Fans hurt in ugly Nationwide Series wreck in Daytona
Photo by ASP, Inc.
DAYTONA BEACH, FL — A violent ending to Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway marred an exciting race and left numerous fans injured and a sport shaken.
As a pack of cars sprinted to the start-finish line on the event’s final lap, a massive crash broke out when Regan Smith attempted to block Brad Keselowski while racing for the lead. Smith’s car clipped the nose of Keselowski in the tri-oval and impacted the wall head-on. Keselowski also spun, and chaos ensued when drivers took evasive action to miss the accident.
The car of Kyle Larson became entangled with Keselowski and others, spinning into the wall, then catapulting into a crossover gate built into the speedway’s protective catchfencing.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
While Larson’s car was deflected back onto the track, the engine lodged in the fencing and car parts — shrapnel and a wheel and hub assembly — were launched into the crowded grandstand. Over a dozen cars were involved in the accident. Tony Stewart was flagged the winner.
Attention immediately turned to the grandstand, where fans waved wildly for emergency personnel to assist injured spectators. A video taken in the stands that made its way to YouTube showed a tire lodged into a seat some 10 rows up.
Emergency workers were dispatched to the Campbell Grandstand in a section just shy of the start-finish line. Uninjured fans were ushered from the scene into the concourse while stretchers carried the injured to waiting ambulances.
Fourteen fans were transported to local hospitals while 14 others were treated at the speedway’s care center. USA Today reports that two people are in critical condition. One suffered head trauma, the other is a minor.
“As we responded to the incident, we transported immediately those patients that needed critical assistance,” Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood said. “We’ll review (the incident) ourselves, in terms of where the debris flew and what we need to do with that.”
NASCAR Senior Vice President Steve O’Donnell told the assembled media that the Daytona 500 will go on as scheduled on Sunday and that the affected area of the grandstand will be open for seating.
Chitwood said no changes in safety procedures will be made for the 500, although the crossover gate will not be operational, replaced by fencing. Repairs to the catchfence were already underway.
“After every event we review our property from an asphalt perspective and a fencing perspective, so we did that after the Duels and after the Truck race,” Chitwood said. “We’ll do the same thing to make sure that we’re ready for tomorrow.”
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.
For some drivers, there’s red still left over from the previous season’s ledger that they’re eager to erase. For a few, there are trends they’d like to keep on keepin’ on. This week’s batch of numbers shows those trends. Some of the metrics used are from my home site, MotorsportsAnalytics.com, but you’re encouraged to read a quick glossary of the terms.
3 and 2.3 Matt Kenseth has scored three victories and earned a 2.3 average finish across his last six restrictor plate races.
Kenseth, long lauded as an intuitive racer, has transformed himself into something of a restrictor plate racing stalwart. The 2.3-place average finish in that timeframe — and that includes a fifth-place run in last Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, his first outing for Joe Gibbs Racing — is easily the best among drivers in the Cup Series and his minuscule 1.6-position deviation for those six finishes indicates incredible consistency for races often dubbed “crapshoots.” His 7.853 PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating) on plate tracks is not only the highest among 50 drivers from the 2012 season, but also pure statistical absurdity. Kenseth is ridiculously good at this style of racing.
-1.050 Danica Patrick’s replacement-level PEER ranked last in the Cup Series in 2012. PEER measures the on-track production of a race car driver in an “all equipment even” scenario. For perspective, Ken Schrader, in a 13-race S&P effort, registered at 49th, with a -.250 PEER. That’s a large gap.
Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a pole in the history of the Cup Series last weekend and the fourth rookie to win the pole for the Daytona 500 (following Loy Allen, Mike Skinner and Jimmie Johnson). Cue pandemonium.
But let’s be real for a sec; we’re discussing a rookie driver who amassed a negative replacement-level PEER across 10 races last season (translation: beyond bad). At Daytona specifically, she competed in two races — her qualifying Duel race and the 500 — and crashed out of both. If you’re a Danica fan, enjoy the moment. Eat, drink and be merry, but also, be realistic. It’s feasible she’ll lead laps on Sunday, but pump the brakes on the delusion of Chase-making grandeur.
3 Jimmie Johnson has crashed out in each of the last three races at Daytona; last year’s Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 and this year’s Sprint Unlimited.
Johnson Tweeted about his frustration following Saturday night’s race. Come on, Five-Time. Every chance you’ve had to get some drafting practice in (i.e. January testing, practice last Friday), you didn’t even attempt to take advantage. You need it; that 47th-best -0.167 plate track PEER you earned last year won’t get better without putting in the work.
Newman has a fast car ... that can pass. (ASP, Inc.)
3 of 5 Stewart-Haas Racing was the first organization to crack the code of Gen-6 restrictor plate speed after timing in first, fourth and fifth in Daytona 500 qualifying, or three cars in the top 5.
Danica Patrick is on the pole, but Ryan Newman (fourth) and Tony Stewart (fifth) have some fast Chevrolet’s underneath them as well. Take note of whatever Stewart is able to do in his Thursday qualifying race because he was a sight to behold in last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited, winning the first segment and bouncing around the field in search of Gen-6 draft intel, you know, because he could.
-229 Ryan Newman’s abysmal pass differential from 2012 has to be corrected. What this stat tells us is that Newman — despite the “Rocketman” nickname, was passed 229 more times than he made a pass.
It’s something to monitor, considering Newman is on a one-year contract with Stewart-Haas Racing and Kevin Harvick has, reportedly, signed with the organization already in advance of 2014. Is Harvick heading to an additional car or is he Newman’s replacement? If Newman struggles navigating through traffic for a second full season in a row, he could make the decision really easy for Stewart and team vice president Brett Frood.
0.00 Greg Biffle’s Terminal Crash Frequency for 2012 was spotless. Simply put: Biffle was not involved in a single accident last season that ended his day. Pretty impressive, huh?
He was, however, involved in a total of five accidents last year (a Crash Frequency of 0.14), but his series-best DNF avoidance rate none of those incidents were terminal — helped turn his No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing team into one of the year’s most consistent forces and the top points earner after the 26-race regular season. His last DNF for any reason was in the 2011 season finale when his engine expired after 190 laps. His last DNF due to an accident came 71 races ago, in the 2011 Daytona 500.
3.333 That PEER mark is the ninth-best rating for Cup Series drivers on plate tracks and it belongs to … Travis Kvapil. Seriously.
Is Kvapil a race-win candidate for the Daytona 500? Probably not. He did yeoman’s work, though, in his three plate starts of 2012, finishing 12th, 12th and eighth (good for a 10.6-place average finish) while playing out a conservative game of runs in his BK Racing ride. He’ll likely pedal patiently again on Sunday in an attempt to wait out the inevitable high attrition until check-cashing time.
New storylines will emerge at Speedweeks in Daytona
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.
Peppered with questions on Media Day — coincidentally held on Valentine’s Day this year — the couple, as well as most all other drivers, answered a bevy of most un-race-oriented queries largely in stride. The mere existence of questions, of course, drew the ire of many fans and media members alike, though in defense of those interested there hasn’t been much else to talk about.
After all, a similar “Media Tour” was held just three weeks ago in Charlotte with the sport’s principles. Then, drivers, crew chiefs and owners dutifully answered competition-related questions. On their teams’ 2013 outlook, drivers were “excited;” on the new cars, crew chiefs toed the NASCAR line, praising the new body lines, noses and whatever else makes this new “Gen-6” car unique (there’s that word again) from homogenized models used since 2007. Owners smiled, talked of optimism in filling out sponsorship livery, practically giddy in how new personnel were coming together to make this season what’s sure to be their best yet.
Patrick waited until after the Media Tour to admit to the Associated Press that the long-circulated rumor of a budding romance with Stenhouse was, in fact … uh, fact. And with only closed team tests in the two weeks that followed, there honestly hasn’t been much from a competition perspective to reveal, aside from prognostication and conjecture.
So here we are, three weeks later and facing a similar volley of questions about the season and the new car that have already been answered. The only new development? Yep, you guessed it.
But take note, because this is the reality of the situation (good, bad or indifferent): Media outlets, circa 2013, are in a race of their own. It’s a race to coax page views and hits in a new and up-to-the-minute informational landscape. There are ad dollars at stake for sites that have found monetizing the internet a challenge, and without those precious funds, less money to send journalists to cover the real meat ‘n’ potatoes of the sport. The truth is that Patrick attracts said hits even when there’s nothing new to cover. But when there’s a love angle? It’s a viral feeding frenzy. And in all fairness — and despite what some may opine — “The Danica Thing” (I refuse to go “TomKat” or “Bennifer” with this) is news for no other reason than a couple in a relationship will compete against one another at the highest level of their chosen sport. (Save the Patty Moise/Elton Sawyer comparison — this isn’t 1990, Moise was not “a brand” and neither were running on the Cup circuit for Rookie of the Year.)
So look on the bright side, race fans: Cars are now, finally, on the track. Practice sessions are underway, an exhibition race is in the offing and a week of drama awaits in preparation for the sport’s most prestigious event, the Daytona 500.
I promise you, the storylines of Speedweeks 2013 will evolve. Drivers will win races, cars will crash, rules will be tweaked and trophies will be hoisted. “The Danica Thing” will live on, likely to find a tertiary spot in the season’s ongoing storylines, and the focus will shift to what drew fans to the sport in the first place: competition.
Just be patient. And remember that each season begins with its own unique set of circumstances.
Packs vs. tandems, tradition vs. change, shortened races and 2012 surprises
Jeff Gordon: Tradition or entertainment? (ASP, Inc.)
Tradition vs. Change. Shorten races vs. keeping them the same. Tandem drafting vs. pack racing. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council faced many choices with this week’s NASCAR survey.
There was more, including what has been the biggest surprise of the season to how they graded last weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Daytona. The opinions vary — and in some cases are quite strong. Here’s what the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say about these issues.
Tradition vs. Changes, which one matters most to you? Former champion Jeff Gordon was asked during a media session last weekend at Daytona about possible changes for the sport. Part of Gordon’s response included this statement: “What is more important — history and tradition or the most entertaining form of racing?” The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was asked that question — what means more to you? Tradition or changes to make the sport more exciting?
67.2 percent said traditions 32.8 percent said changes to make the sport more exciting
What Fan Council members said:
• Gimmicks are the road to ruin. This is a great sport, making changes to appease the fly-by-night fans will just alienate your most loyal fans while temporarily pleasing those who will leave you inevitably to follow some other trend.
• It's sad that some people need to be entertained. I prefer to keep the traditions. That said, I would understand if NASCAR was forced to make changes in order to compete. I just hope they realize they can keep the traditions while adding extra entertainment.
• I love the traditions, but I have to confess: If the entertainment value doesn't increase, I won't be watching much longer.
• I’m not an old fuddy-duddy veteran fan complaining all the time about these changes. I only started watching in 2005. I was confused by all the constant changing and thought it was strange. But isn’t the racing better?? I think so.
• This one was easy for me. In my opinion, history and tradition are exciting. I understand the need to tweak things now and then because the cars have changed and the level of competition has become more level. But major overhauls, such as instituting a playoff system where one was not only unnecessary but doesn't fit the sport, don't work. They provide a temporary shot of interest among non- or casual fans but when that dissipates (as it has done), the sport is left with unhappy core fans that are less prone to instill a love of the sport in their kids, which in turn creates a void in the fan base in the next generation.
• I think NASCAR is one of the few sports that have changed to make it more exciting. Traditions and history only will get you by for so long.
• It's nice to know we have input to NASCAR. At some point, the line needs to be drawn. The show is the show. Not all races are awesome and not all are stinkers. Whining about every flaw leads to constant criticism of our sport. NASCAR seems to be in good shape compared to some other forms of motorsports (AMA). I don't know exactly what criteria NASCAR uses to make changes, but I'd like to think they use surveys like this one.
• I would rather stick to our roots. Trying to give the fans what they want, in my opinion, has made the racing worse. Look at the All-Star Race in May. That race turned into a race of strategy rather than a showdown for a million bucks. Also, look at Bristol.
• I'm all for keeping the traditions in the sport so long as the teams are allowed to innovate and compete to be the best. If that doesn't happen, then you have to go the route of the WWE and do tricks to make the races/racing more exciting. There has to be more excitement even in the long races. Drivers/teams are riding around in the first half to 3/4 of the races just logging laps and then the exciting racing starts. Sad.
• Get back to basics and the numbers will improve.
• Sometimes traditions hinder progress.
What races need to be shortened (if any)? NASCAR Chairman Brian France said last weekend at Daytona that series officials would look to shorten races, noting it has “worked well” at Auto Club Speedway, Dover and Pocono. Fan Council members were asked what races, if any, needed to be shortened.
35.6 percent said the Atlanta race (500 miles ... last year’s race was 4 hours, 0 minutes) 34.9 percent said Texas fall race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 16 minutes last year) 34.2 percent said the Texas spring race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 7 minutes in April) 29.5 percent said “None” 27.4 percent said Charlotte fall race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 25 minutes last year) 26.0 percent said Talladega fall race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 29 minutes last year) 18.8 percent said Talladega spring race (516 miles with GWC ... was 3 hours, 13 minutes in April) (Every track received votes, but no other track received more than 15 percent of the votes)
What Fan Council members said:
• This makes no sense at all. Why would anyone want the races shortened? Are they going to reduce ticket prices by an equal ratio? Doubtful.
• Just about anything with a 500 after it should be shortened.
• Might as well shorten both ’Dega races if these guys are just gonna ride.
• The race I really think needs shortening is the Coke 600. I know it's traditionally been the one marathon race, but we saw this year that with the style of racing we're seeing the extra 100 miles is dreadfully boring.
• Stop catering to ADD Nation! The sport needs a few long races. The Coke 600 and Southern 500 should never be shortened.
• For me, the races don't need to be shortened because of the time of the race (with few exceptions). They need to be shortened to prevent drivers from riding around until the end of the race. The plate races are the prime example of this. But we see this at a lot of tracks. I think the road courses, Phoenix, NHMS and a few other have races that are about the right distance.
• I'm never in favor of cutting from any race. If you need to cut laps and miles from a track to make a race more interesting, maybe you should be taking a look at the product that's being put out there.
• I wouldn't mind the length of any race if they actually raced. I'm sick of them riding around for two to two-and-a-half hours and then racing the last 50 to 100 laps.
• No sir, no sir, no sir! Do not shorten any more races!
• I think the time from Atlanta is deceiving because there were so many cautions for the bad weather.
• I think there needs to be only three races longer than 400 miles: the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 (at Darlington over Labor Day weekend) and the 600-miler at Charlotte. These days the cars and drivers can handle the 500-mile length no problem, so it's no longer a matter of whether they will last the grueling length. Now it's drivers just logging laps in the middle, so let's cut that down some, especially at the cookie-cutter tracks.
What’s been the biggest surprise of the Cup season?
36.9 percent said Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick among winless drivers this year 30.4 percent said Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing after the season 13.4 percent said lack of cautions this season 8.2 percent said Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s strength 7.2 percent said success of Michael Waltrip Racing 3.9 percent said “Other”
What Fan Council members said:
• The big names who are winless is a HUGE story, but things happen. The Kenseth story is UNBELIEVABLE and I never thought it would ever happen.
• I HATE Toyota, but MWR has been a huge surprise, I have to admit.
• I'm in total disbelief over Carl's season. Something's gotta give. And since when did he become Jack's red-headed stepson?
• There are a lot of mid-season surprises, but I am most surprised at the lack of wins and great performances from drivers like Edwards, Harvick and Gordon.
• Danica Patrick still running after both Darlington events. Anybody who understands the nature of that beast would have bet against it.
• I would have picked Junior’s strength a couple of weeks ago, but I still can't believe that Kenseth is leaving Rousch Fenway after so many successful years there.
• Lack of cautions is really making this boring, but with the way the CoT has been, it's not a surprise when NASCAR isn't throwing cautions for water bottles. Dale Jr. is the big one for me. We all knew he had the equipment and was getting accustomed to Steve Letarte, but he is far more confident and focused than I've ever seen him. He's not just doing the best he can to get in the Chase as his main goal. He BELIEVES he can win
• AJ Allmendinger getting suspended for failing a drug test eclipsed my surprise at Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing. I initially ignored the mentions of Matt's contract because I fully expected him to re-sign with Roush. I was surprised when the rumor began that he was really a free agent. AJ's suspension 90 minutes before (Saturday night’s) race came out of left field.
• The lack of cautions is by far the story this year. That long green run at Texas brought it to the forefront. When there are green flag pit stops at Martinsville, you have a problem.
Pack racing or tandem drafting? (ASP, Inc.)
Grading Saturday's Cup race at Daytona
47.6 percent called it Good 26.8 percent called it Fair 14.1 percent called it Great 11.5 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Same old restrictor plate race. Drive around for 120 laps and wreck for the last 40. I can't really blame the drivers for just riding in the beginning. If they didn't, there would be no one left. I'm really over plate races. I think they should be for cash only and no points. My driver won and I'm still saying this.
• Great race that had lots of action for everyone.
• The million-dollar wreckfest. This isn't racing, it's Barnum & Bailey-style entertainment. Single-file draft, tag team — this is nothing more than high speed soap box derby racing combined with bumper cars. It might be exciting to those interested in near-fatal crashes, but talent never makes an appearance here.
• The first half of the race was comparable to 1.5-mile racing (insanely boring) but the last quarter of the race was insane. Stewart winning from 42nd after qualifying second showed how good of a car he had. Smoke is not a great qualifier, so when he does well, its trouble for the field. All the lovers of pack racing and carnage got what they wanted, except Junior winning.
• I love the drama that restrictor plate races bring, but I wish the cars didn't run so hot because that really hindered what the drivers could do.
• Again, another week of NO PASSING! Who would have thought I would ever have graded a restrictor plate race Poor? *YAWN*
• The current rules package got rid of the tandem racing but also got rid of the competition up front. Now that we have only 12 lead changes vs. 50-plus, I am not a huge fan. Throw in the demolition derby at the end and I am quickly losing interest in the Cup races at plate tracks.
• The only thing that stopped me from choosing “Great” is that the best car/driver (Kenseth) didn't win. Matt RACED the whole race and was in the thick of things all night. Stewart rode around in the back most of the time and ended up last man standing. That to me is NOT racing. Aside from that, the racing was very good.
• First great race of the year.
• Can we call it restrictor plate “racing” any longer? Four cars in contention for the win because the rest of the field has been wiped out behind them? Bring back the two-car tango, please. At least then it took true skill to win and not just blind luck.
Which do you prefer at restrictor-plate tracks: Tandem drafting or pack racing?
52.8 percent said pack racing evident in the Cup race 47.2 percent said tandem drafting evident in the Nationwide race
What Fan Council members said:
• I don't like tandem drafting, but the Nationwide race was more exciting than the Cup race, in my opinion.
• I thought the Nationwide race was very exciting. It kept me on the seat of my chair the entire time. Lots of lead changing and good solid racing. The Cup race was boring. By the end, most everyone had crashed. That’s what happens in pack racing … don't understand why everyone likes it so much!
• I do NOT like tandem because you are so dependent on getting pushed and to have to have a pusher to win the race is NOT racing in my opinion.
• I enjoyed the tandem drafting from the very beginning — I don't understand why people hate it so much.
• I like a mix of both.
• I was at both races and I felt the intensity more during the Nationwide race than the Sprint Cup race. It seemed like they were racing the last lap on every lap. The Sprint cars with the smaller radiators and restrictor plates kept the cars from getting too close to each other and hooking up for more than half a lap.
• Two by two is boring. This is racing, not boarding the Ark.
• Pack racing at least gives you the hope of some action, as the cars are side-by-side for several laps at a time.
• I think the pack racing is great. It makes for a more unpredictable race. And that is why I like tracks like Daytona and Talladega. I think it’s great because it gives the underdogs a shot a winning a race.
• I hate them both. I hate how so many cars get demolished. I know NASCAR has done a great job working on safety, but I feel like they are playing with fire with the plate races. Luckily, no one was injured and no cars went airborne.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Coke Zero 400
Carl Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
Here's hoping all the NASCAR fantasy players out there had a happy and safe Fourth of July holiday. After a week of firework displays around this great nation, the grand finale will come Saturday night under the lights at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 — let's just keep Juan Pablo Montoya away from any jet dryers, OK?
In all seriousness, this weekend's annual July stop at the beach is one in which drivers are racing with multiple agendas on one of the sport's biggest stages. Each time the series heads to Daytona, nearly anyone in the field has a shot at upsetting the world — or at least scoring a solid finish at a crucial part of the season.
With only nine races left before the Chase field is set, the battle for the wild card spots and the fight for the top 10 in the standings is intensifying.
Perhaps one of the biggest names currently outside the top 10 in points looking to score his first win of the season this is Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards. Last year's runner-up in the championship battle has yet to win in 2012, and currently sits 11th in points.
Edwards had a deceptively strong run going in Kentucky, but a late pit stop for fuel dropped the No. 99 Ford to a 20th-place finish at the end of the night. The finish was Edwards' fifth-straight outside the top 10. To find Edwards' last top-5 finish, you would have to go back to Fontana in March. Edwards did not lead a single lap of competition until Kansas, when he led one, then backed it up at Richmond by leading 206 of the 400 laps. Since then, Edwards has led a grand total of zero.
However, things have been shaken up of late at RFR. Daytona 500 champion and current points leader Matt Kenseth will be leaving the organization at the end of the season with Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moving up to the Cup ranks as his replacement. With a multitude of sponsorship support behind him and many beginning to ask questions, Edwards is determined to turn his season around at the halfway point.
The driver of the No. 99 has been among the best on the high banks of Daytona in recent visits. He was runner-up to Trevor Bayne in last year's Daytona 500. He entered last year's Coke Zero 400 the points leader, but was turned around while running third early in the race by teammate Greg Biffle, leading to a 37th-place finish. This season, Edwards sat on the pole for the 500 and came home eighth. And if there’s one thing that’s obvious in the Ford camp, it’s that their engineers have figured out how to keep the Blue Ovals running cooler — a major advantage on the plate tracks, circa 2012.
Looking to race his way back into the top 10 in points, earn his first win of the season and turn his year around, Edwards is this week's fantasy favorite.
While Edwards may be the fantasy favorite, the perennial fan favorite is Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has two wins on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, one of which came in the Coke Zero 400 on July 7, 2001. With Saturday night's race coming on July 7 once again, could seven be the lucky number for Earnhardt?
Although he is always counted among the best at Daytona — he finished second to Kenseth in February — Earnhardt's last win on the high banks was in 2004. With one victory already this season, the No. 88 team is eager to add to the win column and start collecting bonus points for the Chase.
Whether or not drivers are willing to admit it, momentum is a hard thing to beat, and right now Brad Keselowski has a lot of it. Coming off a strong performance last week in Kentucky, Keselowski’s three wins lead the circuit. He’s good on all types of tracks (with wins on short, plate and intermediate venues), making him a must-watch.
Based on their recent finishes at Daytona, never count out Edwards’ Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Biffle. Kenseth was second in this race last season and won his second Daytona 500 in February, while Biffle was third. The Roush cars are typically strong here, with former driver David Ragan besting Kenseth last July.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Like Keselowski, Sonoma race-winner Clint Bowyer proved he can get the job done on any style track — but especially on the high banks of Daytona and Talladega. His average finish of 14.8 at DIS is second-best among active drivers, however Bowyer has yet to score a win at Daytona.
Also like Keselowski, Bowyer has momentum on his side as the series hits the halfway point of the season. A winner two weeks ago on the road course, Bowyer is seventh in the standings and has only two finishes worse than 17th all season (a 30th, Phoenix; 36th, Kansas).
The month of July has historically been good to Bowyer in the past. Of the three tracks the series hits this month — Daytona, New Hampshire and Indianapolis — Bowyer has two wins, a pole, six top 5s and 12 top 10s. Expect him to add to those totals on Saturday.
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and teammate Clint Bowyer (15) at Daytona. (ASP, Inc.)
Bowyer's MWR teammate, Martin Truex Jr., has not had much luck when it comes to Daytona, but expect that to turn around this weekend. In his 14 previous starts on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Truex has a best finish of sixth in the 2010 Daytona 500 and an average finish of 21.5. In fact, that sixth-place finish is his lone top 10 at Daytona. Statistically, Truex has struggled mightily in the annual July event, with a best finish of 13th in 2007. Aside from that event, Truex has four finishes of 25th or worse in six races.
However, Truex and his No. 56 team have shown strength this season. Already 17 races into the season, Truex has more top 5 finishes (four) than in the last four seasons combined, and nearly as many top 10s (nine). Sitting eighth in the standings, Truex is looking to move further away from that 10th-place Chase cut off, break his winless streak dating back to 2007 and start building bonus points for the Chase.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson
There have been quite a few surprises throughout the first half of the 2012 season, but one that jumps out is the driver sitting just outside the top 10 in the standings in 13th-place. Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard has consistently stayed in contention, yet just outside the Chase cutoff, ahead of race-winners Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
Although he has only four top-10 finishes this season, Menard's average finish has been 16.1. Consistently finishing inside the top 20 is not enough to make the Chase or content for the title, so Menard needs to either score a win and enter the Chase via wild card, or make a run at the top 10.
Daytona is a great place for Menard to make a statement run as he did last year at Indianapolis. Heading into this weekend's race, Menard has three consecutive top-10 finishes at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, the only driver on the circuit to currently own such a streak, and something that should continue Saturday night.
Another of the biggest surprises this season has been the abysmal showing of AJ Allmendinger in his new Penske digs. For as successful a year as his teammate, Keselowski, has had, Allmendinger's year has been equally tough to swallow. Poor luck and other struggles have led to six finishes of 31st or worse. However, the driver of the No. 22 Dodge is coming off back-to-back top-10 finishes at Sonoma and Kentucky — his first such “streak” of the season.
Allmendinger showed strength in Daytona early in the season but sustained damage to the nose on pit road just 15 laps into the event. A solid run at Talladega also went to the wayside late in the race when he and Denny Hamlin got together on a late-race restart.
With the season at the halfway point and speculation beginning to build about Penske’s plans for the No. 22 Dodge in 2013, it is time for a solid string of runs through the summer months. With back-to-back top 10s in his pocket, look for Allmendinger to be a factor if he can make it through the entire event without any issues.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger, Landon Cassill, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray
Top 10 average finish at Daytona (points-paying wins):
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.5 (2)
2. Clint Bowyer — 14.8 (0)
3. Kevin Harvick — 15.0 (0)
4. Bill Elliott — 15.6 (4)
5. Jeff Gordon — 16.2 (6)
6. Tony Stewart — 16.7 (3)
7. Matt Kenseth — 16.7 (2)
8. Kurt Busch — 17.3 (0)
9. Carl Edwards — 17.3 (0)
10. Paul Menard — 17.3 (0)
The equipment and team help but Dale Earnhardt Jr. says a key reason for his success in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this season is crew chief Steve Letarte.
Since being paired together last year, Earnhardt has scored one victory, 11 top-five finishes and 25 top-10 finishes in 53 races.
Thus, since they’ve been together, Earnhardt has finished in the top 10 in nearly half the races. The last time he finished in the top 10 in more than half the races was 2004 when he was fifth in the points.
Earnhardt’s 13 top-10 finishes this season are already one more than he had last season and equal to the number he had in 2009 and ’10 combined.
While Letarte and his crew provide Earnhardt with fast cars, Letarte also has helped his driver’s confidence.
“Steve Letarte has made me calmer and more productive in the car,” Earnhardt says. “He gets more out of me as a driver and brings the best out of me. I’m better at completing races, putting together full races, not getting upset with the car, not getting frustrated and sort of botching the whole deal or sabotaging the race.
“He’s brought a lot of good things out in me and brought a lot more confidence. I’ve got a lot more confidence. Confidence is half the battle when you’re out there competing. If you don’t have any confidence, you just can’t get anything done.”
That is helping make this a special summer for Earnhardt. He’s often struggled in this stretch of races from June to August, but not this year.
He finished fourth at Dover for his first top-10 result there since 2007. He placed eighth at Pocono for his third consecutive top 10. He won at Michigan for his first top-10 run in his last four races there. While he’s never finished in the top 10 at Sonoma, he was 13th until he was collected in a last-lap crash and finished 23rd. He recovered by placing fourth at Kentucky a year after finishing 30th there in the inaugural event.
“We’ve had a pretty good summer so far, so if we can keep that going I’m going to be real excited about the rest of the season,” Earnhardt says.
As the Cup Series heads to Daytona for Saturday night’s race, Earnhardt will be looked upon as one of the favorites. Daytona is fun again for him since tandem racing no longer dominates that event.
“I think things have gotten a lot better with the rules they (NASCAR) made for this particular season,” Earnhardt says about plate racing at Daytona and Talladega. “We’re racing more, we’re not tandem drafting all the time so your race really is in your own hands, and what you do with it and what you make of an afternoon is really up to you and you alone for most of the event. So I kind of like that.
“That’s the way I’ve always thought racing should be. We never had racing where you were so dependent on another car until we had the re-paves at Daytona and Talladega and tandem racing came around. It was OK to watch, and I think some of the drivers probably enjoyed it, but for me it was just the opposite of a driver’s instincts.
“But, the rules have kind of moved away from that a little bit and hopefully that is the way it stays. Hopefully we will keep going in the right direction to get it to where it’s you against 42 other guys.”
NUMBER CRUNCHING Dale Earnhardt Jr. has completed all 5,027 laps run this season. Matt Kenseth is next, completing 5,026 laps and Greg Biffle has completed 5,025 laps. ... Jimmie Johnson has led the most laps this season at 811. Greg Biffle is next at 527 with Jeff Gordon third at 421. ... Paul Menard has the most consecutive top-10 finishes at Daytona entering this weekend with three. He was ninth in last year’s Daytona 500, eighth in last July’s race and was sixth in February. Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano each have two consecutive top-10 finishes at Daytona. ... Since winning at Daytona in July 2009, Tony Stewart has not finished in the top 10 in the last five races there. Kentucky winner Brad Keselowski has never finished in the top 10 in Cup at Daytona in six attempts. His best finish is 15th.
PIT STOPS Saturday’s Daytona race is the 18th in the 36-race Cup schedule, marking the halfway point of the season. ... Bill Elliott will drive the No. 50 car this weekend at Daytona as Turner Motorsports makes its Cup debut and has Walmart as sponsor. ... Joey Logano makes his 100th career Nationwide start Friday at Daytona where he won last year’s event. He’s had 14 wins, 47 top-five finishes and 77 top-10 finishes in his first 99 starts in that series, making his debut in 2008.
Exploring the lack of yellow flags in the Sprint Cup Series this season
Photo by ASP, Inc.
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.
Thirty three drivers are eligible for NASCAR's 2012 Budweiser Shootout. The Shootout, which unofficially kicks off Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, will be televised on Saturday, Feb. 18 on FOX at 8:00 pm EST. Those eligible for the event this year include all drivers within the top 25 in the final 2011 championship standings, past Bud Shootout winners and past Daytona point-race winners.
Eligible Drivers, via top 25 in 2011 standings (Car number):
AJ Allmendinger (22)
Marcos Ambrose (9)
Greg Biffle (16)
Clint Bowyer (15)
Jeff Burton (31)
Kurt Busch (51)
Kyle Busch (18)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88)
Carl Edwards (99)
Jeff Gordon (24)
Denny Hamlin (11)
Kevin Harvick (29)
Jimmie Johnson (48)
Kasey Kahne (5)
Matt Kenseth (17)
Brad Keselowski (2)
Joey Logano (20)
Paul Menard (27)
Juan Pablo Montoya (42)
Ryan Newman (39)
David Ragan (34)
Tony Stewart (14)
Martin Truex Jr. (56)
Trevor Bayne (2011 Daytona 500 winner)*
Geoff Bodine (past Daytona 500 and Shootout winner)*
Derrike Cope (past Daytona 500 winner)*
Bill Elliott (past Daytona 500, Coke Zero 400 and Shootout winner)*
Terry Labonte (past Shootout winner)*
Jamie McMurray (past Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 winner)
Ken Schrader (past Shootout winner)*
Michael Waltrip (past Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 winner)
The few notable drivers that do not meet eligibility requirements include Dave Blaney, David Gilliland, Robby Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears, David Reutimann and Regan Smith.