Articles By Matt Taliaferro
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
Television, the Cup schedule and the quality of racing in the Sprint Cup Series. Those topics will get NASCAR fans talking. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had much to ponder as they were asked about those topics this week.
They judged FOX’s broadcasts of Sprint Cup races with the network’s season ending at Dover. They were asked what four races they would cut from the Cup schedule in light of Rusty Wallace’s recent suggestion that such a move would be beneficial. And Fan Council members graded the Dover race.
There was much for Fan Council members to say this week and, as always, they did.
RATE FOX’S BROADCAST OF CUP RACES
Last Sunday’s race at Dover marked the final Cup race of the season for FOX (TNT takes over beginning this weekend at Pocono for the next six races). Fan Council members were asked to grade Fox on its coverage of Cup races this season.
34.1 percent called it Good
28.0 percent called it Fair
19.0 percent called it Great
19.0 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• One of these days they will realize there is a race going in the background of everything they think is important.
• Not crazy over the Michael Waltrip addition and will miss Dick Berggren. DW and Mike Joy are the best in the business.
• Bringing in Michael Waltrip was a step back. The ticker on the side of the screen during green flag pit stops is brilliant, especially with the trend right now of long green runs.
• Too many back-stories read from scripts. Too many isolation shots to promote a sponsor. Side-by-Side commercials are worthless as they don't show racing — who wants to watch the vacant straightaway from the leader’s roof cam? Too many times the producer switched camera views from what Mike Joy was talking about, or (was) too slow to switch to the trouble that Mike Joy was talking about.
• I came to know NASCAR through the FOX broadcast. All of the people who work those broadcasts know racing better than anyone else and they make it easy to learn about the sport. I sure do miss them when they leave, but I still turn to Speed Channel to keep informed.
• I thought the coverage over the last couple years has been OK. Not as good as it once was. Messed up camera shots. Missing some action. I liked the commentators’ reviews during the race of how they are seeing the race so far and their guesses for who might win the race, although the background music during that feature was lame. It was cool seeing the numbers of the cars on the right of the screen of those that were on pit road during the race, but even with that, I think the other networks have better technology they show during the races.
• Mike Joy is simply the best play-by-play man in auto racing today and a future Hall-of-Famer. He is professional, informative and entertaining. I also like DW’s commentary work. I do have a problem with Michael Waltrip being part of the broadcast as a current owner — I think it gives him undue opportunity to add value to his sponsorships with plugs that other owners do not get.
• They have the best and the worst on-air talent. I won't say which is which, but FOX definitely gets the bonehead move of the season by hiring the brother of the worst announcer that they have. I can't wait for the next coverage team.
• FOX had some good moments but never great. By and large their coverage missed the mark. Their commentators, especially DW, leave a lot to be desired. They need more professionalism and polish. I don't agree with having a team owner as an analyst, either. Too much conflict of interest.
• I think each season we fuss about the current broadcast partner and anticipate the next broadcast partner. They all must "pay the bills" by showing commercials. There is no way around it!
• Some good camera shots when not obsessed with the in-car camera. Far too many commercials. The broadcasters act like the fans know nothing and have to constantly explain the simplest concepts. Do football analysts constantly explain that you have four chances to go 10 yards? No, they never mention it.
• I expect a lot of the FOX broadcasts. In the past, the FOX broadcasts were my favorite of the season. I enjoy the quality at the desk and on the track. Typically, I am depressed when their stint is over. That is not the case this season. The production values were good, though not great. The camera crew seemed to miss a lot this season. The broadcast booth always suffers from Larry Mac and continued to do so this year. The racing has been boring and the booth has been tasked with livening up a comatose product. While that is a terribly difficult task, Mike Joy and DW should be up to the task — they weren't. And then there's the Hollywood Hotel. What a travesty!!!! Michael Waltrip and Chris Meyers are a nightmare. The constant race breaks in which Meyers and Waltrip blithely babble are distracting and aggravating. Michael Waltrip does not add to the broadcast.
• While I think Darrell Waltrip can be corny at times, I really like Michael Waltrip and Chris Meyers.
• I prefer the FOX crew. More knowledge & less arrogant.
• Atrocious camera work, ill-timed commercials, endless booth blather. I will miss Mike Joy for the rest of the year, but that's about it. Well, FOX did finally get rid of Digger, so that's another positive.
• I think FOX always does a great job. At times, some of the commentators can be annoying, but Mike Joy and Larry Mac are the best in the business. Their knowledge brings much to the race.
WHAT FOUR RACES WOULD YOU DUMP FROM THE CUP SCHEDULE?
Hall of Fame inductee Rusty Wallace recently said that it would be good to cut the Cup schedule from 36 to 32 races, noting there’s “too much supply and not enough demand.” Fan Council members were asked what four races they would cut from the current Cup schedule:
The top four chosen (including ties):
47.8 percent selected the August Pocono race
38.6 percent selected Auto Club Speedway’s race
29.7 percent selected the June Pocono race
29.7 percent selected the August Michigan race
29.7 percent selected the April Kansas race
The rest of the order:
25.3 percent — Kansas Chase race
17.3 percent — July New Hampshire race
16.1 percent — Chicagoland Speedway Chase race
15.7 percent — Kentucky race
14.5 percent — Sonoma race
14.5 percent — Dover Chase race
14.1 percent — June Michigan race
12.4 percent — New Hampshire Chase race
11.2 percent — March Phoenix race
10.8 percent — April Texas race
10.4 percent — Watkins Glen race
8.0 percent — June Dover race
7.6 percent — Phoenix Chase race
7.6 percent — Texas Chase race
6.4 percent — Indianapolis race
6.4 percent — Homestead race
6.0 percent — Talladega Chase race
5.6 percent — May Talladega race
4.8 percent — July Daytona race
4.0 percent — Charlotte Chase race
3.6 percent — Las Vegas race
3.6 percent — March Bristol race
2.8 percent — Atlanta race
2.4 percent — April Richmond race
2.0 percent — Daytona 500
2.0 percent — April Martinsville race
2.0 percent — September Richmond race
1.6 percent — Coca-Cola 600
1.2 percent — Martinsville Chase race
0.4 percent — Southern 500
0.4 percent — August Bristol race
What Fan Council members said:
• Pocono, New Hampshire, Kansas and Texas don't need two races per season. Removing New Hampshire, Kansas and Texas in the Chase moves Richmond, Atlanta and Bristol into the Chase. Sounds fantastic even though I think 36 races is good enough.
• Tough choice, no matter how pissed off I get over some of the racing, more is still better than less.
• I would not cut (the schedule) down. The problem isn’t a lack of demand, but most likely the cost of attendance. While the seat prices may not be that awful, the cost of staying in the area overnight is absurd! Hotel prices should not be affected by a race in town. While I never miss watching a race on TV, I personally just can't afford the cost to attend. If this were not a factor, I would attend several races a year. Honestly, I can't say that any of these should be removed from the schedule.
• I get Rusty's point but I can't find four races I would like to cut. Perhaps one of the Pocono and Michigan races, but that's about it.
• I disagree with Rusty. I would still eliminate California (Auto Club Speedway), a Pocono race, a Michigan race and a Kansas race. But I would replace them with a race at Road America, a race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, go to Darlington a second time and have a race at Iowa (after expanding the seating). December, January and February are the longest months of the year with no NASCAR! The more racing, the better!
• Unless a track is in the Southeast, it shouldn't get two dates. Especially Pocono and Michigan, which have awful races — they shouldn't get a second race within six weeks of the first race. That is perhaps the biggest problem with NASCAR's scheduling. Rusty is right about this. Did you notice that there were more empty seats at Dover than filled seats? Couldn't blame it on the weather, either...
• I had a hard time picking a fourth race. Easily, Pocono, Loudon and Kansas should lose a date. I finally picked Dover as my fourth because attendance there has been pretty bad the last few races.
• Not a fair question. Everyone is going to pick Pocono and California. And maybe Kansas or another mile-and-a-half track. Fans think they're boring, but reality is they just don't make for good TV. Besides, Rusty has always had opinions about everything and they're simply his opinion. His induction doesn't suddenly mean that he has become a wise sage. This is the same person who, a couple of days ago, said, “If he can keep those other cats behind him he can win.” There are too many factors that have led to lower attendance: gas prices, ticket prices, hotel prices, children's activities, vacation time... Cutting races also means cutting a large portion of the revenue for the tracks, local establishments and income for the workers (both track employees and temp workers) — this would cause more tracks to close. How is that good for the sport? Let's not forget that it’s also no longer acceptable to take children out of school to attend a race. Some people have less vacation time and days off, as well.
• I think any discussion of cutting races from the schedule is a waste of time because I think it's very, very unlikely to happen. Tracks, teams, sponsors, the sport and broadcast partners have contracts and commitments that revolve around a 36-race schedule with deals in place for years into the future.
• Cutting Auto Club Speedway's race is a no-brainer. Chicagoland won't be missed, either. Kansas and Pocono need to be cut back to one race only.
• I LOVE the length of the season, and actually (would) like to see it extended.
GRADE SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT DOVER
59.3 percent called it Good
21.8 percent called it Fair
15.3 percent called it Great
3.6 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• I love Dover. It's like Bristol on steroids. I love that it always has action (even when one driver kinda stinks it up, thanks JJ:)). When there are long green-flag runs, there is still action everywhere.
• Finally a wreck! I don’t watch for the wrecks, but what causes most wrecks? Good hard racing, and that’s what caused the big one. If the 48 weren’t so good it would have been a great race. But overall it was pretty good for Dover standards.
• Is it me or are the races so darn boring this season? Yes, sadly, the 13-car crash was exciting but it took out so many drivers (including my fav) that I was ready to turn the TV off.
• Oddly enough, the cautions did make it more interesting. Wish I didn't think that, but it's true.
• This was probably one of the best races this season. It had a little bit of everything. Wasn't happy to see the big one at the beginning of the race that took out too many cars. I loved seeing some passing and lead changes.
• This race had a little bit of everything in it. Even though my driver was taken out early I still enjoyed the strategy calls and the side-by-side racing.
• As a 48 fan I was pleased by the outcome of the race, but found the racing boring. There were occasional challenges for the lead, but the 48 car was just too strong. While there were cautions, it felt as though there were long green-flag runs. The race was boring, but Dover races have often been boring to me. This race will not affect my desire to watch a race at Dover, because I don't expect much from the racing at this track.
• The race had a little bit of everything — wrecks, side-by-side racing, cautions and long green runs. The cautions at the end made it interesting. It wasn't edge-of-your-seat racing but it was good.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
It’s rare that most NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers will agree on something, but many share similar opinions of what it will be like this weekend to race on Pocono’s newly repaved surface.
“I am nervous as can be ... because I have no idea what to expect,” points leader Greg Biffle said, a comment echoed by others.
NASCAR is giving teams two extra days at the track with testing Wednesday and Thursday. Thus, Cup teams will be there five days.
“I’m not real excited about being up there that long,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t think anybody is to be honest with you. That’s the schedule and we’ll go up there and just run around in circles.
“We’ve got two race cars in the trailer, and we’ll try to not tear either one of them up before the race starts. I’m looking forward to the new surface and seeing what the track is like. I know NASCAR is wanting to get enough rubber down so we have a good race. That’s really the reason why we are going for so long, to really avoid any kind of debacle with rubbering the track down. There’s really no other excuse for being there the entire week.”
Denny Hamlin, who has four wins in 12 starts at Pocono, admits his advantage is gone with the repave.
"I'm going to approach Pocono like it’s an entirely different race track that I've never been on because basically it will be,” Hamlin said. “We've gone through a lot of rule changes and surface changes at that track every time that we've gone back and so it's going to be another element that's changed.
“Kind of talking to the guys that have ran there, it's going to be interesting to see what tire that they brought back. Any advantage I thought I might have had at Pocono has obviously disappeared at this point. I go there with a lot of optimism that it's just a brand new track for everyone and it's going to be the first one to figure it out wins."
This is the first of back-to-back weekends at tracks that have been repaved. The series heads to Michigan next week where speeds were up dramatically during a Goodyear tire test last month.
The next two weeks could shuffle the standings as some teams figure out how to run well on the repaved tracks and some don’t.
CHANGING SEATS With NASCAR suspending Kurt Busch for a week, it’s created a driver shuffle. David Reutimann will drive in place of Busch for car owner James Finch’s team this weekend at Pocono.
Dave Blaney will move over and drive the No. 10 car for Tommy Baldwin Racing with Tony Raines driving the No. 36 car for Baldwin’s team.
PRESSURE? WHAT PRESSURE? Joey Logano was asked Tuesday during a teleconference with media if he felt more pressure this year than other years since his contract ends after this season.
“There’s pressure all the time, so whether it’s a contract year or not, you’re always out there to do the same thing,” Logano said. “For me, I’m out there to win every race. That doesn’t change from what it was this year to three years ago. There’s no added pressure to that. Is there something extra on your mind? Yeah, there’s something extra on your mind that you’ve got to figure out before the season’s over.
“At the same time, you go out there and focus on your job. My job is to win races. As long as I do that, all of that will come together pretty easily.”
NEW CHANNEL Dover marked the final Cup broadcast of the season for FOX. TNT will take over beginning this weekend at Pocono and will broadcast the next six Cup races. ESPN/ABC take over at Indianapolis in late July and will broadcast the rest of the Cup season.
Adam Alexander returns as TNT’s lead announcer with Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach again joining him in the booth as analysts. Alexander also will take over pre-race show duties.
Larry McReynolds will join Alexander and Petty on the pre-race show. TNT’s pit road reporters will be Ralph Sheheen, Marty Snider, Matt Youcum and Chris Neville.
Also back is TNT’s RaceBuddy on NASCAR.com. It will provide eight different camera views and two mosaic screens. NASCAR.com also will offer a post-race show with the TNT announcers.
Once again, TNT’s Wide Open coverage of the July Daytona race returns. It will provide race coverage without national commercial breaks.
A new element this season is a segment titled “NASCAR Generations’’ that will be a part of the pre-race show. Alexander will host the segment and be joined by Jimmie Johnson, Ned Jarrett, Bill Elliott, Petty and McReynolds. They’ll discuss the different eras of the sport.
“I think when you look at NASCAR coverage, it’s difficult to find something new because of the length of the season,” Alexander said. “I think we’ve hit on something this year that hasn’t been done that will be very enlightening for fans who have latched on to the sport in recent years, dating back to fans who have followed it for 50 years.”
PRELUDE TO THE DREAM Tony Stewart’s annual dirt late model charity race at Eldora Speedway is Wednesday night. Among the Cup drivers scheduled to race with Stewart are Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, defending event winner Clint Bowyer, Bobby Labonte and Kurt Busch. The field also includes Austin and Ty Dillon, Danica Patrick, IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan along with World of Outlaw drivers Steve Kinser and Donny Schatz and NHRA drivers Ron Capps and Cruz Pedregon.
The event will be shown on HBO Pay-Per-View and cost of $24.95. The commercial-free broadcast begins at 8 p.m. EST. Instructions on how to order the event can be found here. Net proceeds from the charity event will benefit Feed The Children.
by Dustin Long
Follow Dustin on Twitter: @DustinLong
Comfortable (adj.) — Providing physical ease and relaxation; comfy; cozy; free from stress or fear
When people speak that word, it’s most likely in reference to the summer vacations we’ll take within the next few of months. Comfortable is what we hope to achieve at our jobs, financial security that affords us to do the other things we want in life. In a cruel twist of irony, we watch sports to get comfortable, relaxation afforded after a long day on the job.
But when it comes to entertainment, “comfortable” is the antonym of competition for athletes who make a living through sports. Who wants to watch someone “relaxing” for two hours? Brett Favre may have had that feeling on the football field, but once the ball was hiked his display of talent could hardly be described as “relaxing” by defenders. The NBA Finals aren’t a bunch of players sitting on the couch; I’d hardly say Rajon Rondo was walking down the court, sipping a mojito during a 44-point performance against the Miami Heat. For a sporting event, the worst adjective you could have applied to describe yourselves is “comfortable.” That’s the equivalent to not trying hard enough, the type of “stroking” fans can pick out even from Row 100, half-a-mile up the stands at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Welcome to NASCAR 2012, where drivers feel content to stay within reason. Check out Denny Hamlin’s post-race press conference at Charlotte, after a second-place finish following an event criticized for not enough passing and too much, well … “hanging out” on-track. Wrecks do not define stock car racing, but you’d think through 600 miles you’d have at least one. After all, pushing it to the limit typically results in the occasional mistake.
Not this time.
“Bottom line, I think everyone is so concerned with points nowadays, you know if you wreck and you finish in the 30s, you're going to take 10 races to get that back,” he said when asked about a 600-mile event that had one minor wall scrape and one pit road spin. “I think everyone's just a little bit more patient on restarts, as crazy as that sounds. It's just not as wild on restarts as it used to be a couple years ago Everyone is minding their Ps and Qs, trying to get the best finish out of their day, knowing the one thing you can't overcome in a race is a crash.”
And so it goes. Drivers stay off each other, resulting in an event where, for long stretches, the top 15 would race in place with limited (if any) passing for position. I experimented at the track Sunday night, writing down the top 15 at the beginning of a 30-lap stretch to compare the beginning and end. Only one driver —Brad Keselowski — made passes during the stretch, jumping up three spots while everyone else stayed in place. It seemed everyone was comfortable to stay in their own little spot on the racetrack without taking risks.
“You could put a lot of cars up front and they'll run there for quite a long time,” continued Hamlin. “Track position means so much in our sport now, you run around the pace of the guys around you.”
The driver we’re referring to represents the top tier of competitors in the sport — second in the standings with multiple wins under his belt. Unless an asteroid hits his No. 11 car or Kim Kardashian finds Hamlin within the next few months, making the sport’s “postseason Chase” is virtually a guarantee. Hamlin, along with a half-dozen others in the same spot then become the Colts a few years ago once they clinched the NFL’s top seed: how do you handle the second half of the regular season? Do you show all your cards, or hang back and “test” for when the racing really counts in September, October and November? And when you’re running fifth, what incentive is there for you to go the extra mile and earn one extra, meaningless point?
Certainly, a little extra cash for fourth won’t help. With no rookie “sticking” in the Cup Series since 2009, the bulk of the Cup field is made up of longtime veterans who have already made their millions and tasted Victory Lane. The “young guns” who once pushed the veterans have disappeared, because they’ve turned into the thirty-somethings getting married, starting families and getting comfortable with their careers (there’s that word again). With mission virtually accomplished for many by May, certain races over the summer will consist of riding around, gathering information and focusing on the playoffs.
There’s a second tier of drivers, from Carl Edwards to Sunday winner Kasey Kahne, who don’t have that luxury. “On the bubble,” their next 14 events will supposedly consist of running hard for victories that will ensure them a postseason spot, either as a “wild card” or one of those sneaking in on points. But even Kahne — arguably the hottest driver out there with six straight top-10 finishes — knows the limits of taking risks. The point system rewards consistency, not bravery; sticking your neck out for an extra position, only to wind up in the wall or gambling on pit strategy that falls short hurts you more in the end with the postseason as an ultimate goal.
“I guess, you know, you have to be consistent in this sport,” Kahne shrugged. “It’s how the points are. You have to finish races. If you’re crashing, you’re not finishing, you’re losing points. So I don’t know. The Chase is what it’s all about.”
Of course, not everyone can make the Chase. There’s only 12 spots for 43 full-time drivers on the grid. But even the back of the field is getting comfortable with their situations. In the sport today, economics (or contraction — take your side in that debate) mean only about 35 cars are running the distance each week. The battle for a “locked in” position, making qualification meaningless for the first 35 cars in owner points is no longer a competition, as the gap between 35th and 36th is already all but insurmountable. So with no one challenging their spot on the grid, these back-marker teams, already strained for resources can stay comfortable and race within their means. Twenty fifth may not be pretty, but it’ll get ‘em to the next race and keep everyone in their on-track cubicle, grabbing a paycheck and putting food on the table.
What about the drivers? Don’t they innately have a desire to win, frustration occasionally causing failure as hard competition takes its toll? Not exactly. “Boys, have at it” had its boundary created in a Texas tangle last November that nearly cost Kyle Busch his job. The parking? Warranted. But the overreaction seems to be everyone else, with Busch’s sponsor Mars/M&M’s nearly pulling out of the sport feels crossing the line may cost them their job. Busch the Younger has been Busch the Boring so far in 2012, politically correct to a fault, while the rest of the competition just hasn’t been angered enough to play into TNT’s upcoming “We Know Drama” coverage. You know what it seems like? Everyone is comfortable with the cars and competition around them.
Surely, you say, the crew chiefs, the masters of innovation, can find a loophole to give us at least a little extra differentiation of speed out of these Cup vehicles. But they know better, as years of penalties and point deductions that could keep their car out of the Chase as a likely consequence. Why risk it when the postseason is the ultimate goal? NASCAR’s strict rules keep everyone inside a box, and the mechanics have grown comfortable with the way in which these cars are put together. Wind tunnel time and computer simulation results in parity; innovation puts them smack in the penalty box. With millions at their disposal and dozens of engineers, which path would you choose even though the latter, if you play with a gray area, earns you an extra half-a-second?
Turns out there’s a whole lot of people comfortable with Sprint Cup racing these days. Heck, even the fans got comfortable during the Coca-Cola 600, describing to me in vivid detail what they’ve done for many of the races so far in 2012.
They took a nap. Those TVs still tuned to the program may help NASCAR in the Nielsens, but in terms of growing the sport? I wouldn’t be too comfortable with that.
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
The two-week homestretch in Charlotte is now in the books and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the Monster Mile in Dover, Del., for Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.
Not only is Dover one of the most demanding tracks on the NASCAR schedule, it also kicks off the seven-week summer stretch that takes the series to the newly-repaved tracks of Pocono and Michigan, the road course in Sonoma, night races at Kentucky and Daytona, then to New Hampshire before another break in the action.
Teams will be looking to build momentum towards the Chase for the Sprint Cup during this time. Some will try to maintain their spot in the top 10 in points, while those just on the outside will be looking to claw their way in.
At the same time, for those well outside the top 10, the name of the game is “Win, Win, Win.” The Wild Card aspect of the Chase will play a major role in the coming weeks as drivers and teams look to win their way into a spot in the championship battle.
First, those teams will have to conquer the Monster and survive Sunday's 400 miles around the high-banked concrete oval — which is no simple task … unless you drive with the Roush Fenway brigade.
The Roush cars have been stellar at Dover over the past 10 years, scoring six wins in that time. Current drivers Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth have all been to Victory Lane at Dover and enter the weekend as the organization to beat.
Kenseth, who sits second in points to Biffle, he is the defending race winner, and this week's fantasy favorite. All told, Kenseth has two wins, 12 top 5s and 17 top 10s in 26 Dover starts, giving him the second-best driver rating at the one-mile oval.
Not only does Kenseth have a stellar record at Dover, he describes the demanding track as his favorite on the schedule.
“The track is so fast and challenging, and it’s unique because of the way you drive up out of the turns,” Kenseth says. “The turns sit a bit lower than the straightaways and you can feel it when you’re driving out there.”
Dover is the type of track that suits Kenseth’s driving style, so look for him to surpass Biffle in the points while scoring his second win of the season.
While Biffle has maintained his points lead since the third race of the year, Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are steadily cutting into that lead.
One of the most consistent drivers this season, Biffle has bounced between finishes inside the top 5 and outside the top 10 week-to-week, of late. Following a fifth-place finish at Kansas, Biffle was 18th at Richmond. Then came a fifth at Talladega, followed by a 12th at Darlington, then a fourth in last Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.
While this trend might pass at such a strong track for Biffle, it is definitely worth keeping in the back of your head when setting your lineup.
Edwards has struggled to back up his near-championship run of 2011 through the first 12 races of the 2012 season. The Missouri native has one win at Dover and is coming off a ninth-place finish in Charlotte and is on a run of seven finishes of 11th or better in the last eight races.
What is striking about Edwards’ season, however, is he has led in only two races — one lap at Kansas and 206 at Richmond. In last year's races at Dover, Edwards led a combined 233 circuits, so look for him to produce when it comes time on Sunday.
Given the success of the Roush organization this season (and at Dover), it is very likely we could se a reply of the Sept. 2008 event in which Biffle, Kenseth and Edwards battled lap after lap for the win and swept the top-3 spots.
While the Roush cars may consistently be among the best, they will have to contend with six-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson. The five-time series champion has the second-best average finish (9.3) at the Monster Mile, the series-best average running position (7.9), as well as the series-best driver rating, fastest laps run, average green flag speed and laps in the top 15. Not too shabby.
To boot, Johnson has been on quite the roll of late. His win at Darlington gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career Cup win, his pit crew won the Sprint Pit Crew Challenge during All-Star week, he scored his third All-Star Race victory in Charlotte, and was in contention in the Coca-Cola 600 until a botched pit stop late in the race.
Heading to one of his best tracks on the circuit, Johnson will be looking to tie Bobby Allison and Richard Petty for the all-time winningest drivers at Dover. If his Chad Knaus-led pit crew can keep its composure and execute without mistakes, Johnson will factor.
Five Favorites: Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch
NASCAR’s longest race of the season concluded one of the biggest days for auto racing fans with Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR holding among their biggest events on the same day.
So how did the Coca-Cola 600 compare to those other races? Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council judged which race they enjoyed the most, along with grading the Coca-Cola 600 and debating if the race still needs to be 600 miles. Here’s what they had to say:
WHICH RACE DID YOU ENJOY THE MOST SUNDAY?
54.2 percent said the Coca-Cola 600
42.5 percent said the Indianapolis 500
3.3 percent said the Formula One race in Monaco
What Fan Council members said:
• I watched all 1,261 miles of racing on Sunday, starting with the F1 Monaco GP. The Indianapolis 500 proved to be the best race of them all.
• The Monaco race is the most overrated race anywhere. The cars outgrew that track 30 years ago. I understand the tradition but it's not a good race. Indy had an exciting finish, but most of the race was follow the leader. The 600 didn't have a lot of battling for the lead, but it seemed like there was passing in the pack. I like stock cars so I enjoyed the 600 the most.
• The Indy 500 was simply stunning. Action-packed. Cliffhanger of an ending. Great TV production value. Numerous refreshing and likable driver personalities. And the online in-car cams were a brilliant addition. The F1 race had many of those same elements. It was terrific, too. And honestly, the 600 was no slouch either. There was plenty of solid racing and passing.
• I am a huge NASCAR fan... HUGE!!! I have never watched an Indy race from start to finish all the way without flipping channels at least once. (Sunday) changed that. I found myself glued to Indy and bored by the 600. Sad, sad day
• While the Indy 500 was great and one of the few Indy races that I arrange my schedule to see, the 600 was a test of man and machine. It was a RACE!!
• Indy 500 had the most action. But I still like NASCAR best.
• Indy was the first time I've actually watched any part of that series and it was only the last 16 laps. When did Indy cars turn into go-karts? UGLY, UGLY cars. The only race I looked forward too on Sunday was the Coke 600.
• That is a difficult choice to make. Each race had periods of excitement, but none of them stood head-and-shoulders above the competition. In the end I think I will go with the Indianapolis 500 for the racing, and the pomp and circumstance. The Formula 1 race was interesting, but not the best F1 race. ... The Coca-Cola 600 did a nice job of honoring the troops past and present. There were some interesting racing battles occasionally. It was nice to see drivers come through the field during the race. Pit strategy did not seem to work very well, which was a nice change of pace. I was very glad we didn't end up with a “Where did he come from?” finish.
• The end of the Indy 500 was far more exciting. I enjoyed the passing. NASCAR has been so dull this year.
• The Indy 500 had great story lines, lots of excitement throughout the race and an emotional and dramatic ending. Perfect.
• Monaco is one of my favorite tracks and the race was great. The Coca-Cola 600 was good in my opinion, but definitely not one of the best of the year. The Indy 500 was fantastic! As it should've been, it’s their Daytona 500. Great drama leading up the finish and so many lead changes. Loved it.
• Only NASCAR has my attention.
• I enjoyed the Coca-Cola 600 more than the Indy 500 only because I am a huge NASCAR fan, not because of the race itself.
GRADE SUNDAY’S COCA-COLA 600
49.5 percent called it Good
35.7 percent called it Fair
7.6 percent called it Great
7.2 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• I enjoyed watching the racing without constant cautions. My driver had some problems, so that was disappointing, but I'm pleased that Kasey Kahne won. Not only was it another different driver, but he earned the win.
• I love a Memorial Day parade as much as anyone, but 600 miles seems rather over the top to me. Seriously, until they undo the IROC-ization of the sport, I have very little reason to watch this farce any more.
• Having been there in person, the only exciting part was when Kahne and Biffle kept fighting for the lead, and then Kahne winning. Other than that, I'm sorry I paid money to see it in person.
• The Coca Cola 600 is always an endurance race. I got exactly what was expected. I found the race fun to watch, and was actually glad we had long green-flag runs so the race didn't drag out like it could have.
• Even though my driver didn’t run so hot, there was excitement, passing and uncertainty over who would win.
• Come on, (nine) cars on the lead lap?
• If people were looking for racing — real, true racing — then the 600 certainly supplied it. There were lots of mid-pack passes and battles for the lead. Long green runs and a lack of crashes do not equate to boredom — but they do expose small-mindedness.
• Even the long green flag runs were enjoyable because cars had to pit a lot under green and it changed the running order every time.
• I was there for the race and was immensely disappointed especially because after the last green flag pit stops, with approximately 40 to go, there was very little change to the top 10 running order, very little drama, and practically no excitement.
• This race is a bit long, but with the good clean racing, lead changes and a lot of movement through the field, it was pretty good. There were some parts of the race where it became a little boring, but much better than some of the previous races.
• One of the best Coke 600's in recent memory. There was great racing all race long and watching some of the drivers come from the back to front was just classic.
• For what NASCAR has become it was a good race.
SHOULD THE COCA-COLA 600 REMAIN A 600-MILE RACE?
74.7 percent said Yes
25.3 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• It's tradition and not sure why we continue to ask if the races should be shortened. Quit trying to please the newcomers and listen to those of us who have been around for a long time!
• I think most races should be shortened to 300-400 miles. But the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 are part of NASCAR history. Those races should be kept at their normal distance. By shortening all other races, it would bring more prestige to these famous races and keep the fans more engaged for the shorter races.
• This race is a once-a-year tradition on Memorial Day (weekend). Especially since Pocono has been shortened, this will be the one race where a driver's endurance will be tested and I enjoy that once a year.
• There are some things that are a tradition like the Daytona 500 and the World 600. Just because the “Short Attention Span Crowd” gets easily bored doesn't mean we should change this traditional race length.
• When did tradition — genuine, likable, meaningful tradition — become such a terrible, horrifying, offensive thing? I've heard people complain about the length of the race before. So if you have beef, don't watch!
• How about 400 miles instead of laps? That would help.
• Traditionalists will most likely disagree, but I don't want to watch cars go around in circles for that long.
• IT NEEDS TO STAY 600 MILES. END OF STORY.
• For goodness sakes, NASCAR needs MORE variety, MORE tradition, MORE racing — not less!!! Shorter races ARE NOT the answer.
• CUT IT DOWN. Everybody was bored, plain and simple.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
With Toyota extending it’s deal with Michael Waltrip Racing, along with Joe Gibbs Racing and JTG Daugherty, it leads to the question of what will happen to Martin Truex Jr., who is in the final year of his contract at MWR.
Truex enters this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover sixth in the point standings with seven top-10 finishes in the first 12 races. He turns 32 later this month and with the improvements at MWR, seems set to show what he can do in the prime of his career. Then again, someone else also could be interested in his services.
“I’ll tell you this, I really hope to be back where I'm at right now,” Truex said last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I love this team. I love the direction we’re going. And, hopefully we’ll just have to see how everything lines up. My heart is with the team and that's where I want to be.
“I feel like we’ve come a long, long way. We’ve worked very, very hard to get to where we are. It would be a shame to have to do something different after coming this far. My career has been one of those where it seems like every time things would start going good — something big happened or something big changes and really hurt progress. Hopefully, that won’t be the case this time.”
This is Truex’s third season with Waltrip’s team and he’s headed toward his best season with the organization. His four top-five finishes thus far equal how many he’s had the past two seasons combined. His best finish in the points at MWR was last year when he was 18th.
Truex also notes that the extension with Toyota is important for Michael Waltrip Racing for various reasons.
“I think it’s a big thing for NAPA to know that Toyota is behind them 100 percent for the next number of years,” Truex said. “Great manufacturer, great support team — they do so much for Michael Waltrip Racing and really Toyota Racing Development ... has been a huge part of the turnaround and the resurgence of Michael Waltrip Racing. To have that support going forward for the next few years, it obviously has to make Michael (Waltrip, team owner) and Rob (Kaufmann, team owner) and everybody there feel good about the direction the team’s headed.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to get our deal done soon too and kind of coincide with all that and be able to go race and go after wins for a lot of years to come.”
GIVE-AND-TAKE Ryan Newman often was considered among the toughest drivers to pass during a race. He explains what earned him that distinction and how he’s changed over the years.
“I was never taught to give-and-take,” Newman said. “I was always taught to race hard. Going back to quarter midgets and then especially in the stock cars, I was always taught to race hard. Buddy Baker never taught me (about give-and-take). And I don’t think that they did that back in the ’80s.
“I always had fast-enough racecars that I never had to give. I could always take. And that came back to haunt me I guess for a few years there because I was the one getting turned around because I wasn’t giving it up and rightfully so — probably because I didn’t know and didn’t get taught that. So, I’m trying to be better at the give-and-take thing.
“I’ve had problems with other guys who are just as bullheaded as I am and I’m not afraid to say it. A guy like Paul Menard is just that. We race each other hard every time we got around each other. That’s just how we did it. And it was frustrating to both of us, but we made good out of it. We never crashed each other per se, so it was just the way we raced. So, we don’t do that quite so much anymore. We’ve both learned how to adjust to that a little bit and be faster in the end for both of us.”
A happy Memorial Day weekend to all the fantasy NASCAR racers out there. This week it’s the most demanding 600 miles on the schedule, the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The annual tradition dating back to 1960 tests the best of driver, equipment and team. Coming one week after the All-Star Race, the Coke 600 also marks the next phase of the NASCAR season.
Teams have ebbed and flowed thus far over the season, but with a week of practice under their belts on the 1.5-mile speedway in Charlotte, this Sunday’s 600 miles provides an opportunity to make a statement, maintain consistent finishes, or turn a difficult season around before it is too late.
One team that certainly made a statement in Saturday night’s All-Star Race was the No. 48 team of Hendrick Motorsports. Driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus knew if they won the first of the five segments, the night would fall into their laps.
Starting from the sixth spot, Johnson was able to make his moves to the front in the first 20-lap segment. After taking the caution flag for the break, it was all about avoiding trouble in the back of the pack and making adjustments to the racecar throughout the night. Restarting in the lead for the final 10-lap segment, Johnson powered out front on the green flag and never looked back.
While the format of the All-Star Race is dramatically different from the one we'll see Sunday afternoon and evening, there are a lot of things that will transfer over. Primarily, the fact the No. 48 is the team to beat.
Coming off an historic 200th career win for Hendrick Motorsports in Darlington, the No. 48 team beat the two-time defending champion No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew for the 2012 Pit Crew Challenge. That momentum carried over into the All-Star Race, where the 48 Chevrolet was the dominant car on the evening.
Enjoying the extended time in the Charlotte area these past two weeks, Hendrick Motorsports enters the Coca-Cola 600 weekend with a ton of momentum, loads of confidence, and the rest of the field looking up at Johnson.
All told, Johnson has six career wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway, including three consecutive Coca-Cola 600 wins from 2003-05. However, Johnson has not found Victory Lane at Charlotte since 2009.
The win Saturday night gives the No. 48 team confidence heading into Sunday's marathon race, but Johnson knows it will not be easy.
“Even though we won the race, I saw a lot of strong cars tonight,” Johnson said following his third All-Star Race win. “I think track position at the end of the 600 is going to be key. Two or three pit stops from the end, being in the right position, having the right strategy, if it's fuel, two tires, four, none, whatever it might be, that’s going to be key.”
While Johnson will be this week’s fantasy favorite, also keep an eye on a few guys that had solid cars in Saturday's All-Star Race.
On Tuesday, Toyota became the latest manufacturer to unveil its 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup racecar. It is the second generation of the Car of Tomorrow, which debuted in the 2007 season to jeers and sneers — that is until Michael McDowell walked away from a head-on impact at 200 mph, tumbling down the three stories of banking and emerging unscathed. Since then, most have been on board with the new car, more so following the early 2010 refresh that saw the spoiler and the splitter going the way of the Convertible Division.
Toyota also confirmed that it has inked extensions to be the engine provider and car make for Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing for the foreseeable future. You can cross out these teams as potential candidates for Dodge, which is scrambling to find a team — and an engine provider — for 2013 and beyond. Toyota, in fact, is poised to add more teams to the fold, though not necessarily more organizations.
“We’re happy with the guys we’ve got,” Toyota Racing Development president Lee White says. “I would hope the economy turns around a little bit and we very easily could get back to eight or nine cars.”
One of the teams that Dodge was rumored to have been interested in was that of Joe Gibbs Racing. Gibbs had fielded Chevrolets and Pontiacs since its arrival in the sport 20 years ago, its first win coming one year after its debut in the 1993 Daytona 500. JGR’s move to Toyota in 2007, in part, set the stage for a departure by then two-time champion Tony Stewart. Stewart’s replacement was a driver who many had predicted would be the next Jeff Gordon: Joey Logano. To date, Logano has one race win in the iconic No. 20 Home Depot machine — compared to five championships by the other big-box home improvement chain retailer, Lowe’s.
It has long been a point of contention with the HD brass that Sliced Bread isn’t exactly cutting the mustard in the results department; cutting the cheese is more like it.
With the manufacturer side of things sealed up for JGR, which no longer has to worry about manning an engine shop with TRD now the sole supplier for all Toyota Cup teams, might Coach and J.D. be looking to test the free agent market for a replacement for their No. 20 machine? After all, it was about a year ago that many had penciled in Carl Edwards to be the heir apparent to the No. 20, but after Ford Motor Company scratched a big check and a ton of stock for Edwards, Logano received a reprieve. Logano currently sits 15th in points, however the No. 20 has finished no better than 16th in points since Stewart jumped ship following the ’08 season.
Following the departure of long-time JGR crew chief Greg Zipadelli to become competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing — while monitoring the progress of Danica Patrick in her limited Cup appearances — the performance of the No. 20 seems to be slowly picking up. But will it improve enough to retain Logano, or will the sponsor wield the whip hand and demand a change be made with one of the available free agent drivers for 2013?
Ryan Newman has been mentioned as a viable candidate for the No. 20 car, which is an ironic choice following his run-in with Logano at Michigan in the August 2010 event. The timing makes a bit of sense as the Senate Armed Services Committee this week added an amendment to next year’s spending bill that would ban all military sponsorship of motorsports — which includes Newman’s US Army affiliation — leaving a sizeable hole to fill at SHR. Would Stewart forsake his friend and fellow Hoosier, Newman, if a supplement to the Army sponsorship does not materialize?
With Patrick waiting in the wings, expecting to announce a full-time 2013 campaign in the Cup Series shortly, it may come down to dollars and common sense. If SHR does not have the funding to prepare a third team for Patrick, the GoDaddy.com colors might only end up on the No. 10 next year, keeping the organization at a two-car level.
That leaves one other option on the table — one that could be deemed “The Nuclear Option.” Kurt Busch.
The stars have aligned seemlessly with this one. Busch is a free agent, serving his penance in post-Penske purgatory, driving on a handshake deal for James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team, an 18-employee independent team that receives cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Think of it as a poor-man’s Stewart Haas Racing. A damn-near-broke man’s Stewart Haas Racing. For the most part, Busch has kept his legendary temper at bay, until a self-inflicted flat tire in the closing laps of the Southern 500 at Darlington dashed any hopes of a top-10 finish.
Might Busch be JGR and Home Depot Toyota material?
Think back to 2011 and the biggest story of the summer stretch: Busch and Jimmie Johnson feuding following some last-lap dicing at Pocono. Busch had been taken out by Johnson at Pocono a year earlier in a vicious backstretch crash, as well as at Sonoma and Chicago in ’09. That sort of anti-48 sentiment might play well with Home Depot, which has been less-than-pleased watching Lowe’s garner the lion’s share of the championships over the last six years. In fact, Smoke’s last two titles bookend those by Johnson, the latter with a different Depot on the hood.
Kurt’s brother Kyle is currently in the No. 18 at Joe Gibbs Racing, and having migrated his Kyle Busch Motorsports team to Nationwide this season, helped his brother out by essentially splitting the schedule with him in his No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota — an appropriate sponsor given their struggles with respective inner green-rage monsters.
The matte black Toyotas have been fast, with Kyle narrowly clearing the last-turn pile-up at Daytona before getting hooked into the outside wall, and Kurt capturing the team’s first win at Richmond just a few weeks ago over the other JGR pilot, Denny Hamlin. Hamlin had his own run-in with the No. 48 team two years ago, and chucked his own bottle of water at his No. 11 in frustration following a fuel mileage foul-up at the penultimate race at Phoenix that prevented him from winning his first Cup title. Think back to Busch throwing a bottle of water of his own at the Miller Lite Dodge at Bristol in 2009, when he declared there were 41 other driver’s he’d rather finish second to, rather than that No. 48 car.
Might JGR be the perfect home for Busch — and, more important, Home Depot the ideal sponsor?
HD was more than patient with Stewart during his most volatile and petulant years. The sport had much more attention back then, and though Stewart nearly lost his ride at JGR during a tumultuous 2002 campaign, winning his first Winston Cup title went a long way to cure those ills. This was during a period when Stewart had to be physically restrained from going after NASCAR officials, kicking reporter’s tape recorders under trailers and allegedly pushing a fan. Kyle Busch faced a similar fate last season after turning Ron Hornaday Jr. head-on into the wall during a Truck Series race (albeit in a KBM rig, not Gibbs equipment); NASCAR sat him out for the Sunday Cup race.
It left the younger Busch reeling, wondering if he would even have a job in 2013. Message: delivered. And received.
Kurt went through a similar situation with both Roush and Penske Racing. An incident involving a traffic stop for suspected impaired driving on race weekend in Phoenix in 2005 saw Roush suspend Busch for the final two races of the year, even while being a Chase driver, while the team issued the release that Roush Racing was “done being Kurt Busch’s apologists.” Busch was noticeably moved by the incident, barely holding back legitimate tears when interviewed about it. What followed at Penske Racing were six seasons of salty salutations over the team radio, indicating everyone from the crew chief, engineers and the owner himself, addressing revered team owner Roger Penske not be his well-known nickname, but rather as “Dude.”
The Captain did not abide.
Things came to a head during the 2011 Chase with Busch melting down during driver intros and issuing a terse response to ESPN reporter Jamie Little en route to his car — a car that did not pass tech inspection initially — at Loudon. He followed that up with the now famous YouTube video of Busch being less than cordial with ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch following an early exit at the season finale at Homestead. Actually, everything got off to a poor start as soon as the 2011 Chase began. Following the final race of the regular season at Richmond, Busch went after NASCAR.com reporter Joe Menzer in the garage, slapped away a member of his PR camp, and then got into it with AP writer Jenna Fryer, tearing up a Dodge press release in the media center following a disagreement over a quote about getting inside Jimmie Johnson’s head.
The real question is, could Joe Gibbs get into Kurt’s head the way he has his brother, and the way both Roush and Penske were unable to? There are already signs of cracking on the surface after the incident on pit road at Darlington, as well as a colorful meeting with the press outside of his hauler at Charlotte last week.
This is not meant to pick apart Busch with the well-documented history of a short temper and manic outbursts. He remains a championship-winning (and contending) driver, who clearly gets more out of the equipment than virtually anyone else in the series — short of his brother. His one step forward/two-steps back anger management program seems to stall out every few months, and the new dynamic of a smaller team this season was to be an audition to prove to the racing world that he is a changed man, not the acid-tongued driver on the verge of meltdown.
His Nationwide ride with KBM has provided him with some brotherly love and proved that he’s still a race winner — not that it was ever really in doubt. Could a partnership with Gibbs, an owner well known for being both a man of faith and having the patience of a saint, provide Kurt with just the place to be born again?
It very well might be the type of environment that he needs to get back to the form that saw him win the first Chase in 2004.
Now if only the sponsor would sign on …
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council don’t hold back on their opinions but the comments this week were as sharp and direct as they have ever been. They also weren’t afraid to express their opinions about their fellow fans — good and bad.
Fan Council members had a lot to discuss this week. They were asked about how much input they feel they have in creating change in NASCAR. They also were asked about the fan videos used to introduce drivers before last week’s All-Star Race, and they were asked about that race and the final segment.
Here’s what members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council said about those issues.
HOW MUCH INPUT DO YOU FEEL FANS HAVE IN AFFECTING CHANGE IN NASCAR?
45.8 percent said Just Right
27.8 percent said Too Much
26.3 percent said Not Enough
What Fan Council members said:
• Hard to say. But I feel like fans are never satisfied and complain so much that NASCAR is constantly changing things and is losing its credibility that way. I understand they want to please the fans, but no other sport is that reactive to the fans. I’m really not sure if it’s a good or bad thing. I will say that NASCAR has the biggest crybaby fans! Suck it up and enjoy the racing in front of you. It’s fantastic what these drivers are doing. So spoiled.
• NASCAR does a great job — heck, they change rules mid-season to tweak things. What other sport does that? NASCAR fans have such a diverse opinion on a wide variety of topics — someone will always be happy or unhappy with SOMETHING. We are a high maintenance vocal group!
• Why is it I feel like NASCAR is listening to the wrong “fans”?
• I think NASCAR listens. When I first became a fan, it seemed as though they didn’t care about what they heard. Now, five years later, I have a different impression.
• I wonder, if NASCAR REALLY listened to the fans, if we would still have “the Chase” and the Top 35 rule?
• I feel between the Fan Council and Twitter, there are plenty of avenues to reach NASCAR with questions and concerns. I know they do listen to what they are hearing.
• We are spectators. I do not feel like we need any input as to how the business known as NASCAR is run. It really upsets me when I hear people say that there need to be changes because they are not “entertained.”
• NASCAR/Brian France is incredibly stubborn when it comes to listening to the fans. They have been waging war on us fans this year, saying we’re not fans if we like crashes; saying we’re needy if we want to see the debris that causes debris cautions. They are doing a great job at making people less interested in our sport.
• It’s important to keep the fans happy, but I think NASCAR has gone too far giving so much control to the fans. Fans don’t understand everything it takes to run this show. Some of their requests are ridiculous.
• Most fans are knowledgeable and have good ideas. NASCAR should listen to them more.
• It’s disconcerting to me that NASCAR is very quick to make adjustments based on fans’ complaints. From my experience, a lot of fans are biased and largely uninformed. I do not think that watching every race necessarily means you know enough to affect change.
GRADE SATURDAY NIGHT’S ALL-STAR RACE
43.9 percent called it Good
25.8 percent called it Great
19.9 percent called it Fair
10.4 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• The first 80 laps were awesome. I was at the race and for those first 80 laps we got to cheer drivers who were driving their asses off and putting on a good race. But as someone who was actually rooting for the 48 at the beginning of the race, the way they won it left me completely disappointed. I get it was perfectly legal, and I get it in points racing, but for the All-Star? You can’t be bothered to race for the whole 90 laps? I’ll be finding someone else to root for next week.
• It was the best All-Star Race that I’ve seen in years. The 10-lap shootout was a little disappointing, but the rest of the segments were action-packed. There was racing going on all over the track at once — that is awesome.
• Stupid! Someone should have realized that the tactic of riding around in the back would come into play. Plus having the option for a stop-and-go only for the final pit stop — who’s dumb idea was that?
• The 20-lap segments were awesome. I just wish the last 10 was more exciting. It was a letdown after so much great racing
• Jimmie Johnson said they KNEW if they won the first segment, they had it in the bag. Really? Then why should we bother watching it? I’m pissed I wasted a Saturday night on that lame show. Jimmie Johnson may have won the million, but he can’t possibly be proud of the way he won that race. Way to go NASCAR.
• The racing itself was great, but I recommend an incentive for the segment winners to stay in the racing action. Say must finish top-10 each segment or they lose the advantage of pitting 1-4 before final segment.
• IMO part of the fun of the All-Star Race is seeing what strategies teams will use to try to win. And to those fans complaining about Jimmie (or Matt or Brad, who employed the same strategy once they won their segments) laying back (they were being smart staying out of trouble and at the same time adjusting their cars) during the middle segments a reminder of one of racing’s rules: To finish first, first you must finish, and Jimmie made sure he was going to be there at the end to finish.
• I finally saw drivers really racing for once. And even doing it without wrecking!
• This was the BEST RACE of the season. It had a little of everything and the drivers seemed to drive hard each and every lap.
• Too much sandbagging by the winners of segments 1-3. It’s NOT strategy, it’s sandbagging, which I abhor.
IS 10 LAPS THE PROPER LENGTH FOR THE FINAL SEGMENT OF THE ALL-STAR RACE?
59.4 percent said No
40.6 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• It’s not a shootout if its longer. We certainly don’t need another segment. If they change this, they’ll have to tweak everything else too.
• I think it should be 20 laps just like all the other segments.
• I suggest a full fuel run for the final segment or at least 25 laps.
• If you’re not in a position to do it in 10 laps ... ya ain't gonna do it.
• I think 10 laps keep fans more interested since drivers will be racing hard for all 10 laps instead of driving conservatively for 20-40 laps.
• Three segments of 30 laps each would be good. Why do you need a 10-lap shootout? Makes no sense. Most of the cars are just getting dialed in good on a restart at 10 laps. Make it at least 20.
• Johnson’s car was so fast I don’t know if 20 laps would have made a difference.
Brad Keselowski was smiling but you could sense the resolve in the 28-year-old after he finished second to Jimmie Johnson in last weekend’s Sprint All-Star Race.
“I think we’re a really young team that’s growing and getting better every week, every day and every hour,” Keselowski said moments after climbing from this car. “We got beat by a five-time champ. I think we’re doing pretty good, but I want that one more spot.”
Considering where Keselowski was a year ago, he and his team have made tremendous gains.
A year ago, Keselowski was 24th in the NASCAR championship point standings heading into the Coca-Cola 600 with zero wins, one top-five and one top-10 finish — and that came in the Southern 500 when he didn’t pit late, using the same strategy as race winner Regan Smith, and finished third.
This season, Keselowski is 12th in points with two victories, three top-five and five top-10 finishes.
Go back to last year’s Coca-Cola 600 and only one driver has more wins than Keselowski in that time. Tony Stewart has seven victories to Keselowski’s five. Just as impressive is that Keselowski and his team have won two races since the abrupt departure of Kurt Busch after last season. The team brought in AJ Allmendinger to replace him, making Keselowski the de facto No. 1 driver at Penske Racing. He has accepted and handled those responsibilities well.
Certainly, the team’s performance could have been better this season had both Keselowski and Allmendinger not been saddled with problems with the fuel pickup system. Both teams seemed to have solved those issues and the All-Star Race showed how strong both can be with Allmendinger going from last to second in the preliminary race to make the All-Star event and Keselowski winning the third segment before finishing second in the final 10-lap shootout.
Both teams seem to be headed in the right direction as summer approaches with Keselowski virtually locked into the Chase courtesy of his wins at Bristol and Talladega. Both Keselowski and Allmendinger will be worth watching the coming months.
Prior to Jimmie Johnson’s win in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on May 12, it seemed Hendrick Motorsports would never get that elusive 200th Cup win. Its 16-race slide in between wins was relative in NASCAR terms, but for an organization lugging around tractor trailer loads of “200 Wins” caps and assorted other merchandise, it was time to hit the milestone and move on.
It turns out, moving on is just what Hendrick Motorsports has done.
Johnson once again led the HMS charge on Saturday, becoming only the third driver to have earned three All-Star Race victories with a dazzling performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The No. 48 team’s strategy, flawless execution and pure speed harkened back to a time when it was all but unbeatable at the track then known as Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
Over a scintillating four-year period from 2003-06, the group led by crew chief Chad Knaus won five points-paying races, finished second twice and third once. It also recorded two All-Star wins (2003, ’06), to boot.
In Saturday’s exhibition race, Johnson and Knaus were not only the fastest, but the smartest, in a 23-car field. Having won Friday’s Pit Crew Challenge, the 48 team was awarded the final stall on pit road — the preferred choice. They easily won the first of the five-segment event, then dropped to the rear of the field for the proceeding three 20-lap runs, guaranteed of the first-place spot when the field stopped for a mandatory visit prior to a final 10-lap dash.
Johnson’s stop-and-go pit appearance allowed him to retain the lead, and from there it was only a matter of mashing the gas on the restart — which he did when second-place Matt Kenseth spun his tires. From there, he cruised to a .841-second victory.
“If you won the first segment, it was very easy what you could do,” Johnson said of the strategy. “There was just as much importance — not as much, but very close — amount of importance to win the second (segment). We felt like the winner would come out of the front row (on the 10-lap shootout), unless these guys got crazy and crashed or something.
“To make your odds work in your favor, being on that front row is key. First or second segment was the goal to win.”
Knaus echoed the thought.
“The biggest thing you have to do in any event is you have to limit your risk,” the crew chief noted. “That’s what we needed to do. We were fortunate that (Jimmie) was able to get out there that first segment and attack and get the win. From that point on, all you want to do is maintain and make sure you’re there at the end.”
Another Hendrick team, the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr., also enjoyed a successful night. Earnhardt won the Sprint Showdown, a transfer race for those not already qualified for the All-Star Race. He then won the fourth 20-lap segment before settling for fifth in the feature.
“I think we showed what we are capable of doing here next weekend,” Earnhardt said of the Coca-Cola 600, also held in Charlotte. “We are probably going to bring the same car. We have a couple of ideas on how to make the car even faster, especially for qualifying, that I hope will work out. I am real pleased with our effort.”
Hendrick will look for his 10th win in that race, a contest of endurance that is considered one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events.
“I think track position at the end of the 600 is going to be key,” Johnson said. “Two or three pit stops from the end, being in the right position, having the right strategy — if it’s fuel, two tires, four, none, whatever it might be — that’s going to be key.”
If Saturday’s race proved anything, it was that strategy was key. If that indeed is what it comes down to once again, figure Johnson, Knaus and the 48 team as the overwhelming favorite.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has hit the all-star break this week, with no fantasy racing on the schedule. With the brief break in action, now is a great time to assess your year up to this point in the season, examine a few trends through the first 11 races and look ahead to next week's Coca-Cola 600.
While this year has seen a number of surprises, it’s also been somewhat predictable.
Defending series champion Tony Stewart picked up right where he left off in 2011, winning two races with new crew chief Steve Addington, and currently holding the seventh spot in the championship points. The No. 14 team has been up-and-down from week-to-week, however, with three finishes outside the top 20 to counter his two wins and four top 5s. Stewart is typically a slow starter, coming to life during the summer months and in the Chase, but it appears the defending champion is poised to continue his strong season throughout the entire year.
The Roush Fenway organization has been on its game thus far, with Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth sitting atop the standings, each with a win to their credit and separated by only two points. Last year's championship runner-up, Carl Edwards, has yet to show his full strength, but sits 10th in the standings. Biffle has been the most consistent driver up to this point in the season, with an average finish of 7.5, and is looking to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win a championship in all three touring series.
Fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. has led the charge for Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, scoring four top 5s and eight top 10s. While he is still looking to break that ever-daunting winless streak, Earnhardt is third in points and has been one consistently strong throughout the early part of the season.
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson was able to overcome a potentially season-long setback early in the year, when the National Car Racing Appeals Board, led by John Middlebrook, overturned a NASCAR penalty handed down to the No. 48 team after Daytona. Never missing a beat, Johnson is fifth in the standings and scored Hendrick Motorsports' 200th career win last Saturday in Darlington.
After a disappointing performance in 2011, Denny Hamlin has come back strong with new crew chief and defending champion Darian Grubb now calling the shots atop the pit box. Hamlin already has two wins to his credit, along with five top 5s and six top 10s, leading the way for the Joe Gibbs Racing organization.
Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. has also been one of the more consistent drivers this season, earning four top 5s and seven top 10s in the first 11 races. Still battling a winless streak that dates back to 2007, Truex is sixth in points, in the midst of a contract year, and running stronger than he has in years. This promising start has led to a more confident driver, and thus, big fantasy points.
On the other side of the spectrum, a few teams and drivers have not lived up to expectations throughout the early part of the season.
Jeff Gordon's 20th season in the Sprint Cup Series has been disappointing, to say the least. Despite having strong cars nearly every week, Gordon's season has unraveled, leaving him 24th in points with only one top 5 and two top 10s and seven finishes outside the top 20.
Perhaps most notably, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's two-car organization with Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray has floundered. Team owner Chip Ganassi made some major changes during the off-season to help turn the team around. After a strong 2010, the EGR cars struggled for much of the 2011 season, leaving Ganassi to demand a shake-up behind the scenes. To date, however, those changes have produced few results. Montoya and McMurray are 19th and 20th in the standings, with zero top 5 finishes between them.
Keep an eye on this team through the summer months, though, as tracks such as Sonoma, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen are right around the corner. If the performance does not improve at these venues, perhaps more significant changes are in order.
So, now that we've reflected a bit on the early season performances, what does it mean for our fantasy outlook? Each week, we've listed a number of weekly favorites, undervalued picks and darkhorse drivers. In all, we have eight winners already in the season from those groups.
However, our picks have not always panned out. Our fantasy favorites have also struggled this season at times. Kasey Kahne finished 34th in Phoenix, Kyle Busch was 32nd in Bristol, Jeff Gordon was 21st in Kansas and Brad Keselowski was 15th in Darlington.
This goes to show, anything can happen once the cars take the green flag each weekend. As I try to mention each week, pay careful attention to each practice session and the best 10-lap average statistic before setting your lineup.
Also, at this point of the season, be sure to keep tabs on how many times you are starting a driver. In some leagues, drivers can only be used a certain number of times throughout the season. It can be very tempting to start someone like Earnhardt Jr. (who we have listed as our fantasy favorite three times this season) multiple times early in the year, but remember you might need him in the bank later in the season.
Now looking ahead to this weekend's action at Charlotte Motor Speedway: There are few opportunities in the Sprint Cup Series to get a preview of the action a week before your next race. The Sprint All-Star Race and Sprint Showdown are two events that can show you a lot in terms of what to expect for the annual Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend.
With nothing to lose and $1 million on the line, teams will be pulling out all the stops in preparation for the All-Star Race. This exhibition event allows crew chiefs and engineers the ability to try more aggressive and experimental setups, gaining knowledge and insight into how to make their car fast for 600 miles the following week.
Keep tabs on which teams and drivers are running strong in the Sprint Showdown, as well. Even if they are unable to transfer into the night's main event, fantasy players could learn a great deal for next week. This is where a lot of your darkhorse picks will come from.
So, enjoy this weekend's All-Star festivities. Take the time to examine your fantasy season thus far, take the early-season trends into consideration and keep a careful eye on this weekend's action to stay ahead of the curve heading into the Coca-Cola 600.
by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone, they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.” – Joni Mitchell
Fame and fortune can be a cruel beast: the second it’s taken away, you want it 10-times worse than those who have never had the chance. Kurt Busch, on the precipice of getting himself fired once again, knows that line better than any other on the Sprint Cup circuit. Well, I guess perhaps the only difference is that in his “parking lot” he just rams everyone with a car who tries to find a space.
People will disagree on what happened Saturday night at Darlington, why Busch pulled a burnout through Ryan Newman’s pit and then slammed into the No. 39 car on pit road like a bumper car on steroids. But when it comes to the 2004 Cup Series champ, we can all agree on one thing: he’s frustrated. The 33-year-old is currently driving an unsponsored car with limited speed where even 110 percent guarantees no more than a ninth- or 10th-place finish. His forced aggression on each lap is what the fans want to see but that comes with consequences: he’s now wrecked in five of 11 races, more than any other driver in this year of green-flag, single-file parades.
It’s not easy for a guy used to winning to run the 1995 Honda Accord when everyone else is slim-fitted into a Lexus with 10 engineers by their side plotting out every simulation and aerodynamic advantage. But Busch is not to be pitied — if anything, he’s a role model for children as to what not to do when you’re handed the world on a silver platter. After being nailed with a $50,000 fine for Saturday’s incident (paired with probation), the downhill slide is rolling once again for a man who’s simply a victim of his own choices.
Remember, it was Busch who chose to leave his team less than nine months after winning the first Chase title while in mid-contract and despite no major dip in performance. Know that every Cup champion since 1990, at the time, had stayed with their former team from that point on, as trophies typically breed loyalty. But Busch felt hidden at Roush Fenway Racing, behind the “superstar” presence of Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and up-and-coming Carl Edwards. Even though he had as many titles as all of them combined, Penske offered greater exposure in his mind, a chance to be the star of a smaller team while getting more credit – and control – over the organization. Roush Fenway? The “villain” was privately relieved, freed of a man who in private drove public relations people to the edge. Busch gave them the ability to cut a cord they never could otherwise because of on-track success. The driver could have been at Roush for a decade, but instead, after an awkward confrontation with police at Phoenix, he was sent packing for his next gig two races early.
That brought him to Penske, where Busch was paired with an iconic sponsor – Miller Lite – and the best equipment a multi-millionaire could find. In six years, Busch made the Chase four times, winning nine races while scoring a dozen poles. Combined, those numbers blow rival superstars out of the water during that stretch — even current points leader Greg Biffle would kill for those numbers. Sure, a second Cup title remained elusive, but the current playoff system has proven itself to be defined by luck — two bad breaks, and you’re out no matter how well you do the rest of the way. Busch should know that, considering his championship run in ’04 helped redefine the way teams approach a title.
But for Busch, having the world on a silver platter and enjoying consistent success at Penske wasn’t enough. The team always needed fixing, whether it was faulty engineering, poor pit strategy or the paint guy that left a smudge on the side of the front bumper. Fits of swearing were weekly occurrences, in public and private, while a number of pink slips were forced during a six-year Reign Of Terror.
Yet even after Busch’s Anger Management melted away, expanding from inner turmoil to picking public fights with the media, both Penske and his sponsor stood by him. Following a Richmond confrontation with two national reporters last season, he could have rallied to win the Chase and been guaranteed millions for the rest of his career. Instead, the postseason netted a disappointing 11th-place finish in the final standings, but all the pieces were there for 2012 success. Just look at Penske’s current stud: Brad Keselowski has won twice, sits just outside the top 10 in points and has flashed speed at virtually every track.
Busch could have been his teammate. Instead, he lost his cool at Homestead, in public, with one of the sport’s iconic media figures. Dr. Jerry Punch was appalled, over a half-million saw it all unfold on YouTube, and within two weeks Busch was toast.
His current team, which start-and-parked at times last season due to lack of funding, was a last resort, a forced marriage after Penske was pushed to show him the door when no other options existed. Busch may be beside himself, dealing with “C-level” equipment that doesn’t match his capability, but in this Choose Your Own Adventure game, he’s also responsible for the choices that led him here.
Some have speculated Busch is not fully to blame for Saturday night’s scuffle, where members of Newman’s crew barreled after him to the point a NASCAR official got knocked on a car hood. The driver himself claims hitting Newman’s car on pit road was because “he couldn’t see while taking his helmet off” — an excuse so comical it wouldn’t fool a five-year-old. But even if by some odd series of circumstances Newman is at fault here (I’m just hypothesizing) none of it matters. Busch, in a position where he has no sponsor, knew heading into 2012 that every move, every minute, would be scrutinized by all those inside and outside the garage area. Perfection when it came to behavior was a necessity; anything less and the chance to return to NASCAR’s top tier would disappear in an age where talent needs to be paired with money. Busch, even when provoked, needs to be the better man, similar to what brother Kyle has done during an uneventful but sponsor-pleasing 2012.
Instead, Kurt Busch made a choice again, resulting in a fine so large, any company that might have dared sneak a peek has thrown him in the trash. So don’t pity the man who put himself in this position, just shake your head and wonder why one of the sport’s greatest talents has chosen to become his own worst enemy.
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Is NASCAR still on a high as Tony Stewart says? What should have been done to Kurt Busch and others for the incidents at Darlington? What about the All-Star Race? Are changes needed there?
Those were among the topics members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debated this week. And some of their responses might surprise you. Check them out.
DO YOU AGREE WITH TONY STEWART’S COMMENTS ABOUT THE SEASON?
Asked if he was surprised that some people are questioning the racing in NASCAR after the high the sport experienced at the end of last season, Tony Stewart said at Darlington: "I still think it's on a high. The racing has been awesome this year. You look at the whole Richmond weekend, the whole Richmond weekend the races were great. I think it's proof that the sport is still on a high right now.''
Fan Council members were asked if they agreed with Stewart’s statement:
54.4 percent said Yes
45.6 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• NASCAR is on a possible competitive "high" but the competition is greater than it ever has been and it is very difficult to get a setup right to win. BUT, NASCAR fans want drama. The fuel-mileage strategies added drama. The Kurt Busch/Ryan Newman wreck with six laps ago was drama. The No. 39 gasman going after Busch added post-race drama. We as fans need more than great competition, we need some drama to stay interested.
• Stewart is NOT the one who are sitting at home watching the so-called "great racing" on TV. A lot of it has stunk worse than Pepe Le Pew.
• I'm not hard to please. If they are racing, I like it.
• I think the racing has been great. I'm a race fan though, not a crash fan. I don't go to the track or tune in on TV to see crashing. Personally I think the fans that do that should just go away.
• Most of what I've seen has been follow-the-leader racing where the only passing came on infrequent restarts or on pit road. That's not racing in my book — that's freeway driving.
• The racing is boring. Maybe you could ask Tony why, if the racing is so great, I changed the channel and watched the NBA playoffs half way through the Southern 500
• I agree with Smoke. The racing this year has been good despite many naysayers.
• It seems that, instead of enjoying our sport, everyone is analyzing it to death. On the broadcast at Darlington, during the long green flag, all that was talked about was the lack of cautions. During a 500-mile race the drivers are always laying back until the end. Are you new here? It got exciting at the end the way all the races do. Just watch the race and enjoy it and shut up!
• It's certainly not on the high it was at the end of last year, but it's still "up" from where it has been.
• I believe the drivers and even the media (to a degree) think the sport is "on a high". I went to the Bristol race and thought the racing was great … because I was there. I don't necessarily think the racing is bad, but FOX is doing a horrible job of capturing the race. Just look at Twitter during a race. FOX has a ton of commercials & the production of the race is poorly done. That gets fans into a negative mood and therefore they perceive the racing as bad.
• Was Stewart giving a sarcastic answer again? I'm not sure why, or what to change, but I don't seem to be as into NASCAR recently as I have been in the past. I still watch the races on a weekly basis, however, I'm not scouring the internet for news articles during the week as I would normally do.
• Yes we are blessed with the best racing in the world.
NASCAR fined Kurt Busch $50,000 on Tuesday for his actions toward the end and after Saturday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington.
Busch was one of three people fined and one of four people placed on probation.
NASCAR put Busch on probation until July 25, citing Busch for “reckless driving on pit road during the race’’ and for being involved in an altercation with another competitor after the race.
Busch’s reckless driving on pit road was for shooting through Ryan Newman’s pits after a stop late in the race. Newman’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, said that his pit crew had “to jump out of the way ... and try not to get hit.”
After the race, Busch ran into Newman’s car on pit road. Newman told SI.com that Busch said it was an accident and it happened as he was taking off his helmet.
“I’m pretty sure there were 42 other guys that are taking their helmets off and doing whatever for the last 10 years and that’s the first time that’s happened to me. Circumstances, I think, are that he lied and was so frustrated that he doesn’t know how to deal with his anger.”
As for when Busch fired out of his pit stall late in the race, Newman told SI.com: “I’m not sure why [Busch] did it and tried to run over our guys and NASCAR officials. And nobody is. I think the chemical imbalance speaks for itself.”
Busch will be on probation for the All-Star Race, along with the Coca-Cola 600 and races at Dover, Pocono, Michigan, Sonoma, Kentucky, Daytona and New Hampshire. Provided he has no other issues, his probation would end before Indianapolis.
NASCAR also issued other penalties for an incident after the race between the teams.
• NASCAR fined Newman’s gas man, Andrew Rueger, $5,000 and placed him on probation until June 27 for failing to comply with a directive from a NASCAR official.
• NASCAR placed Gibson on probation until June 27 since the crew chief assumes responsibility for the actions of his team members.
• NASCAR fined Craig Strickler, Busch’s motorcoach driver, $5,000 and placed him on probation until Dec. 31 for interfering with a member of the broadcast media.
As Brad Keselowski celebrated in Victory Lane at Talladega, it was a scene both bittersweet and conflicting. Dodge had just won at Talladega for the first time since 1976, and yet there was precious little for the manufacturer to celebrate.
Two wins by Keselowski, coupled with teammate AJ Allmendinger — who’s been in position to win in the closing laps at both Martinsville and Talladega (before causing a massive wreck driving in a straight line) —indicate that Penske Racing will become (or already is) a force to be reckoned with throughout the balance of the year.
It also gives pause as to why in the hell it is jumping ship to ditch Dodge and join forces with the Ford Motor Company.
The Mopar mutiny was presented as a way for Penske to better benchmark itself against the competition, and felt that the Blue Oval brigade was that measuring stick. Considering how a Chevrolet has taken home the Cup crown every year since 2005, I’m not quite sure how that math works out just yet. It took nearly two years for the Ford camp to figure out that its simulation software sucked, and it was the Roush Fenway satellite team of Richard Petty Motorsports that helped rescue it from the depths of despair and fundamentally flawed front-end geometry.
Last season was a rebound year for Ford, which retained the services of marquee driver Carl Edwards, who ultimately tied Tony Stewart for the championship — but lost in a tie-breaker to Stewart’s four wins to Edwards’ lone triumph at Las Vegas (a race, ironically, that Stewart’s team threw away on botched fuel strategy). For 2012, the two longest-tenured Ford drivers — Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle — have been a force to be reckoned with, while Edwards has had his share of struggles, including being caught up in a wreck at Talladega and the controversial restart penalty at Richmond which denied him his first win in well over a year.
Dodge, on the other hand, has been a microcosm of Chrysler’s struggles, and its most recent brush with mortality. With Clint Eastwood cutting Chrysler commercials at halftime of the Super Bowl and a number of tug-at-your-heart-string ads that have recently been rolled out, it appeared Penske and Dodge were positioning themselves to pick up where things left off in 2011.
Unfortunately, Kurt Busch completely lost his faculties twice in nine weeks during the 2011 Chase — including going postal on a respected reporter while in earshot of a smartphone. The result was Busch being booted from Penske’s No. 22, and AJ Allmendinger replacing him as a last-minute pickup from the driver waiver wire. The 2012 season started with a disappointing Daytona 500, with late-race wrecks and an incident on pit road sidelining the two-car operation. Speedweeks, in general, was a bit of a bust aside from Keselowski’s tweet heard ’round the world.
More distraction and impending doom, however, was looming, as Dodge was prepared the unveil what appears to be the baddest-assed looking racecar to roll out since Richard Petty’s Roadrunner and David Pearson’s Gran Torino did battle 40 years ago. The new generation CoT for 2013 has a number of refinements, chief among them something resembling cars the manufacturers actually manufacture. Image that: a stock car that legitimately looks like a stock car — something that has been missing from the sport since the late ’80s.
Undercutting Dodge’s presentation of its new piece in early March while in Las Vegas was word that its flagship (and sole) team was pulling up the tent stakes and taking its lugwrench to Dearborn. Not good news for a manufacturer that put all of its chips on Penske and doubled-down on a driver, in Keselowski, that is on the verge of stardom and who grew up just outside of Detroit, to boot.
Keselowski has matured greatly since joining Penske Racing in Novemeber 2009, becoming a leader following the vacuum left by the departed Busch. Keselowski’s family was instrumental in the resurgence of Chrysler’s involvement in stock-car racing, with his father Bob piloting a LeBaron in the early 1990s in the ARCA Series, and then a Ram once Dodge returned to NASCAR in the Truck Series in ’95. With Keselowski in the fold and seemingly flipping a switch after a testing crash at Road Atlanta last summer, Dodge finally had an up-and-coming young talent with one of the finest organizations in motorsports.
A few weeks into the 2012 season find that picture suddenly a lot less rosy.
Meanwhile, half a continent away…
Word came out recently that Furniture Row Racing has reached out to former Penske driver Busch to gauge his interest in driving a possible second car for the Denver, Colo., based team with Richard Childress Racing connections. Perhaps more interesting is that Dodge has issued overtures to the same team to suspend its Chevrolet affiliation and become a full-factory backed Dodge operation. The main obstacle — and one that will likely become a theme with Dodge — appears to be just who will build the engines for the team that is based 2,000 miles away from the hub of NASCAR (and from anybody who could possibly build engines for a manufacturer that still relies on a racing family from its storied past, in Arrington Engines, for much of its support). Penske Racing has also said it would still be interested in the business of building Dodge engines, despite the move to Ford. Isn’t that a bit like a Democratic strategist saying they will be assisting with the Mitt Romney campaign?
For Busch, it’s likely a welcome reprieve, as his current gig has him driving semi-sponsored cars manned by a team of 18 warm bodies and pictures of mountain cats on the hood from six-year old movies. Not to bag on Phoenix Racing — it’s astounding the level the rag-tag band is able to compete considering its resources — and also a testament to the true talent of Kurt Busch. Yeah, he might fly off the handle and vent for 500 miles, but as with his equally-mercurial brother, you will find no one who argues his ability to drive a racecar. And let’s be honest: it wasn’t until he completely lost it at Richmond last spring that things started to turn around for the Penske organization and, low and behold, they got both cars and two-thirds of the Dodge contingent in the Chase.
To his credit, Busch has kept his trademark temper under control thus far in 2012, and even managed to keep the big green rage monster caged after inadvertent contact from his former teammate and eventual race-winner Keselowski at Talladega. While Busch has had discussions with Furniture Row, there is also speculation that he may be headed to RCR. That would be an interesting combination, as team owner Childress beat up his brother in the garage area just a few months ago.
While being engaged by a six-time championship winning car owner is obviously heartening for Busch, it may prove downright depressing for Dodge. It may be in position to reclaim a championship-caliber driver and bring a mid-level team (which just happens to be the defending champions of this weekend’s Southern 500 at Darlington) to the next level. However, nothing is concrete and the clock is already ticking on 2013.
If the Busch connection at FRR doesn’t pan out, who else might Dodge be able to court?
What’s old is new again?
You can eliminate the heavy-hitters like RCR, Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing right off the bat. Joe Gibbs Racing has re-signed with Toyota, having suspended its own engine-building operation to source powerplants directly through TRD. The Michael Waltrip Racing renaissance is well underway, and there is next to no chance it wants to upset the applecart at this stage. It was rumored that Richard Petty Motorsports may well be a prime candidate to become the factory-backed Dodge team, but it may prove difficult as it is essentially an assembly company, getting chassis, engines and engineering support from RFR.
However, a potential Petty move would be a dream come true for many Mopar fans simply for the nostalgic value. And it would be mutually beneficial for Petty and Dodge.
RPM is not performing at nearly the level its car and engine provider (RFR) is this season, and sponsorship remains an issue for the operation that has whittled things down to the No. 43 driven by Aric Almirola and the No. 9 of Marcos Ambrose. Former JGR crew chief Mike Ford has recently come on board, bringing knowledge and the perspective of a championship-caliber team.
The engine supplier issue, though, still looms large for RPM if it were to make the switch back to Pentastar power. Should Ralph Gilles and company elect to put a Dodge in their garage, the only two with experience building them (besides Penske) are Joey Arrington and “Chief” Maurice Petty. Dedicated engineering support and being the sole-focus that accompanies the only-child-status of Dodge’s NASCAR endeavors could help revitalize RPM, which is still suffering a bit of an identity crisis since Petty Enterprises stopped being a racing organization and started being a museum in Level Cross.
If Dodge is unable to find a team with enough potential and existing infrastructure, its involvement in NASCAR may very well end up being limited to a space in that same museum.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
In honor of Mother’s Day, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the “Lady In Black” for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. On the schedule for 62 years, Darlington is steeped in NASCAR history and is one of the toughest tracks on the circuit.
One crew chief called Darlington “the most unique track” the series runs at throughout the year. The egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval has one of the most unique grooves in the sport, and with nearly every driver earning the well-known “Darlington Stripe” the crews will have the bondo and hammers on hand.
More than any track in the sport, drivers will truly have to race the track and not the competition to be successful Saturday night under the lights. The pit crews will have to get the job done on pit road as well, especially leading into next week’s Sprint Pit Crew Challenge.
Be sure to keep an eye on the best 10-lap average stat after both Friday practice sessions before setting your lineup. That stat didn’t matter too much last weekend at Talladega, where Brad Keselowski pulled away on the final lap to score his second win of the season. Leading on the final lap with Kyle Busch tucked behind in tandem, it appeared Keselowski was a sitting duck to Busch. However, Keselowski was able to disconnect from Busch’s car and had the race in hand off Turn 4.
Making his 100th career Sprint Cup Series start, Keselowski heads to the Track Too Tough To Tame as this week’s NASCAR fantasy favorite.
With two wins in the first 10 races of the season, the Penske Racing driver is confident he will be in the Chase as a championship contender and feels “the shackles are off” in the remaining races before the final regular season race at Richmond. In layman’s terms, he’s focused on adding more trophies to his collection as opposed to “point racing.”
Keselowski also considers Darlington one of his favorite tracks. He currently holds the second-best average finish (7.3) behind Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin (6.5), but is without a win at the legendary facility.
Series points leader Greg Biffle certainly knows the joys of winning at Darlington, with back-to-back Southern 500 wins in 2005 and ’06. The Roush Fenway Racing driver comes off a fifth-place finish at Talladega, his sixth top 5 and seventh top 10 of the season.
Despite his two wins, Biffle has only two top 10 finishes in the five Darlington races since his victoreis. However, he has momentum on his side heading to this weekend’s race, making him another fantasy favorite.
Another driver entering this weekend’s race with “the shackles off,” as Keselowski put it, also happens to have the best average finish among active drivers at Darlington. Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb have been solid together throughout the first 10 races, and Hamlin has one win at Darlington, so expect the No. 11 team to be a strong contender Saturday night.
Five Favorites: Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch
Regan Smith enters this weekend’s race as the defending winner, earning his first official NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory last May on older tires over Carl Edwards. That win was one of only two top-10 finishes up to that point in 2011. This season, Smith heads to Darlington with zero top 10 finishes, suffering through a disappointing stretch of races.
An engine failure last week dropped the Furniture Row Racing’s driver to 27th in the standings. Looking to break his slump and kick-start his season before the All-Star break, Smith is a solid pick for this weekend’s race. Despite his poor start to 2012, Smith and his team will walk through the garage the defending champions for the weekend. That confidence boost could go a long way for a team that is looking to turn things around.
While Smith is the defending winner, Edwards goes into Darlington with three top-5 finishes in his last five starts — two of those being second-place showings. Searching for that first victory at Darlington — as well as his first of 2012 — look for Edwards to be among the front-runners on Saturday.
If there is one group of drivers that the Lady In Black favors, it is the veterans. Therefore, consider Jeff Burton,Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon as well. They have a combined 11 Darlington wins.
Five Undervalued Picks: Regan Smith, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon
Talladega always leaves fans with something to talk about and last weekend was no different from Danica Patrick’s bump that sent Sam Hornish Jr. into the wall after the checkered flag in the Nationwide race to the Jeff Gordon’s woes and the type of racing fans saw.
There was much to discuss after Talladega and members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council tackled some of those subjects.
SHOULD NASCAR HAVE PENALIZED DANICA PATRICK FOR HER ACTIONS AFTER THE TALLADEGA NATIONWIDE RACE?
On the final lap of Saturday’s Nationwide race at Talladega, Sam Hornish Jr. squeezed Danica Patrick into the wall and Patrick retaliated after crossing the finish line by tapping Hornish, which sent him into the wall. Hornish said afterward he had a right front tire going down, which made it difficult to control his car. NASCAR did not call either driver into the hauler after the race — but will talk to both this weekend at Darlington. Patrick later apologized to Hornish. Fan Council members were asked if NASCAR should have penalized Patrick for her wrecking Hornish after the checkered flag flew:
41.4 percent said Patrick should be put on probation for the next few races
41.0 percent said Patrick should not be penalized in the era of “Boys have at it”
9.4 percent said Patrick should be put on probation until the next Nationwide plate race (Daytona in July)
8.2 percent said Patrick should have been suspended for at least the next Nationwide race
What Fan Council members said:
• If Busch gets tossed for wrecking Hornaday under caution, she should miss a race for wrecking Hornish on a cool down lap. FINED, at the very least.
• I don't think a warning is inappropriate. People were comparing that incident to Kyle vs. Hornaday at Texas, but I watched that with a stopwatch and Kyle was on Hornaday's bumper for five seconds under the caution, while Danica hit Hornish but didn't push him around the track like Kyle did.
• For me it was a racing deal. Sam said he had a tire going down and got into Danica. Danica felt she was run up the track and into the wall on purpose. She made her feelings known to Sam that she didn't like what happened. I have seen this happen before with other drivers and NASCAR didn't really do anything to them. It was not the extreme as it was with Kyle Busch plowing into Ron Hornaday at Texas where NASCAR had no choice.
• Yes, probation at the very least! You don't wreck drivers on the cool down lap, bottom line.
• Let it go. It's over and was clearly boys (and girls) have at it.
• No, I do not think she should be penalized. She is NOT KYLE BUSCH and intentionally wrecking anyone to affect the outcome of the race.
• I choose that she should be put on probation but that's such a meaningless penalty. I know they'll be talking to her at Darlington but I think they should have called her to the NASCAR hauler right after the race. Waiting a week makes it seem like they're only talking to her because fans were upset.
• I love “boys have at it” but there still has to be some policing of the drivers, Danica should at least be put on probation. This is nothing like the Kyle Busch/Ron Hornaday incident last year, but she still turned Hornish head on into the wall at over 100 mph, and given what took place with Eric McClure earlier in the race, there's no place for retaliation to that magnitude.
• While we are in the era of “boys have at it,” that doesn't extend to yellow flag or post-checkered flag car issues. If she wanted to punch him after the race, that's fine, but no retaliation with her car. I think a warning is a good first punishment. Kyle Busch was suspended because of a pattern of this type of behavior, she doesn't have the pattern (yet!), so a probation that lasts through the next plate race seems fair.
• Aren't we getting just a tad worked up about all things Danica? If this had been any other driver, it wouldn't be making headlines. Evidently NASCAR didn't see a problem with it. Get over it and stop scrutinizing everything she does.
The Long and Short of It
Brad Keselowski’s victory in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega did more than put him in position to make the Chase again, it reaffirmed his position as one of the sport’s top drivers.
Over the past 26 races — the length of the “regular season’’ in the Sprint Cup Series — only Tony Stewart has more victories than Keselowski. Stewart has seven; Keselowski four. No other driver has more than two in that span, which dates to Pocono in August 2011.
Keselowski’s victories during that stretch have come at Pocono, both Bristol races and Talladega. He’s finished second twice.
Keselowski has done more, too. He has finished in the top 10 in 14 of the last 26 races and placed in the top five in 11 of 26 races as well as led at least one lap in 18 of 26 races.
“He’s matured a lot,” car owner Roger Penske says of Keselowski. “He’s been a tremendous asset to the team, not just for Brad Keselowski, for Penske Racing. You can see when he comes in the shop, he’s spending a lot of time. I wouldn't trade him for anybody right now.
“He came to me before he went to work for us, he said, ‘I’d like to come to Penske Racing and help build a winning Cup team.’ He’s certainly demonstrated that from the driving ability. His chemistry with (crew chief) Paul Wolfe and that whole team has made a difference.
“This is not about the driver, the car, the sponsor — it’s about the whole team. He's the real package. What we're trying to do is give him everything we can to make him a winner.”
Keselowski made the Chase via a “wild card” entry last year with three victories. Discounted as a title threat, he climbed to third in the standings and was 18 points out of the lead with four races to go. He was in position for a top-10 finish at Martinsville until he was wrecked in the final laps and finished 17th. That dropped him to fourth in the season standings, 27 points out of the lead. Keselowski and Wolfe were more aggressive with their strategy after that and it backfired as Keselowski ultimately finished fifth.
What he and the team learned last year could make it a stronger contender this year. With two wins in 2012, he seems sure to at least take a wild card spot again.
“I refuse to label this year a failure if we don’t win a championship,” Keselowski says. “Part of what defines a man is what code you live by. One of my codes — it’s probably my strongest code — is to be better today than I was yesterday, and to be even better tomorrow than I was today.
“We’ve shown that we’re better here at this point in the year than we were last year, at this point in the year, and we were better last year at this point in the year than we were the year before. You know, that’s my code. I'm surrounded by the proper people to execute it.”
It’s worked so far.
Every five or six visits to NASCAR’s ultimate spectacle at Talladega Superspeedway, someone figures out a new way to conquer the beast. The freight train, the lead-the-conga-line, the tri-oval slingshot — all have taken their turns as last-lap moves du jour at the 2.66-mile behemoth in Alabama. In Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, Brad Keselowski introduced a new move.
As yet unnamed, Keselowski’s Turn 3 move — “Shake ’n’ Bake” need not apply — to stave off Kyle Busch with the checkered flag in the air was, according to the race winner, one of cool calculation.
“Those are the kind of moves, similar to the move made here in ’09, that you get one chance to make, that nobody wises up on,” Keseloski said. “From there, everybody knows how to make it work. I’m sure everybody will wise up on it from here and they’ll make their moves earlier, which will change the racing again.
“It’s just evolution. You get one shot to be that guy that helps to evolve it. We had the opportunity to do that today and that’s part of what helped us win the race.”
A green-white-checker restart — caused when Keselowski spun Kurt Busch’s No. 51 Chevy — precipitated his two-lap dash to his second career Talladega win.
The ensuing lap 185 restart played witness to a nine-car pile up in Turn 1 that marked the end of the day for Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Michael Waltrip, among others.
When the field next took the green flag, Matt Kenseth — who led a race-high 73 laps — led the pack, with teammate Greg Biffle immediately in arrears. Keselowski and Kyle Busch lined up along side.
Kenseth’s stout Ford pulled away immediately, but when he and Biffle briefly separated, their draft was broken, opening the door for the Keselowski/Busch freight train.
The latter pairing roared to the lead as the white flag was displayed and jumped out to an insurmountable lead. Recent history proved that running second was the preferred position on the final lap, as the runner-up had made a last-lap pass for the win in the previous four Talladega races.
However, with Busch hooked to his rear bumper, Keselowski dove from the high groove in Turn 3 to the low side of the track exiting Turn 4. The brief separation doomed Busch, who could not get close enough to execute a pass in the tri-oval.
“I just needed to make the move, (and I ) made it in (Turn) three,” Keselowski explained. “That disconnected us. That was the key right there. Once we got that air bubble in between the two cars, it was going to take two or three laps for him to pop that.”
For his part, Busch wasn’t immediately sure how Keselowski broke the draft.
“Unfortunately, I must have screwed something up, because we got to Turn 3 and come unhooked,” Busch said. “Just gave the win away over there. Not sure exactly what happened — we definitely need to go back and figure out what it was.”
Keselowski’s win was his second of the 2012 season, putting him in position for a Wild Card entry into the Chase for the Championship if he is not in the top 10 in points at the Richmond cutoff race in September.
Kenseth held on for a third-place run and sits second to Biffle (fifth at Talladega) in the standings. Kasey Kahne was fourth, while Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Trevor Bayne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 10.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
1. Greg Biffle Found himself in roughly the same position at Talladega as he was in at Daytona ... which isn’t bad when you’re clicking off top 5s like it’s the ARCA Series.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Doesn’t seem able to finish outside of the top 10 if he tries, but this is Dale Earnhardt Jr. we’re talking about, so only a win will keep the critics at bay.
3. Matt Kenseth Kenseth has roared to within five points of Biffle’s lead in the standings on the strength of four top 5s in the last five races.
4. Denny Hamlin Hamlin was running in the top 5 at Talladega when he was the victim of a block-gone-bad. It’s hard to factor the resulting 23rd-place finish into these standings, so I will not.
5. Brad Keselowski He may not have the most consistent team on the circuit, but it’s one that has proven capable of winning on any given weekend. Bristol and Talladega are proof of that.
6. Tony Stewart Like Hamlin, it’s hard to fault Stewart for a mid-20s finish at Talladega. Unlike Hamlin, Stewart was in position to win despite running out of fuel twice and battling overheating issues throughout the day.
7. Jimmie Johnson The roll-of-the-dice tracks at Daytona and Talladega are the only ones that can consistently keep Johnson from a top-10 finish. Take plate racing as the anomaly it is and move on.
8. Kyle Busch Consecutive runs of first (Richmond) and second (Talladega) find Rowdy’s stock on the rise. Could this be the beginning of a scorching summer run?
Quick, what do the names Kevin Conway and Andy Lally have in common? Are they:
A) Two prominent Wall Street investment bankers
B) Battling for the same role in One Life To Live
C) Americans running in the Tour de France
D) The 2010 and 2011 Sprint Cup Rookies of the Year
Did it take you a minute to come up with the answer? (It’s not completely a joke — there really is a “Kevin Conway” in One Life To Live). Well, you’re not alone, especially considering NASCAR’s last two “top freshmen” are currently outside the sport altogether nine races into the 2012 season. It’s a troubling trend, where for every Joey Logano there’s been about nine Conways who come into the sport with sponsor money, run mediocre at best and then disappear without even getting as much as a cursory glance from the Jack Roush’s and Rick Hendrick’s that hold the keys to NASCAR’s continued existence. Or, there’s the Lally’s of the world, successful drivers changing series without the benefit of money or equipment to support their transition. Patience isn’t a virtue in those scenarios, leaving them kicked to the curb faster than Donald Trump can say, “You’re fired!” on Celebrity Apprentice.
Sounds silly that a few “average Joes” with funding should make a difference. But more than ever, people like these could be influencing the top levels of stock car competition, at a time when side-by-side racing and future sponsorship are getting called into question. With long green-flag runs the norm, not the exception, in 2012 and drivers content to run single file, the blame has been passed around like a hot potato: the Chase, the Car of Tomorrow, tires with no give, too much dependence on aerodynamics. However, could the conservatism of today’s driving corps come from the simple fact there’s no one in position to replace them?
Just take a look at the current top 10 in NASCAR Sprint Cup points. In a sport that was once concerned with twenty-something “young guns” unseating the veterans, they’re nowhere to be found. Instead, what you find is a collection of people that could be confused for fathers attending their kids’ Little League games: there’s no one under age 30, three over age 40 and the average is a gaudy 35.8. Can you imagine an NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB team with that number? Chances are they’d be struggling to finish above last place in their division, let alone earn a .500 record or attempt to qualify for the playoffs.
Yes, stock car racing — a sport that has witnessed great success stories of drivers in their 40s — can be different. But those tales also happened at a time when it didn’t cost $20 million to build a competitive team. That number brings in the involvement of Fortune 500 companies, with marketing departments that care just as much about target demographics as top-5 finishes. Trust me, they’re on to the trend: just look at the hesitance to sponsor Daytona winner and former champ Matt Kenseth (age 40) despite his 2012 success. Even 37-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s Most Popular Driver and one of the sport’s best storylines of the season, no longer fits within the 18-34 male demographic that was once magnetically attracted to cars turning left. Jimmie Johnson, the sport’s most successful driver of the last decade is 36. Its ambassador, Jeff Gordon, is turning 41, outside the top 10 in points and closer to hosting Kelly Live! than contending for the fifth title his fans crave. The driver once thought “key to the sport’s future,” Logano, hasn’t won in nearly three years and at 22, finds his future employment in jeopardy. The youngster’s “Sliced Bread” moniker is turning stale, a cruel irony considering the recent complaints flooding the sport.
With age comes experience, and it’s no surprise those current top-10 drivers have settled into their current organizations. Everyone on the preceding list has been driving for the same car owner for at least three seasons; 60 percent have been doing it for seven or more. That type of longevity builds consistency in relationships, creating chemistry that makes it easy to rise to the top. But the downside for the fan base is that it’s the same old, same old. Silly Season leads to changes that keep people tuned in during this 24/7-news-cycle world we live in. Take the NFL as an example: Peyton Manning, after a whole career with the same organization, is moving to Denver because a young upstart named Andrew Luck was available. In his mid-30s, a superstar athlete was pushed out because of the natural evolution of his sport — there’s someone younger and potentially just as talented available.
That transition has stopped within a world where money, not developing drivers, now moves mountains. Instead, we have the Conway’s, capable of buying rides in desperate organizations for a chance to live their dream, to race at stock car’s top level. But their spotty resumes can’t make up for boardroom success. We’ve seen plenty of these “development projects” fail, making even a struggling driver like Jamie McMurray seem like a five-time champ by comparison. It’s telling that one of the few plum openings for 2012, the No. 55 of Michael Waltrip Racing, went to someone who’s 53 years old. Yes, Mark Martin has a lifetime worth of talent … but he also had limited competition for the spot. Experience leads to knowing how and when to push the right buttons on the racetrack. With so many veterans up front and their place in NASCAR history secure, it’s no wonder the caution flags are down. After all, the sport puts the rookie stripe on back bumpers for a reason.
So is young talent dead on the vine? That’s a topic for another day, as the age question doesn’t completely answer NASCAR’s sponsorship conundrum. (Last year’s Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne, also remains without a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series, at age 21.) But it does explain why drivers are stuck in their rides, the only pressure coming from keeping sponsorship in a world where the NASCAR economy is stagnant at best. That usually comes by making the Chase, and here’s where the current point system steps in. With a limited number of drivers capable of making it, it’s easy to “coast” through the 26-race regular season only to collect your wins mid-summer and ensure yourself of a playoff spot. In the sports landscape of America that’s defined as dynamic, its most successful leagues defined by a consistent level of change, NASCAR’s best have put on the brakes and become content with the “status quo.”
That’s great when you’re looking to work in a corner cubicle for 20 years. But typically in entertainment (what sports are), the “status quo” means “the end of the line.” NASCAR is busy working on a new car for 2013, but while it’s at it, maybe it’s time to find the cast for “Young Guns: Part II” — beyond Danica Patrick, herself 30 — before it’s too late. The last time NASCAR had an entire top 10 in points with no one under age 30 was 1993 — but back then, the sport was poised to be flooded with the likes of Gordon, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte.
Where will the next generation of drivers come from? How can NASCAR’s natural evolution restart again? These are questions that need to be answered, quickly, with millions in future revenue at stake.
Average Age of Sprint Cup Top 10: 35.8
Average Age of Sprint Cup Chase: 34.4
Point standing, driver, age, first year with current team
1. Greg Biffle (42), 2003
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (36), 2008
3. Denny Hamlin (31), 2006
4. Matt Kenseth (40), 2000
5. Martin Truex, Jr. (31), 2010
6. Jimmie Johnson (36), 2002
7. Kevin Harvick (36), 2001
8. Tony Stewart (40), 2009
9. Carl Edwards (32), 2004
10. Ryan Newman (34), 2009
(WC) Kyle Busch (27), 2005
(WC) Brad Keselowski (28), 2010
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @AthlonBowles
Nine races in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and each team in approaching Sunday's Aaron's 499 with varying goals in mind. Often viewed as a “wild card” race, teams will be working on different agendas as the field jockeys for position inches away from each other — and the “Big One” — lap after lap.
The entire course of a race, not to mention fantasy weekend, can change in one instant, so choose carefully and look for those drivers that are good at avoiding trouble.
Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle continues to lead the series standings, with teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards sitting fourth and ninth, respectively.
Many expect Sunday’s race to play out similarly to February’s Daytona 500, given the rules package NASCAR has in place. Don't expect to hear a lot of complaining out of the Roush camp there. Kenseth scored the win in the 500, while Biffle finished third and Edwards came home eighth.
The Roush organization has been on its game in the early stages of the 2012 season, but none of its three drivers have ever been to Victory Lane at Talladega. In fact, between Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth, the Roush Fenway camp has 13 DNFs on the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
With all three cars in the top 10 in points, the Roush Fenway teams have a lot on the line at a critical part of the season. A solid finish for all three would mean an early-season bullet was dodged.
However, for the man second in points, there is really only one thing on his mind: winning.
There are really only two words that are synonymous in NASCAR: Earnhardt and Talladega. And this weekend, the NASCAR fantasy season rolls into Earnhardt Country — otherwise known as Talladega, Ala.
Despite a 138-race winless streak hanging over his head, Dale Earnhardt Jr. heads to his so-called home away from home second in the Cup standings, just five points behind Biffle.
Throughout the season, the No. 88 team has proven to be the lead Hendrick car, scoring four top 5s and seven top 10s in nine races. Yet last time the series was in Talladega, Earnhardt and his Hendrick teammates took the calculated and cautious approach, finishing 25th, 26th and 27th.
Following the race, Earnhardt admitted the tandem racing did not fit his style of driving.
This season, NASCAR made changes to the superspeedway package in advance of the Daytona 500, and as a result, created more traditional pack racing — you know, the style of driving that led to five Talladega victories for Earnhardt and a second-place finish in this year’s Daytona 500.
The other Hendrick cars have all been snake-bit thus far in 2012, despite a promising preseason. Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon have had strong cars, but poor luck throughout the year, while Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt continue to search for Victory Lane and that historic 200th Sprint Cup Series win for team owner Rick Hendrick.
While that milestone is a big deal for the Hendrick orginization, it would certainly take a backseat if Earnhardt could end his winless streak dating back to 2008 in front of his most loyal crowd on the schedule.
Carrying momentum and confidence, which builds more and more each week, Earnhardt Jr. is this week's fantasy favorite.
While Earnhardt may be the overwhelming fantasy favorite, Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer is also a solid pick. Entering the weekend 12th in points, Bowyer has won two of the last three Talladega races, while finishing second in the third.
This weekend, Bowyer is not only rolling for his third win in four starts, he's rolling for the Crimson Tide of Alabama with a special paint scheme honoring the 2011 National Championship football team. His car will carry the colors of the Crimson Tide and display each of its 14 titles, and he will also have an image of legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant riding along on the back of his helmet.
Winning is a tradition in Alabama and they will expect Bowyer to deliver as such. Look for him to be a contender throughout the day.
Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin
The Earnhardt name may be synonymous with Talladega, but the driver with the best average finish is none other than Joey Logano. In just six starts, the soon-to-be 22-year-old has two top 5s, four top 10s and only one DNF, leading to an average finish of 14.5.
This season, however, Logano has struggled to find consistency. After back-to-back top 10s to open the season in Daytona and Phoenix, Logano and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team have yet to score another top-10 finish. Logano had a solid Speedweeks in Daytona, and I expect him to have a strong fantasy day on Sunday.
Also consider Phoenix Racing’s Kurt Busch as an undervalued pick. Busch and Phoenix Racing started the season with high hopes and realistic expectations, but after four finishes of 28th or worse, the organization sits 26th in points and in search of wins.
Heading into the year, the team knew the superspeedway races were among its best opportunities to compete with the larger teams for wins. Phoenix Racing has one win at Talladega, when Brad Keselowski took it to Victory Lane in the dramatic 2009 finish with Edwards.
Busch currently holds the second-best average finish (14.9) amongst active drivers at Talladega, but has never been to Victory Lane. In fact, Busch only has two top-10 finishes in his last eight starts here.
The self-proclaimed “old-school” team could be an undervalued pick this weekend, just be cautious when making that final lineup decision.
Back in the car this weekend will be team owner and former Talladega winner Michael Waltrip. Mikey makes no secret of his love for plate racing, and MWR has been putting out fast racecars week-in and week-out. Waltrip could get up there and shock the world — as pack racing is more his forte than tandam drafting — so consider the No. 55 as an undervalued pick, as well.
Five Undervalued Picks: Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Michael Waltrip, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman
Talladega has been known to produce darkhorse winners in the past, and Sunday's race could do the same. This week's darkhorse pick comes in the form of Landon Cassill. Driving for BK Racing this season, Cassill has demonstrated his talent behind the wheel, working with veteran crew chief Doug Richert.
Although the team's best finish came last week with a 20th in Richmond, the potential for a solid fantasy day at Talladega is certainly there. Keep in mind, Cassill finished 16th at Talladega last October driving for Phoenix Racing.
Tommy Baldwin Racing's Dave Blaney is another darkhorse driver to consider for this weekend's race. Blaney has two top 5s at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, including a third-place finish last October.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Landon Cassill, Dave Blaney, Paul Menard, Regan Smith, Jamie McMurray
Keep in mind while you are setting your fantasy lineup that anything can happen at Talladega. The “Big One” is always lurking, and some of the biggest contenders could be eliminated in a single incident. With drivers and teams approaching this race with varying agendas, make sure to pick wisely and hope to make it through the day unscathed.
Best Average Finish at Talladega (Wins)
1. Joey Logano — 14.5 (0)
2. Kurt Busch — 14.9 (0)
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 15.0 (5)
4. Brad Keselowski — 15.0 (1)
5. Kevin Harvick — 15.1 (1)
6. Tony Stewart — 15.2 (1)
7. Jeff Gordon — 16.3 (6)
8. Clint Bowyer — 16.4 (2)
9. Jimmie Johnson — 16.8 (2)
10. Juan Pablo Montoya — 17.1 (0)
by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell