Articles By Matt Taliaferro

All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/pair-nines-wins-vegas

by Matt Taliaferro

In Las Vegas, the hand you’re dealt doesn’t have to be great, just better than those you’re playing against. Such was the case on Sunday, when Carl Edwards outran a dominant Tony Stewart, who fell victim to a pit road penalty that dictated his strategy for the remainder of the event and ultimately doomed his chance at a win in the Kobalt Tools 400. Edwards, in turn, led the final 22 laps and cruised to a 1.2-second win at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I think Tony was the car to beat all day,” Edwards said. “That car was just lightning fast. But those guys (Stewart’s crew) took two tires with 60 or 70 laps to go, and he took off, so Bob (Osborne, crew chief) said, ‘Hey, let’s try it, let’s take two tires.’ We came in, we pitted, the guys did a great job — I barely beat Juan Montoya once we got back on the race track — so this pit stop was key. If it would have been a half-second longer we would not have won the race.”

Ah, yes — back to Stewart. As Edwards referenced, it was his miscue — or rather, his misfortune — that set the tone for the remainder of the race.

Stewart started 15th, but worked his way into the lead on lap 99 and imposed his will on the field from there, leading 124 laps until a caution on lap 151 changed the complexion of the race. During the ensuing round of pit stops, Stewart pulled a lug wrench air hose out of his stall and was issued a pass-through penalty for taking equipment outside his pit box, dropping his No. 14 Chevy out of the lead and into 27th on the restart.

When a caution on lap 195 precipitated another round of yellow-flag stops, Darian Grubb, crew chief for the No. 14 team, made the call for two tires when the majority of the field took four in an effort to gain track position. Stewart won the battle off pit road as a result, and pulled away from the field when the green waved with 66 laps remaining.

When the fuel window re-opened with 32 laps to go, Stewart again hit pit road and was forced to take four tires, while others who had taken four on the previous stop — namely Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman — took two. That relegated Stewart to third when the stops cycled through, and handicapped his track position.

“I honestly think we had the car to beat today, we just gave it away,” Stewart said. “I don't know what happened on the pit stop there, but we had a miscue and had a penalty and had to go to the back, and unfortunately it kind of dealt our cards for us. Darian made a good call getting us the track position back, but it also showed everybody else that they could do it, too (take two tires), and we couldn't run two and a half runs on a set of left-side tires.”

Stewart’s assertion was accurate, as Bob Osborne, crew chief for Edwards’ No. 99 Ford, made the final two-tire stop based how the No. 14 pulled away from the pack in clean air with two tires.

“It definitely didn't hurt the decision-making process to see them (Stewart’s team) run extremely well with two tires,” Osborne said. “So yeah, I guess I was taking notes. Their car was very good regardless, and I thought our only opportunity was to leapfrog them on the racetrack and hope we were able to hold them off.”

Edwards did just that, leading the rest of the way for his second career win at LVMS. Stewart rebounded to finish second, while Montoya, Ambrose and Newman rounded out the top 5.

Stewart has been in position to win all three races thus far in the 2011 season, but has yet to close the deal. A similar two-tire stop at Phoenix ruined his chances last week when many in the field took four, and he lost his drafting partner after restarting second in a green-white-checker finish in the Daytona 500. Does he take solace in the fact that he now holds a tie for the points lead and is close to finding Victory Lane?

“I probably should, but that's not in my makeup,” Stewart said. “I mean, it kills me to throw a race away like that, especially at a place we haven’t won at yet. This was a big deal today, and when you lead that many laps (163 of 267) and have a car that’s that fast and you lose it … I’m sure tomorrow when the emotion dies down we’ll look back and say it was a great weekend, but man, it does not sit good right now.”

Stewart will have to wait to turn his near-misses into a victory, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit takes one week off before returning to action at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 20.

<p> Carl Edwards drove to a dramatic win in the Kobalt Tools 400 from Las Vegas Motor Speedway — in a race dominated by Tony Stewart.</p>
Post date: Monday, March 7, 2011 - 10:05
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/las-vegas-motor-speedway

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Location: Las Vegas, Nev.
Specs: 1.5-mile tri-oval; Banking/Turns: 20°; Banking/Tri-Oval: 9°; Banking/Backstretch: 3°

2010 Winner: Jimmie Johnson

2011 Race Length: 400.5 miles/267 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 188.719 mph (Kurt Busch, 2010)
Race Record: 146.554 mph (Mark Martin, 1998)

From the Spotter’s Stand
Jimmie Johnson’s four of a kind beat Jeff Gordon’s pair — of fresh tires, that is — in a classic Las Vegas heads up showdown that came down to strategy on the final pit stop of the 267-lap dance.

Although Gordon (219 laps led) had the big stack for most of the day, he and crew chief Steve Letarte limped in with a two-tire move late, while Johnson and Chad Knaus went all-in with quads when the chips were on the line. The move allowed Johnson to burn rubber past Gordon on Lap 251 before popping bottles of champagne to celebrate the fourth win in his last six trips to Sin City.

But at least Gordon didn’t lose a tooth or have a run-in with a tiger and Mike Tyson. Right?

Crew Chief’s Take
“As with any ‘cookie cutter’ track, downforce, track position and clean air will all play a major role in how a team gets around Las Vegas. It’s surprising how rough the track is, seeing as how they just repaved it a few years ago. Unlike the other Speedway Motorsports tracks (other than Bristol and Sonoma), it doesn’t have that Bruton Smith blueprint of a tri-oval that’s squared off. When Vegas was redesigned, they didn’t just go back to the drawing board. It was more like they improved the track without tearing it completely apart.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus like to pile up a couple wins early so they can test during the summer, thus the four wins in nine starts.
Pretty Solid Pick: Matt Kenseth always factors, regardless of who’s on the pit box.
Good Sleeper Pick: If not for a vicious wreck in ’08, Jeff Gordon would have six straight top-6 runs.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Juan Pablo Montoya. You’ve been warned.
Insider Tip: Hendrick and Roush typically jump out of the gate fast once the boys leave Daytona.

Classic Moments at PIR
NASCAR’s annual trip to Sin City takes a sinister turn in the 2008 UAW-Dodge 400.

Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth dominate the second half of the event, and it appears the two Roush drivers will settle the race between them. However, Kurt Busch’s hard crash — Tony Stewart had suffered the same violent impact earlier in the day — bunches up the field for a five-lap shootout led by Edwards.

On the restart, second place Dale Earnhardt Jr. spins the tires, allowing Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth to drive past. When Gordon washes up the track in Turn 2, they make contact, sending Gordon’s car hard into the inside wall.

Edwards goes on to the win, but is found to have a detached oil lid cover in post-race inspection. The win stands, but Edwards is docked 100 points for the infraction.

<p> Athlon Sports looks at the weekend ahead on the NASCAR circuit at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.</p>
Post date: Friday, March 4, 2011 - 17:58
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/rockingham-1981

by Mike Neff

Generally speaking, everyone points to the 1979 Daytona 500 as the seminal point in the evolution of NASCAR as a sport of the masses. The famous end to that race, when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the final lap, only to brawl afterward (along with Donnie’s brother, Bobby) forever etched the sport into the fabric of America.

Most current fans don’t realize that the ’79 race was not the first race covered flag-to-flag, though. That distinction falls to a 200-lap race held at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in 1971. However, the race that very well could be more important than either of those is the 1981 spring race from Rockingham, which was the first broadcast by ESPN. While that race was not shown live, it was the first one carried on what today is self-glossed as the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” and laid the foundation from which all modern television broadcasts are based.

Bob Jenkins was the play-by-play announcer along with legendary radio broadcaster Eli Gold. Interestingly, Gold replaced longtime radio voice Barney Hall, who decided to back out of the broadcast at the last minute. Along with Jenkins and Gold, Ned Jarrett was patrolling the pits for the fledgling sports network and expanding his already established broadcasting career, which ultimately played a factor in his election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The race itself included some compelling storylines from several of the biggest names in the sport. Cale Yarborough dominated the race early, leading the most laps before slipping at the end to finish second. Richard Petty looked to have the race in hand, but needed to stretch his fuel to the finish. When Petty’s tank ran low with just three laps to go, he was forced to pit and ultimately came home in third place. Darrell Waltrip capitalized on Petty’s misfortune to snare his second victory in a row and one of 12 race wins en route to his first Winston Cup title.

That first broadcast on ESPN set the stage for all of the innovations that would come in race broadcasting, most of which evolved from the network itself. Thursday Night Thunder brought us the first in-track camera decades before “Digger” came to FOX. While CBS installed the first in-car cameras, which at the time were the size of a small child, it was ESPN that implemented high-definition cameras that are utilized for every angle from the over-the-wall crew cams to the main cameras shooting the races. In-car communications, race line-up scrolls, draft track and telemetry have all been advancements in the technology that brings the race experience to the fans — and it all started from those ESPN broadcasts of the ’80s.

When today’s race fans turn on the weekend show they expect to know exactly how many laps are completed, who is on the lead lap, how far behind the leader their favorite driver is running, along with myriad other statistics. When the folks at ESPN broadcast that race in 1981, they were just figuring out how to post the top 5 names on the screen when the broadcast went to break. There were many times in those first years of coverage that the announcers were not even sure who was leading a race.

During the infamous North Wilkesboro race in 1990, NASCAR scoring was still a manual system, and a miscue by the race director caused the pace car to pick up Dale Earnhardt instead of Brett Bodine as the leader of the race during a caution period. Bodine was able to get fresh tires before NASCAR realized its mistake and the tire change gave Bodine the advantage to win his only Cup race. Now live timing and scoring is fed directly into the race broadcast thanks to the efforts of all of the different broadcast partners of NASCAR.

Obviously, modern technology has made more information available to race fans both on their own and through the television broadcasts. The television partners of NASCAR have made many notable advancements in production in their efforts to try and bring better products to the viewing audience. And every one of those advancements is a direct result of the initial seeds that were planted in Rockingham on a chilly March weekend in 1981 by the pioneers at ESPN.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff looks back at how EPSN entered the sport of NASCAR a revolutioned coverage of motorsports.</p>
Post date: Friday, March 4, 2011 - 17:47
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-8

by Matt Taliaferro

Like every other NASCAR landing page on the web, Athlon Sports has a little fun each week ranking the drivers and teams of the Sprint Cup circuit. Our rankings go beyond how each finished the weekend prior and/or where they sit in the official championship standings.

The rankings you’ll see here represent what we (read: I) think are the strongest overall teams on tour, from top to bottom, based on performance, resources, strength of team/organization, overall talent of driver and, yeah, a tip of the cap to a job well done if they won the last race Think of it as Athlon’s NASCAR version of the college basketball Top 25.

Keep in mind these are subjective, and often done somewhat tongue-in-cheek (depending on my mood), so have some fun with them and take them for what they are: a weekly spin around the circuit, highlighting the best teams and their drivers.

Oh, and our rankings have a cool name … why no one thought of “Horsepower” Rankings before is beyond me. That said, kick back for five minutes of leisurely reading that require no real thought on your part:

1. Kyle Busch  Hard to argue with eighth- and second-place runs to kick off a new season. What's not hard to argue with is what Cale would have to say about Kyle's wedding being shown on the Style Network.

2. Carl Edwards  Looked to have the car to beat in Phoenix, but that’s why they run 500 miles — actually, 500 kilometers, for some reason. He’ll be a handful in Vegas.

3. Kurt Busch  Wonder if the tux Kurt wore in Kyle's wedding had a little Shell Pennzoil patch on the lapel. Actually, I wonder if Kurt was even in it …

4. Jeff Gordon  With the “monkey-off-my-back” win out of the way, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson can go about racking up a handful more — and I'll bet they will.

5. Jimmie Johnson  Mr. Five Time follows up a disappointing Daytona with a fitting Phoenix, where he got back to business by finishing third.

6. Kevin Harvick   Like Johnson, Harvick put Daytona behind him, rolled up his firesuit sleeves and went about scoring a top 5 in Phoenix to set the earth back on its axis.

7. Tony Stewart  He’s so close, but just can’t close the deal. At Daytona he lost the draft, at Phoenix a two-tire stop when others took four burned him. This is not a good time for Smoke to be going to Vegas.

8. Mark Martin  Martin and new crew chief Lance McGrew aren’t on the Gordon/Gustafson level yet, but they’re close, and all Martin ever asks is to be put in a position to race for a win. Looks like that’s coming.

9. Ryan Newman  His last three visits to Phoenix have netted results of first, second and fifth. Prior to that he averaged a 22.6-place finish in 15 starts. How do you explain that?

10. Denny Hamlin  This team is better than its results thus far, but through two races it seems a 2010 hangover is making it hard for Denny and the boys to get out of bed and back to racing.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  His 10th-place showing at Phoenix was very encouraging. Let’s see what Vegas holds ...

12. AJ Allmendinger  Can he keep up the 10th-place average finishing position? That’s a tall order.

13. Clint Bowyer  Very good team. Very bad luck. Clint and the boys will rebound.

14. Jeff Burton   See: Bowyer, Clint.

15. Kasey Kahne  Could Kahne be the driver to turn Red Bull Racing around? He only has one year to make it happen.

Just off the lead pack: Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya

Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro

<p> Bayne bails while the Busch boys break through in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 18:03
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/winner-again

by Matt Taliaferro

Jeff Gordon looked and sounded more like an unlikely 20 year-old Daytona 500 winner than a 20-year veteran with four titles in Phoenix International Raceway’s Victory Lane. But when a driver, particularly one as decorated as Gordon, has just snapped a 66-race winless skid, yelling, “Pinch me man, pinch me!” is understandable.

Charging past Kyle Busch with nine laps remaining in the Subway Fresh Fit 500, Gordon pulled away from the field to the delight of the crowded grandstands on Sunday to record his first win since April 2009.

“I drove in easy to try to get a good run off of two and not let him do the swap-over,” Gordon said of the race-winning pass. “I kind of felt him on my right side and my car got real loose and we banged a little bit and slipped the racetrack and my spotter said ‘clear,’ and I drove off and I looked up and he was three or four car lengths behind me and I'm like, ‘Yes, let's go.’ Then it was just putting some laps to go.”

Busch held on for second, while Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.

The win, Gordon’s 83rd career Cup victory, tied him with Cale Yarborough for fifth all-time. It was also his first with crew chief Alan Gustafson, whom team owner Rick Hendrick paired with Gordon in an extensive driver/team swap during the offseason.

Despite leading a race-high 138 laps, the weekend was not without its tenuous moments for Gordon and crew. None of Hendrick Motorsports’ four entries qualified higher than 20th, a fact that had Hendrick worried on Saturday.

“I don't know about them (Gordon and Gustafson) but I was sure down after I got off the plane yesterday afternoon (after qualifying),” Hendrick said. “I talked to them and they said, ‘We are pretty good, we are good in race trim, the car feels good. We just didn't have the speed and I think we'll be OK today.’”

While they did have the speed, Gordon thought they were a far cry from OK when he was involved in an accident on Lap 60. However, the damage turned out to be largely cosmetic, and once racing resumed, the car picked up where it left off, slicing through the field.

“I thought we were done,” Gordon said of the wreck. “When I hit the wall, I hit it hard over there, when Carl (Edwards) had his problems and just went in him outside of (turn) three and he just drifted up — not his fault, I think he had a left front tire go down or something — and put us in the wall and I thought we were done.

“I came into pit road and Alan orchestrated those guys fixing it and he said, ‘No, man, I think it looks all right.’ They dropped the green and it felt OK.”

A 14-car melee littered the backstretch on the ensuing restart, but 11 laps after the clean up was complete, Gordon sprinted to the lead for the first time

“We only made a half-lap and they wrecked on the back straightaway and they all came to pit road and we were sitting there like fourth. And then we drove up, took the lead or something not too far after that and I was like, wow, this is (an) unbelievable sequence of events and turnaround. And I knew at that time, we had a car that could win.”

Getting the win came down to a restart after the event’s eighth caution period with 22 laps remaining. Tony Stewart led the field to green with Busch at his side and Gordon in arrears. Busch, with two fresher tires than Stewart, quickly jumped out to a sizable lead. But Gordon’s machine proved to be at its best in crunch time. Moving up to Busch’s bumper, Gordon loosened up the Toyota as the two raced out of Turn 4 and made the decisive pass.

“When you put pressure on a guy that's leading and you start creeping up on him, you see them trying harder and harder and hanging the car out ask doing things that allows you to gain more confidence in your car and what you're doing,” Gordon explained. “All I was thinking about was don't make mistake. Take advantage of him in the areas that your car is strong and his isn't and that's what I did and I was able to get to him and I got to him off of four and he slipped up a little bit and I got my nose underneath him.

“You know, the way it worked out, I got by him way easier than I thought that I would.”

The wins for the Gordon/Gustafson combo may not be any easier to earn as the season unfolds, but if Sunday’s performance is any indication, they’ll certainly be more plentiful.

<p> Jeff Gordon breaks a 66-race winless skid with a victory in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 from Phoenix International Raceway.</p>
Post date: Sunday, February 27, 2011 - 23:23
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/phoenix-international-raceway-0

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Location: Avondale, Ariz.
Specs: 1-mile oval; Banking/Turns: 9° and 11°; Banking/Frontstretch: 3°; Banking/Backstretch: 9°

2010 Winners: Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards

2011 Race Length: 500 km/312 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 186.293 mph (Casey Mears, 2004)
Race Record: 155.912 mph (Bobby Labonte, 2000)

From the Spotter’s Stand
The desert ended droughts for both Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards last season. Newman had gone 77 races since winning the Daytona 500 in 2008 before taking the checkers — after taking two tires rather than the full four — at Phoenix in April. Meanwhile, Cousin Carl hadn’t back-flipped after a Cup win in 70 races prior to squeezing every last drop out of his fuel tank and dusting runner-up Newman by 4.77 seconds to take back-to-back Cup and Nationwide wins at the one-mile Avondale oval in November.

After winning four out of five in Phoenix, Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and the 48 had a “down” year — with fifth- and third-place finishes and just 113 laps led.

Crew Chief’s Take
“Turns 1 and 2 are completely different than Turns 3 and 4 at Phoenix, which makes it difficult to find the right balance in the setup. Many teams run a short-track package with brakes that will last the duration. A dogleg in the backstretch is unique to the circuit. Abusing the right-side tires is easy to do at Phoenix, and even more so with the new car.

“Certain drivers — Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch come to mind — sort of know the tricks there. It takes a pretty talented driver to be willing to experiment out there, and Phoenix rewards the ones who find the tricks.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: With apologies to Dover and Martinsville, this may be Jimmie Johnson’s best track.
Pretty Solid Pick: We’re not sold on the Mark Martin/Lance McGrew pairing, but they’ll be good here.
Good Sleeper Pick: The RCR boys are usually pretty tough on the flat tracks.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: You may want to steer clear of the Red Bull drivers.
Insider Tip: Denny Hamlin had the November edition of this race won until he was forced to hit pit road for a splash of gas. And after a disappointing Daytona, this team will be looking to redeem itself.

Classic Moments at PIR
For the first time in 13 years, The King returns to Victory Lane. Bobby Hamilton, driving Richard Petty’s No. 43 STP Pontiac, leads 40 laps in the 1996 Dura Lube 500 at PIR to earn his first career Cup win.

Hamilton loses the lead on pit road, falling to fourth for a lap 266 restart, but he blows by Mark Martin and Terry Labonte within seven laps, and gets by Geoff Bodine 10 laps later to secure his first of three career cup triumphs.

“I’ve told a lot of people, there’s Dale Earnhardt fans or Bill Elliott fans, but when those guys fall out of the race, they’re still Richard Petty fans,” Hamilton says. “I thought it was pretty cool to win this race for him.”

<p> The NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads our west to Phoenix this week as the season gets into full swing.</p>
Post date: Sunday, February 27, 2011 - 11:57
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/one-race-does-not-season-make

by Mike Neff

Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500, but that doesn’t mean he’s the early favorite to win the Sprint Cup championship. Listening to talking heads from ESPN to Bob’s Big Boy, Bayne is not only poised to win every race this season, but he very well could be the next Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon all rolled into one squeaky-clean driving machine. The Sprint Cup Series has the longest season in professional sports and if history has taught us anything over the last 30 years, it’s that the winner of the Daytona 500 is about as far from a lock to win the championship as it can get.

Gordon and Johnson are the only champions in the last three decades to win Daytona and also take home the title. For the most part, the 500 has been a curse more than a blessing, particularly over the last few years. Since Johnson’s win in 2006, only Kevin Harvick has parlayed a Daytona 500 win into a Chase berth — and even then he finished 10th in the 2007 standings, while failing to visit Victory Lane again that season.

Bayne has wisely decided to stick with the original plan for the 2011 season: running a full Nationwide schedule and competing in around 20 Cup Series races for the Wood Brothers. Bayne is still only 20 years old and has only competed in 51 Nationwide races to go with two Cup starts. The experience he’ll gain running for a title in NASCAR’s Triple-A division will go a long way in preparing him to run a full-time Cup schedule in the future.

So since Bayne isn’t going to run away with the Cup Series this year, the question turns to what can be made of the rest of the field, and who is going to claim the title in 2011? Only three drivers who were in the Chase last year managed to finish in the top 10 of the Daytona 500, while six drivers finished 27th or worse — including Johnson and Harvick.

The retooled points system penalizes bad days more than it rewards good ones, with a greater disparity between a first-place finish and last on a percentage basis. The old point system paid 190 for winning a race and 34 points for finishing last, or 17 percent of the winner’s total. The new system gives first place 43 points and last place one, which is only two percent of the winner’s points. Therefore, a couple of finishes in the bottom three or four spots make the climb to Chase contention extremely difficult.

With Bayne’s decision to run for the Nationwide title this year, Carl Edwards is the points leader at this juncture, with 42 points to his credit. Conversely, Harvick blew up early in the 500 and came home 42nd which, by virtue of leading a lap, means he earned only three championship points. In order for Harvick to catch Edwards he’ll have to finish a spot in front of him in every race between now and the Chase while leading laps in half of them without Edwards leading any. That may not be too big of a hill to climb, but should Harvick have another dismal finish at Phoenix, he’ll face a very difficult task to make it back to the top of the mountain.

Harvick isn’t the only driver with a tough row to hoe. Johnson, Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle are all outside the top 20 in points. Mind you, these drivers were in the playoffs last season, and the majority will be there once again, but disappointing seasons have happened before, making the pressure to avoid another bad finish high. And with a new, unfamiliar points system, there are bound to be some wrinkles as the year unfolds.

The best thing about putting Daytona to bed and heading to Phoenix is that the drivers feel they control their own destiny. Restrictor plate tracks are a crapshoot where ending the day wadded up is just as likely as going to Victory Lane. It’s a good bet that most of last season’s Chase participants who had serious trouble at Daytona will begin their climb back towards the top. However, they may not be able to catch Edwards. Don’t forget the Daytona runner-up was the first to cross the finish line at Phoenix last fall before he went to Homestead and notched a second-straight win to cap the season. His performance earned him the praise of the media during the offseason — he’s the trendy pick to knock Johnson off his championship perch — while signifying the return of the Blue Oval gang after an extended slump.

There is so much excitement leading up to the Daytona 500 and once the race ends, that energy can cloud fans’ and media members’ judgment about the rest of the season. Sure, it’s exciting to see a legendary racing team visit Victory Lane for the first time in nearly 10 years, and with a humble young driver in his second Cup start, to boot. However, his trip into the Phoenix wall in Friday’s first practice session was a jolt of reality.

It is just as easy to see perennial Chasers stumble out of the blocks and wonder whether they’ll be able to contend for the title. Just remember that Daytona is a plate race and anything can happen. Now that the schedule turns to Phoenix we’ll get a little better idea of who improved over the winter and who is bound to take a step back.

<p> Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne was the media darling of Daytona, while some of the big-name drivers faltered. Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff notes that, while the season is long and winding, there are some drivers that have some making up to do.</p>
Post date: Saturday, February 26, 2011 - 08:24
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-7

by Matt Taliaferro

Like every other NASCAR landing page on the web, Athlon Sports has a little fun each week ranking the drivers and teams of the Sprint Cup circuit. Our rankings go beyond how each finished the weekend prior and/or where they sit in the official championship standings.

The rankings you’ll see here represent what we (read: I) think are the strongest overall teams on tour, from top to bottom, based on performance, resources, strength of team/organization, overall talent of driver and, yeah, a tip of the cap to a job well done if they won the last race Think of it as Athlon’s NASCAR version of the college basketball Top 25.

Keep in mind these are subjective, and often done somewhat tongue-in-cheek (depending on my mood), so have some fun with them and take them for what they are: a weekly spin around the circuit, highlighting the best teams and their drivers.

Oh, and our rankings have a cooler name … why no one thought of “Horsepower” Rankings before we did is beyond me. That said, kick back for five minutes of leisurely reading that require no real thought on your part:

1. Carl Edwards  After ending last year with back-to-back backflips, the driver many picked as the one with the best chance to knock Jimmie Johnson off point starts the season strong, with a second-place run in the Daytona 500.

2. Kurt Busch  Won the Bud Shootout, his Gatorade Duel race and looked like he had the 500 dead to rights ... until Edwards and David Gilliland drafted by on the last lap, preventing Busch’s run.

3. Kyle Busch  How he managed to salvage an eighth-place showing in a roller-coaster of a day is bewildering … and he was singing with delight over his team’s radio most of the way.

4. Clint Bowyer  A popular pre-race favorite (ahem, ours), Bowyer was in position late in the day until he fell victim to an accident not of his making. He’ll remain a darkhorse title favorite in the Horsepower Rankings most of the season, though.

5. Jimmie Johnson  Speaking of title favorite, Johnson’s continued run of Daytona disappointment — he’s averaged a 31.8-place finish the last five years — hasn’t bothered his No. 48 team one bit. After all, a Daytona 500 win makes a career, not a season.

6. Mark Martin  The Daytona 500 futility continues. When Martin, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte all lined up in the top 5 on a late-race restart, you felt someone might break his drought. Not so.

7. Jeff Gordon  Handpicked Trevor Bayne to be his drafting partner in the Duels, proving to the rest of the field that the 20-year old was worthy. It paid off on raceday — for Bayne, not Gordon.

8. Denny Hamlin  A bad Speedweeks stayed bad for Hambone in the 500. But sunnier days lie ahead, as the circuit visits Phoenix this weekend, where Hamlin dominated in November before he was called to pit road for a splash of gas. Something tells me he still wants to strangle Mike Ford for that one.

9. Kevin Harvick  Maybe the biggest disappointment of the day on the beach. Entering Daytona with his usual plate-track swagger, Harvick staggered home when the engine went “ka-put” before the driver even broke a sweat.

10. Trevor Bayne  OK, so maybe he should rank higher after the 500 win, but honestly, the teams listed above are a notch ahead of his. Let’s see what this Tennessee good ol’ boy has for ’em in Phoenix.

11. Tony Stewart  Zero wins in the Daytona 500, but three in July and six in nine February Nationwide Series races. That’s gotta be tough to swallow.

12. Ryan Newman  Led a race-high 37 laps before joining Bowyer in the backstretch wall.

13. Jamie McMurray   Defending 500 champion’s motor went south late in the race, otherwise he looked like he had a strong mount once again.

14. Dale Earnhardt Jr.   Had three cars trashed in Speedweeks, though none were really his fault.

15. Juan Pablo Montoya  Gave Kurt a nice push on the white flag lap, but was felled by another duo of drafters.

Just off the lead pack: Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, David Ragan

<p> Trevor Bayne is a great story (and yes, he makes this week's list), but it's a certain Roush Fenway driver that looks ready to make early-season waves.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 - 14:24
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/trevor-slays-goliath

by Matt Taliaferro

A wide-eyed kid looked incredulously out the window of his Ford after doing burnouts on the Daytona International Speedway tri-oval, not sure of what he was supposed to do next. And he really didn’t; Trevor Bayne didn’t know the way to Daytona 500 Victory Lane.

Having turned 20 years old just one day prior, Bayne was making his second career Sprint Cup start on Sunday, and his first in the Great American Race. But as the sun set over the massive Daytona grandstand, Bayne was about to accept the most coveted hardware in NASCAR: the Harley J. Earle Trophy, having out-dueled a handful of the sport’s veterans in the 53rd running of the Daytona 500.

Bayne’s story is suddenly a meteoric one. Unheralded in comparison to fellow 20-year old Joey Logano, Bayne joined the NASCAR ranks in the K&N Pro East Series, a veritable Single-A division to Cup’s major leagues. Making only 15 starts in the East Series from 2007-09 with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., Bayne signed with Michael Waltrip Racing in ’09 to run a partial Nationwide Series schedule before losing that ride when sponsorship dried up near the end of the 2010 season.

Team owner Jack Roush knew a good thing when he saw one and snatched up the suddenly-unemployed driver. Running largely unsponsored with Roush in the Nationwide ranks late in the 2010 season, Bayne impressed to the point that the legendary Wood Brothers organization came calling — at Roush’s bequest. This season’s plans were to run a 17-race slate with the Woods in Cup — in the iconic No. 21 Ford, no less — while competing full-time for Roush in the Nationwide Series.

And that brings us to Speedweeks 2011, where Bayne posted the third-fastest lap on pole qualifying day last Sunday. He then served as Jeff Gordon’s unofficial wingman in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel race, being hand-picked by the four-time champ to be his drafting partner. However, a strong run in the Duel ended in heartache, when he was swept up in Gordon’s wreck as the field took the checkered flag.

Starting 31st in the 500, Bayne had a rocketship — one that other drivers trusted in the two-car drafts after the confidence shown by Gordon, his childhood idol, during the Duel.

“I actually owe a lot of this to Jeff Gordon for helping me in those Duel races and showing these others drivers that we belonged here,” Bayne said. “He came to Victory Lane and it’s just so cool to see your childhood hero to come and congratulate you and be a part of it.”

If Gordon was spreading the word that Bayne could be trusted, the other drivers took the message to heart. A record 16 cautions marred the 500, and the youngster was able to keep his Motorcraft Ford — a car that was patched together after Thursday’s Duel wreck — out of trouble.

“That thing was so fast, so we were at the front,” he explained. “It seemed like every time the caution came out we were in front of the (wreck). Anyone I got behind, no matter what manufacturer, no matter who was driving it, it would push them right to the front. It made me look good today.”

At no time did he look better than on the event’s second green-white-checker finish — NASCAR’s equivalent of double-overtime. Bayne led the field to green for a two-lap shootout with Cup veterans Bobby Labonte on his bumper and Tony Stewart alongside. While Labonte stayed glued to Bayne, Stewart faded, giving way to the two-car tandem of Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya. But as the field screamed down the backstretch one final time, Carl Edwards and David Gilliland drafted by Busch and Montoya, catching the lead duo. Getting by Labonte coming out of Turn 4, Edwards made a run at the No. 21, but was denied by blocks thrown right and left by Bayne.

“I couldn’t get there,” Edwards said of the lead. “The only thing I maybe could have done is push Trevor a little harder and move up and try it (another pass).”

Edwards, Gilliland, Labonte and Busch rounded out the top 5. And while Bayne’s two Cup starts was in glaring contrast to that quartet’s combined 46 years of Cup duty, his team’s foundation pre-dates any other at Daytona. The Wood Brothers is one of the most legendary teams in NASCAR, an outfit that dates back to 1953 and boasts 93 wins with drivers such as David Pearson, A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough and Neil Bonnett.

A changing NASCAR landscape relegated the once-title-contending powerhouse to a partial schedule following the 2006 season. And with a revolving door of drivers manning the wheel, the Woods hit rock bottom three years ago at, ironically enough, Daytona.

"The lowest point was missing this race in '08,” co-owner Eddie Wood said. “Our family had been coming down here since the '50s, and they never missed one until we missed it. The lowest point for me was that day.

"We came back to the track and hung out, because we had a lot of guests coming. But it's almost like when you miss a race, especially the Daytona 500, it's like somebody died. When you walk through the garage, you run into people that you see every week, and they're afraid to look at you. It's like they don't know what to say.”

So how could anyone expect a down-on-its-luck team with a kid with next to no experience to slay the Goliath’s of the Cup Series on the sport’s grandest stage?

"When we kind of started downhill, you begin to think you can never get back,” Wood continued. “But you keep trying. Just the fact that you want one more trophy — one more trophy — you can't quit. And we never quit. We just kept trying."

So with that one trophy Wood referenced, the biggest upset in Daytona 500 history under his belts and 16 more races Cup races panned in 2011, the young driver that didn’t even know the way to Victory Lane has given a seasoned team a new sense of credibility and, more important, a renewed purpose.

<p> Trevor Bayne and the Wood Brothers score an upset for the ages with an unlikely win in the 2011 Daytona 500.</p>
Post date: Sunday, February 20, 2011 - 22:31
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-1-jimmie-johnson

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Owner: Rick Hendrick/Jeff Gordon
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus

Years with current team: 10
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 1st (2006, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10)

Hometown: El Cajon, Calif.
Born: September 17, 1975

2011 Spin
In 2007, Jimmie Johnson won his second straight championship, and while it raised a few eyebrows, most figured three in a row wasn’t realistic — it hadn’t happened in 30 years, after all. Once it did, a four-peat seemed a virtual impossibility. Nobody had done that in 60 years of NASCAR’s existence — until 2009, when the No. 48 made former record-holder Cale Yarborough seem ordinary. But going for five? Making history again? You’d have a better chance of hitting Lucky 7s for $1 million on the Vegas slots than to see that mix of luck, talent and longevity.

But Johnson, as it turns out, is a one-in-a-million type of guy. Earning a fifth title in spectacular fashion, he’s now third on the all-time list.

As his racing dynasty continues, Johnson has become one of the most polarizing drivers in NASCAR fandom. To those who like him, he’s the best driver to come down the pike since Jeff Gordon took the sport by storm in the 1990s. To those who don’t, Johnson is a little too lucky and has a genius for a crew chief. Either way, his numbers suggest that he’s already earned a place among the elite, and he’s not done yet. Talk of seven titles is legitimate now, and a sixth seems like less of a stretch than the third, fourth or fifth.

Why? For all intents and purposes, the No. 48 actually had an “off” year despite six victories in 2010. Johnson didn’t coast home with the championship last year, he went out and took it, scratching for every point. If it was Denny Hamlin’s title to lose; Johnson needed mental savvy to snatch it, succeeding so smoothly and seemingly effortlessly that, in retrospect, his rival didn’t stand a chance. To see him fight back was devastating for Johnson’s challengers, just as much as it instilled confidence in him. If J.J. can hold the title on a “bad year,” what happens when his team actually ups the ante again?

“We had to really buckle down to get this thing done,” admitted crew chief Chad Knaus just two hours after the title-clinching performance at Homestead. “I’ve got some hard discussions to have with Jimmie about some testing that he’s going to have to take part in (this offseason).”

That makeover begins with the men going over the wall. Hendrick Motorsports held pit crew tryouts over the offseason to replace several members on a team that looked like the Three Stooges on occasion, not reigning champions — so much so that they were swapped out with Jeff Gordon’s team during the seventh race of the Chase. The replacements did an admirable job, but hurt feelings and awkward moments have placed three new crewmen on the squad, joining three holdovers.

That constant push to excel comes from the best crew chief in the garage in Knaus, who possesses a rare combination of technical genius and people skills to know exactly what his driver needs in the racecar and exactly what he needs to hear. And don’t discount car chief Ron Malec, charged with preparing the racecars. Malec has been with Johnson since his ASA days in the mid-1990s and knows what Johnson needs without asking. They’re the perfect 1-2 mechanical punch for a team that overcomes adversity like no other.

Johnson is a bulldog on the track: He fights tirelessly and never, ever loses his hold on victory once it’s in his grasp. But he’s also a thoroughbred, managing risk while making it all look as if he’s not working. That ability to go out and dominate without ruffling feathers is the biggest key to his success, the reason that he can never be overlooked as a title favorite.

Johnson will have a new shopmate in Dale Earnhardt Jr., and believe it or not, the struggling newcomer could actually help him. The two favor fairly similar handling on a car, and Earnhardt could offer some insight on restrictor plate racing, long Johnson’s Achilles heel.

Six titles in a row used to sound ridiculous — like a Days of Thunder-esque theatrical fantasy whose script has no basis in reality. But after what Johnson accomplished in 2010, and after the way he accomplished it, someone should just hand him the pen: He’s writing that script with every race.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

The grandstands aren’t the only place where Jimmie Johnson Fatigue thrives. “I don’t know how you beat the guy,” says another crew chief in the 2010 Chase. “Every single year, Johnson and his team perform better in the Chase than the rest of the year, and it’s all the rest of us can do to just do our best all the time. Just when you think you can beat him, he picks up the pace like he had it in reserve all along.”

