Articles By Matt Taliaferro

Path: /nascar/denny-hamlin-wins-bristol

Few topics in NASCAR have been as polarizing as track owner Bruton Smith’s decision to “narrow up” the historic half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway.

Once the scene of some of NASCAR’s most memorable on- and off-track antics, the rough ’n’ tumble short track in East Tennessee recently played nicer, thanks to progressive banking that allowed drivers to safely run two- and three-wide into Bristol’s massive turns. Smith’s call to shave off a groove’s worth of concrete near the wall was intended to force drivers low and into a more aggressive mode.

Turns out, Smith got it wrong. But in being wrong, he got it right.

Drivers were initially forced to the low and middle grooves, but as the night progressed, the ground-down high groove took on rubber — so much rubber, in fact, that the high groove was the only place to run with meaningful speed.

A rotating door of drivers spent time leading the field (22 lead changes among 13 drivers) thanks to varying pit strategies. But in the end, the proverbial cream rose to the top. Denny Hamlin, in the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, muscled his way past Carl Edwards with 39 laps remaining and pulled away, winning his third race of the season and first career Cup event at Bristol.

“Honestly, it’s just a different kind of racing,” Hamlin said of the track that favored one-lane, upper-groove racing. “There’s nothing (Smith is) going to do that’s going to make us run the bottom — that’s not the fastest way around the track. But it was the same thing; we were all running in the line, and just waiting on the next guy to screw up to get around.

“So that’s what you’ve got to do at the old Bristol and that’s exactly what we had to race today. The slide job was an option to pass, which, you know, that won us the race.

“I don’t think that we saw as much side-by-side racing but you didn’t see side-by-side racing with the old Bristol. You saw a bunch of cars waiting in line to get knocked out of the way or mess up, and that’s the same thing we had today.”

Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top 5.

Whether the grounding process was the main reason for a more intense race, the fact was the drivers were feeling friskier than normal.

Thirteen cautions punctuated the event (11 for wrecks), the most witnessed at the track since March 2007. Two incidents, in particular, brought back memories of Bristols-past.

The first involved Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart — a pair with a history — who took one another out on the frontstretch while racing for the lead on lap 334. After climbing out of his wrecked car, Stewart waited for Kenseth to exit pit road, where he fired his helmet at the No. 17 Ford in disgust, drawing cheers from the crowd.

Stewart’s unofficial teammate, Danica Patrick, had a surprisingly solid run going in her first Cup start in the bullring. While running 19th and on the lead lap, Patrick was turned into the backstretch fence by Regan Smith with just 64 laps remaining. In turn, she waited for Smith to pass under caution, waiving a disapproving finger in his direction.

Even the soundbites were classic Bristol, with Stewart vowing to “run over (Kenseth) every chance I get for the rest of the year,” and Patrick’s crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, threatening to strangle Smith.

In the end, fans seemed pleased with the mayhem, while drivers were split.

Five-time Bristol winner Kyle Busch had the most critical comments, deadpanning that the track was “terrible.” While another five-time winner, Jeff Gordon, sang its praises:

“I say grind the whole place. That was awesome. That reminded me of old-school Bristol. It was pretty exciting.”

So while tempers and soundbites were the order of the night, the true measuring stick of whether Smith’s plan was a success will be seen at the turnstiles next season.

Until then, Bristol will remain as polarizing as ever.

by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro


<p> Denny Hamlin won a wild NASCAR event on Saturday, taking checkers in the Bristol Night Race.</p>
Post date: Sunday, August 26, 2012 - 14:55
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-bristol

The Race for the Chase is heating up and after two weeks of late-race drama the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Thunder Valley for the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

When the series hits the high-banks, it will be on a much different racing surface than the drivers have been accustomed to over the past few seasons. After the 2007 reconfiguration of the track, progressive banking was added in the corners, allowing for multiple grooves and two- and three-wide racing.

The racing on the new configuration was exciting and competitive, however many fans bemoaned the changes and called for a return to the Bristol of old. While it may have been the changes to the track, a lagging economy, or a host of other reasons, attendance fell from 160,000 in August 2007 to 102,000 earlier this year.

Listening to the fans, Speedway Motorsports, Inc.'s Bruton Smith took measures into his own hands and altered the track layout for the second time in six years. By grinding down the top racing groove, Smith hopes to create the style of racing Bristol was synonymous with when the grandstands were full and there was a waiting list for tickets.

Yet for many of the drivers, the change to Bristol is an unwelcome sight. Making changes based solely off the opinion of fans, Smith did not consult the competitors before taking away the top groove, boasting, "I do not consult race drivers when I am building a speedway."

After a painstaking process of removing embanked concrete intended to last “15 to 18 years,” according to track general manager Jerry Caldwell, Goodyear brought in Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer for a two-day tire test of the new configuration.

Each of the drivers confirmed the field would be unable to race around the top groove, forcing drivers to fight for space on the bottom of the track.

“The drivers aren’t going to be happy, but the spectators probably will be because it is going to put more cars in a closer space,” Burton said following the June tire test. “By taking away that groove, it is going to change your mind about going up there. I think it is going to be two grooves, unless Goodyear brings a tire with a lot of grip. If that is the case, you’ll want to run around the bottom. Making the groove smaller is a good thing, it is going to put the action back to the bottom and middle of the track.”

So, now that the track has changed, what can you expect for your fantasy outlook?

Well, I wouldn’t stray far from the statistics — new Bristol or old. While the groove may have changed, the drivers that excel at Bristol will continue to do so this weekend under the lights.

To find the hottest driver at BMS the past two events, look no further than the man that has finished second the last two weeks: Brad Keselowski. The Penske Racing driver is the defending race winner, went to Victory Lane in dominant fashion here in March and is looking for his fourth win of the 2012 season.

Currently fifth in the Sprint Cup standings, Keselowski is tied with former champions Stewart and Jimmie Johnson with the most wins on the season. A win Saturday night would not only mean a sweep of the year's Bristol races, but would also move Keselowski into the top seed heading into the Chase.

In March, Keselowski dominated the final race on the multi-groove surface, leading 232 of the 500 laps. In the past two weeks, the No. 2 car has been in contention for the win, losing out by only a slight margin to Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen and Greg Biffle at Michigan.

Since his victory in Kentucky seven races ago, Keselowski has five top 5s and seven top 10s. So obviously, this team has been on a roll as of late — and that roll should continue right through the mountains of East Tennessee. With confidence on his side and the team gunning for another win or two before the Chase, it is hard to bet against Keselowski Saturday night under the lights.

Much like last weekend, if Keselowski wants to end up in Victory Lane, he will have to beat Johnson. Looking as if he was on his way to his fourth victory of the season last week at Michigan, a blown motor in the final laps resulted in a frustrating 27th-place finish.

A former winner at Bristol, Johnson is always a threat on the high-speed short track. In his last seven races at BMS, the five-time champion has one win, four top 5s and six top 10s.

While Keselowski took advantage of Johnson's issues last Sunday, it was Kyle Busch who lost the win late in the race two weeks ago in Watkins Glen. Currently 14th in the standings, Busch is third in the Chase wild card hunt behind Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman. While the past few months have been more than frustrating for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota (only three top 10s in the last 11 races), there could be no better track for Busch than Bristol to get back into contention.

With the second-best average finish (10.6), Busch has five wins at Bristol, including four of the last seven races. With time running out before the Chase cut-off, Busch will need to get up on the wheel and get the job done.

Admittedly off at Bristol since his March 2011 win, he and crew chief Dave Rogers will have to dial the car in to the new configuration without over-thinking the setup, as they have done in the past.

Also consider last week's winner (and current points leader) Biffle, as well as fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. for your lineup Saturday night. Both have been extremely strong as of late and have run well at Bristol in the past.

Five Favorites: Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle 

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Bristol Night Race NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Bristol Motor Speedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 23, 2012 - 12:21
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-23

Since starting the Backseat Drivers Fan Council last season, there have been some questions that members were nearly split on but perhaps not as close as one of the questions in this week’s survey. And another question, which had three possible answers, was nearly as close in the final results.

Members said they had some tough choices on some issues. Check out how they answered them:

Iowa or Montreal?
Fan Council members were asked if they could choose adding a Cup race at either Iowa or Montreal, which track would they select:

50.3 percent chose Montreal
49.7 percent chose Iowa

What Fan Council members said:
• This was tough since I love road course racing but the calendar lacks short tracks and I haven’t watched a boring Iowa race yet.

• After seeing the last Cup race at Watkins Glen and the Nationwide race at Montreal, Montreal needs to be on the schedule and possibly even a Chase race … mix up the Chase with some different tracks other than the cookie cutters that some guys are always good at. Give the boys a challenge!!

• Iowa, hands down. The NNS races that have been there have been outstanding. Can you imagine how much better it will be with all the Cup drivers?

• Montreal, for numerous reasons: 1. Brings Sprint Cup into Canadian market. 2. The racing is phenomenal there! 3. The Chase needs a road course!

• I attended the very first Nationwide race at Iowa. It's a fantastic track with great racing. It's a great place for those of us in the true Midwest whose only other track is Kansas. Would love to see Iowa get a Cup race some day.

• Let's make NASCAR Sprint Cup a bit more international ... even if it's only baby steps. I also think you will have a larger crowd in Montreal than in Iowa.

• NASCAR is a USA origination — let’s not put it in another country. Enough stuff has been sent to other countries, keep the money and jobs in the USA!

• This was a really tough decision as I think either race would be great. My love of Canada won me over. I also think Canada is starved for NASCAR (if my Twitter followers are any indication!) and adding a Cup race there would bring in tons of fans.

• While the racing at Montreal and the road courses is excellent, it has gotten to the point where the races are almost as random as a restrictor-plate race. NASCAR is in desperate need of more short tracks, so Iowa is a much better choice.

• Tough one because I live a half hour from the Iowa Speedway, but I honestly think NASCAR needs a road course in the Chase before Iowa needs a Sprint Cup race.

• Iowa has been a great venue for the Trucks and Nationwide. As I learned last week, (Iowa) has the most race tracks of any state! And the fans have packed the place. Time to reward the loyal fans in the seats, not behind the TVs.

• The sport needs more road courses!! I'd love it if NASCAR could move away from the oval image it has had for YEARS. Montreal would be PERFECT. The race fans are very excited every time the Nationwide Series comes, there's a great crowd, and it's a great market that is unserved. Plus Montreal produces great racing. It works out on both sides for sure.

<p> Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council weighs in on racing at the "new" Bristol, whether the Cup Series should consider awarding a date to Montreal or Iowa and grades last weekend's race at Michigan.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 19:50
Path: /nascar/nascar-news-notes-week-2

One theme is consistent among competitors as NASCAR returns to Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time since track changes intended to create tighter racing.

“I just hope that they didn’t screw it up,” points leader Greg Biffle says.

“I just hope they didn’t screw up the race track,” Ryan Newman says.

“Nobody really knows what is going to happen,” Jimmie Johnson says.

After lackluster attendance in the spring and complaints by fans about the lack of action, track officials narrowed the groove to force cars to run closer together and create that door-banging excitement some fans said was lacking.

“I think it is going to be exciting either way,” Biffle says. “I heard they ground the corner more down the straightaway so that when you come up off the corner you will go across that patch coming on to the straightaway, which may be difficult to go from the bottom groove. They carried it around maybe further than it needed to be, but we will have to wait and see when we get there how the race track drives now. I hope it is good.”

Newman is worried what type of racing drivers will see.

“I hope they didn’t take the racing away,” he says. “The beating, banging and crashing is not the racing that I like. That’s what some of the fans enjoy, but that’s not the racing I like. I like being able to run side-by-side. The problem we had the tire just didn’t allow us to be able to fall off so the first five laps of the run were like the last five, 120 (laps) later. Your car didn’t fall off, your balance didn’t change, and everybody was virtually the same speed.

“To me, the tires are the biggest issue when it comes to a place like that.”

Goodyear did a tire test this summer. Cup teams will use a different left-side tire than in the spring race. The right-side tires will remain the same version run in the spring.

“I’m more interested in the changes done to the tire compound than anything else,” says Brad Keselowski, who has won the past two Bristol Cup races. “I think that’ll be the bigger key to the puzzle and we’ll just have to see how that unfolds. Obviously, I’m going to run all three series Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and if there’s a difference in the track I should be the first to know.”

The Camping World Truck Series races Wednesday night at Bristol with the Nationwide race Friday night and the Cup race Saturday night.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a lap around the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. The "new" Bristol, 2013 schedule and Danica in the Cup Series highlights the news of the week.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 16:36
Path: /nascar/nascar-horsepower-rankings-11

1. Jimmie Johnson  Loses a second one in three weeks in heartbreaking fashion. That may derail some teams, but with the 48, you get the feeling it only makes them more determined.

2. Brad Keselowski  Keselowski and the boys are rounding into form nicely, with seven consecutive runs of ninth or better. They’re going to be a handful at Bristol this weekend.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  After a broken transmission and a spin in the oil knocked Junior’s bunch back the last two weeks, they rebounded in fine fashion to the tune of a fourth-place finish in Michigan.

4. Greg Biffle  Earned his second win of the season at the 2-mile Michigan track. His other was at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. For those keeping score, there are five such tracks in the Chase.

5. Matt Kenseth  It’s been a rocky month for Kenseth, who suffered a cut tire late at Michigan while running in the top 5. As luck would have it, the 17th-place result actually bumped him up a notch to second in the standings.

6. Kasey Kahne  Since a 33rd in the June Michigan race, Kahne has been spot-on, recording eight straight top-15 runs. Like Biffle, the tracks in the Chase line up well for Kahne and his engineer/crew chief-extraordinaire, Kenny Francis.

7. Clint Bowyer  A solid seventh at Michigan did the trick. However, if this team — albeit a relatively new team — is going to challenge in the Chase, it needs more than a boatload of fifth- to ninth-place showings.

8. Martin Truex Jr.  Truex, like his teammate Bowyer, has been as steady as they come this season. However, his No. 56 team must push beyond the sixth- to 10th-place pattern it has fallen into and win races.

9. Denny Hamlin  Virtually invisible at Michigan, Hamlin may have notched the most under-the-radar 11th-place finish in NASCAR history. You have to wonder, with a Chase spot virtually sown up, if this team is doing some testing.

<p> Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski are in a frenzied battle for supremacy of Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings. Could this be a preview of the NASCAR Sprint Cup title battle?&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 10:11
Path: /nascar/greg-biffle-wins-michigan

Neither Greg Biffle nor team owner Jack Roush is unaccustomed to visiting Victory Lane at Michigan International Speedway. So it was no surprise that the duo ended up spraying champagne following Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 Sprint Cup race. What was a surprise were the circumstances that landed them there.

Running second to a scorchingly fast Jimmie Johnson, it looked as if Biffle would have to settle for a runner-up showing and “a good points day” after leading a respectable 19 laps and being a top-5 contender throughout the day.

However, as Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy streaked down Michigan’s long backstretch and near certain victory with six laps remaining, the engine sputtered, then detonated, becoming the fourth Hendrick powerplant of the weekend to experience problems.

As Johnson shifted to neutral, coasting to the garage on the track’s apron, Biffle assumed the lead as a yellow flag waved for oil dropped by Johnson’s shattered motor.

On the ensuing green-white-checker restart, Biffle fended off a gaggle of challengers as the field raced into Turn 1, nosing in front of Brad Keselowski and driving away in clean air to his second win of the 2012 season.

“It was going to be a great race no matter what,” Biffle said. “I felt like I could catch (Johnson), but we’ll never know. Passing him might have been a different story. But I certainly think that with seven (laps) to go, I probably could have pulled up close to him.”

Keselowski held on for second, while Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top 5. Johnson was relegated to a 27th-place finish and left the garage area, and then the facility, without speaking to reporters.

Keselowski, though, had plenty to say in his post-race press conference.

“I don’t know what to say other than I was just close to getting what would have been one of the biggest wins of my career,” the Michigan native said. “That would have been really special, but it wasn’t in the cards today.”

Then he took aim at the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared cars, which seem to have had a chassis advantage after winning seven of the last 13 races since early May.

“There’s parts and pieces on the car that are moving after inspection that make the car more competitive,” Keselowski explained when elaborating on a perceived advantage. “Some guys have it, some don’t. There’s a question to the interpretation of the rule. Penske Racing errs on the safe side because we don't want to be the guys that get the big penalty.

“Obviously, there’s a question to the interpretation (of the rule) that as of right now it’s legal, but I’m sure that Roger (Penske, team owner) doesn’t want to be the one caught red-handed.

“As a group at Penske Racing, we have not felt comfortable enough to risk that name and reputation that Roger has over those parts and pieces. Others have, which is their prerogative — I’m not going to slam them for it.”

He made it well known, though, that while Johnson may still be a pre-Chase title favorite, his No. 2 team is preparing for a 10-race war.

“The 48 has the most speed and the best history as far as the Chase is concerned,” Keselowski stated. “But it’s my job to not roll over and give it to them. We’re doing everything we can do and we nailed it on that last green-flag (pit) sequence (Keselowski beat Johnson off pit road). I’m proud as hell of my guys for doing that.

“The 48 might be the favorite for the championship, but we’re not going to roll over and just let them have it.”

So even in victory, Biffle, ironically the new points leader, flies under the radar — as he has throughout the season. And that seems just fine by him:

“I know that a lot of people don’t expect us to win the championship, don’t expect us to compete for the title. I don’t care what they say or who they want to talk about or what they talk about.

“We will be a factor when it comes down to Homestead, I promise you that.”

News & Notes: Michigan
•  Hendrick Motorsports had four engines experience problems — or all-out failures — over the Michigan race weekend. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart experienced valve train failures in Sunday’s race, while Jimmie Johnson had engine problems in practice, prompting a change. He had another go terminal with six laps to go on Sunday, costing him a fourth win this season.

On the flipside of the Hendrick engine docket was Kasey Kahne, who finished third, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fourth) and Ryan Newman (eighth). Stewart and Gordon’s issues mirrored one another. As for Johnson, might ace crew chief Chad Knaus simply be testing the limits of durability prior to the Chase? For the time being, one can only speculate.

•  Mark Martin was involved in a scary wreck while leading the Pure Michigan 400 on lap 65. After colliding with Juan Montoya, Kasey Kahne and Bobby Labonte, Martin’s car careened into the edge of an opening in the pit road wall. The edge of the wall impaled his No. 55 Toyota, puncturing the oil cooler just behind the seat of the car, nearly striking some bystanders. All walked away unhurt.

•  Justin Allgaier nudged his way past Jacques Villeneuve and on to his first Nationwide Series win of the 2012 season at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. Allgaier used the bumper to move Villeneuve, who appeared to slow, on the final lap at the road course. Coincidentally (or not), Villeneuve used the same tactic to obtain the lead from Alex Tagliani on lap 66 of 81.

by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:

<p> Greg Biffle took advantage of Jimmie Johnson's blown engine in the waning laps of the Pure Michigan 400 to notch his second win of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.</p>
Post date: Monday, August 20, 2012 - 15:13
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-michigan-0

After a wild late-race battle for the win at Watkins Glen, the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Irish Hills of Michigan for this weekend's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Returning to MIS for the second time this season, the Chase is fast approaching and the action is heating up. In June, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended his 143-race winless streak and made the NASCAR Nation happier than a kid chowing down on some Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia.

This time, however, the series returns in the heat of the race to the Chase. With playoff implications all around and teams on varying strategies and objectives, things could get interesting.

Four drivers — Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth — have the opportunity to clinch their respective spot in the Chase in Sunday's race. At the same time, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and others are battling for the two wild card spots.

While the mindset of the teams and drivers may be different from earlier in the summer, one thing that will remain the same is the high speeds created by the new racing surface.

When the series first hit the freshly-paved 2-mile, D-shaped oval, the drivers were laying down some of the fastest speeds of the year recorded in practice and qualifying. After seeing some blistering on the tires, Goodyear officials made a late change in the compound and brought in a tougher left side tire for Sunday's race. Prior to returning this weekend, Goodyear worked with NASCAR, the track and the competitors to test various combinations to bring back a better tire. A total of 27 teams partook in the test on July 30.

One of the drivers most pleased with the test was Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has two wins, eight top 5s and 11 top 10s in nineteen starts in Detroit’s backyard, and is this week's fantasy favorite.

Over the last four Michigan races, Biffle has led a total of 258 of 803 laps en route to a pair of fourth-place finishes (including the June race), a 15th and a 20th (which came after sitting on the pole).

Sitting second in the series standings, just one point behind the five-time champion Johnson, Biffle has only one win this season, meaning he would fall behind Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin when the Chase field is reset after the Richmond race. Another win would go a long way in Biffle's quest to earn his first Sprint Cup Series title.

If Biffle wants to earn his second win of the season and first Cup title, he will likely have to beat Johnson for both. Always a contender at Michigan, Johnson has four top 5s and nine top 10s, but has yet to seal the deal and score a win.

Given the performance of the No. 48 organization over the four weeks, it is safe to say they will be a contender yet again this weekend.

The last time the series was in Michigan, it was Earnhardt Jr. that scored the win and ended the longest winless drought of his career. After a disappointing end to a solid day in Watkins Glen, Earnhardt lost the points lead, but is headed to a track he is very capable of sweeping.

Also keep an eye on Keselowski this weekend. Although he has an average finish of 21.0 at Michigan, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe always have an eye on pit strategy and could shake things up late in the race and have proven capable of winning on most any type of track at any given time.

Five Favorites: Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth

While Richard Petty Motorsports was celebrating a win last week at Watkins Glen, the team cars of Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose could have another strong showing this weekend.

Although they may not take The King to victory lane two weeks in a row, the teammates have had strong showings in the June race, with Ambrose leading 15 laps and finishing ninth, and Almirola coming home 17th in his first Sprint Cup start on the big oval.

Given their solid performance in June, along with the momentum built from last week's win, you may want to consider including Almirola and Ambrose in your lineup this week.

The ageless wonder, Mark Martin, returns to action this weekend behind the wheel of Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota. The timing could not be better, as Michigan is Martin's best track.

Although he fell out of the June race with an engine issue, Martin has a career-high five victories at Michigan. Given the success of the No. 55 team — especially with Martin behind the wheel — look for the Rodney Childers-led bunch to have a strong run on Sunday.

Martin’s teammates, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, have average finishes just outside the top 10 best at Michigan. Sitting sixth and seventh, respectively, in the series standings, both drivers could further solidify their spot in the Chase with good runs — and tack on bonus points with wins.

Five Undervalued Picks: Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.

With only four races left before the Chase field is set, time is running out for Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. Both sitting outside the top 10 in points, Edwards is without a win, while Gordon is currently fourth in the wild card battle behind Kahne, Newman and Kyle Busch.

Edwards enters the weekend with the best average finish among active drivers (8.4) and two wins at MIS. However, in his last five starts at Michigan, Edwards has three finishes outside the top 10 (including a 36th in the race last August).

If the 2011 championship runner-up wants the opportunity to make the Chase field, time is running out and the season that has yet to get on track needs to do so this weekend. At this point, solid finishes are not enough.

Much like Edwards, Gordon finds himself outside the Chase field at the moment. Needing wins, before the final cutoff race at Richmond, it is time for the No. 24 team to step up to the plate and get the job done. A victory two weeks ago at Pocono gave the four-time champion Chase hopes, but a late-race spin in the oil at Watkins Glen did his wild card hopes no favors.

The Alan Gustafson-led team has run strong throughout the season, but have struggled to put complete races together at times, albeit the issues were not always of their making. If they can use notes from the in-house No. 88 team, stay out of trouble, play the right strategy throughout the race and be there in the end, look for the No. 24 team to have a shot at the win.

Five Darkhorse Picks: Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Landon Cassill

Best Average Finish at Michigan (Wins/Starts):
1. Carl Edwards — 8.4 (2/16)
2. Matt Kenseth — 9.3 (2/26)
3. Tony Stewart — 11.2 (1/27)
4. Jeff Gordon — 11.3 (2/39)
5. Greg Biffle — 12.4 (2/19)
6. Mark Martin — 13.6 (5/53)
7. Denny Hamlin — 13.8 (2/13)
8. Jimmie Johnson — 14.7 (0/21)
9. Kevin Harvick — 14.8 (1/23)
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 15.2 (2/26)

by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 16, 2012 - 17:09
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-22

Watkins Glen had members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council talking from what should have been done at the end of the race with oil on the track to what they saw throughout the entire event. Fan Council members also shared their thoughts on Dodge’s recent announcement that it will leave NASCAR after this season. Here’s what the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say on those issues:

Grade Sunday’s Cup race at Watkins Glen

46.5 percent called it Great
42.8 percent called it Good
8.7 percent called it Fair
2.0 percent called it Poor

What Fan Council member said:
• OMG! I was there and the final incident between Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski happened right in front of me! It was not only the greatest road course race I’ve ever seen, it was in the top-5 finishes I’ve ever seen!

• Best race all year and my guy wasn’t even in the running.

• I still don’t understand why people don’t like the road course races. They’ve been more exciting than Bristol for the past few years.

• Outside of Smoke’s charge to the front and Junior’s surprise appearance in the top 10 at a road course during the race, this one was a snoozer until the end.

• Please! There was passing, there was spinning-out-of-nowhere, and then there was that FANTASTIC FINISH!!! Holy cow — I haven’t been that involved in a race in AGES! Loved it!

• More. Road. Courses. PLEASE! Especially one in the Chase. Phenomenal racing all day long.

• The race was good. People will say it was great because of the ending, but I was disappointed that a missed call impacted the finish. Even had I been OK with the ending of the race, I do not believe that a race is judged by it’s ending. Instead, it is the pit strategies and side-by-side racing throughout the race that I consider.

• Race was great from start to finish ... and what a finish! That last lap literally got me up on my feet (and I have no idea when the last time THAT happened!!). Probably a bad call on NASCAR’s part to not throw the caution, but damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I agree with BK: Now that was racing!! Kudos to Ambrose!

• I thought most of the race was awful, especially when the cars got strung out with big gaps. The last lap was incredible, but not enough to save the rest of it.

• I’m really beginning to like these road courses — and not just for the last lap. This race was really good all the way through. And the length of the race was perfect!!

• What was not to like? Even if you don’t care for road courses, there was action all over the track, even when it was a little spread out up front for a while. The last few laps with Kyle, Brad and Marcos was fantastic. And seeing Tony Stewart mow through the field after his penalty was pretty outstanding!

What did you think of the end of the Watkins Glen race?
With some drivers saying there was oil on the track, NASCAR did not throw a caution. Series officials said afterward that their spotters positioned around the track couldn’t see the oil. The oil played a role on the last lap with Kyle Busch running through it and allowing Brad Keselowski to close. They hit, with Busch spinning. Then Keselowski and winner Marcos Ambrose ran off course and into each other in a duel to the finish. So, what did Fan Council members think of the finish?

47.5 percent said it was racing the way it should be
38.8 percent were conflicted — they’re not for what they saw but not against the action
13.7 percent said it was embarrassing to the sport to allow oil to impact the finish

What Fan Council members said:
• NASCAR’s hands were tied because there was no oil visible on the track. Drivers scream their heads off about debris when they believe it will benefit them and NASCAR knows better than to call a caution without first confirming it for themselves. Now granted, a majority of the field was reporting oil, but at that point the white flag was already in their air and it would have been a big controversy had NASCAR thrown the yellow and ended the race on the final lap. People would have been livid for not letting it play out. I believe NASCAR got this one right, it was a bad set of circumstances and they went with their gut. It was a fantastic finish we all would have missed out on had a caution been thrown prematurely.

• NASCAR is always saying they don’t want to throw the yellow because it will impact the end of the race. Well, by them not throwing the yellow it impacted it. It seems like there is something clouding their vision lately of making the right calls.

• The drivers almost to a man said that they couldn’t see the oil. If they can’t, how would NASCAR see it? I think that by the time the driver complaints over the radio reached NASCAR, it was too late to stop the race. The best driver won the race, in my view.

• The “that was racing the way it should be” was for the skill of the three drivers — they were very entertaining and put on a good show. But I do think that NASCAR should have heard the drivers complaining of oil. There were lots of comments on Twitter and in-car radios, so (NASCAR) should have known. While it was exciting and fun, it put people in danger. I think we are only talking about the excitement because no one got hurt, but it was lucky that no one did. If we had had the same end to the race that we had last year with a big giant wreck, and if someone had gotten hurt, the “excitement” wouldn’t have been what we talked about on Monday. Shame on NASCAR for not better protecting the drivers.

• As much as I hate it when NASCAR throws bogus debris cautions, a caution for oil at the end was necessary. When oil on the track affects drivers’ finishes and has such substantial impact on the points, something needs to be put in place so it does not happen again. That said, the finish from an action perspective was great. Great car control, great racing — but it is almost invalidated because of the oil that created it.

• So, nobody saw the oil, what were they supposed to do, stop the race because it seemed like something might be slippery due to people spinning out? That happens sometimes in racing. It’s not necessarily because of something on the track. If they start micro-managing split-second moments at the end of races, NASCAR is dead on arrival.

• NASCAR was in a no-win situation. By the time everyone realized what was going on, the white flag had flown. If NASCAR had flown the caution after that, then they would have gotten crucified for not letting the race finish as it would have ended under caution.

• Everyone, including the drivers talking about the oil, said you couldn’t SEE the oil. If that’s the case, then why would NASCAR throw the caution? I believe NASCAR when they said the on-track officials didn’t see anything so they didn’t throw the yellow. Lastly, if the oil was THAT bad, wouldn’t a lot more of the drivers have spun out? Jeff Gordon aside, most of the guys completed the last lap just fine, thank you.

• The end of the race was just silly. NASCAR is supposed to offer real racing, not sliding around like a demolition derby.

• I’m somewhat glad NASCAR chose to follow the old dictum “Leave well enough alone.” Had the outcome been different, I’m certain to have complained with greater vigor.

Dodge is leaving NASCAR after this season. Does it matter to you?

50.3 percent said No
49.7 percent said Yes

What Fan Council members said:
• I really don’t care for Dodge, however, competition amongst the manufacturers is part of what makes the sport great and the money they bring to the sport leads to development of new technologies. I hope Dodge is able to put something together that they can be competitive with and return in 2014.

• Sad to see Dodge go away but I am not biased toward one manufacturer or another. I pull for drivers who race, not corporations.

• I think it is sad that the only two American manufacturers in NASCAR are Ford and Chevy. I have been a fan since way back when all manufacturers (I remember the Matador!) were racing. It added a lot more to the race and manufacturer loyalty actually meant something. NASCAR has its own self to blame for all the rule changes, and the so-called “Car of Tomorrow.” The only thing left to pull for is decals. I’m glad to see the new car changes coming next year and hope it improve things.

• Nope! I have driven a Ford and now own a Chevy so I’m not that worried about Dodge dropping out. Now if we could just get Toyota out so we can once again call it “The Great AMERICAN Sport”…

• Not really. I could give a rip about manufacturers. I have, however, wondered why Nissan isn’t in NASCAR. And frankly, I’d like to see “stock” cars for other manufacturers (i.e., BMW, VW) compete in NASCAR.

• Dodge is my favorite manufacturer in the sport and the Challenger and 2013 Charger are two of the best looking cars I’ve seen in the sport and I’ll be disappointed to not see them again — or in the case of the Charger, never get to see it. I think they could have taken a mid-level team like a Furniture Row or Front Row and given them solid support and made them a contending team.

• I’d rather have every manufacturer be represented strongly at some level, but I’d rather see no Dodges than see a half-hearted effort with a third-level team. Besides, how would Dodge even know how good they were if, say, Front Row Motorsports was their flagship team?

• If it does not make good sense for Dodge to spend millions in NASCAR with little return, they should keep their money and get out. It does not bother me that Dodge is leaving with three other strong manufacturers left in the sport.

• It’s a very bad sign for NASCAR, and that matters to me.

• Sad to see an American manufacturer leave the sport. I just hope it doesn’t lead to another foreign manufacturer.

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

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

<p> Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council weighs in on all the happenings at Watkins Glen — from the racing action to whether NASCAR should have thrown a caution on the race's final lap.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - 15:11
Path: /nascar/nascar-horsepower-rankings-10

1. Jimmie Johnson  Once an Achilles heel, Johnson rolled to his fourth consecutive road course top 10 with a third at Watkins Glen. In the process, he vaulted to the top of the championship point standings. Last week: 1

2. Brad Keselowski  Dating back to his Kentucky win in late June, Keselowski has racked up six straight finishes of ninth or better — including a runner-up finish at the Glen that will be talked about for quite some time. Last week: 4

3. Matt Kenseth  An eighth at the Glen was his best road result since another eighth, which came at Sonoma in June 2008. The timing couldn’t have been better, as Kenseth sits two points behind Johnson in the standings. Last week: 3

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Tried his best to not throw NASCAR under the bus for the no-call for oil on the track at the Glen. Try as he might, he didn’t do a very good job. Last week: 2

5. Greg Biffle  Slowly (and very quietly) making himself a major player in the championship race. His sixth at the Glen moved him to within one point of Johnson at the top of the standings. Last week: 8

6. Kasey Kahne  His wild card position is looking stronger each week, as Kahne sits 11th in the standings with a pair of wins. And the Hendrick engines and chassis aren’t hurting, either. Last week: 9

7. Jeff Gordon  The hot streak comes crashing down at the Glen for Gordon, who now sits 10 points behind Ryan Newman for the second wild card Chase spot. Last week: 7

8. Tony Stewart  Once the man to beat in Watkins Glen, when he won five events from 2002-09, Stewart has showings of 27th and 19th the last two visits. This is a hard team to figure. Last week: 6

9. Denny Hamlin  Hamlin has five finishes of 25th or worse in the last eight races, so he may not deserve this ranking. However, those two wins on his scorecard are hard to dismiss. Last week: 5

10. Clint Bowyer  Couldn’t follow up his road win in Sonoma with another at the Glen, but a fourth-place run was impressive, considering the battle royale that was going on at the front of the field. Last week: 11

<p> Once again, Jimmie Johnson leads the way in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 - 18:50
Path: /nascar/nascar-news-notes-week-1

Buoyed by his victory at Watkins Glen on Sunday, Marcos Ambrose said the goal is quite simple for the next four races as he and his team vie for a wild card spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.

“Our focus has to be being aggressive on our strategy, being aggressive with the car and me on the race track being aggressive to try to get that next win because without that we’re going to be racing for 15th or 16th in the championship and that’s not what we’re after,” Ambrose said in a teleconference with reporters Tuesday.

Ambrose ranks fifth in the wild card standings with only the top two getting into the Chase. Kasey Kahne currently holds one wild card spot with two wins while Ryan Newman holds the other spot by a slim margin. Newman has one win and leads Kyle Busch, who also has a single victory, by six points. Jeff Gordon, who has one win, is 10 points behind Newman. Ambrose is 44 points behind Newman, thus Ambrose needs a second victory to have a shot at a wild card berth.

“There’s no easier formula than if you’re not first, you’re last,” Ambrose said. “That’s the way we’re approaching this weekend and the next three. We have to go out there on full attack mode.”

The one benefit for Ambrose is that the series is heading to Michigan this weekend where he won the pole in June and finished ninth, so he has shown an ability to run well there but will have to be markedly better to score his first career oval win in the Cup series.

NEARING 100  Although the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has only 38 races (36 points races and two exhibition races), Tony Stewart will run in nearly 100 races this year. He’s boosting that total with a number of sprint car races at dirt tracks — where he spent much of his early days in racing.

“I feel like the more time I spend in a race car the better it’s making me as a driver,” says Stewart, who has won a pair of World of Outlaw sprint car races this year. “Everybody kind of has that feeling that you’ve got to get away from it at some point and recharge your batteries, but that does recharge my batteries.

“If we don’t get rained out here these next couple of weeks we are going to be right around 95 races at the end of the year that I’m going to run. It’s going to be a full schedule for sure but it’s a lot of fun. It’s one of the most fun years I’ve ever had in a race car.”

Stewart was the first driver in USAC history to sweep its top three series in the same year, winning titles in the midget, sprint car and Silver Crown divisions in 1995. He admits going back and forth between sprint cars and his Cup car is not much of an adjustment for him with his schedule.

“I’ve run I think 40 races already this year with it so it’s a lot easier for me to adapt because I’m doing it so much,’’ he explains. “It is hard. That is probably the hardest two cars to try to go back and forth between because their handling characteristics and the physics of them. It doesn’t take Kasey (Kahne) as long as he likes to explain to you. He goes out and kicks butt with it too. It would take guys awhile to go from that type of car to here, just like it would take time for anybody that runs a Cup car to go over there and run those cars.”

LOOKING AHEAD  After this weekend’s race at Michigan, the Cup Series heads to Bristol where the top lane has been altered to narrow the racing grooves and get cars closer together on the track.

So, what it will be like? It’s something Martin Truex Jr. admits he’s been thinking about.

“I'm interested to see what it's like,” Truex says. “The last few races there, I've ran second and third — pretty much ran the extreme high side, which has been ground away. I'm not really looking forward to finding out if it's going to be that much worse. Guys seem to run the middle of the race track and we were able to run the middle.

“I think it's going to be different because that extreme high side is not going to have the speed it's had in the past few years. I think we'll have to adjust our setup a little bit and work on some things.”

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long talks Marcos Ambrose's Chase chances, Tony Stewart's grueling racing schedule, the "new" groove at Bristol and Carl Edwards' Michigan run.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 - 18:10
Path: /nascar/ambrose-wins-watkin-glen

Defending Watkins Glen race-winner Marcos Ambrose entered the Sprint Cup Series’ Finger Lakes 355 as the odds-on favorite to win. And Ambrose, who also has three Nationwide Series victories at the Glen, didn’t disappoint.

The Australia native with an extensive background in Sports Car racing used every bit of his expertise, capping a wild last-lap battle with Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch to give Richard Petty Motorsports its first win since this same race last season.

What made Ambrose’s performance all the more impressive was that he emerged the victor with an oil slick covering the track. Navigating through the oil — as well as a couple off-road excursions — arguably made the conclusion at the Glen the most memorable of the season.

“It was absolute chaos at the end,” Ambrose said. “The three cars were very evenly matched. Kyle had a head start on us there. I was trying to chase him. I burnt my tires off, really burnt off the brakes. I thought, ‘I’m going to be stuck here in second.’

“All of a sudden I’m starting to slide out on oil — couldn’t work out where it was coming from, if it was from my car or on the track. I saw Kyle backing up to us. It was absolutely crazy at the end.”

Busch led the trio to the white flag with a comfortable cushion. However, as the leader, he was the first of the three to hit the oil dropped from Bobby Labonte’s wounded Toyota. Busch quickly let up as his car skidded through the 11-turn road course. Keselowski got to the bumper of the No. 18 Toyota and the two made contact in Turn 2, sending Busch sideways and, ultimately, to a seventh-place finish.

The drama was just getting started, though, as Ambrose and Keselowski duked it out for the top spot over the final nine turns as both fought slick spots all over the track — at one point, both machines careened off course, sliding through the grass but staying in the gas and keeping both cars straight.

As the two came out of the seventh turn, Ambrose tagged Keselowski’s bumper and pulled to the inside. He won the drag race from there, out-muscling Keselowski’s Dodge to the checkered flag.

Despite finishing second in heartbreaking fashion, Keselowski could appreciate the spirited duel.

“I just think this is what racing should be,” he said. “I think this is what the fans come to expect out of NASCAR racing and why it grew to the popularity that it did.”

Ambrose was still elated later, when he spoke of the oil slick that made for an adventurous final 2.45 miles.

