Articles By Matt Taliaferro

All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-25-paul-menard
Body:

Teaser:
<p> Paul Menard joins Richard Childress Racing this season, in hopes of topping his career-best points finish from one year ago. Menard and the new No. 27 team place 25th in Athlon Sports&#39; 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 - 11:18
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-26-regan-smith
Body:

Teaser:
Regan Smith and the Furniture Row Racing outfit look to build on an encouraging 2010. The upstart team slots in at No. 26 on Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.
Post date: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 - 11:11
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-27-bobby-labonte
Body:

Teaser:
Bobby Labonte and the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing team slot in at No. 27 on Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.
Post date: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 - 11:03
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-28-marcos-ambrose
Body:

Teaser:
Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown continues with Marcos Ambrose and his Richard Petty Motorsports team, in at No. 28.
Post date: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 - 10:58
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-29-david-ragan
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2011 Driver Countdown

No. 6 UPS Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Owner: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Drew Blickensderfer

Years with current team: 6
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 13th (2008)

Hometown: Unadilla, Ga.
Born: December 24, 1985

2011 Spin
No offense meant to David Ragan, but he seems to have things a little bit backwards. Drivers are supposed to have a sophomore slump, then take off and improve for good. But for Ragan, a once-promising career has wound up mired in mediocrity, leaving the driver of the No. 6 UPS Ford with a 2011 ultimatum: Shape up or ship out.

A promising 2008 season — when he scored six top-5 finishes, 14 top 10s and a Chase near-miss of 13th in points — seems like a century ago. In the two seasons since, the 25-year-old has a combined five top-10 finishes compared to six DNFs in 72 starts since landing the money and marketing of one of the sport’s biggest sponsors. What’s happening here? Did Ragan suddenly forget how to drive, or does Roush’s internal engineering for the No. 6 car leave much to be desired?

Turns out it’s both — plus, bad chemistry at the crew chief position that killed confidence. Donnie Wingo took the helm from Jimmy Fennig for 2010 but only lasted until September, when Drew Blickensderfer became the latest man to hold the job starting at Dover. Ragan scored his third and final top 10 of the year with his new crew chief at Texas in early November, but no real change in performance was apparent after the move.

“We just didn’t have luck on our side,” Ragan said of this latest year to forget. “Nevertheless, looks like a good offseason for us.”

Sounds like an optimistic view in the face of a cold, uncertain reality. Bad luck can be the explanation for some of the poor runs, but two seasons’ worth? It’s obvious something else is going on here, whether it’s a driver who wasn’t as good as advertised or perhaps an organization stretched a bit too thin to make sure all four teams run evenly. Whatever the case, something has to change for the No. 6 — and fast. Insiders say owner Jack Roush had already considered releasing Ragan last summer, but couldn’t because of contractual obligations that kept him as the permanent driver for UPS. He’ll have no such restrictions this November, as that deal runs out at the end of this season; it means this once-developmental driver has to be looking over his shoulder at rising talents Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Roush Fenway Racing’s Nationwide program.

You can bet that if the No. 6 can’t deliver on results this year, the driver, the sponsor, or both won’t be delivered back to RFR for 2012.

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

Ragan’s career is stalled — in reverse even — and Jack Roush isn’t particularly known for his patience. “In many ways, I think he’s come a long way,” says a crew chief. “He’s starting to assert himself on the track, but where he goes from here is anybody’s guess. When all the other Roush Fenway cars started moving up and getting more competitive, he couldn’t make much of a move.”

Another crew chief disagrees: “He’s gone backwards. When he first got to Cup, he was in over his head. Then he learned how to stay out of trouble. Now he’s got some pressure on him, and he’s in over his head again.” Another says, “I’d bet he’d be out by season’s end, if not before. My driver can’t stand racing with Ragan.”

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 0
Top 10s: 3
Poles: 0
Laps Led: 13
Laps Completed: 10,541
Lead Lap Finishes: 21
Bonus Points: 20
Races Led: 4
Average Start: 22.5
Average Finish: 21.3
After First 26 Races: 25th
Final Points Standind: 24th
Driver Rating: 66.2 (25th)

Teaser:
Looking to rebound from a slumping 2010, Roush Fenway Racing's David Ragan is in at No. 29 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.
Post date: Monday, January 24, 2011 - 12:25
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-30-david-gilliland
Body:

Teaser:
As Daytona approaches, Athlon Sports kicks off its 2011 Driver Countdown with David Gilliland, who comes in at No. 30.
Post date: Monday, January 24, 2011 - 12:18
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/10-tough-questions-part-5
Body:

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.

by Matt Taliaferro

9. What could NASCAR possibly have to gain by “secretly” fining Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman after Hamlin’s comments last year via Twitter concerning late-race debris cautions (among other things) and Newman’s damning assessment of plate racing at Daytona and Talladega?

To understand this, you must understand the antiquated line of thinking that pervades the sport’s leadership.

NASCAR wants controversy. It craves headlines. Since its January 2010 “Boys, have at it” edict, it has actually encouraged personality and outspokenness among its competitors. Unless, of course, that outspokenness is directed at the sanctioning body itself.

So when Hamlin admitted to being “secretly” fined $50,000 by NASCAR, the absurd rationale of the brass in Daytona was revealed. After all, how can a fine of this magnitude be levied in such a covert manner without the garage area — a place where rumors run rampant and some media members share a borderline unprofessional chumminess with the competitors — knowing about it.

Hamlin crossed the line in late July, insinuating that debris cautions were being thrown late in races to improve the show — basically stating that NASCAR was attempting to engineer exciting finishes.

Newman’s sin may have been more noble, but was viewed with no less consternation after a Talladega crash.

“No business owner would permit employees, vendors or partners to damage their business — nor can we,” NASCAR’s managing director of corporate communications, Ramsey Poston, said. “It is the sanctioning body’s obligation on behalf of the entire industry to protect the brand, just like every other major sport.”

Fair enough. You don’t work for me, but please don’t work against me, right? NASCAR is a sport that has to sell itself harder than ever to win the entertainment dollar of Joe and Jane Fan. When its legitimacy is called into question by a swarming media and on message boards by fans across the internet, the last thing it needs are its drivers fanning the flames of conspiracy and calling its credibility into question.

However, the way to handle those drivers is not by secretly penalizing them. The NFL, NBA or MLB may drop the hammer on its participants’ criticisms, but the crime and punishment are outlined in minute detail so players’ unions, ownership groups and fans are assured said punishment fits the crime. Not so, in this family-owned sport. No checks and balances — not without a players’ union. And nothing short of franchising will bring that into existence.

It’s situations such as these, when the sport’s benevolence could rule the day, reassuring its skeptics that any credibility issues can be put to rest, that NASCAR finds its long lost consistency. The problem is, the only consistency displayed is a relapse into an outmoded iron-fisted rule: “Boys, have at it on the track, but don’t you dare cross the line off it.”
 

Teaser:
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: Friday, January 21, 2011 - 14:34
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/10-tough-questions-part-4
Body:

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.

by Matt Taliaferro and Tom Bowles

7. Does NASCAR need to change its officiating style … and will it?

Like NASCAR, stick ’n’ ball sports aren’t immune to controversial calls. So why do stock car officials wind up with the worst rap? Simple: visual aides. NFL challenges, MLB instant replay on home runs and NBA shot clocks can help tell us whether a decision is right or wrong, leading to endless and exciting debates at the office the next day.

How can racing fans do that with, say, a season finale in which Kevin Harvick was busted for speeding, then accused Jimmie Johnson of sneaking by without so much as a warning? No media member or fan gets a look at pit road times, and all we see is a bunch of cars charging real slowly on the screen towards pit out. NASCAR refuses to publicly release those times, just like it won’t adequately explain a rules violation from Clint Bowyer that contains a top line that would make any politician proud.

Behold, Section 20-3: “The car body location specifications in reference to the certified chassis does not meet the NASCAR-approved specifications.”

What specifications? What tolerances? What in the world does that mean? You’d have to go through 16 pages to find out, in a rulebook not every Joe Schmo on the street can access. Considering NASCAR’s inauspicious history with penalty calls – just look at some of these other questions in the book for proof – it’s no surprise that this breeds suspicion in a transparent world where WikiLeaks, Facebook and Deadspin feed the public’s desire to know.

For generations, that’s how the France family has run NASCAR, a family-owned dictatorship with more secrets than Nixon and Watergate. But that needs to stop, pronto, if the sport wants to stop the bleeding of angry fans and nose-diving attendance. It’s time to drop the act, open the books and work to ensure that fans can believe in the legitimacy of officials’ calls.