Another says, “Oh, there’s always hope. Denny (Hamlin) and Kevin (Harvick) gave him all he could stand.”

A third crew chief adds, “(Crew chief) Chad Knaus is a perfectionist, and ruthless as hell. I don’t think a lot of drivers would last 15 minutes with him.”

Yet another says, “Johnson’s talent is his ability to process things and react. All race drivers have to possess that knack for wide-open, high-speed decision-making, and he’s just, quite literally, a machine.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: With apologies to Martinsville and Dover, JJ’s at his best in Phoenix.
Pretty Solid Pick: That said, Martinsville and Dover.
Good Sleeper Pick: A team that’s won five consecutive series titles never enters a weekend as a sleeper.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s won one race at both Daytona and Talladega, but tends to blend in more often than not.
Insider Tip: Has averaged nearly six wins per year in his nine full seasons on circuit. Best team, bar none.

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 6
Top 5s: 17
Top 10s: 23
Poles: 2
Laps Led: 1,315
Laps Completed: 10,418
Lead Lap Finishes: 27
Bonus Points: 155
Races Led: 24
Average Start: 9.4
Average Finish: 12.2
After First 26 Races: 2nd
Final Points Standing: 1st
Driver Rating: 107.7 (1st)


<p> He may not be the sexy underdog pick, but after the last five seasons, you'll excuse us for betting with our heads and not our hearts. Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team have enjoyed a half-decade run as NASCAR's undisputed champions, and they'll enter 2011 as the unquestioned team to beat on the Sprint Cup circuit.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 18, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/daytona-international-speedway

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Location: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Specs: 2.5-mile tri-oval; Banking/Turns: 31°; Banking/Tri-oval: 18°; Banking/Backstretch: 3°

2010 Winners: Jamie McMurray (Feb.) and Kevin Harvick (July)

2011 Race Length: 500 miles/200 laps (Feb.); 400 miles/160 laps (July)
Track Qualifying Record: 210.364 mph (Bill Elliott, 1987)
Race Record, 500 miles: 177.602 mph (Buddy baker, 1980)
Race Record, 400 miles: 173.473 mph (Bobby Allison, 1980)

From the Spotter’s Stand
It takes two, especially on Valentine’s Day. And that was never more true than at last year’s Daytona 500. Two pothole repairs — between Turns 1 and 2 — caused over two hours of frustrating delays before two green-white-checkered finishes resulted in Jamie McMurray beating Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the line after a grueling 208 laps at the 52nd Daytona 500.

Those pothole problems wont’ be an issue now, as the 2.5-mile track was repaved this offseason. It’ll still take two, though — as in a two-car draft to get to the front. And of course, at a plate track it’s all about timing. So predicting this bad boy is an exercise in futility.

Kevin Harvick won his second straight Bud Shootout last February, before winning the Coke Zero 400 in July — beating runner-up Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jr. in a rain-delayed 166-lap race. Kurt Busch took checkers in the Shootout last weekend, and in a car that wasn’t all that great, lending credence to the “right place/right time” theory.

Crew Chief’s Take
“Daytona typically conjures images of speed, and with a repaved surface, that’s what it’s going to take to win — that and a good drafting partner. Although the track won’t lose grip like it did on the old surface, it’s still a relatively narrow track, so drivers and spotter’s must be on their toes, this year more than ever before.

“Turn 2 has always been Calamity Corner, and it will be interesting to see if that remains the case. My guess is it will because of the tight confines off. The January test sessions were big for everyone this year, learning new characteristics that could make a difference.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Whoever gets the push at the end. We’ll say Kevin Harvick.
Pretty Solid Pick: Whoever does the pushing at the end. We’ll say Clint Bowyer.
Good Sleeper Pick: He doesn’t rank high on the stats sheet, but Martin Truex Jr. looked good last year.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: His 500 win in 2008 and last weekend's Shootout showing aside, Ryan Newman hasn’t had much luck here.
Insider Tip: Even with the new surface, Daytona should be the typical be-in-the-right-spot-when-it-counts plate race.

Classic Moments at Daytona
In arguably the event’s most compelling storybook ending, Tiny Lund wins the 1963 installment of the Daytona 500 in relief of an injured Marvin Panch.

Days before the 500, Panch is severely burned in an accident while testing a Maserati for the race that today is known as the Rolex 24. Lund, in Daytona looking for a ride, sees the violent crash and rushes to the car, pulling Panch out seconds before the fuel tank explodes.

Lund is given Panch’s seat in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, and by using only one set of tires throughout the 500 — and pitting one time fewer than his competitors — Lund takes the lead when Ned Jarrett runs out of gas with three laps to go. Despite running out of fuel on the final lap, Lund is able to notch his first career win.

Follow Matt and Nathan on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro and @AthlonNathan

<p> Athlon Sports continues its preview of the Daytona 500 with a track profile of the Daytona International Speedway.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 18, 2011 - 05:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/monday-recap/busch-burton-win-duels

by Matt Taliaferro

Two-car drafts continued to be the story of Speedweeks on Thursday, when the field for the 53rd Daytona 500 was set via the Gatorade Duel races.

Duel No. 1 came down to a green-white-checker finish when Michael McDowell’s engine blew with five laps remaining, setting the stage for frantic two-lap shootout.

Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne took the green lined up on the first row but quickly locked nose-to-tail in the low groove, with Kahne in the lead. However, third-place Kurt Busch and race-long drafting buddy Regan Smith wasted no time in overtaking the Kahne/Montoya duo, shooting to the lead on the backstretch with Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth in tow.

As Busch and Smith took the white flag, a gaggle of cars mixed it up for second behind them, allowing Busch, last Saturday’s Shootout winner, to pull away with Smith locked to his bumper. With the field well behind them, Smith faked high, then dipped low on the tri-oval in an attempt to pass, but Busch threw a block, halting his unofficial teammate’s momentum and scoring his second win in six days at Daytona.

“To be in those positions, you have to have a good drafting partner,” Busch explained. “I had that with Regan Smith today, had it with McMurray on Saturday night. You can't be in those positions if you don't build a great racecar.

So I'm really excited. Again, I can't get too far ahead of myself because this is Daytona and this place can jump up and bite you pretty quick. But we are going to ride this wave. We've made the right decisions so far with all of our adjustments on our car, adapting to the rule changes with restrictor plate sizes, grill-opening sizes. This is a new era at Daytona in my mind.”

Smith held on for second in the final rundown, followed by Harvick, Kenseth and Kahne. Bill Elliott and J.J. Yeley claimed the two transfer spots into the 500. Busch will line up in the first starting position on Sunday due to pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. going to a backup car because of a wreck in practice.

The second Duel was thriller, with multiple accidents, underdog stories and a scrum for the win highlighting the 150-miler.

<p> Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton drafted their way to Victory Lane in Thursday's Gatorade Duels at Daytona.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 19:23
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-2-carl-edwards

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 99 Aflac Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Owner: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Bob Osborne

Years with current team: 8
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 2nd (2008)

Hometown: Columbia, Mo.
Born: August 15, 1979

2011 Spin
As NASCAR fans search for the next heavyweight driver to challenge Jimmie Johnson for the title belt, a familiar fighter has emerged from the crowd in Carl Edwards. After going two-for-two in victories to end last season and jumping to fourth in the final standings, Ford’s top dog is the trendy pick by garage insiders to go mano a mano with the No. 48 another time.

“Please don’t do that again,” quipped Edwards after winning the season finale at Homestead, mindful of the last media frenzy that proclaimed him Johnson’s main title threat. “That didn’t work worth a damn.”

Those words speak volumes about a man who remembers a thing or two about overconfidence. A blistering hot streak at the end of 2008, one that saw him claim three of his nine wins in the last four races of the season, left that year’s title runner-up with seemingly all the momentum versus Johnson heading into ’09. But Edwards almost literally stubbed his toe from the start, breaking his foot at one point in a winless year where the team seemed to stagnate, stubbornly relying on old notes and ideas until it was far too late.

So why should we believe that Edwards won’t make the same mistakes twice? Simple: He’s not the same man he was two years ago, with even the post-race victory routine adding a new wrinkle. Sure, the competitive fire remains; Edwards is a Jekyll and Hyde personality whose temper can flare up at a moment’s notice, as witnessed by his contentious feuds with Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick early last season. But now, Edwards is a happily married man and a new father. Gone are the headlines of turmoil between him and his Roush Fenway Racing teammates, and physical confrontations with other drivers in the garage. He won’t be pushed around on-track — see: Atlanta, Gateway 2010 — but it seems that fire is a more calculated burn, one that could finally get him the title that he seeks.

“I feel like I've worked very hard on some shortcomings that I have as a driver,” he said last November. “That process is very painful. But I feel a lot better right now going into 2011 than I did going into 2009.”

One thing that will help fuel Edwards’ championship hopes is the Ford FR9 engine that made its limited debut in 2010, recording five poles and four wins (two via Edwards). With the new powerplant under the hood full-time in 2011, the Blue Ovals hope to once again be running neck-and-neck with their Chevy counterparts. They even seem to have caught up to their peers in engineering, with poor simulation programs no longer derailing chassis development at the shop.

Paired once again with crew chief Bob Osborne, Edwards and his team also enjoy something that is rare these days in the ultra-competitive NASCAR world — continuity. This duo has been paired together for all but one of their seven seasons in Cup, although even good relationships need work at times. After their struggles hit a low point last spring and with frustration building, Edwards credited Osborne’s willingness to change for spurring their return to title contention.

Add in the monetary support of sponsor Aflac, one of the best in the business, and the No. 99 now enjoys the stability many teams lack. As long as Edwards has learned a lesson from those Keselowski crashes, drawing the line between revenge and rationality, he’ll actually carry the least emotional baggage of any of Johnson’s main challengers this year.

“For our team, to be on the upswing that we are,” he says, “this is as good as it gets.”

That type of enthusiasm is exactly what’s needed for the daunting challenge ahead. With others primed to take a step back, it seems that Roush Fenway Racing and Edwards are full steam ahead, prepared to blow by the competition, learn from their experiences and become the main threat to Johnson’s throne once again.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Many expect Edwards to be a prime mover in the title race, particularly since he won the final two races of 2010. “Edwards is always doing his best,” says a crew chief. “You’ve really got to get him credit for that, but sometimes it helps and sometimes it hurts. His career is one that’s hard to put a finger on. After 2008, he looked ready to win a championship, and then it all went away. The way it looks entering the season, this is going to be an ‘on year’ for Edwards.”

Another says, “Carl gets excited sometimes, mainly, I think, because he wants to win so badly. Maybe he has a tendency to go too far at times, but I’d love to have him as a driver. He’s as dedicated as anybody out there.”

Another says, “I like Edwards’ honesty. And he’s good for the sport. He wins a race and goes into the stands to celebrate with the fans. Stands on his car and cuts a back flip. I just can’t help but wonder what happens if he runs up into the stands after a controversial win.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Thirteen of Edwards’ 18 career Cup wins have come on the big intermediates like Atlanta, Homestead and Texas.
Pretty Solid Pick: He has five top 10s in six starts at the Glen, although you probably have better options.
Good Sleeper Pick: Lest you forget, he has a couple wins in Thunder Valley.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The Brickyard. No idea why.
Insider Tip: Cousin Carl is a pretty solid pick most any week provided the equipment is up to snuff. The 1.5- and 2-mile ovals are his bread ’n’ butter, though.

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 2
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 19
Poles: 3
Laps Led: 427
Laps Completed: 10,575
Lead Lap Finishes: 32
Bonus Points: 70
Races Led: 13
Average Start: 15.2
Average Finish: 11.8
After First 26 Races: 8th
Final Points Standing: 4th
Driver Rating: 91.8 (7th)


<p> He's come close once before, and Athlon Sports expects him to do so again. In at second in the 2011 Driver Countdown is Driver 99, Carl Edwards.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/restoring-daytonas-dignity

by Vito Pugliese

The Daytona 500 has had a few choice nicknames foisted upon it over the last 53 years – chief among them, “The Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing.” That being said, if it is going to have such a grand title attached to it, might it be time to start seriously treating racing’s biggest event as the “Super Bowl” it’s been advertised as for the last five decades?

Speedweeks in Daytona have always has been a fortnight spectacle leading up to the main event, with Saturday’s Bud Shootout, Sunday’s qualifying and Thursday’s twin Gatorade Duel qualifying races. The NFL now takes two weeks to lead up to its main event, in a way taking a page from NASCAR, by playing the Pro Bowl the weekend before the Super Bowl itself.

The Bud Shootout — NASCAR’s version of a Pro Bowl — used to be for pole winners from the prior season only. It was exclusive. Then it was expanded to include past winners of the event itself, which is fair enough. However, all you have to do is win a points-paying event at Daytona or be a good rookie in a bad class to qualify. Really? No offense to Derrike Cope, Jimmy Spencer, Greg Sacks or Kevin Conway, but isn’t the primer for the season’s biggest event a bit watered down if the barriers to entry are constantly lowered?

In the same vein, qualifying needs to mean something as well, and with the top 35 rule in place (and no bonus points for a pole) the Bud Shootout needs to be made for pole or past Shootout winners only.

From sport to show
Perhaps the biggest issue now facing the Daytona 500 — and NASCAR in general — is the practice of describing it not as pure competition, but as “putting on a show.” The 500 needs to be presented as the sporting event it is, not just “some show for the fans.” It represents the pinnacle of North American auto racing, after all. “Putting on a show” should be the realm of the Drifting crowd, WWE and Monster Jam; not a 200 mph chess match on NASCAR’s grandest stage.

It wasn’t that long ago, perhaps six or seven years back, that the Daytona 500 was generally assumed to have surpassed the Indianapolis 500 as the most important race in the country. In the last few years, though, the 500 has lost a little bit of its luster. From the advent of multiple restarts with no firm end distance on which to strategize, changing the rules on the final lap about racing back to the line when cars are upside down and on fire, to the track crumbling apart and fixed with glue, the two-week Daytona 500 experience has been bastardized to the point of becoming as irritating as it is interesting.

An unqualified success
Part of the problem is that the event’s unique qualifying procedure, designed to create as much interest and genuine drama as the race itself, has been negated by NASCAR’s antiquated and unnecessary top 35 rule. If an owner showed up to enough races last year, chances are he’s good to go for the following season’s first race and the four that follow. The Past Champion’s Provisional further complicates matters, with teams taking advantage of a retired former champion to conjure up a start-and-park effort. Thursday’s qualifying races used to really mean something for determining who made the big race versus who had to rely on qualifying speeds — and who would be on the trailer going home. Not so anymore.

While the Daytona 500 is still one of 36 races used to determine a champion, might it be time to revamp the rules to make this a premier event to attract more teams, sponsors and drivers to try and qualify for The Great American Race? The final 10 races are what really determine the championship anyway, with the first 26 largely ignored in the final tally, so why not make Daytona a wide-open event that rivals the prestige of a title once again?

The need for speed
Speaking of “wide open,” the buzz following Saturday’s Bud Shootout centered around speeds. For the first time since the late 1980s, average speeds eclipsed 200 mph, topping out at just over 206. Nothing bad happened — there were a couple of two-car incidents and one semi-big one on the backstretch — but no one got airborne, no one ended up on their lid and a back end never so much as lifted off the ground. Despite that, there was a technical bulletin released Sunday, mandating changes to the front grille openings and the pressure of the cooling system to prevent two cars from flying in formation for too long.

For some reason, NASCAR pegs the 200 mph barrier as the “Danger Zone” where all hell breaks loose, and the precipice of utter ruin and unfathomable sorrow. Never mind that it is the low- to mid-190 mph mark where things traditionally go wrong in a big way. Things changed when Bobby Allison had a bias-ply tire come apart at 210 mph, blowing the quarter panel off his car at Talladega in 1987, causing his car to go skyward. To quote Sterling Marlin following “The Big One” at Talladega in 2001: “These cars need to be runnin’ 200 mile an are.”

During qualifying on Sunday, the cars were barely running 180 mph through the corners. However, Wednesday morning witnessed a further shrinking of restrictor plates, thus throttling the speeds back another two or three mph in the draft.

Things don’t pick up until there are a pair of cars hooked nose to tail pushing along in tandem, and with the new surface, there is an immense amount of grip that suddenly can vanish — the break away being very sudden and non-linear. Passing was possible with a pusher during the Shootout, but handling, which is usually the hallmark of a Daytona race, will have to wait a couple of years once the asphalt ages and wears a bit. The 30-plus year old surface with lumps and bumps that was just replaced had character that the new pavement will take time to develop.

Oh by the way, there is a race this weekend
One thing that has been conspicuous in its absence this year is the lack of marketing behind a race that holds so much history and so many great finishes. The Super Bowl has 11 years less from which to pull, yet highlights abound of past games during the buildup to Super Bowl Sunday. NASCAR doesn’t seem to show many beyond the 1979 fight, Dale Earnhardt’s 1998 victory, the controversial 2007 finish and the tragic events on the last lap in 2001.

Note: there were 48 other races to showcase, as well as the beach action and racing up A1A. Instead, there is continued obsessing over the fourth different points system used in the last nine seasons and how the crew chief swap at Hendrick Motorsports might work in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s favor.

Speaking of the Super Bowl and Daytona 500 coverage, FOX’s idea behind promoting NASCAR’s biggest race was a pair of commercials that featured a guy jumping on manhole covers and a broken Ferris Wheel. What, those E-Trade talking babies or The Black Eyed Peas didn’t want any of that? You have the largest television audience of the year for a sporting event in the Super Bowl and you do absolutely nothing of any substance to try to market, advertise and/or build interest in what is always one of the greatest races of the year?

There is a lot here that needs to be addressed before the Daytona 500 reclaims the luster it has lost in the last few years before it is recognized as being on the same plane as the Super Bowl. But take heart NASCAR fans: We know for a fact the National Anthem and the flyover won’t be screwed up at our event and seating is never an issue.

<p> The Great American Race has seemingly lost some of it luster in recent years.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 18:11
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-3-jeff-gordon

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 24 Driver to End Hunger/DuPont Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson

Years with current team: 19
Under contract through: Lifetime
Best points finish: 1st (1995, ’97, ’98, 2001)

Hometown: Vallejo, Calif.
Born: August 4, 1971

2011 Spin
When, exactly, did Jeff Gordon become an elder statesman in NASCAR? The driver once known as “Wonderboy” when he came to the Cup Series so impossibly young to be so good is now set to turn 40 midway through 2011. Among active, full-time drivers, only Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte have more starts, and no one’s been in his current ride longer.

This year will be Gordon’s 19th full season in the Sprint Cup ranks, all with Hendrick Motorsports, and what a career he’s had: His 82 wins rank highest among active drivers; his four championships rank fourth all-time; and his 274 top-5 finishes make up nearly half (45 percent) of his starts. No matter what happens from here, Gordon will go down as one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.

Yet his 2010 season made some scratch their heads and wonder if the years had finally caught up to him. For only the second time since 1994, Gordon didn’t win, but it was the way in which he lost that was alarming. From poor pit calls to self-induced mistakes, a man once revered for closing the deal turned into a virtual on-track charity, auctioning off multiple races on late restarts. Left powerless down the stretch, his pit crew was donated to teammate Jimmie Johnson, who captured a fifth straight title. Instead, he’s now trailing a former protégé with his last trip to the head table at the banquet a decade old. Is NASCAR’s golden child losing his gilded shine?

In short: No way. Gordon has struggled with the current car — that’s no secret — but 2010 was a year in which Hendrick Motorsports struggled as an organization. The spoiler change threw the best driver of his age a curveball, not a knockout punch. Looking at NASCAR history, he’s still capable of entering a second prime, as seven drivers have won championships at age 40 or older.

And let’s not discount this driver’s biggest asset: He’s pissed off. Those were the words used in reference to Johnson multiple times last spring, with Gordon fed up with how his teammate wrested positions away from him on track. That smoldering desire makes Gordon dangerous, and now in a weird twist, the master has a chance to emerge from the pupil’s shadow.

There was massive restructuring within the Hendrick Motorsports organization in the offseason, and Gordon may well have gotten the biggest slice of the pie. He’ll move into a new shop, new cars, and a new team, taking over the former No. 5, which will be renumbered with the 24 that fans have loved to hate for years. That gives Gordon a brilliant crew chief in Alan Gustafson, whose technical knowledge comes at a crucial point in the driver’s career, as he’s struggled with the CoT while Gustafson has thrived. And while Steve Letarte struggled to make the right calls with Gordon, it was Gustafson who kept bad cars competitive last spring with Mark Martin because of some timely track position strategy. Together, this pair could be dangerous.

Their relationship will be put to the test early, especially at the mile-and-a half and larger tracks. Those became deep, dark places where Gordon endured nine finishes of 22nd or worse — some early, promising runs deteriorating into only one top-5 finish on the six Chase intermediates.

Gordon will have a different look to his car as DuPont, primary sponsor for his entire career, scales back to a 14-race deal while the AARP’s Drive to End Hunger comes on board for 22 events. With that deal comes financial security, as all backers are signed through 2013, Gustafson 2014, and Gordon as long as he wants thanks to a lifetime contract.

Most important, Gordon’s changes will distance him from Johnson, a once-close friendship hurt by the mentor ending every year a dutiful bridesmaid. Some might say he’s OK with that, assuming a veteran leadership role at a time when two kids and a beautiful wife leave him partially tuned out. But others believe Gordon’s far from satisfied. And if last year’s frustration carries over, Hendrick’s offseason swap should make this man more motivated than ever.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

It’s far from a foregone conclusion that Gordon’s winning ways are over. “It’s kind of ridiculous to think about a driver who has done what Gordon’s done and then call him the sleeper of the field,” says a rival crew chief. “I think the whole team shuffle at Hendrick is really designed to make the 24 (Gordon) stronger. I think (new crew chief) Alan Gustafson might lift the 24 team up a lot.”

Says another, “Anybody who thinks Gordon has grown complacent is looking at the stats, not him in the car. He’s more aggressive than he was five years ago. He wants it more. He’s just not getting it … yet.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Can always be counted on for ultra-strong runs at Darlington and Martinsville.
Pretty Solid Pick: Most anywhere, honestly. He’s got 82 career wins, after all.
Good Sleeper Pick: It’s hard to define Gordon as a sleeper, but he hasn’t won a points race at Daytona since 2005 and can still get it done.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Homestead is Super G’s Lex Luthor.
Insider Tip: Gordon has only four wins since the CoT’s introduction in 2007. Gustafson’s input should be the difference.

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 11
Top 10s: 17
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 919
Laps Completed: 10,545
Lead Lap Finishes: 30
Bonus Points: 115
Races Led: 20
Average Start: 12.7
Average Finish: 13.4
After First 26 Races: 10th
Final Points Standing: 9th
Driver Rating: 98.5 (2nd)


<p> Jeff Gordon looks to bounce back with new crew chief Alan Gustafson in 2011. Gordon clocks in at No. 3 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-4-clint-bowyer

<p> Looking for a darkhorse pick to unseat the mighty Johnson Juggernaut? Look no further than Clint Bowyer.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-5-tony-stewart

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
Owner: Tony Stewart
Crew Chief: Darian Grubb

Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: n/a
Best points finish: 1st (2002, ’05)

Hometown: Columbus, Ind.
Born: May 20, 1971

2011 Spin
If championships define a driver, then Tony Stewart is a Renaissance man. His national titles span international go-karting, an elusive USAC Triple Crown, Indy Cars and two in the NASCAR Cup Series. Stewart’s as much at home in the Indianapolis 500 as the Brickyard 400, and he can still wheel a dirt late model at Eldora as well as many who do it for a living. Fittingly, he drives the No. 14 of his hero, A.J. Foyt — possibly the only other driver in North American motorsports whose résumé is so decorated — and does so proudly.

In short, Stewart is the most versatile driver in NASCAR. He is also one of the biggest talents the racing world has known in recent years, despite a letdown season in 2010 when he notched two victories but finished seventh in points and never seriously contended in the Chase. Entering the postseason hotter than any team, Stewart and Co. had one ugly fuel mileage decision in the Chase’s first event at Loudon that led to running out of gas approaching the white flag while leading, resulting in a missed opportunity for a team that never fully rebounded from the disappointing 24th-place showing.

But despite advancing age — the most recent Cup champion not named Jimmie Johnson turns 40 in 2011 — Stewart remains as poised as ever for a title bid. Stewart’s greatest asset remains his car control. He can save a car that most others would put in the fence, while finessing one to a better finish than should be possible. And while “Smoke” would like to think differently — at one point last June, the driver said, “For anybody that’s looking for drama, I’m going to make the highlight reel these next few weeks” — Stewart was noticeably absent from NASCAR’s “Boys, have at it” routine. He has matured in recent years, holding his tongue and temper — well, in America anyway — so that it rarely costs him on the racetrack.

With Hendrick chassis and engines, there’s no doubt that Stewart has the equipment to match any driver, any day. He might be getting a few horsepower less than the HMS fold, but he can make up for that with sheer ability. Crew chief Darian Grubb is a longtime Hendrick engineer and technically excellent. He’s won the Daytona 500 with Johnson, the Coca-Cola 600 with Casey Mears, and, since joining Stewart, has six more wins under his belt as well as an All-Star victory.

Sponsorship hasn’t come as easily for Stewart the team owner. Office Depot and Burger King return, but a search to replace Old Spice took four months before Mobil 1 was signed. While Stewart’s team is by no means underfunded, Mobil 1’s backing brought a sigh of relief.

With finances in order, Stewart must improve in two key areas to contend for a 2011 title — his team’s short track program and its performance in the Chase. Fourteen of Stewart’s 17 top 10s in 2010 came on tracks 1.5 miles or longer, while posting a disgusting average finish of 19.7 on those less than a mile. It’s a surprising statistic, considering the shorts are teammate Ryan Newman’s biggest strength. If the two compare notes, improvement is guaranteed, but Stewart — traditionally strongest in the summer — also needs to figure out how to keep the heat turned up in the fall. Though he has a Chase title, he hasn’t been as brilliant during the final 10 races of late, and when the competition comes to life in September, trailing off is no longer an option.

Stewart is an old school driver in a new school world, accomplishing things simply not done in recent memory. Alan Kulwicki was a champion admired for doing it his way and long remembered as the last independent owner/driver to win a title. While Stewart isn’t going it alone in quite the same fashion, he is bucking several trends — winning in his own cars while maintaining a throwback driving style and unique, if toned down, personality. In a vanilla world, Stewart is a habañero pepper. And he can bring the heat.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

What takes Stewart-Haas Racing to the next level? How does Stewart earn a third championship? “I’m wondering if Tony and his team can go any further,” says a crew chief. “For the long run, I question whether you can beat Hendrick Motorsports when you’re getting your cars and engines from them.”

Another crew chief scoffs at that notion: “That might be true if not for the fact that Tony has so many guys who know what they’re doing working for him. Stewart-Haas isn’t exactly a turn-key operation with Hendrick. They get good stuff from Hendrick and make it better.”

Another says, “Stewart has a lot in common with Dale Earnhardt (Sr.). The difference is I don’t think Tony has ever grown up. He’s made some progress, though, since he got his own team.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: For as good as Stewart is across the board, he’s double platinum on the road courses.
Pretty Solid Pick: 18 top 10s (two wins) in 24 Pocono starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: Maybe if Rockingham were still around ...
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Still hasn’t won at Darlington, which is surprising.
Insider Tip: Up next on the bucket list is the Daytona 500. Smoke has three July wins on the beach, but hasn’t broken through in February. Expect him to pull out all the stops until that changes.

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 2
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 17
Poles: 2
Laps Led: 537
Laps Completed: 10,738
Lead Lap Finishes: 27
Bonus Points: 110
Races Led: 20
Average Start: 13.2
Average Finish: 13.9
After First 26 Races: 7th
Final Points Standing: 7th
Driver Rating: 91.2 (9th)


<p> Tony Stewart ushers in the final week of Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown, slotting in at No. 5.</p>
Post date: Monday, February 14, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/earnhardt-gordon-front-row-500

by Matt Taliaferro

The name “Earnhardt” is synonymous with Daytona International Speedway. The late Dale Earnhardt won a total of 34 races and three poles at the historic speedway, while son Dale Earnhardt Jr. has 13 victories at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. Strangely enough, the one win Junior had yet to earn at Daytona was a pole.

That all changed on Sunday, when Earnhardt drove his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy to the top of the pylon with a fast lap of 186.089 mph, assuring a start on the front row of the Great American Race for a second straight year.

“The main thing (the pole) does for me is take the pressure off Thursday's race,” Earnhardt said of the Gatorade Duels. “I can go out and have fun and not worry about where I finish or getting a good starting spot for the Daytona 500.”

<p> Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon will lead a 43-car field to green in the 53rd annual Daytona 500.</p>
Post date: Sunday, February 13, 2011 - 21:28
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/bud-shootout-raises-questions

Well, that was … unique.

New-look cars (noses and paint schemes), average speeds well over 200 mph, a surface we knew was Daytona but sure resembled Talladega, two-by-two drafts that evolved into four-car freight trains and the second-place car being deemed the winner.

Yep, NASCAR must be back.

The Budweiser Shootout from Daytona International Speedway typically gives fans and pundits alike a barometer from which to gauge the following weekend’s Daytona 500. But Saturday night’s edition raised more questions than provided answers.

Kurt Busch — long a solid plate racer with a knack for missing the big wreck — scored his first Daytona win, even though he was beat to the finish line by three one-thousandths of a second by Denny Hamlin. However, NASCAR ruled Hamlin ducked below the yellow “out of bounds” line to make the race-winning pass of Ryan Newman. Therefore, Hamlin was relegated to a 12th-place finish due to his transgression.

While the ending raised issues (the nearly-annual yellow line rule will be dissected once again), the average speeds and two-car drafts will be in the spotlight throughout the week. And most expect NASCAR to make changes to the rules package in the interest of safety and — let’s be honest — excitement.

The 200 mph mark has been the ceiling of speed NASCAR has tolerated on the two plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega). Despite safety improvements, there is no way to predict what a car will do when turned sideways or backward at that rate of speed. And following a car-in-the-grandstands near-miss at Talladega two seasons ago, NASCAR is more vigilant than ever about keeping the action within the field of play.

A $20 million repave of Daytona has produced increased grip and low tire wear that, combined with cool temperatures and mechanics’ ingenuity, had in-draft average speeds at 206 mph on Saturday evening. Concurrently, driver ingenuity gleaned from races at Talladega and January testing at Daytona has spawned the two-car draft phenomenon.

Unlike in the past, two cars hooked together are actually faster than a four-, five- or six-car, single-file draft. This due to the lead car acting as the steering wheel and brake, while the follower the engine and spoiler. This new plate-track version of “co-opetition,” as Darrell Waltrip so accurately dubs it, holds true to the old axiom that if “two’s a party, three’s a crowd.” In short, the third car brings nothing to the table, and is actually a liability.

“The front car (in the two-car pack) gets the clean air, the motor,” Second-place finisher Ryan Newman said. “The back car takes the air off the front car's spoiler. Even though he gets the air taken out of his motor, he's still pushing the car in front of him and he's getting that help. If there was that third car he doesn't have the air in the column to help propel him forward, so the front car has got the biggest motor, the second car is just helping push along, and the way the drag works out.”

The question on everyone’s minds, though, is whether NASCAR will make changes to handicap the two-car advantage or adjust spoilers or restrictor plates to bring speeds down. Drivers were varied in their opinions about what, if anything, should be done, while NASCAR’s competition director, Robin Pemberton, gave this insight following the event:

“You can do a lot of things,” Pemberton said. “You have to do what’s best for the large group, whatever that is. We’ve talked to some of the engineers and crew chiefs and solicited some different ideas and talked to them about the methodology of how they do things.

“We’ll have to take all that and put it together. We’ve got some time. That’s the good news, being Saturday. We’ve got some ideas. We just have to get together and talk about them.”

Reading in between the lines, changes are coming. How extensive they are and how they change the complexion of the draft remain to be seen.

<p> A unique Bud Shootout will most likely precipitate changes to Daytona 500 with speeds in excess of 206 mph.</p>
Post date: Sunday, February 13, 2011 - 12:26
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/strategy-key-2011

by Mike Neff

There have always been races decided by strategy over speed in NASCAR, but pit calls in 2011 may play a bigger factor in race results than ever before. NASCAR has changed some rules for the upcoming racing season that will make the crew chiefs’ decisions more difficult and more critical than at any time in the past.

E15 fuel and the resulting change in fueling rigs, the elimination of the catch can man and stricter limits on tires during the race will have an impact on what crew chiefs decide during pit stops — and ultimately who wins many of the races this season.

NASCAR changed the fueling rules in the Camping World Truck Series last year, going to a self-venting dump can. With the advent of E15 fuel (an ethanol blend) in all of the national touring series, it became necessary to implement the can in all three touring series to minimize the potential for moisture entering the fuel system. With the self-venting can, the teams no longer need a catch can man over the wall, which has not only put several men out of a job, but thrown a curveball to crew chiefs up and down pit road.

In the past, the catch can man made all of the chassis adjustments during pit stops while holding the catch can in place. Whether making a wedge or track bar adjustment, the crewman would engage the can and then use a long-handled ratchet to alter the chassis settings that were accessible through the rear window. With the catch can now out of the equation, the person making the alterations will differ depending on the team. About half of the crew chiefs surveyed during the recent NASCAR Media Tour felt that the rear tire carrier would make the adjustments no matter what the call. However, the other half had a far different view of the new choreography of a pit stop.

The various scenarios that arise during a stop will cause different people to have different responsibilities when the car makes its way to pit road. If a team is only changing two tires, then the tire carrier should have plenty of time to make chassis changes. However, during a four-tire stop the tire carrier needs to quickly get back to the left side of the car, thus slowing the stop if a chassis adjustment is needed. If the car doesn’t need a full fuel load, the fuel man may be responsible for dumping one can and then making chassis changes.

Some teams are even experimenting with utilizing two men who will act as fuel men and tire carriers. In this instance, the right side tire carrier will come back and grab the second can of gas while the first will dump his can, make the changes, then grab the left-rear tire.

As you can see, the scenarios can build up quickly, and some crew chiefs are exploring every possible aspect to minimize the amount of time spent in the pits. The chiefs at Stewart-Haas Racing are even considering having their crew members wear wrist bands like NFL quarterbacks with different numbered “plays,” depending on what the situation calls for, with each member having different duties for different scenarios.

One other aspect of the new dump can that will cause some serious heartburn for crew chiefs is the fact that the flow of fuel out of the can is slower than it was under the old system. New cans take approximately 14 seconds to dump a full fuel load into a car. With teams routinely clicking off sub-13 second pit stops, crew chiefs must decide whether they want to have a full fuel load or better track position. If a team waits for the full load, other teams will beat them off pit road by pulling their fuel can as soon as the rear tire changer is finished.

The teams will be forced to spend even more time studying individual race history, trying to determine the possibility of runs going green for a full fuel load or if caution flags will interrupt the race in the waning laps, allowing for an extra stop. Whatever the trends, there will always be situations where the race doesn’t go according to Hoyle. The call to fill or not to fill is going to factor numerous times throughout the season.

NASCAR is also limiting the number of tires teams are allowed to use during practice and the race. In the past, there was a soft limit, but teams were allowed to “borrow” tires from other teams that dropped out of a race, so theoretically they had more tires than they could possibly use.

With the new rule, there will be different amounts of tires depending on the track and the length of the race, but every team will be limited to what they’re allotted and will not simply be able to change tires during each stop — a no-brainer in the past. In addition, teams will be limited on the number of tires they can use for practice sessions, which will put an emphasis on time management because practice times are now used to determine qualifying order. Timing practice schedules so that they have a fresh set of tires to bolt on when the conditions are optimal to lay down a fast lap will be the order of the day. The limit on tires will most likely have an impact on the fueling strategy, as well, because teams that don’t take tires will be limited by the time it takes to dump fuel and may only take one can to limit time spent on pit lane.

The crew chief has been a critical link in the racing chain for years, but the pressure to make the right calls is going to be greater than ever in 2011. Tony Gibson, crew chief of the No. 39 team, was asked whether he believes that calls from the pit box could ultimately decide who wins the championship in 2011.

“Absolutely,” was his quick and sure-fire response.

Cup racing has always been a copycat sport, and this season — especially over the first month — will witness more pit road procedural theft than at any time in the past. If Gibson is correct, how each team handles the new rules will not only determine how individual races unfold, but how a championship is won.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff says strategy on pit road will be at a premium this season.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 11, 2011 - 15:17
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-6-kyle-busch

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 18 M&M’s/Wrigley Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Dave Rogers

Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2012
Best points finish: 5th (2007)

Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.
Born: May 2, 1985

2011 Spin
It is often said that a man can be his own worst enemy. At times, it seems like that particular phrase was written explicitly for Kyle Busch. There is no doubting that Busch has talent to spare. In 2010 alone, he scored 24 wins in NASCAR’s top three series, a modern-era record, and on any given weekend he has the capability to dominate a race. But Busch is just as likely to make headlines on Monday morning for his erratic behavior and temper, the key reason this talented young driver is never given serious consideration as a true title contender where it matters most: Sprint Cup.

Take 2010 as an example. As “focused” as Busch was, making a NASCAR-high 81 starts in the Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, he was just as busy making new “friends.” First, there was the chiding of Boris Said in Atlanta following a practice wreck that did little more than cosmetic damage. Then, there was the All-Star Race accident with Denny Hamlin in May that even had Busch spewing death threats toward his teammate on the radio. Three months later, it was Busch vs. Brad Keselowski at Bristol in the Nationwide Series, followed by Busch vs. David Reutimann at Kansas that effectively ended any championship hopes he had.

But the kicker for Kyle was an incident at Texas, where a single-finger salute to a NASCAR official and a tirade over the radio summarize why, until he grows up, Busch will fall short of championship material. His emotions run wild, a type of petulant, childish behavior when things go wrong that leaves everyone struggling to remain supportive in times of crisis.

“(Kyle) gets so uptight that, every now and then, he makes mistakes,” said team owner Joe Gibbs after Busch was given a two-lap penalty, fined, and placed on probation for the Texas incident. “We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

It’s easier said than done, even with a great motivator like Gibbs leading the way. And how much longer will crew chief Dave Rogers want to put up with it before he looks to follow Steve Addington out the door? An uneven ending to the season for that partnership with sniping on the radio has many wondering just how good the chemistry is behind closed doors. Even Hamlin has voiced frustration with the way Busch communicates; it’s an internal rivalry that seems to leave most siding with Gibbs’ veteran driving leader — not NASCAR’s Bad Boy.

On the plus side, Busch returns in 2011 with his team virtually intact, with strong sponsorship from M&M’s, Wrigley and Interstate Batteries and a multi-year contract of his own in hand. However, an insistence to race in all three series, considering Busch also serves as owner/driver for his Truck Series operation, can leave him both temperamental and worn out heading into Cup races. Sponsorship problems remain on the Truck side, too, leaving Busch with financial strain and additional stress he doesn’t need.

His Cup team has a few kinks to work out on mile-and-a-half tracks — Busch hasn’t won on one since Las Vegas in March 2009 — but to be honest, he has the equipment needed to win. The one gaping weakness that must be fixed is one place no mechanic can reach: his head.

“Even in my relatively short time here in NASCAR, it’s pretty obvious to everyone that I wear my emotions on my sleeve,” Busch said in a statement after the Texas trouble. “Sometimes that passion has allowed me to find that little something extra I needed to win, and other times it’s made me cross the line.”

Those words make it seem, albeit for a moment, like Busch is learning. But considering he ended the season with another wrecked racecar following a run-in with Kevin Harvick, after which the two exchanged verbal jabs, it doesn’t seem like he can stay on the good boy wagon for long.

People may criticize Jimmie Johnson for being “too vanilla” and “boring,” but he is the one currently looking for a place to stash a fifth straight championship trophy. For Busch to take his game to the next level, he needs to back up what he says with his actions on the track, because while winning races is nice, it doesn’t bring titles.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Busch is seen by some as the uncrowned champion in waiting. “I’d work with him in a heartbeat,” says another driver’s crew chief. “He’s got so much talent that you can’t help but wish you had that guy in your car. A guy who can drive like that takes pressure off his crew chief because the car doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Another says, “I laugh every time I hear somebody say something about ‘the new Kyle Busch.’ He’s just one wreck, one bad break, away from showing his ass again. But part of that’s what makes him such a winner. He hates to lose, and it’s not just talk.”

Another crew chief says, “He’s either going to wind up as this great talent who never quite fulfilled it, or he’s going to get his head on straight and reel off some championships. I know it’s getting old to say this, but he’s still got plenty of time.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Most anywhere. He’s streaky, so let the previous two or three runs guide you.
Pretty Solid Pick: He’s currently the King of Bristol. Although it runs in shifts.
Good Sleeper Pick: If he can avoid the wreck, he could win the Daytona 500.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s typically thrown in the towel by Homestead. Or gotten wrecked there.
Insider Tip: What are we going to do with you, Kyle? Channel all that emotion into the right place and you could win every other race.

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 3
Top 5s: 10
Top 10s: 18
Poles: 2
Laps Led: 1,271
Laps Completed: 10,607
Lead Lap Finishes: 29
Bonus Points: 115
Races Led: 19
Average Start: 15.8
Average Finish: 14.0
After First 26 Races: 4th
Final Points Standing: 8th
Driver Rating: 98.2 (3rd)


<p> He has all the potential in the world, but Kyle Busch's "checkers or wreckers" mentality land him at No. 6 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 11, 2011 - 09:50
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-7-greg-biffle

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 16 3M Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Owners: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Greg Erwin

Years with current team: 9
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 2nd (2005)

Hometown: Vancouver, Wash.
Born: December 23, 1969

2011 Spin
There comes a time in each driver’s career when he finds himself at a crossroads, and 2011 could be that year for Greg Biffle. Both his sponsorship and contract run through the end of the season, which could be a blessing or a curse depending on how well the situation is handled.

You might think it foolish for Roush Fenway Racing to let go of a driver who has finished in the top 10 in points the last three seasons and remains hungry in his bid to become the first driver to win a title in each of NASCAR’s three top series. But at 41 years old, Biffle is advancing in age to the point that sponsorship isn’t a slam dunk in the boardroom, especially since he’s not exactly Mr. Personality and is more comfortable welding sheet metal than pitching product.

To get the right type of financial backing over the long term, he must perform at a title-contending level throughout the year. Step one in that process is for the Greg Erwin-led No. 16 team to step off the rollercoaster and back on solid ground. After posting six top-10 finishes to start 2010, Biffle never had more than two straight until November, becoming an expert in between at snuffing out momentum before it started. His two victories were followed by finishes of 24th and 41st, respectively, the perfect example of how this team zigzagged all over the chart.

When it’s on, there’s potential for the 16 bunch to be the best Blue Oval team in camp. Only Carl Edwards matched Biffle’s two-victory total at Roush, and with 16 overall wins in nine seasons he’s quietly racked up some quality stats. The Erwin-Biffle pairing is nearly four years old, a stability that trickles down inside a four-car organization that plans to return the same driver, sponsor and head wrench lineup for 2011. With Biffle bringing up the rear of an RFR four-five-six points finish, it’s important to note that RFR’s three top teams remained successful even in a down year. And just like his teammates, Biffle ended last season on a hot streak with three straight top 10s, leaving him hopeful for 2011.

“I think we are positioned really good for (this) year. I expect a lot of exciting things for 2011,” he said last November. “Maybe four or five wins and a run for the title, I hope.”

Let’s hope the parts and pieces get that message. Mechanical failures seem to hit Biffle at the worst possible time, two costly engine DNFs mixed with countless other complaints about brakes, drive trains … seemingly every part under the sun. And as Denny Hamlin showed last year, it’s not the number of wins that will finally dethrone Jimmie Johnson and the Hendrick juggernaut, but rather consistency in the final 10 races. That’s something Biffle has struggled with, earning only nine top 10s in the last 20 Chase races coupled with four results outside the top 20.

Reliability issues boil down to the FR9 engine, prepped and ready for its first full season of competition in 2011. The horsepower it’s produced has been magical, but despite delays in production, a handful of failures late in the postseason leave many wondering if further tuneups are needed. The transition at Richard Petty Motorsports could also play a factor with Biffle, who credits research from that “B” program with turning around the organization last summer. With only a two-car program, new investors and a different support system, it’s unclear how much help it will be should RFR engineering fall behind in 2011.

Biffle and the Ford camp certainly have reason to be optimistic based on how the season ended, but so do teammates Edwards and Matt Kenseth, both of whom have found more success late in the season. While the talent and equipment are there to get the job done, when there are more attractive options to choose from within your own program, chances are the title won’t tilt your way. Just call it “The Jeff Gordon Rule.”

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

The recurring word used to describe Biffle is “fast.” A crew chief says, “Roush Fenway’s whole operation was off for the first half of the year, then the whole team started improving. Usually that carries over. That was the case with RCR last year, and it’s probably going to be a big year for Roush Fenway for the same reason.”

Another crew chief says, “You know what? Biffle is as close to a throwback as any driver out there. He paid his dues, didn’t get to Cup when he was a kid, and his attitude, that gritty determination, reminds me of guys from a couple decades back.”

A familiar face in the garage says, “I like Biffle’s no-nonsense style. He’s a straight shooter. He always gives it his best. Biffle reminds me of Mark Martin sometimes.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: He’s really turned it on at Kansas the last four years with two wins and two third-place finishes.
Pretty Solid Pick: Biffle has 10 top 10s at both Michigan (16 starts) and Dover (17).
Good Sleeper Pick: He’s not thought of as a short tracker, but he has 10 top 10s in 16 starts at Bristol.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Martinsville. Just stay away.
Insider Tip: Thirteen of his 16 career Cup wins have come on the 1.5- and 2-mile ovals. He’s basically Carl Edwards without the backflip. Or the muscles.

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 2
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 19
Poles: 0
Laps Led: 543
Laps Completed: 10,410
Lead Lap Finishes: 25
Bonus Points: 70
Races Led: 12
Average Start: 15.9
Average Finish: 15.4
After First 26 Races: 7th
Final Points Standing: 6th
Driver Rating: 88.4 (12th)


<p> Greg Biffle's quest to win a title in NASCAR's three touring series continues. However, Athlon Sports' Top 30 Driver Countdown finds him falling short in 2011.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-8-matt-kenseth

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 17 Crown Royal Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Owners: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Jimmy Fennig

Years with current team: 12
Under contract through: 2011+
Best points finish: 1st (2003)

Hometown: Cambridge, Wis.
Born: March 10, 1972

2011 Spin
In an era when flashy, over-the-top personalities garner the most attention in the headlines, one driver, Matt Kenseth, remains successful with his trademark quiet consistency. Stuck in the middle of the longest winless streak of his career (70 races), the 38-year-old was still able to post a rebound year in 2010, finishing fifth in the final series standings after missing the Chase in ’09. With an upswing like that, you’d think that all Kenseth needs to do is to fine-tune a couple areas and he’ll be fighting for titles again. But until the No. 17 team enjoys stability at crew chief, the 2011 season — and this driver’s career, for that matter — remains a giant question mark going forward.

Kenseth enjoyed a long, successful relationship with head wrench Robbie Reiser, who led the team to the 2003 championship, but since his promotion in 2007 to Roush Fenway general manager, there has been a revolving door atop the pit box of the No. 17. Reiser and Kenseth combined for 15 wins in their last six seasons together, while a ragtag replacement group of Chip Bolen, Drew Blickensderfer, Todd Parrott and current leader Jimmy Fennig have combined for just two since February 2008. The last of those was supposed to be a temporary solution; Fennig was lured out of “on the road” retirement in the team’s R&D department to fill a role seemingly destined to land back in the hands of someone else.

“That’s not fair to say,” said Kenseth when asked point blank if he wouldn’t be happy until Reiser was back leading the team. “Robbie had a chance to come back and do it, but the problem is Robbie wants to do everything, so he didn’t want to leave his post at the front office. There’s a lot more going on and a lot more important things in Roush Fenway Racing than just one team.”

That quote cryptically sounds more like, “I wanted the guy to do it, but everyone’s just being stubborn right now.” The current consensus on the rumor mill is that Kenseth would kill for Reiser to return, but to do that he’d need to convince one important man in particular — owner Jack Roush. But Roush has emphasized that the RFR organization was not making major changes to any of its programs prior to Daytona after his Fords enjoyed a strong 2010 finish across the board.

While Mr. Consistency keeps consistently lobbying behind the scenes, there are other positives to build on heading into the season. Sponsorship from Crown Royal remains solid, as does the rest of the men going over the wall. Kenseth’s “Killer B’s” pit crew, long known to be some of the best in the business, won NASCAR’s Pit Road Season Championship last year. Staying out of trouble is a growing strength, as the veteran finished all 36 races last season for the first time since the schedule expanded in 2001.

The knock on Kenseth is that he’s typically a bad qualifier. His 19.4-average start means improvement on Fridays is a must, as trouble while driving through the pack is a constant danger for anyone. Combine that with a plate race flameout of zero top-5 finishes since he won the 2009 Daytona 500.

But his style is still unquestionable. Often he’s a non-factor during most of the race only to pull a David Pearson and leave you asking, “Where did he come from?” when the checkered flag falls. Add in the Ford FR9 engine full-time in 2011, and he should be able to build on the three straight top-10 finishes he ended last season with. And a victory or two is not out of the question after a long drought.

The question here is, with Reiser not calling the race-day shots, how long will Kenseth stay happy? Like the guy who’s too picky because he can’t get over the “perfect” ex-girlfriend, Kenseth seems to spend his time looking for the other shoe to drop. Until he can jell with a crew chief for more than a year, or few months, Kenseth will remain unable to secure the second title that eludes him.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

The last champion before the Chase has qualified for all but one of them (2009). “Kenseth is right there with (teammates) Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards,” says a crew chief. “The difference is that Kenseth didn’t get as fast as the other two. He’s like he always is; he makes the best of what he has. Why does he have a little less? I can’t answer that.”

Another says, “His performance got better late in the year, just like Edwards and Biffle. Maybe his curve was just a little later developing. I think, in terms of 2011, he’s in as good a shape as anyone.”

Adds a third rival crew chief, “Kenseth is probably the best in the sport at making the best of what he’s got. Johnson and Harvick are the only other drivers who are even close.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Auto Club and Michigan. How very Roush of him.
Pretty Solid Pick: Not too shabby at Dover, either, with 10 top 5s in 24 starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: Kenseth is not nearly as bad at Charlotte as he’d have you believe.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Has scored a top 5 on every track on the circuit except for the two roadies. Avoid accordingly.
Insider Tip: Don’t expect a high win count here, but he’ll be his usual consistent self.

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 6
Top 10s: 15
Poles: 0
Laps Led: 108
Laps Completed: 10,770
Lead Lap Finishes: 32
Bonus Points: 65
Races Led: 13
Average Start: 19.4
Average Finish: 12.8
After First 26 Races: 9th
Final Points Standing: 5th
Driver Rating: 86.0 (14th)


<p> Matt Kenseth looks to end a long winless streak in 2011. The wins may not be plentiful, but his consistency will be unquestioned. Kenseth ranks eighth in Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-9-joey-logano

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 20 Home Depot Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Greg Zipadelli

Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2011+
Best points finish: 16th (2010)

Hometown: Middletown, Conn.
Born: May 24, 1990

2011 Spin
Five years ago, when Mark Martin was asked who he would want to see replace him in the No. 6 he drove at Roush Fenway Racing, he quickly answered with one name — Joey Logano.

Joey who? At the time, not many had heard of the teenager, who was the tender age of 15 then, but they knew that Martin had an eye for talent after he had a similar revelation about future champ Matt Kenseth.

“I am high on Joey Logano because I am absolutely, 100 percent positive, without a doubt, that he can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR,” Martin said.
Now that he’s entering his third full season of competition, the time has come for Logano to show the promise that had Martin so excited about his future.

In his rookie year, Logano won a rain-shortened event in New Hampshire, and while he went winless in his sophomore season, there’s no reason to dub 2010 a sophomore slump. Yes, he was shut out of Victory Lane, but he improved in every other major category: top 5s, top 10s, poles earned, laps led and his position in points.

Yet 2011 might be the most telling season of all for Martin’s prophecy, as the last five Sprint Cup champions have had career-changing efforts in year No. 3. Jeff Gordon had seven wins and a title in his third year; Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch all had multiple-win seasons in their third campaigns, learning how to compete for a title before following up with the championship in year No. 4. Then there’s Jimmie Johnson, who scored eight wins and a runner-up points finish in his third full season — and we all know what he’s done after that.

That’s a lot of pressure for a young man who turns 21 this year, still searching to find his place in the Sprint Cup Series and earn the respect that goes along with it. Last season, he had a heated run-in at Michigan with Ryan Newman, who said, “I'm just trying to teach the little kid how to drive,” as they were being separated in the garage area after discussing their on-track issues. Add that to the infamous firesuit comment about Kevin and DeLana Harvick after Pocono, plus wrecking Juan Pablo Montoya at Homestead in an act of retaliation, and it’s obvious Joey isn’t going to let other drivers just run over him because he’s young and inexperienced.

“I think we probably missed the fire that’s inside of Joey,” says team owner Joe Gibbs of the media’s initial perception of him. “I think he does have a real fire, a real passion for what he does.”

That’s an important trait to develop in the uber-competitive sport of NASCAR. The key is not allowing that fire to boil over and become a hindrance. But Logano is in good hands with the team that surrounds him (temperamental teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin notwithstanding). He has Gibbs and crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who knows a thing or two about handling and getting the best out of hotheaded drivers (hello, Tony Stewart). They also have the equipment and knowledge that will continue to help Logano climb to the next level, and the young man himself seems to understand both patience and his role in making the team better.

“Knowing what you want in the car at certain race tracks, that’s something that you figure out as you keep going,” the youngster said late last season. “Some places, I think I have that really figured out. Some places, it’s unknown.

“It all comes together, a bunch of little things. It’s not one big thing, a light switch goes on and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, now I got it.’ It definitely takes a bit of time trying to figure it out. And it takes a lot of hard work.”

With five top-10 finishes in the last six races of 2010, the hard work seems to be paying off, and the team looks to be on the right track. Whether or not he’s ready to perform up to Martin’s lofty expectations and take that next big step is something only time will tell. But if you’re using history as a guide when looking for a first-time Chase sleeper, Logano’s your man.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Logano’s impressive performance in the final 10 races was a story many overlooked. “In the Chase, he performed like a Chase driver,” says another team’s crew chief. “I think he kind of crossed the barrier in terms of consistency right there at the end of the season. If he keeps it up, he’ll make the Chase this year.”

Another says, “There isn’t much doubt he’s getting it, but I think there’s a still a little of the ‘goofy kid that everybody on the playground wants to pick on’ there. He’s started to stand up for himself, but he’s still got some growing up to do. It’s what happens when you put a kid like that in this series at a young age.”

“He’s proved he belongs,” says another. “The next challenge is to prove he can win from time to time and run up front pretty regular. I still think Logano making the Chase is a little of a stretch.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: His 8.5-place average finish at Charlotte is impressive.
Pretty Solid Pick: Has a knack for Dover, as well, with 10th- and third-place runs last season.
Good Sleeper Pick: Talladega, with three top-10 finishes in four starts.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Atlanta was once JGR’s playground, but not so with Logano.
Insider Tip: Remember, this is a team led by Greg Zipadelli that won two titles with Tony Stewart. Once the driver gets up to speed, this group will be tough.

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 16
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 53
Laps Completed: 10,564
Lead Lap Finishes: 23
Bonus Points: 40
Races Led: 8
Average Start: 16.2
Average Finish: 16.8
After First 26 Races: 21st
Final Points Standing: 16th
Driver Rating: 80.3 (20th)


<p> Joey Logano may only be 20 years old, but the third year Cup competitor is ready to make the jump into the Chase. Logano lands at No. 9 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 8, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-10-martin-truex-jr

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 56 NAPA Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
Owner: Michael Waltrip/Rob Kauffman
Crew Chief: Pat Tryson

Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2011+
Best points finish: 11th (2007)

Hometown: Mayetta, N.J.
Born: June 29, 1980

2011 Spin
Normally, showing up the boss isn’t the best career move. But in the case of Martin Truex Jr., not only was that process encouraged, but it was hailed as progress after owner/driver Michael Waltrip stepped out of the now-No. 56 seat. Following a dismal 2009 season, Waltrip made the decision to step back from behind the wheel and let someone else take over, luring Truex from a plum ride at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing as a replacement. It’s a move that saw limited results. But there is promise on the horizon as the team is expected to fully mature in 2011.

A look at the 2010 stats shows a Chase bid this year might be a long shot, with just one top-5 finish, seven top 10s, 88 laps led and a 22nd-place finish in the final standings. But consider the stats with Waltrip the past three years: a total of one top 5, six top 10s and no points finish higher than 29th. Considering Truex was a surprise postseason contender — he was 16th in points before some unlikely contact with Jeff Gordon helped derail his Chase bid at Infineon last June — how quickly they righted this downtrodden program bodes well for the future.

That focus starts squarely in the shop with the guiding, reasoned hand of crew chief Pat Tryson. A veteran who has seen success with the likes of Kurt Busch and Mark Martin, Tryson has formed an instant chemistry with Truex, and both parties fully believe in each other.

“We’ve continued to fight. We’ve never given up and made some noise this season,” said Truex of his year last November. “We've got some stuff to work on, but we know what we need to work on so I expect to come out of the box strong in 2011.”

Atop the list is something as simple as fixing TRD’s engine program. Michael Waltrip Racing endured seven DNFs for engine failures among drivers Truex, David Reutimann, and JTG Daugherty affiliate Marcos Ambrose, along with over a half-dozen races in which cars went behind the wall for other mechanical issues. You can’t have consistency without reliability, a fault that has seemed to dog MWR since the start of its program in 2007.

Truex also needs to stand up for himself, a trait he learned after Gordon spun him without retribution in a momentum-stealing moment that ruined his season. Often known as the quiet guy, Truex is well liked off the track but perceived to be one of the most passive guys on it, someone who can be pushed around for position. Reutimann, his teammate, shares that trait. Of the two, Truex is more likely to build the backbone needed for success.

“Nice guys finish last,” he said at Loudon last June. “The nice guy gets pushed around, and I’m tired of being the nice guy. I haven’t seen much respect all year, to be honest with you, at the racetrack. Guys take advantage of you every chance they get. We get put in a difficult position because the field is close, every spot means so much, the clean air situation … there’s so much pressure to get everything we can get. I think guys just cross the line too much. I don’t know the answer and how to fix that. I just know how I’m going to do it. I’m just going to do what everyone does to me every week.”

Should Truex live up to his word — getting aggressive when it matters most — the keys are in place for long-term success. He and Reutimann have similar personalities and mesh well together. He’s run well at a variety of tracks, scoring at least one top 10 at a short track, intermediate, flat and restrictor plate ovals in 2010, and is expected to race out of the box strong during Speedweeks in February. Remember, if there’s one thing his boss knows how to help with, it’s winning the Daytona 500. Waltrip’s biggest claim to fame is as a two-time champ, in 2001 and ’03.

We wouldn’t recommend any more “NAPA Know How” karaoke commercials (that might be better left to the boss, too), but the Truex/Tryson relationship is one that could go far, as Waltrip breeds positivity within the No. 56 ranks. In fact, the next song all parties might be singing is in celebration of making the Chase come September.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Truex, who left Earnhardt Ganassi Racing a year ago, suffers in comparison to his successor at his previous team. “I hate to say it and wouldn’t have predicted it,” says a crew chief, “but Jamie McMurray really made Truex look bad. Martin’s a good guy and a real good driver. Maybe his team has made progress that just hasn’t shown itself yet.”

Another says, “That team (Michael Waltrip Racing) is always overrated. It always gets more attention that it deserves. People always predict it’s going to do better than it actually does.”

A rival team owner says, “Truex gets the job done behind the wheel. The team may have to get its act together, but he’s definitely a driver who ought to be winning races.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Always shows up at his home track of Dover.
Pretty Solid Pick: A versatile sort, Truex can notch top-5 results on most any type of track ...
Good Sleeper Pick: ... even on the road courses.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Bristol, which is surprising considering he runs so well at Dover — a ’roid’d up Bristol.
Insider Tip: Nagging mechanical issues are the one thing holding the Truex/Tryson duo back. Once corrected, they’ll be tough.

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 1
Top 10s: 7
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 88
Laps Completed: 10,327
Lead Lap Finishes: 25
Bonus Points: 45
Races Led: 9
Average Start: 17.1
Average Finish: 18.8
After First 26 Races: 20th
Final Points Standing: 22nd
Driver Rating: 82.2 (19th)

<p> Martin Truex Jr. is Athlon's sleeper for 2011. With a year under his belt at Michael Waltrip Racing, expect the promising talent to go Chasing this season.</p>
Post date: Monday, February 7, 2011 - 06:00