Articles By Matt Taliaferro
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)
7.73 —Larry McReynolds, FOX & TNT (7.35)
7.72 —Andy Petree, ESPN (7.53)
6.98 —Jeff Hammond, FOX (7.21)
6.87 —Phil Parsons, SPEED (6.62)
6.51 —Wally Dallenbach, TNT (7.00)
6.32 —Kyle Petty, TNT (7.34)
5.50 —Darrell Waltrip, FOX (5.89)
5.36 —Brad Daugherty, ESPN (5.91)
5.10 —Rusty Wallace, ESPN (4.49)
4.97 —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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
With one week off before the Brickyard 400, the stars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are enjoying life away from the motorhome gauntlet that is their home away from home for the better part of the year.
Jeff Gordon is in Rwanda (which is beautiful this time of year) with former President Bill Clinton. No, he really is — that’s not just a cover for WJC. His teammate, Jimmie Johnson, went triatholoning with another teammate, Kasey Kahne, while A.J. Allmendinger is likely holed up somewhere resembling Riggs in the first 10 minutes of Lethal Weapon (YouTube it) while he awaits the results of his “B” sample.
Speaking of Allmendinger, his teammate Brad Keselowski had a few things to say about substance abuse and NASCAR’s policy, as well as his own feelings of what should and shouldn’t be allowed in the sport.
While last Sunday’s race was largely forgettable (save for those two passes for the lead under green – that’s right, literally two of them) Keselowski’s comments regarding the plight of Allmendinger and the state of the sport’s drug testing procedure was notable. Keselowski disagreed with Carl Edwards’ assertion that drivers should have their own testing firm representing them to validate the findings of Aegis Analytical Laboratories, NASCAR’s chosen testing group. I would side with BK on this one, as that smacks of a “driver’s union” which, as we’ve seen in the past, only ends badly, and never accomplishes much of an objective.
Where I disagree with Keselowski’s meandering rant is with his attitude towards taking any supplements – legal or otherwise.
“My personal belief that nothing should be allowed,” Keselowski stated. “Nothing. I don't feel like you should be able to take Flintstones (vitamins) pills. It's my personal belief. You're racecar drivers, you should have to overcome it. I think it's a bunch of bull___ people should be allowed to take supplements, any of those things. I don't think that's right. I don't think any athlete should be allowed to take that. But that's my own personal belief.”
Now, I’ll preface my reaction to this by saying I am a huge Brad K. guy. I think he’s great for the sport. I always appreciate his insight and honesty and believe he truly is one of the most talented drivers of our era and will one day deliver Roger Penske that elusive Sprint Cup championship.
That said, his comments are those made by someone who has no clue whatsoever about nutrition, training and taking care of one’s body.
First of all, let’s take a look at the term “supplement”: “Something that completes or enhances something else when added to it. Typically that would include things such as protein powders (i.e., powdered milk), thermogenics (herbal extracts which help burn fat, increase metabolism, and provide alertness – not unlike coffee), vitamins, (basic minerals and nutrients required for proper cell and organ function), and a host of other powders, shakes, creams, oils, and things both natural or made in a lab to help you recover and perform during the course of strenuous physical activity.”
This, as opposed to say, slamming beers in Victory Lane minutes after losing 10 pounds in water weight over the course of a three-hour race. Regardless of what sport you’re in or your feelings toward physical fitness, alcohol + dehydration is not a winning combination — and using Keselowski’s rigorous standards, would have almost guaranteed that he would have failed a random test prior to his press conference after his winning the Nationwide event Sunday in Loudon.
“I laugh out loud when I read that people say, ‘Well I have my supplements checked,’” Keselowski said in response to Danica Patrick’s statement that her trainer reviews her dietary supplements to ensure there’s no risk of her taking something she should not. “Like there's some special list of supplements that are OK, but these aren't! What kind of world is that? That's terrible. Nothing should be allowed. Because then it comes down to if you've got a doctor or a lawyer who says, ‘This is OK and this is not.’ And I think we all know you can get a doctor or a lawyer these days to say you're OK with anything you do.”
As my Dad would say: “He’s talking like a man with a paper a$$hole.” To this day I have no idea what that means, and is yet another reason why I regret not having served in the Air Force, where apparently he encountered many such individuals with pulpwood colons.
Checking supplements for items that, at certain levels, may a positive reading for something untoward is imperative. Whispers centering around Allmendinger testing positive for a stimulant in an energy drink or a substance that is performance-related have been the focus of some speculation. But speculation is just that. The point is, doctors and lawyers actually do decide what is OK, as that is part of their job; this level/substance/supplement is safe, this is not. This will probably kill you, this will make you not have to leave your shirt on at the pool.
While Keselowski’s comments make for good sound bites (and are the type of no-nonsense/tough-guy talk the sport has desperately missed) it is ignorant at best, and at worst, misinformed. They’re also insulting to those who train, sacrifice, and take a fanatical approach to physical health and nutrition. Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray have all taken conditioning and preparation to the next level in NASCAR which is at least part of the reason they are consistently able to perform at the level they do — and not look or sound like they’ve been through five rounds in the Octagon with Anderson Silva after climbing from a 500-mile summer Sunday afternoon.
Then again, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have never been known to cruise around with their shirts off – and those trips to Dairy Queen didn’t seem to slow Smoke down in last year’s Chase.
Keselowski’s closing remarks brought the argument full-circle:
“I'm sure I have different views than everyone else. I don't think there needs to be any committee that approves drugs or supplements because I think you shouldn't be allowed to take anything. You should just man up and drive the damn racecar.”
Nobody – certainly not I – would accuse Keselowski of not manning up and driving his racecar. From his grotesquely violent accident at Road Atlanta to getting walled (and roofed) by Edwards at Atlanta in 2010 to getting T-boned by half the field at Gateway later that same season, Brad’s “Bad” moniker should be recognized for his intestinal fortitude and tough-as-nails efforts for his team. He’s as close to a throwback driver as we have today, along with Stewart and Martin; Martin simply because, at 53, was part of another era.
There is, however, a distinct difference between supplements, performance-enhancing drugs and otherwise illegal-unless-prescribed drugs. Thus, there may be a completely logical explanation in the case of Allmendinger. Is this Jeremy Mayfield running speed? Lord, I hope not. Is it Aaron Fike going Layne Staley with a syringe and spoon in an amusement park parking lot? Doubtful.
Linking the three as Keselowski was doing was both unfortunate, distorted and a bit misleading – even if unintentionally so.
Insinuating that nutritional aids and supplements are of a similar caliber as anabolic-androgenic steroids, synthetic hormones, narcotics or amphetamines, and speaking to it publicly as if fact was inaccurate and only served to spread patently false information, painting basic nutrition and training tools as something underhanded and unethical.
If this was a matter of semantics and confusing the terminology, then I understand. Until then, I remain a bit confused and bristle at the suggestion that perfectly safe and legal substances that promote health and wellness are suddenly thrown under the bus, then backed over for good measure.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Few things fire up NASCAR fans more than TV coverage of the races. With the end of TNT’s six-race Sprint Cup stretch last weekend at New Hampshire, members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had a chance to judge TNT’s performance and offer critiques.
It wasn’t only TV that fired up the Council. Members opined on the Army leaving NASCAR and the New Hampshire race. Here’s what they had to say:
GRADING TNT’S COVERAGE FOR ITS 6 RACES
36.9 percent called it Fair
36.9 percent called it Poor
22.4 percent called it Good
3.7 percent called it Great
What Fan Council members said:
• The last few years, TNT's broadcasts have been the class of the field. I always looked forward to their "Summer Series.” This year I was left disappointed and, quite frankly, pissed. I understand that commercials are a necessary evil, but it just felt like there were WAY more than normal. Other than the commercial debacle, the coverage itself was very sub-par. The guys in the booth didn't really "call" the race. It was more like they were having a friendly conversation. The last few laps of the races didn't sound any different than the first few. I want the booth to CALL THE RACE ... make it sound exciting, even if it isn't. And the camera work ... no better than FOX. Way too much time spent zoomed in on a single car on the track.
• I went fair because the Wide Open coverage at Daytona makes up for a lot. I like their pre-race and post-race shows, and I really found myself enjoying the bits with Bill Elliott, Ned Jarrett and Jimmie Johnson. Larry Mac and Wally Dallenbach, despite their quirks, are strong points, however Adam Alexander is not a play-by-play guy and Kyle Petty doesn't shut up. Their graphics are decent but the delay of the "off pit road" feature bugged me. And as always, I like the "through the field" portions.
• Is there something below poor? Horrendous? They should change their slogan to “TNT Loves NASCommercials.”
• I understand that advertising pays the bills but TNT’s commercial-to-actual-race coverage ratio was horrible! Glad that was their final broadcast and it wouldn't hurt my feelings if they didn't come back.
• In my humble opinion, TNT's broadcast team is more knowledgeable and impartial than FOX's team. Adam Alexander brings a fresh voice and face to the sport. Yeah, granted their commercial coverage is ridiculous, but that seems to be the norm these days.
• Overall “Good.” I love the on-air personalities and they do a fantastic job of explaining the development of a race without overly injecting themselves into the call. I also am a huge fan of the Wide Open concept. The only reason I didn't give TNT an "A+" was the fact that the Kentucky broadcast, as well as the New Hampshire race, were just overrun with commercials. The first three races didn't seem to have that issue. Overall, I would rate the networks in this order: TNT = A-, Fox = D, ESPN (based on Nationwide coverage, as well as last year) = B.
• TNT is never my favorite stretch of the season, but this year was HORRIBLE. They didn't talk about action out on the track, they didn't update things after one of the 300 commercial breaks in the broadcast, and the camera coverage was awful. Sundays race had them focusing on Kyle Busch, who wasn't a factor after the 1st set of green-flag pit stops. It couldn't get any worse!
• They got it right a few times. The commercial issue is a given. I still like the commentators, the cut-away cars and how things work (but not in place of a live race screen). The track shots are great (when not at commercial).
• I thought TNT did a good job given the races they had. With the exception of Daytona, which they did a superb job with, they had nothing to work with. I still love the TNT booth much, much better that the FOX booth.
• Seriously, their race time vs. commercial time was a joke. Glad we are moving on to ESPN!
• I love Kyle and Wally, but TNT has no clue how to cover a race. Thank goodness for Twitter and MRN.
• Kyle (Petty) has definitely stepped it up, Wally is always great, and Adam is good at directing them and keeping them both in line. The entire sport had been hit hard and double-dumbed-down by the Waltrip boys over at FOX, so these three actually could do no harm. The TNT crew was more professional and most importantly, more knowledgeable. Mindless TWEETS on the other hand need to get the @#%@ off my screen! People have phones and tablets for tweets. Somebody needs to shoot that damned blue bird out of the sky so “Tweet” can join "Digger" in the roadkill department.
• Glad they are GONE! The verbiage did not match the video and the announcers are poor.
• Way too many commercials for anyone's tastes, as proven by a majority of folks on Twitter. I love the TNT "Inside Trax" feature, but other than that TNT wasn't good.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE ARMY LEAVING NASCAR AFTER THIS SEASON WITH THE ARMY CLAIMING IT DIDN’T GET AS GOOD A RETURN ON INVESTMENT?
66.4 percent said it was a bad move
17.3 percent said it was a good move
16.3 percent said they didn’t care
What Fan Council members said:
• I think it’s sad to see things that bring the soldiers joy get cut to save a buck,
• (The Army) has to do what's best for them. I just don't understand why all the NASCAR media can't help with the sponsorship situation. Sponsors aren't getting enough attention, yet we usually have three hours of pre-race coverage. Rather than hashing and rehashing everything that's already been hashed and rehashed all week, why can't they run through ALL the cars, show the paint schemes, and let the drivers give their sponsor pitches. Just stop being selfish and stuck in the old ways of insisting on sponsor revenue for every mention. And print/internet media can mention sponsors more when referring to the drivers and cars. People whine about Mikey (Waltrip) always promoting his sponsors, but he's a sponsor's dream. We should have more like him — fans need to just shut up and accept it as a necessity for the sport to prosper. There have been so many times when someone announces a new sponsor and paint scheme but you never get a good look at it on TV. Everyone needs to give a little so the drivers can give their sponsors some airtime, and in turn the sponsors will be more willing to support the teams.
• If ROI is not there Army should pull its sponsorship.
• The Army can paint the picture with whatever brush strokes they so desire. But, the fact is a pig is a pig, and this was a move prompted by political persuasion.
• I hate to see the Army leave. My biggest question is how can they tell exactly what their ROI is per advertiser?
• With all the horrible waste of money by our government, it’s hard to believe that they can't determine that NASCAR and its fans are among the most loyal in supporting all our troops. Wait a minute, on second thought it is our government that can't pass or balance a budget!!
• Not gonna save me any tax money either way.
• My gut tells me it was politically motivated. I've always wondered what kind of person sees a display at the race track and thinks "that's it, I'll join." Almost like, "Hey hold my beer, I'm going to sign up!" That's a little frightening to me. My gut also tells me that those funds would be better suited to spend on our active soldiers. Maybe to help them out when they come home after having put there lives on hold for years. Unfortunately, the third thing my gut tells me is that money will just be squandered in a different way. The bad news is our government sucks. The good news: it's still better than anyone else's. Pretty sad.
• Very shortsighted indeed. It’s a bit of a slap in the face to a sport that does so much for the military families...
• I'm a Veteran and I think the military sponsoring racecars is a huge waste of the taxpayer's dollars.
• It's disappointing because no other sport honors the military like NASCAR, but I have quit caring about sponsor coming and goings. The politics of sponsors and owners gets on my nerves as much as actual politics.
• I think the military sponsorship is just a difficult ROI to gauge. Without giving each signed recruit a survey to ascertain if NASCAR influenced their decision to enlist, there is no other way to make the determination. While I loved seeing the military involved in our sport, I believe they should give enlistment bonuses with that sponsorship money.
• I am from Minnesota and ashamed of our Congresswoman who disapproves of military sponsorship in NASCAR. The monies will be spent somewhere (else) so it will not save government anything. I believe the Army is making a mistake.
GRADING SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT NEW HAMPSHIRE MOTOR SPEEDWAY
48.5 percent called it Good
34.7 percent called it Fair
8.6 percent called it Great
8.2 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Threats of rain coming, the wild card race/Race to the Chase, Hamlin's mistake, and the last 50 laps kept me on the edge of my seat.
• I was so bored watching this race that I stopped watching 40 laps from the end and I almost never miss the end of a race unless I have to be somewhere.
• No passing my @$$. Did you see Denny's drive back to the front? Wish he would've caught Kasey! Would've been a heck of a race for it.
• Only thing keeping me from grading this as “poor” were the storylines throughout the day, such as: Could Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch battle back from their respective slip ups on pit road and how would Sam Hornish do in his first full week behind the wheel of the 22? Outside of that, the race was pretty much a snooze-fest to me.
• I just hate that the drivers don't really race until the end. Anymore, I watch the start and then head to whatever project I've got going and then watch the last 20 laps.
• Wasn't the most exciting of races, as passing was tough, but I enjoy these races more than the cookie cutter intermediate tracks.
• It’s never a good race when one car checks out and there aren't many cautions so that the rest of the field can adjust their cars. Now I see why phantom cautions get called.
• If not for the charge by (Hamlin) at the end, this would not have been rated as high as “good.” People are trying to blame TNT for presenting a boring race. Well, it WAS a boring race. If it were presented on FOX, DW would try to convince us it was exciting. It wasn't — it was boring and TNT gave it to us!
• The best part was watching Denny Hamlin mow through the field. Other than that, (it was an) average race.
• There were comers and goers, passes being made, pit lane and strategy problems which all made for a really good race. This was another example that a race doesn't have to be a caution- and wreck-fest to be a good.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
1. Jimmie Johnson A Daytona crash is the only blemish on Johnson’s stat sheet since mid-May. Indianapolis is typically the event that Johnson, Chad Knaus & crew use as a jumping off point for the Chase.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. According to Junior's buddy Mike Davis, Earnhardt has completed the first 5,488 laps this season, a record in NASCAR’s Modern Era. He also has 20 consecutive lead lap finishes, dating back to 2011.
3. Matt Kenseth No flashy stats for Kenseth, just a stream of steadiness for the points leader. His 13th at Loudon, along with a 13th at Sonoma, are his worst showings since a 16th way back in March.
4. Tony Stewart Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski are closing the gap on the Big Three of Johnson, Earnhardt and Keselowski, although Smoke’s Loudon performance was disappointing after winning there last year.
5. Denny Hamlin “Hit or Miss” Hamlin was a hit on Sunday, despite falling short in the end due to miscommunication with the crew chief. Hamlin’s last six races: Three top 5s, three finishes of 25th or worse.
6. Brad Keselowski May deserve to be higher on the list, as BK and the boys appear to be gaining steam — which says something since they’re already weekly contenders.
7. Kasey Kahne Was Sunday’s win what we’ll look back on as his Chase-clinching run? Impossible to say, but suddenly, the heat is turned up on about five drivers clawing for a wild card slot in the Chase.
8. Greg Biffle His ninth-place finish in New Hampshire led the Roush Fenway contingent — odd in that the “Fenway” in the race team’s name is the same associated with a certain New England sports franchise.
Carl Edwards, winless in his last 52 races and fighting to make NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, has a new crew chief, Roush Fenway Racing announced Tuesday.
Chad Norris will replace Bob Osborne as Edwards’ crew chief immediately. Osborne was with Edwards when Edwards made his Cup debut in 2004 and ran the final 13 races that year. The following season, their first full season together, Edwards won four races and finished third in the points.
Osborne and Edwards parted in May 2006 in what is Edwards’s worst full season to date, before being reunited in 2007. They had been together since, winning 18 races and finishing second in the championship twice.
Their split this time comes as Edwards is 11th in the point standings, 46 points behind the 10th and final points-qualifying Chase spot. He is not in position for one of the two wild card spots at this time since he doesn’t have a victory. Seven races remain until the Chase field is set.
“At this time in my life, however, concerns with my health have necessitated that I change my role within the organization,” Osborne said in a statement issued by the team. “This transition is not an easy one, but I’m thankful to have the full support of Jack (Roush), Carl and the entire organization. I also have every confidence in Chad Norris, and I look forward to working with him as we continue to pursue a championship in 2012. I also appreciate the privacy and respect that the community will give me and my family during this difficult time.”
Osborne will remain with Roush Fenway Racing and be a senior member of its management team and steering committee.
“I cannot say enough good things about Bob Osborne,” Edwards said in a team release. “I’m so thankful for what he’s done for me as a driver, and he is without a doubt one of the smartest guys in the sport. I’m also appreciative of the fact that he’ll continue to be a resource for me and our team as we focus on these final races.
“We’re very fortunate to have Chad Norris as part of our organization to take over for the No. 99. I’ve known Chad for a long time and he is a fierce competitor. We’ve got our work cut out for us over the next seven races, and I’ve got every confidence Chad can lead our team to where we need to be.”
Norris has been with Roush since 2005, when he scored his first win, a Nationwide Series victory, in his fifth race as crew chief for Matt Kenseth. He’s led the company’s research and development test program since last year. Norris most recently oversaw wins in the Nationwide Series for Marcos Ambrose and Trevor Bayne in 2011. He has also served as Bayne’s NNS crew chief this season.
“Our commitment to winning a championship with the No. 99 in 2012 has not wavered,” owner Jack Roush said in a statement. “I’m committed to providing the resources to Carl and to his team to do that, and this restructuring of Bob’s role and the introduction of Chad Norris as the crew chief for the No. 99 will put us in the best possible position for these final seven races before the ‘Chase’ begins.”
’DINGER’S DATE SET A date has been set to test AJ Allmendinger’s “B” sample following his failed random drug test prior to the July Daytona race weekend.
Allmendinger’s business manager, Tara Ragan, released in a statement that, “We now have a confirmed date for the testing of AJ's “B” (split specimen) sample. The test will take place on Tuesday, July 24 at 8:00 a.m. CDT and be conducted at the Aegis Analytical Laboratories in Nashville.
“Pursuant to the 2012 NASCAR Rulebook and in line with the procedures, we have elected to have a designated independent toxicologist present on AJ's behalf. Along with everyone else, we are looking forward to hearing the results as quickly as possible.”
A NASCAR statement indicated that the date was selected by Allmendinger. According to an ESPN report, Allmendinger’s “B” sample test is expected to be complete by the Brickyard 400 on July 29.
NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship wild card hunt took a definitive turn at the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Denny Hamlin and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team dominated the LENOX Industrial Tools 301, leading 150 laps. However, miscommunication during the final round of pit stops on lap 235 of 301 between Kahne and crew chief Darian Grubb dropped their Toyota from first to 14th.
At issue was their decision to take two tires or four under caution. Hamlin’s team put four tires on, while the majority of the leaders only took two. The time lost in the pits handed the lead to Kasey Kahne, who led the final 66 laps — the only laps he led all day — en route to his second win of the season.
Hamlin staged an epic run through the field in the closing laps, but came up shy, finishing second.
“If he (Hamlin) was to keep the track position, I never would have passed him,” Kahne said. “For him to be on four tires and us on two, he was catching us pretty fast. (It’s) just what they chose to do. Somebody said they said something about tires — they took four, he meant two — I don’t know how it happened.
“We had great luck today. For those guys to miscommunicate, that helped us a ton. I’ll take ’em any way we can.”
We live in an instant gratification society. Fair or not, Facebook and Twitter breaks the news of the world long before Brian Williams clears his throat and gets ready to report it on NBC. Groupon provides us with deal-a-day discounts, making cheap choices so we don’t have to search for them. Direct Deposit removes the need to go to the bank; YouTube keeps you at home instead of the movies. Technological advances are made with the concept that 21st-Century humans have run out of patience.
In some ways, NASCAR brass has finally caught onto the concept. The conversation about shorter races, while I’m in objection to it, has some merit; fans no longer want to sit on their couch for four hours when 1,000 entertainment distractions reside all around their doorstep – sometimes right inside the house. The sport’s evolution with social media, despite the controversy over the #NASCAR/Twitter partnership, gives its base instant access the likes of which its stick ‘n’ ball brethren would kill for. Despite an unrelenting mountain of criticism these days, there’s actually only two pieces of the publicity puzzle where NASCAR remains as Neanderthal as they come.
Too bad they’re the most important ones: penalties and drugs.
This week was another reminder of that, with more questions than answers to leave fans scratching their heads instead of discussing the consistency and timeliness of their decisions. Take a penalty on Daytona winner Tony Stewart, for example, who failed post-qualifying inspection the Friday before the race. Once he did so, the time was disallowed which, in certain circumstances, would keep the car from making the race altogether. But Smoke’s team gets a mulligan. As part of NASCAR’s exclusive “top 35,” which guarantees a spot on the grid to the first 35 cars in owner points, he could cheat as much as possible and still start the race from the rear.
Huh? That’s like Brian Urlacher getting a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer but getting it taken off the board because he’s one of the NFL’s best players. In the end, Stewart used his 42nd starting spot to win the race, earning the maximum amount of points only to get docked six for the penalty in question. Six points? When subtracted from the total, that still leaves the man with the third-most points from the race itself, a compromise the antithesis of Goldilocks in that nothing feels exactly right. Some will say that since Stewart started the race with a legal car – it was fixed after inspection – there shouldn’t have been any consequences at all. Others, knowing the advantage these types of infractions can give a driver during a plate race, feel the book should have been thrown straight at the No. 14. Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus, after all, was threatened with a six-race suspension (ultimately erased on appeal) for a pre-practice Daytona 500 violation on his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet.
Or take the case of Danny Stockman, Austin Dillon’s crew chief who was suspended two weeks from the Nationwide Series after a post-qualifying violation of his own down at Daytona. For Stockman, it was the second violation that occurred during a probationary period but the first one didn’t result in missing time. Compare that to Kurt Busch, whose initial probation violation for cussing out a reporter — not a scenario that created an on-track advantage — resulted in him getting shutout of the racetrack, his ride, and a paycheck for a week. Confused? I’m sure. How in the world do these penalties compare?
Simple answer: they don’t. I’d love to point out these violations in the rulebook, educating you all, but in this age of transparency NASCAR doesn’t even have one available for public viewing. If I write down the answers (and I’m one of the lucky ones), even if the sanctioning body remains inconsistent you have to trust my responsibility as a journalist instead of looking up the text yourself – a next-step ability in this age of Wikipedia more and more people are expecting to legitimize the sports they watch. Gone are the days when a good ol’ boy family network can run things with an iron fist. Today, that’s a little too “conspiracy theorist” for a sporting audience that’s grown too smart for any secrets.
1. Matt Kenseth Kenseth was the man to beat at Daytona for a second straight trip, although the fortunes of plate racing found him third by night’s end. Still, RFR is the team to beat on the plate tracks.
2. Jimmie Johnson Johnson’s 2012 plate racing results: 42nd, 35th and 36th. In fact, his plate stats over the last few years — outside of a Talladega win — aren’t that impressive. Speaks more to the style of racing than the driver.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. You can throw a blanket over the top 3. Each has 13 top 10s in 18 races and at least one win. Junior slots third here because he trails Kenseth in the standings and Johnson in the wins column.
4. Tony Stewart Stewart closes the gap on the “Big Three” every three weeks or so. His problem lies in consistency — he seems to either finish in the top 3 on race day or outside of the top 20.
5. Denny Hamlin It’s hard to fault a guy for getting wrecked while racing for the win at Daytona. That was the story of Hamlin’s night, so we’ll give him a pass and see what New Hampshire holds.
6. Greg Biffle Biffle took the blame for the final “Big One” of the night in Daytona, though it’s hard to pin that on any one driver. His sliding from top 5 to 21st in the wreck is punishment enough.
7. Brad Keselowski Keselowski seems to always be near the center of the storm. From getting hit on pit road to spinning out without any help, he had a rough night but rebounded for a respectable eighth-place showing.
8. Kasey Kahne Stewart’s dancing partner at Daytona, Kahne managed a seventh-place run thanks to the craziness in the final two football field’s worth of the 400.
9. Clint Bowyer Since a scintillating four-week stretch that culminated in a win, Bowyer has limped to 16th- and 29th-place runs. That said, he’ll be a pre-race favorite in Loudon this Sunday.
10. Martin Truex Jr. Truex is still hanging tough at seventh in the point standings, but a win would go a long way in securing a spot in the Chase.
11. Jeff Gordon Somehow brought a wrecked racecar home to a 12th-place finish. Still 87 points out of a Chase birth.
12. Kevin Harvick Congrats to the Harvicks on the birth of their first child, Keelan Paul, born on Sunday.
13. Joey Logano Currently occupies wild card spot No. 2 — but it’s oh-so-close in the mid-teens.
14. Kyle Busch If it’s not mechanical woes that fell Busch, it’s a Daytona “Big One.”
15. Carl Edwards Thirty-two points out of 10th in the standings and desperately scrambling to get things on track.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
The race may have ended Saturday night, but the smoke has yet to settle following the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway — both literally and figuratively.
Defending series champion Tony Stewart did what few could Saturday night, passing Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle for the lead. The two were attached at the bumper and out ahead of the pack for the majority of the night, leading a combined 124 of the 160 laps. Yet in the final frantic laps, Stewart was able to work with Kasey Kahne and push around the pair on the outside.
Earning his third victory of the year, Stewart tied Brad Keselowski with the most wins this season, and further solidified his spot in the Chase. Aside from a 32nd-place finish at Kentucky, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have one win and four finishes of third or better in the last five events.
The two-time champion typically hits his stride during the summer stretch, and that seems to be the case again this year, so the competition should pay heed at New Hampshire, a track where Stewart owns for victories.
At times is seems Stewart performs at his best when faced with adversity and distractions abound for his organization at the moment. With the U.S. Army pulling all funding from NASCAR at the end of the year and Ryan Newman's name coming up in the Silly Season talk, Stewart is going to have to start answering questions soon.
However, there are bigger controversies, more time for that to develop, and Smoke just so happens to be heading to one of his best tracks, statistically speaking.
Over the past two seasons, Stewart has one win and two runner-up finishes in four races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That 24th-place finish in the other event? He led 100 of the 300 laps, but ran out of fuel on the final lap giving the win to Clint Bowyer in September 2010.
Stewart-Haas Racing was the class of the field in this race last season when Newman led the organization to a 1-2 sweep of both qualifying and the race. Newman also led 62 laps in September's Chase race, but was among those short on fuel in the closing laps.
Despite a win this season, Newman currently trails Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in the wild card standings. A strong run (or a win) would move the No. 39 team closer to the championship battle.
Bowyer, the Sonoma winner, is another driver with his eye on the wild card standings. After scoring the win on the road course, Bowyer has dropped from seventh to 10th in the standings after a 16th at Kentucky and wreck-induced 29th in Daytona.
Bowyer is strong in Loudon though, with two wins and four top 5s in his 12 visits, however, also has seven finishes of 17th or worse. He has led a combined 229 laps in the last three New Hampshire races, with one win (Sept. 2010), a 17th and a 26th after running out of fuel with the lead in the final laps.
Five Favorites: Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin
The aforementioned wild card battle continues to intensify with each race, as Busch, Logano, Newman and Kahne jockey for the final two Chase spots over the next eight weeks. The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Busch and Logano currently hold the two transfer positions, but there is a lot of racing left before anything is decided.
While Busch has been trying to kick the trend of poor finishes, Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s in the last five races. Along with his strong runs on the Cup slate, Logano has also been tearing things up in the Nationwide Series (four wins, a fifth and a sixth in the last six events), leaving the 22-year-old feeling comfortable and confident behind the wheel, despite being a prominent figure in the Silly Season rumor mill.
The July New Hampshire race has been good to the driver of the No. 20 Toyota throughout his young career. In his three July starts at the “Magic Mile” Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s. Logano has not fared as well in the fall race, however, with three finishes outside the top 20 in four attempts.
Look for the trend of strong runs to continue this weekend as Logano and crew chief Jason Ratcliff go after their second win of the year, positioning themselves for a Chase berth.
Five Undervalued Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton
Tradition vs. Change. Shorten races vs. keeping them the same. Tandem drafting vs. pack racing. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council faced many choices with this week’s NASCAR survey.
There was more, including what has been the biggest surprise of the season to how they graded last weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Daytona. The opinions vary — and in some cases are quite strong. Here’s what the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say about these issues.
Tradition vs. Changes, which one matters most to you?
Former champion Jeff Gordon was asked during a media session last weekend at Daytona about possible changes for the sport. Part of Gordon’s response included this statement: “What is more important — history and tradition or the most entertaining form of racing?” The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was asked that question — what means more to you? Tradition or changes to make the sport more exciting?
67.2 percent said traditions
32.8 percent said changes to make the sport more exciting
What Fan Council members said:
• Gimmicks are the road to ruin. This is a great sport, making changes to appease the fly-by-night fans will just alienate your most loyal fans while temporarily pleasing those who will leave you inevitably to follow some other trend.
• It's sad that some people need to be entertained. I prefer to keep the traditions. That said, I would understand if NASCAR was forced to make changes in order to compete. I just hope they realize they can keep the traditions while adding extra entertainment.
• I love the traditions, but I have to confess: If the entertainment value doesn't increase, I won't be watching much longer.
• I’m not an old fuddy-duddy veteran fan complaining all the time about these changes. I only started watching in 2005. I was confused by all the constant changing and thought it was strange. But isn’t the racing better?? I think so.
• This one was easy for me. In my opinion, history and tradition are exciting. I understand the need to tweak things now and then because the cars have changed and the level of competition has become more level. But major overhauls, such as instituting a playoff system where one was not only unnecessary but doesn't fit the sport, don't work. They provide a temporary shot of interest among non- or casual fans but when that dissipates (as it has done), the sport is left with unhappy core fans that are less prone to instill a love of the sport in their kids, which in turn creates a void in the fan base in the next generation.
• I think NASCAR is one of the few sports that have changed to make it more exciting. Traditions and history only will get you by for so long.
• It's nice to know we have input to NASCAR. At some point, the line needs to be drawn. The show is the show. Not all races are awesome and not all are stinkers. Whining about every flaw leads to constant criticism of our sport. NASCAR seems to be in good shape compared to some other forms of motorsports (AMA). I don't know exactly what criteria NASCAR uses to make changes, but I'd like to think they use surveys like this one.
• I would rather stick to our roots. Trying to give the fans what they want, in my opinion, has made the racing worse. Look at the All-Star Race in May. That race turned into a race of strategy rather than a showdown for a million bucks. Also, look at Bristol.
• I'm all for keeping the traditions in the sport so long as the teams are allowed to innovate and compete to be the best. If that doesn't happen, then you have to go the route of the WWE and do tricks to make the races/racing more exciting. There has to be more excitement even in the long races. Drivers/teams are riding around in the first half to 3/4 of the races just logging laps and then the exciting racing starts. Sad.
• Get back to basics and the numbers will improve.
• Sometimes traditions hinder progress.
What races need to be shortened (if any)?
NASCAR Chairman Brian France said last weekend at Daytona that series officials would look to shorten races, noting it has “worked well” at Auto Club Speedway, Dover and Pocono. Fan Council members were asked what races, if any, needed to be shortened.
35.6 percent said the Atlanta race (500 miles ... last year’s race was 4 hours, 0 minutes)
34.9 percent said Texas fall race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 16 minutes last year)
34.2 percent said the Texas spring race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 7 minutes in April)
29.5 percent said “None”
27.4 percent said Charlotte fall race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 25 minutes last year)
26.0 percent said Talladega fall race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 29 minutes last year)
18.8 percent said Talladega spring race (516 miles with GWC ... was 3 hours, 13 minutes in April)
(Every track received votes, but no other track received more than 15 percent of the votes)
What Fan Council members said:
• This makes no sense at all. Why would anyone want the races shortened? Are they going to reduce ticket prices by an equal ratio? Doubtful.
• Just about anything with a 500 after it should be shortened.
• Might as well shorten both ’Dega races if these guys are just gonna ride.
• The race I really think needs shortening is the Coke 600. I know it's traditionally been the one marathon race, but we saw this year that with the style of racing we're seeing the extra 100 miles is dreadfully boring.
• Stop catering to ADD Nation! The sport needs a few long races. The Coke 600 and Southern 500 should never be shortened.
• For me, the races don't need to be shortened because of the time of the race (with few exceptions). They need to be shortened to prevent drivers from riding around until the end of the race. The plate races are the prime example of this. But we see this at a lot of tracks. I think the road courses, Phoenix, NHMS and a few other have races that are about the right distance.
• I'm never in favor of cutting from any race. If you need to cut laps and miles from a track to make a race more interesting, maybe you should be taking a look at the product that's being put out there.
• I wouldn't mind the length of any race if they actually raced. I'm sick of them riding around for two to two-and-a-half hours and then racing the last 50 to 100 laps.
• No sir, no sir, no sir! Do not shorten any more races!
• I think the time from Atlanta is deceiving because there were so many cautions for the bad weather.
• I think there needs to be only three races longer than 400 miles: the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 (at Darlington over Labor Day weekend) and the 600-miler at Charlotte. These days the cars and drivers can handle the 500-mile length no problem, so it's no longer a matter of whether they will last the grueling length. Now it's drivers just logging laps in the middle, so let's cut that down some, especially at the cookie-cutter tracks.
What’s been the biggest surprise of the Cup season?
36.9 percent said Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick among winless drivers this year
30.4 percent said Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing after the season
13.4 percent said lack of cautions this season
8.2 percent said Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s strength
7.2 percent said success of Michael Waltrip Racing
3.9 percent said “Other”
What Fan Council members said:
• The big names who are winless is a HUGE story, but things happen. The Kenseth story is UNBELIEVABLE and I never thought it would ever happen.
• I HATE Toyota, but MWR has been a huge surprise, I have to admit.
• I'm in total disbelief over Carl's season. Something's gotta give. And since when did he become Jack's red-headed stepson?
• There are a lot of mid-season surprises, but I am most surprised at the lack of wins and great performances from drivers like Edwards, Harvick and Gordon.
• Danica Patrick still running after both Darlington events. Anybody who understands the nature of that beast would have bet against it.
• I would have picked Junior’s strength a couple of weeks ago, but I still can't believe that Kenseth is leaving Rousch Fenway after so many successful years there.
• Lack of cautions is really making this boring, but with the way the CoT has been, it's not a surprise when NASCAR isn't throwing cautions for water bottles. Dale Jr. is the big one for me. We all knew he had the equipment and was getting accustomed to Steve Letarte, but he is far more confident and focused than I've ever seen him. He's not just doing the best he can to get in the Chase as his main goal. He BELIEVES he can win
• AJ Allmendinger getting suspended for failing a drug test eclipsed my surprise at Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing. I initially ignored the mentions of Matt's contract because I fully expected him to re-sign with Roush. I was surprised when the rumor began that he was really a free agent. AJ's suspension 90 minutes before (Saturday night’s) race came out of left field.
• The lack of cautions is by far the story this year. That long green run at Texas brought it to the forefront. When there are green flag pit stops at Martinsville, you have a problem.
AJ Allmendinger issued his first public comments Tuesday since NASCAR temporarily suspended the Penske Racing driver before last weekend’s race at Daytona for a failed drug test.
“I have informed NASCAR that I have requested that the ‘B’ sample be tested, following the steps according to NASCAR’s 2012 rule book regarding this situation,” Allmendinger said in a statement.
“I fully respect NASCAR's drug usage policy and the reasons they have it. I am hoping this can get resolved as quickly as possible so that I can get back to driving the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge. I am sorry that this has caused such a distraction for my Penske Racing team, our sponsors and fans. Obviously, I would never do anything to jeopardize my opportunity here at Penske Racing or to my fellow drivers. I am very conscious about my training and health and would never knowingly take a prohibited drug.”
Penske Racing previously announced that Sam Hornish Jr. would drive for Allmendinger this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He drove for Allmendinger at Daytona, arriving from Charlotte, N.C., shortly before Saturday’s race and finished 33rd.
Allmendinger’s test results should be known later this week.
If his “B’’ sample affirms the previous drug test, then Allmendinger would remain suspended and be given a program he would have to undergo to regain his status to race in NASCAR. If his “B’’ sample disproves the previous sample, Allmendinger would be reinstated immediately.
With only a one-year contract with Penske Racing, Allmendinger’s future is further clouded. Car owner Roger Penske spoke on Sirius XM’s NASCAR Radio on Tuesday about Allmendinger’s future.
“I think that we’ll have to assess this situation,” Penske said. “You know, it’s something you just don’t do overnight. We’ll look at the details and understand it and we’ll make our moves accordingly. But at this point it would be way premature for me to speculate on what we might do. I think we’ve got to focus on our team and NASCAR, we’ve got good momentum and we’ve got to finish out this season strong. This will, obviously, the outcome of this will dictate what will be the future from the standpoint of ourselves and any member of our team that would be in this situation.”
Here's hoping all the NASCAR fantasy players out there had a happy and safe Fourth of July holiday. After a week of firework displays around this great nation, the grand finale will come Saturday night under the lights at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 — let's just keep Juan Pablo Montoya away from any jet dryers, OK?
In all seriousness, this weekend's annual July stop at the beach is one in which drivers are racing with multiple agendas on one of the sport's biggest stages. Each time the series heads to Daytona, nearly anyone in the field has a shot at upsetting the world — or at least scoring a solid finish at a crucial part of the season.
With only nine races left before the Chase field is set, the battle for the wild card spots and the fight for the top 10 in the standings is intensifying.
Perhaps one of the biggest names currently outside the top 10 in points looking to score his first win of the season this is Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards. Last year's runner-up in the championship battle has yet to win in 2012, and currently sits 11th in points.
Edwards had a deceptively strong run going in Kentucky, but a late pit stop for fuel dropped the No. 99 Ford to a 20th-place finish at the end of the night. The finish was Edwards' fifth-straight outside the top 10. To find Edwards' last top-5 finish, you would have to go back to Fontana in March. Edwards did not lead a single lap of competition until Kansas, when he led one, then backed it up at Richmond by leading 206 of the 400 laps. Since then, Edwards has led a grand total of zero.
However, things have been shaken up of late at RFR. Daytona 500 champion and current points leader Matt Kenseth will be leaving the organization at the end of the season with Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moving up to the Cup ranks as his replacement. With a multitude of sponsorship support behind him and many beginning to ask questions, Edwards is determined to turn his season around at the halfway point.
The driver of the No. 99 has been among the best on the high banks of Daytona in recent visits. He was runner-up to Trevor Bayne in last year's Daytona 500. He entered last year's Coke Zero 400 the points leader, but was turned around while running third early in the race by teammate Greg Biffle, leading to a 37th-place finish. This season, Edwards sat on the pole for the 500 and came home eighth. And if there’s one thing that’s obvious in the Ford camp, it’s that their engineers have figured out how to keep the Blue Ovals running cooler — a major advantage on the plate tracks, circa 2012.
Looking to race his way back into the top 10 in points, earn his first win of the season and turn his year around, Edwards is this week's fantasy favorite.
While Edwards may be the fantasy favorite, the perennial fan favorite is Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has two wins on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, one of which came in the Coke Zero 400 on July 7, 2001. With Saturday night's race coming on July 7 once again, could seven be the lucky number for Earnhardt?
Although he is always counted among the best at Daytona — he finished second to Kenseth in February — Earnhardt's last win on the high banks was in 2004. With one victory already this season, the No. 88 team is eager to add to the win column and start collecting bonus points for the Chase.
Whether or not drivers are willing to admit it, momentum is a hard thing to beat, and right now Brad Keselowski has a lot of it. Coming off a strong performance last week in Kentucky, Keselowski’s three wins lead the circuit. He’s good on all types of tracks (with wins on short, plate and intermediate venues), making him a must-watch.
Based on their recent finishes at Daytona, never count out Edwards’ Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Biffle. Kenseth was second in this race last season and won his second Daytona 500 in February, while Biffle was third. The Roush cars are typically strong here, with former driver David Ragan besting Kenseth last July.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Like Keselowski, Sonoma race-winner Clint Bowyer proved he can get the job done on any style track — but especially on the high banks of Daytona and Talladega. His average finish of 14.8 at DIS is second-best among active drivers, however Bowyer has yet to score a win at Daytona.
Also like Keselowski, Bowyer has momentum on his side as the series hits the halfway point of the season. A winner two weeks ago on the road course, Bowyer is seventh in the standings and has only two finishes worse than 17th all season (a 30th, Phoenix; 36th, Kansas).
The month of July has historically been good to Bowyer in the past. Of the three tracks the series hits this month — Daytona, New Hampshire and Indianapolis — Bowyer has two wins, a pole, six top 5s and 12 top 10s. Expect him to add to those totals on Saturday.
Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (please don’t call it the Pepsi 400 — Firecracker 400, however, will be accepted) marks the halfway point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
The year’s third restrictor plate race was once run on the morning of the fourth to beat the oppressive North Florida heat and humidity. “On the track by 11:00, on the beach by 2:00,” was the mantra before lights and night racing. NASCAR’s signature speedway has endured wildfires and truck fires in recent years, as well as Turn Two disemboweling itself in the middle of an event, but all should be solid as we’re knee-deep in the Summer Stretch. And as the championship chase begins to take shape, the contenders have begun to separate themselves from the pretenders. Unless, of course, it’s 2011 and you’re Tony Stewart, stumbling into the Chase like the town lush, but suddenly start running like Tony Stewart once the title fight begins.
But I digress. Let’s review our current top 10 in points, how they got here, and who on the outside looking in has to get their stuff together if they have any hopes of contending for the Cup come September.
1. Matt Kenseth
Wins: 1 (Daytona 500)
Let’s see, Daytona 500: Check. Points leader: Check. Bailing on team mid-season: WTF? Kenseth’s announcement that he is leaving the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford at season’s end sent shockwaves through the fanbase. His likely destination appears to be Joe Gibbs Racing, although a proposed Andretti Autosport venture into NASCAR with Dodge assistance has been bandied about. It’s bad enough that Jack Roush’s former flagship No. 6 has been mothballed, but now the tried-and-true driver of the No. 17? Tragically coincidental — since it was the original driver of the No. 6, Mark Martin, who sold Roush on Kenseth, convincing him to field the No. 17 Cup ride for him in 2000. The last driver to win the Winston Cup in 2003 has been a model of consistency this year, much as he was that season. Kenseth’s low-key demeanor and approach will likely serve him well during what will prove to be a tumultuous few months in the Ford camp. With a win, eight top 5s and 12 top 10s to his credit this year, if Kenseth and the Wisconsin Mafia can keep the distractions at bay they very well could exit in style, giving Roush his third Cup Series championship. But distractions and fallout associated with being a “lame duck” lurk around every corner.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Wins: 1 (Michigan)
All together now: “JUUUUUNE-YEEERRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!” Finally, after 143 races and four years of futility, Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke into the winner’s circle at Michigan, the site of his last win in 2008. That victory did more for the psyche than the stat sheet, as Earnhardt is what Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket would deem, “Definitely born again hard.” With a win, seven top-5 and an even more impressive 13 top-10 finishes, the No. 88 team has done more in four months than it had in the last … well, forever. Credit Steve Letarte and Rick Hendrick, who essentially put Earnhardt with Jeff Gordon’s former team last season. The Prince of Kannapolis is doing his fans proud, so don’t be surprised to see a lot of old, red No. 8 gear being dusted off and thrust back into service in the coming months. Take heart Junior Nation — you’ve earned it, and your man is back near the top. Junior hasn’t been in a fierce title battle in so long, it’s hard to predict what type of showing he’ll make. But if a late-season slide doesn’t derail his momentum (and with Letarte calling the shots, it shouldn’t), Earnhardt is looking gbetter than he has in … well, forever.
3. Jimmie Johnson
Wins: 2 (Darlington, Dover)
Oh yeah, don’t forget the “other driver” at Hendrick Motorsports. When he’s not cruising around with Mr. H on his windowsill, Jimmie Johnson is just being Jimmie Johnson; going about his business with painful precision and without much fanfare. Like a Glock pistol, he may be short on flash and flair, but he is dead-nuts reliable and never fails when the money is on the line. His nine top 5s and 13 top 10s are the most in both categories, and should serve as a harbinger of things to come in the fall. As in the past, the No. 48 team vets and fetters out the junk and finds what works during the summer months, then sets “phasers to kill” come September. For those who have tired of the “Five-Time” moniker, don’t worry. You may be calling him “Six-Time” by Thanksgiving.
4. Greg Biffle
Wins: 1 (Texas)
Biffle started off the season strong, posting a trio of top-3 finishes in the first three races. He made a mockery of the last half of the April event at Texas Motor Speedway, and led the points from Las Vegas in early March until a 24th-place finish at Pocono, when he surrendered the top spot to his soon-to-be former teammate, Kenseth. A Roush veteran since his 1998 Truck Series debut, Biffle will prove to be the backbone of the team with Kenseth’s impending departure. While the No. 16 team started strong, it has stumbled in recent weeks, posting two sub-20th-place runs in the last four races. It was the No. 16 team that stopped Roush’s win skein in 2010, when the company got off track with misleading data simulation and sucky software on the engineering side. If there is a trend that must be watched with this bunch, it is that Biffle tends to go through crew chiefs quickly. Eight top 5s and 10 top 10s are a testament to his consistency, as well as the effect that current chief Matt Puccia has had for the driver who is in position to be the first in NASCAR history to win a championship in all three touring series.
5. Denny Hamlin
Wins: 2 (Phoenix, Kansas)
What a difference a year makes. This time last season, Denny Hamlin was, to be honest, a mess. With three top 5s and six top 10s, coupled win a number of cryptic comments made during interviews that at best sounded whiney, Hamlin was still suffering the side-effects from his team’s 2010 implosion. Now with a new attitude and re-found mental toughness (and 2011 championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb making decisive calls), Hamlin has a pair of wins, and eight top-5 finishes. Those runs account for nearly all of his top 10s, and it must be noted that he has two DNFs in his last three races — courtesy of a fiery exit in Michigan and the front bumper of teammate Joey Logano at Sonoma. If Hamlin can keep from getting wrecked or exploding — and a TRD IED does not find its way between the fenders of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota — he will likely find himself in contention to win the title, as he was in 2010. This time, however, he will be better prepared mentally and strategically to contend.
6. Kevin Harvick
The driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet hasn’t had a lot to brag about this year — but he hasn’t had much to really complain about, either. Usually the first one to ride his crew if they make the smallest of errors, Harvick has achieved his position not so much with poise and audacity, but on reliability and finishing races. A smattering of eight top 10s and three top 5s is decent, but not exactly championship caliber. If Harvick were to have a catastrophic failure in the coming weeks — which would lose him say, 40 points — the impact would be significant, and could potentially drop him out of the top 10 in points. He’s gotten by on a number of eighth- to 14th-place runs, but if he’s to solidify his place in the Chase, the No. 29 operation as a whole needs to step it up on the track, in the pits and in the garage while prepping the car for Sunday.
TV coverage, traffic and the racing at Kentucky were on the minds of members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council this week. With the recent complaints about commercials, especially during the Kentucky race, members were asked if Pay-Per-View should be an option. Members also discussed if they were satisfied with the fixes to the traffic situation to go to Kentucky Speedway and what they thought of the racing there last weekend. This is what members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say:
Would you subscribe to a Pay-Per-View channel to watch races without commercial interruption if that was offered?
In light of the complaints about commercials interrupting NASCAR broadcasts, particularly the last couple of weeks, Fan Council members were asked if they would consider subscribing to a Pay-Per-View service to watch races without commercials if that was offered.
64.7 percent said No
35.3 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• Definitely! Hard to know what would be a fair price ... maybe $300 for the season. The frequency and repetition of ads is out of control. Casual fans, who are not also following scanners, Twitter, etc, are never going to sit through trying to watch an entire race as poor as the broadcasts are now.
• That's a terrible idea and it would just bring the ratings down even further. You will not gain viewers by raising their cable/satellite bill. The race still being shown in the corner of the screen is good. More of that could help.
• I wouldn't just for the fact it would be crazy expensive. If you look at the cost of what it is to actually run a commercial during these races and how the economy is still shaky, it would not be a good thing to do. With Twitter, RaceBuddy (for TNT at least) and streaming car/driver audio on my Sprint phone I actually don't mind the commercials. I can still keep up with the action. Worse case: I will listen to the race on the radio before I would pay for a premium channel.
• I cannot stand commercials. Considering it already costs me money for cable each month as well as two TiVo's, the thought of spending more money to see a race is not high on my list. But most likely I would do it when it came down to it. Now, I TiVo a race and watch it later in the day so I skip the commercials anyway. TiVo has spoiled me ... I find it so hard to sit and watch anything live these days!
• We miss so much of the racing action due to the number of commercials, it would be a great idea to offer Pay-Per-View for Cup races.
• No, because we are already paying for cable, plus that is one of the reasons I have PitCommand.
• TV cable subscriptions are already outrageous. The best solution is watch on DVR and fast forward through the commercials.
• There are many more ways than ever to follow the race live now days, so people should just shut up about commercials and enjoy the racing!
• I pay enough already for my cable subscription. In this economy I can't afford more costs to watch TV. I agree that there are too many commercials, but my complaint is that the broadcast misses important parts of the race during commercials and doesn't catch the audience up when the commercials are over.
• If I had the funds available, I would in a heartbeat.
• I AM NOT gonna pay every week for something I have been watching for free since I was a kid. Besides, the way the racing has been lately, why would I pay to watch that either?
• Yes! I never thought I'd say this, but after this season's broadcasts, I would definitely pay for a season of real racing coverage. I like the DirecTV broadcasts but they tend to have the same four or five drivers on every week — if I could see more of the field, more of my driver, and more racing, I would pony up the bucks.
Would you consider going to a race at Kentucky since traffic was not as big an issue as last year?
51.1 percent said Yes
48.9 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• Not yet. It appears the traffic outbound was still an issue, and some of the improvement inbound was probably due more to less attendance. Needs a few more years of seasoning before I'd consider it. Plus, I’m not exactly sure the track has the most exciting racing.
• I went last year and due to the (traffic) nightmare did not renew for this year. I said “yes,” I would go back. May take me another year or so as it sounds like leaving still has issues.
• Yes, they fixed the problem and it would be a great place to see a race.
• Went last year via backroads; went this year all highway and it was a breeze!
• I would keep Kentucky on the list of tracks I would consider going to since they apparently fixed the traffic issues. The first few years of Texas Motor Speedway were a nightmare for traffic also.
• I really wanted to go this year, but with last year's horrific traffic problem I wanted to wait and see if the changes made a difference. I always go to the Michigan and Road America races. Don't know if, financially, I can go to three races in a row. Guess I better start saving now.
• Went last year, camped and avoided the traffic mess, but it (was) still the most miserable experience I've ever had at a race track. No coolers, no porta-johns in parking lots or campgrounds, boring race, not to mention watching the traffic at a dead stop as the race started, and eventually seeing that same traffic turned around because they couldn't get in. I will never spend another penny at Kentucky.
• I would have gone regardless. Anybody who has been going to a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race for the last 18 years can tell you to come early, leave late and have plenty of beer. I read comments from after the race and looks like traffic ran smooth, which is good for Kentucky Speedway. Now, maybe some of those fans that skipped out will come back.
• After last year, it was the last place I wanted to go. Seeing how they improved it so much, I think that I will move it up the list.
• I will consider going back. I had season tickets for several years before this year but had no desire to go back after last year.
Grade Saturday's Cup race at Kentucky.
59.2 percent said it was Good
27.7 percent said it was Fair
7.5 percent said it was Great
5.6 percent said it was Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Worst race I've ever seen, plain and simple. TNT will have to really outdo themselves to do a worse job broadcasting.
• Had everything. Racing, fuel mileage, changing track conditions, enough cautions to let people fix their cars and come back from bad adjustments. That was about the best racing I've seen this season.
• Too many commercials and not enough racing. Only the fact that Brad won gives it a fair rating.
• At least this race had some drama: Kyle Busch having issues, Kasey Kahne coming back from a lap down to finish second, Carl Edwards and others trying to stretch fuel.
• Clean air was so important — the car out front could just get away. There apparently was some good racing in the field (you could find a little of it on RaceBuddy) but for those of us watching the TV broadcast, it was all about mashed potatoes vs mac 'n' cheese, and that was just TERRIBLE. I actually gave up watching the telecast, switched to social media and was streaming Dr. Who on Netflix instead.
• I graded it fair, because the last few restarts got lively. I don't know which was more boring, Sonoma or Kentucky. Somewhere Pocono is laughing and saying, “Yes, I'm no longer hated!! Thank you for repaving me!!”
• Glad that Brad won, but the race itself, with all the commercial interruptions, was boring. No passing except for Kahne at the end of the race.
• I was there and was bored. I still found myself scrolling through Twitter to stay in touch.
1. Jimmie Johnson Lost a shot at the win during the final restart in Kentucky when he picked up trash on his tires. Managed to rebound to sixth after a quick backslide, his 13th top 10 of the season.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Was never a factor for the win at Kentucky, but ran consistently in the top 10 most of the evening before climbing to fourth at race’s end.
3. Matt Kenseth A classic Kenseth performance, he was invisible all Saturday afternoon, but popped into the top 10 after the sun went down and drove to seventh, retaining the points lead.
4. Tony Stewart There’s a sizeable gap between the top 3 and the rest of the field. Smoke was the victim of electrical demons in his ignition system and was most likely cursing NASCAR’s EFI system and that damn KFC commerical the rest of the night.
5. Denny Hamlin Fifth- and third-place runs bookend 34th- and 35th-place showings. When he stays out of the wrecks and the suspension holds up, he’s as good as creamy mac 'n' cheese.
6. Clint Bowyer String of top 10s ended at Kentucky when Bowyer became the victim of Ryan Newman and Joey Logano’s dust-up on the front stretch.
7. Greg Biffle Was a 10th- to 12th-place car until he thought his tire went down late. The pit stop resulted in a 21st-place showing and a drop in the point standings, to fourth.
The equipment and team help but Dale Earnhardt Jr. says a key reason for his success in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this season is crew chief Steve Letarte.
Since being paired together last year, Earnhardt has scored one victory, 11 top-five finishes and 25 top-10 finishes in 53 races.
Thus, since they’ve been together, Earnhardt has finished in the top 10 in nearly half the races. The last time he finished in the top 10 in more than half the races was 2004 when he was fifth in the points.
Earnhardt’s 13 top-10 finishes this season are already one more than he had last season and equal to the number he had in 2009 and ’10 combined.
While Letarte and his crew provide Earnhardt with fast cars, Letarte also has helped his driver’s confidence.
“Steve Letarte has made me calmer and more productive in the car,” Earnhardt says. “He gets more out of me as a driver and brings the best out of me. I’m better at completing races, putting together full races, not getting upset with the car, not getting frustrated and sort of botching the whole deal or sabotaging the race.
“He’s brought a lot of good things out in me and brought a lot more confidence. I’ve got a lot more confidence. Confidence is half the battle when you’re out there competing. If you don’t have any confidence, you just can’t get anything done.”
That is helping make this a special summer for Earnhardt. He’s often struggled in this stretch of races from June to August, but not this year.
He finished fourth at Dover for his first top-10 result there since 2007. He placed eighth at Pocono for his third consecutive top 10. He won at Michigan for his first top-10 run in his last four races there. While he’s never finished in the top 10 at Sonoma, he was 13th until he was collected in a last-lap crash and finished 23rd. He recovered by placing fourth at Kentucky a year after finishing 30th there in the inaugural event.
“We’ve had a pretty good summer so far, so if we can keep that going I’m going to be real excited about the rest of the season,” Earnhardt says.
As the Cup Series heads to Daytona for Saturday night’s race, Earnhardt will be looked upon as one of the favorites. Daytona is fun again for him since tandem racing no longer dominates that event.
“I think things have gotten a lot better with the rules they (NASCAR) made for this particular season,” Earnhardt says about plate racing at Daytona and Talladega. “We’re racing more, we’re not tandem drafting all the time so your race really is in your own hands, and what you do with it and what you make of an afternoon is really up to you and you alone for most of the event. So I kind of like that.
“That’s the way I’ve always thought racing should be. We never had racing where you were so dependent on another car until we had the re-paves at Daytona and Talladega and tandem racing came around. It was OK to watch, and I think some of the drivers probably enjoyed it, but for me it was just the opposite of a driver’s instincts.
“But, the rules have kind of moved away from that a little bit and hopefully that is the way it stays. Hopefully we will keep going in the right direction to get it to where it’s you against 42 other guys.”
NUMBER CRUNCHING Dale Earnhardt Jr. has completed all 5,027 laps run this season. Matt Kenseth is next, completing 5,026 laps and Greg Biffle has completed 5,025 laps. ... Jimmie Johnson has led the most laps this season at 811. Greg Biffle is next at 527 with Jeff Gordon third at 421. ... Paul Menard has the most consecutive top-10 finishes at Daytona entering this weekend with three. He was ninth in last year’s Daytona 500, eighth in last July’s race and was sixth in February. Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano each have two consecutive top-10 finishes at Daytona. ... Since winning at Daytona in July 2009, Tony Stewart has not finished in the top 10 in the last five races there. Kentucky winner Brad Keselowski has never finished in the top 10 in Cup at Daytona in six attempts. His best finish is 15th.
PIT STOPS Saturday’s Daytona race is the 18th in the 36-race Cup schedule, marking the halfway point of the season. ... Bill Elliott will drive the No. 50 car this weekend at Daytona as Turner Motorsports makes its Cup debut and has Walmart as sponsor. ... Joey Logano makes his 100th career Nationwide start Friday at Daytona where he won last year’s event. He’s had 14 wins, 47 top-five finishes and 77 top-10 finishes in his first 99 starts in that series, making his debut in 2008.
by Dustin Long
Follow Dustin on Twitter: @DustinLong
Over the past three weeks the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has run on new surfaces twice at Pocono and Michigan. While Kentucky Speedway is not a new surface, Saturday night's Quaker State 400 is only the second Cup Series race on the 1.5-mile tri-oval. So while teams will have a slightly better idea of what to expect with the notes built from last year’s event, Kentucky Speedway still presents some unknowns.
One team that was a cut above the rest last year was Kyle Busch and his Dave Rogers-led No. 18 team for Joe Gibbs Racing. After scoring a victory in the Camping World Truck Series at Kentucky, Busch dominated the inaugural Cup event, leading 125 of the 267 laps en route to the win.
Yet, entering this weekend's race, Busch has been forced to swallow a string of poor finishes over the past month. After his Richmond win in April, Busch was able to score three-straight finishes of fourth or better. However, since the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, the No. 18 team has two DNFs, three finishes of 29th or worse with a best finish of 17th, which came last weekend in Sonoma. Busch commented on his poor luck earlier in the week through Twitter, saying he even bit through his tongue while eating lunch. Sometimes when guys have a string of bad luck, it's hard to kick.
Given his performance at Kentucky over the years in various series (and especially in last year's race), I expect Busch to knock the monkey from his back and get back to his contending ways.
If Busch wants to record his second-straight Sprint Cup Series victory at the track, he will have to beat his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano. Many expected the driver of the No. 20 Toyota to be a top contender in last year's race, given his previous success on the 1.5-mile track in the Nationwide Series. However, a 14th-place finish was a lackluster showing for the driver that won three consecutive Nationwide races in Sparta from 2008-10.
This year, however, Logano has a renewed confidence with a race win while the rumor mill churns around him. The performance of the No. 20 team has improved nearly each and every week. Despite a wreck in Michigan, Logano and his Jason Ratcliff-led team have three top 10s and one victory in the last four events.
Heading into the weekend, Logano will not be entered in the Nationwide Series event, allowing him to focus primarily on Saturday night's main event. Sitting 15th in the Sprint Cup standings, another solid run (or a second win) would certainly make the Chase a distinct possibility for the 22-year-old driver.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth
When the 2012 season got underway in Daytona, few would have imagined the quiet season last year's title runner-up Carl Edwards is having.
Despite missing out on his first Cup Series title thanks to a tie-breaker with Tony Stewart, Edwards and the No. 99 team have been lackluster at best through the first 16 races in 2012. Sitting just outside the top 10 in points in 11th, Edwards has not had a top-5 finish since Fontana in mid-March.
While he finished fifth in last year's inaugural event, Edwards has victories at Kentucky in both the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series. Looking to make it three-for-three, crew chief Bob Osborne is bringing a chassis that finished ninth at Charlotte and eighth at Texas earlier this year.
Could the news of Matt Kenseth's departure at the end of season give Edwards and the No. 99 team a boost of confidence (and resources) to drive through the summer months? Perhaps we shall see Saturday night in Kentucky.
Much like Logano, Stewart-Haas Racing's Ryan Newman is sitting outside the top 10 in points with one win and hoping for a spot in the Chase by the time the series rolls into Richmond in September. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet was fourth in last year's inaugural race after losing a lap and working with crew chief Tony Gibson to use pit strategy to get to the front.
Newman will need a solid showing Saturday if he wants to continue being a part of the Chase discussion, though. After scoring his only win of the season — in dramatic fashion — at Martinsville in April, Newman has failed to score another top-10 finish. In fact, the team's best showing came at Pocono, where they finished 12th on the repaved surface.
“We need to be a little bit better,” Newman admitted. “I think we’ll get things turned around. We’re still in a championship-contending position. We still have great opportunities with another win, and we still have plenty of time to move up in the points and be in the top 10. We just have to do a little bit better of a job.”
Will this be the weekend that Newman and his SHR team turn things around? A solid showing in last year's event seems to point to another good run, but the teams’ struggles over the last few months may be too large to overcome.
Five Undervalued Picks: Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart
The divorce of one of NASCAR’s longtime partnerships has raised plenty of eyebrows this week. Matt Kenseth, the current point leader in the Sprint Cup Series, has been driving car owner Jack Roush’s No. 17 Ford full-time for over a dozen years. Only four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon, driving for Hendrick Motorsports since ’93, has been with a team longer; and only Mark Martin, a future Hall of Famer, gave the Roush organization more victories (35, to Kenseth’s 22). A former Cup Series champion — the only such driver on Ford’s current roster — 2003’s top dog, who captured NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 in February, has plenty of good years left (at only 40). Talent-wise, there are only a handful of better, more proven, drivers on the circuit.
Too bad that’s not where the real talent needs to be these days. Every charismatic move on-track has fallen flat for Kenseth in the boardroom, losing primary sponsor Crown Royal last year and struggling mightily to replace it in 2012. Patchwork deals for three, six, eight races have failed to provide long-term stability, forcing Roush himself to dip into savings and pay for several races out-of-pocket. So this divorce, like many in sports, isn’t about what happens on the track but off it, a classic case of human nature taking control. Once those bank statements dwindle, insecurity about the future trumps success in the present; at some point, the business side of entertainment has to take charge. We all have that survival instinct inside us, concerns about a paycheck causing desperation in order to salvage, retain or advance a career.
For Roush, putting long-term stability in front of loyalty has always been an easy choice. In 2004, top driver Jeff Burton entered the season without a primary sponsor, a scenario playing out remarkably similar to what we’re seeing now with Kenseth. At the beginning of the year, both sides said they would make it through the season, and then some — but by July, the sobering reality of a lack of sponsorship stepping up full-time had caused both sides to start “cheating” behind the scenes. Before you knew it, Burton left his ride midseason, jumping ship to Richard Childress Racing while being forced out by some young, upstart rookie. You see, Roush hoped that with a fast start (combined with charisma and potential) that replacement could have a better chance of attracting a Fortune 500 company to adorn the No. 99’s hood.
It was a gamble that paid off in spades. Within weeks, Carl Edwards had a multitude of top-10 finishes and a multi-million dollar backer. One year later, he finished the season third in points. His tenure with Roush has included AFLAC once sponsoring his car for the princely sum of $26 million a year. With the move, Roush’s No. 99 went from his biggest expense to his source of greatest excitement; just last season, Edwards and Co. came within one on-track position of a championship.
So here we are, in 2012, and Roush has a young, upstart river with charisma tearing up the Nationwide Series in Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Why wouldn’t he think about rolling the dice a second time?
On the other side of the coin, Kenseth sees how Burton’s career wound up at Richard Childress Racing. There, driving the No. 31, the veteran has four Chase appearances and a handful of wins. But more importantly, Burtin has a seemingly lifetime contract for helping restore RCR to prominence. Burton’s sponsor, Caterpillar, doesn’t care about “young” or “old” and appreciates the type of spokesman Burton can be for the company. When you’re 40, having someone back you until retirement becomes a little more important — and that changes the last career decision you make as an athlete.
Joe Gibbs Racing, if that’s where Kenseth is to wind up, has had a sponsorship relationship with the Home Depot since 1999. With its main rival, Lowe’s, attached to Jimmie Johnson the school of thought is it won’t be headed anywhere anytime soon with the right championship driver behind the wheel. For a driver in Kenseth, a man who pleaded in Victory Lane last year for his former full-time backer to stay on board, the stress relief of knowing the bills are paid takes priority.
As people, we like to see the same loyalty given to friendship, marriage and even your local ice cream shop paid off by the people we admire as athletes. But sports remains the most fragile of careers, where anything from an injury to an insult can fracture relationships to the point of disrepair. For me, the surprise isn’t that Roush and Kenseth are breaking up. It’s that they were able to stay together this long.
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
1. Jimmie Johnson It’s a toss up at the top, but J.J. has more wins and, as evidenced by his top-5 run at Sonoma, is a more well-rounded driver than Earnhardt or Kenseth.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. That said, championships are not won on road courses, so Junior’s 23rd-place showing — to be fair, he ran around 15th most of the day — will not hurt his title quest.
3. Matt Kenseth Can a “lame duck” driver win a championship? We know a crew chief can (see: Grubb, Darian). We’ll find out, as Kenseth leads the point standings but has an eye on new digs in 2013.
4. Tony Stewart Stewart has always been a somewhat streaky NASCAR driver, and his third-, second- and second-place runs in the last three weeks find him on a hot one.
5. Greg Biffle Impressive seventh at Sonoma (for Biffle) finds him back in second in the point standings, just 11 points behind his Roush Fenway teammate. Kentucky should be good to him.
6. Clint Bowyer Prior to his win in Sonoma, Bowyer had clicked off three consecutive finishes of seventh or better. What was surprising was that a dirt tracker from Kansas took his first win at MWR on a road course.
7. Denny Hamlin Hamlin won earlier this season in Kansas and, let’s be honest, what’s the difference between that cookie cutter and the one in Kentucky?
8. Brad Keselowski Last season’s Watkins Glen winner only registered a 12th at Sonoma, and was never really in contention. He needs to get out of the 12th- to 18th-place hole he’s been in of late.
9. Martin Truex Jr. Truex led 15 laps and ran in the top 5 for a large part of the day until contact with Joey Logano on the final lap knocked him from sixth to 22nd. That’s tough to take, folks.
10. Kasey Kahne Pit strategy wasn’t in Kahne’s favor on Sunday. In fact, he slipped from a certain top-10 run to 22nd only to rebound late and salvage a respectable 14th-place showing.
The announcement that Matt Kenseth will leave Roush Fenway Racing after this season has been the talk of NASCAR. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council didn’t hold back on what they thought about the move on if it was good or bad for Roush and how this might impact Kenseth’s title hopes.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council also weighed in on Sunday’s race at Sonoma, who between 11th and 20th in the points will make the Chase and more. Here’s what they had to say.
KENSETH LEAVING A GOOD OR BAD MOVE FOR ROUSH?
68.3 percent called it a bad move for Roush trading a former champ for a Cup rookie
31.7 percent called it a good move, trading a 40-year-old for a 24-year-old in a nod to future
What Fan Council members said:
• Although I hate to see Matt Kenseth go, there are only so many cars that Jack Roush can put out there and if Ricky did not end up in a Cup car, then he may end up there with another team and that would be a bigger loss.
• Stenhouse will be a star. Cheaper for Roush as well. Kenseth can get on with Gibbs (if the rumors are true). WIN WIN for everyone.
• Ricky will never be as good as Matt. Matt is a great driver, has a wonderful sense of humor and he's humble. Put up against Matt, Ricky will never measure up.
• Bad move for no other reason than a continuation of the Roush mentality of abandoning career drivers for others. Nothing but money. Re: Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch. Jack Roush is a businessman that is dedicated to money, not his employees. His counter ego would appear to be Coach Gibbs.
• For the short run, I'd rather have Kenseth, but in the long run, Stenhouse will be an elite Cup driver.
• JACK HAS LOST HIS MIND. WOW what a mistake — just like some of the others Jack has made.
• As a die-hard Matt fan, I think it's a bad move and I blame it on the RFR sales department. Even in a down economy, it shouldn't be this hard to find sponsors for a championship-caliber driver on the track and a class individual off the track. Considering the same RFR sales department couldn't even sign any sponsors for Trevor Bayne after he won the 500 last year, I guess I shouldn't be surprised at their inability to do so (now).
• I can't believe the coldness with which a champion who is leading the points is dumped for a cheap, child driver. This is the same attitude toward employees that is killing this country. I'm sure Fenway had a big say in this.
• The financial environment is unwittingly making NASCAR more and more like major league sports with free agency. There is no loyalty any more, not that the teams wouldn't like to stay together, but because the finances don't work out. For whatever reason, Roush Fenway doesn't seem to be able to sell sponsorships well or at least at a level that permits them to field teams for their talent. Matt's ride this year was barely filled, and undoubtedly they all knew that sponsor commitments (or lack of) would make it impossible for RFR to pay him what his asking price was for next year.
• Kenseth is in position to win the championship and you're going to do that to him? That is beyond ridiculous. Stenhouse is a good driver with a bright future and there is no reason why they don't just bring back the fourth car since he apparently can get sponsorship and Trevor Bayne can't, which I don't understand, either.
• Stupid, stupid move on Roush's part! Wish Kenserh the best though ... as long as he doesn't go to Toyota!
• Nothing against Ricky, but if they cannot get Matt sponsorship for a full season who do they think will come aboard for a rookie with less talent?
• It's the only move Roush could make. Kenseth is going to command a very large new contract and Roush hasn't had a full slate of sponsors for him for a couple of years now. Kenseth can go to Gibbs and Home Depot and cash in and Roush can start his rebuild with a great young driver. I think Stenhouse is going to be a little like Tony Stewart: better in a more powerful Cup car than the Nationwide car. Those dirt guys love all that extra power. I think Kenseth will be a great asset at Gibbs as a calming influence, plus I think he might just have a title or two left in him. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
HOW WILL THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT KENSETH IS LEAVING AFTER THIS SEASON IMPACT HIS TITLE HOPES?
Matt Kenseth noted on Twitter that he doesn't believe that announcing he'll leave the team after this season will hurt his title chances, noting crew chief Darian Gurbb knew he would not return with Tony Stewart last year and they won a title together. Fan Council members were asked what they thought.
51.6 percent said Kenseth’s titles chances will be unaffected
39.1 percent said Kenseth hurt his title chances
9.3 percent said Kenseth helped his title hopes since there will be a greater drive to win the title in the final year with the team
What Fan Council members said:
• I believe as long as his team believes in him and themselves he has just as much chance as anyone else to win the title.
• I think he could still go on to win it. But, just like contract talks, etc., at mid-season even though they "say” it doesn't affect them they always admit when it is over that it did. It has to. A NASCAR driver ain't no fry cook at McDonalds. This is big money and big impact at a high level.
• 1. A crew chief is not as public of a position as a driver. 2. Grubb's move wasn’t made public until AFTER the championship. 3. Grubb and Stewart didn't decide he was leaving until Charlotte IN THE CHASE. You can't tell me Biffle won't get better equipment knowing he'll be there next year. This may help Carl make the Chase now.
• Matt has always said over the years that he doesn't let front office issues (contracts, sponsorships, etc.) affect his racing, so I would like to think that would continue. Being the top-tier driver he is, it's not like he needs to worry about not being able to find a ride next year (even if a JGR agreement isn't already in place).
• Matt has gained the points lead during the most difficult point in his negotiations with Roush and his future team. The announcement has been made and Matt is liberated, free from care and any consternation, free to focus on his goal of winning the Sprint Cup.
• Grubb wasn't announced. It was all internal and there were no "extra" spotlights on Grubb/Stewart. ALL eyes will focus on ANY shift in performance with Kenseth the rest of the year. Stick a fork in his title hopes.
• Can anyone say “Quack, Quack!” This might not affect Matt right now, but once he announces where he is headed and then Roush starts uninviting him to team meetings, that is when you will see the effect.
• Solidarity amongst the entire team is necessary to win a title. What Tony Stewart did last year was super-human. I do not feel Matt Kenseth is of the same caliber of driver as Tony. I feel the driver leaving a team is more troubling than a crew chief.
• I still think the championship is going to come down to Johnson, Stewart and Kenseth this year. It might be tempting for Roush to play favorites and give Biffle some extra attention, but I don't think he will — Matt has been too important to Jack's company for him to do that. I think they will end this relationship in a classy way.
• I think what Matt said is totally right. Grubb knew he was out five races early and still ended up with the title, so it doesn't really matter. It may be a slight issue, especially since Matt's directly involved with where he goes, but not enough to distract him that bad. He is a championship driver still, even as a lame duck.
GRADE SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT SONOMA
47.3 percent called it Good
32.4 percent called it Fair
10.8 percent called it Great
9.5 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• My husband and I went to the race. I felt there was a lot of single-file racing, not a lot of action and got kind of bored during the race. Still liked being there, though.
• Typical road racing, very little passing or real racing. The only saving grace was Kurt Busch's valiant challenge near the end. Otherwise, completely sans drama or excitement.
• I had no problem with the race. Some will say it’s boring, but at least there was driving ability and strategy involved in this win.
• The race itself was good — if you don't count my driver's "genius crew chief" finding another way to lose a race. The TNT coverage, however, was an unmitigated disaster, capped by showing the GWC restart through the BACK of the grandstand. Seriously. They did that. I don't know how ANYONE would have found Sunday's telecast compelling.
• I thought the duel at the end between Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer was awesome. The rest of the race was so-so.
• I graded this race as fair just because for some reason there was no excitement. I'm not one that needs cautions or wrecks to have excitement but this race was just plain boring. But then again they all can’t be awesome all the time.
• I was there, and it was AWESOME!!
• Not crazy about road courses, but TNT's coverage just about ruined it all for me. Not quite sure about all that went on as they really showed none of what was happening. The lack of cautions and the bad luck my driver faced is making me rate this race as only “fair.”
• Had really high hopes for this race, but it turned out to be a real snoozer
• This was by far the WORST telecast of the season. Stuff was happening left and right and TNT completely ignored it or did a poor job presenting it. Even later on they would not go back to (or mention) important race happenings. Shame on you TNT. Thank goodness for Twitter so I actually knew what was going on with my driver and with the race.
Perhaps Clint Bowyer’s win on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., should not have come as a surprise. After all, the seven-year NASCAR Sprint Cup veteran had recorded four top 10s in six starts at the 1.99-mile course prior to Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Still, Bowyer, a Kansas native with Midwest dirt-tracking roots, has never been considered anywhere near a “road course ringer,” as the NASCAR types like to label those who excel when turning left and right.
But Bowyer, crew chief Brian Pattie and their Michael Waltrip Racing crew became the eighth different team to go to Victory Lane at Sonoma in as many visits, fending off a feisty challenge from Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart in the final laps on the 12-turn road course.
“Quietly, we’ve had good runs here,” a beaming Bowyer said following the win. “This is probably, quietly, been one of my favorite racetracks.”
The victory was Bowyer’s first of the season and the first for MWR’s No. 15 team — a group pieced together late last season — and one Bowyer referred to as a bunch of “refugees.”
“Basically, (I) kind of lost my ride at RCR (in 2011), walked into a new program with a lot of unknowns, and I had a lot of confidence in what was going on,” Bowyer said of what brought him to MWR. “I still had confidence in myself. Michael, Rob Kaufmann (co-owner), everybody involved with MWR, paired me with Brian Pattie and paired me with a lot of good people and that’s what it takes to be successful in any good business and NASCAR racing is no exception.”
Pattie’s “refugee” status was not much different than Bowyer’s. A crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Pattie was given his walking papers in mid-July with the team floundering at 17th place in the point standings (it was 21st by season’s end. Waltrip came calling in the fall).
“I was in the same boat (Bowyer) was — he lost his ride and I lost my job,” Pattie said. “Last summer was eye-opening for me personally and career-wise. (I) had a lot of supporters call whenever times changed at my previous employer, and I’m just blessed to be here.”
That Bowyer, Pattie and crew have pieced together nine top 10s in less than a half season together, are solidly in the top 10 in points and now have a win in their pocket to fall back on speaks to the immediate chemistry alive and well within the team. And the progress made by the organization as a whole is evident in the other cars in the stable. Martin Truex Jr., in the No. 56 car, sits ninth in points (Bowyer is seventh), while Mark Martin and Brian Vickers have split duties in the No. 55 to the tune of four top 5s.
Bowyer’s move from Richard Childress Racing to MWR was seen by some as a lateral one, at best. But the Toyota-backed company that first took to the Cup Series in 2007 has grown exponentially. Waltrip credits a better working relationship with fellow Toyota team Joe Gibbs Racing as a major reason.
“I give Andy Graves a lot of credit any time I’m asked about where we are today,” Waltrip said. “The reason for that is simple: I went to him in January of 2011 and I said, ‘Are our cars as good as Job Gibbs’ cars?’ And he said, ‘No, they are not, because you don’t trust our process.’
“I said, ‘Well, we are changing directions, and we are going to start following you.’”
While JGR has outclassed MWR in the win column this season, the latter’s consistency and reliability win the day. And Bowyer’s No. 15 team is leading the charge, riding a streak of four consecutive runs of seventh or better. For a first-year group competing against established teams with years of experience together, it makes the bunch a dangerous — albeit unproven — one as the circuit hits the homestretch to NASCAR’s playoffs.
“It’s a long row to hoe before the Chase,” Bowyer said. “Everybody is in this sport because of the Chase and you can’t win a championship without being a part of that elite group.
“I missed it (the Chase banquet in Las Vegas) last year and it sucked to sit at home and watch. I did get to deer hunt a little bit but I would much rather be partying.”
If the post-race scene in Sonoma is any indication, Bowyer and crew have the chemistry to throw the most epic party Vegas has seen in some time.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Points leader Matt Kenseth will leave Roush Fenway Racing after this season and be replaced by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the team announced Tuesday.
Reports state that Kenseth is headed to Joe Gibbs Racing although it is unclear if it will be with a fourth team or in place of Joey Logano, who is in the final year of his contract.
Kenseth wrote on Twitter: “I’m very thankful to Jack Roush for the opportunities he’s given me over the past 14 years. Together we have enjoyed a lot of success and as a team we are committed as ever to the remainder of the 2012 season and chasing a 3rd sprint cup title for Jack and RFR.
“Although I have nothing to announce regarding 2013, I feel the timing of this announcement gives RFR ample time to get things lined up. Darian (Grubb) and Tony (Stewart) proved to us last year there is no such thing as a “lame duck” team or season. We will continue to go to work and race hard.”
With the move, Roush loses the defending Daytona 500 winner but also a driver who is 40 years old. Taking over the No. 17 car for Kenseth next year will be 24-year-old Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the defending Nationwide Series champion.
“Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has more than proved his abilities on the race track,” said team co-owner Jack Roush in a statement issued by the team “We feel that he is not only a key piece of our team’s future, but a key piece of the future of the sport. Roush Fenway is an organization with a wonderful past and present, as well as an extremely promising future, and I can’t think of a better candidate than Ricky to usher in the next era of success for the team.
“Of course, I’d like to thank Matt Kenseth for his many years of loyal service. Matt has been an integral part of this organization for well over a decade, and we are extremely appreciative of his accomplishments and contributions to the team, and will always consider him a part of the Roush Fenway family.
“We’re fortunate that we were able to tap into Matt’s potential and bring him on board many years ago, and I’m proud that together we were able to combine the tools and the resources of Roush Fenway with his talent and determination to forge a partnership that yielded a championship at the Cup level and all of his 22 Cup victories, including two Daytona 500 wins. The No. 17 is positioned extremely well this season, and I’m committed to providing the team the best resources to continue their run for the 2012 championship. I have no doubt that Matt will do his part.”
Kenseth has run all but one Cup race in his career for Roush. Kenseth made his debut in 1998, subbing for Bill Elliott at Dover so Elliott could attend his father’s funeral (he finished sixth). Kenseth drove in five Cup races for Roush the following season before running full-time in 2000 when he beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. for rookie of the year honors in the Cup Series.
Stenhouse ranks third in the Nationwide standings this season with three victories. He has five career series wins in 87 starts heading into this weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway.
CHANGING WAYS Progress can’t come fast enough at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. As the NASCAR Sprint Cup season heads toward the midway point, Jamie McMurray is 20th in the points and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya is 22nd.
After an offseason of changes, the EGR teams have struggled to put together strong finishes. McMurray has three top-10 finishes and Montoya has two. At this time a year ago, Montoya was 16th in points with five top-10 finishes, and McMurray was 27th in points with two top-10 finishes.
Montoya says one must look beyond the results to see the change taking place after the it hired Max Jones as team manager in December. It was among a number of changes car owner Chip Ganassi started making last season to revamp his competition department and his teams.
“I think we’ve done a lot of progress,” Montoya said. “If you really go to the team right now and see how different everything is working, it’s pretty amazing. We haven’t had the results we want to have, but there have been a lot of really good changes and we’ve been putting people in the right place.
“Just because you put somebody in the right place doesn’t mean that overnight you are going to run better. You want to run better overnight, but things have got to change. Everybody has to adapt and it’s a process. I really feel we made a lot of gains on the car; we made a lot of gains on how the whole engine department is working. We’re definitely making progress I think.”
McMurray said the way the teams have been re-designed, its created better cohesion between them.
“It’s all for the better and Chip is still out hiring people and looking for more engineers and people to make it better than what it is right now,” McMurray said. “I think for us, my guess is somewhere around the last 10 races you’re going to see a lot of the progress. It takes time. There’s different suspensions, different simulations every week and sometimes they don’t always work. It’s kind of testing and trying to get things better. It’s a big difference than where it was a year ago.
“You don’t go from running 15th to winning just overnight. It takes baby steps. But, I feel like we’re heading in the right direction. I kind of say the last 10 races because I think it’s going to take that long to get to where we need to be.”
Earnhardt Ganssi Racing hopes to be the new version of Michael Waltrip Racing in improving its performance.
After two weeks of high speeds and flat out racing, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the twists and turns of Sonoma Raceway for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The 12-turn, 1.99-mile road course is the first test for the teams this season as they turn left and right.
Over the past few years, road course races have turned very aggressive, with more torn up racecars than some short track afternoons. These events also have a tendency to turn into fuel-mileage contests, with strategy playing a major role in how the race unfolds.
One driver that understands the importance of fuel conservation at Sonoma is Richard Petty Motorsports' Marcos Ambrose. The former Australian V-8 Supercar champion has long been known as a road course specialists, and nearly scored his first Sprint Cup Series victory at Sonoma in 2010.
After leading 35 of the 110 laps, Ambrose was attempting to save fuel under caution in the event’s waning laps by shutting his engine off and coasting around the circuit. When the pace car led the field up the hill past the start/finish line, Ambrose's car would not re-fire and dropped him back in the running order. The mistake was costly for Ambrose, who would have to wait until the 2011 race at Watkins Glen International to score that elusive first win.
This weekend, Ambrose heads back to Sonoma with much better equipment, the seventh-best average finish at the track, and is this week's NASCAR fantasy favorite.
Throughout the 2012 season, Ambrose has shown he is no longer simply a road course specialist. Sitting 17th in the series standings, he is coming off three finishes of 13th or better in the last three weeks. Despite a 32nd-place finish in Charlotte for an issue with the left front hub, the No. 9 Ford was among the fastest that weekend, as well.
Heading to one of his best tracks, Ambrose is confident in his team's ability to get the job done week-in and week-out.
“People know we’re around and it’s a good situation to be in,” he said. “I feel good about our team. I feel good about being part of the growth of Richard Petty Motorsports and I think that curve is continuing to go upwards. I think you’ve yet to see the best of us and you’ve yet to see the best of me.”
While Ambrose may enter the favorite, you can never count out five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon. The veteran driver has been nipping on the heels of solid finishes each week, but his season has had about as many twists and turns as this weekend's race.
Gordon has the best average finish among active drivers at Sonoma (8.7), and was second in this race last year. Celebrating his 20th season at the Sprint Cup level, Gordon is now the only Hendrick driver without a win this year, something that could change on Sunday.
Much like Ambrose, former open-wheel driver Juan Pablo Montoya is also considered a threat any time the Sprint Cup Series heads to the road course in Sonoma. Montoya went to Victory Lane in his first attempt at Sonoma in ’07, but has yet to record a top-5 finish since. While he has the second-best average finish (9.0), the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver was 22nd in last year's event.
While the 2012 season has been a struggle for Montoya, he is coming off an eighth-place finish last weekend at Michigan, only his second top 10 of the year. If Monotya can keep the car in one piece and crew chief Chris Heroy can play the right strategy, the No. 42 team could score some solid fantasy points.
Five Favorites: Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson
Sunday, June 17, will be remembered by Junior Nation as they day when their boy finally came home. Much like John J. did at the end of Rambo, Dale Earnhardt Jr. came full-circle, literally, this past Sunday in the Irish Hills of Brooklyn, Michigan.
After 143 races and four years of futility, Earnhardt won the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway and moved to within four points of the championship lead currently held by 2000 rookie classmate, friend and former Busch Series rival Matt Kenseth. It wasn’t a fuel mileage fluke as his previous win at MIS in June 2008; it was, as his old man once said, “an ass-kickin’!”
Since that last win a number of changes, both within his team and with the driver himself, have taken place. Truth be known, the last seven years have been less than productive for the driver whose surname is synonymous with success — as well as the entire sport in which he competes. While he has endured many unfortunate and unfair tags (there is actually a website dedicated to his drought), this dry spell of Old Testament proportions harkens back to the 2005 season.
Many are quick to jump on the bandwagon and bash a driver when he’s down. Those new to the sport that recognize the name but wonder what all the hype is about may not know the story of Earnhardt’s eight-year dilemma. It’s a long road from where he came from to get back to racing relevance in 2012. And this is how he got here:
2004: The ’04 season saw Earnhardt winning the race that took his father 20 attempts at conquering, the Daytona 500. What was a lifetime struggle for The Intimidator, Junior knocked out in only his fifth attempt. He would go on to win six races that season, and not just on the plate tracks that were the domain of what was Dale Earnhardt, Inc. during the early- to mid-2000s.
If not for a fiery accident during practice for an ALMS race in Sonoma — the site of this weekend’s Sprint Cup race — and a slight misjudgment of a pass on Carl Edwards late in the going at Atlanta with only four races to go in the championship chase, Earnhardt may have won the Cup title. There was also the matter of a 25-point fine for an innocuous slip of the tongue during his Victory Lane interview at Talladega, a reminder of how things had evolved in the sport since his late father won his seventh championship some 10 years earlier. Surely, this would serve as the springboard to propel him into the rare air of Daytona 500 and Sprint Cup champion in 2005 …
2005: The season started with a shake-up within the Dale Jr. brain trust. The idea was to end the bickering between Tony Eury Jr. and Tony Eury Sr. – his cousin and uncle who served as principles on his No. 8 team – by bringing in new chief Pete Rondeau. It was a total team swap between the flagship No. 8 and then-driver Michael Waltrip’s No. 15 machines that saw Waltrip’s results improve slightly, but sunk Earnhardt’s into also-ran status. Competition Director Steve Hmiel was installed as interim crew chief after just 11 races, with the No. 8 team winning one race, a fuel mileage gamble at Chicagoland. The rest of the season was a disaster, with finishes in the mid-30s par for course, ending the year 19th in points, well out of the Chase.
2006: Earnhardt was reunited with cousin Eury Jr. once again, and the performance returned — although it was spotty at best. A win at Richmond in the spring was his lone triumph of the year, but he did qualify for the Chase. A second win at Talladega was snatched away on the final lap, when Brian Vickers hooked teammate Jimmie Johnson on the backstretch on the final lap, who then hooked Earnhardt, sending both spinning through the infield dirt. This also began a period of instability at DEI, with more outsiders coming in to what had been a family-oriented and operated race team with its namesake driver going into the final year of his contract.
2007: Things got off to a rocky start before the 2007 season even began. At a preseason test and media event at Daytona in January, RCR driver Kevin Harvick deemed Teresa Earnhardt a “deadbeat owner” whose absence from the track was having a negative impact on the DEI teams of which she was listed as CEO. During this time, Earnhardt admitted that his relationship with his owner/stepmother “ain’t a bed of roses,” but was quick to defend her following Harvick’s comments.
It was, however, a glimpse into the dysfunction that had become DEI, as well as Teresa Earnhardt’s refusal to cut her stepson into the company that bore his name. The 2007 season also marked NASCAR’s first in-race dabbling with the first-generation CoT, and with it came a new set of challenges to compound matters.
Eury’s out-of-the-box CoT tinkering brought about a whopping 100 point/$100,000 fine, as well as a six-race suspension following discovery of illegal wing mounts to the car at Darlington. It was a harbinger of things to come, and it would end up being the first season since his full-time arrival in the series that Earnhardt failed to win a race.
The bombshell that dropped in May found Earnhardt, his sister Kelley and Eury Jr. leaving the operation at season’s end. Earnhardt and Eury headed to Hendrick Motorsports, while Kelley moved to Earnhardt’s Nationwide team, JR Motorsports.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory celebration is long over and now it’s time to look ahead. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council were asked to look ahead on what Earnhardt’s victory means related to the title race and at this weekend’s race — the first race on a road course this season. Of course, members did have time to look back at Michigan and give that race a grade.
Here’s what members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say:
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF DALE EARNHARDT JR.’S VICTORY AT MICHIGAN?
56.2 percent said it’s a sign that he truly is a title contender this year
35.8 percent said it was nice but it’s only one win, let’s not get carried away
8.0 percent said it does not matter to me
What Fan Council members said:
• I am less impressed with the victory then I am his other numbers for the season so far. Twelve top 10s, six top 5s, 218 laps led, average finish of seventh, and he has completed every lap of competition this season, all in just 15 races. The extraordinary numbers that team has posted are Jimmie Johnson-esque and are remarkable for any driver. I may not be a Junior fan, but I believe that team is the best in the garage this year and may possibly do what I previously thought was impossible and win Junior a championship.
• Junior obviously has momentum right now, but let's all take a deep breath and realize how long the season is. We're “Pro-Junior” in our household, but I'm not gonna run out and get an 88 tattoo any time soon …
• Steve Letarte has put together a team that believes in themselves and they are staying consistent. They need to win more to compete for the title, but I believe they are on the right track.
• Consistent season so far + contending for wins + second in points + a win = title contender.
• Of course he is a title contender!! Have you looked at his stats this year???
• I feel like Smoke in this regard. Glad to see it happen, but give it a rest like it’s the second coming. With Hendrick equipment, he should win more than two points races in five years. If he runs well at Sonoma and Kentucky and even takes the points lead, then I would be more impressed.
• One win in the past four years in the best equipment (in) NASCAR . It’s quite sad that there was this much celebration over it.
• He's a virtual lock for the Chase now. I expect the team to take more chances and be a huge threat in the Chase. He's got the consistency down, and now has proven the team can win in dominating fashion.
• That was a strong showing for the 88. I think this season will finally shut the mouths of some of the naysayers.
• I like Junior, but one win doesn't mean he's going to win the championship this year. Let's wait and see what the future brings.
• Don't understand all the hype! Hasn't proved anything in his career. If he didn't have the name Earnhardt, he probably would be in the 51 car!
• I thought he was a title contender even before the win Sunday (and this is coming from a non-Junior fan). He and Letarte seem to have great chemistry with each other, (and) with guys like Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards having somewhat off years Junior could definitely pull out a championship and probably spark off victory riots across the country.
GRADING SUNDAY’S RACE AT MICHIGAN
57.1 percent called it Good
29.8 percent called it Great
10.2 percent called it Fair
2.8 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Are you kidding me? Junior led almost half the race and won going away. And Kyle Busch kicked rocks while his brother kept spinning himself out. It doesn't get any better.
• When the post-race excitement matches the pre-race excitement with equally exciting racing in between, then it's a pretty great race.
• It was a lot better than I thought it would be. With all the speed/tire problems leading up to the green flag, I was afraid we were in for another gas mileage race.
• I will enjoy Michigan more when the groove widens back out to the wall
• Being there was great, even with the rain delay. The place was electric. Especially at the end of the race, I have never seen so many excited people. It was like the section I was in was holding its breath and then went crazy.
• I thought it was a very good race and think NASCAR made the right decision in the tire change.
• I attend this race every year and this one felt “racier” than normal. Perhaps the suspense from all the pre-race unknowns — tires, engines, speeds — carried over into the race.
• I thought it was a good race. Suspense because no one knew what the tires were going to do, adding to that the rain washed all the rubber off the track. The race itself was just solid.
• Today's race was the first I unhesitatingly checked “Great.” There was passing all over the place, racing three- and four-wide, hard racing side-by-side with give and go. No phantom cautions, (the) cautions (were) called when necessary, no speeding debacles or major issues with tires or fuel. I also have to give props to NASCAR for making sure this didn't turn into “Indy Tire Fiasco Part II.” They saw the probability of the race either being run 10 to 15 laps at a time or 30 cars hitting the wall at 200 mph due to tire blowouts. I'm more than willing to watch cars running at slightly slower speeds if it saves injury and/or equipment.
• Pretty interesting race with lots of storylines: Dale’s win, JGR’s tumultuous day, Kurt Busch’s bad luck continuing, tires blistering, fast speeds and other things, as well. I enjoyed it even though my driver wasn't a contender for most of the race.