Articles By Matt Taliaferro

All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-11

by Matt Taliaferro

 1. Kyle Busch  Young Rowdy nabs the top spot from Carl Edwards this week thanks to four top-3 finishes in the last five races. He’s led a race-high 151 laps in each of the last two, to boot.

 2. Kevin Harvick  Back-to-back wins make it hard to keep Harvick out of the top spot, but Kyle’s body of work over the course of the last month trumps the recent Harvick hot streak.

 3. Carl Edwards  Martinsville is one of Carl’s worst tracks, so it’s no surprise he faltered to an 18th-place showing. Things will be different this weekend ... he may just win in Texas.

 4. Jimmie Johnson  This ranking may be unfair, as Johnson probably would have won Martinsville had he not gotten busted for speeding on pit road. However, he did not because he did, thus he’s fourth.

 5. Ryan Newman  There’s a big drop off from fourth to fifth. Newman has been more consistent than the proceeding bunch, so he gets the nod — but it’s tenuous.

 6. Juan Pablo Montoya  Montoya is coming on strong with consecutive top 10s, including a surprising fourth-place run at Martinsville ... typically not one of his better venues.

 7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Also coming on is Junior, who has only one finish outside of the top 12 this season — and that was a 24th at Daytona when he was swept up in a later wreck not of his making.

 8. Matt Kenseth  Kenseth seemingly lives under the radar. Bet you didn’t know he’s recorded consecutive runs of fourth, fourth and sixth.

 9. Kurt Busch  Dropping faster than a lugnut on a pit stop, Busch started the season strong but has limped to mid-teen finishes the last two races, looking lost in the process.

10. Jeff Gordon  His two top 5s this season have come at Phoenix (first) and Martinsville (fifth) — two flat and relatively short tracks. The next flat track is at Pocono, a mere two months down the road.

11. Tony Stewart   Not sure what’s going on here, but the last three weeks haven’t been pretty.

12. Kasey Kahne  Kahne gets a pass this week for being the victim of someone else’s stuck throttle.

13. Mark Martin  This is a 10th- to 20th-place team right now. That won’t cut it.

14. Clint Bowyer  After a slow start Bowyer is gaining momentum with consecutive top 10s.

15. Paul Menard  Menard is going the other way with 16th- and 38th-place runs the last two weeks.

Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Brian Vickers

<p> Kyle Busch rides his four finishes of third or better over the last five races into the top spot in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 - 09:43
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/closer

by Matt Taliaferro

Kevin Harvick’s new nickname, “The Closer,” is a well-earned moniker. Harvick rallied late in the afternoon at Martinsville Speedway to overtake Dale Earnhardt Jr. and win the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 on Sunday.

The victory was Harvick’s second straight, having taken checkers the week prior at Auto Club Speedway in similar fashion. The Bakersfield, Calif., native has led a total of seven laps — the final one at ACS and six in Martinsville — en route to career triumphs No. 15 and 16.

“I’m just glad we led more than one lap this week,” Harvick joked afterward.

A caution with 35 laps remaining on the historic half-mile track brought the lead-lap cars — led by Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson — in for a splash of fuel and fresh tires. Johnson, who had knifed his way through the field to challenge Busch, was nabbed for speeding on pit road, relegating his strong No. 48 Chevy to the rear of the pack on the restart.

That left Busch to settle the race with Harvick alongside and Earnhardt in arrears when the green waved with 30 laps to go. Earnhardt slid by Harvick with ease and then used the bump ’n’ run on Busch to take the lead with 21 circuits remaining.

“I was holding him up,” Busch said of the move. “I sucked, so it was good for him. I mean, he took the lead. No harm, no foul.”

Harvick’s hard charging No. 29 slid by Busch seven laps later and set its sights on Earnhardt. When Earnhardt wiggled coming off Turn 4 with four laps to go, Harvick squeezed by on the inside, taking the lead for good despite a bump from the No. 88.

“We slipped off into (Turn) 1 and he got under me — or we slipped into 3 and he got under me and I thought the only chance I had was a little bit of a crossover in (Turns) 1 and 2,” Earnhardt explained. “I tried to make it work but I couldn’t get really up under him enough. He crowded me the way he was supposed to do (in the) next corner down here in 3 and 4 and went on. And that was that.”

Busch challenged Earnhardt for the runner-up spot on the final lap but settled for third. Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 5.

It was the second race in a row that Busch led a race-high 151 laps only to be denied during a late-race, short green-flag run.

“We had one of the best runs here we have ever had,” Busch said. “And I probably had the best car here today. Unfortunately, just didn’t win with it. Coming down to the last run of the race here, kind of a short run, and we just didn’t quite have the car to do it on a short run. Every time we had the lead off pit road, we lost it and took about 28 laps to get going again.”

Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, recorded three straight wins at Martinsville entering Sunday’s event. He led 89 laps through the first half of the race but a pit-road miscue cost his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team valuable track position.

“We need to work on who we’re going to have change tires for us,” a dejected Hamlin said. “At this point you either work with what you’ve got or try to find someone that maybe can do a better job. You just don’t know right now and we don’t know what to do.”

Poor fuel mileage also required Hamlin make a stop with 43 laps remaining — much earlier than other cars on the lead lap.

“Our mileage just sucks real bad,” he said. “It sucked at Phoenix (last year) and it sucks here. We just have to figure it out. All of the things we need to do to be a championship team, we don’t have all those parts together right now.”

<p> Kevin Harvick led only six laps on Sunday — including the final four — but managed to earn his second straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win with a victory in the Goody's Fast Relief 500 from Martinsville Speedway.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 4, 2011 - 17:05
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/not-dead-cant-quit

by Vito Pugliese

The U.S. Navy SEALS have a certain code and mantra they live by: Not dead, can’t quit.

That came to mind when looking back on the storied carrier of one of NASCAR’s most recognizable personalities. This Sunday marks a milestone for one of the storied names in NASCAR history, as Mark Martin makes his 800th career start fittingly enough, at Martinsville. Not unlike Charlie Sheen’s antics of late, it’s been a run that would have killed most mortals, and truly embodies what “winning” is all about.

As humble a man as Martin is, it truly is a minor miracle that he’s gotten to 800 starts, which places him eighth on the all-time starts list. It is a career that has endured triumph and tragedy, smiles, tears and a never-say-die attitude that has seen him rise from the ashes of being virtually bankrupt and washed up as a 24 year old to one of the most respected and revered drivers in the sport.

Ironically, Martinsville is not one of Martin’s favorite tracks. He once remarked prior to a race that if he won, he’d run through the grandstands in his underwear. While Martin may not threaten to streak through the grandstands in his whitey tighties this weekend if he wins, he might just military press the now-familiar Grandfather clock to celebrate, as his last win came a while back, at New Hampshire in the fall of 2009. That particular weekend went quite well, but one of his other milestone races – his 600th consecutive start in 2003 – came at New Hampshire as well. That weekend he was honored with a special golden paint scheme, but he ended up laying a golden egg, finishing 33rd.

While Martin was able to shield the fans from the pale whiteness that go round, he brought some fire in 2005 when a cooked brake at Martinsville blew out a tire and sent him headlong into the wall, a crash that would signal the end of his title hopes that season. A year later, while sitting just 102 points out of the lead with five races remaining, he was in the catbird’s seat, running in the top 5 with 25 laps to go. However, a piece of debris shot through his grille and radiator, ruining the day with a 24th place finish – and crushing his title hopes yet again.

That isn’t to say his trips to everyone’s favorite paper clip have been completely fruitless. His first career top-5 finish came at Martinsville in September 1981, when he finished third. In April 1992 he won the Hanes 500, outlasting the competition on a day when virtually everyone was sheering axles and blowing out rear end gears from excessive camber settings. In 2000, a tire-strategy call by then-crew chief Jimmy Fennig propelled Martin to his only victory that season.

Martin’s luck turned a bit darker around 2003. A winless ’03 season saw Martin mired 18th in points in the final standings – the worst of his Sprint Cup career. Meanwhile, teammate and protégé Matt Kenseth was in the process of winning the final Winston Cup championship under the “traditional” points format.

A slow start the following season stymied by engine woes facilitated a scramble to make the Chase in the debut year for NASCAR’s new point system, as well as to help ensure sponsorship stayed secured on the side of the car. The stress of several sure-wins lost in the final laps through failed pit strategies the following seasons helped justify the actions of announcing a career change in late ’04.

It was then that Martin announced that 2005 would be his final full-time season in Cup competition. Regardless of what the media continues to purport, he is not the Brett Favre of NASCAR – his announcement specifically denied any rumor of retirement. It was simply an opportunity to take a step back and reassess things and spend some time with his son Matt, who at the time was in the midst of beginning a burgeoning racing career. After nearly 20 seasons of running wide-open and expending untold amounts of physical, mental and emotional energy (and misery), it was time to put his career in neutral while leaving the engine running.

During this breather from full-time competition, Martin nearly won the Daytona 500 in a controversial last-lap finish driving for a team that would cease to exist six months later. He helped keep Dale Earnhardt, Inc. afloat long enough for it to merge with Ganassi Racing following the departure of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Then, as luck would have it, Martin joined Earnhardt at Hendrick Motorsports in 2009, returning to full-time Cup competition for the first time since ’06. His encore performance was nothing short of remarkable, notching five wins with his new No. 5 team — a mark bested only by his seven-win 1998 season.

Martin’s second-place finish to Jimmie Johnson in the Chase was a feel-good story for a sport that hadn’t had much to crow about in the midst of a ratings and attendance downturn, coupled with the economic struggles that plague virtually every industry that helps support it.

The 2010 season proved to be a difficult one for Martin’s squad as well as those of teammates Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. A three-way team swap that paired Martin with crew chief Lance McGrew brings us to start No. 800 in what is scheduled to be his final full season in the Cup Series.

Martin has stated since last summer that he has no plans beyond this year, though has a five-race deal with Turner Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, one that produced a win in his first start at Las Vegas two weeks ago. The all-time Nationwide Series wins leader now leads Kyle Busch by four victories overall, while in the Cup Series he sits 14th in points, just 10 markers out of ninth.

It isn’t often you find someone that has been doing the same thing for over 25 years, and certainly not to the standards set by Martin. He’s taught a generation of drivers how to compete with a code while helping launch the fitness and conditioning revolution that has swept through the garage, inspiring a number of drivers to eschew beers and burgers (and this weekend’s famous pink Martinsville hot dogs). He has done as much to shape the image of drivers as athletes as any one figure in NASCAR, and is a testament to preparation and clean living as the path to longevity and success.

Much of this has already been written about Martin, and for good reason, as it will most likely be retold when he makes his 1,000th starts at some point in the future. Yeah, even at 52 years of age you can pretty much bank on Martin getting to that point.

He’s not dead, and can’t quit.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese looks at the storied career of NASCAR vet Mark Martin, who will make his 800th career Cup Series start in the Goody's 500 this weekend.</p>
Post date: Friday, April 1, 2011 - 17:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-10

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Carl Edwards  One win, three top 5s, four top 10s, two poles, an average finish of 7.8 and leading the point standings. There’s really no doubt who the man to beat is through five races.

2. Kyle Busch  A couple late cautions in Fontana prevented Kyle from scoring his second straight win. He, along with Jimmie Johnson, look like Edwards’ main threats thus far.

3. Ryan Newman  Newman is not the fireworks-like driver Busch is, but his consistency is nearly unmatched, having not finished outside of the top 10 since the Daytona 500.

4. Jimmie Johnson  Anyone realize that J.J. hasn’t won a race yet? Of course, he’ll find Victory Lane soon enough, and in the meantime he’s finished second or third in three of the last four races.

5. Kevin Harvick  Notched his first win of the year showing up out of nowhere like Houdini on the last lap at Auto Club Speedway. More W’s to follow.

6. Kurt Busch  Busch was out to lunch from the moment his team unloaded in California but managed a 17th. He was top 10 in the first four races, but it’s hard to be sold on the championship caliber of this group.

7. Kasey Kahne   The performance with his one ’n done Red Bull Racing team keeps getting better, with four consecutive top 15s.

8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.   Junior and new crew chief Steve Letarte have been an eighth- to 12th-place combo thus far. You have to figure that’s only going to improve with time.

9. Tony Stewart  Late-race pit miscues are killing this team. If they get that figured out, it’ll be back to top-5 showings for Smoke and Co.

10. Matt Kenseth  Hasn’t finished worse than 12th since Daytona, with consecutive fourth-place finishes in the last two events. Look out Carl, there’s some competition in your own stable.

11. Juan Pablo Montoya   It’s the “Every Other Weekend” theory for JPM. Good, bad, good, bad, good, bad ...

12. Paul Menard  Menard has been 17th or better in every race this year. Nice start, now keep it going.

13. Jeff Gordon  Throw out the Phoenix win and 2011 hasn’t been very pretty for the 24 gang.

14. Martin Truex Jr.  He’s led 84 laps through five races this season after leading 88 laps total in 2010.

15. Brian Vickers  He looks good on the big intermediate tracks. Not so much anywhere else.

Just off the lead pack: Marco Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin

<p> Carl Edwards holds on to the top spot in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings, but Kyle Busch is quickly chasing down the leader.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 - 17:24
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/whered-he-come

by Matt Taliaferro

As the saying goes, the only lap that matters is the last. And in no race was that more evident than Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Kevin Harvick pushed Jimmie Johnson into Turn 3 — loosening the five-time Cup champion — and burned by, using the high line as the duo came to the checkers, to lead his only lap of the day, giving Harvick his first win at Auto Club Speedway and first of the young season.

An accident on lap 187 of 200 set up a three-man, nine-lap dogfight consisting of Harvick, Johnson and Kyle Busch. Busch, who dominated the event to the tune of 151 laps led, led the field to green and, along with Johnson, sprinted away from the field. However, as the two battled side-by-side, Harvick caught them by keeping his momentum up working the high groove.

By the time Johnson slid past Busch with two laps remaining, Harvick was there. He quickly disposed of Busch and set his sights on the leader.

“We led the right one, that’s for sure,” Harvick said. “We were able to keep pace with them (Busch and Johnson) for a few laps. When they started racing side-by-side, we made up the ground. Kyle started to get loose (and I) drove around him.”

Harvick pulled flush with Johnson’s bumper on the backstretch of the white-flag lap, shoving the leader into Turn 3. He then sailed high and passed the No. 48 Chevy, which had led only three laps throughout the afternoon.

“I knew if I was going to hit the wall today, it wasn’t going to be till Turn 4 coming to the checkered,” Harvick explained. “It was tight, but it was the right time to go.

“I really had a good run coming off of Turn 2 and he (Johnson) rolled up in front of me, so I just laid on the back bumper all the way down the back straightaway, gave him a couple seconds to think about what was going to happen going into Turn 3. The reason I did that, I just needed the one lane up top. I knew what I was going to do. I was hoping he would just roll through the middle of the racetrack or on the bottom or something.”

He did, and Harvick blew by and beat Johnson to the line by .144 seconds.

“Him (Harvick) being that close and kind of breaking the plane of our bumper, certainly affect(ed) how my car drove,” Johnson said. “When he got to my bumper down the back, I felt like if he turned into the bottom and followed me, I was in trouble. I kind of wanted to run the bottom coming to the checkered flag. Felt like that was the place to be.

“When I went off into (Turn) 3 with the extra speed, had my car kind of sideways getting in there, I couldn’t get a real good arc into the corner. I heard that he was looking outside near the middle of the corner. Once he got there and broke the plane of my bumper, spotter said, ‘Outside,’ I was dead in the water.”

Busch had been the only story of the day until the final dramatic laps. He first jumped to the point on lap 22, when he passed his Joe Gibbs Racing teamamte, Denny Hamlin. He lead 151 of the next 175 laps but took the loss as well as could be expected.

“Just real, real unfortunate and frustrating and disappointing — all in one — that we weren’t able to seal the deal today,” Busch said afterward. “(It) just came down to the last few laps there with Jimmie first and then Kevin got into it, too, with us.

“You ask a little bit more from your racecar at the last moments, (and if) it doesn’t have anything left to give, you’re essentially a sitting duck waiting for those guys to drive by you. Couldn’t get any more out of the car. That was it.”

<p> Kevin Harvick got by Jimmie Johnson on the final lap to win the Auto Club 400 from Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.</p>
Post date: Monday, March 28, 2011 - 17:17
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/auto-club-speedway

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Location: Fontana, Calif.
Specs: 2-mile oval; Banking/Turns:14°; Banking/Straightaways: 11°

2010 Winners: Jimmie Johnson (February), Tony Stewart (October)

2011 Race Length: 400 miles/200 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 188.245 mph (Kyle Busch, 2005)
Race Record: 155.012 mph (Jeff Gordon, 1997)

From the Spotter's Stand
Jimmie Johnson’s first successful drive for five of 2010 came at Auto Club Speedway — the site of JJ’s first win of the season, first career win and 48th career victory. The 48 car led 101 laps and capitalized on a little pit road luck to claim Johnson’s fifth win of the first 21 races in the 14-year history at the Fontana track.

After the race, runner-up Kevin Harvick claimed that Johnson and Chad Knaus “have a golden horseshoe stuck up their…” uh, tailpipe — referring to a caution flag that gave the 48 valuable track position.

In October, Tony Stewart kept his Chase hopes alive with his first win at Fontana. But this year, the second Cup stop at “Cali-boring-ya” has been eliminated.

Crew Chief’s Take
“Getting the car to turn in California’s long, sweeping, flat turns after carrying a ton of speed down the straightaways is the real trick to winning. From a setup point of view, it’s hard to get a car dialed in there, and front end geometry equates to good finishes. Plus, it’s probably the hardest track on engines, hands down, and Michigan is the only track that’s even close. The difference is probably the California heat. Drivers like to run the high groove, but the stopwatches say the bottom is better, so you’ve got to persuade them to try that.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
If you’re picking against the 48, you’re picking wrong. Three of those wins have come in the last five races.
Pretty Solid Pick: Three of the four Roush boys (Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth) make fine picks this week.
Good Sleeper Pick: David Reutimann has taken to the big intermediates.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Marcos Ambrose, no matter the sheet metal.
Insider Tip: Bottom line is they’re going to have to go through Jimmie and Carl.

Classic Moments at Bristol
A tense race weekend turns emotional at what was then known as California Speedway in 2001.

On Friday, rumors spread that defending Cup champion Bobby Labonte has been fatally injured in a plane crash. Putting those false reports to rest, Labonte goes out and wins the pole for the NAPA Auto Parts 500.

In the race, Rusty Wallace is clearly the man to beat, and the cagey veteran doesn’t disappoint. Wallace outduels Jeff Gordon by .27 seconds to win on what would have been Dale Earnhardt’s 50th birthday. Wallace salutes his fallen friend by flying an Earnhardt flag out the driver-side window on his cool-down laps.

Wallace’s 54th career win also marks his 16th straight season with at least one victory. That streak would come to an end the following year.

<p> A look ahead to Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Fontana, Calif.</p>
Post date: Friday, March 25, 2011 - 16:42
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/different-kind-track

by Mike Neff

Bristol Motor Speedway is sometimes referred to as the “Cathedral of Racing.” For years obtaining tickets to the events at the alter of speed was harder than getting the homecoming queen to give it up on prom night — after all, there were divorce settlements where people took the Bristol season tickets over the 401k account. However, that all changed last March when the 53-race consecutive sellout streak at the world’s fastest half-mile came to an end. While there’s been continued debate over what, exactly, is keeping the fans away, the inarguable fact is that they are staying away in droves.

Speedway Motorsports, Inc., purchased Bristol in 1996 when the seating capacity was roughly 71,000. Over the next 10 seasons, track general manager and president Jeff Byrd along with the deep pockets of owner Bruton Smith, more than doubled the capacity to somewhere in the neighborhood of 160,000 seats.

NASCAR was relishing its biggest boom in popularity at the time. And since every seat was continually filled, there was no question the additional investment was paying off. Unfortunately, just prior to those seats being completed, the sanctioning body switched to the Chase format and ultimately the new style of racecars, which took away much of the personality of the vehicles on the track and impacted how they raced.

In 2007, the track’s surface was beginning to crumble due to years of hot summers and cold winters in the area, so while the track was resurfaced with new concrete, it was also reengineered to have progressive banking, allowing for side-by-side racing. Couple these fundamental changes with one of the most damaging economic downturns in the history of the United States and the end result was a drastic reduction in attendance that culminated with a just over half-full venue at last weekend’s Jeff Byrd 500.

There is no exact answer as to which of the different changes had the most impact, but it may very well be certain parts of all of them. What’s obvious is that people who used to spend their money at the track are now choosing to keep it for other uses.

The Chase format definitely had an impact on the racing at Bristol. The track once offered single-file racing, which encouraged — no, mandated — bump-n-run maneuvers that set tempers boiling and passions flaring. With the advent of the Chase, a more conservative, “good points day” mentality prevailed, as the goal of the drivers in the early spring and again in early fall is to simply qualify for the playoffs. Tearing up one’s equipment going all-out for a win is a fool’s way of missing the cut.

The new car design has presented a problem not just at Bristol, but across the circuit. The lack of personality and its IROC-feel have been complaints of the fans (and some drivers, behind closed doors, of course) since it was introduced at Bristol in 2007. Television ratings and attendance across the entire schedule have gone down for the most part since the new car rolled out. The sanctioning body is working hard to bring brand identity back into the series, and the redesign of the car that will be rolled out in 2013 may bring back a feeling that the cars on the track are at least somewhat identifiable with the cars fans drive on the street. While racecars have evolved too far to ever get back to the point that they look exactly like street cars, the folks in Daytona now know that distinguishing a Chevy from a Ford is paramount in the eyes of the sport’s lifeblood — its fans.

Despite cries from the government that the recession has ended (or at least the economy is beginning to rebound), NASCAR and much of its largely blue-collar fanbase wouldn’t know it. Staffers at Bristol that contacted fans who did not renew season tickets stated that the majority coming to Bristol travel over six hours, and with gas prices up and lodging rates on race weekends gouged, they simply can’t afford to make the trip.

Bristol is a “destination race,” meaning the sole destination for the incoming race fan is the track itself. There is no NASCAR Hall of Fame, Vegas Strip or big city nightlife to act as a two-in-one vacation. If a fan is going to spend a mortgage payment on a race weekend, said fan can at least belly up to a blackjack table or cruise the Sunset Strip by choosing other races.

The last factor is one that brings up the most disagreement between fans, media and competitors alike: The aggressive nature of Bristol — which is no longer evident — brought fans to the track. The bumping and banging, bent sheet metal, flying sparks, heightened tempers and occasional fisticuffs defined what many felt was true short-track racing. However, when the track was reconfigured with progressive banking added, the racing groove opened up, allowing cars to run from the bottom of the track to the top. No longer do drivers have to follow one another nose-to-tail and “move” the car in front in order to advance. Drivers can now spend multiple laps running door-to-door around the half-mile racing surface, and while contact does take place, it isn’t a continual activity. Drivers say the “new” Bristol provides great racing, but they fail to understand that fans also require great entertainment.

Multiple fans voiced their opinions on countless internet forums after last weekend’s empty seats were so evident. The vast majority maintained that the reason they aren’t interested in attending races at Bristol anymore is because the racing has changed and they no longer enjoy it. They’re basically saying that the repaving project that gave the drivers multiple racing grooves and allowed for more passing and lead changes is not what they want at Bristol. Ironically, the racing at Bristol now resembles that of Richmond, which is typically touted as the track that provides the best racing (and facility) on the schedule.

Apparently that’s not what fans want from Bristol, and they’re speaking with their wallets.

There is no question that Bristol is an amazing venue with a half-mile oval surrounded by bleachers that reach some eight stories into the sky. It’s an awe-inspiring sight that should be on any true sports fan’s bucket list. Unfortunately, as competitive as the racing is, it doesn’t appear to be what fans are interested in watching.

While the speedway is not likely to rip up the surface again any time soon, the aging of the concrete may result in the loss of some grip, eventually returning it to a single-file battle royale. When that occurs the fans that left will return, but there may be another faction of fans — the ones who don’t need carnage to enjoy good racing — and they might slowly fill up the coliseum as the economy continues to heal.

In the meantime, one thing is for sure: Although the stands may have been only half-full, Bristol still welcomed over 80,000 people. And that’s in a down year. Better times are ahead.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff examines why attendance at a track that once enjoyed a 53-race sellout streak is so bad.</p>
Post date: Friday, March 25, 2011 - 16:02
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/hoops-madness/horsepower-rankings

by Matt Taliaferro

 1. Carl Edwards  The train kept a rollin’ ... Edwards and crew churning out great runs, with five finishes of second or better in the last six races dating back to last season.

 2. Kurt Busch  Going about things in a totally different way — but equally as effective — is Busch, who leads the point standings with unspectacular, yet solid, top-10 showings.

 3. Kyle Busch  And then there’s younger brother Kyle, who once again stepped up at Bristol and did what he does best: Sweep the weekend’s Nationwide and Cup events.

 4. Tony Stewart  Smoke’s final results have been up and down, but Bristol was honestly the first race of the season that he wasn’t in contention at the end.

 5. Jimmie Johnson  Two third-place runs in the last three races prove Mr. Five Time and the boys are this close to hitting paydirt. And Auto Club Speedway is one of the 48 team’s best tracks.

 6. Ryan Newman  Sits third in the point standings, but has gone about his work quietly, notching runs of fifth, fifth and 10th in the last three races.

 7. Paul Menard  If you haven’t heard of the The Paul Menard Empire, you need to check it out on Facebook. The month of “Menarch” has been kind to him thus far.

 8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  He’s been an eighth- through 11th-placer so far this season, which is certainly an improvement from the last two seasons. Will Junior Nation finally accept a crew chief not named Tony Eury?

 9. Kevin Harvick  The fact that he drove back from a late spin at Bristol to finish sixth tells us he probably had something for Busch, Edwards and Johnson if only he'd had more laps.

10. Juan Pablo Montoya  Third- and sixth-place finishes offset by 19th- and 24th-place runs this year. If he’s ever able to put it all together, look out.

11. Matt Kenseth  Three consecutive runs of 12th or better and heading to Fontana, where he’s always tough.

12. Jeff Gordon  Yeah, he has the Phoenix win, but the 24 team has been on a roller coaster otherwise.

13. Kasey Kahne   Making the most of his brief association with Red Bull Racing.

14. Martin Truex Jr.  Truex and crew chief Pat Tryson are quietly turning the 56 team around.

15. Mark Martin  Steady as she goes for “the crazy old man” and his No. 5 group.

Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marco Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Bobby Labonte

<p> Kyle Busch once again bowled over the competition at Bristol, but he hasn't ascended to the top of Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings yet.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 - 13:27
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/rowdy-win

by Matt Taliaferro

Domination at the tough Bristol bullring in East Tennessee doesn’t come often, but when it does, it tends to run in streaks. Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch have gone on rolls of varying lengths over the last 35 years at the world’s fastest half-mile, and Kyle Busch is in the midst of his own.

Busch scored his fourth Cup win in the last five visits to Bristol on Sunday, leading 153 laps and pulling away from pole-sitter Carl Edwards and defending race-winner Jimmie Johnson down the stretch in the Jeff Byrd 500. But Busch was the first to admit that it wasn’t all about the drivers’ brilliance, rather, fast pit work that gave his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota the lead late in the race.

“Our guys on that last pit stop won this race coming out of the pits first,” Busch said of the stop with 71 laps remaining. “I don’t know if I could have gotten by Carl — Carl was good. Our car was definitely better on the longer run.”

Jimmie Johnson led to that point, with Busch content ton run second. However, when the field hit pit road under caution, crew chief Dave Rogers made the call for two tires, allowing Busch to beat Edwards, Greg Biffle and Johnson onto the track for the restart. The young Las Vegas native never looked back from there, fending off multiple challenges from Edwards over three separate restarts before eventually sprinting away to a .946-second victory.

When Edwards was asked what he could have done different, he referenced his dust-up with Busch three weeks ago in Phoenix, saying, “It’s simple: I should have hit him harder (on the final restart). He’s still got one coming from Phoenix, but it was too far from the end to start racing like that. I really thought I could get by him clean, but then his car took off and mine was loose. I still got one (payback) in my pocket.”

Johnson, who earned his first career Bristol win in this race last season, was forced to settle for third despite leading a race-high 164 laps.

“Oddly enough, clean air is important here,” Johnson said. “It makes a big difference. I knew the 18 and I were relatively equal and whoever had clean air could get a little gap … and that was kind of it. It came down to that last pit stop; we didn’t get off pit road first and that’s really where the race was gone at that point.”

Matt Kenseth and Paul Menard rounded out the top 5. For Menard, it was his best Bristol performance, and only his second career top-5 showing in the Cup Series with a car that was later revealed to be down a cylinder.

“I had a fast racecar all weekend,” Menard, in his first year with a new fourth team at Richard Childress Racing, said. “What’s cool is we’ve been to four different race tracks and had strong runs at all four. It’s a testament to Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) and everybody at RCR. There’s a lot of talent there and Slugger has built a helluva race team and we’re having a lot of fun right now.”

Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman comprised the rest of the top 10.

Through four races in the 2011 season, Kurt Busch clings to a one-point lead over Edwards in the point standings, followed by Tony Stewart, Newman and Menard.

<p> Kyle Busch beat the field off pit road and held off Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson to win the Jeff Byrd 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.</p>
Post date: Sunday, March 20, 2011 - 18:12
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/bristol-motor-speedway

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Location: Bristol, Tenn.
Specs: .533-mile oval; Banking/Turns: variable (24°-30°); Banking/Straightaways: 16°

2010 Winners: Jimmie Johnson (March), Kyle Busch (August)

2011 Race Length: 266.5 miles/500 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 128.709 mph (Ryan Newman, 2003)
Race Record: 101.074 mph (Charlie Glotzbach, 1971)

From the Spotter’s Stand
Kyle Busch tripled his fun in his Doublemint Toyota at Bristol last August, capping off a historic weekend by winning the Cup race on Saturday after taking the checkers at the Nationwide race on Friday and the Truck Series event on Wednesday — becoming the first driver to sweep all three series in the same week. Rowdy bullwhipped the half-mile concrete bullring, leading 283 laps en route to his fourth career win at Bristol. Busch has won three of the last four runs at the high-stress, high-banked Tennessee track.

Jimmie Johnson spoiled both Busch brothers’ day in March, breaking up Kyle’s streak and upsetting Kurt (278 laps led) for JJ’s first victory at Bristol and 50th win of his career.

Crew Chief’s Take
“Having a car that handles well in the center of the corner off is a key to working through the pack. Track position is a key as well. As the race winds down, most crew chiefs opt for position over new tires, as getting through traffic quickly is next to impossible.

“For a driver, it's like walking a tightrope. If you’re tense, nervous or uncomfortable, you can’t function there. The great drivers say that if you can get settled in and get comfortable, everything seems to slow down, but there aren’t many with the skills to really reach that point. Most of them just say they do.”

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Kyle Busch is taking his turn as the Beast of Bristol. It runs in waves.
Pretty Solid Pick: Since Jimmie Johnson doesn’t qualify for “Sleeper” status anymore ...
Good Sleeper Pick: Junior qualifies, though — and makes a nice top-10 candidate.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Even in his heyday, Bobby Labonte never quite figured out Bristol.
Insider Tip: They’re going to have to go through Kyle, one way or another, and races on the new surface are a lot easier to predict.

Classic Moments at Bristol
In the early- and mid-1980s, the only thing more certain than Darrell Waltrip winning the booing contest in pre-race introductions is his winning trophies at Bristol. Waltrip wins an astounding seven straight at the half-mile bullring between March 1981 and April 1984.

However, the streak comes to an end in August ’84 at the Busch 500. Waltrip leads 144 laps early but is plagued by myriad of issues late in the race. Instead, Terry Labonte battles back from two accidents — one a foreshadowing of things to come in the 1990s with Dale Earnhardt — to break Waltrip’s Bristol streak.

It’s Labonte’s fourth career victory and one that catapults him by Earnhardt into the championship lead. Labonte pulls away down the stretch from Harry Gant to win the 1984 Winston Cup.

<p> The NASCAR circuit returns after a one-week vacation with trip to racing's fastest half-mile in Bristol, Tenn.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 17, 2011 - 18:01
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/nascars-spring-brake

by Vito Pugliese

The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is but three weeks old, yet off to one of its best starts in a decade. A genuinely thrilling Daytona 500 helped remind us why we started watching NASCAR to begin with, while Phoenix saw a legend rise from the ashes to greatness once again. Las Vegas was … well, Las Vegas — largely uneventful, save for several notables stubbing their toes at precisely the wrong time. But with so much momentum and good will having been built up in just under a month, what does NASCAR do?

Pull the plug on it.

The back-to-back West Coast weekends can be a bit of a strain for some teams, so NASCAR takes a week off right around the same time colleges are on Spring Break. While I wouldn’t advise travel to Mexico for anyone right now, some teams could probably benefit from a vacation, while others would like to keep the party going. With the concrete cereal bowl known as Bristol up next, let’s take a look at who’s good to go, and who should just sit this one out.

Kurt Busch Last year he often lamented that he felt on an island unto his own, being essentially the only Dodge of substance in the Sprint Cup field. With Penske still promoting Pentastar pride with Busch and teammate Brad Keselowski, not much has changed since 2010 — except that Sam Hornish isn’t spinning out and hitting things.

With the series heading into an off-weekend, it is probably welcome relief for Busch and his Steve Addington-led team, who got off to a strong start at Daytona, winning the Bud Shootout, Duel 150 and led 19 laps in the 500, while leading another 31 laps at Phoenix. A little botched brake bias led to a spin and positions and points lost in Las Vegas, and a weekend to regroup might be best for Busch heading into Bristol, a track where he has five career Cup Series wins.

Off-Week Plans: Book the vacation … to the Gatornationals.

Tony Stewart Driving what is often cited as “a fifth Hendrick car,” owner/driver Tony Stewart finds himself in an awkward position. Will he ever be able to truly contend for a title against the likes of Hendrick heavy hitters Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin (sorry, I’m not convinced he’s leaving), when he sources chassis and engines from the mothership? While he is still certainly more cool, calm and collected as any owner these days (at least while stateside), Mount St. Smoke was about ready to erupt Sunday after having led a bundle of laps, yet finished second to Carl Edwards.

Stewart was felled by a pit road penalty when an air gun hose got hooked on his car and exited the pit box. He was quite vocal about having to take the week off, wanting instead to get back to racing and maintain the momentum his team built with finishes of 13th, seventh and second. I’ll take his word for it. Besides, I don’t want to get cracked in the face.

Off-Week Plans: Staycation. Bummer for Smoke.

Juan Pablo Montoya He has the most followers on Twitter of any NASCAR driver, yet rarely says anything controversial or critical. It is normally just a statement about playing golf, going swimming or how awesome his radio-control plane is. Something else that is awesome is the start to his 2011 season, which echoes that of his ’09 campaign, which saw him contend for the title deep into the Chase. Finishes of sixth, 19th and third are a good indication that JPM is back on track after a dismal 2010 season that, a Watkins Glen win aside, was host to yet another failed Brickyard 400 attempt. Instead, his teammate, Jamie McMurray came away the victor. I’m not saying Juan isn’t a team player, but it has to sting a little.

I would say this off week would be a negative considering how the No. 42 team has performed, but if you check his Twitter feed this weekend, you will probably see it is for the best.

Off-Week Plans: Fly the friendly skies … RC style.

Carl Edwards It wasn’t that long ago that everyone wondered what was going on with Carl Edwards (and the entire Roush Fenway team) — and Ford as a whole, for that matter. While Jimmie Johnson still hasn’t lost a championship since gas was $2.40 a gallon, fortunes have definitely changed for the Blue Oval brigade. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that if for a little bit of luck, Edwards and the Bob Osborne-led No. 99 team would have five wins in a row, dating back to the last two events of 2010. A runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, and a Phoenix car that was untouchable — except when touched by Kyle Bush — were prologue to his win Sunday in Vegas.

Many more back flips are to follow in 2011, but not this weekend — and that’s only because there isn’t a race.

Off-Week Plans: Skip the break. Summer is coming soon enough. Back and bi’s, bro!

Jimmie Johnson What’s this? Superman is 13th in the point standings? This must be the year! Finally, Chad and Jimmie have been vanquished, and not even an oddly-timed pit crew swap can save them!

Pffft … please. Figures lie and liars figure.

The 48 got whacked in the Big One at Daytona, had a car capable of winning at Phoenix and a bit of experimenting was in play in Las Vegas with a long-run late-race setup that actually showed some promise, but was not reflected in the final finishing order. It’s kind of silly to count this team out anywhere, and Johnson is the defending champion for the next race at Bristol.

I don’t think anything short of a tornado during a race would do much to fluster this bunch. They’ve seen, done and beat it all — including coming from behind in the last race to win their fifth straight title last year.

Off-Week Plans: This bunch doesn’t take vacations.

Kyle Busch Kyle Busch has had a decent start to the season, but the first two races really could have been wins. Normally, that kind of missed opportunity would be cause for a Tiger Blood-fueled rant from the driver who Mike Joy insists on calling “Wild Thing” — which, if current events had happened a few years ago, would be strangely appropriate.

Much has been made of the “New Kyle,” as his outbursts and tantrums have been dialed down a bit (that is, until the Chase starts and all hell breaks loose). Maybe getting married in the offseason has mellowed him out a little bit, making for a calmer Kyle. Then again, is that what you really want? Heck no — you want a full-on, narcissistic, Carlos-Estevez-peaking-on-seven-gram-rocks-esque-tirade, ripping out radio cords and fake-drinking NOS Energy syrup.

Off-Week Plans: Duh … Bi-vacationing.

Jeff Gordon Jeff Gordon has had quite an up and down year so far. After the in-house swap that moved Gordon over to Mark Martin’s No. 5 team with Alan Gustafson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. inheriting Gordon’s No. 24 group, it was generally accepted to be for Junior’s benefit and little else. But to quote John McClane, “Errrghhh!!! Wrong answer, Hans!”

Gustafson is the worst best-kept secret weapon at Hendrick Motorsports, and already has paid huge dividends this year. Gordon qualified on the front row for the Daytona 500 and won in just his second outing with Gustafson in Phoenix. All of that momentum came to a screeching halt in Las Vegas when a blown tire sent the No. 24 into the wall and back to the garage on lap 193, dropping him to 14th in points.

However, I seriously doubt the Vegas lick will have much of an impact. This is a team and driver that have traditionally bounced back from such an event in fine form. Normally I would say he’d be itching to get back to business as soon as possible, but he’s kind of an old guy now and has two kids.

Off-Week Plans: Load up the Family Truckster, Ingrid. We’re going to Wally World!

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese examines who has made the most noise early in NASCAR's 2001 season, and what they'll be doing over the year's first off-weekend.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 10, 2011 - 17:10
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-9

by Matt Taliaferro

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

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

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

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

1. Carl Edwards  Edwards has three wins and a second in his last five races going back to 2010. It’s like the boy has tiger blood and Adonis DNA. #Winning (I promise, that's the last Sheen reference I'll ever make.)

2. Kurt Busch  The only driver to have recorded three top 10s in the three 2011 races, Busch is somehow flying under the radar while being tied for first in the point standings.

3. Tony Stewart  Smoke just can’t close the deal. For the third consecutive race, he was in it to win it in the closing laps, only to come up short.

4. Ryan Newman  If you said you realized Newman was running fifth in the standings on the strength of two top 5s (and that he led the most laps in the Daytona 500), you'd be lying.

5. Juan Pablo Montoya   Another early-season surprise, Montoya has two top 10s and is tied with Edwards for third in the standings. He's first in the Twitter standings, though, with 276,821 followers.

6. Jeff Gordon  The right side of his car has been taking a lot of abuse this season. Three races, three crumpled fenders. Of course, he still managed to win one of those.

7. Kyle Busch  Ran eighth and second in the first two races, then blew up in Vegas. Despite the two solid runs, he dropped from first to 14th in the standings with the 38th on Sunday. That’s harsh.

8. Jimmie Johnson  In Johnson’s last eight Vegas starts he has four wins and four finishes of 16th or worse. Not sure how to quantify that.

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Junior Nation showing measured optimism after consecutive top 10s with new crew chief Steve Letarte. The smart money says he’ll be good at Bristol, too.

10. Denny Hamlin  Hamlin’s face is off the milk carton after a seventh at LVMS. Honestly, it was a quiet seventh, so maybe his mug is still there.

11. Kevin Harvick   Last year at this time Harvick was leading the point standings. This year? Not so much.

12. Mark Martin  He looked like an older version of Kyle Busch in winning the Nationwide race in Vegas.

13. Paul Menard  Don’t tear up your equipment and log some solid finishes — just what the new owner likes.

14. Martin Truex Jr.   Truex and crew chief Pat Tryson are only getting stronger at Michael Waltrip Racing.

15. Kasey Kahne  Clearly still learning the ropes with his new team, but things look good so far.

Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte

<p> Carl Edwards makes his first trip to the top of Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings based not only on his Vegas win, but an impressive body of work dating back to last season.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, March 8, 2011 - 18:13
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

<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: and

<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