Articles By Matt Taliaferro
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.
To break one trend, Marcos Ambrose knows he’ll likely endure another when the Sprint Cup Series competes at Sonoma in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday in the first of two races at road courses this season.
Ambrose, who won at Watkins Glen last year for his first Cup victory, seeks to break a string of seven different winners on road courses. To do so, he’ll have to avoid the litany of trouble that lurks on the tight, 12-turn road course.
The last couple of races on the Northern California course have featured beating and banging synonymous with short-track racing.
“It is a technically challenging track, it’s hard to make passes,” Ambrose says. “Even if it’s clean, it’s very easy to make contact.
“The drivers understand that you’re going to have to do a few bump-and-runs, and you’re going to have to make contact to win the race. We’re all prepared for that, and we all understand the consequences of that.”
Ambrose, who is 17th in the point standings, needs a victory to have a chance at a wildcard spot in the Chase.
“We still feel like we’ve got a chance to make the Chase if we can win some races,” he says. “We’ve got speed. We just have to convert those speed runs into good results.”
Ambrose has finished between ninth and 14th in four of the last five races. He goes to Sonoma with higher expectation since his racing background is in road racing.
After finishing 42nd in his first time at Sonoma in 2008, Ambrose has not finished worse than sixth since. He led 35 laps in 2010 but lost the lead when, as he was saving fuel, he turned the engine off and couldn’t restart it under caution. A few cars passed him when he stopped on course and NASCAR placed him in the lineup where he regained caution speed. Only seven laps remained and the mistake cost Ambrose a chance to win. That helped Jimmie Johnson win and continue the streak of different winners on road courses.
On the other road course at Watkins Glen, Ambrose has recorded four top 5s in four Cup starts and owns a 2.2-place finish.
Kyle Busch started the different-winner streak when he won at Watkins Glen in ’08. Kasey Kahne won at Sonoma and Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen in ’09, while Jimmie Johnson was victorious at Sonoma in 2010 and Juan Pablo Montoya was first at Watkins Glen. Last season, Kurt Busch won at Sonoma and Ambrose won at Watkins Glen.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
We’ve said all along that Earnhardt’s consistency warranted the top spot, but a lack of any wins kept him from it. Well, the 143-race national nightmare is over, and Junior can now lead the way.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Replace the engine and start in the rear of the field? No problem for Chad Knaus and crew. They just handed the ball to J.J., who drove it to a fifth-place finish with blistered tires and an empty gas tank.
3. Matt Kenseth
Third-place runs at Dover and Michigan bookend a seventh at Pocono. Kenseth maintains his lead in the point standings heading to Sonoma, where neither he nor Earnhardt are ... well, good.
4. Greg Biffle
Looked to be the class of the field on Sunday until lap 70, when Earnhardt took to the point and Biffle’s handling went away just slightly. Still, a fourth-place finish works in the grand scheme of things.
Joey Logano, you captured your first race win since 2009 less than two weeks ago. You passed a future Hall of Famer, Mark Martin, to do it. You’re now just 51 points away from the Chase with a possible wild card ticket in your back pocket. What’s next for you?
The answer, surprisingly enough, may not be Disneyworld, but the unemployment line. Unless Mickey Mouse can find a few million hidden inside Epcot Center, Logano faces the possibility that Home Depot, Dollar General and other major sponsors may start drooling over a free agent class that’s the biggest NASCAR’s had in several years. The catch, of course, is whether some of these companies will stick around or opt for a veteran considering the alarming number of blank quarterpanels of late. But assuming the money is there, the long list of drivers available could mean we have a mean game of musical chairs in a few months.
Here’s a look at how some of the major NASCAR teams stand for next year and which wheelmen could be hotly pursued as Silly Season heats up:
Driver Lineup: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne
Signed For 2013: All four.
Analysis: Think Hendrick Motorsports is slumping? Try telling that to the guy polishing the trophies. He’s been working overtime this month, as HMS has won five of the last six races (including the All-Star event) since Mother’s Day weekend. Moving forward, driver and sponsor stability should only help as it attempts to place all four team cars in the Chase for the first time in HMS history. Jeff Gordon’s a longshot there, but should he make the playoffs along with his trio of teammates, they’ll have the added benefit of avoiding a media circus over future plans. You can still win the Chase in that environment (see: Tony Stewart, cutting crew chief Darian Grubb) but it’s not an obstacle you’d like to place in your path.
Driver Lineup: Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth
Signed For 2013: Biffle, Edwards.
Analysis: Jack Roush has been publicly adamant that he wants Kenseth, the only Cup champion on Ford’s roster, signed for the long-term. And why not? He’s the 2012 Daytona 500 winner, leads the standings and has been with the team for a dozen years. But the fact he’s run the last two Sundays unsponsored — particularly the one in Ford’s backyard (the EcoBoost sponsorship means no company stepped up to cover) — is a troubling sign. Young Ricky Stenhouse Jr., one of the sport’s up-and-coming talents, is rolling over the competition in the Nationwide Series. Ideally, Roush wants to bring him up and expand to four cars, but how long can he fund Kenseth partially out of his own pocket? A similar situation occurred with Jeff Burton, in 2004 and he wound up at Richard Childress Racing despite a sterling track record.
So where would Kenseth go? Remember, Penske Racing is switching to Ford next season and has a possible opening in AJ Allmendinger’s No. 22, and there’s already a Roush-to-Penske pipeline history (Kurt Busch). I’d call it an unlikely scenario, for certain, but if the money doesn’t materialize here … it may dictate some moves.
Joe Gibbs Racing
Driver Lineup: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano
Signed For 2013: Busch and Hamlin.
Analysis: Gibbs’ contracts are a little tricky to figure out in the press — there’s no public end date for Busch and Hamlin’s deals — but it’s assumed both will be back in 2013. Hamlin, in particular, is surging back towards his 2010 brilliance with new crew chief Darian Grubb. The real question mark surrounds the No. 20, which was almost handed to Carl Edwards in 2011 before he spurned Gibbs’ advances for Ford. Logano now has a victory, but he’s still led less than 200 laps over a four-year Cup career. Rumor has it Home Depot has been looking for someone who could run up front more consistently; Kurt Busch had been mentioned as a possible replacement, pushed heavily by his brother until this month’s Dover debacle took that signing off the table.
Will Logano have yet another chance to save his job? I would have to think it’s Chase or bust despite Joe Gibbs’ vote of confidence at Michigan on Sunday. Without the postseason, summer’s success will be forgotten once the No. 20 gets ignored over the final 10 races. Ryan Newman, Brian Vickers (a Toyota guy) and possibly even Martin Truex Jr. could be available to replace him. Logic would have it Logano wouldn’t look elsewhere – this ride would be the best opportunity available for him. So it’s on the Gibbs family to decide whether Logano will ever match those lofty expectations Mark Martin anointed him with all those years ago.
Richard Childress Racing
Driver Lineup: Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard
Signed For 2013: All three.
Analysis: RCR may be having an awful season by tits standards – only Harvick is currently in the Chase – but the Childress lineup appears to be set moving forward. Burton is signed for the next two years, while Menard brings sponsorship to the table. The only question is whether Childress wants to expand to a fourth car, having equipment ready for Austin Dillon’s rookie run in 2014. Kurt Busch was briefly rumored here, but that is again off the table and RCR can easily stick with what it has. So unless a top-tier driver is available, with the right sponsor and the right opportunity, RCR is probably out of this year’s free agent chase.
Driver Lineup: A.J. Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski
Signed For 2013: Keselowski
Analysis: Now here’s where it gets interesting. With the nightmare season Allmendinger has had – six finishes outside the top 30 in 15 races – it’s hard to imagine him being re-signed. So who gets the offer? Parker Kligerman, a Newman-like prospect, has excelled in the Truck Series this season but is at least a year away. Sam Hornish Jr. has had a B-plus year in the Nationwide Series, at best, and Penske would rather put him in a third Cup car when ready than the No. 22.
That means Penske will look outside for a replacement for a ride that hasn’t won a Cup title but remains well-respected inside the garage (and has a solid sponsor). Would Penske take a chance on Logano if the youngster were set free? Or how about Regan Smith, whose contract with single-car Furniture Row is also up? Darkhorses include Kenseth, Vickers or even Stenhouse with the switch to Ford. Remember, Kurt Busch came out of nowhere the last time Penske plucked a big name – he was even under contract and had to buy out of the deal at Roush. Expect this domino to make the biggest difference in where drivers head.
Driver Lineup: Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart
Signed For 2013: Patrick, Stewart.
Analysis: Stewart has made it publicly clear he wants Newman back for 2013. What he doesn’t have right now is the money to do it. Should the U.S. Army be prevented from sponsoring a car next year, patchwork deals aren’t enough to keep the No. 39 competitive enough to Newman’s liking. On the fringes of the Chase and without a top-10 finish in two months, Newman’s team is acting like one that’s turning into a “lame duck” program. But would Stewart really be willing to stick to a two-car operation with Patrick as the only option for direct feedback? There was speculation Kurt Busch, who drives for Phoenix Racing with Hendrick chassis, could have been an option (oh, the irony in how Stewart defended him). But again, sponsorship becomes a concern — as does Stewart and Busch’s history) making this one a bit of a question mark.
Michael Waltrip Racing
Driver Lineup: Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin, Martin Truex Jr., Brian Vickers
Signed For 2013: Bowyer
Analysis: We’ll start with Truex, who is in position to make the Chase for the first time with the NAPA Toyota. Considering the auto parts company stuck through tough times in the worst of the Michael Waltrip years, it’s hard to see it leaving as long as Truex sticks around and continues to perform. Will the New Jersey native, enjoying his finest season, think this car is the best option for the long-term? As long as he makes the Chase, the answer will almost certainly be yes. If not, in-house Vickers becomes an immediate option. Martin, as always, will have the ball in his court on a possible return; at 53, he’s still driving at a 30-year-old level.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Driver Lineup: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya
Signed For 2013: Montoya
Analysis: 2010’s Cinderella story lost his slipper in the winter that year – and he’s still looking to get it back. Jamie McMurray has just two top-5 finishes in his last 49 starts, far removed from Daytona and Brickyard glory. And with sponsorship in question for 2013, so is his employment. The problem for Earnhardt Ganassi is getting a top-tier replacement to believe in the future of its NASCAR program. Despite a full-scale overhaul last season, letting longtime employees like Steve Hmiel and Tony Glover go, it’s still on pace to miss the Chase with both cars. Only once, in 2009 (Montoya), has an EGR car made the postseason, meaning only another Cinderella-in-waiting might look at that car. A long way to go, but if Allmendinger gets released, he has the open-wheel background and resume that’s perfect for that seat.
Richard Petty Motorsports
Driver Lineup: Marcos Ambrose, Aric Almirola
Signed For 2013: Ambrose?
Analysis: RPM’s possible switch to Dodge in 2013 continues to be the hot topic around the garage. A rumor the switch would be announced last weekend was firmly denied by officials on both sides — and it did not. Were it to eventually happen, it could mean tough times for Aric Almirola despite recent improvement behind the wheel. Why? Wouldn’t Dodge go after a marquis name after losing Brad Keselowski from its lineup? Ambrose, too, continues to be an enigma after a strong first season in the No. 9 Ford. Remember, he had a similar beginning driving for JTG-Daugherty’s No. 47 but by the end of his second season, a “sophomore slump” had him moving elsewhere. With zero top-5 finishes in 15 starts this season, success on the road courses will be critical to making the Chase. Without them? It’s almost certainly a disappointing year.
One thing we know for sure at Phoenix Racing: Kurt Busch will not be back in 2013, either after being kicked to the curb or signing with another high-profile ride. As for Furniture Row, Regan Smith will be a hot commodity and this time, it’s going to need to show improvement for him to re-sign. The team had recently pursued sponsorship to land Busch and may need to expand to keep last season’s upset Southern 500 winner.
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Four years and 143 races. That’s how long it had been since NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had won a Sprint Cup Series race.
In that time, the sport’s favorite son went from wildly popular to wildly questioned. The theories from fans and talking heads alike grew in relation to his winless skid: Would Earnhardt ever be a championship contender again? Heck, was he even capable of engineering a race win? Was he all “show” and no “go?” Had the surname simply carried him this far, to a cushy ride at stock-car behemoth Hendrick Motorsports? Was he the Anna Kournikova of NASCAR, or a great athlete slumping beneath the pressures of his singular situation?
The answers, of course, are as elusively undetermined as the questions are radically rash and, often, unfair, borne out of ignorance of the sport, the driver and/or the circumstances that have shaped his career. But that comes with the territory when a legion of fans — residing within the sport and in the hazy midst of casual onlookers that value sticks ’n’ balls over gears ’n’ lugs — expect, then simply yearn, for results. Big-time results. Race-winning results. Results that are assumed when interest resides at a fever-pitch.
All that said, Earnhardt’s 2012 season has been more successful than most in the Sprint Cup ranks. A series-best 11 top 10s in the season’s first 14 races — including two runner-up and two third-place showings — found him second in the point standings. He and crew chief Steve Letarte have been on the brink of a return to Victory Lane, but until the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, it had eluded them.
On Sunday, that consistency was trumped by dominance, as Earnhardt led a race-high 95 laps en route to a nearly 4.5-second win over Tony Stewart.
It was a performance that harkened back to his six-win season in 2004.
“I feel like we are getting stronger,” Earnhardt said of his team’s performance. “One of the things that we did last year throughout the season was kind of maintain, and I was a little — even though I was happy as hell to be with Steve and be able to run well and be competitive — I was a little disheartened that I didn’t progress through the year. I didn’t find more speed as the year went on.
“This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick and we have gotten quicker, and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that’s been a thrill for me.”
His No. 88 team certainly did not disappoint on Sunday. With a repaved racetrack, record speeds and new tires flown in to curtail blistering, the event had the feel of a perfect storm —a perfect storm of uncertainty, that is.
But while other drivers came and went — Stewart, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth all spent time atop the pylon — Earnhardt’s crew took one big setup-adjustment swing in the early stages of the race and left the driver to do the rest. It worked, as Earnhardt ascended to the point on lap 70 and remained there for 95 of the remaining 130 circuits.
From the mountains of Pennsylvania to the rolling hills of Michigan, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400.
Racing on yet another repaved track, teams have two test sessions throughout the day on Thursday as they attempt to get acclimated with the new track surface, the higher speeds and how tires will react.
This is another great opportunity for NASCAR fantasy racers, as drivers will be in and out of the media center throughout the day providing insight that could go a long way when making your final lineup decisions.
While all teams will have the opportunity to hit the track for an extra day of testing, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya conducted a two-day tire test in April. Each of the drivers complimented the new surface's grip and indicated speeds were among the fastest they have experienced.
“This place is fast. I mean fast, fast,” Montoya said following the test session. “Our minimum speed this morning was over 180 mph through the corner when you think about it. We are doing easily over 210 mph at the end of the straight.”
Teams have backed that up as of mid-morning on Thursday, as drivers were clicking off average lap times of 200-plus mph. For perspective, Martin Truex Jr. was recorded at 218 mph going into Turn 1.
Already in the backyard of team owner Jack Roush and Ford Motor Company, the additional test in April should pay huge dividends for the current points leader, Kenseth.
Kenseth calls Michigan one of his “favorite tracks throughout the season,” and has two wins, 11 top 5s and 16 top 10s in 25 starts there. Veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig admits he has little use of the mountains of notes compiled prior to the April test session — instead, he will fall back on what they learned over that two-day period.
“There was a ton of grip, and I assume it would be a little faster as the track gets dusted off and rubbered in, so speeds should pick up a bit,” Kenseth said. “When we were in race trim, we were almost four seconds faster than we were racing last year, which is quite a difference.”
Taking the points lead for the first time since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Kenseth enters this weekend with a 10-point advantage of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For Earnhardt, the arduous task of ending his 143-winless streak returns to the site of his last victory. Coming off one of his strongest performances to date in Hendrick equipment at Pocono last week, Earnhardt and the No. 88 team head to Michigan with Victory Lane at their fingertips.
After leading 36 laps and finishing eighth last week, the frustration was clear on Earnhardt's face after he climbed from the car. Do not mistake this frustration as that of years past, though. Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led team are one of the most consistent teams in the series right now — with a circuit-best 11 top 10s this season — yet the one thing eluding them is a win.
Since his ’08 win, Earnhardt has only one top 5 and two top 10s on the two-mile D-shaped oval, with three consecutive finishes of 14th or worse. However, with the new racing surface, teams have thrown out their notes from previous years. While the No. 88 team did not take part in the April tire test, Hendrick’s No. 24 did, which may pay dividends.
That fact might have been evident in Thursday's test session, as Earnhardt was one of the fastest cars of the day, topping 200 mph (more than six mph faster than Ryan Newman's qualifying record set in 2005).
Other drivers to consider as favorites this weekend are Keselowski, the hometown hero, two-time Michigan winner Gordon, and Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards.
Five Favorites: Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards
The last time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was in Michigan, it was Kyle Busch that survived a green-white-checker finish to score the win. Busch has suffered from inconsistency over the years at MIS, but finished third and first in both races last year, leading a combined 81 laps.
Coming off consecutive engine failures at Dover and Pocono, Busch fell three spots to 12th in the series standings. While it is certainly not time to panic, Busch and the No. 18 team would be a lot more comfortable racing through the summer stretch inside the top 10 in points. Busch was also among the fastest cars in Thursday's test session.
Michigan has been known to be tough on engines, so be mindful of Joe Gibbs Racing's powerplant issues of late and chose carefully.
After slipping up in the final laps last week in Pocono, veteran Mark Martin heads to Michigan looking for another solid run. With 52 starts at MIS, Martin should be a threat again this weekend as he has five wins, 18 top 5s and 31 top 10s, giving him the seventh-best average finish among active drivers. And he — like many — was fast on Thursday, being the first to break the 201 mph barrier.
Much like Busch, however, Martin and his Toyota engines have suffered from issues throughout the year. In his 11 starts this season, Martin has had two engine failures, at Kansas and Charlotte.
It is hard to imagine five-time champion Jimmie Johnson could be an undervalued pick in any sense of the imagination. However, Michigan is one of only five tracks the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has yet to win. Despite having the 10th-best average finish, Johnson has come up short in each of his 20 starts here — and on a couple of occasions, coming up short has meant running out of fuel on the final lap.
Last June, Johnson struggled here, starting 21st, failing to lead a lap and coming home 27th. When the series returned in August, though, Johnson drove from a 19th starting spot up to a second-place finish, leading 18 laps in the process. Over the course of his last seven Michigan starts, Johnson has only two top-10 finishes, but has led an impressive 323 laps.
Kevin Harvick also enters this weekend's race as an undervalued pick. The Richard Childress Racing driver has the ninth-best average finish at Michigan, but was fast in Thursday's morning test session, breaking the 200 mph barrier.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman
Jerry Springer and NASCAR? A special Twitter page for NASCAR and a unique race at a unique race track. Backseat Drivers Fan Council members had much to debate this week and they didn’t always agree. Here’s what they had to say about this week’s issues:
“THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW” SPONSORING A TEAM?
FoxSports.com reported that Phoenix Racing has had talks with officials from “The Jerry Springer Show” about the program possibly sponsoring the team. Fan Council members were asked what they thought about this possible union:
39.2 percent said it was horrible and would only reinforce stereotypes of the sport and should be nixed.
35.5 percent said it was great to see a potential new sponsor possibly help a team that needs it.
25.3 percent didn’t care about the issue.
What Fan Council members said:
• Jerry Springer's show represents the very worst of American culture. We don't need that in NASCAR. Our fans represent the best in our culture — love of family, love of God, love of our country and military. Those two don't mix, and we don't need new fans that bad.
• Bringing a new sponsor into NASCAR is always a good thing. If the sponsorship goes well, it could open the door to other sponsors coming into NASCAR. And thinking that "The Jerry Springer Show" will only reinforce stereotypes is already stereotyping “The Jerry Springer Show." Seems like a double standard.
• It is a tacky idea — tackier than the Ricky Bobby car. NASCAR wants to be seen as a world-class sport enjoyed by smart, sophisticated viewers. Consorting with “The Jerry Springer Show" does not sound like a world-class move.
• Not so much reinforce stereotypes, but just give it a trashy image, after all that's what that show is, trashy. I don't think it's a good idea for the sport.
• Sponsors are REALLY hard to come by right now. I don't think the sport can afford to turn money away. As far as reinforcing a stereotype, let's face it, there is SOME commonality between NASCAR and Jerry Springer. Do you want to alienate ANY fans right now because you think they are "redneck?"
• If “The Jerry Springer Show” can air on regular television, it can certainly sponsor a team in NASCAR.
• I know sponsorship is hard to come by but PLEASE!!!!! This will only serve to reinforce the bad behavior already set forth by Kurt Busch!
• As a sport that is characterized as being only for rednecks and white trash, we should look beyond the money. I'm often told at work that perception is reality. I can hear the pundits laughing at us NASCAR fans already. The stick-and-ball reporters would jump at the chance to ridicule racing rather than learn about it.
• Really I have mixed feelings. On one hand it's a sponsor that I'm sure Phoenix Racing could bring on and it would help their team. On the other hand, I'm certain people will look at the deal and Jerry Springer on the car and the WWE references will start. Probably Kurt Busch can create enough controversy without Jerry Springer's help.
• Any sponsor is a good sponsor! Not really, there is a line, but each car owner should draw their own line. Who am I to tell a car owner whose money he should and should not accept? I get to pass my judgement by choosing which drivers I support.
• Stupid idea. NASCAR already has the reputation of being nothing but rednecks. Add to that Kurt Busch's comments about how NASCAR needs to be more like WWE. Credible sports don't need that.
• Money is money.
NASCAR debuted the #NASCAR landing page on Twitter that provided a place for fans to check out various tweets with #NASCAR in it. Fan Council members were asked what they thought of the site.
57.7 percent didn’t look at it.
23.5 percent said it was OK.
11.1 percent were disappointed in it.
7.7 percent really liked it.
What Fan Council members said:
• OMG it was gr8t. ROTFL at some tweets.
• I already follow who I want on Twitter, so I probably will not use it all that much, but I still think it is a neat idea.
• So sick of hearing about Twitter all the time. I just want to see the race, I REALLY don’t want to see what Timmy in Texas thinks of Jeff Gordon's bad luck on my screen. Way too much Twitter involvement. Please make it go away. #goaway
• They didn't keep up with all the tweets like I had hoped. But still pretty neat.
• It would probably be better for someone who isn't already on Twitter, who wants to get a sampling of the types of things they might see there. Although the sheer volume of tweets was a bit overwhelming. I already follow a variety of media people, drivers and their wives, and team PR people, all told less than 30 people, and the number of tweets during a race in my own timeline can get hard to keep up with.
• It really just looked like my NASCAR list. I thought it was to help fans interact with others, but I didn't see that. It’s a cool concept, but I'm sure it will get better as the weeks go on. Totally not what I thought it would be I guess.
• It was great. Great way to see what was happening all over twitter and not just who I follow. The interaction was great. I am really excited to see where this can go.
• Had more important things to do. Like watch the race.
• The best part of the page is the picture stream. The tweets follow too many teams I'm not interested in, so I'll continue to stick to my personal timeline & lists, and I look at the raw #NASCAR stream if I'm looking for particular reaction to an event or news.
• The first round was a complete failure. There were tweets at the bottom of the page that went back to June 2nd. Meanwhile, in the unfiltered #NASCAR stream, tweets were as hot and heavy as ever. Updates were scarce on the official page and seemed to almost come to a complete stop sometime after halfway. I really wish this would succeed but it needs a heck of a lot more work.
GRADING SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT POCONO
58.8 percent called it Good
28.9 percent called it Great
8.2 percent called it Fair
4.1 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Best Pocono race I have seen in many years!
• Take away the pass by Logano to take the lead it was a poor race, plain and simple.
• I was dreading this race as I normally do in the summer schedule. However, it was good. The repave, speeding penalties and cautions made this usually boring race watchable.
• Hubby's first race, and we stood for about 75 percent of the laps! Great competition, great resurfacing job, great turnout!
• Best Pocono race I have ever seen.
• Once we got the speeding penalties out of the way, I loved the race. When the race was over, I was ready for more laps!!
• Yes, this was an odd race. However, the whole speeding penalty thing really showed who was paying attention and it made it very interesting. The race was a good length and there were multiple cautions to help mix things up. Also nice seeing a driver who really needed a win actually get one this season.
• Who knew that Pocono could be that great. Usually even I am fighting the urge to nap during the middle of the race. It was the perfect length and the action was great.
• I rated it "Good." It was actually pretty "Great." I'm just sour that the 88 (car) didn't get it done.
• This was the first time ever I have gave a race a "GREAT" checkmark. It was one of the best Pocono races I’ve ever seen. I had friends that were there and they said it was just as awesome in person. Gotta give props to NASCAR & the track owners for making the race great.
A SECOND CHANCE FOR POCONO?
Last week Fan Council members were asked if they cut four races from the current Cup schedule what four races those would be. Both Pocono races ranked among the ones fans would cut with the Pocono August race rated as the No. 1 race to cut. Yet, last weekend’s Pocono race earned praise from Fan Council members with 87.7 percent of the votes listing the race as either Great or Good — only the Martinsville race this season has received a higher combined percentage (89.9). Fan Council members were asked if they would reconsider how many races Pocono deserved in a season:
56.1 percent said one race only
39.5 percent said two races
4.4 percent said zero races
What Fan Council members said:
• I live 25 miles from Pocono and get sick of hearing everybody bitch about it. They deserve two races. They always have better than average attendance and the speedway has gone out of their way to jump through all the hoops NASCAR has asked them to. New paving, pit road, inner wall, fencing, better seats, parking and traffic control. A shorter race made it more competitive. That facility is now right there quality-wise with Charlotte, Richmond or anywhere else. God bless Doc Mattioli, but since his grandson Brandon took over, Pocono is light years ahead of where it was. That is an A-plus facility — I don't care how pissed Dale Jr was about having to be there for five days!
• Pocono is still on the bottom half of my list of favorite tracks.
• I have been to many Pocono races over the years. They were always too long and quite frankly the last three or four were boring. We stopped going two years ago. I picked Pocono as a race to be dropped. After (Sunday’s) race, I have changed my mind. If they can consistently put out a race like (Sunday’s), they deserve to have two.
• It had more action than Bristol, but I still think it deserves one race only.
• I'm still saying only one race. Yes, I enjoyed the race despite certain things, but I think only once a year is fine. Sometimes a race that has two races doesn't always deliver in the second race. Only a few tracks can do that. Talk to me after August.
• I was wrong last week. The new track and shorter miles have made this a much better race.
• No way this track deserves two dates, but I can deal with 1 date because it is a unique track on the schedule.
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.
One race can reveal only so much about a season but could Sunday’s event at Pocono forecast the future for some drivers? Joey Logano, AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch are among those trying to solidify their status for next season, yet Pocono pulled them in opposite directions.
One of the biggest questions from Sunday’s race is what did the victory do for Logano’s future with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Logano presents an interesting case. For all the talk that he has not fulfilled his potential, remember that he’s only 22 years old and now has two Cup victories. Jeff Gordon didn’t win his first Cup race (the Coca-Cola 600) until he was 22. Gordon’s second win (Indianapolis) didn’t come until days after he turned 23.
Logano’s win Sunday, though, was his first top-five finish of the season and only the second time he’s led a race this year.
“For sure right now my future is not set with anybody,” Logano said. “You need to go out there and win races. To get this win means a lot. It's at a perfect time.
“My hope is to obviously stay with what I’ve got. But you never know. You know, those things go back and forth and switch around a lot, and all I can do is stay focused on my job, and that’s driving the race car.”
Allmendinger, hired after last season to replace Busch at Penske Racing, hasn’t had it as good this season. Foxsports.com reports he’s in a contract year and Sunday’s race typified his struggles this season. He was collected in a crash on the second lap and finished 31st — the third time he’s placed 30th or worse in the last four races.
“In my worst nightmare, I didn’t think the season would go this bad,” Allmendinger said. “You’ve got two options: you quit or you keep working harder. I’ve been six years in this. I’ve experienced bad stuff before in NASCAR, so I ain’t going to quit. We’ll just keep working harder. We’ve got to figure out how to turn it around. It’s tough. I definitely don’t want to be in this position, nobody does.”
And then there’s Busch, who needed to prove he could avoid issues outside the car. That lasted barely a third of the way through the season after NASCAR suspended him a week for verbally abusing a reporter. The incident happened with Busch already on probation for incidents during and after the Southern 500 last month.
Tuesday, car owner James Finch met with Busch about his future with the team and later announced that Busch will continue driving for Phoenix Racing.
Those are just a few of the drivers who could switch teams after this season. Ryan Newman’s contract expires at season’s end, as does Martin Truex Jr.’s. The Sporting News reports that Matt Kenseth’s contract is up — but he’s expected to remain at Roush Fenway Racing — as is Jamie McMurray’s at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Regan Smith’s at Furniture Row Racing.
It likely will come down to sponsorship and what drivers companies want. Logano has the opportunity to rise among the free-agent list but he must back up his win with more strong finishes. If not, he could be bypassed for a ride by those also looking for a job next year.
FAST TIMES For the second weekend in a row, the Cup Series races on a repaved track. This time it’s Michigan International Speedway, where speeds neared 215 mph in a recent tire test.
“I did the tire test there, but it was a very comfortable feeling pace,” Jeff Gordon said. “The cars drove really good. They stuck to the race track. I like the tire that Goodyear brought there. Just like (at Pocono), we just need the groove to widen out a little bit. That is only going to come with laps.”
Points leader Matt Kenseth, who also participated in the tire test, said he’s not worried about the speeds.
“If you go off into Turn 1 and blow a tire at 200 (mph) compared to 207 or whatever we’re running now, I don’t know it’s much of a difference because you’re still gonna hit something pretty hard,” he said. “Other than that, it’s not any harder to drive here. It’s actually probably a little bit easier just because it’s not bumpy and the line is pretty defined where you’re going to run.”
SPONSOR SEARCH CONTINUES Todd Bodine won the Camping World Truck Series race earlier this month at Dover without a primary sponsor and also didn’t have one at Texas last weekend. Red Horse Racing owner Tom DeLoach recently shut down Daytona winner John King’s team for lack of sponsorship, leaving Bodine and Timothy Peters.
What happens to the two remaining teams will depend on sponsorship.
“My wife Janet is working really hard on getting us sponsorship and she's actually having some success,” Bodine said. “We’ve got some major corporations that are interested in doing things, unfortunately their time frame doesn't work the same as it does in our world. We need it yesterday and they're OK getting it five months from now.
“There’s three different deals, three different corporations we’re talking to and they all three called up and said they wish they were on (at Dover). That's a good thing.
“I can't speak for Tom saying that we're going to continue without sponsorship. But, I think Tom sees the light at the end of the tunnel and knows this is a great opportunity for his race team. Not only for right now, but for the future and when you see that kind of opportunity, there's times when you have to dig deep and keep going. I think that's where we're at.
“All I can say is stay tuned — we have a lot of great things happening at Red Horse Racing.”
PIT STOPS Clint Bowyer on if he’s surprised by some of the struggles at Richard Childress Racing, his former team: “I’m not there anymore. I guess you never wish bad things upon anybody, but if you’re not there anymore, you don’t really care as long as they are behind you.” ... Jimmie Johnson on his hunger for a sixth title: “That desire is there, and when that desire fades I guess it’s time to hang up the helmet.” Tony Stewart, after Tuesday's tire test at Bristol: "You've definitely lost the top groove. There's going to be less room to race, that's for sure. We've gone from a three-groove track to two grooves."
by Dustin Long
Follow Dustin on Twitter: @DustinLong
Of all the race tracks to add a little spice to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Pocono Raceway was not expected to be it. A 2.5-mile, flat tri-oval that’s seen its share of strung-out racing, the speedway was also recently repaved — a move that doesn’t lend itself to door-banging action.
Sometimes, though, the racing gods smile on the fans when and where they least expect it.
After a bizarre first half of the race that saw numerous drivers get penalized for speeding on pit road and an event that appeared to be heading toward a fuel-mileage finish, a driver looking to break a 104-race winless skid used a bump-and-run move to get by a respected series veteran. And for the driver in question, a fuel-mileage win was the last thing he wanted.
Joey Logano, his future with the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team highly-speculated, used the ol’ “chrome horn” to scoot by Mark Martin with four laps remaining in the Pocono 400 to earn his second career Sprint Cup Series win in his fourth season on the circuit.
“You work so hard to do this, and them (JGR) teaming me up with Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) has been an awesome experience,” Logano said. “We’ve been growing together a lot lately and able to make our cars better. To get a victory, it meant so much, and pulling the Home Depot car into Victory Lane at a Sprint Cup race and winning it the right way was just an amazing, amazing feeling that you can’t replicate and you can’t explain what it means.”
Logano’s only other win came at New Hampshire in his rookie season of 2009, the result of a rain-shortened finished that saw his team gamble on staying out while others pitted. It paid off, as Logano, at 19-years-old, became the youngest winner in Cup Series history. The Pocono win, in contrast, was won not on strategy or weather, but on speed and pure racing.
“That feels awesome to win one the right way,” Logano yelled on his in-car radio as he took the checkered flag. “No stupid rain!”
Martin held on for second, while Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.
“It’s not how I would have done it,” Martin said of Logano’s bump-and-run move to get by. “But certainly if I’d have had a fast enough car, he would have gotten a return. But I couldn’t quite keep up with him.”
Logano’s move came after a restart with eight laps remaining. Martin, who restarted second, got by Logano and was pulling away. However, Martin’s Toyota wiggled in Turn 3 with five laps to go. The loss in momentum allowed Logano to close the gap down the 3,740-foot frontstretch, and as the two entered Turn 1, Logano nudged the rear bumper of Martin’s car. He sailed by on the low side and quickly scooted away, winning by nearly one second.
Fuel became a concern late in the going. When Kasey Kahne brought out a caution with 22 laps remaining, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had led 36 laps and was running third, pitted to top off the tank in his No. 88 Chevy.
However, fuel never factored, as an additional yellow for debris waved with 11 laps to go. The drivers that did not pit earlier — namely Logano, Martin, Stewart, Johnson and Hamlin — were able to conserve enough gas under the caution periods to make it to the finish without incident. Earnhardt settled for an eighth-place showing.
Points leader Greg Biffle limped to a 24th-place run after engine issues ruined his day. He surrendered the championship points lead for the first time since gaining the spot after the third race of the year.
Biffle’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, inherits the lead on the strength of a seventh-place finish at Pocono. Earnhardt sits 10 points back, while Biffle falls to third.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
The last five days have become the most memorable of Kurt Busch’s 12-year tenure in NASCAR. The next five may ultimately determine the rest of his career.
Following a terse exchange with long-time NASCAR reporter Bob Pockrass following Saturday’s Nationwide race at Dover, Busch was suspended by NASCAR until June 13 for showing disrespect towards a media member. Since, Busch’s car owner, James Finch, has been less than supportive of his driver, making cryptic comments regarding his future with the No. 51 Phoenix Racing team. Absent is the fatherly concern and support that Joe Gibbs showed brother Kyle following his dust-up at Texas Motor Speedway last fall with Ron Hornaday Jr. in a Truck Series race. Instead, Tuesday’s comments on Sirius XM NASCAR were those of an old-school racer, legitimate tough guy, and an owner who finds himself at the same Busch-induced crossroads as Jack Roush and Roger Penske before him.
“It’s going to be race-by-race. It’s not going to be probation with us,” Finch said. “Here’s the deal: Quit wrecking the cars, get a good finish, be nice to people. That’s not real hard to do.”
Finch also says that if further tirades ensue, he will permit a member of the crew to, “go upside (Busch’s) head with a crescent wrench.”
So how have things gone so wrong so quick for Busch? Two weeks ago I wrote a column declaring that he was the right driver to take over the reins of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Home Depot machine. Following Saturday’s incident, JGR president J.D. Gibbs said that Busch is, “no longer on our radar.”
The stage for the Axl Rose of auto racing’s downward spiral into obscurity has been built over the course of a number of run-ins throughout the years.
