Sprint Cup Series

7 Amazing NASCAR Driver Stats for the Daytona 500

NASCAR Numbers Game: Daytona
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<p> 7 Amazing NASCAR Driver Stats for the Daytona 500</p>

Daytona. For the casual fan, it’s the one time a year in which tuning in is a must, not an option. For the hardcore fans and industry veterans, it’s a spiritual revival. It suffices as the start of a new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season when teams have spotless records and sky-high optimism.

Danica, Stenhouse and an Evolving NASCAR Narrative

New storylines will emerge at Speedweeks in Daytona
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<p> New storylines will emerge at Speedweeks in Daytona.</p>

It’s been a unique start to Speedweeks in Daytona for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Though technically, I guess most starts are unique. This one, however, has taken a new (if not predictable) turn since Danica Patrick went public concerning her relationship with fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to re-hash, quote-for-quote, the events of the week.

Kenseth's Future, Gordon's Slump and Kahne's Strategy

The Long and Short of It
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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long talks about Matt Kenseth leaving Roush, Jeff Gordon's continued slump and Kasey Kahne's new Chase strategy.</p>

Points leader Matt Kenseth will leave Roush Fenway Racing after this season and be replaced by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the team announced Tuesday.

Reports state that Kenseth is headed to Joe Gibbs Racing although it is unclear if it will be with a fourth team or in place of Joey Logano, who is in the final year of his contract. 

Pennell’s Picks: Fantasy NASCAR Trends at Darlington

Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Darlington
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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Bojangles' Southern 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway.</p>
2012

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

Pennell’s Picks: Fantasy NASCAR Trends at Richmond

Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Richmond
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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway.</p>
2012

This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits Richmond International Raceway for some good ol’ fashioned short track racing in the hopes of putting on an exciting race — something many fans are clamoring for after a dull month. Typically one of the more action-packed tracks on the schedule, Richmond has averaged 10.8 cautions since 2007 and last year's September race saw a total of 15 yellow flag periods.

NASCAR's Comers and Go'ers

Taking stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series at the Easter break
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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell reviews the first six NASCAR Sprint Cup races of the 2012 season as the series takes its first off-weekend.</p>
2012

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.

NASCAR Horsepower Rankings

NASCAR's northern Chase swing in full effect

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Jimmie Johnson  Looked like the typical Chase race for Johnson ... until he was bit by the fuel bug. Still, how many teams do you know can run out of fuel on the final lap and still finish 10th?

2. Kevin Harvick  True to form, “The Closer” was running down Tony Stewart in the closing laps at Chicago. However, this time he came up short. Still your championship leader, though.

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<p> Tony Stewart makes a move up Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings after an impressive Chase-opening win in the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.</p>

8. Matt Kenseth  Kenseth was Stewart’s main competition until — yes, you guessed it — the tank ran dry. And a little “help” from Travis Kvapil was salt in the wound.

9. Kyle Busch  Busch seemed to have a decent car in Chicago, but could never gain the track position he needed to run up front. Oh yeah, he ran out of gas, too.

10. Kurt Busch  Kurt says he’s in Jimmie Johnson’s head, but after listening to him rant to his team on the radio, I think Kurt’s pit crew is in Kurt’s head.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Was a legit top-10 car at race’s end. That everyone ran out of fuel in front of him was icing on the cake.

12. Denny Hamlin  What a difference a year makes.

13. Mark Martin  13th on back in the Horsepower Rankings is more or less irrelevant … much like on the Cup circuit!

14. AJ Allmendinger  It wasn’t pretty at Chicago, but credit AJ for a month of solid runs.

15. Clint Bowyer  Returning this week to New Hampshire. Also known to Bowyer as “the scene of the crime.”

Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr.

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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NASCAR Chase Preview

Can anyone unseat Jimmie Johnson?

by Matt Taliaferro

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<p> Athlon Sports handicaps the NASCAR Chase for the Championship field, wondering if there is any team on the circuit that can end Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign as Sprint Cup Series champion.</p>

As for Busch, I’ll believe a “New Kyle Busch” exists just as soon as his older brother proves he’s really in Johnson’s head. Kyle is an on-track skirmish away from going thermonuclear still — although “thermonuclear” may be overstating it a tad. You can’t deny the progress he’s made in the “Quit Being a Jackass” department, but that attitude seemed to be what gave him an edge.

Busch’s equipment is the other concern. Despite all the wins over the last three years or so, Joe Gibbs Racing always manages to trip themselves up in the Chase somehow or another. That said, Busch seems to be much kinder to his equipment (under the hood equipment, that is) than his teammate, Denny Hamlin. This is a big Chase for Kyle from a career-standpoint perspective, so not fading is important. If he finishes in the top three I’ll be convinced he’s ready to take on the mantle of Sprint Cup Champion in 2012.

One driver who has no convincing to do is Jeff Gordon. A rejuvenated Gordon, with ace-in-the-hole crew chief Alan Gustafson, has the desire, hunger — and at long last, the pure speed — to give Johnson all he wants. The four-time champ is finally throwing W’s on the board again, and winning a race or two in the next 10 is imperative. If anyone is to slay the Goliath that is the 48 team, this is it.

Carl Edwards was the latest, and thus far, only multi-time preseason pick to give Johnson a run for his money. It’s been a strange season for Edwards, though, as he has enjoyed only one trip to Victory Lane thus far. Granted, it’s safe to say that the team was doing some R&D (and contract) work through the summer and has rounded into form. He’ll factor, although to what extent is not yet clear.

Skipping down the standings a bit, Brad Keselowski looks dangerous. Yeah, it’s easy to jump on a guy’s bandwagon when he’s hot and in his second full-time campaign on the Cup circuit, predicting a title run may be putting the cart before the horse. But Keselowski is a different bird. He seems to thrive on high-pressure situations, completely at ease while in the eye of the hurricane. Where Denny Hamlin fumbled one away last year, Keselowski can be counted on to keep both hands on the ball. If — and that’s admittedly a big “if” — he can keep pace through the first six races, he’s a guy the big boys don’t want to see near the top heading down the stretch.

What’s there to say about Matt Kenseth? He threw up a flurry of victories this year (for Kenseth, a flurry is two) and deceptively cruised through the first 26 races, showcasing a consistency that’s become his trademark. He’ll need another flurry to bag this title, which may be asking a lot, as his style is not conducive to a 10-race hot streak. That said, he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig will have their moments. Just not enough of them.

Kurt Busch’s No. 22 team is an enigma. World-beaters one week, out to lunch the next. Has the success of his teammate (Keselowski) hindered Busch’s performance? That may seem like an asinine question, but I’m convinced the more a guy shouts one thing from the rooftops, the less likely it’s true. In this case, Busch claims to be in Johnson’s head (riiiiippppp…), implying his team is the mentally superior of the two. I don’t buy it, and I don’t buy that Kurt and his crew are serious title threats.

There’s quite a dip down to the four remaining Chasers. Ryan Newman has put together a nice season thus far with 13 top 10s. But is the sixth Hendrick team — OK, we’ll call them the fifth Hendrick team with Mark Martin all but gone — capable of winning this whole dog ’n’ pony show? And what of his Stewart-Haas teammate and car owner, Tony Stewart? What a long strange trip it’s been for his No. 14 team. Quite frankly, something’s amiss there to the point that there is no magical switch for Smoke to throw and make it all right. Maybe Danica Patrick’s input next season will help …

Then there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin. Look, Junior made for a nice story earlier this season when he posted a slew of top-12 showings, but while other teams have improved, Junior’s has stagnated. Some of the Chase tracks favor The Son, but like Stewart, there’s no magic switch to be thrown.

That leaves Hamlin, the latest in a long line of drivers who got out-drank by Johnson last season and is suffering a year-long hangover. Hamlin could actually surprise, although if he gets in an early hole, it’ll be R&D Season for the 11 team. A win isn’t out of the question, but a championship is.

So in the end, I believe it’s a two-horse race between Johnson and Gordon, with Harvick, Edwards and Keselowski not too far behind. And like I said earlier: Until someone proves they can take down the most dominant team of the decade, I have to side with the 48 team.

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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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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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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