Articles By Matt Taliaferro

Path: /nascar/nascar-news-notes-week-8

Don’t be fooled by the court jester routine Clint Bowyer seems to play in press conferences. For all the joking he does, he’s serious about winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

With five races left in the Chase, Bowyer is fourth in the standings for car owner Michael Waltrip’s team, 28 points behind series leader Brad Keselowski.

“Who would have thought in a million years after making this switch and coming over to a new family and everything that was new that we would be in Victory Lane three times and (there are) still—how many races, five races left?” said Bowyer, who joined Michael Waltrip Racing after having spent the previous six seasons at Richard Childress Racing.

“Five races left, and we're still in contention for a championship. Our first year together, just to be able to do that with a brand-new sponsor, a brand-new manufacturer, I'm telling you the truth: I was almost uncomfortable going to the shop at the beginning of the year because I didn't know one face there. I knew Ty Norris (executive vice president) and (crew chief) Brian Pattie and Michael ... and if I could catch him when he was there I could talk, but other than that I didn't know anybody there.”

Bowyer’s press conference with Waltirp and Pattie after winning Saturday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway mirrored a comedy routine with references to the pre-race show that featured a tight-rope walker, “Days of Thunder” and other such moments.

For all the fun Bowyer has had this year, he’s played a role with teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin in raising Michael Waltrip Racing’s profile. Bowyer already has topped his career bests with three wins, eight top-five and 19 top-10 finishes.

He’s looking for more this weekend at Kansas Speedway, his home track.

“That's probably the biggest thing is to come off this win, going into your hometown, the family and friends, everybody that goes there, it's just so important to be able to roll in on a positive note,” Bowyer said. “And to be able to win there some day, we've gotten close, if we could possibly pull this off again in Kansas, it would be … that's my … do you dare say Daytona 500, but it truly is. That's the biggest race you can possibly win is in front of your hometown.”

2013 CHANGES  NASCAR announced several competition changes for next season, including the end of the top 35 rule in the Sprint Cup Series.

Among the rule changes is that the Nationwide fields will be reduced from 43 to 40 cars next year. The Cup Series will continue to have 43-car fields and the Camping World Truck Series will again have 36-truck fields.

The top 35 rule—which guaranteed a starting spot to the top 35 in car owner points regardless of their speed in qualifying—ends after this season. NASCAR will return to the format it had before the top 35 rule was enacted in 2005.

Starting next year, the fastest 36 in Cup qualifying make the race with the final seven spots based on provisionals—one of those seven available to a former champion if they are entered, if not then it becomes a seventh provisional. The provisionals are based on car owner points, thus the six (or seven if there isn’t a former champion needing a provisional) highest cars in the car owner points that aren’t among the 36 fastest will make the race. Provisionals are unlimited.

Another change is that the qualifying order for Cup will be determined by a blind draw instead of based on speeds in the first practice session. If qualifying is canceled due to rain, the starting lineup will be determined by practice speeds.

Provisionals in the Cup, Nationwide and Truck series will be based upon the previous year’s car owner points for only the first three races of a season. Previously, it was for the first five races in Cup and Nationwide and the first four races in the Truck Series.

For the first time since 2008, teams will be able to test at tracks that host NASCAR events. NASCAR issued the ban in 2009 to help teams save money but with so many teams testing at tracks that didn’t host a NASCAR event, it made sense to allow teams to test on tracks they’ll race.

Cup organizations will be allowed four tests at tracks that host a NASCAR race. Thus, Hendrick Motorsports can have all four of its teams at a test and that counts as one test. Even if only one driver shows up for Hendrick to test at a track that hosts a NASCAR race, it will count as one of the four tests allowed per organization.

Organizations in the Nationwide and Truck series will be allowed two tests at tracks that host a NASCAR race. Nationwide and Truck organizations can receive an additional test if they have a driver who is an official Rookie of the Year candidate.

NEW STREAK  With Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting out because of his concussion and Scott Riggs failing to qualify, last weekend’s Charlotte race marked the first Cup event since 1961 without a driver from the state of North Carolina. With Earnhardt still out and Riggs’ team withdrawing from Kansas, there won’t be a North Carolina driver in Sunday’s race, either.

BACK AT IT  AJ Allmendinger is entered for Phoenix Racing for this weekend’s race at Kansas. Allmendinger finished 24th last weekend at Charlotte for the team in his first race since returning from a suspension for failing a drug test in late June. Allmendinger won the pole at Kansas in April when he was with Penske Racing.

TESTING  Cup teams are scheduled to test Wednesday at Thursday at Kansas Speedway since the track has been repaved. Teams will be allowed to test their 2013 car if they choose.

The test is one of the reasons Stewart-Haas Racing chose this race as one of the 10 Cup events Danica Patrick will drive this season. This allows her to gain additional experience in the car and with the track.

PIT STOPS  The last three winners at Kansas (Denny Hamlin in April, Jimmie Johnson in Oct. 2011 and Brad Keselowski in June 2011) rank in the top three in points. ... Jimmie Johnson has seven consecutive top-10 finishes at Kansas. ... Kyle Busch has led more laps than any other driver during the first five races of the Chase at 356 with 302 of those coming at Dover. ... Richard Childress Racing is winless in its last 35 races, dating back to Clint Bowyer’s win at Talladega in October 2011.

by Dustin Long
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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long has a lot of NASCAR ground to cover this week. From Clint Bowyer's big win and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s absence to AJ Allmendinger's return and new rules procedures, it's all in Athlon's NASCAR News &amp; Notes of the Week.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - 14:55
Path: /nascar/clint-bowyer-wins-charlotte

After four races, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin had seemingly separated themselves in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Not so fast, says Clint Bowyer.

As the sport’s version of a playoff completed the “first half” in its 10-race run, Bowyer and his No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team used strategy to outsmart the trio of favorites, winning the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with superior fuel mileage.

Bowyer’s third win of the season moved his team to within 28 points of Keselowski in the championship standings.

“I looked at it last week and going into this week, I still thought if one of those guys (Keselowski, Johnson, Hamlin) were to stub a toe, it would really open the door for about eight of us to get right back into the championship hunt,” Bowyer said. “With a win here, it definitely gave us new life and new hope.”

Crew chief Brian Pattie echoed the sentiment, saying that, “Twenty-eight points is achievable over the next five weeks. It’s a lot better than 40, how we started the weekend.

“There’s three guys you’ve got to pass, not only the points. We’ll go to Kansas on Wednesday and test like hell and try to pick up our program even more than we have now because we weren’t the fastest car tonight, we just had (a winning) strategy. It would be nice to win one of these things and actually drive to Victory Lane.”

Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin flexed their muscles throughout a tame event— leading a total of 228 of 334 laps—that witnessed five cautions, two of which were for debris.

But on lap 275, Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske Racing team did something it had largely avoided the previous four weeks: It made a mistake.

While attempting to stretch a tank of fuel, the championship leader—who led the most laps in the event (139)—ran out of gas while leading and coasted into the pits.

That opened the door for Bowyer, Johnson and Hamlin. With Keselowski mired in traffic, they went into fuel conservation mode, reasoning that, with one more full green-flag cycle left, everyone would be running on fumes as the race reached its conclusion.

And they were right. The twist, though, was that Bowyer was a forgotten soul, as the teams of Johnson and Hamlin calculated that they were the only two that would have enough in reserve to stretch one final cycle.

“We outfoxed him,” Bowyer said of Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus. “Any time you outfox him you know you’ve done a good job, especially at this racetrack.”

The miscalculations were not especially harmful to Johnson and Hamlin, though, as the latter finished second and the former third.

Even Keselowski, who managed an 11th-place showing, did not appear to be distraught. He explained that aggressiveness was what got his team here, and one shouldn’t expect them to back off from that stance:

“We’re not going to put the prevent defense out there. We’re going to go at you and try to sack the quarterback every time. Sometimes you’re going to miss, and they’re going to get a big payoff.

“We have hit them a lot, that’s why we’re in the points lead, and we’re going to keep after it.”

Fair enough. And the next stop for NASCAR’s traveling circus is the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway, Bowyer’s home track. And a place that has seen Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin each score a win in the series’ last three visits.

For those still alive with five races remaining, hope springs eternal.

by Matt Taliaferro
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<p> Clint Bowyer worked his way back into title talk with his win in NASCAR's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.</p>
Post date: Monday, October 15, 2012 - 14:04
Path: /nascar/earnhardt-miss-races-concussion

Hendrick Motorsports announced on Thursday that driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. will sit out the upcoming NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway after suffering a concussion at Talladega on Sunday.

In a release, the company stated that Earnhardt was diagnosed with a concussion Wednesday afternoon in Charlotte and that Regan Smith will serve as the No. 88 team’s substitute driver in his absence.

Earnhardt currently sits 11th in the Chase for the Championship, a distant 51 points behind leader Brad Keselowski. Earnhardt was involved in a final-lap crash in the Oct. 7 Good Sam 500 that also collected 24 other cars.

Earnhardt revealed that he suffered an initial concussion during a wreck on Aug. 29 while conducting a tire test at Kansas Speedway.

“I decided to push through it,” Earnhardt said of the concussion at Kansas. “I’d had concussions before and knew exactly what I was dealing with. I felt pretty good after a week or two and definitely 80 to 90 percent by the time the Chase started (Sept. 23) and by the time we got to Talladega I felt 100 percent.”

Earnhardt said that while the impact at Talladega was roughly half as hard as the Kansas hit, the proximity of the two concussions raised concerns.

“If you have more than one in a small period of time you need to take that quite seriously. The one in Kansas was really bad and to get shaken up so quickly (at Talladega) over something so trivial—that one shook me up and I thought I should take that seriously.

“I knew that I had sort of regressed and had a bit of a setback. You know how your body is and if something is not quite right. I knew as soon as it happened that I had re-injured myself.

“I went a couple days wondering how my body would react and sort of waited for it to process what was happening. I was still having some headaches — that was really the only symptom I was having. So I took it upon myself to contact my sister (Kelley Earnhardt Miller) and we talked about seeing a neurosurgeon and ended up getting steered toward Dr. Petty.”

Dr. Jerry Petty is a Charlotte neurosurgeon that consults for NASCAR as well as the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Dr. Petty stressed that an MRI on Earnhardt came back normal, meaning no damage was found.

After conducting tests, Earnhardt explained that Petty spent the night thinking about the situation and decided he could not clear the 38-year-old to race.

“His neurological exam was normal. He had no amnesia after either incident, which is very important,” Petty said. “We want to give him four or five days without a headache and then we’ll try to invoke a headache. Then we’ll let him go out and drive a lap or two and see how that goes. If that goes well, we’ll probably clear him to race.”

Earnhardt said that he did not seek medical advice about the concussion he suffered at Kansas and that he regretted not doing so.

“I was stubborn and I’d had concussions before and thought I knew what I was dealing with. I felt like I was capable of doing my job and I had called Steve (Letarte, crew chief) and we talked about how I was feeling, but I really wouldn’t know if I would be able to compete until I got in the car.

“When you have a concussion the symptoms can be really mild and then they’ll typically go away after a couple of days and you feel perfectly normal. But when you get in a car and go around a track at a high rate of speed, you start to understand that some things aren’t quite where they need to be; some reactions just aren’t as sharp.”

He was hesitant to get checked out with his team being in championship contention.

“If I was to volunteer myself to medical attention and be removed from the car, I didn’t know how difficult it’d be to get back in.”

Team owner Rick Hendrick praised Earnhardt for taking action.

“One thing everyone admires about Dale is how honest and up-front he is,” Hendrick said. “When he knew there was something not right, he went to see Dr. Petty. We were so happy yesterday that the MRI was completely normal—that no damage had been done.

“He has a lot of years left to race. And I applaud Dale for getting checked out.”

In 2002, Earnhardt admitted that he had raced for months with a concussion suffered at Auto Club Speedway earlier in the season. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Operations, addressed the subject of drivers not revealing injury, saying, “You saw a driver (Earnhardt) who is racing for a championship, who is our most popular driver, get up here and ask to go see a doctor and get out of a car. That takes a lot of guts. I think it also shows where our sport has come, and they know that safety is first and foremost.”

He also outlined NASCAR’s procedure in evaluating injuries—specifically concussions:

“First and foremost, a driver is evaluated in the (track’s) infield care center where we've got board certified emergency technicians or doctors. If the driver complains of any symptoms or if the emergency room physician believes there may be symptoms, we refer them to a neurologist—in most cases, it is Dr. Petty.

“At that point he's required to go through the tests, then it's up to our neurologists to make the call on whether or not that driver's going to be back. We (NASCAR) take ourselves out of that, and rely on our doctors to make the call on whether or not the driver could be back.”

