Articles By Matt Taliaferro
Points leader Matt Kenseth will leave Roush Fenway Racing after this season and be replaced by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the team announced Tuesday.
Reports state that Kenseth is headed to Joe Gibbs Racing although it is unclear if it will be with a fourth team or in place of Joey Logano, who is in the final year of his contract.
Kenseth wrote on Twitter: “I’m very thankful to Jack Roush for the opportunities he’s given me over the past 14 years. Together we have enjoyed a lot of success and as a team we are committed as ever to the remainder of the 2012 season and chasing a 3rd sprint cup title for Jack and RFR.
“Although I have nothing to announce regarding 2013, I feel the timing of this announcement gives RFR ample time to get things lined up. Darian (Grubb) and Tony (Stewart) proved to us last year there is no such thing as a “lame duck” team or season. We will continue to go to work and race hard.”
With the move, Roush loses the defending Daytona 500 winner but also a driver who is 40 years old. Taking over the No. 17 car for Kenseth next year will be 24-year-old Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the defending Nationwide Series champion.
“Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has more than proved his abilities on the race track,” said team co-owner Jack Roush in a statement issued by the team “We feel that he is not only a key piece of our team’s future, but a key piece of the future of the sport. Roush Fenway is an organization with a wonderful past and present, as well as an extremely promising future, and I can’t think of a better candidate than Ricky to usher in the next era of success for the team.
“Of course, I’d like to thank Matt Kenseth for his many years of loyal service. Matt has been an integral part of this organization for well over a decade, and we are extremely appreciative of his accomplishments and contributions to the team, and will always consider him a part of the Roush Fenway family.
“We’re fortunate that we were able to tap into Matt’s potential and bring him on board many years ago, and I’m proud that together we were able to combine the tools and the resources of Roush Fenway with his talent and determination to forge a partnership that yielded a championship at the Cup level and all of his 22 Cup victories, including two Daytona 500 wins. The No. 17 is positioned extremely well this season, and I’m committed to providing the team the best resources to continue their run for the 2012 championship. I have no doubt that Matt will do his part.”
Kenseth has run all but one Cup race in his career for Roush. Kenseth made his debut in 1998, subbing for Bill Elliott at Dover so Elliott could attend his father’s funeral (he finished sixth). Kenseth drove in five Cup races for Roush the following season before running full-time in 2000 when he beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. for rookie of the year honors in the Cup Series.
Stenhouse ranks third in the Nationwide standings this season with three victories. He has five career series wins in 87 starts heading into this weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway.
CHANGING WAYS Progress can’t come fast enough at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. As the NASCAR Sprint Cup season heads toward the midway point, Jamie McMurray is 20th in the points and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya is 22nd.
After an offseason of changes, the EGR teams have struggled to put together strong finishes. McMurray has three top-10 finishes and Montoya has two. At this time a year ago, Montoya was 16th in points with five top-10 finishes, and McMurray was 27th in points with two top-10 finishes.
Montoya says one must look beyond the results to see the change taking place after the it hired Max Jones as team manager in December. It was among a number of changes car owner Chip Ganassi started making last season to revamp his competition department and his teams.
“I think we’ve done a lot of progress,” Montoya said. “If you really go to the team right now and see how different everything is working, it’s pretty amazing. We haven’t had the results we want to have, but there have been a lot of really good changes and we’ve been putting people in the right place.
“Just because you put somebody in the right place doesn’t mean that overnight you are going to run better. You want to run better overnight, but things have got to change. Everybody has to adapt and it’s a process. I really feel we made a lot of gains on the car; we made a lot of gains on how the whole engine department is working. We’re definitely making progress I think.”
McMurray said the way the teams have been re-designed, its created better cohesion between them.
“It’s all for the better and Chip is still out hiring people and looking for more engineers and people to make it better than what it is right now,” McMurray said. “I think for us, my guess is somewhere around the last 10 races you’re going to see a lot of the progress. It takes time. There’s different suspensions, different simulations every week and sometimes they don’t always work. It’s kind of testing and trying to get things better. It’s a big difference than where it was a year ago.
“You don’t go from running 15th to winning just overnight. It takes baby steps. But, I feel like we’re heading in the right direction. I kind of say the last 10 races because I think it’s going to take that long to get to where we need to be.”
Earnhardt Ganssi Racing hopes to be the new version of Michael Waltrip Racing in improving its performance.
After two weeks of high speeds and flat out racing, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the twists and turns of Sonoma Raceway for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The 12-turn, 1.99-mile road course is the first test for the teams this season as they turn left and right.
Over the past few years, road course races have turned very aggressive, with more torn up racecars than some short track afternoons. These events also have a tendency to turn into fuel-mileage contests, with strategy playing a major role in how the race unfolds.
One driver that understands the importance of fuel conservation at Sonoma is Richard Petty Motorsports' Marcos Ambrose. The former Australian V-8 Supercar champion has long been known as a road course specialists, and nearly scored his first Sprint Cup Series victory at Sonoma in 2010.
After leading 35 of the 110 laps, Ambrose was attempting to save fuel under caution in the event’s waning laps by shutting his engine off and coasting around the circuit. When the pace car led the field up the hill past the start/finish line, Ambrose's car would not re-fire and dropped him back in the running order. The mistake was costly for Ambrose, who would have to wait until the 2011 race at Watkins Glen International to score that elusive first win.
This weekend, Ambrose heads back to Sonoma with much better equipment, the seventh-best average finish at the track, and is this week's NASCAR fantasy favorite.
Throughout the 2012 season, Ambrose has shown he is no longer simply a road course specialist. Sitting 17th in the series standings, he is coming off three finishes of 13th or better in the last three weeks. Despite a 32nd-place finish in Charlotte for an issue with the left front hub, the No. 9 Ford was among the fastest that weekend, as well.
Heading to one of his best tracks, Ambrose is confident in his team's ability to get the job done week-in and week-out.
“People know we’re around and it’s a good situation to be in,” he said. “I feel good about our team. I feel good about being part of the growth of Richard Petty Motorsports and I think that curve is continuing to go upwards. I think you’ve yet to see the best of us and you’ve yet to see the best of me.”
While Ambrose may enter the favorite, you can never count out five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon. The veteran driver has been nipping on the heels of solid finishes each week, but his season has had about as many twists and turns as this weekend's race.
Gordon has the best average finish among active drivers at Sonoma (8.7), and was second in this race last year. Celebrating his 20th season at the Sprint Cup level, Gordon is now the only Hendrick driver without a win this year, something that could change on Sunday.
Much like Ambrose, former open-wheel driver Juan Pablo Montoya is also considered a threat any time the Sprint Cup Series heads to the road course in Sonoma. Montoya went to Victory Lane in his first attempt at Sonoma in ’07, but has yet to record a top-5 finish since. While he has the second-best average finish (9.0), the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver was 22nd in last year's event.
While the 2012 season has been a struggle for Montoya, he is coming off an eighth-place finish last weekend at Michigan, only his second top 10 of the year. If Monotya can keep the car in one piece and crew chief Chris Heroy can play the right strategy, the No. 42 team could score some solid fantasy points.
Five Favorites: Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson
Sunday, June 17, will be remembered by Junior Nation as they day when their boy finally came home. Much like John J. did at the end of Rambo, Dale Earnhardt Jr. came full-circle, literally, this past Sunday in the Irish Hills of Brooklyn, Michigan.
After 143 races and four years of futility, Earnhardt won the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway and moved to within four points of the championship lead currently held by 2000 rookie classmate, friend and former Busch Series rival Matt Kenseth. It wasn’t a fuel mileage fluke as his previous win at MIS in June 2008; it was, as his old man once said, “an ass-kickin’!”
Since that last win a number of changes, both within his team and with the driver himself, have taken place. Truth be known, the last seven years have been less than productive for the driver whose surname is synonymous with success — as well as the entire sport in which he competes. While he has endured many unfortunate and unfair tags (there is actually a website dedicated to his drought), this dry spell of Old Testament proportions harkens back to the 2005 season.
Many are quick to jump on the bandwagon and bash a driver when he’s down. Those new to the sport that recognize the name but wonder what all the hype is about may not know the story of Earnhardt’s eight-year dilemma. It’s a long road from where he came from to get back to racing relevance in 2012. And this is how he got here:
2004: The ’04 season saw Earnhardt winning the race that took his father 20 attempts at conquering, the Daytona 500. What was a lifetime struggle for The Intimidator, Junior knocked out in only his fifth attempt. He would go on to win six races that season, and not just on the plate tracks that were the domain of what was Dale Earnhardt, Inc. during the early- to mid-2000s.
If not for a fiery accident during practice for an ALMS race in Sonoma — the site of this weekend’s Sprint Cup race — and a slight misjudgment of a pass on Carl Edwards late in the going at Atlanta with only four races to go in the championship chase, Earnhardt may have won the Cup title. There was also the matter of a 25-point fine for an innocuous slip of the tongue during his Victory Lane interview at Talladega, a reminder of how things had evolved in the sport since his late father won his seventh championship some 10 years earlier. Surely, this would serve as the springboard to propel him into the rare air of Daytona 500 and Sprint Cup champion in 2005 …
2005: The season started with a shake-up within the Dale Jr. brain trust. The idea was to end the bickering between Tony Eury Jr. and Tony Eury Sr. – his cousin and uncle who served as principles on his No. 8 team – by bringing in new chief Pete Rondeau. It was a total team swap between the flagship No. 8 and then-driver Michael Waltrip’s No. 15 machines that saw Waltrip’s results improve slightly, but sunk Earnhardt’s into also-ran status. Competition Director Steve Hmiel was installed as interim crew chief after just 11 races, with the No. 8 team winning one race, a fuel mileage gamble at Chicagoland. The rest of the season was a disaster, with finishes in the mid-30s par for course, ending the year 19th in points, well out of the Chase.
2006: Earnhardt was reunited with cousin Eury Jr. once again, and the performance returned — although it was spotty at best. A win at Richmond in the spring was his lone triumph of the year, but he did qualify for the Chase. A second win at Talladega was snatched away on the final lap, when Brian Vickers hooked teammate Jimmie Johnson on the backstretch on the final lap, who then hooked Earnhardt, sending both spinning through the infield dirt. This also began a period of instability at DEI, with more outsiders coming in to what had been a family-oriented and operated race team with its namesake driver going into the final year of his contract.
2007: Things got off to a rocky start before the 2007 season even began. At a preseason test and media event at Daytona in January, RCR driver Kevin Harvick deemed Teresa Earnhardt a “deadbeat owner” whose absence from the track was having a negative impact on the DEI teams of which she was listed as CEO. During this time, Earnhardt admitted that his relationship with his owner/stepmother “ain’t a bed of roses,” but was quick to defend her following Harvick’s comments.
It was, however, a glimpse into the dysfunction that had become DEI, as well as Teresa Earnhardt’s refusal to cut her stepson into the company that bore his name. The 2007 season also marked NASCAR’s first in-race dabbling with the first-generation CoT, and with it came a new set of challenges to compound matters.
Eury’s out-of-the-box CoT tinkering brought about a whopping 100 point/$100,000 fine, as well as a six-race suspension following discovery of illegal wing mounts to the car at Darlington. It was a harbinger of things to come, and it would end up being the first season since his full-time arrival in the series that Earnhardt failed to win a race.
The bombshell that dropped in May found Earnhardt, his sister Kelley and Eury Jr. leaving the operation at season’s end. Earnhardt and Eury headed to Hendrick Motorsports, while Kelley moved to Earnhardt’s Nationwide team, JR Motorsports.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory celebration is long over and now it’s time to look ahead. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council were asked to look ahead on what Earnhardt’s victory means related to the title race and at this weekend’s race — the first race on a road course this season. Of course, members did have time to look back at Michigan and give that race a grade.
Here’s what members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say:
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF DALE EARNHARDT JR.’S VICTORY AT MICHIGAN?
56.2 percent said it’s a sign that he truly is a title contender this year
35.8 percent said it was nice but it’s only one win, let’s not get carried away
8.0 percent said it does not matter to me
What Fan Council members said:
• I am less impressed with the victory then I am his other numbers for the season so far. Twelve top 10s, six top 5s, 218 laps led, average finish of seventh, and he has completed every lap of competition this season, all in just 15 races. The extraordinary numbers that team has posted are Jimmie Johnson-esque and are remarkable for any driver. I may not be a Junior fan, but I believe that team is the best in the garage this year and may possibly do what I previously thought was impossible and win Junior a championship.
• Junior obviously has momentum right now, but let's all take a deep breath and realize how long the season is. We're “Pro-Junior” in our household, but I'm not gonna run out and get an 88 tattoo any time soon …
• Steve Letarte has put together a team that believes in themselves and they are staying consistent. They need to win more to compete for the title, but I believe they are on the right track.
• Consistent season so far + contending for wins + second in points + a win = title contender.
• Of course he is a title contender!! Have you looked at his stats this year???
• I feel like Smoke in this regard. Glad to see it happen, but give it a rest like it’s the second coming. With Hendrick equipment, he should win more than two points races in five years. If he runs well at Sonoma and Kentucky and even takes the points lead, then I would be more impressed.
• One win in the past four years in the best equipment (in) NASCAR . It’s quite sad that there was this much celebration over it.
• He's a virtual lock for the Chase now. I expect the team to take more chances and be a huge threat in the Chase. He's got the consistency down, and now has proven the team can win in dominating fashion.
• That was a strong showing for the 88. I think this season will finally shut the mouths of some of the naysayers.
• I like Junior, but one win doesn't mean he's going to win the championship this year. Let's wait and see what the future brings.
• Don't understand all the hype! Hasn't proved anything in his career. If he didn't have the name Earnhardt, he probably would be in the 51 car!
• I thought he was a title contender even before the win Sunday (and this is coming from a non-Junior fan). He and Letarte seem to have great chemistry with each other, (and) with guys like Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards having somewhat off years Junior could definitely pull out a championship and probably spark off victory riots across the country.
GRADING SUNDAY’S RACE AT MICHIGAN
57.1 percent called it Good
29.8 percent called it Great
10.2 percent called it Fair
2.8 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Are you kidding me? Junior led almost half the race and won going away. And Kyle Busch kicked rocks while his brother kept spinning himself out. It doesn't get any better.
• When the post-race excitement matches the pre-race excitement with equally exciting racing in between, then it's a pretty great race.
• It was a lot better than I thought it would be. With all the speed/tire problems leading up to the green flag, I was afraid we were in for another gas mileage race.
• I will enjoy Michigan more when the groove widens back out to the wall
• Being there was great, even with the rain delay. The place was electric. Especially at the end of the race, I have never seen so many excited people. It was like the section I was in was holding its breath and then went crazy.
• I thought it was a very good race and think NASCAR made the right decision in the tire change.
• I attend this race every year and this one felt “racier” than normal. Perhaps the suspense from all the pre-race unknowns — tires, engines, speeds — carried over into the race.
• I thought it was a good race. Suspense because no one knew what the tires were going to do, adding to that the rain washed all the rubber off the track. The race itself was just solid.
• Today's race was the first I unhesitatingly checked “Great.” There was passing all over the place, racing three- and four-wide, hard racing side-by-side with give and go. No phantom cautions, (the) cautions (were) called when necessary, no speeding debacles or major issues with tires or fuel. I also have to give props to NASCAR for making sure this didn't turn into “Indy Tire Fiasco Part II.” They saw the probability of the race either being run 10 to 15 laps at a time or 30 cars hitting the wall at 200 mph due to tire blowouts. I'm more than willing to watch cars running at slightly slower speeds if it saves injury and/or equipment.
• Pretty interesting race with lots of storylines: Dale’s win, JGR’s tumultuous day, Kurt Busch’s bad luck continuing, tires blistering, fast speeds and other things, as well. I enjoyed it even though my driver wasn't a contender for most of the race.
To break one trend, Marcos Ambrose knows he’ll likely endure another when the Sprint Cup Series competes at Sonoma in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday in the first of two races at road courses this season.
Ambrose, who won at Watkins Glen last year for his first Cup victory, seeks to break a string of seven different winners on road courses. To do so, he’ll have to avoid the litany of trouble that lurks on the tight, 12-turn road course.
The last couple of races on the Northern California course have featured beating and banging synonymous with short-track racing.
“It is a technically challenging track, it’s hard to make passes,” Ambrose says. “Even if it’s clean, it’s very easy to make contact.
“The drivers understand that you’re going to have to do a few bump-and-runs, and you’re going to have to make contact to win the race. We’re all prepared for that, and we all understand the consequences of that.”
Ambrose, who is 17th in the point standings, needs a victory to have a chance at a wildcard spot in the Chase.
“We still feel like we’ve got a chance to make the Chase if we can win some races,” he says. “We’ve got speed. We just have to convert those speed runs into good results.”
Ambrose has finished between ninth and 14th in four of the last five races. He goes to Sonoma with higher expectation since his racing background is in road racing.
After finishing 42nd in his first time at Sonoma in 2008, Ambrose has not finished worse than sixth since. He led 35 laps in 2010 but lost the lead when, as he was saving fuel, he turned the engine off and couldn’t restart it under caution. A few cars passed him when he stopped on course and NASCAR placed him in the lineup where he regained caution speed. Only seven laps remained and the mistake cost Ambrose a chance to win. That helped Jimmie Johnson win and continue the streak of different winners on road courses.
On the other road course at Watkins Glen, Ambrose has recorded four top 5s in four Cup starts and owns a 2.2-place finish.
Kyle Busch started the different-winner streak when he won at Watkins Glen in ’08. Kasey Kahne won at Sonoma and Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen in ’09, while Jimmie Johnson was victorious at Sonoma in 2010 and Juan Pablo Montoya was first at Watkins Glen. Last season, Kurt Busch won at Sonoma and Ambrose won at Watkins Glen.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
We’ve said all along that Earnhardt’s consistency warranted the top spot, but a lack of any wins kept him from it. Well, the 143-race national nightmare is over, and Junior can now lead the way.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Replace the engine and start in the rear of the field? No problem for Chad Knaus and crew. They just handed the ball to J.J., who drove it to a fifth-place finish with blistered tires and an empty gas tank.
3. Matt Kenseth
Third-place runs at Dover and Michigan bookend a seventh at Pocono. Kenseth maintains his lead in the point standings heading to Sonoma, where neither he nor Earnhardt are ... well, good.
4. Greg Biffle
Looked to be the class of the field on Sunday until lap 70, when Earnhardt took to the point and Biffle’s handling went away just slightly. Still, a fourth-place finish works in the grand scheme of things.
Joey Logano, you captured your first race win since 2009 less than two weeks ago. You passed a future Hall of Famer, Mark Martin, to do it. You’re now just 51 points away from the Chase with a possible wild card ticket in your back pocket. What’s next for you?
The answer, surprisingly enough, may not be Disneyworld, but the unemployment line. Unless Mickey Mouse can find a few million hidden inside Epcot Center, Logano faces the possibility that Home Depot, Dollar General and other major sponsors may start drooling over a free agent class that’s the biggest NASCAR’s had in several years. The catch, of course, is whether some of these companies will stick around or opt for a veteran considering the alarming number of blank quarterpanels of late. But assuming the money is there, the long list of drivers available could mean we have a mean game of musical chairs in a few months.
Here’s a look at how some of the major NASCAR teams stand for next year and which wheelmen could be hotly pursued as Silly Season heats up:
Driver Lineup: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne
Signed For 2013: All four.
Analysis: Think Hendrick Motorsports is slumping? Try telling that to the guy polishing the trophies. He’s been working overtime this month, as HMS has won five of the last six races (including the All-Star event) since Mother’s Day weekend. Moving forward, driver and sponsor stability should only help as it attempts to place all four team cars in the Chase for the first time in HMS history. Jeff Gordon’s a longshot there, but should he make the playoffs along with his trio of teammates, they’ll have the added benefit of avoiding a media circus over future plans. You can still win the Chase in that environment (see: Tony Stewart, cutting crew chief Darian Grubb) but it’s not an obstacle you’d like to place in your path.
Driver Lineup: Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth
Signed For 2013: Biffle, Edwards.
Analysis: Jack Roush has been publicly adamant that he wants Kenseth, the only Cup champion on Ford’s roster, signed for the long-term. And why not? He’s the 2012 Daytona 500 winner, leads the standings and has been with the team for a dozen years. But the fact he’s run the last two Sundays unsponsored — particularly the one in Ford’s backyard (the EcoBoost sponsorship means no company stepped up to cover) — is a troubling sign. Young Ricky Stenhouse Jr., one of the sport’s up-and-coming talents, is rolling over the competition in the Nationwide Series. Ideally, Roush wants to bring him up and expand to four cars, but how long can he fund Kenseth partially out of his own pocket? A similar situation occurred with Jeff Burton, in 2004 and he wound up at Richard Childress Racing despite a sterling track record.
So where would Kenseth go? Remember, Penske Racing is switching to Ford next season and has a possible opening in AJ Allmendinger’s No. 22, and there’s already a Roush-to-Penske pipeline history (Kurt Busch). I’d call it an unlikely scenario, for certain, but if the money doesn’t materialize here … it may dictate some moves.
Joe Gibbs Racing
Driver Lineup: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano
Signed For 2013: Busch and Hamlin.
Analysis: Gibbs’ contracts are a little tricky to figure out in the press — there’s no public end date for Busch and Hamlin’s deals — but it’s assumed both will be back in 2013. Hamlin, in particular, is surging back towards his 2010 brilliance with new crew chief Darian Grubb. The real question mark surrounds the No. 20, which was almost handed to Carl Edwards in 2011 before he spurned Gibbs’ advances for Ford. Logano now has a victory, but he’s still led less than 200 laps over a four-year Cup career. Rumor has it Home Depot has been looking for someone who could run up front more consistently; Kurt Busch had been mentioned as a possible replacement, pushed heavily by his brother until this month’s Dover debacle took that signing off the table.
Will Logano have yet another chance to save his job? I would have to think it’s Chase or bust despite Joe Gibbs’ vote of confidence at Michigan on Sunday. Without the postseason, summer’s success will be forgotten once the No. 20 gets ignored over the final 10 races. Ryan Newman, Brian Vickers (a Toyota guy) and possibly even Martin Truex Jr. could be available to replace him. Logic would have it Logano wouldn’t look elsewhere – this ride would be the best opportunity available for him. So it’s on the Gibbs family to decide whether Logano will ever match those lofty expectations Mark Martin anointed him with all those years ago.
Richard Childress Racing
Driver Lineup: Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard
Signed For 2013: All three.
Analysis: RCR may be having an awful season by tits standards – only Harvick is currently in the Chase – but the Childress lineup appears to be set moving forward. Burton is signed for the next two years, while Menard brings sponsorship to the table. The only question is whether Childress wants to expand to a fourth car, having equipment ready for Austin Dillon’s rookie run in 2014. Kurt Busch was briefly rumored here, but that is again off the table and RCR can easily stick with what it has. So unless a top-tier driver is available, with the right sponsor and the right opportunity, RCR is probably out of this year’s free agent chase.
Driver Lineup: A.J. Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski
Signed For 2013: Keselowski
Analysis: Now here’s where it gets interesting. With the nightmare season Allmendinger has had – six finishes outside the top 30 in 15 races – it’s hard to imagine him being re-signed. So who gets the offer? Parker Kligerman, a Newman-like prospect, has excelled in the Truck Series this season but is at least a year away. Sam Hornish Jr. has had a B-plus year in the Nationwide Series, at best, and Penske would rather put him in a third Cup car when ready than the No. 22.
That means Penske will look outside for a replacement for a ride that hasn’t won a Cup title but remains well-respected inside the garage (and has a solid sponsor). Would Penske take a chance on Logano if the youngster were set free? Or how about Regan Smith, whose contract with single-car Furniture Row is also up? Darkhorses include Kenseth, Vickers or even Stenhouse with the switch to Ford. Remember, Kurt Busch came out of nowhere the last time Penske plucked a big name – he was even under contract and had to buy out of the deal at Roush. Expect this domino to make the biggest difference in where drivers head.
Driver Lineup: Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart
Signed For 2013: Patrick, Stewart.
Analysis: Stewart has made it publicly clear he wants Newman back for 2013. What he doesn’t have right now is the money to do it. Should the U.S. Army be prevented from sponsoring a car next year, patchwork deals aren’t enough to keep the No. 39 competitive enough to Newman’s liking. On the fringes of the Chase and without a top-10 finish in two months, Newman’s team is acting like one that’s turning into a “lame duck” program. But would Stewart really be willing to stick to a two-car operation with Patrick as the only option for direct feedback? There was speculation Kurt Busch, who drives for Phoenix Racing with Hendrick chassis, could have been an option (oh, the irony in how Stewart defended him). But again, sponsorship becomes a concern — as does Stewart and Busch’s history) making this one a bit of a question mark.
Michael Waltrip Racing
Driver Lineup: Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin, Martin Truex Jr., Brian Vickers
Signed For 2013: Bowyer
Analysis: We’ll start with Truex, who is in position to make the Chase for the first time with the NAPA Toyota. Considering the auto parts company stuck through tough times in the worst of the Michael Waltrip years, it’s hard to see it leaving as long as Truex sticks around and continues to perform. Will the New Jersey native, enjoying his finest season, think this car is the best option for the long-term? As long as he makes the Chase, the answer will almost certainly be yes. If not, in-house Vickers becomes an immediate option. Martin, as always, will have the ball in his court on a possible return; at 53, he’s still driving at a 30-year-old level.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Driver Lineup: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya
Signed For 2013: Montoya
Analysis: 2010’s Cinderella story lost his slipper in the winter that year – and he’s still looking to get it back. Jamie McMurray has just two top-5 finishes in his last 49 starts, far removed from Daytona and Brickyard glory. And with sponsorship in question for 2013, so is his employment. The problem for Earnhardt Ganassi is getting a top-tier replacement to believe in the future of its NASCAR program. Despite a full-scale overhaul last season, letting longtime employees like Steve Hmiel and Tony Glover go, it’s still on pace to miss the Chase with both cars. Only once, in 2009 (Montoya), has an EGR car made the postseason, meaning only another Cinderella-in-waiting might look at that car. A long way to go, but if Allmendinger gets released, he has the open-wheel background and resume that’s perfect for that seat.
Richard Petty Motorsports
Driver Lineup: Marcos Ambrose, Aric Almirola
Signed For 2013: Ambrose?
Analysis: RPM’s possible switch to Dodge in 2013 continues to be the hot topic around the garage. A rumor the switch would be announced last weekend was firmly denied by officials on both sides — and it did not. Were it to eventually happen, it could mean tough times for Aric Almirola despite recent improvement behind the wheel. Why? Wouldn’t Dodge go after a marquis name after losing Brad Keselowski from its lineup? Ambrose, too, continues to be an enigma after a strong first season in the No. 9 Ford. Remember, he had a similar beginning driving for JTG-Daugherty’s No. 47 but by the end of his second season, a “sophomore slump” had him moving elsewhere. With zero top-5 finishes in 15 starts this season, success on the road courses will be critical to making the Chase. Without them? It’s almost certainly a disappointing year.
One thing we know for sure at Phoenix Racing: Kurt Busch will not be back in 2013, either after being kicked to the curb or signing with another high-profile ride. As for Furniture Row, Regan Smith will be a hot commodity and this time, it’s going to need to show improvement for him to re-sign. The team had recently pursued sponsorship to land Busch and may need to expand to keep last season’s upset Southern 500 winner.
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Four years and 143 races. That’s how long it had been since NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had won a Sprint Cup Series race.
In that time, the sport’s favorite son went from wildly popular to wildly questioned. The theories from fans and talking heads alike grew in relation to his winless skid: Would Earnhardt ever be a championship contender again? Heck, was he even capable of engineering a race win? Was he all “show” and no “go?” Had the surname simply carried him this far, to a cushy ride at stock-car behemoth Hendrick Motorsports? Was he the Anna Kournikova of NASCAR, or a great athlete slumping beneath the pressures of his singular situation?
The answers, of course, are as elusively undetermined as the questions are radically rash and, often, unfair, borne out of ignorance of the sport, the driver and/or the circumstances that have shaped his career. But that comes with the territory when a legion of fans — residing within the sport and in the hazy midst of casual onlookers that value sticks ’n’ balls over gears ’n’ lugs — expect, then simply yearn, for results. Big-time results. Race-winning results. Results that are assumed when interest resides at a fever-pitch.
All that said, Earnhardt’s 2012 season has been more successful than most in the Sprint Cup ranks. A series-best 11 top 10s in the season’s first 14 races — including two runner-up and two third-place showings — found him second in the point standings. He and crew chief Steve Letarte have been on the brink of a return to Victory Lane, but until the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, it had eluded them.
On Sunday, that consistency was trumped by dominance, as Earnhardt led a race-high 95 laps en route to a nearly 4.5-second win over Tony Stewart.
It was a performance that harkened back to his six-win season in 2004.
“I feel like we are getting stronger,” Earnhardt said of his team’s performance. “One of the things that we did last year throughout the season was kind of maintain, and I was a little — even though I was happy as hell to be with Steve and be able to run well and be competitive — I was a little disheartened that I didn’t progress through the year. I didn’t find more speed as the year went on.
“This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick and we have gotten quicker, and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that’s been a thrill for me.”
His No. 88 team certainly did not disappoint on Sunday. With a repaved racetrack, record speeds and new tires flown in to curtail blistering, the event had the feel of a perfect storm —a perfect storm of uncertainty, that is.
But while other drivers came and went — Stewart, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth all spent time atop the pylon — Earnhardt’s crew took one big setup-adjustment swing in the early stages of the race and left the driver to do the rest. It worked, as Earnhardt ascended to the point on lap 70 and remained there for 95 of the remaining 130 circuits.
From the mountains of Pennsylvania to the rolling hills of Michigan, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400.
Racing on yet another repaved track, teams have two test sessions throughout the day on Thursday as they attempt to get acclimated with the new track surface, the higher speeds and how tires will react.
This is another great opportunity for NASCAR fantasy racers, as drivers will be in and out of the media center throughout the day providing insight that could go a long way when making your final lineup decisions.
While all teams will have the opportunity to hit the track for an extra day of testing, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya conducted a two-day tire test in April. Each of the drivers complimented the new surface's grip and indicated speeds were among the fastest they have experienced.
“This place is fast. I mean fast, fast,” Montoya said following the test session. “Our minimum speed this morning was over 180 mph through the corner when you think about it. We are doing easily over 210 mph at the end of the straight.”
Teams have backed that up as of mid-morning on Thursday, as drivers were clicking off average lap times of 200-plus mph. For perspective, Martin Truex Jr. was recorded at 218 mph going into Turn 1.
Already in the backyard of team owner Jack Roush and Ford Motor Company, the additional test in April should pay huge dividends for the current points leader, Kenseth.
Kenseth calls Michigan one of his “favorite tracks throughout the season,” and has two wins, 11 top 5s and 16 top 10s in 25 starts there. Veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig admits he has little use of the mountains of notes compiled prior to the April test session — instead, he will fall back on what they learned over that two-day period.
“There was a ton of grip, and I assume it would be a little faster as the track gets dusted off and rubbered in, so speeds should pick up a bit,” Kenseth said. “When we were in race trim, we were almost four seconds faster than we were racing last year, which is quite a difference.”
Taking the points lead for the first time since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Kenseth enters this weekend with a 10-point advantage of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For Earnhardt, the arduous task of ending his 143-winless streak returns to the site of his last victory. Coming off one of his strongest performances to date in Hendrick equipment at Pocono last week, Earnhardt and the No. 88 team head to Michigan with Victory Lane at their fingertips.
After leading 36 laps and finishing eighth last week, the frustration was clear on Earnhardt's face after he climbed from the car. Do not mistake this frustration as that of years past, though. Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led team are one of the most consistent teams in the series right now — with a circuit-best 11 top 10s this season — yet the one thing eluding them is a win.
Since his ’08 win, Earnhardt has only one top 5 and two top 10s on the two-mile D-shaped oval, with three consecutive finishes of 14th or worse. However, with the new racing surface, teams have thrown out their notes from previous years. While the No. 88 team did not take part in the April tire test, Hendrick’s No. 24 did, which may pay dividends.
That fact might have been evident in Thursday's test session, as Earnhardt was one of the fastest cars of the day, topping 200 mph (more than six mph faster than Ryan Newman's qualifying record set in 2005).
Other drivers to consider as favorites this weekend are Keselowski, the hometown hero, two-time Michigan winner Gordon, and Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards.
Five Favorites: Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards
The last time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was in Michigan, it was Kyle Busch that survived a green-white-checker finish to score the win. Busch has suffered from inconsistency over the years at MIS, but finished third and first in both races last year, leading a combined 81 laps.
Coming off consecutive engine failures at Dover and Pocono, Busch fell three spots to 12th in the series standings. While it is certainly not time to panic, Busch and the No. 18 team would be a lot more comfortable racing through the summer stretch inside the top 10 in points. Busch was also among the fastest cars in Thursday's test session.
Michigan has been known to be tough on engines, so be mindful of Joe Gibbs Racing's powerplant issues of late and chose carefully.
After slipping up in the final laps last week in Pocono, veteran Mark Martin heads to Michigan looking for another solid run. With 52 starts at MIS, Martin should be a threat again this weekend as he has five wins, 18 top 5s and 31 top 10s, giving him the seventh-best average finish among active drivers. And he — like many — was fast on Thursday, being the first to break the 201 mph barrier.
Much like Busch, however, Martin and his Toyota engines have suffered from issues throughout the year. In his 11 starts this season, Martin has had two engine failures, at Kansas and Charlotte.
It is hard to imagine five-time champion Jimmie Johnson could be an undervalued pick in any sense of the imagination. However, Michigan is one of only five tracks the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has yet to win. Despite having the 10th-best average finish, Johnson has come up short in each of his 20 starts here — and on a couple of occasions, coming up short has meant running out of fuel on the final lap.
Last June, Johnson struggled here, starting 21st, failing to lead a lap and coming home 27th. When the series returned in August, though, Johnson drove from a 19th starting spot up to a second-place finish, leading 18 laps in the process. Over the course of his last seven Michigan starts, Johnson has only two top-10 finishes, but has led an impressive 323 laps.
Kevin Harvick also enters this weekend's race as an undervalued pick. The Richard Childress Racing driver has the ninth-best average finish at Michigan, but was fast in Thursday's morning test session, breaking the 200 mph barrier.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman
Jerry Springer and NASCAR? A special Twitter page for NASCAR and a unique race at a unique race track. Backseat Drivers Fan Council members had much to debate this week and they didn’t always agree. Here’s what they had to say about this week’s issues:
“THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW” SPONSORING A TEAM?
FoxSports.com reported that Phoenix Racing has had talks with officials from “The Jerry Springer Show” about the program possibly sponsoring the team. Fan Council members were asked what they thought about this possible union:
39.2 percent said it was horrible and would only reinforce stereotypes of the sport and should be nixed.
35.5 percent said it was great to see a potential new sponsor possibly help a team that needs it.
25.3 percent didn’t care about the issue.
What Fan Council members said:
• Jerry Springer's show represents the very worst of American culture. We don't need that in NASCAR. Our fans represent the best in our culture — love of family, love of God, love of our country and military. Those two don't mix, and we don't need new fans that bad.
• Bringing a new sponsor into NASCAR is always a good thing. If the sponsorship goes well, it could open the door to other sponsors coming into NASCAR. And thinking that "The Jerry Springer Show" will only reinforce stereotypes is already stereotyping “The Jerry Springer Show." Seems like a double standard.
• It is a tacky idea — tackier than the Ricky Bobby car. NASCAR wants to be seen as a world-class sport enjoyed by smart, sophisticated viewers. Consorting with “The Jerry Springer Show" does not sound like a world-class move.
• Not so much reinforce stereotypes, but just give it a trashy image, after all that's what that show is, trashy. I don't think it's a good idea for the sport.
• Sponsors are REALLY hard to come by right now. I don't think the sport can afford to turn money away. As far as reinforcing a stereotype, let's face it, there is SOME commonality between NASCAR and Jerry Springer. Do you want to alienate ANY fans right now because you think they are "redneck?"
• If “The Jerry Springer Show” can air on regular television, it can certainly sponsor a team in NASCAR.
• I know sponsorship is hard to come by but PLEASE!!!!! This will only serve to reinforce the bad behavior already set forth by Kurt Busch!
• As a sport that is characterized as being only for rednecks and white trash, we should look beyond the money. I'm often told at work that perception is reality. I can hear the pundits laughing at us NASCAR fans already. The stick-and-ball reporters would jump at the chance to ridicule racing rather than learn about it.
• Really I have mixed feelings. On one hand it's a sponsor that I'm sure Phoenix Racing could bring on and it would help their team. On the other hand, I'm certain people will look at the deal and Jerry Springer on the car and the WWE references will start. Probably Kurt Busch can create enough controversy without Jerry Springer's help.
• Any sponsor is a good sponsor! Not really, there is a line, but each car owner should draw their own line. Who am I to tell a car owner whose money he should and should not accept? I get to pass my judgement by choosing which drivers I support.
• Stupid idea. NASCAR already has the reputation of being nothing but rednecks. Add to that Kurt Busch's comments about how NASCAR needs to be more like WWE. Credible sports don't need that.
• Money is money.
NASCAR debuted the #NASCAR landing page on Twitter that provided a place for fans to check out various tweets with #NASCAR in it. Fan Council members were asked what they thought of the site.
57.7 percent didn’t look at it.
23.5 percent said it was OK.
11.1 percent were disappointed in it.
7.7 percent really liked it.
What Fan Council members said:
• OMG it was gr8t. ROTFL at some tweets.
• I already follow who I want on Twitter, so I probably will not use it all that much, but I still think it is a neat idea.
• So sick of hearing about Twitter all the time. I just want to see the race, I REALLY don’t want to see what Timmy in Texas thinks of Jeff Gordon's bad luck on my screen. Way too much Twitter involvement. Please make it go away. #goaway
• They didn't keep up with all the tweets like I had hoped. But still pretty neat.
• It would probably be better for someone who isn't already on Twitter, who wants to get a sampling of the types of things they might see there. Although the sheer volume of tweets was a bit overwhelming. I already follow a variety of media people, drivers and their wives, and team PR people, all told less than 30 people, and the number of tweets during a race in my own timeline can get hard to keep up with.
• It really just looked like my NASCAR list. I thought it was to help fans interact with others, but I didn't see that. It’s a cool concept, but I'm sure it will get better as the weeks go on. Totally not what I thought it would be I guess.
• It was great. Great way to see what was happening all over twitter and not just who I follow. The interaction was great. I am really excited to see where this can go.
• Had more important things to do. Like watch the race.
• The best part of the page is the picture stream. The tweets follow too many teams I'm not interested in, so I'll continue to stick to my personal timeline & lists, and I look at the raw #NASCAR stream if I'm looking for particular reaction to an event or news.
• The first round was a complete failure. There were tweets at the bottom of the page that went back to June 2nd. Meanwhile, in the unfiltered #NASCAR stream, tweets were as hot and heavy as ever. Updates were scarce on the official page and seemed to almost come to a complete stop sometime after halfway. I really wish this would succeed but it needs a heck of a lot more work.
GRADING SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT POCONO
58.8 percent called it Good
28.9 percent called it Great
8.2 percent called it Fair
4.1 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Best Pocono race I have seen in many years!
• Take away the pass by Logano to take the lead it was a poor race, plain and simple.
• I was dreading this race as I normally do in the summer schedule. However, it was good. The repave, speeding penalties and cautions made this usually boring race watchable.
• Hubby's first race, and we stood for about 75 percent of the laps! Great competition, great resurfacing job, great turnout!
• Best Pocono race I have ever seen.
• Once we got the speeding penalties out of the way, I loved the race. When the race was over, I was ready for more laps!!
• Yes, this was an odd race. However, the whole speeding penalty thing really showed who was paying attention and it made it very interesting. The race was a good length and there were multiple cautions to help mix things up. Also nice seeing a driver who really needed a win actually get one this season.
• Who knew that Pocono could be that great. Usually even I am fighting the urge to nap during the middle of the race. It was the perfect length and the action was great.
• I rated it "Good." It was actually pretty "Great." I'm just sour that the 88 (car) didn't get it done.
• This was the first time ever I have gave a race a "GREAT" checkmark. It was one of the best Pocono races I’ve ever seen. I had friends that were there and they said it was just as awesome in person. Gotta give props to NASCAR & the track owners for making the race great.
A SECOND CHANCE FOR POCONO?
Last week Fan Council members were asked if they cut four races from the current Cup schedule what four races those would be. Both Pocono races ranked among the ones fans would cut with the Pocono August race rated as the No. 1 race to cut. Yet, last weekend’s Pocono race earned praise from Fan Council members with 87.7 percent of the votes listing the race as either Great or Good — only the Martinsville race this season has received a higher combined percentage (89.9). Fan Council members were asked if they would reconsider how many races Pocono deserved in a season:
56.1 percent said one race only
39.5 percent said two races
4.4 percent said zero races
What Fan Council members said:
• I live 25 miles from Pocono and get sick of hearing everybody bitch about it. They deserve two races. They always have better than average attendance and the speedway has gone out of their way to jump through all the hoops NASCAR has asked them to. New paving, pit road, inner wall, fencing, better seats, parking and traffic control. A shorter race made it more competitive. That facility is now right there quality-wise with Charlotte, Richmond or anywhere else. God bless Doc Mattioli, but since his grandson Brandon took over, Pocono is light years ahead of where it was. That is an A-plus facility — I don't care how pissed Dale Jr was about having to be there for five days!
• Pocono is still on the bottom half of my list of favorite tracks.
• I have been to many Pocono races over the years. They were always too long and quite frankly the last three or four were boring. We stopped going two years ago. I picked Pocono as a race to be dropped. After (Sunday’s) race, I have changed my mind. If they can consistently put out a race like (Sunday’s), they deserve to have two.
• It had more action than Bristol, but I still think it deserves one race only.
• I'm still saying only one race. Yes, I enjoyed the race despite certain things, but I think only once a year is fine. Sometimes a race that has two races doesn't always deliver in the second race. Only a few tracks can do that. Talk to me after August.
• I was wrong last week. The new track and shorter miles have made this a much better race.
• No way this track deserves two dates, but I can deal with 1 date because it is a unique track on the schedule.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at [email protected]
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
One race can reveal only so much about a season but could Sunday’s event at Pocono forecast the future for some drivers? Joey Logano, AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch are among those trying to solidify their status for next season, yet Pocono pulled them in opposite directions.
One of the biggest questions from Sunday’s race is what did the victory do for Logano’s future with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Logano presents an interesting case. For all the talk that he has not fulfilled his potential, remember that he’s only 22 years old and now has two Cup victories. Jeff Gordon didn’t win his first Cup race (the Coca-Cola 600) until he was 22. Gordon’s second win (Indianapolis) didn’t come until days after he turned 23.
Logano’s win Sunday, though, was his first top-five finish of the season and only the second time he’s led a race this year.
“For sure right now my future is not set with anybody,” Logano said. “You need to go out there and win races. To get this win means a lot. It's at a perfect time.
“My hope is to obviously stay with what I’ve got. But you never know. You know, those things go back and forth and switch around a lot, and all I can do is stay focused on my job, and that’s driving the race car.”
Allmendinger, hired after last season to replace Busch at Penske Racing, hasn’t had it as good this season. Foxsports.com reports he’s in a contract year and Sunday’s race typified his struggles this season. He was collected in a crash on the second lap and finished 31st — the third time he’s placed 30th or worse in the last four races.
“In my worst nightmare, I didn’t think the season would go this bad,” Allmendinger said. “You’ve got two options: you quit or you keep working harder. I’ve been six years in this. I’ve experienced bad stuff before in NASCAR, so I ain’t going to quit. We’ll just keep working harder. We’ve got to figure out how to turn it around. It’s tough. I definitely don’t want to be in this position, nobody does.”
And then there’s Busch, who needed to prove he could avoid issues outside the car. That lasted barely a third of the way through the season after NASCAR suspended him a week for verbally abusing a reporter. The incident happened with Busch already on probation for incidents during and after the Southern 500 last month.
Tuesday, car owner James Finch met with Busch about his future with the team and later announced that Busch will continue driving for Phoenix Racing.
Those are just a few of the drivers who could switch teams after this season. Ryan Newman’s contract expires at season’s end, as does Martin Truex Jr.’s. The Sporting News reports that Matt Kenseth’s contract is up — but he’s expected to remain at Roush Fenway Racing — as is Jamie McMurray’s at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Regan Smith’s at Furniture Row Racing.
It likely will come down to sponsorship and what drivers companies want. Logano has the opportunity to rise among the free-agent list but he must back up his win with more strong finishes. If not, he could be bypassed for a ride by those also looking for a job next year.
FAST TIMES For the second weekend in a row, the Cup Series races on a repaved track. This time it’s Michigan International Speedway, where speeds neared 215 mph in a recent tire test.
“I did the tire test there, but it was a very comfortable feeling pace,” Jeff Gordon said. “The cars drove really good. They stuck to the race track. I like the tire that Goodyear brought there. Just like (at Pocono), we just need the groove to widen out a little bit. That is only going to come with laps.”
Points leader Matt Kenseth, who also participated in the tire test, said he’s not worried about the speeds.
“If you go off into Turn 1 and blow a tire at 200 (mph) compared to 207 or whatever we’re running now, I don’t know it’s much of a difference because you’re still gonna hit something pretty hard,” he said. “Other than that, it’s not any harder to drive here. It’s actually probably a little bit easier just because it’s not bumpy and the line is pretty defined where you’re going to run.”
SPONSOR SEARCH CONTINUES Todd Bodine won the Camping World Truck Series race earlier this month at Dover without a primary sponsor and also didn’t have one at Texas last weekend. Red Horse Racing owner Tom DeLoach recently shut down Daytona winner John King’s team for lack of sponsorship, leaving Bodine and Timothy Peters.
What happens to the two remaining teams will depend on sponsorship.
“My wife Janet is working really hard on getting us sponsorship and she's actually having some success,” Bodine said. “We’ve got some major corporations that are interested in doing things, unfortunately their time frame doesn't work the same as it does in our world. We need it yesterday and they're OK getting it five months from now.
“There’s three different deals, three different corporations we’re talking to and they all three called up and said they wish they were on (at Dover). That's a good thing.
“I can't speak for Tom saying that we're going to continue without sponsorship. But, I think Tom sees the light at the end of the tunnel and knows this is a great opportunity for his race team. Not only for right now, but for the future and when you see that kind of opportunity, there's times when you have to dig deep and keep going. I think that's where we're at.
“All I can say is stay tuned — we have a lot of great things happening at Red Horse Racing.”
PIT STOPS Clint Bowyer on if he’s surprised by some of the struggles at Richard Childress Racing, his former team: “I’m not there anymore. I guess you never wish bad things upon anybody, but if you’re not there anymore, you don’t really care as long as they are behind you.” ... Jimmie Johnson on his hunger for a sixth title: “That desire is there, and when that desire fades I guess it’s time to hang up the helmet.” Tony Stewart, after Tuesday's tire test at Bristol: "You've definitely lost the top groove. There's going to be less room to race, that's for sure. We've gone from a three-groove track to two grooves."
by Dustin Long
Follow Dustin on Twitter: @DustinLong
Of all the race tracks to add a little spice to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Pocono Raceway was not expected to be it. A 2.5-mile, flat tri-oval that’s seen its share of strung-out racing, the speedway was also recently repaved — a move that doesn’t lend itself to door-banging action.
Sometimes, though, the racing gods smile on the fans when and where they least expect it.
After a bizarre first half of the race that saw numerous drivers get penalized for speeding on pit road and an event that appeared to be heading toward a fuel-mileage finish, a driver looking to break a 104-race winless skid used a bump-and-run move to get by a respected series veteran. And for the driver in question, a fuel-mileage win was the last thing he wanted.
Joey Logano, his future with the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team highly-speculated, used the ol’ “chrome horn” to scoot by Mark Martin with four laps remaining in the Pocono 400 to earn his second career Sprint Cup Series win in his fourth season on the circuit.
“You work so hard to do this, and them (JGR) teaming me up with Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) has been an awesome experience,” Logano said. “We’ve been growing together a lot lately and able to make our cars better. To get a victory, it meant so much, and pulling the Home Depot car into Victory Lane at a Sprint Cup race and winning it the right way was just an amazing, amazing feeling that you can’t replicate and you can’t explain what it means.”
Logano’s only other win came at New Hampshire in his rookie season of 2009, the result of a rain-shortened finished that saw his team gamble on staying out while others pitted. It paid off, as Logano, at 19-years-old, became the youngest winner in Cup Series history. The Pocono win, in contrast, was won not on strategy or weather, but on speed and pure racing.
“That feels awesome to win one the right way,” Logano yelled on his in-car radio as he took the checkered flag. “No stupid rain!”
Martin held on for second, while Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.
“It’s not how I would have done it,” Martin said of Logano’s bump-and-run move to get by. “But certainly if I’d have had a fast enough car, he would have gotten a return. But I couldn’t quite keep up with him.”
Logano’s move came after a restart with eight laps remaining. Martin, who restarted second, got by Logano and was pulling away. However, Martin’s Toyota wiggled in Turn 3 with five laps to go. The loss in momentum allowed Logano to close the gap down the 3,740-foot frontstretch, and as the two entered Turn 1, Logano nudged the rear bumper of Martin’s car. He sailed by on the low side and quickly scooted away, winning by nearly one second.
Fuel became a concern late in the going. When Kasey Kahne brought out a caution with 22 laps remaining, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had led 36 laps and was running third, pitted to top off the tank in his No. 88 Chevy.
However, fuel never factored, as an additional yellow for debris waved with 11 laps to go. The drivers that did not pit earlier — namely Logano, Martin, Stewart, Johnson and Hamlin — were able to conserve enough gas under the caution periods to make it to the finish without incident. Earnhardt settled for an eighth-place showing.
Points leader Greg Biffle limped to a 24th-place run after engine issues ruined his day. He surrendered the championship points lead for the first time since gaining the spot after the third race of the year.
Biffle’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, inherits the lead on the strength of a seventh-place finish at Pocono. Earnhardt sits 10 points back, while Biffle falls to third.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
The last five days have become the most memorable of Kurt Busch’s 12-year tenure in NASCAR. The next five may ultimately determine the rest of his career.
Following a terse exchange with long-time NASCAR reporter Bob Pockrass following Saturday’s Nationwide race at Dover, Busch was suspended by NASCAR until June 13 for showing disrespect towards a media member. Since, Busch’s car owner, James Finch, has been less than supportive of his driver, making cryptic comments regarding his future with the No. 51 Phoenix Racing team. Absent is the fatherly concern and support that Joe Gibbs showed brother Kyle following his dust-up at Texas Motor Speedway last fall with Ron Hornaday Jr. in a Truck Series race. Instead, Tuesday’s comments on Sirius XM NASCAR were those of an old-school racer, legitimate tough guy, and an owner who finds himself at the same Busch-induced crossroads as Jack Roush and Roger Penske before him.
“It’s going to be race-by-race. It’s not going to be probation with us,” Finch said. “Here’s the deal: Quit wrecking the cars, get a good finish, be nice to people. That’s not real hard to do.”
Finch also says that if further tirades ensue, he will permit a member of the crew to, “go upside (Busch’s) head with a crescent wrench.”
So how have things gone so wrong so quick for Busch? Two weeks ago I wrote a column declaring that he was the right driver to take over the reins of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Home Depot machine. Following Saturday’s incident, JGR president J.D. Gibbs said that Busch is, “no longer on our radar.”
The stage for the Axl Rose of auto racing’s downward spiral into obscurity has been built over the course of a number of run-ins throughout the years.
Busch made his first career Cup start at Dover (coincidentally) in Sept. 2000, closing out the year by replacing Chad Little in the No. 97 Roush Ford. In just his fourth race at Rockingham, Busch raised the ire of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who harassed Busch for a few laps to where NASCAR issued a warning to Junior, instructing him to back off. The incident was Busch’s first interaction with the media, and even then in his young career, he gave a typically articulate, well-reasoned response about trading paint with a name of racing royalty.
It also set a long-standing precedent that Busch would not back down to anyone in the sport — be it another driver, opposing crew, or even his own team owner.
In 2001, Busch began his first full season in Cup, and in October at Phoenix his now-legendary tiff with Jimmy Spencer began. Feelings between the two escalated through the ’02 season —particularly after a bump ‘n’ run at Bristol — and at the Brickyard 400, Busch found himself in the wall early in the event – and then slapping his backside and pointing to the rear of the field as Spencer drove by. What followed was Busch’s now-epic line, referring to Spencer as a “decrepit old has-been”. The feud culminated in the Aug. 2003 Michigan race when Busch was popped in the nose by Mr. Excitement following a tirade that was picked up by Busch’s in-car audio and camera.
Spencer isn’t the only driver to have taken a swing at Busch. Tony Stewart allegedly punched him following a practice incident at Daytona in 2008. He would be docked 100 points later that year when, at Dover (naturally), he drove his car alongside Stewart’s on pit road in disgust, nearly hitting a crewman in the process.
In ’04, Busch won the inaugural Chase for the Sprint Cup, which until last year’s tie, was the narrowest championship margin in history (eight points). In late ’05, Busch jumped ship at Roush Racing to take over the iconic Blue Deuce for the retiring Rusty Wallace at Penske Racing. With just two races remaining in the season, Busch was pulled over during race weekend in Phoenix, and was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence. Busch was less than cordial with the officers, accusing one of being a Jeff Gordon fan while asking the one question anyone who is anyone should not: “Don’t you know who I am?”
Busch was suspended by Roush for the final two races of the season, the team issuing a release that stated they were, “done being Kurt Busch’s apologists.”
Since then it’s been a steady diet of water bottle chucking, press release ripping, going after reporters, and team radio rants that sounds more like excerpts from Full Metal Jacket than Days of Thunder. His radio tirades, in particular, have become the thing of legend, abusing his crew, crew chiefs, the sanctioning body, and team owner. From wishing he could drive his ill-handling car head-on into the wall to knock himself out, to addressing team owner Roger Penske as “dude,” Busch has been able to maintain rides based on his talent and ability, not through timely charm or faux sincerity.
Things reached a crescendo in 2011 when at New Hampshire (strangely, not Dover) his car failed pre-race inspection in the second Chase race. He had a bit of a meltdown during driver introductions, and snapped at ESPN’s Jamie Little en route to the grid. After falling out of the race at Homestead eight weeks later he was less-than-enthused about waiting for a TV interview with ESPN reporter and longtime NASCAR personality Dr. Jerry Punch. The ensuing tirade was caught on a fans’ smartphone, uploaded to YouTube, and led to his ouster from Penske Racing — making him a driver without a job just two months before the season was to begin.
That aside, the reason for Busch’s Pocono suspension is a bit muddy. Busch was asked by Pockrass, a reporter well-respected among his peers and a long-time member of the media corps that covers the sport weekly, if he was forced to race Justin Allgaier differently, since he was on probation. Allgaier was making aggressive moves toward Busch during the race after some incidental contact on the first lap. His reply was classic Kurt, but as things have turned out, not in a good way:
“It refrains me from not beating the s*** out of you right now, because you ask me stupid questions. But since I’m on probation that’s probably improper to say as well.”
Mind you, Busch essentially confirmed the same question when interviewed by Punch just a few moments earlier. Perhaps more telling was Busch’s follow-up comment of, “you’re in this just to start stuff, it’s all you’re out here for.”
In my mind, the comment to a member of the media did not warrant the suspension. Had there not been a camera present to record Busch’s comments, I doubt we’d even be having this discussion. The totality of his history the past two years of being less-than-polite with media members factored into the decision — particularly during a time when the sport is working hard to rebuild it popularity following a decline in viewership and attendance. This appears to be one guy having a lingering beef with another, which now stands to jeopardize his career.
Not to get all paternal and go the “this hurts me more than it hurts you” route, but perhaps this is what Busch requires to, as Finch says, “get his head right.” The cracks have begun to show the last few weeks, from a palatably tense exchange with reporters outside of his team hauler at Charlotte, to discussing a controversial pit road incident with Ryan Newman at Darlington which saw the 13th of 14 damaged Phoenix Racing machines in 2012. Busch is auditioning for a ride this year and has been working harder to get more out of the equipment than it’s capable of providing.
Busch was knocking on the door of a top-5 run at Darlington when he got into the wall causing a flat tire. He was in contention for a win at Talladega until he was inadvertently turned by former teammate Brad Keselowski late in the going. During qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 he lost it in qualifying and nosed the car into the backstretch wall. Combine those with his short fuse, a will to win and get back into a top-tier ride, and you’re mixing nitro and glycerin in a 9,000 rpm tumbler.
Also working against Busch in his dealings with Finch, in that he leads the Sprint Cup Series in wrecks this year with five – both uncharacteristic for the driver and unsustainable for a small, independent team. The tiny Phoenix Racing group of 18 is short on resources and sponsorship. Typically, when you paint your car like Ricky Bobby’s “ME” car from Talladega Nights, things can’t be on solid financial footing. No word yet if Clyde Torkle’s “Chicken Pit Special” will on the car for Atlanta in September.
Before everybody goes piling on and kicking a man when he’s down (which is America’s second national pastime), not all of the wrecked cars have been Busch’s fault. As well, despite the owner’s frustration with the situation, Busch maintains the support and admiration of his current crew chief, Nick Harrison.
“The whole deal has been blown out of proportion,” Harrison said on Tuesday. “Kurt’s under the microscope right now and I just wish people would leave him alone and let him do his job. Yes, Kurt has a strong personality, but when he’s out of the car, he’s just one of the guys. He’s one of us. That’s hard to find in the garage these days.”
Even Finch relented that not all of Busch’s undoing has been of his own doing:
“I think the media needs to back off a little bit. They need to stop agitating him. I mean, what can I do? Put a muzzle on him when he gets out of the car? Hide him in a box? He’s got the most talent out there right now. But he’s been over-driving the car and he needs to settle down, win a race or two and let things settle down.”
What has resulted is the worst of both worlds: a championship-winning driver working hard to rebuild his reputation, driving a largely unsponsored car for a small team in an economy that cannot support a massive sponsorship campaign. Combine that with a hot-tempered driver who is frustrated with his current situation and a fickle audience who demands to see real, live, raw emotion (but then acts offended when a driver doesn’t rattle off the canned 30-second sponsor-laden drivel) and you have the crossroads that Kurt Busch finds himself at today.
If Busch does not say exactly what Finch is demanding to hear on Tuesday, then he is essentially out of Cup racing for 2012 — and potentially beyond. His only fall back at this time is the part-time Nationwide Series arrangement with brother Kyle’s No. 54 Monster Energy team. It would be a further set back professionally, but might be required for him to heal personally.
While the radio outbursts and snarky comments are entertaining and admittedly funny — calling Jimmie Johnson “five-time chump” in mid-spin is pretty witty — it has led to his demise and marketability in a sport that now demands drivers to be minivan-mom friendly. Busch would have landed at Richard Petty Motorsports last offseason, but sponsors refused to back him, despite comments from then-CEO Robbie Loomis that “I’d mortgage my own house if it meant hiring Kurt Busch.”
It is the same situation that Finch now finds himself in following the suspension of his driver.
“If I can't get a sponsor, I can't keep running without a sponsor,” Finch says. “That's a slow death. I don't want to do that.”
Personally, I sincerely hope that Busch manages to turn things around and can find a way to contain the inner green rage monster. In an era where one year drivers are told to, “have at it boys” and the next to “don’t says s***,” it’s both bad timing and bad form to shut down a championship-caliber driver for being short with a media member upon exiting a racecar.
While it does not excuse the pattern of behavior and decade of disrespect, the majority of those in the sport feel the same way. Typically, these type of situations are reserved for athletes in other sports that have substance abuse problems. In this case, it’s one driver who’s high on shooting his mouth off.
Sadly, simply expressing his frustration with a question may end up silencing his career.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
This week has certainly been an interesting one in the world of NASCAR.
Jimmie Johnson scored his seventh career Dover win on Sunday, tying him with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the most all-time wins at the Monster Mile. Kurt Busch was suspended for this weekend's race at Pocono after threatening Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass following Saturday's Nationwide Series race, also at Dover. Testing got underway on the freshly repaved Pocono Raceway, with Mark Martin leading the way on Wednesday. Kyle Busch won Wednesday night's Prelude to the Dream charity race at Eldora Speedway.
While much of the focus this week has centered around off-track news, it is time to put that aside and look ahead to this weekend's race a the Tricky Triangle.
With testing taking place Wednesday and Thursday, fantasy NASCAR players get a rare early glimpse of what teams are getting a handle on the freshly re-paved track.
To no one’s surprise, speeds have been much higher with the new pavement and tire combination provided by Goodyear. Martin’s top speed on Wednesday was 175.380 mph, while AJ Allmendinger was quickest in Thursday morning's session. Allmendinger's speed of 177.190 mph was nearly five miles per hour faster than the track record of 172.533 set in 2004 by Kasey Kahne.
“You never know what to expect when a race track gets paved,” Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton said on Wednesday. “This pavement is unbelievably nice, smooth. The quality of racing is going to be improved a great deal. [But] it’s still Pocono. It still has the same characteristics and the personality of Pocono, but just has more grip.”
AJ Allmendinger, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kahne, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top 10 speeds on Wednesday.
Keep an eye on the speed charts from Thursday's two test sessions, and even more so on Friday, when the Cup teams will enjoy nearly three hours worth of track time in both qualifying and race trim.
As Burton mentioned, the new pavement might have added more grip, but it is the same old Pocono. One of the trickiest tracks on the schedule, drivers and teams will have to setup their cars so they work through each of the track's three unique corners.
The same old Pocono also means Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon are three drivers to keep atop your list of fantasy favorites.
Coming off his second win of the season, Johnson and his No. 48 team are the hottest thing on the NASCAR circuit. While the championship battle is still many months ahead, the five-time champ seems to be preparing for a sixth title run.
Johnson also holds the best average finish at Pocono (9.0) with two wins, eight top 5s and 14 top 10s in 20 starts. The No. 48 car was third fastest in Wednesday's test session, so expect him to be among the front-runners come Sunday afternoon.
Whenever the series rolls into Pocono, Hamlin is also one of the drivers to beat. After sweeping the races in his rookie year, Hamlin has gone on to record a total of four wins on the 2.5-mile triangle. He has the second-best average finish (9.7) with seven top 5s and eight top 10s in 12 starts.
Like Johnson, Hamlin also has two wins this season, putting him fourth in the standings. With some security in his spot in the Chase, Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb are focused on scoring bonus points for wins and there is perhaps no better place for them to accomplish that than at Pocono.
If Hamlin wants to score his third win of the season, he'll have to best veteran Jeff Gordon, among others. Gordon has the third-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Pocono, with five wins, 17 top 5s and 27 top 10s in 38 starts.
Currently mired in a season plagued by bad luck, Gordon heads to Pocono on a mission to turn his season around and knock the monkey off his back. The No. 24 car was strong last Sunday in Dover, but a loose lug nut and a poorly-timed caution ruined any chance at a solid finish. If Gordon can avoid the poor luck that has been chasing him all season, expect the four-time champion to have a solid day on Sunday.
Also keep an eye on the ageless Martin and last August's Pocono winner Brad Keselowski.
As previously stated, Martin led the way in Wednesday's test session and has the fourth-best average finish (11.2) at Pocono, but the veteran has never been to Victory Lane.
Keselowski already has two wins this season, but is currently 11th in the standings. Look for him to try and work his way into the top 10 in points for the first time this season. Keselowski won here last August.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski
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 protected]
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 [email protected]
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