NASCAR

Chicagoland Speedway

Previewing NASCAR's Geico 400

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Race: Geico 400
Location: Joliet, Ill.
When: Sunday, Sept. 18
TV: ESPN (2:00 p.m. EST)
2010 Winner: David Reutimann

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<p> Previewing NASCAR's first Chase race, the Geico 400, from Chicagoland Speedway.</p>

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Horsepower Rankings

NASCAR circuit "rips" into Chase for the Championship

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Jeff Gordon  The four-time champ has averaged a 3.25-place finish over the last month. Gordon is looking like the “Wonderboy” of old at just the right time.

2. Jimmie Johnson  It looks as if his biggest threat in the Chase may come from within — as in within Hendrick Motorsports in the form of the aforementioned Gordon. Haven’t we seen this movie before?

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<p> Two of NASCAR's all-time greats — Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson — lead the list in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>

8. Ryan Newman  Newman continues to throw top 10s on the board — he was eighth at Richmond — but he must avoid the hiccup his team seems to have once every month if a title is to be won.

9. Kurt Busch  When you finish in the top 5 but receive more pub for your post-race antics, you know you’ve got some explaining and/or apologizing to do. When the cameras are on, of course.

10. Tony Stewart  Tony’s antics came on Friday and, like Busch, were because of a confrontation with reporters. When are these guys going to learn that life can be a lot easier when they’re on friendly terms with the media?

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Somehow rebounded from a number of issues at RIR and snuck in the Chase. Sorry Junior Nation, but don’t expect much more.

12. Denny Hamlin  Led zero laps and finished ninth at one of his favorite tracks. That’s not a great sign.

13. AJ Allmendinger  AJ’s top-12 streak has hit five races in a row and he’s 13th in points. Not bad, young man.

14. Mark Martin  There’s still a little gas left in the tank, as Martin’s 10th-place finish in Richmond proved. Not bad, old man.

15. Jamie McMurray  This week will mark the start of “R&D Season” for McMurray and the Ganassi gang.

Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, David Ragan

Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @MattTaliaferro

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And then there were 12

Kevin Harvick wins a wild one in Richmond; Chase field set

by Matt Taliaferro

The final 300 miles of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ regular season were some of the most intense of 2011. Chase bubble boys Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin were involved in a lap 8 wreck; Chase longshot Marcos Ambrose spun three times; and Chase locks Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson continued a feud that has slowly festered over the last two seasons.

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<p> On a night when the NASCAR Chase for the Championship field was set, Kevin Harvick held off Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon to win the Wondeful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway.</p>

Sixty laps later, Johnson got his revenge, diving into Turn 1 under Busch and spinning the No. 22 around. Johnson hit the wall in the process, requiring a lengthy stay in the garage, but once again, Busch marched on.

“I know we’re in his head,” Busch said later. “If we’re going to race this way, he’s got to know that there’s 10 other guys in this Chase, not just the 22 (car).

“He’s got to learn to race. He’s been able to beat guys in the last five years just by out-driving them with what he has for equipment.”

Johnson replied with a shrug, saying, “OK ... I got run over going into (Turn) 1, so if you’re going to spin me out, I’m going to spin you out.

“I’m sure I’ll go find him and talk to him and he’ll run his mouth. And we’ll go from there.”

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Earnhardt, had a tough, but ultimately successful, evening. Earnhardt qualified for his first Chase since 2008 by recovering from the lap 8 accident that crushed the nose of his Chevrolet. He then used up what was left of the front end by spinning Ambrose and Travis Kvapil in separate incidents, displaying an aggression not typically seen in the 36-year-old. He finished 16th.

Earnhardt joins Johnson, Busch, Gordon, Edwards, Harvick, Hamlin and Stewart, along with Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman in the Chase.

“I’m proud to be in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like I’m a good enough driver to be in the Chase, (and) my team is good enough to be there.

“I can look back over the season and just easily think of several instances where we cost ourselves 10 or 15 points and made this situation difficult this weekend. Had we been more conscious and smarter at certain times we wouldn’t have had to even worry about it this weekend.”

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Richmond International Raceway

Previewing the NASCAR Wonderful Pistachios 400

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Race: Wonderful Pistachios 400
Location: Richmond, Va.
When: Saturday, Sept. 10
TV: ABC (7:30 p.m. EST)
2010 Winners: Kyle Busch (May); Denny Hamlin (Sept.)
May 2011 Winner: Kyle Busch

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<p> Previewing the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' final regular season race, the Wonderful Pistachios 400 from Richmond International Raceway.</p>

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Marked Man

Juan Pablo Montoya's list of enemies growing by the week

by Tom Bowles

Kermit the Frog may have it tough being green, but in the muppet-like drama of NASCAR I’m betting it’s 1,000 times tougher to be driving the red No. 42 Target Chevy these days. Indeed, every driver appears to see a bulls-eye on Juan Pablo Montoya’s back, past the point of marriage counseling and consulting every lawyer possible to see if they can initiate stock car divorce.

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<p> The Juan Pablo Montoya-Clint Bowyer dust-up was the latest in a lengthy list for Montoya. Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles breaks down his on- and off-track run-ins with the stars of NASCAR.</p>

Kyle Busch  In the days before “New Kyle,” the old version would rant about literally everything that happened to him on-track. The July 2010 Coke Zero 400 was no exception, but this time Busch had evidence to back it up, claiming Montoya flat out wrecked him while battling for the lead at Daytona on Lap 104.

“The replay shows I turned right across the nose of the 42, so apparently I wanted to wreck myself,” he said. “Some people don’t understand what happens in these cars. With the old tires like that, I’ve got no grip, I’m barely hanging on sliding around as it is out there.”

Joey Logano  The typically mild-mannered “Sliced Bread” nearly sliced Montoya in half after the two made contact at Homestead last year. How bad did it get? Felix Sabates, Montoya’s co-owner, literally threatened J.D. Gibbs title contender Denny Hamlin would wind up wrecked if Logano didn’t cut it out. Apparently, the youngster (are you sensing a theme?) was upset about the way he was being raced, retaliating after the first incident so both men would end their day with time spent inside the garage.

“I gave him plenty of room,” Logano said. “I just felt like I got hooked. That’s two times with him this year. I don’t know what the deal is.”

Kevin Harvick  Two men, one shove-fest. There’s YouTube video proof.

“It just seems like he runs over somebody every week,” Harvick said that day, and he should know, as these two have made contact several times over Montoya’s five years in Cup, averaging to about once a season. Perhaps RCR’s most heated intra-Cup rivalry until …

Clint Bowyer  See Atlanta. Tuesday. And a Cheerios car that looks like mush.

Ryan Newman  The No. 1 anti-Montoya suspect. These two tangled both on the track and off this spring, after a series of Richmond incidents inciting a meeting in the NASCAR hauler where Newman supposedly socked Montoya. It was a prizefight no one would actually confirm happened, even though when reached for comment it was the Colombian who said, “Newman punches like a girl.”

Frankly, these two have had it out for each other ever since Montoya’s Homestead Cup debut went up in flames after they tangled in 2006. It got so bad this time around, the “suckerpunch victim” threatened legal action unless NASCAR dished out one of those “secret fines” to his Stewart-Haas Racing rival.

Jimmie Johnson  Where do we begin? The latest tiff between the two occurred in July, when contact up in New Hampshire sent Johnson spinning and forced the No. 48 into hyper-aggressive mode simply to claw back up to fifth by the finish.

“The No. 42 — I don’t think of the three times he’s wrecked me it’s been intentional,” said Johnson. “But he’s out of mulligans. I’ve had enough of, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, and you’re spun out.’ It’s happened way too often.”

Apparently, that’s the case with everyone. So far, we’ve listed 10 drivers, nearly a quarter of the Sprint Cup field each week, with whom a Montoya feud has gone public — and that’s not including the private scrapes even the media can’t get hold of each week. Even those drivers some might classify as underdogs — like Regan Smith, who was a Montoya victim in May 2010 at Charlotte — have developed a grudge. But how could you now when the Colombian responds to an accident like he did after that one?

“It's just hard when you have guys that don't belong there running there,” Montoya said of Smith, who has now won just as many races (one) on the Cup level during the past two seasons. “He never gave me any room … I wanted to run the middle and he just turned down. That's what happens when you start by a lottery and not by performance, and he just doesn't have any [talent]."

The irony of it all is that it’s Montoya’s performance that has suffered the most. All of the drivers on this list, save Logano and Smith, have more career victories while more than half will make the Chase this season. Compare that to an ugly track record for Earnhardt-Ganassi’s top team, which will miss the playoffs for the second straight year and fourth time in five, currently sitting 21st in points and armed with just two top-5 finishes in 25 starts. But don’t expect Montoya himself to take the blame for that, as his crew chief Brian Pattie was axed in July after playing “anger management” on top of the pit box for three seasons.

Bowyer may have stepped over the line in calling Montoya names. But when will Montoya utter the two most important words all these drivers want to hear?

An “I’m sorry” would go a long way, right? But I guess the first problem with that is you actually have to believe that something was your fault.

Agree with Tom? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @NASCARBowles

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NASCAR Horsepower Rankings

Mustache and mullet jokes need not apply

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Jimmie Johnson  Two runner-up finishes in the last three races but no wins since Talladega in April. It’s almost Chase time, though, and Johnson finds himself leading the pack (albeit in a controlled four-wheel drift) as September begins. Surprise, surprise.

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<p> Tropical Depression Lee, meet Jeff Gordon. Gordon won the day in Atlanta, but Jimmie Johnson — who finished second in a four-wheel drift — still sits atop Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>

9. Kurt Busch  Like the little girl with the curl, Kurt can be very, very good or very, very bad. Problem is, that doesn’t translate into Chase success.

10. Kevin Harvick  After back-to-back 22nd-place finishes, Harvick and the boys rebound with a respectable seventh at AMS. Still, something is amiss here.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  He’ll probably make the Chase, but at this rate that’s about all you can expect.

12. Tony Stewart  Finally broke out of a nasty slump with a big third-place showing at Atlanta. More should follow. Should.

13. Martin Truex Jr.   He keeps showing flashes of brilliance but just can’t finish like the big boys.

14. AJ Allmendinger  Somehow ranks 13th in the standings. Probably because that’s about where he finishes each week.

15. Clint Bowyer  If you were at work, YouTube his comments about Juan Pablo Montoya. Classic.

Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Paul Menard

 

Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @MattTaliaferro

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Gordon Wins No. 85

Jeff Gordon wins Atlanta, pulls into third on the all-time NASCAR wins list

by Matt Taliaferro

It’s been almost 19 years since a 20-year-old Jeff Gordon made his first NASCAR Sprint Cup start. The day was November 15, 1992; the race the Hooter’s 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And it would go down as the most notable of the sport’s modern era.

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<p> Jeff Gordon won a thrilling battle against teammate Jimmie Johnson at Atlanta to score his 85th career Cup victory.</p>

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The Earnhardt Extension

Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick still an unlikely pairing

by Tom Bowles

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles examines Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s racing legacy and how it will be linked with Hendrick Motorsports — the racing organization that came up with the plan to dethrone his late father.</p>

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The Summer of Brad

Keselowski continues unlikely hot streak, wins Bristol

by Matt Taliaferro

Brad Keselowski had sniffed the lead all night long, but it wasn’t until the final restart of the Irwin Tools Bristol Night Race that he finally grabbed it and took it as his own. Keselowski shot past Martin Truex Jr. on the race’s final restart, and with clean air and a clean windshield, cruised to an impressive win at Bristol Motor Speedway’s famed night race.

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<p> Brad Keselowski recorded his third win of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season with a win at the Irwin Tools Bristol Night Race.</p>

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Here Comes Danica

Danica Patrick comes full circle - literally - heading to NASCAR full-time in 2012

by Vito Pugliese

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese examines Danica Patrick's decision to move to NASCAR full-time in 2012 and what we should expect from her going forward.</p>

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