49ers looking for different results in their return to NFC title game; Falcons aiming to finish the job at home
The top two teams in the NFC meet on Sunday to determine who will represent the conference in Super Bowl XLVII, as the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons face off in the NFC Championship game at 3 p.m. ET on FOX. The 49ers find themselves in the conference title game for the second year in a row, but this time must get the job done on the road against the Falcons, who have lost just one game in the Georgia Dome this season.
Ravens hoping road success continues against Patriots in rematch of last season’s AFC title game
For the second year in a row the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots will face off with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line when the two teams kick things off in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game at 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS. The Ravens lost 23-20 to the Patriots in Gillette Stadium in last year’s AFC title game, as wide receiver Lee Evans couldn’t hold onto a potential game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter and kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.
The first time Brad Keselowski asked Paul Wolfe to be his crew chief, Wolfe didn’t flinch.
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘No, I don’t want to do it,’” Keselowski said. “I think he was kind of mad at me because I had wrecked (his car).”
It was Aug. 2009 when Keselowski posed the question to Wolfe, a former driver turned crew chief working for CJM Racing.
A few months later, as Keselowski and Penske Racing officials made plans for the following season, they told Keselowski they were considering Wolfe as his crew chief.
“I kind of laughed and said, ‘good luck,’” Keselowski said. “They said, ‘We’ve been talking to him the last two weeks and he wants to do it.’”
So, what changed? What led to the pairing of a driver and crew chief on the cusp of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship this weekend at Homestead?
Simple, the funding for Wolfe’s team wasn’t there. He had said no to Keselowski because of his loyalty to CJM Racing but with the lack of funding a question, Wolfe considered other options, including Penske.
“As I sat down and looked at them, I had raced with Brad and seen what he was able to do,” Wolfe said. “I felt like together, him and I, could hopefully win races and contend for championships. The opportunity was here at Penske to do that.”
Keselowski says he first approached Wolfe to be his crew chief because he saw something most outside the sport couldn’t see in what Wolfe was doing.
“He was a guy who outperformed his resources,” Keselowski said. “In this sport excellence is defined by the media and the fans as those who win. Those inside the sport, those who actually compete, define excellence as those who outperform their resources. So if you’re running 20th in 30th-place equipment, that’s how we would define excellence as a driver or as a crew chief you’re putting together race-winning cars with a team that has C- or D-level budget. That’s how you define excellence. That’s what I saw in Paul. That’s what he saw in me.”
Now, they are on the verge of winning the Cup title two years after they combined to win the Nationwide championship.
TITLE RACES Here’s a look at the clinch scenarios for each of NASCAR’s three national series this weekend in Homestead.
Sprint Cup: Brad Keselelowski has a 20-point lead on Jimmie Johnson. Keselowski wins the title, regardless of what Johnson does, by finishing at least 15th. Keselowski also can clinch the title by finishing 16th and collecting a bonus point for leading a lap or by finishing 17th and adding the bonus point for leading the most laps.
Nationwide: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has a 20-point lead on Elliott Sadler. Stenhouse wins the title, regardless of what Sadler does, by finishing 16th or better. Stenhouse also can clinch the title by earning the bonus point for leading a lap and finishing 17th or by adding the bonus point for leading the most laps and finishing 18th.
Camping World Trucks: James Buescher has an 11-point lead on Timothy Peters. Buescher clinches the title, no matter what Peters does, by finishing seventh or better. Peters also can clinch by securing the bonus point for leading a lap and finishing eighth or adding the bonus point for most laps led and finishing ninth.
NATIONWIDE SCHEDULE RELEASED Mid-Ohio will replace the Montreal road race on the 2013 Nationwide schedule, series officials announced Tuesday.
The Mid-Ohio race will be Aug. 17. It marks the first time the series has run on the 2.4-mile, 15-turn course. Mid-Ohio will be one of three road courses on the schedule, joining Road America (June 22) and Watkins Glen (Aug. 10).
Mid-Ohio was added after the Montreal race promoter decided not to renew its contract with NASCAR since it could not get a Sprint Cup race. The Mid-Ohio course is located about an hour drive from Columbus, Ohio, which is home of series sponsor Nationwide Insurance.
The 33-race Nationwide schedule for next season features six standalone races — Iowa (June 8 and Aug. 3), Chicagoland Speedway (July 21), Kentucky Speedway (Sept. 21), Mid-Ohio and Road America. The remaining 27 races will be run on the same weekend with the Cup Series.
The Nationwide season will open Feb. 23 at Daytona and end Nov. 16 at Homestead.
STREAKING As NASCAR’s top three series head into the final weekend of the season, a few drivers are trying to keep streaks alive. Among them:
Ryan Newman is seeking to win a Cup pole for a 12th consecutive season. Only Jeff Gordon (20 consecutive years) has a longer streak among active drivers.
Kurt Busch is looking to win a Cup race for the 11th consecutive season. Only Tony Stewart (14 years in a row) and Jimmie Johnson (11) have longer streaks among current drivers.
In the Nationwide Series, Kyle Busch seeks a win to extend his streak of consecutive seasons with at least a victory to nine.
In the Camping World Truck Series, both Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday need a win to extend their streak of consecutive seasons with at least a victory to eight. Hornaday’s streak of seven consecutive seasons with at least a pole will end if he doesn’t win the pole this weekend.
PIT STOPS Tony Stewart will make his 500th career Cup start Sunday at Homestead. He’s scored 47 wins, 174 top-5 and 282 top-10 finishes in his first 499 career Cup starts. ... Homestead will mark Jeff Gordon’s 689th consecutive start, third on the all-time list. Ricky Rudd holds the record with 788 consecutive starts and Rusty Wallace is next at 697. With the current schedule at 36 races, Gordon could pass Rudd late in the 2015 season.
by Dustin Long Follow Dustin Long on Twitter:@DustinLong
From the Spotter’s Stand
NASCAR takes its traveling road show to South Beach for the last stop on the Cup schedule. And home sweet Homestead is the only race where it’s possible to see two teams celebrate victory.
In 2010, Carl Edwards back-flipped and chilled with the crowd after winning his second straight race of the Chase and earning his second Homestead win in three years. Cousin Carl led 190 laps and gained plenty of positive momentum that has translated into a title run this season.
But the driver who did donuts after the race was the runner-up. Jimmie Johnson led just one lap, but it was enough to finish No. 1 in the standings — 39 points ahead of Denny Hamlin — and clinch a record fifth straight Cup title for Rick Hendrick’s top team.
Make no mistake, this race will be the “Tony and Carl Show,” as the two hit South Florida separated by just three points in the standings. This championship battle could go either way: Edwards gets marks for his performance since Homestead’s reconfiguration and Stewart has been running so well regardless of track that a win is possible on any given weekend.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Long straightaways transition into corners where speed must be maintained — at least partially — to set up a pass in the center (of the corner) off. A car that can pick up the throttle quickly off the corner is one that can pass.
“That track was such a disaster when it opened. They shaped it like Indy, only smaller, but didn’t realize that squared-off corners are just dangerous on a track that’s a mile and half, not two. So they rounded the corners, and then stage three was tapering the banking. It took a bunch of money and revamping, but they got it right.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Points leader Carl Edwards has two wins and six top 10s in seven starts at HMS. Pretty Solid Pick: Tony Stewart is going to be on Carl’s bumper all race long. Or maybe in front of it. Good Sleeper Pick: AJ Allmendinger has yet to win a Cup race, but that may change on Sunday. He’s never finished worse than 11th in Homestead. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Kyle Busch has typically thrown in the towel by now. This year is probably no exception. Insider Tip: This one’s for all the marbles. Your lineup needs to include either Edwards or Stewart.
Classic Moments at Homestead-Miami Speedway
The 2004 Ford 400 in Homestead marks the final race of NASCAR’s inaugural Chase for the Championship.
Kurt Busch enters the event 18 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and 21 up over Jeff Gordon, but on lap 93 the wheels come off. Literally. Busch loses his right front wheel while running second to Greg Biffle, when the hub completely detaches from the car. Luckily, Busch has already ducked to the pit access road, although he nearly hits the pit road wall in the process.
Amazingly, Busch never loses a lap, and wins a game of points-leader leapfrog, finishing fifth while Johnson is second and Gordon third. Eight points separate Busch from Johnson, marking the tightest points finish in NASCAR history.
Just three points separate Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards as they settle the 2011 Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But is this really the greatest (or even the closest) title fight ever? Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese takes a look back at the greatest last-lap championship finishes in NASCAR’s history.
Much has been and will be made this weekend about the “closest championship battle ever.” Many pundits have bandied about how the 2011 Chase for the Championship is “the greatest championship fight ever,” “the closest title fight ever” or “the best Chase yet.” That might not be true if your name is Kyle Busch — or if you were watching the sport before Jimmie Johnson decided to make a career out of destroying records and invalidating a number of title formats.
This year marks the first time somebody other than Johnson will win the title since before vampire movies were relevant. So let’s reflect back on some of those “other” championship battles that went down to the final race. After all, if this year is supposed to be the greatest and most dramatic championship ever, it would have to be gauged against the following five title bouts.
1973: Benny Parsons vs. Richard Petty vs. Cale Yarborough
It was the early ’70s. Music sucked, the cars were getting slow and everybody wore their hair and dressed like a dirtball or a terrorist. It was also a time when Richard Petty began to build upon the legacy that would earn him the nickname “The King,” having won back-to-back titles in 1971 and ’72.
Going into the final race at Rockingham, Benny Parsons held a 194.5-point lead over Petty. Parsons, driving a Chevrolet for L.G. DeWitt, qualified fifth and was running by his lonesome when a car spun on the backstretch. Parsons clipped it, ripping the entire right side off of the car — including the roll cage. There was only one other car that didn’t qualify for the event and that was still at the track — a car owned by Ralph Moody of legendary Ford-tandem Holman-Moody fame. Moody’s car became a donor for Parsons’ mangled machine.
BP returned to the action 136 laps down, but was able to hold off Cale Yarborough in the championship battle by 67.15 points. It would be the only Cup title for Parsons, whose feat prevented Petty from winning five consecutive championships.
1979: Darrell Waltrip vs. Richard Petty
As the worst decade ever came to a close, a new age in NASCAR dawned. Darrell Waltrip brought a brash attitude and trash-talking to the stock car scene, while The King was not quite ready to abdicate the throne. While DW may have pulled a slide job on Petty to win at Darlington in the Rebel 500, the championship would come down to the final event in Ontario, Calif. — the spiritual sister track to The Brickyard.
Petty trailed Waltrip by two points heading into the final race (a true two-point margin, mind you; Tony Stewart would trail Carl Edwards by 15 points under this same system). On the 38th lap of the event, a car spun in front of Waltrip, who also spun in an effort to avoid hitting what may have been in the cloud of smoke ahead of him. This was before the era of any sort of electronic timing and scoring or transponders, and Waltrip believed he was the leader, having pitted just once to the leaders’ two stops. Later, Waltrip’s crew chief would confirm his greatest fear: he was actually one lap down.
Petty would finish fifth to Waltrip’s eighth that day. It was the seventh and final championship for Petty, and an improbable one at that, as 10 races prior, Petty was 227 points out of the lead. Considering how out to lunch Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team were stumbling into the Chase this season, the final 1979 race in Ontario should provide some inspiration for the owner/driver of Stewart-Haas Racing.
2004: Five-Way Chase Race
There were a lot of naysayers when the term “The Chase” entered the NASCAR lexicon following 19 seasons of sensational championship showdowns. Unfortunately, two of the final four NASCAR seasons were less than thrilling, with Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth conspiring to give credence to a new points format — one that the “casual sports fan” would be more accustomed to.
While many bemoaned the very idea of change and cursed the billion-dollar network television deal which spawned this hideous monster, come Homestead in November 2004, there were five drivers with a shot at the first Nextel Cup.
Kurt Busch entered the event with a scant 18-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin mathematically in contention for the crown. As cheesy as it sounds, the wheels of Busch’s championship chase literally did come off of Lap 93, as a loose right front wheel gave way on his car. Busch, sensing something was amiss, ducked to pit road as the wheel separated itself from the machine, and he narrowly missed hitting the pit road barrier. The errant Goodyear Eagle then bounded down the frontstretch, brought out a caution and, as a result, Busch remained on the lead lap.
A late-race, two-lap scramble saw Busch’s teammate, Greg Biffle, win the event, preventing Johnson from gaining a position and leading a lap — and ultimately falling short of a championship. Had Johnson gotten by Biffle, he would have won by two points. As it stands, the first Chase season was the closest ever and, in hindsight, nearly thrust Johnson within but one title of immortality alongside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty’s seven Cup titles.
1990: The Blue Oval Brigade vs. Dale Earnhardt
Rusty Wallace and the No. 27 Raymond Beadle-owned team did everything humanly possible to lose the championship in 1989, but somehow outlasted Dale Earnhardt by 12 points. While Wallace jumped up and down on his hood, the Intimidator went and sulked in his tree stand.
The 1990 season was supposed to be all Earnhardt, as he looked to finally win the Daytona 500 and his fourth championship. The 500 ended with the checkered flag in sight for Earnhardt and a piece of Ricky Rudd’s bell housing slicing open his tire. There was also the matter of an upstart Ford team, which a year earlier served notice that a Midwest short-track ace getting his second shot at stardom and a Michigan-based engineer with a road- and drag-race background were going to be sticking around for the foreseeable future in the form of Mark Martin and Jack Roush.
Martin and Earnhardt emerged during the summer months as the two title contenders, with Martin assuming the points lead in June despite a dubious 46-point fine regarding a welded intake spacer that was technically legal after Martin won the third race of the season in Richmond. There used to be a week off prior to the final race in Atlanta, and the Ford teams had one mission: defeat General Motors and deny it a championship. While the No. 6 Roush team had won the August event at Michigan, all of the Ford camps colluded during the week of testing prior to the final race to conjure up the ultimate Thunderbird — the original Roush/Yates collaboration.
What resulted was a good idea gone awry: A car that pushed like an Amish haycart and had air in the brake lines. Earnhardt finished third, Martin sixth, and the Intimidator took his fourth Cup title by 26 points.
1992: The Greatest Championship Battle and Single Race in NASCAR History.
There are certain sports highlights that are ingrained in the minds of fans everywhere. If you’re a baseball fan, it’s Kirk Gibson hobbling around second, fist pumping, after going yard on a bum wheel. If you’re a football fan, it’s Montana to Clark in slow motion. If you’re a NASCAR fan, it’s everything that happened in the 1992 Hooters 500.
We’ve all become accustomed to the pre-race flyover, but it isn’t often that you have AH-64 Apaches pacing the field around the track.
It was Jeff Gordon’s first race and Richard Petty’s fiery finale, replete with on-air demands of safety workers to, “Get the ****in’ fire extinguisher!” (little wonder where Kurt Busch gets it from). Six drivers entered the final race with a shot at the championship: Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison (despite nearly getting killed twice in racing accidents that year), Mark Martin, Kyle Petty and Harry Gant.
Martin dominated the middle stages of the race before succumbing to a burned piston, while Allison was taken out by a swervin’ Ernie Irvan. That left it to Awesome Bill and the Kulwicki’s Underbird. Kulwicki needed to lead one more lap than Elliott to prevent him from leading the most laps — had he not, Elliott would have won the tie-breaker based on wins (five victories to Kulwicki’s two).
If Tony Stewart is in need of any sort of motivation this weekend as he attempts to eclipse Carl Edwards in the Sprint Cup standings, he should pop in a tape of this race. The original stock car engineer, who kept St. Christopher wings under his seat and a comb in his pocket, realized the unlikely dream when he set forth down south from Greenfield, Wisc., six years earlier. Kulwicki finished second to Elliott in the race, but won the big prize by 10 points — ending the greatest championship battle and single race in NASCAR history.