Articles By Matt Taliaferro
For years, Joe Gibbs Racing and NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship mixed like oil and water. Since its last title with Tony Stewart in 2005, JGR’s postseason has resembled an Atlanta Braves playoff run. There have been spectacular engine failures. Emotional meltdowns. On-track retaliations. A title-draining spin at Homestead. You name it, and the organization has probably experienced it.
How ironic, then, that during NASCAR’s public perception crisis in the wake of “Spingate,” this team has become the poster child for leadership and stability. Matt Kenseth, whose lone championship many claim spurred the Chase format in 2003, is acting like he’s going to waltz away with one in 2013. In capturing a career-best seven victories — the last two coming in the Chase’s first pair of events — he’s brought the quiet confidence combined with a something-to-prove attitude that JGR has needed to remind itself that it can, in fact, get over the hump.
“It's just been an amazing blessing to be part of this group, and I’m happy to have the success we're having,” Kenseth said Sunday, after expressing some rare emotion in Victory Lane. “But even without that, honestly I've just made a lot of friendships I really feel at home there. I just really enjoy being part of it; when you can have success, on top of it obviously that makes it even more fun.”
On paper, Kenseth is only one person. But a man whose knock at Roush Fenway Racing was he couldn’t take more of a leadership role has transformed JGR’s culture in the matter of just nine months. Suddenly, Kyle Busch looks like a man capable of winning a title instead of finding every which way to lose it. Denny Hamlin? The jury’s still out. But a healthy driver in 2014 could very well experience the same type of success.
With JGR a step ahead, let’s see who’s shifting a step behind in “Through the Gears,” post-Loudon:
FIRST GEAR: The Chase is down to three drivers
That’s right. After the hubbub over Richmond’s race manipulation and drivers being added to the playoffs, none of the drama may actually matter. Barring a Talladega disaster, the three drivers in contention are the three who’ve been the most successful this year, armed with Chase spots in-hand long before the RIR crisis. Kenseth, the top playoff seed going in, now has seven wins after a flawless final 100 miles at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Winning at what has historically been one of his worst tracks, Kenseth has now led 34 percent of the two postseason events and opened a 14-point lead on second-place Busch.
Jimmie Johnson, your perennial title contender, sits third, 18 points back even after two top-5 finishes. Everyone else? They’re on another planet. Carl Edwards, sitting fourth, is 36 points behind and would need a miracle to assume the point lead after Dover this Sunday. Already, three drivers – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne – sit over 60 points behind the leader.
That’s just going to be too much to make up. In past years you might say, “Hey, maybe a late-season surge could see someone rise through the pack.” But this year, the trio on top has been too consistent, too overpowering, to crack. Combined, they’ve led a total of nearly 2,700 laps. They’ve got 15 wins in 28 races. And, with the exception of Busch, they’re title-proven.
Everyone else should start hoping for a big wreck at ‘Dega … or start thinking about next year.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s rough road
Typically, Hendrick Motorsports is at the pinnacle of the Sprint Cup Series come Chase time. After Jeff Gordon’s late entrance into the field combined with some strong runs at Chicagoland, it appeared the four-car juggernaut had additional momentum. Instead? It’s been making some crucial mistakes. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — fastest in final practice at Loudon — had to make a costly track-position stop for loose lugnuts. He recovered, making it back up front, but ultimately settled for sixth.
Teammate Jeff Gordon was not so lucky. After leading 36 laps and taking charge in the race’s midsection, he slid through his pits during a caution-flag stop. With limited time, he recovered to just 15th and saw a longshot title bid all but evaporate. Kasey Kahne, though, had the worst luck of all, losing control off Turn 4 late and slapping the inside wall in an accident that left him 37th. Now last in the Chase, 71 points behind Kenseth, the best this intermediate expert can hope for is a few “cookie-cutter” track trophies down the stretch.
“I really don’t know what happened,” Kahne said. “Just racing and I’m not sure if there was contact or if I just spun. I seriously don’t really remember how it happened.”
HMS is looking at the standings and wondering the same thing. Only Johnson, whose consistency is a Chase hallmark, remains in position to contend for the title; the rest of the four-car crew is eighth or lower in points.
THIRD GEAR: Championship? What championship?
For some drivers, Loudon was simply a race to work on building blocks for 2014 — be it with their current team or someone else’s. For Jamie McMurray, it was his third top-5 finish of the season; his highest total in three years. Recovering from a spin involving teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, he’s working on developing Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing while Montoya works on an exit to Penske Racing in the open wheel ranks. That’ll make for an interesting last eight weeks, especially since owner Chip Ganassi was angered by the on-track contact.
Further back, Brian Vickers provided the most stablizing run for controversial Michael Waltrip Racing with a seventh-place finish. His is the only MWR team with sponsorship secure for 2014, as Aaron’s has publicly offered its support while NAPA has announced its exit and 5-Hour Energy remains (publically) on the fence. Finally, for Jeff Burton, an eighth place was more like an audition to a limited number of teams with seats available. For the 46-year-old veteran, his future is unknown beyond this season. Could we be seeing the last of Burton, Bobby Labonte and Mark Martin in just one offseason?
FOURTH GEAR: Stewart-Haas Racing’s slump
While most expected Ryan Newman to run strong, riding the momentum of a bid to the Chase, he’s instead been underwhelming, posting an average finish of 13.0. Mark Martin, subbing for an injured Tony Stewart, has been far worse; he’s got just one top-10 finish in five races in the seat. And Danica Patrick? We know how her rookie season’s gone.
Clearly, this team is expected to be a powerhouse in 2014 with the additions of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. But it’s going to be a big jump if the team ends the season with a whimper like this one.
Greg Biffle, third at Loudon, has had a weird year. Under the right circumstances he could finish top 5 in points, but he’s led just four races all season. … Martin Truex Jr. remains in limbo this week after sponsor NAPA announced they’d leave his No. 56 car after the season. An early contender before circumstances left him 10th, the driver has put forth a valiant effort in the face of national controversy. And he’s driving with a broken wrist on top of it. … How bad has this season been for Denny Hamlin? His 12th-place finish at New Hampshire was the best for the No. 11 team since an eighth at Pocono in June.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
A No. 1 seed and an opening-round Chase victory must have Matt Kenseth, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team on Cloud Nine heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Historically, it’s a great position to be in; the last two Chicagoland race winners went on to win the Chase. Kenseth’s next round, though, isn’t a gimme by any stretch of the imagination.
To put it bluntly, Kenseth isn’t good at New Hampshire. His team might have a good car this weekend, and he might improve upon his past performance — he has finished 13th or worse in nine of the last 11 races on the Magic Mile — but it won’t be easy sledding for the series point leader.
0.269 Kenseth’s Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) in his last 13 New Hampshire starts is 0.269, which ranks 33rd out of 52 drivers with four starts or more.
That production rating is the worst among all Chasers heading into this weekend, but it doesn’t mean he can’t score a points-padding finish. Earlier this season, he finished ninth in Loudon, after leading 33 laps — his most at New Hampshire since 2002 (77) —in a JGR car that looked like a machine on autopilot. The steady racer also showcased one of his best traits while behind the wheel in July’s race: restarting.
+18 Kenseth retained position 100 percent of the time on nine restart attempts in his most recent New Hampshire outing and gained a total of 18 positions.
He gained a total of 14 positions on six preferred-groove restarts and four positions on three, more treacherous restarts in the non-preferred groove. For the season, he has been a quality restarter at all tracks, but his performance in July was exceptional. It seems the past confusion on restart etiquette never bothered the driver of the No. 20 car; along with the Busch brothers, he is one of the most reliable restarters in an era where restarts decide races.
4.038 The best-producing driver at New Hampshire in the Car of Tomorrow/Gen-6 era is Jimmie Johnson, whose 11 top-10 finishes help push his PEER to 4.038.
Johnson has won three times at New Hampshire, but just once since the CoT was introduced (2010). Though he hasn’t been a standout, he has scored finishes of seventh or better in four of the last five races there, including a below-radar sixth-place run earlier this summer.
The track’s comfort zone can’t come soon enough for Johnson; Chicagoland served as his first top-5 finish since Indianapolis in July and the first finish inside the top half of the field since Watkins Glen (August).
100% Just one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver has finished in the top half of the field in 100 percent of the last 13 New Hampshire races: Jeff Gordon.
Want a dependable New Hampshire racer? Look no further than Gordon, who averaged a 6.9-place finish over the aforementioned span with three runner-up results sufficing as his best outings. The last-minute Chase addition needs a jolt in the consistency department; the No. 24 team is the fourth-least consistent full-time Cup Series team with a 12.5 deviation through 27 races in 2013.
102 Kurt Busch led a race-high 102 laps (over a third of the total laps) in the July race at New Hampshire.
A 2.288 PEER (ranks 12th) across 13 New Hampshire races suggests that Busch should be a watched man this weekend. His collection in a lap 226 accident in that race foiled a real shot at contending for the win, making it one of two races dating back to Sonoma that Busch didn’t score a clean finish. In the 10 races he was able to score a result without accident, he averaged a 5.5-place finish (because of that, he is a legitimate, albeit quiet, title contender). If crashing isn’t in the agenda, anticipate this Chaser being a threat for both the pole (he qualified second in July) and the victory.
19.2 Bobby Labonte has averaged a 19.2-place finish in his five New Hampshire races with JTG-Daugherty Racing.
A healthy Labonte equals a happy Labonte, especially at New Hampshire, but will he be totally healed from a late-summer bicycle crash? He returns to the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty car this weekend, in search of his first top-15 finish since the season-opening Daytona 500. If that sounds farfetched, it isn’t. Labonte has been a serviceable producer (1.019 PEER) through the 13 CoT/Gen-6 era races at NHMS and finished seventh in his first attempt there with the JTG team in 2011. Rumors of having a substitute driver at the ready have already circulated, so Labonte fanatics and fantasy players should hold off on raising hopes until more concrete information surfaces before Sunday.
14.8 Dating back to the Watkins Glen race, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hasn’t finished lower than 19th, averaging a 14.8-place finish.
Could the rookie continue his dandy late-season surge this weekend? He finished 34th in his only other Cup Series race at New Hampshire; however in three NASCAR Nationwide Series races from 2010 to 2012, he scored two top-5 finishes and led 10 percent of the race (26 laps) in his 2011 outing. His improvement from his first race (finished 16th) to his second (fourth) was a jump of 12 positions.
David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projections, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its Sprint Cup Series driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s 9-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned drivers strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.
Next: Sylvania 300 (New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Race: 300 laps, 317 miles (1.058-mile oval)
July 2013 Winner: Brian Vickers
A-List (Choose two, start one)
Jimmie Johnson Yeah, we're picking him again. It's the Chase — wouldn't you? Johnson finished fifth Sunday night at Chicago for a solid start to the Chase, and now heads to New Hampshire where he owns the second-best average running position (9.9) among all drivers. He's spent a whopping 82 percent of his last 17 races inside the top 15. More, Johnson has finished worse than ninth at NHMS just twice (2010, 2011) since the start of 2007 season. Don't lose sight of the fact that Johnson was disqualified from qualifying in July and was forced to start 43rd. In the relatively short race for NASCAR standards, he worked his way to a sixth-place finish.
Prior to July, slotting Matt Kenseth as a driver-to-watch at New Hampshire would have bordered on a funny joke. In 26 starts, he had never won and had only finished in the top 5 on four occasions. From 2009-12 in Roush Fenway equipment, he finished better than 13th only once. But now Kenseth has the benefit of Joe Gibbs Racing's equipment and setups at the track. The result in July was Kenseth finishing ninth after leading 33 laps — 21 more than the entirety of his New Hampshire starts since 2003. Kenseth ranks last among A-list drivers at New Hampshire in terms of average running position, but much like his rejuvenated season at JGR, nothing for Kenseth is like it once was.
Also consider: Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer
B-List (Choose four, start two)
The reality of Kurt Busch being a driver capable of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup started to come in to focus in the July New Hampshire race when he led 102 of the race's first 225 laps. But Busch was caught in an accident with Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne and finished 31st. With another strong qualifying effort (he started second in July) Busch figures to be a factor and could finally put Furniture Row Racing back in victory lane just two weeks after earning the team a Chase bid. Busch has three wins and 11 top 10s at New Hampshire in 25 starts.
Kyle BuschThe younger Busch brother started the Chase for the Sprint Cup Sunday night at Chicago with a near-miss on his fifth win of 2013. He might not have to wait longer. Busch was the runner-up to Brian Vickers in the July race, leading 53 laps along the way. It was the third consecutive race he's led at NHMS, and the fourth straight he's started inside the top 10. A Sunday win would be his first since 2006 at the track.
Burton is infamous for being the last Sprint Cup driver to lead every lap of a New Hampshire race back in 2000, but he's also had a pretty sterling record at the track otherwise. Of the last 17 races at NHMS, Burton owns the sixth-best series average running position and owns a total of four career wins there. This isn't just old hat, either — Burton finished third in the July race.
Brian Vickers Strike while the iron is hot, right? Brian Vickers surprisingly became the most recent Sprint Cup driver to win at New Hampshire. If you think he'll be just competitive this weekend because of his performance at the track two months ago, then he's a worthy pick. But if you think Vickers will revert to his career norms at New Hampshire (17.9 average finish, 16.5 average running position) then you might look elsewhere.
Also consider: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Aric Almirola
C-List (Choose two, start one)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.Cowboy Ricky is on a roll! Two weeks ago, Stenhouse didn't have a top-10 finish in the Sprint Cup Series. Now, he has two. The rookie had to have made some fantasy owners happy with those runs, and he's likely one of the best picks again at New Hampshire — especially if his girlfriend doesn't wreck him this time. Stenhouse finished the July race 27 laps down but still had an average running position of 22nd.
There's no way you have overused Gilliland at this point in the season, which means you might be hurting for someone — anyone — to fill a C-list starting position. Gilliland might be a decent pick if he can back up the 18th-place finish he had at New Hampshire in July. That finish was Gilliland's best on the flat track in 13 starts.
Also consider: David Ragan, Dave Blaney
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s 9-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned drivers strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.
Next up: Geico 400 (Chicagoland Speedway)
Race: 267 laps, 400.5 miles (1.5-mile D-shaped oval)
2012 Winner: Brad Keselowski
A-List (Choose two, start one)
Take that rock you've been living under, slide it out of the way, realize that the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts with Sunday's race at Chicagoland Speedway and start Mr. Chase himself, Jimmie Johnson. Even with Johnson's four-race slump, it's crazy to think his No. 48 won't be tuned and ready to challenge for title No. 6. He'll start at a track where he's led 211 laps in the last two years and was beat narrowly by Brad Keselowski in 2012. Johnson's average running position (7.2) at Chicago in the last eight events leads the series and betters the second-best by nearly two spots.
There was a different administration in the White House when Matt Kenseth last scored a top-10 finish at Chicagoland. Why, then, should he be a worthy start for this weekend's race? Consider that Kenseth's average running position (10.9) is more indicative of his true success at the track. Two years ago, he ran out of fuel on the last lap and was pushed to the finish by J.J. Yeley, drawing a one-lap penalty. Last year, he broke a shock in the middle of the race after leading. Don't forget he has two wins on 1.5-mile tracks this season similar to Chicago — Kansas Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Also consider: Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon
B-List (Choose four, start two)
It's been a tough week for Vickers after being implicated in the Richmond mess caused by team orders from his Michael Waltrip Racing team. A pawn in that fiasco, Vickers will look to change the story this weekend at a track he's found limited success in five starts. He's never finished worse than 14th at Chicagoland and drives a car that was 14th a year ago with Mark Martin behind the wheel. If nothing else, Vickers' average finish of 8.6 is alluring at a point in the season where B-List starting candidates may be running thin.
Kyle Busch hasn't finished two 1.5-mile track races this season (he crashed at Kansas and blew an engine at Charlotte) but he's been pretty decent in the three others. He's notched wins at Atlanta and Texas while finishing fourth at Las Vegas and fifth at Kentucky. Those results are the best indication of expected success at Chicago, a track he's finished in the top-5 three times and scored a win in a late-race duel with Jimmie Johnson in 2008. Busch was fourth at Chicago last season.
Martin Truex Jr.
No one has had a worse week than Martin Truex Jr. (well, maybe Clint Bowyer after facing Ricky Craven’s musice) after forces beyond his control behind the wheel Saturday night first put him in the picture-taking session for Chase qualifiers, and later dumped him out in humiliating fashion. After that, it'd be awful fitting for Truex to improve on his ninth-place finish at Chicago last season. He's another driver who has been remarkably good on many 1.5-mile tracks (he was second at Texas and Atlanta this year) and his percentage of laps in the top 15 at Chicago is third-best among B-List drivers.
Arguably the most under-the-radar driver heading toward the Chase, you've probably not used Edwards' full allotment of starts this season. Chicago should prove good for that considering he finished second and fourth at the track in 2010 and 2011. We're tossing out his 2012 results (17th) because, well, not much in 2012 was good for Edwards anyway. All told, he has three career top-5 finishes at Chicago and two 1.5-mile track top-5 finishes this season.
Also consider: Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
C-List (Choose two, start one)
If you've been following our advice, you're undoubtedly reaching the end of available starts for Allmendinger. If you haven't, this should be a great weekend to pull the journeyman driver out for a C-List start. He's back in the No. 47 for Bobby Labonte this week (still out with broken ribs) and coming off a finish of 14th just two weeks ago at Atlanta. In four career Chicago starts, Allmendinger has three top-14 finishes. The No. 47 is improving with Allmendinger behind the wheel and Chicago should continue that trend.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse, fresh from his first career Sprint Cup top 10 at Richmond, makes his first Cup-level start at Chicagoland. It's a track that has served him well before. Stenhouse won the second Nationwide Series race at the track last season and finished second in the first. The fact that it's a 1.5-mile track is also good news for Stenhouse: He finished 16th at the similar Atlanta two weeks ago and led 34 laps at the nearly-identical Kansas back in April.
Also consider: David Ragan, David Gilliland
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
1. Image recovery starts anew for NASCAR with cars on track
What a week.
Judging by fan reaction alone — and boy, was there plenty of it — the way Michael Waltrip Racing decided to use Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer (allegedly, apparently) to get Martin Truex Jr. in the Chase for the Sprint Cup signaled a large shift in the way NASCAR does business as a competitive sport. Already forced to accept 10 years of the sport’s biggest upheaval with the advent of the Chase process, teams using tactics beyond going as fast as possible was the proverbial last ounce of water that broke the dam of fan discontent. NASCAR was forced to act.
At this point, it’s hardly even worth arguing if Bowyer, Vickers & Co., were out of line. The sport’s norms and traditions led MWR to the seemingly innocent combination of acts. They didn’t do anything necessarily wrong in their minds or even in the minds of most competitors not named Ryan Newman of Jeff Gordon
But to the most important stakeholder in all of this — the average NASCAR fan — MWR intentionally sliding two cars behind Joey Logano and putting Ryan Newman’s win in jeopardy late in the race to get Truex in the title fight was plain wrong.
It’s that reaction and that reaction alone that led to Monday’s unprecedented penalties. NASCAR had to remove Truex from the Chase lest calls of the 2013 season bearing an illegitimate champion may have continued for years. It’s unfortunate that the sanctions ultimately kicked a guilty-by-association Truex to the Chase curb. But NASCAR, based on its current rulebook and inability to decide conclusively about Bowyer’s late-race spin, was in a box. It was the farthest officials really could or wanted to go.
All told, the whole ordeal seems like a necessary growing pain for the sport’s future. It’s just one that is going to hurt for awhile.
[Editor's Note: Following the posting of this column, NASCAR announced that Jeff Gordon had been added as a 13th Chase participant.]
2. Caution will be the name of Clint Bowyer’s Chicago game Clint Bowyer’s race could feel like a version of Mario Kart as he dodges potential troublemakers the whole way.
Who will play those roles? Well, Ryan Newman was ultimately vindicated from missing the Chase with the Monday penalties handed down by NASCAR, but of all of the sport’s drivers, he’s probably the least likely to have completely given a pass to Clint Bowyer. It’s Newman, after all, that consistently draws ire from other drivers for racing hard each and every lap no matter the position.
And then there is Jeff Gordon, who remained plenty heated this week over what he presumed was an intentional spin by Bowyer at Richmond that knocked him from the Chase. As we saw less than a year ago at Phoenix, he’s not exactly above settling scores on-track. Bowyer probably didn’t help things this week when, amidst a long non-denial denial tour filled with curious apologies, he said he wished he had intentionally knocked Gordon from the Chase.
Don’t forget, either, that at least two of Gordon’s teammates in Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have somewhat come to his defense or at least stated dissatisfaction with how Bowyer changed the Richmond race.
No, I’m not saying drivers will be bent on taking vengeance on Bowyer or any other MWR entity this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. But don’t expect them to get many on-track breaks from more than a handful of potentially disgruntled drivers. A lack of give-and-take can sometimes get dicey, however.
For what it’s worth, Bowyer has finished in the top 10 for four consecutive races at Chicagoland. He should figure in the proceedings by race end. He hopes to, at least, for the sake of his Chase hopes.
3. Chicagoland is NASCAR’s NostradamusShould Clint Bowyer avoid said obstacles and win Sunday’s race — I’d be very interested to hear what the Chicagoland crowd would sound like Sunday with the No. 15 doing burnouts on the frontstretch — he’ll be feeling good thanks to more than the post-race champagne.
That’s because in the last two seasons, Chicagoland’s 400-mile race winner has gone on to win the Sprint Cup title. First it was Tony Stewart in 2011 who pulled off a surprising fuel mileage race win just days after informing everyone that he was embarrassed to actually be a title-fight participant. Last year, it was Brad Keselowski dueling with and later beating Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps in a race that not only beared the eventual champion but the battle that would engross the sport over the final races.
Sunday’s race will be the third time that the Chase has opened in the Windy City.
4. Who can play Chase spoiler?
NASCAR may have the most unique playoff structure in sports for the sheer fact that even the teams not good enough to participate are included in the events.
That presents two ways for drivers not inside the Chase to actually become a big part of how it plays out. First, there’s the unfortunate way where an on-track incident could deal a big blow to an unassuming and innocent Chase contender. Those types of situations have generally been rare in the Chase’s 10-year history, but in a system that rewards aggregating points more than actually winning, a DNF can be a dream-killer.
There’s also the drivers looking to prove that missing the Chase isn’t the final peg for judging a season as a failure. Gordon and Brad Keselowski are both good examples here as they were competitive often this season while wins eluded and mechanical defects torpedoed their season points positions. Don’t lose sight of a miffed Truex or a statement-making Juan Pablo Montoya, either.
This process also leads to the evergreen question during this time of the NASCAR season: Is it really fair drivers in a selective title fight to compete for points among drivers who aren’t in the competition? Someone smart has probably considered and shot the idea down, but I’d be interested in to see how a system that allocates Chase points based on where a driver finishes comparative to other Chase drivers would work.
5. Middling consistency won’t win title for Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
On the surface, all is virtually right in NASCAR’s world thanks to the most popular driver earning his third-straight bid to the Chase. It was only a few years ago when more than a few assessments of NASCAR’s addition of the Chase’s two Wild Card spots assumed it was the sport’s attempt to keep a struggling Dale Earnhardt Jr., in range of the postseason conversation.
That’s not been much of a question since 2010 as Earnhardt’s performance as a consistent front-runner has made Chase qualification easy. But Earnhardt’s title chances seem slim even before the Chase takes the green flag because has never re-assumed his early-career role as a frequent race winner. Even in this, one of his more consistent seasons to date, Earnhardt still has the fewest number of top-5 finishes (three) of Chase entrants and hasn’t won.
It’s the same story for Greg Biffle. A perennial Chase entrant himself, Biffle doesn’t appear slated for title run either. While he does have a win in 2013, Biffle has just five top-5 finishes in 26 races.
Nothing we’ve seen from either driver suggests they have the ability to turn up the performance starting Sunday. Of course, we didn’t see anything from Tony Stewart before his five-win Chase performance in 2011, either.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
After the controversial week NASCAR endured, a return to normalcy was welcome. And what better represents normalcy this season than a Matt Kenseth win?
Kenseth tallied his series-leading sixth triumph of the season on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, where the sport kicked off its Chase for the Sprint Cup, 10-race playoff in the GEICO 400.
While Kenseth’s performance in his inaugural jaunt with Joe Gibbs Racing has been far from dominant, it has been as close as any one driver and team have come. The 14-year Cup veteran, along with teammate Kyle Busch (four wins) and rival Jimmie Johnson (four), have combined for 14 wins in the series’ 27 events. The three entered NASCAR’s Chase occupying the top three spots in the standings, and they remained there after Kenseth’s win, Busch’s runner-up and Johnson’s fifth-place showing.
“I think you have to be really good everywhere to be able to win a championship,” said Kenseth, who has five wins on intermediate tracks and one on a half-mile oval in 2013. “I’m really enjoying this win. It’s been a record season for me (six wins). I’m obviously the same guy, the same driver — it’s about Joe Gibbs Racing, the guys working there, Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) and the group.”
The day got off to an inauspicious start, as the green flag was delayed for over an hour due to rain.
Once racing began, Kenseth, who qualified 10th, took the lead on lap 83 and remained on point for 35 of the next 36 laps. However, his “real-time” on point lasted over five hours, as rain brought the race to a halt on lap 109 and a red flag period ensued.
When Kenseth led the field to green just past 10:00 pm EST, the complexion of the race changed. Seven engine failures — including those of Chase contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano — slowed the pace and found multiple cars leading laps as green- and yellow-flag pit stops shuffled the running order.
In the end, the two best cars — Kenseth’s No. 20 and Busch’s No. 18 JGR Toyotas — battled for the win. And the final restart on lap 245 cemented the victory for the former, who lined up along Busch but used a shot of on-track momentum from Kevin Harvick to sail by and assume the lead for good off of Turn 2.
“That push from Kevin got us out in front where we really needed to be,” said Kenseth, who cruised to a .749-second win.
Nine of the top-12 finishing spots went to Chase drivers. Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Johnson and Jeff Gordon comprised the top six. Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne finished ninth-12th. Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were seventh and eighth, respectively.
The week and the weekend was a controversial one for the sanctioning body. On Monday, it penalized Michael Waltrip Racing’s three teams, which knocked Martin Truex Jr. out of the Chase, for manipulating the outcome of last Saturday’s Richmond race. Newman, in turn, was ceded Truex’s Chase slot.
On Saturday, just minutes before Sprint Cup practice, NASCAR held a closed-door meeting with the drivers, crew chiefs and team principles. CEO Brian France, President Mike Helton and Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton then announced to the media the shocking and extraordinary decision to expand this season’s Chase to 13 drivers — by adding Jeff Gordon — from 12.
This decision was made, in part, from radio transmissions discovered during the week between Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports that added further questions to the legitimacy of the competition at Richmond, and thus, the make-up of the Chase field.
NASCAR also announced revisions to its current rules that address how teams assist competitors in-race.
“(The) technical bulletin addresses the subject of teams artificially altering the outcome of a race and the level of reaction that this will receive from NASCAR,” Pemberton said. “We reinforced this issue to the teams in our meeting and conveyed what is considered unacceptable in our officiating of the event.”
In addition, NASCAR modified its restart rules and made changes to the teams’ spotters and in-race communication, limiting each team to one spotter and eliminating digital communications within the teams.
The announcements — particularly the expansion of the Chase field — were met with confusion from the media, fanbase and even some competitors.
“I’m not even sure what to say at this point,” Truex told USA Today Sports. “I’m kind of at a loss for words. They (NASCAR) kick me out to make a spot for somebody and then they don’t do the same for the other guys. It’s just unfair and (there’s) nothing I can do about it.”
Earnhardt, Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, was also scratching his head.
“I was probably just as surprised as anybody that anything happened, because we’re so far into the week,” Earnhardt said on Saturday. “It’s just really extraordinary and unprecedented. I don’t know what’s fair anymore, you know what I mean?”
Even Gordon’s protégé, Johnson, was at a loss:
“Through all of this, we’re all just looking for consistency.
“I’m very happy that Jeff is in the Chase, but in my opinion, there should be 12 cars. One in, one out should be the deal. It’s not.”
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Technically, Matt Kenseth stood in Victory Lane Sunday night, the winner of NASCAR’s 12 Hours of Chicagoland. There are all sorts of stats, analysis and history I’m supposed to pair with that for you. It’s his series-leading sixth victory of the year, more than his No. 20 car had registered throughout the last six years of competition. It’s a driver armed with something to prove, hoping to bookmark the last championship under the old format with his first under NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship. A compelling storyline? Under the right circumstances, I would say absolutely.
But as the confetti rained down, replacing the rain that had destroyed most of Sunday at the racetrack, celebrating a victory for anyone seemed hollow. Eight days after “Spingate,” three days after NBC News aired a story asking, “Is NASCAR rigged?” the garage still licked wounds from Richmond’s awful aftermath. The sanctioning body, exhausted after its week of ridicule in the public eye, has to sit back, process and realize that it just asked the best racers in the country to try. That’s right, one of the myriad rules changes in effect now has the right to penalize a driver for not giving 100 percent. LeBron James takes the fourth quarter of regular season game off? Maybe the coach benches him. Maybe. But if that happens in NASCAR? It could cost a driver a championship.
It’s part of a wide display of overregulation, inconsistency and credibility concerns going forward which leave everyone involved in the sport with constant nausea. No, there’s no reason to throw up anymore; but at this point, there’s no guarantee that pain in your stomach is easing off. Clint Bowyer spins to manipulate the outcome of a race? He could still walk away with the trophy come Homestead. In fact, 31 percent of NASCAR’s current field – including Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman – would win the title with an asterisk if 10 weeks’ worth of dominoes falls just right. That’s not the type of odds you want when it comes to a lifetime of dirty historical context.
It’s not easy to watch NASCAR’s House of Cards fall to the ground. It’s even harder to pick up all those flimsy pieces of hardened paper and rebuild it. So you can forgive me, along with most of my audience, for not delving too deep into the stats of Chicagoland. Yes, Matt Kenseth won the race. But NASCAR as a whole has lost a battle for both its relevancy and credibility during its 10-week playoff.
Those who have dedicated their life to this sport still have faith that they’ll win the war. They have to, for the sake of their future survival. But moving on won’t happen with one quiet, darkened Victory Lane celebration on a Joliet Sunday night. It may not even have happened by the time the series gets to Homestead. If there’s one thing this race taught us, it’s that healing, through the course of good ol’ natured competition, won’t happen overnight. It’s going to take time.
With that said, there’s still a column to write. “Through the Gears,” post-Chicagoland, we go:
FIRST GEAR: Not the best way to put a cheating scandal behind youThe one thing NASCAR couldn’t control, in a week of flexing muscles and exerting authority over their sport, was Mother Nature. Sunday became a wash on many levels as the first race of the playoffs ended 10 hours after its original start time, around midnight eastern when most fans had dozed off or grown tired of extensive delays. It didn’t help that the Air Titan — new technology in place to vacuum up water quickly — was mysteriously unavailable for one of the sport’s most important races. Why? Chicagoland, owned by the International Speedway Corp. – directly connected to NASCAR and its billions – couldn’t afford the $50,000 price tag.
That, to be honest, tells you as much about the financial state of the speedway as executive idiocy; the stands, even before the rain, were no more than half full. But perhaps more importantly, with all that TV time on their hands, there was far too little racing to revisit on ESPN and far too much “Spingate,” “Spingate Revised” and “a black eye for the sport from — you guessed it — Spingate.” It was an afternoon full of Negative Nancy publicity, mixed with the loss of any casual fans turning heads to see what this fracas was all about. As a casual fan or someone curious about the events of the week, why sit and watch when the race takes over 10 hours to complete? Especially when there’s some juicy NFL action just a click away.
The icing on the cake was three of the race’s top-5 finishers: Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson. Those were the trio the prognosticators thought would be contending for the title in the first place. Cinderella was nowhere to be found. What NASCAR was left with, as we start week two of the Chase, is simple: her broken glass slipper, no one at the dance and a whole lot of pumpkins to turn back into a carriage of believers all over again.
SECOND GEAR: Gibbs gets great start to the Chase
Kyle Busch’s Chase for the Championship, more often than not, is kaput by the second race of the playoffs. So while second place is typically the first loser, on Sunday night it was a confidence-building effort by a team that needs to start with a foundation of solid finishes that prove it’ll be a contender.
“It’s a process,” Busch said after exiting his car. “Our program seems to be working well with these mile-and-a-half tracks. I think having the 18 and 20 run up front shows that we’re capable (of contending).”
Perhaps Busch’s confidence will come quicker with the stability of winner Kenseth alongside. Holding a title in hand already, he’s well-versed in competing for the big prize — albeit not under this format. Kenseth’s legendary patience paid off Sunday night, getting the right push from Kevin Harvick on the final restart to blow by his teammate, Busch. It’s a steady presence the latter can learn from.
However, perhaps the biggest education came in the form of a blown engine from JGR’s third car, non-Chaser Denny Hamlin’s No. 11. The experimental mule, it was an aggressive engine package that shows the organization exactly how far it can push the envelope. One blown engine could be all it takes to derail a title campaign, so expect Hamlin to have two, maybe more, the next few months so his teammates wind up with zero.
THIRD GEAR: Big delay means bad break on engines
Speaking of powerplant problems, two Chasers seem already down for the count. Both Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. hit the garage early Sunday night as part of a rash of failures blamed on the long rain delay. With both registering finishes well outside the top 30, any comeback will be difficult in this, a 13-driver Chase where the top-three seeds logged top-5 finishes on Sunday night.
“We have some pretty tough competition in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “The average finish is going to be inside the top 10 to win the championship. So you can do the numbers, you can do the math.”
For Logano, the finish was just as crippling considering Penske Racing’s had arguably the most speed on the series’ last three intermediate-track stops. With a poor track record at some of the other venues on the Chase schedule, the No. 22 Ford needed to rebuild momentum, post-Richmond, to jumpstart its bid. That won’t happen now.
Among the other notable engine failures at were Richmond Michael Waltrip Racing’s Brian Vickers, JGR’s Hamlin and BK Racing’s David Reutimann, driving a Triad Toyota.
FOURTH GEAR: Jimmie Johnson’s road to recovery
Why has “Five-Time” won so many titles? For an answer, look no further than Sunday night. The No. 48 was arguably the fastest car on-track and would have run circles around the field in clean air. Instead, Lady Luck was conspiring to have this Chase contender run 35th. A NASCAR official bungled a call on the first pit stop, claiming a lugnut was left loose when it wasn’t. Then a flat tire, luckily found just before a caution flag, left this team sitting well outside the top 20.
Typically at intermediate races, that type of track position deficit — even with 115 laps to go — is the kiss of death. But Johnson went right to work, passing cars and ending up a solid fifth when the checkered flag flew. If not for the race’s final caution, one might argue he would have ended up second behind Kenseth. It was the type of save that other Chase teams won’t always make when problems come their way. That gives Johnson a 10-15 point head start amongst the rest. Fans love to hate them, the media falls asleep interviewing them, but you’ve got to hand it to Hendrick’s best team: they know what it takes to get this done.
What better way to get back at someone who fired you? By jumping ship right to his biggest rival, that’s how. And that’s exactly what Juan Pablo Montoya did Monday, signing an IndyCar deal with Roger Penske that keeps that program on par, if not better than, rival Chip Ganassi. What a strange turn of events, considering how loyal Ganassi has been to his open-wheel-turned-stock-car project. Most thought Montoya should have been ousted two or three years ago. … Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is quietly turning the corner this season. He’s got two straight top-10 finishes after going the first 25 races without one. A little further back, although not as impressive, was girlfriend Danica Patrick, who continues to step it up on intermediates. She was a reasonable 20th and on the lead lap Sunday night. … The first race with NASCAR’s new restart rule was controversy free. But there’s still a sense of subjectivity involved. When and how does NASCAR determine if the first-place driver “mashes the gas” coming to the green flag? You get the sense the sanctioning body is hesitant to embrace all the technology in front of it — like live telemetry to make these types of instantaneous decisions. No need to voluntarily use human error in 2013, right?
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Actions Sports, Inc.
Martin Truex is out and Ryan Newman is in.
That’s the call per NASCAR following the stock car equivalent of the Ocean’s Eleven robbery. In this scenario, Daniel Ocean, played by Michael Waltrip, didn’t get away with his cut of $150 million without breaking a sweat. The spot earned by Truex, via the wild card, was awarded to Newman once a pre-seeding 50-point penalty was put into effect by the sanctioning body.
Now, how does this impact the Chase field?
I’ve made it a point to look at the clean averages and deviations of every Chaser in the last 10 races — the time frame was chosen because, statistically, it serves as a period in which teams better resemble who they’ll be in the Chase as opposed to the full 26-race regular season workload — and the move from Truex to Newman is an upgrade, at least from a sheer numbers standpoint.
8.0 and 5.3 Newman’s eighth-place average finish across eight clean races is the seventh-best mark among Chase-eligible drivers. His 5.3 finish deviation is the sixth-most consistent.
By these measures, he enters the playoffs as a mid-pack competitor among Chasers; however, it’s a slight uptick on what Truex and his No. 56 team had going in the same span. Truex’s average finish across seven clean races — which omits races in which said driver crashed or incurred a mechanical malady — was 9.8, while his finish deviation was 5.5. Newman and his No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing team was a better finisher in clean races by almost two positions, while displaying similar consistency.
41.29 seconds Ryan Newman’s average time spent on pit road last Saturday night in Richmond was 41.29 seconds, which ranked 16th among teams that made the standard six pit stops.
This is important to know, because Newman ripped his pit crew immediately after the race, saying, “We still had the opportunity to make our own destiny and win it on pit road, and we didn’t. I still feel like we lost it on pit road. It’s disappointing … we came down pit road first (on the final stop). We didn’t do our job on pit road. Four tires won the race. We were the first car to be in position on four tires and we didn’t get the job done.”
It’s easy to crack a joke about how Newman “should now apologize because his team made the Chase,” but to be clear, he wasn’t wrong. Getting beat by 15 teams, on average, on pit road doesn’t win races, which Newman was in position to do so prior to Clint Bowyer’s controversial spin. The manner in which he went public with his frustrations could have been handled differently (perhaps, internally), but the problem of pitting is a lingering concern.
3.3 The most consistent clean deviation across the 10 races leading up to this weekend’s race at Chicagoland is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 3.3.
Junior Nation, rejoice! A clean deviation showcases a driver and team’s ability to finish consistently. The No. 88 team, albeit winless, is a legitimate threat according to recent history (Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, the two most recent champions, were low-deviation finishers leading into the Chase). Some might not take Earnhardt’s participation in the Chase seriously, but the driver — serviceable this season with a 1.538 PEER — has been an integral cog in this quiet contender the last two years and once infamously saw a serious Chase run derailed by a slip of the tongue. That said, his 9.5-place average finish in clean races requires some improving.
6.8 The worst Chase race average finish among championship winners dating back to 2007 — the first Chase with 12 competitors — is 6.8.
That 6.8 is a hard average, which includes all races, checkers or wreckers. This is how competitive the Chase has become; a seventh-place average doesn’t cut muster. Care to know how many of the current Chasers averaged a finish better than that in the 10-race span prior to this year’s Chase? Zero. The best hard average finish among Chasers is 10.0, earned by Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 team.
2 for 2 In the two years that Chicagoland Speedway served as the battleground for the Chase’s opening round, its winners — Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski — went on to win the championship.
Is this a sign? There are five 1.5-mile racetracks in the Chase — Chicagoland, Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead — so a driver and team running and finishing well on Sunday should certainly be considered a good sign; however, it’s vital to be good at every track in the Chase. When Keselowski captured the title in 2012, he averaged a 7.4-place finish on 1.5-mile tracks and a 5.2-place finish on all other track sizes. Intermediate track artistry won’t win a title by itself.
28.2% In the five CoT era races at Chicagoland Speedway, Jimmie Johnson led 376 laps, or 28.2 percent of the total laps run.
His front-running ways went empty handed, though; Johnson has yet to win at Chicagoland in 11 career Cup Series starts (ironically, it is the site of his one and only NASCAR Nationwide Series victory, in 2001). Should being shut out of victory lane in the past be a death knell to his chances this weekend? Considering that teams — not drivers — win races, and Johnson has exhibited some accelerated mastery of the 1.5-mile track with two runner-up finishes in the last five races, he can’t be counted out for the win.
Regardless of whether he comes home with the trophy, it can be expected that the Chase’s first round can put a stop on the No. 48 team’s bizarre bleeding over the course of the last month, in which it finished 25th or lower in four consecutive races for the first time in Johnson’s history as a Cup driver.
David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projections, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.
A “split-second decision.” In the midst of one of the harshest penalties handed down in NASCAR’s modern era — or perhaps ever — a “split-second decision” was team owner Michael Waltrip’s explanation for his team’s late-race Richmond strategy, a domino effect of choices Saturday that intentionally manipulated the postseason of an entire sport. Through the direction of Michael Waltrip Racing executive Ty Norris, who is now indefinitely suspended, along with the words of a crew chief, Brian Pattie, one “split second” surely produced a tornado’s worth of catastrophic damage.
The final 10 laps of NASCAR’s regular season finale produced an intentional caution along with two dives by MWR’s Nos. 15 and 55 cars in an effort to get the organization’s No. 56 Toyota and Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase. It was the most brazen and blatant example of team orders this sport has ever seen. It’s an insulting comment to common sense, as the way in which these actions played out speaks of a week-long commitment to achieving goals by any means possible; teams, after all, don’t just throw races of this magnitude on the fly.
NASCAR clearly wasn’t fooled. The sanctioning body’s reaction in the midst of backlash on social media, the radio and through the mouths of television analysts was both swift and severe. MWR was fined $300,000, a new record for the sanctioning body towards one organization, Norris indefinitely suspended and its three teams and drivers, Truex, Clint Bowyer (No. 15) and Brian Vickers (No. 55), hit with 50-point penalties.
The consequences find Truex’s playoff berth — one he had “earned” seemingly through a stroke of luck just 48 hours prior — revoked and a Scarlet Letter placed on the organization that will be near impossible to erase. The Chase replacement, Ryan Newman, sits pretty; he was the man set to win at Richmond before Bowyer’s spin threw the race and the Chase into a state of disarray. Righting the wrong this quickly is unprecedented in scope; it’s like stripping wins from a college football program in-season, then taking it out of a BCS bowl game a mere six days out.
“NASCAR has always taken very seriously its responsibility to maintain, for the most part, its credibility,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton in explaining the ruling. “I say, for the most part because we get the fact that’s subjective to fans and others in the industry. It’s a sport, and it’s got a lot of fun attached to it. Every now and then, it gets out of bounds and we have to bring it back in order to maintain credibility.”
The question now is whether this decision was enough to keep the sport’s tenuous hold on national self-respect. Fans do not watch NASCAR purely for the “fun” factor — that’s what TV sitcoms are for. There’s a competitive aspect; in particular, the impression that the race they’re watching is run fairly and without bias towards one team or organization. As I wrote elsewhere, the issue of having teammates work together within a sport predicated on individual success has been building. It’s too late to strike down the superpowers built by MWR, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and so many other three-to-four-car organizations that have made this situation a reality. The sport can only make the penalty for collusion so fierce that no one will ever dare think about doing it again.
To NASCAR’s credit, this penalty is enough to make MWR regret the “split-second decision,” as it has cost the organization a valuable Chase bid and the $5 million or so that potentially comes with it. But the cost can’t be measured in terms of dollar signs alone. With 10 laps remaining, Richmond incorporated everything that was right about the sport: a scintillating charge to first by Newman, who needed to win to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs. Further back, Jeff Gordon, fighting for a Chase spot and his own relevancy, was making a valiant effort to claw through the top 10 as well. Drama, as is typical during the regular season finale, was high; in a down year, where passing has been at a premium with the new Gen-6 car, the sport had a solid race to hang its helmet on entering the playoffs. Much-needed momentum was at hand and at just he right moment.
Instead, Bowyer’s spin, combined with team orders for Vickers to pit, changed that focus. A final restart, one that second-place Carl Edwards jumped, was icing on the proverbial cake. It was the best race of the season in some ways — yet many left the track or flipped the channel feeling cheated. Now, the 2013 version of the Chase will be forever tainted.
I think there’s one thing we can all agree on going forward: this type of debacle can never happen again. At this point, repairing the damage done is tough enough.
Let’s go “Through the Gears” on the effects and questions surrounding this ruling:
FIRST GEAR: Why wasn’t Bowyer penalized?
Sure, that tagline looks like a mistake. On paper, Bowyer was docked 50 regular-season points along with crew chief Pattie being placed on probation. It’s the same consequence each of his teammates received, keeping things equal across the board.
Except, in all reality, it isn’t. Truex’s penalty finds him out of the Chase. Bowyer, with such a cushion on 11th place, remains squarely in the playoffs. He still sits just 15 points from a title, despite likely playing a role in manipulating said championship and the drivers in it. NASCAR claimed the penalties were limited, in part because only circumstantial evidence surrounded the Bowyer spin. It’s true that while anyone with a modicum of common sense could see the deception, what the sport has against him wouldn’t stand up under the “beyond a reasonable doubt” doctrine in a court of law.
Still, you would think the harsh terms handed out to Bowyer’s teammates — who were simply pawns in this whole mess — just doesn’t seem right considering the driver’s current comfy spot in the playoffs. Gordon agreed, tweeting his displeasure squarely towards Bowyer’s “guilt free” Chase going forward. (It’s worth noting the two have a history over the past two years, as they have a habit of playing on-track bumper cars.) MWR’s refusal to appeal across the board is in itself a statement, too. Why accept and move on if you believe you’re not guilty?
Chances are, with drivers’ habit of self-policing, that Bowyer’s title hopes will be taken away on-track. But it shouldn’t take two wrongs to make a right.
SECOND GEAR: Ryan Newman’s second chance?
It’s unlikely Newman, over the long run, will play a role in the 10-race championship. He’s a “lame duck” driver, announced to drive the No. 31 for Richard Childress Racing on Monday. Stewart-Haas Racing has spent the season a step behind its engine and chassis vendor, Hendrick Motorsports, as well as Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. But with his valiant drive Saturday night, the capper on a sizzling summer, it’s only fair the No. 39 team gets its chance.
“Our goal is to win each and every one of these last 10 races,” Newman said before reentering the Chase. “I feel that we have the potential to. I want to do it for myself, my team, my sponsors and everybody involved, especially all of the things that we went through and fought through to get back to where we were on Saturday night and to be in a position within seven to go to race our way in. These guys deserve it.”
In a sense, Newman now has nothing to lose — a spark that could pay off if he carries the momentum through the first few Sundays.
THIRD GEAR: Why not Jeff Gordon?
The most popular comment I’ve seen since the ruling concerns Gordon. The shenanigans pulled in the race’s latter stages almost certainly kept the four-time champ out of the Chase. Solidly a top-10 car at Richmond, Gordon was pinned on the race’s final restart, watching helplessly as a window of opportunity closed via Vickers and Bowyer sitting patiently, dawdling on pit road and throwing the Chase roster to whom they saw fit.
There was some talk of expanding the Chase field, perhaps to as many as 14 teams so Gordon would not be unfairly penalized. But in this case, there were so many missed opportunities for the hard-luck Hendrick Chevy. Five DNFs — four for wrecks — are nearly impossible to overcome. Gordon was lucky to be in position in the first place. Not having such a presence in the Chase is a huge loss, and one that was easily preventable by NASCAR brass. Just add a driver to the postseason; how hard can it be? IndyCar did so for its Indianapolis starting field nearly two decades ago during the IRL/CART standoff and everyone accepted the situation. The longer both sides wait for a compromise …
FOURTH GEAR: Expect the sport to try and move on quickly
Everyone has different opinions on what happened. But this point is one we can all agree on: No sport worth its weight wants the word “cheating” associated with it. What’s acceptable or not going forward is a long-term plan that can be addressed in the offseason. For NASCAR, Sunday’s first Chase race at Chicagoland can’t get here soon enough.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
"Do we have to go back?!"
That was the question asked by Clint Bowyer, referring to returning to the Sprint Cup Series, following Wednesday's Mudsummer Classic at Eldora Speedway. And he didn't even race.
NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series was at the center of the North American motorsports spotlight upon its visit to tiny Rossburg, Ohio, marking the first time one of NASCAR’s three major touring circuits raced on a dirt track since Sept. 30, 1970. That race, the Old State 200 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, N.C., was won by Richard Petty.
When the green waved over the 150-lap feature, few of the participants were even born when Petty ended an era of dirt in NASCAR 43 years ago.
And in an odd — yet telling — twist, the visit to Eldora’s 24-degree banked dirt oval has upstaged what once was a jewel on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit: The Brickyard 400 at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In recent years, interest in NASCAR at the grand old speedway has waned, as evidenced by severely sagging attendance, TV ratings and the desperate inclusion of Nationwide Series and Grand Am races to complement Sunday’s Cup show.
Indy has never provided great “racin’” in the vein stock car fans are accustomed, and a tipping point may have been reached in 2008, when failing Goodyear tires on a newly diamond-ground surface essentially reduced the event to a series of 12-lap heat races. And even if that race had gone off without a hitch, it’s doubtful many would feel different about the on-track product the speedway provides the bulky stocks.
Enter Eldora, whose racing may not have been "great" in the classic sense, but was certainly an enjoyable change of pace. Tony Stewart's half-mile oval is a throwback in every sense of the word, as far from a 1.5-mile asphalt cookie-cutter track as one will find. A palpable enthusiasm had permeated the fan base since the date’s announcement last fall; it was a welcome return to the sport’s roots. Something new, fun and as accessible as a quarter-mile dirt track “just a few miles out in the county” — a half hour from your house or mine. The big boys of NASCAR were racing on (what felt like) the local level. And social media reaction on Twitter ran overwhelmingly positive (a rarity) during the event.
Is this the type of show fans have longed for from a sport whose sanctioning body often seems disconnected from the loyal base that made NASCAR what it is?
Perhaps NASCAR should learn from this experiment. Perhaps sparsely-attended 500-mile parades at aero-dependent palaces of speed aren’t what interest fans after all — or pull new ones in. Perhaps “great racing” at a facility that will pack in "only" 20,000 rabid fans means more than NASCAR’s track-operating wing showing a hefty year-end surplus on a ledger sheet. After all, the the ruling family is soon to be about $4 billion richer, thanks to a healthy new TV contract.
Perhaps Eldora will help NASCAR find its identity again, the same as the rough ’n’ tumble short tracks did nearly two decades ago just before the sport began a rocketship rise from regional obsession to national phenomenon.
Or perhaps another casino on a speedway’s grounds will justify a second date, as seen at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway. Or prime dates will be doled out to struggling France family-owned facilities, as fellow 1.5-miler Chicagoland Speedway’s first Chase date highlights. Those immaculate cathedrals cater to the suite-dwelling business types whose sponsorship dough keep teams running, after all.
Yes, Wednesday’s show at Eldora was a fun one to watch — and it may have opened the door to the Truck Series’ return to other off-the-beaten-path locales. But let's enjoy it for what it was: a gimmick — and that's not a bad thing. It was a gimmick that really and truly worked and should be scheduled again post haste. (Props to Stewart, Steve O'Donnell, Roger Slack, et al, for a flawless show.)
Just don’t hold out hope that the mighty Cup Series will descend upon Knoxville any time soon, or that the Nationwide circuit will magically reappear in South Boston, Myrtle Beach or Nashville. And don’t expect the wallets of the few to be effected by the wants of the many.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
“I think it was a success. It was such a great show. This is real racing right here, and that’s all I’ve got to say.”
With those words from race-winner Austin Dillon, NASCAR’s inaugural trip to the famed Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, was deemed a success.
Not that those in attendance or watching on television needed affirmation.
NASCAR’s first sanctioned dirt race of its top three series in 43 years went off without a hitch Wednesday night in front of a capacity crowd somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000.
After a night filled with heat races, last-chance qualifiers and a 150-lap feature, it was Richard Childress Racing’s Dillon that won the Mudsummer Classic, beating Kyle Larson and Ryan Newman in a spirited battle that was extended to 153 laps due to a green-white-checker finish.
“This is bad to the bone,” Dillon said. “This is a great race. … This is one of the biggest wins of my career.”
It was one of the most anticipated nights in Camping World Truck Series history, orchestrated by track owner and Sprint Cup regular Tony Stewart, NASCAR VP Steve O’Donnell and track general manager Roger Slack. And the evening started with a bang, as veteran racer Ken Schrader won the pole, in the process becoming NASCAR’s oldest pole-winner at 58 years of age.
Youth took over from there, with the 20-year-old Larson leading 51 laps and at times putting on a clinic in how to hustle the bulky trucks around the slick half-mile oval. But Dillon made the decisive pass for the lead while in heavy traffic on lap 89 and held off Larson and Newman for the final 31 circuits. He led a race-high 64 laps.
“My dad told me a long time ago that if we won at Eldora, we’d just skip all the NASCAR stuff and go to NHRA because there’s nothing more out here to do because it’s just so tough to do,” said Dillon, who started 19th.
“We’re going to stick in NASCAR, but the coolest thing is you’re out of control out there. … I’d clip the fence and I’m leading the race. You’re on the edge every lap.”
Finicky NASCAR fans took to Twitter to voice support of the race throughout the evening, and competitors — including Stewart, a three-time Cup champion and regular dirt tracker — mirrored Dillon’s enthusiasm.
“This is more than just a truck race," Stewart said. “This is big for every dirt track across the country. This is exposure that a lot of these tracks never get. We’re fortunate to have this opportunity. This is something that can help short-track racing as a whole.”
Follow Matt Talaiferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Not long ago, Sonoma Raceway was owned by drivers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart who, between 1998-2006, won seven of the nine NASCAR Sprint Cup races at the 1.99-mile road course. Road-racing aces like Robby Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya were the real competition, not the typical oval-centric stock car crowd. And certainly not drivers with a short-track background like Martin Truex Jr., in the midst of a 218-race winless skid.
The last seven trips have proved different, though. And Sunday was no exception, as Truex became the seventh straight driver to notch his first career road course win in Sonoma, winning the Toyota-Save Mart 350, and in the process, collecting his first Cup win since June 2007.
Road racing in NASCAR is all a matter of pit strategy — whether or not it all plays out as planned, or even makes any sense, is a different story — but Truex’s No. 56 team played it like a fiddle (or in this case, a violin) in California’s wine country.
Having abandoned the lead on lap 69 under a caution period, Truex found his Chad Johnston-led team hanging onto the top 15 when the race restarted. But when Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards tangled with 28 laps remaining, the leaders, including Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch, pitted for fuel and tires. That handed the lead back to Truex when the field took the green flag with 24 laps to go.
What was assumed would be a frantic final two dozen laps resulted in a tame affair, as Truex sprinted away from Matt Kenseth and Juan Pablo Montoya, and cruised to a 8.133-second win, his second career Cup victory.
“I was a frigging mess,” Truex said of his emotional state on the cool-down lap. “I had to stop and start doing donuts because I couldn't think about what I was doing. I tried to cue the radio once and I couldn't even talk.
“You can't explain the feeling (of winning). When it's been that long and you worked so hard and you've been so close and so many things have just — when you think at times, ‘Man, is this ever going to happen again,’ it's just … you can't explain the feeling. It's pretty surreal. Unbelievable.”
Truex’s main challenger, Montoya, ran out of fuel on the white flag lap, dropping from the runner-up spot to 34th. Meanwhile, Gordon tore through the field, gaining 16 spots over the last green flag run, and finished second. Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Bowyer rounded out the top 5.
“After Bowyer won (at Sonoma) last year it's obvious that Michael Waltrip Racing has a really good road racing program, and I've raced with Martin here before and he gets around here pretty good,” Gordon said. “They had a good strategy and that can make or break you. And he does a nice job on the road courses. They had a good car.”
The win vaulted Truex from 13th to 10th in the championship standings and, more importantly, gave him an insurance policy were he forced to rely on a “wild card” to qualify for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. Currently, Kahne (12th) and Tony Stewart (15th) are drivers outside of the top 10 that have a race win to their credit.
At no point in the last decade has winning a Sprint Cup Series race at the Michigan International Speedway been of more importance in the NASCAR ranks. A renewed emphasis on “manufacturer” over “car number” or “driver” — largely at the behest of Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota, the Cup Series’ three auto makes — has placed a premium on home field bragging rights near America’s automotive capital.
On Sunday, Greg Biffle planted Ford’s flag in its home turf, winning the Quicken Loans 400 in Michigan, giving team owner Jack Roush his 13th career Cup win at MIS, the most all-time for any one organization.
Biffle held off a field of hungry Chevrolets, led late in the event by Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, to capture his second straight and fourth career Michigan win. It was also Ford Motor Company’s 1,000th win across NASCAR’s Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.
"I was really worried about the 48 (Johnson)," Biffle said. "He was really fast. But when this thing could get in clean air, it was all over.
“We’ve still got a little bit of work to do with these cars back in traffic but once we get out front, like at Pocono last week, we think we’re pretty good. We just need to work on our cars a little bit. It’s not for lack of effort. This is real exciting for me.”
Forty-seven of Biffle’s race-high 48 laps led came with under 50 circuits to go in the 200-mile affair. Biffle’s No. 16, along with teammate Carl Edwards’ No. 99, occupied the top two spots with 34 laps to go and green flag pit stops on tap. Edwards hit pit road first, going one lap down prior to the field cycling through, while Biffle stopped two laps later. As Biffle’s crew completed service, Jamie McMurray blew out a right front tire, bring out the day’s eighth and final caution.
Edwards found himself trapped in 24th, while Biffle — having completed his stops without yet dropping a lap to the field — inherited the lead.
His main competition — aside from the pole-sitter Edwards — came in the form of Johnson, who led 18 laps throughout the day, but was regulated to 11th on what would be the final restart, a result of having the No. 48 crew top off the fuel tank on the final stop.
When the green flag waved with 27 laps remaining, Biffle quickly pulled away in clean air while Johnson began what appeared to be an unrelenting assault through the field. Within eight laps, the five-time champion was ensconced in third; nine laps later he occupied the runner-up slot.
However, Biffle held a stout 1.6-second lead at a track that places importance on track position — clean air allowing the leader to sprint away with an aerodynamic advantage. And with three circuits remaining, Johnson made the mistake that sealed his fate and Biffle’s win, brushing the wall in an effort to run down the leader. He was forced to pit road with heavy right-side damage.
Biffle coasted from there, easily outdistancing Harvick for a nearly three-second victory. Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart rounded out the top 5. Contenders Edwards and Johnson finished eighth and 28th, respectively.
“I hate missing an opportunity,” Johnson said. “I want those (Chase) bonus points for winning races and feel like one got away from us today.”
Hendrick Motorsports once again seemed to be the organization to beat, as drivers Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne led for a total of 66 laps. However, Kahne blew a right front tire while out front on lap 105, slamming the Turn 2 wall and ending his day. He finished 38th. Earnhardt was his typical strong Michigan self until the engine in his No. 88 let go while running second on lap 132.
“We had such an awesome race car,” said Earnhardt, who finished 37th. “We actually improved the car on the last stop and I thought we were going to be able to give Jimmie a run. He probably was the best car out there.
“It’s frustrating. … I’m just real happy that we were able to turn around from what was a frustrating day (in practice) yesterday to put a great car on the starting grid, a car that was so competitive as it was today.”
Meanwhile, runner-up Harvick is quietly climbing his way through the point standings, having ascended from 12th to fourth in the last five races on the strength of five consecutive top 10s, including a victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I was pretty nervous as we finished practice yesterday,” Harvick said. “Those guys just did a great job again of talking through everything with myself and themselves to make some good decisions this morning — and they always do — and that's what makes this team good is they keep themselves in contention to be solid on days when you don't think you're going to be that great.”
With 11 races remaining in the Cup Series’ 26-race regular season, Johnson holds a 31-point advantage over Edwards, Clint Bowyer (-49), Harvick (-62) and Matt Kenseth (-82) in the championship standings.
Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Lowe’s team showed up to Pocono Raceway with something to prove.
After being penalized for jumping a restart the previous weekend in the 400-miler at Dover that cost the team a victory, Johnson was all business as the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit hit Pocono’s quirky, 2.5-mile layout.
And that spelled bad news for everyone else, as Johnson laid waste to the field in the mountains of Pocono. Among the top two in speeds during each practice session, Johnson also sat on the pole when qualifying was rained out and, thus, had his choice of pit stall.
Not one to show strength early in the weekend only to fade late, Johnson dominated the Party in the Poconos 400 on Sunday, leading 128 of 160 laps en route to his third victory of the 2013 campaign. And in doing so, increased his lead in the championship point standings to 51 over second-place Carl Edwards — a full race-worth of a points advantage.
“That car had a ton of speed in it, and not only the car but I think our engine really had a chance to shine today, and the configuration here and the fact that we’re able to shift, our engine shop works really hard to make that power,” Johnson said. “Today it showed, and then at times when we needed to conserve fuel we could get that done, as well.
“I felt like it was a very well-rounded weekend for us — clearly with speed, (and with) that speed you need power, and then when we needed to back it down and save some fuel we could do that, too.”
Johnson, as he’s prone to do, understated the driver’s role in the victory — the 63rd of his illustrious career.
On four occasions inside of 40 laps to go, the driver was forced to hold off all-comers on restarts — which was his undoing at Dover. After starting second in that event, he beat race leader Juan Pablo Montoya to the line when Montoya lagged on the start.
Each driver had a different version of what happened, but Johnson was clearly still stewing about the victory-sapping penalty a week later.
“As racers, we need to work any and every angle we can,” Johnson said prior to Sunday’s race. “I think we need to put a little more weight in the officiating and how the rule reads and how it’s intended to be enforced.”
His restarts were spot-on at Pocono, though, as Johnson flawlessly fended off teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, and others as the race wound down. His trump card being that, as the leader, he controlled the restarts.
“I wanted to prove a point and show everybody really what could happen in that restart zone than what happened to me last week, but I couldn’t do it to a teammate (Earnhardt),” Johnson said. “So I guess if things stay the way they do, I’ll save that for another day and prove my point even more.”
Riding a commanding lead in the standings and with a trio of valuable wins, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus can now employ a strategy that led the duo to five consecutive Cup championships in 2006-10: Use the remainder of the regular season as a live-fire test session for the Chase.
Also, Johnson’s wife, Chandra, is expecting the couple’s second child, due in September — right about the time the 26-race regular season ends and the playoffs begin.
“If Chani goes into labor early, I don’t have to worry about Richmond, honestly,” Johnson said of the regular season finale. “That is what I’m working so hard for. I always work hard anyway, but it sure takes some pressure off if we lock early and don’t have to worry about Richmond.”
That could be further bad news for the competition, as Sunday proved that a motivated Jimmie Johnson can be the most dangerous force on the Sprint Cup circuit.
A wild finish to Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway once again led to confusion concerning how the sanctioning body scores finishes on the sport’s two restrictor plate tracks.
A quick glance at the final lap of the race — in an event that was shortened due to impending darkness and that battled precipitation throughout the day — shows the three cars of Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Regan Smith racing to the start-finish line with the checkered flag in the air. Meanwhile, chaos ensues when a multi-car accident breaks out behind the trio as yellow caution lights flash.
NASCAR obviously made the right call to display the caution — and I rarely use the word “obviously.” Cars were wrecking at nearly 200 mph. I mean, how do you not wave the yellow flag?
However, confusion over who was flagged the winner reigned when NASCAR took time to review the final dash. Television commentators and print media on Twitter initially, and tentatively, believed Kahne beat Logano and Smith to the line by a nose. One NASCAR scoring monitor in the media center even showed Logano’s No. 22 car at the top of the scoring list. In post-race interviews, the drivers themselves admitted to racing to the start-finish line, believing that mark would determine the winner.
That wasn’t the case, though. In actuality, NASCAR scored Smith the victor for being in the lead when the caution was displayed. In essence, the field was frozen at that moment.
So what’s the beef? Seems clear-cut, right?
And the reason it’s not is because the race directors in the scoring tower seem to waver in their judgment each and every time the series visits Daytona and Talladega.
In Saturday’s instance, a massive wreck in the tri-oval on the final lap constituted a caution flag that, in NASCAR’s judgment, froze the field. Thus, racing to the start-finish line was negated; Smith was declared the winner for being in front at the second the yellow was displayed. However, in countless other cases the sanctioning body has thrown (or not thrown) a caution in a last-lap mess while allowing the leaders that were beyond the fray — and in the clear — to drag race back to the line where the winner was flagged.
The most notable instance? Look no further than the sport’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500. In 2007, Mark Martin and Kevin Harvick raced through the tri-oval and back to the line as cars wrecked, in one case upside down and on fire, behind them. Martin’s initial reaction, as captured in audio on his in-car radio, was that he led at the time the melee unfolded. So he was the winner, right? NASCAR, however, did not freeze the field, flagging Harvick the winner at the start-finish line, instead.
Was this decision made because it was the Daytona 500? Because the sport’s most attentive audience watched by the millions on network television in a prime-time slot? Because it needed a “true” finish?
Hard to say. Though that should not factor into the decision-making process.
Admittedly, each race (and final-lap wreck) is different, with its own unique set of circumstances and perils. But the fact that the drivers — not to mention fans and media — are unclear as to what the ruling will be is a problem that dogs the sport’s decision makers. Further, the fact that on Saturday, Kahne, Logano and Smith ignored the caution lights and continued to race back to the start-finish line implies that it was their belief that that line — not a scoring loop or a frozen-field judgment call — would determine who went to Victory Lane. After all, how can they be expected to let off if the ruling could be any one of three alternatives? Cover all your bases, boys.
Few would argue that driver and fan safety is paramount. So why is it that safety is sometimes ignored in favor of a thrilling finish, while other times it prompts a “stoppage in play” as the leaders scream to the finish?
Who won and who lost is inconsequential in this, or any, instance. Consistency from NASCAR is all that is asked by fans, media and competitors. Unfortunately, the only consistency the sport has ever displayed is in its habitual subjectivity of how to score the most important lap of the race — the final one.
And that’s where confusion still reigns.
Jimmie Johnson’s eighth career win at Martinsville last Sunday highlighted his dominance at that particular track. Johnson has won seven of the last 14 visits to the track and in 23 starts has an average finish of 5.3. While he still has a way to go to match Richard Petty’s mark of 15 wins at the paperclip, it did bring to mind some past performances at other tracks by NASCAR stars who were able to hit on some unmistakable magic. Let's take a look at the top 12 most dominant streaks in NASCAR:
12. Rusty Wallace – Martinsville Speedway, 1993-96
Some may have scoffed when Rusty Wallace was inducted to the NASCAR Hall of Fame last year, but his performances on short tracks over the years were as impressive as any driver in the sport’s modern era. Dale Earnhardt may have dubbed him “Rubberhead,” but Wallace was rock solid on tracks under a one mile. Credit his Midwest ASA short track roots, as his best facility statistically was Bristol, but it was at Martinsville where he really went on a tear. From 1993-96, he won five times at the track, as well as posted one runner-up and one third-place showing. In 1993, he made a mockery of the event, leading 409 of 500 laps – so much for the good ol’ golden days of the early- and mid-1990s for competition, eh? Fittingly, Rusty would win the final race of his career in 2004 at Martinsville.
11. Kyle Petty – North Carolina Motor Speedway, 1990-92
Long before he was tearing up Twitter (check out last week’s response to a guy threatening to cut his pony tail) and the highways of North America for his charity motorcycle ride, the heir to the Petty throne was getting his legs under him as a Cup contender in the late 1980s. Once he decided he wasn’t going to take Nashville by storm as a country music singer, he focused his attention to the Sand Hills of North Carolina, turning venerable Rockingham into his own personal concert. From 1990-92, he won five poles in a six-race span and at the 1990 event, put on a clinic leading, 433 of 500 laps (and winning $284,450 in the process — a princely sum by way of some Unocal 76 bonus money for winning from the pole). Two more wins would follow in ’91 and ’92 for Kyle, making “The Rock” the only Cup track where he would score multiple victories.
10. Mark Martin – Watkins Glen International, 1993-95
For all the talk of road course ringers, it’s interesting that most of the successful Cup Series drivers have rather storied road-race histories themselves. Mark Martin was part of 24-Hours of Daytona class wins with Jack Roush in the 1990s and lists learning to drive on gravel roads around Batesville, Ark., in his father’s lap as part of that training. From 1993-95, Martin’s Valvoline Thunderbird was a force to be reckoned with on NASCAR’s roadies. He won three consecutive events during this time – all from the pole. The ’93 race saw him take the win after Dale Earnhardt and Kyle Petty tangled in the closing laps, though Martin twice had to overcome stripped-out lug nuts on pit stops. In ’94 he led 75 of 90 laps, and 61 of 90 laps the following year. Martin was on the verge of great things at The Glen prior to his three-year streak. In 1991 he spun while passing Ernie Irvan for the lead on the final lap and in ’92 was in contention when the race was called for rain just past halfway. All told, he averaged an amazing 2.7-place finish at the historic road course from 1989-98, never placing outside of the top 5.
9. Bobby Labonte – Atlanta Motor Speedway, 1996-99
In 1996, Terry Labonte was in the process of winning his second Winston Cup title. Meanwhile, brother Bobby was starting to run roughshod over the field at Atlanta Motor Speedway. After Mike Skinner nearly won his first Cup race in Atlanta dueling with Labonte, he half-jokingly lamented about “Bobby Labonte showing up here in his damn Pontiac.” The younger Labonte earned his second career win at the ’96 season finale in Atlanta from the pole and would start a span of seven races that saw him win four times, as well as posting a second- and a fourth-place run with a pair of poles, to boot. He would later add two more wins at AMS, including his last to date in 2003. It should come as no surprise that Kyle Busch’s first win with the Joe Gibbs Racing organization also occurred at AMS in 2008.
8. Jimmie Johnson – Charlotte Motor Speedway, 2003-06
With the number of obscene statistics that Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team have compiled over the past decade, none highlight the dominant nature of their success than the run of results at what was then appropriately titled “Lowe’s Motor Speedway.” From 2003-06, Johnson posted five points-paying wins, a pair of seconds, a third and a pair of wins in the All-Star Race. Johnson went dry for a few years at Charlotte afterward, but returned to win from the pole in 2009 and won the All-Star race again last year for a third time.
7. Darrell Waltrip – Bristol Motor Speedway, 1981-84
Over the last 12 years, we’ve all become aware of DW’s “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity” on Sunday afternoons. Yeah, it might be wearing a little long in the tooth, but behind all of the shameless self-promotion is one of the all-time great drivers (who had an even better catchphrase back in the day with, “Follow me in Tennessee!”). From 1981-84, Waltrip dominated rough ‘n’ tumble Bristol in what some fans viewed as a downright offensive manner. Eight straight wins — three in a row from the pole — with never more than five cars on the same lap highlight the dominance of his Junior Johnson-owned team. Looking back further, it seems Waltip was getting primed for his run, finishing in the top 3 (two wins) in the seven visits prior to the eight-win streak. In ’92, he won his final race at Bristol as well as the Southern 500 at Darlington the following week, the final two triumphs of his Hall of Fame career.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Talladega Superspeedway, 2001-06
To say the superspeedway gene runs deep in the Earnhardt family would be an understatement. Back when he was synonymous with “The King of Beers,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. was presiding over his own kingdom of Eastaboga, Ala. Then, the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Chevrolets were nearly unbeatable on NASCAR’s plate tracks, as Earnhardt Jr. drove to five wins over the span of seven races. The two he didn’t win? Both runner-up showings; one to teammate Michael Waltrip, the other under caution to Jeff Gordon, which resulted in the No. 24 car being pelted with a barrage of beer cans. Junior’s last win at Talladega, in 2004, was the source of much controversy. After being told of the accomplishment of winning for a fifth time at the track, his reply to Matt Yocum was the now-infamous, “Well it don’t mean sh*t … Daddy done won here 10 times so I gotta do a little more winnin’!” His exuberance cost him 25 points, a fine levied by NASCAR for cursing on television, in the midst of a title run that saw him taking the points lead after having bounced back from massive burns suffered in a practice crash for a Grand Am race in Sonoma.
5. Dale Earnhardt Sr. – Talladega Superspeedway, 1990-2000
If you ever get the chance to travel to Talladega, you will notice there are three flags flown: the United States flag, the Confederate flag and a black flag with a white No. 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have been penalized 25 points for stating a fact, but it was his father’s success at Talladega that helped give birth to a legend. They say he could see the air. Not really, though – with his seat reclined at a 45-degree angle and wearing an open-faced helmet, he could probably feel the air on his face more than “see” it. That said, the Man in Black owned Talladega for the better part of a decade, winning eight of 22 races, with seven finishes of fourth or better in those he didn’t claim. He swept the events in 1990 and ’99, and his final — and perhaps most memorable — victory was came in 2000, when he drove from 18th to the win in the final six laps. Yeah, you’ve seen it before, but take a few minutes and watch perhaps the greatest superspeedway performance of all time.
4. Bill Elliott – Michigan International Speedway, 1984-89
“Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” is remembered for a number of accomplishments. Chief among them: two Daytona 500 wins, making up two laps at Talladega under green to win, posting the fastest qualifying lap in NASCAR history, winning the inaugural Winston Million in 1985 and claiming the 1988 Winston Cup championship. Overlooked during this decade of dominance was his performance at car owner Harry Melling’s home track, Michigan International Speedway. MIS has always had a reputation as being a Ford track – legend has it the torque curve coming off the corners helped the Blue Ovals dominate there for nearly 20 years. And from 1984-89, Elliott’s No. 9 Coors T-bird won seven poles and seven races, including sweeps in ’85 and ’86.
3. Jeff Gordon – Darlington Raceway, 1995-98
The mid-1990s was a turning point for NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt was suddenly presented with a natural rival in the form of young upstart Jeff Gordon — Earnhardt’s polar opposite in the eyes of NASCAR Nation. Where the new Wonderboy really excelled, coincidentally, was at NASCAR’s oldest and toughest speedway: Darlington. From 1995-98, Gordon won five races at “The Track Too Tough to Tame,” including four Southern 500s and the ’97 event that saw him banging fenders and blocking (gasp!) Jeff Burton down the frontstretch for a million-dollar payday. Oh, and those two races that he didn’t win? Third- and second-place runs. Gordon’s success at Darlington during these years helped propel him to title wins in 1995, ’97 and ’98.
2. David Pearson – Darlington Raceway, 1970-1980
There are certain tracks that some drivers are forever linked to, and that is certainly the case with David Pearson and his home state track of Darlington Raceway. From 1970-1980 the Silver Fox won nine races, nine poles, three Southern 500s and did so driving for three different car owners – the Wood Brothers, Hoss Ellington and Rod Osterlund, the latter in relief for an injured Dale Earnhardt in 1979. Pearson scored his most wins at Darlington (10 of his 105 triumphs), however it was not the only track where he enjoyed a field day. In 13 races from 1972-78 at Michigan, Pearson nearly equaled his Darlington dominance, posting eight wins, eight poles and never finishing outside of the top 5.
1. Richard Petty – Martinsville Speedway, 1967-75
You know those memes that pop up on Facebook that picture an accomplishment of some significance, and one victorious line of sentiment underneath? Feel free to draw one up with The King, who won a total of 15 races at Martinsville. From 1967-75, Petty would win 11 times. 1967 was Petty’s second title season, and the one that earned him the nickname “King Richard.” He posted 27 wins that season, including 10 in a row. Two of those wins came at Martinsville. While the Petty persona may be synonymous with Daytona, having won the 500 a record seven times, it’s this Martinsville feat that stands the test of time, and the mark that every driver – even Jimmie Johnson – aspires to.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Photos courtesy of Actions Sports, Inc.
Jimmie Johnson capped off a dominant weekend at Martinsville Speedway in a familiar way: by celebrating in Victory Lane. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won his eighth career NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the half-mile Virginia short track on Sunday in the STP Gas Booster 500.
Johnson’s weekend started in fine form on Friday, when he won the pole for the event. His No. 48 was near the top of each practice session’s speed chart, and when the green flag flew for 500 miles of racing, there was little doubt as to who the field would be chasing.
Johnson led 346 laps — the highest single-race total of his career — and drove away from Clint Bowyer and teammate Jeff Gordon after a restart with eight laps to go to seal the victory in convincing fashion.
“We had a great weekend and I know the stats clearly show that, but (it was) the most calm, relaxed, thought-out weekend that we’ve had as the 48 (team) — and the most mature,” Johnson said. “We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that.”
Bowyer, Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch rounded out the top 5.
“Jimmie has just really figured this place out,” Gordon said. “You get a driver like Jimmie and a team like the 48 — or ours, or the 15 (Bowyer) — you put them on the pole (and) in that No. 1 pit stall … it’s going to be really, really hard to beat them.”
Johnson’s mastery of Martinsville is reaching historic levels. His eight wins on the paperclip-shaped oval leads all active drivers and ranks behind only Richard Petty’s 15 and Darrell Waltrip’s 11 all-time. He’s won seven of the last 14 races at the only track that has hosted NASCAR premier series races since the sport’s inception.
Johnson also reclaimed the lead in the Sprint Cup Series point standings, holding a six-point advantage over Brad Keselowski.
After two weeks of hype, neither Joey Logano nor Tony Stewart engaged in any sort of on-track retaliation following their post-race skirmish in Fontana, Calif. Denny Hamlin, who was injured in his last-lap battle with Logano in the same race, was in attendance at Martinsville atop the pit box of his No. 11 team. Mark Martin, who filled in for Hamlin, finished 10th.
Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick impressed in her first visit to the physical short track, placing 12th after a hard-fought duel with Brian Vickers and Kevin Harvick on the final lap. Patrick was forced to start at the rear of the field when her No. 10 team changed an engine on Saturday.
“I didn’t know what to expect (at Martinsville), but I feel like finding the limit on a short track where you’re going a little slower … there’s less risk as opposed to finding the limit on a really big track where you’re doing 200 mph,” said Patrick said.
Johnson is the first driver to collect multiple wins in 2013, having scored his second Daytona 500 crown in February.
The circuit heads to Texas Motor Speedway for a Saturday night affair this weekend.
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit treks back east to quaint little Martinsville for the STP Gas Booster 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Martinsville ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Won at Martinsville last fall from the pole and has seven career victories there. Scored 12 top-5 finishes in his last 15 starts there. Johnson has led 430 laps in his last four Martinsville starts. He has the best average running position (7.2) in the first five races of the season. He also has the best driver rating (110.2) at this point in the season.
2. Jeff Gordon
Has seven career wins at Martinsville. Appeared headed for No. 8 last spring when wrecked after contact by Clint Bowyer on a late restart and finished 14th. Gordon has 15 top-5 finishes in his last 20 Martinsville starts. Has led 534 laps in the last three races there. Has led an average of 113.4 laps in his last 13 starts at that track.
3. Brad Keselowski
Has scored seven consecutive finishes of sixth or better at ovals 1.1 miles or less, dating back to last season (that includes a sixth at Martinsville last fall, a career-best finish at the track). His 23rd-place finish at Auto Club Speedway ended his streak of four consecutive top-5s to open the season. That also was the first race this year he had not led. Dating back to last year’s Chase, he’s led laps in 11 of the last 15 races. Has an average finish of 12.1 in six starts at Martinsville.
4. Clint Bowyer
Finished fifth last fall at Martinsville and 10th in the spring. He led 154 laps last fall and had an average running position of 3.6 in that race, second only to race winner Jimmie Johnson’s average running position (3.2). Bowyer has four top 10s in his last six Martinsville starts.
5. Kasey Kahne
Placed third at Martinsville last fall. That ended an 11-race streak of finishing outside the top 10 there. Has recorded the fastest lap (149) more times than any other driver in the first five races of the season. He’s tied with Matt Kenseth with most laps led this year at 223 but has led only 31 laps in 18 career starts at Martinsville.
6. Matt Kenseth
Has placed in the top 10 in the past two spring races at Martinsville with a fourth last year and a sixth in April 2011. Those are his only two top-10 finishes in his last eight overall starts at the track. Tied with Kasey Kahne for most laps led this season at 223, which is 15 percent of all laps run.
7. Kevin Harvick
Won at Martinsville in April 2011 but since has finished fourth, 19th and 32nd there. Since being in a crash and finishing 42nd in the Daytona 500, Harvick has placed between ninth and 14th in each Cup race this season.
8. Tony Stewart
Has placed outside the top 20 in four of his last six Martinsville starts. In the other two races there, he won and finished seventh. Stewart has led only 15 laps in his last 11 starts at that track.
It’s said that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the best start of his 14-year NASCAR Sprint Cup career.
The 38-year-old has recorded top-10 finishes in each of the first five events, averaging a 4.4-place finish, and leads the point standings heading to the circuit’s sixth stop, in Martinsville, Va., on Sunday.
“When I hear people talking about the fast start, I feel like you’ve got to take a lot of different factors into the equation,” Earnhardt says. “We’ve had good fortune. (Certain) scenarios have been working in our favor ... and they don’t always work in your favor. You’re not always gonna come out on the better end of those deals, but we have.”
It’s not like this is unexplored territory for the 10-time most popular driver. Last season’s full slate of top 15s through the first five races found him third in the standings. And in 2004 with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., he enjoyed his finest season to date, when he notched two wins in the first five events, though a 35th-place run in Las Vegas dropped the average finishing position to 10.4.
Earnhardt also scored the sole Daytona 500 victory of his career that season, and runs of fifth, first and 10th surrounded the Vegas dud. So technically, the start of that six-win season was his finest to date.
But you’ll excuse his legion of fans if they choose to ride the momentum 2013 has brought. And the fact that Earnhardt is the only driver in the series that has yet to see 11th-place (or worse) at the end of a long Sunday afternoon finds his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team feeling upbeat as the circuit embarks on a trek of 15 straight race weekends through mid-July.
“We’re feeling confident — the mood’s good,” Earnhardt says of his team. “We see where we need to improve. We feel like we’ve got pretty decent speed in the car in race trim.”
For a driver and team that once struggled to make the car better over the course of a race, the in-race improvement has been striking. In fact, that 4.4-place average finish is a full 15 positions better than where they’ve managed to qualify on average — a testament to the communication between driver and crew chief Steve Letarte.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at closing races, something I never really was good at for years, and now we’re doing it as good as anybody,” Earnhardt says. “(We’re) just riding the wave — just real happy with how things are going for our team.”
Still, qualifying further up the pylon may change those second- to seventh-place finishes into wins.
“We’d love to qualify better, to feel more dependable when we put the car in qualifying trim,” says Earnhardt.
It’s a sentiment Letarte echos, though he realizes that the team has put itself in position to win numerous times. And if they do it often enough, those wins will come.
“You can’t win from 15th; you can’t win from 10th, the sport’s too difficult,” Letarte says. “You have to run in the top 5 or top 7 to win races — and we’ve done that all season. And we think that’s the formula for success that will get us to Victory Lane throughout the year.”
That brings Earnhardt and crew to Martinsville, a quaint .526-mile, paperclip-shaped oval that’s as much of a throwback venue as one will find on a schedule saturated with 1.5-mile intermediate clones. It’s a racetrack that has treated Earnhardt well in the past — he has showings of seventh or better in four of his last five starts — though he has yet to earn the coveted Grandfather Clock trophy awarded to the winner.
At this rate, though, Earnhardt is happy to have gotten out of the gates quickly, knowing the points earned early are insurance for the potholes that speckle an arduous season, wrought with trial.
“It’s a long year,” he says. “You’re going to have some bad luck — nobody runs the whole season perfectly — but we’re just trying to get as many points as early as we can so when that bad luck comes it doesn’t hit us as hard.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has assumed the top spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings, but it's defending champion Brad Keselowski who finds himself atop the Athlon Sports Horsepower Rankings.
1. Brad Keselowski
If not for an overheating issue late in Fontana (while running fifth), Keselowski would most likely be five-for-five in the top-5 finishes category. The defending champ has come out swinging.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior has a quintet of top-10 runs thus far in 2013. He will not ascend to the top of this list until the No. 88 team proves it can win on a consistent basis.
3. Jimmie Johnson
You just know ace crew chief Chad Knaus has used the off-weekend to widen the chasm between teams that have and have not figured out the nuances of the Gen-6 car.
4. Matt Kenseth
Not surprisingly, the veteran Kenseth has comfortably made the transition to Joe Gibbs Racing in a seemless manner. In fact, he may be ranked a bit low on this list.
5. Kyle Busch
Busch is riding a three-race streak that has witnessed finishes of fourth or better, punctuated by a dramatic win at Auto Club Speedway. This bunch is going to be hard to handle this season.
6. Kasey Kahne
Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have a full season under their belts at Hendrick Motorsports. The duo has led the No. 5 team to consecutive showings of second, first and ninth.
7. Carl Edwards
Somewhat of a feast or famine team, the No. 99 bunch has a win (Phoenix) and two additional top-5 runs in 2013. Those showings are offset by 18th- and 33rd-place stinkers.
8. Greg Biffle
Going about things the way only Biffle can. Through five races, he has zero top 5s and two top 10s, yet finds himself fourth in the point standings. He’s nothing if not consistent.
9. Paul Menard
Menard’s No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team are off to their annual semi-hot start, with three top 10s and an average run of 13.6. The question this year, as it is every year, is can they sustain it?
10. Ryan Newman
Yes, he’s an uninspiring 20th in the point standings, but Newman is actually carrying the Stewart-Haas Racing banner with three top 10s. Like Edwards, this is a feast or famine group, albeit without a “W.”
11. Clint Bowyer
Can this team avoid the dreaded championship runner-up hangover? The thinking here is they can.
A frenetic final 20 laps in the Auto Club 400 concluded in a last-lap crash involving rivals Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, a surprise winner in Kyle Busch, and a fight on pit road between Logano and Tony Stewart. And it all happened at the most unlikely of venues: Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
The two-mile oval in Southern California has historically been known for its single-file, strung-out style of racing where aerodynamics and downforce — not tight-quarters beating and banging — are key. That all changed on Sunday.
A bevy of late-race three- and four-wide racing hit its crescendo on a restart with 11 laps to go. Race leader Logano threw a block on Stewart as the field took the green flag, killing the latter’s momentum and costing him valuable positions. That opened the door for Kyle Busch, who shot to the lead in the high groove.
As Busch built a cushion up front, the fight for second between Logano, Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. intensified. The quintet sparred for three laps before Logano and Hamlin prevailed. They chased down the leader and overtook him in a physical fight in the tri-oval with five laps remaining.
The former teammates, whose rivalry has made headlines since Daytona and reached a new high in Bristol when Hamlin spun Logano, sparking a post-race confrontation and a war of words, ran nose-to-tail until the final lap, when Hamlin made his move as the white flagged wave.
Hamlin loosened Logano up in the tri-oval and powered by on the outside. However, Logano was far from done. He dove to the inside in Turn 1 and pulled alongside on the backstretch. As Logano’s car got loose in Turn 3, he washed up the racetrack, making contact with the No. 11 of Hamlin. That allowed a stalking Kyle Busch to skate by near the wall, charging to the lead as Logano and Hamlin wrecked.
Logano bounced off the wall but righted the ship for a third-place finish. Hamlin cut hard to the inside of the track and crashed head-on into a concrete wall devoid of energy-absorbing SAFER Barriers. Hamlin exited his car but quickly collapsed to the pavement as track safety personnel attended to him. He was airlifted to a local hospital complaining of back pain for what Joe Gibbs Racing officials called “precautionary reasons.”
“They forgot about me. I knew they were gonna,” Busch said of the two leaders as they parried for the win. “When they went to the bottom side of (Turns) 3 and 4, I thought, ‘Oh man, this golden — I got enough (momentum) up here to make this happen.’ Lo and behold, I put my foot to it and drove around the outside of them before they were crashing … or maybe as they were crashing, I’m not sure.”
The victory was Busch’s first of the season and 25th of his career.
Earnhardt Jr., Logano, Edwards and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 5. Hamlin was credited with a 25th-place finish. Earnhardt assumed the lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings after former leader, Brad Keselowski, limped to a 23rd-place showing.
After leading the most laps last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway only to run second to Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne felt he had something to prove on Sunday. And with Bristol Motor Speedway being the next stop on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, all the better, as Kahne had yet to win on the tough half-mile racetrack in East Tennessee.
And prove it he did. Kahne got the jump on Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin during the final restart of the Food City 500 and cruised, leading the final 40 laps to notch his first Cup victory on Bristol’s high banks.
“This is a big race (win) for me,” Kahne said. “I just feel like when you’re racing in the Sprint Cup Series, Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver you really feel like you need to win at, you want to win at. There's so many things that are thrown at you when you come to this place.
“We've been trying (to win at Bristol for) a long time. So to pull it off, I felt like it was a big accomplishment for our guys and myself. Just feel really good about it.”
Kahne, who led 109 laps, dueled with Hamlin at the front of the field throughout the afternoon. Keselowski joined the fray with less than 100 laps remaining and the trio swapped the point until Jimmie Johnson blew a tire to bring out the caution with 46 laps to go.
The nine cars at the front of the pack — led by Keselowski and Kahne — elected not to pit. When the green flag waved, Keselowski was bumped from behind by Hamlin, causing his No. 2 Ford to bobble. That momentary loss of traction was all Kahne’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevy needed.
Kahne held off the aggressive trio of Kyle Busch, Keselowski and Clint Bowyer for five laps, then pulled away to a 1.7-second victory. Busch, Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Bowyer rounded out the top 5.
“I just know my rear tires were off the ground before I got to the restart zone,” Keselowski said of the deciding restart. “Eventually I got hit so hard it pushed my foot in the gas pedal. That was the deal. Never had another chance.”
The win was Kahne’s first of 2013 after stumbling out of the gate to 36th- and 19th-place finishes. Keselowski’s third-place run was his fourth top 5 in four races this year. He leads in the point standings by nine over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who logged a sixth at Bristol.
As is typical in Bristol’s tight confines, it was a physical 500-mile affair. The race was slowed 10 times for cautions. The most notable came on lap 391, when Jeff Gordon blew a right front tire while leading. He collected second-place Kenseth in the process, ending each driver’s day.
Post-race fireworks erupted when Joey Logano had to be restrained from Hamlin’s parked No. 11 Toyota. Logano had been spun by his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate while the former ran second on lap 349.
“That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car — probably the worst teammate I ever had, so I learned that now,” Logano said. “He decided to run into the back of me … I have a scorecard and I’m not putting up with that. What goes around comes around.”
“He said he was comin’ for me,” Hamlin stated, when asked what Logano said upon confronting him. “I usually don’t see him (on the track), so it’s usually not a factor.
“It’s Bristol racing and everyone is fighting for the top. He knew he had to get to the top (groove) as soon as he could, but I was up there. I did mean to (hit him), but I didn’t mean to wreck him. That was a mistake.”
Logano wasn’t buying it.
“Oh, OK, sure,” Logano said. “If he didn’t mean to wreck me he would have said he was sorry, but he didn’t say that. It’s just frustrating.”
The two drivers engaged in a war of words on Twitter following the Daytona 500, when Hamlin tweeted to Logano's Penske Racing teammate, Keselowski, that he was “sorry I couldn’t get close to you (to draft) cuz your genius teammate was too busy messing up the inside lane 1 move at a time.”
The events at Bristol spilled over to the popular social media site once again.
Logano started the string of tweets, saying about their confrontation: “Hey @dennyhamlin great job of protecting that genius brain of yours by keeping your helmet on.”
“Why’s that … what would you do?” replied Hamlin.
“Show you some love and appreciation.”
“Last time I checked he had my cell and direct message button to choose from if he’s got a problem,” Hamlin concluded. “Otherwise, hush little child.”
The biggest name in NASCAR's 2012 version of Silly Season made his presence known early in the 2013 season. Matt Kenseth, in only his third start with Joe Gibbs Racing, gave the No. 20 team its first win since June 2012, when he won the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Having spent the first 13 years of his Cup Series career at Roush Fenway Racing where he won two Daytona 500s and the 2003 title, Kenseth accepted one of the most coveted seats in the Sprint Cup Series with Gibbs’ No. 20 team — a group that had only two wins since Tony Stewart left the team following the 2008 season. In the season opener in Daytona, Kenseth was one of a handful of favorites but lost an engine while leading with just over 50 laps remaining. He followed that up with a workman-like top 10 at Phoenix.
On Sunday in Las Vegas, it all came together for the driver, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 bunch.
In classic Kenseth fashion, the Wisconsin native showed up when the money was on the line. In a race dominated by Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth assumed the lead late — with 41 laps remaining — and used clean air at the front of the field to his advantage.
A strategy call on a pit stop under yellow earned Kenseth the point. Taking zero tires while most others took two, he led the field to green and held the top spot even after the second-place machine of Brad Keselowski appeared to jump the start.
A blown engine in the Chevy of Ryan Newman precipitated another restart with 27 laps to go. Again, it appeared that Keselowski jumped the start, but no ruling came from NASCAR. Still, Kenseth recovered quickly, pulling by on the backstretch.
However, Kenseth’s toughest challenge would come from Kahne, who also disposed of Keselowski within a lap of the restart.
Kahne, who led a race-high 114 laps, prowled in Kenseth’s tire tracks for the final 26 laps, but in an ending that proved anti-climactic, never mounted a serious attempt at the pass. Clean air for the leader, coupled with a lack of front-end downforce on his No. 5 Chevy, forced Kahne to settle for second.
“We're only three weeks in, but man, all three races we had a car — if everything would have went right — that we could have won, and it feels pretty awesome to have this win here,” said Kenseth.
Keselowski, Busch and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5 on an afternoon that witnessed five caution periods.
NASCAR opened the track on Thursday for a test session to give teams extra time with the new Gen-6 car on the circuit’s first intermediate track stop. High-banked intermediate tracks — typically 1.5- or 2-miles in length — make up more than half of the Sprint Cup Series’ 36-race season. The new cars are designed with the intent to improve action on these tracks to allow more side-by-side racing.
Still, aero-dependency ruled the day on Sunday, as evidenced by Kahne not being able to pass Kenseth in the waning laps despite having newer tires — and by all outward appearances, a faster car.
“Clean air is like an extra tire,” said Carl Edwards.
“When I was out front my car was fast as heck,” Busch said. “As soon as (Kahne) went by me (for the lead) I was out of the racetrack, wrecking loose. I had to give up 10 car lengths to him in order to get my car comfortable again to where I could drive it.”
Those teams that were able to hit the setup thrived, as five cars — Kenseth, Kahne, Keselowski, Busch and Johnson — led 261 of the 267 laps. This on the heels of a largely single-file Daytona 500 and a veritably regular trip to Phoenix’s eccentric one-mile oval.
So while the cars may be a work in progress, the chemistry on JGR’s No. 20 team looks well ahead of the curve.
“I'm glad we got a win, but it's still only week three,” Kenseth said of his new team. “I feel like this is the beginning, you know, and I have a lot of confidence — I had a lot of confidence after our first meeting and decided to go do this and just had a great feeling about it. And I still do.”
A new season brings new hope. And no one in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is in more need of hope than Carl Edwards.
On the outside looking in at last season’s Chase for the Championship, Edwards has been mired in a winless skid that dates back to March 6, 2011. And his 2013 season got off to a dubious start in Daytona during Speedweeks, where he was involved in four wrecks (and a fifth in a test session in January), ultimately finishing 33rd in the Daytona 500.
Factor in a new contract that he signed in 2011 with Roush Fenway Racing that made the 33-year-old Ford Racing’s figurehead, as well as being given RFR’s ace crew chief in Jimmy Fennig, and it’s easy to understand how the pressure has mounted on Edwards to perform.
Consider the weight lifted.
Edwards led the final 78 laps in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Sunday, holding off Jimmie Johnson in a green-white-checker finish en route to the win at Phoenix International Raceway.
“It’s tough to go that long without winning, “Edwards said. “And then you come into the season with Jimmy (Fennig) who did so well last year (three wins with Matt Kenseth) … and everybody did so well. We’ve got the fastest pit crew on pit road — and I thought ‘We’ve got to go win some races.’”
Edwards seemingly had the scheduled 312-lap race in hand, cruising nearly a half-second in front of Johnson as the laps wound down. However, a caution for Ken Schrader’s blown tire with three circuits remaining forced the event into NASCAR’s version of an overtime finish. And with fuel an issue, many were unsure if they had enough in the tank to survive the caution laps and a three-lap shootout on Phoenix’s one-mile layout.
The leaders — Edwards, Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — had plenty in reserve, though. When the green waved, Keselowski pushed Edwards, on the inside lane, by Johnson and the driver of the No. 99 did the rest. In clean air, the Missouri native easily held off the pack, winning his 20th career Cup race.
“I was trying to suspend my emotions after that last caution.” Edwards said. “There was two laps to go and I’m saying, ‘Were going to win this race.’ And Brad pushed me — that sealed it right there. I knew that if we were the first ones down into the corner (Turn 1), we’d win this thing.”
Meanwhile, Johnson, Keselowski and Hamlin engaged in a thrilling battle for second. With Johnson and Keselowski door-to-door exiting Turn 2 on the final lap, Hamlin cut across the apron of the track in the dogleg, blocking Keselwoski and pulling even with Johnson. The two came to the finish line trading paint, with Johnson edging out Hamlin. Keselowski was fourth, Earnhardt Jr. fifth.
Johnson, though, was none-too-happy with the deciding restart.
“The leader is not supposed to slow down before he takes off (coming to the green),” Johnson said. “And he (Edwards) did that twice. It put me in a bad position with the 2 (Keselowski) inside of me … and off we went.”
“I was going for anything,” Hamlin said of the finish. “I didn’t have much all day. The pit crew and Darian (Grubb, crew chief) really carried us today getting track position. (It was) just so hard to pass. You’re going to hear it a lot this week that we’ve got a lot of work to do this week to get these cars to pass each other.”
Johnson, with finishes of first and second is off to a hot start this season, but Sunday was about Edwards, his new crew chief, a re-tooled team in only their second race together and NASCAR’s Gen-6 car, which seems to like clean air as much as its predecessor.
Is Phoenix an indication of what lies ahead for the 99 team? Will Edwards be a driver to deal with throughout the season as he was in 2011, or will he fade into obscurity like 2012?
“I think we are (back),” said Edwards. “But next week I think is going to be the true test (for the car) — at the mile-and-a-half (track in Las Vegas).”
NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car gave way to a new style of drafting in the Great American Race, while newcomer Danica Patrick once again made history. The ultimate result, though, was all too familiar. Jimmie Johnson scored career Cup win No. 61 by holding off a charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a frantic final lap to win the 55th Daytona 500.
“This Lowe’s Chevrolet was so fast,” said Johnson, a two-time 500 champion. “Chad (Knaus, crew chief) did an amazing job. We stuck to our plan all week long, kept the car straight through the practice sessions and the Duel and knew it was a fast car that would race well. We got that done here today.”
Johnson led 17 laps on the afternoon, but took the lead for good with 10 laps remaining, just prior to the event’s final caution.
“My lane was bunched up tight and helped me surge by the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) at the start-finish line when the (final) caution came out,” Johnson said. “That was the move that set things up for us.”
Leading the high line on the ensuing restart with six laps to go, Johnson, Greg Biffle and Patrick shoved their way out front. With Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer in tow, Keselowski attempted to pull the low line alongside Johnson, but three-wide racing took over as drivers scrambled for position, breaking up the run.
That’s when Earnhardt made his move — a move that would ultimately come up short.
The 2004 Daytona 500 winner lurked in fifth when the field took the white flag, but hooked up with Mark Martin in a sleek, two-car draft. Slicing low on the backstretch, the pair drafted under Patrick and Biffle, nearly pulling even with the leader.
“Once we came off of (Turn) 2, we just mashed the gas and got a run on Danica and side-drafted a little bit,” Earnhardt said of the last-lap move. “Once we come to (Turn) 4, we kind of ran out of steam. We didn’t have enough to get to Jimmie.”
“The end got exciting,” Johnson said. “The 88 (Earnhardt) got a big shove and was up the inside and I moved down to defend that.”
That move, combined with Earnhardt’s momentum stalling in Turns 3 and 4, allowed Johnson to shut the door. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates ran nose-to-tail through the tri-oval, with Johnson winning by .129 seconds. Martin, Keselowski and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.
“There’s no better way to start the season than to win the Daytona 500,” Johnson said. “I’m a very lucky man to have won it twice. I’m very honored to be on that trophy with all the greats that have ever been in our sport.”
Passing was at a premium over the course of the 200-lap, 500-mile race — and that suited Patrick, who qualified on the pole. She became the first female to lead a green flag lap in Cup competition — she led five laps total — and rarely dropped out of the top 10, backing up the speed her Chevrolet showed in qualifying.
“It was nice to lead laps in the race — just to have done that,” said Patrick, who finished eighth. “It was a steady day.”
A clean start to the race evolved into a largely single-file procession that was punctuated by a nine-car accident on lap 34 that eliminated many of the favorites. Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart were among those forced to the garage when Kyle Busch got into the back of Kahne, turning him in front of the field.
“The cars in front of us slowed up, so I was just slowing up right on Jeff Gordon’s bumper,” Kahne said. “I got hit from behind. Kyle was probably getting pushed and it all happened so quick.”
“To hell with the season,” a frustrated Stewart said. “I wanted to win the 500.”
The three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas took over at that point. Matt Kenseth led 83 of the next 115 laps with teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin neatly tucked in behind. But the complexion of the race changed on lap 149, when Kenseth — while leading — and Busch retired due to engine issues within two laps of one another.
Hamlin led the next 23 laps until Keselowski and Johnson began swapping the lead over the final 26 circuits.
The win was Hendrick Motorsports’ seventh Daytona 500 triumph and came in Johnson’s 400th career start. Johnson joins Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dave Marcis, David Pearson and Lee and Richard Petty in having won in their 400th starts.
“It’s a huge honor,” Johnson said. “There’s no other way to put it. Any time you’re mentioned with those greats, it’s a huge honor.”