In missing the upcoming events, Earnhardt will not only be eliminated from title contention—although his chances were slim as it was—but he will break a streak of 461 consecutive Cup Series starts. The streak was the fifth longest among active drivers.

“I'm really going to feel pretty odd not being in the car,” Earnhardt said. “I'm real anxious just to get back into the car and get back. I think you learn not to take things for granted, and I just hate that this has caused such a fuss.”

by Matt Taliaferro
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<p> Hendrick Motorsports announced that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss the next two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races after sufferring two concussions since Aug. 29.</p>
Post date: Thursday, October 11, 2012 - 13:00
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-30

Do NASCAR fans want to see wrecks? Were they thrilled by the wild action on the last lap at Talladega or was it the 25-car pileup that made the finish more exciting?

Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debated what they thought about the final lap at Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s comments about the racing and the big wreck and much more. Here’s what they said:

How would you describe the final lap of Sunday’s race at Talladega?

71.6 percent said Terrible
28.4 percent said Fantastic

What Fan Council members said:
• Fantastically terrible. Everyone walked away OK, so yeah, if I'm being honest: Fantastic.

• NASCAR should be held liable for the next death during a restrictor-plate race.

• There's no excuse in this day and age and with the technology available to us that such an all-encompassing wreck would still occur. It's a minor miracle no one was hurt. And a major miracle that no one was killed. It is shameful that something so idiotic is considered desirable by some “race fans.” I call B.S. on that because any true fan of racing wants to see racing, not crashing. Take Talladega out of the Chase. It is too unpredictable and too costly, both in points and money.

• I love it as long as NO ONE gets hurt.

• I will admit, I do enjoy a multi-car wreck, but what happened at Talladega is ridiculous. There is no reason that the cars should be that bunched up. NASCAR has hurt themselves by putting too many restrictions, like the restrictor plates.

• Where to start? The destruction of millions of dollars of equipment, so many drivers could have been seriously injured or killed and the end result of the race was ultimately unsatisfying for viewers and for drivers with respect to the Chase standings. There has got to be a way to address this, to keep the excitement about Talladega without this kind of carnage. These are real people in these cars and I am really horrified that it is being portrayed almost like an action movie where everybody gets up and dusts themselves off after the shoot. I don't know why this is tolerated in the sport. They don't replay illegal head hits over and over again to promote future NFL games. This is far worse.

• Even though my driver wrecked, watching those cars four-wide with cars bouncing off each other and the wall while bump drafting through the corners was awesome. The wreck was cool, but without Tony's mistake, I think they were gonna pull off a four-wide pack coming across the finish line for an awesome finish.

• Everybody seemed to be doing their best to win — except Denny Hamlin. I want my Chase champion to be the best, to be a winner, to be smart, but have guts and talent in equal parts. Smoke did everything he could think of to win. It resulted in a less-than-great finish for my driver BUT I prefer an all-out assault on the win to taking it easy, being careful and finishing with a whimper.

• Probably would have thought it was awesome if my driver had made it through the carnage and passed a few guys in the championship race.

• Worse than terrible. Horrendous. Awful. Abhorrent. Repulsive. Dreadful. Disastrous. Revolting. Unpleasant. I just cannot understand what morbid excitement anyone can get from wrecked cars and the possibility that a driver will get hurt or killed. It's eventually going to happen and that's sad.

Was Dale Earnhardt Jr. right in complaining about the racing and calling fans that like the big multi-car wrecks bloodthirsty?

77.1 percent agreed with Dale Jr.
22.9 percent disagreed with Dale Jr.

What Fan Council members said:
• Amen, Junior! What a huge waste! Look at all the steps NASCAR has taken to save the teams money and then they throw it all away in one lap of one race. I've never understood fans that like wrecking. And the media feeds it by repeating every wreck over and over and over again. Races are usually advertised using the wrecks from previous years. “Bloodthirsty” is a good way to put it, and I'm glad Dale Jr. said it. I get really sick of reports that “fans want to see” wrecks. Sometimes I wonder just who those fans are and why everyone is so eager to have those kinds of people as fans.

• This is what fans want to see. It is bloodthirsty but that is what fans are expecting to see. When you see a commercial for race tickets, what do you see? Wrecking, beating and banging. This is what fans want. Look at Bristol: Burton Smith changed the track so fans could get the wrecks back.

• Amen! Dale Jr. is right, it is bloodthirsty and for someone to want that is crazy. Bring on the Gladiators and Lions!!

• Boring as things have been lately, they needed a good wreck.

• Loving a track because it provides massive wrecks like this race at Talladega is no different than being a Roman and enjoying a trip to the Colosseum to watch lions eat Christians. Same level of barbarianism.

• I used to like these big wrecks, but that carnage is scary. I don't care how safe the car is, it feels like playing with fire when we see the Big One.

• No, I don't agree with Dale Jr., but in all fairness what do you expect to come out of a driver's mouth when he was just wrecked on the last lap and is speaking with emotions? Was he supposed to say, "Oh well, that was just racin’ and we will get them the next week." I thought fans wanted to hear emotions out of the drivers.

• Give me a break Dale. Junior had a very different tune when he was winning a bunch of these races. He complained about the tandem racing a couple years ago, saying you can't see anything but the bumper ahead of you. He doesn't like the pack racing either, apparently. Maybe as he gets older he likes it less — I can understand that. But the last lap crash was like every other "Talladega Big One." It is what it is.

• No one who is a true fan would want to see a wreck like that.

Grading Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega

49.3 percent called it Good
19.9 percent called it Great
19.3 percent called it Fair
11.5 percent called it Poor

What Fan Council members said:
• Call me bloodthirsty or a non-purist, but the wreck at the end (and knowing the drivers are well protected) was the best part.

• That was the most fun, exciting race at Talladega for the past few years ... I didn't have a problem with the wreck occurring and I prefer to see the drivers go all out for the win and end up wrecked rather than carefully making their way across the start/finish line and being awarded the victory for their cautious behavior.

• Absolutely the best race of the year. The action was unbelievable and the last two laps were jaw-dropping. Nothing in sports even comes close to the excitement that Talladega delivers!

• This is complete B.S. racing. No wonder the attendance is at its lowest in 15 years. What we saw was a monumental waste of time.

• I attended the race. I love Talladega, however, I only really get interested in the race the last 50 laps or so unlike other tracks where my attention is held all race long.

• While I'm glad to see pack racing and not the terrible tandem trash, that wasn't a race until the last three laps, it was a parade. Should it be changed? Yes, with bulldozers! (RIP DAVID POOLE.)

• The last lap made up for the rest of the race in my opinion. To see “Mr. Don't Block Me” block and wreck half the field was funny. Good race overall.

• Wish I could say it was great. I will say I always respect those that have the ability to be racecar drivers and the amazing skill it takes to race at anywhere, but especially Talladega. One of the good things that did happen was a PINK car won and as a breast cancer survivor this made me happy.

• It was not enjoyable waiting for disaster to happen. Not racing.

• Outstanding race. I felt most of the field was running much more competitively from the drop of the green flag to the finish. The big teams (88, 18, etc.) who got themselves a lap down put on a tremendous battle lap after lap to get in front of each other for the lucky dog. And the GWC! It was four deep row after row after row coming to the white flag! You had to know it wasn't going to last the whole lap. I do wish the race finished clean because it would have been absolutely nuts to see how it developed down the straightaway.

<p> Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council discusses the age-old arguement about whether NASCR fans want to see wrecks, discuss Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s comments about Talladega's plate racing and size up the Chase battle between Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 - 14:03
Path: /nascar/nascar-news-notes-week-7

Matt Kenseth’s win Sunday at Talladega completed one of the greatest seasons of restrictor-plate racing in NASCAR since 1988, the first season the plates were used for all the races at Daytona and Talladega.

Kenseth won the Daytona 500, finished third at Talladega in the spring, was third at Daytona in July and won at Talladega last weekend, giving him an average finish of 2.0 in those four plate races.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. owns the greatest average finish in NASCAR history in those four plates races at 1.5 in 1999. He won two of those races and finished second in the other two. Next is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2004 season when he had an average finish of 1.75 in the restrictor-plate races, recording two wins, one second-place finish and a third-place finish.

Kenseth’s 2.0 average finish is next, tied with what Dale Earnhardt Sr. did in 1990 and 1993.

Kenseth’s total might have been better. He led the next-to-last lap at Daytona in July before Tony Stewart took the lead and won. Kenseth led with two laps to go at Talladega in the spring before losing the lead to Brad Keselowski, who went on to win the race.

In an era where restrictor-plate racing can be a game of chance—Jimmie Johnson was collected in crashes in three of those four races and blew an engine in the other—Kenseth’s run is remarkable. Add to it that Kenseth isn’t known for his restrictor-plate prowess and the accomplishment is even more impressive.

“I feel like through my career, honestly, it’s been one of my weak points,” said Kenseth, whose average finish in plate races last year was 22.5. “I never felt like I was very good at it, felt like we’d make not the right decisions when we had really fast cars. I felt like that a couple of times, the second Daytona and the first Talladega, both of them races were mine to lose and I lost them for my team. I thought they gave me the stuff to win both of those races as well. Super, super thankful we were able to win this (past) weekend.

“I had no idea our plate stuff was going to run that good. After the 150 (-mile qualifying race at Daytona) with this package, I felt like we learned a few things and I learned a few things. Honestly, from the 150s all the way until we got done with the race last Sunday we’ve been surprisingly good.”

SPOKE TOO SOON  Dale Earnhardt Jr. had some strong words to say about the racing at Talladega after he was collected in a 25-car crash on the last lap of a green-white-checker finish.

“If this is what we did every week I wouldn’t be doing it I will just put it to you like that,” Earnhardt said. “If this is how we raced every week I would find another job.”

When a reporter suggested that fans enjoyed such a chaotic finish with cars spinning and crash, Earnhardt said: “Really? It’s not safe. Wrecking like that is ridiculous. It’s bloodthirsty if that is what people want. It’s ridiculous.”

When asked what changes he’d like to see, Earnhardt said: “The way we are going ain’t the right direction. There are plenty of engineers out there I’m just a driver. There are plenty of smart people out there that can figure something out where when one guy gets in trouble we don’t have 30 cars tore up at the expense of it. I mean it’s awesome in a word and everybody can get on the chip about it and get excited about all that which just happened, but for the longevity of the sport that ain’t healthy.”

Tuesday, Earnhardt told he regretted what he said.

“I regret making a bit of a scene and not considering the fact we're going to be in a totally different racecar for 2013. It's probably going to present a totally different style of racing at those tracks, so I probably have a bit more of a positive outlook on the potential for that style of racing to be really good with the next car.

“It was a bit heat of the moment, and I kind of regret getting that emotional about it. But I was just really upset about how that all went down. We'd run so good. I was really, really happy with my car in that race and I thought we should have been able to finish really good.”

TV RATINGS FOR ’DEGA DOWN  ESPN reported that Sunday’s broadcast of the Talladega Sprint Cup race earned a 3.7 household rating. That’s down from last year when the race drew a 3.9 household rating. In 2010, the race drew a 3.6 household rating.

ESPN also noted that the Talladega race drew an average audience of 5.1 million viewers. To compare, the Dover race the previous week on ESPN drew an average audience of 3.5 million viewers.

A GOOD SIGN  The points leader after the fifth race in the Chase has gone on to win the title in five of the previous eight years.

The years the champion was not the points leader after the fifth race was 2011 when Tony Stewart was fifth in the points after the fifth race, 2007 when Jimmie Johnson was second in the points and 2006 when Johnson was sixth in the points. Saturday night’s Charlotte race is the fifth race in the Chase.

by Dustin Long
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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long discusses Matt Kenseth's restrictor plate record in 2012, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s statements about plate racing and ESPN's ratings for NASCAR's Good Sam 500 at Talladega.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, October 9, 2012 - 18:59
Path: /nascar/kenseth-survives-talladega-destruction

It’s a NASCAR theme that plays out as regularly as the seasons on the calendar change—in fact, it occurs seasonally, as NASCAR’s four restrictor-plate dates reside in February, May, July and October: The perils of “pack racing” at the sport’s largest venues, Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

Quarterly, television commercials sell viewers on the promise of intense, white-knuckle, photo-finish action, complete with a major-league version of the local Saturday night Demolition Derby.

Make no mistake, the selling points are true. Horsepower-sapping restrictor plates put a ceiling on the power each engine produces. The result is a giant pack of sleek racecars, jostling just inches from one another at nearly 200 mph.

