Kasey Kahne (5) and Jeff Gordon (24). (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The Long and Short of It
What was supposed to be a celebration has become a burden for Hendrick Motorsports. Mired in a 15-race winless drought, its longest since 2002-03, the organization remains at 199 Cup victories as the series heads to Talladega.
Whenever the team scores its 200th victory — a significant number in a sport that reveres Richard Petty’s 200 career victories as a driver — it will be more relief than triumph.
Yet, even as some focus on what Hendrick hasn’t done, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is second in the point standings and Jimmie Johnson is sixth. It’s surprising they haven’t won. Earnhardt has finished second or third four times and Johnson has done so three times. Hendrick has placed at least one car in the top 5 in each of the last five races. Twice it has had two cars among the top 5 in that stretch, including last weekend at Richmond when Earnhardt was second to Kyle Busch and Kahne placed a season-best fifth.
What makes this winless drought less dire for this organization is how much speed many of these cars have. It’s not like they’re struggling to stay on the lead lap in many races. Still, there are issues.
Gordon has struggled in qualifying. His three top-10 starts came at the short tracks. While he’s led 339 laps, second only to Johnson’s 362, nearly all of the laps Gordon came at Martinsville. He, Johnson and Earnhardt appeared as if they would all finish in the top three and give Hendrick his noteworthy victory at a track where he won his first Cup race. A late caution bunched the field and Gordon and Johnson got knocked out of the lead on the restart, symbolizing how agonizing close they’ve been to victory at times this season.
Gordon understands how important it is to score a victory soon.
“Well, it’s always important to win,” he says. “And we’re always trying to win as hard as we possibly can. It’s just like getting ready for the All-Star race. No points involved; we’re going to really go all-out to win. Well, we do it every weekend.
“But we do recognize that at this point, and it’s not completely out of the question that we could make up those points and get in the top 10 legitimately. If you look at our season last year, the amount of points that we made up from this point until the Chase, we did it. And we can do it again. But we’ve got to get a lot more things going our way than what’s happening right now. And we’ve definitely put ourselves at a huge deficit.”
Kahne has had all sorts of misfortune. He had only two finishes in the top 20 in the first six races. He fell out of one race because of an accident and another with engine problems. Gordon also had an engine problem, coming in the Daytona 500.
Even with such issues, it’s not hard to think that it won’t be long before a Hendrick car arrives in Victory Lane. Maybe this weekend. Gordon’s six victories at Talladega are most among active drivers and Earnhardt is next with five.
Johnson, the last Hendrick driver to win a Cup race, remains confident.
“My mindset from when I started and through the championships and still now, is if you run in the top 5, especially the top three week after week, you’re going to win your fair share of races,” says Johnson, who has seven top-10 finishes, tying Earnhardt for most this season. “And I fully believe in that statement. And although there are times I’ve left the track disappointed with a second or a third or whatever it may be — or 12th at Martinsville because I felt like we had a good shot at it — I still really believe in that philosophy and I’m very happy with how we’re running and the speed we have in our cars.”
LOOK AT THIS KID The talk beforehand was about Travis Pastrana making his Nationwide Series debut last weekend at Richmond, but 18-year-old Ryan Blaney had people talking afterward when he finished seventh in his series debut.
“It exceeded my expectations a little bit,’’ said Blaney, the son of Cup driver Dave Blaney. “We thought coming out ... with the racecar all still intact and a good top-15 finish would be real nice.”
He’ll return to the series in a couple of weeks at Darlington — a track he’s never visited.
Blaney said he’ll prepare for Darlington by watching tapes of the racing as he did before the Richmond race, along with talking with other drivers.
Mark Martin (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
NOT GOOD TO BE NO. 1 Mark Martin continued the trend the pole-winner not winning the race. No pole winner has won a race this year. No pole winner has won in the last 27 races. The average finishing position for the pole winner during those races is 16.5.
The last pole winner to win a race was Ryan Newman at New Hampshire in July 2011.
This streak likely will continue. The pole-winner has won only once in the last 27 races at Talladega.
PIT STOPS Kevin Harvick has been running at the end of all 22 starts he’s had at Talladega. ... Matt Kenseth has failed to finish in the top 10 in each of the last 10 races at Talladega. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth are the only Cup drivers to have completed all 2,926 laps in the first nine races of the season. ... This weekend will be the first race for Mike Ford as crew chief for Aric Almirola on the No. 43 car. Ford helped Denny Hamlin nearly win the series title in 2010. ... Carl Edwards will use the same chassis at Talladega that he used to win the Daytona 500 pole.
Saturday evening’s Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway was not unlike many of the NASCAR Sprint Cup events over the past month. A dearth of cautions — only five, the second-least at RIR in 14 years — pockmarked the 300-mile event.
However, Richmond provided an exciting, and controversial, finish that produced an all-too-familiar victor in Kyle Busch.
While Busch had yet to win in the 2012 season, his victory marked the fourth consecutive win in Richmond’s spring race for the 26-year-old Las Vegas native. But while his past wins have been dominant, it took a string of bizarre events late in the race for Busch to cash in.
“Wherever that last caution came from, that was the saving grace — just the luck of the day,” Busch said of a debris caution on lap 388 of 400. “The guys did a fast pit stop, got us the lead off pit road, which was a huge advantage, just being able to give me the control of the restart and not have to wait on Tony (Stewart) or cause myself to spin my tires or what have you and get behind.
The fireworks started well before then, though.
A caution for debris on lap 311 changed the complexion of the race. Busch was awarded the Lucky Dog, placing him on the lead lap after being down one.
Race leader Jimmie Johnson was then issued a pit road penalty during his stop, sending him to the rear of the field. The subsequent restart found Tony Stewart the leader, with Carl Edwards to his outside. Edwards, though, believed his No. 99 Ford to be the lead car, and when the green waved, Stewart spun his tires, allowing Edwards to sprint away. NASCAR ruled that Edwards “jumped the restart” by taking off before crossing into the “restart box” — a pair of painted lines on the track prior to the start/finish line that mark when the leader can hit the gas.
Edwards was assessed a black flag, handing the lead back to Stewart. But just as it appeared Stewart would cruise to his third win of the season, the final debris caution was thrown, reportedly for an aluminum can on the backstretch.
When the field hit pit road for a final set of tires, Busch beat Stewart out and quickly jumped to a sizable lead on the restart.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. also got by Stewart, but when his brakes began to fade, the race was clearly in Busch’s hands.
“That’s what it looked like to me,” a curt Stewart said of the debris afterwards. “I mean, it was out of the groove. It had been sitting there for eight laps. When the caution is for a plastic bottle on the backstretch, it’s hard to feel good about losing that one.”
As for Edwards’ penalty, he and crew chief Bob Osborne questioned NASCAR about it during and after the race, even meeting with officials in the NASCAR hauler.
Their contention was that the team’s spotter was told by an official that they were the lead car, prompting Edwards to bring the field to green. He was also posted on the track’s pylon as the leader.
NASCAR vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton, made it clear after the race that Edwards was not the leader and that he did jump the start. So his point was moot regardless.
“We had to just agree to disagree, and that’s the way it is,” Edwards said after his meeting with NASCAR. “They run the sport, and they do the best job they can, and I drive a racecar and do the very best job I can.”
Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte stretch unequalled on schedule
Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte stretch unequalled on Cup schedule
Much was made of the first five races of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule being run on diametrically diverse tracks. From the season opening restrictor plate Daytona 500, to the bumper-car bonanza that made up the closing laps at Martinsville, and the intermediate downforce contests in Las Vegas and Fontana.
What makes for good racing ... and would "phantom" cautions help NASCAR?
Photo by ASP, Inc.
What makes for good racing ... and would "phantom" cautions help NASCAR?
Ask a NASCAR fan a question about the sport and you’ll likely get a strong opinion. Ask the Backseat Drivers Fan Council about the sport and you get many strong opinions — especially when the questions focus on the racing.
Fan Council members were not shy with their feelings when asked if NASCAR should throw a caution to break up a long green-flag run in a race, a topic that has garnered considerable debate this season. Here’s what Fan Council members said about that issue and others this week.
SHOULD NASCAR THROW A CAUTION TO BREAK UP A LONG GREEN-FLAG RUN?
79.8 percent said No 20.2 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• I may stop watching NASCAR if that's what they go to. If anyone says yes to this question they are not a true fan of NASCAR or racing. Period the end.
• Strung out racing is boring. The most exciting points are restarts — so why not have more of them?
• NO, dear Lord. Please, please, please DO NOT start creating "phantom" cautions to bunch up the field or do anything to change the outcome of the race. I firmly believe that if you do not have enough of an attention span to watch a race from green to checkers, with the chance there may be little or no caution laps, then I'm sorry but NASCAR may not be your cup of tea. I want to watch racing not wrecking. Please take this opportunity to exit NASCAR and go to the local demolition derby if you are in this for nothing but wrecks.
• Yes, I'd definitely like to see more cautions but there is a difference between hoping for cautions and looking for wrecks. Don't lump us all in together — there are those who like cautions because they bunch up the pack and those that want cautions because they want to see wrecks. Too often those two thoughts are combined into one.
• Of course not! No way should NASCAR cheat. I can't believe anyone would want NASCAR to throw a fake caution after all the complaints over the years blaming them for cautions that benefited various drivers. That just proves that the fans who complain are only complaining to complain.
• Everyone wants a late caution to bunch the field... unless their favorite driver is the one with the 10-second lead.
• Once the race is under green I want NASCAR to stay out of the “show making” business. A race, like every other sporting event, is an organic event that needs to play out on its own. NASCAR needs to let the teams and drivers determine the outcome. Not every race is going to come down to a last-lap pass with a win by 0.001 seconds, just like not every baseball game ends in a walk-off grand slam. What NASCAR can/should do is work on ways to encourage more passing and competition in the field by somehow finding a way to reduce the influence of clean air.
• People complained about their artificial debris cautions, now they complain about NASCAR not finding a reason for a caution. You can't please everyone all the time, and I, for one, am loving the racing this season. Feels much more real, it accentuates the drivers’ real talents behind the wheel. I'd much rather see two drivers and their styles clash to see who comes out on ahead.
• They do need to do something to make these races a little more exciting. I know I have turned off the last two.
• HELL NO! If NASCAR starts artificially manipulating races, then I am out. I prefer to see how the race unfolds naturally. If a driver manages to get out to a great lead, so be it. If a driver leads the whole race, that is okay with me.
• NASCAR's number one purpose is to entertain. Without fans in the seats and fans watching the races on TV, there would be no NASCAR. But if NASCAR wants to turn this into WWE and fabricate the results, I will no longer be a fan. Arbitrarily throwing a caution to add entertainment value is wrong.
• The restarts were the exciting part of this week’s race, so for entertainment purposes, yes.
WHAT MAKES FOR GOOD RACING?
54.8 percent said passing throughout the field 19.4 percent said a close battle for the lead at the end of the race 13.6 percent said Other 10.4 percent said many lead changes 1.8 percent said numerous cautions
What Fan Council members said:
• Just good hard racing makes the race more exciting to watch. It gets boring when the cars get strung out and there is really no side-by-side racing.
• Battling for the lead is what I remember most from watching on TV. You see more passes back in the pack when you attend live, but passing for the lead is what makes a race exciting.
• A good race to me is many lead changes, passing throughout the field, and a close battle for the lead at the end. I don't ask for much. When I am at the track I only need the sights, sounds, and smell.
• What every fan wants is drama, which always seems to be missing at California, Michigan and multiple cookie cutters.
• In my mind, auto racing should be a combination of human skills and equipment quality and endurance, the perfect blend of human and mechanical structures organized into a symphony action, reaction with an unknown outcome.
• I love good side-by-side racing, especially at the tracks that make up the bulk of the schedule (the 1.5- and 2-mile tracks). It’s exciting and you stay tuned to see who is going to prevail. There is an exception though, at the short tracks (Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond, etc.). That's when I like to see beating and banging and cautions because that is what short track racing was built upon.
• Not just a close a battle at the end but throughout. Making sure the pit crews do their job, the crew chief calls a good strategy all race long. All that stuff makes up a good race. I also like seeing many cars going for it, not just two or a few. A little sideways to watch now and then doesn't hurt either, but I don't watch for wrecks.
• I would like the teams to have a chance to work on their cars under caution and give more drivers a shot to drive up through the field and contend for the lead. Such few cautions don't allow for drivers to work on anything and pretty much the top 10 stays the same from qualifying to the finish.
• The battle between Hamlin & Truex was very exciting (at Kansas) and kept me on the edge of my seat. Neither are my favorite drivers, but I was cheering for Truex at the end to pass Hamlin.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
GRADE SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT KANSAS
53.8 percent said Good 27.8 percent said Fair 9.4 percent said Poor 9.0 percent said Great
What Fan Council members said:
• I like the multiple racing grooves at this large track. I saw lots of racing for positions between drivers, and I enjoy watching that.
• I'm sick of these cookie cutters, and I don't care what anybody says about what kind of fan that makes me. I am a die-hard fan of this sport, I love to see a great race where drivers are working on each other for multiple laps and make the pass when the other makes a mistake, but at the same time I HATE to see the same race 14 races a year. I understand the concept that NASCAR had to expand to other parts of the country, but the people that built the tracks should have stopped building the same kind of mile-and-a-half track and should have dared to be different.
• Bored me so much, I went to the kitchen and washed the dishes
• It was a good, competent race, and I have learned to appreciate the intermediate tracks for what they are. People complaining about the boring races need to learn to love the intermediate tracks because we are stuck with them. NASCAR made their bed with all these cookie-cutter tracks, now they have to figure out how to market a bunch of races with not a lot of action.
• The race was fine and I'm pleased with the results. Now that the other teams seem to have caught up to Hendrick, you really never know for sure who's going to win and that makes it interesting.
• After turning off the race on Sunday, I immediately thought of this question and the only thought that came to my head was “forgettable.” Not that great of a race and not that bad, just a typical 1.5-mile race.
• Except for the battle at the end and the restarts ... not much else to talk about in this race. I was more excited by playoff hockey which has continuous action throughout.
• One of the best Kansas races in a long time even with long green runs. I work nights and was extremely tired (but the) race still held my attention all the way through.
• A little better than Texas because it was only 400 miles of boring racing.
• As a Truex fan it was great. As a race fan it was boring until the end.
• Love the green flag runs and pit stops. Team efforts are on full display for the results. Today the drivers had to push every lap or get left behind. Today was a race!
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
If Denny Hamlin can win races now, it makes one wonder what he’ll do later this season as the communication with new crew chief Darian Grubb improves and Grubb puts more of his stamp on the team’s cars being built.
Hamlin is one of only two drivers with multiple wins this season after eight races (Tony Stewart is the other) and Hamlin could be the first driver to win three races this season with the series heading to Richmond this weekend. He has won two of the last five races at his hometown track.
Even with the success, Hamlin has had his ups and downs. He won at Phoenix and Kansas but finished 20th at Las Vegas and Bristol. Since Bristol, he’s not finished worse than 12th. That’s helped Hamlin climb to fifth in the points.
“It's hard to analyze your program by a one-week performance,’’ Hamlin said after his Kansas victory, the 19th of his career. “You look at it in the grand scheme of things. (At Texas) on a mile-and-a-half (mile track), we went almost a lap down, but we ... hung around 10th place for most of the day.
“I'm not going to analyze and say that everything is good, we just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we'll be fine. There's always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we've identified those areas and we've gone to work on them. So right now I feel like we're bringing better race cars to the race track than what we have, and it's still going to take time. There's still things that myself and Darian need to work on with communication, things like that, but he's still working within Joe Gibbs Racing trying to get cars that he feels like can be better to the race track, and all that stuff takes time. You just can't do it — it's a big process now.’’
Says Grubb: “My confidence in Denny's feedback is getting better and better. I know when to take what he says with what inflection in his voice, what it means.’’
This also has been an adjustment period for Grubb in how things are done at Joe Gibbs Racing after moving over from Stewart-Haas Racing. That also takes time.
“The technology is drastically different between the organizations, so the actual lessons you learn and things, it's probably more the style of working and being able to manage people and get the best out of the people that are there,’’ Grubb said. “Now that I'm at Joe Gibbs Racing I'm starting to learn those personalities and what I can get out of them.’’
This team will be worth watching as the season progresses.
NEW LOOK Bruton Smith, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Chairman and CEO, is scheduled to announce Wednesday his plans for changing the track surface at Bristol. The work will be completed before the August race and is in reaction to fan complaints about the racing there.
Bristol will mark the fourth track this year that will have a new surface, joining Michigan, Pocono and Kansas. Work on Kansas’ track began after Sunday’s race. Since 2010, six of the 23 tracks that host at least one Cup race will have had new surfaces by the time the series races at Kansas in October. Phoenix was reconfigured and repaved last year and Daytona was repaved in time for last year’s Daytona 500 after a pothole delayed the 2010 race.
Jeff Gordon says that in some cases, the track is not as much the problem, especially Bristol.
“The drivers love it,’’ Gordon said. “It’s a great racetrack I think. I thought they made huge improvements. Now we hear they want to go back to the old way.
“Tracks are getting too much of the blame or even credit sometimes. This car for the last five or six years has sort of put Goodyear, the tracks, everything into a different box. I’m looking forward to the 2013 car, but I look forward to cars down the road to sort of take some of the things in this car that are in there we can’t take out. It will help the racing; things that are going to help Goodyear to make it better tire that is more suitable for the car.’’
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
LOOKING BACK Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent the last six months studying his family’s genealogy and its made him appreciate the past.
“I’m trying to put together some kind of a well-organized document to sort of be able to show to family members,’’ he said. “I had one interesting experience. Ralph’s (Earnhardt) father, I didn’t know who he was and never really cared who he was, never thought about who he was or what his family would be like.
“Never thought past Ralph all these years and I started getting into his father and Ralph’s grandfather and I found their burial plots and so me and my grandmother Martha and my sister and my mom Brenda and my girlfriend rode up there one day, just in Kannapolis or Concord and visited their burial plots and a lot of relatives that were born in like 1809 and 1822 and stuff like that.
“It’s really cool to stand there over somebody that is responsible for you being there.”
PIT STOPS The Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown will be Thursday night at Richmond International Raceway. Cup drivers scheduled to compete in the late model race that raises funds for charity are Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Aric Almirola and Michael Waltrip. ... Steve Wallace will make his 2012 Nationwide Series debut on Friday at Richmond. His Ford was prepared out of Rusty Wallace Racing with collaboration from JTG Daugherty Racing. Bobby Labonte’s Cup pit crew will service Wallace’s car and Labonte’s crew chief, Todd Berrier, will call the race for Wallace.
Hamlin holds off Martin Truex Jr. to notch second Sprint Cup victory of 2012
Photo by ASP, Inc.
It seemed a formality that once Martin Truex Jr. had fended off a vicious challenge from Jimmie Johnson that Michael Waltrip Racing would score its first Sprint Cup Series win since 2010.
Truex had led 173 laps and seemed on virtual cruise control as the laps ticked away in the STP 400 from Kansas Speedway. He pulled away for chunks of laps at a time after green flag pit stops — 45, 81 and 43 consecutive laps led on successive occasions — separating himself from the runner-up competitor by whole seconds.
Then, with about 35 laps to go, something happened to Truex’s Toyota.
According to team co-owner Michael Waltrip, the sun came out and changed the track, loosening up the car. Truex, however, was unhappy with the last set of tires that he reckoned did not agree with his machine.
Whatever the reason, a charging Denny Hamlin caught Truex and got by shortly after the final round of green flag pit stops to score his second win of the season.
Hamlin’s race-winning pass came on lap 237 of 267, and despite a last-ditch banzai effort with three laps remaining by Truex to reclaim the lead, the aero advantage Hamlin enjoyed carried him to the win.
“I knew that the only advantage that I had is when his (Truex’s) car got so loose that last run, I was able to make up a lot of time on entry and a lot of time on exit (in and out of the corners) because he was really fighting his car,” Hamlin said. “So really, as the driver behind, you can manipulate his car and make it worse for him by getting up close to him — and that’s what I kind of did a few laps leading up to when we passed him, is that I tried to run as close up to him on entry as I could and as close on exit. It takes away rear grip, and to a car that was as loose as what his was, they have no choice really but to back off and not wreck their car.”
The win at the 1.5-mile intermediate oval was somewhat of a surprise, in that Hamlin’s best finish on a comparable track this season was 11th.
“We just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we’ll be fine,” Hamlin said. “There’s always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we’ve identified those areas and we’ve gone to work on them.
“So right now I feel like we’re bringing better race cars to the racetrack than what we have, and it’s still going to take time.
As for Truex, he and crew chief Chad Johnston continue to knock on Victory Lane’s door. Six of his finishes have been eighth or better this season and he has yet to finish outside of the top 20. That performance — he has averaged a 4.8-place finish in the last five races — places him second in the Sprint Cup point standings.
“The NAPA team was phenomenal today,” Truex said. “Just not really sure what to think about that last set of tires. (The) car had been really good all day, (then we) put the last set on and I was wrecking loose for the first 20 laps of that last run and Denny was able to get by me and once he did the race was over.
“(The) car got better longer in the run and I was able to get back to him, but I’d get three, four car lengths from him and pick up the aero push.”
Johnson held on for third after pit strategy forced him to climb out of a late-race hole. Matt Kenseth and points-leader Greg Biffle rounded out the top 5.
MWR's Three-Car Team Leading the Toyota Charge in 2012
Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. (56) and Clint Bowyer (15). (ASP, Inc.)
In its sixth full season of Sprint Cup competition, Michael Waltrip Racing is making a push at becoming a powerhouse on NASCAR’s premier circuit.
MWR’s three-team operation has combined for five top 5s and 12 top 10s thus far in 2012. Spearheaded by Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 56 NAPA team, MWR finds its two full-time drivers — Truex and Clint Bowyer — in the top 10 in the point standings.
Third-year MWR driver Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston concluded the 2011 season on an uptick, recording four top 10s in the final five races. That momentum carried through the offseason as the duo have yet to finish worse than 17th this year. Included are finishes of third (Bristol), fifth (Martinsville) and sixth (Bristol) and a fourth-place spot in the championship standings.
“It’s been a good start to the season for us,” Truex says. “Everybody at MWR has done a nice job. For us, it’s just about coming here and trying to keep it rolling.
“We’ve had about 10 or 11 good races in a row going back to last year. That feels good. We just need to continue to build on that.”
Bowyer, a high-profile free-agent hire from Richard Childress Racing, has found immediate chemistry with new MWR crew chief Brian Pattie. Leading the No. 15 team, they have managed runs of sixth (Bristol) and fourth (Las Vegas) and sit 10th in the point standings. Their consistent start is the difference between an organization that once contended for wins three or four times a year, but now, each weekend.
“When I started at RCR, there was nothing to prove there,” Bowyer says. “As a driver, the only thing you can do is not screw up the opportunity. Here, I’m going to have to be part of moving on with a championship-caliber organization. That’s exciting. That’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.”
Key to the turnaround, though, was the hiring of former Richard Childress Racing crew chief and competition director Scott Miller as the organization’s Vice President of Competition.
Miller is a NASCAR veteran, having sat atop the pit box for both Bowyer and Jeff Burton while at RCR. He brought a level of expertise and confidence to his new role at MWR when he signed with the company late in the 2011 season.
“I was very, very pleasantly surprised with what I found when I came in the door,” Miller told the Associated Press. “Obviously, there are still things we are working on, but MWR was not in bad shape at all when I got here. They had started working on new cars and new chassis in the summer. We just needed to clean up and get a little more efficient at what we do.”
Mark Martin, one of the most respected drivers in the sport, also brought a level of professionalism not seen at MWR when, shortly before the season began, he agreed to pilot the No. 55 car for 25 races in 2012.
“What strikes me the most about Mark is, he’s like a kid in a candy store — he’s ready for a new challenge,” Miller says of the driver who finished third in Texas last weekend. “He thrived in that part-time schedule he was in (2007 and ‘08) and I think he really enjoyed himself doing that — not necessarily getting caught up in the Chase race or the championship thing — but just enjoying his craft of driving a racecar.”
Martin’s absence in two races so far has given way to one of the feel-good stories of the 2012 season: Brian Vickers.
A casualty of Red Bull Racing’s departure from NASCAR, Vickers will drive the car in eight Cup races while team co-owner Waltrip picks up four others.
Using his first appearance in the No. 55 as an audition (and a statement), Vickers led 125 laps at Bristol en route to a fifth-place run. Between Vickers and Martin, the No. 55 team has yet to finish worse than 18th, with four top 10s to its credit. Those performances find the team — along with the Nos. 15 and 56 — ranked in the top 10 in the all-important owners standings, guaranteeing their place in the starting lineup each weekend.
That’s a far cry from MWR’s first full season on the circuit in 2007, when its three teams stumbled through a miserable debut effort that found it going home after qualifying a total of 39 times.
“You see all the championship organizations — they don’t just have one bullet, they have two, three or four,” executive vice president Ty Norris says. “We have three bullets every week.
“I still pinch myself because it’s so hard to believe that we’ve got these great people working on the cars, a great attitude and great drivers to get it done. It’s a very exciting time for us.”
And of course, there’s Waltrip, whose two Daytona 500 wins make up for an otherwise unimpressive Cup Series record.
It was Waltrip who founded the organization, placing its first car in what was then the Busch Series in 1994 — finishing third at Bristol with fellow Owensboro, Ky., native Jeff Green at the wheel.
Waltrip’s passion for racing, marketing savvy and business sense — he brought in car enthusiast and Fortress Investment Group founder Rob Kauffman as an investor and co-owner in 2007 — have taken the program from a backyard operation to the thriving, multi-million dollar entity it is today.
“Michael has a lot of passion to give,” Norris explains. “Whether it’s a charitable event or NASCAR racing, the things he cares the most about he just pours his heart into it. He just becomes obsessed with it and the energy he brings when he talks about this (MWR) that gets everybody excited.”
At the rate Waltrip’s teams are going, there will plenty more to be excited about in the very near future.
Earnhardt, Burton, Labonte highlight droughts that never seem to end
Bobby Labonte (ASP, Inc.)
Last year, one of the biggest stories surrounding the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was the prevalence of first-time winners. From the start of the season, when Trevor Bayne surprised everyone in the Daytona 500 to David Ragan’s July triumph five months later, new faces in unfamiliar places were popping up virtually everywhere. By the end of the season, the series witnessed five first-time winners — Bayne, Ragan, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard and Regan Smith — and the parity within the sport was on in full force.
But for every new wheelman to make a breakthrough, someone else is watching his time away from Victory Lane increase significantly. Now, in 2012, with a dearth of new drivers entering the sport the story has shifted from “who hasn’t won?” to “when is Driver X going to win again?” In some cases, veterans who once dominated have gone several seasons without adding to their win total while watching others rise to the top, claiming a slice of the fame and fortune that was once theirs.
Some are obvious, like the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., yet others have quietly built with little fanfare. Let’s take a closer look at the longest droughts, brought into tighter focus after point leader Greg Biffle snapped his own 49-race winless streak Saturday night. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the agony these triple-digit winless sufferers have been through. Note: Only the top 25 drivers in Sprint Cup points were considered (i.e., teams that actually have a chance of finishing first every Sunday).
Winless Streak: 295 races Last Victory: November 2003, Ford 400 (Homestead-Miami Speedway) Synopsis: At 25th in the standings and driving for a single-car team, it’s easy to forget Labonte still exists in the series, let alone that he’s nursing a drought week-to-week that’s lasted well over eight years. No one would have predicted this sorry ending to a promising career that includes the 2000 Cup Series title — certainly not the last time Labonte used luck to speed by Bill Elliott’s flat tire on the final lap at Homestead to claim victory in ’03. But two years later, after a serious slump at Joe Gibbs Racing, he left to join a floundering Petty Enterprises to be “the savior” of a legendary franchise … that just kept floundering. It was a career-killer of a decision, one that led to disastrous finishes, a release after financial problems gripped the team and the sorry decision to start-and-park before JTG Daugherty Racing picked him up.
Now in his second year driving the No. 47, Labonte remains stuck in mediocrity with this single-car team, unable to recreate the magic that once had him contending for victories each week, while the team “rebuilds” after splitting off from being the satellite team for Michael Waltrip Racing (how about the bad timing on that). In fact, since the start of the 2004 season, Labonte’s led just 218 laps and has yet to lead one — or collect a top-10 finish, for that matter — this season.
Best Chance: If there’s ever to be one last miracle for Labonte, Daytona or Talladega would be the place. In February 2011, his push of Trevor Bayne was responsible for the No. 21 heading to Victory Lane, and a fourth-place finish for Labonte, his only top 5 of the season. I guess a guy can dream…
Martin Truex, Jr.
Winless Streak: 174 races Last Victory: June 2007, Autism Speaks 400 (Dover International Speedway) Synopsis: Truex’s last Sprint Cup victory is also his only one, taken during a time when he was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s right-hand man at the company once founded by Dale Sr. Months later, that popular son was off to Hendrick Motorsports, leaving Truex in the awkward position of assuming a leadership role never meant for him. After a merger and subsequent pairing with Chip Ganassi, the once-cozy confines of his friend’s former organization had been shattered; faced with executives that favored Juan Pablo Montoya, Truex chose to pick another opportunity and spearhead the driver effort at the growing Michael Waltrip Racing.
The first two seasons were filled with underachievement: zero Chase appearances, just four top-5 finishes and the firing of championship-level crew chief Pat Tryson. But just when it looked as though Truex, a two-time Busch Series champ, would be listed a permanent flop, new head wrench Chad Johnston found some innovative setups that appear to have salvaged a career. Fourth in points, Truex is on pace to lead more laps (525) than any season since 2007, the year that also produced his only Chase appearance. At this point, anything less than breaking the streak this season would be considered a huge disappointment.
Best Chance: Dover. It’s where Truex broke into the win column the first time, and in four starts with the No. 56 team, he’s already captured two poles there. One of a group of drivers who attended a Goodyear tire test at Dover this week, all the pieces are in place for him to break through in that track’s June event.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Winless Streak: 136 races Last Victory: June 2008, Lifelock 400 (Michigan International Speedway)
Synopsis: Yawn. Earnhardt’s Sahara-like drought, considering the top-notch equipment he’s driving at Hendrick Motorsports, has become the most over-hyped story in NASCAR’s sluggish 2012 start. Tied for second in points, he’s off to his best start since switching to the No. 88 in 2008, already eclipsing the number of top-5 performances (three) he had in two of his four previous full seasons with the team. But for Junior, it’s a case of the Boy Who Cried Wolf: so close and yet so far away. His laps-led total this season (75) isn’t exactly breathtaking, and the vast majority of those came in one event — the early laps of Las Vegas where the car enjoyed the extra boost clean air provides.
Half-a-dozen times, he’s finished second during this winless stretch, yet in half those “runner-up” races he’s done so without consistently running up front. Early this season, the “Junior’s ready” bug bit me, yet now I’m skeptical. Can consistency combine with the right adjustment at the right time to launch him into Victory Lane when it’s money time?
Best Chance: Talladega. NASCAR’s new rule changes, bringing pack racing back provides the type of competition through which Earnhardt excels. It’s a track that brings him one of the biggest pockets of fan support, where he’s won more than any other superspeedway on the circuit (five times) and where he wound up second just last year. If not then… when? Junior has to capitalize on a season’s worth of momentum before the yearly frustration of “why hasn’t it happened yet?” sets in.
Winless Streak: 159 races Last Victory: None Synopsis: One of two drivers inside the top 25 without a career victory (Aric Almirola, a virtual newbie is the other), the ’Dinger has been dinged around in his first year with Roger Penske’s No. 22 team. A classic case of trying too hard, frustration has set in as self-inflicted mistakes — a Phoenix wreck, a pit road incident at Daytona — set the stage for early setbacks that Kurt Busch’s former squad has yet to recover from.
