Articles By Matt Taliaferro
This is what retirement is supposed to be like.
“This is so much fun,’’ Mark Martin said after his third-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
Well, the 53-year-old Martin never said he was retiring, just that he wouldn’t race a full schedule years ago when he first cut back.
Car owner Rick Hendrick talked him into returning full-time the past three seasons, but Martin is back to a part-time schedule and enjoying his new ride with Michael Waltrip Racing. It comes as changes in the past year there have made the organization more competitive and likely headed for Victory Lane with either Martin, Martin Truex Jr. or Clint Bowyer soon.
Martin enters this weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway 20th in points although he skipped Bristol and Martinsville. Still, he ranks ahead of 14 drivers who have competed in all seven races this season.
To get a better measure of Martin’s success, though, consider this: His average finish is 10.4 — better than every driver but points leader Greg Biffle (6.0 average finish), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8.1), Martin Truex Jr. (8.2), Kevin Harvick (9.0) and Matt Kenseth (9.0).
Three top-10 finishes in five starts has helped Martin’s average finish. He’s also completed every lap in all five races he’s run.
“I am just so proud of MWR and all the people there and the teamwork that they have shown there starting with Martin Truex, Jr., who has put so much work into getting the program where it was when we started the season,’’ Martin said. “They really have a lot of great people there with great attitude, great teamwork.’’
It just makes him anxious for the next race.
“There's nothing else that I find quite as much fun as going to work with a great race team with a great attitude,’’ said Martin, a former Kansas Speedway winner. “So it's fun for me to go to every race that I get to go to.’’
Isn’t that what work — or retirement — is supposed to be? Fun.
SHOW ME THE MONEY With the series moving beyond Texas, it ends a significant period for teams. The richest part of the schedule is complete.
While sponsorship money is what drives teams, what they earn in races still matters.
The Daytona 500 is the sport’s richest paying race. Its purse this year was $19,142,601, which will be about $10 million more than any other race pays. The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway typically is second, at around $9 million.
Other high-paying races early in the season include Texas ($7,132,592 payout this year) and Las Vegas ($6,382,683). The other races thus far with their payouts were: Phoenix ($5,040,864), Bristol, ($5,551,155), Fontana, Calif. ($5,847,881) and Martinsville ($5,009,303).
Last year, Daytona, along with the spring Texas and Las Vegas races, ranked among the top six races in money paid.
Thus, this is a period for teams — especially for small teams who rely more on winnings — to have some money to pay previous or upcoming bills. Since some small teams have little or no sponsorship, what they earn at the track is critical to their survival. It’s a reason why some teams start and park.
If a team made the least amount of money in each of the first seven races, it would have still collected $715,159. Understand that money is used to pay the driver, crew and other expenses from engines to tires to travel costs, so it can go fast, especially if a team is relying on winnings instead of sponsorship to defray costs.
The next race expected to pay out more than $6 million will be the Coca-Cola 600 at the end of May. There wasn’t a race last June that paid as much. With Indy and Daytona ($6,101,344 purse last year) in July, it makes that month a bountiful period for teams.
Last year’s 10-race Chase featured only one race that paid more than $6 million. That was Texas at $6,857,822. Two 2011 Chase races had purses of less than $5 million — Martinsville at $4,851,202 and Phoenix at $4,957,233.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Greg Biffle Cemented his status as the points leader with an impressive win in Texas. Biffle has yet to finish worse than 13th this season, and is looking forward to Kansas — one of his best tracks — this weekend.
2. Jimmie Johnson Joins Biffle and the two Juniors — Dale Earnhardt and Martin Truex — as the only drivers on the circuit with five top 10s in seven races. Kansas will most likely make six.
3. Tony Stewart How does Stewart — who won at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway — tank to the tune of 24th at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway?
4. Matt Kenseth As steady as they come, Kenseth moves into a tie for second with a certain Most Popular Driver after a fifth at TMS. Of course, Kenseth’s Daytona 500 win trumps Junior’s, uh, zero wins … in 136 races.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK, so he hasn’t won in a long, long time. But Junior is averaging an 8.1-place finish, which is second best in the series. Still, it really is time to break that winless streak and move on.
6. Martin Truex Jr. Truex has averaged a 26.3-place finish at Kansas with zero top 10s. If he brings it home eighth or better like he has in five of seven races so far this year, we’re all on board.
7. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s only finish outside of the top 11 in any single race was a 19th at Martinsville. He’s been awfully quiet for running so well. Maybe Baby Otis has thrown him off his typically vocal ways.
by Matt Taliaferro
The NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings have always been more consistency-based than win-centric. This season alone, two-time race winner Tony Stewart found himself third in the standings behind winless drivers Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Biffle and Earnhardt — both saddled with winless skids of 49 or more races — had employed the tried and true “top-10 ’em to death” method in 2012, each with four in six races.
However, Biffle separated himself at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday evening, scoring his first Cup Series victory since October 2010 in the Samsung Mobile 500.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” Biffle said of whether a win validated his position atop the point standings. “To win like this and put a bunch of ground on the guys — all the cars behind us — that certainly makes a statement, I think, for all the people that were wondering if this was kind of a fluke that we were still leading the points this far in.”
Biffle assumed the points lead following the third race of the season, which marked his third consecutive third-place finish.
On Saturday, Biffle had to hold off a determined Jimmie Johnson, who now has only two wins in the last 50 races — a relative stat, yet one that opens eyes when it’s the five-time champion. Johnson led a race-high 156 laps, but was beat by Biffle’s slide job exiting Turn 4 with 31 laps to go. Johnson eventually skated up and into the wall while trying to catch Biffle’s No. 16 Ford, and limped to a second-place finish, 3.25-seconds behind the race winner.
“The last two or three runs the 16 and I were pretty equal, run(ning) pretty similar lap times,” Johnson said. “I just got tangled up in some lapped traffic and (Biffle) made a great move and got by me. And then I was pacing him from there and didn’t have anything left to go get him. I tried and ran out of grip going into Turn 3 and drilled the fence.”
Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 5.
The strong early-season performance of Michael Waltrip Racing’s three cars continued. Martin, who is splitting driving duties in the No. 55 Toyota with Brian Vickers, notched the team’s second top 5 and fourth top 10 this year. Martin Truex Jr. turned heads once again with a sixth-place showing, his fifth top 10 in the No. 56 NAPA machine. Truex sits fourth in the point standings.
“The teamwork I’m feeling right now at MWR is second to none I’ve ever been at,” Martin said. “Martin Truex Jr., is really, really engaged, and he’s working hard to help the whole program.
“We’re racing three cars to put two in the Chase for sure and win races and try to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Hendrick and Roush and those guys. That’s a tall order for right now. I’m very proud of the results we’re getting. It’s coming from a lot of good attitudes and hard-working people.”
The other storylines of the evening were a lack of cautions throughout the 500-mile race. Only two yellow flags — both for debris on the track — marred an otherwise spotless event that lasted just over three hours. The strength of the Texas wind also grabbed drivers’ attentions.
“The wind was a huge factor,” Biffle said. “The wind was blowing you all over the place. I was swatting flies all night long. The wind was blowing the car back and forth and over ... that could be a factor in why there was no accidents. You would think that would cause one. Well, it made it so you couldn’t really race side by side with a guy.
“I wouldn’t run up on a guy coming off the corner like I normally would. I’d leave more room because I wasn’t sure when the wind was going to blow my car one way or another. I was cautious when I was around (other) cars, and I think probably everybody else was tonight.”
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
by Vito Pugliese
The 25 nominees for the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame class were announced Thursday in Charlotte, NC. A mix of pioneers, drivers, owners and promoters pepper the list, and going through the names, virtually all of them are qualified to make it into the Hall on the first ballot. However, only five are eligible to get in each year, so there are 20 who will be going home — kind of like the largest go-or-go-home field made up of all-stars and who's who of NASCAR history.
So who of this elite group will be selected in NASCAR’s fourth Hall of Fame class? While I’m not going to reveal my ballot quite yet, the following is who I believe will end up being voted in as the 2013 class.
One part of the legendary flock of Flocks, Tim (his first name was actually Julius) along with brothers Fonty and Bob and sister Ethel Mobley — the second woman to compete in NASCAR — were pioneers of the sport, and part of the original guard that brought NASCAR from its infancy on dirt tracks and beaches to pavement and speedways during the mid- to late-1950s.
Upon learning of the organized racing series in stock cars by way of a comic strip, Flock finished fifth in the very first NASCAR race, a Strictly Stock event at the Charlotte Speedway dirt track in 1949. He finished eighth in NASCAR’s first official full season, and would end up a two-time series champion in just eight season of competition to go along with 39 wins in 187 starts.
Before there was a Ryan Newman, there was Flock — a wheelman feared in qualifying sessions He set the record for poles in a season in 1955 with 19 and held the record for most wins that same year with 18 until Richard Petty disposed of that 12 years later. Flock won the Daytona Beach race that season, and is generally regarded as the best Daytona Beach Course driver of all time.
Flock also has the distinction of being the only driver to compete with a primate on board — a monkey by the name of Jocko Flocko — as well as being the winner of the only sportscar race in NASCAR history, also in ’55. And for all of you Moneyball stat geeks, Flock’s percent winning percentage of 20.8 percent ranks second to Herb Thomas’ 21.0 percent.
Glenn “Fireball” Roberts
Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts is another legend of the sport that many new fans may have heard of, yet know little about. The most popular driver of the 1957 season, Roberts was one of the first speedway aces in the series, becoming the first driver to win two 500-mile races in the same season (Trenton, N.J., and the Southern 500 at Darlington in ’58).
In a career that lasted 15 seasons but witnessed only 206 starts (pretty standard in an era where a bowling shirt and a leather helmet constituted safety equipment), Roberts won the Southern 500 twice (’58, ’63), and the 1962 Daytona 500.
Roberts actually resented the nickname “Fireball,” preferring to go by Glen. Curtis Turner shortened the nickname to something more fitting given his tenacity on the new, larger speedways of the early 1960s: “Balls.” In 64 races at tracks larger than one mile, Roberts tallied 14 wins, 27 top 5s and 37 top 10s. More telling, he led more than 50 percent of the laps run at these tracks.
Driving for owner and mechanic Smokey Yunick — himself an International Motorsports Hall of Famer —in the Super Duty Pontiacs fielded from “The Best Damn Garage in Town,” Roberts won the pole, qualifying race and Daytona 500 in ’62. Entering just 19 of 53 races that season, they would win or finish second six times.
In a tragic twist of fate, Roberts was involved in horrific fiery crash during the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte. His fuel tank ruptured, pouring gasoline into the car as it burned with Roberts trapped inside. Suffering first and second degree burns over 80 percent of his body, he clung to life for weeks in a hospital only to succumb to pneumonia and blood poisoning.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone that had a negative word about Benny Parsons, because such a thing has never been muttered. The 1973 Winston Cup champion who denied King Richard what would have been an eighth title would go on to even more success as a broadcaster for ESPN and NBC Sports.
As an on-air personality, Parsons provided his perspective as a driver, genuine warmth and humor, and memorable features such as “Buffet Benny,” his catchphrase of “Man oh man oh man” and the patented, “... WOOOWWW!!!!”
Born in Ellerbe, N.C., just north of the site of this weekend's Truck Series race in Rockingham, it was a move to Detroit in 1960 to work at his father’s taxi service that would be Parsons’ first professional drive. Benny made his first Cup (then Grand National) start in 1964, driving for one of the most legendary names in Ford racing history: Holman-Moody. It was an inauspicious debut — an overheating engine resulting in a less-than-impressive 21st — at the half-mile oval in Weaverville, N.C., right behind another Holman-Moody entry, that of 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Cale Yarborough.
He may be best known for his title season of 1973. Involved in an early accident in the season finale at Rockingham, crews from up and down pit road pitched in to get his damaged Chevy back on track. Despite being 184 laps down, he earned enough points to best Petty in the championship standings.
A Daytona 500 win followed in 1975. Petty, who dominated the event but was laps down following repairs for a water leak, towed Parsons back to the front of the field with just a few laps left. And the “you can't pit right now, we’re eating ice cream” scene from Days of Thunder? That was Benny Parsons, subbing for an ailing Tim Richmond in 1987.
Parsons passed away in January 2007 after battling cancer. He took off the summer of ’06 to ensure he would be well enough to call the final races of the Chase for the Championship later that season. And that, friends, more than any winning percentage, is what being a racer is all about.
The numbers may not exactly scream “Hall of Fame,” but the legend of Curtis Turner speaks volumes. A lumber baron by day, liquor runner by night and a general hellraiser regardless of what time it was, Turner has a lot in common with 2011 inductee Junior Johnson — except for one important point: The law never caught Turner.
The story goes that Turner once lined up eight glass jars of moonshine on an empty road and proceeded to slide a Cadillac in between them — in reverse — executing a 180-degree “Bootlegger Turn.” He explained that he had to so he wouldn’t “waste all that good liquor.”
A self-made millionaire (in 1950s dollars, mind you) he made his fortune buying and selling timberlands, once trying to broker a deal that would have allowed the Ford Motor Company to advertise on U.S. currency. In 1959, with barely enough money to buy the property, Turner would start construction on the Charlotte Motor Speedway — and with the help of a .38 Special Smith & Wesson, helped see it to completion.
The Blond Blizzard of Virginia was a legend bore of the lifestyle he lived: hard living, hard driving and hard partying. Turner never won what today is known as a Cup Series title, but he never lost a party. Fittingly, it was Turner that was the first NASCAR driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, heralded as “The Babe Ruth of Stock Car Racing.”
Turner would earn a lifetime ban from NASCAR founder Bill France for attempting to organize a drivers union in 1961, though he was allowed to return in ’65. He retired from competition in 1968 and was killed in an airplane crash near Punxsutawney, Penn., on October 14, 1970, along with golfer Clarence King.
Benny Parsons once said, “Ask any fan under the age of 50 who the best driver is and they’ll tell you Dale Earnhardt. Ask any fan over the age of 50 and they’ll say Curtis Turner.”
Anne Bledsoe France
Forget any talk of Danica Patrick for a moment. Anne B. France was truly the First Lady of NASCAR.
While we can prattle on about championships, win ratios and the like, NASCAR was also a business, and businesses don’t just run themselves — particularly start-up companies in their infancy. While Big Bill France was promoting races, buying land and building high-banked superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega, it was Anne who managed the finances and day-to-day operations of the burgeoning empires.
She first served as secretary and treasurer of NASCAR in its earliest years, and when Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, served in the same roles for what would become International Speedway Corporation. She also managed Daytona's ticket office, remaining active in the business life until her passing in 1992.
Bill France Sr. and son Bill Jr. were honored in the first Hall of Fame class of 2010. It would only be fitting that the one missing member of NASCAR’s First Family be enshrined in 2013.
Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts on the Hall of Fame with Vito below. And follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series shrugs off the much-needed weekend off and heads to Texas Motor Speedway for this Saturday night's Samsung Mobile 500.
Anytime the series makes its way to the high-speed, mile-and-a-half track in Fort Worth, the Roush Fenway brigade is the team to watch. Since the inaugural event in 1997, the Roush cars have been among the fastest and the “Cat in the Hat” is usually holding a trophy at the end of the day.
All told, Jack Roush has eight Sprint Cup Series victories in Texas, along with seven Nationwide Series wins and one Camping World Truck Series victory.
However, when Matt Kenseth won last April’s night race by a whopping eight seconds, it snapped a two-year winless streak at TMS for the Roush teams.
After Carl Edwards swept the 2008 races, that dominance was called into question by non-Roush drivers Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart. Although they were kept from victory lane, Kenseth, Edwards and Greg Biffle were constant threats.
During that time, Hamlin was among the strongest, sweeping the Texas races in 2010. Yet, last season Hamlin struggled in both races, finishing 15th (one lap down) in the April's race, and 20th (again, a lap off the pace) during November’s Chase race.
Hamlin has November’s race-winning crew chief Darian Grubb on his side this weekend, as the pair looks to score their second victory of the 2012 season. Grubb led defending champion Stewart to Victory Lane ahead of Edwards then, and will look to do the same with Hamlin this weekend.
However, while Hamlin will be a threat again this Saturday, the driver that will be celebrating with the pistols and cowboy hat is Edwards.
Although he has yet to set the world on fire with his performances in 2012 (the Missouri native has yet to lead a single lap), Edwards was third to Kenseth last April and finished second to Stewart during the Chase. Pleased to come away from Martinsville with an 11th-place finish — and fresh off a vacation — the No. 99 team is poised to earn its first win of the 2012 season.
In order to do so, Edwards will have to hold off not only his teammates, Kenseth and Biffle, but Hamlin and Stewart, as well. This is a crucial part of the schedule where momentum can lead to wins and confidence leading into May’s All-Star weekend. Look for Edwards to be among the strongest cars on Saturday night, regrouping and beginning his trek to the Chase.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart
2012 surprises, tips for the track and listening to NASCAR on SiriusXM Radio
by Dustin Long
A weekend without racing didn’t mean that the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had a break. While offering opinions throughout the season, the Backseat Drivers Fan Council also is here to help fans with tips this week on how to make your experience at the track better.
And oh yes, the Fan Council also is weighing in on a few subjects, including the biggest surprise this season.
TIPS TO MAKE THE RACE MORE ENJOYABLE
With many of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council veterans of numerous races, I asked them what they would tell someone going to the track that they should do to make that event more enjoyable.
Here’s what Fan Council members said:
• Camp... pretty much any track. Camp at least once and walk around; meet and get to know other campers/NASCAR fans. Will meet some of the best people and greatest fans around camping at a NASCAR track. Have met folks over the years that will be lifelong friends and my first time was on a whim at the invite of another friend.
• I would tell any fan going to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to go to the infield and visit the museum along with sitting in turn one during practice or qualifying. The speed is amazing and the sound reverberates off the stands. It's like sitting at the old Yankee Stadium or other places similar.
• 1. The museum at Darlington. 2. Go to a Tweetup! 3. Hit a local short track on Friday night and see where these guys got their starts!
• Pit passes at least once in your life.
• Experience a night race, day races are great but night races have a whole different vibe to them.
• Going to the Driver introductions. It costs extra at most tracks but it is well worth it! Being on the track so close to the drivers, the national anthem and the flyover is incredible from right on the track.
• Go to Jeff Gluck Tweetup. Jeff enjoys meeting the fans & he usually has a surprise.
• When at RIR take an extra day to visit the places of historical interest around the central VA region, the museum of the Confederacy, The Wilderness battlefield, Seven Pines, Tredegar, the state Capitol, St. John's Church, Monticello.
• Eating at Ridgewood BBQ about a mile from Bristol Motor Speedway is a must, if you don’t mind the wait obviously.
• Get a scanner to listen to the drivers. Very entertaining.
• Be prepared to have a long wait after the race to leave the parking area. Just pull out the grill, cook some food and enjoy some cool drinks. After an hour or so you will be able to leave and so you will be behind the cars that left as soon as the race was over. A lot less stress this way & saves gas.
• You have to do the No Limits celebration at Texas. Eddie Gossage knows how to throw a party and entertain people. He always has drivers there and the music and food is awesome.
• Stand with your face on the fence in Turn Four at Daytona when the cars are coming by. Absolutely amazing.
• At Dover, be sure to go a little south and east to see the Delaware Bay and some of the beach communities like Rehoboth and Lewes which are less than hour away. Also some of the best birding in the country is within 15 minutes of the track at Bombay Wildlife and other Wildlife Preserves nearby.
• Since I'm a “people watcher,” I think the hidden gem is studying the fans. Big, small, skinny, fat, half-dressed, over-dressed, beer-swilling, pretzel-stuffing, you name it. It's a study in Americana at the best _ and sometimes the worst. Yet, when standing for the invocation, they take off their hats, they sing along (thankfully at times) with the musical artist struggling with the national anthem, and they erupt in joyous shouts as the jets roar overhead.
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
by Dustin Long
Everybody is waiting.
It’s been nearly two weeks since Bruton Smith said that he would order changes to Bristol Motor Speedway’s track surface after a sharp decline in attendance for the spring race and an increase in fan complaints about the racing. Yet Smith has yet to announce what those changes will be made before NASCAR returns to the half-mile track in a little more than four months.
“I think it would be incredible if they paved the track asphalt,’‘ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I am not sure if that would work out but it would be awesome to try it.’’
Any changes to Bristol’s surface before the August race will mean the Cup Series will race at four tracks that have been changed since last season. Kansas Speedway is set to be repaved after its race later this month. Michigan has been repaved and drivers nearly topped 215 mph at a recent Goodyear tire test there. Pocono Raceway also has been repaved and has Goodyear tire test scheduled for April 24-25.
While some drivers are thrilled that Smith will change Bristol — count Kevin Harvick among that group who says, “It’s about time,’’ — Denny Hamlin wonders if the tires should be changed for Bristol instead of the track.
“If you look at Bristol, it had the least amount of fall off of any tire that we had during this year,’’ Hamlin said. “I think you start off around 16.40 fast time (seconds per lap) and you ended 100 laps later running 16.90s. That's just not enough fall off.
“You have to have overtaking and to have overtaking, you have to have cars that are running faster than others. If you look at any point during a Bristol race, everyone's running the same exact speed and you're not going to have any overtaking. You're not going to have any wrecks because no one's running close to each other to wreck.
“Back in the day when people used to lap the whole field and no one complained about the racing, it's because overtaking was happening. Cars were getting passed. You could watch your guy move from 15th to wherever up to the front. Now, it's like he's got to make all the room, all the space up in the first five laps of a restart and then he sits there for the rest of the run. That's because we don't have enough fall-off.
“It's a tough job to make a tire that does that and will live and ultimately not put our safety at risk of blowing tires. Really, Goodyear has made tires that are idiot proof now. We can't abuse them enough to blow them out. That's why you don't see the passing that we used to have."
Even with Smith’s declaration of change, as Carl Edwards notes, it doesn’t guarantee that things will be better.
“The thing that makes me nervous for Bruton and those guys is to spend all this money to change something and then it may not yield the result that you want,’’ Edwards said. “I think that’s the risk they take, but Bruton Smith seems like he doesn’t mind taking risks and going for it. If it works out like most things he does, it’ll probably work, but I give him a ton of credit for saying he’s gonna change this and make an adjustment.’’
It’s just a matter of what Smith will do.
BACK AT ROCKINGHAM It’s not often that you see NASCAR return to a venue it left, but the Camping World Truck Series will compete Sunday at Rockingham Speedway. It marks the return of NASCAR since the Cup series last raced there in Feb. 2004.
NASCAR is back because of the work of track owner Andy Hillenburg, a former racer. He’s spent the money to update the facilities and add SAFER barriers to the track.
Now it’s up to the fans to determine if NASCAR returns to Rockingham after this race. If attendance is strong and shows potential, then maybe a Nationwide race can be added at some point. Just don’t expect the Cup Series to return there. With Cup races in Darlington, Charlotte, Martinsville and Bristol, the region has enough Cup events.
If that’s not good enough, then fans have to ask themselves if they would rather see some NASCAR racing at the track or see as much NASCAR racing as there is at North Wilkesboro?
NASCAR is giving the track and fans a second chance. Will fans take NASCAR up on it and show that the track deserves more races?
Taking Stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup at the Easter Break
Six weeks into the 2012 NASCAR season, the Sprint Cup Series heads into the first of only two off-weekends of the year. With no race this weekend, and thus no fantasy picks to make, let’s take a look at some of the biggest surprises thus far, which drivers and teams are on track for a solid season and which need to turn their season around before it is too late.
There is no doubt the hottest team in NASCAR is Stewart-Haas Racing. The defending series champion, Tony Stewart, has had an uncharacteristic start to the year, winning two races (Las Vegas, Fontana), while teammate Ryan Newman used an aggressive move during a green-white-checker finish to score his first career Cup win at Martinsville.
Typically slow starters, both SHR drivers have hit the ground running after last year's impressive showing in the Chase. Stewart currently sits third in points, while Newman climbed two spots to eighth after last week’s victory.
The mood is soaring at Stewart-Haas, the strong finishes and wins keep coming, the new partnership between Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington continues to roll on smoothly, but can that momentum continue through the summer months and into the Chase?
While the SHR brigade has been scoring wins and making headlines, Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle has quietly and consistently raced his way to the points lead. After starting the season with three consecutive third-place finishes, Biffle took command of the series standings after Las Vegas and has yet to relinquish the spot.
Frustrated and clearly upset with his team’s 16th-place points finish in 2011, Biffle had high expectations coming into this year and his performances to date have shown the changes made behind the scenes at Roush Fenway Racing have made all the difference.
Although The Biff has yet to hit Victory Lane, he hasn’t finished worse than 13th, with three top 5s and a sixth-place run to his credit. Determined to put last year's disappointing results behind him, expect Biffle and his No. 16 team to continue to lead the way at RFR as the season rolls on in two weeks in Texas — a track at which Biffle could easily break his 49-race winless skid.
Exploring the lack of yellow flags in the Sprint Cup Series this season
by Tom Bowles
For years, NASCAR has given new meaning to the phrase “contact sport.” With 43 cars in close proximity at tracks as little as a half-mile in length, it’s hard to run mistake-free, as one bad bump between two combatants can lead to SportsCenter highlights for the sparks that fly afterwards. Heck, as we’ve seen this season, even the jet dryers aren’t immune to danger when someone – or something – breaks.
Those types of scenarios that cause the field to bunch up under yellow, from the bizarre to the mundane (a hot dog wrapper can cause a caution for debris), have played into the sport’s strategy and unpredictability for decades. But as the story of NASCAR 2012 continues to unfold, one of the biggest storylines continues to be how Sprint Cup racing has “cleaned up” its act.
Through six events — even with the Daytona explosion — the sport has seen just 38 caution flags, the fewest number in nearly a dozen years. Half-mile ovals like Bristol and Martinsville, once known for their Demolition Derby status, each had two green-flag runs of well over 100 laps. At Fontana, Mother Nature was the only thing stopping the first caution-free race since 2002. Even crashfest Daytona, with its 10 yellow flags, saw that number drop sharply from 16 the previous year.
So what gives? For one, NASCAR’s Chase system appears to be backfiring early in the regular season. The new rules state that to make the playoffs, a driver must do one of two things: finish inside the top 10 in points or earn one of two “wild card” positions by having the most victories among those not already qualified. The only caveat there is you have to be inside the top 20 in points; however, with only about 30 fully-funded cars running this season that’s not exactly a major obstacle to overcome. Case in point: Jeff Gordon, whose year has already included more bad breaks than the North Carolina backcourt in the NCAA Tournament, yet he sits 21st in the standings, just seven outside of the magical cutoff. One win — as early as Texas next weekend — and the No. 24 will have all but qualified for the playoffs.
That sets the bar low for the sport’s top drivers, and as Jimmie Johnson has proven in recent years, they certainly know it. More and more, teams are developing the five-time champ’s mentality to treat the regular season like a “test session,” accumulating points when possible but not overdoing it for fear of what amounts to a points penalty by pushing your car to the ragged edge. This system also rewards consistency, not risk, which means a 35th-place effort for wrecking while gunning for the lead in the final few laps could be devastating. It’s a culture where “hanging out” in seventh place has been cultivated as the ultimate reward — have a B-plus day and you’ll have a shot for the A-plus trophy by making the playoffs in September.
This creates a domino effect on the racetrack. When drivers get conservative, they won’t push the issue and run side-by-side. That lessens the chances for contact and, ultimately, a wreck that would cause a caution. Riding, not racing, has never been more prevalent — and it’s a growing problem NASCAR will have to address with its constituents never feeling a sense of urgency.
Of course, NASCAR has helped its own “caution-free” cause by virtually wiping out any for “debris.” A growing complaint among longtime fans, that the sport is manipulating those yellow flags to keep the field bunched up, seems to have fallen on the right ears. The temptation to interrupt the flow of Fontana, where each car had the equivalent of the Mojave Desert between them, had to be overwhelming at times, but officials respected the integrity of the race and didn’t allow a piece of plastic to alter the way strategy naturally played out.
There’s another side to this whole green-flag flow to be aware of, and it’s perhaps the most important factor: This year’s caution flag total is nearly identical to 2004, the first year of the Chase that also suffered from a lack of competitive teams on race day. Only 36 fully-funded teams, at times, attempted races and there were a similar number of start-and-parkers filling the field like the Cup Series today. Then, like now, some of the sport’s biggest names were struggling for sponsorship while there appeared to be a lack of both new ownership and cash flowing its way into the sport.
When faced with that scenario, it’s easy for drivers to get conservative because, simply put, there isn’t any money to fix wrecked racecars. We’ve seen that in the Nationwide Series the past couple of years already. Drivers readily admit their sole course of action is survival because their ride doesn’t even come equipped with a backup. If you’re about to run side-by-side with a rival, and it’s a risky move and you don’t have the money to fix mangled sheet metal … would you do it? The “short-term pain for long-term gain” theory applies, as drivers are content to ride around simply because they need to be financially secure that his or her same ride will be around the next week.
So is a breakout of green-flag competition a good thing? It depends on what the drivers do with it. Racing clean is what everyone — fans and competitors alike — would like to see, but there’s a difference between that and staying conservative. In the end, as we’ve discussed many times in this space, sports is entertainment, and a single-file procession in the name of getting to the next regular season event doesn’t exactly light up a viewers’ smile on the couch. When drivers literally can’t afford to get aggressive, the only way you force it out of them is through the proximity of double-file restarts after cautions. So does that mean NASCAR should start waving yellow flags for any old reason, like the aforementioned mystery debris? That’s not the right answer, either.
The ultimate solution lies in the boardroom, not the racetrack. But until we see greater financial stability, the “survival style” racing may be the norm – not the exception — for the foreseeable future.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
by Dustin Long
Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had much to talk about in regards to Martinsville. From their thoughts on David Reutimann trying to make it to the end but causing a late-race caution to the racing in both the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series races, Fan Council members didn’t hold back in what they had to say.
DO YOU SIDE WITH WHAT DAVID REUTIMANN DID?
One driver said there was “no logical reason” for David Reutimann to end up stopped on the track at the end. Reutimann apologized afterward and said, “I was just trying to stay in the top 35 (in car owner points — he fell out of the top 35), which is why we were trying to limp around out there.” Who do you side with? Reutimann for trying to stay out or those who were critical of him? Here’s how Fan Council members voted:
53.3 percent sided with drivers upset with Reutimann, saying he should have exited the track sooner.
46.7 percent sided with Reutimann and staying out to do all he could to remain in the top 35 in car owner points.
What Fan Council members said:
• If a car/driver has mechanical problems, I think they are obligated to get the car off the track for their safety, as well as of the others. In this case, his decision changed the outcome of the race!!!!!!
• David did what anyone else would have done and if they say they wouldn’t they’d be bald face lying!
• Absolute bonehead move on his part. He affected the outcome of the race.
• Reutimann is in a position no other team has ever been in — trying to stay in the top 35 to satisfy a commitment made to another team. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Also, while the caution definitely changed the race why is Clint Bowyer not the one people should be focused on? Or Ryan Newman? Them driving 3-wide into turn 1 at Martinsville had much more of an impact than David Reutimann did.
• I’m not a big Reuitimann fan, however I can’t fault the guy for trying to do what was best for his car. Yeah, its unfortunate he stopped where and when he did —and changed the outcome of the race. But, you know, every race’s outcome is changed by all kinds of things — some notable and some not.
• While I empathize with Reutimann, he should NOT have stayed on the track. I feel particularly bad for him because he has always been a good guy who never deliberately caused any problems for anyone & you could tell by his post-race interview he felt genuinely awful. However, IMO there is never a good reason to screw up a race, especially with so few laps left, when you KNOW your car is not going to survive.
• I 100% side with Reutimann on this. NASCAR has created this mess with the top 35 (rule) and the driver and crew were doing everything possible to stay in the top 35. Only solution is do away with the damn top 35. It is the worst thing that has happened to our sport in the history of NASCAR.
• I see both sides and, unfortunately, there was no good outcome on either side of the argument.
• I understand the desire to stay in the top 35, but there comes a time you need to Get. The. Damn. Car. OFF. The. Track!
