From Curtis Turner to Kyle Busch, NASCAR has dealt with them all
Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe traveled to The White House recently, as part of the recognition for winning the 2012 Sprint Cup championship. As it is, it might be the last time Keselowski and Wolfe do much celebrating for a while. NASCAR found the rear end housings in both the No. 2 and No. 22 Penske Fords to be “not within the spirit of the rules” – whatever that means.
Plenty about Matt Kenseth (left) and Jeff Burton below. (ASP, Inc.)
Kansas Speedway was the site for one of the weirdest races of the year in 2012. On a newly paved surface with an unfamiliar tire compound, the race offered drama (Jimmie Johnson crashing), comedy (Danica Patrick attempting to wreck Landon Cassill, but wrecking herself instead) and action (Matt Kenseth stormed to the front late in the race – there is more on this below – to scoop up the surprise win).
Statistically, one race is really, really tough for information-gleaning purposes, but we can try. There are a few hot drivers leaving Texas, one under-the-radar performer last year at Kansas and a driver with a lot to lose, desperate for a sound Sunday run.
56.29% Kyle Busch is the most efficient passer in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with a 56.29 percent passing efficiency.
The winner in two of the last three Cup Series races is Busch, who also happens to be the most adept navigator through traffic in the new Gen-6 car. Ironically, Texas, the site of his most recent win, served as the only reliable race in which his pass efficiency was negative — 44.12 percent — but he started on the pole and averaged a 1.58-place running position en route to a fairly easy victory. Two of his three best single-race efficiencies, 56.25 percent at Fontana and 55.91 percent at Las Vegas this season came large intermediate tracks on which high horsepower matters, not totally unlike Kansas.
42.5% Martin Truex Jr. led his first laps of 2013 at Texas, pacing the field for 42.5 percent of the race (142 laps).
He didn’t get the victory, but it was a strong showing for Truex, who has had a forgettable season thus far, finishing 24th or worse in three out of seven races. He heads to Kansas Speedway this weekend with two consecutive runner-up finishes, coming on both old and new pavement iterations of the track. There’s a caveat to that, though…
10.09 He finished second, but Truex only averaged a 10.09-place running position in last fall’s race at Kansas.
Truex is going to receive a lot of attention this week as a win favorite and a fantasy pick, but is the hype to be believed? He wasn’t nearly as polished on the freshly paved Kansas surface as he was on the old track. That 10.09 was the sixth-highest average running spot in a race that was caution-filled and as jumbled as your run-of-the-mill restrictor plate race. He might very well be a contender for the win on Sunday, but he isn’t nearly the lock as many will suggest.
128 Last fall’s Kansas race winner, Matt Kenseth, didn’t take the lead until lap 128. He led 78 laps on way to earning his only non-restrictor plate win of 2012.
I don’t think anyone expected Kansas to be a 1.5-mile version of Darlington. There were 14 cautions for 66 laps, meaning 24.7 percent of the race was run under caution. Patience was key and Kenseth’s approach to the race proved brilliant. None of the drivers that led in the first 100 laps of that race finished in the top 15. It’s not a guarantee that this kind of craziness will repeat itself, but understand that early leaders clearly aren’t impervious to adversity on this fast, frantic track.
Jimmie Johnson led 44 laps until this happened. (ASP, Inc.)
44 In a race in which his crash was the highlight, Jimmie Johnson led 44 laps (16.5 percent) and looked like a potential race-win contender in last year’s fall race at Kansas.
Prior to the lap 137 accident, Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team looked awfully fast — and in fact, they were; they ranked third in average green-flag speed for the race — which meant one of the smartest teams in the garage area was one of the earliest adopters to the new Kansas pavement. No surprise there, huh?
0.57 Jeff Burton has the second-worst crash frequency in the Cup Series, currently crashing 0.57 times per race.
That isn’t a good-look for the 45-year-old veteran, who has had an abysmal — and possibly, final — season in the No. 31 car for Richard Childress Racing, ranking 38th out of 38 drivers with a -0.143 Production in Equal Equipment Rating. He needs a decent Kansas finish in the worst of ways. Currently averaging a 24.3-place finish in races with new crew chief Luke Lambert atop the pit box, his early-season production can be aided with an above-average finish this weekend. He finished 28th in last fall’s race.
8.500 James Buescher earned a PEER of 8.500 across five soft intermediate track races in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last year.
Buescher is the reigning Kansas winner, which makes sense considering the driver’s statistical fondness for the 1.5-mile non-quad-oval facilities. He won four out of those five races, claiming two at Kentucky and one at Chicagoland, in addition to the score at Kansas. He’s been quiet through three races in 2013, averaging a 13.7-place finish, so Saturday’s companion race to the Cup Series could help right his defense of the 2012 series championship.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Texas Motor Speedway.
Kyle Busch wins in Texas. (ASP, Inc.)
It’s hard to believe that last year Kyle Busch went a whole season and won just once in NASCAR’s top three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Trucks. Why? Two months into 2013, he’s on pace to win 28 times across the board, lead over 2,000 laps in Cup and shatter any Nationwide Series record he hasn’t already.
But it’s the average start for Busch this season, on the Cup side, that’s making the biggest difference. Armed with a league-leading 5.4-place average start, his latest pole became the crucial difference in a tit-for-tat battle with Martin Truex Jr. at Texas. That first stall, a huge advantage on any stop, got him out first on the race’s final caution and made the last few minutes a coronation for a man who’s come full circle. It was at this 1.5-mile oval one and a half years ago when a wreck with Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Truck Series got Busch parked, left sponsor M&M’s questioning it’s commitment and left one of the sport’s most aggressive drivers at a crossroads with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Now? As we awaken this Monday morning, it’s Hornaday involved in the middle of a Truck Series mess, accused of deliberately wrecking another competitor while Busch is sitting on top of the NASCAR world. Funny how things come full circle, right?
Let’s go “Through the Gears” on what we learned from a weekend in Fort Worth …
FIRST GEAR: Texas + Gen-6 = Tough Sledding
You know when the biggest story of a race weekend is a sponsorship issue that is raised before the start of the event, you’ve got a problem. Texas, while giving us some decent racing back in the pack, was every bit the snoozer Fontana was not. The Gen-6 car, credited for improving racing at intermediates in 2013, seemed to take a time machine that morphed it back into the Car of Tomorrow. The second a driver claimed clean air, it was all she wrote, as Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to lead 313 of 334 laps. The aero advantage was so pronounced, Truex admitted afterwards that dropping back to second was too much to overcome.
“The race was over when we got beat out of the pits,” Truex said. “The bottom was so fast for a couple laps and I was really worried, honestly, that I was going to lose second because Carl (Edwards) was on the inside of me. I was just somehow able to run (turns) one and two wide open and get him cleared. Just the guy that gets clean air is hard to get. It’s hard to catch (them) in 10 laps.”
Others, like Greg Biffle, used dreaded race-killer terms like “track position” and “aero” Sunday night on SPEED’s Wind Tunnel when describing their struggles to move through the field. Even a flurry of cautions for what seemed like nothing — only three of the seven were caused by accidents — did nothing to tighten a field that, at the 450-mile mark, had only 15 cars on the lead lap. It’s the latest reminder that the Gen-6 is not an automatic miracle worker; week-to-week, there will be some tracks where improvement takes time.
Texas is certainly one of those, which is unfortunate, considering its grandstand capacity produces a six-figure crowd. Goodyear would be prudent to hold a test there before the fall event in the Chase, to come up with a tire that has more pronounced falloff, produces slower speeds and helps reduce aero dependency. Too many drivers were running the same speed, lap after lap, with little chance of being able to gain on anyone else. That produces the single-file parade witnessed Saturday night that hopefully, fans won’t be victim to much more.
Penalties may be forthcoming for Penske Racing. (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND GEAR: Will the book be thrown at Penske Racing?
The next sign you know the race was a snoozer: the biggest story everyone’s talking about after the race involves a driver yelling at NASCAR over an inspection issue. That’s what Brad Keselowski did, going off in front of a crowd of reporters after NASCAR confiscated rear-end housings from his No. 2 car and teammate Joey Logano’s No. 22 before the start of the race. The cars barely made it to the green flag – Logano actually started from the rear after being late – and will likely be assessed heavy penalties that will negate the hard-fought top-10 finishes both earned.
"There's so much stuff going on … you have no f------ idea what's going on,'' was Keselowski’s heavily-reported, signature quote to the reporting scrum. "And that's not your fault and that's not a slam on you. I could tell you there's nobody, no team in this garage with the integrity of the 2 team. And the way we've been treated over the last seven days is absolutely shameful.”
Keselowski’s anger certainly trails back to Martinsville, where a poor official’s call that he pitted outside the box (questionable at best) cost the No. 2 team a better finish. In that race, the team clawed back to sixth and pulled off a ninth at Texas despite being a lap down for much of the race’s second half. But those results represent the way this team has had to fight from virtually the drop of the green at Daytona. Think about it: Keselowski starts his year meeting with NASCAR’s top brass after a controversial interview with USA Today. He then tears his car into pieces, during the 500, only to somehow claw back to fourth. Some reception for the defending champion, right?
Those small obstacles, whether luck or speed-related each week, make Keselowski’s second-place standing in points, along with a Cup Series best six top-10 results, that much more impressive. But feeling like you’re a step behind, as many of the Ford drivers have felt this season, can take its toll and that adds up to some of the anger we saw released Saturday night. What’s next? Expect a lot of comparisons to Hendrick’s Daytona penalties, from 2012 in the coming days which were mostly revoked on appeal; chances are, come Wednesday we’ll see that type of process unfold again with high-level fines and multi-race suspensions for both Penske Racing crew chiefs.
It wouldn’t have surprised me to see Keselowski get fined for his post-race comments (considering the Brian France reaction to Denny Hamlin’s public criticism of the Gen-6 car in March), but inexplicably, France noted in a Monday interview with FOX Business that no fines would be levied. NASCAR vice president and CCO Brett Jewkes reiterated the sanctioning body’s stance on Twitter.
THIRD GEAR: Keeping confidence high
That’s the running theme at several race shops after Texas left several teams wondering what might have been. Martin Truex Jr. was on top of that list; similar to Kansas a year ago, he had the car to beat only to wind up in second place. It’s now six years since the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran has won a Sprint Cup race (Dover, 2007) a drought that’s left him understandably at wit’s end.
“Shoulda, woulda, coulda,” he said. “It just hurts when you give them away.”
The pill is tougher to swallow this time considering Truex is in a difficult spot with the Chase. Already, he’s got more finishes of 36th or worse (two) than he had all of last season. Considering big-name talent resides outside the top 10, Truex has to be thinking “Wild Card,” and the next few weeks he’ll have a car that’s capable. Can he replicate his run at Kansas last April? Or will frustration lead to failure?
The same can be said for two Hendrick drivers: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt, falling victim to a battery problem, had his second straight difficult week. Suddenly, he’s sixth in points, 35 behind the top spot and within striking distance of falling out. With only 47 laps led in one event, it’s not like the No. 88 has been running up front — and HMS has had its problems on intermediates. Gordon knows that all too well; he broke a suspension at Texas running third. Bad luck has him a disappointing 15th in points and battling other stars like Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman to climb back up.
“I’m pretty upset,” said Gordon, who watched a top-5 finish go up in smoke. “This team has worked so hard to claw ourselves back.”
The answer now is to keep clawing harder for both; there’s no more mulligans left on the schedule to place a “mental breakdown.”
FOURTH GEAR: Kyle’s tough road ahead
Third in the standings, 18 points behind Johnson, sits Kyle Busch, who one could argue has actually been the better driver in 2013. Between more laps led, 435 – 430, and better finishes on intermediates — the tracks that make up half the Chase — you’d have to think the No. 18 has the edge. But what’s frustrating about the latest cycle of dominance is it all means nothing under NASCAR’s playoff system. With a well-documented set of Chase failures dating back to a dominant eight-win season in 2008, it all means nothing if Busch can’t get it done in the last 10 weeks.
Will things be different in 2013? There’s still five months for fans to wait to find out. Not the best supporting argument for NASCAR’s current point system …
Bobby Labonte’s night got cut short early once the driver asked out with a stomach virus. But comedy ensued when the selected sub, Mike Bliss, was still running his No. 19 car on the track. C’Mon, JTG … with all the young drivers out there in Nationwide and Trucks you couldn’t pay for one of them to be on standby? It didn’t matter in the end, as engine issues left them in the garage 42nd. … A rumored sale of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing comes at a bad time for Jamie McMurray. Sixteenth at Texas, he’s in the best shape since winning three major Cup races in 2010 and could be an outside Chase contender. But any type of sale will be a distraction that should dash those hopes.
NASCAR's greatest runs of success at it's most daunting racetracks
Jimmie Johnson’s eighth career win at Martinsville last Sunday highlighted his dominance at that particular track. Johnson has won seven of the last 14 visits to the track and in 23 starts has an average finish of 5.3. While he still has a way to go to match Richard Petty’s mark of 15 wins at the paperclip, it did bring to mind some past performances at other tracks by NASCAR stars who were able to hit on some unmistakable magic. Let's take a look at the top 12 most dominant streaks in NASCAR:
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Texas Motor Speedway
Eddie Gossage with spring 2012 pole winner Martin Truex Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
1. NASCAR finding Texas race sponsor to be questionable fit
When Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage announced the naming rights to Saturday night's race, eyebrows were raised in circles far wider than those just in the NASCAR garage. That'll happen when you allow a political group on one side of this country's hottest political debate to stake it's name to an event broadcast on national TV.
The buzz over the National Rifle Association's sponsorship of the NRA 500 this week has picked up steam once again, and NASCAR released a statement Thursday that seemed to indicate that it will review such sponsorships in the future. Tracks procure naming rights deals themselves, but each are subject to approval from the sanctioning body.
“The NRA’s sponsorship of the event at Texas Motor Speedway fit within existing parameters that NASCAR affords tracks in securing partnerships,” said NASCAR spokesman David Higdon in a statement that also noted NASCAR takes no stand in the gun rights debate. “However, this situation has made it clear that we need to take a closer look at our approval process moving forward, as current circumstances need to be factored in when making decisions.”
NASCAR's review of the approval likely stems from how the sport is being viewed by outsiders and, perhaps more importantly, by new fans. But it's a fine line for the sport to walk that has a considerable section of the fan base — especially in Texas — who share the same political views of the NRA.
NASCAR can't afford to alienate both sides of this debate or any other. How it handles situations such as these will be quite fascinating to watch.
Meanwhile, Gossage thinks the scrutiny is overblown.
"The only questions are coming from less than 10 reporters," Gossage said Thursday. "The public isn't asking (us) questions."
2. Let's hope you like the Gen-6
Back on track, NASCAR made another interesting announcement Thursday during the half-day open test afforded to teams as a way to get a better handle on NASCAR's latest model. Basically, don't expect major rule changes on the Gen-6 platform anytime soon.
"I think we're in a fairly good spot," NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said. "The teams — one of the things we've learned over the years is if you keep moving the targets, people have a tendency to … it's harder for them to keep chasing that. We feel like the playing field is fairly level."
After the small sample size of the latest two races for the Sprint Cup Series, shying from changes makes sense. Auto Club Speedway put on a show easily rivaling the best ever at the track for stock cars, and Martinsville Speedway seemed unfazed by the new body style. That's a good thing.
Pemberton's remarks bring the Gen-6 car nearly full circle after the sanctioning body used a test at Texas last fall at the track to narrow down what kind of speedway aerodynamic and mechanical package would be in use with the new car. That day, teams experimented with various levels of downforce and multiple tire combinations. Today's product isn't far from what the drivers tested that day.
"As long as the input is (that) it's still pretty rock solid as far as being positive, they've got plenty to work with. We feel like there's no reason to move the target on them right now," Pemberton said.
As you watch Saturday night's race and judge the Gen-6 on its third intermediate track visit of the season, remember that last year's spring Texas race was the impetus for many to wonder why NASCAR had lost the number of incidents and cautions everyone was used to. The caution flag waved just twice for 10 laps in last year's 334-lap event, both times for debris.
Defending race winner — and Ford driver — Greg Biffle. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Fords need Texas to get back in the mix
Carl Edwards may have won the season's second race at Phoenix International Raceway, but he won it primarily on track position and pit strategy. Since then, 2013 has been a season of catch-up for teams in the Ford camp.
Look at it this way: in 1,983 laps turned in 2013's six races of competition so far, Ford has led just 312 laps or 15.6 percent. Distilled further, Ford has led just 14 laps in the two races so far at the intermediate tracks most similar to TMS in Auto Club and Las Vegas.
By comparison, Jimmie Johnson, in a Chevrolet, has led more laps than all Ford drivers combined (21.7 percent).
Can this weekend in Texas be the perfect antidote? History is on the side of the Blue Oval gang in Fort Worth, as 11 of 24 races have been taken by a Ford. Nine of those have come from Roush Fenway Racing drivers, including last year's race won by Greg Biffle.
4. Has Hall of Fame nominee Bruton Smith hit the campaign trail?
One new nominee for this year's NASCAR Hall of Fame class was speedway magnate and renowned racing pot stirrer Bruton Smith. The chief of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., was nominated for his career of building racing facilities, track promotion and a litany of other contributions to the sport.
Thursday, if only subliminally, Smith seemed to be hitting all the right lines and making all the right proclamations for a guy hoping to become a first ballot Hall of Fame entrant. This is a guy, after all, who once threatened to "move" Charlotte Motor Speedway only to later have the road in front changed to honor him. A little bit of sly posturing isn't entirely out of the question.
First, Smith told reporters he was "delighted" his name came up and that if he was inducted he would "do whatever I can to help the grow the (Hall of Fame) facility in Charlotte" as well as the sport. Smith, who in 2005 was listed by Forbes being worth north of $1.5 billion, carries some significant clout in the Queen City.
Later, Smith found out that another Charlotte event — the annual pit crew challenge during the week of NASCAR's All-Star race — had been canceled for this year after Sprint opted to switch sponsorship to the preseason exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway. Quickly, he vowed to find a sponsor and host it at his still-new zMAX Dragway next to CMS.
Knowing how Smith works, that will likely happen. What isn't clear is if his benevolence is merely coincidental.
5. Truck Series returns to Rockingham for second year of track's comeback
A story not getting near the same attention it did one year ago is where the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will be racing Sunday.
For the third time this season, the trucks will take the green flag when Rockingham Speedway hosts the series for just its second NASCAR national series event since the venerable facility was shuttered amidst race realignment in 2004. Kasey Kahne won last year's event, but isn't entered to defend his title this year.
For the sake of what's good in NASCAR — and let's make it perfectly clear that racing at Rockingham is about as good as NASCAR gets, no matter the series — I hope Kahne's reluctance to return isn't indicative of what Sunday's crowd will look like. Track owner and former NASCAR driver Andy Hillenburg has poured plenty into reviving “The Rock,” and with a flood of nostalgia the track was an extremely popular stop last year.
More importantly, though, was that the on-track racing was great. There were multiple grooves, tire wear and drivers forced to manage their equipment in a way too often cast aside in today's NASCAR. Sunday's race will come early after the late night 500-miler in Texas, but it'll be well worth watching.
by Geoffrey Miller Check back each Thursday to get Geoffrey’s take on what to watch for in the upcoming NASCAR weekend. For daily insight, follow Geoffrey on Twitter:@GeoffreyMiller
Dustin Long predicts the best fantasy drivers in Texas so you don't have to.
Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Lone Star state this weekend for the NRA 500 from Texas Motor Speedway. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long 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, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Texas, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Matt Kenseth
Among the favorites at Texas. He’s scored five consecutive top-5 finishes at that track, including a win in April 2011. He’s led 274 laps in those five races. He won at Las Vegas — a similar 1.5-mile oval — last month. Finished seventh at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, which crew chief says was their worst race of the year.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Points leader has nine top 5s in 19 career starts at Texas, including a win last fall there. Led 48.4 percent of the laps run in both Texas races last season. Finished sixth at Las Vegas in the only race so far on a 1.5-mile speedway this season. Coming off Martinsville victory.
3. Kasey Kahne
One of the hottest drivers on the circuit with four consecutive top-10 finishes. He placed second at Las Vegas (leading 114 laps), won at Bristol, took ninth at Auto Club Speedway and is coming off a fourth-place finish at Martinsville. Has two top 10s in his last three Texas starts.
4. Brad Keselowski
Finished second to Johnson in last fall’s race at Texas. It marked his first top-10 finish there in nine starts. Has finished worse than sixth only once this year. Placed third at Las Vegas in only race so far on a 1.5-mile speedway in 2013.
5. Clint Bowyer
Has four top-10 finishes in his last five Texas starts. Has three top-10 finishes this season but all have come on tracks 1 mile or less in length.
6. Kevin Harvick
Outside his 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500, he’s finished between ninth and 14th in every race. He’s coming off a 13th-place finish — his third such finish in six races — last weekend at Martinsville. He finished ninth in both Texas races last year.
7. Jeff Gordon
Has two top 10s in his last seven Texas starts. Car seemed to be off at Las Vegas (where he was 25th) and Auto Club Speedway (11th) earlier this season.
8. Tony Stewart
Has two top 10s in his last six Texas starts but one was a win (Nov. 2011) and the other was a fifth-place finish in last fall’s race there. Struggled at Las Vegas with a late rally allowing him to finish 11th in only race so far at 1.5-mile track this season.
Defending race winner Greg Biffle. (ASP, Inc.)
B-List Drivers 1. Greg Biffle
One of the best at Texas. He’s scored nine consecutive top-10 finishes there, including a win last April. Has started in the top four in five of the last six Texas races.
2. Kyle Busch
Has two top-10 finishes in his last seven Texas starts, both are third-place finishes (including last fall’s race there). Won five consecutive Nationwide races there from 2008-10. Is one of the series’ hottest drivers with four consecutive top-5 finishes. He was fourth at Las Vegas, second at Bristol, won at Auto Club Speedway and fifth at Martinsville. He’s led 264 laps during that run.
3. Carl Edwards
Has three top-10s in his last four Texas starts. Finished fifth at Las Vegas in only race at 1.5-mile speedway this season. Finished fourth at Auto Club Speedway, a 2-mile track where horsepower and aerodynamics are as important as they are at Texas
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Finished 24th at Martinsville, first time this season he’s been outside the top 10. His worst finish prior to that this season was a seventh at Las Vegas. Has placed in the top 10 in each of his last four Texas starts.
5. Martin Truex Jr.
Won the pole for this race a year ago and finished sixth. Qualified fifth and finished 13th last fall in Texas. Had season-best finish of eighth at Las Vegas in only race so far at 1.5-mile speedway this year.
6. Mark Martin
Back in the No. 55 car at Michael Waltrip Racing. Finished third in this race last year. Placed 14th at Las Vegas earlier this year.
7. Joey Logano
Has one top-10 finish in nine Texas starts but placed 12th at Las Vegas and nearly won at Auto Club Speedway this season.
8. Kurt Busch
Finished eighth with this Furniture Row Racing team last fall at Texas. Since joining FRR late last season, has an average finish of 16.6 in five races on 1.5-mile speedways, including a 20th at Las Vegas earlier this year.
9. Ryan Newman
Feast-or-famine season continues. Finished 31st at Martinsville last weekend. He has three top-10 finishes this year but also has finished 30th or worse in three races. Does not have a top-10 finish in his last nine Texas starts (average finish 16.55 during that time).
10. Brian Vickers
Filling in for the injured Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 car. Vickers has never finished in the top 10 at Texas in 14 Cup starts there.
11. Jamie McMurray
Coming off season-best seventh-place finish at Martinsville, his second top-10 finish in the last three races (was 10th at Bristol). Has not finished better than 14th in his last eight Texas starts.
12. Paul Menard
Has finished 27th, 18th and 15th in his last three Texas starts. His 19th-place finish at Martinsville, a track he struggles at, snapped his consecutive top-10 streak at three races.
13. Aric Almirola
Best finish in four Texas starts is 15th, which came last fall. Other than 37th at Bristol, he’s finished between 13th and 20th in every race this season.
14. Marcos Ambrose
Finished 32nd last fall and 20th in the spring race at Texas last year. Has one top-10 finish there in nine Cup starts. Coming off season-best eighth-place finish at Martinsville.
15. Jeff Burton
Has not had a top 10 in his last six Texas starts. Best finish this year is a 10th at Phoenix. Has not finished better than 17th in any other race this year.
16. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has not had a top-10 finish in his last seven Texas starts. Best finish this season is a 12th at Phoenix.
17. Bobby Labonte
Has one top-20 finish in his last 10 Texas starts. Last top 10 there came in April 2006.
C-List Drivers 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
This will be his first Cup race at this track. He placed in the top 10, with one win, in his last four Nationwide starts at Texas.
2. Austin Dillon
Driving the No. 51 car of Phoenix Racing this weekend at Texas. This will be his third Cup start of the season, second with the team. He finished 21st at Las Vegas in the 51 car.
3. Casey Mears
Has finished 16th or better in four of the first six races this season. Worst finish of the year is 29th, which came in the Daytona 500 and at Las Vegas.
4. Danica Patrick
Finished 24th in her Texas Cup debut last fall. Coming off 12th-place run at Martinsville.
5. Trevor Bayne
This will be his third race of the year. Placed 27th in Daytona 500 and 23rd at Las Vegas for Wood Brothers.
6. Dave Blaney
Has had better success on bigger tracks than smaller ones this season with a 17th in Daytona 500, 21st at Auto Club Speedway and a 24th at Las Vegas.
7. David Ragan
Best finish this year is a 21st at Bristol. Finished 28th at Texas last fall and 35th last spring.
8. David Gilliland
Has not finished better than 24th this season.
9. JJ Yeley
Has finished 27th in each of the last three Cup races (Bristol, Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville).
10. David Stremme
Seeking to make first Texas start since April 2009. Has one top-20 finish this year.
11. David Reutimann
Has finished 33rd or worse in each of the last four races.
12. Travis Kvapil
Has placed 34th or worse in each of the last four races.
13. Landon Cassill
Season-best finish of 30th came at Auto Club Speedway when he was six laps behind the leaders.
14. Joe Nemechek
Season-best finish of 29th came at Bristol.
15. Josh Wise
Has finished better than 35th once this season, a 26th at Bristol.
16. Scott Speed
Has not finished better than 40th since placing 23rd in the Daytona 500.
17. Michael McDowell
Has finished 42nd or 43rd in each of the past four races.
18. Timmy Hill
Seeking to make second start of the season. Finished 39th at Auto Club Speedway in season debut.
19. Scott Riggs
Has an average finish of 42.0 in three starts this year.
20. Mike Bliss
Has failed to qualify in three of the first six races this season.
I hope you all enjoyed restrictor plate action (or in this year’s case, inaction), short track madness and whatever it is we’re calling Fontana now, because all of that is in the rearview mirror. The intermediate tracks, referred to by some fans as “cookie cutters,” provide a semblance of statistical normalcy. Speed and strategy reins on these 1.5- and 2-milers, and while last year’s fall race at Texas Motor Speedway — this weekend’s destination — was an action-packed affair, the top finishers at these tracks are anything but random. We know who the key players will be, thanks to their statistical history on the tracks that comprise the bulk of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.
69.2% Jimmie Johnson led a whopping 346 laps (69.2 percent of the race) last Sunday at Martinsville, en route to this eighth win at the facility.
We are used to Johnson’s sheer dominance on the half-mile paperclip-shaped track, but in seven previous wins he never threw down a performance like the one witnessed last weekend. It was a showing of team strength and driving expertise. As he did last fall, Johnson departs Martinsville’s Victory Lane for Texas, where he won following an exciting late-race battle with Brad Keselowski.
64.56% Danica Patrick recorded her best single-race passing efficiency, winning 64.56 percent of her pass encounters in her debut race at Martinsville.
The 12th-place finish was aided by her plus-passing — her pass differential for the day was plus-23 — after starting from the rear of the field due to an engine change. On a track that isn’t often kind to first-time racers (ask Ricky Stenhouse), Patrick had, arguably, her best Cup Series performance to date.
5.700 In the 10 CoT races that took place at Texas Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth amassed a series-high 5.700 Production in Equal Equipment Rating.
A beacon of consistency in the Lone Star State, Kenseth has finished ninth or better in nine of the last 10 races for an incredible 6.2-place average finish (backed by an amazingly consistent 5.5 finish deviation). Strangely, his average green-flag speed and his finishes at TMS don’t often coalesce; the one time he had the fastest car at Texas, he won (April 2011), but it is more typical that he radically out-performs his equipment, like his fourth-place finish last fall while averaging the 10th-best green-flag speed, or under-performs, like his ninth-place score while averaging the fourth-fastest speed in the spring of 2008.
Greg Biffle: Texas Stud. (ASP, Inc.)
452 Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle, the reigning winner of this weekend’s event, has led a series-best 452 laps in the last 10 races at Texas.
As a team, Roush Fenway won four of the 10 CoT events held at Texas. Its cars are often speedy, but it helps when the drivers are also adept. Of the current roster, Biffle is the standout on this particular quad-oval track, holding onto a 5.200 Texas-specific PEER (ranked second to Kenseth) to go along with the most laps led across the last five years. Carl Edwards ranks fourth with a 3.850 PEER thanks to a sweep of 2008’s races.
4.8 Keeping with Roush Fenway’s Texas success, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. averaged a 4.8-place finish in the last four NASCAR Nationwide Series races there, including a victory in last year’s spring race.
Does past lower division performance indicate future success? Not necessarily. Stenhouse, a Cup Series rookie, won’t be anyone’s pick to claim the victory Saturday night at Texas (especially with a re-tooled No. 17 team with rookie crew chief Scott Graves still building his personal notebook), but he could be destined for a good finish, something that could help raise the 17.8-place average finish he has through six Cup races this season.
0.583 Brad Keselowski ranks 23rd in Texas PEER with a 0.583 rating.
Historically, Texas has not been the best track for the 2012 series champion, but considering his gritty second-place run last year, history might not matter. True, his best finish prior to last fall’s race was 14th and his average finish in nine starts is 22.7, but if we have learned anything about the driver that currently sits second in the point standings it’s that he shouldn’t be counted out solely based on past performance. His runner-up finish last year was legitimized by his third-place average running position and 75 laps (22.4 percent of the race) led.
23.1 Brian Vickers, the driver subbing for the injured Denny Hamlin this weekend, averaged a 23.1-place finish at Texas in his last seven starts.
Hamlin was a two-time winner at Texas in the CoT era, so Vickers represents a significant drop-off. Vickers ranks 43rd out of 47 drivers in Texas-specific PEER with a -0.536 rating and his best finish is 16th, twice, in 2008 and 2009. A fast car can hide a lot of blemishes, though, so fans of the consistently speedy No. 11 still might have something for which to root.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Martinsville Speedway.
Joey Logano with the "buckled hood" look. (ASP, Inc.)
Joey Logano. Tony Stewart. Denny Hamlin. Clint Bowyer. Jeff Gordon. The list of NASCAR drivers ticked off, for one reason or another, entering Martinsville could even knock the former Jersey Shore castmates down a peg. Add in a half-mile paperclip oval — one of the sport’s best — two weeks to ponder what’s gone wrong and Sunday was supposed to be an all-out explosion of revenge.
Instead? I’ve seen senior center bingo arguments come off with more energy than how it all panned out. (I guess maybe that’s what you get when a 54-year-old steps into Hamlin’s seat?) For all those expecting fireworks of historic proportions, somebody forgot to tell the watchman responsible for lighting that fuse.
Part of the problem was that some of these drivers never even got close to one another. Logano and Stewart, for example, had just a handful of opportunities where they were racing bumper-to-bumper. But in a sport where the championship — or more accurately, the playoff — is front and center, drivers are thinking about consequences even early in the season. Just like Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson won’t show their cards now when the results matter less, there’s no reason for a struggling Stewart to risk wiping himself out, digging a deeper hole to climb up when it comes to what really matters for paying sponsors: the Chase.
Such is the nature of the NASCAR beast these days. Bottom lines mean every race can’t turn out like your wildest dreams — matching the sanctioning body’s hype — as drivers sometimes choose to use their head over their heart. It’s a shame, though. Most times, this race at Martinsville, with plenty of action throughout the pack, would get itself a “B” grade or better without hesitation. But we’re in 2013, which is quickly becoming a year of high expectations. A race at one of the best tracks on the schedule should be an automatic A-plus under the circumstances.
Anything less? Feels like a missed opportunity … even though the “temper, temper” moments could well come back into play this fall.
Let’s go through the gears…
ONE: Jimmie Johnson owns Martinsville.
For exceptional athletes, there’s always one venue that fits their style better than any other. Tiger Woods has Augusta, Roger Federer has a set of tennis courts in Queens and Michael Jordan once thrived in Madison Square Garden.
For Jimmie Johnson, that magical place is Martinsville, Va. With eight victories in 23 career starts, third to only Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, the half-mile oval launch his performances into another stratosphere. Sixteen times he’s finished top 5 or better, and a 34.7 percent winning clip basically guarantees a victory once every year and a half there. Considering 43 Cup competitors start each race and those types of odds happen oh, about next to never.
“His car is so much better than everybody else,” explained sixth-place finisher Brad Keselowski, “That he just plays with everybody the whole race just to make it look good.”
No one encapsulated this day any better. Even when Johnson was being challenged by Martinsville 0-fers Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, the vibe still leaned his way. Not once for a single lap did the No. 48 put itself in position to run outside the top 5, simple history dictating the track would eventually come to him.
“It’s probably the most calm, relaxed thought-out weekend that we've had as the 48,” said the winner. “We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that.”
The end result now sees Johnson with 14,000 laps led overall in the Cup Series, a career best 2,327 of them at Martinsville. In comparison, peer Jamie McMurray, a six-time Cup winner in his own right, has led just 1,416 laps during his whole career. It seems between pit road, crew chief strategy and driver ability, this short track brings out the best in the five-time champ – the sport’s new points leader, to boot.
SECOND: See Hendrick go. See Gibbs go. See everyone else watch and get jealous.
The new Gen-6 car, while promoting parity, is bound to be figured out by a few organizations quicker than most. A look at Sunday’s laps-led totals reaffirm the answer: 2013 is developing into Hendrick, Gibbs and then every man for himself.
Only Marcos Ambrose, who led lap 1 and Travis Kvapil, who paced the field a single lap under yellow, broke the 498-lap spell up front rotated by HMS’ Jimmie Johnson, JGR veteran Kyle Busch and newcomer Matt Kenseth. But their performances are far from one-hit wonders. This trio, along with JGR’s Denny Hamlin and HMS’ Kasey Kahne, make up the top 5 in laps led on the circuit, six races into a young season.
Yes, Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards has a win at Phoenix. And Brad Keselowski over at Penske Racing has kept up that championship consistency. But by and large, the teams showing the most strength these days are coming squarely out of two race shops. Of the seven drivers, Kenseth, has been the most surprising, leading more laps at Martinsville Sunday – one of his worst tracks – then in his 13-year career at the track up to that point. If they can make him into a contender here, that bodes well for the 1.5-mile ovals right in his wheelhouse coming up next.
Brian Vickers manning MWR's No. 55 Toyota. (ASP, Inc.)
THREE: Substitute driving ain’t easy.
Brian Vickers wasn’t allowed to jump into Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 at Martinsville. But in a way, it helped showcase how impressive his record of six top 10s in 10 races has been filling in for part-timer Mark Martin in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota. Martin, one of the most respected drivers on the circuit, had a hard go of it on Sunday. Battling a super-tight condition early, he ran outside the top 20 before his pit crew dropped the jack too early during a stop. Martin left, not realizing the tires weren’t fully on the left side and the resultant penalty of pitting outside the box cost him a lap. Involved in a nasty mid-race wreck, the car hit the checkered a shell of its former self, a 10th-place finish admirable under the circumstances, but feeling like 40th considering how often this car is a threat to win here.
“We were capable,” Martin said afterwards. “But we kept stubbing our toe. I did not fill Denny Hamlin’s shoes, I can tell you that much.”
The ailing driver, while praising his sub, indirectly agreed, tweeting after the race, “Jimmie Johnson won’t have it that easy, in the fall, I promise.”
“I'm more mentally tired then after a race I was in,” he added later. “I don't know what watching your child race is like but I'm sure it's a lot like this.”
Too bad the end result couldn’t have been slightly better.
FOUR: Danica’s day showcases a different problem – the wave-around rule.
For many, the other big story revolved around “the most notable 12th-place finish in recent history.” That’s how it seemed post-race when Danica Patrick, fresh off her first lead-lap, competitive result since Daytona fielded more questions than second- and third-place finishers Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon combined.
On the one hand, you’ve got to give her credit. After spinning early and causing the race’s first caution, she was two laps down, mired well outside the top 30. To come back from that is admirable, considering this track is one of the toughest on rookies. (Anyone remember David Ragan’s “dart without feathers” debut?) But Patrick’s return also revealed one of NASCAR’s lingering weaknesses: the wave-around rule.
This rule, which allows cars that don’t pit a chance to “earn” a lap back under yellow should lead-lappers in front of them stop, needs to be revised. On Sunday teams were taking full advantage, knowing that at a place like Martinsville, cautions breed cautions. Staying out, knowing that your position will be cemented one lap ahead a few moments later, makes this an easy decision for a struggling group.
You can’t blame Patrick’s team for doing it. Several, in fact, used the same strategy under the rules. But how can NASCAR go to a place like Charlotte, for example, and expect drivers to race hard all 600 miles under those circumstances? When a driver drops two laps off the pace only to earn them back through zero on-track effort, it makes running hard early in the race unadvisable. Overcoming adversity should be about talent and effort, not luck.
The solution? I’m an old school guy, so lapped cars on the inside are always the way to go in my book. It gives the whole field more exposure, puts everyone on a level playing field (how awful was it to be outside on the double-file restarts Sunday?) and that’s how NASCAR did it, growing successfully, for years. Simply put — and it won’t happen — but make teams earn it…
Jamie McMurray, seventh Sunday, now has two top-10 finishes in the first six races. Last season he had three in 36. … What is up with Ford and Martinsville? No car ran inside the top 5 (Brad Keselowski had its best run, sixth) while Fusions led only one lap all day. No Ford has reached Victory Lane there since Kurt Busch did it for Roush in the fall of 2002. … It was a poor day for NASCAR’s Most Popular Points Leader, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. tumbled from the top spot in the standings after the handling went away late in the going. Also suffering from a late-race spin, it didn’t help that teammate Jimmie Johnson put the No. 88 down an extra lap before Junior could get the thing fully re-fired.
Johnson wins the STP Gas Booster 500 at Martinsville Speedway
Jimmie Johnson celebrates in Victory Lane at Martinsville. (ASP, Inc.)
Jimmie Johnson capped off a dominant weekend at Martinsville Speedway in a familiar way: by celebrating in Victory Lane. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won his eighth career NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the half-mile Virginia short track on Sunday in the STP Gas Booster 500.
Johnson’s weekend started in fine form on Friday, when he won the pole for the event. His No. 48 was near the top of each practice session’s speed chart, and when the green flag flew for 500 miles of racing, there was little doubt as to who the field would be chasing.
Johnson led 346 laps — the highest single-race total of his career — and drove away from Clint Bowyer and teammate Jeff Gordon after a restart with eight laps to go to seal the victory in convincing fashion.
“We had a great weekend and I know the stats clearly show that, but (it was) the most calm, relaxed, thought-out weekend that we’ve had as the 48 (team) — and the most mature,” Johnson said. “We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that.”
Bowyer, Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch rounded out the top 5.
“Jimmie has just really figured this place out,” Gordon said. “You get a driver like Jimmie and a team like the 48 — or ours, or the 15 (Bowyer) — you put them on the pole (and) in that No. 1 pit stall … it’s going to be really, really hard to beat them.”
Johnson’s mastery of Martinsville is reaching historic levels. His eight wins on the paperclip-shaped oval leads all active drivers and ranks behind only Richard Petty’s 15 and Darrell Waltrip’s 11 all-time. He’s won seven of the last 14 races at the only track that has hosted NASCAR premier series races since the sport’s inception.
Johnson also reclaimed the lead in the Sprint Cup Series point standings, holding a six-point advantage over Brad Keselowski.
After two weeks of hype, neither Joey Logano nor Tony Stewart engaged in any sort of on-track retaliation following their post-race skirmish in Fontana, Calif. Denny Hamlin, who was injured in his last-lap battle with Logano in the same race, was in attendance at Martinsville atop the pit box of his No. 11 team. Mark Martin, who filled in for Hamlin, finished 10th.
Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick impressed in her first visit to the physical short track, placing 12th after a hard-fought duel with Brian Vickers and Kevin Harvick on the final lap. Patrick was forced to start at the rear of the field when her No. 10 team changed an engine on Saturday.
“I didn’t know what to expect (at Martinsville), but I feel like finding the limit on a short track where you’re going a little slower … there’s less risk as opposed to finding the limit on a really big track where you’re doing 200 mph,” said Patrick said.
Johnson is the first driver to collect multiple wins in 2013, having scored his second Daytona 500 crown in February.
The circuit heads to Texas Motor Speedway for a Saturday night affair this weekend.
From Tiny Lund to Jamie McMurray: NASCAR's most noted fill-ins.
With the flurry of press releases that were flying about last Friday, with the announcements and retractions regarding Mark Martin substituting for the injured Denny Hamlin, it brought to light one issue we haven’t had to tackle in a while: NASCAR Super Subs. They can be much more than a wheel holder, and often end up becoming a larger part of the team. It can be an audition for a future ride, or a once-in-a-lifetime shot at greatness. This week we present the Top 10 Super Subs in NASCAR: