Through the Gears: Four things we learned at the All-Star Race
Jimmie Johnson wins the All-Star Race. Again. (ASP, Inc.)
Say what you want about Jimmie Johnson. Critics have a long list of rebuttals for why he’s not the greatest driver of this era: Chad Knaus, superior equipment and more money through sponsor Lowe’s than his closest rivals. But it’s hard to argue the stats on paper. Johnson’s fourth win in the All-Star Race, a NASCAR record, launched him past teammate Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.
With five Cup championships, 62 wins and another decade or so to add to that total, it’s time to give the man his due. Yes, he may be paired forever with a political correctness label that leaves him scorned by much of the fan base. Surely, Knaus and owner Rick Hendrick’s “New York Yankees” model of having the best of the best in all positions helps immensely. But someone still has to drive the car. Johnson had to hold off a hungry Kasey Kahne, side-by-side and initially charge forward from a starting spot of 20th place. That was no easy feat, a goal that could only be reached by a select few.
This All-Star Race was another reminder that, like it or not, Johnson is clearly in the “Greatest Driver of His Era” category. A decade from now, when all is said and done in his career, Saturday night will surely not be the only record he’ll leave behind.
Other gears to shift through after NASCAR’s greatest exhibition include…
FIRST GEAR: The All-Star Race Needs a retool
The All-Star Race has long been billed as one where sparks fly, rivalries ignite and drivers let it all hang out. So what have we gotten these last nine years during the Chase era? A total of one pass for the lead within the last five laps. There have been few, if any, incidents of close racing let alone contact between drivers that would spark fan interest. On Saturday night, Johnson needed two laps to fully dispose of Kahne before cruising to the checkers, part of a 90-lapper that had only one major incident (Mark Martin being spun out by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.). Not exactly the type of marketing the sport needs for an exhibition race, right?
Clearly it’s not all the driver’s faults. Charlotte has struggled as a racetrack since a 2005 “levigation” experiment gone awry, producing asphalt that’s left Goodyear in a pickle. In the first race run after the process, a 500-miler was nearly stopped as tires blew every 15-20 laps; in response, the tire company has acted more scared there than a five-year-old without a nightlight in his room. The rubber they produce, every time out, has been far too conservative, forcing the drivers to race the same, as little falloff (creating similar lap times) combined with high speeds make passing difficult at best.
With that in mind, Saturday night still felt like a missed opportunity from a garage that’s not too happy with each other right now. From Kasey Kahne-Kyle Busch to Denny Hamlin-Joey Logano, the list of drivers who feel they “owe” somebody for some past on-track issue is lengthy; Don King could have a field day with a Friday Night Boxing Special on HBO. So with a chance to take a “free shot,” all these drivers did … was nothing. Absolutely nothing but ride around, make laps and watch as the prohibitive favorite (Johnson) entering the event took control and pulled away. It was anticlimactic, paired with a staggering amount of empty seats and with a format based on best average finish for the final segment that left fans referring to an abacus. Add in a graphical mistake by SPEED that made it look like NASCAR was manipulating the rules for “Five-Time,” and the whole show took on the feel of a debacle.
Clearly, major changes for this race need to happen, and they need to happen now. Stick ‘n’ ball sports are struggling with All-Star formats too, but no one seems to need to go back to the drawing board more than NASCAR.
SECOND GEAR: Kurt Busch proving his worth
Furniture Row Racing, as a single-car team, has just one victory in its near-decade of NASCAR competition. Expect that to change soon. Kurt Busch is on a tear, winning the pole for the All-Star Race (as well as the pole at Darlington the week prior) and winning two of the first four segments of the race. Only a slow pit stop kept the No. 78 from Victory Lane, as Busch lost track position for the final 10 laps and was forced to settle for fifth.
In the past, that incident would cause the once-tempestuous driver to explode. Make no mistake, Busch has had his in-race moments in 2013, but Saturday night was another example of Busch keeping those mood swings in check. Yes, he let his frustration be known over the in-car radio, but the fury was nowhere near on par with past outbursts, and there certainly was no throwing the crew under the bus — instead, he was roundly complimentary.
No doubt, that belies a level of confidence the driver feels with this program, more heavily linked with Richard Childress Racing than ever before, as the big man himself considers potentially placing the driver in a top-tier ride in the RCR camp come 2014.
Still in the top 20 in points, Charlotte’s 600-miler presents one of several opportunities for this team to steal a win in the coming weeks (Michigan, Sonoma and Daytona are others that come to mind). With a “win or wreck” mentality, Busch is likely to run around 20th in points, which means he’s the biggest roadblock for Denny Hamlin should this team break out and reach Victory Lane multiple times.
The “wild card” race is about to ramp up.
THIRD GEAR: Ford’s failure
Brad Keselowski, blowing a transmission on the second lap, said it all for a Ford contingent that’s looking a step behind. Despite adding two cars to its roster this offseason through Penske Racing, Fords have only won twice this season in 11 starts (plus a 12th opportunity in the All-Star Race). For every feel-good story (Carl Edwards’ return to prominence, David Ragan’s Talladega miracle, Aric Almirola’s top-10 surge) there’s been a long list of tough ones. Greg Biffle has been maddeningly inconsistent, hitting the wall at Charlotte Saturday night and once again being a non-factor. Ditto Joey Logano, although his charg to a strong second behind Johnson in the closing laps of the All-Star Race was admirable. Marcos Ambrose was once again invisible and will need to rely on road course expertise to make the Chase.
With Hendrick and Gibbs clicking on all cylinders for Chevrolet and Toyota, respectively, there’s not one top team you can rely on across the board at Ford right now. They really need to take the two weeks while at home in Charlotte to study their notes, retool and get it together for NASCAR’s grueling summer stretch.
Danica Patrick road the fan vote to a 20th-place showing. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Pretty and popular doesn’t equal all-star
NASCAR’s two Most Popular Drivers — at least on paper — were non-factors Saturday night. Danica Patrick, the Fan Vote winner, was ninth in the sport’s preliminary race before using that support to sneak into the main event. But she ran 20th, the last car on the lead lap, finishing behind even under-funded David Ragan, Talladega’s surprise winner.
It wasn’t much better for Earnhardt, whose Hendrick Motorsports teammates sat on the front row for the final segment while the No. 88 languished at the back half of the top 10. Running seventh, he’s now led just once, for a single lap, in the last 10 races in what’s hardly described as an All-Star performance.
No doubt, these two names get the sport maximum publicity when running well. But it’s hard to put them on TV or celebrate their accomplishments no matter how hard NASCAR tries when they can’t find the speed to keep up.
The 2011 Sprint All-Star Race came down to Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin battling for the win. Denny fades high exiting Turn 2 as DW says, “Put ‘em een the wawll!!!” Kyle’s post-race reaction was succinct (ear muffs!) and complete with memorable radio wire yank from. I understand him being mad for getting run up into the wall, but did he really have it won? Busch never even got along side Hamlin …
by Vito Pugliese
11. 2004: With friends like this...
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Kurt Busch offers a hand to Roush teammate Greg Biffle here in 2004. Unfortunately, you can’t really bump draft with Gen 4 cars. And not at Charlotte. And not through the quad-oval. What results when one does is a 195 mph debacle, taking out the two team cars, nearly a third, as well as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and others. It also helped set the stage for Biffle’s then-girlfriend (now wife) Nicole getting into it with Busch’s then-wife (now ex) Eva at Texas two years later after a similar incident. By the way, check out Junior driving through that, managing to miss everything.
by Vito Pugliese
10. 2007: Oh Brother, Why Art Thou … Wrecking Me
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Witness Kyle Busch attempt to execute a move that I once tried in my fourth career season in NASCAR Thunder 2003. There’s no way in hell it’s going to stick, but it’s the All-Star Race and it was for the win. Mike Joy’s summation isn’t much different than what we’d hear over the next five years or so. This incident in part also helped set the stage for Busch’s move to Joe Gibbs Racing a year later. Kurt. Meanwhile, gives a great interview around the 3:00 mark. Joy’s comment following is even better. “So much ...”
by Vito Pugliese
9. 2001: Why NASCAR doesn’t race in the rain
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Picking up the action at 3:33, the race gets going just as it gets going raining, with cars sideways out of Turn 4 and into Turn 1 as the sky opens. NASCAR made the, uh, "unprecedented" decision to let those involved in the wreck go to back up cars since it was a non-points paying exhibition race. One of those involved, Jeff Gordon, rebounds to win in the replacement ride.
by Vito Pugliese
8. 2000: The rookie rules the roost
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Fresh off his first career win at Texas Motor Speedway just a month earlier, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pits while running second for a couple of adjustments to get him a car capable of contending for the win in the 200 All-Star Race. He proceeds to mow down the veterans in front of him setting up a duel with defending Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett. Junior wins the battle, and I find myself missing that exuberant guy celebrating with his team as opposed to the quiet and corporate dude of 2013. I also miss the other guy coming into congratulate him by putting him in a headlock.
by Vito Pugliese
7. 2002: The Mayor’s politically correct observation
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Sometimes the fastest car doesn’t win; the smartest team does. Jeff Burton’s No. 99 crew, led by crew chief Frankie Stoddard, did just that in the first segment of the 2002 running of The Winston. Burton’s pit stall was positioned just 50 yards from the start-finish line, so the required four-tire stop was able to be delayed until the last lap. Burton lapped the field as others pitted, then cruised to a runner-up finish in Segment 1.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 1998: The well goes dry
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In 1998, the new Ford Taurus was on a tear. Engineered from the get-go to make maximum downforce and excel on intermediate tracks like Charlotte, it was in a perfect position to continue its early season dominance. That is until Jeff Gordon and his Ray Evernham-engineered No. 24 showed up. Gordon and Mark Martin had dominated the event and the former was leading into the last lap of the final 10-lap segment with Martin and Bobby Labonte on new tires gobbling up his lead. As the 24 took the white flag, all went silent in the car. Later, Evernham would say they forgot to refuel it. Hmmm ... maybe. Or maybe they just didn’t want to call attention to something else. After all, Gordon would go on to win the 600 a week later.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 1985: Ka-ching and Ka-boom
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It’s been debated for nearly 30 years now. Did he or didn’t he? As Darrell Waltrip crosses the finish line in the inaugural Winston in 1985, the engine goes up in a thick cloud of smoke. Like, literally as he crosses the finish line. Did he clutch it? Or did car owner Junior Johnson build, as Mike Joy notes, a 105-mile hand grenade? Johnson is a legend and all, but what are the odds? Let the debate rage on.
by Vito Pugliese
4. 1996: Mikey makes his move
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Michael Waltrip had been racing for 10 years and made 309 career starts when he raced his way into The Winston in 1996. On the final lap, Dale Earnhardt rattles Terry Labonte’s cage, clearing the way for Mikey and the Wood Brothers Ford to cruise home to his first Cup win. As Waltrip would later recount, his first thoughts upon celebrating were, “It doesn’t count.” He would have to wait another five years for his first “official” Cup win.
by Vito Pugliese
3. 1987: The Pass in the Grass
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Yeah, it’s kind of a misnomer. It’s not really “a pass in the grass” so much as a “block Bill, almost spin yourself out and save it while in the grass.” There was something special about that mid- to late-80s generation of cars and bias-ply tires that was a thing of beauty to watch. Sliding sideways, smoking the rear tires at 17 0mph, cars that legitimately looked “stock” … and “Woaaah, Nelly!” how about Keith Jackson calling the action?
by Vito Pugliese
2. 1989: “I hope he chokes on that money.”