Busch made his first career Cup start at Dover (coincidentally) in Sept. 2000, closing out the year by replacing Chad Little in the No. 97 Roush Ford. In just his fourth race at Rockingham, Busch raised the ire of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who harassed Busch for a few laps to where NASCAR issued a warning to Junior, instructing him to back off. The incident was Busch’s first interaction with the media, and even then in his young career, he gave a typically articulate, well-reasoned response about trading paint with a name of racing royalty.
It also set a long-standing precedent that Busch would not back down to anyone in the sport — be it another driver, opposing crew, or even his own team owner.
In 2001, Busch began his first full season in Cup, and in October at Phoenix his now-legendary tiff with Jimmy Spencer began. Feelings between the two escalated through the ’02 season —particularly after a bump ‘n’ run at Bristol — and at the Brickyard 400, Busch found himself in the wall early in the event – and then slapping his backside and pointing to the rear of the field as Spencer drove by. What followed was Busch’s now-epic line, referring to Spencer as a “decrepit old has-been”. The feud culminated in the Aug. 2003 Michigan race when Busch was popped in the nose by Mr. Excitement following a tirade that was picked up by Busch’s in-car audio and camera.
Spencer isn’t the only driver to have taken a swing at Busch. Tony Stewart allegedly punched him following a practice incident at Daytona in 2008. He would be docked 100 points later that year when, at Dover (naturally), he drove his car alongside Stewart’s on pit road in disgust, nearly hitting a crewman in the process.
In ’04, Busch won the inaugural Chase for the Sprint Cup, which until last year’s tie, was the narrowest championship margin in history (eight points). In late ’05, Busch jumped ship at Roush Racing to take over the iconic Blue Deuce for the retiring Rusty Wallace at Penske Racing. With just two races remaining in the season, Busch was pulled over during race weekend in Phoenix, and was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence. Busch was less than cordial with the officers, accusing one of being a Jeff Gordon fan while asking the one question anyone who is anyone should not: “Don’t you know who I am?”
Busch was suspended by Roush for the final two races of the season, the team issuing a release that stated they were, “done being Kurt Busch’s apologists.”
Since then it’s been a steady diet of water bottle chucking, press release ripping, going after reporters, and team radio rants that sounds more like excerpts from Full Metal Jacket than Days of Thunder. His radio tirades, in particular, have become the thing of legend, abusing his crew, crew chiefs, the sanctioning body, and team owner. From wishing he could drive his ill-handling car head-on into the wall to knock himself out, to addressing team owner Roger Penske as “dude,” Busch has been able to maintain rides based on his talent and ability, not through timely charm or faux sincerity.
Things reached a crescendo in 2011 when at New Hampshire (strangely, not Dover) his car failed pre-race inspection in the second Chase race. He had a bit of a meltdown during driver introductions, and snapped at ESPN’s Jamie Little en route to the grid. After falling out of the race at Homestead eight weeks later he was less-than-enthused about waiting for a TV interview with ESPN reporter and longtime NASCAR personality Dr. Jerry Punch. The ensuing tirade was caught on a fans’ smartphone, uploaded to YouTube, and led to his ouster from Penske Racing — making him a driver without a job just two months before the season was to begin.
That aside, the reason for Busch’s Pocono suspension is a bit muddy. Busch was asked by Pockrass, a reporter well-respected among his peers and a long-time member of the media corps that covers the sport weekly, if he was forced to race Justin Allgaier differently, since he was on probation. Allgaier was making aggressive moves toward Busch during the race after some incidental contact on the first lap. His reply was classic Kurt, but as things have turned out, not in a good way:
“It refrains me from not beating the s*** out of you right now, because you ask me stupid questions. But since I’m on probation that’s probably improper to say as well.”
Mind you, Busch essentially confirmed the same question when interviewed by Punch just a few moments earlier. Perhaps more telling was Busch’s follow-up comment of, “you’re in this just to start stuff, it’s all you’re out here for.”
In my mind, the comment to a member of the media did not warrant the suspension. Had there not been a camera present to record Busch’s comments, I doubt we’d even be having this discussion. The totality of his history the past two years of being less-than-polite with media members factored into the decision — particularly during a time when the sport is working hard to rebuild it popularity following a decline in viewership and attendance. This appears to be one guy having a lingering beef with another, which now stands to jeopardize his career.
Not to get all paternal and go the “this hurts me more than it hurts you” route, but perhaps this is what Busch requires to, as Finch says, “get his head right.” The cracks have begun to show the last few weeks, from a palatably tense exchange with reporters outside of his team hauler at Charlotte, to discussing a controversial pit road incident with Ryan Newman at Darlington which saw the 13th of 14 damaged Phoenix Racing machines in 2012. Busch is auditioning for a ride this year and has been working harder to get more out of the equipment than it’s capable of providing.
Busch was knocking on the door of a top-5 run at Darlington when he got into the wall causing a flat tire. He was in contention for a win at Talladega until he was inadvertently turned by former teammate Brad Keselowski late in the going. During qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 he lost it in qualifying and nosed the car into the backstretch wall. Combine those with his short fuse, a will to win and get back into a top-tier ride, and you’re mixing nitro and glycerin in a 9,000 rpm tumbler.
Also working against Busch in his dealings with Finch, in that he leads the Sprint Cup Series in wrecks this year with five – both uncharacteristic for the driver and unsustainable for a small, independent team. The tiny Phoenix Racing group of 18 is short on resources and sponsorship. Typically, when you paint your car like Ricky Bobby’s “ME” car from Talladega Nights, things can’t be on solid financial footing. No word yet if Clyde Torkle’s “Chicken Pit Special” will on the car for Atlanta in September.
Before everybody goes piling on and kicking a man when he’s down (which is America’s second national pastime), not all of the wrecked cars have been Busch’s fault. As well, despite the owner’s frustration with the situation, Busch maintains the support and admiration of his current crew chief, Nick Harrison.
“The whole deal has been blown out of proportion,” Harrison said on Tuesday. “Kurt’s under the microscope right now and I just wish people would leave him alone and let him do his job. Yes, Kurt has a strong personality, but when he’s out of the car, he’s just one of the guys. He’s one of us. That’s hard to find in the garage these days.”