The spectacle is undeniable; the outcome all-too-predictable. Drivers, hellbent on leading the only lap that counts—the last one—fight for every inch of real estate in the race’s final circuits. Inevitably, the paint-swapping turns too aggressive and savagery commences.

Such was the case on Sunday, when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series made its fall pilgrimage to Talladega, Ala., home to the 2.66-mile behemoth superspeedway, with its lurching tri-oval and 33-degree-banked turns.

Filling in the event’s template this trip, it was Matt Kenseth that avoided the big wreck on the final lap of a green-white-checker overtime finish, taking the win. Sunday’s version of the “Big One” was, in fact, an actual big one, as 25 cars piled into one another.

Tony Stewart accepted blame for this trip’s destruction, which occurred as the 30-car pack barreled through Turns 3 and 4. Defending the lead, his ill-timed block of Michael Waltrip’s surging machine ignited the grinding melee that saw Stewart’s car turn upside down, only to land on all four wheels. He, along with all others involved, walked away physically unharmed.

“I just screwed up,” Stewart said. “I turned down across Michael (Waltrip) and crashed the whole field. It was my fault blocking to try to stay where I was.

“I was trying to win the race. Michael got a great run on the bottom, a big head of steam. When I turned down, I turned down across Michael’s racecar. Just a mistake on my part that cost a lot of people.”

Kenseth, meanwhile, had the good fortune to be on the high side of the three-wide pack. As chaos ensued behind his Ford, he had clean track in the windshield and sailed through the tri-oval unchallenged to take the checkered flag.

Somehow (and there’s always a “somehow” in these wrecks) Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch skated past the mess and finished second and third.

Kenseth, as most race-winning survivors state, had little insight into what happened. After all, he was in front of the incident. The obligatory, “I’m really proud to be in Victory Lane with these guys; they worked on it hard today,” and “I don't know how that happened,” was all the victor could muster.

However, other drivers—even those not involved— had strong words about the style of racing on NASCAR’s two largest tracks.

“At the end you know it’s going to get aggressive,” Gordon said. “It started to ramp up, so you’re pretty sure there’s going to be a caution, and then with the green-white-checker, you know you’re not making it back to the checkered (flag).

“I remember when coming to Talladega was fun, I really do, and I haven’t experienced that in a long, long time. I don’t like coming here. I don’t like the type of racing that I have to do.”

The most unlikely critic this time (and there’s always at least one post-race critic), was the man who once championed pack racing: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“If this is what we did every week, I wouldn’t be doing it, I will just put it to you like that,” said Earnhardt, who was swept up in the accident and finished 20th. “If this is how we raced every week, I would find another job.

“I don’t even want to go to Daytona or Talladega next year, but I ain’t got much choice.”

But return the series and its band of driver will. Daytona testing is scheduled for January while Speedweeks at the same facility culminates with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24.

And the same story will be written then. Just insert here the race-winner’s quote, offending-party’s name and number of cars involved in the last-lap crash.

by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:


<p> Matt Kenseth survived a last-lap crash that involved 25 cars to win NASCAR's Good Sam 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Monday, October 8, 2012 - 13:24
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-29

Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council take a wider look at the sport this week, judging who they think the best crew chief in the Chase is and if the length of the Chase should remain 10 races. Here’s a look at what they had to say:

Who is the best crew chief in the Chase?

42.4 percent said Chad Knaus (Jimmie Johnson)
25.2 percent said Paul Wolfe (Brad Keselowski)
18.3 percent said Darian Grubb (Denny Hamlin
5.0 percent said Steve Letarte (Dale Earnhardt Jr.)
2.7 percent said Alan Gustafson (Jeff Gordon)
1.5 percent said Kenny Francis (Kasey Kahne)
1.1 percent said Steve Addington (Tony Stewart)
1.1 percent said Jimmy Fennig (Matt Kenseth)
1.1 percent said Chad Johnston (Martin Truex Jr.)
0.8 percent said Gil Martin (Kevin Harvick)
0.8 percent said Brian Pattie (Clint Bowyer)
0.0 percent said Matt Puccia (Greg Biffle)

What Fan Council members said:
• Five championships, well in contention for six. Chad has been and continues to be the best.

• Chad, and then everyone else. Chad Knaus has revolutionized the crew chief position and forced every other one to step up. If it wasn't for him, I'm not sure J.J. has even one title under his belt.

• Paul Wolfe is not afraid of taking a chance and he and Brad sure make a good pair.

• I gotta give it to Paul for this year. So far they have not faltered, in fact they've shown the way to others by giving his driver all the adjustments necessary to excel at the end, when it counts. And he can count fuel mileage unlike others.

• Darian Grubb has shown that he has what it takes to be a great crew chief. He took Tony Stewart to a championship last year and then was dumped. He bounced back and has given Denny Hamlin his best year yet. No matter if he wins the championship or not, Denny is having a great year. And if he does win the championship, it will be with the help of a great crew chief.

• I think that Darian is the best in the garage. Look at his record the last two years and you can't say any other crew chief has won more races. He's the top dog.

• I chose Steve Letarte because he is responsible for the unbelievable transformation of Dale Jr. I rode with Junior during driver's introduction in 2010. What I saw was a very unhappy and depressed man with no confidence. Interviews were done with his head down. Now he appears to be a happy, confident driver who has an awesome relationship with his crew chief and is appreciative of what he has. One of the biggest changes is what you hear on the scanner.

• So far it's hard to bet against Alan Gustafson. Not only has he made the right calls, the obvious respect he and Jeff have for each other along with the trust Jeff has in Alan's decisions make them a team worth noting.

• Mr. Fennig has forgotten more about technical matters than the other crew chiefs can ever hope to learn.

• Gil is an outstanding crew chief and gets very little credit for having to put up with Harvick on a daily basis.

How long should the Chase be?

80.8 percent said 10 races
10.8 percent said 5 races
4.2 percent said 8 races
4.2 percent said 6 races

What Fan Council members said:
• 10 weeks is good, that way if you blow it one week it does not mean game over.

• I think 10 is perfect. It has most every type of track there is other than a road course. Put one of those in and take one of the 1.5-milers out and you have a perfect collection.

• I like the number of races just the way it is. With 10 races it gives the fans a chance to see who will be the cream of the crop — who really deserves to be in the Chase. The champion won't be fluke, but a team who has shown to have consistency and can win some races.

• Five races. Richmond to get in, Bristol to start, then Watkins Glen, Talladega, Martinsville, Homestead. 10 races is too long. We got spoiled last year with the epic battle to the last lap of the season. I have a feeling we wont see that ever again.

• The Chase is perfect the way it is. If the number of races is shortened there will be no suspense at all. The driver who wins the first race will most likely win the championship. Right now it is fun to watch Jeff Gordon try to redeem himself. He wouldn't have a chance with a shortened Chase.

• One race each at a short track, road course, plate, 2-mile, 1.5-mile and a 1-mile track. Change the 1.5-mile track each year for the finale or have it at Las Vegas permanently.

• I picked 10, but believe 12 drivers and 12 races (with the current 36-race schedule) works best. Makes sense: a greater spread of races and possibility to make moves to the current bland schedule. Richmond could move back to the Chase decider or become a late-season race (a la Rockingham back in the day). I like the thought of a 500-mile race at Atlanta opening the Chase more than Chicago or New Hampshire.

• I don't like the Chase, but 10 is a good number. Attrition/elimination are about to enter into the picture. Fewer races would just make it about luck and who's hot at the moment.

Grade Sunday’s race at Dover

45.2 percent called it Fair
33.3 percent called it Good
18.8 percent called it Poor
2.7 percent called it Great

What Fan Council members said:
• One word for Sunday's race: STRANGE.

• We attended the race and came up with three exciting moments: The one instance of three-wide racing in Turn 2, Kyle Busch gaining on Jimmie Johnson toward the end and the breath-holding laps of Jeff Gordon fans hoping Alan Gustafson was right about having enough fuel (thanks Alan & Jeff for a very nice birthday gift! lol) 400 miles of racing & three moments of excitement (unless you're also a big fan of Brad Keselowski, then add his win). No wonder the stands were barely half full and emptied out by another quarter by the time the race ended. We used to love going to Dover. It's a shame the racing has gone downhill there too.

• What is going on in this Chase? No exciting races yet! This is another “Poor” rating for me for watching another high-speed parade of cars go around the track.

• I was there and any race at Dover is a great “in-person” race.

• Boring race till the last 50 laps.

• Boring race from start to finish. Didn't seem to be much hard racing, excitement or drama. Strategy and fuel mileage races will always be a part of the sport but it really doesn't make for a very exciting finish when drivers can't race each other because they have to slow down so they don't run out of fuel.

• It certainly was not a great race at all but not the worst. Only having six cars on the lead lap shook it up, which was fun to see. Otherwise, it seemed there was only a few passes and the finish wasn't too bad.

• I was there. This was without a doubt the most boring race I've ever been to (or seen on TV)! I left with about 70 laps to go. I've never seen so many folks leave so early en mass. I used buses provided by local law enforcement and encouraged by the track. Six full buses left before I was able to get on one (before race was over)!

• I really hated to give it a rating of “Poor” because that first caution put a lot of cars a lap or more down. NASCAR can't do anything about that — just dumb luck.

• It was my first NASCAR race and I enjoyed every moment of it. Great strategy towards the end and a surprise winner.

The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at [email protected]

Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.

<p> Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council shares its thoughts on the best crew chiefs, whether the Chase length is too long or just right and grades the racing at Dover.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 19:39
Path: /nascar/nascar-news-notes-week-6

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader Brad Keselowski admits he has conflicting emotions heading into this weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

“There’s part of me that says no matter how bad Talladega goes I can only be 47 points back or 46 or so, so it can’t be that bad,” he said Tuesday. “Then there’s the other side of me that thinks that if we go to Talladega and have a bad day and end up losing a championship by those points, that would really be a shame.”

Keselowski admits he’s not trying to “overthink” the Chase and just race.

One thing he’s pondered, though, is how much he’ll compete in the Nationwide Series as he goes for his first Cup title. Keselowski said he will not run the Kansas Nationwide race — Ryan Blaney will — and could drop more races depending on how he’s doing in the Chase.

Keselowski enters this weekend’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 with three victories, eight top-five finishes and 12 top 10s in the last 13 races. He’s also won two of the first three Chase events to hold a five-point lead on Jimmie Johnson.

“There isn’t one silver bullet,” Keselowski said of his strong run since late June. “It’s everything. The cars are good. The execution on pit road has been strong. Knock on wood we haven’t had (mechanical) failures, which is a credit to the staff at Penske Racing. With the exception of Bristol, I haven’t driven it in the wall. That’s what it takes. Just having one of those pieces isn’t enough. You have to have them all. Just missing one of those pieces will keep you from having a solid day. Right now as a team we’ve had it all.”

As he did after winning Dover last weekend, Keselowski reiterated that seven races remain in the Chase. Defending series champion Tony Stewart was 24 points out of the lead with five races to go last year.

“There’s a lot of fight left,” Keselowski said.

INSIDE A WRECK  It will likely happen often this weekend at Talladega, cars skidding, sliding and slamming into each other. It’s one thing to see it from the stands or watching on TV, but what’s it like inside a car during a crash at Talladega?

Jimmie Johnson explains:

“When something happens you start evaluating the damage to your car. If there are a couple of small bumps along the way, your mind’s thinking, ‘OK, that’s not too bad. I didn’t get hit in a wheel, maybe just a fender. We can fix that. We can fix that.’ And you’re keeping some hope until there’s always typically a moment when you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s going to hurt, that’s going to require some behind-the-wall time to fix that up.’

“So, you just kind of hang on and go for the ride. I’ve been fortunate to stay on my wheels and not be upside-down, so I don’t necessarily have a good play on that. Although it would be kind of cool to flip if you’re going to out, you may as well go out in style. But you just kind of evaluate what’s going on and hope that you don’t hit anything too hard and you can get to pit lane and get it fixed.”

STRONG START  Joey Logano has recorded a top-10 finish in each of the three Chase races so far. He’s actually scored more points (107) than Chase drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. (100), Martin Truex Jr. (100), Kevin Harvick (96), Jeff Gordon (94), Greg Biffle (85) and Matt Kenseth (67).

Logano opened the Chase by finishing seventh at Chicagoland Speedway, was eighth at New Hampshire and placed 10th at Dover last weekend. It’s the first time this season he’s scored three consecutive top-10 finishes.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Highlighting this week's news is Brad Keselowski's points lead heading to Talladega, changes on Ryan Newman's team and Joey Logano's strong run during the Chase.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 18:19
Path: /nascar/keselowski-wins-dover

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is only three races into its 10-race Chase for the Championship playoff stint. And thus far, three drivers seem to have separated themselves from the field.

One made a major statement in the AAA 400 from Dover International Speedway — a statement even bolder than Denny Hamlin’s perceived “called shot” and win a week earlier in New Hampshire.

Brad Keselowski led only 14 of 400 laps on Sunday, but 10 of those — the final 10 — were the most important of the day.

Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe executed a late-race fuel run to perfection, going the final 89 laps on a single tank of gas, outsmarting and outperforming Chase rivals Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, to score their second win in three playoff events.

“We slowly eked our way up from the 10th starting position up to fourth,” Keselowski said. “Kind of fell in there on that last run, after my pit crew got me out fourth, and that put us in position to really capitalize on good strategy and execution.

“My guys did that. They did a great job. Together we were able to manage it (fuel mileage) very well, which is important as anything else in racing these days.”

As with most races decided by fuel mileage, the best car wasn’t the one that completed the scheduled distance first. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch (302 laps led) and Hamlin (39), along with Johnson (43), were the unquestioned class of the field. However, as the laps wound down, all three realized a decision must be made: Run all-out and pit for fuel late, hoping for a caution flag, or slow down, conserve gas and settle for whatever respectable finish they could muster.

The Gibbs teams chose the former, as Busch pitted from the lead with 11 circuits remaining. That handed the lead to Hamlin, who hit pit road one lap later.

Johnson’s strategy had kicked in much earlier. Leading the race with 40 laps remaining, crew chief Chad Knaus radioed the driver that they would not make it to the end running their current pace. Johnson gave up the lead to Busch and peddled the car down the stretch.

Enter Keselowski and the No. 2 Penske Racing team, a bunch adept at stretching a tank of gas. Running a steady fourth with enough in the tank, they simply waited for others to make a mistake (Busch and Hamlin) or settle (Johnson).

Inheriting the lead on lap 391, Keselowski held off a charging Jeff Gordon to score his fifth win of the 2012 season and into the points lead.

Mark Martin was third, while Johnson’s fuel-saving gamble worked to the tune of a fourth-place run. Carl Edwards was fifth.

Busch finished one lap down in seventh while Hamlin was eighth.

“This fuel mileage game sucks,” a dejected Hamlin said. “All the hard work that you put in — drove as hard as I could drive for 400 laps — and then it’s like you look up and wonder why we’re eighth. That part of it is frustrating, but it’s just some people have different strategies. Some people have better fuel mileage, but not as good of a handling racecar. I’ll take good-handling racecars and good horsepower any day.”

So it’s Keselowski, with a pair of wins and a sixth-place showing through three Chase races, that finds himself leading the pack. But he’s not willing to play the role of championship favorite just yet.

“I can’t state loudly enough how much longer this (Chase) battle is,” Keselowski said. “It’s very tempting, whether it’s the media or the teams themselves, to get in a comfort zone of saying, ‘Such and such has control of this Chase.’ But there’s a reason why it’s 10 rounds. We’re not even halfway. We’re three rounds in.

“By no means do I feel like we’re the favorite. Certainly we’re not the underdog probably at this point.

“My perspective is we got a lot more racing to go. Let’s just let the racing play out and go from there.”

by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:


<p> Brad Keselowski used fuel strategy to beat Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.</p>
Post date: Monday, October 1, 2012 - 14:16
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-28

Even with replacement referees, the NFL is drawing large TV audiences. With NASCAR’s title Chase under way, members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council were asked what they’re watching more of — NASCAR or NFL. The answer, from a group of NASCAR fans, might surprise you. That’s just among the questions Fan Council members debated this week.

Which did you watch more of Sunday — NASCAR or NFL?

61.5 percent said NASCAR
16.9 percent said NFL
15.8 percent said both about the same
5.8 percent said neither

What Fan Council members said:
• I dislike football. I only watch NASCAR. My husband used to force me to watch football so I divorced him. ;)

• Usually NASCAR would NEVER get changed to watch football in our house, but the race was so boring on Sunday we wanted to watch some kind of action.

• I actually watched the race more than the NFL game, but since the race was VERY boring again, I'm thinking of recording the race and watching the games next week.

• I don't watch the NFL.

• I watched the NASCAR race. Why? Because no matter how bad a race might be, I stay loyal to the sport and remember that the racing can only get BETTER with time.

• Normally I watch NASCAR, and football during commercial, but if the next few races are like Chicagoland and Loudon, I may just watch all of the football game and monitor the race during commercials and on Twitter.

• Watched more HGTV than the race.

• The easiest choice I make every week is what to watch on Sunday afternoon. NASCAR is king in my house!

• DirecTV offered “The Sunday Ticket” at a reduced price this year, so I bought it and have been watching more football instead of boring races at NHMS.

• I'm a NASCAR fan first and my first choice every Sunday will be the race until the season is over, then I'll start watching football.

After scoring his fifth win of the season Sunday, how many wins will Denny Hamlin finish with this year?

36.3 percent said six wins
30.1 percent said five wins
30.1 percent said seven wins
3.5 percent said eight or more wins

What Fan Council members said:
• I think Denny is done. The team’s inconsistency will kick in, but kudos to Darian Grubb for an excellent season. Darian can certainly thumb his nose at Tony.

• I am shocked that he has won this many. Usually by now he has choked himself into a hole too deep to come out. Who knows!? Maybe this could be the year!

• I think he’s going to get his championship. I think they are building great cars. I think Denny is a good driver. And Darian Grubb has the experience.

• Think he gets Martinsville, Charlotte and Phoenix. Possibly Homestead.

• He'll win at Martinsville. I guarantee it ... but not really. But if he does, I'll say I guaranteed it.

• He's a legitimate threat at all the rest of the tracks except for Dover.

• He's on his way to fulfilling his promise to Joe Gibbs! Like they say, you got to lose a championship before you can win one, so he's ready.

• For some reason my gut doesn't take Denny seriously as a contender this season. I know he's the hot tamale right now, but my gut says Matt Kenseth is going to come back and come back strong. I was surprised Denny won Sunday's race. For some reason he just doesn't strike me as the best driver from the best team of 2012.

Grade Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire:

46.9 percent called it Fair
34.1 percent called it Good
15.9 percent called it Poor
3.1 percent called it Great

What Fan Council members said:
• Didn't really like the race much. One person dominating the race combined with three cautions for what seemed to be fake debris didn't please me much. Never have rated any race “Poor” all season, but this one gets the honor.

• I’m putting good, because I was there. And a bad day of racing is better than a good day of work. Or something like that. It was kind of boring watching someone run away with it. In person, there was some passing and some bumping. Thank God they threw some cautions.

• Completely un-entertaining. Why this is a “Chase” race that is supposed to attract viewers away from the NFL is completely beyond my comprehension.

• I did not think the race was boring. I was entertained. NHMS is one of my favorite tracks.

• Denny’s run from the back to the front before the race reached 100 laps was exhilarating. After that, I didn't see a whole lot of excitement.

• From the stands it was awful. First time I have left early. Left at lap 240. Denny dominated. No passing. No close racing. I damn near dozed off in the stands.

• Wow, it was downright painful to watch. The most boring race of this year.

• Just one of those races that, through no fault of its own, is extremely boring. No real challenges to win it, no excitement.

The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at [email protected]

Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council discusses NASCAR vs. NFL, Denny Hamlin's winning ways and the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 - 11:44
Path: /nascar/nascar-horsepower-rankings-15

1. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson, Chad Kanus and the boys have methodically clicked off consecutive second-place finishes to begin the Chase. Next up is Dover, where the 48 dominated in June. Last week: 2

2. Brad Keselowski
Much of the talk since Sunday’s New Hampshire event has centered on Denny Hamlin being Johnson’s biggest threat. Oh, how quickly we forget about Keselowski’s big win in Chicago. Last week: 1

3. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin has certainly earned a spot among the elite on this list. However, mistakes like running out of fuel in Chicago and the tire pressure issue during qualifying in Loudon raise red flags. Last week: 3

4. Clint Bowyer
Hasn’t shown the pop of the preceding three, but neither has anyone else. That said, Bowyer is rolling along with consecutive runs of first, 10th and fourth. Last week: 5

5. Kasey Kahne
Kahne has come out firing in the Chase with a pair of top-5 runs. Unfortunately for the 5 team, it hasn’t shown the speed to keep up with the team housed in the same complex. Last week: 6

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior, who has enjoyed a top-5 ranking in the standings all season, suddenly finds himself stuck in seventh since the Chase reset — and 26 points in the hole to Johnson. Last week: 4

7. Jeff Gordon
Gordon’s last five races: Third, second, second, stuck throttle, third. The problem? That stuck throttle resulted in a 35th-place bomb and has the team wondering what could have been. Last week: 8

8. Tony Stewart
Stewart’s average finish in the four races preceding Richmond: 25.0. Since: 5.6. Funny how since the Chase came into play, he’s abandoned the summer for the fall. Last week: 7

9. Kevin Harvick
Harvick’s finishing position has improved from 12.3 to 9.5 since Gil Martin was brought back as the crew chief. That’s nice, but at this rate it’s not going to win a championship. Last week: 11

10. Matt Kenseth
A noticable drop in performance within the Ford camp finds Kenseth — who spent the majority of the regular season in the top 3 in the standings — reeling near the bottom of the Chase. Last week: 10

11. Martin Truex Jr.
Will have to do better than ninth- and 17th-place runs if he’s to keep the dream alive. Last week: 9

12. Ryan Newman
In hindsight, wrecks at Atlanta and Bristol may be what’s keeping the 39 team from contending. Last week: 13

13. Greg Biffle
See: Kenseth, Matt. Last week: 12

14. Kyle Busch
After leading 48 laps in Loudon the engine went sour. That was almost too easy to predict. Last week: 14

15. Paul Menard
Nothing flashy here, as Menard chugs along averaging a 14.9-place finish throughout the season. Last week: NR

Just off the lead pack: Carl Edwards, Sam Hornish Jr., Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Brian Vickers

by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:

<p> Denny Hamlin is riding a wave of momentum in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, but it's Jimmie Johnson that slips into the top spot in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 - 19:05
Path: /nascar/earnhardt-jr-looks-pick-chase-performance

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to be more forceful with his Hendrick Motorsports team at times but he worries about upsetting his crew.

Earnhardt knows he must do something after two pedestrian finishes in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup have him seventh in the standings, 26 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson heading into this weekend’s race at Dover.

The time is now for Earnhardt to exert his leadership.

“I'm afraid to come across as a bit of a prick,” Earnhardt said Tuesday about not taking charge as often with his team, particularly when things aren’t going as well. “I don't want to piss somebody off or step on anybody's toes. There's times in the car that I want to step up and go, ‘Hey man, this is really a problem, this is something we really need to fix.’”

Earnhardt used to be more expressive in the car when there was a problem but he often became frustrated and didn’t convey the proper information to help the crew chief fix the car. It’s something car owner Rick Hendrick talked to him about often.

Now that Earnhardt is calmer on the radio, he might need to have a bit more fire in his voice at certain times when he’s talking with crew chief Steve Letarte or wanting to convey a message to his team.

“That is something that me and Steve have yet to learn with each other is when someone needs to pick it up, how do you relay that to that person or if he needs to tell me I need to take something more seriously.

“That's something we have to be careful about. I don't want to piss him off, he doesn't want to piss me off. If I feel like there's something that's really important, that ‘Hey man, this car doesn’t have any forward bite,’ and I really feel that's a problem and we're running out of time and I get really nervous that practice is flying away and I'll miss the opportunity to fix something. And that's something we didn't do a very good job of this past weekend.’’

After finishing eighth at Chicagoland Speedway to open the Chase, Earnhardt placed 13th last weekend at New Hampshire. He was never in contention and had it not been for a two-tire stop late, when many others took four tires, he might not have finished as high.

Earnhardt’s problems last weekend, though, go beyond the race. They go back to practice on Friday. The team typically starts out in race trim for the first part of the opening practice of the weekend and switches over in the final 30 minutes to qualifying trim and makes two qualifying runs.

Because Earnhardt’s car wasn’t fast, the team spent more time in the race setup and when they switched to qualifying setup, they had only enough time to make one mock qualifying run in practice instead of two.

“That whole practice was a cluster and was not a good way of beginning the weekend,” Earnhardt said.

“I felt like we stubbed our toe trying to practice the way we did. That bled into Saturday. That (first practice) sets the tone and when I got out of the car Saturday and after we thought about it and thought about the car and ideas to change, and even after we came up with the plan, I really didn't feel we were in a good position. It was inevitable to me that the car was not going to be where we needed.”

It wasn’t. While a slow pit stop cost Earnhardt positions early in the race, he remained stuck just inside the top 20 for much of the race and never challenged for a top-10 spot.

“It wasn't one particular person's fault to orchestrate this perfect practice session but us as a group we stumbled and tripped all the way through that,” Earnhardt said. “Sometimes that'll happen. It was a bit frustrating.”

Earnhardt knows that even with eight races left in the Chase, he needs much stronger finishes to have a chance at the title.

“It ain't coming to us,” Earnhardt said. “I'm not going to sit here and paint it like it's roses when it's not. I know the situation and understand the reality of our position. We're 26 points behind. But again, (there’s) a lot of racing left. We have to work hard and go into Dover and try to start the weekend with good practices and utilize every minute that they give us to helping ourselves. We've got to try to do a better job there. If we can do that, I can go into Sunday confident we can give ourselves a shot.”

by Dustin Long
Follow Dustin on Twitter:


<p> Dale Earnhardt Jr. tells Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long that improved communication within his Hendrick Motorsports team is important if he is to battle for NASCAR's Sprint Cup championship.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 - 18:26
Path: /nascar/denny-hamlin-wins-new-hampshire

It appeared Denny Hamlin had a good idea that he would win the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Or at least run well. Maybe.

Actually, it’s hard to know exactly what he was thinking leading up to the second race of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

After dropping from a top-10 finish to 16th with an empty fuel tank the previous week at Chicagoland Speedway, Hamlin tweeted, “This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week.”

Most took it as a prediction; a called-shot of sorts. And why not? Since his Sprint Cup Series debut in 2005, Hamlin has shown a flare for NASCAR’s flat tracks, registering 10 of his 22 career wins on the minimally-banked facilities in Loudon, N.H., Martinsville, Va., Phoenix, Az. and Pocono, Penn.

At the least it was a bold statement, even from a driver touted as a title favorite . However, Hamlin clarified his social-media sentiment on Friday, when he again took to Twitter, saying, “Not really sure what all the buzz in the media is about my tweet last week. I didn’t guarantee, didn’t promise, just made a statement.”

The theme persisted in his media availability later in the day, when he stated that, “I’ve had confidence before and I said at Pocono and different race tracks (that), ‘I expect to win’ — and it’s no different. Given our history here, given how we ran the first practice and hopefully how we run tomorrow, I’ll expect to win.”

Regardless of what it was, Hamlin backed it up on Sunday. Starting 32nd due to incorrect air pressure in his tires during qualifying, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver sliced through the field after the green flag waved.

By lap 30 he had entered the top 15, and 64 laps later took the point, passing teammate Kyle Busch.

From there, the route was on, as Hamlin led 193 of the final 206 laps to earn his series-best fifth victory of the season. In the process, he vaulted to within seven points of championship leader Jimmie Johnson.

“Once we got to about lap 50 and started working our way to sixth, seventh position, I knew that we had the winning car,” Hamlin said.

To find anyone else in the field that thought different would be a tall order. Second- and third-place finishers Johnson and Jeff Gordon could only shake there heads in retrospect.

“No,” was Gordon’s definitive response when asked if anyone had anything for Hamlin’s Toyota. “I don’t think that thing bobbled all day.”

“Never slipped,” Johnson concurred.

The only reason for concern on Hamlin’s part — and hope on Johnson’s — came when NASCAR threw a yellow flag for debris with 26 laps remaining. Hamlin, who enjoyed a nearly six-second lead at the time, could only show his disgust over the team’s in-car radio.

“Really, I don’t understand why they do this,” he complained after his spotter informed him that a caution had been thrown for “phantom debris.”

Hamlin got the jump on the lap 278 restart, though, and quickly pulled away for the 2.67-second win.

“I had a little bit of hope for just, you know, a quarter of a lap there,” Johnson said of possibly wresting the lead from Hamlin on the final restart. “And then it was like, ‘Uh-oh, don’t lose second.’ And then pulled away from Jeff and got going from there.”

And with victory claimed and burnouts complete, Hamlin threw one final “called-shot” innuendo into play — furthering the “did he or didn’t he” question — striking a Babe Ruth, circa 1932, home run pose after completing victory burnouts on the frontstretch.

Message: Delivered.

by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:


<p> Denny Hamlin decimated the field at New Hampshire, leading 193 laps en route to the win in NASCAR's Sylvania 300.</p>
Post date: Monday, September 24, 2012 - 16:34
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-27

Round one is over in the Chase but it already has produced many changes on and off the track for fans. Races are starting later, fans are seeing more of it and there’s a new points leader with the former points leader saying he’ll win this weekend. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council examine these and other issues this week.

Denny Hamlin proclaims on Twitter he’ll win at New Hampshire
After running out of fuel at the end and losing several spots last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, Denny Hamlin stated on Twitter he would win this weekend’s race at New Hampshire. Fan Council members were asked what they thought of his declaration:

72.0 percent said it was a great move to get his team looking ahead rather than back
28.0 percent said it was a bad move because it raised expectations and pressure

What Fan Council members said:
• These guys have to stay motivated and move on regardless of what happened in one race. I don't blame Denny one bit for being positive and knowing what his team is capable of!

• Denny, Denny, Denny … why did you have to open your mouth and make the statement, “We will win next week.” That statement just might come back and bite you in the a**. I have watched Denny want to win a race at any cost and he didn't care who he ran over to get the job done. Watch out Chasers!!!

• Denny's handling himself and his team MUCH better this year than in past years! The driver is the focal point that the team rallies around, and unlike his teammate who tends to isolate and turn off the team with his tirades, Denny seems to have learned his lesson and is doing what he needs to keep his team rolling along!

• It shows that while he has a fragile psyche (at times), he feels confident in himself and his team for next week. New Hampshire is one of Denny's best tracks and (crew chief Darian) Grubb won the race there last year ... why not make a bold prediction?

• Every driver should expect to win, so I see nothing wrong with expressing thoughts.

• I can remember the last time Denny had that same look on his face. Phoenix 2010 and his Chase was done as he folded like a house of cards. Only now we'll see him fold up the tent over nine races instead of two.

• There is a difference between confidence and cockiness — and that right there is confidence. He knows that he and his team can and WILL get it done. Any time Denny calls his shot, they deliver. They will be in Victory Lane next weekend when it's all said and done.

• It's a good thing. With NASCAR having become so vanilla, it could certainly use some more Joe Namath types.

Is later greater?
As it has done in the past, start times for NASCAR Sprint Cup races in the Chase are later than they normally are before the Chase. Fan Council members were asked if they liked the later start times during the Chase:

48.5 percent said it didn’t matter to them
27.8 percent said they liked it
23.7 percent said they hated it

What Fan Council members said:
• I don't understand the thought process. How does pushing start times back bring in viewers? Football viewers are going to start watching those games and if they are intense and good how are you going to pull those viewers away? NASCAR would have to expect those games to be boring and not exciting to entice those viewers over. Just doesn't make sense.

• It doesn't matter to me what time the races start, I will watch them over the NFL.

• NASCAR is going to lose to NFL or college football, no matter what they do. The product and the number of cookie-cutter tracks lends to that. I watched football for most of the day and came back at the best time — when Brad took the lead from Jimmie. I had no problem with the earlier start times but whatever NASCAR believes, they go with, no matter how flawed the logic.

• There's no way it won't conflict with NFL so best bet would have been to have the race at the normal time. My (NFL) game was 4:00 pm and I had to stop watching the race 60 percent of the way in to watch my game. A 12:00 start might have worked out.

• I started watching NFL games. Almost forgot to turn the TV to the race. I see this as a serious problem with casual fans. If they tune into an NFL game and it turns out to be a good game, they are less likely to change the channel to watch the race.

• I like it. It gives me the chance to see the start of the race as I normally arrive home after church and the race has started.

• NASCAR should stop trying to worry about the NFL all the time. Changing start times is an inconvenience to people in every time zone.

• I couldn't care less ... I'm DVRing the races and watching NFL RedZone all day.

• Like it or not, it is best for our sport. The later in the day you run the races the more people who can tune in, especially on the West Coast.

Split-screen coverage
Just as it did last year during the Chase, ESPN will show a split-screen of the race and commercials during the second half of the race. Fan Council members were asked about what they thought of this:

54.2 percent love it
30.5 percent like it
12.6 percent don’t care
2.7 percent hate it

What Fan Council members said:
• Just like last year, having the box there during the commercial is POINTLESS if ESPN isn't going to show any RACING. Showing a close-up of Jimmie Johnson during a commercial break is irrelevant.

• Keeps from missing out on racing action during those long string of commercials. LOVE IT!

• They should do this more and NOT just for select races. With all the commercials being poured into the races these days, us fans deserve to see more than 60 percent (max) of the racing action.

• I wish that all the TV partners would do a split screen for the entire race, every race. Actually, it's better because the advertiser's logo is seen separate of the commercial so you actually know what is being advertised. Maybe that can be worked out in the next TV contract. IndyCar does it and it's great. I understand that the local breaks have to be full-screen commercials; but, for the national commercials, they can do split-screen.

• Commercials pay for the sport, and this is a good way to accommodate the advertisers while making sure we don't miss something during a commercial break. I wish all the NASCAR networks did this from midway through, rather than just the last few laps.

• Watching in the UK, we have commercial free coverage for the whole race

• Not OK with the race being 25 percent and the ads being 75 percent of the screen. Needs to be a 50-50 split.

• Bravo to ESPN … I'd like to see this 100 percent for Homestead!

<p> Dustin Long and the Backseat Drivers Fan Council discuss Denny Hamlin's bold New Hampshire prediction, ESPN's split-screen commercial coverage, NASCAR start times and the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 - 10:47
Path: /nascar/nascar-horsepower-rankings-14

1. Brad Keselowski   What has kept Keselowski and his team near the top of the Horsepower Rankings all season is the ability to win on most any style of track. To come out connecting in the Chase is big.

2. Jimmie Johnson   Certainly, an argument could be made for Johnson to be No. 1. However, he got beat in a race he seemed to have in hand. Don’t worry about this bunch, though — they’ll get theirs in the coming weeks.

3. Denny Hamlin   Mistakes like Hamlin’s team made (not getting the car full of fuel) are what turn top-5 runs into 16th-place finishes. It also costs teams championships.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.   After a month of pre-Chase, live-fire testing, Earnhardt’s No. 88 team appears back to its fourth- to 10th-place ways. Is that good enough to win a title?

5. Clint Bowyer   Follows up Richmond win with a 10th-place showing somewhere relatively near Chicago. Considering the last two months’ worth of performances, Bowyer and the boys may be getting overlooked.

6. Kasey Kahne   Loudon’s July winner returns with the Chase lead in his sights. Like Bowyer, he may not be getting the credit he deserves for his pre-Chase surge.

7. Tony Stewart   Look who appears to be rounding into form at just the right time. After a miserable month, Stewart clicks off a fourth at Richmond and a sixth to begin the Chase. Shouldn’t we all see this coming?

<p> Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson slug it at the top of Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 18:44
Path: /nascar/nascar-news-notes-week-5

Days after Brad Keselowski employed some gamesmanship — and subsequent mind games — at Chicagoland Speedway, Tony Stewart detailed his use of mental deviousness, claiming that he knew even before last year’s NASCAR season finale at Homestead ended that he would beat Carl Edwards for the Sprint Cup championship.

He could see it in Edwards’ reaction that weekend.

Stewart recounted that story in a fan forum Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame when asked about his come-from-behind charge to win the championship.

Stewart had won four races to put himself within three points of Edwards heading into the Homestead race. Three days before the event, Stewart and Edwards met with the media to discuss their championship battle and Stewart unleashed his boxer’s bravado.

Asked how far they would go to win the title, Stewart started the following exchange that day:

“I’d wreck my mom to win a championship,” Stewart said. “I respect him as a driver, but this isn't about friendships this weekend. This is a war. This is a battle. This is for a national championship. It’s no-holds barred this weekend. I didn’t come this far to be one step away from it and let it slip away, so we're going to go for it.”

“Did you say something?” Edwards asked.

“Yeah, you can come visit my trophy in the room at (Las) Vegas when you come there,” Stewart responded, referring to the site of the season-ending banquet.

“He’s got the talking part figured out,” Edwards replied.

“They say there’s talkers and doers. I’ve done this twice,” Stewart said.

Tuesday, Stewart talked about that media session and what followed:

“The trash-talking started on Thursday at the media event, which wasn’t really necessarily my plan until I got there. When we got there, I saw that Carl was nervous and it was like a drop of blood for a shark. As soon as I saw that it was like instincts kicked in for me. I’ve been in championship battles before with guys that had that look. You just know that you can kind of take advantage of that situation a little bit.

“So we wore him out at media day, but then he came back and won the pole and pretty much made a statement that it didn’t look like it really phased him too much.”

While Edwards led much of that race, Stewart battled various issues, including running over debris that forced him at the back of the pack. Yet, Stewart continually moved toward the front.

During a red flag for rain about 150 laps from the end, NASCAR parked the cars on pit road. It was then that Stewart knew he would win the title even though Edwards led and Stewart was only a few positions behind.

“I saw what to me was the final blow to him,” Stewart said. “He got out of the car ... looks back and we’re four cars behind him. The look on his face was, ‘How did he get up there already?’ He sat there for ... that rain delay, he was with his crew chief and Jack Roush at the pit box and I was just sitting on the wall talking to crew guys, laughing and carrying on. I knew we had it won. I hadn’t raced him all day but I just knew mentally we had the advantage.”

Stewart also later said that his car’s handling was as good as it had been, allowing him to make various moves. He called the race “the most fun I’ve had on pavement, for sure.

“That’s by far the best pavement race I’ve ever had,” Stewart said. “Everybody goes, ‘Oh, he did something different, he rose above everything.’ My car was really good. That’s the moral of the story. My car was good and balanced all day. When you get it driving that nice, you can do things like we were doing. I put myself in spots that I wouldn’t normally do because it drove so well and it felt so good that I felt more comfortable getting myself in those positions.”

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit with AJ Allmendinger's reinstatement, Tony Stewart's mind games, Sam Hornish Jr.'s improved results and Ryan Blaney's record-setting win.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 18:06
Path: /nascar/round-one-keselowski

If Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are the Muhammad Ali of NASCAR — the heavyweight that wins with both sheer power and poise — Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 Penske Racing bunch are the sport’s Sugar Ray Leonard. Not necessarily graced with the resources enjoyed by Johnson, Keselowski wins with smarts and guile — and a sweeping uppercut that comes, seemingly, from nowhere.

Therefore, it was fitting that Keselowski referred to his win in Sunday’s GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in boxer’s terms.

“It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout, just it’s a 10-round bout,” he said of the first Chase race in NASCAR’s 10-week playoff. “Week 1 is done and we won the round but we didn’t by any means knock them out. We’ve got a lot of racing left to go. We’re feeling good about today but know that we have a lot of work to do.”

They’ll be no checking of scorecards for this round, though. Johnson started second and was in control of the race, leading a commanding 172 of the first 228 laps. However, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe managed to maneuver their Dodge to the front, using a quick pit stop — and just a little gamesmanship — to take control of the point.

Trailing Johnson by a second as the final round of pit stops began, Keselowski exited the pits just in front of his rival and made a hasty entrance onto the racing surface. Johnson claimed Keselowski “blended” back onto the track too soon (NASCAR rules state a driver must keep all four wheels below the white line before the backstretch). Keselowski’s car cut in front of Johnson’s, briefly stalling his momentum.

The move drew the ire of Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, who asked NASCAR to review the move.

The sanctioning body’s response? “No harm, no foul.”

And with that, Keselowski used clean air to hold Johnson at bay for the final 26 laps to record his fourth win of the season and claim the top spot in the Chase.

“He did cut up early,” Johnson said. “It did impede my progress, I had to check up and wasn’t sure where things were going. But it didn’t affect the outcome I don’t believe.

“The way he made quick work in (lap) traffic and stretched it out on me, I’m not sure I would have held him off. At the time it messed me up, but I don’t think it played an outcome in the race.”

Keselowski, in turn, feigned ignorance as to why Johnson felt wronged:

“There is no enforced line like you see in other sports, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s just one more thing to monitor during the race. But it’s certainly — I don’t want to say a gentlemen’s agreement — it’s a policy of merging down the backstretch, off of Turn 2, I think it said specifically in the driver’s meeting. And I feel like that’s what we did.”

Chase participants made up nine of the top-15 finishers. The only one that suffered a crippling blow was Jeff?Gordon, who’s throttle stuck in lap 189. The damage resulted in a 35th-place showing. He now sits 12th in the Chase standings, 47 points out of first.

Popular pre-Chase favorite Denny Hamlin, who entered the event with the top spot, ran out of fuel on the final lap, dropping from a solid top-5 finish to 16th.

“This was just us making a big mistake with our fuel again,” said Hamlin. “It’s tough, but we’re strong enough and fast enough this Chase that we can make up 15 points easily.”

As the most recent drive to be anointed as the No. 1 contender, Keselowski knows it’s too early to get comfortable.

“Any time you win, it’s a bit of a mission accomplished for that particular weekend, but the Chase isn’t about one particular weekend, it’s about 10, and there’s a long row to hoe.”

by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:


<p> Brad Keselowski beat Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR's GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.</p>
Post date: Monday, September 17, 2012 - 13:47
Path: /nascar/looking-back-waltrips-passion-nascar-pays

The following article was published on Oct. 12, 2007, during NASCAR’s Charlotte race weekend shortly after a press conference introducing Rob Kauffman as the newest investor in Michael Waltrip Racing was held.

At the time, Waltrip’s Toyota team was floundering in its, and the manufacturer’s, first season in the Cup Series. He would later admit to being nearly broke just months after the three-car operation debuted at Daytona. Enter Kauffman, at the time the latest in a long line of “investor-types” to buy into Cup teams desparate for additional funding. Many observers were apprehensive, and with good reason: A number of the same investment firms that bought in soon bailed when its shareholders saw the year-end ledger.

Credit Kauffman for being different. Turns out, he really is “a car guy,” as Waltrip told us that day — although I have to admit that at the time, I wasn’t necessarily buying it. With Kauffman’s aid, Waltrip’s passion and Toyota’s loyalty, MWR has defied the odds and five years later is a force in the most elite form of motorsports in North America.

The column you’re about to read (and its subject) drew more than it’s share of criticism and belligerence from readers when published — certainly more than this humble and somewhat dumbstruck author thought it deserved. That said, I’ve pulled it out of the electronic mothballs (something I’ve never done) as MWR prepares to take its maiden voyage into the Chase to highlight what Waltrip and his determined band of racers were fighting through early in the development of the company.


Passion Fuels Waltrip’s Past, Present and Future
by Matt Taliaferro
published October 12, 2007

The year was 2001. It was my 26th birthday. My father was receiving the Mayor’s Award of Excellence for community service in our hometown of Owensboro, Ky. Darrell Waltrip was there too, accepting the award for excellence in sports. Each recipient stood and spoke, and while I was very proud of my father and felt him to be deserving it was Darrell’s speech that spoke directly to me.

“Find your passion,” he told us that night. Whether that’s ballet or racing, teaching or writing, the path to being happy and successful is to zero in on what you do well and follow it.

The speech has never left me and I was reminded of it once again today — as I am on most — as I sat and watched Darrell’s younger brother map out the future of his racing organization in a press conference from Lowe’s Motor Speedway. I couldn’t help but watch Darrell who sat, nodding approvingly, from the front row as Michael spoke of passion; passion for what he and wife Buffy had created at MWR; passion for a job he feels lucky to do; passion for the community he is blessed to be a part of; passion for the garage area, which he knows is in his DNA.

<p> Athlon Sports racing editor Matt Taliaferro looks back on the Oct. 2007, race weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when the fortunes of Michael Waltrip Racing were changed forever.</p>
Post date: Thursday, September 13, 2012 - 17:07
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-chicagoland

The 2012 regular season may have been put in the books last weekend in dramatic fashion at Richmond International Raceway, and the Chase for the Sprint Cup may get underway at Chicagoland Speedway, but for NASCAR fantasy players the season simply rolls on to the sweeping 1.5-mile track in Joliet, Ill.

While most fantasy leagues will continue without any change in format, the mindset of the 12 drivers battling for the title and the 31 “other” drivers in the field will certainly change.

Although most are reluctant to admit it – you often hear them say, “We’ll keep doing the same thing we have all year,” – there is no doubt that those in the Chase will be gunning for wins and maximum points each and every weekend.

While the Chase drivers will steal the majority of the spotlight the next 10 races, there are a number of those on the outside looking in that can shake up the finishing order week-to-week. Some are looking for redemption for missing this year’s Chase, others are working on setups and plans for the 2013 season, while still others will be out there proving their worth to potential rides and sponsorship dollars.

In essence, the next 10 weeks will be a mixed-bag of agendas with high-intensity racing. It will be tough to top last year’s epic battle to the final laps, but if any Chase class could do it, I bet this one can.

However, before we get too wrapped up Chase talk, it’s time to look at this weekend’s race at Chicagoland Speedway.

After 10 years of hosting NASCAR Sprint Cup races, the 2011 trip to Chicagoland Speedway marked the first time it opened the Chase. Defending series champion Tony Stewart turned his season around then and there by saving enough fuel to score his first of five Chase wins.

Much like last season, Stewart enters the Chase struggling to keep pace with the competition. Since his third win of the season came in July at Daytona, the former champion has just two top 5s and three top 10s – not exactly the type of momentum you want heading into the Chase.

However, if last year proved anything, it’s that Stewart has the opportunity to come out swinging in Chicago. The defending champ leads all drivers in victories at the 1.5-mile tri-oval (three) and at 8.7, has the best average finish among active drivers.

If he and crew chief Steve Addington are able to put the struggles of the summer months behind them, bring a solid setup to the track and play the strategy correctly, it will be hard to bet against Stewart.

That said, once the Chase gets underway it is also nearly impossible to bet against the five-time series champion, Jimmie Johnson. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet leads the series in Chase wins (20) and has an average finish of 9.0 in the playoffs. With the third-best average finish (10.0) at Chicagoland Speedway — and bringing the car that dominated at both Dover and Indianapolis — Johnson should also be among the favorites this weekend.

With all four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the Chase, perhaps the driver you want to watch out for this weekend is veteran Jeff Gordon. The four-time champion earned the final wild card spot in dramatic fashion on Saturday in Richmond by out-racing Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch when it mattered most.

The 2012 season has been one of up and downs for the No. 24 team, but throughout the struggles and poor luck, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the team have provided fast racecars. Gordon enters the first race of the Chase with his sights set on a fifth title, and with a win and a 10th-place average finish at Chicagoland, he will be tough to beat.

Five Favorites: Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at fantasy NASCAR favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's GEICO 400 from Chicagoland Speedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, September 13, 2012 - 13:21
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-26

NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship is here and with it comes the question of who will win it. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council tackle that question and more, including what is the biggest surprise this year and if they think drivers give their best effort every race. Here’s what the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say about those issues and more.

Who will win the Chase?

23.7 percent picked Jimmie Johnson
17.1 percent picked Denny Hamlin
17.1 percent picked Dale Earnhardt Jr.
11.5 percent picked Jeff Gordon
9.8 percent picked Brad Keselowski
7.0 percent picked Tony Stewart
4.2 percent picked Greg Biffle
2.8 percent picked Clint Bowyer
2.4 percent picked Kevin Harvick
2.4 percent picked Matt Kenseth
2.1 percent picked Kasey Kahne
0.0 percent picked Martin Truex Jr.

What Fan Council members said:
• Hoping for a first-timer, suspecting it will be a six-timer.

• Here's hoping that Denny can keep it going for the next 10 weeks. I would love to see Grubb prove to everyone he's one of the best in the garage.

• Jimmie Johnson is running good and heading into familiar territory on some tracks he dominates. No-brainer, here. It's Johnson's to lose.

• Dale Jr. for a change — if Stevie can hold them together.

• After (Saturday) night, I believe that Gordon and the 24 team are capable of ANYTHING. And he wants it as badly as I've ever seen him want something.

• I think there are a couple of very good choices here, but I'm going to say Jeff Gordon. After the horrendous start to his season, his team worked their butts off & that hard work paid off the last few races.

• My heart says Dale Jr., but my head says Jimmie!

• Denny will win the championship after a battle between he and Kasey Kahne.

• Brad Keselowski is, in my opinion, a cross between Dale Sr. and Darrell Waltrip, and we know what they did.

• You can't go wrong picking a Hendrick driver, but I hope Harvick takes it with no wins to rid us of the Chase.

What has been the biggest surprise for the 2012 season?

35.1 percent said Michael Waltrip Racing putting two cars in the Chase
32.6 percent said Carl Edwards missing the Chase after nearly winning the title last year
29.6 percent said Jeff Gordon rallying to take the final wild card spot from Kyle Busch
2.7 percent said Denny Hamlin leading the points entering the Chase

What Fan Council members said:
• All of the above are surprises, but Carl Edwards not making the Chase is the biggest surprise of all.

• I didn't think MWR would put ANY cars in the Chase, let alone two!

• With the luck that he has had this year, I had written Gordon off MONTHS ago. Even as recently as Watkins Glen, I knew he wouldn't make it. But he made me eat my words.

• Mark Martin, in his interview following the race, stated it best: MWR has been plugging away in the shadows and now we all can see their determination, especially with Truex.

• Not a big fan of Mikey, but if you told me he would have more in the Chase than Gibbs, Childress and Penske I would thought you were crazy.

• After ending last season with a tiebreaker I really thought Carl would have at least made the Chase. That 99 team has me completely puzzled this year. It just seems strange that the second-place finisher of the Chase does so poorly the next year. I sure hope if Dale Jr. doesn't win the Chase that he finishes third.

• Carl Edwards not really being competitive AT ALL this year was a huge surprise to me. I never would have predicted that.

• I think MWR has to be the biggest surprise of 2012 so far. They put their two full-time drivers into the Chase and their No. 55 with (three) drivers almost made the Owners Points Chase. This is an incredible step forward for this organization. They are consistently in the top 10 each week, so making the Chase was not a fluke. That being said, I don't think they are championship contenders. Not yet.

• Biggest surprise was how the whole No. 18 team fell apart and didn't make the Chase.

• While I expected two of JGR's cars in the Chase, I definitely didn't think that Denny would be sitting atop the points.

• MWR has probably become the No. 1 team for Toyota over JGR. Anyone who watched that team two years ago would have laughed if they were told this would happen. The team deserves a lot of credit for having two teams that are not only in the Chase, but have legitimate title hopes.

Do you think drivers give their best effort every week?

71.0 percent said Yes
29.0 percent said No

What Fan Council members said:
• These guys are busting their butts every week. Effort is NOT a question.

• Not since the stupid Chase began. Drivers have admitted to not racing as hard as they would have if they weren't trying to protect their spot in it. I don't think it applies to every driver, however. I do think there are a few that give their best effort every week. But they are becoming more rare.

• No matter how boring some races may seem to be, there is no doubt in my mind that ALL the drivers put their everything into a race. I believe even the start & parkers give it their best … it's not their fault they don't have the mega bucks.

• I do think the best drivers put for the best effort every week. With the big sponsors leaving the sport, they have to do their best every week to keep the sponsors they have. The car has a bad aero package right now so the boring races really don't have anything to do with the drivers.

• Just like us, they are human, so I don't believe they put forth their best effort every week. If they aren't confident in their car/team, feeling sick, or distracted by contract talks it may be hard to give 100 percent.

• On the most part I think drivers put forth their best possible effort every week to get a win. I sometimes think some drivers who are having a difficult race give up and just run their laps. I am not talking about those who had to go to the garage to have their car worked on because of a wreck or mechanical issues. Many of them come back and try to make up positions if possible.

• These guys are so full of competition I don't ever see them doing anything but 110 percent every time they get in the car.

• I'd like to think the drivers do give their all each week, but the cynic in me is not so sure. When the 48 drives in the back of the pack at 'Dega it makes my blood boil. That's playing it way too safe for me, and I lose a lot of respect for a driver when they do something like that.

• Quite simply, if a driver isn't giving 100 percent each week, he wouldn't have a job. These drivers know that every single point counts during the season, and it is worth giving 100 percent to get one more spot. Ask Carl Edwards. Or Kyle Busch.

Grade the Cup race at Richmond:

57.8 percent called it Good
28.4 percent called it Great
10.4 percent called it Fair
3.5 percent called it Poor

What Fan Council members said:
• I'm so glad the race went the distance and NASCAR stayed with it. I don't think you could have scripted a better race

• I was at the race. Despite the delayed start, brief intermission, and lack of wrecks the race had everything! There was passing, there were a few leaders, there was drama, and there was three-wide on more than one occasion ... which may or may not have made it to everyone's TV screen via the telecast.

• As much as I hate the Chase, this made it worth watching this year.

• Same as most every other race this year: single file, not much passing, no beating and banging. BORING!!!!! I really expected more from this race in terms of action, especially considering you had Ky Busch and Cousin Carl fighting for Chase spots. Unfortunately, they were quiet and mild as could be.

• That race proved that you don't need wrecks to have an exciting race. With different pit strategies, lots of passing and a driver that raced his heart out to make the Chase it never got boring. I stayed up to watch the checkered flag and wasn't even tired even at 1:30 am because the race was so good.

• Drama, good racing, strategy and last lap edge-of-your-seat wild card race made for a great race.

• Honestly, if not for the drama of the wild card deal, the race itself was a snoozer. I am happy that NASCAR let it go the whole distance. I was worried they would call it at halfway.

• I admit that I dozed on and off because of the rain delays, but the action was awesome. Bowyer getting spun out and then winning thanks to our old friend JPM, and watching Gordon and the 24 team battle to get in the Chase was drama at it's best. NASCAR must be happy — this is what they wanted the Chase format to do.

• We were cold and wet, but we stuck it out until the end. Thank goodness we did, that was just so cool to watch. We went to Richmond to see Gordon make the Chase and that he did in style.

The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at [email protected]

Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.

<p> Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council talks about Chase favorites, the racing at Richmond, the season's biggest surprises and discuss whether NASCAR drivers "give it their all" each and every race.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, September 12, 2012 - 19:51
Path: /nascar/rankings-nascars-chase-championship-performances

In 2003, Matt Kenseth became the final Winston Cup Champion in less-than-dazzling fashion. He won all of one of 36 races while posting 24 top 10s for an average finishing position of 10.2. He clinched the title by merely starting the second to last race of the year at Rockingham. After promptly blowing an engine and finishing dead last, he ended the year 90 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, and 207 ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

With new series sponsor Nextel coming on board for 2004, and a desire by NASCAR CEO Brian France to have his sport compete more closely – and resemble – the NFL, a playoff-type championship format was instituted. The Chase has evolved over the years, but the cumulative year-long points battle was replaced by a final 10-race title bout for 10-12 drivers.

With Chicagoland the site of the 2012 Chase this Sunday, let’s take a look back at the previous eight Chase campaigns, and how they rank.

1. 2004 Nextel Cup — The Chase Era Begins 
When it was announced that the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion would be determined   by a 10-race playoff, purists scoffed. How could any new champion be judged against the likes of Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson, or even Jeff Gordon? The first 10-race playoff – or “raceoff,” if you prefer – helped relieve much of that anxiety. Going into the final race at Homestead, there were five drivers with a chance to win the title. Kurt Busch held an 18-point lead (under the old Latford points system – the equivalent of a five-point lead today) over Johnson, with Gordon, Earnhardt and Mark Martin in close pursuit.  

This Chase featured some of the greatest moments of the past decade, including Earnhardt winning for the seventh time at Talladega just weeks after suffering burns and being knocked semi-conscious in an ALMS crash – and then being docked 25 points for blurting out a profanity during his post-race interview. The second to last race at Darlington was a testament to it being one of the finest tracks on the circuit with a back and forth contest between Gordon, Johnson, and Martin. The 48 team showed early on why it would go on to win five titles (thus far), by winning four of the final six races, and finishing second at Homestead.

The most poignant moment? Busch suffering a blown right front tire, and the tire liberating itself from his No. 97 Sharpie Ford, which missed knocking down the pit wall by a paper-thin margin. As the wheel continued onto the track, a caution came out, keeping him from losing a lap. The race came down to a green-white-checker finish, with Busch’s teammate, Greg Biffle winning while keeping the No. 48 at bay.

Busch’s eight-point title win over Johnson, at the time, was the closest ever. Be that as it may, the purists were incensed further, noting that had the championship been decided by a year-long cumulative points total as it had since 1975, Gordon would have won his fifth title.

2. 2011 Sprint Cup — The Tiebreaker
Ever poo-poo guys who stay out to lead a lap to get a bonus point or wrench on their car after caving the side of it in, just to come back out 80 laps down in hopes of picking up a position? If so, the 2011 Chase should be the slap in the face that illustrates that every position counts.

Tony Stewart stumbled into the Chase like a drunk guy at the club demanding another Red Bull and vodka. Smoke even admitted weeks earlier that if his team did make the Chase, that they’d just be in the way. All of that changed at the drop of a hat, as the No. 14 took the first two wins of the Chase at Chicago and Loudon.

Stewart ultimately would win five races of the 10 (put the calculator down, it’s a 50 percent win percentage), to Carl Edwards’ zero victories. Edwards played it safe, taking the slow and steady route to what should have been the year that he broke through for a title. Edwards finished second at Homestead despite leading the most laps and Stewart won, despite having a piece of Kurt Busch’s bell housing lodged in his radiator ductwork. With the two tied at race’s end, the Chase went to the first tie-breaker: Wins. And Stewart’s five bested Edwards’ one, which came at Las Vegas in March — a skid he has yet to break.

A bit of coincidence regarding that Vegas race: Edwards only won due to fuel miscalculation by Stewart, who had the race in hand until the closing laps.

3. 2006 Nextel Cup — Johnson’s Rally
Jimmie Johnson’s first title will be remembered for starting a dynasty. However, the most amazing thing about Johnson’s 2006 Chase performance was the hole from which he climbed out of to win.

After finishes of 39th, 13th, 14th and 24th to begin the Chase, the 48 team found itself in a seemingly insurmountable 156-point hole to Jeff Burton. Sitting eighth in the standings, the team, which wasn’t THE TEAM at the time, began its comeback in modest-enough ways, finishing second at Charlotte.

Who could have guessed that that finish would begin a streak of five consecutive runs of second or better, relentlessly beating away all comers. Johnson made up 10 points on first at Charlotte, a dropped the hammer at Martinsville, narrowing his deficit to 41 points with a dominating win.

From there, it was child’s play, moving into second in the standings (-26) after Atlanta and by Matt Kenseth for first the following week at Texas. Another runner-up showing followed in Phoenix, and by Homestead he only needed to play it safe to protect his 63-ppoint advantage. He did so, of course, coming home ninth and beating Kenseth by 56 points.

4. 2005 Nextel Cup — Winning Races and Climbing Fences
By the time the 2005 season rolled around, a couple of constants had been confirmed: Tony Stewart liked to eat, loved Indianapolis Motor Speedway and climbing things (specifically, catchfencing). Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson was in his fourth full Cup campaign, and had racked up a whopping 16 wins by the time that season’s Chase began.

The 48 came out strong, winning the second race at Dover, but then triggered a 30 car pile-up at Talladega, which would ultimately be Johnson’s downfall (despite another win at Charlotte).

Roush Racing was poised to win its second straight Chase by sheer numbers, owning half of the Chase field with Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards. Edwards was in his first-full year of competition, but wasted little time in showing he was for real, snatching a win away from Martin at Texas and sweeping both Atlanta races for the year. Biffle won the season finale at Homestead by a bumper over Martin, but the title fight that day was on between Stewart and Johnson.

Johnson needed to win to beat Stewart for the title, but ended up beating themselves — as they had on more than one occasion that season. Johnson blew a left rear tire on lap 127 of 267 and nearly took out Jeff Gordon in the process. The incident capped a season of friction between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, leading to the now-famous “milk and cookies” meeting arranged by owner Rick Hendrick in the offseason.

Stewart, on the other hand, shimmied his bulbous behind up the fence yet again, claiming his second championship in four years and becoming the first driver to claim a Cup title under two different point systems since Richard Petty in 1979. Petty, in fact, won titles under four different points systems. Beat that, Tony.

5. 2009 Sprint Cup — Score One for the Geritol Gang … Almost
When you’re 50 years old, you’re usually planning the next decade of work so you can punch out a few years early and retire. When you’re Mark Martin, you take a new full-time job and still answer the bell at 0600 every morning to start pounding steel.

After taking a couple of years off from the mental and physical grind of a yearly 10-month prize fight, Martin joined Hendrick Motorsports for his last best shot at bringing home the hardware. Through the regular season, Martin and the No. 5 team racked up four wins – his most since 1998 – and served notice that there was a new contender to the throne, both at HMS and in the Cup Series.

Out of the blocks fast with a win in Loudon, it would be up to Johnson to battle back and beat Martin to win a fourth consecutive title. The 48 team responded, with a 271-lap leading drubbing at Dover and follow that up with wins at Fontana and Charlotte. At Talladega, Johnson appeared to be on the verge of suffering a big blow, with Martin running in the top 10 and Johnson hung out, barely in the top 20. A green-white-wreckers finish ensured a flip-flopping in the order, as Martin ended up on his roof while Johnson skating through for an eighth-place finish.

It looked like the 48 would be mailing it in from there on out, except for the first lap at Texas a week later, when Sam Hornish Jr. went Sam Hornish Jr., and clipped Johnson’s car, sending it head-on into the inside wall. A week later, though, Johnson won at Phoenix, with Martin following in fourth. At Homestead, Johnson came home fifth, while the 5 team struggled with a in 12th.

It would be Johnson’s fourth consecutive title, while Martin ended the season second in points for the fifth time in his career.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese ranks NASCAR's eight Chase for the Championship playoff performances. From the unbelievable to the forgettable, they're all here.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, September 12, 2012 - 19:20
Path: /nascar/nascar-news-notes-week-4

The race shop was once a movie theatre. The team’s finances proved as stable as a house of cards. No surprise that one of NASCAR’s biggest dreamers was the owner.

Five years later, Michael Waltrip’s team is in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time. Michael Waltrip Racing brings an intriguing mix with drivers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., who both have shown the ability to string several strong races together this season.

Neither likely will be among the Chase favorites, though, because most people will be smitten with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin or Dale Earnhardt Jr. All are worthy picks and make it easy to overlook Waltrip’s group.

While much will be made of Hendrick Motorsports putting all four cars in the Chase after Jeff Gordon’s determined drive at Richmond to secure the final wild card spot, just think what could have been for Waltrip’s team. Had Mark Martin run the entire schedule instead of a majority of races, he could have been in position to make the Chase and put all three MWR cars in it. Still, Waltrip’s team has more cars in the Chase than traditional powerhouses Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and defending champions Stewart-Haas Racing.

That’s a credit to what Waltrip has built along with co-owner Rob Kauffman, who joined the organization in Oct. 2007 and saved it with his infusion of cash.

“They hired the right people,” Denny Hamlin says. “They hired the right drivers. That's how you become successful.

“(MWR) is going to be around for a long time. You look at the progression of the race team, they’re legit now. I mean, they are guys you're going to have to beat week in, week out.”

Bowyer, who joined the team this season, enters the Chase with two wins after his victory last weekend at Richmond. He’s finished in the top 10 in five of the last six races.

“With everything new, never would (I) have dreamed in a million years all this would have happened this quickly,” Bowyer said after his win last weekend.

Asked about the possibility of winning the title, Bowyer said: “Jimmie (Johnson) seems like he has a blast doing it. I promise you I could throw a better party than him. Might not survive it, but we would have a lot of fun.”

As for Truex, he seeks his first win since 2007, but has shown signs of contending for victories, especially during a stretch in the spring where he finished fifth at Martinsville, sixth at Texas and second at Kansas — all Chase tracks. He had finished no worse than 11th in seven races until placing 21st at Richmond. Still, he’s lead in four consecutive races entering the Chase, his longest streak of the season.

"I'm going to be honest with you, the way our cars are running and as fast as we've been the last six or seven weeks we're dangerous,” Truex says. “I know we're kind of an underdog and not a lot of people expect us to do much. It's a good position to be in. We just need to be smart, make good decisions and our Toyotas are strong enough to do this thing. (I’m) looking forward to going out and having some fun and hopefully we'll put together 10 good races and be in the hunt.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit with Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - 17:51
Path: /nascar/nascar-horsepower-rankings-13

1. Denny Hamlin   Hamlin slips ahead of Jimmie Johnson thanks to having the strongest car for a third consecutive week (despite the fact he didn’t win). He also gets a hat tip for those four regular season victories. Last week: 2

2. Jimmie Johnson  Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are bringing the car that they dominated and won with at Dover and Indianapolis to Chicago. My thought is it goes three-for-three this season. You heard it here first. Last week: 1

3. Brad Keselowski  Drove to a quiet seventh at Richmond, his ninth top-10 showing in the last 10 races. This kid is for real, people, and his time is now. Last week: 3

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Give him props for the consistency throughout the regular season. Now the question becomes whether this team and its driver can deliver in crunch time or get passed by the heavy-hitters. Last week: 4

5. Jeff Gordon  Gets a huge bump up the rankings this week after being Mr. Clutch the last three weeks, with finishes of third, second and second. Now we’ll see if they have any gas left in the tank. Last week: 10

6. Clint Bowyer  One win per season is impressive and all, but multiple victories rachet a team and its driver up the “keep an eye on” list. Bowyer and the 15 bunch are there — and at just the right time. Last week: 8

7. Greg Biffle  Lest we forget about the “Regular Season Champion” — that is, if there were one. When is NASCAR going to at least acknowledge that achievement? At the least, an “Atta boy!” would do. Last week: 5

8. Matt Kenseth  Kenseth’s standing takes a hit based more on what others have done as opposed to the performance of his No. 17 team. That said, there are still questions how this team will do in the Chase. Last week: 7

9. Kasey Kahne  Many are looking at Kahne as a nice darkhorse Chase pick. It’s hard to argue with those types, especially when you consider that his two wins this year have come on Chase tracks (Charlotte, Loudon). Last week: 9

<p> As NASCAR's regular season comes to a close, Denny Hamlin edges by Jimmie Johnson to take the top spot in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Monday, September 10, 2012 - 17:54
Path: /node/12202

After 25 races, the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season will roll into Richmond International Raceway for the final event before the 12-driver Chase field is set. While the top 10 is essentially a lock, the race for the wild card positions is all about wins, with eight drivers still eligible for the two spots.

Although the points will reset for the Chase drivers after the checkered flag falls on Saturday night, the fantasy NASCAR season will roll on. What you will need to pay close attention to is what each driver in Saturday night's field has at stake.

With a host of differing agendas, many look at this race as a “no-holds-barred,” anything-goes contest. There is a ton of risk for those trying grab the two wild card spots, yet no risk at all for many others.

While Kasey Kahne leads the wild card contenders with two victories, the drivers to watch Saturday night are Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon. The two with the most on the line this weekend, both have stellar records at Richmond and will be doing all they can to put their cars in Victory Lane.

For Busch, there could be no better track than the .75-mile Richmond International Raceway. His lone win this season came here in April, he has the best average finish among active drivers (4.7), and has four wins in the last seven races — winning every other race dating back to May 2009.

However, this season has been anything but ordinary for Busch and his Dave Rogers-led team. Inconsistency, poor luck, wrecks and engine failures have led to his most difficult campaign since his sophomore season in 2007. Given the struggles, Busch says he feels “OK” about his chances of making the Chase, but knows there are no guarantees going into Saturday night’s race.

“I’m not saying I’m for sure going to be in at all,” he admits. “Anything can happen. Jeff is no slouch at Richmond, either. He will be fine. I feel like he’s the guy we’re racing — the 24 car. We’ll just have to see how it all plays out. Jeff could give us a run for our money.”

Truer words have never been spoken by young Busch. If he wants to make the Chase he must beat a four-time series champion in Gordon to do so.

Since the summer stretch kicked off, Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led team have been in contention to win nearly every week. In the 11 races since Michigan in June, Gordon has scored one win, five top 5s and eight top 10s, with a 21st-place finish at Watkins Glen due to a late-race spin in oil. In the last five races alone, Gordon has one win, a second and a third.

However, for one of NASCAR’s most decorated drivers, those numbers have not been enough to secure a Chase bid. He knows in order to celebrate his 20th season in the Cup Series with a shot at title No. 5, he has to win on Saturday night.

Taking a different approach than Busch, Gordon’s attention will be on his race — not the competitions’.

“Our focus won’t be on what ‘this team’ is doing or what ‘this driver’ is doing,” he says. “We’re just going to focus on our own program like we always do. We’ll focus on tuning the car, communicating and working the setup the best we possibly can to try to have the fastest racecar. I’m not going into the race thinking that we’ve got to finish 12 positions ahead of Kyle. I’m thinking we have to win.”

Unless Busch and Gordon suffer the poor luck that has put them in this situation in the first place, both should run and finish up front, capable of solid fantasy points.

That said, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin, heads to Richmond fresh off consecutive wins, giving him four on the season. Carrying momentum, confidence and the support of the hometown crowd behind him, the driver of the No. 11 Toyota will be hard to beat.

In 13 Cup starts at Richmond, Hamlin has only one finish outside the top 20, three finishes outside the top 10, six finishes of third or better and two wins. With 12 bonus points on his side heading into the Chase, the Virginia native has the opportunity to score another three bonus points with a win Saturday night. For fantasy players, Hamlin is about as sure of a bet as you will find in the field.

For the past few weeks, Carl Edwards has been our fantasy darkhorse pick. Nearly every week he has lived up to that title — while carrying the risk associated with a darkhorse — mixing strong runs with, ultimately, poor finishes.

Down and out after an engine failure ended his Atlanta race (and Chase hopes) early, Edwards struggled to come to terms with his situation after nearly winning the title last season. When the series last raced in Richmond, though, Edwards had the strongest car in the field. Leading 206 of the 400 laps, he was hit with a late-race penalty for beating the leader to the line on a restart and was penalized, forced to swallow a bitter 10th-place finish.

Feeling as if NASCAR stole a win out from under them, Edwards and his No. 99 team are heading to RIR looking for redemption, a little luck and a win. While he has yet to win at Richmond, the Roush Fenway Racing driver has three top 5s and five top 10s in his last five starts. The series runner-up in 2011 is likely to miss the Chase this season, but expect him to go out swinging, scoring strong fantasy points for your team.

Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at fantasy NASCAR favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Federated Auto Parts 400 from Richmond International Raceway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, September 6, 2012 - 10:58
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-25

Trust and belief are core issues the Backseat Drivers Fan Council delves into this week. Members state how much they trust NASCAR in regards to debris cautions. Belief centers on what Fan Council members think about the title chances of Denny Hamlin, who has a series-high four wins, including the last two races. Belief also centers on what they think of Tony Stewart’s various comments last week toward Matt Kenseth and if Stewart will seek revenge. Here’s what members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say on those topics and more.

Do you trust NASCAR on calling debris cautions?

55.9 percent said only part of the time
33.0 percent said yes, all of the time
11.1 percent said no, never

What Fan Council members said:
• I have to be honest here and say that sometimes I think NASCAR throws a caution for no apparent reason to change the outcome of the race ... plain and simple!

• If you can't trust NASCAR then why are you watching?

• How many times does this need to be talked about?! Seriously, I am tired of it! Face it, NASCAR is a dictatorship; they are judge, jury and executioner. They are in business to make money, and what makes money in racing? Excitement! What doesn't make money in racing? Boring-ass, single-file, follow-the-leader (who is eight seconds ahead) racing. So if NASCAR wants to toss out a phantom yellow once in a while to create some action — which creates profits — I am all for it.

• I'm sorry, but I just don't buy the conspiracy theories. There is just too much at stake, financially, for the powers-that-be at NASCAR to go around manipulating results. It's a legitimate sport, not wrestling.

• The lack of consistency has always irked me. If brushing the wall brings out a caution on lap 10, it should bring out a caution on lap 110.

• I do believe that NASCAR does, at times, consider what will make a good TV finish and may be inclined to abuse the caution flag to create that situation. That's my honest opinion, and I hope somebody can argue the other point and change my mind.

• I believe they make mistakes but I also believe that NASCAR has to err on the side of safety and there may be cautions called that are not necessary. However, by and large, they make the right calls most of the time.

• NASCAR is definitely not infallible when it comes to their calls, so they're not going to get it right all the time. But this is racing. You're never going to get it right all the time. And you're never going to please all the fans with the calls — it just can't be done, especially when you consider the coverage that most of us are stuck with. I'm tired of this whole debate.

After scoring two consecutive wins, is Denny Hamlin the championship favorite?

75.1 percent said No
24.9 percent said Yes

What Fan Council members said:
• Denny is too mentally weak. He'll snap and disappoint the team again.

• Hamlin choked the 2010 title away in the final two races after being one of the winningest drivers of that season. Just because he has won two in a row, he looks like the flavor of the month. Remember what happened with Smoke last year? The only favorite is the 48, period.

• That team has not shown the consistency to win the championship so far, but with Darian Grubb as crew chief, who knows?

• With Darian Grubb, a crew chief who did a great job last year with Tony Stewart, on top of the pit box and having momentum heading into the Chase, they could be dangerous.

• I believe this might be Denny's year, he and Darian are really clicking and look very good to win the Championship!

• Serious challenger, but still think JJ is the man to win.

• He hasn't shown the consistency to be the favorite. Betting against Jimmie Johnson in the Chase is the ultimate sucker bet. It’s about time to start singing the praises of Darian Grubb, though — what a 12 months of racing for him!

• Hate to say it, but Dale Jr. is the guy to beat. Top 5s week in and week out.

<p> Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council talks about NASCAR debris cautions, Denny Hamlin's Chase expectations, the Tony Stewart/Matt Kenseth beef and racing in Atlanta.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 - 11:33