Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch in the All-Star Race
1. All-Star race, qualifying format changes in store
The most exciting NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying event of the season happens Friday night at 6:00 pm EST.
That's a fact even without the new hair-raising rule change allowing drivers to speed both away from pit road (like always) as well as enter it without a speed limit (new).
Qualifying for drivers in the Sprint All-Star Race is unique in that it demands three total laps around the track and must include a four-tire pit stop. In the past, that's been plenty exciting because NASCAR hasn't enforced a pit road speed limit after the pit stop — forcing drivers to manage 800-plus horsepower hooking up to their rear wheels from a dead standstill.
Now, they'll be doing the same coming to pit road. Lassoing a race car from the corner banking to pit road while slowing down is an event right on the edge. Nursing it down without scrubbing speed has the potential to go flying over that edge.
Additionally, NASCAR initiated the "Johnson Rule" for this season after last year's winner Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus played the strategy too well. Johnson won the first of four segments in 2012 to earn the pole for the 10-lap heat race at the end. In the remaining three segments, he sandbagged to keep his car in one piece.
This year, NASCAR will use a method that makes sense but one without a thought to how fans at the track will be able to compute it. Essentially, the 10-lap finale returns after a mandatory pit road visit. But instead of individual segment winners getting automatic priority, NASCAR will set the pre-pit road lineup by average finish.
It's a smart fix, but a silly one all at once thanks to the calculators required to know who even leads.
2. Johnson aims for All-Star record
Defending All-Star race winner Johnson is bound to get plenty of coverage this weekend as he guns for a fourth win in the midseason exhibition race. A checkered flag for Johnson — or teammate Jeff Gordon, for that matter — would set a new bar for the most wins in the event.
Only one other driver has ever scored three wins in the race for not much else than money and pride. Of course, that's Dale Earnhardt.
Gordon and Johnson, however, haven't had the best of relationships with the All-Star event in recent seasons. For Gordon, a top 10 in the exhibition race hasn't happened since his third-place run in 2006 and he hasn't won since his epic 2001 victory in a back-up car after a rain shower on the first lap caused a massive Turn 1 crash.
Johnson, meanwhile, went three seasons (2009, ’10 and ’11) without an All-Star top 10. That's not exactly futility, sure, but we are talking about Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3. Gibbs still looks for first All-Star win
One of the greatest oddities left in the always odd weekends produced by the All-Star Race is that Joe Gibbs Racing has never been to Victory Lane in the event.
It's not like JGR has paraded slouches into the race. The lack of checkered flag success has occurred despite drivers like Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett all giving it a go.
JGR, though, will be the hot pick this weekend. A week after a near-miss on a 1-2-3 finish at Darlington Raceway, the Toyotas from that camp have proven to be the fastest machines this season despite reliability. Matt Kenseth, riding high off win No. 3, should be the team's primary favorite.
It will also be worth watching how the recently returned Hamlin will compete Saturday night. Will he be willing to take major chances for a win so soon after his return from his back injury?
We'll find out.
4. Using the All-Star Race for Coca-Cola 600 knowledge
The All-Star weekend festivities are the traditional kickoff of the Charlotte region's own version of Daytona's Speedweeks. Between the opening of Sprint Cup practice Friday for participants in the All-Star Race and the start of the Coca-Cola 600 next Sunday evening, drivers and teams are scheduled to have four hours and 50 minutes of open practice.
That doesn't even include the race conditions teams will get to experience Saturday night.
The result of all of this track time is often a line of thinking saying the teams who fare well this weekend have the inside line to a win — or at least record a good finish — in the 600 next weekend. Results, though, tell a different story.
In fact, five of last 10 All-Star Race winners haven't even finished in the top 10 of the following Coca-Cola 600. Plus, the last 10 years has produced an average of just four drivers scoring top-10 finishes in both events.
Whether you chalk it up to the normalization of racing or blame the effects of a 600-mile race, the result stays the same: a good run Saturday night doesn't guarantee a good one the following Sunday.
5. NASCAR remembers fun-loving, hard-charging Dick Trickle
News that former NASCAR driver Dick Trickle took his own life Thursday in North Carolina spread across the sport in a startling, sad fashion. By the evening, words from every corner of the sport were spoken, typed or sent expressing remorse.
The grief for Trickle, both for his death and in the somber realization of the extreme personal baggage he carried in the waning period of his life, had no bounds and reflected the wake he left in his now long-retired career. The most remarkable part of Trickle's impact, of course, is that his NASCAR numbers were never remarkable.
Trickle didn't drive a full season in today's Sprint Cup Series until he was 47 years old in 1989. Just three times — 1990, ’92 and ’95 — did the Wisconsin short track ace ever qualify for every race on a season's schedule. He made 303 Cup starts, scoring just 15 top-5 finishes and never a Cup win. He did rope two career Nationwide (then Busch) Series wins (1997, ’98).
Trickle's mark on the sport came in both his legend from his midwest short track days and the number of drivers he raced along the way. Of course, his trademark of enjoying a cigarette during a race's caution flag was unforgettable to even casual race fans in the 1990s.
It's not a stretch to wonder if today's NASCAR — good or bad — would ever have room for a character like Trickle that helped the sport's narrative in ways that leading laps and hoisting trophies could never do.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Darlington
Darlington Raceway (ASP, Inc.)
1. Darlington celebrates a pair of 10-year milestones, good and bad
Darlington Raceway is the first place NASCAR ever raced on pavement, all the way back on Sept. 4, 1950. That event, the first Labor Day Weekend Southern 500, saw Johnny Mantz win his only NASCAR race as he beat Fireball Roberts and 73 other competitors by at least nine laps.
Saturday night's race will also be known as the Southern 500, but it'll mark the 10th season of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at Darlington without the race being held on the traditional end of summer weekend. NASCAR's shift of that race initially to a November date in 2004 and then completely off the schedule in favor of a second Auto Club Speedway race in 2005 remains one of its most controversial decisions of the past decade.
The race name returned to Darlington for the now-annual Mother's Day weekend race, but much of a the tradition hasn't. The Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend carried a certain swagger thanks to its holiday weekend placement and typically unforgiving daytime temperatures. It was a race every driver wanted to win thanks mostly to the cachet it awarded.
Saturday night's race also marks the 10th season since Darlington produced arguably the most riveting finish in the last decade, if not further. During the 400-mile 2003 spring race, Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven bounced off one another for much of the final three laps. Their tires worn and their cars growing ever more damaged, the pair came together for a final time exiting Turn 4 on the final lap.
Craven nipped Busch at the line by .002 seconds — a mark tied for the closest NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finish in history.
2. Denny Hamlin’s big return
Denny Hamlin's return to the driver's seat of his No. 11 a week ago at Talladega Superspeedway was short-lived, a bit contrived and ultimately unsuccessful in helping him claw back toward Chase for the Sprint Cup competition. Friday at Darlington, however, should mark the return of a full-time Hamlin to the series following his back injury at Auto Club Speedway on March 24.
He couldn't return to a better track, personally. Hamlin has a sterling average finish of 5.9 on the egg-shaped oval, and has led more than 50 laps in three of his seven Darlington starts. To follow up his career-worst 13th-place Darlington finish in 2009, Hamlin responded with his only win there in 2010.
Last year, Hamlin led 56 laps before falling to Jimmie Johnson by .781 seconds.
Saturday night's start marks the beginning of a critical stretch for Hamlin if he wants to bounce back from missing four starts so far in 2013 and qualify for the season's title fight. He's now 31st in points, 76 points behind 20th place and a possible wild card birth.
Should Hamlin nab a couple of wins and get inside the top 20 by Richmond in September, he'd be in excellent position to continue his seven-year streak of Chase qualifications.
"There is a formula," Hamlin said. "When this happened and we started figuring things out of missing races, if we just did what we did last year we would make it. But nothing is a given."
Defending race winner Jimmie Johnson. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Hendrick veterans tough to stop at the Track Too Tough to Tame
With Hamlin likely not physically 100 percent at Darlington, the door has opened a crack further for Hendrick Motorsports' longest tenured drivers in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson to continue their own excellence at the South Carolina track.
Combined, the two have 10 wins, 25 top 5s and 31 top 10s in 48 total starts at the track. Gordon ran into mechanical troubles last season as Johnson took the win, but went from 2004 to 2010 never once finishing worse than fifth. Johnson, meanwhile, led the most laps at Darlington last season (134) en route to his third career win at the track. Johnson's average finish is second best among active series drivers at 9.1, while Gordon's is 11.8 in 32 starts at the tricky speedway.
Gordon also celebrates a milestone Saturday night as he makes his 700th career Sprint Cup start. Gordon's feat also stands as the longest to start a Cup Series career, and will put him just 88 races away from Ricky Rudd's all-time record.
4. Air Titan ready for Round 2?
Rain affected all three races at Talladega Superspeedway a week ago. Sprint Cup and Nationwide both raced into near darkness after rain delayed their proceedings. ARCA had its race shortened Friday as showers rolled in.
It marked the first true test of NASCAR's Air Titan track drying system that early claims touted as being exponentially faster than the long-used jet dryer system. The combination of the two at Talladega didn't prove to be markedly faster — I know, I know, it's no shock that a NASCAR proclamation fell a bit short — but the system may have saved just enough time to get the full races in. All told, 16 of the Air Titan compressed air systems were used at Talladega alongside 10 jet dryers.
Based on forecasts for NASCAR's weekend in Darlington, they might be called in to action again as soon as Friday. Forecasters pinned a 20 percent chance of rain in the vicinity for Friday night's Nationwide Series race, and a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms all day and night Saturday.
Darlington’s 1.366-mile distance, of course, is considerably less than Talladega’s 2.66 miles and will undoubtedly take less time to dry. But rainouts aren't unprecedented at the South Carolina track. In 2007, the Saturday night race was pushed to Sunday afternoon — not long after FOX's Chris Myers insisted to viewers that the race would go off on the night originally planned.
5. Last chance for double All-Star Race qualification
David Ragan's surprising win during last weekend's seven-hour Talladega Superspeedway race gave him all the typical accolades befit that of a Sprint Cup race winner. It includes all of the essentials: the trophy, the points and the big check.
But it also paid off in the form two guaranteed entries to the main event of NASCAR's All-Star Race over the next two years. The race's rules permit entry for race winners in both the current and most recently completed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series seasons. Series and all-star event champions from the past decade also earn automatic entry to the race.
That leaves roughly 25 Sprint Cup regulars still on the outside looking in for next weekend's "A-main" that could pay as much as $2 million. Drivers like Jeff Burton, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. will have to find the checkered flag either Saturday night at Darlington or next weekend in the Sprint Showdown qualifier event.
A win at Darlington is much preferred because it counts in the same two-for-one fashion as Ragan's Talladega win. Before Ragan, Marcos Ambrose was the latest unqualified driver to earn a 2013 all-star event bid with his win last August on the road course at Watkins Glen.
Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Darlington so you don't have to.
Dancing with The Lady. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to venerable Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Saturday evening. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Geoffrey’s fantasy predictions for Darlington ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least surviving an evening of dancing with the Lady in Black.
1. Jeff Gordon
The four-time champ survived two wrecks at Talladega to squeak out an 11th-place finish. In Darlington, he hits a track where he leads all active drivers with seven wins and 18 top 5s. In the last eight Darlington races, Gordon has a series-high average position of 8.3.
2. Jimmie Johnson
How will Jimmie screw up Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race this week? He could do it by replicating 2012 at Darlington when he led 134 laps and took the checkered flag. His two other Darlington wins came back-to-back in 2004.
3. Kasey Kahne
Kahne has yet to score a Darlington win, but he's done something nearly as impressive: Kahne has finished all 10 of his Darlington starts. We'll see if Kyle Busch has anything to say about that statistic Saturday night.
4. Matt Kenseth
All 19 of Matt Kenseth's Darlington starts have netted him a mediocre average finish of 17th, but those were also in Roush Fenway Racing cars. How will the Joe Gibbs Racing setups treat one of the strongest drivers on the circuit?
5. Denny Hamlin
He's been better than Gordon in the last seven Darlington races, but it's still not clear if Hamlin will finish Saturday night's race. That makes you wonder if he can grab top 10 No. 7 at Darlington — a feat he's accomplished in 85 percent of his starts there.
6. Kevin Harvick
NASCAR's self-proclaimed lame duck has averaged 223 laps per race in the top 15 in his last eight Darlington starts, but has just two top-5 finishes and zero wins.
7. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski's never led a lap in his four Sprint Cup starts at Darlington. That's probably legitimate because he hasn't taken to Twitter to blame another competitor for the lack of performance.
8. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer's average Darlington finish is worse than drivers like Ambrose, Bliss, Montoya, Ragan and Sadler. His 11th-place finish last season was his first lead lap Darlington result since 2008.
9. Tony Stewart
Smoke has 20 starts at Darlington since 1999, completing 6,567 laps. He's never won, though, and has led a total of only 20 laps in that period. Combine that with his No. 14's performance in 2013 and … well, you get the point.
The King's three Darlington victories came in 1966-67. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch
Kyle's recent average race performance at Darlington is better than most A-Listers. The ’08 winner has three straight showings of 11th or better and has averaged over 302 laps in the top 15 in his last eight starts.
2. Greg Biffle
Biffle's a little sore from his early wreck at Talladega, but a bounce back at Darlington makes sense. He led 74 laps a year ago and claims more fastest in-race laps (283) than any active driver since 2005.
3. Ryan Newman
He's never been the first to the checkered flag at Darlington, but it's not a track where Newman has his head up his posterior when it comes to performance. Since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, Newman has three Darlington top 10s in four starts.
4. Carl Edwards
Expect a solid run for Edwards at Darlington, where he's only finished off the lead lap twice. The No. 99 has two straight Darlington top 10s, too.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Driver 88 has never won at Darlington, and it's probably Jimmie Johnson's fault. Otherwise, he's got three top 5s and seven top 10s in South Carolina.
6. Martin Truex Jr.
He was fifth a year ago after leading 25 laps for his second Darlington top 10 in as many starts. In eight total starts, Truex has never been worse than 20th. Makes for a nice sleeper.
7. Jamie McMurray
Three career top 5s at Darlington, five top 10s and Big Macs are two for $4.44 right now. At least something good will come of this weekend.
8. Joey Logano
Logano's been on a roller coaster since the Fontana wreck with Hamlin. He's finished 23rd, fifth, 39th, third and then 35th at Talladega. Now, he gets to race without his normal crew chief, car chief and top engineer. Getting a first career Darlington top 5 seems like a longshot.
9. Kurt Busch
It's been 10 years since Busch lost to Ricky Craven at Darlington by roughly two inches. It's been five years since he led a lap there. It's been one year since he had a pit road dust up there.
10. Jeff Burton
The two-time Darlington winner probably still smirks at losing his battle to prevent the Rainbow Warrior from winning the 1997 Winston Million. In consolation, Darlington does provide Burton his highest top 10 per start ratio (16 of 30) of any track he's raced.
11. Mark Martin
Rejuvenated from watching the Sprint Cup whipper snappers crash everywhere at Talladega from his couch, Martin's in the No. 55 in search of his 18th Darlington top 5. He's finished 43 of 46 Darlington starts.
12. Paul Menard
Darlington is one of eight tracks where Paul Menard doesn't have a top 10. Coincidentally, he's raced just 95 of 2,161 career Darlington laps placed inside the top 15.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya leads the series in 23rd-place Darlington finishes with three. He once scored a top 5 (2010) but went back to where he felt comfortable in the next two seasons, recording 23rd- and 24th-place finishes. Lesser writers would also note he's buoyed by his lack of jet dryer collisions at Talladega despite an inordinate amount of opportunities.
14. Marcos Ambrose
He's improved his Darlington finish by some multiple of four in each of his four starts. Last year he was ninth. That pattern isn't looking good for a win.
15. Aric Almirola
His lone Sprint Cup start at Darlington came last year, and Almirola finished 19th. A top-10 run this weekend would be his fifth straight.
16. Bobby Labonte
The former Darlington winner (1997) ran 17th in his final Joe Gibbs Racing start in 2005 at the track. He hasn't topped it since.
C-List 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
First Darlington Cup start, but his Nationwide numbers are respectable, with two top 10s and a pole. He's got the best equipment of the C group.
2. David Ragan
500 miles at Darlington is a little bit different than 500 miles at Talladega for Front Row Motorsports, but I won't rain on Ragan's parade.
4. David Reutimann
Fared pretty well at Darlington with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2010 with a fourth-place start and 11th-place finish. A finish like that for BK Racing would be a real Whopper.
5. Casey Mears
Mears, never better than 15th at Darlington, will try to finish on the lead lap for the first time in his 11-start career there.
6. Travis Kvapil
With the right equipment, Kvapil can finish in the top 10 at Darlington. In his current equipment, he can hope to continue just finishing at Darlington.
7. David Gilliland
The good news is Gilliland finishes better than he starts at Darlington. The bad news is Gilliland averages a 31st-place finish.
8. Danica Patrick
Ricky’s girlfriend was 31st and six laps down at the finish at year ago in her first Darlington start. A lead lap finish would be a write-home-to-momma improvement.
9. Dave Blaney
Fun fact: Team owner Tommy Baldwin Jr. once won two of four Darlington races as a crew chief for Ward Burton in 2000 and ’01. Somebody get Jeb on the phone.
10. David Stremme
Stremme's seventh start has potential for many personal firsts at Darlington: a win, a top 5, a top 10, a top 15, a top 20, leading a lap and/or a lead-lap finish.
11. J.J. Yeley
Three-straight Darlington DNFs for Yeley don't exactly make for a good time. Or a good fantasy play.
12. Josh Wise
Start-and-parked Darlington last year, but has raced every event this year.
13. Timmy Hill
He's raced Las Vegas, Talladega, Charlotte, Kansas, Phoenix, Texas, Fontana and Richmond in his career. Someone put a Go Pro camera inside Hill's car for his first Darlington practice.
14. Joe Nemechek
Nemechek made $9,670 for finishing 19th at Darlington in 1994. In 2012, he finished 40th and won $72,050. Those are Joe's most interesting Darlington facts, aside from the sixth he had in 1999 for Felix Sabates.
Entered drivers on start-and-park watch:
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Talladega
Denny Hamlin (ASP, Inc.)
1. Should Denny Hamlin really return this weekend?
Denny Hamlin will likely start Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway, his first since his back injury in March at Fontana. He's not expected to finish, much less make it past lap 20. Still, he's hoping it will help his Chase for the Sprint Cup odds.
Simultaneously, the idea is both genius and insane.
Hamlin only received clearance from both his personal doctors and NASCAR officials Thursday to actually get in the car this weekend. He and the No. 11 team initially plan to take advantage of the NASCAR scoring rule that awards championship points only to the drivers who actually start the race. In a Joe Gibbs Racing perfect world, a caution will wave inside the first five laps and Hamlin can come to pit road and hop out in favor of a relief driver. Hamlin will then be credited with the points earned by wherever the relief driver finishes.
Hamlin, who has been injured in a crash at Talladega before, doesn't want to further his injury at one of NASCAR's most wreck-prone racetracks. It's a line of thinking that makes perfect sense in NASCAR's point structure. But it also makes zero sense when factoring in how unpredictable that both racing and race cars can be. Even if Hamlin dropped a half-mile behind the pack at the race's start, there's still plenty that can go wrong in a hurry.
Because of that, it seems incredibly questionable as to why NASCAR would clear Hamlin to participate when he's fully acknowledged he's not prepared to run the whole race. Points about the strategy making a mockery of the sport aside, Hamlin seems to face some legitimate danger of only making his back injury worse.
Talladega, after all, isn't simply a morning commute.
2. Talladega style of racing still an unknown commodity for NASCAR's new car
What can we expect to fill Talladega's 500 miles on Sunday? As of now, it seems pretty wait-and-see.
Much like Daytona in February, Talladega brings another first for NASCAR's new car. At Daytona, the over-hyped machine produced largely flatline racing for much of NASCAR's signature event thanks to myriad factors like cool temperatures and tires failing to show signs of wear. By and large, drivers were fine with the aerodynamic package — many felt more in control at Daytona than in years past — and only wanted to mix it up at the end when the money bell was ready to sound.
Talladega could easily bring more of the same, if only because these teams have learned that leading a lap for one bonus point isn't quite enough to get aggressive early in the race. The result of such actions is often abundantly clear at Talladega and Daytona and it takes the form of the “Big One.”
Sunday's weather forecast also has the implication that it could limit the show's total product. Cool temperatures in the mid-60s are expected, meaning the track will have more grip in every lane. That reduces tire wear over a run and makes it less likely for handling to factor while racing in a pack. When handling is an issue, drivers often have little choice to start passing and getting a bit more daring.
One thing does seem sure for Sunday, however: Tandem racing has been largely abolished in the Sprint Cup Series thanks to the new car design with irregular front and rear design assemblies. If you're looking for that, check out Saturday's Nationwide Series race.
3. Harvick buoyed by Richmond success just wants to finish
Kevin Harvick was one driver who ultimately left Daytona Speedweeks in February disappointed with his luck in the Daytona 500. The No. 29 had seemed to assert itself as a pre-race favorite with commanding performances that became wins in the Sprint Unlimited and a Gatorade Duel qualifying race.
Instead he finished a lowly 42nd after being swept into a multi-car crash on lap 47.
“I like restrictor-plate racing, but our luck hasn’t been that great lately on that style track. Last season, we thought we were going to have a chance to win coming to the checkers during the second races of the season at Daytona and Talladega, but we wound up coming in on a wrecker," Harvick said. "We just haven’t gotten the finishes we thought we would at those tracks, even though we’ve had good runs."
Harvick followed Daytona with several races of mediocre to decent racing, but never looked like a contender to win. The late-race yellow changed that last week at Richmond International Raceway when Harvick benefited from a good final pit stop and a solid car to steal a win on a green-white-checker finish. He led just three laps all night.
Now inside the top 10 in Sprint Cup points for the first time in 2013, Harvick could continue his upward swing at a track where he's fared pretty well. Harvick's rate of finishing at Talladega is over 93 percent, easily the highest among active drivers with more than 10 Talladega starts. He otherwise has a win, six career top-5 finishes and 10 career top 10s at Talladega. You can also bet he'll find the lead at some point Sunday: he's led a lap at Talladega in seven straight races.
4. Puzzle pieces starting to fit for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Don't worry, you're reading this right: Juan Pablo Montoya dominated the closing stages of a NASCAR short track race.
Yes, Montoya, the road racing expert and otherwise decent if unlucky oval racer finally seemed to show some flashes of what we really expected from him in this, his seventh year of full-time Sprint Cup racing. Montoya ultimately led 67 laps and wound up with a third-place finish for his efforts after a late caution flag threw last Saturday's night's race into a dizzying finale of pit stops and track position.
It was Montoya's best finish since a third-place run more than two seasons ago at Las Vegas. For Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, the finish was its fourth of the season inside the top 10 after a 2012 campaign where it collected just five. Montoya's teammate, Jamie McMurray, may be the best candidate to tie the team's 2012 performance Sunday at Talladega.
Last fall, McMurray led a race a race-high 38 laps. A crash with just a handful of laps to go then took him out of the race and pushed him to a disappointing 34th-place finish. Still, McMurray has built a bit of name for himself on restrictor plate tracks in recent years. The 2010 Daytona 500 winner has a win at Talladega and five top-5 runs.
A win or decent finish for McMurray — he's now 12th in points — could have him pretty close to (if not in) the top 10 in the series point standings. A year ago, McMurray never was higher than 16th in points and finished in 20th.
Danica Patrick (ASP, Inc.)
5. Danica Patrick looks to duplicate Daytona success
The consistent television broadcast coverage of Danica Patrick racing in and around 25th for much of this still young season became nearly unbearable following her strong showing at Daytona.
Fortunately, it had seemed to dwindle — or, at the least, plateau — in recent races. The lime green No. 10 was showing up more in replays of incidents, and less in live coverage. Strange explanations from the FOX booth about anything Patrick did on track seemed to go with it.