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While The Winston was first run in 1985, it wasn’t until ’89 that it really came of age with a watershed moment that “defined” what was to be expected forever more. Coming to take the white flag, Rusty Wallace makes ever-such-slight contact with a rejuvenated Darrell Waltrip — who had won three races already that season, including the Daytona 500. The contact sent DW’s Tide Ride sliding through the grass and triggered a fracas in the garage between the two teams. While the incident may have cost “Jaws” the $185,000 payday, it transformed him from heel to fan-favorite in an instant — propelling him to Most Popular Driver honors in ’89 and 1990.
by Vito Pugliese
1. 1992: One Hot Night
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While the 1989 dust-up between Darrell and Rusty may have ruffled some feathers and bruised some egos, the 1992 running of The Winston went further: it sent Davey Allison to the hospital. Guys in cars do weird things when there’s big money on the line, and on the last lap they did just that in NASCAR’s first 1.5-mile night race. Kyle Petty’s Mello Yello Pontiac pulls down to pass Dale Earnhardt, and things get interesting. Of note, much like Kyle Busch and Kasey Kasey last week at Darlington, Petty never makes contact with Earnhardt. This also proves you don’t have to be going 200 mph on a 1.5-mile track for the racing to be exciting, and why SAFER Barriers should not be taken for granted.
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.
David Smith crunches the numbers for the million-dollar payday.
Matt Kenseth is on an intermediate track roll. (ASP, Inc.)
The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race isn’t a typical all-star event.
Unlike the stick ‘N’ ball all-star “breaks” that feature lackadaisical effort and are more celebrated for the parties that supplement the fan activities rather than the actual contests, the Sprint Cup Series version of an all-star event pits recent race winners and champions in a race comprised of dash-style formats which has a $1 million carrot dangling on the end of a stick. It’s wild, unpredictable and in no way resembles a normal NASCAR race.
It also doesn’t have much bearing on the following week’s Coca-Cola 600, which, like the All-Star Race, takes place at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3 in 13 Dating back to 2000, a span of 13 races, the All-Star Race winner has gone on to win the next week’s Coca-Cola 600 just three times.
Though they take place at the same facility, the two races don’t actually coalesce. The 600 not only requires a car capable of thriving on extended green-flag runs, but also a team that has built a setup to survive in both day and night conditions. The All-Star Race simply requires a setup for short runs, making the drivers and teams that excel at such a thing instant favorites.
3.2 Matt Kenseth has the highest average race rank (3.2) among all drivers in speed early in green-flag runs.
Kenseth, who also ranks first in the series in speed on restarts, has been a juggernaut at the drop of the green flag and for the ensuing 25 laps. While the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team has been stellar on intermediate tracks this season — two of its three wins came at Las Vegas and Kansas — it will be its affinity for immediate speed that separates it from the rest of the field in Saturday night’s event.
6 in 13 In the last 13 All-Star Races, six were won by drivers that had visited victory lane at an intermediate track in one of the prior races that same season.
The fact that Kenseth has captured two 1.5-mile (intermediate) track victories this season provides no guarantees for Saturday. It doesn’t take numbers — just common sense — to understand that this race is its own beast. A stout intermediate program like the one JGR is currently flaunting is always good to have, but the varying formats of the race don’t lend it to easy prognostication. If Kenseth becomes the victor, it will be because of the combination of car strength and short-run ability.
The All-Star Race format should benefit Kyle Busch. (ASP, Inc.)
56.89% With a 56.89 percent pass efficiency, Kyle Busch is the most efficient passer in the Cup Series.
Busch is in a good spot for this race. Not only is his No. 18 team good early in green-flag runs (it ranks second to Kenseth), but he has also been able to pass at will all season. That comes in handy when a driver is aiming for a $1 million winner’s purse. It also makes him a favorite in the bonus purse — a driver that wins all four segments of the event gets an additional $1 million — which will take both explosions out of restarts and, if that fails, adept passing. If there’s a pick to click for this unprecedented purse, it’s Rowdy.
54.55% Busch and his No. 18 team have finished in the top half of fields in six of 11 races, or 54.55 percent of the time.
So Busch is one of my drivers to watch for the All-Star race, but how about the championship? Presently there is a consistency problem, seen in that 54.55 number, which is on par with the likes of Jeff Burton and the No. 31 team and Kurt Busch and the No. 78 team. Aside from mechanical maladies, Busch has the second-worst crash frequency in the series (0.55), keeping them from recording high finishes in five races. That low of a percentage is something that can intervene in the team’s quest for a championship; it is the lowest percentage among drivers currently inside the top 12 in points.
0.64 Marcos Ambrose’s crash frequency of 0.64 is the worst in the series.
This year has been a house of horrors for Ambrose, who is currently sporting a replacement-level Performance in Equal Equipment Rating of 0.659 and sits 23rd in the standings while Aric Almirola, the driver of Richard Petty Motorsports’ sister car, is in Chase contention. It should be noted that Ambrose’s contract with RPM is up at season’s end. This likely isn’t the sort of start to the season for which the free agent-to-be was hoping.
Ambrose, by way of his 2012 victory at Watkins Glen, is entered in this weekend’s All-Star Race. It might be Hail Mary time for the struggling No. 9 team.
$1 million The winner’s share for this event, a cool $1 million, would benefit David Ragan and his Front Row Motorsports team in spectacular fashion.
Sponsorship has been hard to come by for the underdog organization that captured the surprise victory two weekends ago at Talladega. Ragan’s No. 34 team pocketed $3,524,091 in winnings during the 2012 season. It would take some radical setup strategy and a car unlike any they’ve ever had to score the $1 million jackpot, but that sum of money would represent roughly 28 percent of last year’s take. For them to earn that kind of money in one night’s work would be a miraculous achievement and go down as one of the greatest upsets in the sport’s history.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Darlington
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
The Southern 500, while no longer held on Labor Day is still looked at as one of NASCAR’s biggest races. Darlington remains the place where, in 1950, an egg-shaped, awkward-looking asphalt track gave birth to superspeedway competition. Thirty-five years later, a million-dollar Chase by a man named Awesome Bill was another notch in the sport’s belt that wrapped the racetrack into our national consciousness. Like golf’s Masters, purists regard it as one of the sport’s crown jewels.
“I don’t know that I’ve had a win that feels bigger than this at this moment,” said Matt Kenseth on Saturday night. Keep in mind, the former Sprint Cup champ has had plenty of ‘em; well over two dozen, including two of the last five Daytona 500s. “There’s a lot of tradition here. This is one of the most storied and historic races anywhere, not just in NASCAR.”
To those Kenseth’s age and older, that will always ring true. The key is getting a new generation to embrace it. Overnight ratings at Darlington, for the 18-to-49 crowd according to zap2it.com lost out to the NBA Playoffs on ABC. “The Lady In Black” can tear a Chevrolet apart, but the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony? He slam dunks right in her face.
It’s a shame, as an initial marketing push for Darlington’s May date designed to keep the seats filled has faded through the years, leaving the “Track Too Tough To Tame” a “Track Too Easy To Forget.” For one of the most important races on the schedule, getting tucked into Mother’s Day weekend on a Saturday night makes the race now seem lost, not loved. The importance of the Chase has diminished its overall worth on the schedule; right now, it’s just another event, with no Winston Millions or even an extra $100 bill attached to the trophy. Having a track-position yawner of a race Saturday didn’t help, either, as Goodyear seems like it’s missing the mark here more often than not.
People say NASCAR has been losing its place on the national sports landscape for several years. Perhaps it’s because of simple decisions like this one, making a race its most dedicated supporters love just another notch on a long, monotonous conveyor belt. While Kasey Kahne feels like he deserves an apology this Monday, Darlington is looking for something much more simple: attention.
FIRST GEAR: Gibbs vs. Hendrick, anyone?
The brief moment sparks flew at Darlington between Hendrick’s Kahne and Gibbs’ Kyle Busch could be a sign of things to come down the road. In virtually every category you could come up with, their two organizations — totaling seven cars — have put a whooping on the 2013 Sprint Cup field. Kenseth’s win, earned when Busch had a right-rear tire go bad down the stretch, was his third in 11 races, a series high. Busch has tacked on two additional victories for JGR, as the teammates have combined for a series-leading 1,521 laps led – more than the next eight drivers on the list combined. Kenseth has been especially impressive, seizing opportunities (Las Vegas, Darlington) late in the race where others have dominated. And he did it this time with a temporary crew chief in Wally Brown, as Jason Ratcliff serves out a downgraded NASCAR penalty after an appeals court turned his Kansas engine issue into a blip on the radar screen.
Hendrick has countered with Jimmie Johnson, fourth on Saturday night and on virtual cruise control on top of the point standings. Winning twice, Johnson has just one result outside the top 20, remains a contender at every type of track and, this season, has avoided the sting of NASCAR’s inspection process. Teammates Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all look strong enough to make the Chase on points meaning 50 percent of the postseason field, at minimum, will be comprised of these two multi-car giants.
How dominant have these teams been? Just three of 11 races this season have been won by other organizations, and each can easily be explained away. Carl Edwards took Phoenix for Roush Fenway Racing in the second Gen-6 race, where rock hard tires meant no passing and track position roulette. Kevin Harvick captured Richmond for Richard Childress Racing, but he led just three laps in a bizarre, roll-the-dice green-white-checker ending. And David Ragan’s Talladega triumph last week? We know how much that race acts like your state’s lottery number machine.
So it’s clear that on the Chase tracks where handling, horsepower and head wrenches actually make the difference, HMS and JGR stand head and shoulders above the rest. With the season nearly halfway complete, it’s time for everyone else to start stepping up.
Kasey Kahne (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND GEAR: All-Star Race reuds coming?
While we’re at it, the Kahne-Busch battle is simply the latest in a long line that may need to be settled on Saturday night. While going for the lead late at Darlington, Kahne slid up in front of Busch only for the No. 18 to dive hard entering Turn 1. Whether there was contact or not is up for debate; the bottom line is it was too close for comfort. Kahne spun around, his chances to win went poof and the normally mild-mannered driver had the M&M’s Toyota to blame for a second week in a row.
“He’s got to just race me,” said Kahne about Busch. “I mean, I’ve never touched the guy in my life as far as on the race track. Three times this year, there have been other times in other years. I don’t really know what his deal is with me.”
Neither driver finished strong, as Kahne was 11th and Busch sixth to add fuel to their tempers going forward. So let’s see: that’s Kahne-Busch, Joey Logano-Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart-Kurt Busch … just the tip of the iceberg. If Charlotte’s amenable, this All-Star Race could finally see the types of settled scores that used to make it “must watch” event back in the day.
THIRD GEAR: Denny Hamlin is healthy
Perhaps the most understated run in a clean race that Gibbs dominated came from its driver of the No. 11 car. Darlington is one of the sport’s most physical tracks, as drivers take a beating on both mind and body. For Hamlin to return from an injury suffered in late May there, and not only come out of it feeling fine but running second shows that L1 Compression Fracture isn’t going to slow him much going forward.
“Really, it's like starting your season over,” he said, completing this distance for the first time since Fontana on March 24th. “It feels good to be competitive again. (But) I got to get back in racing shape. It will take time to get back to where I need to be.”
If that’s Hamlin in “out of shape” mode, drivers better beware. Clearly, the speed of JGR combined with a track position race helped his case. But second’s an A-plus baseline to start from when the task ahead is certainly brutal: Two-three wins, plus top 10s nearly every week to become Chase eligible by September.
FOURTH GEAR: Kurt Busch will put it together
It’s been a frustrating last few weeks for Busch, who’s been in position to win the last three races. At Richmond, he had a top-5 car down the stretch only to have circumstances and a bad last set of tires cost him. Then, at Talladega, he was in the lead pack of six cars, in position to make a run when a late caution bunched the field, jumbled up the draft and led to him being the bullseye in “The Big One.” Finally, at Darlington he won the pole at a track the No. 78 team has won at in the past, then led 69 laps only for his car to deteriorate on every pit stop once the green flag dropped. Busch stayed on the lead lap in the end, but wound up a disappointing 14th. No wonder why the driver’s been testing IndyCars, rumored to run a limited schedule in a crossover stunt later this year with Michael Andretti’s team after topping 218 mph in an Indy 500 rookie test (he won’t run that race this year).
But what’s been notable about this whole stretch in NASCAR land is how relatively calm the elder Busch has remained, even keeping his cool during a war of words post-race with Stewart at Richmond. The speed seems to be there from this team, and its presence up front makes it clear wins could come in the summer, whether at an intermediate (Charlotte? Michigan?) the road course at Sonoma or Daytona in July. Maturity finally may be making its mark. The question now may become where Busch feels his racing future should be, long-term.
OVERDRIVE Kyle Busch might be mad at what happened Saturday night, having left the track without comment, but Monday will offer the benefit of hindsight. With 265 laps led, he dominated and only bad luck kept him from Victory Lane, a curse that will change with time. Eleven times in his career he’s led 200-plus circuits in a race but scored the win in only three of them. ... As expected, the momentum for the two Davids’ thrilling one-two finish at Talladega came back to reality at a track where they just don’t have the horsepower to contend. The Front Row Motorsports cars were 29th and 39th Saturday night, with David Ragan blowing an engine and bowing out early. … What’s going on with Mark Martin? He hasn’t had a top-5 finish now with the No. 55 car since Daytona (third). The driver’s been involved in several on-track scuffles, some of his making and never so much as sniffed the top 20 at Darlington, a track right in his wheelhouse. Perhaps another indication this year will be his last in the series?
“Reganomics” was the rule last Saturday at Talladega and paid huge dividends for the winner Regan Smith in the Nationwide Series event. However, the first installment of Reganonmics was at the 2011 Southern 500. After getting jobbed out of a win at Talladega in 2008, Smith would have to wait three years to get another crack at one — and he delivered in the clutch in Darlington, holding off Carl Edwards on new tires for the final two laps. The win did get a bit overshadowed with the antics between Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in the final laps and on pit road following the race. To Busch’s credit, he actually did try to avoid confrontation twice before Harvick’s car went on a ghost ride into the wall. Busch would later claim his transmission wouldn’t grab reverse, and he didn’t want to get clobbered by Harvick.
by Vito Pugliese
9. 1965 Southern 500: Cale has left the building
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In recent years, NASCAR has made great strides in safety, notably with the installation of “soft wall” SAFER Barriers that line most walls around the circuit’s 23 tracks. Cale Yarborough could have used something like that at Darlinton at the 1965 Southern 500, as his Banjo Matthews owned No. 27 Ford ollies the guardrail and parks it with the fans outside of Turn 1. Check out his comments about it at 3:05 with Richard Petty, Benny Parsons and Darrell Waltrip — as well as those retro New Balances that have just been re-released.
by Vito Pugliese
8. 1997 Southern 500: Earnhardt punches out
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A scary moment in the opening laps of the 1997 Southern 500 occurred when Dale Earnhardt basically blacked out coming to take the green flag and then had trouble finding his way onto pit road. He would later say that he had an episode of double-vision before the incident, but then didn’t remember anything until he got out of the car. Doctors attributed it to a migraine-like episode or broken blood vessel in his brain. A couple of years later, Earnhardt would have surgery to remove a piece of metal from his skull that occurred during a shop incident in the 70’s. Fitting since he was nicknamed “Ironhead.”
by Vito Pugliese
7. 1970 Rebel 500: That’s why they now have window nets
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After seeing the rash of accidents at Talladega — including Kurt Busch barrel rolling and landing atop Ryan Newman’s windshield — it is a wonder nobody was injured. Such was not the case during the height of speedway racing in late 1960s and early ’70s. Richard Petty endures this violent head-on impact into the concrete retaining wall (nothing “soft” about these walls), blasting it apart, and then barrel rolling his Roadrunner, with his body hanging halfway out of the window. Petty would miss the next five races with a broken shoulder, and despite 18 wins that season, finished fourth in the final point standings.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 1993 Southern 500: Martin wins fourth straight
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Mark Martin’s No. 6 Valvoline Thunderbird was on a roll in 1993, and the train kept booking through Darlington. A race that was delayed once for rain, but only featured three caution flags was the perfect complement to the Roush team’s raked Ford that ran roughshod all summer long, tying the modern era record for consecutive wins at four. Ford honored the win by placing a full page ad in the USA Today that read, “It Was Labor Day Weekend, But We Celebrated The Fourth.” Pick up the action around the 3:04 mark and check out the banzai run by Dale Earnahardt. Think things were dark at ‘Dega last weekend? Check out the sun setting behind Turn 2 when Martin pulls into Victory Lane. Also, awesome hat.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 1997 Southern 500: Brother, can you spare a million bucks?
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Jeff Gordon was eligible for the Winston Million in 1997 after winning the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600. We pick up the action at 2:25, with five laps to go, as Jeff Burton gets past Dale Jarrett to get a shot at Gordon’s lead. Don’t let Tony Stewart see this last lap — he will lose it after seeing Gordon’s defensive maneuver coming to take the white flag. After the race, Burton said he would have nailed Gordon had he been able to get back to him. It was only the second time the Winston Million had been won at the time.
by Vito Pugliese
4. 2004 Southern 500: The final “true” Southern 500
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From 1950 to 2004, the Southern 500 was run on Labor Day Weekend. That changed in 2005, when the push for major market exposure meant that Labor Day weekends would move to — gulp! — Southern California. The final “true” Southern 500 was the set up to the inaugural Nextel Cup under the new Chase format. We pick up the action at the 21:00 mark, as the final “true” Southern 500 finds a great race with championship implications unfolding. Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray exchange the lead over the final 100 laps, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has battery problems and some new guy named Carl Edwards is making video game passes with 25 to go. Remind me again why they aren’t racing here twice a year?
by Vito Pugliese
3. 1985 Southern 500: Million Dollar Bill
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In 1985, Bill Elliott was deemed “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” after his Ernie Elliott-powered Coors Ford became the scourge of the speedways in NASCAR. He won the Daytona 500 and Talladega 500, making him eligible for the $1 million bonus put up by Winston for any driver who could win three of NASCAR’s four most prestigious races: Daytona 500, Talladega 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500. Equally awesome call by Larry Nuber here, as Elliott comes to the checkers to become the first winner of the Winston Million. The fans seem pretty excited too, even though he had to beat native South Carolina son Cale Yarborough to do so. Mind you, this was a million dollars in 1985 money — back before the days of multi-million dollar driver contracts, huge purses and lucrative endorsement deals. I mean because now, a million dollars is chump change …
by Vito Pugliese
2. 1979 Rebel 500: A changing of the guard
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Picking up the action at the 6:20 mark, three-time Formula 1 champion Jackie Stewart calls the final five laps with ABC’s “Wide World of Sports’” Jim McKay. This race is cited as the changing of the guard between the previous generation to the next, led by drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott. Richard Petty and Waltrip battle back and forth, exchanging the lead several times. Coincidentally, three of the four cars involved in dictating the final lap of the ’79 Daytona 500 are charging for the win, but this time the outcome is reversed. Of note, nobody makes contact with each other or executes a “bump ‘n’ run” to win. There was a different code back then. And some big-assed boats, ‘70s style.
by Vito Pugliese
1. 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400: Greatest finish in NASCAR’s Modern Era
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The best recipe for cookie cutter tracks and nap-inducing races? Head to the oldest of the old-school racetracks: Darlington. After all, what other track on the circuit can lay claim to the myth that a minnow pond dictated its layout? Larry Mac goes bat guano during the final laps calling this one, with plenty of “hah-side” and “drag race” quips, as Darrell Waltrip cheers on Ricky Craven to victory – which I guess is unbiased and all. Interesting observation, however, by DW, that the pointy Pontiac nose helped get the win for Craven. Ten years later, this is still the closest finish in NASCAR history at .002 seconds. And contrary to what you may think, Kurt Busch wasn’t upset afterwards.
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:
David Smith crunches the numbers for the Southern 500
Denny Hamlin at Darlington in 2012. (ASP, Inc.)
Denny Hamlin’s much-discussed return to the seat of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry became an afterthought at Talladega once Brian Vickers climbed into the seat and provided Hamlin with a paltry 10 points thanks to a crash-caused 34th-place result. Ouch.
Hamlin’s actual return comes at a racetrack which he’s enjoyed a fair share of success. His go-to tracks are commonly considered Martinsville and Richmond — rightfully, so — but Darlington Raceway has been a fixture in Hamlin’s career, rooted in significance. The driver made his first NASCAR Nationwide Series start there in 2004 when, as an unknown aspiring NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racer, he finished eighth. He’s had the attention of the stock car industry ever since.
This weekend, it will provide another key moment in the career of a potential champion. Just the return from serious injury in any sport is a monumental occurrence, but in Hamlin’s case, the track that he has chosen to make his full-race return might have bigger aspirations in store, so says this week’s numbers.
5.100 Welcome back, Denny Hamlin. The driver of the No. 11 is returning from injury at a track where he ranks first in driver production with a 5.100 PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating).
The storybook ending is entirely possible, and no, NASCAR doesn’t have to “rig the playing field” to make it happen. Hamlin is staggeringly adept at the 1.366-mile track. He is the only driver to score top-15 finishes in each Darlington race of the CoT era. This also gives him the highest average finish (5.8) in the series during that time frame.
27.58% Think Denny Hamlin can’t make the Chase? Think again. He currently has a 27.58 percent probability of qualifying into the Chase via an automatic top-10 spot, which is the 16th-best percentage among 33 eligible drivers.
Yes, he’s six spots out of a desired top-10 position, but it’s unlikely, based on relevant past averages, that he’ll qualify for the Chase in this manner (he is currently 31st in the point standings). His entry into NASCAR’s playoff would be by way of a wild card spot. In order to land one of these two golden tickets, a driver must first be in the top 20 in points (which the probability suggests he will be by the conclusion of Race 26 at Richmond). Then, the driver has to have the most or second-most wins out of drivers that meet the prerequisite. Hamlin will have to compile wins and that realistically could start as soon as this weekend.
322 Kyle Busch has led 322 laps, the most in the series, in the last five Darlington races.
Leading just over 17.5 percent of the laps through a five-race span usually results in winning. It did for Busch, who put on a spectacular display of car control in the 2008 race. It’s normal for Busch, who ranks second in Darlington-specific PEER (4.800), to lead a large quantity of laps, but he is strong in the finish column as well. He is one of two winning drivers to have earned three top-10 finishes during the CoT era.