“You couldn’t see where the oil was at,” Ambrose explained. “If it was a black streak, it would be OK, (but) it was almost like a fine spray. I was the first one to start sliding on it. For whatever reason, my line, I slid into Turn 1. I thought I was blowing up — I thought it was my oil.

“Not until I saw Brad and Kyle sliding as well, I thought, ‘OK, there’s something on the track and we’re going to have to deal with it.”

Busch went directly to the NASCAR hauler after the race, presumably to ask why a caution wasn’t thrown on the final lap when there was obviously a substance that hindered the racing.

“I have nothing good to say,” was all Busch would offer concerning his meeting with the sanctioning body.

Other drivers had issues with the lack of a caution, as well, most notably Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.

“There was just oil everywhere from somebody,” Earnhardt said. “You couldn’t see it so you didn't know where to run. I saw the leaders were coming and I was just trying to get out of the way. They were in oil and I was in oil and then I watched everything that happened in front of me. It was a bad deal, I think.”

NASCAR didn’t share the drivers’ view.

“We didn’t have any reports of oil,” Cup series director John Darby said. “The only corner-worker reports were that the 47 (Labonte) was smoking. They were asked repeatedly if he was dropping everything. The report back to us was: ‘No, Tower. The track’s clear.’

“On the last restart, where the whole field of cars goes all the way around the race track and one car spins out and the rest of them are racing, it was obvious to me it wasn’t that bad.”

by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

<p> Marcos Ambrose beat Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch in a wild last-lap scramble to win NASCAR's Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen.</p>
Post date: Monday, August 13, 2012 - 14:19
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-watkins-glen

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the Northeast this weekend as it hits Watkins Glen International for the Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen. The second of two road course races this season, teams will have to adjust to turning both left and right, carrying high speeds and preparing for heavy braking with multiple elevation changes and opposite-side pit stops.

Always a challenge, some in the garage have excelled at the road course events while others have struggled mightily. While road racing experience and an open-wheel background may have made a significant difference in years past, the level of competition has evened out of late.

Track position, however, has always been a major factor in deciding a winner at Watkins Glen. Starting up front and staying there is one of the biggest keys to a successful day at the Glen. In the 29 Cup races here, 19 have been won from the top-5 starting spots — so pay attention Saturday’s qualifying.

Last year, race winner Marcos Ambrose used both road course experience and a solid starting spot to earn his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory. Always one of the strongest drivers at Watkins Glen, Ambrose leads the field in terms of average finish, with an impressive 2.3.

In fact, in his four starts at the Glen, Ambrose has failed to finish worse than third. In addition, the Australian-native has won three of the four Nationwide Series races he has run.

Given his prior success at Watkins Glen, Ambrose is definitely among the top 5 favorites in this week's fantasy outlook, but he is not the favorite. That belongs to a determined, hard-nosed, skilled road course driver known as “Rowdy.”

While Ambrose scored the victory in last year's event, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch that led the most laps (49 of 92). Although he led the field to the green flag on a final green-white-checker finish, Busch was muscled out of the way by Ambrose and Brad Keselowski, eventually settling in at the third spot. With one of the best cars that day, the third-place finish was a tough pill to swallow for the 2008 Watkins Glen winner.

Heading into this weekend's race, Busch is in need of not only a solid finish, but a win. After a disappointing 33rd-place finish last weekend at Pocono, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota is currently fourth in the wild card standings behind Kasey Kahne (2 wins), Jeff Gordon (1) and Ryan Newman (1).

Following the wreck at Pocono, Busch and his Dave Rogers-led team know if they want to be a part of the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup they have to win their way in. One of the most dangerous teams when it comes to recording a string of wins, the JGR driver admits their season struggles give them little hope. Despite having one win, six top 5s and nine top 10s, Busch also has eight finishes of 23rd or worse, including three DNFs.

Yet, if there was one driver and team that could turn their luck around in the final five regular-season races, it’s this one. Already a former winner at the Glen, Busch has an average finish of 9.3 (fourth best) at Watkins Glen and has finished in the top 10 in six of his seven Cup starts.

With playoff implications on the line and one of his best tracks in front of him, look for Busch and the No. 18 team to employ the right strategy and have a strong enough car to best the rest.

Among those Busch will have to beat is last week's winner at Pocono, Jeff Gordon.

Now in the thick of the Chase wild card battle after winning the rain-shortened race Sunday afternoon, Gordon has momentum on his side and is eager to celebrate his 20th year in the Sprint Cup Series by making the Chase. Although he admits the No. 24 team has struggled to find speed over the past decade at the Glen, that momentum and confidence can go a long way for a driver that could use another win in the next five races.

Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell gives his weekly fantasy NASCAR tips for Sunday's running of the Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen International.</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 9, 2012 - 13:37
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-21

Throughout the Olympics one often hears about a “Dream Team’’ in one sport or another. So what about NASCAR?

Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council were asked if they were an owner with four teams and could pick any Cup driver in any era, who would be the four for their Dream Team? Their picks proved quite interesting.

They also debated Jeff Gordon’s chances of making the Chase and Sunday’s Pocono race. Here’s what Fan Council members had to say:

Who is on your NASCAR Dream Team?

74.3 percent selected Dale Earnhardt Sr.
58.9 percent selected Jimmie Johnson
43.2 percent selected Tony Stewart
38.7 percent selected Richard Petty

33.2 percent selected Jeff Gordon
23.6 percent selected David Pearson
18.8 percent selected Kyle Busch
15.1 percent selected Cale Yarborough
10.6 percent selected Tim Richmond
10.3 percent selected Dale Earnhardt Jr.
9.6 percent selected Darrell Waltrip
7.5 percent selected Davey Allison
6.8 percent selected Junior Johnson
6.5 percent selected Matt Kenseth
No other drivers received more than 5 percent of the vote

What Fan Council members said:
• Dale Earnhardt for sheer tenacity and stubborn will. Jeff Gordon because he’s won championships with multiple crew chiefs. Cale Yarborough because he is the only driver who has REALLY won three championships back-to-back-to-back (sorry, I'm not counting Chase trophies — that is over 10 races not a full season.) David Pearson because he has an amazing winning record while rarely running a full schedule.

• I would want a team deep with knowledge, and someone to groom. That is why I picked Kyle Busch. Could you imagine Busch with the tutelage of Petty, Earnhardt and Jaws?

• Tony, Kyle, Dale (Sr.), and David Pearson. That's a winning team for certain! Four guys who could win in anything they stepped foot in. And can you imagine what the conversations and fights in the hauler would be like? Woohooo!

• The King: Because he is The King with wins that would guarantee me sponsors and TV “face time.” But also because he cares about the fans to a legendary level and would bring me a very loyal fan base. Smoke: Because if it has wheels and I need it to cross the finish line first, I want his butt in that seat. Curtis Turner: If he couldn't swing deals to get sponsorship money for me, he'd come up with some scheme to get someone else to give me the money. And he had no fear when it came to racing. Bill Elliott: Another great racer who took care of his cars more than the other three! Popular, a great back story, media friendly and sponsor sensitive.

• I picked DW, Tim Richmond, Kyle Busch and Smoke. All four can wheel anything with tires, and do it well. I went with an old-school/new-school theme. I see all four of these guys sort of being one in the same in their respective periods. There is enough talent there to fill Lake Lloyd but the egos and attitudes would be the only problem!

• Big E, Smoke, Busch and Junior Johnson. Give 'em a big slice of badass!

• Had to go with Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty, just because they are the best drivers this sport has seen. Then I went with two darkhorse choices: First, Terry Labonte just because he is one of the most consistent and level-headed drivers the sport has seen, and can definitely be a true asset on a Dream Team. Then I went with Buddy Baker because he has driven so many types of vehicles, not just NASCAR, and has a true need for speed and aggressive style that could help win in a style like in an Olympic-like format.

• I tried to go with some from a different era. So I went with Davey Allison, who let's face it, if he were still alive, would have been a great champion and made some great stats. Jimmie Johnson — five championships all in a row, people think he's vanilla, but he'll blow your socks off. Enough said. Dale Earnhardt — people feared him on the track and he’s a seven-time champion. Enough said. And Cale, first driver to win three championships (consecutively) and one hell of a driver.

• I chose The Intimidator because he knew what he needed from a car at all times and could rattle the best out there. He always gave 100 percent and hated losing. Seven titles and 76 wins along with a strong fan base (helps sales) would give my team a strong boost. Smoke has won in multiple forms of racing and is one of the best stock car drivers in recent memory. I would take Smoke in a one-race, winner-take-all battle over anyone. Pearson is a confident driver, but he will sneak up on you. Anyone that can be as dominant at Darlington and the big tracks like the Silver Fox will be on my team. Ned Jarrett is humble, well-spoken and drove as hard as he needed to. He would save the equipment and drive intelligently. I like the balance of my team and feel as though it could stand up against any team.

• Obviously, the best three drivers ever: Dale Sr., the King, and Five-Time. For my fourth driver, I went with Tim Richmond. Had he not be taken from us far too early, Dale Sr. would not have seven titles.

• This was one of the toughest questions ever! To put together my Dream Team I not only took into consideration talent but drivers who would complement each other and help each other be better than their raw talent alone. In my opinion, the all-time, all-around leadership of Richard Petty, the take-no-prisoners attitude of Dale Earnhardt Sr., the steadying even-keel resolve of Jeff Gordon and the feisty drive-the-wheels-off-anything-with-superb-car-control of Kyle Busch would blend perfectly, creating an unbeatable team.

• Most importantly, I would want Chad Knaus, Ray Evernham, Smokey Yunick and Dale Inman as my Dream Team’s crew chiefs.

<p> In the spirit of the Olympics, Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council discuss NASCAR's Dream Team, grade Pocono and talk about Jeff Gordon's Chase chances.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 - 10:29
Path: /nascar/nascar-news-notes-week-0

Unable to find the right partners, sponsors and teams to put together an effort for next season, Dodge announced Tuesday that it will withdraw from NASCAR after this year.

Dodge was left without a Sprint Cup team for 2013 after Penske Racing announced earlier this year it would move to Ford next season.

Ralph Gilles, President and CEO of Street and Racing Technology Brand and Motorsports, likened Dodge’s challenges to a puzzle not fitting together.

“Everything from the driver selection, the teams, the shops, the engine, you name it, it’s a very, very complex situation,” Gilles said.

“We don’t want to just show up when we go racing, we want to win. It’s a difficult deal. To replace Roger (Penske) is not easy. It took him several years to get to the level he’s at. These things take a lot of time to develop. 

“I think if you talked to Roger, he’d be the first one to tell you that this wasn’t in his crystal ball, signing up with Ford at the beginning of last year. Ford has been very aggressive, trying to get critical mass in the sport with new launches coming up. That’s their strategy and we’re not in a position to do the same thing. There’s really no one to do it with. The game of musical chairs in NASAR is a real deal. It’s shrinking capacity.”

Gilles said that time ran out on his organization to find the right situation. With the sport’s top teams locked into contracts with Ford, Chevrolet or Toyota, it meant Dodge would have go with a mid-level or low-level team or bring in a new owner. 

“Literally, my staff is exhausted from flying all over ... meeting with teams and putting together deals and trying to find the right drivers and everything,” Gilles said. “At the same time, trying to find new people, incremental people to come to the sport because, again, it’s really tight nowadays, the sponsors are just not as flush as they used to be. We had our hopes up, just like everybody else.

“We didn’t want this day to come but it has. We’re not excited about this but it’s the reality of where we’re at right now.”

When Dodge returned to NASCAR in 2001, car owner Ray Evernham’s teams were supported by the Dodge Dealers as sponsors. Gilles said that notion was examined.

“In the past we had dealers literally providing a portion of every car sales to the sponsorship of the team,” Gilles said. “That was a pretty exotic setup. We did think about that and some dealers offered that up. But the issue wasn’t that. It’s really how do you compress time and set up a team from scratch, basically, at the highest level of racing in less than seven months.”

Since it’s return to ’01 return to Cup, Dodge has won 55 races and has been represented in the Chase seven of the eight years. Brad Keselowski is on pace to put Dodge back in the Chase this year with Penske Racing.

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long reports on Dodge leaving NASCAR, AJ Allmendinger's Adderall claim and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s take on Watkins Glen.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 - 16:56
Path: /nascar/nascar-horsepower-rankings-9

1. Jimmie Johnson   Although a flat tire foiled Johnson’s hopes for a second straight victory, it’s pretty obvious who the best team on the circuit is these days. Last week: 1

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.   See: Johnson, Jimmie, then substitute “second best” for “best” and “transmission” for “flat tire.” The Pocono troubles won’t derail this bunch much, if at all. Last week: 2

3. Matt Kenseth   Said Kenseth of the final, fateful restart: “He (Johnson) just drove in incredibly far and spun out. Maybe he had a flat, but I am not so sure about that.” Not a happy camper. Last week: 3

4. Brad Keselowski  Played the off-cync pit strategy game for a second straight week. And for a second straight, came up short. But hey, when you have three wins, you’re free to give it a go. Last week: 6

5. Denny Hamlin   Was on his way to a third consecutive top-10 finish until Kenseth took a hard left directly in front of him. Was later released from the infield car center on Sunday after experiencing abdominal pain. Last week: 4

6. Tony Stewart  Drove from 28th to fifth at Pocono, which is no easy feat. Has advanced to sixth in the standings on the strength of four consecutive top 12s. Last week: 5

7. Jeff Gordon   When the circuit last visited Pocono in June, Gordon sat 22nd in points with zero wins and three top 10s. After its return trip, he sits 13th in points with a win and nine top 10s. Last week: 9

8. Greg Biffle   Lined up fourth for the final restart at Pocono which, in hindsight, wasn’t a good place to be. Although he was shuffled back to 15th, he now finds himself only six points out of the championship lead. Last week: 8

<p> Jeff Gordon is making a move, but Jimmie Johnson still sits atop Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 - 10:00
Path: /nascar/triumph-and-tragedy-nascar

The Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway was dominated, once again, by Jimmie Johnson, yet the conclusion of the race hatched more storylines than one could count:

“Johnson blows lead, hands win to Jeff Gordon.”

“Gordon breaks 31-race winless skid in unlikely fashion.”

“Gordon, Gustafson celebrate wins and birthdays at Pocono.”

“Gordon in Chase wild card contention once again.”

“Earnhardt drops transmission, retains points lead.”

Yet, moments after the event ended on lap 98 of the scheduled 160-lap distance due to an intense thunderstorm that blanketed the area, one storyline put all others into perspective.

Brian F. Zimmerman, 41, of Moosic, Penn., a father of two, was killed when he was struck by lightning in the facility’s parking lot. The fatality was reported by Pocono track president Brandon Igdalsky on Sunday, nearly three hours after the race.

Nine others were also injured in the strike. Four victims were taken to Lehigh Valley Health Network. As of Monday morning, one has been discharged and three remain in stable condition. The other five were treated and released at various hospitals in the area on Sunday.

According to The Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., Zimmerman’s vehicle was struck while he was standing next to the open back hatch. Paramedics were unable to revive him, and he was pronounced dead on arrival at Pocono Medical Center in East Stroudsburg, Penn.

Brian Neudorff, a certified broadcast meteorologist with KMVT-TV in Twin Falls, Idaho, and popular NASCAR Twitter contributor who updates fans of raceday weather conditions, constructed a rough timeline of the severe weather event.

According to Neurdorff, the National Weather Service issued a warning for the track at 4:12 p.m. EST. Despite lightning in the area, NASCAR did not red flag the race — halting all on-track action — until 4:43 pm. EST when rain began to fall.

The severe threat was relayed to fans at the track via public address system when the race was red flagged — warning them to take shelter and evacuate the grandstands — although many with radio, scanner and/or social media access were made aware of the potential for dangerous conditions well before then.

As race controller, it is NASCAR’s call to stop an event for any reason. It is the track’s responsibility to warn fans and coordinate evacuation efforts if inclement weather is threatening.

“We are deeply saddened that a fan has died and others were injured by lightning strikes following today’s race at Pocono,” NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said. “Our thoughts are with them as well as those affected by this unfortunate accident.”

Pocono Raceway released a statement on Monday, stating, in part that, “We work in conjunction with NASCAR regarding safety of fans, teams and other attendees throughout the course of our race weekends. Additionally, we are in constant communication with local and national agencies regarding weather conditions and emergency services.

“At approximately 5:01 p.m. EST, the first lightning strike occurred on property inside our Grandstand Parking area, located near Gate 5A. A Pocono Raceway Grandstand Fire unit was stationed in the vicinity and witnessed the actual strike. The response was immediate as the unit reported the incident to our control tower and advised spectators were injured. CPR was started immediately to Mr. Zimmerman by a friend on the scene.

“We are in the process up establishing a Memorial Fund is for victims of this incident.”

by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:


<p> Jeff Gordon scored the win in Sunday's NASCAR Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway, but the triumph was overshadowed by tragedy, when a fan was killed after being struck by lightning in the facility's parking lot.</p>
Post date: Monday, August 6, 2012 - 14:56
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-pocono-0

This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the Pocono Mountains for the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway. When the series last hit the 2.5-mile oval in June, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Joey Logano that went to Victory Lane, leading 49 of the 160 laps and moving veteran Mark Martin out of the lead in the closing laps.

As the series heads back to Pocono, Logano is back in the rumor mill with his name being mentioned as a potential candidate for the No. 22 Penske Racing ride for 2013. While said rumor mill churns and silly season heats up, it is important to remain focused on the job at hand, and that is winning races — and for you, your weekly fantasy match up.

Last weekend at Indianapolis, it was five-time champion Jimmie Johnson that put on a dominant performance to earn his fourth Brickyard 400 trophy. The No. 48 car was the class of the field all day, with few cars even in the same zip code (to borrow a phrase).

This week, Johnson leads all drivers in average finish (8.8) and has two victories at Pocono. While he failed to lead a lap in June, the five-time series champion finished fourth. With the team looking as if it is rounding into championship form, it will be hard to pick against Johnson.

However, the two-time Pocono winner is not this week's fantasy favorite (although he is among the top five). That honor goes to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After his fourth-place finish last weekend at Indianapolis, Earnhardt took over the points lead from Matt Kenseth. Leading the championship standings for the first time since 2004, Earnhardt is enjoying his best season in years, but is still hungry for wins before the Chase field is reset for the final 10 races of the season.

In June, Earnhardt Jr. led 36 of the 160 laps at Pocono before finishing a disappointing eighth. One of the strongest cars that afternoon, crew chief Steve Letarte called his driver to pit road late in the race, concerned about making it to the end on fuel. When Logano and others on the same strategy stretched it to the end, Earnhardt understood it was too early in the season to start taking gambles and losing a host of points.

With six races left before the Chase field is set, Earnhardt is now in a position to gamble for wins. Hungry for victories and continuing his consistent ways, look for Earnhardt — who has finishes of sixth, ninth and eighth in his last three Pocono starts — to score his second victory of the season.

Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Tony Stewart 

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkorses for your Fantasy NASCAR team as the series heads to Pocono Raceway for the Pennsylvania 400.</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 2, 2012 - 12:43
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-20

Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead at Indianapolis, giving his fans something to cheer about in a season where there have been plenty of highlights. Although the points will be reset at the start of the Chase, the question becomes can Earnhardt continue his successful season and win the championship?

That was among the questions Backseat Drivers Fan Council members were asked about last weekend’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Here’s what they had to say about those issues and more:

Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the championship?
Earnhardt took the points lead at Indianapolis, the first time he’s led the points since late in the 2004 season. Fan Council members were asked if they thought he would win the championship this year:

64.5 percent said No
35.5 percent said Yes

What Fan Council members said:
• Even though I've been an Earnhardt fan all my life and have been hoping that Junior would finally win a Cup championship, I don't think this is the year. First, Jimmie Johnson served notice (Sunday) that anyone winning the championship this year will have to beat him to do it. Next, even though Junior is perhaps the most consistent driver in the sport this year, consistency, without wins won't get the job done. I think he'll win again. Ultimately, though, I think 5-Time becomes 6-Time. Jimmie is just too good.

• One win in four years. Letarte's track record in the Chase is pretty poor, especially when he got used up by Knaus in 2007. Earnhardt's record in the Chase isn't much better. There's no value in leading the points before the Chase.

• It's hard to pinpoint just why I don't think he will win. I think it's a combination of a lack of complete faith in Steve Letarte's ability to close the deal along with the feeling the luck he's had will not last. On the other hand, I do see maturity in Junior that just might supersede everything else.

• This has been his most consistent year. Consistency wins championships.

• He has yet to convince me he has the killer instinct to go out and drive beyond the car to go out and win more races and win the Chase.

• As a Junior fan, I'm just worried the team is gonna choke.

• As Steve Letarte said in a pre-race interview, “Give FIVE reasons why they won’t AND I’ll give ya FIVE reasons why they can.”

• Dale Jr. does not have the mental/emotional fortitude to win the championship. He has a tendency to get focused on and bothered by things that distract him. I believe Steve Letarte will give him the cars, and his crew will give him the performances necessary to win a championship, but I believe Junior will get distracted by something the media says, the fans want (or are saying) and he will lose enough focus to lose the championship. I believe he will learn that lesson and be a stronger contender for the championship the next time he's in the position.

• He has momentum behind him, a great owner and crew chief and crew. Plus he has Junior Nation behind him. It's his to lose.

• Even though he doesn't have the most wins this season has been the most consistent — but that isn't going to help with the last 10 races. Guys like Johnson and Stewart are going to step up and start rattling off wins and top 5s in the last 10 races. If Dale Jr. wins a couple more races before the Chase I would change my answer.

• Sorry Junior Nation, he's not going to win it. It will take multiple wins in the Chase to win it and his team is more about consistency. I also don't think he has the killer instinct it takes to win it. Until someone else wins one, I'm not sure anybody but Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart can win the title. I think it comes down to those two guys.

• Most consistent driver all year. He will win another race this year and capture that elusive championship. He is surviving the summer months well, where he typically does poor, which indicates that come fall, he will excel. I’ve never seen Junior this confident, mature and consistent.

• While he is my driver, I don't see domination. I see speed and consistency from the 88 team — and they belong in the Chase — but the winner of the Chase will dominate throughout it.

• I have to answer “yes.” I am a Junior fan and I have to have that faith. I am scared to even think it though, for fear that I will jinx him and Junior Nation! Regardless, I am so proud of his (and the entire 88 team’s) performance this year. BRAVO!

<p> Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council grades NASCAR's visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, ESPN's broadcast of it and ponders whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. can win the Sprint Cup title in 2012.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 - 13:31
Path: /nascar/keselowski-could-different-tires-improve-racing-nascar

Brad Keselowski isn’t afraid to question why something is or isn’t done in NASCAR. He’s inquisitive, reflective and thoughtful. Some ideas lead to fruitful discussions and some don’t.

Either way, Keselowski looks ahead, never satisfied with what is happening. It doesn’t mean he has the right answers for every issue or that every idea is wrong. What he does is make others ponder issues he raises.

Keselowski looks at the racing in NASCAR and knows it can be better. Certainly many fans say the same thing. But how? Aerodynamics dictate so much about the sport. So what then?

How about the tires? Keselowski wonders if it would be better for NASCAR to consider a soft and hard compound similar to what is done in Formula 1 and the Izod IndyCar Series, which uses two different tire compounds at road and street course events

Here’s how Keselowski explains his notion:

“I think our sport has evolved to where aerodynamics are generating the majority of the grip in the racecars, which naturally creates an issue when we’re in a pack to where the guy that’s in the front has a supreme advantage over the guys that are in the back — and that goes against I think what we all consider quality racing.

“As a sport we have a decision to make, we can either step backwards and remove aerodynamics from racing — and I think we all know that it’s impossible to really move backwards because we’ll keep pushing and we’ll find it back as we did with this new car.”

Keslowski notes that when the current Cup car was introduced in 2007 it produced about 1,700 pounds of downforce. Teams have refined the car to where it produces about 2,200 pounds now, an increase of more than 20 percent he notes.

“The teams persevered and we will with the money and resources that we dedicate,’’ Keselowski said. “So as you look forward to the issue of how to make the racing better, you can try to take a step backwards and remove aerodynamics or we can try to take a step forward and include new ideas that improve the quality of the racing.

“One of the easiest is to look over at what F1 has with their soft and hard (tire) options that create the possibility for coming in (pitting) at the end of the race and changing compounds and overcoming the aerodynamic deficiencies of the cars that run toward the back of the pack, and I think that will improve quality of the racing for us all.”

Interesting concept. Can it work in NASCAR since nearly all of its races are on ovals as opposed to Formula 1 and IndyCar?

Not everyone is convinced.

Mark Martin calls Keselowski’s idea “brilliant” but he also notes it’s flawed. Martin says this reminds him too much about what happened with the tires when Goodyear and Hoosier were competing in Cup.

“You can’t fuss with the tires,” Martin says. “You’ve got the fastest tire that you can put on now. If you make them any faster, they’re dangerous.

“Brad Keselowski didn’t live the tire war. He isn’t permanently injured from that. Many of us drivers carry permanent injuries for life from that. I know the cars are better now. I know the walls are better now. We don’t need that.

“They bring the best tire they can bring and have but if you made one that was worse ... put him out on them and let’s see if he still wants them. Let’s see how he likes them.”

Jeff Burton admits that “it’s always healthy that we’re looking to improve our sport,” but he’s not convinced this is the right idea.

“I’m not a proponent nor an opponent of talking about different ways to come up with better racing,” Burton says. “I think there’s been a general consensus that Goodyear has done a really, really good job on the tire, maybe too good. Maybe the tire needs to fall off a little more so that we lose speed as the run goes on.

“Things that we can do in the sport that don’t jeopardize the integrity of the sport to make the competition better, then we always need to be looking at that. Whether the tires will do that or not, I just don’t know.”

Stu Grant, Goodyear’s general manager of global race tires, said there hasn’t been any work on such a plan.

Grant notes that tire usage in NASCAR is greater than in IndyCar and Formula 1 because there are so many more teams and that would create among many issues.

“From a logistical standpoint, there is a lot of cost associated with that for everybody in the sport, for us as well the competitors as you pass on ... all that inventory on a second set of tires,” he says.

Grant says there’s no way Goodyear could provide a softer tire than what it has.

“If I did it, they would fail,” he notes. “They would blister. They would wear out. They would lose air and we would crash. Nobody wants that.

“The only option would be to make a harder tire. In the end it’s NASCAR’s call. We’re the tire supplier. We have not had any discussion with NASCAR about that. We have not looked at that.

“We would have to make a worse tire that they would have to run. Is that something the sport wants? I’m not so sure.”

by Dustin Long
Follow Dustin on Twitter:


<p> Could NASCAR take a page from Formula 1 and IndyCar's playbook and institute hard- and soft-compound tires? Brad Keselowski thinks it could work while others, including Mark Martin and Jeff Burton, aren't so sure.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 - 19:09
Path: /nascar/nascar-horsepower-rankings-8

1. Jimmie Johnson (—)  Johnson has had two crashes in 2012, resulting in 42nd- and 36th-place finishes and one engine failure, leading to a 35th-place run. Otherwise, he’s been 12th or better every week.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (—)  Junior has been nearly as good as his Hendrick teammate through 20 races, with 17th- and 23rd-place runs the only blemishes outside of the top 15.

3. Matt Kenseth (—)  Even before a crash ended his day in Indy, Kenseth wasn’t having a banner performance. How will this team handle its driver’s lame duck status down the stretch?

4. Denny Hamlin (+1)  Hamlin is certainly back to his contender status, with two wins on the season and three finishes of sixth or better in the last four races (including a near-miss in Loudon).

5. Tony Stewart (-1)  Stewart somehow snuck into the top 10 by day’s end at Indy despite being a non-factor throughout the race. In fact, it was his worst showing (10th) at IMS since forming his own team — or a team being handed to him. Whatever.

6. Brad Keselowski (—)  Along with Hamlin, Keselowski seemed the only driver with anything for Johnson on Sunday. A slow pit stop doomed his chances and the three-time winner in 2012 settled for ninth.

7. Kasey Kahne (—)  Front-end damage to Kahne’s Chevy forced the team to play catch-up all day in Indy. A popular pre-race pick, Kasey persevered to a 12th-place showing.

8. Greg Biffle (—)  After a quiet three-race stretch where Biffle was all but invisible, he burst back onto the scene at the Brickyard with a confidence-building third-place finish. Keep an eye on him at Pocono.

9. Jeff Gordon (+1)  Time is running out for Gordon, who finds himself a distant 15th in the point standings with zero wins. Try as they might, the 24 team has been a fifth- to sixth-place car the last six weeks. Still, if he can cash in just once...

10. Clint Bowyer (-1)  Rebounded from what appeared to be some ugly sheet metal damage prior to the halfway mark at Indy to post a respectable 15th. It could’ve been worse.

<p> Jimmie Johnson tightens his grip of the top spot in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings after his win at the Brickyard.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 - 17:59
Path: /nascar/johnson-wins-brickyard

It took Jimmie Johnson only 29 laps to steer his No. 48 Chevrolet to the front of the field in Sunday’s Brickyard 400. Once there, he rarely looked back, leading 99 of the final 131 laps to score his fourth Sprint Cup Series win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Johnson, who qualified sixth, also gave Chevrolet its 10th straight win at the famed auto racing venue, while team owner Rick Hendrick scored his eighth win at IMS in NASCAR’s 19 visits.

“I knew (the) second or third lap yesterday on the track that we were going to have an awfully good chance at winning,” Johnson said of Saturday’s first practice session. “That confidence that I had helped us through practice yesterday. There were a couple moments where maybe an adjustment didn’t work and we lost a little pace, but I just had a feeling, and I just knew we were going to be fine.

“We qualified well and then went out there today and put it on them, so ... solid performance.”

Johnson beat Kyle Busch to the line by a race-record 4.758 seconds. Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 5. Johnson’s only real competition — Denny Hamlin (sixth) and Brad Keselowski (ninth) — led a total of 49 laps but faded late.

Johnson’s third win of the season ties him with Keselowski and Tony Stewart for most on the circuit.

Johnson’s previous three Brickyard wins also coincided with three of his four Cup titles (2006, ’08 and ’09).

“I feel that from a performance standpoint, we’re as strong as we’ve ever been,” Johnson said. “We’ve had issues late in a race that’s cost us track position for a variety of reasons, and that’s the part that we need to make sure is buttoned up before the Chase starts and carry that through the Chase.

“But from a performance standpoint, these are amazing racecars. We’ve made a lot of progress through the off-season and then getting started this year. I feel really good about the Chase — I’m ready for it to start.”

Johnson’s shop mate at Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr., ascended to the top of the Sprint Cup championship standings thanks to a fourth-place showing. Previous points leader, Matt Kenseth, was swept up in a wreck on lap 134 of 160 and finished 35th.

“You can't win the championship until you lead the points,” Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, said. “To lead at any time in the season, especially this late in the season, proves this team is capable of winning a championship.

“We definitely haven’t hit our stride yet. There’s still room for improvement.”

“We need to win more races,” Earnhardt added. “If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in the Chase. I don't know if finishing fourth or fifth (each week) is going to do it.”

by Matt Taliaferro
NASCAR Editor, Athlon Sports

<p> Jimmie Johnson dominated NASCAR's Brickyard 400, scoring his fourth career Sprint Cup win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.</p>
Post date: Monday, July 30, 2012 - 16:05
Path: /nascar/pennells-picks-pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-brickyard-400

After a well-deserved off week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the famed yard of bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend's Crown Royal presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard.

The annual Brickyard 400 is considered one of the most prestigious races of the season by those in the garage area. In 18 visits, 11 drivers have put their name on the winner's trophy at the famed speedway, seven of them former series champions. Winning at Indianapolis is no simple feat, and will rank among the most important victories in a driver's career.

Veteran Jeff Gordon knows just how special it is to score a victory at IMS. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won the inaugural event in 1994, and has since gone on to collect a total of four Brickyard 400 wins, the most among all Cup drivers.

In last year's event, Gordon had one of the strongest cars in the field, leading 36 of the 160 laps. While he had plenty of fuel to make it to the end, his task was to chase down leader Paul Menard, who was attempting to stretch his fuel mileage to the end. Gordon charged nearly to the back bumper of Menard's No. 27 Chevrolet, but was forced to settle for second as Menard went on to score his first career Sprint Cup Series victory.

As the season moves to Indianapolis this weekend, Gordon is mired in 17th in the series standings and running out of time if he wants to be a part of the championship battle in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. An up-and-down season has left him scratching his head for answers, it seems things have finally started to fall into place for Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led team.

Since their 35th-place showing at Darlington in May, Gordon’s No. 24 team has scored five top 10s in the last eight races — moving him from 24th in points to 17th. Headed to one of his best tracks (he holds the second-best average finish), the four-time champion is in dire need of a win. Going off their notes from last year, look for the veteran to record his name in the record books again and kiss the bricks for the fifth time.

If Gordon wants to score that all-important fifth Brickyard 400 win and join the in Chase wild card discussion, he will have to beat teammate Kasey Kahne and defending series champion Tony Stewart.

Kahne started on the outside of the front row in last year's event, led 48 laps, but was foiled in the fuel mileage gamble in the closing laps and finished 18th. This season, Kahne has been making the most of his time at Hendrick Motorsports, scoring two wins, including the last Cup Series race at Loudon two weeks ago.

While Gordon may hold the most wins at Indianapolis, Stewart holds the best average finish among active drivers (8.1). The former open-wheel star has two wins at the Brickyard and has finished inside the top 10 in nine of his 13 starts. This season Stewart and his Steve Addington-prepped team have three wins, and this organization knows how to step up when it matters most. It’s safe to say that anytime the circuit hits the brickyard, Stewart is on everyone’s radar.

Five Favorites: Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth

Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick has flown a bit under the radar thus far in the 2012 season, but that is about to change as the series heads closer to the Chase. Currently sitting sixth in the championship standings, Harvick has three top 5s and nine top 10s through the first 19 races.

The proud new father has been solidly consistent this year, finishing outside the top 20 on only two occasions. Harvick is the 2003 Brickyard 400 champion and also holds the third-best average finish (10.0) among active drivers.

Although it appears Harvick is a safe bet to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a win would go a long way when the 12-driver field is reset following Richmond in September. Look for Harvick and his Shane Wilson-led crew to contend for that win on Sunday.

Whenever any form of motorsports heads to Indianapolis, one name stands above the rest is Roger Penske. The famed team owner has a total of 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500, but is searching for his first NASCAR victory at the yard of bricks.

While the majority of attention surrounding this organization has focused on AJ Allmendinger’s failed drug test and the fallout from that announcement, Brad Keselowski is set to put the attention back where it belongs: on the track.

“It definitely gives you a sense of pride when you go to Indy as a member of Penske Racing," Keselowski said. "You look at everything Mr. Penske has been able to accomplish there in open-wheel racing. It would be one of the coolest things I could ever do in a racecar if I could get him his first win in the Brickyard 400. I really think we have a good chance to do that on Sunday.”

Keselowski is among the best in the garage at overcoming adversity and rising to the occasion at the most significant times, and this week should be no different. At the famed speedway, Keselowski holds the 10th-best average finish (14.0) and was ninth in last year's race.

With three wins to his credit in 2012, Keselowski is 10th in the championship standings, but in search of more victories. Overcoming adversity and stepping up on the sport's biggest stages are among Keselowski's most notable attributes, so look for a solid day out of the No. 2 team this weekend.

The defending Brickyard 400 winner, the aforementioned Menard, was able to score that illusive first career Sprint Cup Series victory last year by stretching his fuel mileage to the end, but result was no fluke, as he also had one of the strongest cars of the day. Only once has the defending race winner gone on to win the following year at Indianapolis (Jimmie Johnson, 2008 and ’09), but could Menard be the second?

Much like in 2011, Menard is currently on the outside of the top 10 in championship standings in 15th. With time running out before the Chase field is set, a win would once again put Menard solidly in the wild card discussion heading to Richmond.

Five Undervalued Picks: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer

It is not often that a former race winner at a track is a darkhorse pick, but considering the type of season Jamie McMurray and his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, are having, it is hard not to consider them as such.

McMurray, the 2010 Brickyard 400 winner, has the seventh-best average finish (13.1) among active drivers with one win, three top 5s and five top 10s. McMurray was fourth in last year's event, but has finished outside the top 15 on four occasions.

This season, however, both McMurray and Montoya have been out to lunch. After a host of internal changes during the offseason, the expectations were high for team owner Chip Ganassi, however his cars currently sit 20th and 21st in the championship standings.

Of course, this is Indy, and much like fellow team owner Penske, Ganassi expects to run well here. Montoya has been a contender throughout the years in the Brickyard 400, only to have mistakes on pit road and accidents ruin solid runs. In fact, aside from finishing second in his first attempt at Indy in a stock car in 2007, Montoya has finished 28th or worse in three of his five starts.

This weekend, however, the Ganassi teammates are running in Friday’s Grand-Am Road Racing Series at Indy. Whether this will take away or contribute to the team's overall effort is up for debate.

Another former Indianapolis 500 winner you may want to keep an eye on is Penske Racing's Sam Hornish Jr. Taking the reins of the No. 22 Dodge from the suspended Allmendinger, Hornish now has the rare opportunity at a second chance in the Sprint Cup Series.

Hornish has struggled to adjust to the unexpected promotion to Cup over the past two races, but at a track he is comfortable racing at, perhaps this team will come into their own with Hornish as their driver this weekend at Indianapolis.

Five Darkhorse Picks: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr., Regan Smith, Jeff Burton

If there is one certainty for this weekend's race at Indianapolis, perhaps it is going with Chevrolet drivers on your fantasy lineup. Since the Cup Series has been racing at IMS, the bowtie brigade has won 13 of 18 races, including the last nine events.

Among the most unique tracks on the schedule, the key to success at Indy will be a solid setup that makes the car work well throughout all four of the track's unique corners. Fuel mileage was a deciding factor in last year's race, and may play a major role in this year's race as well.

Best of luck to all the fantasy racers out there this weekend, and if you win, don't think twice about going out and kissing the bricks on your patio.

Best Average Finish at Indianapolis (Wins):
1. Tony Stewart — 8.1 (2)
2. Jeff Gordon — 9.1 (4)
3. Kevin Harvick — 10.0 (1)
4. Carl Edwards — 11.0 (0)
5. Clint Bowyer — 11.8 (0)
6. Mark Martin — 12.9 (0)
7. Jamie McMurray — 13.1 (1)
8. Greg Biffle — 13.1 (0)
9. Kyle Busch — 13.1 (0)
10. Brad Keselowski — 14.0 (0)

by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell


<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkorses for your Fantasy NASCAR team as the series heads to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400.</p>
Post date: Friday, July 27, 2012 - 11:27
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-19

Today marks the second part of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council’s annual NASCAR media survey. Previously, Fan Council members rated NASCAR networks, shows and broadcasters. Today, Fan Council members rate reporters (print/internet), websites, radio shows and radio personalities.

Here is what the Fan Council had to say about those groups.

Rate these print/internet reporters with 10 being the highest score and 1 the lowest. (Last year’s score in parenthesis).
NOTE: My name was among those on the list to be rated by Fan Council members. Although Fan Council members were told their vote would remain anonymous, let’s just say that the home-field advantage of hosting the Fan Council helped me tremendously. I’ve taken myself out of the rankings because it was an unfair advantage.

9.07 — Marty Smith, (8.68 last year)
Nate Ryan, USA Today (8.37)
Bob Pockrass, Sporting News (8.66)
8.70 — Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine/ (8.00)
Jeff Gluck, SB Nation (7.81)
Tom Jensen, (7.49)
Lee Spencer, (7.48)
Jenna Fryer, Associated Press (7.61)
David Newton, (7.51)
Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service (7.01)

Others: Monte Dutton (Gaston Gazette), Joe Menzer (, Ed Hinton, (, David Caraviello (, Terry Blount (, Mike Hembree (, Steve Waid (Motorsports Unplugged), Mike Mulhern (, Jay Busbee (, Tom Bowles (, Matt McLaughlin (, Lars Anderson (Sports Illustrated), Mark Aumann (, Bruce Martin (, Jim Utter (Charlotte Observer), Don Coble (Morris News Service).

What Fan Council members said:
• No one beats Marty Smith. I look forward to his articles, no matter the subject.

• My only problems are that Jeff Gluck sometimes is a bit too informal with his posts (ex: the piece on Mark Martin using his hacker's name on his car) and Jim Utter sometimes comes off so hostile on Twitter that I avoid reading his columns if I can find the same material written elsewhere. Jenna Fryer is probably my favorite, as her stories are always so thorough and informative.

• Bob Pockrass always knows the facts before anyone else and they are accurate. Dustin Long and Jeff Gluck seem to always get good driver interviews.

• In my opinion, the guys writing for are not impartial. I have stopped reading most of the articles there for that reason. I have the same opinion of some of the writers for ESPN. I prefer the "independents" such as those who write for the Frontstretch. I've always liked Lee Spencer's articles, too.

• Dustin, I'm going to be honest. I gave you a low grade because of the US Army issue. I feel like you crossed the line between journalist and advocate during the time when that US Representative was attacking sponsorship.

• Jim Utter, while a talented writer, is rude to fans on Twitter ESPECIALLY if they respectfully question his opinion on something.

• My favorites by far are Lee Spencer and Marty Smith. They have the confidence of many drivers and owners alike and always call a fair and balanced story. I believe Dustin Long is underrated as a journalist but always takes an approach that is authentic and individual. I enjoy Bob Pockrass's stories and I support his approach. He is ALWAYS working ... the busiest guy in NASCAR, And Nate Ryan seems very honest and thorough with his reporting.

• Ed Hinton is a very talented writer but is so negative and self-centered that the pieces he writes are slanted in that direction. Tom Bowles has the same quality of being self-centered, and his stories are reflecting that.

• I've been reading Monte Dutton and Mike Mulhern seemingly forever. However, Monte's main interest seems to have gone to music, which I enjoy, but would like more of his NASCAR coverage. I also like Matt McLaughlin's approach to coverage commentary from his Southeastern Pennsylvania biker perspective.

• Too many NASCAR writers do not see the whole picture and follow the crowd. I greatly respect those who take the extra steps to view an entire situation, do extra research and look at an entire driver's history and facets before expressing an opinion. Too many just get on the bandwagon or flavor of the day.

• I rated some lower due to lack of professionalism in dealing with their peers. I had to remove several journalists from my Twitter feed because they simply acted like children to each other. That is embarrassing for the sport.

• Mike Hembree, Ed Hinton and Tom Jensen write clear, concise and tight stories that make you want to read more. All true pros. Jeff Gluck, Jenna Bob Pockrass and Monte Dutton have too many biases and are trying to stir some controversy up that is not there.

Rate these NASCAR-themed websites with 10 being the highest score possible and 1 the lowest. (Last year’s score in parenthesis.)

8.47 — (8.32)
8.08 (NR)
8.04 (7.75)
7.89 (6.35)
7.84 (7.00)
7.75 (7.48)
7.61 (6.83)
Daly Planet (6.97)
7.41 (6.33)
NASCAR Insiders (6.97)

Others:,,,, Insider Racing News,,, Skirts and Scuffs,, Motorsports Unplugged,,,, Racin Today, Bleacher Report

What Fan Council members said:
Jayski is at the top of my list. is at the bottom. You would think the series website would be better organized and have the news on the main page. Not the easiest to navigate either. I go to and the most to find out what is going on in the sport.

• I wish NASCAR Insiders would start posting more often or give it up and tell us who they were … not sure what’s going on there. I have found that I use links off Twitter more than going directly to the website. Only exceptions are and Jayski, and that's because I do it at work and can't look at Twitter there.,, and are BY FAR the best. They cover all sorts of information and it is easy to find. Ironically, I find far inferior. The Daly Planet had potential, but now it has basically turned into a website for people to complain endlessly about EVERY LITTLE THING.

• SPEED is the NASCAR network, so they have an inside perspective of the sport. With Tom Jensen and Mike Hembree as a 1-2 combo, they make a formidable duo. ESPN has a solid group of writers and so does Yahoo. SI has Dustin Long, which helps them because the other writers are not as good or are better with other series. I subscribe to and they have a pretty solid group of writers. Most are really good. The Daly Planet is somewhere to go when you need to understand the inner workings of TV presenting races, making it a valuable resource. isn't as up-to-date as so has become my primary source for NASCAR-related news.

• I don't know what it means for the proprietors of these websites (especially ones not as big as, but with the emergence of Twitter as THE go-to for immediate NASCAR news, I really spend very little time going to actual NASCAR news websites. However, I will call out as a standout ... Jeff Gluck is always putting out lots of content and his approach and tone are very enjoyable.

• I have a love/hate relationship with Sometimes the site absolutely can knock it out of the park on their articles and posts. There are times, however, where it gets very “tabloid-y.”

The Daly Planet used to be good, now his agenda has taken over and it’s not worth reading. Half of his "columns" don’t even have anything to do with NASCAR TV. It’s all about Twitter and Danica. He also has no tolerance for other people's opinions. He claims to be a TV insider, yet never actually breaks any news. I don't think he is a race fan because he never goes to the track. Just sits in his bunker in South Florida and writes blog posts about Danica and Twitter. He had something really good and ruined it.

• To pick out just one — thank goodness for The Daly Planet! I might have given up on watching NASCAR if I did not have that blog where I can commiserate with others as to how generally awful most NASCAR programming is these days.

• I am sure I've read articles from most of these entities, but don't remember some of them. The “7” for is because I simply don't like the advertising on the page. Not all sports fans are 14-year olds looking for pictures of half-naked young ladies.

Rate these national radio programs with 10 being the highest score possible and 1 the lowest. (Last year’s score in parenthesis).

8.55 — Sirius Speedway, SiriusXM (7.78)
The Morning Drive, SiriusXM (7.36)
Late Shift, SiriusXM (6.87)
Dialed In, SiriusXM (6.76)
NASCAR Live, MRN (7.39)
The Frontstretch, SiriusXM (6.93)
Press Pass, SiriusXM (6.86)
Fast Talk, PRN (6.83)
The Pit Reporters, PRN (6.74)
7.71 — NASCAR Performance Live, MRN (6.94)
Others: The Backstretch (SiriusXM), Tradin’ Paint (SiriusXM), Speed Sport on FOX, SpeedFreaks, Manifold Destiny (SiriusXM)

What Fan Council members said:
• I'm on the West coast so I rarely get to listen to The Morning Drive but enjoy it when I do. The biggest problem with Tradin’ Paint is the revolving door of hosts. The show doesn't have an identity. I enjoy Sirius Speedway because Dave and Angie are very knowledgeable and I like the breadth of the regular guests. The Speedway Legend Series is awesome. I don't care for Mojo so I don't care for Manifold Destiny. I used to like Dialed In much better when it was earlier, and I still enjoy it when she is at the track and can get guests, but when it’s a lot of callers, she doesn't do as good of a job as other hosts.

• I love listening to The Morning Drive with Bag Man and Pistol Pete. I know they get the "lunatic fringe" calling in and it's tough to put up with some crazy opinions from time to time, but they do a fantastic job with it.

• If Tradin’ Paint didn't push politics so often, I would rate it higher. I love love love Claire B. Lange and the way she interacts with NASCAR personalities and with fans. She obviously loves her job and loves her fans.

• I download the Fast Talk podcast weekly. We all miss BP!

• Still can’t beat PRN and Fast Talk. Doug Rice is just fun to listen too. I don't much care for The Frontstretch. Pat Patterson doesn't get the job done too well.

The Morning Drive is solid with Bagley and Pistone, while Tradin’ Paint has its moments. Moody and Skinner make a good combo for Speedway, while the Late Shift is always good because Buddy Baker is just a great wealth of stories and laughs.

• Dave Moody should be given a medal for his work. Some of the people that call into that show are amazing and not in a good way...

Rate these national radio hosts and co-hosts with 10 being the highest score possible and 1 the lowest. (Last year’s score in parenthesis).

8.79 — Eli Gold, NASCAR Live, MRN (7.87)
Dave Moody, Sirius Speedway, SiriusXM (7.70)
Mike Bagley, The Morning Drive, SiriusXM (7.23)
Doug Rice, Fast Talk, PRN (7.13)
Steve Post, NASCAR Performance Live, MRN (7.20)
Pete Pistone, The Morning Drive, SiriusXM (7.08)
Buddy Baker, Late Shift, SiriusXM (7.57)
Pat Patterson, The Frontstretch, SiriusXM (6.89)
Angie Skinner, Sirius Speedway, SiriusXM (7.26)
Jim Noble, Late Shift, SiriusXM (6.83)
Others: Brett McMillan (The Pit Reporters, PRN), Claire B. Lang (Dialed In, SiriusXM), Crash Gladys (SpeedFreaks), Kenny Sargent (SpeedFreaks), Chocolate Myers (Tradin’ Paint, SiriusXM), Rob D’Amico (Speed Sport on Fox), Rick Benjamin, (Tradin’ Paint, SiriusXM), Mojo Nixon (Manifold Destiny, SiriusXM)

What Fan Council members said:
• Eli Gold, Claire B. Lange, Dave Moody, Jim Noble and Doug Rice are the absolute best of the best. Anytime I can listen to them I try to. They have so much passion for the sport and never take a break for anything. Angie Skinner is a little too vulgar, but she definitely makes it interesting.

• I don’t listen to a lot of radio, but Dave Moody, Jim Noble and Crash Gladys are really good.

• Always listen to Pete Pistone and Mike Bagley. They are great!

• I like most of the SiriusXM Radio hosts. Claire B. Lang is a unique person that I just don't enjoy listening to on the channel. She rambles on a lot. She could really use a co-host to try and tame her down a bit.

• I enjoy most of these announcers. Angie Skinner has brought some valuable knowledge to Sirius Speedway. Besides having access to “The Gunslinger,” she has also brought some of the behind the scenes "sponsorship chase" information that is fascinating. Rick Benjamin is my least favorite announcer. The moment you disagree or say something controversial, he cuts off the conversation, says you are wrong and hangs up. Tradin' Paint is the one show I will not worry about missing if I know he is on that day.

TMD and Speedway folks are THE BEST at putting on an entertaining show even when the callers continue to beat topics into the ground sometimes for days!! Buddy Baker is great on any show but needs to be paired up with a better host! He would be excellent with Pat Patterson!!

• I very much enjoy the Sirius NASCAR programs and their hosts. Individually, I think Dave Moody is the best at his job. He calls an ace an ace, and he doesn't take the NASCAR line. I really enjoy Chocolate and Buddy because of their extensive background with racing and providing the history of what they experienced. I've always enjoyed Steve Post's approach in covering NASCAR and am very sorry that he was removed from Tradin' Paint, as Steve and Chocolate made a great team. I enjoy Angie very much so this show is complete. Jim Noble is too cautious in his approach. Eli Gold's show is always a class act. I absolutely can't stand Mojo and Claire B. He does nothing but stir the pot and is crappy about the way he refers to drivers or even callers.

• I love listening to Buddy Baker tell old stories and Claire B Lang has to be the hardest working person in radio. She's a real go-getter!

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

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

<p> Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council grades NASCAR's print and internet reporters, as well as the sport's media outlets and radio programs.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - 11:33
Path: /nascar/allmendinger-indefinitely-suspended-nascar

Penske Racing driver AJ Allmendinger has been indefinitely suspended by NASCAR for violation of the sport’s substance abuse policy.

Initially suspended on July 7 after being informed he had failed a random drug test taken the previous week, Allmendinger had his backup, or “B” sample,” tested. It confirmed the original positive. NASCAR officials have not announced what substance Allmendinger tested positive for.

In a statement released Tuesday, Allmendinger’s business manager, Tara Ragan, had this to say:

“This was not the news we wanted to hear and we will work to get to the source of what may have caused this. To that end, we have secured the services of an independent lab to conduct thorough testing on every product within AJ's home and motor coach to find what might collaborate with his test, which created results that were within nanograms of accepted standards.

“We are working closely with NASCAR and Penske Racing to identify the next action steps in this process. We continue to be extremely grateful by the breadth and scope of support for AJ from his fans and partners. We would like to again thank NASCAR, Penske Racing and all our sponsor partners for the open communication, and for helping us at every step in this process. We expect to have further updates in the upcoming days.”

NASCAR does not reveal the substance a driver, crewman or series official tests positive for. Ragan stated last week that Allmendinger had tested positive for a “stimulant.”

Allmendinger can now choose to enter NASCAR’s “Road to Recovery,” a program tailored to individuals in the sport who have failed drug tests.

Sam Hornish Jr. has filled the empty seat in Penske’s No. 22 Dodge in Allmendinger’s absence and will do so again this weekend for the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He has finishes of 33rd (Daytona) and 22nd (New Hampshire) in the Cup Series while also running a full Nationwide Series slate, where he currently sits fourth in the championship standings.

by Matt Taliaferro
Editor, Athlon Sports

<p> <span style="font-size: 14px;">Penske Racing driver AJ Allmendinger has been indefinitely suspended by NASCAR for violation of the sport’s substance abuse policy. </span></p>
Post date: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - 09:22
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-17

The Backseat Drivers Fan Council turns its focus toward the NASCAR media with its second annual survey. Fan Council members grade the different aspects of the NASCAR media from the TV networks, shows and personalities to the reporters, both print and Internet, to the radio shows and personalities covering the sport.

What’s a little different is that the results are split into two days. Today’s results focus on the TV coverage and personalities. The results on the reporters and radio programs will be later this week. Here’s what members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say about the TV portion of the NASCAR media.

Rate how well the networks have broadcast NASCAR races this season with 10 the highest score possible and 1 the lowest. (Last year’s score in parenthesis.)

7.92 — SPEED Channel (8.15 last year)
6.94 — ESPN/ABC (6.16)
6.59 — FOX (6.80)
4.44 — TNT (6.47)

What Fan Council members said:
• I loved TNT last year, but this year ... not so much. I always enjoy FOX and anything the SPEED Channel is involved with.

• I think all networks could do a better job of making the actual race the entertainment. They all try too hard to keep the audience entertained instead of allowing the race to entertain us. The talking heads need to focus on supplementing the race with information, not on being “the show.”

• ESPN/ABC is the class of the field when it comes to broadcasting a NASCAR race — or any race.

• ESPN has become the cream of the crop for Cup, which isn't saying much. They seem to focus more on action throughout the field than any other network. FOX focuses only on one car at a time, usually the leader who has a 10-second lead. TNT doesn't really call the race, they just kinda chit chat the whole time. ARCA and Truck racing on SPEED are some of the best broadcasts, too. Rick (Allen), Phil (Parsons) and Michael (Waltrip) have it figured out.

• ESPN/ABC have really turned their act around. FOX is still good, but I think they could listen to fan comments and make some changes. SPEED and TNT have too many commercials to make races on their channels enjoyable.

• ESPN and FOX have an obsession with "circus-like" story lines and acts by the announcers. The presentation of races by both networks is lacking and has been for a long time. They focus too much on certain drivers (Danica, Dale Jr.) and have too many biases (mostly FOX). FOX is terrible in presenting any sport, and ESPN tries to copy the FOX product but fails in execution. Too many commercials, too much focus on mediocrity. TNT shouldn't have six races if they are going to commercial every 10 laps. SPEED is essentially the NASCAR channel and they do a relatively good job, based on the other networks given here.

• I am very disappointed in most broadcast coverage, Very rarely is anything discussed in any sort of depth.

• By far ESPN/ABC have done a superior job with SPEED not far behind. TNT was generally terrible with some improvement toward the end of their run. FOX was OK. Some camera/directing issues like with TNT.

• FOX and SPEED Channel have the best NASCAR coverage, hands down. ESPN has not taken over yet, but based on last year they have consistently had programming problems where previous programs (like women's softball) run into the pre-race coverage. It's extremely annoying to be all ready to watch a race to see another sporting event on. Sometimes they switch to ESPN Classic, which is not available on a lot of packages or you just have to wait.

• FOX continues to be the best — they have the on-air chemistry that ESPN is building and TNT does not have at all. Sure, people bash DW, but if you get past that he brings something that so few other commentators bring: it's his knowledge of the sport and experience as a driver. TNT really slipped this year — the announcers didn't announce, they just spoke like they were watching the race as fans. The crew in the booth bickered with Larry Mac every race, too. Such a disappointment.

Rate these NASCAR-themed shows with 10 being the highest score possible and 1 the lowest. (Last year’s score in parenthesis.)

7.60 — Race Hub on SPEED (7.45 last year)
7.46 — Victory Lane on SPEED (NR)
7.44 — NASCAR RaceDay on SPEED (7.60)
7.19 — NASCAR Now on ESPN (7.15)
5.79 — Trackside on SPEED (7.41)

What Fan Council members said:
• I use to really enjoy Trackside when they talked racing with the drivers. It has now turned into a circus with the stupid stunts they have the drivers do. I have eliminated it from my weekly DVR shows. It’s not worth the time it takes to record and not worth my time to watch it! Sad. :(

• Steve Byrnes and John Roberts are the only two top broadcasters on SPEED that conduct themselves with any maturity and intelligence. The other broadcasters on SPEED all think they are just hilarious and act so silly. I cringe sometimes when I watch the shows. I really like Kenny Wallace but does he have any voice other than screaming? And could Jeff Hammond please say goodbye to the ’70s?! Mike Massaro is my favorite on ESPN and I will watch anything he's on. Kenny and Hammond can say the same thing as Massaro but, when Mike speaks there's an intelligence behind his words that make a big difference. I think Elliot Sadler is great when he's on Race Hub, and I enjoy listening to what he has to say.

NASCAR Now used to be a great show — I really liked the Monday roundtable. Marty Smith adds a lot, and I like to hear his opinions. Unfortunately, ESPN has relegated it to a 3:00 pm Monday broadcast and only 30 minutes long, with no replays. I guess they need more time to talk about some pointless golf tournament or NFL draft/camp garbage that they do incessantly.

• I think Victory Lane is a fantastic show, simply because it is taped right after the race. You get honest authentic reactions and answers during the show. Race Hub is pretty good. I like their guests. Trackside is the worst show — nearly unwatchable. NASCAR Now is OK, but honestly, its topics are usually already heavily covered in social media before it ever airs. They talk about Danica so much, and it is rarely ever "new" because she is so heavily covered. It’s sort of irrelevant, in my opinion. It is polished and well produced, though.

NASCAR Now and Race Hub are the best at current news each day. RaceDay and Victory Lane get all the drivers and crew chief opinions. Trackside is a travesty. I stopped watching it as soon as they changed the format. Silly, stupid and embarrassing.

Trackside is outstanding. A perfect 10. I watch it every week before the race and it’s an outstanding primer. Excellent! Victory Lane gets an “8” only because they no longer have the winning driver sit at their desk. WTH? It is really dumb how the driver is usually just behind them at some podium. Stupid. Also miss Jimmy Spencer on the show.

NASCAR Now Roundtable on Monday was the best show! Why did they cancel it? Big mistake.

• The
Trackside writers and producers have designed a show for pre-pubescent, brain-damaged individuals. Puppets and mindless games have reduced this once interesting and informative show to absolute rubbish. What about Raceline? Joe Moore, his wife, Steve Post and Alex Hayden.

Race Hub is a great blend of fun and information, I can even handle the little doses of Jimmy Spencer because he sometimes has pretty valid points. NASCAR Now would be higher but it moves around too much and doesn't have consistent people doing the show. I also miss the one-hour show Allen Bestwick did after the Cup races. I don't know what happened to Trackside, but it really is just too silly for me now and I don't even DVR it anymore. I enjoy Victory Lane, especially when the network showing the race is pretty weak on its post-race show. RaceDay is a little bit too long but is still fun to watch most of the time. Kenny needs to cut back on the coffee.

Rate these play-by-play announcers with 10 being the highest score and 1 the lowest. (Last year’s score in parenthesis.)

8.71 — Mike Joy, FOX (8.44 last year)
8.52 — Allen Bestwick, ESPN (8.43)
7.81 — Rick Allen, SPEED (7.69)
5.96 — Adam Alexander, TNT (6.11)

What Fan Council members said:
• Mike Joy is a legend in the booth. Allen Bestwick is getting there. Rick Allen is solid as a Truck announcer. Adam Alexander should just stick to his weekly Speed Center show on SPEED.

• To me, Allen Bestwick is the best there is. I so enjoy listening to him. He has a lot to say and he is quick on his feet.

• Mike Joy is the best. Passionate and focused on the race and doesn't waste a lot of time yapping about useless stuff.

• Allen Bestwick and Mike Joy are the cream of the crop. I wish they would announce together, then we'd have intelligence, experience and lots of information that is interesting for a change.

• Allen Bestwick is easily the best announcer. Adam Alexander needs more time to get comfortable and grow in the role. Mike Joy is too focused on having fun with DW and Larry and not enough on the race.

• Adam Alexander is improving but still has a way to go to be as solid as the rest. I feel so bad for Mike Joy because with all of his knowledge and abilities, he can't get DW to shut up enough for him to do his job. I assume that is partially his fault, but I also blame the director of the race broadcast.

• Rick Allen ROCKS!! Love his voice, his witty commentary and how he makes the race sounds exciting.

• I was so happy when Allen Bestwick was back in the booth. He keeps things moving and knows his NASCAR. Rick Allen does a great job, sometimes a little over-excited, but at least he shows his emotions. Mike Joy has so many stories to tell that I wish he would write a book. I enjoy his facts and figures most of the time. Adam Alexander was OK on Speed Center when he has copy to read, but as a live analyst, he lacks the ability to be spontaneous.

• Mike Joy and Allen Bestwick are pros and continue to do an excellent job. It is so refreshing to hear AB back calling races again. As for Adam Alexander, stick to Speed Center. Rick Allen screams too much and is too repetitive.

Rate these analysts with 10 being the highest score and 1 the lowest. (Last year’s score in parenthesis.)

7.99 — Dale Jarrett, ESPN (NR)
Larry McReynolds, FOX & TNT (7.35)
Andy Petree, ESPN (7.53)
Jeff Hammond, FOX (7.21)
Phil Parsons, SPEED (6.62)
Wally Dallenbach, TNT (7.00)
Kyle Petty, TNT (7.34)
Darrell Waltrip, FOX (5.89)
Brad Daugherty, ESPN (5.91)
Rusty Wallace, ESPN (4.49)
Michael Waltrip, FOX & SPEED (6.11)

What Fan Council members said:
• Dale Jarrett is the top guy. He has the knowledge and experience and he handles controversial stuff well. He, Allen (Bestwick) and Andy (Petree) are the best team, hands down. Kyle Petty is great when he is doing a race, but he goofs around a little too much during practice. Rusty tries really hard, but the booth isn't really his thing — he's better in the trailer on pre-race. Phil Parsons is terrible. If you compare the difference in his success on track to his brother Benny's, that is also a good comparison of their TV work. Michael Waltrip is the absolute worst. All he does is shill for Toyota, NAPA, Aaron’s and 5-Hour Energy. PATHETIC!

• While many do not like the Waltrips, I rated them a 10. Their passion, humor and knowledge is a MUST for this sport.

• Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett are the best driver/crew chief analysts in TV. Both are so informative pre-race and during race. I really like their commentary.

• This list in and of itself demonstrates the greatest problem with NASCAR TV. Look at how many of these guys are either current owners or financial stakeholders in something beyond the scope of their TV duties. There's too much of the “good old boys club.” How can we trust your analysis when it can be rooted in sponsor or personal interest? How are we supposed to learn anything new about what's happening NOW if you just tell stories about the way it used to be? Until the majority of NASCAR TV analysts quit endlessly reminiscing, opining, bloviating, self-promoting and grandstanding, they'll be doing a massive disservice to viewers and wasting our time.

• The only person I hate to hear more than Kyle Petty is Brad Daugherty. How in the hell did he score an on-air position with NASCAR??

• Love 'em all, especially love Brad's enthusiasm.

• I would choose Andy Petree as my crew chief and Michael Waltrip as my driver announcer. The rest contribute little and/or are two hyped-up for my liking.

• In my opinion, Jeff Hammond does the best job of explaining the details of the race/racecar better than the others.

• I'm sad FOX lessened Hammond's role this year. He has a great knowledge of the sport and these cars, and it's sad to see it go to waste. Larry Mac is another of my favorites, he too has great knowledge and does a good job breaking it down for the common folk, and he's not cut and dry (and) can be entertaining.

• Larry McReynolds is hard to judge. Over the past two or three seasons, it seems like he is hardly ever allowed to get a word in edgewise over DW. Then, he gets on TNT and really shines, bringing great information to the broadcast.

• Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree are the best analysts. Wally Dallenbach and Kyle Petty are the most enjoyable. DW has an occasional nugget of good info buried under an avalanche of DW-isms. And if Rusty Wallace left my TV forever I would be OK with that.

• Wally Dallenbach is the best in my book. Doesn’t yell, doesn't tell stories from 30 years ago, just gives it to you straight. DW and Mikey Waltrip suck the professionalism right out of FOX. They are embarrassing, goofy and never stop talking. They are the reason I listen to the radio broadcast during the FOX races. Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree quietly get it done for ESPN. They are very good, in my opinion.

• Michael Waltrip gets a higher score simply due to his wit. I very much appreciate his comical take on common sense.

• Wally Dallenbach, Brad Daugherty and Kyle Petty add nothing to the broadcasts — yack yack about nothing much. Mikey Waltrip and DW talk about themselves. They are very knowledgeable about racing but they make the broadcasts about them, not about the race. I also am opposed to having an ACTIVE owner in the booth — that applies to Waltrip and last year to Rusty Wallace. Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds are both smart and I like the way they present the information. Unfortunately, there isn't really enough time in a TV broadcast for long segments — it takes away from the racing, which is why I tune in. I think Phil Parsons and Andy Petree both do a great job.

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

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

<p> Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council grade NASCAR's television partners, as well as its programs, personalities and analysts.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 - 12:32