Articles By Matt Taliaferro

All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/10-tough-questions

As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.

1. What’s to blame for NASCAR’s sagging television ratings and attendance?

A confluence of events. No one action could account for such a dramatic dip in interest, both at the track and on television.

The continued economic downswing certainly has hurt attendance figures, despite track operators slashing ticket prices and promoters pulling out all the stops. Three- and four-night minimums at hotels where rates are already jacked up 100 percent or more continue to keep fans away. Factor in gas or airfare as well as food and drinks and a souvenir for little Timmy, and suddenly the ticket to get in the gate is the least of the expense — particularly for the largely blue-collar diehard who can blow an entire mortgage payment on a three-day getaway to the track.

A continued refusal on the sanctioning body’s part to acknowledge the NFL’s Sunday superiority doesn’t help, either. As ol’ DW stated on the matter, if there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room, run away from it. Since NASCAR has shown it has no qualms with shucking tradition, maybe moving away from Sunday afternoons should be considered — particularly during the Chase.

Outside factors aren’t the only issue, though. During NASCAR’s ascension in the public consciousness in the early part of the decade, speedway magnates International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. built monstrous temples for the racing pilgrims, the idea being that 1.5- and 2-mile tracks would not only seat more, but also facilitate both stock cars and open wheel machines. Aerodynamics, and its effects on the fendered set, weren’t considered. What resulted was a shift from beating and banging (a major stock car draw) to aero-sensitive parades. And with the economy (and SMI’s and ISC’s portfolios) a mess, there will be no capital projects to rein in the speedways in favor of popular half- or three-quarter-mile bullrings.

At the same time, a cancerous greed grew from within the sport. The more attention NASCAR garnered, the more it wanted. With that attention came sponsorship and television dollars. Billions of them.

A new generation of driver was molded to attract the funding teams needed to outspend, and thus outperform, the competition. The sanctioning body was no different. It neutered the rough and tumble aspect of the sport — an aspect that drew so many fans initially — to bring in more corporate suits to the garage, the boardroom, and the suites.

Left was a sport that answered to corporate America. Clean. P.C. Friendly. Safe. As is so often the case, NASCAR realized only when it was too late that it had strayed down the wrong path, that it had alienated and disenfranchised its true base.

It’s trying to bring back those unique traits through a series of fundamental on-track changes, but as the wise racing scribe Ed Hinton noted last season, “Greed is never retrogressive.”

As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
Post date: Monday, January 17, 2011 - 10:06
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/moments-remember

by Tom Bowles

So Jimmie Johnson won his fifth straight championship. What? You don’t want to hear about it?

Fine. Enough about him. But you can’t ignore the record, love or hate, so in honor of it we’ll do a season review encapsulated by the number 5. If this were Sesame Street, I’d add two letters to that so we’ll pull up our two sponsors: C and E. What do they stand for?

Chase Eliminated. If only that could be the case for 2011 … but I digress. Let’s look at a Five Pack of Five Season Snapshots of 2010:

Five Best Races
5. Daytona 500 Sure, the pothole threw a kink in everyone’s Valentine’s Day plans, but those who stuck around saw a fascinating set of green-white-checker finishes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. nearly pull off the biggest comeback of his 10-year career and an upset winner in Victory Lane. Leading the last two laps, Jamie McMurray was No. 1 on the car and in our hearts with a fabulous start that would set the stage for a career year.

4. Watkins Glen Phenomenal racing between two wily road course aces caring about only one thing: the victory. Chase be damned, Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose went at it to the point it looked like one or both would end up wrecked, a duel that spawned six of the 10 lead changes in the race – quite a bit for a 90-lap road course. During a nightmare year for both participants, it was nice for them to have one shining moment in the sun; and for Montoya, it was his first trip to Victory Lane since Infineon in 2007.

3. Texas A fight between two of the sport’s veteran leaders. A pit crew swap in the middle of the race between two four-time series champs. A driver in Greg Biffle who led 224 circuits, only to lose track position and the race in the closing laps. And a frantic drive from 30th to first, completed by a man (Denny Hamlin) who took the points lead and put the pressure on a certain No. 48 team that had dominated the Sprint Cup circuit for four years. Easily the best race in the Lone Star State since this track opened up in 1997.   

2. Martinsville (Fall) One of the most wide open short track races in recent memory, with Hamlin, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – yes, that guy – all spending extended time at the front. When Junior took to the point for 90 circuits, the stands turned into a sea of AMP Energy green with so much shouting and stomping you’d think there was a minor earthquake. In the end, though, it was Hamlin fighting back from a bad set of tires that put him outside the top 10 within the first 50 laps of the race. His battle with Harvick was classic, but the real threat was Mark Martin, coming up just short with a car that looked like someone cut through the chassis with a buzzsaw. Add in a little Gordon/Kurt Busch brouhaha, and voila! You have the perfect recipe for 500 laps of success.

1. Martinsville (Spring) The showstopper of the year whose only fault was not enough fans got to see it: the race was held on Monday after a rain delay. The winner, Hamlin, came from ninth to first in the final 10 laps, surviving a green-white-checker where Gordon and Matt Kenseth nearly took each other out going for the victory. And did I mention that Hamlin’s checkers came two days before going under the knife for ACL surgery? This victory could have been the confidence builder that left Hamlin within a whisker of unseating Johnson in the Chase.

Honorable Mention: Both Talladega races. 175 combined lead changes, two nail-biting finishes, plenty of on-track passing. But when Gordon and Johnson can sandbag all race, then magically push to the front in three laps at will you know this whole restrictor plate thing is broken. Not a big fan of a track that specializes in needing a giant catchfence and crossed fingers to hope no one gets killed.

Five Best Drivers
5. Greg Biffle Edwards may have had sizzle, but Biffle had more steak in the Ford camp: 19 top-10 finishes and two victories – his first wins in over two years. Until the rest of the team got its act together, the No. 16 was the only one worth a damn running in the Blue Oval crowd through midsummer.

4. Kevin Harvick Three victories – his first in three years – a third-place finish in the final point standings, and a reported three-year deal with Budweiser were the highlights for this year’s regular season points champ. What a turnaround for a driver who was looking to bail Richard Childress Racing until Pennzoil stuck the knife in his back and left him for Penske in early April. Sometimes, forced remarriages do wind up turning out.

3. Denny Hamlin A season-high eight victories, seven of which came after ACL surgery showcased a year in which this 30-year-old officially grew up. Add in a Chase where Johnson was pushed to the brink, at least laying out a blueprint of how to beat the No. 48 and one word comes to mind for what he’s earned this season: Respect.

2. Jamie McMurray He didn’t make the Chase, but who cares? 20 years from now, you won’t know Kurt Busch wound up 11th with a “postseason bid.” But a man who won both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year, just months after getting released and nearly winding up unemployed? That’s the type of comeback season movie producers drool over.

Athlon Sports' contributor Tom Bowles recalls the moments that made 2010 one of NASCAR's most memorable.
Post date: Wednesday, November 24, 2010 - 15:03
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/change-it-had-come

By Matt Taliaferro

As Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus made the media rounds following their fifth championship victory on Sunday, Hendrick Motorsports is getting back to work. In a statement released late Tuesday afternoon, Hendrick Motorsports announced a massive team and personnel shake-up for the 2011 season primarily effecting driver/crew chief pairings.

Lance McGrew, who has guided the No. 88 team and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for a season and a half, has been assigned as crew chief to the No. 5 car and Mark Martin.

Alan Gustafson moves from Martin’s team — a group that he won five races with in 2009 but zero in ’10 — to assume crew chief responsibilities for four-time champ Jeff Gordon (winless in 2010).

Gordon’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, moves to the highly visible crew chief spot for Dale Earnhardt and the No. 88 team.

Johnson and Knaus, as they did at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday — flew above the fray, remaining intact in pursuit of a sixth consecutive Sprint Cup title.

In addition to the driver/crew chief swap, shop changes were also announced. No longer will Gordon share space in the famed "248" shop with Johnson. Gordon’s 24 will be moved down the road with Martin’s No. 5 team. The crew chiefs — Gustafson and McGrew — will continue to work under one roof.

Three days removed from a title with his No. 48 team, team owner Rick Hendrick made massive organizational moves in an attempt to get his other three teams — those of Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — off winless slides.
Post date: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 - 19:17
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/unbeatable

by Matt Taliaferro

Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s team continue to build on the most dominating streak in NASCAR history.

Johnson’s second-place finish, combined with Kevin Harvick’s third and Denny Hamlin’s 14th, propelled him to a record fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And this one may have been the most impressive yet.

Johnson entered the Ford 400 a slim 15 points behind Hamlin in the championship standings. And thanks to a sixth-place qualifying run, Johnson was able to survive two slow pit stops to hang in the top 10 throughout the race. In fact, Friday’s qualifying efforts played a major, if not overlooked, role. With Harvick starting 28th and Hamlin 37th, the two were placed in a points hole from which neither could climb out.

Hamlin did himself no favors once the green fell, either. His day was wrought with mistakes, the most costly being a lap 24 spin that damaged his front splitter and knocked the toe out. He battled a perpetually loose condition for the remainder of the afternoon, cracking the top 10 briefly, but never mounting a charge to the top 5.

Harvick, who entered the race a daunting 46 points out of the Chase lead, staged a more serious threat to Johnson. While never able to consistently run in the top three, Harvick was a fifth- to ninth-place challenger. But as the race drew to its conclusion, Harvick’s aggression spiked, as he spun Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, and got nabbed for speeding on pit road.

The Harvick/Busch incident occurred while green flag stops cycled through, and briefly trapped Hamlin one lap down. It led to a testy exchange between the two in the media center after the race.

"I thought it was over when the 18 wrecked, for sure," Hamlin said. "That trapped us a lap down. The 29 and the 48 were actually just a straightaway ahead, but the way it timed out to when that caution fell, it trapped us a lap down, and so they stayed out and the cars at the back all came and got tires, so it separated us. What was a straightaway turned into 15 spots when that caution flew, and that really hurt us quite a bit."

By staying above the fray, Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team outran Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick to win his fifth straight NASCAR title.
Post date: Monday, November 22, 2010 - 12:31
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/one-ages

by Mike Neff

Auto racing is a marathon, not a sprint, and for the majority of the tracks, the series and their seasons throughout the world, the champion is crowned before the final checkered flag falls. However, there are occasional points battles that, like the competition on the track, come down to the last lap.

This year’s Formula One championship was up in the air until Sebastian Vettel crossed the finish line in Abu Dhabi last weekend. And looking ahead to this weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship is setting up for a similar suspenseful finish. While they all can’t end this way, NASCAR fans should enjoy the nail-biting delicacy that is being served in 2010.

Whether utilizing the older point systems or the latest Chase format, hair-breadth finishes in the Cup Series have been few and far between. Since NASCAR’s modern era began, there have only been nine instances where the title came down to two drivers separated by 50 points or less going into the final race. Considering there have been seven races that saw a 300-plus point gap following the penultimate race, the odds are nearly 50-50 that the points battle will be a snoozer rather than a barn burner.

Now for the sobering part of the points analysis: The chance that Denny Hamlin will actually lose the title at Homestead is almost nil. Since 1972, the driver leading the points heading into the final race of the season has won the title in all but two years. In 1979, Darrell Waltrip was two points ahead of Richard Petty heading to Ontario Speedway but finished eighth while Petty came home fifth. The separation resulted in a 13-point swing and Petty winning the title by 11 points.

The other battle, a fight between five drivers, resulted in the greatest points battle in the history of the sport.

In 1992, Davey Allison led the circuit to Atlanta with a 30-point lead over Alan Kulwicki, with Bill Elliott another 10 back. Further back, Harry Gant and Kyle Petty, trailing by 97 and 98 points, respectively, still had a fighting, if not slim, chance.

On lap 254 of 328, Allison was caught up in an accident that ended his championship hopes while Petty and Gant were mostly non-factors throughout the afternoon. And although Elliott won the race, Kulwicki managed to lead the most laps — 103 to Elliott’s 102 — earning a five-point bonus and wrapping up the title by 10 markers.

We can hope for that type of drama at Homestead — Johnson and Hamlin running side-by-side for the lead, tied for the most laps led with five to go, spinning one another out on the final lap as Harvick roars by, taking the checkers and the championship.

Unfortunately for those seeking the drama, the odds are that Hamlin is going to have his car working like it did last year at Homestead and will put the nail in the coffin by dominating the race. The scenarios concerning he and Johnson finishing first and second, leading one lap or leading the most laps favor the current points leader. But as the old saying goes, "That’s why they play the game."

Waltrip/Petty, 1979. Kulwicki/Elliott/Allison, 1992. Classic championship battles that came down to the final race. Can we expect Hamlin/Johnson/Harvick, 2010 to live up to the hype?
Post date: Friday, November 19, 2010 - 17:44
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/homestead-miami-speedway

Location: Homestead, Fla.
Distance: 1.5-mile tri-oval
Banking/Turns: variable (18-20 degrees); Banking/Straightaways: 4 degrees
Race Date: November 21

From the Spotter’s Stand
The real winner in Miami isn’t the driver who takes the checkers and does the hat dance; it’s the man who seals the deal on a Cup title following the final race of the Chase — and then does the hat dance.

Denny Hamlin took his Toyota to victory last season, breaking a streak of five consecutive Ford wins, including three straight by Greg Biffle (2004-06). Hamlin took the lead on Lap 223 of 267 and cruised to his fourth win of the season by a comfortable 2.632 seconds ahead of Jeff Burton.

But the driver who took the most post-race pictures with NASCAR czar Brian France was Jimmie Johnson, who made history by winning his fourth consecutive Cup title. A fifth-place finish at Homestead was good enough to break a tie with Cale Yarborough, who won three straight Cups from 1976-78.

Johnson will once again attempt to make his history in Homestead, as he’ll square off with Hamlin and Kevin Harvick to decide the 2010 Sprint Cup. JJ has never won at the 1.5-mile oval, but he has partied in South Beach with crew chief Chad Knaus and the 48 team each of the past four years, despite finishing fifth (2009), seventh (2007), ninth (2006) and 15th (2008) in the race itself.

Like Johnson, Harvick has no wins, but has pieced together a solid run of finishes, having recorded seven top-10 finishes in nine HMS starts — including his last performances of second and third.

Since South Florida began hosting the season finale in 2002, the leader in the point standings (2002-03) or the Chase (2004-present) has never clinched a Cup title with a win at Homestead.

Crew Chief’s Take
"I think the racing at Homestead is as good as anywhere now. My God, that track was such a disaster when it opened. They shaped it like Indianapolis, only smaller, but they didn’t realize that squared-off corners are just dangerous on a track that’s a mile and half, not two. So they rounded the corners, and then stage three was tapering the banking in the turns. It took a bunch of money and revamping, but they got it right. It’s a lot like Atlanta back before Bruton (Smith) rebuilt it, but it’s really unique because it doesn’t have those old, sweeping Atlanta turns."

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers:
It’s hard not to assume the three title contenders — Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick — won’t decide it amongst themselves.
Pretty Solid Pick: Carl Edwards leads the circuit with a 6.5-place average finish in the Keys.
Good Sleeper Pick: Johnson hasn’t had to race for a win here in five years, so it’s hard to say exactly how good he’ll be. The safe bet is he can hold his own.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: This is one of only two tracks where Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not recorded a top-10 finish.
Insider Tip: Roush-Fenway had won five in a row here until Hamlin broke up the party in 2009.

Classic Moments in Homestead
Bill Elliott catches his 21-year old Evernham Motorsports teammate, Casey Atwood, with four laps to go and earns his first win in 227 races in the 2001 Pennzoil Freedom 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Atwood, a young upstart from Nashville, Tenn., leads 52 laps in the Ray Evernham-owned No. 19 Dodge but can’t hold off the veteran Elliott, whose previous win had come in the 1994 Southern 500.

Elliott wins three more races with Evernham — including the 2002 Brickyard 400 — before parting ways after the ’03 season. Atwood is not so fortunate, as Evernham replaces him in the No. 19 the following season with Jeremy Mayfield. Atwood, in turn, is placed in the Jim Smith/Evernham-owned No. 7 car, more or less an R&D vehicle. Atwood is out of the Cup ranks a little over a year later.

Recent Results
2009 Top 10

1. Denny Hamlin
2. Jeff Burton
3. Kevin Harvick
4. Kurt Busch
5. Jimmie Johnson
6. Jeff Gordon
7. Carl Edwards
8. Kyle Busch
9. Martin Truex Jr.
10. AJ Allmendinger

Laps Led
Denny Hamlin — 71
Kevin Harvick — 56
Kurt Busch — 43
Tony Stewart — 43
Jimmie Johnson — 29
Jeff Burton — 19
Marcos Ambrose — 4
Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Michael Waltrip — 1

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

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

Homestead-Miami Speedway will host the final event of NASCAR's 2010 season. By Sunday afternoon, one man — Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick — will lay claim to the Sprint Cup title.
Post date: Wednesday, November 17, 2010 - 18:33
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-6

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Denny Hamlin  Held onto that top spot in the standings despite a move that burned him at Phoenix. This title is truly his to lose now.