On the cusp of victory last season with the No. 43 at Richard Petty Motorsports, no one doubts this former open-wheeler’s ability to get the job done. In fact, just two weeks ago he recorded a runner-up finish at Martinsville — his highest to date after a late-race crash jumbled the field. But to move one position higher, you need to have that confidence combined with patience, and right now it seems the driver is lacking both. Talk about a dream job turned nightmare…
Best Chance: Dover. Like Truex, Allmendinger just completed a tire test there. He’s also posted recent success at the speedway, as his 152 career laps led are the highest for him at any facility. In two of the last three Dover races, he’s qualified second only to be felled by tire and engine problems, respectively. The key, of course, is to not beat himself…
Winless Streak: 120 races Last Victory: October 2008, Bank of America 500 (Charlotte Motor Speedway)
Synopsis: Once upon a time, it looked like Burton, not Kevin Harvick, would be Richard Childress Racing’s best hope to bring home a Cup championship. But after three strong Chases — from 2006 to ’08 — the organization’s veteran driver has qualified only once since. Shuffling through crew chiefs, the consistency that once defined Burton’s career has dissipated, as his patented “putting himself in position to win” philosophy has been replaced with “putting himself in position to stay on the lead lap.”
In mid-2011, a slumping Burton was randomly selected for a “fill-in” crew chief in young Luke Lambert. However, the apparently strong chemistry was cut in half by owner Childress this offseason in favor of a name you won’t even be able to pronounce, Drew Blickensderfer. (Try it: Blickensderfer. Blick. Ens. Derf. Er. I feel bad for all his high school teachers.) Anyway, Burton with “young gun” Luke: two top 5s and four top 10s in the last five events of 2011, combined with a failed fuel mileage gamble that almost ended this streak last November. Burton with Blick, a former Daytona 500 winner who’s been all but a one-hit wonder since: two ho-hum top-10 finishes in seven races to start the year. Need I say more?
Best Chance: Bring Lambert back. Now paired with championship-contender Elliott Sadler in the Nationwide Series, the chances of a reunion are unlikely at best. Instead, it looks increasingly suspect that Burton may simply be filling seat time until Childress’ grandson, Ty Dillon, is ready for Cup racing, circa 2015. Turning 45 this season, Burton may soon join Mark Martin in retirement as the two best drivers of the last two decades to not win a Cup Series title.
Winless Streak: 98 races Last Victory: June 2009, Lenox Industrial Tools 301 (New Hampshire Motor Speedway) Synopsis: Could NASCAR’s hope for the next generation wind up as nothing but a one-hit wonder? It’s hard to believe the sport’s much-hyped youngster, at 21, has now gone nearly three years without a Cup victory. Scored during his rookie season, Logano’s lone triumph was the perfect combination of luck and strategy: after going a lap down at New Hampshire with a damaged racecar, then-crew chief Greg Zipadelli kept him on track while catching a lucky caution once Mother Nature’s downpour caused an early end to the event. Many thought it would be the start of great things for Sliced Bread. Instead, his career has been sliced apart by critics, and he was nearly replaced at the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 by the wandering eye of then-free agent Carl Edwards last year.
This year started strong, with two straight top-10 finishes, but since then it’s been the same old C-plus performances, even with new crew chief Jason Ratcliff and new funding from co-sponsor Dollar General. Now in his fourth season, how much longer can Joe Gibbs be patient before admitting this one isn’t working out?
Best Chance: Kentucky. Logano once won three consecutive Nationwide races at the facility, raising hope he’d dominate once Sprint Cup came to the pristine 1.5-mile oval in 2011. But from the first practice, he struggled to get up to speed, ran a distant 14th and raised questions about just how competitive he’ll be the second time around — the story of his Sprint Cup career to date.
“This is so much fun,’’ Mark Martin said after his third-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
Well, the 53-year-old Martin never said he was retiring, just that he wouldn’t race a full schedule years ago when he first cut back.
Car owner Rick Hendrick talked him into returning full-time the past three seasons, but Martin is back to a part-time schedule and enjoying his new ride with Michael Waltrip Racing. It comes as changes in the past year there have made the organization more competitive and likely headed for Victory Lane with either Martin, Martin Truex Jr. or Clint Bowyer soon.
Martin enters this weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway 20th in points although he skipped Bristol and Martinsville. Still, he ranks ahead of 14 drivers who have competed in all seven races this season.
To get a better measure of Martin’s success, though, consider this: His average finish is 10.4 — better than every driver but points leader Greg Biffle (6.0 average finish), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8.1), Martin Truex Jr. (8.2), Kevin Harvick (9.0) and Matt Kenseth (9.0).
Three top-10 finishes in five starts has helped Martin’s average finish. He’s also completed every lap in all five races he’s run.
“I am just so proud of MWR and all the people there and the teamwork that they have shown there starting with Martin Truex, Jr., who has put so much work into getting the program where it was when we started the season,’’ Martin said. “They really have a lot of great people there with great attitude, great teamwork.’’
It just makes him anxious for the next race.
“There's nothing else that I find quite as much fun as going to work with a great race team with a great attitude,’’ said Martin, a former Kansas Speedway winner. “So it's fun for me to go to every race that I get to go to.’’
Isn’t that what work — or retirement — is supposed to be? Fun.
SHOW ME THE MONEY With the series moving beyond Texas, it ends a significant period for teams. The richest part of the schedule is complete.
While sponsorship money is what drives teams, what they earn in races still matters.