Don't get used to it.
Expect the mania of Danica to ramp up again this weekend at Talladega in Patrick's return to the style of track where she has most proven herself in the Sprint Cup Series. For our sake, let's hope the coverage comes with a good reason, like a strong and consistent Sunday race car.
A solid race for Patrick isn't far-fetched. She rarely turned a bad wheel during the Daytona 500 and ultimately finished eighth after inexperience haunted her in the scramble of the race's last lap.
"I feel like I’ve learned some lessons from Daytona about the draft and how that unfolds at the end if you are in the right place at the right time," Patrick said this week, before noting "there's a lot of luck involved" at NASCAR's restrictor plate tracks.
She's right, of course. Teammate Tony Stewart looked and felt like a driver to beat in the Daytona 500. He was wrecked out before mile 100.
Patrick, with a lone 12th-place finish sandwiched by seven other finishes of 25th or worse since Daytona, could stand to find luck of her own in Sunday's 500 miler. At the least, it'd give the television crew a competitive reason to focus on her — something few and far between right now.
Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Talladega so you don't have to.
Matt Kenseth: First and third at Talladega in 2012. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Deep South this weekend to big, bad Talladega Superspeedway for the Aaron’s 499. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Goeffrey’s fantasy predictions for Talaldega ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth has the most laps in the top-15 during the last 16 Talladega races of any driver (63 percent) and he’s the defending track winner. Of course, that was before the whole “three grams” incident.
2. Clint Bowyer
No one has scored more points at Talladega in the last 10 races than NASCAR’s favorite Kansan. Seven career Talladega top 10s with two wins in 14 starts isn’t shabby, either. He might even stop by your Talladega infield party.
3. Brad Keselowski
Two wins, three top 5s and six top 10s in his last eight Talladega races. Oh, and he's back in that familiar Blue Deuce instead of that bad luck red Richmond car.
4. Kevin Harvick
Don't sleep on how good Harvick and that No. 29 were at Daytona. Talladega's a great place to continue his anti-lame duck crusade.
5. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson basically has a whole race on the rest of the field in the point standings and, after Richmond, an angry Chad Knaus. Doesn't have a top 5 at Talladega since his win in 2011.
6. Jeff Gordon
Six-time Talladega winner seems to have gotten really good at making the wrong move just in time for the checkered flag at restrictor plate tracks. Still, how much can you bet against the sport's active Talladega wins and top-5 finishes leader?
7. Tony Stewart
He'll certainly block someone on Sunday, causing a stink thanks to his outspoken anti-blocking crusade of late. It's a bit hard to believe Stewart has just one top-15 finish at 'Dega since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008.
8. Kasey Kahne
He might have an average Talladega finish of 20.3, but his last three Talladega races have produced a slightly better average of 7.3.
9. Denny Hamlin
Even if starts the race, he's not finishing it thanks to the back issues. Still, if you pick Hamlin, he starts the race, and then his substitute driver pulls off a miracle, you'll get full points Sunday. Of all the places it could happen, Talladega is it.
Beard or no, Junior is a force at Talladega. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Do you need more of a steal at Talladega than an Earnhardt in the B-list? With five career Talladega wins, Earnhardt finishes half of his Talladega starts in the top 10. He also lost the beard, so that should probably help with aerodynamics, or something.
2. Kurt Busch
Busch is winless at Talladega, but has 13 top 10s and gets to use notes from Richard Childress Racing this weekend thanks to Furniture Row Racing’s alliance. However, the possibility of a paramedic still mad from last fall’s incident on the backstretch sabotaging Busch’s car is higher than normal.
3. Jeff Burton
Burton turned in just 11 top 10 finishes in the previous two seasons. Three of those were at Talladega. Even when he’s bad, at Talladega he’s good.
4. Joey Logano
Logano has the third best average of laps completed to starts in his Talladega career of any active driver. That’s translated to four top 10s.
5. Kyle Busch
This isn’t unusual for the aggressive Busch, but it’s checkers or wreckers for him at Talladega. It should be noted that he notched impressive second- and third-place showing here last season … after finishes of 33rd and 35th the previous year (see what I mean?).
6. Bobby Labonte
Talladega gives us the chance to rank Labonte higher than we likely will at any other race in 2013, if only so we can remember when he beat Jimmy Spencer by 0.167 seconds to the Talladega checkered flag in 1998.
7. Greg Biffle
Biffle has been decidedly average at Talladega — two top 5s, five top 10s — but the recent Roush Fenway Racing restrictor plate resurgence means he’s riding a streak of consecutive top 10 finishes at the 2.66-mile track.
8. Jamie McMurray
Three of McMurray’s six career wins have been on restrictor plate tracks, including one in 2009 at Talladega.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
2010 was Montoya’s best NASCAR season to date, and he had a pair of third-place finishes and a pole position at Talladega. There’s no telling if his Richmond momentum was a precursor to the same thing.
10. Aric Almirola
If Almirola makes it four straight top-10 finishes in the Sprint Cup Series, he’ll also mark his first career Talladega top 10.
11. Ryan Newman
Before last fall’s top 10 amid the craziness induced on the last lap by his teammate, Newman finished 23rd or worse at Talladega in six straight races. It may be his least favorite track, so don’t get your free Bloomin’ Onion hopes too high.
12. Carl Edwards
Edwards led eight laps at Talladega during the spring 2011 event, the most he’s ever strung together in one race. His best chance to win in 2009 ended with his car shredding the tri-oval fence. Talladega isn’t nice to Carl Edwards.
13. Paul Menard
Menard hasn’t shattered expectations at Talladega (only one top 10) but he has finished on the lead lap in four of the last five races.
14. Martin Truex Jr.
Every finish for Truex at Talladega has been on the lead lap, but that’s only been in seven of his 16 starts.
15. Marcos Ambrose
Ambrose finished fourth in his first Talladega appearance, but hasn’t touched the top 10 since.
16. Brian Vickers
If Denny Hamlin ultimately can’t start Sunday’s race, it’ll be Vickers getting points for the No. 11 instead. Don’t waste a start on that chance.
1. David Ragan
Trust the stats on this one. In 12 career Talladega races, David Ragan has finished on the lead lap 10 times for an average finish of 16th. No one in NASCAR has a higher ratio of lead lap finishes to starts.
2. Michael Waltrip
One of two former Talladega winners in the C-group, Waltrip could pull some nice points if he can finish while driving the No. 55 this weekend.
3. Danica Patrick
She’s never raced at Talladega in Sprint Cup, but her showing at Daytona in February proved she can race pretty well in restrictor plate conditions. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her and teammate Tony Stewart ride most of the race in the back, away from the danger of the big pack.
4. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The other half of “Stenica” is also making his first Talladega Sprint Cup start. He was third in the Nationwide Series race last spring, and will have some teammates to help him in the draft.
5. Elliott Sadler
Sadler is an interesting pick because he’ll be with a Joe Gibbs Racing team that showed major promise at Daytona before engine failures systematically knocked them out. In 23 starts, Sadler has just one top 5 at Talladega. He’s also not running a full schedule, so you won’t be wasting a start better used somewhere else.
6. Trevor Bayne
Former Daytona 500 winner returns to Sprint Cup for his fourth start of 2013. At minimum, he’s got plenty of drafting friends in the field and lead lap finishes in his last three Talladega starts.
7. Travis Kvapil
After 10 Talladega starts, Kvapil’s average finish of 17.8 ranks 11th-best among active drivers. That is not a typo.
8. Scott Speed
If you’re looking to differentiate in your league (or maybe you’re just a Scott Speed fan), Talladega is about the only place I’d start him this year. He has a Talladega top 10 and three lead lap finishes.
9. David Gillilland
He’s finished 82 percent of his Talladega starts, which puts him in the top 10 of active drivers.
10. Casey Mears
Four career Talladega top 10s and 60 career laps led is … something?
11. Regan Smith
Remember when Tony Stewart was awarded Smith’s rightful Talladega win in 2008? That doesn’t have much to do with Sunday, but it shows Regan has been close in Alabama.
12. David Reutimann
The BK Racing driver has finished 50 percent of his Talladega starts on the lead lap, but has just one top 10.
