Bowyer back in title talk with win in Bank of America 500
Clint Bowyer celebrates in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
After four races, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin had seemingly separated themselves in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Not so fast, says Clint Bowyer.
As the sport’s version of a playoff completed the “first half” in its 10-race run, Bowyer and his No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team used strategy to outsmart the trio of favorites, winning the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with superior fuel mileage.
Bowyer’s third win of the season moved his team to within 28 points of Keselowski in the championship standings.
“I looked at it last week and going into this week, I still thought if one of those guys (Keselowski, Johnson, Hamlin) were to stub a toe, it would really open the door for about eight of us to get right back into the championship hunt,” Bowyer said. “With a win here, it definitely gave us new life and new hope.”
Crew chief Brian Pattie echoed the sentiment, saying that, “Twenty-eight points is achievable over the next five weeks. It’s a lot better than 40, how we started the weekend.
“There’s three guys you’ve got to pass, not only the points. We’ll go to Kansas on Wednesday and test like hell and try to pick up our program even more than we have now because we weren’t the fastest car tonight, we just had (a winning) strategy. It would be nice to win one of these things and actually drive to Victory Lane.”
Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin flexed their muscles throughout a tame event— leading a total of 228 of 334 laps—that witnessed five cautions, two of which were for debris.
But on lap 275, Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske Racing team did something it had largely avoided the previous four weeks: It made a mistake.
While attempting to stretch a tank of fuel, the championship leader—who led the most laps in the event (139)—ran out of gas while leading and coasted into the pits.
That opened the door for Bowyer, Johnson and Hamlin. With Keselowski mired in traffic, they went into fuel conservation mode, reasoning that, with one more full green-flag cycle left, everyone would be running on fumes as the race reached its conclusion.
And they were right. The twist, though, was that Bowyer was a forgotten soul, as the teams of Johnson and Hamlin calculated that they were the only two that would have enough in reserve to stretch one final cycle.
“We outfoxed him,” Bowyer said of Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus. “Any time you outfox him you know you’ve done a good job, especially at this racetrack.”
The miscalculations were not especially harmful to Johnson and Hamlin, though, as the latter finished second and the former third.
Even Keselowski, who managed an 11th-place showing, did not appear to be distraught. He explained that aggressiveness was what got his team here, and one shouldn’t expect them to back off from that stance:
“We’re not going to put the prevent defense out there. We’re going to go at you and try to sack the quarterback every time. Sometimes you’re going to miss, and they’re going to get a big payoff.
“We have hit them a lot, that’s why we’re in the points lead, and we’re going to keep after it.”
Fair enough. And the next stop for NASCAR’s traveling circus is the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway, Bowyer’s home track. And a place that has seen Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin each score a win in the series’ last three visits.
For those still alive with five races remaining, hope springs eternal.
NASCAR’s longest race of the season concluded one of the biggest days for auto racing fans with Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR holding among their biggest events on the same day.
So how did the Coca-Cola 600 compare to those other races? Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council judged which race they enjoyed the most, along with grading the Coca-Cola 600 and debating if the race still needs to be 600 miles. Here’s what they had to say:
WHICH RACE DID YOU ENJOY THE MOST SUNDAY?
54.2 percent said the Coca-Cola 600 42.5 percent said the Indianapolis 500 3.3 percent said the Formula One race in Monaco
What Fan Council members said:
• I watched all 1,261 miles of racing on Sunday, starting with the F1 Monaco GP. The Indianapolis 500 proved to be the best race of them all.
• The Monaco race is the most overrated race anywhere. The cars outgrew that track 30 years ago. I understand the tradition but it's not a good race. Indy had an exciting finish, but most of the race was follow the leader. The 600 didn't have a lot of battling for the lead, but it seemed like there was passing in the pack. I like stock cars so I enjoyed the 600 the most.
• The Indy 500 was simply stunning. Action-packed. Cliffhanger of an ending. Great TV production value. Numerous refreshing and likable driver personalities. And the online in-car cams were a brilliant addition. The F1 race had many of those same elements. It was terrific, too. And honestly, the 600 was no slouch either. There was plenty of solid racing and passing.
• I am a huge NASCAR fan... HUGE!!! I have never watched an Indy race from start to finish all the way without flipping channels at least once. (Sunday) changed that. I found myself glued to Indy and bored by the 600. Sad, sad day
• While the Indy 500 was great and one of the few Indy races that I arrange my schedule to see, the 600 was a test of man and machine. It was a RACE!!
• Indy 500 had the most action. But I still like NASCAR best.
• Indy was the first time I've actually watched any part of that series and it was only the last 16 laps. When did Indy cars turn into go-karts? UGLY, UGLY cars. The only race I looked forward too on Sunday was the Coke 600.
• That is a difficult choice to make. Each race had periods of excitement, but none of them stood head-and-shoulders above the competition. In the end I think I will go with the Indianapolis 500 for the racing, and the pomp and circumstance. The Formula 1 race was interesting, but not the best F1 race. ... The Coca-Cola 600 did a nice job of honoring the troops past and present. There were some interesting racing battles occasionally. It was nice to see drivers come through the field during the race. Pit strategy did not seem to work very well, which was a nice change of pace. I was very glad we didn't end up with a “Where did he come from?” finish.
• The end of the Indy 500 was far more exciting. I enjoyed the passing. NASCAR has been so dull this year.
• The Indy 500 had great story lines, lots of excitement throughout the race and an emotional and dramatic ending. Perfect.
• Monaco is one of my favorite tracks and the race was great. The Coca-Cola 600 was good in my opinion, but definitely not one of the best of the year. The Indy 500 was fantastic! As it should've been, it’s their Daytona 500. Great drama leading up the finish and so many lead changes. Loved it.
• Only NASCAR has my attention.
• I enjoyed the Coca-Cola 600 more than the Indy 500 only because I am a huge NASCAR fan, not because of the race itself.
GRADE SUNDAY’S COCA-COLA 600
49.5 percent called it Good 35.7 percent called it Fair 7.6 percent called it Great 7.2 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• I enjoyed watching the racing without constant cautions. My driver had some problems, so that was disappointing, but I'm pleased that Kasey Kahne won. Not only was it another different driver, but he earned the win.
• I love a Memorial Day parade as much as anyone, but 600 miles seems rather over the top to me. Seriously, until they undo the IROC-ization of the sport, I have very little reason to watch this farce any more.
• Having been there in person, the only exciting part was when Kahne and Biffle kept fighting for the lead, and then Kahne winning. Other than that, I'm sorry I paid money to see it in person.
• The Coca Cola 600 is always an endurance race. I got exactly what was expected. I found the race fun to watch, and was actually glad we had long green-flag runs so the race didn't drag out like it could have.
• Even though my driver didn’t run so hot, there was excitement, passing and uncertainty over who would win.
• Come on, (nine) cars on the lead lap?
• If people were looking for racing — real, true racing — then the 600 certainly supplied it. There were lots of mid-pack passes and battles for the lead. Long green runs and a lack of crashes do not equate to boredom — but they do expose small-mindedness.
• Even the long green flag runs were enjoyable because cars had to pit a lot under green and it changed the running order every time.
• I was there for the race and was immensely disappointed especially because after the last green flag pit stops, with approximately 40 to go, there was very little change to the top 10 running order, very little drama, and practically no excitement.
• This race is a bit long, but with the good clean racing, lead changes and a lot of movement through the field, it was pretty good. There were some parts of the race where it became a little boring, but much better than some of the previous races.
• One of the best Coke 600's in recent memory. There was great racing all race long and watching some of the drivers come from the back to front was just classic.
• For what NASCAR has become it was a good race.
SHOULD THE COCA-COLA 600 REMAIN A 600-MILE RACE?
74.7 percent said Yes
25.3 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• It's tradition and not sure why we continue to ask if the races should be shortened. Quit trying to please the newcomers and listen to those of us who have been around for a long time!
• I think most races should be shortened to 300-400 miles. But the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 are part of NASCAR history. Those races should be kept at their normal distance. By shortening all other races, it would bring more prestige to these famous races and keep the fans more engaged for the shorter races.
• This race is a once-a-year tradition on Memorial Day (weekend). Especially since Pocono has been shortened, this will be the one race where a driver's endurance will be tested and I enjoy that once a year.
• There are some things that are a tradition like the Daytona 500 and the World 600. Just because the “Short Attention Span Crowd” gets easily bored doesn't mean we should change this traditional race length.
• When did tradition — genuine, likable, meaningful tradition — become such a terrible, horrifying, offensive thing? I've heard people complain about the length of the race before. So if you have beef, don't watch!
• How about 400 miles instead of laps? That would help.
• Traditionalists will most likely disagree, but I don't want to watch cars go around in circles for that long.
• IT NEEDS TO STAY 600 MILES. END OF STORY.
• For goodness sakes, NASCAR needs MORE variety, MORE tradition, MORE racing — not less!!! Shorter races ARE NOT the answer.
• CUT IT DOWN. Everybody was bored, plain and simple.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join 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.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600
Photo by ASP, Inc.
A happy Memorial Day weekend to all the fantasy NASCAR racers out there. This week it’s the most demanding 600 miles on the schedule, the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The annual tradition dating back to 1960 tests the best of driver, equipment and team. Coming one week after the All-Star Race, the Coke 600 also marks the next phase of the NASCAR season.
Teams have ebbed and flowed thus far over the season, but with a week of practice under their belts on the 1.5-mile speedway in Charlotte, this Sunday’s 600 miles provides an opportunity to make a statement, maintain consistent finishes, or turn a difficult season around before it is too late.
One team that certainly made a statement in Saturday night’s All-Star Race was the No. 48 team of Hendrick Motorsports. Driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus knew if they won the first of the five segments, the night would fall into their laps.
Starting from the sixth spot, Johnson was able to make his moves to the front in the first 20-lap segment. After taking the caution flag for the break, it was all about avoiding trouble in the back of the pack and making adjustments to the racecar throughout the night. Restarting in the lead for the final 10-lap segment, Johnson powered out front on the green flag and never looked back.
While the format of the All-Star Race is dramatically different from the one we'll see Sunday afternoon and evening, there are a lot of things that will transfer over. Primarily, the fact the No. 48 is the team to beat.
Coming off an historic 200th career win for Hendrick Motorsports in Darlington, the No. 48 team beat the two-time defending champion No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew for the 2012 Pit Crew Challenge. That momentum carried over into the All-Star Race, where the 48 Chevrolet was the dominant car on the evening.
Enjoying the extended time in the Charlotte area these past two weeks, Hendrick Motorsports enters the Coca-Cola 600 weekend with a ton of momentum, loads of confidence, and the rest of the field looking up at Johnson.
All told, Johnson has six career wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway, including three consecutive Coca-Cola 600 wins from 2003-05. However, Johnson has not found Victory Lane at Charlotte since 2009.
The win Saturday night gives the No. 48 team confidence heading into Sunday's marathon race, but Johnson knows it will not be easy.
“Even though we won the race, I saw a lot of strong cars tonight,” Johnson said following his third All-Star Race win. “I think track position at the end of the 600 is going to be key. Two or three pit stops from the end, being in the right position, having the right strategy, if it's fuel, two tires, four, none, whatever it might be, that’s going to be key.”
While Johnson will be this week’s fantasy favorite, also keep an eye on a few guys that had solid cars in Saturday's All-Star Race.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne ran down to the wire in a photo finish to end the third segment of the night. Both drivers had strong cars in that race and carry momentum from the past few weeks as well. Keselowski will be searching for his first victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway, while Kahne, a three-time winner at Charlotte, will be looking to rekindle some of his past success.
Roush Fenway Racing's Matt Kenseth also knows how to get the job done on the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 17 Ford was third in Saturday's All-Star Race after struggling on the outside on the final restart. The long 600-mile event is the type of race that falls right into Kenseth's style, so look for him to be a strong contender as well.
Fan-favorite and hometown hero Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally scored a win last week, but unfortunately it was in the Sprint Showdown to qualify for the All-Star Race. Although the win was not a points-paying event, and will not eliminate his winless streak dating back to 2008, the fact is Earnhardt won that event and won the fourth 20-lap segment in Saturday's main event.
Earnhardt has a lot of confidence and momentum on his side, not to mention that he nearly won last year's Coca-Cola 600. Leading on the final lap, his No. 88 Chevy ran out of fuel coming through the final corners, giving the win to Kevin Harvick. The team is bringing the same car they ran the All-Star Race with, so expect Earnhardt to bring fans to their feet late in the race and possibly end that daunting winless streak.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
One driver that caught my eye throughout last weekend's All-Star events was Richard Petty Motorsports’ Marcos Ambrose. Although he did not lead a single lap, Ambrose was one of, if not the, strongest cars on each restart. Whenever the No. 9 Ford restarted on the outside line, Ambrose had passed a handful of cars before exiting Turn 2 onto the backstretch.
Ambrose scored two top-10 finishes at Charlotte last year, and is hungry to score that elusive oval win. This team has ratcheted it up a notch, and I expect them to be a solid contender in Sunday's race, leading to solid fantasy points at the end of the day.
AJ Allmendinger drove his heart out in the Sprint Showdown to finish second and qualify for the night's main event. Once in the Sprint All-Star Race, Allmendinger powered his No. 22 Dodge to the front of the field on numerous occasions.
Since joining Penske Racing, Allmendinger has struggled mainly to find any luck on the track. This week he is looking to turn his poor luck around and finally score the all-so-difficult first Sprint Cup Series win.
Five Undervalued Picks: Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards
One organization that heads into this weekend looking to turn its season around before it is too late is the two-car Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team. After significant changes behind the scenes during the offseason, precious few result have come to pass in the first part of 2012.
However, both Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya enter this weekend's race as our darkhorse picks. McMurray has two wins at Charlotte, but struggled there in 2011. The 2010 fall Charlotte race winner nearly raced his way into Saturday night's All-Star Race, but came up one position short.
Montoya has one top-10 finish at Charlotte (2009), but has been knocking on the door over the past few years, finishing 11th, 12th and 14th in his last three starts. While this weekend may not be the one in which he scores his first oval win, he should put up solid fantasy numbers.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Aric Almirola, Landon Cassill
Best Average Finish at Charlotte (Wins)
1. Joey Logano - 8.2 (0)
2. Jimmie Johnson - 11.9 (6)
3. Carl Edwards - 12.6 (0)
4. Kasey Kahne - 13.4 (3)
5. Tony Stewart - 13.6 (1)
6. Matt Kenseth - 14.4 (2)
7. Bobby Labonte - 14.7 (2)
8. Jeff Burton - 15.4 (3)
9. David Reutimann - 15.8 (1)
10. Jeff Gordon - 15.9 (5)
Prior to Jimmie Johnson’s win in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on May 12, it seemed Hendrick Motorsports would never get that elusive 200th Cup win. Its 16-race slide in between wins was relative in NASCAR terms, but for an organization lugging around tractor trailer loads of “200 Wins” caps and assorted other merchandise, it was time to hit the milestone and move on.
It turns out, moving on is just what Hendrick Motorsports has done.
Johnson once again led the HMS charge on Saturday, becoming only the third driver to have earned three All-Star Race victories with a dazzling performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The No. 48 team’s strategy, flawless execution and pure speed harkened back to a time when it was all but unbeatable at the track then known as Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
Over a scintillating four-year period from 2003-06, the group led by crew chief Chad Knaus won five points-paying races, finished second twice and third once. It also recorded two All-Star wins (2003, ’06), to boot.
In Saturday’s exhibition race, Johnson and Knaus were not only the fastest, but the smartest, in a 23-car field. Having won Friday’s Pit Crew Challenge, the 48 team was awarded the final stall on pit road — the preferred choice. They easily won the first of the five-segment event, then dropped to the rear of the field for the proceeding three 20-lap runs, guaranteed of the first-place spot when the field stopped for a mandatory visit prior to a final 10-lap dash.
Johnson’s stop-and-go pit appearance allowed him to retain the lead, and from there it was only a matter of mashing the gas on the restart — which he did when second-place Matt Kenseth spun his tires. From there, he cruised to a .841-second victory.
“If you won the first segment, it was very easy what you could do,” Johnson said of the strategy. “There was just as much importance — not as much, but very close — amount of importance to win the second (segment). We felt like the winner would come out of the front row (on the 10-lap shootout), unless these guys got crazy and crashed or something.
“To make your odds work in your favor, being on that front row is key. First or second segment was the goal to win.”
Knaus echoed the thought.
“The biggest thing you have to do in any event is you have to limit your risk,” the crew chief noted. “That’s what we needed to do. We were fortunate that (Jimmie) was able to get out there that first segment and attack and get the win. From that point on, all you want to do is maintain and make sure you’re there at the end.”
Another Hendrick team, the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr., also enjoyed a successful night. Earnhardt won the Sprint Showdown, a transfer race for those not already qualified for the All-Star Race. He then won the fourth 20-lap segment before settling for fifth in the feature.
“I think we showed what we are capable of doing here next weekend,” Earnhardt said of the Coca-Cola 600, also held in Charlotte. “We are probably going to bring the same car. We have a couple of ideas on how to make the car even faster, especially for qualifying, that I hope will work out. I am real pleased with our effort.”
Hendrick will look for his 10th win in that race, a contest of endurance that is considered one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events.
“I think track position at the end of the 600 is going to be key,” Johnson said. “Two or three pit stops from the end, being in the right position, having the right strategy — if it’s fuel, two tires, four, none, whatever it might be — that’s going to be key.”
If Saturday’s race proved anything, it was that strategy was key. If that indeed is what it comes down to once again, figure Johnson, Knaus and the 48 team as the overwhelming favorite.