The Daytona 500 is the sport’s richest paying race. Its purse this year was $19,142,601, which will be about $10 million more than any other race pays. The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway typically is second, at around $9 million.
Other high-paying races early in the season include Texas ($7,132,592 payout this year) and Las Vegas ($6,382,683). The other races thus far with their payouts were: Phoenix ($5,040,864), Bristol, ($5,551,155), Fontana, Calif. ($5,847,881) and Martinsville ($5,009,303).
Last year, Daytona, along with the spring Texas and Las Vegas races, ranked among the top six races in money paid.
Thus, this is a period for teams — especially for small teams who rely more on winnings — to have some money to pay previous or upcoming bills. Since some small teams have little or no sponsorship, what they earn at the track is critical to their survival. It’s a reason why some teams start and park.
If a team made the least amount of money in each of the first seven races, it would have still collected $715,159. Understand that money is used to pay the driver, crew and other expenses from engines to tires to travel costs, so it can go fast, especially if a team is relying on winnings instead of sponsorship to defray costs.
The next race expected to pay out more than $6 million will be the Coca-Cola 600 at the end of May. There wasn’t a race last June that paid as much. With Indy and Daytona ($6,101,344 purse last year) in July, it makes that month a bountiful period for teams.
Last year’s 10-race Chase featured only one race that paid more than $6 million. That was Texas at $6,857,822. Two 2011 Chase races had purses of less than $5 million — Martinsville at $4,851,202 and Phoenix at $4,957,233.
Tony Eury Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dainca Patrick (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
DALE JR.’S ADVICE Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently said that he hoped Danica Patrick, who drives for his JR Motorsports team in the Nationwide Series, could keep from putting too much pressure on herself this season.
“That’s pretty darn good advice coming from Dale just because he’s obviously in a pressure situation,’’ Patrick said. “When I would come and do the races over the last couple of years, it wasn’t like there was no pressure but I was on such a learning curve that there was going to be good weekends, there was going to be bad weekends and at the end of the day it wasn’t for a sole championship as one driver. It was a little less pressure for sure.
“Now coming into this year, knowing that it’s for points and knowing that it’s really trying to take it to the next level, I do think that I probably put more pressure on myself. I think that’s great advice to relax. I’m running for the championship, so that pressure, I think, got to me a little bit. What matters is having a good time and having good races and you don’t do that by putting tons of pressure on myself.’’
PIT STOPS Hendrick Motorsports has gone 13 races without a Cup victory, its longest drought since a 15-race winless streak that stretched from the end of the 2002 season to the beginning of the 2003 campaign. ... NASCAR estimated the attendance at Sunday’s Camping World Truck race at Rockingham Speedway as 27,500. While that was an inaugural event — and likely to attract more fans — it was a larger estimate than 12 of the 25 truck races last year, including events at Charlotte, Iowa, Kentucky, Las Vegas and Homestead. ... With speeds nearing 215 mph at a recent Goodyear tire test at the repaved Michigan International Speedway, Matt Kenseth was asked if they were going too fast there. He said: “I don’t think we were going too fast as far as the cars being out of control or not having a good race or anything like that.’’
1. Greg Biffle Cemented his status as the points leader with an impressive win in Texas. Biffle has yet to finish worse than 13th this season, and is looking forward to Kansas — one of his best tracks — this weekend.
2. Jimmie Johnson Joins Biffle and the two Juniors — Dale Earnhardt and Martin Truex — as the only drivers on the circuit with five top 10s in seven races. Kansas will most likely make six.
3. Tony Stewart How does Stewart — who won at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway — tank to the tune of 24th at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway?
4. Matt Kenseth As steady as they come, Kenseth moves into a tie for second with a certain Most Popular Driver after a fifth at TMS. Of course, Kenseth’s Daytona 500 win trumps Junior’s, uh, zero wins … in 136 races.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK, so he hasn’t won in a long, long time. But Junior is averaging an 8.1-place finish, which is second best in the series. Still, it really is time to break that winless streak and move on.
6. Martin Truex Jr. Truex has averaged a 26.3-place finish at Kansas with zero top 10s. If he brings it home eighth or better like he has in five of seven races so far this year, we’re all on board.
7. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s only finish outside of the top 11 in any single race was a 19th at Martinsville. He’s been awfully quiet for running so well. Maybe Baby Otis has thrown him off his typically vocal ways.
It beats those creepy '70s-era family portraits. I guess. OK, maybe not.(ASP, Inc.)
8. Carl Edwards Edwards’ fifth- to 11th-place finishes are fine, but after seven races he still has not led a lap. Allow me to repeat that: Through seven races in 2012, Carl Edwards has not led a single, competitive lap.
9. Denny Hamlin Hamlin’s 12th-place run at Texas is far from cringe-worthy, but he’s finished between 11th and 20th in all three big intermediate track races this year. That’s not going to work.
10. Jeff Gordon A clean fourth-place finish in Texas. Is the rotten luck behind him?
11. Brad Keselowski Mechanical issues beginning to plague Penske’s Dodge camp. Kes is good for a couple more wins, though.
12. Mark Martin If he raced every week, Martin would rank in the top 5 on this list.
13. Ryan Newman When not finishing in the top 12, Newman finishes 21st. Seriously. It’s happened three times.
14. Clint Bowyer Still working out some kinks, but all things considered, this new bunch is holding its own.
15. Kasey Kahne See, when there are no cautions for wrecks, Kasey can drive his Chevy to a top-10 showing.
Just off the lead pack: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya