1. Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
2. Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
3. Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
4. Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
6. Regan Smith, No. 78 Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing
7. Marcos Ambrose, No. 9 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
8. Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
9. Jeff Burton, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
10. Elliott Sadler, No. 33 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
11. Michael McDowell, No. 98 Ford, Phil Parsons Racing
12. Joey Logano, No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
13. Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
14. Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
15. AJ Allmendinger, No. 22 Dodge, Penske Racing
16. Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
17. Robby Gordon, No. 7 Dodge, Robby Gordon Motorsports
18. Ryan Newman, No. 39 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
19. Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
20. Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
21. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No 6 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
22. Mark Martin, No. 55 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
23. Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Dodge, Penske Racing
24. Dave Blaney, No. 36 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing
25. David Ragan, No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
26. Martin Truex Jr., No. 56 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
27. Aric Almirola, No. 43 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
28. Kurt Busch, No. 51 Chevrolet, Phoenix Racing
29. Danica Patrick, No. 10 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing
30. Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
31. Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
32. Bobby Labonte, No. 47 Toyota, JTG-Daugherty Racing
33. David Gilliland, No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
34. Joe Nemechek, No. 87 Toyota, NEMCO Motorsports
35. Juan Pablo Montoya, No. 42 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
36. Casey Mears, No. 13 Ford, Germain Racing
37. Paul Menard, No. 27 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
38. David Reutimann, No. 93 Toyota, BK Racing
39. Landon Cassill, No. 83 Toyota, BK Racing
40. Trevor Bayne, No. 21 Ford, Wood Brothers
41. David Stremme, No. 30 Ford, Inception Motorsports
42. Tony Raines, No. 26 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
43. Terry Labonte, No. 32 Ford, FAS Lane Racing
Did Not Qualify: 09 – Kenny Wallace; 23 – Robert Richardson III; 37 – Mike Wallace; 40 – Michael Waltrip; 49 – J.J. Yeley; 97 – Bill Elliott
As is usually the case, there was one wild and crazy Gatorade Duel race at Daytona International Speedway, and one much more staid. Such was the case on Thursday, when the field was set for the 54th annual Daytona 500.
Sunday’s running of the 54th annual Daytona 500 begins the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and it also marks the beginning of the 2012 NASCAR fantasy racing season. Fans across the land will be preparing their teams week-in and week-out, hoping to celebrate with a championship of their own at season’s end.
As the 2012 fantasy racing season gets underway, I wish you the best of luck. I will attempt to bring you the best advice and updates on a weekly basis throughout the year, providing information that will help you determine which drivers to start, which to avoid and which to keep an eye on.
With the rule changes put in place by NASCAR during the offseason and throughout Speedweeks, the “pack is back” at Daytona. No longer will drivers rely on another car for the entirety of the 500-mile event, instead they will be more in control of their destiny to work their way through the giant, 30-car snarling packs, akin to the “traditional” restrictor-plate races that have drawn some fans’ ire, yet always deliver on excitement.
This is a change for many that have become accustomed to tandem racing on the plate tracks, but is a welcomed sight to this week’s fantasy favorite: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The 2004 Daytona 500 champion has not enjoyed the same success during the tandem drafting era of restrictor-plate racing as he did in the “pack racing years,” when he won a total of seven points-paying races at Daytona and Talladega from 2001-04.
Earnhardt admits that he “never felt really great about” about the tandems, and that was never more evident than in last October’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, when he and teammate Jimmie Johnson hung around the back of the pack until the end. By the time the two attempted to make their charge, it was too late. Earnhardt finished 25th that day and vowed to never use that strategy again.
However, with pack racing back, Earnhardt says he feels “more confident” and has a better ability to formulate a plan to get to the front at the end. Expect the perennial fan-favorite to dice it up in the pack throughout the entire race (see: the 2010 Daytona 500) and be a factor in the final laps.
“I want to go up and win the race,” Earnhardt said earlier this week. “I just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about riding in the back. I don’t waste a minute of the day doing that.”
While Earnhardt may be the favorite for Sunday’s win, my safe-bet pick for the week is 2009 Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver was strong throughout Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout, coming back into contention after sustaining damage in an early-race incident. In addition to his calm, cool and collected driving style, Kenseth also has the advantage of Ford power under the hood of his No. 17 car.
Throughout Speedweeks, the Fords have once again shown they are able to stay cooler longer while tucked behind another car in the tandem draft. And while pack racing will rule 95 percent of the day at Daytona, the final laps of Sunday’s race will see drivers pairing up in pairs once again, throwing caution — and water temperatures — to the wind in an attempt to drive to the win.
When drivers partner up at the finish, expect Kenseth to be among those at the front with a bevy of teammates (and quasi-teammates) — think Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and David Gilliland — from which to choose.
My dark horse pick of the week is Joe Gibbs Racing’s Joey Logano. While the 21-year-old has had a poor record in the Daytona 500 in his first three attempts (average finish: 28.6) , I feel the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota will be a factor throughout the day.
Before being involved in one of the three “Big Ones” in the Bud Shootout, Logano was among the strongest cars in the field. Despite his relative inexperience with pack racing, he looked at ease in the middle of the pack and had the ability to move to the front. And his teammates’ seeming unwillingness to work with one another — when was the last time Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch actually assisted one another on-track? — means Logano will serve as the perfect dancing partner.
In addition, Logano enters his first year without veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who moved to Stewart-Haas Racing during the offseason. While the loss of a two-time, championship-winning crew chief would seem detrimental to most teams, it may by the opposite for Logano. For the first time in his young career, he truly feels the team is his own. With Zipadelli calling the shots up until now, Logano was living in the shadow (and accomplishments) of former driver Tony Stewart. Now that Zipadelli has moved on, Logano, believe it or not, is the leader of his own team. And JGR’s veteran Nationwide Series crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, should fill the vacated head wrench role nicely.
While he may not win his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, I fully expect Logano to score a solid finish — and provide ample fantasy points.
Momentum is a powerful thing in NASCAR, and as the season goes on I wish you all the best of luck. I encourage your feedback and comments, and apologize in advance if my observations do not pan out (a timely “Big One” can easily knock out an entire fantasy roster). If I could predict the future, I think I’d live in Las Vegas and be a lot richer …
Here’s to a great 2012 season for NASCAR, the competitors, and the fantasy racing participants.
Athlon Sports: You had gone three years without winning multiple races in a season before 2011. How did 2011 revitalize you?
Jeff Gordon: That is definitely the proper phrase. It has. This team has revitalized me. I see it happening in other sports, and I’ve watched my career … and the experiences that I’ve had and you go back through your most successful years and races and you try to think, what was happening there, why did this success happen? What I see in (2011) is that this team, as I came in, they believed in their driver and they had confidence in me as a driver and they had confidence in what they were doing as a team to provide cars that can win. When you have that, and you start to put the good performances together, it just starts to build and build confidence and momentum and that’s what we did.
What I will take out of (last) year is just the ability this team has to have winning racecars, to have what it takes — pit crew, strategy, speed, track position — to get into Victory Lane, not just luck into it one time. What I love (about what we did last) year is we did it on a lot of different types of tracks. I wish we could have thrown the Brickyard in there, too, because that would have been incredible. You’ve got Pocono, Atlanta and Phoenix. I look at Richmond and Bristol. We’ve run good on a lot of different tracks.
There was a spell at one point where you were winning at only particular types of tracks, like the short tracks or the restrictor-plate tracks.
Exactly. That’s usually the sign that your career is getting ready to come to an end. I’ll never forget watching other guys: Yeah, they’re successful in the plate tracks, (but) can’t win anywhere else. Those plate tracks — that’s usually a bad sign. I didn’t want to be in that position. These guys have revitalized me in my belief in myself and in what we’re capable of doing.
Considering how long your racing career has been, when you say you were revitalized, do you feel you were, in a way, in a rut before?
I didn’t do anything different (last) year than I did any other year, other than just trying to work harder communicating with these guys. That’s a little bit of what happens when you come into something new like I did (in 2011 with a new team). You get put into what they do as a team, and it’s a little bit unique and different.
For instance, we have a meeting every Tuesday morning that lasts a couple of hours, and it’s our engineers and myself and we break down the race that we just ran and then look ahead at races or tests. I love that, even though it’s over my head a lot of times because I can’t keep up with the engineering side of it, it’s great to be involved in those and understand what’s going on to another level. Like what I love sometimes, (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) will say, ‘We’re in the trust tree.’ So what happens is you’ve got to man up in those meetings, you’ve got to be willing to lay it out there whether you made mistakes, didn’t make mistakes, calling other people out, calling yourself out, whatever it may be — that’s that area that we can be honest with one another, and I think it allows us to be better because of it.
But you’ve been through that before.
I’ve never done it like that before. I go in there in person most of the time. Now living in North Carolina helps me do that. I’ve been absent from being in North Carolina (in the past) … because I didn’t have the home. Now, I have the home and family and everything and now we’re there a lot more, so I can make it to these meetings in person.
It, just to me, makes a difference. Plus, just when we started the season out, the effort these guys were putting in to get me comfortable — the seats, the new dash design that we had, the whole driver compartment and then going and testing and the things we were going through — just made me feel really comfortable. I love to see the effort they put out. With that, as well as going to the race track and having competitive cars, it just helps build my confidence not only in myself, but in them. It has to go both ways. The team has to believe in their driver, and the driver has to believe in the team.
What’s happening, talking about those last three years, we just were gradually doing like this (his hand arcs downward). This year it was nice to turn that corner back up. I think it’s important to have the valleys because it makes you know how bad you want it, makes you think about it, how hard you’re going to work, how bad you want it, how much does it mean to you — and it’s good. It brings the passion back. Sometimes you can lose that a little bit and get a little complacent. It helped make me realize how bad I want it and how much I enjoy being competitive.
Isn’t it easy to say it’s good to have the valleys when you’re moving up?
When you’re in the valley it’s no fun, but I say it because when you come through it … it’s good to struggle, you need to struggle to appreciate the good times, to understand what it takes to climb the mountain.
I went to this event (in 2011), I was really inspired by it, it was amazing. It was a charity event in New York that was honoring Ralph Lauren. Even though it’s not sports and it’s not our industry, he mentioned about losing his company. He almost lost his company two or three times, and he said that those were some of the most valuable lessons that he had and what really got him to where he is. I believe that. I think you have to experience what it’s like to be successful to win, but then you have to lose some, as well, to grow and really make sure you keep that passion, that you keep that desire and that you keep that work ethic. And also sometimes it forces you to make some changes whether it be team changes or maybe even some things you’re doing yourself.
So when I say I’m not doing anything different, at the race track I don’t do anything different. Away from the race track, yeah, I would say that I’ve definitely communicated much closer and more than I ever have before, trying to stay in better shape. My commitment is to these guys, but I have to balance out family and business because that’s the life that I have, so I have to balance that out, but these guys are definitely a priority to me.
In your career you’ve driven different styles of cars, with different tires and under different rules. Is it easier or harder to drive these current cars than what you’ve done in NASCAR?
The competition is so much greater, so these days you’re dealing with much smaller increments of gains. Every detail matters and every hundredth of a second matters, so, to me, in that sense it’s harder. Track position is so important these days (that) once you get it, it’s almost easier (to run). To get out front and stay out front is so much easier today — if you get there. If you start in the back, it’s much harder. If you start up front, it’s much easier. That didn’t used to be the case.
The other thing is that from lap one to the final lap, you race as hard as you can. There’s no holding back. Very rarely do I ever have to say, ‘My brakes are a little hot and I’m going to ease back here (or) the fuel load I have right now, I need to take it easy and wait for it to come to me.’ You go. You go as hard as you can and you do it for every lap of every run.
In mentioning your first Cup start in 1992 …
Did you keep anything from that first start?
Yeah. I’ve got the money clip that Richard Petty gave in the drivers meeting (since that was Petty’s final Cup race). That’s cool. The other day, I was thinking about that, I wanted to know where that is because I know I have it. I went into my archives and I found it. I actually was carrying it with me for a little while because I wanted to show some people. I’ve put it back in a safe place now. I’ll never forget getting that. All I have is that and some video.
You didn’t keep the uniform or anything?
Oh, good question. I’ve got a lot of stuff. I’ll have to go back and check to see if I have the helmet. I might have the helmet.
It’s one thing for past success to provide a form of motivation for some people, but how do you keep past success from being a burden?
It’s a burden at times. I think what’s more of a burden is just that I’m competitive, and I’m competitive because I know what it’s like to have won and had a lot of success. I’ve maintained that confidence in myself that I still have what it takes to have that success. When the car is not driving the way I want it to, if that continues to happen throughout the race or throughout weeks, you get very frustrated — and I don’t know if that’s a burden that is coming from my previous success or just my desire to be competitive.
But that does get frustrating if it happens for a length of time, because you’re sitting there going, ‘My teammate is running good over here and he’s winning races and I’ve got the same equipment, so is it me or is it him or what is it?’ That can be tough at times. I’ve gone through that, and that’s what I like so much about this year. I haven’t really changed anything. I switched over to Alan (Gustafson) and his group and I’ve fit into how they’re going about things, but as a driver what I’m doing on the race track is not any different and we’re running good and we’re having success. That’s comforting to me because it makes me realize that I don’t need to change what I’m doing, I just need to continue to work hard and give the best information that I can.
I’m more thankful and appreciative of what I’ve accomplished than anything else, so when I feel that burden and I get mad and I’m pissed because we’re not running as good or we’re not winning championships, I usually am pretty good at reminding myself shortly after that of how thankful I am to have had the success that I’ve had in the sport, and it doesn’t matter if I never win another race or another championship, it’s been amazing. I do have to fall back into that mode from time to time.
It’s been documented with your crashes that you have found places that didn’t have SAFER barriers. With your clout in the sport, why don’t you seem to play a more vocal role in safety, or do you do it more behind the scenes?
I would say I do more work behind the scenes. What I’ve learned over the years is that doing it in the public and in front of the media, while it has results, it also has consequences to the sport. I care a lot about the sport and the safety of it, yet I think sometimes it can be equally as damaging to do it publicly. Usually when drivers are doing it publicly, it’s out of frustration, and that’s usually not the best time to voice your opinion — when you’re frustrated.
When it was all said and done, was turning 40 in 2011 that big of a deal to you?
(The party) was awesome! I had a great time. It was great spending time with friends. To me, turning 40 has been fun. I like being 40.
I feel very settled in a good way. Two kids, amazing wife. Life is good, and racing (last) year was really good, I mean the Chase … eh. The three wins and the way we ran (in the regular season) — turning 40, friends, family, the charitable work we’ve done — it was a good year.
You went on a fact-finding mission to Congo last year with your work through the Clinton Global Initiative. What is going to come out of that? What will your role become now that you’ve been there and the seen the conditions?
We’ve got a plan in place. There’s a couple of different products we’re going to help fund and get them out there to that area. Those sticks that purify water (and) there’s some mosquito netting — those are like the small first steps that we can do immediately and then we’re working through the long-term plan.
It’s a slow process. You can just jump on something and say we’re going to fund this and do this, but I think it will get lost in the shuffle. We’re doing some of those things that will immediately help a lot of people, but if you want to truly save lives and really reinvigorate their economy and get involved with the government, it takes time.
We went to Rwanda with the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation — Ingrid, myself and Ella. We went in December after the (championship) banquet. That was for children’s pediatric cancer. What we’ve funded is a pathology lab. What’s happening is there’s a lot of misdiagnosis going on over there. They don’t really know what the children have because they don’t have the proper equipment. We’re actually helping to transport some equipment over there.
While you’ve been involved with children’s charities for years, how did that work change once you had children?
It’s made me realize how important the work is, and there’s certainly a portion of that in seeing what life would be like as a parent to go through that and how tough and devastating that must be.
What I see is the work that I’m doing and the effort being put into it — how it is affecting Ella, my daughter. She is just fascinated with people that have injuries, and she’s like, ‘What’s wrong with them? Can I help them? Why are they here? What are the doctors doing?’ She’s just really interested. Just like going to Rwanda, we said to her, ‘We’re going to help some children and we’re going to go over there and visit them.’ She’s like, ‘Can I go? I want to go.’ We said, ‘You have to get shots.’ At first, she was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want shots.’ We said if you really want to help these children, then you have to have shots. (She said) ‘OK, I’ll do it, I’ll do it for the kids.’
My parents, while they were really good people and taught me how to treat others, we didn’t go that far into philanthropy, and I think that what they did helped me get to where I am and now I can take that to the next level and help my children. Especially for my kids, because I didn’t grow up with the luxuries that my kids are going to grow up with.
I think the only way you can balance that out where they don’t get spoiled or take that for granted and not appreciate it, is for them to volunteer, to go see what is happening in the rest of the world — especially when it comes to sick children, because I think that it will inspire them to want to help, but it also will balance out the lifestyle that they have and make them understand that that might not always be the case, that there are other people suffering and it could happen to them as well.
How can your relationship with Alan Gustafson grow in his second year as your crew chief?
I’m really excited about (2012). I feel like we’ve really jelled. The chemistry is there. I really like him as a crew chief, his personality, as well as how hard he works and the team he’s surrounded himself with. He’s already been making some adjustments and some changes in plans for (this) year to make us better. Those are things that would be happening whether we were leading the points or not leading the points (during the Chase). That’s how he works. So, I’m very excited about (2012).
This season will be your 20th full season at the Cup level. How much do you have to reinvent yourself or keep up with the young guys? How much is the sport changing, and what do you have to do to keep up?
I think the thing that I look at that I can do better for these guys is give more detailed and valuable information. We started doing a numbering system this year where you break down the levels of tight and loose in three or four different segments of each corner, and that’s kind of new to me. I want to progress with that a little more. They’re looking at sections of the race track that are in 100 feet, in shocks and springs and loads and all those things; so the more detail I can get with them on, the better they can tune the car.
What I’ve learned this year is if I give them the right information, they have the tools to fix it or at least make it better. I think what some of the top drivers are doing in this series are doing a good job of that. Let’s be honest, the cars are extremely important: They have to be pretty close when you unload. You can only do so much, but in those moments when you’re not right on, all they have is me to give them information. I want to be able to give them the proper information. I’m getting older. My body is definitely not what it was 15 years ago, so I have to stay sharp with that as well. I think that we’re very capable. I think we showed (last) year that we can be stronger this year.
Kyle Busch won a crash-filled Budweiser Shootout on Saturday evening, kicking off Daytona Speedweeks in spectacular fashion.
Busch’s .013-second win over Tony Stewart (right) was the closest finish in the Shootout’s 34-year history. In route to the win, Busch found himself completely sideways on two occasions, but was able to save his Toyota — itself a backup car rolled out after an accident in practice — each time.
“I was trying to push (Ryan) Newman and hook up with him, then he was hooked up with whoever was in front of him,” Busch said of his final charge to the front. “I’m like, ‘All right, fine.’ The hole opened up behind Stewart. I ducked in behind there knowing he had a fast car, (and) pushed him.
“We got up through there. He made the way to the outside and everything. Coming to the line — I’ve been in that situation in reverse before with Tony (and it) hadn’t ended up so well. This time it turned out all right. We made it past him and beat him to the line, so it was cool.”
Busch earned nearly $200,000 for the victory.
While the ending came down to Busch and Stewart teaming up in a tandem draft to separate from the field, the majority of the race witnessed “pack racing.”
Fan displeasure with the two-car tandem drafts that had become the norm at Daytona and Talladega prompted NASCAR to make changes to the cars’ plate, grille and spoiler sizes as well as the max radiator pressure. The result was cars bunched together in three-wide packs.
“It was definitely a lot more fun and you felt a lot more eager to be engaged in the race this way than in the two-car deal,” Stewart said. “I actually had fun racing at Daytona again which I haven’t had for a while, so I’m really, really appreciative to the work that NASCAR has done in the offseason and the test session and even after the test of the changes that they made to try to make it better for us out there.”
Marcos Ambrose, Brad Keselowski and Deny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.
An eight-car wreck with eight laps remaining resulted in Jeff Gordon on his roof. That incident, which also included Jimmie Johnson, AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, sent the event into a green-white-checker finish. Busch and Ambrose were also involved, but continued after minimal repairs.
“It was just getting down to the end of the race and it was time to go,” Gordon said. “Me and Jimmie were looking good there. We knew those guys were coming, and once Kyle got in front of me, I was just trying to keep Jimmie on me and trying to stay with Kyle.
“Every time I got to Kyle’s bumper, he just started getting so sideways, like he was a lot tonight. And I thought he was going to wreck. I saw him start to spin, so I went wide, not knowing someone had gotten to my outside. That got me into those guys and into the wall and along for a ride.”
Edwards on Pole Carl Edwards will lead the 43-car field to green in Sunday’s Daytona 500. Edwards topped Sunday’s qualifying session with a fast lap of 194.738 mph (46.216 seconds). Edwards nipped his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Greg Biffle, by .155 seconds. Both are locked into the front row.
It was Edwards’ first Daytona 500 pole.
Positions 3-39 will be determined in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel races. Four additional spots will be awarded to the fastest qualifiers on Sunday that did not qualify via the Duels. The 43rd spot will likely go to a past champion, although if all former champions qualify in the Duels or on speed, the final spot will be awarded to the fifth-fastest Sunday qualifier not already in.
Forty-nine teams are entered for the 54th annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. Forty-three cars will qualify for The Great American Race. The front row for the event will be determined in qualifying on Sunday, Feb. 19. Positions 3-39 will be set in the Gatorade Duels on Thursday, Feb. 16. The final four spots will be based on Pole Day qualifying speeds of cars that have not already earned a starting position. If there is an eligible Sprint Cup Series past champion entered who has not already qualified, that past champion will receive the 43rd and final position. If there is more than one past champion eligible for this berth, it goes to the most recent champion.
Driver, Number, Manufacturer, Team
Kenny Wallace, No. 09 Toyota, RAB Racing
Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Dodge, Penske Racing
Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 6 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Robby Gordon, No. 7 Dodge, Robby Gordon Motorsports
Marcos Ambrose, No. 9 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
Danica Patrick, No. 10 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing
Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Casey Mears, No. 13 Ford, Germain Racing
Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Joey Logano, No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Trevor Bayne, No. 21 Ford, Wood Brothers
AJ Allmendinger, No. 22 Dodge, Penske Racing
Robert Richardson III, No. 23 Chevrolet, R3 Motorsports
Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
Tony Raines, No. 26 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
Paul Menard, No. 27 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
David Stremme, No. 30 Toyota, Inception Motorsports
Jeff Burton, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
Terry Labonte, No. 32 Ford, FAS Lane Racing
Elliott Sadler, No. 33 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
David Ragan, No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
Dave Blaney, No. 36 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing
Mike Wallace, No. 37 Ford, Rick Ware Racing
David Gilliland, No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports
Ryan Newman, No. 39 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
Michael Waltrip, No. 40 Toyota, Hillman Racing
Juan Pablo Montoya, No. 42 Chevrolet, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Aric Almirola, No. 43 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
Bobby Labonte, No. 47 Toyota, JTG Daugherty Racing
Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
J.J. Yeley, No. 49 Toyota, Robinson-Blakeney Racing)
Kurt Busch, No. 51 Chevrolet, Phoenix Racing
Mark Martin, No. 55 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Martin Truex Jr., No. 56 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
Regan Smith, No. 78 Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing
Landon Cassill, No. 83 Toyota, BK Racing
Joe Nemechek, No. 87 Toyota, NEMCO Motorsports
Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
David Reutimann, No. 93 Toyota, BK Racing
Bill Elliott, No. 97 Toyota, NEMCO Motorsports
Michael McDowell, No. 98 Ford, Phil Parsons Racing
Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
Did Kentucky Speedway do enough to appease dissatisfied fans after its Cup debut disaster? And how will this affect its future on the circuit?
Kentucky Speedway fought for years to land a coveted Sprint Cup Series race, only to be blocked with every shot it took. So when Speedway Motorsports, Inc. bought the venue, then awarded it a date formerly housed at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it was a slam dunk, a Bluegrass bonanza for hardcore Southern supporters who waited over a decade. But for 100,000 ticketed fans, their dream come true turned into a hellish nightmare on July 9, 2011. Traffic flow and infrastructure shortcomings plagued the inaugural Cup date to the point that Kentucky Speedway may hold the title of having hosted the most disastrous major sporting debut in history. Traffic was so bad some estimates claimed as many as 20,000 people never made it to the speedway, while others sat idle for up to seven hours, then parked three miles away to get in.
SMI’s response? An apology two days later and a ticket-exchange offer to any of the remainder of its 2011 dates (including upcoming Truck Series and IndyCar events at Kentucky Speedway) or free admission to this season’s Kentucky date.
Did that heal the wound? Not even close. What SMI CEO Bruton Smith failed to understand was that for many, that weekend was it. That was the vacation, the time off from work, the hotel reservation, the gas money, the time, effort and planning … that weekend — not one seven weeks later at Bristol — that many hard-working fans saved for and invested in.
Perhaps it's hard for a billionaire to comprehend. Regardless, Smith offered no ticket refunds in a rambling, bizarre press conference the following weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, he laid blame on everyone from the state and local police, the company hired to direct traffic in the parking areas, local and state officials who did not bend to his roadway demands, local residents who parked cars on their property to — get this — the fans themselves for not planning properly!
The scary part of this mess was that Smith had traffic and parking issues at his Las Vegas and Texas tracks on opening Cup weekends in the past, plus Kentucky track officials had concerns going into the July date. Did SMI know what was coming? Would it allow a debacle on this scale to unfold simply to force state officials to invest in roadway reconstruction around the track? It certainly felt that way.
As to how this will affect Kentucky’s future events, it’s impossible to foresee. SMI has made improvements to the facility with expanded parking areas, additional restroom facilities and plans to widen the interstate and ease incoming traffic to the track itself. Time heals all wounds and, obviously, NASCAR did not yank its 2012 date. However, 100,000 fans were treated not like paying customers, but more like pawns in a multi-million dollar game of chicken, pitting SMI against the Kentucky state legislature. Let’s hope no one — even those who did not suffer that day — forgets that.
What steps should NASCAR take to curb start-and-park efforts?
In 2009, NASCAR referred to start-and-park teams as a “passing phase.” But as we enter year four of the collect-a-check experiment dominating the back of the Sprint Cup pack, it’s clear these profiteering teams aren’t going anywhere. In fact, the practice is only getting worse. As many as eight cars pulled in early during races last fall — that’s nearly 20 percent of the grid showing up with no intention of competing.
And why should they? In the last three years, Joe Nemechek has only finished five of his 97 starts but collected a cool $7.8 million in purse money. While saving on engine, pit crew and chassis costs, the only penalty the driver/owner may get is an occasional teardown as being selected for post-race inspection. Even then, a rebuild three or four times a year isn’t enough to wreck the profit margin. It’s become a big enough business that those who were initially putting up an honest effort, like Robby Gordon’s No. 7 outfit, have decided to join in.
That disturbing trend is why NASCAR needs to act. Either come up with a system of paying on a per-lap basis — reducing the profiteering of these teams — or simply reduce grid size to represent the number of cars showing up to compete. Dropping from a field of 43 to 36 increases the purse for each participant, ramps up the qualifying competition (maybe drop from 35 to 25 locked-in spots?) while better reflecting the number of fully funded cars. You can always expand back over time, as the NASCAR economy improves, right?
The question, of course, then becomes whether the sport’s television deal allows it to do that — a question that’s been disputed for years and whose answer lies within a contract no one’s allowed to see.
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.
Thirty three drivers are eligible for NASCAR's 2012 Budweiser Shootout. The Shootout, which unofficially kicks off Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, will be televised on Saturday, Feb. 18 on FOX at 8:00 pm EST. Those eligible for the event this year include all drivers within the top 25 in the final 2011 championship standings, past Bud Shootout winners and past Daytona point-race winners.
Eligible Drivers, via top 25 in 2011 standings (Car number):
AJ Allmendinger (22)
Marcos Ambrose (9)
Greg Biffle (16)
Clint Bowyer (15)
Jeff Burton (31)
Kurt Busch (51)
Kyle Busch (18)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88)
Carl Edwards (99)
Jeff Gordon (24)
Denny Hamlin (11)
Kevin Harvick (29)
Jimmie Johnson (48)
Kasey Kahne (5)
Matt Kenseth (17)
Brad Keselowski (2)
Joey Logano (20)
Paul Menard (27)
Juan Pablo Montoya (42)
Ryan Newman (39)
David Ragan (34)
Tony Stewart (14)
Martin Truex Jr. (56)
Trevor Bayne (2011 Daytona 500 winner)*
Geoff Bodine (past Daytona 500 and Shootout winner)*
Derrike Cope (past Daytona 500 winner)*
Bill Elliott (past Daytona 500, Coke Zero 400 and Shootout winner)*
Terry Labonte (past Shootout winner)*
Jamie McMurray (past Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 winner)
Ken Schrader (past Shootout winner)*
Michael Waltrip (past Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 winner)
The few notable drivers that do not meet eligibility requirements include Dave Blaney, David Gilliland, Robby Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears, David Reutimann and Regan Smith.
Was the nail-biting finish to the 2011 Chase a result of the new points system, a one-year anomaly … or a sign of things to come?
At some point, NASCAR’s tinkering, toying and manipulation of the point system had to produce the desired effect, right?
Thus, the culmination of eight years worth of “creative engineering” — point resets, format changes, wild cards, point allocation changes — gave NASCAR CEO Brian France his Austerlitz: a title fight that not only came down to the last race and last lap, but that ended in a tie, forcing a “most race wins” tiebreaker, validating his claims that wins, indeed, are more important than ever.
While some of these claims can be argued, the point is that NASCAR, after years of striving for France’s “Game 7 Moment,” finally got what it wanted. And the reality is, we may never see a better finish to a season. After all, how could it get any closer?
The short answer here is it’s probably all three. The point system undoubtedly tightened things up; it took Chase winner Tony Stewart to win half of the playoff races to stay anywhere close to runner-up Carl Edwards; and yes, this incarnation of NASCAR’s Chase lends itself to providing tight title tussles, which we should expect going forward.
The only fear many now have is that since NASCAR got its all-important “last-lap championship duel,” more changes will follow in years to come that ensure we’ve not seen the absolute best its Chase can provide.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Kurt Busch vs. Roger Penske: What is Kurt’s future in the sport?
Racing’s old dog learned a new trick last offseason on the national power of YouTube. Kurt Busch’s verbal deconstruction of Jerry Punch, a two-minute temper tantrum captured on a camera phone, had well over 600,000 views by the time sponsor Shell Pennzoil forced its business partner, Roger Penske, to pull the trigger on some amateur negative branding. So yes, in that sense it was the only choice for a man in his 70s whose inability to stop this monster showcased his age and waning power. Honestly? It’s shameful for Penske that it took a fan sneaking around with a smart phone to force a firing of a driver whose vicious attitude and verbal assaults were all too well known to those in the garage.
At this point for Penske, it’s worth the short-term fallback in performance the No. 22 team may experience — and at least AJ Allmendinger will actually want to come to work every Sunday. As for Kurt, he claimed in an awkward YouTube video of his own that a sports psychologist combined with a fresh start will “make racing fun again.”
That’s hard to believe, but history isn’t: There’s never been a former champion who’s won at least one race every year for a decade straight sitting on the sidelines without a top-tier ride at Daytona. But talent trumps all, and Busch will man the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevy this season for James Finch, who has vowed not to put up with the petulant antics Busch has displayed in the past. Not that it matters, really. Busch’s deal is for one-year, and by the time that year is up, it’s our prediction that he and Finch will have had about enough of each other.
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.
Why has NASCAR taken one of the fans’ favorite venues on the circuit at Lucas Oil Raceway, and replaced it with a track that typically does not host the most exciting brand of stock car racing?
Money, of course. The .686-mile short track was one of only seven tracks (Bristol, Charlotte, Darlington, Daytona, Dover and Richmond) that has hosted a Nationwide/Busch Series event each year since the series debuted in 1982. But with Cup races at the Brickyard bleeding out attendance on a yearly basis, IMS and the France family decided to bring NASCAR’s junior circuit, as well as the Rolex Grand Am Sports Car Series, to the hallowed grounds beginning this year.
Of course, many fans were in an uproar when the announcement was made. LOR (aka, IRP, ORP) has played host to some of the best short track action in NASCAR’s three touring series over the years. And the Brickyard, while a prestigious facility steeped in tradition, has simply not proven able to stage entertaining stock car races. Add in the 2008 tire debacle, and attendance struggles to reach 50 percent capacity.
To be fair, there was talk of NASCAR’s increased sanctioning fees being a reason LOR could no longer sustain an NNS race, money problems that were scoffed at by officials. In the end, though, that may have been a moot point. Waning fan interest at IMS equates to less dollars, and if NASCAR has been consistent on one point throughout its history, it’s that decisions are made solely with the bottom line in mind. If more suits can be wined and dined, more sponsorship programs sold and activated, and more concessions sold, it’s a no-brainer for the sanctioning body — competition level be damned.
So once again, a short track is sacrificed as the sport kneels at the altar of aero-dependent monstrosities. LOR holds 40,000; IMS is said to hold 270,000. When a Cup date can’t fill up half of those seats on Sunday, can you imagine the ghost town that the Brickyard will be on Saturday? Speaking of ghost towns, one of the most exciting venues on the circuit will turn into one, the victim of a speedway’s and a sanctioning body’s greed.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Richard Childress vs. Kyle Busch: Did Kyle have it coming?
Following Busch’s on-track and post-race pit road run-in with RCR driver Kevin Harvick at Darlington, Richard Childress made it clear to Kyle Busch and NASCAR that if Busch damaged his vehicles again, there’d be hell to pay.
Richard Childress, to no one’s surprise, is a man of his word.
When Busch got physical with RCR driver Truck Series rookie Joey Coulter one month later at Kansas Speedway, Childress made good on his promise, hunting Busch down in the garage, putting him in a headlock and force-feeding him a few knuckle sandwiches.
It’s important to remember that this “feud” has roots stretching back well over a year. Busch had been involved in other incidents with Harvick, the mild-mannered Jeff Burton and former RCR driver Clint Bowyer. Harvick had also mixed it up with Busch’s teammates, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin. So this episode may have been bigger than just Childress vs. Busch — indeed, it seems the 65-year-old team owner was sending a message to Joe Gibbs Racing.
The Kansas incident was the breaking point, though, and although Busch claimed to have not known of Childress’ declaration that he would tolerate no more, Busch took the brunt of the message.
Childress, who’s been in the sport since 1969, still appreciates the value of a buck. As Busch’s antics sent the fab bill in Welcome, N.C., higher and higher, Childress handled the situation in the same manner any number of rivals do on short tracks all across America every weekend.
Was it right? Probably not. Did Busch have it coming? Oh yeah. And NASCAR seemed to think so as well, as Childress got off with a $150,000 fine and probation.
Word is, donations were pouring in almost immediately.
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.