team) have stuck behind me for three years now. We’ve had some major ups and major downs — I think this will be classified as a major up for sure.”
Smith’s Furniture Row team is a single-car effort based in Denver, Col., that relies on chassis and engine support from Richard Childress Racing.
Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Kahne and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.
Meanwhile, the action continued on pit road, as Harvick blocked Busch’s entrance into the garage. Harvick exited his car to confront Busch, who nosed the unmanned No. 29 Chevy into the pit wall. Harvick managed to get one left jab into Busch’s window before he pulled away. Pushing and shoving ensued between Harvick’s RCR group and Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing crew, as both drivers, as well as their respective team owners, were called to the NASCAR hauler.
Each driver was relatively composed in post-race interviews, with Busch blaming Harvick, saying the contact leading up to the spin was “uncalled for — unacceptable racing.”
He later claimed his No. 18 Toyota had lost its reverse gear, and he had no choice but to push Harvick’s car out of the way or “get punched in the face and then wait for Harvick to get back in his car for me to go.”
Harvick was a bit more demurred in his comments after meeting with NASCAR officials and Busch, stating, “We were racing hard, doing what we had to do there at the end, and um, things happen. That’s it … what do ya do? Racing, I guess.”
When asked what was discussed in the hauler, he simply stated, “Not much. I don’t have anything to tell you but ‘not much.’” And, “You saw the end,” when pressed as to whether things were settled between he and Busch.
NASCAR officials did not comment on whether penalties would be handed down. Typically, the sanctioning body releases such rulings on Tuesday.
by Mike Neff
An accident in Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond International Raceway once again highlighted the fact that improving safety in professional motorsports is a never-ending fight.
On lap 302, Jeff Gordon was tagged in the left rear and spun into the inside wall, where he hit driver-side first. The impact knocked the wind out of Gordon, but fortunately didn’t cause serious injury. He was lucky to have walked away uninjured, in that the portion of wall he hit was not protected by a SAFER Barrier, so that the full brunt of the impact was absorbed by Gordon’s car — and ultimately his body. In the modern era of stock car racing, it is truly unacceptable to have any section of wall exposed to the racetrack that is devoid of some kind of energy-absorbing device to lessen impacts from vehicles that find their way into them.
In the early days of NASCAR, there were all sorts of barriers utilized to keep cars within the confines of the racing area. Hay bales were some of the first “devices” utilized, followed by used tires. Eventually, tracks employed corrugated steel guardrails, which were generically dubbed “Armco barriers.” These were useful for short tracks that were the predominant venues in the formative years of racing, but as track sizes and speeds increased, Armco barriers became less effective to the point they were replaced with concrete walls. While the concrete walls were far more successful at stopping cars from leaving tracks at high speed, they took a tremendous toll on the drivers. As early as 1991, Smokey Yunick developed a “soft wall” using old race tires, plywood and canvas, but the people who made decisions about installing such a device dismissed him and his revolutionary product.
The beginning of the development of the SAFER Barrier — which is now utilized at all of the oval tracks that host NASCAR touring series races — was in 1998. The barriers were first installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002 and, because of the expense, were only installed in the locations that were most susceptible to receiving an impact from a racecar. Eventually, the soft walls were installed at all of the tracks but, as was the case at Indy, the expense prevented track owners and operators from installing the impact-absorbing barriers on every retainer within a venue.
In 2008, Gordon was involved in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where he hit an angled portion of inside walling on the backstretch that was so violent it knocked the transmission out of his car. By the time the series returned a year later, Speedway Motorsports, Inc., had installed SAFER Barriers in the location where Gordon made contact.
If drivers have proven one thing in the 60 years of NASCAR’s existence, it’s that they can find a way to impact any section of fencing — regardless of how unlikely the scenario may seem. The outside walls of a speedway are the obvious locations for SAFER Barriers, but there are walls on the inside of the tracks (and on some sections of straightaways) that are currently not covered with the Steel And Foam Energy Reduction Barriers. Gordon’s impact Saturday night was the latest instance where one of those unprotected walls had a very good chance to injure a driver. The accident should be enough proof for track owners to spend the extra money needed to cover all exposed walls with the soft-wall technology.
There is no question that there is a major expense involved in putting SAFER Barriers in place at a racetrack. Dustin Long, a journalist with the Virginian-Pilot.com, quoted Dr. Dean Sicking — one of the innovators of the SAFER Barrier at the University of Nebraska — who said that when the barriers were designed some 10 years ago, the price of installation was $300 per foot. However, serious injury, or the death of a driver, is a far greater price to be paid than a few thousand feet of steel and foam totaling half a million dollars.
NASCAR has mandated HANS devices, kill switches, even designed an entire racecar with the express purpose of keeping competitors safe in a sport where no one is ever totally safe. The time has come to take that one step further and require all tracks on the national touring schedules to have SAFER Barriers or some other form of energy-absorbing device on all walls that are exposed to the racing surface. The potential for loss of life for something that can be so easily remedied is simply inexcusable.
Ultimately, the idea is to have every track operator — possibly with subsidizing from the sanctioning body — install SAFER Barriers at all NASCAR-sanctioned facilities. For now, though, NASCAR and the tracks that host touring-level races must step up to the plate before the next superstar is cut out of a car and Mike Helton is forced to step up to a microphone to make the hardest announcement he’s ever made in his life.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Darlington, S.C.
Specs: 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval; Banking/Turns: 23° and 25°; Banking/Fronstretch: 3°; Banking/Backstretch: 2°
2010 Winner: Denny Hamlin
2011 Race Length: 501.3 miles/367 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 180.370 mph (Jamie McMurray, 2010)
Race Record: 140.350 mph (Kyle Busch, 2008)
From the Spotter's Stand
Denny Hamlin was in total control of the “Track Too Tough to Tame,” as he became the first driver to sweep the Cup race and Nationwide stop in the same weekend at Darlington since Mark Martin in 1993.
Hamlin edged runner-up Jamie McMurray by 1.908 seconds, but the main competition for the No. 11 Toyota was seven-time Darlington winner Jeff Gordon (110 laps led) and two-time Palmetto State champ Jeff Burton, both of whom made costly mistakes on pit road before finishing fourth and eighth, respectively.
Regardless of his late-race miscues last year, Gordon is still the driver to beat at Darlington. The 24 car has a seven-race streak of top-5 finishes at the track.
Crew Chief’s Take
“The key to surviving Darlington is patience. A driver must race the track, not the competitors for the first 100 miles just to be assured of being around at the end. It is, mentally and physically, one of the toughest race tracks, and it’s unforgiving.
“It’s most challenging for the driver, but it’s really challenging for the team, too. There isn’t much margin for error, and you just can’t get the car really right because of that damned egg shape and narrow groove. But if you’re a competitor, it inspires you, and the drivers and teams that excel here are the ones that love the old place.”
Looking at Checkers: Only the best win at Darlington. Go top shelf with your pick(s).
Pretty Solid Pick: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle. In that order.
Good Sleeper Pick: Read the next line, then come back. OK, Brad Keselowski is the exception.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: If they don’t have at least three years under their belt, pass on ’em.
Insider Tip: Interestingly, Tony Stewart has never won at Darlington. You have to figure this is one of those bucket list races for him at this point in his career.
Classic Moments at Darlington
Tim Richmond enjoys his most successful NASCAR season in 1986. And on Labor Day weekend, he scores his most prestigious Cup win in the Southern 500.
Nine different drivers lead at least one lap throughout the afternoon, but Richmond (168) and Geoff Bodine (162) are the drivers to beat. After Bodine slips late with darkness falling and in damp conditions, Richmond dirt-tracks his No. 25 Folger’s Chevy by Bill Elliott with five laps to go and streaks away to score his fifth win of the year.
Richmond wins two more races in 1986, but his battle with AIDS wrecks what’s left of his career. He competes in only eight races in 1987, winning the first two he enters, at Pocono and Riverside. Richmond passes away on Aug. 13, 1989.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards Kyle Busch has been flashy, but Edwards continues to put top-6 runs on the board. He’ll put up a few more wins before it’s over with, too.
2. Kyle Busch Still not convinced of this “New Kyle Busch” thing, but he certainly appears to be much more forgiving on his equipment these days. Is he, at long last, true title material?
3. Jimmie Johnson If Johnson and the 48 team can bounce back from a horrid start at Richmond to finish eighth, well, everyone else may be running for second over the long haul once again.
4. Kevin Harvick “The Closer” didn’t close in Richmond. Still, a 12th-place run on a night when only nine cars finished on the lead lap isn’t anything to fret over.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Although not a closer like Harvick, Junior has been more of a “hang-in-there” entry thus far. That said, the technique has him slotted fourth in the point standings.
6. Clint Bowyer The workman-like Bowyer has strung together a top-10 streak that’s into its fifth race. Look out Harvick, you may not be atop the Childress totem pole for long.
7. Jeff Gordon Everyone agrees with you Jeff (except the track owners) — there’s no reason to not have SAFER Barriers on every wall at every track.
8. Matt Kenseth Matt, you’re going to love Randall Cobb. Take it from a Kentucky grad.
9. Denny Hamlin Had a big weekend back home in Richmond, winning his charity Late Model race, doing the same in the Nationwide event and finishing second in the A-Main that doubled as the Cup race.
10. Kurt Busch Heard any good monkey and/or football jokes lately?
11. Tony Stewart Came out of nowhere for a solid top 10 at Richmond.
12. Ryan Newman Live by the bumper, die by the bumper.
13. David Ragan Finally delivering on promise for his sophomore season ... which was three years ago.
14. Greg Biffle He’s coming around to the tune of top 15s in five of the last six races.
15. Mark Martin Was a sure-fire top-5 car in Richmond until he joined Gordon and Kenseth in the “The Wreck.”
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Brian Vickers
by Matt Taliaferro
Saturday night’s Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400 from Richmond International Raceway was a tale of two teams within one race shop.
Storyline No. 1 was Kyle Busch and his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team — a driver and team surging early in the 2011 NASCAR season, and in search of their third straight spring Richmond win.
Storyline No. 2 was Denny Hamlin. Also a JGR entry, he and his No. 11 JGR team stumbled out of the gate this season after battling Jimmie Johnson tooth and nail for the 2010 Cup title. Hamlin had already won his own charity race at RIR on Thursday night and followed it up with a dominating run in Friday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race.
As it turned out, both teams delivered big showings, as Busch led a race-high 235 of 400 laps en route to his second win of the season, while Hamlin notched his best run of the year in second, after leading 35 laps at his home track. Both kept a keen eye on fuel mileage, though, as a long green-flag run capped off the evening, requiring the JGR operation — along with the remainder of the field — to conserve gas to reach the finish.
“It was important to save fuel there under the cautions. Fortunately we had that long caution flag,” Busch said of a 12-lap caution period with just under 100 laps to go. “That probably saved us. If we didn't have that, most likely we would have went to the end but probably come up a little bit short.
“Thankfully, it played out the way that it played out and I saved just enough. I thought I was going to be better than that. I thought we were going to have — we did make it to the end, so you can say you made it to the end — that’s good enough, right?”
Hamlin, the only driver that seemed to have anything for Busch, was happy to notch a solid finish on a track he was expected to excel at — something he has not done to this point in the season.
“It was a good weekend,” Hamlin said. “We came up one spot short, but it was to a teammate. When you look at what we need to work on, we yarded the rest of the field by about 10 seconds, we just didn’t have enough to get to our teammate.”
The win also marked the twelfth win in the last 15 short track races in the Cup Series where either Hamlin or Busch has gone to Victory Lane.
“We know when we come to these racetracks we’re going to be contenders for a win,” Hamlin said. “I never even thought about one struggle that we had earlier in the year when we come here to Richmond. It's like, ‘OK, we should win, regardless of what's happened, how bad we ran up until this point.’ You forget about all that when you go to a racetrack that you have a lot of success. Hopefully this is the point in which we turn it around.”
Kasey Kahne’s third-place showing was his best with Red Bull Racing, while David Ragan, in fourth, scored his best finish since October 2008. Carl Edward rounded out the top 5.
Edwards continues to hold a nine-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson in the top spot in the point standings. Busch moved into third, 30 points back, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. is fourth and Kevin Harvick fifth.
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Location: Richmond, Va.
Specs: .75-mile D-shaped oval; Banking/Turns: 14°; Banking/Fronstretch: 8°; Banking/Backstretch: 2°
2010 Winners: Kyle Busch (May), Denny Hamlin (September)
2011 Race Length: 300 miles/400 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 129.983 mph (Brian Vickers, 2004)
Race Record: 109.047 mph (Dale Jarrett, 1997)
From the Spotter's Stand
Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin did it again, splitting the Richmond runs in deja vu all over again fashion. For the second straight year, Rowdy won in May and Denny celebrated a September win - only this time, with Busch on his bumper as the runner-up.
Each thoroughly dominated his respective race. A pole-sitting Busch led 226 laps to outrace runner-up Jeff Gordon (144 laps led) on a restart with five to go. Meanwhile, Hamlin led 251 laps to edge out Busch and rival Jimmie Johnson to clinch the top seed in the Chase in the final race of the “regular season.”
Don't be surprised if the Joe Gibbs duo is roaring at Richmond for a third straight year in 2011.
Crew Chief's Take
“Getting the car to roll through the center of the corner is the key to a fast lap at Richmond. While that tends to cause a drop in speed off the corner, a car that turns well in the center uses less brake, and that's a good thing on a short track where brakes can get hot. Most teams run a short track brake package even though Richmond runs faster than its 3⁄4-mile layout suggests.
“If you want to talk about a balance between what the drivers like and what the fans like, Richmond probably strikes the best balance in NASCAR. There aren't many races that teams look forward to more.”
Looking at Checkers: Kyle Busch has averaged a 2.25-place finish at RIR over the last two seasons.
Pretty Solid Pick: If Denny Hamlin is to get his season on track, this is the place where it needs to happen.
Good Sleeper Pick: Marcos Ambrose was 11th in his first whirl around RIR and ran ninth and fifth in 2010.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: It's been tough sleeding thus far for Jamie McMurray, and Richmond isn't going to help.
Insider Tip: Junior raves about this joint, and Steve Letarte knows how to tune the car here.
Classic Moments at Richmond
The old .542-mile Richmond Fairgrounds layout is home to an early season shocker on Feb. 21, 1982, in the Richmond 400.
A crash by leader Joe Ruttman on lap 244 brings out the caution, and the leaders head to pit road - except for one. With thick, black clouds in the area, Dave Marcis' crew chief, Jerry Darling, instructs his fourth-place driver to stay out as Richard Petty, Benny Parsons and Dale Earnhardt pit.The strategy works, as the sky opens and a torrential rain falls, forcing NASCAR to call the event.
“During the red flag I didn't exactly pray for the rain to continue,” Marcis says. “But I said if the Good Lord ever wanted to help a poor ol' independent driver who fields his own cars and builds his engines, then this was His chance.”
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)