2. Jimmie Johnson  Of course, Jimmie is still keeping pace, 15 points behind Hamlin and still very much alive. He hasn’t had to be great at Homestead for so long, it’s not clear just how good that 48 team is there.

3. Kevin Harvick  Title Contender No. 3 said via Twitter this week that his team has received no respect from this media throughout the Chase, so ìto heck with them all.î Focus on the task at hand, Kevin.

4. Joey Logano  Has improved his finish each of the last five weeks from seventh to sixth to fifth to fourth to third. Unfortunately, he’s going to run out of weeks. Unless the streak carries over to Daytona.

5. Greg Biffle  Consecutive top-5 runs in the bag for Biffle with Homestead, a track he’s won on more than any other in the Cup Series, on tap.

6. Mark Martin  When you can say that you expected more out of a guy after an eighth-place run, it should tell you how good a team like Martin’s No. 5 bunch is running as the season winds down.

7. Carl Edwards  With Edwards’ long-overdue win now out of the way, all eyes are on Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon to get off the schnide.

8. Matt Kenseth  Who would have thought a team like Kenseth’s, which limped into the Chase, would be ranked fifth going into the final race? Pay no mind to the 311-point deficit, of course.

Denny Hamlin leads Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick in a tight title fight heading into the final race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Post date: Tuesday, November 16, 2010 - 13:01
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/phlipping-phuel-phoenix

by Matt Taliaferro

Denny Hamlin said the strategy was to keep the points leader in his sights through the first half of the Chase and then turn it on in the second — and he’s done just that, having won two of the previous three heading into the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

And Hamlin was within 50 laps of making it three-for-four when the plan hit a snag. That snag came in two forms: Carl Edwards and fuel mileage.

Edwards, winless since the 2008 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, dueled door-to-door with Hamlin — who had led a race-high 190 laps to that point — for a number of laps before securing the top spot and driving off. That’s when, 40 laps from the finish, Concern No. 2 began creeping onto the radar of Hamlin’s No. 11 pit box.

The leaders had not hit pit road in nearly 50 laps, and trying to stretch fuel mileage another 40 miles was going to be tight. They needed a caution flag.

Unfortunately (poetically, almost) for Hamlin, the debris cautions he so vocally decried earlier in the season never came, and with a thin points advantage over seventh-place Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, who was running 12th, crew chief Mike Ford was forced to play it conservatively.

Not believing Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota could make it to the checkers, Ford called his driver down pit road with 14 laps remaining. Hamlin emerged 19th and quickly began picking off spots. However, the majority of the leaders rolled the dice, betting they had enough fuel to get them home — and it was a winning gamble.

Edwards held on for his 17th career Cup win, although Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Greg Biffle were hot on his tracks until the finish.

And most notably, just behind them — finishing fifth and sixth, respectively — were Hamlin’s chief rivals, Johnson and Harvick. With Hamlin slicing through the field to finish 12th, his points advantage stands at 15 over Johnson and 46 over Harvick with one race remaining in the 2010 season.

And one week after Ford had trumpeted his team as the best on the circuit, his driver showed a mix of disappointment, worry and frustration that they couldn’t put a vice lock on the title.

Denny Hamlin had things in control until a long green flag run turned into the day's final green flag run. While Hamlin pitted for a splash of gas, Carl Edwards stretched his mileage to earn his first win of the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
Post date: Monday, November 15, 2010 - 14:18
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/three-man-shootout

by Vito Pugliese

The 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup has been under fire this season — perhaps more than any other — for drawing more of a casual fan demographic (and the NFL audience) with its playoff-themed format, resulting in declining ratings, waning attendance and an overwhelming desire to see someone other than Jimmie Johnson thanking the employee-owners of Lowe’s for making good on "The Drive for Five," having just completed "The Bore of Four" a season ago.

With two races to go, however, we have a legitimate championship slugfest on our hands. Although at the onset the Chase thrusts drivers into the conversation who have no shot whatsoever to come even remotely close to being championship material, the trio of drivers that will decide it among themselves are the right ones to be doing it. Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin have consistently been the best all season, and now have two weeks to decide who will hoist the hardware at Homestead.

1. Denny Hamlin
Even if he does not manage to hold on to his tenuous 33-point lead over Johnson and 59-point spread on Harvick, 2010 will prove to be the year Hamlin made the jump from being a steady driver good for a couple of wins a year to a prime-time player who will be contending for titles and big-money wins for the next decade.

Everyone should be familiar with Hamlin’s story by now; he had surgery to repair a torn ACL in April only to clamber back into his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota a week after getting cut. He gutted it out that week at Phoenix, even enduring a shot in the door by a spinning Kurt Busch in the early going. Hamlin would win the following week in Texas to set the tone for his season and his organization.

Having sacrificed a shot at the 2009 championship with a couple of admittedly boneheaded moves, Hamlin began to take his job as a driver in the highest level of American motorsports more seriously. He took a leadership role, set the example and did whatever he could for his team — and in the process, stood in sharp contrast to his teammate in the flagship No. 18 JGR entry.

Heading to Phoenix, Hamlin looks to have the wind at his back after an underwhelming first half of the Chase. And as clichéd as it may sound, the title really is his to lose. It’s no secret that Hamlin makes hay on flat tracks, having garnered 11 of his 16 career wins on flats. He’s never won at Phoenix, but he has top 5s in half of his starts, as well as a pole win the first time he laid eyes on the joint.

Hamlin finished 30th at PIR in the spring following his knee operation, but was third in this race a year ago. Homestead was the site of Hamlin’s eighth career win in the final race of the ’09 campaign, a total he has doubled thus far in 2010. That win was a watershed moment of sorts, one in which he declared that he had figured out what he was doing wrong in the Chase, and would fix it the next time around. He’s done just that, playing the odds to perfection, taking the points at the precise point in the playoffs this season.

Have Hamlin and the No. 11 team finally figured out a way to out-48 the 48 team? So far they have played this game to perfection, mixing in patience, performance, and now psych-ops against the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut. With less than 600 laps of racing left in the 2010 Championship fight, their plan appears to be working.

2. Jimmie Johnson  (-33 points)
Remember how in The Andy Griffith Show, Barney Fife would manage to shoot himself in the foot with the one round he’d have loaded in his revolver? You could say Johnson and the No. 48 team did that last week, but it may prove to be more akin to Martin Riggs emptying the magazine of his Beretta into his boot.

After four straight titles, a Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400s galore and winning six races this year, the pit crew of the Lowe’s team was benched, swapped out with the crew of Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team. A bad day at the office, courtesy of some cramped pit quarters and loose lugs, precipitated a change that you can rationalize all day, but still doesn’t make much sense in the midst of a championship brawl.

The pit crew seems to have been made a scapegoat of sorts, as Johnson has not exactly been himself this season, either. A number of self-induced spins, and the new role of being somebody’s father has cause some to wonder — if not simply hope — that priorities have changed for the guy who never seems to break a sweat under pressure. A quick look at the stat sheet, however, shows that 2010 is virtually identical to three of the last four title-winning seasons.

The timing of such a move is suspect at best; Johnson is trailing this late in the game for the first time since 2005, the last time he lost a championship. PIR is one of Johnson’s best tracks (does he really have a bad one?), having won four of the last six races there and finishing no worse than seventh since 2005. Homestead remains one of the four tracks Johnson has yet to win at, though in fairness, his last four trips have not demanded a win, only to ride around and stay away from trouble.

Then again, should Johnson rally to win his fifth title, crew chief Chad Knaus will once again confirm his genius and further demoralize anyone who thinks they actually stand a chance at dethroning a motorsports dynasty that is every bit the equal of anything that ever rolled out of Level Cross, Ingle Hollow or Maranello.

Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick head to Phoenix in a heated, three-man battle for the title. Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese handicaps the field.
Post date: Friday, November 12, 2010 - 12:39
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/phoenix-international-raceway

Location: Avondale, Ariz.
Distance: 1-mile oval
Banking/Turns: 9 and 11 degrees; Banking/Frontstretch: 3 degrees; Banking/Backstretch: 9 degrees
Race Dates: April 10 (Ryan Newman) and November 14

From the Spotter’s Stand
Phoenix was but a pit stop on the Cup schedule from 1988-2004 before becoming a biannual event in 2005. During that time, a few drivers have handled the heat better than the rest. Six competitors — Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Davey Allison — have combined to take 14 checkered flags, while 14 others have one win at the quirky one-mile oval.

One of those "14 others" is Ryan Newman, who scored his first win for Stewart-Haas Racing and the first win by a car numbered 39 in Sprint Cup history in April. Jeff Gordon appeared to have that race in hand until a caution sent the race into a green-white-checker finish. Newman grabbed the top spot shortly after the restart and held Gordon off by just over one-tenth of a second. Hendrick-powered engines swept the top-four spots (Newman, Gordon, Johnson — who scrapped from seventh to third in the G-W-C ending — and Martin).