Even Finch relented that not all of Busch’s undoing has been of his own doing:
“I think the media needs to back off a little bit. They need to stop agitating him. I mean, what can I do? Put a muzzle on him when he gets out of the car? Hide him in a box? He’s got the most talent out there right now. But he’s been over-driving the car and he needs to settle down, win a race or two and let things settle down.”
What has resulted is the worst of both worlds: a championship-winning driver working hard to rebuild his reputation, driving a largely unsponsored car for a small team in an economy that cannot support a massive sponsorship campaign. Combine that with a hot-tempered driver who is frustrated with his current situation and a fickle audience who demands to see real, live, raw emotion (but then acts offended when a driver doesn’t rattle off the canned 30-second sponsor-laden drivel) and you have the crossroads that Kurt Busch finds himself at today.
If Busch does not say exactly what Finch is demanding to hear on Tuesday, then he is essentially out of Cup racing for 2012 — and potentially beyond. His only fall back at this time is the part-time Nationwide Series arrangement with brother Kyle’s No. 54 Monster Energy team. It would be a further set back professionally, but might be required for him to heal personally.
While the radio outbursts and snarky comments are entertaining and admittedly funny — calling Jimmie Johnson “five-time chump” in mid-spin is pretty witty — it has led to his demise and marketability in a sport that now demands drivers to be minivan-mom friendly. Busch would have landed at Richard Petty Motorsports last offseason, but sponsors refused to back him, despite comments from then-CEO Robbie Loomis that “I’d mortgage my own house if it meant hiring Kurt Busch.”
It is the same situation that Finch now finds himself in following the suspension of his driver.
“If I can't get a sponsor, I can't keep running without a sponsor,” Finch says. “That's a slow death. I don't want to do that.”
Personally, I sincerely hope that Busch manages to turn things around and can find a way to contain the inner green rage monster. In an era where one year drivers are told to, “have at it boys” and the next to “don’t says s***,” it’s both bad timing and bad form to shut down a championship-caliber driver for being short with a media member upon exiting a racecar.
While it does not excuse the pattern of behavior and decade of disrespect, the majority of those in the sport feel the same way. Typically, these type of situations are reserved for athletes in other sports that have substance abuse problems. In this case, it’s one driver who’s high on shooting his mouth off.
Sadly, simply expressing his frustration with a question may end up silencing his career.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
This week has certainly been an interesting one in the world of NASCAR.
Jimmie Johnson scored his seventh career Dover win on Sunday, tying him with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the most all-time wins at the Monster Mile. Kurt Busch was suspended for this weekend's race at Pocono after threatening Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass following Saturday's Nationwide Series race, also at Dover. Testing got underway on the freshly repaved Pocono Raceway, with Mark Martin leading the way on Wednesday. Kyle Busch won Wednesday night's Prelude to the Dream charity race at Eldora Speedway.
While much of the focus this week has centered around off-track news, it is time to put that aside and look ahead to this weekend's race a the Tricky Triangle.
With testing taking place Wednesday and Thursday, fantasy NASCAR players get a rare early glimpse of what teams are getting a handle on the freshly re-paved track.
To no one’s surprise, speeds have been much higher with the new pavement and tire combination provided by Goodyear. Martin’s top speed on Wednesday was 175.380 mph, while AJ Allmendinger was quickest in Thursday morning's session. Allmendinger's speed of 177.190 mph was nearly five miles per hour faster than the track record of 172.533 set in 2004 by Kasey Kahne.
“You never know what to expect when a race track gets paved,” Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton said on Wednesday. “This pavement is unbelievably nice, smooth. The quality of racing is going to be improved a great deal. [But] it’s still Pocono. It still has the same characteristics and the personality of Pocono, but just has more grip.”
AJ Allmendinger, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kahne, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top 10 speeds on Wednesday.
Keep an eye on the speed charts from Thursday's two test sessions, and even more so on Friday, when the Cup teams will enjoy nearly three hours worth of track time in both qualifying and race trim.
As Burton mentioned, the new pavement might have added more grip, but it is the same old Pocono. One of the trickiest tracks on the schedule, drivers and teams will have to setup their cars so they work through each of the track's three unique corners.
The same old Pocono also means Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon are three drivers to keep atop your list of fantasy favorites.
Coming off his second win of the season, Johnson and his No. 48 team are the hottest thing on the NASCAR circuit. While the championship battle is still many months ahead, the five-time champ seems to be preparing for a sixth title run.
Johnson also holds the best average finish at Pocono (9.0) with two wins, eight top 5s and 14 top 10s in 20 starts. The No. 48 car was third fastest in Wednesday's test session, so expect him to be among the front-runners come Sunday afternoon.
Whenever the series rolls into Pocono, Hamlin is also one of the drivers to beat. After sweeping the races in his rookie year, Hamlin has gone on to record a total of four wins on the 2.5-mile triangle. He has the second-best average finish (9.7) with seven top 5s and eight top 10s in 12 starts.
Like Johnson, Hamlin also has two wins this season, putting him fourth in the standings. With some security in his spot in the Chase, Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb are focused on scoring bonus points for wins and there is perhaps no better place for them to accomplish that than at Pocono.
If Hamlin wants to score his third win of the season, he'll have to best veteran Jeff Gordon, among others. Gordon has the third-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Pocono, with five wins, 17 top 5s and 27 top 10s in 38 starts.
Currently mired in a season plagued by bad luck, Gordon heads to Pocono on a mission to turn his season around and knock the monkey off his back. The No. 24 car was strong last Sunday in Dover, but a loose lug nut and a poorly-timed caution ruined any chance at a solid finish. If Gordon can avoid the poor luck that has been chasing him all season, expect the four-time champion to have a solid day on Sunday.
Also keep an eye on the ageless Martin and last August's Pocono winner Brad Keselowski.
As previously stated, Martin led the way in Wednesday's test session and has the fourth-best average finish (11.2) at Pocono, but the veteran has never been to Victory Lane.
Keselowski already has two wins this season, but is currently 11th in the standings. Look for him to try and work his way into the top 10 in points for the first time this season. Keselowski won here last August.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski