Regan Smith wins a wreck-marred Aaron's 312 at Talladega Superspeedway
A wild finish to Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway once again led to confusion concerning how the sanctioning body scores finishes on the sport’s two restrictor plate tracks.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Talladega
Denny Hamlin (ASP, Inc.)
1. Should Denny Hamlin really return this weekend?
Denny Hamlin will likely start Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway, his first since his back injury in March at Fontana. He's not expected to finish, much less make it past lap 20. Still, he's hoping it will help his Chase for the Sprint Cup odds.
Simultaneously, the idea is both genius and insane.
Hamlin only received clearance from both his personal doctors and NASCAR officials Thursday to actually get in the car this weekend. He and the No. 11 team initially plan to take advantage of the NASCAR scoring rule that awards championship points only to the drivers who actually start the race. In a Joe Gibbs Racing perfect world, a caution will wave inside the first five laps and Hamlin can come to pit road and hop out in favor of a relief driver. Hamlin will then be credited with the points earned by wherever the relief driver finishes.
Hamlin, who has been injured in a crash at Talladega before, doesn't want to further his injury at one of NASCAR's most wreck-prone racetracks. It's a line of thinking that makes perfect sense in NASCAR's point structure. But it also makes zero sense when factoring in how unpredictable that both racing and race cars can be. Even if Hamlin dropped a half-mile behind the pack at the race's start, there's still plenty that can go wrong in a hurry.
Because of that, it seems incredibly questionable as to why NASCAR would clear Hamlin to participate when he's fully acknowledged he's not prepared to run the whole race. Points about the strategy making a mockery of the sport aside, Hamlin seems to face some legitimate danger of only making his back injury worse.
Talladega, after all, isn't simply a morning commute.
2. Talladega style of racing still an unknown commodity for NASCAR's new car
What can we expect to fill Talladega's 500 miles on Sunday? As of now, it seems pretty wait-and-see.
Much like Daytona in February, Talladega brings another first for NASCAR's new car. At Daytona, the over-hyped machine produced largely flatline racing for much of NASCAR's signature event thanks to myriad factors like cool temperatures and tires failing to show signs of wear. By and large, drivers were fine with the aerodynamic package — many felt more in control at Daytona than in years past — and only wanted to mix it up at the end when the money bell was ready to sound.
Talladega could easily bring more of the same, if only because these teams have learned that leading a lap for one bonus point isn't quite enough to get aggressive early in the race. The result of such actions is often abundantly clear at Talladega and Daytona and it takes the form of the “Big One.”
Sunday's weather forecast also has the implication that it could limit the show's total product. Cool temperatures in the mid-60s are expected, meaning the track will have more grip in every lane. That reduces tire wear over a run and makes it less likely for handling to factor while racing in a pack. When handling is an issue, drivers often have little choice to start passing and getting a bit more daring.
One thing does seem sure for Sunday, however: Tandem racing has been largely abolished in the Sprint Cup Series thanks to the new car design with irregular front and rear design assemblies. If you're looking for that, check out Saturday's Nationwide Series race.
3. Harvick buoyed by Richmond success just wants to finish
Kevin Harvick was one driver who ultimately left Daytona Speedweeks in February disappointed with his luck in the Daytona 500. The No. 29 had seemed to assert itself as a pre-race favorite with commanding performances that became wins in the Sprint Unlimited and a Gatorade Duel qualifying race.
Instead he finished a lowly 42nd after being swept into a multi-car crash on lap 47.
“I like restrictor-plate racing, but our luck hasn’t been that great lately on that style track. Last season, we thought we were going to have a chance to win coming to the checkers during the second races of the season at Daytona and Talladega, but we wound up coming in on a wrecker," Harvick said. "We just haven’t gotten the finishes we thought we would at those tracks, even though we’ve had good runs."
Harvick followed Daytona with several races of mediocre to decent racing, but never looked like a contender to win. The late-race yellow changed that last week at Richmond International Raceway when Harvick benefited from a good final pit stop and a solid car to steal a win on a green-white-checker finish. He led just three laps all night.
Now inside the top 10 in Sprint Cup points for the first time in 2013, Harvick could continue his upward swing at a track where he's fared pretty well. Harvick's rate of finishing at Talladega is over 93 percent, easily the highest among active drivers with more than 10 Talladega starts. He otherwise has a win, six career top-5 finishes and 10 career top 10s at Talladega. You can also bet he'll find the lead at some point Sunday: he's led a lap at Talladega in seven straight races.
4. Puzzle pieces starting to fit for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Don't worry, you're reading this right: Juan Pablo Montoya dominated the closing stages of a NASCAR short track race.
Yes, Montoya, the road racing expert and otherwise decent if unlucky oval racer finally seemed to show some flashes of what we really expected from him in this, his seventh year of full-time Sprint Cup racing. Montoya ultimately led 67 laps and wound up with a third-place finish for his efforts after a late caution flag threw last Saturday's night's race into a dizzying finale of pit stops and track position.
It was Montoya's best finish since a third-place run more than two seasons ago at Las Vegas. For Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, the finish was its fourth of the season inside the top 10 after a 2012 campaign where it collected just five. Montoya's teammate, Jamie McMurray, may be the best candidate to tie the team's 2012 performance Sunday at Talladega.
Last fall, McMurray led a race a race-high 38 laps. A crash with just a handful of laps to go then took him out of the race and pushed him to a disappointing 34th-place finish. Still, McMurray has built a bit of name for himself on restrictor plate tracks in recent years. The 2010 Daytona 500 winner has a win at Talladega and five top-5 runs.
A win or decent finish for McMurray — he's now 12th in points — could have him pretty close to (if not in) the top 10 in the series point standings. A year ago, McMurray never was higher than 16th in points and finished in 20th.
Danica Patrick (ASP, Inc.)
5. Danica Patrick looks to duplicate Daytona success
The consistent television broadcast coverage of Danica Patrick racing in and around 25th for much of this still young season became nearly unbearable following her strong showing at Daytona.
Fortunately, it had seemed to dwindle — or, at the least, plateau — in recent races. The lime green No. 10 was showing up more in replays of incidents, and less in live coverage. Strange explanations from the FOX booth about anything Patrick did on track seemed to go with it.
Don't get used to it.
Expect the mania of Danica to ramp up again this weekend at Talladega in Patrick's return to the style of track where she has most proven herself in the Sprint Cup Series. For our sake, let's hope the coverage comes with a good reason, like a strong and consistent Sunday race car.
A solid race for Patrick isn't far-fetched. She rarely turned a bad wheel during the Daytona 500 and ultimately finished eighth after inexperience haunted her in the scramble of the race's last lap.
"I feel like I’ve learned some lessons from Daytona about the draft and how that unfolds at the end if you are in the right place at the right time," Patrick said this week, before noting "there's a lot of luck involved" at NASCAR's restrictor plate tracks.
She's right, of course. Teammate Tony Stewart looked and felt like a driver to beat in the Daytona 500. He was wrecked out before mile 100.
Patrick, with a lone 12th-place finish sandwiched by seven other finishes of 25th or worse since Daytona, could stand to find luck of her own in Sunday's 500 miler. At the least, it'd give the television crew a competitive reason to focus on her — something few and far between right now.
Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Talladega so you don't have to.
Matt Kenseth: First and third at Talladega in 2012. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Deep South this weekend to big, bad Talladega Superspeedway for the Aaron’s 499. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Goeffrey’s fantasy predictions for Talaldega ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth has the most laps in the top-15 during the last 16 Talladega races of any driver (63 percent) and he’s the defending track winner. Of course, that was before the whole “three grams” incident.
2. Clint Bowyer
No one has scored more points at Talladega in the last 10 races than NASCAR’s favorite Kansan. Seven career Talladega top 10s with two wins in 14 starts isn’t shabby, either. He might even stop by your Talladega infield party.
3. Brad Keselowski
Two wins, three top 5s and six top 10s in his last eight Talladega races. Oh, and he's back in that familiar Blue Deuce instead of that bad luck red Richmond car.
4. Kevin Harvick
Don't sleep on how good Harvick and that No. 29 were at Daytona. Talladega's a great place to continue his anti-lame duck crusade.
5. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson basically has a whole race on the rest of the field in the point standings and, after Richmond, an angry Chad Knaus. Doesn't have a top 5 at Talladega since his win in 2011.
6. Jeff Gordon
Six-time Talladega winner seems to have gotten really good at making the wrong move just in time for the checkered flag at restrictor plate tracks. Still, how much can you bet against the sport's active Talladega wins and top-5 finishes leader?
7. Tony Stewart
He'll certainly block someone on Sunday, causing a stink thanks to his outspoken anti-blocking crusade of late. It's a bit hard to believe Stewart has just one top-15 finish at 'Dega since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008.
8. Kasey Kahne
He might have an average Talladega finish of 20.3, but his last three Talladega races have produced a slightly better average of 7.3.
9. Denny Hamlin
Even if starts the race, he's not finishing it thanks to the back issues. Still, if you pick Hamlin, he starts the race, and then his substitute driver pulls off a miracle, you'll get full points Sunday. Of all the places it could happen, Talladega is it.
Beard or no, Junior is a force at Talladega. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Do you need more of a steal at Talladega than an Earnhardt in the B-list? With five career Talladega wins, Earnhardt finishes half of his Talladega starts in the top 10. He also lost the beard, so that should probably help with aerodynamics, or something.
2. Kurt Busch
Busch is winless at Talladega, but has 13 top 10s and gets to use notes from Richard Childress Racing this weekend thanks to Furniture Row Racing’s alliance. However, the possibility of a paramedic still mad from last fall’s incident on the backstretch sabotaging Busch’s car is higher than normal.
3. Jeff Burton
Burton turned in just 11 top 10 finishes in the previous two seasons. Three of those were at Talladega. Even when he’s bad, at Talladega he’s good.
4. Joey Logano
Logano has the third best average of laps completed to starts in his Talladega career of any active driver. That’s translated to four top 10s.
5. Kyle Busch
This isn’t unusual for the aggressive Busch, but it’s checkers or wreckers for him at Talladega. It should be noted that he notched impressive second- and third-place showing here last season … after finishes of 33rd and 35th the previous year (see what I mean?).
6. Bobby Labonte
Talladega gives us the chance to rank Labonte higher than we likely will at any other race in 2013, if only so we can remember when he beat Jimmy Spencer by 0.167 seconds to the Talladega checkered flag in 1998.
7. Greg Biffle
Biffle has been decidedly average at Talladega — two top 5s, five top 10s — but the recent Roush Fenway Racing restrictor plate resurgence means he’s riding a streak of consecutive top 10 finishes at the 2.66-mile track.
8. Jamie McMurray
Three of McMurray’s six career wins have been on restrictor plate tracks, including one in 2009 at Talladega.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
2010 was Montoya’s best NASCAR season to date, and he had a pair of third-place finishes and a pole position at Talladega. There’s no telling if his Richmond momentum was a precursor to the same thing.
10. Aric Almirola
If Almirola makes it four straight top-10 finishes in the Sprint Cup Series, he’ll also mark his first career Talladega top 10.
11. Ryan Newman
Before last fall’s top 10 amid the craziness induced on the last lap by his teammate, Newman finished 23rd or worse at Talladega in six straight races. It may be his least favorite track, so don’t get your free Bloomin’ Onion hopes too high.
12. Carl Edwards
Edwards led eight laps at Talladega during the spring 2011 event, the most he’s ever strung together in one race. His best chance to win in 2009 ended with his car shredding the tri-oval fence. Talladega isn’t nice to Carl Edwards.
13. Paul Menard
Menard hasn’t shattered expectations at Talladega (only one top 10) but he has finished on the lead lap in four of the last five races.
14. Martin Truex Jr.
Every finish for Truex at Talladega has been on the lead lap, but that’s only been in seven of his 16 starts.
15. Marcos Ambrose
Ambrose finished fourth in his first Talladega appearance, but hasn’t touched the top 10 since.
16. Brian Vickers
If Denny Hamlin ultimately can’t start Sunday’s race, it’ll be Vickers getting points for the No. 11 instead. Don’t waste a start on that chance.
1. David Ragan
Trust the stats on this one. In 12 career Talladega races, David Ragan has finished on the lead lap 10 times for an average finish of 16th. No one in NASCAR has a higher ratio of lead lap finishes to starts.
2. Michael Waltrip
One of two former Talladega winners in the C-group, Waltrip could pull some nice points if he can finish while driving the No. 55 this weekend.
3. Danica Patrick
She’s never raced at Talladega in Sprint Cup, but her showing at Daytona in February proved she can race pretty well in restrictor plate conditions. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her and teammate Tony Stewart ride most of the race in the back, away from the danger of the big pack.
4. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The other half of “Stenica” is also making his first Talladega Sprint Cup start. He was third in the Nationwide Series race last spring, and will have some teammates to help him in the draft.
5. Elliott Sadler
Sadler is an interesting pick because he’ll be with a Joe Gibbs Racing team that showed major promise at Daytona before engine failures systematically knocked them out. In 23 starts, Sadler has just one top 5 at Talladega. He’s also not running a full schedule, so you won’t be wasting a start better used somewhere else.
6. Trevor Bayne
Former Daytona 500 winner returns to Sprint Cup for his fourth start of 2013. At minimum, he’s got plenty of drafting friends in the field and lead lap finishes in his last three Talladega starts.
7. Travis Kvapil
After 10 Talladega starts, Kvapil’s average finish of 17.8 ranks 11th-best among active drivers. That is not a typo.
8. Scott Speed
If you’re looking to differentiate in your league (or maybe you’re just a Scott Speed fan), Talladega is about the only place I’d start him this year. He has a Talladega top 10 and three lead lap finishes.
9. David Gillilland
He’s finished 82 percent of his Talladega starts, which puts him in the top 10 of active drivers.
10. Casey Mears
Four career Talladega top 10s and 60 career laps led is … something?
11. Regan Smith
Remember when Tony Stewart was awarded Smith’s rightful Talladega win in 2008? That doesn’t have much to do with Sunday, but it shows Regan has been close in Alabama.
12. David Reutimann
The BK Racing driver has finished 50 percent of his Talladega starts on the lead lap, but has just one top 10.
13. Dave Blaney
This former start and park team comes to Talladega riding the high of its best 2013 finish (23rd) at Richmond.
14. Joe Nemechek
Nemechek has nearly as many poles (4) as top 10s (5) at Talladega. He’s also scored four straight 41st-place finishes at Talladega after starting and parking.
15. David Stremme
Stremme has failed to finish four of his 10 Talladega starts, and has just three lead-lap finishes.
16. Landon Cassill
Holds the dubious honor of being just one of four active drivers to have never led a lap at Talladega.
17. Josh Wise
He’s raced all nine starts so far this year, but Wise has only completed 10 laps in two starts at Talladega.
18. Terry Labonte
Terry has more starts and laps completed at Talladega than anyone. Still, consider him on full start and park alert.
19. Michael McDowell
Ran the full distance of the Daytona 500 to a ninth-place finish. Has start-and-parked every start since.
David Smith crunches the numbers for the Aaron's 499
An ankle biter (believe it or not). (ASP, Inc.)
Let’s say you’re a gambler. Parading across the casino floor, you feast your eyes on the roulette wheel. It’s noted next to the wheel that the last five spins have landed on black. Your chips are now burning a hole through your pocket because you know that the next spin is due to land on red. You throw your chips down, bet on red and as the wheel once again lands on black, you’re filled with confusion. What just happened?
You’re a sucker. That’s what happened.
Each individual spin of the roulette wheel is independent of all other spins, meaning what happened in prior spins has no effect on the current spin or future spins. Trusting previous spins is fool’s gold. You know what else is foolish? Trusting previous races to determine when cautions come out and how many cars get collected. This is actually something that crew chiefs do, but it is flawed logic. A caution-filled race one year can be a green-flag feeding frenzy the next, at the same track … unless we’re discussing Talladega Superspeedway.
The 2.66-mile restrictor plate track is its own behemoth. Watching races on television don’t do the beast any justice. It’s wide, fast and scary as hell. It’s Daytona if Daytona took performance-enhancing drugs.
5 of 9+ Dating back to 2010, there have been five crashes that included nine cars or more in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Talladega.
This is probably the best running definition of “the big one.” In the last six races at Talladega, there have been five big ones. The numbers are sort of deceiving, though. The crashes aren’t spread out; those five crashes spanned just three races, meaning half of the races in that time frame didn’t have a crash that wadded up the majority of the field. Contrary to what you’ll hear on television this weekend, a giant field-cutting wreck isn’t a matter of when. The big one is a matter of if.
18 of 2 to 6 In the last six Talladega races, there have been 18 multi-car crashes consisting of six cars or less.
We’ll call these the ankle biters. The big one has given away to a plethora of mini multi-car crashes that swoop in and eliminate around 12 percent of the field at any given time. Want to know why the big one hasn’t been a big concern the past three years? It has to do with these types of crashes, the ones that systematically eliminate the competition to a point where there aren’t enough cars remaining to actually have a giant crash.
Now, let’s be careful here. This isn’t a trend. A crash is something that occurs when a driver error or mechanical malfunction happens. A trend would read as follows:
“Driver A is going to become aero loose, overcorrect himself, crash, and take out 12.7 cars.”
That thought is wrong in so many ways. At Talladega, where large pack racing is on the menu, a mistake could occur at any point in the race, triggering an accident. The magnitude of the accident is based on the radius and reaction time of the cars around the trigger. It’s also based largely on luck. The best thing to do in avoiding accidents is to be out ahead of them, as we saw last year in Matt Kenseth’s restrictor plate race efforts.
Not an ankle biter. (ASP, Inc.)
6.0 Kenseth’s average running position in four points-paying restrictor plate races in 2012 was sixth.
Based on the aforementioned crashes, the safest place to be at Talladega the last three years is eighth or better. Kenseth’s decision to covet track position not only kept him out of harms way in each of those races last season, but it led to two victories. Considering he spent over 90 percent of those races running inside the top 15 and just under 33 percent leading, winning was practically a foregone conclusion.
6.000 Kenseth’s PEER through the three Daytona races earlier this year is 6.000, which ranks as the fourth-most productive rating.
The Gen-6 race cars flipped the script on drafting. It was hard to pass at Daytona — it won’t be as hard at Talladega, but it is likely to be significantly different compared to past races — so putting an emphasis on track position as a team would on an intermediate track eventually won the Daytona 500 for Jimmie Johnson (6.500 PEER, ranks second) and allowed Kevin Harvick (7.583 PEER, ranks first) to score two quick victories in the Sprint Unlimited and his qualifying race. Kenseth was as adept, just not victorious. His engine issue soured an otherwise beautiful Daytona 500 outing in which he led 86 laps.
1, 2 and 1 Danica Patrick won the pole in Daytona, starting first. She also ranked second in average running position (5.23) and first in average green-flag speed in the Daytona 500.
Specifically, her No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy SS was a rocket ship and the team’s focus on day-long track position wasn’t dissimilar to the game plan of Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team. Talladega will be a little more frenzied for Patrick, though. While her current plate PEER is admirable (3.000, ranks 15th), the addition of another groove at Talladega will make that strategy a little more daunting for a rookie driver.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Richmond.
Kevin Harvick celebrates a win in Richmond. (ASP, Inc.)
One of the knocks on NASCAR in recent years has been that it’s too predictable Well, not anymore. Try telling that theory to Las Vegas bookies this week while they’re busy recovering from heart attacks. In the final 10 laps at Richmond, you had a driver with 75/1 odds out front as well as a man who’s never won a race on an oval and without a top-10 finish for 10 months. Moments later, the lead was surrendered to the equivalent of a 15 seed in the NCAA tournament — 100/1 odds, no laps led to that point in the season and no victories in nearly five years. Add in three types of tire strategies and a green-white-checker finish and you had a double-file restart where one of about 15 different drivers, many of them underdogs, had a chance at the win.
It’s the perfect snapshot of why Richmond is one of NASCAR’s best facilities, worshipped by both fans and drivers alike. In the end, that was the only predictable part after a wild week off the track; this .75-mile oval, every time out, forces us to focus on nothing more than what happens on it.
Once the dust settled, Saturday’s winner could certainly relate to that theory as well. We delve into his shocking upset while shifting “Through the Gears” on Richmond storylines …
FIRST GEAR: And it’s Harvick for the steal
There’s a reason Kevin Harvick’s nickname is “The Closer.” Just two years ago, he won three races early in the season by leading a total of just nine laps. Saturday night’s trip to Victory Lane was another classic example of how Harvick has a knack for stepping up late. Starting 17th, his No. 29 Chevrolet was a 10th-place car through lap 300. It took a little strategy — pitting off sequence than other frontrunners for four fresh tires along with one final tweak — to loosen the car up that gave them an extra boost of speed.
“We probably made more adjustments on the car than we’ve made in any race in a couple years,” said crew chief Gil Martin. “But it was right when it needed to be.”
So was the luck. While shot out of a cannon, climbing up to second during the final 50 laps, Harvick would never have passed Juan Pablo Montoya unless a final yellow flag, flown for Brian Vickers’ wreck, to set up a free for all green-white-checker finish. The leaders, sitting ducks on old tires, were forced to pit in a move that jumbled the field. When the dust settled, after choices ranged from staying out to full-service stops, Harvick found himself on the inside line, seventh with four fresh tires while Montoya was stuck on the outside. That made the difference; when the cars came up to speed, “The Closer” had the room to throw his fastball, darting through traffic on the inside while Montoya wound up cornered by the wall.
“We were fortunate to have it all line up,” Harvick said. “I drove it in there, hoped for the best. Figured four, eight, 12 … whatever was on the outside tire-wise would be plenty to lean on and by the time we got to the backstretch, everything had cleared out.”
By the white-flag lap Harvick had moved up six spots, disposing of teammate Jeff Burton, and darted off to the win. His three laps led, total, tripled his total output in that category after a miserable first eight races of 2013.
That’s why this win is so big. Harvick, for all his bravado about dumping the “lame duck” status, is moving on from Richard Childress Racing at the end of the season. Outside the top 10 in points for much of the year, his No. 29 team has been little more than a top-15 car — six of his ninth finishes, in fact, are between 12th and 14th. Making the Chase was far from a guarantee, especially when considering his pending departure. Now, he and a penalized Matt Kenseth may be forcing struggling veterans like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and the injured Denny Hamlin to capture at least two victories should they use up those “wild card” spots.
Juan Pablo Montoya led 67 laps and finished fourth at RIR. (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND GEAR: An important consolation prize of confidence
For Montoya, fourth was a bitter pill to swallow after putting himself in position down the stretch. “I do feel bad for Juan,” said rival Clint Bowyer, speaking for most in the NASCAR garage. “He has struggled the last two or three years. He drove his ass off to keep Harvick behind him (before the final caution flag came out).”
“Really? Really?” Montoya, who led 67 laps said, jokingly, before turning serious about the race’s ending. “(I’m) pissed off. It is the luck of the draw. We restarted on the outside, (for the green-white-checker finish) and we were screwed.”
It’s understandable how this one hurts for him; it’s not like chances to win have been growing on trees. But once cooler heads prevail, Montoya will see the good side of Saturday night. It’s his first top-10 result of any kind since Michigan last June, ending that eternity at 30 races. After heartbreaking failures — from wrecks to rotten parts —he’s finally benefited from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s Hendrick-supplied engines. The speed is now there for Montoya to sweep both road course races, at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, a move that could sneak him in the Chase as a darkhorse. To do that, though, he needs to climb back inside the top 20 in points (currently 25th) and Saturday night was a good first step.
“Almost” could also turn into a confidence boost for Burton, who gambled on old tires to grab the lead heading to the green-white-checker finish. In the end, old rubber couldn’t hold and he faded to fifth, just two positions better than he would have finished otherwise. But it’s those types of gambles, led by crew chief Luke Lambert, that got these two clicking in the first place in late 2011. Can this run, his first top-5 result at an unrestricted track in 17 months, be a turning point after a slow start?
Ditto for Kurt Busch, who led 36 laps with his single-car Furniture Row Racing effort before circumstances (and over-aggression) had him slipping to ninth Saturday night. After a horrible month, one that included back-to-back 37th-place disasters, Busch righted the ship and proved this small-time operation is capable of winning. That’s crucial for an underdog to believe his team is in the mix, as the driver said himself heading to tracks like Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte, where they can steal one.
THIRD GEAR: Tony Stewart’s troublesome ending
Tony Stewart had smoke pouring out of his ears Saturday night after getting tapped by the aforementioned Busch during the green-white-checker finish. Fifth on the restart, Stewart wound up 18th and quickly showcased his displeasure by tearing Busch’s Chevy all to pieces after the checkered flag.
“I don’t know what (he) was upset about,” Busch said after the race after fending off an expletive-laced tirade in the garage from his rival. “I got hit from behind. I got hit every which-way. It was a free-for-all.”
Stewart, for his part, left the track without comment before sneaking one in through a post-race press release. “He just rammed right into us there at the end,” the release stated. “We were actually going to leave here with a decent finish until everything happened.”
That last comment is key. Frustration is boiling over for Stewart after “rear bumper” abuse has defined his 2013. At Fontana, it was the block from Joey Logano that cost him 15-20 spots. Richmond’s fiasco cost him another dozen. Add up those points, along with being an innocent victim at Daytona, and he’s in the top 10 — despite some obvious struggles elsewhere. Instead, he’s sitting an uncharacteristic 22nd … and tired of it.
What does it mean? Well, you know what they say about everything coming in threes. Saturday night marked Stewart’s second temper tantrum of 2013; next wreck, I wouldn’t get within 50 feet without two bodyguards and a stun gun.
FOURTH GEAR: Petty Blue comes of age
Quick, what’s the only driver on tour with three consecutive top-10 finishes at the moment? No, it’s not Jimmie Johnson, the runaway points leader, a flashy Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, or even Kyle Busch. It’s Aric Almirola, a rising star whose seventh-seventh-eighth stretch is easily the best of his Cup career. Now 11th in points, the driver of the No. 43 Ford is coming of age right before our eyes.
Saturday night was easily the most impressive of the three, as Almirola worked his way up from 34th. With the experience of Todd Parrott on the pit box – the mechanical mastermind behind Dale Jarrett’s 1999 championship – the building blocks are there to make a Chase run on points. While still a longshot, this pairing will only improve, and come Kansas in the fall, you might even see them in Victory Lane.
Ford’s Greg Biffle was the opposite of Almirola on an awful night at RIR. Starting 33rd, he spent the night stuck there before spinning out and damaging the No. 16 machine. None of Biffle’s 18 wins in the Cup Series have come on a short track, a weakness that must be mastered to be taken seriously in the Chase. … The crowd at Richmond, once an automatic sellout was noticeably sparse, especially in the grandstands surrounding the turns. There’s no official word on ticket sales, as NASCAR doesn’t release attendance figures this season, but the exodus from one of the sport’s most competitive tracks is alarming. … For those besides Burton that stayed out on old tires for the green-white-checker finish, it was a mixed bag. Jamie McMurray, restarting second, slipped outside the groove and was dropkicked to 26th; he would have had a top-10 finish otherwise.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Richmond
Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Beaten down Joe Gibbs Racing should come out swinging
Matt Kenseth suffered perhaps the most crushing penalty NASCAR has ever assessed that isn't a driver suspension. Kyle Busch has a strong memory of team mistakes killing his chance to qualify for last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. And Denny Hamlin, the best Richmond International Raceway driver by advanced statistical measure in the last five-plus seasons, won't even get to suit up for Saturday night's race.
Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't had a good week, and it will be extremely interesting to see how it responds. Because it's Richmond, thinking that JGR will fold under the pressure seems almost impossible.
Since Busch joined the team in 2008, JGR six wins at RIR, just under half of the laps led (1,945 of 4,010) and 15 total top-5 finishes. It’s figured something out in the .75-mile track seemingly beyond other teams. It might have to do with Busch and Hamlin sharing similar demands from a race car at the short track, unlike other Cup venues.
"We do like similar setups there, unlike other mile-and-a-half tracks or two-mile tracks where we don’t run very similar setups," Busch says. "Richmond is one of those places where we both know what it takes to get around and we’re both similar to one another in that we both run well.”
Expect JGR to continue a streak more than a decade old Saturday night: having at least one car lead a lap. The last time that didn't happen? The fall of 2001.
Greg Zipadelli and Tony Stewart. (ASP, Inc.)
2. Racing the track, not the car, could be antidote to Stewart's slump
Tony Stewart has been in a funk. And Tony Stewart knows he's been in a funk.
“It’s not easy, for sure," Stewart says. "I mean, it was always hard as a driver, but it’s even worse as a driver-owner. When things are tough, the pressure and the burden is more on you knowing that you’re responsible for everything versus just being the guy driving the car."
A 21st-place finish at Kansas Speedway last weekend meant the No. 14 has gone nearly two months without a top-10 finish. Richmond provides relief in the form of not being a speedway track, and probably fits better into Stewart's comfort zone.
At the very least, it's an opportunity to race a track where style and line selection have more of a say than aerodynamic-focused Kansas.
"You never really get anybody who gets their car perfect," Stewart says of Richmond. "Even the guy that gets the lead still isn’t happy with his car. So, it’s really trying to find that balance and trying to figure out how to balance both ends of the track together.”
The 42-year-old led 333 laps in 1999 at RIR to win his first career Cup race. He's won twice at Richmond since (2001 and 2002) and also has four consecutive top 10s since a lap-down finish in 2010.
3. Teams bringing ideas from the desert to tackle Richmond
In a season with limited track time behind a still new car, teams are searching for methods to speed up the process and use information they've already gleaned to make setup decisions for coming race weekends. Richmond, and its similarities to the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway, is the latest example.
Every single Roush-Fenway Racing entry plus its satellite teams at Richard Petty Motorsports will use the cars they raced at Phoenix as primary cars this weekend. Carl Edwards won the race in the desert.
"Our package in Phoenix was very good," Edwards says. "I’m thinking some of that will help us with our race setup for Richmond."
The Ford teams also will use information that RPM’s Aric Almirola learned at Richmond during a test last month.
“The track was really fast which really surprised me," Almirola says, noting his first lap on the track in race trim came close to the track qualifying record. “We learned a lot from the test and felt that it helped us figure out what we need for our short-track package.”
Other teams using Phoenix cars this weekend include Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fifth at Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson (second) and Mark Martin (21st).
4. McMurray slowly leading Earnhardt-Ganassi out of struggles
Three was a nice number for Jamie McMurray in 2010, when he scored a trio of big wins at Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte. Last season, three stood for head-shaking disappointment as his No. 1 team mustered just three top-10 finishes in 36 starts.
But early in this 2013 season, three is starting to look better for McMurray as he looks to shed two straight frustrating seasons at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. The No. 1 now has three top 10s in just eight races after a seventh-place finish last weekend at Kansas.
He was another driver — along with snakebitten teammate Juan Pablo Montoya — who tested at Richmond.
"We have had two strong runs on short-tracks already this year," McMurray says, referring to a 10th at Bristol and a seventh at Martinsville. "I hope we can carry some of that momentum into this weekend."
5. Short schedule magnifies importance of unloading a fast race car.
Richmond isn't a place where teams can show up, miss the car setup during the first practice, and then still run well in the race. The two-day format for the Sprint Cup Series with practice and qualifying on Friday before the Saturday race just doesn't allow the track time to make wholesale changes and improvements.
Should a team find a decent setup in Friday afternoon practice, it also has to hope the setup will match Richmond's night-race conditions. Even a four-time champion struggles with that.
"When you practice during the day and race at night, you have to guess and I feel like every time we race here something is changing," says Jeff Gordon.
More unnerving for teams is how important nabbing a qualifying spot near the front tends to be. Eight of every 10 Richmond winners in the 113-race history of the track have come from inside the top 10, and an almost equally staggering 30 percent of Richmond winners have been from the front row.
The front qualifiers having an advantage isn't a trend that's going away, either. Going back to 2003 — a span of 20 races — just four winners have come from outside the top 10.
Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Richmond so you don't have to.
Clint Bowyer. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit up the road to Richmond, Va., on Saturday for the Toyota Owners 400. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Goeffrey’s fantasy predictions for Richmond ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Clint Bowyer
Fourteen career Richmond starts. Two wins. Eight top 10s. Thirteen lead lap finishes. Don't tell me you're gonna pick against Clint freakin' Bowyer — in anything — on a Saturday night.
2. Tony Stewart
Smoke has the most points scored in the last four races at RIR, and is the only driver with four top 10s. One would think, because it's not a 1.5-mile track, that Stewart won't continue his early season stink.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick, twice a winner at Richmond, has led two of the last four races there. But he's only got one top 10 this year, and a grand total of one lap led. His 15 career top 10s at RIR are the most of any track on his Sprint Cup resume — even with Ricky Rudd stealing one away prior to a hood stomping in ’03.
4. Jeff Gordon
In 40 career starts, he boasts the best average starting spot (7.9) of any current driver and the most Richmond top 5s (16) of all current full-time drivers. Oddly, he hasn't won there since Bill Clinton was president (2000).
5. Jimmie Johnson
Led just three laps at Richmond last season and his last win at RIR was in 2008. Most widely celebrated Richmond moment was when he wrecked Kurt Busch intentionally in 2011. More people have him on their Richmond roster than any other driver, though.
6. Kasey Kahne
Held off Stewart for his first career victory at RIR in 2005 before performing a miracle at the .75-mile track in 2011: earning a top-3 finish in a Red Bull Racing car. Average finish of 8.5 last year in Hendrick equipment, and potentially still has Richmond beef with Marcos Ambrose.
7. Brad Keselowski
As long Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans — still angry about him "causing a caution" that hosed the No. 88 at Kansas — don't run him out of town, Keselowski figures to be average in Richmond. Two top 10s last year were his best yet, but he's still never led a lap at RIR.
8. Matt Kenseth
One top 5 since 2006 at Richmond for Kenseth doesn't make Saturday night's race look promising. However, he did race unusually well at Martinsville, so perhaps the JGR equipment can help him again. Don't expect that advantage to come from the engine, though.
9. Denny Hamlin
Not racing, but still has a better chance to win at Richmond than most. Obviously, take a pass this week.
B List 1. Kyle Busch
Missed the Chase at Richmond last year, wrecked four times last week. However, picking against career win No. 5 at RIR for Busch — he’s won the last four consecutive spring races — just seems silly for a guy so good at avenging defeat. A pre-race favorite who’s an absolute steal as a B-Lister.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Had a car capable of winning Phoenix — the track most similar to Richmond this season — in February and ultimately lost on pit road. Led 67 laps last fall, finished second last spring and has three career RIR wins. Beard again approaching untamable levels.
3. Carl Edwards
Got hosed out of a win by NASCAR last spring; finished a lap down last fall to end a streak of five top 10s at RIR. Has a favorable chance of smiling 652 times on TV this weekend (after removing sunglasses, of course).
4. Mark Martin
Will tie Terry Labonte for most RIR starts (55) among active drivers Saturday. Carries track's seventh-best average finish (11.9) among same group.
5. Brian Vickers
Don't forget he's driving the No. 11 car that has led 1,390 laps at RIR since 2006. That said, his 24.9-place average in 14 Richmond starts is cause for concern.
6. Ryan Newman
Six top 10s in last 10 Richmond races, but only one top 5. Expect more of the same.
7. Kurt Busch
One win in 24 starts at Richmond. Seven of only nine RIR lead lap finishes have been top 10s.
8. Martin Truex Jr.
Dale Earnhardt, Inc. was still a real company for Truex's last Richmond top 5 (2008). Typically finishes eight spots worse (24.1) than he starts (16.1).
9. Joey Logano
30th and 24th last season at RIR, and that's with access to Hamlin's setup. Problem?
10. Jeff Burton
Virginia native has ninth-most laps in the top 15 during the last eight seasons at Richmond. Track is home to his best average start (15.2) and most career laps led (942).
11. Greg Biffle
Never a winner at Richmond, and his last top 5 came in 2006. Fun fact: one of four tracks where he's raced a Chevrolet in Sprint Cup competition (2002, Andy Petree Racing).
12. Paul Menard
You probably don't have to worry about a classic "where did he come from?!" top 10 from Paul this week. He's led one lap in 12 starts at RIR, and never finished better than 13th. Has averaged a sickening 26.75-place run in RCR sheet metal (four starts).
14. Marcos Ambrose
You could be like me and pick Ambrose on a short track, but then he'll likely crash. Best finishes at RIR came with JTG-Daugherty Racing (ninth and fifth in 2010). Was 22nd and 15th there last season.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya
Worth picking if you like watching the world burn somewhere just past halfway.
16. Jamie McMurray
Two top 10s in the last three races make McMurray a nice underdog pick. I'm not quite ready to get hung up on it, as he’s not scored a top-10 run at RIR since 2009.
17. Bobby Labonte
Same number of RIR starts as Jeff Gordon. 15 fewer top 10s.
18. Aric Almirola
Two Richmond starts, two 26th-place finishes. Consistent.
1. AJ Allmendinger
Eleventh at Phoenix for Phoenix Racing seems like a good omen for a guy with two top 10s at RIR (2010, ’11 with Richard Petty Motorsports).
2. David Gilliland
Early candidate for quote of the year after Kansas' "Shut up and drive" line to Danica Patrick. Best Richmond finish in 13 career Cup starts is 18th.
3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Richmond is a good place for first-time winners, but he'd be good with his first top 10 of 2013. Has finished fourth or better in last three Nationwide Series starts at RIR — not that it’ll translate.
4. Casey Mears
Typically makes it to the end of a Richmond 400-miler, as he only has two DNFs in 20 starts. Downside? He averages a 24th-place showing.
5. Danica Patrick
Never finished above 18th in three Nationwide Series Richmond appearances.
6. David Ragan
Three career top-5 finishes at Richmond is easily the most of the C-list. However, those came in primo Roush equipment.
7. David Reutimann
Has a pole at Richmond, but just four career lead lap finishes and a 23.2-place average in 12 Cup starts.
8. Travis Kvapil
Matching his best finish of 11th at Richmond would give Kvapil his first top-20 result of the year. At the very least, he hopes to not blow a fourth engine this year.
9. Dave Blaney
Finished fourth at Richmond once upon a time (2004, Bill Davis Racing) amid 24 career starts. His average in Tom Baldwin Jr.’s Chevys is a paltry 24.8.
10. Joe Nemechek
Is a former Richmond winner while driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2003 (yes, he once drove for Hendrick Motorsports), but DNQ’d at Kansas last week in his own equipment.
11. Landon Cassill
Currently leads Sprint Cup with three separate crew chiefs used so far in 2013. It must be working: he finished a season-best 29th at Kansas.
12. David Stremme
After leading a lap at Kansas, Stremme hopes to finish on the lead lap at Richmond. It'd be a season-first for a driver with a 33.2-place average on the .75-miler track.
13. Josh Wise
Finished just two laps down in Kansas, his closest margin to the leader so far this year.
14. JJ Yeley
Two straight DNFs has Yeley at a season-low 30th in points. He did, however, snare one of his eight career top 10s at Richmond. (2007, Joe Gibbs Racing). He will not grab No. 9 this weekend.
15. Timmy Hill
Currently at a career best 42nd in Sprint Cup points with three starts. Little Timmy has even run the distance the last two weeks (36th at Texas, 33rd at Kansas).
16. Michael McDowell
One of Phil Parsons’ “Start & Park Specials,” McDowell has four more starts than Timmy Hill this year, but has completed 352 fewer laps. Avoid like a TRD push rod.
17. Mike Bliss
Leading NASCAR's start-and-park brigade with a perfect zero finishes in five races. “I want ya to be perfect, Cole.”
Every year the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits a stretch of the season in which it is premature to judge the championship hunt, but cogent enough to pinpoint problems with underperforming drivers and teams. It’s an odd stretch, for sure. Through eight races we have seen some unexpected strong performances from non-household names, while also getting much of the same from the usual title-contending suspects, some of which you will read about below. It’s been a crazy, competitive year that has provided plenty of statistical fodder.
As usual, that’s why I’m here. Use this knowledge to increase your understanding of the sport, to strengthen your fantasy roster or to look the like the smartest NASCAR fan at any race-watching party you attend. I prefer the third option, but warning: you’ll be perceived as annoying after a while. Resort to chips and dip if that happens.
4.5 Busch’s 4.5-place average finish in the last six Richmond races is the best in the series by three whole positions.
He also has three victories and five finishes of sixth or better in those six starts. He has twice led over 50 percent of the race (spring 2010 and spring 2011) and his lone win in a lean 2012 season for the No. 18 team came on the .75-mile track. With hometown favorite Denny Hamlin potentially still sidelined due to injury, Busch is Richmond’s heavy-footed favorite.
15.7 Kyle Busch’s No. 18 team holds the most inconsistent finish deviation (15.7) in the Cup Series.
In a season thus far bookended by finishes of 34th at Daytona and 38th last weekend in Kansas, Busch has scored five top-5 finishes which include two victories. The winning is good; never knowing when the fickle No. 18 will flip from Jekyll to Hyde isn’t. After five consecutive top-5 runs, two crashes prompted by an ill-handling car highlighted his afternoon at Kansas. It’s a good thing Richmond is next on the schedule, considering Busch ranks as the track’s most productive driver, with a 6.250 PEER there in the last 12 races.
A trip to RIR should warm Dale Earnhardt Jr. up. (ASP, Inc.)
+19.5% Despite Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s three-race skid, the No. 88 team is still picking up positions late in races, as seen in its plus-19.5 percent position retainment difference.
Earnhardt and team actually moved up two positions in the final 27 laps last weekend in Kansas, though it only bumped them up to a 16th-place finish. For a team that is focused on getting back to the Chase after Earnhardt’s injury derailed any chances of a championship in last year’s final 10 races, doing what they do best — protecting and gaining positions late in races — amid a slump (Earnhardt has averaged a 23rd-place finish in the last three races) is a positive sign. Another positive sign? Richmond. Earnhardt won at RIR in the pre-CoT era, but struggled when driving the Gen-6’s predecessor (he amassed a 0.875 PEER and just two top-5 finishes in the last 12 races there). With the Gen-6, though, it’s a new day and Earnhardt has taken to the non-skewed machine like a duck to water.
27.69% Paul Menard and the No. 27 team, following a 10th-place finish at Kansas, hold a 27.69 percent probability of making the Chase.
That percentage is the 16th highest of 33 driver-team combinations and has catapulted since Daytona thanks to four top-10 finishes in the first eight races. The 2011 Brickyard 400 winner is a long shot, of course, to make NASCAR’s playoffs, but his continued growth as a driver in the last three seasons — he earned a serviceable PEER (1.375) for the first time in six Cup Series seasons in 2012 — is a promising sign. He has developed into a driver that seldom makes race-killing mistakes and it shows in his results. His 10th-place spot in the point standings is aided by the fact that he has finished in the top half of the field (21st or better) in each race this season.
12.8 Ryan Newman has a 12.8-place average finish … in races that he finishes.
Another fringe Chase contender with a 36.78 percent probability (ranks 13th), Newman doesn’t have the mistake-free reputation like the one Menard is currently building. He is best in class at Stewart-Haas Racing despite finishes of 40th at Phoenix, 38th at Las Vegas and 31st at Martinsville. High point-paying finishes at Richmond and Talladega can enhance those odds in a season when his crew appears to be scratching their heads on all things Gen-6.
24.07% J.J. Yeley’s abysmal 24.07 percent pass efficiency Sunday at Kansas is the worst single-race mark in the series this season.
Yeley got chewed up and spit out by competitors, passed 41 times compared to the 13 times when he acted as the passer. The poor showing led to a 35th-place finish. He also had a similar performance earlier this season at Phoenix when he notched a comical 31.43 percent passing mark.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Kansas Speedway.
Jason Ratcliff and Matt Kenseth. (ASP, Inc.)
Two years ago, J.D. Gibbs came within a front bumper of stealing Carl Edwards away from Roush Fenway Racing. Then Ford’s hot young star, Edwards would have bumped Joey Logano out of the No. 20 ride to the tune of a reported $10 million.
Turns out, that could be the best money Gibbs ever saved.
What happened? Edwards got a sweeter deal, including stock options from Ford, to remain at RFR, then came within a whisker of the championship (losing to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker). But he’s won just once since, stuck in rebuilding mode after losing longtime crew chief Bob Osborne, and hasn’t found a full-time sponsor to replace AFLAC, causing multiple companies — and occasionally Ford itself — to foot the bill.
In the meantime, the money thrown at Edwards, combined with patchwork sponsorship for Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 effort, made the latter ripe for the taking. JGR, with Logano still struggling a year later, grabbed Kenseth for an undisclosed amount – but likely a fraction of the Edwards price — saving backer Home Depot from potentially jumping ship completely. In the meantime, Gibbs’ outgoing driver won once more before handing the keys to a car that desperately needed a veteran’s help.
Where are we now, eight races in? Kansas’ Victory Lane offers a clue as we go Through the Gears:
FIRST GEAR: Matt Kenseth could be Joe Gibbs Racing’s missing piece.
Observers felt that Kenseth, looking for a fresh start after 13 years with Roush Fenway Racing, would click with the No. 20 team. But no one expected this type of start: two wins and six races led in eight starts for a team that’s been downright dominant at times. A driver known for consistency as opposed to controlling races, Kenseth already has led more laps this season (482) than he did throughout all of 2012. And it’s not like he was off the pace in his last year with RFR; Kenseth captured three victories, including the Daytona 500, and landed seventh in series points.
“I think it can always go better but things have been pretty good from a performance standpoint,” was his comment on Sunday concerning 2013. “I’m really, really happy. I think as an organization one of our cars — if all the stars would have aligned — could have won every race this year if everything would have worked out.”
Compare that to Roush Fenway Racing, which has half the wins and just 207 laps led thus far. How ironic was it that Kenseth’s final on-track pass for the lead came at the hands of his old car, the No. 17 driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Clearly, JGR got itself the better end of the deal, one it feels includes a leader within its stable of high-profile drivers.
For Kenseth, it’s more that the pressure’s off, with sponsorship secure and no mentoring needed for teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The 2003 Cup champ has 10 times the experience than Logano, and add in top-15 finishes so far this season at every track that also hosts a Chase date (even Martinsville, once kryptonite), and it’s clear this addition could bring not just the 20 team, but the entire JGR organization into serious title contention this fall.
SECOND GEAR: Kyle Busch is cursed by Kansas.
Everyone talks about Kyle Busch’s newfound maturity. But the one person Busch still needs to see, fresh off an Anger Management appearance with Charlie Sheen, is a wizard. Kansas Speedway has been Busch’s Achilles Heel, the one track where he has yet to score a top-5 finish and a place where he’s been cursed for two-plus years. The spell was in full effect this weekend, as Busch wrecked three times — from practice through the race — en route to destroying two cars and winding up in 38th place.
“Spun twice on our own,” he quipped after the race-ending incident. “Just don’t know what to do with Kansas.”
Maybe one extra apology to David Reutimann would be a start. That driver, angry over the way Busch bumped him out of the way at Bristol in 2010, chose to get his revenge at Kansas later that season — at a crucial point in the Chase — which proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back on Busch’s title run. The Las Vegas native was wrecked by Reutimann, ran 21st and has done no better than 10th at the 1.5-mile oval since.
That remnant of “Old Kyle,” along with the mental frustration attached to it, still comes out on The Plains. That needs to stop, considering this track’s second date remains smack dab in the middle of the Chase.
THIRD GEAR: There is such a thing as too fast.
While Kansas put on a far better race compared to Texas a week ago, both experienced the same set of problems that hindered side-by-side competition. Average speeds in both cases were well over 190 miles an hour; straightaway speeds at Kansas approached 210. If NASCAR saw that high of a number at Daytona — considering what happened in February — restrictor plates would be replaced with parachutes attached to each car’s rear end.
So why didn’t NASCAR even blink at Kansas? For now, its answer to “slowing the cars down” is providing a safe, rock-hard Goodyear tire compound so that if a driver spins, it’s his or her own fault — sort of a weird way to deflect blame. But considering that’s exactly what’s happening — half-a-dozen cars spun out on their own Sunday — isn’t the risk failing to provide a reward? With the current compounds, cars can run upwards of 200 laps on left-side tires and have little to no falloff. That makes a car like Kenseth’s the best all day unless you can nip it through pit strategy to gain track position, which limits passing and excitement for fans.
The Gen-6 car, when provided a softer tire compound, has proven to be racier than the Car of Tomorrow. Restarts at Kansas showed its true potential, with cars four-wide at times in the desperate battle to gain positions before everyone bottomed out at the same speed. The pieces of the puzzle are there, NASCAR just has to find a way to slow the cars and pair them with a softer compound tire so the drivers can actually use them to their advantage.
Aric Almirola is currently 13th in the point standings. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: The window is opening for a Chase surprise.
The contenders at Kansas were about whom you’d expect. Kasey Kahne, always strong on intermediates, ran runner-up to Kenseth and sits a solid second in the standings. Jimmie Johnson, on the equivalent of cruise control, ran third and extended his points lead.
It’s further down the list where the results get intriguing. Martin Truex Jr., fresh off a runner-up performance at Texas, ran a strong fourth. Jamie McMurray, nearly wrecked at the front of the field by Mark Martin during a mid-race restart, fought back to seventh. Aric Almirola, driving the legendary STP colors for Richard Petty Motorsports, was eighth, giving him back-to-back top 10s for the first time in his short career. Paul Menard, Richard Childress Racing’s most consistent driver who makes a living on these 1.5-mile tracks, ran 10th.
It’s a set of four names, all unlikely to win a race this season, whose consistency keeps them in the Chase mix. Currently, Menard is 10th in points while McMurray, Almirola and Truex are inside the top 15 and within striking distance. With Jeff Gordon (15th) and Tony Stewart (21st) down the standings, a summer surge for either would make this battle for 10th a moot point. But what if they don’t bounce back? Last year, Gordon needed a wild card to make the Chase field. With the usual suspects already inside the top 10, Denny Hamlin’s injury may have provided an opportunity for this undercard battle to take shape. Considering how meaningful a postseason bid would be to any of those candidates (with two total Chase bids between them), I’d expect the stretch run to get wild.
You’ve gotta give Ricky Stenhouse Jr. credit. Driving for the team that won here last fall, he qualified third, used pit strategy to get up front late and led 26 laps. Eleventh ties his best career Cup finish, but more importantly, the rookie got over the hump of running up front for more than just a circuit or two. … How many more obstacles must Brad Keselowski overcome? First-lap contact from a backmarker left him with a fuel-filler issue that dropped his No. 2 car a lap down early. Then, leftover damage caused a debris caution when his back end ripped apart in Turn 3. It’s the third race in a row he’s had these type of problems, yet the team has finished top 10 every time (sixth on Sunday). It makes you wonder how dangerous it will be when the luck finally turns. … Tony Stewart, invisible at Kansas (21st), is off to the worst start of his Cup career. Leading just 18 laps, he’s 21st in points and without a top-5 finish through eight races. However, let’s not forget how notoriously slow a starter Stewart traditionally is. In 2005, he was 14th in points after eight races, winless (and rudderless) at Joe Gibbs Racing. That November? He was holding the title trophy. And who can forget his 2011 championship, when he was an afterthought through a zero-win regular season, yet ripped off five victories in the 10-race Chase? … Sunday marked the first time since 1985 that three consecutive Cup races have been won from the pole. It last happened with Bill Elliott (Michigan, Darlington) and Dale Earnhardt (Bristol) with Elliott capturing the Winston Million in the Southern 500.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Kansas Speedway
1. NASCAR honors victims, heroes of Boston Marathon explosions
Just as it did after the large-scale attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NASCAR will serve in the role of honoring those affected by Monday's horrific events at the Boston Marathon. Beyond the expected emotional pageantry of Sunday's pre-race ceremonies at Kansas Speedway, two Sprint Cup teams with unique ties to Boston and its annual road race have even made plans to recognize and support the victims and heroes in various ways.
Roush Fenway Racing, the NASCAR venture tightly partnered with Boston's Fenway Sports Group, will carry a unique "B-Strong" decal on each of its cars this weekend. Team owner Jack Roush has also pledged to donate $100 per lap led by his team to relief efforts in Boston. Fenway Sports Group, of course, owns the Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park and other Boston sports enterprises.
Meanwhile, Michael Waltrip will recognize his personal tie to the Boston Marathon by having each of his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota's sport car numbers this weekend in the same font as the marathon's bib number system.
“The news coming out of Boston this week was very personal to me,” said Waltrip. “When I ran the Boston Marathon in 2000, I remember thinking about what a privilege it was to be able to participate and all the hard work it took to be there. When you can see those international flags flying in Copley Square, you know you are about to complete your journey. I know the joy those runners were feeling at that moment when their worlds changed."
Undoubtedly, expect many in the garage to be sporting Boston Red Sox gear, too.
2. Streaking Kyle Busch hopes to avoid 2012 mistake
This season, when Kyle Busch has found the lead, there's been at least two times in seven races when he hasn't looked back. In three others — now good enough for a career-best streak — Busch at the very least hasn't fallen from the top 5 when the checkered flag fell.
A top 5 for Busch on Sunday would push that top-5 streak to six and, more importantly, overcome a major gaffe he had at Kansas just last fall. It'd also mark his first top 5 at the 1.5-mile track.
Busch was just about to assume the lead of last October's event on Kansas' newly-repaved surface when he lost control exiting Turn 4. He made slight contact in the process, but the damage was enough to steal any good handling from his No. 18. A later crash sealed his fate for the day in 31st.
"Hopefully, we have a good car like that this time around and I don’t make a mistake like that," Busch said.
Busch, of course, wasn't the only driver to fall prey to a tricky Kansas track. The caution flag waved a track record 14 times in October — good for a series high among all tracks in 2012.
3. Martin Truex Jr. has had enough second fiddle
If you didn't sense his disappointment after Saturday night's race at Texas Motor Speedway, let's make one thing abundantly clear: Martin Truex Jr. is straight tired of finishing second. It happened again at Texas, and it happened twice last season at Kansas.
Truex was by far more dominant in the spring race last season before the re-pave, leading 173 laps. The Texas runner-up meant it has been 210 races since Truex won his only career Sprint Cup race at Dover in 2007 for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. If you'll remember, Truex's win that day came in a Monday race after a Sunday washout and was overshadowed by antics between Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart that left both wrecked and Busch parked by NASCAR.
See why Truex might be a bit tired of playing back-up?
"We had a good run in (Las) Vegas, and ran well at Texas," Truex said this week, more removed from his disappointing Saturday night. "It seems like our mile-and-a-half, big track program is pretty good and kind of like Kansas, so (I) look forward to going there."
4. Almirola returns to site of best career Sprint Cup run
Predictions for Aric Almirola to run well in the season's first 1.5-mile track race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway fell way short, but a very solid seventh-place finish last weekend at Texas should bode quite well for the No. 43.
Leading 69 laps in last fall's Cup return to Kansas, Almirola fell out of contention from the lead when he began suffering tire issues. Eventually, despite turning the race's second fastest laps and proving to be a top-5 car by speed both early and late in green flag runs, a tire exploded on Almirola and put him in the Turn 4 wall.
He finished 29th.
It was both a glimmer of hope and a knotting defeat for the underdog Richard Petty Motorsports team. Almirola, still searching for his first career win and just his third career top-5 finish, admittedly hasn't stopped thinking about a return.
"I've been looking forward to Kansas since last October when we left there. We were so good last fall. To have it all taken away with some blown tires really stung," Almirola said.
A solid run at Kansas would be extra nice for Almirola due to sponsor Farmland being headquartered nearby. He'll do battle in a brand new chassis built by RPM.
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
5. Kansas' own Clint Bowyer still searching for hometown checkers
Speaking of new cars, Clint Bowyer probably has one to sell you.
NASCAR's lone native Kansan celebrated the opening of his recently-acquired car dealership Thursday in his hometown of Emporia, Kan. In something befitting NASCAR's newest witty character, the dealership is one where both he and his brother formerly worked in decidedly lower-paying positions. It's also directly across the street from Emporia's Clint Bowyer Community Building.
Now, Bowyer will sell Toyotas from the Clint Bowyer Autoplex.
"There's a lot of renovation work and a lot of stuff to do, but getting the doors opened up for business was really neat and a big day for me," Bowyer said.
Bowyer is yet to own a Sprint Cup checkered flag from his hometown speedway, however. In 2007, he was extremely close — some would even say he won — when a late caution flag created controversy surrounding Greg Biffle's win in a shortened race. Since that runner-up finish, Bowyer has led just five laps in seven races and has two top-10 finishes at the speedway. He's also spent just 54 percent of his nine races at the 1.5-mile track in the top 15.
Those stats don't tell the whole story of Bowyer from a year ago, though, and extra numbers could show Bowyer as an unexpected but popular favorite for Sunday's race. Last October, Bowyer took sixth despite having the race's best average running position (5.858) and most laps in the top 15 (98.9 percent).
Will Bowyer finally hit big at Kansas? I guess we'll find out Sunday.