Articles By Matt Taliaferro

Path: /nascar/fantasy-nascar-taking-stock-all-star-break
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The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has hit the all-star break this week, with no fantasy racing on the schedule. With the brief break in action, now is a great time to assess your year up to this point in the season, examine a few trends through the first 11 races and look ahead to next week's Coca-Cola 600.

While this year has seen a number of surprises, it’s also been somewhat predictable.

Defending series champion Tony Stewart picked up right where he left off in 2011, winning two races with new crew chief Steve Addington, and currently holding the seventh spot in the championship points. The No. 14 team has been up-and-down from week-to-week, however, with three finishes outside the top 20 to counter his two wins and four top 5s. Stewart is typically a slow starter, coming to life during the summer months and in the Chase, but it appears the defending champion is poised to continue his strong season throughout the entire year.

The Roush Fenway organization has been on its game thus far, with Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth sitting atop the standings, each with a win to their credit and separated by only two points. Last year's championship runner-up, Carl Edwards, has yet to show his full strength, but sits 10th in the standings. Biffle has been the most consistent driver up to this point in the season, with an average finish of 7.5, and is looking to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win a championship in all three touring series.

Fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. has led the charge for Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, scoring four top 5s and eight top 10s. While he is still looking to break that ever-daunting winless streak, Earnhardt is third in points and has been one consistently strong throughout the early part of the season.

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson was able to overcome a potentially season-long setback early in the year, when the National Car Racing Appeals Board, led by John Middlebrook, overturned a NASCAR penalty handed down to the No. 48 team after Daytona. Never missing a beat, Johnson is fifth in the standings and scored Hendrick Motorsports' 200th career win last Saturday in Darlington.

After a disappointing performance in 2011, Denny Hamlin has come back strong with new crew chief and defending champion Darian Grubb now calling the shots atop the pit box. Hamlin already has two wins to his credit, along with five top 5s and six top 10s, leading the way for the Joe Gibbs Racing organization.

Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. has also been one of the more consistent drivers this season, earning four top 5s and seven top 10s in the first 11 races. Still battling a winless streak that dates back to 2007, Truex is sixth in points, in the midst of a contract year, and running stronger than he has in years. This promising start has led to a more confident driver, and thus, big fantasy points.

On the other side of the spectrum, a few teams and drivers have not lived up to expectations throughout the early part of the season.

Jeff Gordon's 20th season in the Sprint Cup Series has been disappointing, to say the least. Despite having strong cars nearly every week, Gordon's season has unraveled, leaving him 24th in points with only one top 5 and two top 10s and seven finishes outside the top 20.

Perhaps most notably, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's two-car organization with Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray has floundered. Team owner Chip Ganassi made some major changes during the off-season to help turn the team around. After a strong 2010, the EGR cars struggled for much of the 2011 season, leaving Ganassi to demand a shake-up behind the scenes. To date, however, those changes have produced few results. Montoya and McMurray are 19th and 20th in the standings, with zero top 5 finishes between them.

Keep an eye on this team through the summer months, though, as tracks such as Sonoma, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen are right around the corner. If the performance does not improve at these venues, perhaps more significant changes are in order.

So, now that we've reflected a bit on the early season performances, what does it mean for our fantasy outlook? Each week, we've listed a number of weekly favorites, undervalued picks and darkhorse drivers. In all, we have eight winners already in the season from those groups.

However, our picks have not always panned out. Our fantasy favorites have also struggled this season at times. Kasey Kahne finished 34th in Phoenix, Kyle Busch was 32nd in Bristol, Jeff Gordon was 21st in Kansas and Brad Keselowski was 15th in Darlington.

This goes to show, anything can happen once the cars take the green flag each weekend. As I try to mention each week, pay careful attention to each practice session and the best 10-lap average statistic before setting your lineup.

Also, at this point of the season, be sure to keep tabs on how many times you are starting a driver. In some leagues, drivers can only be used a certain number of times throughout the season. It can be very tempting to start someone like Earnhardt Jr. (who we have listed as our fantasy favorite three times this season) multiple times early in the year, but remember you might need him in the bank later in the season.

Now looking ahead to this weekend's action at Charlotte Motor Speedway: There are few opportunities in the Sprint Cup Series to get a preview of the action a week before your next race. The Sprint All-Star Race and Sprint Showdown are two events that can show you a lot in terms of what to expect for the annual Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend.

With nothing to lose and $1 million on the line, teams will be pulling out all the stops in preparation for the All-Star Race. This exhibition event allows crew chiefs and engineers the ability to try more aggressive and experimental setups, gaining knowledge and insight into how to make their car fast for 600 miles the following week.

Keep tabs on which teams and drivers are running strong in the Sprint Showdown, as well. Even if they are unable to transfer into the night's main event, fantasy players could learn a great deal for next week. This is where a lot of your darkhorse picks will come from.

So, enjoy this weekend's All-Star festivities. Take the time to examine your fantasy season thus far, take the early-season trends into consideration and keep a careful eye on this weekend's action to stay ahead of the curve heading into the Coca-Cola 600.


by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports Fantasy NASCAR expert Jay Pennell reviews the Sprint Cup campaign as the circuit hits the All-Star weekend in Charlotte.</p>
Post date: Friday, May 18, 2012 - 14:58
Path: /nascar/kurt-busch-nascar-career-controversy
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“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone, they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.” – Joni Mitchell

Fame and fortune can be a cruel beast: the second it’s taken away, you want it 10-times worse than those who have never had the chance. Kurt Busch, on the precipice of getting himself fired once again, knows that line better than any other on the Sprint Cup circuit. Well, I guess perhaps the only difference is that in his “parking lot” he just rams everyone with a car who tries to find a space.

People will disagree on what happened Saturday night at Darlington, why Busch pulled a burnout through Ryan Newman’s pit and then slammed into the No. 39 car on pit road like a bumper car on steroids. But when it comes to the 2004 Cup Series champ, we can all agree on one thing: he’s frustrated. The 33-year-old is currently driving an unsponsored car with limited speed where even 110 percent guarantees no more than a ninth- or 10th-place finish. His forced aggression on each lap is what the fans want to see but that comes with consequences: he’s now wrecked in five of 11 races, more than any other driver in this year of green-flag, single-file parades.

It’s not easy for a guy used to winning to run the 1995 Honda Accord when everyone else is slim-fitted into a Lexus with 10 engineers by their side plotting out every simulation and aerodynamic advantage. But Busch is not to be pitied — if anything, he’s a role model for children as to what not to do when you’re handed the world on a silver platter. After being nailed with a $50,000 fine for Saturday’s incident (paired with probation), the downhill slide is rolling once again for a man who’s simply a victim of his own choices.

Remember, it was Busch who chose to leave his team less than nine months after winning the first Chase title while in mid-contract and despite no major dip in performance. Know that every Cup champion since 1990, at the time, had stayed with their former team from that point on, as trophies typically breed loyalty. But Busch felt hidden at Roush Fenway Racing, behind the “superstar” presence of Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and up-and-coming Carl Edwards. Even though he had as many titles as all of them combined, Penske offered greater exposure in his mind, a chance to be the star of a smaller team while getting more credit – and control – over the organization. Roush Fenway? The “villain” was privately relieved, freed of a man who in private drove public relations people to the edge. Busch gave them the ability to cut a cord they never could otherwise because of on-track success. The driver could have been at Roush for a decade, but instead, after an awkward confrontation with police at Phoenix, he was sent packing for his next gig two races early.

That brought him to Penske, where Busch was paired with an iconic sponsor – Miller Lite – and the best equipment a multi-millionaire could find. In six years, Busch made the Chase four times, winning nine races while scoring a dozen poles. Combined, those numbers blow rival superstars out of the water during that stretch — even current points leader Greg Biffle would kill for those numbers. Sure, a second Cup title remained elusive, but the current playoff system has proven itself to be defined by luck — two bad breaks, and you’re out no matter how well you do the rest of the way. Busch should know that, considering his championship run in ’04 helped redefine the way teams approach a title.

But for Busch, having the world on a silver platter and enjoying consistent success at Penske wasn’t enough. The team always needed fixing, whether it was faulty engineering, poor pit strategy or the paint guy that left a smudge on the side of the front bumper. Fits of swearing were weekly occurrences, in public and private, while a number of pink slips were forced during a six-year Reign Of Terror.

Yet even after Busch’s Anger Management melted away, expanding from inner turmoil to picking public fights with the media, both Penske and his sponsor stood by him. Following a Richmond confrontation with two national reporters last season, he could have rallied to win the Chase and been guaranteed millions for the rest of his career. Instead, the postseason netted a disappointing 11th-place finish in the final standings, but all the pieces were there for 2012 success. Just look at Penske’s current stud: Brad Keselowski has won twice, sits just outside the top 10 in points and has flashed speed at virtually every track.

Busch could have been his teammate. Instead, he lost his cool at Homestead, in public, with one of the sport’s iconic media figures. Dr. Jerry Punch was appalled, over a half-million saw it all unfold on YouTube, and within two weeks Busch was toast.

His current team, which start-and-parked at times last season due to lack of funding, was a last resort, a forced marriage after Penske was pushed to show him the door when no other options existed. Busch may be beside himself, dealing with “C-level” equipment that doesn’t match his capability, but in this Choose Your Own Adventure game, he’s also responsible for the choices that led him here.

Some have speculated Busch is not fully to blame for Saturday night’s scuffle, where members of Newman’s crew barreled after him to the point a NASCAR official got knocked on a car hood. The driver himself claims hitting Newman’s car on pit road was because “he couldn’t see while taking his helmet off” — an excuse so comical it wouldn’t fool a five-year-old. But even if by some odd series of circumstances Newman is at fault here (I’m just hypothesizing) none of it matters. Busch, in a position where he has no sponsor, knew heading into 2012 that every move, every minute, would be scrutinized by all those inside and outside the garage area. Perfection when it came to behavior was a necessity; anything less and the chance to return to NASCAR’s top tier would disappear in an age where talent needs to be paired with money. Busch, even when provoked, needs to be the better man, similar to what brother Kyle has done during an uneventful but sponsor-pleasing 2012.

Instead, Kurt Busch made a choice again, resulting in a fine so large, any company that might have dared sneak a peek has thrown him in the trash. So don’t pity the man who put himself in this position, just shake your head and wonder why one of the sport’s greatest talents has chosen to become his own worst enemy.


by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter:
@NASCARBowles
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles examines how Kurt Busch's poor decisions may derail a successful NASCAR career.</p>
Post date: Thursday, May 17, 2012 - 17:58
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-7
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Is NASCAR still on a high as Tony Stewart says? What should have been done to Kurt Busch and others for the incidents at Darlington? What about the All-Star Race? Are changes needed there?
Those were among the topics members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debated this week. And some of their responses might surprise you. Check them out.


DO YOU AGREE WITH TONY STEWART’S COMMENTS ABOUT THE SEASON?
Asked if he was surprised that some people are questioning the racing in NASCAR after the high the sport experienced at the end of last season, Tony Stewart said at Darlington: "I still think it's on a high. The racing has been awesome this year. You look at the whole Richmond weekend, the whole Richmond weekend the races were great. I think it's proof that the sport is still on a high right now.''

Fan Council members were asked if they agreed with Stewart’s statement:

54.4 percent said Yes
45.6 percent said No

What Fan Council members said:
• NASCAR is on a possible competitive "high" but the competition is greater than it ever has been and it is very difficult to get a setup right to win. BUT, NASCAR fans want drama. The fuel-mileage strategies added drama. The Kurt Busch/Ryan Newman wreck with six laps ago was drama. The No. 39 gasman going after Busch added post-race drama. We as fans need more than great competition, we need some drama to stay interested.

• Stewart is NOT the one who are sitting at home watching the so-called "great racing" on TV. A lot of it has stunk worse than Pepe Le Pew.

• I'm not hard to please. If they are racing, I like it.

• I think the racing has been great. I'm a race fan though, not a crash fan. I don't go to the track or tune in on TV to see crashing. Personally I think the fans that do that should just go away.

• Most of what I've seen has been follow-the-leader racing where the only passing came on infrequent restarts or on pit road. That's not racing in my book — that's freeway driving.

• The racing is boring. Maybe you could ask Tony why, if the racing is so great, I changed the channel and watched the NBA playoffs half way through the Southern 500

• I agree with Smoke. The racing this year has been good despite many naysayers.

• It seems that, instead of enjoying our sport, everyone is analyzing it to death. On the broadcast at Darlington, during the long green flag, all that was talked about was the lack of cautions. During a 500-mile race the drivers are always laying back until the end. Are you new here? It got exciting at the end the way all the races do. Just watch the race and enjoy it and shut up!

• It's certainly not on the high it was at the end of last year, but it's still "up" from where it has been.

• I believe the drivers and even the media (to a degree) think the sport is "on a high". I went to the Bristol race and thought the racing was great … because I was there. I don't necessarily think the racing is bad, but FOX is doing a horrible job of capturing the race. Just look at Twitter during a race. FOX has a ton of commercials & the production of the race is poorly done. That gets fans into a negative mood and therefore they perceive the racing as bad.

• Was Stewart giving a sarcastic answer again? I'm not sure why, or what to change, but I don't seem to be as into NASCAR recently as I have been in the past. I still watch the races on a weekly basis, however, I'm not scouring the internet for news articles during the week as I would normally do.

• Yes we are blessed with the best racing in the world.

Teaser:
<p> The Backseat Drivers Fan Council weighs in on racing at Darlington, Kurt Busch's fine and raises interesting ideas about NASCAR's All-Star Race in Charlotte.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 - 19:55
Path: /nascar/danicas-darlington-dance-and-kurt-busch-fined-nascar
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NASCAR fined Kurt Busch $50,000 on Tuesday for his actions toward the end and after Saturday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington.

Busch was one of three people fined and one of four people placed on probation.

NASCAR put Busch on probation until July 25, citing Busch for “reckless driving on pit road during the race’’ and for being involved in an altercation with another competitor after the race.

Busch’s reckless driving on pit road was for shooting through Ryan Newman’s pits after a stop late in the race. Newman’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, said that his pit crew had “to jump out of the way ... and try not to get hit.”

After the race, Busch ran into Newman’s car on pit road. Newman told SI.com that Busch said it was an accident and it happened as he was taking off his helmet.

“I’m pretty sure there were 42 other guys that are taking their helmets off and doing whatever for the last 10 years and that’s the first time that’s happened to me. Circumstances, I think, are that he lied and was so frustrated that he doesn’t know how to deal with his anger.”

As for when Busch fired out of his pit stall late in the race, Newman told SI.com: “I’m not sure why [Busch] did it and tried to run over our guys and NASCAR officials. And nobody is. I think the chemical imbalance speaks for itself.”

Busch will be on probation for the All-Star Race, along with the Coca-Cola 600 and races at Dover, Pocono, Michigan, Sonoma, Kentucky, Daytona and New Hampshire. Provided he has no other issues, his probation would end before Indianapolis.

NASCAR also issued other penalties for an incident after the race between the teams.

• NASCAR fined Newman’s gas man, Andrew Rueger, $5,000 and placed him on probation until June 27 for failing to comply with a directive from a NASCAR official.

• NASCAR placed Gibson on probation until June 27 since the crew chief assumes responsibility for the actions of his team members.

• NASCAR fined Craig Strickler, Busch’s motorcoach driver, $5,000 and placed him on probation until Dec. 31 for interfering with a member of the broadcast media.
 

Teaser:
<p> Following Hendrick Motorsports' 200th Cup win at Darlington, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 - 18:34
Path: /nascar/dodges-precarious-nascar-predicament
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As Brad Keselowski celebrated in Victory Lane at Talladega, it was a scene both bittersweet and conflicting. Dodge had just won at Talladega for the first time since 1976, and yet there was precious little for the manufacturer to celebrate.

Two wins by Keselowski, coupled with teammate AJ Allmendinger — who’s been in position to win in the closing laps at both Martinsville and Talladega (before causing a massive wreck driving in a straight line) —indicate that Penske Racing will become (or already is) a force to be reckoned with throughout the balance of the year.

It also gives pause as to why in the hell it is jumping ship to ditch Dodge and join forces with the Ford Motor Company.

The Mopar mutiny was presented as a way for Penske to better benchmark itself against the competition, and felt that the Blue Oval brigade was that measuring stick. Considering how a Chevrolet has taken home the Cup crown every year since 2005, I’m not quite sure how that math works out just yet. It took nearly two years for the Ford camp to figure out that its simulation software sucked, and it was the Roush Fenway satellite team of Richard Petty Motorsports that helped rescue it from the depths of despair and fundamentally flawed front-end geometry.

Last season was a rebound year for Ford, which retained the services of marquee driver Carl Edwards, who ultimately tied Tony Stewart for the championship — but lost in a tie-breaker to Stewart’s four wins to Edwards’ lone triumph at Las Vegas (a race, ironically, that Stewart’s team threw away on botched fuel strategy). For 2012, the two longest-tenured Ford drivers — Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle — have been a force to be reckoned with, while Edwards has had his share of struggles, including being caught up in a wreck at Talladega and the controversial restart penalty at Richmond which denied him his first win in well over a year.

Dodge, on the other hand, has been a microcosm of Chrysler’s struggles, and its most recent brush with mortality. With Clint Eastwood cutting Chrysler commercials at halftime of the Super Bowl and a number of tug-at-your-heart-string ads that have recently been rolled out, it appeared Penske and Dodge were positioning themselves to pick up where things left off in 2011.

Unfortunately, Kurt Busch completely lost his faculties twice in nine weeks during the 2011 Chase — including going postal on a respected reporter while in earshot of a smartphone. The result was Busch being booted from Penske’s No. 22, and AJ Allmendinger replacing him as a last-minute pickup from the driver waiver wire. The 2012 season started with a disappointing Daytona 500, with late-race wrecks and an incident on pit road sidelining the two-car operation. Speedweeks, in general, was a bit of a bust aside from Keselowski’s tweet heard ’round the world.

More distraction and impending doom, however, was looming, as Dodge was prepared the unveil what appears to be the baddest-assed looking racecar to roll out since Richard Petty’s Roadrunner and David Pearson’s Gran Torino did battle 40 years ago. The new generation CoT for 2013 has a number of refinements, chief among them something resembling cars the manufacturers actually manufacture. Image that: a stock car that legitimately looks like a stock car — something that has been missing from the sport since the late ’80s.

Undercutting Dodge’s presentation of its new piece in early March while in Las Vegas was word that its flagship (and sole) team was pulling up the tent stakes and taking its lugwrench to Dearborn. Not good news for a manufacturer that put all of its chips on Penske and doubled-down on a driver, in Keselowski, that is on the verge of stardom and who grew up just outside of Detroit, to boot.

Keselowski has matured greatly since joining Penske Racing in Novemeber 2009, becoming a leader following the vacuum left by the departed Busch. Keselowski’s family was instrumental in the resurgence of Chrysler’s involvement in stock-car racing, with his father Bob piloting a LeBaron in the early 1990s in the ARCA Series, and then a Ram once Dodge returned to NASCAR in the Truck Series in ’95. With Keselowski in the fold and seemingly flipping a switch after a testing crash at Road Atlanta last summer, Dodge finally had an up-and-coming young talent with one of the finest organizations in motorsports.

A few weeks into the 2012 season find that picture suddenly a lot less rosy.


Meanwhile, half a continent away…
Word came out recently that Furniture Row Racing has reached out to former Penske driver Busch to gauge his interest in driving a possible second car for the Denver, Colo., based team with Richard Childress Racing connections. Perhaps more interesting is that Dodge has issued overtures to the same team to suspend its Chevrolet affiliation and become a full-factory backed Dodge operation. The main obstacle — and one that will likely become a theme with Dodge — appears to be just who will build the engines for the team that is based 2,000 miles away from the hub of NASCAR (and from anybody who could possibly build engines for a manufacturer that still relies on a racing family from its storied past, in Arrington Engines, for much of its support). Penske Racing has also said it would still be interested in the business of building Dodge engines, despite the move to Ford. Isn’t that a bit like a Democratic strategist saying they will be assisting with the Mitt Romney campaign?

For Busch, it’s likely a welcome reprieve, as his current gig has him driving semi-sponsored cars manned by a team of 18 warm bodies and pictures of mountain cats on the hood from six-year old movies. Not to bag on Phoenix Racing — it’s astounding the level the rag-tag band is able to compete considering its resources — and also a testament to the true talent of Kurt Busch. Yeah, he might fly off the handle and vent for 500 miles, but as with his equally-mercurial brother, you will find no one who argues his ability to drive a racecar. And let’s be honest: it wasn’t until he completely lost it at Richmond last spring that things started to turn around for the Penske organization and, low and behold, they got both cars and two-thirds of the Dodge contingent in the Chase.

To his credit, Busch has kept his trademark temper under control thus far in 2012, and even managed to keep the big green rage monster caged after inadvertent contact from his former teammate and eventual race-winner Keselowski at Talladega. While Busch has had discussions with Furniture Row, there is also speculation that he may be headed to RCR. That would be an interesting combination, as team owner Childress beat up his brother in the garage area just a few months ago.

While being engaged by a six-time championship winning car owner is obviously heartening for Busch, it may prove downright depressing for Dodge. It may be in position to reclaim a championship-caliber driver and bring a mid-level team (which just happens to be the defending champions of this weekend’s Southern 500 at Darlington) to the next level. However, nothing is concrete and the clock is already ticking on 2013.

If the Busch connection at FRR doesn’t pan out, who else might Dodge be able to court?


What’s old is new again?
You can eliminate the heavy-hitters like RCR, Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing right off the bat. Joe Gibbs Racing has re-signed with Toyota, having suspended its own engine-building operation to source powerplants directly through TRD. The Michael Waltrip Racing renaissance is well underway, and there is next to no chance it wants to upset the applecart at this stage. It was rumored that Richard Petty Motorsports may well be a prime candidate to become the factory-backed Dodge team, but it may prove difficult as it is essentially an assembly company, getting chassis, engines and engineering support from RFR.

However, a potential Petty move would be a dream come true for many Mopar fans simply for the nostalgic value. And it would be mutually beneficial for Petty and Dodge.

RPM is not performing at nearly the level its car and engine provider (RFR) is this season, and sponsorship remains an issue for the operation that has whittled things down to the No. 43 driven by Aric Almirola and the No. 9 of Marcos Ambrose. Former JGR crew chief Mike Ford has recently come on board, bringing knowledge and the perspective of a championship-caliber team.

The engine supplier issue, though, still looms large for RPM if it were to make the switch back to Pentastar power. Should Ralph Gilles and company elect to put a Dodge in their garage, the only two with experience building them (besides Penske) are Joey Arrington and “Chief” Maurice Petty. Dedicated engineering support and being the sole-focus that accompanies the only-child-status of Dodge’s NASCAR endeavors could help revitalize RPM, which is still suffering a bit of an identity crisis since Petty Enterprises stopped being a racing organization and started being a museum in Level Cross.

If Dodge is unable to find a team with enough potential and existing infrastructure, its involvement in NASCAR may very well end up being limited to a space in that same museum.


by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter:
@VitoPugliese 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contrbutor Vito Pugliese examines Dodge's NASCAR predicament — and explores which drivers and teams may be on its wish list.</p>
Post date: Friday, May 11, 2012 - 16:13
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-talladega-3
Body:

In honor of Mother’s Day, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the “Lady In Black” for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. On the schedule for 62 years, Darlington is steeped in NASCAR history and is one of the toughest tracks on the circuit.

One crew chief called Darlington “the most unique track” the series runs at throughout the year. The egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval has one of the most unique grooves in the sport, and with nearly every driver earning the well-known “Darlington Stripe” the crews will have the bondo and hammers on hand.

More than any track in the sport, drivers will truly have to race the track and not the competition to be successful Saturday night under the lights. The pit crews will have to get the job done on pit road as well, especially leading into next week’s Sprint Pit Crew Challenge.

Be sure to keep an eye on the best 10-lap average stat after both Friday practice sessions before setting your lineup. That stat didn’t matter too much last weekend at Talladega, where Brad Keselowski pulled away on the final lap to score his second win of the season. Leading on the final lap with Kyle Busch tucked behind in tandem, it appeared Keselowski was a sitting duck to Busch. However, Keselowski was able to disconnect from Busch’s car and had the race in hand off Turn 4.

Making his 100th career Sprint Cup Series start, Keselowski heads to the Track Too Tough To Tame as this week’s NASCAR fantasy favorite.

With two wins in the first 10 races of the season, the Penske Racing driver is confident he will be in the Chase as a championship contender and feels “the shackles are off” in the remaining races before the final regular season race at Richmond. In layman’s terms, he’s focused on adding more trophies to his collection as opposed to “point racing.”

Keselowski also considers Darlington one of his favorite tracks. He currently holds the second-best average finish (7.3) behind Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin (6.5), but is without a win at the legendary facility.

Series points leader Greg Biffle certainly knows the joys of winning at Darlington, with back-to-back Southern 500 wins in 2005 and ’06. The Roush Fenway Racing driver comes off a fifth-place finish at Talladega, his sixth top 5 and seventh top 10 of the season.

Despite his two wins, Biffle has only two top 10 finishes in the five Darlington races since his victoreis. However, he has momentum on his side heading to this weekend’s race, making him another fantasy favorite.

Another driver entering this weekend’s race with “the shackles off,” as Keselowski put it, also happens to have the best average finish among active drivers at Darlington. Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb have been solid together throughout the first 10 races, and Hamlin has one win at Darlington, so expect the No. 11 team to be a strong contender Saturday night.

Five Favorites: Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch 

 


Regan Smith enters this weekend’s race as the defending winner, earning his first official NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory last May on older tires over Carl Edwards. That win was one of only two top-10 finishes up to that point in 2011. This season, Smith heads to Darlington with zero top 10 finishes, suffering through a disappointing stretch of races.

An engine failure last week dropped the Furniture Row Racing’s driver to 27th in the standings. Looking to break his slump and kick-start his season before the All-Star break, Smith is a solid pick for this weekend’s race. Despite his poor start to 2012, Smith and his team will walk through the garage the defending champions for the weekend. That confidence boost could go a long way for a team that is looking to turn things around.

While Smith is the defending winner, Edwards goes into Darlington with three top-5 finishes in his last five starts — two of those being second-place showings. Searching for that first victory at Darlington — as well as his first of 2012 — look for Edwards to be among the front-runners on Saturday. 

If there is one group of drivers that the Lady In Black favors, it is the veterans. Therefore, consider Jeff Burton,Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon as well. They have a combined 11 Darlington wins. 

Five Undervalued Picks: Regan Smith, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Bojangles' Southern 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, May 10, 2012 - 14:39
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-6
Body:

Talladega always leaves fans with something to talk about and last weekend was no different from Danica Patrick’s bump that sent Sam Hornish Jr. into the wall after the checkered flag in the Nationwide race to the Jeff Gordon’s woes and the type of racing fans saw.

There was much to discuss after Talladega and members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council tackled some of those subjects.


SHOULD NASCAR HAVE PENALIZED DANICA PATRICK FOR HER ACTIONS AFTER THE TALLADEGA NATIONWIDE RACE?
On the final lap of Saturday’s Nationwide race at Talladega, Sam Hornish Jr. squeezed Danica Patrick into the wall and Patrick retaliated after crossing the finish line by tapping Hornish, which sent him into the wall. Hornish said afterward he had a right front tire going down, which made it difficult to control his car. NASCAR did not call either driver into the hauler after the race — but will talk to both this weekend at Darlington. Patrick later apologized to Hornish. Fan Council members were asked if NASCAR should have penalized Patrick for her wrecking Hornish after the checkered flag flew:

41.4 percent said Patrick should be put on probation for the next few races
41.0 percent said Patrick should not be penalized in the era of “Boys have at it”
9.4 percent said Patrick should be put on probation until the next Nationwide plate race (Daytona in July)
8.2 percent said Patrick should have been suspended for at least the next Nationwide race

What Fan Council members said:
• If Busch gets tossed for wrecking Hornaday under caution, she should miss a race for wrecking Hornish on a cool down lap. FINED, at the very least. 

• I don't think a warning is inappropriate. People were comparing that incident to Kyle vs. Hornaday at Texas, but I watched that with a stopwatch and Kyle was on Hornaday's bumper for five seconds under the caution, while Danica hit Hornish but didn't push him around the track like Kyle did.

• For me it was a racing deal. Sam said he had a tire going down and got into Danica. Danica felt she was run up the track and into the wall on purpose. She made her feelings known to Sam that she didn't like what happened. I have seen this happen before with other drivers and NASCAR didn't really do anything to them. It was not the extreme as it was with Kyle Busch plowing into Ron Hornaday at Texas where NASCAR had no choice.

• Yes, probation at the very least! You don't wreck drivers on the cool down lap, bottom line.

• Let it go. It's over and was clearly boys (and girls) have at it.

• No, I do not think she should be penalized. She is NOT KYLE BUSCH and intentionally wrecking anyone to affect the outcome of the race.

• I choose that she should be put on probation but that's such a meaningless penalty. I know they'll be talking to her at Darlington but I think they should have called her to the NASCAR hauler right after the race. Waiting a week makes it seem like they're only talking to her because fans were upset.

• I love “boys have at it” but there still has to be some policing of the drivers, Danica should at least be put on probation. This is nothing like the Kyle Busch/Ron Hornaday incident last year, but she still turned Hornish head on into the wall at over 100 mph, and given what took place with Eric McClure earlier in the race, there's no place for retaliation to that magnitude. 

• While we are in the era of “boys have at it,” that doesn't extend to yellow flag or post-checkered flag car issues. If she wanted to punch him after the race, that's fine, but no retaliation with her car. I think a warning is a good first punishment. Kyle Busch was suspended because of a pattern of this type of behavior, she doesn't have the pattern (yet!), so a probation that lasts through the next plate race seems fair.

• Aren't we getting just a tad worked up about all things Danica? If this had been any other driver, it wouldn't be making headlines. Evidently NASCAR didn't see a problem with it. Get over it and stop scrutinizing everything she does.
 

Teaser:
<p> The Backseat Drivers Fan Council weighs in on plate racing, the Danica "no-call" and if Jeff Gordon has a chance at making the Chase.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 - 18:59
Path: /nascar/keselowskis-win-biffles-lead-and-ambroses-tough-start
Body:

The Long and Short of It


Brad Keselowski’s victory in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega did more than put him in position to make the Chase again, it reaffirmed his position as one of the sport’s top drivers.

Over the past 26 races — the length of the “regular season’’ in the Sprint Cup Series — only Tony Stewart has more victories than Keselowski. Stewart has seven; Keselowski four. No other driver has more than two in that span, which dates to Pocono in August 2011.

Keselowski’s victories during that stretch have come at Pocono, both Bristol races and Talladega. He’s finished second twice.

Keselowski has done more, too. He has finished in the top 10 in 14 of the last 26 races and placed in the top five in 11 of 26 races as well as led at least one lap in 18 of 26 races.

“He’s matured a lot,” car owner Roger Penske says of Keselowski. “He’s been a tremendous asset to the team, not just for Brad Keselowski, for Penske Racing. You can see when he comes in the shop, he’s spending a lot of time. I wouldn't trade him for anybody right now.

“He came to me before he went to work for us, he said, ‘I’d like to come to Penske Racing and help build a winning Cup team.’ He’s certainly demonstrated that from the driving ability. His chemistry with (crew chief) Paul Wolfe and that whole team has made a difference.

“This is not about the driver, the car, the sponsor — it’s about the whole team. He's the real package. What we're trying to do is give him everything we can to make him a winner.”

Keselowski made the Chase via a “wild card” entry last year with three victories. Discounted as a title threat, he climbed to third in the standings and was 18 points out of the lead with four races to go. He was in position for a top-10 finish at Martinsville until he was wrecked in the final laps and finished 17th. That dropped him to fourth in the season standings, 27 points out of the lead. Keselowski and Wolfe were more aggressive with their strategy after that and it backfired as Keselowski ultimately finished fifth.

What he and the team learned last year could make it a stronger contender this year. With two wins in 2012, he seems sure to at least take a wild card spot again.

“I refuse to label this year a failure if we don’t win a championship,” Keselowski says. “Part of what defines a man is what code you live by. One of my codes — it’s probably my strongest code — is to be better today than I was yesterday, and to be even better tomorrow than I was today.

“We’ve shown that we’re better here at this point in the year than we were last year, at this point in the year, and we were better last year at this point in the year than we were the year before. You know, that’s my code. I'm surrounded by the proper people to execute it.”

It’s worked so far.
 

Teaser:
<p> Following Brad Keselowski's win at Talladega Superspeedway, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, May 8, 2012 - 18:27
Path: /nascar/brad-keselowski-wins-talladega
Body:

Every five or six visits to NASCAR’s ultimate spectacle at Talladega Superspeedway, someone figures out a new way to conquer the beast. The freight train, the lead-the-conga-line, the tri-oval slingshot — all have taken their turns as last-lap moves du jour at the 2.66-mile behemoth in Alabama. In Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, Brad Keselowski introduced a new move.

As yet unnamed, Keselowski’s Turn 3 move — “Shake ’n’ Bake” need not apply — to stave off Kyle Busch with the checkered flag in the air was, according to the race winner, one of cool calculation.

“Those are the kind of moves, similar to the move made here in ’09, that you get one chance to make, that nobody wises up on,” Keseloski said. “From there, everybody knows how to make it work. I’m sure everybody will wise up on it from here and they’ll make their moves earlier, which will change the racing again.

“It’s just evolution. You get one shot to be that guy that helps to evolve it. We had the opportunity to do that today and that’s part of what helped us win the race.”

A green-white-checker restart — caused when Keselowski spun Kurt Busch’s No. 51 Chevy — precipitated his two-lap dash to his second career Talladega win.

The ensuing lap 185 restart played witness to a nine-car pile up in Turn 1 that marked the end of the day for Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Michael Waltrip, among others.

When the field next took the green flag, Matt Kenseth — who led a race-high 73 laps — led the pack, with teammate Greg Biffle immediately in arrears. Keselowski and Kyle Busch lined up along side.

Kenseth’s stout Ford pulled away immediately, but when he and Biffle briefly separated, their draft was broken, opening the door for the Keselowski/Busch freight train.

The latter pairing roared to the lead as the white flag was displayed and jumped out to an insurmountable lead. Recent history proved that running second was the preferred position on the final lap, as the runner-up had made a last-lap pass for the win in the previous four Talladega races.

However, with Busch hooked to his rear bumper, Keselowski dove from the high groove in Turn 3 to the low side of the track exiting Turn 4. The brief separation doomed Busch, who could not get close enough to execute a pass in the tri-oval.

“I just needed to make the move, (and I ) made it in (Turn) three,” Keselowski explained. “That disconnected us. That was the key right there. Once we got that air bubble in between the two cars, it was going to take two or three laps for him to pop that.”

For his part, Busch wasn’t immediately sure how Keselowski broke the draft.

“Unfortunately, I must have screwed something up, because we got to Turn 3 and come unhooked,” Busch said. “Just gave the win away over there. Not sure exactly what happened — we definitely need to go back and figure out what it was.”

Keselowski’s win was his second of the 2012 season, putting him in position for a Wild Card entry into the Chase for the Championship if he is not in the top 10 in points at the Richmond cutoff race in September.

Kenseth held on for a third-place run and sits second to Biffle (fifth at Talladega) in the standings. Kasey Kahne was fourth, while Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Trevor Bayne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 10.


by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:
@MattTaliaferro
 

Teaser:
<p> Brad Keselowski held off Kyle Busch to win NASCAR's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, May 8, 2012 - 18:08
Path: /nascar/nascar-horsepower-rankings-2
Body:

1. Greg Biffle   Found himself in roughly the same position at Talladega as he was in at Daytona ... which isn’t bad when you’re clicking off top 5s like it’s the ARCA Series.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Doesn’t seem able to finish outside of the top 10 if he tries, but this is Dale Earnhardt Jr. we’re talking about, so only a win will keep the critics at bay.

3. Matt Kenseth   Kenseth has roared to within five points of Biffle’s lead in the standings on the strength of four top 5s in the last five races.

4. Denny Hamlin   Hamlin was running in the top 5 at Talladega when he was the victim of a block-gone-bad. It’s hard to factor the resulting 23rd-place finish into these standings, so I will not.

5. Brad Keselowski   He may not have the most consistent team on the circuit, but it’s one that has proven capable of winning on any given weekend. Bristol and Talladega are proof of that.

6. Tony Stewart   Like Hamlin, it’s hard to fault Stewart for a mid-20s finish at Talladega. Unlike Hamlin, Stewart was in position to win despite running out of fuel twice and battling overheating issues throughout the day.

7. Jimmie Johnson   The roll-of-the-dice tracks at Daytona and Talladega are the only ones that can consistently keep Johnson from a top-10 finish. Take plate racing as the anomaly it is and move on.

8. Kyle Busch   Consecutive runs of first (Richmond) and second (Talladega) find Rowdy’s stock on the rise. Could this be the beginning of a scorching summer run?

Teaser:
<p> Brad Keselowski earned his second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win of the year at Talladega, but Greg Biffle holds serve atop Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, May 8, 2012 - 04:55
Path: /nascar/whats-new-old-nascar%E2%80%99s-aging-population-problem
Body:

Quick, what do the names Kevin Conway and Andy Lally have in common? Are they:

A) Two prominent Wall Street investment bankers
B) Battling for the same role in One Life To Live
C) Americans running in the Tour de France
D) The 2010 and 2011 Sprint Cup Rookies of the Year

Did it take you a minute to come up with the answer? (It’s not completely a joke — there really is a “Kevin Conway” in One Life To Live). Well, you’re not alone, especially considering NASCAR’s last two “top freshmen” are currently outside the sport altogether nine races into the 2012 season. It’s a troubling trend, where for every Joey Logano there’s been about nine Conways who come into the sport with sponsor money, run mediocre at best and then disappear without even getting as much as a cursory glance from the Jack Roush’s and Rick Hendrick’s that hold the keys to NASCAR’s continued existence. Or, there’s the Lally’s of the world, successful drivers changing series without the benefit of money or equipment to support their transition. Patience isn’t a virtue in those scenarios, leaving them kicked to the curb faster than Donald Trump can say, “You’re fired!” on Celebrity Apprentice.

Sounds silly that a few “average Joes” with funding should make a difference. But more than ever, people like these could be influencing the top levels of stock car competition, at a time when side-by-side racing and future sponsorship are getting called into question. With long green-flag runs the norm, not the exception, in 2012 and drivers content to run single file, the blame has been passed around like a hot potato: the Chase, the Car of Tomorrow, tires with no give, too much dependence on aerodynamics. However, could the conservatism of today’s driving corps come from the simple fact there’s no one in position to replace them?

Just take a look at the current top 10 in NASCAR Sprint Cup points. In a sport that was once concerned with twenty-something “young guns” unseating the veterans, they’re nowhere to be found. Instead, what you find is a collection of people that could be confused for fathers attending their kids’ Little League games: there’s no one under age 30, three over age 40 and the average is a gaudy 35.8. Can you imagine an NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB team with that number? Chances are they’d be struggling to finish above last place in their division, let alone earn a .500 record or attempt to qualify for the playoffs.

Yes, stock car racing — a sport that has witnessed great success stories of drivers in their 40s — can be different. But those tales also happened at a time when it didn’t cost $20 million to build a competitive team. That number brings in the involvement of Fortune 500 companies, with marketing departments that care just as much about target demographics as top-5 finishes. Trust me, they’re on to the trend: just look at the hesitance to sponsor Daytona winner and former champ Matt Kenseth (age 40) despite his 2012 success. Even 37-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s Most Popular Driver and one of the sport’s best storylines of the season, no longer fits within the 18-34 male demographic that was once magnetically attracted to cars turning left. Jimmie Johnson, the sport’s most successful driver of the last decade is 36. Its ambassador, Jeff Gordon, is turning 41, outside the top 10 in points and closer to hosting Kelly Live! than contending for the fifth title his fans crave. The driver once thought “key to the sport’s future,” Logano, hasn’t won in nearly three years and at 22, finds his future employment in jeopardy. The youngster’s “Sliced Bread” moniker is turning stale, a cruel irony considering the recent complaints flooding the sport.

With age comes experience, and it’s no surprise those current top-10 drivers have settled into their current organizations. Everyone on the preceding list has been driving for the same car owner for at least three seasons; 60 percent have been doing it for seven or more. That type of longevity builds consistency in relationships, creating chemistry that makes it easy to rise to the top. But the downside for the fan base is that it’s the same old, same old. Silly Season leads to changes that keep people tuned in during this 24/7-news-cycle world we live in. Take the NFL as an example: Peyton Manning, after a whole career with the same organization, is moving to Denver because a young upstart named Andrew Luck was available. In his mid-30s, a superstar athlete was pushed out because of the natural evolution of his sport — there’s someone younger and potentially just as talented available.

That transition has stopped within a world where money, not developing drivers, now moves mountains. Instead, we have the Conway’s, capable of buying rides in desperate organizations for a chance to live their dream, to race at stock car’s top level. But their spotty resumes can’t make up for boardroom success. We’ve seen plenty of these “development projects” fail, making even a struggling driver like Jamie McMurray seem like a five-time champ by comparison. It’s telling that one of the few plum openings for 2012, the No. 55 of Michael Waltrip Racing, went to someone who’s 53 years old. Yes, Mark Martin has a lifetime worth of talent … but he also had limited competition for the spot. Experience leads to knowing how and when to push the right buttons on the racetrack. With so many veterans up front and their place in NASCAR history secure, it’s no wonder the caution flags are down. After all, the sport puts the rookie stripe on back bumpers for a reason.

So is young talent dead on the vine? That’s a topic for another day, as the age question doesn’t completely answer NASCAR’s sponsorship conundrum. (Last year’s Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne, also remains without a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series, at age 21.) But it does explain why drivers are stuck in their rides, the only pressure coming from keeping sponsorship in a world where the NASCAR economy is stagnant at best. That usually comes by making the Chase, and here’s where the current point system steps in. With a limited number of drivers capable of making it, it’s easy to “coast” through the 26-race regular season only to collect your wins mid-summer and ensure yourself of a playoff spot. In the sports landscape of America that’s defined as dynamic, its most successful leagues defined by a consistent level of change, NASCAR’s best have put on the brakes and become content with the “status quo.”

That’s great when you’re looking to work in a corner cubicle for 20 years. But typically in entertainment (what sports are), the “status quo” means “the end of the line.” NASCAR is busy working on a new car for 2013, but while it’s at it, maybe it’s time to find the cast for “Young Guns: Part II” — beyond Danica Patrick, herself 30 — before it’s too late. The last time NASCAR had an entire top 10 in points with no one under age 30 was 1993 — but back then, the sport was poised to be flooded with the likes of Gordon, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte.

Where will the next generation of drivers come from? How can NASCAR’s natural evolution restart again? These are questions that need to be answered, quickly, with millions in future revenue at stake.

Average Age of Sprint Cup Top 10: 35.8
Average Age of Sprint Cup Chase: 34.4

Point standing, driver, age, first year with current team
1. Greg Biffle (42), 2003
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (36), 2008
3. Denny Hamlin (31), 2006
4. Matt Kenseth (40), 2000
5. Martin Truex, Jr. (31), 2010
6. Jimmie Johnson (36), 2002
7. Kevin Harvick (36), 2001
8. Tony Stewart (40), 2009
9. Carl Edwards (32), 2004
10. Ryan Newman (34), 2009

(WC) Kyle Busch (27), 2005
(WC) Brad Keselowski (28), 2010


by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter:
@AthlonBowles
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles explores a NASCAR Sprint Cup field that may have grown stagnant as its competitors have aged and become familiar with one another.</p>
Post date: Thursday, May 3, 2012 - 20:21
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-talladega-2
Body:

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

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Aaron's 499 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, May 3, 2012 - 13:16
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-talladega-1
Body:

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

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Aaron's 499 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, May 3, 2012 - 13:15
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-talladega-0
Body:

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

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Aaron's 499 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, May 3, 2012 - 13:11
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-talladega
Body:

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

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Aaron's 499 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, May 3, 2012 - 13:10
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-5
Body:

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.

Teaser:
<p> The Backseat Drivers Fan Council weighs in on the confusiong finish at Richmond, debris cautions, changes at Bristol and Travis Pastrana's impact on NASCAR.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, May 2, 2012 - 10:58
Path: /nascar/hendrick-motorsports-still-searching-elusive-200th-cup-win
Body:

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.
 

Teaser:
<p> Following Kyle Busch's win at Richmond International Raceway, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 - 15:08
Path: /nascar/kyle-busch-wins-richmond
Body:

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

 

Teaser:
<p> Kyle Busch won the Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 30, 2012 - 14:49
Path: /nascar/best-nascar-has-offer
Body:

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.


Richmond
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.


Talladega
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.


Darlington
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.


Charlotte
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
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese notes that NASCAR's month of May — with races at Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte — is the best of the season.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 26, 2012 - 19:56
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-richmond
Body:

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.
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 26, 2012 - 12:09
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-4
Body:

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.
 

Teaser:
<p> The Backseat Drivers Fan Council debates whether NASCAR should throw cautions to spice up the racing and grade the STP 400 from Kansas Speedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 26, 2012 - 10:21
Path: /nascar/dennys-win-brutons-bristol-plan-and-juniors-geneology-0
Body:

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.’’

Teaser:
<p> Following Denny Hamlin's win at Kansas Speedway, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 - 17:03
Path: /nascar/denny-hamlin-wins-stp-400-kansas
Body:

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
 

Teaser:
<p> Denny Hamlin passed Martin Truex Jr. with 30 laps remaining to win the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 23, 2012 - 17:30
Path: /nascar/michael-waltrip-racing-hitting-nascar-stride
Body:

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

 

Teaser:
<p> Michael Waltrip Racing's three-car team is putting up impressive numbers early in the 2012 NASCAR season.</p>
Post date: Friday, April 20, 2012 - 11:28
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-texas-0
Body:

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.”
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 19, 2012 - 12:18

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