Could Martin Truex Jr. break the winless skid at Darlington? (ASP, Inc.)
4.200 With a 4.200 PEER, Martin Truex Jr. is the most productive Darlington racer to have not captured a win at the track.
“The Lady in Black” has been a tease for Truex’s win column, but boy, is he a pretty spectacular driver at Darlington. He hasn’t finished lower than 19th there in the last five races and in four of the five, he led at least one lap. In last year’s race, he led 25 laps and had the fifth-highest average running position of the race (10.46) before finishing fifth, bringing his CoT-era Darlington finishing average to 10.8 in entries owned by Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Michael Waltrip Racing.
Truex has finished second six times since his last (and only) Cup Series win, which came in 2007. Suggesting that Darlington is a place that could break that spell isn’t an exaggeration.
-21.1% Truex’s top 15 efficiency through 10 races this season is -21.1 percent, or in other words, a largely aggressive approach to races.
Top 15 efficiency depicts the difference between laps run in the top 15 (in Truex’s case, 71.1 percent) and races finished in the top 15 (50 percent). The negative number isn’t necessarily bad — for instance, Kyle Busch is historically at his most productive when he is the holder of a large negative number — but Truex and the No. 56 team probably view this as a major concern. The 71.1 percent of laps run in the top 15 is the sixth-highest mark in the series, but it hasn’t translated into finishes. Truex and the No. 56 rank 11th in average finish this year among teams that have competed in each race. It’s a large discrepancy that the driver should focus on closing.
5.11% Following his win at Talladega, David Ragan now has a 5.11 percent chance to make the Chase.
That’s a long-shot probability to qualify into the Chase with a top-10 spot, but can the bonus win aid his quest? Probably not. Based on his and his team’s past relevant averages, he is slated to finish 25th following the final regular season race at Richmond. A driver must be 20th or higher in points to be wild card eligible. If he wishes to close the gap, it will take some significant work; between now and the Chase, he will need to raise his points-per-race average (19.2) to around 24 just to sneak into the top 20. A less than five-position improvement seems easy enough, but for an under-armed team like Front Row Motorsports, it’s a precipitous climb.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Talladega
Front Row Motorsports teammates David Gilliland (left) and David Ragan. (ASP, Inc.)
Since it opened in 1969, Talladega has been NASCAR’s racetrack of extremes. When right, the sport’s decision to slap restrictor plates on brings out maximum excitement, the best opportunity for 43 teams to compete on a level playing field. Feel-good stories emerge, like the case of Bob Jenkins, a restaurant owner who has filtered more money into his three-car team just to run 25th, than most will make in a lifetime. Since 2005, he has toiled — once suffering through a season with more than 30 DNQs — and posting only two top-5 finishes in 403 starts prior to Sunday. The dream was to pursue a Sprint Cup victory, but a look at the stat sheet would point one towards financial self-destruction … or a man in need of mental help.
Now, Jenkins can point right back at his critics and towards a trophy that is rightfully his. Jenkins’ Front Row Motorsports drivers Ragan and David Gilliland produced the first 1-2 finish in team history in the Aaron’s 499, outclassing the Goliaths they race against through smarts and speed. At no other track — even Daytona, with NASCAR’s handling package — would such a victory be remotely possible. (Previous best finish for this team in 2013: Ragan’s 20th at Richmond.) It’s the type of victory that brings attention to the sport, giving executives something to sell, potential new car owners justification to compete and the backside of the NASCAR garage a reason for hope. No one will change the way these men feel about plate racing now; heck, you could strap a parachute to the car at Daytona and they’d be happy based on the parity that gives them a chance.
On the other side of the fence sits Ryan Newman whose season, if not more, was mere feet from being cut tragically short on Sunday when an entire car landed on the windshield of his No. 39 Chevrolet. As chaos unfolded in front of him, Kurt Busch’s Chevy entry landed, then rolled over Newman’s car in the midst of a 12-car melee that’s become all too common at Talladega. It’s not the first time the driver has been in physical danger; four years ago, this nasty flip (LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxE1_VZkQKI) left the roll cage bent mere inches from his head.
“We had a race here in the spring, complaining about cars getting airborne,” Newman said then. “I wish NASCAR would do something. That’s not what anyone wants to see.”
Four years later, he’s saying the same words again, this time more viciously after not feeling that NASCAR has lifted a finger on the rules. No one will change the way Newman feels about plate racing now, he just doesn’t want himself or a competitor to end up dead.
Talladega. The land of extremes, where guilt, grief, miracles, merriment, disaster, disgust, rage and redemption come together as one. It’s why everyone is pushing for change, but as they do human nature makes it impossible to look away – keeping us in the same cycle forevermore.
FIRST GEAR: Two Davids snookered the field
Make no mistake, Ragan’s slice ‘n’ dice to the front of the pack would not have been possible without two things. One: Teammate David Gilliland, sitting on his back bumper and not letting go until the two cars were sitting out front. Those feeling like the “push” of tandem drafting was completely dead need to take a second look on how these cars were stuck together like superglue down the stretch.
“I know he wishes that he was sitting in my shoes right now,” said Ragan of his teammate, now winless in 232 Cup Series starts. “I kind of wish that he would have had a chance to win the race, too.”
I’m not sure Gilliland cared much, though. His whole family was in attendance to watch Ragan’s post-race presser, a sign of the teamwork atmosphere this underdog organization has pushed since the beginning. Fact: Ragan now has as many wins with this team (one) in just 15 months as he did in five full seasons driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Turns out all the money in the world can’t buy that all-important chemistry needed for those moments when people need to bring out the best in each other.
“He was driving for a top-tier team, had UPS as a sponsor and when he left, he bought into what we were trying to do at Front Row,” said Jenkins. “His expectations of himself and his team never changed. He didn't look at it as if, ‘Hey, I'm taking a step down here, I realize I'm going to be a back marker.’ He continues to expect a lot out of himself and a lot out of his team, and I think what happened is people bought into that and they followed behind him and we've seen results.”
That belief system brings me to point No. 2: it wasn’t shared by his Sprint Cup competitors. Go ahead, you have my permission to review that final lap. Notice how Matt Kenseth drifts up on the backstretch to draft with Carl Edwards as if he needs to stick with the No. 99 to have a shot. Had he stayed in the middle, the FRM duo would have been blocked and we’d be talking about a different winner today. As for Edwards, he just didn’t see the freight train until it was too late, taking a prime opportunity to win a plate race away from a man who’s been victimized far too often there.
“David just got us,” Edwards said. “He did his job. As long as I’m not upside down, in the fence, it was pretty clean.”
SECOND GEAR: Is it all getting to Brad Keselowski?
One driver, though, was crying foul over Ragan’s miracle moment. Brad Keselowski, in several tweets after the race, felt his rival lined up in the wrong lane for the final restart. Several photos showed the cars trying to pass each other for position on the backstretch under yellow before NASCAR made the final call as to where Keselowski, Scott Speed and Ragan would line up. The verdict was Speed eighth, Keselowski ninth and Ragan 10th based on where they were at the last scoring loop when the caution came out. Were they right? Judge for yourself at the 2:42 mark of this clip. My take is that’s it’s far too close to call.
Either way, Keselowski was presumptuous to predict one change in lane would have earned him a victory – or cost Ragan one. Plate races are so unpredictable that you’ll get 1,000 different endings per 1,000 green-white-checker finishes. I just wonder, after a disappointing 15th-place finish, whether pressure is starting to get to the reigning champ. The final appeal for his Penske team is Tuesday, where 25 points and suspensions of his top four crew members appear imminent. Winless this season, he’s also posted back-to-back finishes outside the top 10 for the first time since Michigan and Sonoma last June. Every superstar, no matter his or her mental strength, goes through adversity; now might be Keselowski’s time, sitting fifth in points with just a single lap led over the last six events.
He just didn’t have to drag David Ragan into his own psychological hell.
THIRD GEAR: The racing was … what it was
I know. It sounds like a copout. Well, if you ask Newman, who joined Busch in the ranks of “Big One” Demolition Derbys, NASCAR racing here needs to be thrown in the trash bin:
"I am doing this interview to let everybody know I'm alright,” said Newman, who if NASCAR has any consistency (Denny Hamlin, anyone?) will be fined for the comments that follow. “They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls. But they can't get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the race track, and that's pretty disappointing. I wanted to make sure I get that point across. Y'all can figure out who 'they' is. That's no way to end a race ... I mean, you got what you wanted, but poor judgment and running in the dark and running in the rain.”
To be fair, most didn’t share the driver’s sentiment about the conditions of the track itself down the stretch. Only sprinkles could be felt in the final minutes and, while dark, the race ended earlier than the Nationwide Series event the day before. It’s the other part of Newman’s diatribe — the plate package — that would be under greater scrutiny if not for Ragan’s headline-saving win. I felt like Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it best:
“I don’t really know,” he said. “I don’t know – I thought it was alright, I guess.”
A classic “C, C+” type of response, and clearly not what NASCAR wants out of one of its fan-favorite facilities, especially after Earnhardt raved about the racing in Daytona. But that’s the truth. 30 lead changes were the least since 2002, when Earnhardt laid waste to the field. The draft, while handling multiple grooves unlike its sister track, had a tendency to “stop ‘n’ start.” There would be times when drivers would get stir crazy, and others — like for 30 laps after the rain delay — where they fell in line and passed the time.
It still seemed like, apart from the final lap, the line that had the most cars could make a difference, with the outside groove still holding a substantial edge. There’s work to be done here, although different rules can only do so much. Drivers are smarter. They know nothing matters at these races until less than 20 laps to go. Trying to force them to stay aggressive in the wake of what happened to Newman and Busch is like throwing them in the lion’s den and asking them to play.
Matt Kenseth led 142 of 192 laps on Sunday. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Gibbs’ plate race problems continue
Plate races place even the best drivers on Lady Luck’s roulette wheel. Take Jimmie Johnson, for example: four plate races last year, three wrecks and one blown engine. In 2013? He’s two-for-two in the top-5 finish category with a win. This year, the bad karma has made its way over to Joe Gibbs Racing. Matt Kenseth’s dominating performance at Talladega, in which he led 142 laps, went for naught with one bad choice on the final lap. He wound up eighth, still a far cry from teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Busch, lost in the shuffle of the afternoon rain delay, started the race’s first “Big One” that collected a dozen cars, including himself. And Hamlin? A return to the seat, which ended quickly and safely under the first caution on Lap 23 netted him just 10 points. Sub Brian Vickers was caught up in that wreck, leaving the driver 34th and actually increasing his deficit on the top 20 in points by five, (76 points behind Kurt Busch).
Kudos to other underdogs with solid performances Sunday. Phoenix Racing, which has pulled a “Front Row” in the past here (Keselowski, April 2009) was sixth with Regan Smith, but Leavine Family Racing was perhaps more impressive. Scott Speed (ninth) scored the first top-10 result for the organization and just the fourth of his journeyman career. … Bobby Labonte, in his 700th start ran 20th for JTG Daugherty Racing. It’s a tale of two careers for the veteran; he earned 20 wins and a title in his first 350 starts behind the wheel, but just one victory since. … NASCAR’s “Air Titan” was credited for saving the day, as its track drying efforts allowed for time to finish Sunday’s race. So why did it still take two-plus hours to dry the track? I thought it was advertised as a 30-minute fix. It’s still a work in progress, in my opinion.