Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead at Indianapolis, giving his fans something to cheer about in a season where there have been plenty of highlights. Although the points will be reset at the start of the Chase, the question becomes can Earnhardt continue his successful season and win the championship?
That was among the questions Backseat Drivers Fan Council members were asked about last weekend’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Here’s what they had to say about those issues and more:
Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the championship? Earnhardt took the points lead at Indianapolis, the first time he’s led the points since late in the 2004 season. Fan Council members were asked if they thought he would win the championship this year:
64.5 percent said No
35.5 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• Even though I've been an Earnhardt fan all my life and have been hoping that Junior would finally win a Cup championship, I don't think this is the year. First, Jimmie Johnson served notice (Sunday) that anyone winning the championship this year will have to beat him to do it. Next, even though Junior is perhaps the most consistent driver in the sport this year, consistency, without wins won't get the job done. I think he'll win again. Ultimately, though, I think 5-Time becomes 6-Time. Jimmie is just too good.
• One win in four years. Letarte's track record in the Chase is pretty poor, especially when he got used up by Knaus in 2007. Earnhardt's record in the Chase isn't much better. There's no value in leading the points before the Chase.
• It's hard to pinpoint just why I don't think he will win. I think it's a combination of a lack of complete faith in Steve Letarte's ability to close the deal along with the feeling the luck he's had will not last. On the other hand, I do see maturity in Junior that just might supersede everything else.
• This has been his most consistent year. Consistency wins championships.
• He has yet to convince me he has the killer instinct to go out and drive beyond the car to go out and win more races and win the Chase.
• As a Junior fan, I'm just worried the team is gonna choke.
• As Steve Letarte said in a pre-race interview, “Give FIVE reasons why they won’t AND I’ll give ya FIVE reasons why they can.”
• Dale Jr. does not have the mental/emotional fortitude to win the championship. He has a tendency to get focused on and bothered by things that distract him. I believe Steve Letarte will give him the cars, and his crew will give him the performances necessary to win a championship, but I believe Junior will get distracted by something the media says, the fans want (or are saying) and he will lose enough focus to lose the championship. I believe he will learn that lesson and be a stronger contender for the championship the next time he's in the position.
• He has momentum behind him, a great owner and crew chief and crew. Plus he has Junior Nation behind him. It's his to lose.
• Even though he doesn't have the most wins this season has been the most consistent — but that isn't going to help with the last 10 races. Guys like Johnson and Stewart are going to step up and start rattling off wins and top 5s in the last 10 races. If Dale Jr. wins a couple more races before the Chase I would change my answer.
• Sorry Junior Nation, he's not going to win it. It will take multiple wins in the Chase to win it and his team is more about consistency. I also don't think he has the killer instinct it takes to win it. Until someone else wins one, I'm not sure anybody but Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart can win the title. I think it comes down to those two guys.
• Most consistent driver all year. He will win another race this year and capture that elusive championship. He is surviving the summer months well, where he typically does poor, which indicates that come fall, he will excel. I’ve never seen Junior this confident, mature and consistent.
• While he is my driver, I don't see domination. I see speed and consistency from the 88 team — and they belong in the Chase — but the winner of the Chase will dominate throughout it.
• I have to answer “yes.” I am a Junior fan and I have to have that faith. I am scared to even think it though, for fear that I will jinx him and Junior Nation! Regardless, I am so proud of his (and the entire 88 team’s) performance this year. BRAVO!
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Grade Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis
51.8 percent said it was Good 35.8 percent said it was Fair 6.6 percent said it was Poor 5.8 percent said it was Great
What Fan Council members said:
• Really not a lot of racing at all. It's understandable at IMS because these are big, heavy cars that are aero-dependent and not made to run big, flat tracks.
• We actually saw some racing instead of the parade I have been used to at Indy. It is still hard to pass with the cars being so aero-sensitive but it seems the most dominant car won Sunday, unlike Saturday.
• One guy dominated and the only time anyone could pass was the first couple of laps of the run (after a restart). Not exciting unless you were a Johnson fan.
• Extremely boring. NASCAR doesn't belong at Indy.
• Seven laps in and the field was strung out into a single line and from that point on the only passing was (with little exception) on pit road or at restarts. That's how it always is at Indy (and Pocono and California and Michigan), so not unexpected. The Indy race isn't there for the exciting racing, it’s there for the prestige of running tin tops at Indianapolis. It should stay there for the history. It’s not like it’s the only place with strung-out, not particularly exciting, racing.
• For an Indianapolis race which tends to be more about pageantry than great racing, this was a pretty good race. It had slow/boring spots, but also had action — that was covered on the television broadcast — throughout the field. The leader running away from the field typically makes for a boring race, but the restarts alleviated the lack of competition for the lead during the longer green flag runs. There was some passing on a track known for its lack of passing. There were tire and engine issues adding the element of surprise to portions of the race.
• More single-file racing. Very little passing. This track is just not made for stock cars. And did you see the number of empty seats?! WOW!
• I saw a lot of tweets stating the race was boring. I don't know how anyone said it was boring. I saw a lot of passing, pit strategy, green flag stops, etc. Yes, Jimmie Johnson spanked the field, but there are a lot of other races for points, wild card, etc., going on. In racing, it's not over until the checkered flag flies. I never find a race boring — some especially more exciting — but never boring.
• That was a horrible race. It is never good. Why did I even bother? A lot of people assign blame to the “tire debacle” a few years ago (2008) for the declining attendance. We've had four races since then with no tire issues, so let's face it: stock cars suck at this track. And most of the seats there are terrible — there are huge parts of the track you can't see. WHY would anybody go there for a Cup race? NASCAR weekends are expensive. If I am going to spend the money, it'll be at a track where I can see all the action! (Example: Richmond is our next race!)
• I attended the race at the Brickyard. Granted, you can't see much of the track, but I still thought the racing was pretty good. I focused on some battles between drivers — not just my driver. I did see passing until the field got too far apart. Neat to see Jimmie win his fourth Brickyard. Hated to see Matt get wrecked, but loved seeing Dale Jr. leave leading in the points.
Grade how ESPN showed the end of the Indianapolis Cup race. ESPN noted that it showed the final 23 minutes of the race and the first eight minutes of post-race coverage without commercial interruption. To do that required more commercial breaks earlier in the race. Fan Council members were asked if they were fine with the long commercial-free portion at the end of there race or if they would rather have the commercial breaks more evenly spaced.
88.8 percent liked how ESPN showed the end of the race minus commercials
11.2 percent wanted more evenly spaced commercial breaks throughout the race
What Fan Council members said:
• What I really liked was the actual post-race coverage. Usually, we don't get much and I have to start looking for more info online, but this time I could just stick with the TV.
• The end of the race is what matters. Sure, we might miss what causes a caution or two but I think we all agree, at the end of the race, when strategy is coming together we want to see that.
• At least they (ESPN) are making an effort to appease viewers. I didn't notice the commercials in this race, to be honest, which is a good thing. (Believe me, the mashed potatoes/macaroni & cheese debate has been tattooed into the national conscience of NASCAR Nation.) I don't need uninterrupted post-race coverage unless there's some sort of controversy, a la the Nationwide race this weekend.
• In an ideal world, there would be fewer commercials. However, I liked this because a lot of the time, the drivers don't “race” until later in the race.
• Whoopie do! For a good portion of those 23 final minutes they had a single-car camera shot of the 48. That's not really showing the race. Use a split screen if they want to focus on the leader — but show the racing in the field.
• I think their entire coverage was great! The timing of commercials was better than TNT.
• ESPN's coverage of the race was textbook how a race should be covered regarding commercials.
• I noticed more commercials in the early broadcast and was worried ESPN was going TNT on us, but then I also noticed the long run at the end going commercial-free and I approve of this immensely.
Grade the inaugural Nationwide race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
30.8 percent said it was Good 23.3 percent said it was Fair 21.5 percent didn’t watch 17.2 percent said it was Poor 7.2 percent said it was Great
What Fan Council members said:
• Maybe I'm just bitter, but I loved attending the NNS race at LOR. It was close racing and you can see the entire track. As a Speedway native, I love IMS with all my heart, but I chose to watch the NNS race on TV knowing I would be going to the Brickyard the next day. I didn't feel it was worth the money to watch a race with very little passing two days in a row.
• Any good feelings I might have had about the race were gone the minute NASCAR decided that, in spite of all the evidence in his favor, Elliott Sadler had to do the pass-thru penalty. The race ended for me right then. I've never been one to jump on conspiracy theories, but in that case, NASCAR made a decision that changed the outcome of the race and potentially the outcome of the season.
• Inconsistent calls and Cup drivers galore because they “needed” to be the first one to win at The Brickyard (in NNS). Roughly the same amount of people showed up that would have at LORP. It's time to go back to the short track.
• I think it was a HUGE mistake to take this race away from Lucas Oil Raceway and put on the big track. It did nothing but show two races that were boring this weekend. Since when is it better to take away all of the short tracks? I don't understand the thought process behind this move.
• It's great to see the NNS at Indy.
• They don't deserve to be running there. They were out of place and it just felt wrong. The race wasn't any good either.
• Fantastic action with the Nationwide race. I am in the “Support Elliott Saddler” camp. I think, truthfully, that Dillon was at fault and the correct action for that particular restart would have been to just do it over — very unfair to dump the whole blame on Elliott. And how could he possibly have slowed to give the position back without wrecking a lot of cars?
• I thought it was a little better than the Cup race. I don't know why — maybe because it was shorter? One thing I do know, though, is that Elliott Sadler got screwed. Bad call by NASCAR. That section of the rulebook might need to be updated. I'm not a Sadler fan, but he handled himself with a lot of dignity and class in that deal.
• It was very fun to watch. Some passing. Suspense. Well done.
• Lots and lots of drama! And some good racing!
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson in Victory Lane at Phoenix last season. (ASP, Inc.)
After a well-deserved off week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the famed yard of bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend's Crown Royal presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard.
The annual Brickyard 400 is considered one of the most prestigious races of the season by those in the garage area. In 18 visits, 11 drivers have put their name on the winner's trophy at the famed speedway, seven of them former series champions. Winning at Indianapolis is no simple feat, and will rank among the most important victories in a driver's career.
Veteran Jeff Gordon knows just how special it is to score a victory at IMS. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won the inaugural event in 1994, and has since gone on to collect a total of four Brickyard 400 wins, the most among all Cup drivers.
In last year's event, Gordon had one of the strongest cars in the field, leading 36 of the 160 laps. While he had plenty of fuel to make it to the end, his task was to chase down leader Paul Menard, who was attempting to stretch his fuel mileage to the end. Gordon charged nearly to the back bumper of Menard's No. 27 Chevrolet, but was forced to settle for second as Menard went on to score his first career Sprint Cup Series victory.
As the season moves to Indianapolis this weekend, Gordon is mired in 17th in the series standings and running out of time if he wants to be a part of the championship battle in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. An up-and-down season has left him scratching his head for answers, it seems things have finally started to fall into place for Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led team.
Since their 35th-place showing at Darlington in May, Gordon’s No. 24 team has scored five top 10s in the last eight races — moving him from 24th in points to 17th. Headed to one of his best tracks (he holds the second-best average finish), the four-time champion is in dire need of a win. Going off their notes from last year, look for the veteran to record his name in the record books again and kiss the bricks for the fifth time.
If Gordon wants to score that all-important fifth Brickyard 400 win and join the in Chase wild card discussion, he will have to beat teammate Kasey Kahne and defending series champion Tony Stewart.
Kahne started on the outside of the front row in last year's event, led 48 laps, but was foiled in the fuel mileage gamble in the closing laps and finished 18th. This season, Kahne has been making the most of his time at Hendrick Motorsports, scoring two wins, including the last Cup Series race at Loudon two weeks ago.
While Gordon may hold the most wins at Indianapolis, Stewart holds the best average finish among active drivers (8.1). The former open-wheel star has two wins at the Brickyard and has finished inside the top 10 in nine of his 13 starts. This season Stewart and his Steve Addington-prepped team have three wins, and this organization knows how to step up when it matters most. It’s safe to say that anytime the circuit hits the brickyard, Stewart is on everyone’s radar.
Five Favorites: Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth
Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick has flown a bit under the radar thus far in the 2012 season, but that is about to change as the series heads closer to the Chase. Currently sitting sixth in the championship standings, Harvick has three top 5s and nine top 10s through the first 19 races.
The proud new father has been solidly consistent this year, finishing outside the top 20 on only two occasions. Harvick is the 2003 Brickyard 400 champion and also holds the third-best average finish (10.0) among active drivers.
Although it appears Harvick is a safe bet to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a win would go a long way when the 12-driver field is reset following Richmond in September. Look for Harvick and his Shane Wilson-led crew to contend for that win on Sunday.
Whenever any form of motorsports heads to Indianapolis, one name stands above the rest is Roger Penske. The famed team owner has a total of 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500, but is searching for his first NASCAR victory at the yard of bricks.
While the majority of attention surrounding this organization has focused on AJ Allmendinger’s failed drug test and the fallout from that announcement, Brad Keselowski is set to put the attention back where it belongs: on the track.
“It definitely gives you a sense of pride when you go to Indy as a member of Penske Racing," Keselowski said. "You look at everything Mr. Penske has been able to accomplish there in open-wheel racing. It would be one of the coolest things I could ever do in a racecar if I could get him his first win in the Brickyard 400. I really think we have a good chance to do that on Sunday.”
Keselowski is among the best in the garage at overcoming adversity and rising to the occasion at the most significant times, and this week should be no different. At the famed speedway, Keselowski holds the 10th-best average finish (14.0) and was ninth in last year's race.
With three wins to his credit in 2012, Keselowski is 10th in the championship standings, but in search of more victories. Overcoming adversity and stepping up on the sport's biggest stages are among Keselowski's most notable attributes, so look for a solid day out of the No. 2 team this weekend.
The defending Brickyard 400 winner, the aforementioned Menard, was able to score that illusive first career Sprint Cup Series victory last year by stretching his fuel mileage to the end, but result was no fluke, as he also had one of the strongest cars of the day. Only once has the defending race winner gone on to win the following year at Indianapolis (Jimmie Johnson, 2008 and ’09), but could Menard be the second?
Much like in 2011, Menard is currently on the outside of the top 10 in championship standings in 15th. With time running out before the Chase field is set, a win would once again put Menard solidly in the wild card discussion heading to Richmond.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer
It is not often that a former race winner at a track is a darkhorse pick, but considering the type of season Jamie McMurray and his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, are having, it is hard not to consider them as such.
McMurray, the 2010 Brickyard 400 winner, has the seventh-best average finish (13.1) among active drivers with one win, three top 5s and five top 10s. McMurray was fourth in last year's event, but has finished outside the top 15 on four occasions.
This season, however, both McMurray and Montoya have been out to lunch. After a host of internal changes during the offseason, the expectations were high for team owner Chip Ganassi, however his cars currently sit 20th and 21st in the championship standings.
Of course, this is Indy, and much like fellow team owner Penske, Ganassi expects to run well here. Montoya has been a contender throughout the years in the Brickyard 400, only to have mistakes on pit road and accidents ruin solid runs. In fact, aside from finishing second in his first attempt at Indy in a stock car in 2007, Montoya has finished 28th or worse in three of his five starts.
This weekend, however, the Ganassi teammates are running in Friday’s Grand-Am Road Racing Series at Indy. Whether this will take away or contribute to the team's overall effort is up for debate.
Another former Indianapolis 500 winner you may want to keep an eye on is Penske Racing's Sam Hornish Jr. Taking the reins of the No. 22 Dodge from the suspended Allmendinger, Hornish now has the rare opportunity at a second chance in the Sprint Cup Series.
Hornish has struggled to adjust to the unexpected promotion to Cup over the past two races, but at a track he is comfortable racing at, perhaps this team will come into their own with Hornish as their driver this weekend at Indianapolis.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr., Regan Smith, Jeff Burton
If there is one certainty for this weekend's race at Indianapolis, perhaps it is going with Chevrolet drivers on your fantasy lineup. Since the Cup Series has been racing at IMS, the bowtie brigade has won 13 of 18 races, including the last nine events.
Among the most unique tracks on the schedule, the key to success at Indy will be a solid setup that makes the car work well throughout all four of the track's unique corners. Fuel mileage was a deciding factor in last year's race, and may play a major role in this year's race as well.
Best of luck to all the fantasy racers out there this weekend, and if you win, don't think twice about going out and kissing the bricks on your patio.
Best Average Finish at Indianapolis (Wins):
1. Tony Stewart — 8.1 (2)
2. Jeff Gordon — 9.1 (4)
3. Kevin Harvick — 10.0 (1)
4. Carl Edwards — 11.0 (0)
5. Clint Bowyer — 11.8 (0)
6. Mark Martin — 12.9 (0)
7. Jamie McMurray — 13.1 (1)
8. Greg Biffle — 13.1 (0)
9. Kyle Busch — 13.1 (0)
10. Brad Keselowski — 14.0 (0)
There are 16 races left in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and already it is being remembered as the “Year of the Upset.” And Paul Menard solidified that designation in the Brickyard 400 at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Menard, winless in 166 career Cup starts and a longshot in his No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevy, conserved enough fuel over the final 35 laps and held off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon to earn the unlikely win at the Brickyard.
In the process, he joined Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, Southern 500 winner Regan Smith and Coke Zero 400 winner David Ragan as first-time winners on the circuit this year. Three of those — Bayne, Smith and now Menard — not only hit paydirt for the first time, but did so in crown jewel events, marking a first in the Cup Series.
“I knew that we saved plenty of fuel, but I was more worried about the guys that pitted for fuel and were coming hard,” Menard said. “Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) told me where Jeff (Gordon) was and he how fast he was coming. They set me loose with three laps to go, and the car was really good.”
Gordon, who led 36 laps and had one of the best cars on the grid, finished second. Smith, 2010 Brickyard 400 winner Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth rounded up the top 5.
“As disappointing as it is not win this race, it sure was great to run that good,” Gordon said. “And I gotta congratulate Paul Menard. I don’t think there’s anybody in this garage area that appreciates a win here at the Brickyard more than Paul. He grew up here as a kid and I think that’s pretty cool.”
Ah yes, the back story on Menard and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Menard’s father, John, owns the Menards chain of home improvement stores throughout the Midwest. As a long-time supporter of automobile racing in the United States, he has sponsored numerous Indianapolis 500 entries going back to 1982 — including three cars manned by Tony Stewart (1996-98), as well as son Paul’s ride since his debut in NASCAR in 2003.
Needless to say, with the family’s history and affinity for Indianapolis, there could not have been a better track for 30-year-old Paul — having run full-time on the Cup circuit since 2007 — to get his first win.
“My first year here was in 1989 — that I can remember, anyway,” Menard said. “Just spent a lot of time in the garage area. I didn’t miss an Indy 500 from ’89 to 2003; I was here for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 — it’s just a really special place for my family and myself.”
No win at Indy comes easy, and this race was no exception. An otherwise staid race was thrown for a loop when Landon Cassill went for a spin with 41 laps to go. The top seven cars, led by Brad Keselowski, remained on track under the caution period, choosing track position over fuel and fresh tires. Menard, along with McMurray and Smith, among others, topped off their fuel cells just before the race went back to green with 34 laps remaining. Menard restarted 16th.
Once back to green, the majority of the field that had not pitted under caution made stops, as it cycled into a fuel window that would carry them to the end, handing the lead to Menard with 15 lap to go, although he was quickly passed by McMurray. Gordon, who pitted with 26 laps to go, found himself charging threw the field as the laps wound down, but was still 12 seconds out of the lead with only 12 laps to make something happen.
As the top-10 cars conserved fuel by running noticeably slower laps, Gordon surged, picking off positions as the race came to its conclusion. Menard was told to go full throttle with three laps remaining, as Labbe’s calculations showed the No. 27 machine had enough fuel. When the word came to the driver to punch it, he flew by McMurray and, although Gordon was able to work his way back to second just after Menard took the lead, the gap was too great for the four-time Brickyard winner, and Menard won the race to the checkered flag by .725 seconds.
“Every time I got to a car that was saving fuel it kind of held me up,” Gordon said. “I knew that we weren’t going to get to Paul, it was really about him running out of fuel.”
As for the race-winner, Menard not only enjoyed his most memorable day in NASCAR, but moved into a wild-card spot in the Chase for the Championship standings. NASCAR’s new Chase qualification rule states that positions 11 and 12 be awarded to the drivers with the most wins ranked 11th-20th. Menard and Denny Hamlin currently occupy the spots with six races until the playoffs begin.
“I think we're 14th (in points) now (and) with the wild card,” Menard said of the upcoming Chase. “We got five or six races left. We got a lot of work to do. We have Richmond and New Hampshire — those are two of our worst tracks, honestly. We have a lot of work to do.”