Staying in the top 35 is crucial for Tommy Baldwin Racing. Reutimann’s choice did not force Bowyer to dive-bomb Gordon, nor did it force Newman to tap Bowyer. The real problem was with the lack of common sense and lack of respect displayed by Bowyer and Newman. They chose to make moves (to win at all costs) which cost the strongest cars in the field. Reutimann, well aware of his weak position, was doing the best he could with what he had. The same could NOT be said for Bowyer and Newman.
• I get what people are saying, but it is tough for the “non super teams” to compete in Cup. They have to scratch and claw there way around week after week, so being in the Top 35 is very important. Plus, there is the obvious added pressure for Reuti because it is Danica's car and they NEED it in the Top 35 for her Darlington start. I was more annoyed with Bowyer, to be quite honest.
• He was black flagged. Get off track when black flagged.
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
by Dustin Long
Tony Stewart ended Jimmie Johnson’s championship reign last year but are NASCAR fans witnessing an end of an era? For a driver who, on average, once won about one out of every six starts, Johnson has two victories in his last 50 races.
While many drivers would gladly take two victories in such a span, Johnson’s stretch raises questions. This is the driver who won so many races in the final 10 laps, either taking the lead or holding off those trying to take it from him. This is the driver whose team put him in position to win. This is the driver whose car often was so much better than anybody else.
Now, this driver and team are no longer as dominant.
Yet, before one laments Johnson’s woes, consider Johnson’s record in the last 50 races:
• Johnson has finished in the top five 44 percent of the time (Stewart finished in the top five in 26 percent of those races).
• Johnson has finished in the top 10 66 percent of the time (Stewart finished in the top 10 in 50 percent of those races).
Johnson’s feat is impressive but expectations are so high that when he doesn’t win, it gains attention.
“I look back and I think of five or six races that got away,” Johnson said before Sunday’s race at Martinsville — another one that got away after he was collected in a late-race incident.
“Making those mistakes, I didn’t make those in years past or the team didn’t make them. There are some things that boiled down to strategy and others down to restarts that have been on me.
“I heard Jeff (Gordon) say something a long time ago, when he won 13 races or something like that in a year. He said he won every race he should have and then some that he shouldn’t have. We need to win the races we should be able to win and that we have a shot to win.”
There’s no doubt that Johnson’s team has lost a bit of its edge. Yet for all his struggles, he left Martinsville 10th in the points, hindered by his 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500 when he was wrecked on the second lap. Since then, he’s finished no worse than 12th and that came Sunday at Martinsville after he was spun while battling for the lead in the final laps.
“Nothing is eating at me,” Johnson said before Sunday’s race. “Right now I’m very optimistic about our season. I have not paid attention to a stat or a number since our last win. I feel that we’re knocking on the door and we’re running on the race track where we should, and up front, and that’s going to give us chance to win.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE John Wes Townley drove in this past weekend’s Camping World Truck Series race after his team sat him out of the Daytona race because he was arrested and charged with DUI after crashing his 2012 BWM on Feb. 7 near Athens, Ga.
RAB Racing reinstated him for Martinsville. NASCAR placed Townley on probation for the rest of the year and he will be subject to random drug and alcohol testing. Townley said his team also has placed “internal sanctions” on him that he would not discuss.
Townley, who was cited in Feb. 2010 for underage possession of alcohol in Las Vegas, says he’s abstained from drinking since the February crash.
“That night I was having a few drinks with some friends and that morning I had to get up really early to go to Charlotte to go get some seats done and I left really early in the morning,” Townley said of what happened Feb. 7. “It was really foggy. It was really rainy outside, and I ran off the road and I hit my head pretty bad. I was disoriented. I went up to somebody's door because I left my cell phone back at the house and when that all happened — that's where I was.
“But I don't want of those conditions to undermine the decision that I made, because it's on me. It was up to me. I’m the one who got in the car. It was just a perfect storm that everything happened that night. I want to send my deepest apologies to anybody.”
The crash is just part of his curious past. Townley suddenly left his ride and the sport in Sept. 2010 before the Richmond Nationwide race.
“I needed to step back and re-evaluate how I felt about continuing on with the sport,” he said. “I didn’t really know where I was at the time and I just needed that time to step back and re-think what I wanted out of life and coming back into it I really just wanted to give it another shot and certainly didn’t want to leave it the way I left it. So to answer your question, I really want to get back into it to show some people that I can really perform out there and give it another shot.”
Townley finished 23rd at Martinsville.
by Vito Pugliese
“I’m sorry guys, I just … can’t drive my racecar …”
Those words, tinged with embarrassment, pain and reservation, served as both the low point and springboard for Michael Waltrip Racing. Sitting in his crumpled Camry on the backstretch at Charlotte after wrecking on his second lap of qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 in 2007, Michael Waltrip’s transition from racecar driver to team owner was going anything but smooth. From crashing out during time trials and having to head home on Fridays, shoddy performance and reliability, to a divorce and a much-publicized incident that saw him barefoot and beating a hasty retreat from the scene of a tipped over truck, the upstart organization that Waltrip started to coincide with Toyota’s arrival in the Cup Series has long since been referred to as a “second-tier” team.
But, while once said with a bit of condescension and hesitation, it appears safe to finally say it with assurance: Michael Waltrip Racing is for real.
Last year, Robby Gordon deemed his fledgling racing operation “a marketing company that races.” Despite two wins with former driver David Reutimann, that same observation so wryly stated could have been attributed to MWR not that long ago — but no longer. Don’t believe me? Watch any NASCAR race (or NASCAR-related programming), and tell me how many commercial breaks are absent a 5-Hour Energy commercial with Clint Bowyer, a NAPA spot without Waltrip or Martin Truex Jr., or an Aaron’s commercial without Mark Martin and Waltrip.
You’d be hard pressed to find a team owner that is as big a piece of marketing his racing operation as the two-time Daytona 500 champion. Waltrip is now also a commentator alongside Chris Myers during FOX race broadcasts, and last year was one of the hosts of Showtime’s “This Week in NASCAR.” It is that popularity and familiarity with die-hards and casual fans alike that has helped Waltrip’s race team bridge the gap from pretender to contender in the span of a few short years.
MWR suddenly boasts, along with Roush Fenway Racing, perhaps the best-balanced driver line-up in the sport. After Carl Edwards declined overtures from Joe Gibbs Racing in 2011, Bowyer became the next most-eligible driver at the end of his contractual rope. Sponsor 5-Hour Energy came a-calling — which in today’s world of finding a ride is as essential as having a helmet. When Richard Childress Racing could not honor Bowyer’s salary demands, it was MWR that offered him a home, much to the bewilderment of many in the media.
Was one of the hottest properties in NASCAR taking a step backward? After all, it was Bowyer who, after being involved with a wreck with Waltrip at Bristol in 2008, deemed him, “The worst driver in the history of NASCAR. Period.”
Bowyer is a driver who has made the Chase for the Championship three times in his six-year Cup career, as well as a Nationwide Series championship in ’08.
As it turns out, his defection to MWR has been anything but a step backward. His No. 15 has been fast weekly, albeit with a couple of stumbles with some blown tires and wall contact at Phoenix, but has since rebounded with a sixth at Las Vegas, fourth at Bristol, and a 13th in California. Sitting eighth in points, just 38 markers out of first, Bowyer’s Chase chances — and opportunities to win — are materializing quicker than most had suspected.
Think of his team as the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne without the hype or horrendous luck.
Truex has been in a similar situation as Bowyer. Since winning what was the Busch Series championship in 2004 and ’05, his Cup pursuits have been left wanting. He joined what had been Dale Earnhardt, Inc. as driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet as it was devolving from Earnhardt’s business built for his children into a diluted conglomeration of other teams that were both failing and floundering.
Truex has one NASCAR Cup win — a Monday running of a rained-out Dover event on the day that Bill France Jr. passed away — and Chase appearance to his credit, both of which were in 2007. Since joining MWR, Truex has little to show beyond having the most appearances in a commercial break.
However, in the last five races of 2011, Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston strung together four top-10 finishes and built upon that with runs of seventh, third and eighth in 2012. And this from a team that, prior to its hot streak, taped together only three top 5s and 15 top 10s in nearly two seasons.
by Dustin Long
Five races into the season and a few drivers expected to make the Chase are struggling. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne both are outside the top 20 in points. Last year’s runner-up, Carl Edwards, has not shown the strength he did last season just yet. Kyle Busch, a regular in the Chase, is 14th in points.
While there’s plenty of time to reverse course for those drivers — the Chase field won’t be set for more than five months — members of the Backstreet Drivers Fan Council are not confident all those drivers will be among the top 12 when the Chase field is set after Richmond in September.
This week, the Fan Council looks at who will make the Chase and who won’t, along with grading last weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.
WHO WILL MAKE THE CHASE?
After five races last year, nine of the top 12 (if you factor in the wildcard spots) went on the make the Chase. Backseat Drivers Fan Council members were given a list of the 12 drivers who would make the Chase (if it started today with the top 10 and two wildcard drivers) and asked which ones would make the Chase. Here’s how they voted:
98.3 percent picked Tony Stewart (4th in points but has 2 wins)
97.0 percent picked Kevin Harvick (2nd in points)
95.0 percent picked Jimmie Johnson (9th in points)
90.0 percent picked Matt Kenseth (6th in points with 1 win)
89.0 percent picked Brad Keselowski (would be 11th via wildcard with 1 win)
85.7 percent picked Greg Biffle (points leader)
83.4 percent picked Denny Hamlin (7th in points with 1 win)
76.4 percent picked Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3rd in points)
45.2 percent picked Ryan Newman (10th in points)
25.6 percent picked Clint Bowyer (8th in points)
18.3 percent picked Martin Truex Jr. (5th in points)
4.7 percent picked Paul Menard (11th in points)
What Fan Council members said:
• Hamlin and Newman are simply not showing the consistency and I don't think they will recover. If they make it, it will be by wildcard only. Truex, Bowyer and Menard are simply not strong enough in their current situations to make the Chase this year, though I do believe all three will (be a) threat and all will possibly get wins this season.
• Think the switch to Ford from Dodge is going to impact (Brad Keselowski) toward the end of the season. Not sure (Martin Truex Jr.) and (Paul Menard) still have the consistency needed.
• MWR cars (Truex and Bowyer) will not make it into the Chase. Their luck will run out.
• Junior still has his summer swoon coming. I think ultimately that and the fact that he doesn't win will keep him out. Truex will not be able to sustain nor will Menard or Bowyer.
• It's really too early to tell.
• Sorry, I just don't see Jr. having the consistency needed to make the Chase
• Believe it or not, I think it's Jimmie's year to miss it
• Not convinced on either Jr. or Menard, and I have Newman falling out too.
• The Biff will fade in time. The 39 has never really showed any strength. Martin Truex has a good team this year and will make it in.
by Jay Pennell
Few sports crisscross the United States quite like NASCAR, and with that, the Sprint Cup Series returns to the East Coast this weekend for the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Rain got the best of the series last weekend in Fontana, Calif., with defending champion Tony Stewart scoring his second win of the season in an event shortened by weather. Just five races into the year, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have hit their stride early as others are simply struggling to get their season started.
With momentum and confidence on his side, Stewart returns to the site of one of his most dramatic runs of the 2011 Chase.
After struggling for the majority of the event last fall, Stewart was able to fight to hold on to a lead lap position and eventually worked his way through the field and to the front of the pack. Besting Jimmie Johnson on the final restart of the day, Stewart went to Victory Lane and kept his title hopes alive. That race would have as much to do with his eventual championship as the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
On a roll already this season and coming off one of the most impressive performances in recent memory, Stewart is among this week’s stronger plays, but is not the overall favorite.
That honor belongs to none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
While Stewart was methodically working his way to victory at Martinsville last October, Earnhardt Jr. was beating and banging his way to a seventh-place finish. His aggressive style was an enjoyable sight to the fans, but also evidence of his ability to score a solid finish on the paper-clip short track.
Last spring, Earnhardt nearly broke a winless streak that dates back to 2008. However, Kevin Harvick was able to capitalize on a late-race charge to make the pass for the lead with four laps to go and score the win, relegating Junior to a second-place finish.
Entering this weekend, Earnhardt is enjoying a strong start to the season with two top 5s, three top 10s, and sitting third in the championship standings. Winless in his last 134 starts, Earnhardt is on the verge of snapping that streak and giving team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.
That opportunity could not come at a better facility. The Hendrick cars have been among the strongest at Martinsville since they began showing up. Geoffrey Bodine scored the team’s first victory here in 1984, while Hendrick cars have a total of 18 wins — second only to Petty Enterprises — as drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lead the active duty drivers in wins at Martinsville with seven and six, respectively.
Yet this weekend, it won't be “Five-Time”' or “Four-Time” that will be earning another Grandfather clock trophy. With the numbers adding up, momentum on his side and a string of strong performances at Martinsville backing him up, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is this week’s fantasy favorite.
Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart
While Gordon has been one of the most successful drivers at Martinsville over the years — he leads all active drivers in wins (seven), top 5s (25), top 10s (31), laps led (3,094) and lead-lap finishes (30) there — his 2012 season has gotten off to a rocky start.
Despite high hopes and great expectations leading into his 20th season in the Cup Series, the four-time champion is 25th in points and has only one top-10 finish on the year (eighth, Phoenix).
An ill-timed miscue on pit road last weekend in Fontana cost the No. 24 team a strong finish and the ability to move up the standings and back into contention. So has the season has gone for Gordon, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the entire No. 24 team.
Yet through it all, Gordon is encouraged by the fast racecars he has each week and knows all the team needs to get back on track is one “complete” race. And what better place for that to happen than at Martinsville?
Gordon is the type of driver that can hit a streak of solid runs and race for wins. After a slow start to the season, this is the weekend it turns it around for the No. 24 team.
Five Undervalued Picks: Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Martinsville is a track in which veterans such as Gordon are supposed to excel, not the young guys. But this week’s underdog pick goes to 21-year-old Joey Logano.
In six starts at Martinsville, Logano has completed all but five laps, has one top 5, two top 10s, zero DNFs and an average finish of 13.8 in six starts. While he has yet to set the world on fire or take home the trophy at Martinsville, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver did finish second to the ever-present favorite at Martinsville, teammate Denny Hamlin, in 2010.
Already in 2012, Logano has shown he has Chase potential. Through the first five races of the season, Logano has two top 10s and his worst finish was 24th last weekend in Fontana.
If he can keep the fenders on the car and avoid trouble throughout the day, Logano should score solid fantasy points for your team. He might not be the one celebrating the win, but he could give you those extra points needed.
Three Underdog Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger
Best Average Finish at Martinsville (Wins):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 5.4 (6)
2. Denny Hamlin — 6.5 (4)
3. Jeff Gordon — 6.9 (7)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 13.0 (0)
5. Tony Stewart — 13.4 (3)
6. Joey Logano — 13.8 (0)
7. Ryan Newman — 14.4 (0)
8. Brad Keselowski — 14.5 (0)
9. Jeff Burton — 14.6 (1)
10. Juan Pablo Montoya — 14.7 (0)
Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell
by Tom Bowles
Are you a NASCAR fan? No? Well then this first paragraph doesn’t pertain to you. But if you’re a diehard, I want you to do me a favor. Pretend you’ve never heard about this sport, that the only “car going in circles” you know is your weird neighbor who does burnouts in his Mustang around the cul-de-sac. For a moment, pretend you’re brand new, a stranger curious about the biggest NASCAR story to happen this year that doesn’t have a GoDaddy.com logo plastered across its chest.
Take a deep breath, lose yourself in the course of your imagination and listen carefully as a perfect stranger trying to understand both NASCAR and the Chad Knaus penalty that wasn’t at Daytona:
Once upon a time, there was a five-time NASCAR champion driving for the richest team on the circuit whose car came to his sport’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, for pre-race inspection. You see, before each stock car ever goes onto the trac,k inspectors look at them to make sure they’re legal, using all sorts of technical tools from rulers to a gigantic, alien-looking claw that gets placed over the car. But before this particular Chevy, driven by Jimmie Johnson, ever turned a lap, the inspector looked at it from a distance, and said, “Something doesn’t look right.” That’s it; no detailed inspection, no claw-like tool to measure its accuracy, nothing. Just like that, the car was deemed illegal without running a lick of practice (not the race … practice) and Johnson’s team was forced to “fix” it and bring it back into line.
This time, the car passed, even fitting the Metallic Template of Doom and there were no other problems for the rest of Speedweeks. What ran during the sport’s big race, the Daytona 500, was as legal according to NASCAR as that enviro-friendly Toyota Prius you’re your mother-in-law just purchased. But NASCAR was really, really mad those eyeballs seemed to see “something that didn’t look right.” So they penalized Johnson 25 positions, almost the equivalent to a regular season defeat in the NFL, and suspended crew chief Knaus (think head coach) and car chief Ron Malec (associate head coach) for six weeks. The team, which is often compared to baseball’s New York Yankees, was also handed a $100,000 fine.
As you might imagine, team owner Rick Hendrick (NASCAR’s George Steinbrenner) didn’t much like that and filed an appeal. The next “court of justice” was composed of three people, none of which had been involved with the inspection process and were, at best, vaguely familiar with the rules in question. After all, two had been retired from racing for several years and one never even focused on stock car racing during his career. But these people all thought the eyeball test was good enough, kept the penalties and forced Mr. Steinbrenner (er, Hendrick) to make a final appeal to the Stock Car Racing Commissioner, John Middlebrook. This man, a retired General Motors executive (Hendrick runs a GM car in the series) who’s also an old friend of Hendrick heard the appeal on Tuesday and, like magic, some of the penalties went away.
But not all of them. Armed with little more than a paragraph statement, Middlebrook removed the suspensions, gave back the points but kept the fine intact in the most classic example of “mixed message” you’ll ever see. These people were found “guilty,” then “not guilty” all at once a month after the initial inspection. When asked to justify the verdict… um, well, you couldn’t ask Middlebrook because he wasn’t available for comment. The hearing also wasn’t publicized, so despite Hendrick’s claims that other cars were allowed to fix similar pre-race inspection problems, we will never really know what happened behind closed doors, who those cars were or the details of certain evidence presented in front of the judge.
There you have it. All of the information above is factually correct, details of NASCAR’s main publicity last month while the NCAA found Cinderellas, the NBA trade deadline buzzed and baseball prepared for opening day. If you were a perfect stranger, unfamiliar with stock car racing, would you be turned onto the sport over all alternatives? Would you go, “Oh, I want to see what happens next”?
A few of you circus-lovers and Desperate Housewives aficionados might. But if I’m guessing correctly, most would snicker in the corner or wonder how in the world this is a sport in the first place. That’s painful to write, especially considering I’ve covered NASCAR for six years and been following for 22. But this series of events presents an awkward reality, making NASCAR and everyone involved leave the courtroom sporting an ugly black eye. For a sport trying hard to find new fans, let alone win the old ones back, it’s not the storyline it anticipated to start 2012.
Consider Hendrick Motorsports, which has had to deal with the distraction over the last month that ultimately shouldn’t have been at all (according to the verdict). Were they guilty? It’s hard to tell when you keep a $100,000 fine on the record, even if that’s the type of money Hendrick carries around in his shoe.
Whether it’s fair or not, Knaus, accused now half-a-dozen times in his Cup career for major violations, has the fresh stain of “cheater” written on his uniform all over again. Johnson’s five titles, by the conspiracy theorists, will again be called into question the same way people will wonder if Lance Armstrong doped to win the Tour de France. Legitimacy on the line is never a good thing, for any sport under any circumstance. How many people now think this team can buy itself innocence? (And for the record, I’m one of those that thought these penalties were too harsh.)
Next up are the NASCAR inspectors, whose credibility was questioned in the wake of an eyeball test that was ultimately deemed a joke by Middlebrook. Rumors of Daytona favoritism now run rampant, that these officials allowed some cars to fix the same problem without ultimately reporting a violation. Does that mean they have to ultimately change their pre-race procedures in order to be taken seriously? How quickly will NASCAR adjust? And will teams laugh at them or cry foul whenever a possible violation is pointed out the next time? Failure to enforce a penalty like this one might even leave inspectors more hesitant to bring a future situation up, for fear of another stain on their resume. They needed the backing of their bosses, and ultimately (although it came through appeal) it didn’t happen.
Then there’s NASCAR itself, whose appeals process is now under fire for both the time it took and the people involved. How could Middlebrook, whose ties to Hendrick go back 20-plus years, not recuse himself from the case? How could NASCAR, knowing the possibility of this penalty being overturned, not expedite the process, considering the seriousness of the violation so the final decision came no longer than two weeks after the initial one? Thirty-plus days later would be a slight problem if the consequences were handed out at Homestead-Miami this November … don’t you think? For a sport that seemingly held momentum in its hand after last year’s thrilling finale, credibility is now the issue of the day. Somehow, through it all the art of competition has been lost in a season of parity (four winners, four races) and an amazing Daytona 500 that included a jet dryer explosion. Ratings are down, as are attendance and this major story is a PR nightmare.
And there’s Johnson himself, caught in the crossfire when all he did during the Daytona 500 was get wrecked on Lap 2. Yep, with all this controversy, the car — with new C-posts — only made one full circuit in the season’s biggest race. Who knew a 42nd-place finish could script more drama than your weekly wrestling match, the type of manipulation the sport’s brass is being compared with as a joke, again, following another hardly believable series of events.
What a mess. I think, no matter what side you’re on, we can agree on that.
by Dustin Long
Thousands of empty seats on Sunday have created questions about Bristol and the racing there. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council discussed the matter and voted for which version of Bristol they liked the most — new Bristol or old Bristol. You might be surprised by the results on that and other issues in the sport, including if fans should be allowed to attend the drivers meeting as happened at Las Vegas.
Here’s what your fellow fans said on a variety of issues this week:
WHICH IS BETTER? NEW BRISTOL OR OLD BRISTOL?
38.7 percent said they were fine with either way
31.0 percent said they preferred the New Bristol
28.6 percent said they preferred the Old Bristol
1.7 percent said neither
What Fan Council members said:
• It really bothers me that people say if you liked the old Bristol you just like the wrecks. The old Bristol provided hard door-to-door racing much like the local short tracks. The new Bristol provides the same racing we will see this weekend in California — spread out 2-3 wide racing. There's nothing wrong with that but the schedule is full of these kinds of tracks. Besides, no one EVER complained about the old Bristol before 2007.
• While the one lane produces more wrecks it also slowed the race to a crawl at times. The new design lets drivers race, which is what fans pay to see
• I love short tracks. Period. I will take it any way I can get it.
• I'll repeat above — I love short track racing! Racing at Bristol, without wrecks, is the way it should be. Lots of exciting racing! A true race fan does not need to see wrecks, which take drivers out of competition and are expensive to owners.
• Sorry but the beating and banging was what separated Bristol from other races. Old school.
• Tired of feeling guilty because the new Bristol bores me. Bristol was different ... it was intense, it was suspenseful, it was fun, it was EXCITING. It is not that any longer, which is why you see a half-empty race there, something that would've been unheard of just a few years ago. It's not the economy. What made Bristol special and unique has been lost.
• I do miss beating and banging (not a fan of crashing)...
• How quickly we forget. I miss the beating and banging part, but the "old Bristol" was a one-lane conveyor belt, except when someone got impatient and bumped their way forward, usually causing a wreck.
• The kind of racing we get now would be considered great if it happened at Michigan or California. The only problem with it is that it doesn't give us the high drama at the end that the old Bristol did. And that drama Bristol provided was one of the most highly-anticipated races of the season. The taking away of the highlight of the season to some is what is really driving the revolt against the new Bristol.
• I know there are a lot of people that don't like the new Bristol but coming from a long-time fan that LOVED the old style of Bristol, you gotta love the new racing once you get over the fact you are not going to see 10-15 cautions, but you are going to see lap after lap of side-by-side racing!
• 2- and 3-wide, as noted above, makes for a far more exciting race and allows for more tactics then simply move the guy in front out of the way...
• Bristol is BRISTOL!!! The way racing oughta be!!! The drivers love the New Bristol, why shouldn't we??? I would watch them race in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot!!!
RATING SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT BRISTOL
58.6 percent called it Good
21.1 percent called it Fair
16.1 percent called it Great
4.2 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• It was decent. Does the racing surface need to change? No. Does Goodyear need a better tire? Yes, remember in "Days of Thunder" when Cole ran 50 laps his way and 50 laps Harry's way? Harry's way was quicker. Let's get back to that where you can wear your tires out.
• It went too fast with all the green flag laps. Put the track back so we get more cautions.
• Loved it. Really wish hotel prices where not so high. I would love to add it to my list of tracks I visit. The racing is sooooo much better then in years past and a lot less wrecking.
• As a longtime area resident, it saddens me to see Bristol half full. Many people I know personally have given up their season tickets since the change in configuration. There was a reason Bristol was special. There was a reason people had it at the top of their favorite track list. There was a reason you couldn't get a ticket for years. Say all you will about side-by-side racing ... the reality is now the leader gets in front, runs away, and there's long boring green flag stretches. The intensity that made Bristol great is gone.
• It was a good race. There was a lot of passing, pit strategy, and other things that happened that kept me wondering what was going to happen.
• We used to have Bristol parties and cookouts, but our attendance suffered as well. That GREAT facility DESERVES a better product.
• I thought it was a really good race with lots of side-by-side racing and passing. I also really like it when the dominant cars are allowed to be dominant and put most of the field laps down. If a team hits on a good setup and the driver can drive, let them do what they can do.
• I want my Bristol back, and so does the vast majority of fans (evidenced by the half full track). I'm tired of everyone blaming the economy. It’s the track and lack of excitement. Gave my seats of 12 years up two years ago for no other reason other than the boring racing, and so did the group of nine I went with every year. Why change something that was perfect? No idiot would decide to take the banking out of Talladega, so why did some idiot decide to change Bristol? And to those who say they love that style of racing, I'm sure Michigan or Fontana or Atlanta would love to have you, but for me, I want MY OLD Bristol back.
• Great racing though sad the stands were so empty. Scary to think the outsiders who say we only like wrecks might be right, based on that
• Actually thought it was pretty boring. They need to tear up the track and repave it!
SHOULD FANS BE ALLOWED IN THE DRIVERS MEETING?
At Las Vegas earlier this month, the track set it up so that drivers meeting was outdoors and fans could attend. Some drivers were asked about what they thought of that the following week at Bristol and a few said they weren’t in favor of it. So, Fan Council members were asked if fans should be allowed to attend the drivers meeting:
53.3 percent said fans should NOT attend the drivers meeting
35.9 percent said SPEED and Sprint should broadcast the meeting to fans
7.3 percent said this should be an issue for each track. If they have room, allow fans
3.5 percent said fans SHOULD attend the drivers meeting
What Fan Council members said:
• I think the access the fans get is substantial. ... In recent years, fans have gotten near unlimited access. So, now they think they need it all. Some things aren't really needed to be given access to non-competing members.
• I think the drivers meeting should be for them and officials only!!!! This part of the race prep should be all business, not sure if guests should be included.
• This would add so much value to the pit pass. And did anyone notice how NOT full Bristol was? You gotta go the extra mile to pack those bleachers in the bad economy.
• I think the drivers meeting should be for drivers and crew members only. That also means no journalists/reporters in there, even though I know that's how we get most of our news.
• If NASCAR is going to attract younger fans, they need to be more transparent. The younger generation is used to knowing everything about everything. There are no more secrets when it comes to celebs and sports.
• By broadcasting the meeting, the drivers would have the intimate setting that they prefer and the fans would be able to see what is going on. It's a win-win for everyone.
• At Bristol, they broadcast it on the Jumbotron which to me was a nice touch while allowing the competitors the privacy they needed to get the information.
• This meeting is for drivers to clarify rules and ask for explanations. It was STUPID that it was out in the open for fans. I was even there, and it was a ridiculous zoo. Don't get me wrong — I am all for fan access, and nobody does it better than LVMS. BUT, the drivers need this meeting to help avoid costly mistakes and the fans certainly didn't contribute to that atmosphere.
• If the track can accommodate it, I think it's a good idea to have it open to the public. One of the major differences between NASCAR and other major sports in the access granted the fans. As long as it's not distracting to the drivers and teams, I think it's a good idea.
With the start of the NCAA basketball tournament at the same time as Bristol, Fan Council members were asked how the NCAA Tournament impacted their NASCAR TV viewing.
90.2 percent said it didn’t impact them — they watched all the NASCAR events they planned
5.2 percent said they watched a lot more of the NCAA Tournament than NASCAR
4.5 percent said they watched a little more of the NCAA Tournament than NASCAR
What Fan Council members said:
• Bristol race > NCAA Tournament. Now, California, I might have to skip to watch the game.
• NASCAR is my sport of choice. I have very little interest in basketball.
• NASCAR is on the top of my list when it comes to television programming. Until the NHL playoffs start, there isn't anything I'd watch over a NASCAR race.
• Sorry NASCAR ... This is the ONLY time of the year that I have to try to balance another sport vs races. Usually I tape Nascar and watch it between basketball games. Thankfully it's only for 2 or 3 weekends.
• I was hooked on the NCAA tournament the first couple of days, but when the Sprint Cup race came on it was all NASCAR for me.
• I have NO interest in stick and ball sports.
• I'm a college hoops junkie ... love it!! But have 3 TV's set up in the living room so I didn't miss anything from either side.
• As a race fan, it doesn't matter what else is on. I watch the racing first and only change the channel if the action, or lack of it, warrants a channel change
Fans can join the Backseat Drivers Fan Council by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information: Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
by Matt Taliaferro
The National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer, John Middlebrook, reduced a penalty handed down by NASCAR to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team on Tuesday. Middlebrook rescinded the loss of 25 owner and driver points and the six-race suspension of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec. The $100,000 fine remained in place.
At issue were unapproved C-post modifications made to the car and discovered prior to practice for the Daytona 500. The car, which never turned a lap at Daytona, was pulled out of the technical inspection line. NASCAR asked the team to cut off the posts — which connect the roof to the rear deck lid and quarterpanels — to replace them.
Team owner Rick Hendrick stated that the C-posts in question had been used for all four of the restrictor plate races in 2011, and had passed not only technical inspection, but a trip to NASCAR’s R&D Center following October’s Talladega race.
On Tuesday, Hendrick said he presented some 20 photos, 15-20 pages of documentation and three sworn affidavits that the posts had not been changed.
“I’m glad this is over,” Hendrick told Scene Daily. “I appreciate the fact that we had the opportunity to present all the facts. I’m happy with the outcome to see the points reinstated and Chad reinstated.”
A three-person appeals board initially upheld the penalty on March 13 — Hendrick’s first appeal — but Middlebrook, who serves as the final step in the appeals process, ruled otherwise.
“Obviously we’re not happy with the fine — that’s an awful lot of money for something that was obviously proved to be OK,” Knaus said. “So that hurts a little bit. But it’s not about vindication. It’s over with. It’s time to move on.”
The reinstated points moves driver Jimmie Johnson from 17th in the point standings — 61 points out of first — to 11th, 36 markers back.
“We respect (Middlebrook’s) decision,” NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said. “We believe in this process.
I don’t think we made any mistakes. Our inspection process speaks for itself. It has worked very, very well in the garage for many years and it will work for many years to come.”
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
by Dustin Long
What some fans say is wrong with NASCAR is what Brad Keselowski says was right for him. Keselowski credits running against Cup drivers in what was then called the Busch Series for his current success and helping him win on a variety of Cup tracks.
Keselowski’s victory at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday marked his fifth career Sprint Cup victory. Although it was his second consecutive Bristol win, his other victories have come at a unique set of tracks — Talladega (restrictor plate), Kansas (1.5-mile intermediate) and Pocono (2.5-mile flat track).
Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series is something that rankles some fans, who liken it to pro players competing in the minors. Many of those fans say when a Cup driver competes in the Nationwide Series, he prevents another “up-and-coming” driver from getting a chance to compete, blocking their path to Cup.
Keselowski sees the issue differently.
“I was very fortunate to race with some of the best,’‘ Keselowski said following his Bristol win. “I go back to my first Nationwide start for Dale (Earnhardt Jr. in 2007). It was in Chicago. To this day I think that race still has the record for the most amount of Cup drivers. But that's what I had to do to build my career. I mean, I had to go against the Cup drivers when I was still trying to figure out how to run Nationwide.’’
Keselowski raced against 25 Cup drivers in that Chicago race when he made his first start for JR Motorsports. Kevin Harvick won, as Cup drivers took the top nine spots. Keselowski placed 14th and was the second-highest finishing Busch regular. Stephen Leicht was the highest-finishing series regular, placing 10th.
“What I'm trying to say, it obviously frustrates me a little bit when I take some heat — any Cup driver takes some heat from the press, media, fans, whatever — about running the Nationwide Series, because it's really a character builder,’’ Keselowski said. “If you can run well over there, you can come here (to Cup) and get the job done.
“That series helped me build a lot of character. It helped me learn in a smaller spotlight. I feel like when I got over here (to Cup) that the learning process was a lot quicker. It just came down to getting with the right team that I jelled with and that believed in me.’’
Certainly, different methods help different drivers.
The varying style of tracks that Keselowski has won at so far compares favorably with other drivers.
Jeff Gordon’s first five victories were at Charlotte (1.5-mile banked intermediate), Indianapolis (2.5-mile flat), Rockingham (1-mile intermediate), Atlanta (1.5-mile banked intermediate) and Bristol (.5-mile short track).
Variety isn’t the only way to succeed. Three of former champion Kurt Busch’s first five victories came on short tracks. Three of Kevin Harvick’s first five victories came at 1.5-mile speedways.
While there aren’t as many Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series as in that ’07 Chicago race — Saturday’s Nationwide race at Bristol featured nine drivers who would start the Cup race the next day — Keselowski shows that drivers can compete against the Cup regulars in the Nationwide Series and move on to greater success.
by Matt Taliaferro
There’s something about the half-mile Bristol bullring in East Tennessee that lends itself to certain drivers.
NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough (nine wins), Darrell Waltrip (12) and Dale Earnhardt (nine) each went on dominant runs at Bristol in the 1970s and ’80s. Rusty Wallace won nine of his own from 1986-2000. Jeff Gordon won five events from 1995-2002, while the Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, also have five wins each.
Following Sunday’s Food City 500, it appears a new name may be added to the exclusive list of Bristol dominators: Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski scored his second straight win at BMS, leading a race-high 289 laps — including the last 111 consecutively — en route to his first win of the 2012 season.
Keselwoski enjoyed a spirited, side-by-side duel with Matt Kenseth prior to pulling away in a race marked by its intense, door-to-door action.
“I mean, what can I say? I love Bristol and Bristol loves me,” Keselowski said. “There’s other places that perhaps have a little more prestige, and I said that last year as well, but this place defines a race team.
“It asks so much of you, whether it’s just in practice, being lined up on pit road, dealing with the noise, the havoc that practice can be, or the hot day of getting through tech, making those last adjustments, or as a driver 500 laps in a bowl trying to keep your composure. This racetrack can really test a team.”
Kenseth easily held on for second, while Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers swept positions three-five.
It appeared Kenseth jumped the final two restarts when Keselowski led, but NASCAR assessed no penalty and Keselowski was able to clear Kenseth’s Ford.
“I didn’t floor it till I got to the start/finish line,” Kenseth explained. “I don’t know if he (Keselowski) was trying to let me beat him on purpose. I was half throttle for five car lengths. I was finally, ‘I got to go or Martin (Truex) or whoever was behind me was going to go around me.’”
Since 2009, Keselowski has two wins on Cup Series short tracks to go along with plate (Talladega) and flat track (Pocono) wins. He was also second on the road course at Watkins Glen last season.
“My dad taught me this very early on, (that) it was important not to be a ‘One-Track Jack,’” Keselowski said of his versatility. “I think now that we have (the right team), I have the experience base to run competitively on almost every style of racetrack.
“I was able to learn that in a time and place where it was acceptable to make mistakes, which is what the Nationwide (Series) was for me. The training and the lower level series of NASCAR — the way they’re structured right now — certainly helped me when I got to this level to be perhaps more prepared than many drivers in the past.”
An early-race accident eliminated some of the favorites. Kasey Kahne got into Regan Smith on lap 25, triggering a seven-car pileup. The incident eliminated Kahne, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Marcos Ambrose from contention. Kevin Harvick sustained damage but continued on. Keselowski snaked through the melee with slight nose damage.
“Regan Smith was pretty slow,” Kahne said. “I was under him for a couple of laps. When my spotter cleared me in the center, I just took off, and he was there on exit. It is disappointing to have that good of a car and be out this early. I've had awesome race cars, and I have nothing to show for it.”
Keselowski moved from 21st to 13th in the championship standings by virtue of the max number of points (48) earned at Bristol. Greg Biffle, who enjoyed three consecutive third-place finishes to start the season, slumped to 13th at Bristol. He holds a nine-point lead over Kevin Harvick and 12-point advantage over Kenseth in the standings.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
by Jay Pennell
It's Bristol, baby!
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the hills of East Tennessee for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. NASCAR’s modern day Colosseum has been home to some of the most dramatic moments in the sport’s history, and always produces great racing.
Once known for its rough-and-tumble ways, Bristol now has multiple grooves that allows for two, and at times, three-wide racing. The action is non-stop, fast-paced and full of action.
When it comes to Bristol, one name has stood out above the rest in recent years: Kyle Busch.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has a total of five Sprint Cup Series victories at the World's Fastest Half Mile, including four out of the last six events. When taking the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events into consideration, Busch has simply owned the place. All told, Busch has five Sprint Cup wins, four Nationwide Series wins (including the last three consecutively), and three straight Camping World Truck Series wins.
So, after a frustrating 23rd-place finish in front of his hometown crowd last week in Las Vegas, Busch is eager to get back to one of his best tracks on the schedule.
“It’s just a fun racetrack no matter what series I’m running there,” Busch said of Bristol. “You really have to be on your game because you make one mistake, or someone else makes one mistake — like what happened in the fall Nationwide Series race there in 2009 when a car with a flat tire came down the track and essentially ended our day — that’s it.”
After a lackluster start to the season — with only one top 5 in three starts — Busch and his Dave Rogers-led team should be at the top of their game this weekend. This bunch struggled during last year’s night race in August, relying too heavily on the Nationwide setup and fighting the changes throughout the Sprint Cup race. With that lesson learned and a proven history of success, Busch is this week's fantasy favorite.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski
Yet Kyle is not the only Busch to have success on the half-mile concrete oval. Older brother Kurt Busch also has five Sprint Cup Series wins at Bristol, the last of which came in 2006.
While the Busch brothers are tied with Jeff Gordon and NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson for third on the all-time Bristol wins list, younger brother Kyle is the only one of that group to have a victory on the new configuration.
As for older brother Kurt, this weekend is a monumental moment in his career. Returning to one of his most successful tracks, Busch is doing so with a humbled attitude and quite the hole to climb from. After the first three races with team owner James Finch’s Phoenix Racing, the ’04 series champion has a best finish of 15th (Phoenix International Raceway) and sits 30th in the standings. Since joining Phoenix Racing, Busch has said he believes this team can compete for wins — especially at a track like Bristol.
However, the season has not gotten off to the kind of start this group was looking for and Busch heads to Bristol with his eye on climbing back into contending for wins. That has the older Busch brother as my driver to watch this weekend. With this marking the 10th anniversary of his first career Sprint Cup Series victory, perhaps there is no better time to get back to his winning ways.
The former champion has the ability to give Finch his second career Cup win, but he’s also just as likely to bring home yet another wrecked race car.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
by Vito Pugliese
You could forgive team owner Rick Hendrick if he now believes NASCAR really is an acronym standing for “Never Appeal Suspensions for Chad And Ron”.
Following Tuesday’s initial appeal before the National Stock Car Appeals Panel, the suspensions of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were upheld, one-upping five-time Jimmie Johnson becoming six-time — as in, out of commission for six straight races. While Hendrick was diplomatic and conciliatory, recognizing NASCAR for providing the opportunity to state his case, he was nonetheless steadfast in his commitment to further escalate the appeals process. When asked if he accepted the outcome of the board’s review, he was unusually stern in his response:
“I don’t accept it. Period.”
So what of the perpetual appeal process for unapproved C-post modifications that has gone on since the Daytona 500? Are Hendrick and Knaus fighting a battle they cannot win, simply delaying the inevitable? Or is it a bit of formulated “strateegery” in an effort to help maximize the first few races of the season and build some much-needed momentum in the likelihood that the brain trust of race-weekend preparation will be out for the same time it takes a broken leg to heal?
As we have come to recognize since 2004, it is never too early to start thinking about The Chase.
Think back two weeks ago to the race at Phoenix. If not for an uncharacteristic mid-race loose wheel pit miscue, the No. 48 team would have checked out, standing in Victory Lane, and nothing would have been written about Denny Hamlin’s newfound confidence or Darian Grubb being a war wagon Zen master.
Last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in their sponsor’s Kobalt Tool’s 400, Johnson was snookered by quasi-teammate Tony Stewart on a restart with four laps to go, finishing second. Those two near-wins have catapulted Johnson — who was at –23 points just a couple of weeks ago — up to 23rd in the standings. While not exactly something the dynasty of the decade usually would rally around, it has brought the team to within 36 points of 10th-place driver Mark Martin.
This is significant for a few reasons. First, Martin is driving a part-time schedule and is taking this weekend off — which heading into the concrete mixing bowl of retaliation that is Bristol, is probably good news for Dale Earnhardt Jr. following their dust up in the closing laps in Vegas. The 10th-place position in points is of utmost importance, of course, as that is the cut off for marking the Chase after race No. 26 at Richmond.
Finally, 36 points is what is paid for finishing in eighth place. In the last six races at Bristol, Johnson has lead 694 laps and posted an average finish of 9.0. Factor in a bonus point for leading a lap, and you have eighth-place points for the 48 nearly guaranteed this weekend. The one anomaly during those last six Bristol races was a 35th-place finish at the night race in 2010. Even then, Johnson had led 175 of 263 laps before being turned into the backstretch wall by Juan Pablo Montoya.
A strong run at Bristol will provide much-needed momentum that will overcome the 25-point fine levied at Daytona, and should the final appeal be heard next Tuesday, Knaus and Malec will begin serving their suspensions during the weekend of Fontana when the series heads to the Auto Club Speedway. How has Johnson faired at what is essentially his home track in Southern California?
In the last eight races he’s won four times, posted two second-place finishes, a third and a downright shameful result of ninth in 2009. Safe to say, I could clamber up atop the box in Fontucky and engineer a top 10 for J.J. at Michigan International Speedway’s illegitimate sister track.
The schedule then winds back east to Martinsville, where the results are similar. Two wins in eight races with an average finish of 4.4. If he keeps the fenders on it and the curbs off it, a top 10 is a virtual certainty. Intermediate tracks Kansas and Texas follow where Johnson enjoys lifetime average finishes of 8.4 and 10.2.
Richmond would be the fifth race of the Knaus/Malec suspension, and may prove to be a stumbling block. The last eight races at the three-quarter mile track have produced an average finish of 16.3, although there is a 2008 win mixed in, and three of the last four visits producing top-10 runs. I know, “Oh the humanity!” Sub-par days for the 48 have most other teams buying a case of beer and fist-pumping into the wee hours of the morning. That said, if there is one race to write off in the final six, it just might end up being Richmond.
Or the next week at Talladega.
Always a crapshoot — and an even larger roll of the restrictor-plate dice than Daytona — Johnson traditionally finds himself involved in or triggering the requisite 30-car Alabama junkyard. No reason to throw in the towel though, as he is the defending race champion, Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t hurt for horsepower at the big tracks, and as long as he doesn’t get wiped out in two laps like at Daytona — and there are no shenanigans with the C-posts or calls to crack the back of the car — things should be fine.
That is, of course, if the big one doesn’t crack up the front of the car for him.
The six-week vacation for Knaus and Malec would wrap up following Talladega. In the meantime the duo will be able to spend a few extra days a week in their little shop of horrors, preparing new cars for the next races at Darlington for the Southern 500 and perhaps the most important event in the first third of the schedule, the Coca-Cola 600.
These two tracks are significant for a number of reasons. The Southern 500 has long been considered the second-most prestigious race on the schedule (until the advent of the big-money Brickyard 400), and while the Daytona 500 was the race the drivers wanted to win, crew chiefs and mechanics always longed to beat “The Track Too Tough To Tame.” After a month and a half off, Knaus and Malec will likely be itching to get back into pitched battle with The Lady In Black.
The Coca-Cola 600 run on Memorial Day weekend is the longest race of the year and puts the cap on two weeks spent at the epicenter of the NASCAR industry in Charlotte. It was the track that Knaus and Johnson once deemed “Our House” in reference to team sponsor Lowe’s, which once owned naming rights to the facility (and because the 48 won five of six races, as well as two wins in the All-Star Race). Going green just hours after the Indianapolis 500, it rivals the greatest spectacle in racing as the most important motorsports day in America, and is also the kickoff to the famed “Summer Stretch” of NASCAR: an eight-week grind that sees the series go north, west and south, comprised of intermediate tracks, a road course and the second restrictor plate race at Daytona.
It is during this time when teams find out if their latest generation of cars are up to snuff, provides an indication of who is top 10 material, and who will have to rely on pulling out a win to make the 12-driver Chase come September. If early-season performance has been any indication, the No. 48 team will easily qualify, as it has every season since the championship format was introduced in 2004.
If Knaus, Malec, Johnson and company should get their noses bloodied during Knaus’ and Malec’s absence, unable to overcome the 25-point penalty, they can still qualify for the playoffs on wins as a wild card. However, it is unlikely that will be necessary, and even if it is, is there any doubt this team could crank out a few wins if the entire might of Hendrick Motorsports was brought to bear?
As always, it is never too early to start thinking about the Chase. If the appeal strategy and timeline being followed by Hendrick and Knaus is any indication, they began thinking ahead as soon as they were pulled out of the inspection line nearly a month ago.
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
by Dustin Long
Does qualifying matter? Are fans watching? Is there a better way? Those were among some of the questions members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debated this week, along with rating last weekend’s Cup race at Las Vegas and if what is happening in the Nationwide Series is leading them to watch more of that series.
Here’s what Fan Council members had to say this week:
Cup qualifying: When should it be held?
58.0 percent said they like Cup qualifying on Friday
27.8 percent said they like Cup qualifying on Saturday
14.2 percent said Other
Here’s what Fan Council members said:
• It's nice to sit after a long week and watch the cars go around the track on Friday nights. I know it sounds very simplistic, but I find it a good way to wind down.
• I prefer the Friday qualifying. It gives the teams more chance to work on the cars and more of a chance to qualify if weather becomes an issue.
• I like it when the tracks can get most of the action on two days. I think I could go to more races if the weekends were more compact. I like to see EVERYTHING when I go so when they do quals and practices on Friday, it is a little more expensive.
• Qualifying on Friday with one practice, gives the drivers two practices on Saturday. This always gives the drivers and crew chiefs the time necessary to adjust their cars properly and makes for a better race.
• I hate qualifying on Saturday. When I show up to the track Saturday I enjoy watching 2 hours of Cup practice. It’s cool to see your driver making runs and listening to them on the scanner. When they just do quals on Saturday you see your driver for about a minute. Then its over. Plus the track changes so much from Friday to Sunday. I think it makes it harder for guys to hit on setups. While one guy can hit on it and just kill everyone.
• Qualifying is easier to "watch" on Twitter and at work on Fridays. More fun to watch practice on Saturday, plus I think it gives a better opportunity to fine tune cars after qualifying.
• Qualify before the Nationwide race makes for a better Saturday. May even bring more people for the Nationwide race.
Are you watching qualifying?
54.2 percent said they watch as much of qualifying as they can
27.3 percent said they’ll watch it if they have nothing else to do
13.1 percent said they don’t care for qualifying except to see where their driver starts
5.4 percent said qualifying is boring and they don’t watch it.
What Fan Council members said:
• I'm watching and trying to mine the commentary for little nuggets of information that will help my fantasy team picks.
• I'm not a fan of seeing single cars on track making circles, I would love to see some kind of format with multiple cars on track but understand that could skew the times on tracks where drafting could come into play.
• I enjoy watching/listening to the discussions and interviews. However, I hate when they don't actually show the cars qualifying. Let the interview audio run over the qualifying video. I don't need to see the people talking.
• I DVR it every week and try to replay as much as I can.
• I don't watch qualifying. I would be a lot more interested if there were points awarded for the pole.
• My stance on watching qualifying has changed recently ever since I switched my cell phone to Sprint. Thank goodness for Sprint because I can watch all practices and qualifying on my phone, and I watch every chance I get.
• Let's be honest, nothing exciting here. Only curious to know how my drivers are doing.
• I not only watch it, but follow it on NASCAR.com PitCommand.
by Matt Taliaferro
The National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel upheld NASCAR penalties against Hendrick Motorsports and crew chief Chad Knaus on Tuesday.
Knaus was fined $100,000 and, along with car chief Ron Malec, suspended six races for unapproved C-posts on the No. 48 Chevy driven by Jimmie Johnson prior to inspection for the Daytona 500. The No. 48 team was also levied 25-point fines in the championship and owner standings.
“Upon hearing the testimony, carefully reviewing the facts and historically comparative penalties, the unanimous decision of the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel was to uphold the original penalties assessed by NASCAR,” the appeals committee stated.
Hendrick Motorsports stated in a press release that it would request a hearing before the National Stock Car Racing chief appellate officer, John Middlebrook, to continue its appeal of NASCAR sanctions related to the No. 48 Sprint Cup Series team.
“The panel was generous with its time today, and we appreciated the opportunity to talk through our concerns,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “We feel strongly about this issue and will continue to pursue it at the next level.”
Middlebrook’s decision will be final. In the meantime, Knaus and Malec are free to continue at-track duties.
by Dustin Long
Have you noticed the oddity already taking place in NASCAR this season?
Don’t see it?
Look at the Nationwide Series where all three races have been won by drivers not competing full time in Cup this year.
James Buescher won at Daytona, points leader Elliott Sadler at Phoenix and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Las Vegas last weekend.
Consider that only six of 34 Nationwide races last year were won by drivers not competing in Cup full time. In 2010, only one race was won by a Nationwide regular not competing in Cup.
The odds are likely that the current streak will end this weekend at Bristol. Kyle Busch has won the last three Nationwide races there and is entered, along with Cup drivers Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano.
Still, a tide is turning.
Sadler, who did not win a race but finished second in the points in 2011, is excited about his chances of winning multiple races this year.
“I feel like when we show up every week, we’re going to be very, very fast,” he said. “We’re going to haul butt at Bristol. They’re taking my favorite car. It’s neat to have this confidence in this race and it’s neat this race team has this confidence in me.”
Others can relate.
The first three races show what the Nationwide Series can become a way to showcase its drivers, particularly the younger ones. Buescher is 21, Stenhouse is 24.
It’s not just them having success.
Look at what 20-year-old Cole Whitt and 21-year-old Austin Dillon have done so far.
Whitt was fourth at Daytona, 13th at Phoenix and sixth at Las Vegas. Dillon was fifth at Daytona, fourth at Phoenix and seventh at Las Vegas. They’re the favorites for the rookie of the year title and, based on how they started the season, could make that an interesting race.
It’s already been quite a start to the season for Whitt, who might be better known as the driver who bumped teammate Danica Patrick at Daytona, causing her to wreck. He hit the wall during qualifying at Las Vegas, but the team repaired it instead of going to a backup.
“I didn’t want to start that way with Danica,” Whitt said. “I messed up. Hopefully, over time I can earn that respect back from them. That, obviously, put a lot of limelight on us, a lot more than I wanted. Obviously, I felt a little bit of the pressure. Hopefully, with a clean race (at Las Vegas) and run as good as we did, we keep pulling those off and earn the respect of the veterans.”
The challenge for the series, though, remains, finding a way to make it affordable for teams to provide younger drivers quality rides. That’s not easy in this economic climate, but that’s what it will take for the series to gain more attention and interest from fans.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Greg Biffle Biffle’s team was the one under the Roush Fenway banner that laid low during the offseason. The result has been third-place finishes across the board. Bristol is usually good to them, too.
2. Jimmie Johnson It’s highly unlikely Chad Knaus’ appeal is overturned, but by appealing, Hendrick Motorsports bought Johnson a pair of top-5 finishes. Win or lose with the committee, this team remains a lock for the Chase.
3. Denny Hamlin We’ll take the 20th-place finish at Vegas as a hiccup. Although, after fourth- and first-place runs at Daytona and Phoenix, the dip at an intermediate track was notable.
4. Tony Stewart “Hey Darian, anything you can do, I can do better!” One week after Stewart’s former pit boss earned his first win with Hamlin, Stewart and new boss Steve Addington even the score.
5. Kevin Harvick Worst finish so far this season is 11th. Harvick and the re-tooled No. 29 team have an uncanny knack for always being “there.” A couple wins in the next month or so could be on tap.
6. Matt Kenseth Kenseth was on the business end of a Carl Edwards late-race move once again. For some reason, those never work out too well for the 2003 champ.
7. Carl Edwards “The Aggressor” raced on to a fifth-place finish, his second top 10 of the year. Strangely, Edwards has yet to lead a lap this season. Is another hangover in store for last season’s championship runner-up?
8. Mark Martin Says he’s OK with Dale Earnhardt Jr. after their dust-up in Vegas. The odds of anything spilling over to Bristol would have already been long — and those odds are off the board since Martin won’t even run there.