13. Dave Blaney
This former start and park team comes to Talladega riding the high of its best 2013 finish (23rd) at Richmond.
14. Joe Nemechek
Nemechek has nearly as many poles (4) as top 10s (5) at Talladega. He’s also scored four straight 41st-place finishes at Talladega after starting and parking.
15. David Stremme
Stremme has failed to finish four of his 10 Talladega starts, and has just three lead-lap finishes.
16. Landon Cassill
Holds the dubious honor of being just one of four active drivers to have never led a lap at Talladega.
17. Josh Wise
He’s raced all nine starts so far this year, but Wise has only completed 10 laps in two starts at Talladega.
18. Terry Labonte
Terry has more starts and laps completed at Talladega than anyone. Still, consider him on full start and park alert.
19. Michael McDowell
Ran the full distance of the Daytona 500 to a ninth-place finish. Has start-and-parked every start since.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Richmond
Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Beaten down Joe Gibbs Racing should come out swinging
Matt Kenseth suffered perhaps the most crushing penalty NASCAR has ever assessed that isn't a driver suspension. Kyle Busch has a strong memory of team mistakes killing his chance to qualify for last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. And Denny Hamlin, the best Richmond International Raceway driver by advanced statistical measure in the last five-plus seasons, won't even get to suit up for Saturday night's race.
Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't had a good week, and it will be extremely interesting to see how it responds. Because it's Richmond, thinking that JGR will fold under the pressure seems almost impossible.
Since Busch joined the team in 2008, JGR six wins at RIR, just under half of the laps led (1,945 of 4,010) and 15 total top-5 finishes. It’s figured something out in the .75-mile track seemingly beyond other teams. It might have to do with Busch and Hamlin sharing similar demands from a race car at the short track, unlike other Cup venues.
"We do like similar setups there, unlike other mile-and-a-half tracks or two-mile tracks where we don’t run very similar setups," Busch says. "Richmond is one of those places where we both know what it takes to get around and we’re both similar to one another in that we both run well.”
Expect JGR to continue a streak more than a decade old Saturday night: having at least one car lead a lap. The last time that didn't happen? The fall of 2001.
Greg Zipadelli and Tony Stewart. (ASP, Inc.)
2. Racing the track, not the car, could be antidote to Stewart's slump
Tony Stewart has been in a funk. And Tony Stewart knows he's been in a funk.
“It’s not easy, for sure," Stewart says. "I mean, it was always hard as a driver, but it’s even worse as a driver-owner. When things are tough, the pressure and the burden is more on you knowing that you’re responsible for everything versus just being the guy driving the car."
A 21st-place finish at Kansas Speedway last weekend meant the No. 14 has gone nearly two months without a top-10 finish. Richmond provides relief in the form of not being a speedway track, and probably fits better into Stewart's comfort zone.
At the very least, it's an opportunity to race a track where style and line selection have more of a say than aerodynamic-focused Kansas.
"You never really get anybody who gets their car perfect," Stewart says of Richmond. "Even the guy that gets the lead still isn’t happy with his car. So, it’s really trying to find that balance and trying to figure out how to balance both ends of the track together.”
The 42-year-old led 333 laps in 1999 at RIR to win his first career Cup race. He's won twice at Richmond since (2001 and 2002) and also has four consecutive top 10s since a lap-down finish in 2010.
3. Teams bringing ideas from the desert to tackle Richmond
In a season with limited track time behind a still new car, teams are searching for methods to speed up the process and use information they've already gleaned to make setup decisions for coming race weekends. Richmond, and its similarities to the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway, is the latest example.
Every single Roush-Fenway Racing entry plus its satellite teams at Richard Petty Motorsports will use the cars they raced at Phoenix as primary cars this weekend. Carl Edwards won the race in the desert.
"Our package in Phoenix was very good," Edwards says. "I’m thinking some of that will help us with our race setup for Richmond."
The Ford teams also will use information that RPM’s Aric Almirola learned at Richmond during a test last month.
“The track was really fast which really surprised me," Almirola says, noting his first lap on the track in race trim came close to the track qualifying record. “We learned a lot from the test and felt that it helped us figure out what we need for our short-track package.”
Other teams using Phoenix cars this weekend include Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fifth at Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson (second) and Mark Martin (21st).
4. McMurray slowly leading Earnhardt-Ganassi out of struggles
Three was a nice number for Jamie McMurray in 2010, when he scored a trio of big wins at Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte. Last season, three stood for head-shaking disappointment as his No. 1 team mustered just three top-10 finishes in 36 starts.
But early in this 2013 season, three is starting to look better for McMurray as he looks to shed two straight frustrating seasons at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. The No. 1 now has three top 10s in just eight races after a seventh-place finish last weekend at Kansas.
He was another driver — along with snakebitten teammate Juan Pablo Montoya — who tested at Richmond.
"We have had two strong runs on short-tracks already this year," McMurray says, referring to a 10th at Bristol and a seventh at Martinsville. "I hope we can carry some of that momentum into this weekend."
5. Short schedule magnifies importance of unloading a fast race car.
Richmond isn't a place where teams can show up, miss the car setup during the first practice, and then still run well in the race. The two-day format for the Sprint Cup Series with practice and qualifying on Friday before the Saturday race just doesn't allow the track time to make wholesale changes and improvements.
Should a team find a decent setup in Friday afternoon practice, it also has to hope the setup will match Richmond's night-race conditions. Even a four-time champion struggles with that.
"When you practice during the day and race at night, you have to guess and I feel like every time we race here something is changing," says Jeff Gordon.
More unnerving for teams is how important nabbing a qualifying spot near the front tends to be. Eight of every 10 Richmond winners in the 113-race history of the track have come from inside the top 10, and an almost equally staggering 30 percent of Richmond winners have been from the front row.
The front qualifiers having an advantage isn't a trend that's going away, either. Going back to 2003 — a span of 20 races — just four winners have come from outside the top 10.
Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Richmond so you don't have to.
Clint Bowyer. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit up the road to Richmond, Va., on Saturday for the Toyota Owners 400. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Goeffrey’s fantasy predictions for Richmond ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Clint Bowyer
Fourteen career Richmond starts. Two wins. Eight top 10s. Thirteen lead lap finishes. Don't tell me you're gonna pick against Clint freakin' Bowyer — in anything — on a Saturday night.
2. Tony Stewart
Smoke has the most points scored in the last four races at RIR, and is the only driver with four top 10s. One would think, because it's not a 1.5-mile track, that Stewart won't continue his early season stink.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick, twice a winner at Richmond, has led two of the last four races there. But he's only got one top 10 this year, and a grand total of one lap led. His 15 career top 10s at RIR are the most of any track on his Sprint Cup resume — even with Ricky Rudd stealing one away prior to a hood stomping in ’03.
4. Jeff Gordon
In 40 career starts, he boasts the best average starting spot (7.9) of any current driver and the most Richmond top 5s (16) of all current full-time drivers. Oddly, he hasn't won there since Bill Clinton was president (2000).
5. Jimmie Johnson
Led just three laps at Richmond last season and his last win at RIR was in 2008. Most widely celebrated Richmond moment was when he wrecked Kurt Busch intentionally in 2011. More people have him on their Richmond roster than any other driver, though.
6. Kasey Kahne
Held off Stewart for his first career victory at RIR in 2005 before performing a miracle at the .75-mile track in 2011: earning a top-3 finish in a Red Bull Racing car. Average finish of 8.5 last year in Hendrick equipment, and potentially still has Richmond beef with Marcos Ambrose.
7. Brad Keselowski
As long Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans — still angry about him "causing a caution" that hosed the No. 88 at Kansas — don't run him out of town, Keselowski figures to be average in Richmond. Two top 10s last year were his best yet, but he's still never led a lap at RIR.
8. Matt Kenseth
One top 5 since 2006 at Richmond for Kenseth doesn't make Saturday night's race look promising. However, he did race unusually well at Martinsville, so perhaps the JGR equipment can help him again. Don't expect that advantage to come from the engine, though.
9. Denny Hamlin
Not racing, but still has a better chance to win at Richmond than most. Obviously, take a pass this week.
B List 1. Kyle Busch
Missed the Chase at Richmond last year, wrecked four times last week. However, picking against career win No. 5 at RIR for Busch — he’s won the last four consecutive spring races — just seems silly for a guy so good at avenging defeat. A pre-race favorite who’s an absolute steal as a B-Lister.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Had a car capable of winning Phoenix — the track most similar to Richmond this season — in February and ultimately lost on pit road. Led 67 laps last fall, finished second last spring and has three career RIR wins. Beard again approaching untamable levels.
3. Carl Edwards
Got hosed out of a win by NASCAR last spring; finished a lap down last fall to end a streak of five top 10s at RIR. Has a favorable chance of smiling 652 times on TV this weekend (after removing sunglasses, of course).
4. Mark Martin
Will tie Terry Labonte for most RIR starts (55) among active drivers Saturday. Carries track's seventh-best average finish (11.9) among same group.
5. Brian Vickers
Don't forget he's driving the No. 11 car that has led 1,390 laps at RIR since 2006. That said, his 24.9-place average in 14 Richmond starts is cause for concern.
6. Ryan Newman
Six top 10s in last 10 Richmond races, but only one top 5. Expect more of the same.
7. Kurt Busch
One win in 24 starts at Richmond. Seven of only nine RIR lead lap finishes have been top 10s.
8. Martin Truex Jr.
Dale Earnhardt, Inc. was still a real company for Truex's last Richmond top 5 (2008). Typically finishes eight spots worse (24.1) than he starts (16.1).
9. Joey Logano
30th and 24th last season at RIR, and that's with access to Hamlin's setup. Problem?
10. Jeff Burton
Virginia native has ninth-most laps in the top 15 during the last eight seasons at Richmond. Track is home to his best average start (15.2) and most career laps led (942).
11. Greg Biffle
Never a winner at Richmond, and his last top 5 came in 2006. Fun fact: one of four tracks where he's raced a Chevrolet in Sprint Cup competition (2002, Andy Petree Racing).
12. Paul Menard
You probably don't have to worry about a classic "where did he come from?!" top 10 from Paul this week. He's led one lap in 12 starts at RIR, and never finished better than 13th. Has averaged a sickening 26.75-place run in RCR sheet metal (four starts).
14. Marcos Ambrose
You could be like me and pick Ambrose on a short track, but then he'll likely crash. Best finishes at RIR came with JTG-Daugherty Racing (ninth and fifth in 2010). Was 22nd and 15th there last season.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya
Worth picking if you like watching the world burn somewhere just past halfway.
16. Jamie McMurray
Two top 10s in the last three races make McMurray a nice underdog pick. I'm not quite ready to get hung up on it, as he’s not scored a top-10 run at RIR since 2009.
17. Bobby Labonte
Same number of RIR starts as Jeff Gordon. 15 fewer top 10s.
18. Aric Almirola
Two Richmond starts, two 26th-place finishes. Consistent.
1. AJ Allmendinger
Eleventh at Phoenix for Phoenix Racing seems like a good omen for a guy with two top 10s at RIR (2010, ’11 with Richard Petty Motorsports).
2. David Gilliland
Early candidate for quote of the year after Kansas' "Shut up and drive" line to Danica Patrick. Best Richmond finish in 13 career Cup starts is 18th.
3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Richmond is a good place for first-time winners, but he'd be good with his first top 10 of 2013. Has finished fourth or better in last three Nationwide Series starts at RIR — not that it’ll translate.
4. Casey Mears
Typically makes it to the end of a Richmond 400-miler, as he only has two DNFs in 20 starts. Downside? He averages a 24th-place showing.
5. Danica Patrick
Never finished above 18th in three Nationwide Series Richmond appearances.
6. David Ragan
Three career top-5 finishes at Richmond is easily the most of the C-list. However, those came in primo Roush equipment.
7. David Reutimann
Has a pole at Richmond, but just four career lead lap finishes and a 23.2-place average in 12 Cup starts.
8. Travis Kvapil
Matching his best finish of 11th at Richmond would give Kvapil his first top-20 result of the year. At the very least, he hopes to not blow a fourth engine this year.
9. Dave Blaney
Finished fourth at Richmond once upon a time (2004, Bill Davis Racing) amid 24 career starts. His average in Tom Baldwin Jr.’s Chevys is a paltry 24.8.
10. Joe Nemechek
Is a former Richmond winner while driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2003 (yes, he once drove for Hendrick Motorsports), but DNQ’d at Kansas last week in his own equipment.
11. Landon Cassill
Currently leads Sprint Cup with three separate crew chiefs used so far in 2013. It must be working: he finished a season-best 29th at Kansas.
12. David Stremme
After leading a lap at Kansas, Stremme hopes to finish on the lead lap at Richmond. It'd be a season-first for a driver with a 33.2-place average on the .75-miler track.
13. Josh Wise
Finished just two laps down in Kansas, his closest margin to the leader so far this year.
14. JJ Yeley
Two straight DNFs has Yeley at a season-low 30th in points. He did, however, snare one of his eight career top 10s at Richmond. (2007, Joe Gibbs Racing). He will not grab No. 9 this weekend.
15. Timmy Hill
Currently at a career best 42nd in Sprint Cup points with three starts. Little Timmy has even run the distance the last two weeks (36th at Texas, 33rd at Kansas).
16. Michael McDowell
One of Phil Parsons’ “Start & Park Specials,” McDowell has four more starts than Timmy Hill this year, but has completed 352 fewer laps. Avoid like a TRD push rod.
17. Mike Bliss
Leading NASCAR's start-and-park brigade with a perfect zero finishes in five races. “I want ya to be perfect, Cole.”
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Kansas Speedway
1. NASCAR honors victims, heroes of Boston Marathon explosions
Just as it did after the large-scale attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NASCAR will serve in the role of honoring those affected by Monday's horrific events at the Boston Marathon. Beyond the expected emotional pageantry of Sunday's pre-race ceremonies at Kansas Speedway, two Sprint Cup teams with unique ties to Boston and its annual road race have even made plans to recognize and support the victims and heroes in various ways.
Roush Fenway Racing, the NASCAR venture tightly partnered with Boston's Fenway Sports Group, will carry a unique "B-Strong" decal on each of its cars this weekend. Team owner Jack Roush has also pledged to donate $100 per lap led by his team to relief efforts in Boston. Fenway Sports Group, of course, owns the Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park and other Boston sports enterprises.
Meanwhile, Michael Waltrip will recognize his personal tie to the Boston Marathon by having each of his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota's sport car numbers this weekend in the same font as the marathon's bib number system.
“The news coming out of Boston this week was very personal to me,” said Waltrip. “When I ran the Boston Marathon in 2000, I remember thinking about what a privilege it was to be able to participate and all the hard work it took to be there. When you can see those international flags flying in Copley Square, you know you are about to complete your journey. I know the joy those runners were feeling at that moment when their worlds changed."
Undoubtedly, expect many in the garage to be sporting Boston Red Sox gear, too.
2. Streaking Kyle Busch hopes to avoid 2012 mistake
This season, when Kyle Busch has found the lead, there's been at least two times in seven races when he hasn't looked back. In three others — now good enough for a career-best streak — Busch at the very least hasn't fallen from the top 5 when the checkered flag fell.
A top 5 for Busch on Sunday would push that top-5 streak to six and, more importantly, overcome a major gaffe he had at Kansas just last fall. It'd also mark his first top 5 at the 1.5-mile track.
Busch was just about to assume the lead of last October's event on Kansas' newly-repaved surface when he lost control exiting Turn 4. He made slight contact in the process, but the damage was enough to steal any good handling from his No. 18. A later crash sealed his fate for the day in 31st.
"Hopefully, we have a good car like that this time around and I don’t make a mistake like that," Busch said.
Busch, of course, wasn't the only driver to fall prey to a tricky Kansas track. The caution flag waved a track record 14 times in October — good for a series high among all tracks in 2012.
3. Martin Truex Jr. has had enough second fiddle
If you didn't sense his disappointment after Saturday night's race at Texas Motor Speedway, let's make one thing abundantly clear: Martin Truex Jr. is straight tired of finishing second. It happened again at Texas, and it happened twice last season at Kansas.
Truex was by far more dominant in the spring race last season before the re-pave, leading 173 laps. The Texas runner-up meant it has been 210 races since Truex won his only career Sprint Cup race at Dover in 2007 for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. If you'll remember, Truex's win that day came in a Monday race after a Sunday washout and was overshadowed by antics between Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart that left both wrecked and Busch parked by NASCAR.
See why Truex might be a bit tired of playing back-up?
"We had a good run in (Las) Vegas, and ran well at Texas," Truex said this week, more removed from his disappointing Saturday night. "It seems like our mile-and-a-half, big track program is pretty good and kind of like Kansas, so (I) look forward to going there."
4. Almirola returns to site of best career Sprint Cup run
Predictions for Aric Almirola to run well in the season's first 1.5-mile track race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway fell way short, but a very solid seventh-place finish last weekend at Texas should bode quite well for the No. 43.
Leading 69 laps in last fall's Cup return to Kansas, Almirola fell out of contention from the lead when he began suffering tire issues. Eventually, despite turning the race's second fastest laps and proving to be a top-5 car by speed both early and late in green flag runs, a tire exploded on Almirola and put him in the Turn 4 wall.
He finished 29th.
It was both a glimmer of hope and a knotting defeat for the underdog Richard Petty Motorsports team. Almirola, still searching for his first career win and just his third career top-5 finish, admittedly hasn't stopped thinking about a return.
"I've been looking forward to Kansas since last October when we left there. We were so good last fall. To have it all taken away with some blown tires really stung," Almirola said.
A solid run at Kansas would be extra nice for Almirola due to sponsor Farmland being headquartered nearby. He'll do battle in a brand new chassis built by RPM.
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
5. Kansas' own Clint Bowyer still searching for hometown checkers
Speaking of new cars, Clint Bowyer probably has one to sell you.
NASCAR's lone native Kansan celebrated the opening of his recently-acquired car dealership Thursday in his hometown of Emporia, Kan. In something befitting NASCAR's newest witty character, the dealership is one where both he and his brother formerly worked in decidedly lower-paying positions. It's also directly across the street from Emporia's Clint Bowyer Community Building.
Now, Bowyer will sell Toyotas from the Clint Bowyer Autoplex.
"There's a lot of renovation work and a lot of stuff to do, but getting the doors opened up for business was really neat and a big day for me," Bowyer said.
Bowyer is yet to own a Sprint Cup checkered flag from his hometown speedway, however. In 2007, he was extremely close — some would even say he won — when a late caution flag created controversy surrounding Greg Biffle's win in a shortened race. Since that runner-up finish, Bowyer has led just five laps in seven races and has two top-10 finishes at the speedway. He's also spent just 54 percent of his nine races at the 1.5-mile track in the top 15.
Those stats don't tell the whole story of Bowyer from a year ago, though, and extra numbers could show Bowyer as an unexpected but popular favorite for Sunday's race. Last October, Bowyer took sixth despite having the race's best average running position (5.858) and most laps in the top 15 (98.9 percent).
Will Bowyer finally hit big at Kansas? I guess we'll find out Sunday.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Martinsville Speedway
Jeff Gordon (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
1. Back to the scene of the (original) crime
With the he-said, he-said war of words and fenders that Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin have participated in during the last three weeks, it's been easy to forget that the final laps of Martinsville's spring race one year ago was the ultimate catalyst for last season's most-talked about rivalry.
After Jeff Gordon (329 laps) and Jimmie Johnson (111) combined to lead well over four-fifths of last year's event, the inevitable happened when a caution flag waved with just two laps remaining. The race now headed for a green-white-checkered overtime finish, Johnson and Gordon both hoped to scoot away on the restart and battle for the win amongst themselves.
They didn't even make it through Turn 1.
Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman charged low on the restart with Bowyer trying to block Newman. The move shot Bowyer over the Turn 1 curbing and directly in the side of Gordon. The contact forced Gordon into Johnson, sending both spinning into a mess of wrecked race cars piling in from behind.
Newman eventually found his way to improbable victory while Gordon, especially, steamed at Bowyer's late race antics. Those emotions, of course, boiled over in Phoenix many months later when Gordon took exception to another round of contact from Bowyer and intentionally wrecked the No. 15 to instigate a garage-area fracas. Logano was also collected.
Martinsville could serve as the next best place for Bowyer to return Gordon's favor — if he's still thinking retribution — or a great place for Logano to ruffle even more feathers with a payback to the No. 24. Whatever happens, perennial Martinsville favorite Johnson is concerned that the rough 'em up style Martinsville is known for could cause more problems than normal.
"With the new race cars, I think contact is going to be a question mark for me," Johnson says. "We have fiberglass panels and stuff, now, where it used to all be steel. I’ve seen some crash damage after just a small impact where they had to cut the nose completely off the car. So that could be the issue come race time there. Some minor contact could cause major cosmetic damage."
We'll have to wait to see if his concerns ring true.
Defending race winner Ryan Newman. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
2. Short tracks? Sounds good for Ryan Newman
Would you believe that last year's surprise win for Newman at Martinsville was just his third in the Sprint Cup Series since he won the 2008 Daytona 500? Or, if you include Daytona, just Newman's fourth win since the fall of 2005?
Admittedly, those numbers are a bit shocking when considering that Newman scored 11 wins during his first three seasons in the sport. The decrease in total winning has also produced another interesting nugget on where Newman has found his best results: short tracks.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has 11 career wins on tracks 1-2 miles in length, but since 2008 he's scored top-10s on short tracks at a 58 percent clip. On all other tracks? Newman's top-10 finish rate is just 34 percent.
"I like the short tracks. I like having the character added to the program of modulating the brake," Newman says. "In my opinion, the driver has a little more of an impact on the end result at short tracks than some of the bigger racetracks, and I like that.
The more the drivers are involved, the more I think you get to race and, from that standpoint, I think it’s more fun.”
Fun or not, also note that his two wins since the Daytona 500 triumph outside of last year's Martinsville win came at Phoenix International Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway — both tracks requiring braking and finesse instead of raw speed and aerodynamic handling.
3. Rick Hendrick could become winningest Martinsville owner
With Johnson and Gordon spinning out of the lead on that late restart a year ago, Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick also watched his organization lose out on tying Petty Enterprises as the winningest Sprint Cup Series organization ever at the small Virginia track.
Of course, Johnson took care of that in the fall with his win that tied the organizations at 19 each. HMS will offer more shots at breaking the long-standing record Sunday.
Petty Enterprises, which folded into Richard Petty Motorsprots in 2009, actually scored its 19 wins at Martinsville in fewer starts (158) than Hendrick (182) but took considerably longer. Lee Petty first won at Martinsville in 1954 and John Andretti scored No. 19 for Petty in the spring of 1999 — a span of 45 years.
Hendrick's Martinsville dominance has been much faster after Geoff Bodine scored the organization's first ever win there in 1984. Johnson or Jeff Gordon have won 11 of the last 20 races at Martinsville alone.
Few would bet against Johnson again Sunday. A big reason is that Johnson just seems to have a knack for NASCAR's oldest venue.
“Martinsville is just a quirky track. Once I figured out how to drive it – and, frankly, once Tony Stewart lapped me there in my sophomore year – it just made sense how to drive the track and I’ve had it ever since," Johnson says.
4. Please welcome back the long last NASCAR Truck Series
Remember way back when, at Daytona, before Jimmie Johnson sprayed champagne and before Kyle Larson's wicked crash left us gasping? Do you remember there was a race just before that, a Friday night affair? Do names like Paludo, Sauter or Hornaday ring a bell?
If any of that brings back memories, what you remember is the last time the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series was on track. Yes, as a matter of fact, NASCAR's third-tier national series has started its 2013 campaign. I certainly can't blame you if you forgot, though.
When the CWTS takes the green Saturday as the lone support race for Sunday's Sprint Cup festivities, it will have been 43 days since the last time those drivers and that series competed in anger. For perspective, back at Daytona North Korea wasn't blatantly threatening us, baseball's spring training was just days old and Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin were on slightly more amicable terms.
Johnny Sauter won February's CWTS race and will likely face the stiffest test to continue his winning ways from Kevin Harvick. One of three three-time winners at Martinsville in CWTS, Harvick could be trouble if he finds the lead. In his three wins (2009, 2010 and 2012) there have been a total of 11 lead changes.
5. Kurt Busch aims to match quirky stat from 2005
Speaking of threes, Kurt Busch and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team will look to do something the 2004 Sprint Cup champion hasn't done since 2005.
Busch, now with his third team since departing Roush Fenway Racing after the 2006 season, hasn't pulled together three consecutive top-5 finishes since the second-place, third-place and third-place finishes he reeled off to begin the 2005 season. Of course, Busch hasn't been bad since then — he's scored 54 more top 5s since that streak along with 13 victories — but that he has a chance to match that streak in his first full season at FRR is a testament to the stable success he's seems to locating at the Colorado-based team.
Busch picked up a fourth-place finish at Bristol two races ago and a fifth-place run in the most recent outing at Auto Club Speedway.
“We’re not concerned about statistics,” says Busch. “We just want to continue our momentum and keep plugging forward.
Busch, who has led just one lap this season, won at Martinsville in 2002 after leading 111 of 500 laps. With FRR to close out 2012, Busch scored a 15th-place finish at the short track.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Auto Club Speedway
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Strong start, but when does Dale Earnhardt Jr. win?
Depending on how you judge these things, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the most impressive start to a NASCAR Sprint Cup season in his career. The claim comes with Earnhardt, now second in the point standings, putting together his best average finish (5.0) after four races since he started full-time in 2000.
Or, you could say that it's just been a really consistent start for NASCAR's top-billed man that rivals the start he worked in 2004. That season, he won the Daytona 500 and the season's fourth race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a start only derailed by a miserable day at Las Vegas in the season's third race.
Each, of course, has their merits. But only one — the incredibly consistent current campaign — matters now. It also begs the question we've asked of Earnhardt plenty in the last half decade: when he is going to win?
A trip to Auto Club Speedway for Earnhardt may provide that answer. It's a track that he both welcomes as a driver's venue and one where he's shown moderate past success. It doesn't hurt that four of the last nine races have been won by Hendrick Motorsports.
"You can run the bottom; you can run on the apron; you can run on the top. It’s a very fun racetrack to drive," Earnhardt said. "And so I’ve got a good attitude about it. I think Steve (Letarte, crew chief) is going to give me a good car. We ran good last year because Steve gave me a good car.”
Earnhardt was scored third last year when rain ended the race on lap 129, good for his fourth top 5 at ACS in 20 career starts.
"There are opportunities to pass when you run a guy down, you can change the line you’re running and get some clean air on your car," Earnhardt said. "You feel confident that if you do the right thing and drive the car well, that you can make a pass. I love that about that racetrack."
2. Toyota still waiting on the checkers to blow their way.
Another Sprint Cup entity hoping to break in to the win column Sunday is a bit larger than even Earnhardt. Toyota, winners of the last nine Nationwide Series races contested at ACS, has yet to find Victory Lane in a Sprint Cup car at the southern California speedway that stands closest to the Torrence, Calif.-based Toyota Racing Development facility where all TRD engines and other parts are manufactured for Toyota teams.
To do so Sunday, they'll have to break a five-race streak of wins held by the Chevrolet camp in NASCAR's top division. Helping the cause will be the addition of Matt Kenseth to the Toyota fold. The former Roush Fenway Racing Ford driver has three wins in Fontana. Kenseth, already a winner at Las Vegas two weeks ago, appeared on pace to grab another before Jeff Gordon's flat tire forced his exit at Bristol last week.
Kenseth will be pushed by his teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin was running second last year until an ill-advised pit stop as rain closed in on the track dropped him back in the pack to finish 11th. Kyle Busch was also plenty strong a year ago at ACS, leading 80 of 129 completed laps before taking second to Tony Stewart.
“We’ve had really fast race cars everywhere we’ve gone so far. Fontana is another place where I’ve always fared well over the years, and I’m hoping we can finally get that victory we’ve been looking for this weekend," Busch said.
Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Stewart-Haas Racing ready for turnaround?
More than just a win, the drivers representing Stewart-Haas Racing are looking merely for a few doses of good fortune. Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart are packed neatly together in the point standings at 23rd and 24th, respectively, and just ahead of rookie teammate Danica Patrick in 28th.
Already in 2013, Stewart has wrecked twice (a victim of a pack crash at Daytona and a flat tire at Bristol) while Newman has crashed due to a flat tire at Phoenix and a blown engine at Las Vegas. Stewart, at least, isn't worried. He thinks the finishes will come thanks in part to how well the Stewart-Haas organization has taken on the third full-time car with Patrick behind the wheel. He says the team has avoided alienating the new rookie driver in Patrick like he's seen others do in the past — to the extent that Newman and Patrick are akin to brother and sister.
They're also feeling some of the added home-track pressure usually reserved for racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Haas Automation, the company of team co-owner Gene Haas, is also located in southern California.
"(Newman and Patrick) get into conversation that I actually get uncomfortable with and I’m like, ‘Alright, you guys go ahead and talk about this, I’m leaving,'" Stewart said. "That’s hard to do with me, so she fits in really well with us as a group.'"
"I guess I give ourselves a better grade than where we were this time last year because everyone is working together a lot better and they’re a lot more comfortable with each other.”
4. Going’ back to Cali? Just fine for Jimmie.
The state of California, according a simple Wikipedia search, has been the subject of more than 390 songs recorded by a group of artists eclectic and diverse as the nation's third-largest state. A native son of The Golden State, Jimmie Johnson probably doesn't need even one of those for motivation to deliver results at Auto Club Speedway.
No, Johnson doesn't need any of The Beach Boys, Katy Perry or Notorious B.I.G. Even the Eagles can stay on pause. Especially the Eagles.
That's because the two-mile Southern California speedway could easily be argued as the very best track for Johnson and his No. 48 team. Johnson scored his very first Sprint Cup win in Fontana in 2002 (the first of now 61) and his since taken the checkered flag at ACS four more times. He has more wins at three other tracks, but Johnson's average finish at ACS is the best of any track outside of the two races he's participated in at Kentucky Speedway.
Johnson, 10th last year, hasn't finished outside the top-10 at ACS since 2006.
5. Championship race already taking shape?
Four races is entirely too small of a sample size to accurately pick title contenders when 22 races remain before the start this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. But in a year with a new car style, it's not outlandish to think the likelihood that those teams who are strongest to start the season will keep that pace through the end of it.
To that end, six of the top seven drivers in the current Sprint Cup point standings are the same ones who comprised the top six spots in the final rundown of last year's title fight. The seventh of that group — Dale Earnhardt Jr., now second in points — missed two races in the 2012 Chase thanks to concussion symptoms.
Certainly, nothing is a lock between Sunday's 400-miler and September's race in Richmond. But it's got to be ominous for the competitors of Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin to see how strong they've been to start this year. Of those six, only Biffle (down four spots in the standings year-to-year) and Hamlin (one spot back from post-Bristol 2012) have regressed from this time a year ago. Meanwhile, Keselowski is up 12 spots in the point standings from a year ago, Johnson is up 14 spots and Kasey Kahne is up an astounding 25 spots over last year.
Drivers who represented the back half of last year's final standings, though, are leaving their spots completely up for grabs as of now. Jeff Gordon, now 24th in the standings, is 17 spots lower than his finish a year ago. Tony Stewart is 15 spots down.
Sure, there's a ton of racing left. And sure, anything can and will happen. But when guys like Keselowski, Johnson and Bowyer are hot already, you have to wonder what everyone else is going to do to catch up.
The California Etc.
Five drivers have completed all 1,283 laps competed in the Sprint Cup Series so far in 2013, including Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. … Just as it did at Las Vegas and Bristol, Goodyear is bringing the same tire compound from 2012 to Auto Club Speedway. There was no test in the new Gen-6 car at the track … Sunday marks the 24th Sprint Cup Series race in Fontana, and three drivers (Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte) have started every race … Jimmie Johnson is the only current driver to finish on the lead lap in every start at Auto Club.