And while the Boyer penalty is fresh on our minds …
 

Teaser:
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: Thursday, January 20, 2011 - 10:08
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/10-tough-questions-part-3
Body:

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.

by Matt Taliaferro and Tom Bowles

5. Are tweaks to the Chase format needed to bring interest back into NASCAR’s playoffs?

At this point, it’s tough to unequivocally say yes or no. NASCAR CEO Brian France’s fascination with “Game 7 moments,” repeated throughout 2010, drove talk of elimination rounds in the Chase that would encourage (read: engineer) a paper-thin title battle. When drivers, fans and media nearly universally decried the idea, an alternate concept was hatched.

An Associated Press report earlier this week suggested the sanctioning body is looking at a completely revamped points system that simplifies the points-payout structure and places a premium on both winning and consistency for Chase qualification. With the idea successfully leaked by NASCAR to the press, only time will tell how it’s received, thus the trial balloon is still in its ascension stage.

Regardless of whether this latest concept is enacted, the bottom line is the Chase has never found true acceptance in NASCAR fandom, despite France’s feigned ignorance to that very basic fact. As in any sport, the proverbial walk-off home run can never be guaranteed, no matter how much a ruling body attempts to manipulate the system to allow for it. And the more said body attempts to finesse the system, the less legitimacy is paid to the title. In this case, the governing body has made multiple changes not with the worthiness of the championship in mind, but with television ratings and ad revenue as the sole guiding factor.

So while there are a few modifications that may be welcome — ones that should have been a part of the Chase from the beginning, such as a bonus for the regular season champion or more points awarded for race wins — what’s truly needed is a revamped schedule that takes the circuit to the most exciting and electrifying venues NASCAR has to offer in the Chase. The 10 most exciting tracks should be showcased during NASCAR’s 10 most important weeks, not facilities grandfathered in due to their pre-Chase dates on the schedule or because they are struggling financially and need a boost (we’re looking at you, Chicagoland).

After all, great racing will always trump hokey pleas for ratings and half-hearted excuses for racetracks that do not provide the quality of racing deserving of a playoff date.
 

Teaser:
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: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - 10:24
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/10-tough-questions-part-2
Body:

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.

3. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggles again this season, will he ask out of his contract a year early?

It doesn’t appear likely. Earnhardt and Hendrick casually mentioned that contract extension talks — Earnhardt is currently signed through 2012 — were in the near future just one week after the personnel shakeup at HMS that aligned Earnhardt with crew chief Steve Letarte in the new “48/88” shop. While that may be true, it may also be posturing, putting any sponsor’s apprehensions at ease while the company regroups and rolls out a new product in 2011. Any sponsorship negotiations attached to the Earnhardt name take a much more decided effort and additional diligence due to the asking price. Could the pair’s hinting at an early extension actually be step one in luring AMP Energy Drink and the National Guard back? Possibly.

Also, Earnhardt knows the resources currently behind him are unmatched. Hendrick Motorsports is the unquestioned powerhouse in the sport with 10 Cup titles in its trophy case and an all-star lineup that will only get bolstered in 2012 when Kasey Kahne comes on board (and that’s not to mention the relationship with Tony Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing operation). Really, it won’t get any better for Junior. Or Hendrick.

Despite three subpar seasons at HMS, Earnhardt brings in over $30 million per year in sponsorship revenue alone. Factor in merchandise sales (of which Hendrick gets a cut) plus over $14 million in winnings over the last three years, and the numbers say Earnhardt — win or lose on the track — is raking in just as much money for Hendrick as his new shopmate.

Still, does a blues jeans and t-shirt Earnhardt fit in a starched white-collar world at Hendrick Motorsports? It certainly doesn’t appear so, but for the time being he’ll remain where he’s at through at least 2012.
 

Teaser:
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: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 - 07:04
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/10-tough-questions
Body:

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.”

Teaser:
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
Body:

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.
 

Teaser:
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
Body:

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.
 

Teaser:
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
Body:

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."
 

Teaser:
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
Body:

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."

Teaser:
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
Body:

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

Teaser:
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
Body:

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.
 

Teaser:
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
Body:

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.

Teaser:
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
Body:

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.
 

Teaser:
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
Body:

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."

Teaser:
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
Body:

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.

Teaser:
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
Body:

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.
 

Teaser:
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
Body:

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.
 

Teaser:
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
Body:

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?

Teaser:
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
Body:

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

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 - 10:03

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