Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Darlington
Darlington Raceway (ASP, Inc.)
1. Darlington celebrates a pair of 10-year milestones, good and bad
Darlington Raceway is the first place NASCAR ever raced on pavement, all the way back on Sept. 4, 1950. That event, the first Labor Day Weekend Southern 500, saw Johnny Mantz win his only NASCAR race as he beat Fireball Roberts and 73 other competitors by at least nine laps.
Saturday night's race will also be known as the Southern 500, but it'll mark the 10th season of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at Darlington without the race being held on the traditional end of summer weekend. NASCAR's shift of that race initially to a November date in 2004 and then completely off the schedule in favor of a second Auto Club Speedway race in 2005 remains one of its most controversial decisions of the past decade.
The race name returned to Darlington for the now-annual Mother's Day weekend race, but much of a the tradition hasn't. The Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend carried a certain swagger thanks to its holiday weekend placement and typically unforgiving daytime temperatures. It was a race every driver wanted to win thanks mostly to the cachet it awarded.
Saturday night's race also marks the 10th season since Darlington produced arguably the most riveting finish in the last decade, if not further. During the 400-mile 2003 spring race, Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven bounced off one another for much of the final three laps. Their tires worn and their cars growing ever more damaged, the pair came together for a final time exiting Turn 4 on the final lap.
Craven nipped Busch at the line by .002 seconds — a mark tied for the closest NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finish in history.
2. Denny Hamlin’s big return
Denny Hamlin's return to the driver's seat of his No. 11 a week ago at Talladega Superspeedway was short-lived, a bit contrived and ultimately unsuccessful in helping him claw back toward Chase for the Sprint Cup competition. Friday at Darlington, however, should mark the return of a full-time Hamlin to the series following his back injury at Auto Club Speedway on March 24.
He couldn't return to a better track, personally. Hamlin has a sterling average finish of 5.9 on the egg-shaped oval, and has led more than 50 laps in three of his seven Darlington starts. To follow up his career-worst 13th-place Darlington finish in 2009, Hamlin responded with his only win there in 2010.
Last year, Hamlin led 56 laps before falling to Jimmie Johnson by .781 seconds.
Saturday night's start marks the beginning of a critical stretch for Hamlin if he wants to bounce back from missing four starts so far in 2013 and qualify for the season's title fight. He's now 31st in points, 76 points behind 20th place and a possible wild card birth.
Should Hamlin nab a couple of wins and get inside the top 20 by Richmond in September, he'd be in excellent position to continue his seven-year streak of Chase qualifications.
"There is a formula," Hamlin said. "When this happened and we started figuring things out of missing races, if we just did what we did last year we would make it. But nothing is a given."
Defending race winner Jimmie Johnson. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Hendrick veterans tough to stop at the Track Too Tough to Tame
With Hamlin likely not physically 100 percent at Darlington, the door has opened a crack further for Hendrick Motorsports' longest tenured drivers in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson to continue their own excellence at the South Carolina track.
Combined, the two have 10 wins, 25 top 5s and 31 top 10s in 48 total starts at the track. Gordon ran into mechanical troubles last season as Johnson took the win, but went from 2004 to 2010 never once finishing worse than fifth. Johnson, meanwhile, led the most laps at Darlington last season (134) en route to his third career win at the track. Johnson's average finish is second best among active series drivers at 9.1, while Gordon's is 11.8 in 32 starts at the tricky speedway.
Gordon also celebrates a milestone Saturday night as he makes his 700th career Sprint Cup start. Gordon's feat also stands as the longest to start a Cup Series career, and will put him just 88 races away from Ricky Rudd's all-time record.
4. Air Titan ready for Round 2?
Rain affected all three races at Talladega Superspeedway a week ago. Sprint Cup and Nationwide both raced into near darkness after rain delayed their proceedings. ARCA had its race shortened Friday as showers rolled in.
It marked the first true test of NASCAR's Air Titan track drying system that early claims touted as being exponentially faster than the long-used jet dryer system. The combination of the two at Talladega didn't prove to be markedly faster — I know, I know, it's no shock that a NASCAR proclamation fell a bit short — but the system may have saved just enough time to get the full races in. All told, 16 of the Air Titan compressed air systems were used at Talladega alongside 10 jet dryers.
Based on forecasts for NASCAR's weekend in Darlington, they might be called in to action again as soon as Friday. Forecasters pinned a 20 percent chance of rain in the vicinity for Friday night's Nationwide Series race, and a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms all day and night Saturday.
Darlington’s 1.366-mile distance, of course, is considerably less than Talladega’s 2.66 miles and will undoubtedly take less time to dry. But rainouts aren't unprecedented at the South Carolina track. In 2007, the Saturday night race was pushed to Sunday afternoon — not long after FOX's Chris Myers insisted to viewers that the race would go off on the night originally planned.
5. Last chance for double All-Star Race qualification
David Ragan's surprising win during last weekend's seven-hour Talladega Superspeedway race gave him all the typical accolades befit that of a Sprint Cup race winner. It includes all of the essentials: the trophy, the points and the big check.
But it also paid off in the form two guaranteed entries to the main event of NASCAR's All-Star Race over the next two years. The race's rules permit entry for race winners in both the current and most recently completed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series seasons. Series and all-star event champions from the past decade also earn automatic entry to the race.
That leaves roughly 25 Sprint Cup regulars still on the outside looking in for next weekend's "A-main" that could pay as much as $2 million. Drivers like Jeff Burton, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. will have to find the checkered flag either Saturday night at Darlington or next weekend in the Sprint Showdown qualifier event.
A win at Darlington is much preferred because it counts in the same two-for-one fashion as Ragan's Talladega win. Before Ragan, Marcos Ambrose was the latest unqualified driver to earn a 2013 all-star event bid with his win last August on the road course at Watkins Glen.
Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Darlington so you don't have to.
Dancing with The Lady. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to venerable Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Saturday evening. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Geoffrey’s fantasy predictions for Darlington ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least surviving an evening of dancing with the Lady in Black.
1. Jeff Gordon
The four-time champ survived two wrecks at Talladega to squeak out an 11th-place finish. In Darlington, he hits a track where he leads all active drivers with seven wins and 18 top 5s. In the last eight Darlington races, Gordon has a series-high average position of 8.3.
2. Jimmie Johnson
How will Jimmie screw up Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race this week? He could do it by replicating 2012 at Darlington when he led 134 laps and took the checkered flag. His two other Darlington wins came back-to-back in 2004.
3. Kasey Kahne
Kahne has yet to score a Darlington win, but he's done something nearly as impressive: Kahne has finished all 10 of his Darlington starts. We'll see if Kyle Busch has anything to say about that statistic Saturday night.
4. Matt Kenseth
All 19 of Matt Kenseth's Darlington starts have netted him a mediocre average finish of 17th, but those were also in Roush Fenway Racing cars. How will the Joe Gibbs Racing setups treat one of the strongest drivers on the circuit?
5. Denny Hamlin
He's been better than Gordon in the last seven Darlington races, but it's still not clear if Hamlin will finish Saturday night's race. That makes you wonder if he can grab top 10 No. 7 at Darlington — a feat he's accomplished in 85 percent of his starts there.
6. Kevin Harvick
NASCAR's self-proclaimed lame duck has averaged 223 laps per race in the top 15 in his last eight Darlington starts, but has just two top-5 finishes and zero wins.
7. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski's never led a lap in his four Sprint Cup starts at Darlington. That's probably legitimate because he hasn't taken to Twitter to blame another competitor for the lack of performance.
8. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer's average Darlington finish is worse than drivers like Ambrose, Bliss, Montoya, Ragan and Sadler. His 11th-place finish last season was his first lead lap Darlington result since 2008.
9. Tony Stewart
Smoke has 20 starts at Darlington since 1999, completing 6,567 laps. He's never won, though, and has led a total of only 20 laps in that period. Combine that with his No. 14's performance in 2013 and … well, you get the point.
