Articles By Matt Taliaferro
Nine races in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and each team in approaching Sunday's Aaron's 499 with varying goals in mind. Often viewed as a “wild card” race, teams will be working on different agendas as the field jockeys for position inches away from each other — and the “Big One” — lap after lap.
The entire course of a race, not to mention fantasy weekend, can change in one instant, so choose carefully and look for those drivers that are good at avoiding trouble.
Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle continues to lead the series standings, with teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards sitting fourth and ninth, respectively.
Many expect Sunday’s race to play out similarly to February’s Daytona 500, given the rules package NASCAR has in place. Don't expect to hear a lot of complaining out of the Roush camp there. Kenseth scored the win in the 500, while Biffle finished third and Edwards came home eighth.
The Roush organization has been on its game in the early stages of the 2012 season, but none of its three drivers have ever been to Victory Lane at Talladega. In fact, between Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth, the Roush Fenway camp has 13 DNFs on the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
With all three cars in the top 10 in points, the Roush Fenway teams have a lot on the line at a critical part of the season. A solid finish for all three would mean an early-season bullet was dodged.
However, for the man second in points, there is really only one thing on his mind: winning.
There are really only two words that are synonymous in NASCAR: Earnhardt and Talladega. And this weekend, the NASCAR fantasy season rolls into Earnhardt Country — otherwise known as Talladega, Ala.
Despite a 138-race winless streak hanging over his head, Dale Earnhardt Jr. heads to his so-called home away from home second in the Cup standings, just five points behind Biffle.
Throughout the season, the No. 88 team has proven to be the lead Hendrick car, scoring four top 5s and seven top 10s in nine races. Yet last time the series was in Talladega, Earnhardt and his Hendrick teammates took the calculated and cautious approach, finishing 25th, 26th and 27th.
Following the race, Earnhardt admitted the tandem racing did not fit his style of driving.
This season, NASCAR made changes to the superspeedway package in advance of the Daytona 500, and as a result, created more traditional pack racing — you know, the style of driving that led to five Talladega victories for Earnhardt and a second-place finish in this year’s Daytona 500.
The other Hendrick cars have all been snake-bit thus far in 2012, despite a promising preseason. Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon have had strong cars, but poor luck throughout the year, while Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt continue to search for Victory Lane and that historic 200th Sprint Cup Series win for team owner Rick Hendrick.
While that milestone is a big deal for the Hendrick orginization, it would certainly take a backseat if Earnhardt could end his winless streak dating back to 2008 in front of his most loyal crowd on the schedule.
Carrying momentum and confidence, which builds more and more each week, Earnhardt Jr. is this week's fantasy favorite.
While Earnhardt may be the overwhelming fantasy favorite, Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer is also a solid pick. Entering the weekend 12th in points, Bowyer has won two of the last three Talladega races, while finishing second in the third.
This weekend, Bowyer is not only rolling for his third win in four starts, he's rolling for the Crimson Tide of Alabama with a special paint scheme honoring the 2011 National Championship football team. His car will carry the colors of the Crimson Tide and display each of its 14 titles, and he will also have an image of legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant riding along on the back of his helmet.
Winning is a tradition in Alabama and they will expect Bowyer to deliver as such. Look for him to be a contender throughout the day.
Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin
The Earnhardt name may be synonymous with Talladega, but the driver with the best average finish is none other than Joey Logano. In just six starts, the soon-to-be 22-year-old has two top 5s, four top 10s and only one DNF, leading to an average finish of 14.5.
This season, however, Logano has struggled to find consistency. After back-to-back top 10s to open the season in Daytona and Phoenix, Logano and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team have yet to score another top-10 finish. Logano had a solid Speedweeks in Daytona, and I expect him to have a strong fantasy day on Sunday.
Also consider Phoenix Racing’s Kurt Busch as an undervalued pick. Busch and Phoenix Racing started the season with high hopes and realistic expectations, but after four finishes of 28th or worse, the organization sits 26th in points and in search of wins.
Heading into the year, the team knew the superspeedway races were among its best opportunities to compete with the larger teams for wins. Phoenix Racing has one win at Talladega, when Brad Keselowski took it to Victory Lane in the dramatic 2009 finish with Edwards.
Busch currently holds the second-best average finish (14.9) amongst active drivers at Talladega, but has never been to Victory Lane. In fact, Busch only has two top-10 finishes in his last eight starts here.
The self-proclaimed “old-school” team could be an undervalued pick this weekend, just be cautious when making that final lineup decision.
Back in the car this weekend will be team owner and former Talladega winner Michael Waltrip. Mikey makes no secret of his love for plate racing, and MWR has been putting out fast racecars week-in and week-out. Waltrip could get up there and shock the world — as pack racing is more his forte than tandam drafting — so consider the No. 55 as an undervalued pick, as well.
Five Undervalued Picks: Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Michael Waltrip, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman
Talladega has been known to produce darkhorse winners in the past, and Sunday's race could do the same. This week's darkhorse pick comes in the form of Landon Cassill. Driving for BK Racing this season, Cassill has demonstrated his talent behind the wheel, working with veteran crew chief Doug Richert.
Although the team's best finish came last week with a 20th in Richmond, the potential for a solid fantasy day at Talladega is certainly there. Keep in mind, Cassill finished 16th at Talladega last October driving for Phoenix Racing.
Tommy Baldwin Racing's Dave Blaney is another darkhorse driver to consider for this weekend's race. Blaney has two top 5s at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, including a third-place finish last October.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Landon Cassill, Dave Blaney, Paul Menard, Regan Smith, Jamie McMurray
Keep in mind while you are setting your fantasy lineup that anything can happen at Talladega. The “Big One” is always lurking, and some of the biggest contenders could be eliminated in a single incident. With drivers and teams approaching this race with varying agendas, make sure to pick wisely and hope to make it through the day unscathed.
Best Average Finish at Talladega (Wins)
1. Joey Logano — 14.5 (0)
2. Kurt Busch — 14.9 (0)
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 15.0 (5)
4. Brad Keselowski — 15.0 (1)
5. Kevin Harvick — 15.1 (1)
6. Tony Stewart — 15.2 (1)
7. Jeff Gordon — 16.3 (6)
8. Clint Bowyer — 16.4 (2)
9. Jimmie Johnson — 16.8 (2)
10. Juan Pablo Montoya — 17.1 (0)
by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell
Confusion in Richmond, Changes at Bristol and Pastrana’s Impact
NASCAR officiating, Bristol’s changes and the debut of Travis Pastrana. It was quite a week for the sport and created a lot of topics for members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council to debate.
With so much to discuss, no need to delay things. Here’s a look at how NASCAR fans saw these issues:
WAS THE DEBRIS CAUTION LEGITIMATE LATE IN THE RICHMOND RACE?
NASCAR called a debris caution with 13 laps left in Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond with Tony Stewart leading. Stewart said the debris was a water bottle. MRN announcer Dave Moody tweeted that he saw a “big hunka metal” on the track. TV did not show the debris. Fan Council members were asked if they thought the caution was legitimate.
65.7 percent said Yes
34.3 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• Well I can’t say it was legitimate, but I did see them pick something up. It was right in front of where my seats were.
• I have listened to the NASCAR Officials Channel on SiriusXM enough to know that they do not throw phantom cautions and they are legit. If there is something out there, and especially if they cannot identify it, they will throw a caution.
• Absolutely not! Evidently NASCAR has brought in Vince McMahon as a consultant, and decided to add artificial drama to race(s) that needed none. It turned a great race, that Tony Stewart had earned the win of, into a tire-changing contest. Let the racers race!
• I have to trust NASCAR, but this is easily avoidable — SHOW THE DEBRIS. We don't have to trust officials in other sports because foul balls are shown to be foul, touchdowns are shown to be touchdowns. Just show the debris, and all is solved.
• Since the fans have been complaining and the press has picked it up about no drama we had plenty of it at RIR. Jeff Burton tweeted “it looked like a can to me. It was on the exit of 2 it was about 1/3 up the track.” And Matt (Yocum of FOX) tweeted “robin p told me on the plane last pm that it was a can not water bottle. Mid turn 2 like u said MkJ” And from what others said it had been there for a bit and Carl was the one screaming about it the loudest.
• NASCAR has been VERY good about not tossing out phantom cautions this season — I think that there is no reason to not believe them.
• Phantom cautions are a problem in NASCAR. There is no reason why the reason for the caution can’t be shown to us. It should be mandatory.
• This is unbelievable. One week fans are complaining about lack of cautions and NASCAR needs to do something. This week they are calling the caution bogus.
• With all of the HDTV cameras, why can't the race producer show us the debris for every caution? They could show us the GEICO roof camera during the GEICO side-by-side commercial and the 5-Hour roof camera during that side-by-side commercial. They show us the replays for a wreck from these roof cameras, why can’t they try to help NASCAR be legitimate and show the debris?
• If David Hoots says "Put it out,” it's legitimate enough for me.
DID NASCAR MAKE THE RIGHT CALL IN PENALIZING EDWARDS FOR HIS RESTART?
With less than 100 laps left in Saturday’s race, NASCAR penalized Carl Edwards for jumping the restart and passing leader Tony Stewart too soon. It happened as there was some confusion with Edwards’ team if he was the leader or not. Fan Council members were asked if NASCAR made the right call to penalize Edwards for jumping the restart.
75.0 percent said Yes
25.0 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• I really don’t see the debate here. From the replay it showed that Carl jumped the restart before the restart box. Even IF he was the leader, he still jumped the restart. NASCAR made the right call. I don't see why everybody is so up in arms about it, because that's always been the rule, regardless. End of story.
• If he jumped the restart, and there is a penalty for the infraction, then YES. Having said that, I think a black flag is a stupid penalty for that infraction. Just wave it off and make them do it again. That is WAY too harsh.
• Absolutely not!!!! I was at the race and listening to his channel, his spotter came over the radio and told Carl NASCAR said 99 is the leader, and the scoring tower called him the leader. There was obviously confusion so why didn't NASCAR call off the (re)start and get it fixed like they have done a million times before? Tony spun the tires bad, and Carl simply got a great restart like he had done all night. I think NASCAR just made themselves look terrible Saturday with two bad calls, and the only explanation was basically “sorry bout your luck.”
• Once again, I believe in NASCAR and its integrity … though I will say that in that particular situation it would have made sense to go one more lap under yellow to make sure there was no confusion.
• Clear as day. He jumped the start.
• Tony clearly spun his tires on the restart. That was a bad call.
• It was blatant. Props to NASCAR for having restart lines visible on the wall, this was a black and white call to me, no gray area.
GRADING SATURDAY NIGHT’S CUP RACE AT RICHMOND
55.6 percent called it Good
23.0 percent called it Great
16.7 percent called it Fair
4.8 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Loved it. I’m so glad I blew off my Saturday night plans to stay home and watch TV.
• NASCAR has a HUGE problem on their hands. I’ve been critical all year of the boring (nature) of the racing, and after seeing this race in person I gotta say it’s not the drivers being too cautious, it’s the fact that they don't get a chance to be aggressive. There is not much passing, there is nobody charging up through the field, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all in the car. The dictatorship of NASCAR has to loosen up the rules a bit. Every car is the same, therefore they just get strung out and basically run a fast-paced parade. If NASCAR doesn’t make some changes real quick, they are going to dig a hole that will take years to recover from.
• The Jimmie Johnson pit crew penalty, Carl Edwards jumping the restart and Tony Stewart’s debris caution added needed drama to this race. Without these three events, it would have been a rather dull race overall. Short track racing is always better than the 1.5- and 2-miles tracks. This Richmond race did have some long green-flag runs, but short tracks always have active racing because 43 cards don’t get spread out well at a 3/4 mile track. The restarts were some of the best moments of the race, including the last restart with about 10 laps to go.
• I saw more passing this week; some interesting pit road incidents (!) and penalties that spiced up the situation.
• For all the people that say it is boring, these past few weeks have been for the most part about how well the teams can make the best changes and compete in mostly green-flag racing. THAT is what racing is all about to me.
• Boring. I was there and it was boring. Restarts were the only exciting parts and I'm only giving a “good” rating for them.
• Another solid good race, not spectacular but kept my attention throughout.
YOU GOING TO BUY BRISTOL TICKETS AFTER THE CHANGES TO THE TRACK?
Last week Bruton Smith announced plans to grind Bristol’s top groove to take away the advantage of that line. He said it also will narrow the groove, forcing the cars to run closer together, which could lead to the beating and banging often associated with racing there. The move was made after a decline in attendance for the spring race. Fan council members were asked if this was enough to make them want to buy tickets to the August night race there.
81.6 percent said No
18.4 percent said Yes
What Fan Council member said:
• I am going regardless.
• Hoping it makes a difference … Will wait to get tickets again though until next season though.
• Actually, I’m skipping the Bristol race this year. I really didn’t find anything wrong with the racing as it was but with the economy as it is right now I’m just going to see what happens with this one.
• I like the progressive-banked Bristol because I’d rather see guys run side-by-side for 75 laps without hitting each other instead of just plowing in the back of someone to pass. Not a fan of Keselowski or Kenseth but their battle in March was epic.
• Hey Mr. Smith, instead of grinding the top groove to “help” bring fans to Bristol. How about giving $50 gas cards to those that purchase a ticket from the BMS ticket office. In addition, the hotels that increase their rates race weekend, how about pay the difference so the race fans pay the normal rates? Because the bottom line, Mr. Smith, (is) “we the race fans DO NOT HAVE THE MONEY” with the increased cost of living.
• BMS was on my bucket list, so I am going no matter what — I am very anxious to see what happens under the lights in August!
• This is going to help bring back the racing we all love so much there! Can't wait to see Bristol back to being the special place that it's always known to be! Go Bruton!
• The racing at Bristol was fine as it was. I’m not going to get more interested in any particular race because of a gimmick.
The Long and Short of It
What was supposed to be a celebration has become a burden for Hendrick Motorsports. Mired in a 15-race winless drought, its longest since 2002-03, the organization remains at 199 Cup victories as the series heads to Talladega.
Whenever the team scores its 200th victory — a significant number in a sport that reveres Richard Petty’s 200 career victories as a driver — it will be more relief than triumph.
Yet, even as some focus on what Hendrick hasn’t done, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is second in the point standings and Jimmie Johnson is sixth. It’s surprising they haven’t won. Earnhardt has finished second or third four times and Johnson has done so three times. Hendrick has placed at least one car in the top 5 in each of the last five races. Twice it has had two cars among the top 5 in that stretch, including last weekend at Richmond when Earnhardt was second to Kyle Busch and Kahne placed a season-best fifth.
What makes this winless drought less dire for this organization is how much speed many of these cars have. It’s not like they’re struggling to stay on the lead lap in many races. Still, there are issues.
Gordon has struggled in qualifying. His three top-10 starts came at the short tracks. While he’s led 339 laps, second only to Johnson’s 362, nearly all of the laps Gordon came at Martinsville. He, Johnson and Earnhardt appeared as if they would all finish in the top three and give Hendrick his noteworthy victory at a track where he won his first Cup race. A late caution bunched the field and Gordon and Johnson got knocked out of the lead on the restart, symbolizing how agonizing close they’ve been to victory at times this season.
Gordon understands how important it is to score a victory soon.
“Well, it’s always important to win,” he says. “And we’re always trying to win as hard as we possibly can. It’s just like getting ready for the All-Star race. No points involved; we’re going to really go all-out to win. Well, we do it every weekend.
“But we do recognize that at this point, and it’s not completely out of the question that we could make up those points and get in the top 10 legitimately. If you look at our season last year, the amount of points that we made up from this point until the Chase, we did it. And we can do it again. But we’ve got to get a lot more things going our way than what’s happening right now. And we’ve definitely put ourselves at a huge deficit.”
Kahne has had all sorts of misfortune. He had only two finishes in the top 20 in the first six races. He fell out of one race because of an accident and another with engine problems. Gordon also had an engine problem, coming in the Daytona 500.
Even with such issues, it’s not hard to think that it won’t be long before a Hendrick car arrives in Victory Lane. Maybe this weekend. Gordon’s six victories at Talladega are most among active drivers and Earnhardt is next with five.
Johnson, the last Hendrick driver to win a Cup race, remains confident.
“My mindset from when I started and through the championships and still now, is if you run in the top 5, especially the top three week after week, you’re going to win your fair share of races,” says Johnson, who has seven top-10 finishes, tying Earnhardt for most this season. “And I fully believe in that statement. And although there are times I’ve left the track disappointed with a second or a third or whatever it may be — or 12th at Martinsville because I felt like we had a good shot at it — I still really believe in that philosophy and I’m very happy with how we’re running and the speed we have in our cars.”
LOOK AT THIS KID The talk beforehand was about Travis Pastrana making his Nationwide Series debut last weekend at Richmond, but 18-year-old Ryan Blaney had people talking afterward when he finished seventh in his series debut.
“It exceeded my expectations a little bit,’’ said Blaney, the son of Cup driver Dave Blaney. “We thought coming out ... with the racecar all still intact and a good top-15 finish would be real nice.”
He’ll return to the series in a couple of weeks at Darlington — a track he’s never visited.
Blaney said he’ll prepare for Darlington by watching tapes of the racing as he did before the Richmond race, along with talking with other drivers.
Saturday evening’s Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway was not unlike many of the NASCAR Sprint Cup events over the past month. A dearth of cautions — only five, the second-least at RIR in 14 years — pockmarked the 300-mile event.
However, Richmond provided an exciting, and controversial, finish that produced an all-too-familiar victor in Kyle Busch.
While Busch had yet to win in the 2012 season, his victory marked the fourth consecutive win in Richmond’s spring race for the 26-year-old Las Vegas native. But while his past wins have been dominant, it took a string of bizarre events late in the race for Busch to cash in.
“Wherever that last caution came from, that was the saving grace — just the luck of the day,” Busch said of a debris caution on lap 388 of 400. “The guys did a fast pit stop, got us the lead off pit road, which was a huge advantage, just being able to give me the control of the restart and not have to wait on Tony (Stewart) or cause myself to spin my tires or what have you and get behind.
The fireworks started well before then, though.
A caution for debris on lap 311 changed the complexion of the race. Busch was awarded the Lucky Dog, placing him on the lead lap after being down one.
Race leader Jimmie Johnson was then issued a pit road penalty during his stop, sending him to the rear of the field. The subsequent restart found Tony Stewart the leader, with Carl Edwards to his outside. Edwards, though, believed his No. 99 Ford to be the lead car, and when the green waved, Stewart spun his tires, allowing Edwards to sprint away. NASCAR ruled that Edwards “jumped the restart” by taking off before crossing into the “restart box” — a pair of painted lines on the track prior to the start/finish line that mark when the leader can hit the gas.
Edwards was assessed a black flag, handing the lead back to Stewart. But just as it appeared Stewart would cruise to his third win of the season, the final debris caution was thrown, reportedly for an aluminum can on the backstretch.
When the field hit pit road for a final set of tires, Busch beat Stewart out and quickly jumped to a sizable lead on the restart.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. also got by Stewart, but when his brakes began to fade, the race was clearly in Busch’s hands.
“That’s what it looked like to me,” a curt Stewart said of the debris afterwards. “I mean, it was out of the groove. It had been sitting there for eight laps. When the caution is for a plastic bottle on the backstretch, it’s hard to feel good about losing that one.”
As for Edwards’ penalty, he and crew chief Bob Osborne questioned NASCAR about it during and after the race, even meeting with officials in the NASCAR hauler.
Their contention was that the team’s spotter was told by an official that they were the lead car, prompting Edwards to bring the field to green. He was also posted on the track’s pylon as the leader.
NASCAR vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton, made it clear after the race that Edwards was not the leader and that he did jump the start. So his point was moot regardless.
“We had to just agree to disagree, and that’s the way it is,” Edwards said after his meeting with NASCAR. “They run the sport, and they do the best job they can, and I drive a racecar and do the very best job I can.”
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte stretch unequalled on Cup schedule
Much was made of the first five races of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule being run on diametrically diverse tracks. From the season opening restrictor plate Daytona 500, to the bumper-car bonanza that made up the closing laps at Martinsville, and the intermediate downforce contests in Las Vegas and Fontana.
Now that those races are in the books, the series begins to transition into the meat of the season. The next four weeks are held at equally unique racetracks as the season begins to take shape and winnow out the weak. The following is a preview of the next month of Sprint Cup competition and where to place your fantasy picks — or place an ill-advised wager if you’re one who happens to frequent such establishments.
There are many images that come to mind when one mentions racing at Richmond. From Rusty Wallace punting Jeff Gordon in 1997, Kevin Harvick and company stomping on Ricky Rudd’s hood in 2003, or Kyle Busch’s brush with mortality after getting into Dale Earnhardt, Jr. while racing for the win in ’08 — it’s like somebody had the bright idea to mash Martinsville and Michigan together into a three-quarter mile oval and ended up with the perfect track. That said, what I am about to declare may be proof that the Mayans are right on target with the 12-21-12 end date:
The winner this weekend will almost certainly be a Michael Waltrip Racing entry.
While that may have been a funny quip a couple of years ago, it’s an undeniable fact that in 2012, this team is for real. MWR has had a long and storied — and at time notorious — history at Richmond. Who can forget Michael Waltrip jacking up a hapless Casey Mears the entire length of the frontstretch in 2008 after the two had made contact? Considering it was one year ago here that Martin Truex Jr. went Tim Daland in Days of Thunder and summarily fired the entire pit crew, it’s fair to say it would be more than fitting if the No. 56 NAPA Toyota found its way to Victory Lane on Saturday.
Truex has been on a tear this year, notching six top 10s in the first eight races, while his three top 5s already match what he achieved in all of 2011. His late-race fade at Kansas was indicative of a team that has the speed and performance to win, but has not been in that position before, and therefore, is still learning how to seal the deal. Yeah, I know … bad set of tires, the sun came out, it was cold. Truex may have made his banzai video game pass attempt on Denny Hamlin about a lap too early, before he went all Carl Edwards 2008, but he was a legit contender — and no doubt had the best car of the day up until that point
Teammate Clint Bowyer has always had speed at Richmond, having won there in 2008 to go along with five other top 10s in 12 Cup starts. Mark Martin will be back in the No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine after finishing a season low 33rd in Kansas courtesy of a blown engine with 12 laps to go while running sixth. Martin has 24 top 10s and 17 top 5s in an amazing 52 starts at RIR, with just one win, which came in 1990. (The circumstances surrounding the resulting controversial fine are still a point of contention and a reason for most Martin fans to go.)
Driving in a part-time capacity this year, Martin has been at worst a top-10 car at every race, with Brian Vickers guiding the No. 55 to a top 5 at Bristol. There’s no reason to believe anything would be different this weekend, as the 55 was the fastest car on the track the last 20 laps at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago.
Prediction: A win for one of Mikey’s three teams in the Year of the Mayan. After all, there’s a reason that Dick Clark passed away the year there’s not supposed to be a New Year’s Eve.
Rick Hendrick has got to be sick and tired of lugging around all of those “Hendrick Motorsports 200th Cup Win” commemorative hats. HMS has gone goose egg since the October race at Kansas last year, which was won by Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick has since had to endure allegations of trying to build a fast superspeedway car, keep sharp objects away from Kasey Kahne, and find new ways for Jeff Gordon to communicate that, “We have to qualify better.”
After the Martinsville incident that saw a guaranteed one-two finish go up in smoke — which, prior, had been most recently witnessed in my last season in career mode playing NASCAR Thunder 2003 for PS2 — the 200th win question has loomed large, nearly overshadowing the 600-pound dancing bear in the room: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s winless streak that dates back to a time when Greece was solvent and Secret Service agents were, uh, secretive. While Junior has been doing a commendable job, these hats need to be distributed, so that means all eyes were on “Five Time” at Texas Motor Speedway — just as Greg Biffle set a pick and subsequent slide job on Johnson exiting Turn 4 with 30 laps to go.
Cut to another scene of Mr. Hendrick slowly removing his headset and dismounting the No. 48 war wagon.
At Talladega, this all will change. Daytona was a disaster, with Johnson getting turned into the wall after just one lap and Gordon blowing the bottom end out of the powerplant of his No. 24 machine. Kahne was involved in a late-race dust up, which meant that Earnhardt had to take on the Ford tandem of Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth in the final laps by his lonesome. Junior did what he could en route to a second-place finish, which should provide hope for Junior Nation, as well as the HMS brain trust.
With any luck, two droughts will be wiped out at Talladega, and if there is one track more perfectly suited for Junior to make a difference, they haven’t built it yet.
Prediction: Earnhardt ends a 138-race winless streak and Hendrick disposes of what now must be an irritating hat collection. Junior Nation then goes Soccer Fan, demolishing every Occupy rally across North America, tipping over their own vehicles and lighting them ablaze.
OK, what are the chances that some scumbag tries to make a lame tie-in with “The Lady In Black” and Danica Patrick making her first attempt at “The Track Too Tough to Tame”? Hmm … sounds like the basis for another GoDaddy.com commercial. Well, in that case, I demand some royalty monies for planting the seed.
But I digress. They simply don’t make them like Darlington anymore. A track whose shape was determined by a minnow pond and whose reconfiguration has been limited to some soft walls and moving the start/finish line to the other side and doing away with the backstretch pits. To many, Turn 2 will always be Turn 4, but what is for certain, the only race that deserves to be called The Southern 500 is the one held here the second week of May.
So who will be the one to claim triumph at the original superspeedway over Mother’s Day weekend? I’ll tell you who you can forget: Anything or anybody coming out of the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing stables. If there is one organization that continues to baffle, this is the one. A solid Chase contender in ’09, a perennial threat at Indy and the restrictor plate tracks, and a showcase for Jamie McMurray’s renaissance in 2010, EGR has been seemingly out to lunch at every single event dating back to the 2011 season. It has even regressed after most of the old guard departed in the offseason, including longtime competition director Steve Hmiel, founding team member Tony Glover and crew chief Brian Pattie.
The net result? Juan Pablo Montoya sits 16th in points and McMurray 19th. Not exactly the rebound to the 2011 season that team principal Chip Ganassi deemed “pathetic.”
Those that stand a reasonable chance of contending for the win are those who have managed their miserable luck thus far, performed well here last year and are gaining momentum the last couple of races. Kahne faded to fourth last year after leading 124 laps — after walling it in the final stages of the race. Edwards was a close second to first-time winner Regan Smith (well, second-time if you happened to see the fall 2008 race at Talladega), and is part of a Roush contingent that is a top-5 threat each and every weekend. Roush Fenway Racing has won two races in 2012 and currently occupy first (Biffle), third (Kenseth) and ninth (Edwards) in the points standings.
Prediction: Flip a coin between the No. 5 of Kahne and No. 99 of Edwards, but I’m calling heads for Kahne.
The original 1.5-mile tri-oval that served as the model for such cookie-cutter copycats as Texas, Kansas, Chicago, and to some extent, Atlanta. A resurfacing in 2005 provided a dire warning to anyone who dared futz with a perfectly good racetrack, and helped introduce a word that should be forever banished from the lexicon of motorsport: Levigation. Upon completion, Mark Martin lamented, “They took the greatest racetrack in the world and ruined it.” Upon painting the walls a hideous shade of yellow, they’ve somehow made it worse.
However, it’s still Charlotte, and still the best intermediate track on the circuit. Where else are you going to see a gigantic spark plug do donuts in a roadster after fast-roping out of a Blackhawk or a school bus jump through a wall of fire?
Held on Memorial Day weekend, the Coca-Cola 600 is desert on the table of the greatest feast in motorsports. Things get kicked off early with Formula One’s Grand Prix of Monaco as an appetizer, followed by the main course, The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500. NASCAR’s endurance race is held in the hub of the industry, capping off a two-week stint that includes the All-Star Race and Pit Crew Challenge. The official start of summer is also the unofficial start to the Summer Stretch, an eight-week stint that essentially dictates who’s going to be contending for the championship in the fall and who’s going to be burning through old inventory to make way for the new 2013 Car of Tomorrow.
The race still needs to be run, however, yet the recent races at downforce tracks might not be the best indicator of who will be the team to beat as night falls on Concord, N.C. While the Roush cars have certainly been the class of the field for much of the season on these type of tracks, there’s a reason that Johnson and Chad Knaus once referred to CMS as “our house” – and not just because sponsor Lowe’s held the naming rights for the facility at the time. The No. 48 team has six wins there, having won all but one race during the 2003-05 seasons.
Johnson’s teammate, Kahne has three wins, and has been fast all year despite having the kind of luck that only Kahne … er, Cain … would wish upon Abel.
While his finish at Kansas may not have been indicative of my pick for a Coke 600 win, the qualifying results and ultimate winner are guiding my direction here. There seems to be some newfound oomph! in the Toyota camp, even though they popped a few TRD engines last weekend (would that make them TuRDs?), which will likely be ironed out in time for the 600. TRD-powered machines qualified third through sixth at Kansas, and took the top two spots at race’s end.
That said, there’s one driver who’s been notoriously absent up front and a bit too quiet for my liking this year — and Charlotte is the perfect two-week test session to try some new technology. The All-Star Race is a go-for-broke-dash-for-cash-and-crash event, while the 600 dictates that a car must be drivable during the day, and dialed in when it’s dark. For both of those events, I’d put my money on one car in particular …
Prediction: In the 2010 All Star Race, he declared that somebody better keep him away from his teammate or he’d kill the (insert two-word derogatory phrase here). In 2011, he achieved 128 mph in a 45 mph zone driving a Lexus LFA. In 2012, however, Kyle Busch will get his season righted with a win at the Coca-Cola 600 … and the All-Star Race.
So after struggling through an at-times mind-numbing month on the Sprint Cup circuit, enjoy the fruitful May stretch that lies ahead.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits Richmond International Raceway for some good ol’ fashioned short track racing in the hopes of putting on an exciting race — something many fans are clamoring for after a dull month. Typically one of the more action-packed tracks on the schedule, Richmond has averaged 10.8 cautions since 2007 and last year's September race saw a total of 15 yellow flag periods.
In short, expect more action Saturday night under the lights in the Capital City 400 than the last five weeks combined.
Sunday's race in Kansas primarily featured green flag racing, yet came down to a good battle to the checkered flag. Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. was the dominant car on the day, leading 173 of the 267 laps.
However, Denny Hamlin and his Darian Grubb-led crew were in position in the end to jump out front with 31 laps to go. Clearly the best car of the day, Truex's Toyota didn't work well on the final set of tires, allowing Hamlin to take advantage.
This weekend, the Virginian driver-crew chief duo head to their home state with momentum, confidence and the advantage of two race wins already under their belts.
To say Hamlin considers Richmond his home track would be quite the understatement. Hamlin is from nearby Midlothian, the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown is held at RIR and he has two wins, six top 5s and eight top 10s in 12 Sprint Cup starts on the three-quarter mile oval. He is also the defending champion of the Nationwide Series race, a title he will attempt to defend this weekend.
Hitting its stride early in the season, the No. 11 team is fifth in points, with two wins, three top 5s and four top 10s through the first eight races. Hamlin has been the class of the JGR field in 2012, a trend that will continue this weekend in Richmond.
With an average finish of 7.6 at RIR, plus the momentum from last week's win and the excitement of heading back to Virginia, Hamlin, Grubb and the No. 11 crew are this week's overwhelming fantasy favorites.
Frustrated on missing out on last week’s win, Truex's disappointment is a testament to how far the No. 56 NAPA team has come. Throughout the first part of the season, the group has been on its game, as it sits second in points with three top 5s and six top 10s in the first eight races while chasing a winless drought that dates back to June 2007.
While Truex’s results are not noteworthy at RIR through his two seasons with MWR — he has only one top 10 (seventh, 2010) — he and the team are running well regardless of track at the moment. Given the strong start, Truex could disappoint Hamlin's hometown crowd Saturday night by cashing in on the win that is coming.
Also keep an eye on Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch. Currently 14th in points, Busch has not had the greatest of starts to the season. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has only one top 5 and three top 10s to go along with three finishes of 23rd or worse.
Busch holds the best average finish of any active driver at RIR (5.0), with three wins, 11 top 5s and 12 top 10s in 14 starts. Dating back to ’09, Busch has won each of the spring races and is looking to continue that trend Saturday night. In fact, Busch has never finished worse than fifth (2006) in the spring race at RIR.
Five Favorites: Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart
The Hendrick Motorsports brigade has been hot on the heels of that elusive 200th win for team owner Rick Hendrick of late. Unable to capture the historic win over the last 14 races, they’ll soldier on at Richmond this weekend.
HMS has 10 Cup wins at Richmond, the last of which came in 2008 when Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag. Since then, Hendrick cars have been shut out of Victory Lane, but perennial fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. could fly under the radar this weekend and end two winless streaks that many fans would like to see come to an end.
Earnhardt has three wins on the short track in Richmond, but has struggled to produce the results of late. Since his last win in ’06, Earnhardt has only on top-5 finish and nine finishes of 15th or worse. Yet, the No. 88 team has been one of the best Hendrick cars throughout the early part of the 2012 season. Fourth in points, Earnhardt appears to be on the verge of snapping a winless skid that dates back to June 2008 nearly ever week. Running well seems to have rekindled a fire in both Earnhardt and the No. 88 team, led by crew chief Steve Letarte.
What makes for good racing ... and would "phantom" cautions help NASCAR?
Ask a NASCAR fan a question about the sport and you’ll likely get a strong opinion. Ask the Backseat Drivers Fan Council about the sport and you get many strong opinions — especially when the questions focus on the racing.
Fan Council members were not shy with their feelings when asked if NASCAR should throw a caution to break up a long green-flag run in a race, a topic that has garnered considerable debate this season. Here’s what Fan Council members said about that issue and others this week.
SHOULD NASCAR THROW A CAUTION TO BREAK UP A LONG GREEN-FLAG RUN?
79.8 percent said No
20.2 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• I may stop watching NASCAR if that's what they go to. If anyone says yes to this question they are not a true fan of NASCAR or racing. Period the end.
• Strung out racing is boring. The most exciting points are restarts — so why not have more of them?
• NO, dear Lord. Please, please, please DO NOT start creating "phantom" cautions to bunch up the field or do anything to change the outcome of the race. I firmly believe that if you do not have enough of an attention span to watch a race from green to checkers, with the chance there may be little or no caution laps, then I'm sorry but NASCAR may not be your cup of tea. I want to watch racing not wrecking. Please take this opportunity to exit NASCAR and go to the local demolition derby if you are in this for nothing but wrecks.
• Yes, I'd definitely like to see more cautions but there is a difference between hoping for cautions and looking for wrecks. Don't lump us all in together — there are those who like cautions because they bunch up the pack and those that want cautions because they want to see wrecks. Too often those two thoughts are combined into one.
• Of course not! No way should NASCAR cheat. I can't believe anyone would want NASCAR to throw a fake caution after all the complaints over the years blaming them for cautions that benefited various drivers. That just proves that the fans who complain are only complaining to complain.
• Everyone wants a late caution to bunch the field... unless their favorite driver is the one with the 10-second lead.
• Once the race is under green I want NASCAR to stay out of the “show making” business. A race, like every other sporting event, is an organic event that needs to play out on its own. NASCAR needs to let the teams and drivers determine the outcome. Not every race is going to come down to a last-lap pass with a win by 0.001 seconds, just like not every baseball game ends in a walk-off grand slam. What NASCAR can/should do is work on ways to encourage more passing and competition in the field by somehow finding a way to reduce the influence of clean air.
• People complained about their artificial debris cautions, now they complain about NASCAR not finding a reason for a caution. You can't please everyone all the time, and I, for one, am loving the racing this season. Feels much more real, it accentuates the drivers’ real talents behind the wheel. I'd much rather see two drivers and their styles clash to see who comes out on ahead.
• They do need to do something to make these races a little more exciting. I know I have turned off the last two.
• HELL NO! If NASCAR starts artificially manipulating races, then I am out. I prefer to see how the race unfolds naturally. If a driver manages to get out to a great lead, so be it. If a driver leads the whole race, that is okay with me.
• NASCAR's number one purpose is to entertain. Without fans in the seats and fans watching the races on TV, there would be no NASCAR. But if NASCAR wants to turn this into WWE and fabricate the results, I will no longer be a fan. Arbitrarily throwing a caution to add entertainment value is wrong.
• The restarts were the exciting part of this week’s race, so for entertainment purposes, yes.
WHAT MAKES FOR GOOD RACING?
54.8 percent said passing throughout the field
19.4 percent said a close battle for the lead at the end of the race
13.6 percent said Other
10.4 percent said many lead changes
1.8 percent said numerous cautions
What Fan Council members said:
• Just good hard racing makes the race more exciting to watch. It gets boring when the cars get strung out and there is really no side-by-side racing.
• Battling for the lead is what I remember most from watching on TV. You see more passes back in the pack when you attend live, but passing for the lead is what makes a race exciting.
• A good race to me is many lead changes, passing throughout the field, and a close battle for the lead at the end. I don't ask for much. When I am at the track I only need the sights, sounds, and smell.
• What every fan wants is drama, which always seems to be missing at California, Michigan and multiple cookie cutters.
• In my mind, auto racing should be a combination of human skills and equipment quality and endurance, the perfect blend of human and mechanical structures organized into a symphony action, reaction with an unknown outcome.
• I love good side-by-side racing, especially at the tracks that make up the bulk of the schedule (the 1.5- and 2-mile tracks). It’s exciting and you stay tuned to see who is going to prevail. There is an exception though, at the short tracks (Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond, etc.). That's when I like to see beating and banging and cautions because that is what short track racing was built upon.
• Not just a close a battle at the end but throughout. Making sure the pit crews do their job, the crew chief calls a good strategy all race long. All that stuff makes up a good race. I also like seeing many cars going for it, not just two or a few. A little sideways to watch now and then doesn't hurt either, but I don't watch for wrecks.
• I would like the teams to have a chance to work on their cars under caution and give more drivers a shot to drive up through the field and contend for the lead. Such few cautions don't allow for drivers to work on anything and pretty much the top 10 stays the same from qualifying to the finish.
• The battle between Hamlin & Truex was very exciting (at Kansas) and kept me on the edge of my seat. Neither are my favorite drivers, but I was cheering for Truex at the end to pass Hamlin.
If Denny Hamlin can win races now, it makes one wonder what he’ll do later this season as the communication with new crew chief Darian Grubb improves and Grubb puts more of his stamp on the team’s cars being built.
Hamlin is one of only two drivers with multiple wins this season after eight races (Tony Stewart is the other) and Hamlin could be the first driver to win three races this season with the series heading to Richmond this weekend. He has won two of the last five races at his hometown track.
Even with the success, Hamlin has had his ups and downs. He won at Phoenix and Kansas but finished 20th at Las Vegas and Bristol. Since Bristol, he’s not finished worse than 12th. That’s helped Hamlin climb to fifth in the points.
“It's hard to analyze your program by a one-week performance,’’ Hamlin said after his Kansas victory, the 19th of his career. “You look at it in the grand scheme of things. (At Texas) on a mile-and-a-half (mile track), we went almost a lap down, but we ... hung around 10th place for most of the day.
“I'm not going to analyze and say that everything is good, we just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we'll be fine. There's always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we've identified those areas and we've gone to work on them. So right now I feel like we're bringing better race cars to the race track than what we have, and it's still going to take time. There's still things that myself and Darian need to work on with communication, things like that, but he's still working within Joe Gibbs Racing trying to get cars that he feels like can be better to the race track, and all that stuff takes time. You just can't do it — it's a big process now.’’
Says Grubb: “My confidence in Denny's feedback is getting better and better. I know when to take what he says with what inflection in his voice, what it means.’’
This also has been an adjustment period for Grubb in how things are done at Joe Gibbs Racing after moving over from Stewart-Haas Racing. That also takes time.
“The technology is drastically different between the organizations, so the actual lessons you learn and things, it's probably more the style of working and being able to manage people and get the best out of the people that are there,’’ Grubb said. “Now that I'm at Joe Gibbs Racing I'm starting to learn those personalities and what I can get out of them.’’
This team will be worth watching as the season progresses.
NEW LOOK Bruton Smith, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Chairman and CEO, is scheduled to announce Wednesday his plans for changing the track surface at Bristol. The work will be completed before the August race and is in reaction to fan complaints about the racing there.
Bristol will mark the fourth track this year that will have a new surface, joining Michigan, Pocono and Kansas. Work on Kansas’ track began after Sunday’s race. Since 2010, six of the 23 tracks that host at least one Cup race will have had new surfaces by the time the series races at Kansas in October. Phoenix was reconfigured and repaved last year and Daytona was repaved in time for last year’s Daytona 500 after a pothole delayed the 2010 race.
Jeff Gordon says that in some cases, the track is not as much the problem, especially Bristol.
“The drivers love it,’’ Gordon said. “It’s a great racetrack I think. I thought they made huge improvements. Now we hear they want to go back to the old way.
“Tracks are getting too much of the blame or even credit sometimes. This car for the last five or six years has sort of put Goodyear, the tracks, everything into a different box. I’m looking forward to the 2013 car, but I look forward to cars down the road to sort of take some of the things in this car that are in there we can’t take out. It will help the racing; things that are going to help Goodyear to make it better tire that is more suitable for the car.’’
It seemed a formality that once Martin Truex Jr. had fended off a vicious challenge from Jimmie Johnson that Michael Waltrip Racing would score its first Sprint Cup Series win since 2010.
Truex had led 173 laps and seemed on virtual cruise control as the laps ticked away in the STP 400 from Kansas Speedway. He pulled away for chunks of laps at a time after green flag pit stops — 45, 81 and 43 consecutive laps led on successive occasions — separating himself from the runner-up competitor by whole seconds.
Then, with about 35 laps to go, something happened to Truex’s Toyota.
According to team co-owner Michael Waltrip, the sun came out and changed the track, loosening up the car. Truex, however, was unhappy with the last set of tires that he reckoned did not agree with his machine.
Whatever the reason, a charging Denny Hamlin caught Truex and got by shortly after the final round of green flag pit stops to score his second win of the season.
Hamlin’s race-winning pass came on lap 237 of 267, and despite a last-ditch banzai effort with three laps remaining by Truex to reclaim the lead, the aero advantage Hamlin enjoyed carried him to the win.
“I knew that the only advantage that I had is when his (Truex’s) car got so loose that last run, I was able to make up a lot of time on entry and a lot of time on exit (in and out of the corners) because he was really fighting his car,” Hamlin said. “So really, as the driver behind, you can manipulate his car and make it worse for him by getting up close to him — and that’s what I kind of did a few laps leading up to when we passed him, is that I tried to run as close up to him on entry as I could and as close on exit. It takes away rear grip, and to a car that was as loose as what his was, they have no choice really but to back off and not wreck their car.”
The win at the 1.5-mile intermediate oval was somewhat of a surprise, in that Hamlin’s best finish on a comparable track this season was 11th.
“We just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we’ll be fine,” Hamlin said. “There’s always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we’ve identified those areas and we’ve gone to work on them.
“So right now I feel like we’re bringing better race cars to the racetrack than what we have, and it’s still going to take time.
As for Truex, he and crew chief Chad Johnston continue to knock on Victory Lane’s door. Six of his finishes have been eighth or better this season and he has yet to finish outside of the top 20. That performance — he has averaged a 4.8-place finish in the last five races — places him second in the Sprint Cup point standings.
“The NAPA team was phenomenal today,” Truex said. “Just not really sure what to think about that last set of tires. (The) car had been really good all day, (then we) put the last set on and I was wrecking loose for the first 20 laps of that last run and Denny was able to get by me and once he did the race was over.
“(The) car got better longer in the run and I was able to get back to him, but I’d get three, four car lengths from him and pick up the aero push.”
Johnson held on for third after pit strategy forced him to climb out of a late-race hole. Matt Kenseth and points-leader Greg Biffle rounded out the top 5.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
In its sixth full season of Sprint Cup competition, Michael Waltrip Racing is making a push at becoming a powerhouse on NASCAR’s premier circuit.
MWR’s three-team operation has combined for five top 5s and 12 top 10s thus far in 2012. Spearheaded by Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 56 NAPA team, MWR finds its two full-time drivers — Truex and Clint Bowyer — in the top 10 in the point standings.
Third-year MWR driver Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston concluded the 2011 season on an uptick, recording four top 10s in the final five races. That momentum carried through the offseason as the duo have yet to finish worse than 17th this year. Included are finishes of third (Bristol), fifth (Martinsville) and sixth (Bristol) and a fourth-place spot in the championship standings.
“It’s been a good start to the season for us,” Truex says. “Everybody at MWR has done a nice job. For us, it’s just about coming here and trying to keep it rolling.
“We’ve had about 10 or 11 good races in a row going back to last year. That feels good. We just need to continue to build on that.”
Bowyer, a high-profile free-agent hire from Richard Childress Racing, has found immediate chemistry with new MWR crew chief Brian Pattie. Leading the No. 15 team, they have managed runs of sixth (Bristol) and fourth (Las Vegas) and sit 10th in the point standings. Their consistent start is the difference between an organization that once contended for wins three or four times a year, but now, each weekend.
“When I started at RCR, there was nothing to prove there,” Bowyer says. “As a driver, the only thing you can do is not screw up the opportunity. Here, I’m going to have to be part of moving on with a championship-caliber organization. That’s exciting. That’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.”
Key to the turnaround, though, was the hiring of former Richard Childress Racing crew chief and competition director Scott Miller as the organization’s Vice President of Competition.
Miller is a NASCAR veteran, having sat atop the pit box for both Bowyer and Jeff Burton while at RCR. He brought a level of expertise and confidence to his new role at MWR when he signed with the company late in the 2011 season.
“I was very, very pleasantly surprised with what I found when I came in the door,” Miller told the Associated Press. “Obviously, there are still things we are working on, but MWR was not in bad shape at all when I got here. They had started working on new cars and new chassis in the summer. We just needed to clean up and get a little more efficient at what we do.”
Mark Martin, one of the most respected drivers in the sport, also brought a level of professionalism not seen at MWR when, shortly before the season began, he agreed to pilot the No. 55 car for 25 races in 2012.
“What strikes me the most about Mark is, he’s like a kid in a candy store — he’s ready for a new challenge,” Miller says of the driver who finished third in Texas last weekend. “He thrived in that part-time schedule he was in (2007 and ‘08) and I think he really enjoyed himself doing that — not necessarily getting caught up in the Chase race or the championship thing — but just enjoying his craft of driving a racecar.”
Martin’s absence in two races so far has given way to one of the feel-good stories of the 2012 season: Brian Vickers.
A casualty of Red Bull Racing’s departure from NASCAR, Vickers will drive the car in eight Cup races while team co-owner Waltrip picks up four others.
Using his first appearance in the No. 55 as an audition (and a statement), Vickers led 125 laps at Bristol en route to a fifth-place run. Between Vickers and Martin, the No. 55 team has yet to finish worse than 18th, with four top 10s to its credit. Those performances find the team — along with the Nos. 15 and 56 — ranked in the top 10 in the all-important owners standings, guaranteeing their place in the starting lineup each weekend.
That’s a far cry from MWR’s first full season on the circuit in 2007, when its three teams stumbled through a miserable debut effort that found it going home after qualifying a total of 39 times.
“You see all the championship organizations — they don’t just have one bullet, they have two, three or four,” executive vice president Ty Norris says. “We have three bullets every week.
“I still pinch myself because it’s so hard to believe that we’ve got these great people working on the cars, a great attitude and great drivers to get it done. It’s a very exciting time for us.”
And of course, there’s Waltrip, whose two Daytona 500 wins make up for an otherwise unimpressive Cup Series record.
It was Waltrip who founded the organization, placing its first car in what was then the Busch Series in 1994 — finishing third at Bristol with fellow Owensboro, Ky., native Jeff Green at the wheel.
Waltrip’s passion for racing, marketing savvy and business sense — he brought in car enthusiast and Fortress Investment Group founder Rob Kauffman as an investor and co-owner in 2007 — have taken the program from a backyard operation to the thriving, multi-million dollar entity it is today.
“Michael has a lot of passion to give,” Norris explains. “Whether it’s a charitable event or NASCAR racing, the things he cares the most about he just pours his heart into it. He just becomes obsessed with it and the energy he brings when he talks about this (MWR) that gets everybody excited.”
At the rate Waltrip’s teams are going, there will plenty more to be excited about in the very near future.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Typically known for dealing with the thunderous roar of tornadoes, this weekend the Sprint Cup Series storms into Kansas for the STP 400.
Sunday’s race will be the 12th for the Sprint Cup Series at the Kansas Speedway, and the last on the current surface. Following the 400-miler, the track will be repaved prior to the series returning for its mid-October Chase date.
The aged surface causes tires to wear dramatically over the course of a run, meaning drivers and crew chiefs will be working all weekend to find the perfect balance over the long run as the tires begin to fall off.
Be sure to keep an eye on the two practice sessions Friday afternoon — especially those teams that concentrate on longer runs. A key factor nearly every week — especially on a track with excessive tire wear — is the best 10-lap average. Look for that statistic and make your picks accordingly.
Five Favorites: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards
Veteran Jeff Gordon took the first two checkered flags at Kansas Speedway in 2001 and ’02, and is looking to take the last before the surface is replaced.
Aside from the four-time series champion’s two Kansas wins, Gordon has an additional six top-5 finishes on the Plains. Although he succumbed to an engine failure in Kansas last October, Gordon is always a favorite.
The No. 24 team has been a consistent threat throughout the early portion of the 2012 season, as well. However, the finishes don’t show it. The team's fourth-place run Saturday night in Texas was its first top 5 and only second top 10. Gordon currently has three finishes of 26th or worse.
Those statistics aside, the team has been producing consistently fast racecars. That fact has allowed Gordon, who is 17th in the series standings, to remain confident they can win races.
The team heads to Kansas this weekend with that goal in mind.
Gordon has the fourth-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Kansas. Not to mention, team owner Rick Hendrick is on the verge of earning his 200th career Sprint Cup Series win. This weekend, Gordon will be looking to give his long-time car owner that milestone victory.
In order to do so, he will have to beat teammate Jimmie Johnson.
The five-time series champion has the second-best average finish (8.4) among active drivers at Kansas, and was the driver celebrating in Victory Lane when the series last visited the facility in October.
All told, Johnson has two wins, three poles, four top 5s and nine top 10s in 11 starts on the 1.5-mile track. His two worst finishes at Kansas are 14th (2006) and 32nd (’04), his only DNF.
These two champions have duked it out on the track before for the win, and expect them to both be in contention Sunday afternoon. Also keep in mind Hendrick leads all team owners with four wins at Kansas.
“Whenever it happens is going to be very special for the company," Johnson said of the 200th win. “Again, I just want to win. I don’t care where it is, whatever reason. There are 36, 38 of these things a year, and I want to take home a bunch of trophies. Second is nice, but winning is everything.”
While the Hendrick teammates are focused on giving Hendrick Motorsports its 200th win, the rest of the field will be doing their best to keep it from happening — especially points leader Greg Biffle.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver is fresh off his first victory of the season last weekend in Texas, and is now heading to one of his best tracks. With two Kansas wins, six top 5s and eight top-10 finishes, Biffle leads all active drivers in average finish (8.3). Despite his dismal 2011 season, Biffle still recorded top 10s (10th, eighth) in both Kansas races last year.
This is a new year for the Biff, and his sixth-place average finish through the first seven races have given him the points lead. Carrying that momentum into one of his best tracks, Biffle will also be one of the drivers to beat in the final laps of Sunday’s race.
“I’m ready for Kansas,” he said. “Kansas is a great track and I have two wins there. We are coming off the win at Texas and I’m ready to go. Kansas and Texas might be the same distance, but they are extremely different tracks. Kansas is much flatter and the track is more uniform from one end to another. Hopefully we can follow up our Texas win with another victory in Kansas with our 3M Novec 1230 Ford.”
Last year, one of the biggest stories surrounding the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was the prevalence of first-time winners. From the start of the season, when Trevor Bayne surprised everyone in the Daytona 500 to David Ragan’s July triumph five months later, new faces in unfamiliar places were popping up virtually everywhere. By the end of the season, the series witnessed five first-time winners — Bayne, Ragan, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard and Regan Smith — and the parity within the sport was on in full force.
But for every new wheelman to make a breakthrough, someone else is watching his time away from Victory Lane increase significantly. Now, in 2012, with a dearth of new drivers entering the sport the story has shifted from “who hasn’t won?” to “when is Driver X going to win again?” In some cases, veterans who once dominated have gone several seasons without adding to their win total while watching others rise to the top, claiming a slice of the fame and fortune that was once theirs.
Some are obvious, like the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., yet others have quietly built with little fanfare. Let’s take a closer look at the longest droughts, brought into tighter focus after point leader Greg Biffle snapped his own 49-race winless streak Saturday night. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the agony these triple-digit winless sufferers have been through. Note: Only the top 25 drivers in Sprint Cup points were considered (i.e., teams that actually have a chance of finishing first every Sunday).
Winless Streak: 295 races
Last Victory: November 2003, Ford 400 (Homestead-Miami Speedway)
Synopsis: At 25th in the standings and driving for a single-car team, it’s easy to forget Labonte still exists in the series, let alone that he’s nursing a drought week-to-week that’s lasted well over eight years. No one would have predicted this sorry ending to a promising career that includes the 2000 Cup Series title — certainly not the last time Labonte used luck to speed by Bill Elliott’s flat tire on the final lap at Homestead to claim victory in ’03. But two years later, after a serious slump at Joe Gibbs Racing, he left to join a floundering Petty Enterprises to be “the savior” of a legendary franchise … that just kept floundering. It was a career-killer of a decision, one that led to disastrous finishes, a release after financial problems gripped the team and the sorry decision to start-and-park before JTG Daugherty Racing picked him up.
Now in his second year driving the No. 47, Labonte remains stuck in mediocrity with this single-car team, unable to recreate the magic that once had him contending for victories each week, while the team “rebuilds” after splitting off from being the satellite team for Michael Waltrip Racing (how about the bad timing on that). In fact, since the start of the 2004 season, Labonte’s led just 218 laps and has yet to lead one — or collect a top-10 finish, for that matter — this season.
Best Chance: If there’s ever to be one last miracle for Labonte, Daytona or Talladega would be the place. In February 2011, his push of Trevor Bayne was responsible for the No. 21 heading to Victory Lane, and a fourth-place finish for Labonte, his only top 5 of the season. I guess a guy can dream…
Martin Truex, Jr.
Winless Streak: 174 races
Last Victory: June 2007, Autism Speaks 400 (Dover International Speedway)
Synopsis: Truex’s last Sprint Cup victory is also his only one, taken during a time when he was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s right-hand man at the company once founded by Dale Sr. Months later, that popular son was off to Hendrick Motorsports, leaving Truex in the awkward position of assuming a leadership role never meant for him. After a merger and subsequent pairing with Chip Ganassi, the once-cozy confines of his friend’s former organization had been shattered; faced with executives that favored Juan Pablo Montoya, Truex chose to pick another opportunity and spearhead the driver effort at the growing Michael Waltrip Racing.
The first two seasons were filled with underachievement: zero Chase appearances, just four top-5 finishes and the firing of championship-level crew chief Pat Tryson. But just when it looked as though Truex, a two-time Busch Series champ, would be listed a permanent flop, new head wrench Chad Johnston found some innovative setups that appear to have salvaged a career. Fourth in points, Truex is on pace to lead more laps (525) than any season since 2007, the year that also produced his only Chase appearance. At this point, anything less than breaking the streak this season would be considered a huge disappointment.
Best Chance: Dover. It’s where Truex broke into the win column the first time, and in four starts with the No. 56 team, he’s already captured two poles there. One of a group of drivers who attended a Goodyear tire test at Dover this week, all the pieces are in place for him to break through in that track’s June event.
Hall of Fame Nominees, Grading Texas and a Return to "The Rock"
With NASCAR’s recent announcement of the 25 nominees for its next Hall of Fame class, members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council selected the five people they think should be inducted next and why. They didn’t stop there, though, adding suggestions on who deserves to be nominated but hasn’t yet so far.
Fan Council members also discussed Rockingham’s return to the NASCAR schedule and what’s next there and dissected the racing at Texas. There’s much to debate this week, so here’s what the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say:
WHO WOULD YOU ELECT TO THE HALL OF FAME?
Fan Council members were asked to select five of the 25 nominees for their ballot. Here’s the five people they would vote into the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the percentage of votes each received:
Fireball Roberts ... 52.4 percent
Leonard Wood ... 50.0 percent
Benny Parsons ... 44.3 percent
Wendell Scott ... 41.9 percent
Red Byron ... 39.9 percent
AND THE REST OF THE FIELD ...
Buck Baker ... 37.5 percent
Raymond Parks ... 31.8 percent
Rick Hendrick ... 18.2 percent
H. Clay Earles … 17.9 percent
Rusty Wallace ... 17.2 percent
Curtis Turner ... 16.2 percent
Richard Childress ... 15.9 percent
Tim Flock ... 14.5 percent
Fred Lorenzen ... 13.2 percent
T. Wayne Robertson ... 13.2 percent
Anne B. France ... 12.6 percent
Ray Fox ... 12.5 percent
Cotton Owens ... 10.1 percent
Herb Thomas ... 9.8 percent
Jack Ingram ... 9.1 percent
Joe Weatherly ... 6.1 percent
Ralph Seagraves ... 5.4 percent
Jerry Cook ... 4.7 percent
Les Richter ... 1.7 percent
Bobby Isaac ... 1.0 percent
What Fan Council members said:
• I think this is the year to recognize the very early days of NASCAR. The one thing really lacking at the Hall of Fame is an appreciation of the stars of the 50s and early 60s. Curtis Turner was really the first superstar of stock car racing, and should be recognized. His accomplishments in stock car racing were great, plus you need to consider the great record he had in NASCAR's convertible series, as well as in road racing. He was also the man who had the vision to build the Charlotte Motor Speedway, an icon in this sport.
• Wow that's tough to only pick 5 from that list ... so many are deserving. I think Childress and Hendrick are no-brainers as far as the current. Turner and Fireball should be the two recognized from the past because of what they accomplished in their time, and having the pleasure to work with him, I think Benny is just as deserving as a driver as he is for his broadcasting work.
• Without Ralph Seagraves and Winston, we may not even be talking about a Hall of Fame. Flock, Baker and Fireball's records speak for themselves and Cotton Owens is my pick for his success with Pearson and Buddy Baker.
• My choices were Leonard Wood, Raymond Parks, H. Clay Earles, Red Byron, and Buck Baker. Reasons being Wood deserves to be in the HOF for all they have done for this sport everything from fielding winning cars for anyone and everyone that has ever been a factor in this sport, they also changed the way pit stops were completed. Byron was the very first series champion and that stands for itself; Earles because he founded a wonderful facility that helped BUILD this sport; Parks for being the first championship car owner. Baker was one of the best drivers in his era and like everyone else on my list he helped BUILD this sport. If you take anything from my votes these people helped BUILD this sport.
• Wendell Scott ABSOLUTELY must make it to the Hall this year. First and ONLY African American to win a Cup series-level race at the time when he was running? This really needs to happen — now rather than later.
• I'm not buying Wendell Scott deserves a spot over people who helped build the sport to what it is today. H. Clay Earles founded a track that is still here today. Raymond Parks, first champion car owner and helped behind the scenes. Both deserve a spot first. I understand the need to show that he broke a barrier but would he have broke that barrier without others in this nominee class stepping up?
• Wendell Scott should be inducted since it must have been an incredibly difficult thing to compete the stock car racing as an African American in the time period that he did it. He did it on a shoestring and won. IMO, that achievement should be recognized.
• The shoe-ins were covered by the first 3 classes. Now it's time to catch up on the founding fathers
• You cannot tell the meteoric rise of NASCAR without T. Wayne. Shame they skipped over Leonard Wood last year.
• In my mind the early members of the Hall of Fame should have changed the sport. Anne B. France — Big Bill couldn't have, wouldn't have, done it without her. All of the previous members have stressed how much their families sacrificed for the sport. Anne B. France is the first representative of that group.
• Why is Anne B France on this list? I guess anyone that worked in the office in the beginning of NASCAR deserves to be in the Hall of Fame?! How about the first ticket collector?
• I believe Raymond Parks should have been in the Hall of Fame in the first or second class due to his contributions to keeping the sport alive in its infancy. Fred Lorenzen is one of the greats of the sport and health has deteriorated, which means this might be his last chance to enjoy the spoils of making the Hall. Since Glen Wood made the Hall of Fame last year, his brother Leonard coming in the following year makes perfect sense. Just like the Petty family over the first three years, the Wood brothers have a chance to take their place in the Hall. Buck Baker is the first repeat champion in Cup racing and having Buddy Baker up there would be a great representation for the building and for NASCAR. I chose Jack Ingram because they should incorporate the other series greats as well and The Ironman was a legend in Nationwide.
WHO BELONGS AMONG THE 25 NOMINEES FOR THE NASCAR HALL OF FAME?
I provided a list — not a complete list certainly — of people to be considered for the NASCAR Hall and Fame. Here’s how the Backseat Drivers Fan Council voted:
THE FIVE THEY WOULD ADD AS NOMINEES NEXT YEAR
Ken Squier .. 46.6 percent
Barney Hall ... 45.6 percent
Smokey Yunick ... 43.9 percent
Alan Kulwicki ... 37.8 percent
Davey Allison ... 35.4 percent
AND THE REST OF THE FIELD ...
Humpy Wheeler ... 34.0 percent
Chris Economaki ... 32.0 percent
Sam Ard ... 29.6 percent
Bruton Smith ... 28.2 percent
Tim Richmond ... 21.1 percent
Janet Guthrie ... 19.7 percent
Ray Evernham ... 18.7 percent
Hershel McGriff ... 17.0 percent
Jake Elder ... 16.7 percent
Ralph Moody ... 11.9 percent
Rex White ... 11.2 percent
Harold Brasington ... 5.4 percent
Paul Sawyer ... 3.7 percent
What Fan Council members said:
• Maurice Petty seems to always be forgotten, yet, accomplished more than most listed above
• Moody & Yunick because of their work on car development. Hall, Squier & Economaki because without their voices, the sport would not be the same ...
• Humpy Wheeler was one of the first promoters in this sport to truly understand the concept of what fans wanted from a racetrack besides just the race.
• To me, Barney Hall is the voice of NASCAR. I am 59 years old and went to my first NASCAR race when I was 12. Barney Hall was there and has been there ever since. Along with Chris Economaki and Ken Squier. These three men helped build the fan following of NASCAR and without the fans we wouldn't have NASCAR!!!!!!!!!
• Barney Hall has always been the voice of NASCAR for me. There will never be a better NASCAR announcer period. You can't have that Hall without him being in it. Squier, too. Davey, Ard and Richmond had their careers cut by tragedy. Who knows what kind of numbers they would have put up.
• Harold Brasington is also not given the credit he deserves. People don't stop and think how risky and pioneering it was to build a superspeedway for stock cars at the time; and out in the middle of nowhere to boot.
• Many of the early stories I can recall reading about in regards to NASCAR involved stories of “Suitcase” Jake Elder. He was a man who had influence in many drivers’ careers, and is usually mentioned in connection with those drivers as opposed to getting his own mention. It’s time to tell his story. It is amazing what Janet Guthrie was able to accomplish in what was considered a man's sport. Her story is an inspiration and deserves recognition.
• I want to add Harry Hyde to this list also!
• Red Vogt, one of the founding fathers of NASCAR, the man who coined the term NASCAR, and championship winning crew chief deserves to be in the HOF.
GRADING SATURDAY NIGHT’S CUP RACE AT TEXAS
41.0 percent called it Fair
33.2 percent called it Good
20.0 percent called it Poor
5.8 percent called it Great
What Fan Council members said:
• It was boring. Too many green flag laps — we needed some phantom yellow flags to bring the field back together. Nice race for Biff but not much excitement for the rest of us.
• I'm glad there was no phony caution at the end just to add excitement.
• I like what Dave Despain said about viewers expecting blow-ups and excitement every lap: long green flag runs “IS RACING!” If there had been caution after caution, fans would have bitched about THAT, too. I enjoyed the race. Was I enthralled every single moment? Well, I had my heart in my throat praying Kasey Kahne would not have another night of bad luck, so I was watching intently, but no, I simply enjoyed it. That's all I ask of a race!
• Very little passing. I'm OK with long green flag runs if lots of guys are passing. This was not the case on Saturday. I felt like it was an Indy follow-the-leader type of race.
• You're going to get a lot of “OMG that was so BORING” comments, but I thought it was fine. Sometimes in sports there are blowouts, but only NASCAR can essentially wipe out a three-touchdown lead with a wave of the flag. It is to NASCAR's credit (and credibility) that they didn't throw a sketchy caution to bunch up the field, because the two cars that deserved to battle for the win did so.
• 224 green flag laps at Texas is just not what I wanted to see...
• YAWN. I had to force myself to stay awake just in case anything happened in the last 10 laps. Racing thus far in 2012 has been boring. I think Goodyear needs to change the tires so they will wear more.
• I hate to say this, but it was the most boring race I have seen in the last three years. At the same time, it’s good to have a clean race, unencumbered by wrecks and long delays. Basically, it just lacked good fender banging competitiveness.
• I guarantee a lot of folks will say poor, but I didn't mind the long, green-flag runs. The race was not boring, as many will say. I can remember watching races back in the day that went caution free for long periods of time. The best drivers with the best teams usually do well in these races. That's what we saw on Saturday night
• It was decent. It was nice to watch Jeff Gordon's drive from deep in the field to fourth. It would have been nice to have a caution with under 10 to go to see if he had anything for the 16 or 48.
This is what retirement is supposed to be like.
“This is so much fun,’’ Mark Martin said after his third-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
Well, the 53-year-old Martin never said he was retiring, just that he wouldn’t race a full schedule years ago when he first cut back.
Car owner Rick Hendrick talked him into returning full-time the past three seasons, but Martin is back to a part-time schedule and enjoying his new ride with Michael Waltrip Racing. It comes as changes in the past year there have made the organization more competitive and likely headed for Victory Lane with either Martin, Martin Truex Jr. or Clint Bowyer soon.
Martin enters this weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway 20th in points although he skipped Bristol and Martinsville. Still, he ranks ahead of 14 drivers who have competed in all seven races this season.
To get a better measure of Martin’s success, though, consider this: His average finish is 10.4 — better than every driver but points leader Greg Biffle (6.0 average finish), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8.1), Martin Truex Jr. (8.2), Kevin Harvick (9.0) and Matt Kenseth (9.0).
Three top-10 finishes in five starts has helped Martin’s average finish. He’s also completed every lap in all five races he’s run.
“I am just so proud of MWR and all the people there and the teamwork that they have shown there starting with Martin Truex, Jr., who has put so much work into getting the program where it was when we started the season,’’ Martin said. “They really have a lot of great people there with great attitude, great teamwork.’’
It just makes him anxious for the next race.
“There's nothing else that I find quite as much fun as going to work with a great race team with a great attitude,’’ said Martin, a former Kansas Speedway winner. “So it's fun for me to go to every race that I get to go to.’’
Isn’t that what work — or retirement — is supposed to be? Fun.
SHOW ME THE MONEY With the series moving beyond Texas, it ends a significant period for teams. The richest part of the schedule is complete.
While sponsorship money is what drives teams, what they earn in races still matters.
The Daytona 500 is the sport’s richest paying race. Its purse this year was $19,142,601, which will be about $10 million more than any other race pays. The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway typically is second, at around $9 million.
Other high-paying races early in the season include Texas ($7,132,592 payout this year) and Las Vegas ($6,382,683). The other races thus far with their payouts were: Phoenix ($5,040,864), Bristol, ($5,551,155), Fontana, Calif. ($5,847,881) and Martinsville ($5,009,303).
Last year, Daytona, along with the spring Texas and Las Vegas races, ranked among the top six races in money paid.
Thus, this is a period for teams — especially for small teams who rely more on winnings — to have some money to pay previous or upcoming bills. Since some small teams have little or no sponsorship, what they earn at the track is critical to their survival. It’s a reason why some teams start and park.
If a team made the least amount of money in each of the first seven races, it would have still collected $715,159. Understand that money is used to pay the driver, crew and other expenses from engines to tires to travel costs, so it can go fast, especially if a team is relying on winnings instead of sponsorship to defray costs.
The next race expected to pay out more than $6 million will be the Coca-Cola 600 at the end of May. There wasn’t a race last June that paid as much. With Indy and Daytona ($6,101,344 purse last year) in July, it makes that month a bountiful period for teams.
Last year’s 10-race Chase featured only one race that paid more than $6 million. That was Texas at $6,857,822. Two 2011 Chase races had purses of less than $5 million — Martinsville at $4,851,202 and Phoenix at $4,957,233.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Greg Biffle Cemented his status as the points leader with an impressive win in Texas. Biffle has yet to finish worse than 13th this season, and is looking forward to Kansas — one of his best tracks — this weekend.
2. Jimmie Johnson Joins Biffle and the two Juniors — Dale Earnhardt and Martin Truex — as the only drivers on the circuit with five top 10s in seven races. Kansas will most likely make six.
3. Tony Stewart How does Stewart — who won at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway — tank to the tune of 24th at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway?
4. Matt Kenseth As steady as they come, Kenseth moves into a tie for second with a certain Most Popular Driver after a fifth at TMS. Of course, Kenseth’s Daytona 500 win trumps Junior’s, uh, zero wins … in 136 races.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK, so he hasn’t won in a long, long time. But Junior is averaging an 8.1-place finish, which is second best in the series. Still, it really is time to break that winless streak and move on.
6. Martin Truex Jr. Truex has averaged a 26.3-place finish at Kansas with zero top 10s. If he brings it home eighth or better like he has in five of seven races so far this year, we’re all on board.
7. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s only finish outside of the top 11 in any single race was a 19th at Martinsville. He’s been awfully quiet for running so well. Maybe Baby Otis has thrown him off his typically vocal ways.
by Matt Taliaferro
The NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings have always been more consistency-based than win-centric. This season alone, two-time race winner Tony Stewart found himself third in the standings behind winless drivers Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Biffle and Earnhardt — both saddled with winless skids of 49 or more races — had employed the tried and true “top-10 ’em to death” method in 2012, each with four in six races.
However, Biffle separated himself at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday evening, scoring his first Cup Series victory since October 2010 in the Samsung Mobile 500.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” Biffle said of whether a win validated his position atop the point standings. “To win like this and put a bunch of ground on the guys — all the cars behind us — that certainly makes a statement, I think, for all the people that were wondering if this was kind of a fluke that we were still leading the points this far in.”
Biffle assumed the points lead following the third race of the season, which marked his third consecutive third-place finish.
On Saturday, Biffle had to hold off a determined Jimmie Johnson, who now has only two wins in the last 50 races — a relative stat, yet one that opens eyes when it’s the five-time champion. Johnson led a race-high 156 laps, but was beat by Biffle’s slide job exiting Turn 4 with 31 laps to go. Johnson eventually skated up and into the wall while trying to catch Biffle’s No. 16 Ford, and limped to a second-place finish, 3.25-seconds behind the race winner.
“The last two or three runs the 16 and I were pretty equal, run(ning) pretty similar lap times,” Johnson said. “I just got tangled up in some lapped traffic and (Biffle) made a great move and got by me. And then I was pacing him from there and didn’t have anything left to go get him. I tried and ran out of grip going into Turn 3 and drilled the fence.”
Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 5.
The strong early-season performance of Michael Waltrip Racing’s three cars continued. Martin, who is splitting driving duties in the No. 55 Toyota with Brian Vickers, notched the team’s second top 5 and fourth top 10 this year. Martin Truex Jr. turned heads once again with a sixth-place showing, his fifth top 10 in the No. 56 NAPA machine. Truex sits fourth in the point standings.
“The teamwork I’m feeling right now at MWR is second to none I’ve ever been at,” Martin said. “Martin Truex Jr., is really, really engaged, and he’s working hard to help the whole program.
“We’re racing three cars to put two in the Chase for sure and win races and try to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Hendrick and Roush and those guys. That’s a tall order for right now. I’m very proud of the results we’re getting. It’s coming from a lot of good attitudes and hard-working people.”
The other storylines of the evening were a lack of cautions throughout the 500-mile race. Only two yellow flags — both for debris on the track — marred an otherwise spotless event that lasted just over three hours. The strength of the Texas wind also grabbed drivers’ attentions.
“The wind was a huge factor,” Biffle said. “The wind was blowing you all over the place. I was swatting flies all night long. The wind was blowing the car back and forth and over ... that could be a factor in why there was no accidents. You would think that would cause one. Well, it made it so you couldn’t really race side by side with a guy.
“I wouldn’t run up on a guy coming off the corner like I normally would. I’d leave more room because I wasn’t sure when the wind was going to blow my car one way or another. I was cautious when I was around (other) cars, and I think probably everybody else was tonight.”
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
by Vito Pugliese
The 25 nominees for the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame class were announced Thursday in Charlotte, NC. A mix of pioneers, drivers, owners and promoters pepper the list, and going through the names, virtually all of them are qualified to make it into the Hall on the first ballot. However, only five are eligible to get in each year, so there are 20 who will be going home — kind of like the largest go-or-go-home field made up of all-stars and who's who of NASCAR history.
So who of this elite group will be selected in NASCAR’s fourth Hall of Fame class? While I’m not going to reveal my ballot quite yet, the following is who I believe will end up being voted in as the 2013 class.
One part of the legendary flock of Flocks, Tim (his first name was actually Julius) along with brothers Fonty and Bob and sister Ethel Mobley — the second woman to compete in NASCAR — were pioneers of the sport, and part of the original guard that brought NASCAR from its infancy on dirt tracks and beaches to pavement and speedways during the mid- to late-1950s.
Upon learning of the organized racing series in stock cars by way of a comic strip, Flock finished fifth in the very first NASCAR race, a Strictly Stock event at the Charlotte Speedway dirt track in 1949. He finished eighth in NASCAR’s first official full season, and would end up a two-time series champion in just eight season of competition to go along with 39 wins in 187 starts.
Before there was a Ryan Newman, there was Flock — a wheelman feared in qualifying sessions He set the record for poles in a season in 1955 with 19 and held the record for most wins that same year with 18 until Richard Petty disposed of that 12 years later. Flock won the Daytona Beach race that season, and is generally regarded as the best Daytona Beach Course driver of all time.
Flock also has the distinction of being the only driver to compete with a primate on board — a monkey by the name of Jocko Flocko — as well as being the winner of the only sportscar race in NASCAR history, also in ’55. And for all of you Moneyball stat geeks, Flock’s percent winning percentage of 20.8 percent ranks second to Herb Thomas’ 21.0 percent.
Glenn “Fireball” Roberts
Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts is another legend of the sport that many new fans may have heard of, yet know little about. The most popular driver of the 1957 season, Roberts was one of the first speedway aces in the series, becoming the first driver to win two 500-mile races in the same season (Trenton, N.J., and the Southern 500 at Darlington in ’58).
In a career that lasted 15 seasons but witnessed only 206 starts (pretty standard in an era where a bowling shirt and a leather helmet constituted safety equipment), Roberts won the Southern 500 twice (’58, ’63), and the 1962 Daytona 500.
Roberts actually resented the nickname “Fireball,” preferring to go by Glen. Curtis Turner shortened the nickname to something more fitting given his tenacity on the new, larger speedways of the early 1960s: “Balls.” In 64 races at tracks larger than one mile, Roberts tallied 14 wins, 27 top 5s and 37 top 10s. More telling, he led more than 50 percent of the laps run at these tracks.
Driving for owner and mechanic Smokey Yunick — himself an International Motorsports Hall of Famer —in the Super Duty Pontiacs fielded from “The Best Damn Garage in Town,” Roberts won the pole, qualifying race and Daytona 500 in ’62. Entering just 19 of 53 races that season, they would win or finish second six times.
In a tragic twist of fate, Roberts was involved in horrific fiery crash during the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte. His fuel tank ruptured, pouring gasoline into the car as it burned with Roberts trapped inside. Suffering first and second degree burns over 80 percent of his body, he clung to life for weeks in a hospital only to succumb to pneumonia and blood poisoning.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone that had a negative word about Benny Parsons, because such a thing has never been muttered. The 1973 Winston Cup champion who denied King Richard what would have been an eighth title would go on to even more success as a broadcaster for ESPN and NBC Sports.
As an on-air personality, Parsons provided his perspective as a driver, genuine warmth and humor, and memorable features such as “Buffet Benny,” his catchphrase of “Man oh man oh man” and the patented, “... WOOOWWW!!!!”
Born in Ellerbe, N.C., just north of the site of this weekend's Truck Series race in Rockingham, it was a move to Detroit in 1960 to work at his father’s taxi service that would be Parsons’ first professional drive. Benny made his first Cup (then Grand National) start in 1964, driving for one of the most legendary names in Ford racing history: Holman-Moody. It was an inauspicious debut — an overheating engine resulting in a less-than-impressive 21st — at the half-mile oval in Weaverville, N.C., right behind another Holman-Moody entry, that of 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Cale Yarborough.
He may be best known for his title season of 1973. Involved in an early accident in the season finale at Rockingham, crews from up and down pit road pitched in to get his damaged Chevy back on track. Despite being 184 laps down, he earned enough points to best Petty in the championship standings.
A Daytona 500 win followed in 1975. Petty, who dominated the event but was laps down following repairs for a water leak, towed Parsons back to the front of the field with just a few laps left. And the “you can't pit right now, we’re eating ice cream” scene from Days of Thunder? That was Benny Parsons, subbing for an ailing Tim Richmond in 1987.
Parsons passed away in January 2007 after battling cancer. He took off the summer of ’06 to ensure he would be well enough to call the final races of the Chase for the Championship later that season. And that, friends, more than any winning percentage, is what being a racer is all about.
The numbers may not exactly scream “Hall of Fame,” but the legend of Curtis Turner speaks volumes. A lumber baron by day, liquor runner by night and a general hellraiser regardless of what time it was, Turner has a lot in common with 2011 inductee Junior Johnson — except for one important point: The law never caught Turner.
The story goes that Turner once lined up eight glass jars of moonshine on an empty road and proceeded to slide a Cadillac in between them — in reverse — executing a 180-degree “Bootlegger Turn.” He explained that he had to so he wouldn’t “waste all that good liquor.”
A self-made millionaire (in 1950s dollars, mind you) he made his fortune buying and selling timberlands, once trying to broker a deal that would have allowed the Ford Motor Company to advertise on U.S. currency. In 1959, with barely enough money to buy the property, Turner would start construction on the Charlotte Motor Speedway — and with the help of a .38 Special Smith & Wesson, helped see it to completion.
The Blond Blizzard of Virginia was a legend bore of the lifestyle he lived: hard living, hard driving and hard partying. Turner never won what today is known as a Cup Series title, but he never lost a party. Fittingly, it was Turner that was the first NASCAR driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, heralded as “The Babe Ruth of Stock Car Racing.”
Turner would earn a lifetime ban from NASCAR founder Bill France for attempting to organize a drivers union in 1961, though he was allowed to return in ’65. He retired from competition in 1968 and was killed in an airplane crash near Punxsutawney, Penn., on October 14, 1970, along with golfer Clarence King.
Benny Parsons once said, “Ask any fan under the age of 50 who the best driver is and they’ll tell you Dale Earnhardt. Ask any fan over the age of 50 and they’ll say Curtis Turner.”
Anne Bledsoe France
Forget any talk of Danica Patrick for a moment. Anne B. France was truly the First Lady of NASCAR.
While we can prattle on about championships, win ratios and the like, NASCAR was also a business, and businesses don’t just run themselves — particularly start-up companies in their infancy. While Big Bill France was promoting races, buying land and building high-banked superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega, it was Anne who managed the finances and day-to-day operations of the burgeoning empires.
She first served as secretary and treasurer of NASCAR in its earliest years, and when Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, served in the same roles for what would become International Speedway Corporation. She also managed Daytona's ticket office, remaining active in the business life until her passing in 1992.
Bill France Sr. and son Bill Jr. were honored in the first Hall of Fame class of 2010. It would only be fitting that the one missing member of NASCAR’s First Family be enshrined in 2013.
Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts on the Hall of Fame with Vito below. And follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series shrugs off the much-needed weekend off and heads to Texas Motor Speedway for this Saturday night's Samsung Mobile 500.
Anytime the series makes its way to the high-speed, mile-and-a-half track in Fort Worth, the Roush Fenway brigade is the team to watch. Since the inaugural event in 1997, the Roush cars have been among the fastest and the “Cat in the Hat” is usually holding a trophy at the end of the day.
All told, Jack Roush has eight Sprint Cup Series victories in Texas, along with seven Nationwide Series wins and one Camping World Truck Series victory.
However, when Matt Kenseth won last April’s night race by a whopping eight seconds, it snapped a two-year winless streak at TMS for the Roush teams.
After Carl Edwards swept the 2008 races, that dominance was called into question by non-Roush drivers Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart. Although they were kept from victory lane, Kenseth, Edwards and Greg Biffle were constant threats.
During that time, Hamlin was among the strongest, sweeping the Texas races in 2010. Yet, last season Hamlin struggled in both races, finishing 15th (one lap down) in the April's race, and 20th (again, a lap off the pace) during November’s Chase race.
Hamlin has November’s race-winning crew chief Darian Grubb on his side this weekend, as the pair looks to score their second victory of the 2012 season. Grubb led defending champion Stewart to Victory Lane ahead of Edwards then, and will look to do the same with Hamlin this weekend.
However, while Hamlin will be a threat again this Saturday, the driver that will be celebrating with the pistols and cowboy hat is Edwards.
Although he has yet to set the world on fire with his performances in 2012 (the Missouri native has yet to lead a single lap), Edwards was third to Kenseth last April and finished second to Stewart during the Chase. Pleased to come away from Martinsville with an 11th-place finish — and fresh off a vacation — the No. 99 team is poised to earn its first win of the 2012 season.
In order to do so, Edwards will have to hold off not only his teammates, Kenseth and Biffle, but Hamlin and Stewart, as well. This is a crucial part of the schedule where momentum can lead to wins and confidence leading into May’s All-Star weekend. Look for Edwards to be among the strongest cars on Saturday night, regrouping and beginning his trek to the Chase.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart
2012 surprises, tips for the track and listening to NASCAR on SiriusXM Radio
by Dustin Long
A weekend without racing didn’t mean that the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had a break. While offering opinions throughout the season, the Backseat Drivers Fan Council also is here to help fans with tips this week on how to make your experience at the track better.
And oh yes, the Fan Council also is weighing in on a few subjects, including the biggest surprise this season.
TIPS TO MAKE THE RACE MORE ENJOYABLE
With many of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council veterans of numerous races, I asked them what they would tell someone going to the track that they should do to make that event more enjoyable.
Here’s what Fan Council members said:
• Camp... pretty much any track. Camp at least once and walk around; meet and get to know other campers/NASCAR fans. Will meet some of the best people and greatest fans around camping at a NASCAR track. Have met folks over the years that will be lifelong friends and my first time was on a whim at the invite of another friend.
• I would tell any fan going to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to go to the infield and visit the museum along with sitting in turn one during practice or qualifying. The speed is amazing and the sound reverberates off the stands. It's like sitting at the old Yankee Stadium or other places similar.
• 1. The museum at Darlington. 2. Go to a Tweetup! 3. Hit a local short track on Friday night and see where these guys got their starts!
• Pit passes at least once in your life.
• Experience a night race, day races are great but night races have a whole different vibe to them.
• Going to the Driver introductions. It costs extra at most tracks but it is well worth it! Being on the track so close to the drivers, the national anthem and the flyover is incredible from right on the track.
• Go to Jeff Gluck Tweetup. Jeff enjoys meeting the fans & he usually has a surprise.
• When at RIR take an extra day to visit the places of historical interest around the central VA region, the museum of the Confederacy, The Wilderness battlefield, Seven Pines, Tredegar, the state Capitol, St. John's Church, Monticello.
• Eating at Ridgewood BBQ about a mile from Bristol Motor Speedway is a must, if you don’t mind the wait obviously.
• Get a scanner to listen to the drivers. Very entertaining.
• Be prepared to have a long wait after the race to leave the parking area. Just pull out the grill, cook some food and enjoy some cool drinks. After an hour or so you will be able to leave and so you will be behind the cars that left as soon as the race was over. A lot less stress this way & saves gas.
• You have to do the No Limits celebration at Texas. Eddie Gossage knows how to throw a party and entertain people. He always has drivers there and the music and food is awesome.
• Stand with your face on the fence in Turn Four at Daytona when the cars are coming by. Absolutely amazing.
• At Dover, be sure to go a little south and east to see the Delaware Bay and some of the beach communities like Rehoboth and Lewes which are less than hour away. Also some of the best birding in the country is within 15 minutes of the track at Bombay Wildlife and other Wildlife Preserves nearby.
• Since I'm a “people watcher,” I think the hidden gem is studying the fans. Big, small, skinny, fat, half-dressed, over-dressed, beer-swilling, pretzel-stuffing, you name it. It's a study in Americana at the best _ and sometimes the worst. Yet, when standing for the invocation, they take off their hats, they sing along (thankfully at times) with the musical artist struggling with the national anthem, and they erupt in joyous shouts as the jets roar overhead.
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
by Dustin Long
Everybody is waiting.
It’s been nearly two weeks since Bruton Smith said that he would order changes to Bristol Motor Speedway’s track surface after a sharp decline in attendance for the spring race and an increase in fan complaints about the racing. Yet Smith has yet to announce what those changes will be made before NASCAR returns to the half-mile track in a little more than four months.
“I think it would be incredible if they paved the track asphalt,’‘ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I am not sure if that would work out but it would be awesome to try it.’’
Any changes to Bristol’s surface before the August race will mean the Cup Series will race at four tracks that have been changed since last season. Kansas Speedway is set to be repaved after its race later this month. Michigan has been repaved and drivers nearly topped 215 mph at a recent Goodyear tire test there. Pocono Raceway also has been repaved and has Goodyear tire test scheduled for April 24-25.
While some drivers are thrilled that Smith will change Bristol — count Kevin Harvick among that group who says, “It’s about time,’’ — Denny Hamlin wonders if the tires should be changed for Bristol instead of the track.
“If you look at Bristol, it had the least amount of fall off of any tire that we had during this year,’’ Hamlin said. “I think you start off around 16.40 fast time (seconds per lap) and you ended 100 laps later running 16.90s. That's just not enough fall off.
“You have to have overtaking and to have overtaking, you have to have cars that are running faster than others. If you look at any point during a Bristol race, everyone's running the same exact speed and you're not going to have any overtaking. You're not going to have any wrecks because no one's running close to each other to wreck.
“Back in the day when people used to lap the whole field and no one complained about the racing, it's because overtaking was happening. Cars were getting passed. You could watch your guy move from 15th to wherever up to the front. Now, it's like he's got to make all the room, all the space up in the first five laps of a restart and then he sits there for the rest of the run. That's because we don't have enough fall-off.
“It's a tough job to make a tire that does that and will live and ultimately not put our safety at risk of blowing tires. Really, Goodyear has made tires that are idiot proof now. We can't abuse them enough to blow them out. That's why you don't see the passing that we used to have."
Even with Smith’s declaration of change, as Carl Edwards notes, it doesn’t guarantee that things will be better.
“The thing that makes me nervous for Bruton and those guys is to spend all this money to change something and then it may not yield the result that you want,’’ Edwards said. “I think that’s the risk they take, but Bruton Smith seems like he doesn’t mind taking risks and going for it. If it works out like most things he does, it’ll probably work, but I give him a ton of credit for saying he’s gonna change this and make an adjustment.’’
It’s just a matter of what Smith will do.
BACK AT ROCKINGHAM It’s not often that you see NASCAR return to a venue it left, but the Camping World Truck Series will compete Sunday at Rockingham Speedway. It marks the return of NASCAR since the Cup series last raced there in Feb. 2004.
NASCAR is back because of the work of track owner Andy Hillenburg, a former racer. He’s spent the money to update the facilities and add SAFER barriers to the track.
Now it’s up to the fans to determine if NASCAR returns to Rockingham after this race. If attendance is strong and shows potential, then maybe a Nationwide race can be added at some point. Just don’t expect the Cup Series to return there. With Cup races in Darlington, Charlotte, Martinsville and Bristol, the region has enough Cup events.
If that’s not good enough, then fans have to ask themselves if they would rather see some NASCAR racing at the track or see as much NASCAR racing as there is at North Wilkesboro?
NASCAR is giving the track and fans a second chance. Will fans take NASCAR up on it and show that the track deserves more races?
Taking Stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup at the Easter Break
Six weeks into the 2012 NASCAR season, the Sprint Cup Series heads into the first of only two off-weekends of the year. With no race this weekend, and thus no fantasy picks to make, let’s take a look at some of the biggest surprises thus far, which drivers and teams are on track for a solid season and which need to turn their season around before it is too late.
There is no doubt the hottest team in NASCAR is Stewart-Haas Racing. The defending series champion, Tony Stewart, has had an uncharacteristic start to the year, winning two races (Las Vegas, Fontana), while teammate Ryan Newman used an aggressive move during a green-white-checker finish to score his first career Cup win at Martinsville.
Typically slow starters, both SHR drivers have hit the ground running after last year's impressive showing in the Chase. Stewart currently sits third in points, while Newman climbed two spots to eighth after last week’s victory.
The mood is soaring at Stewart-Haas, the strong finishes and wins keep coming, the new partnership between Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington continues to roll on smoothly, but can that momentum continue through the summer months and into the Chase?
While the SHR brigade has been scoring wins and making headlines, Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle has quietly and consistently raced his way to the points lead. After starting the season with three consecutive third-place finishes, Biffle took command of the series standings after Las Vegas and has yet to relinquish the spot.
Frustrated and clearly upset with his team’s 16th-place points finish in 2011, Biffle had high expectations coming into this year and his performances to date have shown the changes made behind the scenes at Roush Fenway Racing have made all the difference.
Although The Biff has yet to hit Victory Lane, he hasn’t finished worse than 13th, with three top 5s and a sixth-place run to his credit. Determined to put last year's disappointing results behind him, expect Biffle and his No. 16 team to continue to lead the way at RFR as the season rolls on in two weeks in Texas — a track at which Biffle could easily break his 49-race winless skid.
Exploring the lack of yellow flags in the Sprint Cup Series this season
by Tom Bowles
For years, NASCAR has given new meaning to the phrase “contact sport.” With 43 cars in close proximity at tracks as little as a half-mile in length, it’s hard to run mistake-free, as one bad bump between two combatants can lead to SportsCenter highlights for the sparks that fly afterwards. Heck, as we’ve seen this season, even the jet dryers aren’t immune to danger when someone – or something – breaks.
Those types of scenarios that cause the field to bunch up under yellow, from the bizarre to the mundane (a hot dog wrapper can cause a caution for debris), have played into the sport’s strategy and unpredictability for decades. But as the story of NASCAR 2012 continues to unfold, one of the biggest storylines continues to be how Sprint Cup racing has “cleaned up” its act.
Through six events — even with the Daytona explosion — the sport has seen just 38 caution flags, the fewest number in nearly a dozen years. Half-mile ovals like Bristol and Martinsville, once known for their Demolition Derby status, each had two green-flag runs of well over 100 laps. At Fontana, Mother Nature was the only thing stopping the first caution-free race since 2002. Even crashfest Daytona, with its 10 yellow flags, saw that number drop sharply from 16 the previous year.
So what gives? For one, NASCAR’s Chase system appears to be backfiring early in the regular season. The new rules state that to make the playoffs, a driver must do one of two things: finish inside the top 10 in points or earn one of two “wild card” positions by having the most victories among those not already qualified. The only caveat there is you have to be inside the top 20 in points; however, with only about 30 fully-funded cars running this season that’s not exactly a major obstacle to overcome. Case in point: Jeff Gordon, whose year has already included more bad breaks than the North Carolina backcourt in the NCAA Tournament, yet he sits 21st in the standings, just seven outside of the magical cutoff. One win — as early as Texas next weekend — and the No. 24 will have all but qualified for the playoffs.
That sets the bar low for the sport’s top drivers, and as Jimmie Johnson has proven in recent years, they certainly know it. More and more, teams are developing the five-time champ’s mentality to treat the regular season like a “test session,” accumulating points when possible but not overdoing it for fear of what amounts to a points penalty by pushing your car to the ragged edge. This system also rewards consistency, not risk, which means a 35th-place effort for wrecking while gunning for the lead in the final few laps could be devastating. It’s a culture where “hanging out” in seventh place has been cultivated as the ultimate reward — have a B-plus day and you’ll have a shot for the A-plus trophy by making the playoffs in September.
This creates a domino effect on the racetrack. When drivers get conservative, they won’t push the issue and run side-by-side. That lessens the chances for contact and, ultimately, a wreck that would cause a caution. Riding, not racing, has never been more prevalent — and it’s a growing problem NASCAR will have to address with its constituents never feeling a sense of urgency.
Of course, NASCAR has helped its own “caution-free” cause by virtually wiping out any for “debris.” A growing complaint among longtime fans, that the sport is manipulating those yellow flags to keep the field bunched up, seems to have fallen on the right ears. The temptation to interrupt the flow of Fontana, where each car had the equivalent of the Mojave Desert between them, had to be overwhelming at times, but officials respected the integrity of the race and didn’t allow a piece of plastic to alter the way strategy naturally played out.
There’s another side to this whole green-flag flow to be aware of, and it’s perhaps the most important factor: This year’s caution flag total is nearly identical to 2004, the first year of the Chase that also suffered from a lack of competitive teams on race day. Only 36 fully-funded teams, at times, attempted races and there were a similar number of start-and-parkers filling the field like the Cup Series today. Then, like now, some of the sport’s biggest names were struggling for sponsorship while there appeared to be a lack of both new ownership and cash flowing its way into the sport.
When faced with that scenario, it’s easy for drivers to get conservative because, simply put, there isn’t any money to fix wrecked racecars. We’ve seen that in the Nationwide Series the past couple of years already. Drivers readily admit their sole course of action is survival because their ride doesn’t even come equipped with a backup. If you’re about to run side-by-side with a rival, and it’s a risky move and you don’t have the money to fix mangled sheet metal … would you do it? The “short-term pain for long-term gain” theory applies, as drivers are content to ride around simply because they need to be financially secure that his or her same ride will be around the next week.
So is a breakout of green-flag competition a good thing? It depends on what the drivers do with it. Racing clean is what everyone — fans and competitors alike — would like to see, but there’s a difference between that and staying conservative. In the end, as we’ve discussed many times in this space, sports is entertainment, and a single-file procession in the name of getting to the next regular season event doesn’t exactly light up a viewers’ smile on the couch. When drivers literally can’t afford to get aggressive, the only way you force it out of them is through the proximity of double-file restarts after cautions. So does that mean NASCAR should start waving yellow flags for any old reason, like the aforementioned mystery debris? That’s not the right answer, either.
The ultimate solution lies in the boardroom, not the racetrack. But until we see greater financial stability, the “survival style” racing may be the norm – not the exception — for the foreseeable future.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
by Dustin Long
Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had much to talk about in regards to Martinsville. From their thoughts on David Reutimann trying to make it to the end but causing a late-race caution to the racing in both the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series races, Fan Council members didn’t hold back in what they had to say.
DO YOU SIDE WITH WHAT DAVID REUTIMANN DID?
One driver said there was “no logical reason” for David Reutimann to end up stopped on the track at the end. Reutimann apologized afterward and said, “I was just trying to stay in the top 35 (in car owner points — he fell out of the top 35), which is why we were trying to limp around out there.” Who do you side with? Reutimann for trying to stay out or those who were critical of him? Here’s how Fan Council members voted:
53.3 percent sided with drivers upset with Reutimann, saying he should have exited the track sooner.
46.7 percent sided with Reutimann and staying out to do all he could to remain in the top 35 in car owner points.
What Fan Council members said:
• If a car/driver has mechanical problems, I think they are obligated to get the car off the track for their safety, as well as of the others. In this case, his decision changed the outcome of the race!!!!!!
• David did what anyone else would have done and if they say they wouldn’t they’d be bald face lying!
• Absolute bonehead move on his part. He affected the outcome of the race.
• Reutimann is in a position no other team has ever been in — trying to stay in the top 35 to satisfy a commitment made to another team. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Also, while the caution definitely changed the race why is Clint Bowyer not the one people should be focused on? Or Ryan Newman? Them driving 3-wide into turn 1 at Martinsville had much more of an impact than David Reutimann did.
• I’m not a big Reuitimann fan, however I can’t fault the guy for trying to do what was best for his car. Yeah, its unfortunate he stopped where and when he did —and changed the outcome of the race. But, you know, every race’s outcome is changed by all kinds of things — some notable and some not.
• While I empathize with Reutimann, he should NOT have stayed on the track. I feel particularly bad for him because he has always been a good guy who never deliberately caused any problems for anyone & you could tell by his post-race interview he felt genuinely awful. However, IMO there is never a good reason to screw up a race, especially with so few laps left, when you KNOW your car is not going to survive.
• I 100% side with Reutimann on this. NASCAR has created this mess with the top 35 (rule) and the driver and crew were doing everything possible to stay in the top 35. Only solution is do away with the damn top 35. It is the worst thing that has happened to our sport in the history of NASCAR.
• I see both sides and, unfortunately, there was no good outcome on either side of the argument.
• I understand the desire to stay in the top 35, but there comes a time you need to Get. The. Damn. Car. OFF. The. Track!
Staying in the top 35 is crucial for Tommy Baldwin Racing. Reutimann’s choice did not force Bowyer to dive-bomb Gordon, nor did it force Newman to tap Bowyer. The real problem was with the lack of common sense and lack of respect displayed by Bowyer and Newman. They chose to make moves (to win at all costs) which cost the strongest cars in the field. Reutimann, well aware of his weak position, was doing the best he could with what he had. The same could NOT be said for Bowyer and Newman.
• I get what people are saying, but it is tough for the “non super teams” to compete in Cup. They have to scratch and claw there way around week after week, so being in the Top 35 is very important. Plus, there is the obvious added pressure for Reuti because it is Danica's car and they NEED it in the Top 35 for her Darlington start. I was more annoyed with Bowyer, to be quite honest.
• He was black flagged. Get off track when black flagged.
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
by Dustin Long
Tony Stewart ended Jimmie Johnson’s championship reign last year but are NASCAR fans witnessing an end of an era? For a driver who, on average, once won about one out of every six starts, Johnson has two victories in his last 50 races.
While many drivers would gladly take two victories in such a span, Johnson’s stretch raises questions. This is the driver who won so many races in the final 10 laps, either taking the lead or holding off those trying to take it from him. This is the driver whose team put him in position to win. This is the driver whose car often was so much better than anybody else.
Now, this driver and team are no longer as dominant.
Yet, before one laments Johnson’s woes, consider Johnson’s record in the last 50 races:
• Johnson has finished in the top five 44 percent of the time (Stewart finished in the top five in 26 percent of those races).
• Johnson has finished in the top 10 66 percent of the time (Stewart finished in the top 10 in 50 percent of those races).
Johnson’s feat is impressive but expectations are so high that when he doesn’t win, it gains attention.
“I look back and I think of five or six races that got away,” Johnson said before Sunday’s race at Martinsville — another one that got away after he was collected in a late-race incident.
“Making those mistakes, I didn’t make those in years past or the team didn’t make them. There are some things that boiled down to strategy and others down to restarts that have been on me.
“I heard Jeff (Gordon) say something a long time ago, when he won 13 races or something like that in a year. He said he won every race he should have and then some that he shouldn’t have. We need to win the races we should be able to win and that we have a shot to win.”
There’s no doubt that Johnson’s team has lost a bit of its edge. Yet for all his struggles, he left Martinsville 10th in the points, hindered by his 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500 when he was wrecked on the second lap. Since then, he’s finished no worse than 12th and that came Sunday at Martinsville after he was spun while battling for the lead in the final laps.
“Nothing is eating at me,” Johnson said before Sunday’s race. “Right now I’m very optimistic about our season. I have not paid attention to a stat or a number since our last win. I feel that we’re knocking on the door and we’re running on the race track where we should, and up front, and that’s going to give us chance to win.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE John Wes Townley drove in this past weekend’s Camping World Truck Series race after his team sat him out of the Daytona race because he was arrested and charged with DUI after crashing his 2012 BWM on Feb. 7 near Athens, Ga.
RAB Racing reinstated him for Martinsville. NASCAR placed Townley on probation for the rest of the year and he will be subject to random drug and alcohol testing. Townley said his team also has placed “internal sanctions” on him that he would not discuss.
Townley, who was cited in Feb. 2010 for underage possession of alcohol in Las Vegas, says he’s abstained from drinking since the February crash.
“That night I was having a few drinks with some friends and that morning I had to get up really early to go to Charlotte to go get some seats done and I left really early in the morning,” Townley said of what happened Feb. 7. “It was really foggy. It was really rainy outside, and I ran off the road and I hit my head pretty bad. I was disoriented. I went up to somebody's door because I left my cell phone back at the house and when that all happened — that's where I was.
“But I don't want of those conditions to undermine the decision that I made, because it's on me. It was up to me. I’m the one who got in the car. It was just a perfect storm that everything happened that night. I want to send my deepest apologies to anybody.”
The crash is just part of his curious past. Townley suddenly left his ride and the sport in Sept. 2010 before the Richmond Nationwide race.
“I needed to step back and re-evaluate how I felt about continuing on with the sport,” he said. “I didn’t really know where I was at the time and I just needed that time to step back and re-think what I wanted out of life and coming back into it I really just wanted to give it another shot and certainly didn’t want to leave it the way I left it. So to answer your question, I really want to get back into it to show some people that I can really perform out there and give it another shot.”
Townley finished 23rd at Martinsville.
by Vito Pugliese
“I’m sorry guys, I just … can’t drive my racecar …”
Those words, tinged with embarrassment, pain and reservation, served as both the low point and springboard for Michael Waltrip Racing. Sitting in his crumpled Camry on the backstretch at Charlotte after wrecking on his second lap of qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 in 2007, Michael Waltrip’s transition from racecar driver to team owner was going anything but smooth. From crashing out during time trials and having to head home on Fridays, shoddy performance and reliability, to a divorce and a much-publicized incident that saw him barefoot and beating a hasty retreat from the scene of a tipped over truck, the upstart organization that Waltrip started to coincide with Toyota’s arrival in the Cup Series has long since been referred to as a “second-tier” team.
But, while once said with a bit of condescension and hesitation, it appears safe to finally say it with assurance: Michael Waltrip Racing is for real.
Last year, Robby Gordon deemed his fledgling racing operation “a marketing company that races.” Despite two wins with former driver David Reutimann, that same observation so wryly stated could have been attributed to MWR not that long ago — but no longer. Don’t believe me? Watch any NASCAR race (or NASCAR-related programming), and tell me how many commercial breaks are absent a 5-Hour Energy commercial with Clint Bowyer, a NAPA spot without Waltrip or Martin Truex Jr., or an Aaron’s commercial without Mark Martin and Waltrip.
You’d be hard pressed to find a team owner that is as big a piece of marketing his racing operation as the two-time Daytona 500 champion. Waltrip is now also a commentator alongside Chris Myers during FOX race broadcasts, and last year was one of the hosts of Showtime’s “This Week in NASCAR.” It is that popularity and familiarity with die-hards and casual fans alike that has helped Waltrip’s race team bridge the gap from pretender to contender in the span of a few short years.
MWR suddenly boasts, along with Roush Fenway Racing, perhaps the best-balanced driver line-up in the sport. After Carl Edwards declined overtures from Joe Gibbs Racing in 2011, Bowyer became the next most-eligible driver at the end of his contractual rope. Sponsor 5-Hour Energy came a-calling — which in today’s world of finding a ride is as essential as having a helmet. When Richard Childress Racing could not honor Bowyer’s salary demands, it was MWR that offered him a home, much to the bewilderment of many in the media.
Was one of the hottest properties in NASCAR taking a step backward? After all, it was Bowyer who, after being involved with a wreck with Waltrip at Bristol in 2008, deemed him, “The worst driver in the history of NASCAR. Period.”
Bowyer is a driver who has made the Chase for the Championship three times in his six-year Cup career, as well as a Nationwide Series championship in ’08.
As it turns out, his defection to MWR has been anything but a step backward. His No. 15 has been fast weekly, albeit with a couple of stumbles with some blown tires and wall contact at Phoenix, but has since rebounded with a sixth at Las Vegas, fourth at Bristol, and a 13th in California. Sitting eighth in points, just 38 markers out of first, Bowyer’s Chase chances — and opportunities to win — are materializing quicker than most had suspected.
Think of his team as the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne without the hype or horrendous luck.
Truex has been in a similar situation as Bowyer. Since winning what was the Busch Series championship in 2004 and ’05, his Cup pursuits have been left wanting. He joined what had been Dale Earnhardt, Inc. as driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet as it was devolving from Earnhardt’s business built for his children into a diluted conglomeration of other teams that were both failing and floundering.
Truex has one NASCAR Cup win — a Monday running of a rained-out Dover event on the day that Bill France Jr. passed away — and Chase appearance to his credit, both of which were in 2007. Since joining MWR, Truex has little to show beyond having the most appearances in a commercial break.
However, in the last five races of 2011, Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston strung together four top-10 finishes and built upon that with runs of seventh, third and eighth in 2012. And this from a team that, prior to its hot streak, taped together only three top 5s and 15 top 10s in nearly two seasons.