The all-time wins leader at PIR is Johnson, who has been burning rubber in Phoenix, with four victories in his last six runs in the desert — leading 744 of 1,939 laps in that time. In fact, Phoenix could be Johnson’s best track on the circuit (and that’s saying something), as the title contender has never finish worse than 15th, and is currently on a run of 10 consecutive finishes of seventh or better.

Martin took checkers here in April 2009, winning his first race since ’05 and becoming the oldest driver (50) to win a Cup race since 1993. Martin has run more races (27), with more top 5s (12) and top 10s (18) at Phoenix than anyone in history. His team has also come alive of late, so he should factor this weekend.

Crew Chief’s Take
"Flat tracks are probably a little less different from each other, in terms of chassis setups, than the tracks that are bigger and high-banked. On the one hand, I don’t think you get a perfect-handling car, at least not judging from what drivers say. They always gripe and moan more on tracks like Phoenix. 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. Unfortunately, some drivers wreck when they’re looking for tricks."

Phoenix International Raceway is the sight of the penultimate race of the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, a track where Jimmie Johnson — second in the championship standings — has dominated.
Post date: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 - 11:33
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-5

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Denny Hamlin
The new points leader is looking pretty stout with eight finishes of ninth or better (three wins) in the last nine races. There’s also that shakeup in the 48 team, too.

2. Jimmie Johnson
Speaking of the 48 ... yes, Johnson is still second in the Horsepower Rankings and in the official standings, but that mid-race crew swap with Jeff Gordon’s team looked awfully desperate.

3. Kevin Harvick
And then there’s Harvick, flying below the radar, but clearly not as consistently strong as Hamlin of Johnson. He’s ready to pounce should the door open.

4. Clint Bowyer
Follows up the win at Talladega — his second of the Chase — with a seventh-place run at Texas ... and with Harvick’s old crew, no less. See Jeff, it could work out for you too!

5. Joey Logano
Since the television coverage doesn’t follow anyone not in the Chase, it should be noted here that young Logano hasn’t finished worse than seventh in a month.

6. Mark Martin
Like Logano, Martin is a non-Chaser, and therefore a non-stroy to some. However, that "Crazy Old Man" hasn’t finished outside of the top 15 since the first playoff race. Watch him at Phoenix.

7. Greg Biffle
Biffle was the man to beat at Texas until he dropped two gears. And you know, it’s kind of hard to get going when you have to start in third with a snarling pack of cars in your trunk.

8. Kyle Busch
His in-car audio captured one of the great meltdowns in NASCAR after getting penalized at Texas. Cheer up Kyle, you’re getting married in a few weeks.

9. Jeff Gordon
As the picture below illustrates, Gordon had a rough afternoon in Texas. He sure put on a heckuva show in the process, though.

There’s a new No. 1 in town. Denny Hamlin’s plan appears to be working, as he charged to the front at Texas to earn his series-leading eighth win of the season. In the process, he leapt to the top of Athlon Sports’ weekly Horsepower Rankings, as well as the championship standings.
Post date: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 - 10:25
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/wild-wild-west

by Matt Taliaferro

There were monkeys selling programs, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, a fistfight, a virtual firing of an entire team and, at the end of the day, a new No. 1. It may sound like a mid-1980s version of Saturday Night Roller Derby that would make Ralphie Valladares and the L.A. T-Birds proud, and in all actuality it felt like it, but it was four-wheeled  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series action that put on the show in Texas.

After the smoke cleared and the tempers cooled, it Denny Hamlin who sprinted away from Matt Kenseth in a three-lap shootout at Texas Motor Speedway to win the AAA Texas 500. The win vaulted Hamlin past Jimmie Johnson and into the points lead, a position he holds by 33 points with two races remaining in the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Hamlin, Johnson and Kevin Harvick entered the event within 38 points of one another in the standings, and each had to claw his way from deep in the field at the onset. By the 100-lap mark the trio had worked its way into the top 10, but the glare of the spotlight was set to shine on another Chase trio — Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon.

Busch got the antics started when he was spun on lap 159. After pitting for four fresh tires, he was nailed by NASCAR for speeding on pit road. Brought back in the pits to serve his one-lap penalty, an ESPN in-car camera caught the mercurial Busch flipping off a NASCAR official in a manner that would make Johnny Cash proud.

After his exit, NASCAR brought him back in to sit for two additional laps for what the sanctioning body called "unsportsmanlike conduct." All the while, a meltdown ensued on Busch’s in-car radio between driver and crew chief.

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule winds down, emotions are heating up. A fistfight, a finger, a firing and a new No. 1 highlighted a crazy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
Post date: Monday, November 8, 2010 - 15:25
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/who-will-carry

by Tom Bowles

The life and times of Jim Hunter were celebrated wonderfully this week with a visitation followed by a wonderful service Wednesday at Darlington Presbyterian Church. NASCAR’s former Vice President of Communications, who passed away last Friday following a lengthy battle with cancer, was remembered as a caring father, friend, and passionate leader for the sport he helped mold into a national powerhouse since entering the stock car workforce in 1968. But as the last of the sport’s “old guard” made his peaceful transition into another world, those left remaining in this one had to privately be thinking the same question many down in Daytona Beach have been asking for several months:

What now?

Hunter’s passing is just the latest in a number of NASCAR’s aging leaders who have either left the Earth or their jobs the last few years. Chief among them is Bill France Jr., whose 2007 passing has sparked a three-year period where the sport has lost Bristol Motor Speedway President Jeff Byrd (death), former Technical Director Steve Peterson (death), legendary Charlotte promoter Humpy Wheeler (retirement), New Hampshire Motor Speedway President Bob Bahre (retirement), top journalist David Poole (death) and even Motor Racing Outreach founder Max Helton (death) in just the last two seasons. The current head of NASCAR’s Public Relations Department, Ramsey Poston is leaving his post at the end of the year, as well as Sprint Cup Director John Darby, whose replacement has yet to be named despite the announcement of a “transition” in February.

It’s a long list of star power fading into the sunset, complicated further by the number of those still hanging on who are reaching the end of their tenures. For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Speedway Motorsports, Inc. leader O. Bruton Smith, the man once looked at to fight NASCAR for control of the sport, is now 83 years old. Chairman of the Board at ISC, Jim France, is 66, while brother Bill’s former wife Betty Jane is over 70; together, they own 65 percent of the stock in a company whose future is increasingly uncertain in the midst of massive attendance losses at each of its major facilities around the country.

But the Social Security crowd isn’t just limited to executives. Cup Series owner and Indy 500-winning legend Roger Penske is 73. So is NASCAR’s King, Richard Petty, reduced to merely a figurehead in the nearly-bankrupt RPM organization he’s trying to purchase. But how long will Petty be an active leader even if he succeeds? Ford power Jack Roush, who nearly lost his life in a plane crash in July, is 68, while Toyota rival Joe Gibbs turns 70 this year. Of those listed, only Gibbs, whose son J.D. runs the day-to-day operations of the program, seems to have a seamless transition plan in place.

So as NASCAR heads into a turbulent offseason, a crucial turning point in its history after four straight years of clear-cut decline, a “next generation” to replace all these leaders remains unclear. Sure, there’s a small handful of promising young owners coming up the ranks with Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Nationwide Series, Kyle Busch attempting to keep his team afloat in the Truck Series, and Tony Stewart and Michael Waltrip having already made it in Cup. They’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

A number of recent deaths and retirements raise questions as to who the next generation of leaders will be to lead NASCAR into the future.
Post date: Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 18:06
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-4

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Jimmie Johnson  He’s won the Chase every way imaginable, so why doubt he can outduel Hamlin and Harvick in a dogfight down the stretch?

2. Kevin Harvick  How do you differentiate between Hamlin and Harvick here? Take whichever driver finished better in the last race. Yeah, it’s that tight.

3. Denny Hamlin  Say what you will about the Chase, but there’s no denying the three best teams have risen to the top and are deservedly duking it out for this title.

4. Kyle Busch  There is a big gap down to fourth, where Busch slots in just ahead of Gordon based mainly on his explosiveness — and the fact that he actually wins from time to time.

5. Jeff Gordon  Eleven top fives and 17 top 10s are on par with the Big Three, but the goose egg in the win column finds Gordon over 200 points back in the standings.

6. Clint Bowyer  He may be 12th in the standings, but it’s hard to argue with his two wins and a runner-up showing in the Chase.

7. Carl Edwards  The No. 99 team just can’t get out of the sixth- to 12th-place range. They’re clearly two steps behind Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress.

8. Joey Logano  The Chase hurts guys like Logano, because he’s not getting any attention due to the fact he didn’t qualify. Meanwhile, he’s outperformed 90 percent of those in it.

9. Jeff Burton  Man, can this guy’s luck get any worse?

Kevin Harvick came within six inches of victory at Talladega and advances one spot in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings. However, Jimmie Johnson once again notched a top-10 finish and continues to hold the top spot.
Post date: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 - 10:33
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/texas-motor-speedway

Location: Ft. Worth, Tex.
Distance: 1.5-mile quad-oval (334 laps/501 miles)
Banking/Turns: 24 degrees; Banking/Quad-Oval: 18 degrees; Banking/Straightaways: 5 degrees
Race Dates: April 18 (Denny Hamlin) and November 7

From the Spotter’s Stand
Everything is bigger in Texas; just ask Jeff Gordon. The four-time Cup champ ended a pair of major droughts at the 1.5-mile quad-oval in April 2009.

Ripping the monkeys off his back, Gordon ended a 47 race-winless skid, and took his first checkers at Texas in 17 tries since the stop was added to the Cup schedule in 1997 — with a second annual trip added in 2005. Unfortunately for the four-time champ, the win was the one that bridged the gap between the 47-race slide and his current 62-race drought.

The 82nd victory of Gordon’s career (and the only victory of his ’09 season) moved the 24 car into sixth place all-time, behind Cale Yarborough’s 83 wins in 560 races over 31 seasons. Gordon finished ahead of runner-up and Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, the November 2007 winner at Texas, by .378 seconds to extend his lead in the points standings at the time.

Gordon nearly broke the bad luck this April, when he led a race-high 124 laps at Texas — but the bug bit him again when he was involved in a late-race accident that also eliminated Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, among others. Instead of Gordon, it was Denny Hamlin who fired the six shooters in Ft. Worth, followed by a familiar cast of characters in Johnson, Kyle and Kurt Busch.

In this event last season, a brotherly feud broke out between dominant driver Kyle Busch — who led a race-high 232 laps before running out of fuel three laps short of sweeping the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series in one weekend — and ultimate winner (and older brother) Kurt Busch — who led 89 laps before earning his second victory of the season. In all, the Busch Bros. led a combined 321 of 334 total laps.

Carl Edwards has back-flipped his way to three Texas wins, while Jeff Burton has two victories, including the inaugural running in 1997. Other than the two multiple winners, 14 different drivers have taken the checkered flag in Fort Worth.

Crew Chief’s Take
"Texas looks like Charlotte and Atlanta, but trust me, it isn’t. It’s different from any other track in the way that it flattens out off of Turn 2 onto the back straight. At other tracks, there’s a little banking on the straightaways. Turns 3 and 4 are dramatically different from Turns 1 and 2 because of that. The exit of two and the entrance of three are the trouble spots, both from a driver’s and a mechanic’s perspective. It’s one of those places where, in my mind, strange things happen. I’m always extra wary when we go there."

Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: It’s tough to not figure one of the three Chase contenders — Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick — won’t factor.
Pretty Solid Pick: See above ... Gordon, Kyle and Kurt.
Good Sleeper Pick: Carl Edwards or Matt Kenseth could break long losing skids here.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Joey Logano has been solid lately, but that may end in Texas.
Insider Tip: The Earnhardt-Childress engines have been the best on tour all season. It should pay off here.

Classic Moments in Texas
A third-generation driver grabs his first win in the DirecTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2, 2000, while a fourth-gen driver makes his first and only start.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads a race-high 106 laps in his DEI Budweiser Chevy and wins in only his 12th Cup start. His father and car owner, Dale Earnhardt, greets him in Victory Lane for an emotional post-race celebration.

Adam Petty, great-grandson of Lee, grandson of Richard and son of Kyle, makes his one and only Cup appearance in the No. 45 Petty Enterprises entry.

No one realizes how bittersweet the day will be for the Pettys, though. Later that week the patriarch of the family, Lee, passes away. And tragically, just over one month later on May 12, Adam passes as well, when the throttle on his car sticks and he hits the wall while practicing for the Busch Series race at New Hampshire.

November 2009 Race Winner: Kurt Busch
April 2010 Race Winner: Denny Hamlin

April 2010 Top 10
1.    Deny Hamlin
2.    Jimmie Johnson
3.    Kyle Busch
4.    Kurt Busch
5.    Kasey Kahne
6.    Mark Martin
7.    Kevin Harvick
8.    Dale Earnhardt Jr.
9.    Martin Truex Jr.
10.  Greg Biffle

April 2010 Laps Led
Jeff Gordon — 124
Tony Stewart — 74
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 46
Jimmie Johnson — 39
Greg Biffle — 13
Denny Hamlin — 12
Jeff Burton/Jamie McMurray — 10
Kurt Busch/Juan Pablo Montoya — 2
Travis Kvapil/Michael McDowell — 1

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Follow Matt and Nathan on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro   @AthlonNathan

Post date: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 - 10:03
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/disaster-averted

By Matt Taliaferro

It was the race that kept Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick awake at night. The three drivers left to settle the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup knew the Amp Energy Juice 500 from Talladega Superspeedway would be the ultimate wild card race in a tight championship battle.

After 188 white-knuckle laps with giant packs of cars in tight drafting quarters, the trio of contenders escaped unscathed, and more incredulously, all with top 10s. In fact, one — Harvick — came within a foot of winning.

Instead, it was Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer, who won the lottery after finding the right draft to get him in the right position at the right time and have just enough of an advantage over Harvick when a caution was displayed after the leaders had taken the white flag.

AJ Allmendinger’s frightening spin, flip and head-on contact with the inside wall triggered a yellow flag as four leaders entered Turn 1 in two-by-two formation. Bowyer edged out Harvick and David Reutimann with drafting assistance from Juan Pablo Monotya to score his second win of the season, both having come in the Chase.

"Just very, very happy for a lot of reasons," Bowyer said. "Everybody at RCR has worked very hard to get us back. To have Kevin racing for a championship is where obviously Jeff [Burton] and I wanted to be. But to have him still in a shot at winning a championship, that's very important. To be able to win two races in a Chase for our race team is very important."

Despite Bowyer’s win, he remains 12th in the standings after being penalized 150 points after an infraction found after the New Hampshire event, which Bowyer won. But the focus of the point standings now centers on the top three, where Johnson, who finished seventh, holds a 14-point lead over Hamlin, who ran ninth on Sunday. Harvick remains third, just 38 points out of the lead.

Harvick suffered nose damage to his No. 29 Chevy with 46 laps remaining, when Bowyer spun the car of Marcos Ambrose while racing in the pack. The contact dented Harvick’s nose, but the crew repaired the car with duct tape and Bondo and, miraculously, the aero-sensitive car seemed unaffected.

"When I saw him start to spin, I didn't want to spin out," Harvick explained of the accident with Ambrose. "I didn't want to come back up the racetrack. I didn't want to spin backwards and have a chance of getting in the wall.

"He just kind of rolled across the nose. I was able to just kind of not keep hitting him. I was able to just kind of go back on the gas and push him off of me. That was the best way I knew at that point to minimize the damage on the nose.

"[The crew] did a great job fixing it. Got the fenders pulled out. As long as we were in the middle of the pack, we were fine."

Johnson laid back at the tail end of the field for a large portion of the race, waiting patiently with teammate Jeff Gordon to make one last mad dash through the field near the end. When the duo decided to go with 16 laps remaining, neither expected to slice through the field as quick as they did. Within two laps they drove from 26th and 27th to first and second, only to get shuffled back when Gordon dropped back due to what he believed to be an engine issue. Without his drafting partner, Johnson plummeted through the field, but Gordon’s engine came back to life and the two recovered to finish seventh and eighth, respectively.

"We had a strategy [and] stuck to our game plan," Johnson said of riding in the back and making a late charge. "In the end, I had a shot at winning the race, which is what we were after. Unfortunately, the 24 [Gordon] felt like he had an engine problem developing once we got to the front [and] kind of pulled out of the way so he wouldn't blow an engine in front of me or the field. In the end, he was pumping some oil out and didn't have an engine problem.

"Where things kind of went wrong for us was on that restart. Things must have shuffled around behind the 77 [Sam Hornish Jr.]. The 77 and I were the only ones in the middle lane, which was the outside lane at the restart. The inside lane was well-organized. The outside lane, I think Kevin and some of those guys were hooked up and motoring on by.  At that point we were just trying to get back up in there for a decent finish. On my way sliding backwards, I found the 24 again. He pushed me [and] we made our way up through the center."

Hamlin struggled as well, only to rebound late. Employing the same sandbagging strategy as Johnson, Hamlin rode in the back but at one point lost the draft and went one lap down. He wasn’t able to get back on the lead lap until the Harvick/Ambrose incident, but once there, hooked up with his teammate, Kyle Busch, and drafted to the front. However, the Joe Gibbs Racing duo sat atop the pylon too early — with 30 laps to go — opening the door for others to pair up and draft by.

"We were in great position to win with two to go," Hamlin said. "I had a push from the 5 [Mark Martin], but as soon as we passed the 48 [Johnson], he stopped pushing. It killed us. That's what I would expect of a teammate, but we weren't around teammates at the end."

The three points leaders are now prepared to settle the championship over the last three races — at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. And with a 38-point spread, it’s still anyone’s title.

"We need to be as competitive and as fast as we can possibly be at this point," Johnson said of the final trio of stops. "We're going to three tracks that are good for all three competitors. You're going to have to run in the top 5 to stay in the game then, obviously, take advantage of things and win if you can.

"Ten extra points from first to second are going to be important. Leading laps, leading the most laps, you're going to have to be on you’re A-game from here on out."

Clint Bowyer played chess better than the rest on Sunday, and the three championship contenders — Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — managed to avoid the pitfalls of Talladega in the Amp Energy Juice 500.
Post date: Monday, November 1, 2010 - 12:15
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/racing-returns-fans-vanish

by Mike Neff

Martinsville Speedway provided another fantastic race last weekend with 24 lead changes among 12 drivers swapping paint and knocking fenders. Six points now separate first and second in the Chase standings by virtue of Denny Hamlin’s win, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a leader for 90 laps. And, maybe most telling, was that there was no late-race debris caution thrown to engineer an exciting finish.

The race was attended by 56,000 fans — 92 percent capacity for the speedway — while 3.9 million fans watched the race on television. While at first blush those numbers seem decent, when compared to the rest of the Chase races, the Martinsville event was behind California, Dover and Charlotte in terms of attendance and viewership. Fans continue to vocally complain about what is wrong with NASCAR and how it needs to get back to its short track racing roots, but fail to back that up with their actions.

Martinsville Speedway has been on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule since the series’ first season in 1949 and is one of only two race tracks still in existence from that inaugural season. Hard core fans scream about tradition, history and how the sanctioning body turns its back on the foundation of the sport, but when the time comes to support these cornerstone facilities, the fans continue to drop the ball.

There’s no doubt that the Martinsville, Va., area is suffering mightily during this economic downturn, with unemployment near 20 percent. However, local fans are only part of the attendance for any major touring series event, and fans from outside of the region need to speak with their wallets by showing up at the half-mile paper clip. Of course, there are the usually excuses from fans — the traffic is a problem, parking is difficult, ticket prices are too high, hotel rates are ridiculous — but by comparison, Martinsville is on par with all of the other tracks on the schedule.

The speedway has done its best to help alleviate the traffic problems associated with entering and exiting the venue. Track management has worked with the state of Virginia to secure a grant from the Tobacco Commission for an upgrade to the immediate area’s infrastructure, ultimately building a new exit ramp from US 58 next to the speedway to help ease traffic flow. As part of the agreement securing the grant, International Speedway Corp. has promised to host two Sprint Cup races at the facility for the next five years. The Virginia Tourism Commission has also committed to assisting in promoting the Martinsville races through its nationwide marketing campaigns.

As far as ticket prices, Martinsville is always trying to make the racing experience affordable for the fans. This year it offered a family four pack for the Tums Fast Relief 500 that allowed a family to purchase four tickets (two adult and two child), four hot dogs, four soft drinks and two Martinsville hats for $99. To score four tickets to a Cup race for $25 is a pretty decent deal to begin with, but add in food, drinks and souvenirs for four and it is pretty hard to claim the speedway isn’t doing its best to make attending a Cup race affordable. In addition, Martinsville offered other tickets specials, from $25 backstretch and $40 Bill France Tower seats to $55 Clay Earl Tower and $65 Sprint Tower seats. The prices are without a doubt as reasonable as any found on the Cup schedule, and offer a wide variety of options.

Weather is also a factor that tends to make fans stay away from races, and Martinsville has been working hard with NASCAR to try and move its spring date closer to the late-April timeframe it occupied for years. Next year’s schedule sees the spring race moved to the first weekend in April, which will certainly allow for more comfortable conditions. The fall race lands on Halloween weekend in 2011, which should be an ideal time to enjoy the hills of southern Virginia.

The bottom line is that the fans can complain all they want that NASCAR is getting away from its roots by moving more and more races to 1.5- and 2-mile cookie-cutter tracks, but when the rubber hits the road, the fans are dropping the ball in proving to the sanctioning body that short track racing is what they want to see.

The track offers some of the best racing, year in and year out, that anyone will see during the season. Cars beat and bang, strategy comes into play and occasionally there are even dustups on and off the track, as we saw last weekend with Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon. However, the fans left 4,000 empty seats in the stands on Sunday and didn’t tune in for the television broadcast, so there’s no reason for the suits in Daytona to be impressed with a crowd of 56,000 fans for a great race when Fontana gets ripped for having 70,000 in the stands at a boring one.

The populace is going to the polls next week to elect government officials for the next two years and a groundswell seems determined to send a message to Washington that the changes they’ve seen the last couple of years are unacceptable. The fans of NASCAR need to do the same thing with the races at Martinsville and the other short tracks if they truly want to see change. Because if the races at NASCAR’s oldest track are not sold out next year and the year after, then when the five-year commitment from ISC runs its course, the only people to blame for the demise of the track will be the absentee fans.

The racing at Martinsville was as good as NASCAR fans have seen all season, yet attendance and viewership was still down. Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff warns that without fan support, the grand old short track stands no chance in the boardroom, where its future will be determined.
Post date: Thursday, October 28, 2010 - 15:45
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-3

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Jimmie Johnson  Upcoming Talladega race is the true wild card of the Chase ... and with apologies to Denny Hamlin, the only thing inside Johnson’s head right now.

2. Denny Hamlin  Quite a statement win by Hamlin at Martinsville with Talladega next, followed by three Hamlin-friendly tracks to end the season. This oughta be good!

3. Kevin Harvick  Harvick may be the best of the top three at Talladega, a track where he won in April.

4. Kyle Busch  His roller coaster of a Chase continues — on his way up at the moment — following a runner-up at Charlotte and a fourth at Martinsville.

5. Carl Edwards  Throw out that pesky distributor problem in Fontana and Edwards has 14 straight finishes of 12th or better.

6. Jeff Gordon  Kurt Busch should be happy that short track season is over, because Gordon would have him dead to rights if Bristol were up next.

7. Jamie McMurray  Had McMurray made the Chase he would only be 112 points out of the lead and heading to one of his best tracks at Talladega.

Denny Hamlin walked the walk at Martinsville, but Jimmie Johnson once again notched a top-5 finish and continues to hold the top spot in Athlon Sports’ weekly Horsepower Rankings.
Post date: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 - 17:07
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/talladega-superspeedway

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Location: Talladega, Al.
Distance: 2.66-mile tri-oval (500.1 laps/188 miles)
Banking/Turns: 33 degrees; Banking/Tri-Oval: 18 degrees; Banking/Backstretch: 2 degrees
Race Dates: April 25 (Kevin Harvick) and October 31

From the Spotter’s Stand
It’s not just Will Ferrell who runs around Talladega’s 2.66-mile tri-oval worrying about "The Big One." Many fantasy racing owners shrugged at Brad Keselowski’s win in April 2009, after Carl Edwards went spark-flying into the air and smacked the safety fence in front of the fans in the closing seconds of an exciting Talladega night ... well, afternoon.

Keselowski edged out Dale Earnhardt Jr. — who is third all-time in Talladega history with five wins in 21 races, behind Jeff Gordon (six in 35 starts) and his bumper-sticker-celebrated father (10 in 44 runs) — despite leading only one lap, albeit the most important one of his career.

In November 2009, Jamie McMurray coasted to a victory following — you guessed it — "The Big One," which hit in the form of a 13-car crash out of Turn 4, forcing the fifth caution flag of the race with one lap to go. Ryan Newman landed on the roof of his car to send the race three laps past the scheduled 188 circuits. In a confusing finish, Kasey Kahne attempted a pass but was blocked by McMurray, who earned his first victory at Talladega.

The April 2010 version also came with the customary "Big One" with two laps remaining when Joey Logano turned the snakebit Newman, setting off a nine-car melee. When Newman voiced his displeasure with the parameters of plate racing in a post-accident interview, it drew the ire of NASCAR, which ìsecretlyî fined him — a fact that came out months later.

As for the ending, it was a classic: Kevin Harvick glued the nose of his Chevy to McMurray’s bumper (see a pattern here?) and pushed him away from the field. As the two screamed through the tri-oval with checkers in the air, Harvick made his move, loosening McMurray slightly and slipping low for a .011-second win.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the one track every Chase driver fears this weekend: Big, bad Talladega Superspeedway. Athlon Sports' Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush bring you up to drafting speed in our weekly Tracks on Tap feature.
Post date: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 - 10:02
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/tighten

by Matt Taliaferro

Denny Hamlin claimed to have been biding his time, keeping points leader Jimmie Johnson within drafting distance and waiting to get to the second half of the Chase with its Hamlin-friendly venues. Martinsville was to be Stop No. 1 on the Hamlin Express tour, and thus far, the plan is going extremely well.

Hamlin sat on the pole, led 40 laps and had the car dialed in when it mattered en route to winning the Tums Fast Relief 500, his third consecutive victory at Martinsville Speedway. The triumph narrowed the Chase landscape, as Hamlin finds himself six points behind Johnson in the title hunt. Johnson finished fifth at Martinsville, while Kevin Harvick kept pace with both drivers by virtue of a third-place run to stay within 62 points of Johnson.

"I think it was a ‘must finish in front of’ race," Hamlin said. "I couldn’t lose points to him [Johnson], not at this racetrack. We’ve run too good here the last few years to lose points to him at this racetrack. Literally, I just kept him and the 29 [Harvick] in my sights all day long."

The win was Hamlin’s series-best seventh of the season and his first of the Chase. The Virginia native had been strong in the five previous playoff events — not having finished worse than 12th — but Johnson had managed to finish in front of Hamlin each week save one and was on a run of four consecutive top-three showings. Simply put, Johnson was winning the battle of "anything you can do, I can do better."

That changed at Martinsville, where Hamlin arrived with a swagger not seen since a regular-season finale win in Richmond, another home-state track for the fifth-year Joe Gibbs Racing pilot. The race was not without peril, though. Hamlin slid out of the top 10 at the drop of the green, battling a car that he admitted to feeling some reservations about on race morning.

Denny Hamlin won the Tums Fast Relief 500 from Martinsville Speedway, and in the process closed to within six points of Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Post date: Monday, October 25, 2010 - 12:19
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/king-without-crown

by Vito Pugliese

It’s late October, and the cold and flu season is starting to fire up. A friend of mine on a business trip to Las Vegas had to come home early last week after she came down with strep throat. Last Saturday night in Charlotte, Kasey Kahne apparently was feeling ill, getting sick in his racecar before crashing it.

After an accident on lap 125 where Kahne collected Sam Hornish Jr., Kahne’s mangled machine was brought to the garage area. Once his car was made drivable again, Kahne refused to get back in, citing sickness, including having vomited inside the car. During the event Kahne was critical of the car’s poor handling, low power and, for the second time in three weeks, lack of brakes — not exactly comforting while entering Turn 1 at 195 mph.

When Kahne made clear his decision to not play the role of crash test dummy, he was approached by an unnamed crewman on the team, imploring him to ìstart pulling his weightî and get back out on the track. Kahne, who had likely tired of not being able to slow down reliably while at a high rate of speed, refused, and J.J. Yeley was summoned to complete the race, ending the night 120 laps down in the 38th position.

On Wednesday, Richard Petty Motorsports announced that Kahne had been released of his driving duties of the No. 9 Budweiser Ford. Several mechanics who had planned to follow Kahne to Red Bull Racing in 2011 were also summarily dismissed. Kahne had driven the No. 9 car since he came to the Cup Series in 2004, driving for then owner Ray Evernham.

On Thursday, it became apparent that there was bigger trouble within the walls of RPM, extending far beyond just firing the star driver and loss of mega-million dollar sponsor Budweiser. Such as been the plight of RPM the last couple of years. From not being able to pay drivers A.J. Allmendinger or Reed Sorensen last year, to questions surrounding the financial viability of the organization before the 2009 season even began, the Jenga stack upon which this team was built has continued to have key cogs slide out one by one every few months.

The events of the past two weeks are far removed from a year ago, when Kahne’s team won races in Sonoma and Atlanta and qualified for the Chase for the Championship — albeit in what were truly Gillett-Evernham Dodges, with the King’s familiar silhouette adorning the cars and war wagon.

So how have all the King’s horses and all the King’s men gotten to this point?

Primarily due to the actions of the Humpty to their Dumpty, owner George Gillett and his son, Foster. As a major player in returning Chrysler back into NASCAR competition, Evernham sold his Evernham Motorsports operation to businessman George Gillett halfway through the 2007 season. Evernham had distanced himself a bit from the team while tending to issues in his personal life. Some may recall former driver Jeremy Mayfield calling attention to these publicly, which eventually cost him his ride, and likely led him down the path that has seen him embroiled in a legal battle with NASCAR for over a year now.

Startling developments at Richard Petty Motorsports have NASCAR Nation wondering if all the king's men can put a once-proud organization back together again.
Post date: Friday, October 22, 2010 - 16:49
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/horsepower-rankings/horsepower-rankings-2

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Jimmie Johnson  Not even a self-induced spin at Charlotte could keep Johnson from notching his fourth consecutive top-three finish. Seriously, he’s not a robot, is he?

2. Denny Hamlin  Hamlin is doing his best to keep pace, but while Johnson clicks off top-three runs, Hamlin is more in the fourth- to 12th-place range.

3. Kevin Harvick  Harvick is averaging a 7.6-place finish in the Chase and still finds himself in a 77-point hole.

4. Kyle Busch  Red hot for five races, out to lunch for two and then back in the game with a strong runner-up showing in Charlotte. It’s really hard to figure this kid out.

5. Tony Stewart  Stewart gained 60 points on Johnson in Kansas and California only to lose 70 in a forgettable performance in Charlotte. Time to start testing for next year, Tony.

6. Jeff Gordon  Gordon’s Chase hopes came tumbling down in Charlotte, too, courtesy of a faulty alternator and a pit-road speeding violation.

7. Greg Biffle  It’s feast or famine for Biffle, who carries the hopes and dreams of teenagers with braces with him each week.

Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch duked it out for the win in Charlotte, while Jimmie Johnson snuck in a stealthy third-place run, and once again tops Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings
Post date: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 09:34
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/track-tap/martinsville-speedway

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Location: Martinsville, Va.
Distance: .526-mile oval (500 laps/263 miles)
Banking/Turns: 12 degrees
Race Dates: March 28 (Denny Hamlin) and October 24

From the Spotter’s Stand
The shortest track on the Cup schedule has an even shorter list of recent winners. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have combined to win the last eight races at the half-mile paperclip, with Johnson nabbing five wins to Hamlin’s three.

Hamlin led 296 laps in the spring of 2009 before being nudged by Johnson on Lap 485 of 500. The 48 car then pulled away to win by .774 seconds on March 29 — which also happened to be the 25th anniversary of Rick Hendrick’s first Cup win as an owner.

Revenge was served in late October, however, when Hamlin (206) and Johnson (164) combined to lead 370 of 501 laps; but it was Hamlin doing the passing and taking the checkers for his second win and eighth top-10 in nine starts.

Earlier this season it was Hamlin again who took control and led a race-high 172 laps en route to his second straight Martinsville win by just .67 seconds over Joey Logano.

Jeff Gordon has hauled a few Grandfather clocks out of Virginia in his time. Gordon leads all active drivers with seven wins in Martinsville. He trails only Richard Petty (15), and Darrell Waltrip (11) and is tied with Rusty Wallace for the most all-time wins at the Cup circuit’s oldest track. His last wins came in 2005, when he swept both events, and the four-time champion hasn’t finished worse than fifth in the nine races since.

Crew Chief’s Take
"It’s a long day in the sun there, and you don’t win it by roaring out of the box. You can’t use up your brakes; you can’t use up any of your equipment. It’s hard to pass at Martinsville because it’s so tight. It’s not nearly as fast as Bristol, but we have as much contact at Martinsville as we do at Bristol. There aren’t as many incidents because the pace is slower. The faster you run, the more you’re on the edge of grip. When you lose grip, you make more contact. It’s inevitable, but a driver has to keep cool. The ones who don’t like to be touched don’t do well here."

Post date: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 - 15:28
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/limit

by Tom Bowles

“It’s tough, when you sit down and think about it; the saddest thing is that you never got a chance to say goodbye to him. But oh, how he lived.”  — Kerry Cramer

One of Tim Richmond’s lifetime friends sums it up perfectly, the triumph and tragedy captured in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on the NASCAR legend that could have been. It’s the story of a talented driver brought down by both the phobia and the poison of AIDS, a story in cultural contradiction between the loose-living, feel-good attitude of a man whose brash ways inevitably clashed with a conservative Southern culture. It was a tale of awkward acceptance, then ignorance and a long list of misunderstandings until it was far too late.

The story should bring you to tears, and by the end you’re certainly crying your eyes out for a life that didn’t deserve this ugly ending. But in the 50 minutes until we get there, this documentary produced by NASCAR Media Group achieves a type of even-keeled balance you rarely see, making it a must for your TV schedule once it premieres Tuesday, 8:00 p.m. on ESPN. Put together through a detailed, chronological look at Richmond’s life and career, we see the beauty of a free-wheelin’, naturally talented party animal rise and fall in a way no one in this sport had done before or since.

Through it all, in this age of earthquake-shattering declines in ratings and perception you can’t help but wonder how much NASCAR would beg to have his personality now. An excitable, always optimistic soul, he had the fashion sense employed by Manhattanites Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, a “cosmopolitan man,” as the documentary says, living in a good ol’ boys world. But while the driver got lost, even beaten down initially inside a sea of cowboy hats and one-track minds, the bright, engaging side of his personality never stopped to become a sponsor shrill. From start to finish, it was Richmond doing things his own way, the type of charismatic character brought forth in a film that leaves hardcore fans longing for a simpler time.

“Are you going to win, or are you going to survive?” a reporter asks Richmond in a clip from the early ’80s. “Win,” he says. “I don’t know how to spell survive. Win is a lot easier to spell. M-O-N-E-Y is what they call it.”

How many millions will you bet that no one inside this year’s Chase for the Championship field ever says that? In some ways, this man stood alone while in others, he served as a preview of the sweeping NASCAR changes to come during the Jeff Gordon era of the 1990s and beyond.

“He didn’t know much more mechanically about the car than your average Labrador retriever,” claims Humpy Wheeler, one of many similarities he has with Gordon and others who followed him at Hendrick Motorsports. “He just knew how to drive one naturally as good as I ever saw.”

During a time where mechanics also doubled as men behind the wheel, it was one of one thousand reasons this playboy who originally started his career in IndyCar struggled to gain acceptance. For those that think the lawsuits of the last two years are truly heinous — Mauricia Grant and Jeremy Mayfield — think back to a time in the mid-1980s where just a white boy with a northern accent would walk around the garage and get looked at like an unwanted outsider.

“The conservative, beer-drinking guys from the south, it was a tough road,” says Jerry Punch in the film. “They didn’t like him because he was different.”

“NASCAR had a hard time accepting him because he wasn’t one of those good ol’ boys,” adds sister Sandi Walsh. “And he struggled those first years.”

In a way, then, his 1986 partnership with then-up and coming businessman Hendrick was like a match made in heaven. Two industry outsiders, two new philosophies filtering into the sport, combining together to harness a talent that throughout the first seven years’ of Richmond’s career had been filled with potential — not overall performance. It was simply breathtaking to review all over again. Bring in a military-style, award-winning crew chief named Harry Hyde, and you have all the ingredients for a Hollywood story. Indeed, one of the few omissions from this outstanding production is the fact this trio provided the basis for the 1990 NASCAR mainstream movie Days of Thunder.

“One of the greatest talents that ever drove one of these cars,” said Hendrick, whose penchant for matching the perfect pairing led to a breakout season for Richmond: seven victories, eight poles, and a third-place finish in the final standings. By this point, it’s the halfway mark of the film and you’re roped into the heart of this storybook success, waiting patiently for the fairy tale ending that never comes.

Then, out of nowhere the nightmare begins, a film’s shocking transition into the dark prejudice of AIDS and resulting contraction that ultimately brought Richmond down. The national ignorance and fear within the NASCAR community is captured brilliantly here by director Rory Karpf, some shocking admissions of mistakes within a sanctioning body that usually says the words “I’m sorry” next to never.

“‘Ignorant’ is the best word you can use to describe what he was going through,” says Kyle Petty, surrounding Richmond’s downfall and resulting isolation. During the 15-month period between December 1986 and his final departure from the sport following the 1988 Busch Clash, a brief comeback gets nixed along with a second, the latter including a “failed” drug test that even Bill France Jr. admits was a mistake. One by one, the myths of a mystery disease get exposed, the tricky national controversy a then-growing sport just wouldn’t make the gamble to take on.

And that’s where this film rises bluntly to the occasion, presenting both sides in a way that you actually find yourself sympathetic to NASCAR’s tough decisions despite its cold-blooded intentions. Surely, there were missteps in a problem that, if handled differently, could have been a landmark in the fight to change the perception of AIDS. But in any relationship breakdown, it takes two to tango and Tim’s portrayal as someone who never came to grips with this deadly disease makes you understand how quickly this disaster began to snowball, allowing the phobias to strengthen by his own ignorance to accept the tragic hand that was dealt.

Still, when all is said and done it’s Richmond’s fellow competitors in the crosshairs, the deep seeds of refusal to both acknowledge and accept something different at the heart of the film’s central message.

“He was a heck of a race car driver, but I don’t know how strung out he was on something to make him that way,” Richard Petty says, speaking words that, considering the 21-year gap between Richmond’s death and the breadth of AIDS awareness now, are simply stunning. “If I was taking something, I might be a little different, too.”

“Everybody I’ve ever known that tries to play hardball with NASCAR loses,” adds Punch, a quote that sticks from a battle Richmond fought and ultimately lost to stay inside the sport as he grew sicker. “Because they own the ball and they own the playing court.”

As you might expect, that’s where Karpf heads towards the inevitable tragic conclusion steeped with the pain of personal connections that drive its point home. But keep in mind this film isn’t without some brighter moments; in fact, both the beginning and end is where you keep your eyes open for my favorite person, the hometown friend of Richmond’s who has a beard to make hippie Santa Claus proud. I’ve never been so excited to hear the words “honey” and “nice” used in the same sentence — absolutely hysterical. Stroker Ace aficionado Hal Needham is among a handful of other surprise guest who make an appearance.

Looking back at the Hall of Fame selections this week, it’s hard to quantify just how much, if any, impact a full-fledged Richmond career could have had. Considering he drove in the same era and style as one Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, you’d have to believe one, if not multiple championships, would have swung his way instead. That alone would have swayed the type of heavyweight punch to change a sport forever, Earnhardt’s absence on the first induction likely in a building that could have very well one day sported Richmond’s bust.

The fact that will never come to pass is one of the most tragic, unfulfilled potential stories in the sport’s rich 61-year history. I’m just glad there’s a perfect documentary out there to do it justice.

ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary is a fitting and poignant look at the hard times and fast life of NASCAR's ultimate shooting star: Tim Richmond.
Post date: Monday, October 18, 2010 - 20:11
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/big-money-mcmurray

by Matt Taliaferro

Kyle Busch led a ton of laps. Jamie McMurray scored his third unlikely win of a career-resurgent season. A debris caution flew with under 25 laps remaining. Yes, the Bank of America 500 from Charlotte Motor Speedway had a tinge of familiarity about it, with the most noticeable aspect being that Chase dictator Jimmie Johnson scored yet another top-3 finish.

Johnson overcame an early-race solo spin to drive through the field for his fourth consecutive run of third or better and extended his points lead to a not-yet-insurmountable 41 points. While the four-time defending champion dodged and weaved his way through the pack, Kyle Busch found the point on lap nine and led for 217 of the next 304 circuits. However, a caution flag thrown for debris on the backstretch on lap 310 incensed "Rowdy," bunched the field up for a final 20 laps and gave McMurray a final shot at scoring the first win by a non-Chaser thus far in 2010.

The Earnhardt-Ganassi driver took full advantage of a rare restart mistake by Busch and drove away in clean air to notch a third big win — along with victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 — in the 2010 season.

"I feel like I do a really good job when the tires spin [on restarts] of not spinning my tires," McMurray explained. "And it’s very hard to discipline yourself when you have 900 horsepower to not continue to push the throttle down till they spin. When they start spinning, you lose a tremendous amount of speed, and it’s very hard when you know victory lane is the difference of spinning the tires and not.

"You know, I went through Turns 1 and 2 wide open and I got a little bit of a run on Kyle and I heard the spotter say, ‘He’s still there ... he’s still there ... clear.’

"And as soon as I heard ‘clear,’ it’s amazing when his front bumper breaks the plane of your rear bumper, how you feel the car lurch forward, because there’s so much drag when they are side-drafting you. As soon as I heard the spotter say ‘clear’ and I felt that — that’s a pretty good feeling, I promise you."

"Big Money" McMurray broke through for another wins in Saturday's Bank of America 500 in Charlotte. Hot on heels, though, was points leader Jimmie Johnson, who increased his lead in the Chase standings to 41 points over Denny Hamlin.
Post date: Monday, October 18, 2010 - 13:54