The King's three Darlington victories came in 1966-67. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch
Kyle's recent average race performance at Darlington is better than most A-Listers. The ’08 winner has three straight showings of 11th or better and has averaged over 302 laps in the top 15 in his last eight starts.
2. Greg Biffle
Biffle's a little sore from his early wreck at Talladega, but a bounce back at Darlington makes sense. He led 74 laps a year ago and claims more fastest in-race laps (283) than any active driver since 2005.
3. Ryan Newman
He's never been the first to the checkered flag at Darlington, but it's not a track where Newman has his head up his posterior when it comes to performance. Since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, Newman has three Darlington top 10s in four starts.
4. Carl Edwards
Expect a solid run for Edwards at Darlington, where he's only finished off the lead lap twice. The No. 99 has two straight Darlington top 10s, too.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Driver 88 has never won at Darlington, and it's probably Jimmie Johnson's fault. Otherwise, he's got three top 5s and seven top 10s in South Carolina.
6. Martin Truex Jr.
He was fifth a year ago after leading 25 laps for his second Darlington top 10 in as many starts. In eight total starts, Truex has never been worse than 20th. Makes for a nice sleeper.
7. Jamie McMurray
Three career top 5s at Darlington, five top 10s and Big Macs are two for $4.44 right now. At least something good will come of this weekend.
8. Joey Logano
Logano's been on a roller coaster since the Fontana wreck with Hamlin. He's finished 23rd, fifth, 39th, third and then 35th at Talladega. Now, he gets to race without his normal crew chief, car chief and top engineer. Getting a first career Darlington top 5 seems like a longshot.
9. Kurt Busch
It's been 10 years since Busch lost to Ricky Craven at Darlington by roughly two inches. It's been five years since he led a lap there. It's been one year since he had a pit road dust up there.
10. Jeff Burton
The two-time Darlington winner probably still smirks at losing his battle to prevent the Rainbow Warrior from winning the 1997 Winston Million. In consolation, Darlington does provide Burton his highest top 10 per start ratio (16 of 30) of any track he's raced.
11. Mark Martin
Rejuvenated from watching the Sprint Cup whipper snappers crash everywhere at Talladega from his couch, Martin's in the No. 55 in search of his 18th Darlington top 5. He's finished 43 of 46 Darlington starts.
12. Paul Menard
Darlington is one of eight tracks where Paul Menard doesn't have a top 10. Coincidentally, he's raced just 95 of 2,161 career Darlington laps placed inside the top 15.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya leads the series in 23rd-place Darlington finishes with three. He once scored a top 5 (2010) but went back to where he felt comfortable in the next two seasons, recording 23rd- and 24th-place finishes. Lesser writers would also note he's buoyed by his lack of jet dryer collisions at Talladega despite an inordinate amount of opportunities.
14. Marcos Ambrose
He's improved his Darlington finish by some multiple of four in each of his four starts. Last year he was ninth. That pattern isn't looking good for a win.
15. Aric Almirola
His lone Sprint Cup start at Darlington came last year, and Almirola finished 19th. A top-10 run this weekend would be his fifth straight.
16. Bobby Labonte
The former Darlington winner (1997) ran 17th in his final Joe Gibbs Racing start in 2005 at the track. He hasn't topped it since.
C-List 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
First Darlington Cup start, but his Nationwide numbers are respectable, with two top 10s and a pole. He's got the best equipment of the C group.
2. David Ragan
500 miles at Darlington is a little bit different than 500 miles at Talladega for Front Row Motorsports, but I won't rain on Ragan's parade.
4. David Reutimann
Fared pretty well at Darlington with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2010 with a fourth-place start and 11th-place finish. A finish like that for BK Racing would be a real Whopper.
5. Casey Mears
Mears, never better than 15th at Darlington, will try to finish on the lead lap for the first time in his 11-start career there.
6. Travis Kvapil
With the right equipment, Kvapil can finish in the top 10 at Darlington. In his current equipment, he can hope to continue just finishing at Darlington.
7. David Gilliland
The good news is Gilliland finishes better than he starts at Darlington. The bad news is Gilliland averages a 31st-place finish.
8. Danica Patrick
Ricky’s girlfriend was 31st and six laps down at the finish at year ago in her first Darlington start. A lead lap finish would be a write-home-to-momma improvement.
9. Dave Blaney
Fun fact: Team owner Tommy Baldwin Jr. once won two of four Darlington races as a crew chief for Ward Burton in 2000 and ’01. Somebody get Jeb on the phone.
10. David Stremme
Stremme's seventh start has potential for many personal firsts at Darlington: a win, a top 5, a top 10, a top 15, a top 20, leading a lap and/or a lead-lap finish.
11. J.J. Yeley
Three-straight Darlington DNFs for Yeley don't exactly make for a good time. Or a good fantasy play.
12. Josh Wise
Start-and-parked Darlington last year, but has raced every event this year.
13. Timmy Hill
He's raced Las Vegas, Talladega, Charlotte, Kansas, Phoenix, Texas, Fontana and Richmond in his career. Someone put a Go Pro camera inside Hill's car for his first Darlington practice.
14. Joe Nemechek
Nemechek made $9,670 for finishing 19th at Darlington in 1994. In 2012, he finished 40th and won $72,050. Those are Joe's most interesting Darlington facts, aside from the sixth he had in 1999 for Felix Sabates.
Entered drivers on start-and-park watch:
David Smith crunches the numbers for the Southern 500
Denny Hamlin at Darlington in 2012. (ASP, Inc.)
Denny Hamlin’s much-discussed return to the seat of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry became an afterthought at Talladega once Brian Vickers climbed into the seat and provided Hamlin with a paltry 10 points thanks to a crash-caused 34th-place result. Ouch.
Hamlin’s actual return comes at a racetrack which he’s enjoyed a fair share of success. His go-to tracks are commonly considered Martinsville and Richmond — rightfully, so — but Darlington Raceway has been a fixture in Hamlin’s career, rooted in significance. The driver made his first NASCAR Nationwide Series start there in 2004 when, as an unknown aspiring NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racer, he finished eighth. He’s had the attention of the stock car industry ever since.
This weekend, it will provide another key moment in the career of a potential champion. Just the return from serious injury in any sport is a monumental occurrence, but in Hamlin’s case, the track that he has chosen to make his full-race return might have bigger aspirations in store, so says this week’s numbers.
5.100 Welcome back, Denny Hamlin. The driver of the No. 11 is returning from injury at a track where he ranks first in driver production with a 5.100 PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating).
The storybook ending is entirely possible, and no, NASCAR doesn’t have to “rig the playing field” to make it happen. Hamlin is staggeringly adept at the 1.366-mile track. He is the only driver to score top-15 finishes in each Darlington race of the CoT era. This also gives him the highest average finish (5.8) in the series during that time frame.
27.58% Think Denny Hamlin can’t make the Chase? Think again. He currently has a 27.58 percent probability of qualifying into the Chase via an automatic top-10 spot, which is the 16th-best percentage among 33 eligible drivers.
Yes, he’s six spots out of a desired top-10 position, but it’s unlikely, based on relevant past averages, that he’ll qualify for the Chase in this manner (he is currently 31st in the point standings). His entry into NASCAR’s playoff would be by way of a wild card spot. In order to land one of these two golden tickets, a driver must first be in the top 20 in points (which the probability suggests he will be by the conclusion of Race 26 at Richmond). Then, the driver has to have the most or second-most wins out of drivers that meet the prerequisite. Hamlin will have to compile wins and that realistically could start as soon as this weekend.
322 Kyle Busch has led 322 laps, the most in the series, in the last five Darlington races.
Leading just over 17.5 percent of the laps through a five-race span usually results in winning. It did for Busch, who put on a spectacular display of car control in the 2008 race. It’s normal for Busch, who ranks second in Darlington-specific PEER (4.800), to lead a large quantity of laps, but he is strong in the finish column as well. He is one of two winning drivers to have earned three top-10 finishes during the CoT era.
Could Martin Truex Jr. break the winless skid at Darlington? (ASP, Inc.)
4.200 With a 4.200 PEER, Martin Truex Jr. is the most productive Darlington racer to have not captured a win at the track.
“The Lady in Black” has been a tease for Truex’s win column, but boy, is he a pretty spectacular driver at Darlington. He hasn’t finished lower than 19th there in the last five races and in four of the five, he led at least one lap. In last year’s race, he led 25 laps and had the fifth-highest average running position of the race (10.46) before finishing fifth, bringing his CoT-era Darlington finishing average to 10.8 in entries owned by Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Michael Waltrip Racing.
Truex has finished second six times since his last (and only) Cup Series win, which came in 2007. Suggesting that Darlington is a place that could break that spell isn’t an exaggeration.
-21.1% Truex’s top 15 efficiency through 10 races this season is -21.1 percent, or in other words, a largely aggressive approach to races.
Top 15 efficiency depicts the difference between laps run in the top 15 (in Truex’s case, 71.1 percent) and races finished in the top 15 (50 percent). The negative number isn’t necessarily bad — for instance, Kyle Busch is historically at his most productive when he is the holder of a large negative number — but Truex and the No. 56 team probably view this as a major concern. The 71.1 percent of laps run in the top 15 is the sixth-highest mark in the series, but it hasn’t translated into finishes. Truex and the No. 56 rank 11th in average finish this year among teams that have competed in each race. It’s a large discrepancy that the driver should focus on closing.
5.11% Following his win at Talladega, David Ragan now has a 5.11 percent chance to make the Chase.
That’s a long-shot probability to qualify into the Chase with a top-10 spot, but can the bonus win aid his quest? Probably not. Based on his and his team’s past relevant averages, he is slated to finish 25th following the final regular season race at Richmond. A driver must be 20th or higher in points to be wild card eligible. If he wishes to close the gap, it will take some significant work; between now and the Chase, he will need to raise his points-per-race average (19.2) to around 24 just to sneak into the top 20. A less than five-position improvement seems easy enough, but for an under-armed team like Front Row Motorsports, it’s a precipitous climb.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Talladega
Front Row Motorsports teammates David Gilliland (left) and David Ragan. (ASP, Inc.)
Since it opened in 1969, Talladega has been NASCAR’s racetrack of extremes. When right, the sport’s decision to slap restrictor plates on brings out maximum excitement, the best opportunity for 43 teams to compete on a level playing field. Feel-good stories emerge, like the case of Bob Jenkins, a restaurant owner who has filtered more money into his three-car team just to run 25th, than most will make in a lifetime. Since 2005, he has toiled — once suffering through a season with more than 30 DNQs — and posting only two top-5 finishes in 403 starts prior to Sunday. The dream was to pursue a Sprint Cup victory, but a look at the stat sheet would point one towards financial self-destruction … or a man in need of mental help.
Now, Jenkins can point right back at his critics and towards a trophy that is rightfully his. Jenkins’ Front Row Motorsports drivers Ragan and David Gilliland produced the first 1-2 finish in team history in the Aaron’s 499, outclassing the Goliaths they race against through smarts and speed. At no other track — even Daytona, with NASCAR’s handling package — would such a victory be remotely possible. (Previous best finish for this team in 2013: Ragan’s 20th at Richmond.) It’s the type of victory that brings attention to the sport, giving executives something to sell, potential new car owners justification to compete and the backside of the NASCAR garage a reason for hope. No one will change the way these men feel about plate racing now; heck, you could strap a parachute to the car at Daytona and they’d be happy based on the parity that gives them a chance.
On the other side of the fence sits Ryan Newman whose season, if not more, was mere feet from being cut tragically short on Sunday when an entire car landed on the windshield of his No. 39 Chevrolet. As chaos unfolded in front of him, Kurt Busch’s Chevy entry landed, then rolled over Newman’s car in the midst of a 12-car melee that’s become all too common at Talladega. It’s not the first time the driver has been in physical danger; four years ago, this nasty flip (LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxE1_VZkQKI) left the roll cage bent mere inches from his head.
“We had a race here in the spring, complaining about cars getting airborne,” Newman said then. “I wish NASCAR would do something. That’s not what anyone wants to see.”
Four years later, he’s saying the same words again, this time more viciously after not feeling that NASCAR has lifted a finger on the rules. No one will change the way Newman feels about plate racing now, he just doesn’t want himself or a competitor to end up dead.
Talladega. The land of extremes, where guilt, grief, miracles, merriment, disaster, disgust, rage and redemption come together as one. It’s why everyone is pushing for change, but as they do human nature makes it impossible to look away – keeping us in the same cycle forevermore.
FIRST GEAR: Two Davids snookered the field
Make no mistake, Ragan’s slice ‘n’ dice to the front of the pack would not have been possible without two things. One: Teammate David Gilliland, sitting on his back bumper and not letting go until the two cars were sitting out front. Those feeling like the “push” of tandem drafting was completely dead need to take a second look on how these cars were stuck together like superglue down the stretch.
“I know he wishes that he was sitting in my shoes right now,” said Ragan of his teammate, now winless in 232 Cup Series starts. “I kind of wish that he would have had a chance to win the race, too.”
I’m not sure Gilliland cared much, though. His whole family was in attendance to watch Ragan’s post-race presser, a sign of the teamwork atmosphere this underdog organization has pushed since the beginning. Fact: Ragan now has as many wins with this team (one) in just 15 months as he did in five full seasons driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Turns out all the money in the world can’t buy that all-important chemistry needed for those moments when people need to bring out the best in each other.
“He was driving for a top-tier team, had UPS as a sponsor and when he left, he bought into what we were trying to do at Front Row,” said Jenkins. “His expectations of himself and his team never changed. He didn't look at it as if, ‘Hey, I'm taking a step down here, I realize I'm going to be a back marker.’ He continues to expect a lot out of himself and a lot out of his team, and I think what happened is people bought into that and they followed behind him and we've seen results.”
That belief system brings me to point No. 2: it wasn’t shared by his Sprint Cup competitors. Go ahead, you have my permission to review that final lap. Notice how Matt Kenseth drifts up on the backstretch to draft with Carl Edwards as if he needs to stick with the No. 99 to have a shot. Had he stayed in the middle, the FRM duo would have been blocked and we’d be talking about a different winner today. As for Edwards, he just didn’t see the freight train until it was too late, taking a prime opportunity to win a plate race away from a man who’s been victimized far too often there.
“David just got us,” Edwards said. “He did his job. As long as I’m not upside down, in the fence, it was pretty clean.”
SECOND GEAR: Is it all getting to Brad Keselowski?
One driver, though, was crying foul over Ragan’s miracle moment. Brad Keselowski, in several tweets after the race, felt his rival lined up in the wrong lane for the final restart. Several photos showed the cars trying to pass each other for position on the backstretch under yellow before NASCAR made the final call as to where Keselowski, Scott Speed and Ragan would line up. The verdict was Speed eighth, Keselowski ninth and Ragan 10th based on where they were at the last scoring loop when the caution came out. Were they right? Judge for yourself at the 2:42 mark of this clip. My take is that’s it’s far too close to call.
Either way, Keselowski was presumptuous to predict one change in lane would have earned him a victory – or cost Ragan one. Plate races are so unpredictable that you’ll get 1,000 different endings per 1,000 green-white-checker finishes. I just wonder, after a disappointing 15th-place finish, whether pressure is starting to get to the reigning champ. The final appeal for his Penske team is Tuesday, where 25 points and suspensions of his top four crew members appear imminent. Winless this season, he’s also posted back-to-back finishes outside the top 10 for the first time since Michigan and Sonoma last June. Every superstar, no matter his or her mental strength, goes through adversity; now might be Keselowski’s time, sitting fifth in points with just a single lap led over the last six events.
He just didn’t have to drag David Ragan into his own psychological hell.
THIRD GEAR: The racing was … what it was
I know. It sounds like a copout. Well, if you ask Newman, who joined Busch in the ranks of “Big One” Demolition Derbys, NASCAR racing here needs to be thrown in the trash bin:
"I am doing this interview to let everybody know I'm alright,” said Newman, who if NASCAR has any consistency (Denny Hamlin, anyone?) will be fined for the comments that follow. “They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls. But they can't get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the race track, and that's pretty disappointing. I wanted to make sure I get that point across. Y'all can figure out who 'they' is. That's no way to end a race ... I mean, you got what you wanted, but poor judgment and running in the dark and running in the rain.”
To be fair, most didn’t share the driver’s sentiment about the conditions of the track itself down the stretch. Only sprinkles could be felt in the final minutes and, while dark, the race ended earlier than the Nationwide Series event the day before. It’s the other part of Newman’s diatribe — the plate package — that would be under greater scrutiny if not for Ragan’s headline-saving win. I felt like Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it best:
“I don’t really know,” he said. “I don’t know – I thought it was alright, I guess.”
A classic “C, C+” type of response, and clearly not what NASCAR wants out of one of its fan-favorite facilities, especially after Earnhardt raved about the racing in Daytona. But that’s the truth. 30 lead changes were the least since 2002, when Earnhardt laid waste to the field. The draft, while handling multiple grooves unlike its sister track, had a tendency to “stop ‘n’ start.” There would be times when drivers would get stir crazy, and others — like for 30 laps after the rain delay — where they fell in line and passed the time.
It still seemed like, apart from the final lap, the line that had the most cars could make a difference, with the outside groove still holding a substantial edge. There’s work to be done here, although different rules can only do so much. Drivers are smarter. They know nothing matters at these races until less than 20 laps to go. Trying to force them to stay aggressive in the wake of what happened to Newman and Busch is like throwing them in the lion’s den and asking them to play.
Matt Kenseth led 142 of 192 laps on Sunday. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Gibbs’ plate race problems continue
Plate races place even the best drivers on Lady Luck’s roulette wheel. Take Jimmie Johnson, for example: four plate races last year, three wrecks and one blown engine. In 2013? He’s two-for-two in the top-5 finish category with a win. This year, the bad karma has made its way over to Joe Gibbs Racing. Matt Kenseth’s dominating performance at Talladega, in which he led 142 laps, went for naught with one bad choice on the final lap. He wound up eighth, still a far cry from teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Busch, lost in the shuffle of the afternoon rain delay, started the race’s first “Big One” that collected a dozen cars, including himself. And Hamlin? A return to the seat, which ended quickly and safely under the first caution on Lap 23 netted him just 10 points. Sub Brian Vickers was caught up in that wreck, leaving the driver 34th and actually increasing his deficit on the top 20 in points by five, (76 points behind Kurt Busch).
Kudos to other underdogs with solid performances Sunday. Phoenix Racing, which has pulled a “Front Row” in the past here (Keselowski, April 2009) was sixth with Regan Smith, but Leavine Family Racing was perhaps more impressive. Scott Speed (ninth) scored the first top-10 result for the organization and just the fourth of his journeyman career. … Bobby Labonte, in his 700th start ran 20th for JTG Daugherty Racing. It’s a tale of two careers for the veteran; he earned 20 wins and a title in his first 350 starts behind the wheel, but just one victory since. … NASCAR’s “Air Titan” was credited for saving the day, as its track drying efforts allowed for time to finish Sunday’s race. So why did it still take two-plus hours to dry the track? I thought it was advertised as a 30-minute fix. It’s still a work in progress, in my opinion.
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.