What was the reason for the rash of 2011 postseason crew chief changes on championship-caliber teams?
A perfect storm of circumstances and a desire to stay ahead of the competition at all costs.
Steve Addington had been berated enough, thank you, and saw greener pastures with one of the few more talented drivers in the sport. Darian Grubb’s fate was sealed prior to the Chase and no one — including his shopmates — saw a championship coming. Once on the market, Grubb, along with Nationwide Series mainstay Jason Ratcliff, were Joe Gibbs’ solution to the puzzling dilemmas that are the Nos. 11 and 20 teams. Of course, there were more, but these elite-level talent-swaps illustrate what happens when the competition is so tight. What was once thought of as radical — changing pit bosses on championship-caliber teams in December — is now a necessary step for success.
Why? As NASCAR forces teams into a smaller box in which they can operate from a mechanical perspective, they’re left with few alternatives to gain an edge on the competition. One, though, is dabbling with team chemistry. And with most sponsor contracts tied into the driver’s long-term deal, he’s not going to get the heave-ho — after all, the driver is the face of the corporate entity. Therefore, it’s hard for team owners (or drivers) to not fall in love with the successful head wrench across the way.
Will 2011 stand as a watershed moment in today’s NASCAR? Will true December offseason, headline-grabbing moves become the norm? A definitive and hard-lined “yes,” may be presumptuous, but it seems headed that way.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Will Danica Patrick’s success or failure in the Nationwide Series determine the long-term future for women in NASCAR? And how will she do, anyways?
Let's get this disclaimer out of the way first: Patrick is a fine driver who has paid her dues over the years and proven she can race and do so competitively in other forms of motorsports. That said, there’s no denying Danica is a marketing phenom. Her camp is a savvy bunch, and those smarts coupled with Patrick’s willingness to “play the game” have enabled her to obtain funding. Her brand brings in the bucks, aligning with a sponsor willing to exchange cash for sex appeal (despite some of it being tongue-in-cheek “comedy”).
That said, her level of success in the Nationwide Series may not have any effect on other women trying to get noticed. Why? Because regardless of their talent, they don’t have what Patrick does: Fame. Fame like most will never know. Patrick topped the list of Yahoo’s most searched athletes on the internet in 2011. Think about that. Think about the Sharapovas, Jeters, Tigers, Serenas and Kobes of the world. Danica bested them all. How does one ride those coattails?
That undying interest in the model/spokesperson/driver transcends NASCAR and, therefore, places her on a plane few in any sport can comprehend. At this point — and despite her success (or lack thereof) in NASCAR — Danica is more of a sports celebrity/marketing trailblazer than a stock car pioneer.
Well-funded and secure, Patrick will find her way in the Nationwide Series this year, post respectable showings (thanks in part to a financially unbalanced field) and move on to the Cup Series in 2013 where the true test lies. And that’s where the rubber meets the road, because no driver, regardless of financial backing, can enjoy a long and successful residence in the Cup Series without results.
There have been many women who have made a run at NASCAR glory and fallen well short — not that Danica will. But no matter what the racing future holds, let’s just not anoint her as some Jackie Robinson type, opening doors in a sport that, fairly or unfairly, has been pegged as a chauvinistic Boys Club over the years.
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.
Since NASCAR’s Chase was introduced in 2004, only three drivers have won a title under its playoff format: Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch. Not surprisingly, this trio doubles as the only Cup Series drivers to win at least one race every season since 2002. Johnson and Stewart, with eight championships and star power, are names expected to be on that list … but Busch? That might be a bit of a surprise. Typically, younger brother Kyle grabs more of the attention — recently for all the wrong reasons — yet it’s Kurt who occupies this rarified air. Since pairing with Penske Racing in 2006, he’s won a respectable 10 times, captured six poles and gone four-for-six in postseason appearances.
But that success, impressive as it may be, has come at a cost to his current employer, Roger Penske. Indeed, one of the sport’s best drivers of the past decade has acted like a high school dropout when it comes to the school of public relations. The latest incident is perhaps his most vile; a YouTube video going viral shows Busch mouthing off at a 30-year veteran of the racing business, ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, for simply requesting a post-transmission failure interview. Busch’s transmission was supposedly run over by championship contender Tony Stewart, but when watching the video, you fear Punch is the one about to get run over by Busch.
In response to the incident, Busch issued a brief statement Tuesday, apologizing for his behavior to race fans, Penske Racing, his sponsors and Punch himself. Usually, that’s step one in controlling the damage; the problem is, we’ve read this statement before, to the point those words are meaningful in a boy-who-cried-wolf way. This type of incident, in particular, is the fourth for Busch this year involving a media corps member. His divorce announcement from soon-to-be-ex-wife Eva over Independence Day sparked one; contact with Jimmie Johnson, and the resulting stories written about it by the press corps left him dancing around several others. At Richmond, he nearly came to blows with one reporter over questions surrounding (again) Johnson, and then ripped up the paper another was holding and stormed out of a post-race press conference. Let’s just say Busch’s anger management skills could qualify under the category “needs improvement” — as in improvement through a crisis session with Dr. Phil.
Just ask former crew chief Steve Addington, who endured weekly radio sessions that bordered on outright verbal assault about Busch’s antics. The driver’s feedback arsenal consists of team putdowns, swear words and threatening surrender over the car’s horrific handling — and that’s just in the first 50 laps of this weekly horror film. Amazingly enough, Addington lasted two years under the constant tirades before packing his bags and marching out on Monday. The replacement (if they can find one brave enough) will be Busch’s fifth crew chief since 2006, not exactly the consistency you’d expect with a driver that has skins on the wall that he does.
The truth is Busch has been cantankerous, rude and obnoxious in both private and public over the last few years. That won’t win you friends, although it doesn’t send you to jail either; in fact, in sports where you compete as an individual, rage might fuel success at times. But the difference in the world of family-friendly NASCAR is twofold. First, and most important, is that racing is a team sport. Busch doesn’t go anywhere without crewmen setting up his racecar, then pitting it over a 500-mile event where their focus could mean the difference between fifth and 35th. And why would these people, working for a man who revels in berating them, want to put their best foot forward for him every week?
In hindsight, some of Busch’s late-season issues, with the team being consistently late to pre-race inspection, may have come from crewmembers sending a silent message: “No more.” Even the transmission failure in the season finale, dropping Busch to 11th in points, could have been carelessness caused from people whose motivation has been stripped by being mortified by the driver they’re partnered with.
And that brings us to the second key difference for racers that may soon tip against Busch’s favor: sponsorship. The big companies that pay the big bucks don’t like to see internet postings from fans saying they’ll no longer buy their product. After this latest incident, you could go to every type of racing site and find dozens, if not hundreds, of postings saying “Pennzoil is off the shopping list.” Younger brother Kyle’s behavior may have hurt here — after a one-race parking for bad behavior, Mars/M&M’s responded by pulling its backing for the rest of the year although Kyle’s suspension was never extended – a bitter taste in the mouths of many people who wanted him fired.
Kurt’s rant comes as a case of bad, brotherly timing for those fans tired of this kind of behavior.
Ultimately, in Kyle’s case, Joe Gibbs Racing and the M&M’s brand knew where the bread was buttered. The younger Busch remains the winningest, most marketable driver on JGR’s roster and the long-term choice — as I said a few weeks ago — was not to damage the product. The elder Busch has been able to use that leverage in the past; time and again — as recently as this spring at Richmond — he’s been able to use verbal tirades to make personnel changes and command the type of cars he wants. That’s because for years, Busch was the only successful driver at Penske — whose marketability and overall success ultimately meant more than responding to consistent cases of abuse.
But a sponsor change in 2011, from Miller Lite to Pennzoil, no longer gives Busch that type of security blanket. Owner Penske has his backer involved in several side deals, to the point what driver they have in the car won’t change the millions they’re making outside of NASCAR. More importantly, Busch has some friendly competition within the team for the first time since ’06. Brad Keselowski, who boasts three victories, a fifth-place finish in the final standings and a swear-free record with the media outclassed Busch on the racetrack and in the garage area this season.
Busch, 33, is now six years older than his contemporary, yet finds himself the second-best driver in the two-car Penske shop. His owner, who’s won more Indy 500s than anyone else and is one of the most respected people in the motorsports industry, no longer feels backed into a corner. Sam Hornish Jr., a step below in the Nationwide Series, is winning and thought to be a possible title contender next season. Parker Kligerman, a young prospect, is also just a year or two away from possibly breaking out. Add it all up, and it’s an ugly total threat to Busch: the man whose success had once defined this race team is now easily expendable.
So for Kurt, this offseason needs to be a quick study in learning how to socially interact. Kevin Harvick — once no angel himself — likes to relate what he learned from his own one-race suspension in 2002. When brought into the NASCAR hauler, Harvick said officials made it clear that no matter how successful a driver is, this sport could survive without him. For years, it has. It has survived without many a driver. Even past-champions.
It seems Kurt Busch may feel entitled, but NASCAR Nation knows he’s one step away from ending a career. Let’s see if the driver realizes what everyone else does before it’s too late.
Agree with Tom? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Tom on Twitter@NASCARBowles
With apologies to Bill Elliott and the late, great Alan Kulwicki, the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season finale may be the best the sport has ever seen.
Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards entered the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway separated by a scant three points in the championship standings, and each man’s clutch performance over the 10-race Chase almost guaranteed a showdown unlike any other in Homestead.
They did not disappoint. In fact, they somehow found a way to elevate their performance.
Edwards sat on the pole and led a commanding 119 laps while Stewart was forced to sacrifice valuable track position on two separate occasions, but in the end, Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb had the car to beat. Running first and second throughout much of the second half of the race, Stewart led the final 36 laps over Edwards to win the Ford 400, creating a tie at the top of the standings. A tie-breaking scenario then came into play, and Stewart’s five victories bested Edwards’ one, and he was awarded his third career Cup championship.
“I would have lost every bet in the world if people would have said when you got in the Chase, that we were going to win a race or we were going to win five races and win this thing,” Stewart said. “I would have bet against us. And I learned a big lesson with our organization and how strong a program we have people-wise. I mean, everybody has good cars and good equipment, but I’m sure Darian’s mentioned it, it’s the people you have that make the difference.”
Edwards, who finished second in then race and in the standings, handled the outcome with a level of class not often seen in professional sports.
“This night is about Tony Stewart,” Edwards said after exiting his car. “Those guys rose to the occasion and beat us fair and square — that was all I had at the end. We came here and sat on the pole, led the most laps and Tony still managed — him and Darian — to do a good job with their strategy, come out in front of us … and that’s it, that’s all I got at the end. That’s as hard as I can drive.
“I told my wife, ‘If I can’t win, I’m going to be the best loser NASCAR’s ever had.’ So I’m gonna try really hard to keep my head up and know that we’ll just go next year, and we’ll just be as hard to beat next year.”
Stewart had his fair share of adversity to overcome in the season’s final 400 miles. While running 10th, he had a hole punched in the grille due to a piece of debris early in the going. A quick repair job under caution found him 40th when the green waved, while Edwards coolly paced the field. An additional stop under the next caution to complete service on the nose saw him 35th when racing resumed.
He drove through the pack to the lead by lap 123 of 267, but as darkness fell a slow pit stop on lap 136 dropped him to ninth. Twelve laps later, though, Stewart was back in the lead, having dodged and weaved his way through a wild restart. Almost as quickly as he found the front, Stewart was again snakebit under caution and while on pit road when, as before, a hung lug nut dropped him from the lead to ninth on lap 157.
Undeterred, Stewart drove his Chevy back to second behind Edwards when green flag stops cycled through with roughly 77 laps to go. Stewart and Grubb, planning on the potential of a long green run to end the race, pushed their fuel mileage, staying out 10 laps longer than Edwards. By the time Stewart finally pitted for four tires and fuel, Edwards and his two fresh tires had nearly lapped the No. 14 machine.
Then Stewart’s big break materialized — the one that gave him the track position he could keep and, in the process, win a championship: it started to rain one lap after his stop.
As the shower hit the track and NASCAR waved the caution flag, Stewart found himself over 23 seconds behind the leader, Edwards. However, knowing he needed one more stop to complete the distance, Edwards — along with a host of others — ducked to pit road as NASCAR dried the track. As they did, Stewart advanced from 15th to third and, for all intents and purposes, that was the ballgame.
On the restart with 37 laps remaining, Stewart pushed Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski three-wide into Turn 1, taking the lead one lap later, and scampered away from Edwards — who restarted fifth but quickly made his way to second. It looked like pole day from there, as both championship contenders hung it out on every lap, but Stewart’s four tires trumped Edwards’ two, and he led the rest of the way, winning by 1.3 seconds.
“I didn't question what the plan was or why the plan was,” Stewart said of the fuel mileage decision. “I just stuck to what he (Grubb) told me, and you know, the lap that he called us in, he called us in going into Turn 1, and when I came off Turn 2, the fuel pressure dropped, the motor laid down a little bit but was still running.
When I got to Turn 3, I shut it off, coasted around to Turn 4, kicked the switch, kicked the clutch (and) drove down pit road. We did the stop and he’s like, ‘Keep it revving, keep it running,’ and I’m staring at a fuel pressure gauge that’s not building.
“We dropped the jack, leave, get 50 feet from the last time line and it dies — I mean, it’s dead; it’s out. And I’m like, ‘We just lost this thing,’ and we roll about a hundred feed and it takes off and the needle goes up and it’s like, ‘Wow, that is the call of the race, the call of the Chase,’ and it gave me the opportunity to do what I love doing best: letting it all hang out and putting it all on the line with the restart.”
It was Stewart’s fifth win of the season, all of which came in the Chase. Edwards’ lone 2011 victory came at Las Vegas in March.
Most cite the 1992 finale as the greatest race and championship conclusion in NASCAR’s modern era. Kulwicki and Elliott settled that title in Atlanta, with the former winning his only Cup championship by leading more laps than the latter (despite running second to Elliott) to win by 10 points.
History will certainly mention the 2011 version in the same breath as, for the first time ever, the championship standings went to the number-of-race-wins tie-breaker. The two contenders finishing first and second in the all-important final race only added to the comparisons to ’92, as did Stewart’s status – like Kulwicki’s — as an owner/driver.
“Tony has taken on a hat of being an owner, and unfortunately there’s a lot of responsibilities that come with that as far as personnel changes and personnel problems, human resources and paying paychecks and all that stuff,” team co-owner Gene Haas said. “Tony takes that to heart and I think it can upset the way he races. So myself and Joe (Custer, co-owner) and all of the management at Stewart-Haas Racing, what we really tried to do in the last year or so was just isolate him from that; make sure that Tony just concentrated on the driving part.”
As the 2011 season wound down in Homestead, Fla., Tony Stewart was all driver, putting on what was arguably the greatest single performance of pure wheelmanship NASCAR has ever seen.
From the Spotter’s Stand
NASCAR takes its traveling road show to South Beach for the last stop on the Cup schedule. And home sweet Homestead is the only race where it’s possible to see two teams celebrate victory.
In 2010, Carl Edwards back-flipped and chilled with the crowd after winning his second straight race of the Chase and earning his second Homestead win in three years. Cousin Carl led 190 laps and gained plenty of positive momentum that has translated into a title run this season.
But the driver who did donuts after the race was the runner-up. Jimmie Johnson led just one lap, but it was enough to finish No. 1 in the standings — 39 points ahead of Denny Hamlin — and clinch a record fifth straight Cup title for Rick Hendrick’s top team.
Make no mistake, this race will be the “Tony and Carl Show,” as the two hit South Florida separated by just three points in the standings. This championship battle could go either way: Edwards gets marks for his performance since Homestead’s reconfiguration and Stewart has been running so well regardless of track that a win is possible on any given weekend.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Long straightaways transition into corners where speed must be maintained — at least partially — to set up a pass in the center (of the corner) off. A car that can pick up the throttle quickly off the corner is one that can pass.
“That track was such a disaster when it opened. They shaped it like Indy, only smaller, but didn’t realize that squared-off corners are just dangerous on a track that’s a mile and half, not two. So they rounded the corners, and then stage three was tapering the banking. It took a bunch of money and revamping, but they got it right.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Points leader Carl Edwards has two wins and six top 10s in seven starts at HMS. Pretty Solid Pick: Tony Stewart is going to be on Carl’s bumper all race long. Or maybe in front of it. Good Sleeper Pick: AJ Allmendinger has yet to win a Cup race, but that may change on Sunday. He’s never finished worse than 11th in Homestead. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Kyle Busch has typically thrown in the towel by now. This year is probably no exception. Insider Tip: This one’s for all the marbles. Your lineup needs to include either Edwards or Stewart.
Classic Moments at Homestead-Miami Speedway
The 2004 Ford 400 in Homestead marks the final race of NASCAR’s inaugural Chase for the Championship.
Kurt Busch enters the event 18 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and 21 up over Jeff Gordon, but on lap 93 the wheels come off. Literally. Busch loses his right front wheel while running second to Greg Biffle, when the hub completely detaches from the car. Luckily, Busch has already ducked to the pit access road, although he nearly hits the pit road wall in the process.
Amazingly, Busch never loses a lap, and wins a game of points-leader leapfrog, finishing fifth while Johnson is second and Gordon third. Eight points separate Busch from Johnson, marking the tightest points finish in NASCAR history.
Just three points separate Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards as they settle the 2011 Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But is this really the greatest (or even the closest) title fight ever? Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese takes a look back at the greatest last-lap championship finishes in NASCAR’s history.
Much has been and will be made this weekend about the “closest championship battle ever.” Many pundits have bandied about how the 2011 Chase for the Championship is “the greatest championship fight ever,” “the closest title fight ever” or “the best Chase yet.” That might not be true if your name is Kyle Busch — or if you were watching the sport before Jimmie Johnson decided to make a career out of destroying records and invalidating a number of title formats.
This year marks the first time somebody other than Johnson will win the title since before vampire movies were relevant. So let’s reflect back on some of those “other” championship battles that went down to the final race. After all, if this year is supposed to be the greatest and most dramatic championship ever, it would have to be gauged against the following five title bouts.
1973: Benny Parsons vs. Richard Petty vs. Cale Yarborough
It was the early ’70s. Music sucked, the cars were getting slow and everybody wore their hair and dressed like a dirtball or a terrorist. It was also a time when Richard Petty began to build upon the legacy that would earn him the nickname “The King,” having won back-to-back titles in 1971 and ’72.
Going into the final race at Rockingham, Benny Parsons held a 194.5-point lead over Petty. Parsons, driving a Chevrolet for L.G. DeWitt, qualified fifth and was running by his lonesome when a car spun on the backstretch. Parsons clipped it, ripping the entire right side off of the car — including the roll cage. There was only one other car that didn’t qualify for the event and that was still at the track — a car owned by Ralph Moody of legendary Ford-tandem Holman-Moody fame. Moody’s car became a donor for Parsons’ mangled machine.
BP returned to the action 136 laps down, but was able to hold off Cale Yarborough in the championship battle by 67.15 points. It would be the only Cup title for Parsons, whose feat prevented Petty from winning five consecutive championships.
1979: Darrell Waltrip vs. Richard Petty
As the worst decade ever came to a close, a new age in NASCAR dawned. Darrell Waltrip brought a brash attitude and trash-talking to the stock car scene, while The King was not quite ready to abdicate the throne. While DW may have pulled a slide job on Petty to win at Darlington in the Rebel 500, the championship would come down to the final event in Ontario, Calif. — the spiritual sister track to The Brickyard.
Petty trailed Waltrip by two points heading into the final race (a true two-point margin, mind you; Tony Stewart would trail Carl Edwards by 15 points under this same system). On the 38th lap of the event, a car spun in front of Waltrip, who also spun in an effort to avoid hitting what may have been in the cloud of smoke ahead of him. This was before the era of any sort of electronic timing and scoring or transponders, and Waltrip believed he was the leader, having pitted just once to the leaders’ two stops. Later, Waltrip’s crew chief would confirm his greatest fear: he was actually one lap down.
Petty would finish fifth to Waltrip’s eighth that day. It was the seventh and final championship for Petty, and an improbable one at that, as 10 races prior, Petty was 227 points out of the lead. Considering how out to lunch Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team were stumbling into the Chase this season, the final 1979 race in Ontario should provide some inspiration for the owner/driver of Stewart-Haas Racing.
2004: Five-Way Chase Race
There were a lot of naysayers when the term “The Chase” entered the NASCAR lexicon following 19 seasons of sensational championship showdowns. Unfortunately, two of the final four NASCAR seasons were less than thrilling, with Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth conspiring to give credence to a new points format — one that the “casual sports fan” would be more accustomed to.
While many bemoaned the very idea of change and cursed the billion-dollar network television deal which spawned this hideous monster, come Homestead in November 2004, there were five drivers with a shot at the first Nextel Cup.
Kurt Busch entered the event with a scant 18-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin mathematically in contention for the crown. As cheesy as it sounds, the wheels of Busch’s championship chase literally did come off of Lap 93, as a loose right front wheel gave way on his car. Busch, sensing something was amiss, ducked to pit road as the wheel separated itself from the machine, and he narrowly missed hitting the pit road barrier. The errant Goodyear Eagle then bounded down the frontstretch, brought out a caution and, as a result, Busch remained on the lead lap.
A late-race, two-lap scramble saw Busch’s teammate, Greg Biffle, win the event, preventing Johnson from gaining a position and leading a lap — and ultimately falling short of a championship. Had Johnson gotten by Biffle, he would have won by two points. As it stands, the first Chase season was the closest ever and, in hindsight, nearly thrust Johnson within but one title of immortality alongside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty’s seven Cup titles.
1990: The Blue Oval Brigade vs. Dale Earnhardt
Rusty Wallace and the No. 27 Raymond Beadle-owned team did everything humanly possible to lose the championship in 1989, but somehow outlasted Dale Earnhardt by 12 points. While Wallace jumped up and down on his hood, the Intimidator went and sulked in his tree stand.
The 1990 season was supposed to be all Earnhardt, as he looked to finally win the Daytona 500 and his fourth championship. The 500 ended with the checkered flag in sight for Earnhardt and a piece of Ricky Rudd’s bell housing slicing open his tire. There was also the matter of an upstart Ford team, which a year earlier served notice that a Midwest short-track ace getting his second shot at stardom and a Michigan-based engineer with a road- and drag-race background were going to be sticking around for the foreseeable future in the form of Mark Martin and Jack Roush.
Martin and Earnhardt emerged during the summer months as the two title contenders, with Martin assuming the points lead in June despite a dubious 46-point fine regarding a welded intake spacer that was technically legal after Martin won the third race of the season in Richmond. There used to be a week off prior to the final race in Atlanta, and the Ford teams had one mission: defeat General Motors and deny it a championship. While the No. 6 Roush team had won the August event at Michigan, all of the Ford camps colluded during the week of testing prior to the final race to conjure up the ultimate Thunderbird — the original Roush/Yates collaboration.
What resulted was a good idea gone awry: A car that pushed like an Amish haycart and had air in the brake lines. Earnhardt finished third, Martin sixth, and the Intimidator took his fourth Cup title by 26 points.
1992: The Greatest Championship Battle and Single Race in NASCAR History.
There are certain sports highlights that are ingrained in the minds of fans everywhere. If you’re a baseball fan, it’s Kirk Gibson hobbling around second, fist pumping, after going yard on a bum wheel. If you’re a football fan, it’s Montana to Clark in slow motion. If you’re a NASCAR fan, it’s everything that happened in the 1992 Hooters 500.
We’ve all become accustomed to the pre-race flyover, but it isn’t often that you have AH-64 Apaches pacing the field around the track.
It was Jeff Gordon’s first race and Richard Petty’s fiery finale, replete with on-air demands of safety workers to, “Get the ****in’ fire extinguisher!” (little wonder where Kurt Busch gets it from). Six drivers entered the final race with a shot at the championship: Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison (despite nearly getting killed twice in racing accidents that year), Mark Martin, Kyle Petty and Harry Gant.
Martin dominated the middle stages of the race before succumbing to a burned piston, while Allison was taken out by a swervin’ Ernie Irvan. That left it to Awesome Bill and the Kulwicki’s Underbird. Kulwicki needed to lead one more lap than Elliott to prevent him from leading the most laps — had he not, Elliott would have won the tie-breaker based on wins (five victories to Kulwicki’s two).
If Tony Stewart is in need of any sort of motivation this weekend as he attempts to eclipse Carl Edwards in the Sprint Cup standings, he should pop in a tape of this race. The original stock car engineer, who kept St. Christopher wings under his seat and a comb in his pocket, realized the unlikely dream when he set forth down south from Greenfield, Wisc., six years earlier. Kulwicki finished second to Elliott in the race, but won the big prize by 10 points — ending the greatest championship battle and single race in NASCAR history.
Rusty's Motto: "You wreck it, you repair it." OK, not really. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart It’s tough to rank Stewart ahead of Carl Edwards or vise versa, but Smoke gets the edge here because he’s throwing wins on the board — and that’s fun to watch.
2. Carl Edwards His consistency — highlighted by consecutive runner-up showings — is unquestioned. Edwards won the season finale in Homestead last season. Winning a second straight would clinch the title.
3. Kasey Kahne Kahne and his Red Bull team have been as good as anyone in the Chase — well OK, outside of the two guys above. Had he made the playoffs, he’d still be mathematically alive.
4. Matt Kenseth Led 49 laps at Phoenix before the brakes started to fade. Then Brian Vickers did neither himself nor Kenseth any favors by flagrantly exacting some revenge.
5. Kevin Harvick Harvick will come up just shy of a championship once again, most likely finishing third. But that’s OK Kev, you still have the coolest paint scheme on tour.
6. Jimmie Johnson Johnson’s five-year reign may be over, but let’s not proclaim the Jimmie Johnson Era over. J.J. and Chad Knaus will probably just come back more focused and determined next season.
7. Brad Keselowski Keselowski’s three wins in 2011 are more than Penske’s No. 12 team have enjoyed in the six previous years combined. It’s possible he could double that number next year.
Make no mistake, he takes great pride in the hair. Wouldn't you? (ASP, Inc.)
8. Denny Hamlin When asked whether his sports psychologist might help teammate Kyle Busch he said, “We both have screws loose — it’s just that some are tighter than others. And they’re in different places.” That’s deep.
9. Clint Bowyer Bowyer is finishing his tenure at Richard Childress Racing strong with six top 10s in the nine Chase races thus far. Credit driver and team for hanging tough.
10. Greg Biffle Has averaged a 14th-place finish throughout the Chase which, incidentally, is probably where he’ll finish in the point standings if Kasey Kahne keeps coming on.
11. Jeff Gordon Looked as out to lunch at Phoenix as we’ve seen all year. Experimenting, maybe?
12. AJ Allmendinger Allmendinger will be the next driver to score his first Cup victory. Hell, it could come this weekend.
13. Marcos Ambrose Between Allmendinger and Ambrose, it’s obvious they’re doing something right at RPM (or they’re not tinkering with new setups as much as other teams are).
14. Kyle Busch Official reason for Kyle’s DNF at Phoenix: Karma.
15. Martin Truex Jr. If this team could ever learn to put an entire race together they’d be dangerous.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Ryan Newman
Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart entered Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway separated by three points at the top of NASCAR’s championship standings. And after finishing second (Edwards) and third (Stewart), they’ll go to the season finale in Homestead, Fla., still three points apart.
Stewart led the most laps in Phoenix, and appeared to be headed toward his third consecutive victory, but surrendered the lead on lap 294 when he was forced to pit road for a splash of fuel.
That handed the lead to Kasey Kahne, who has been on a tear of his own lately. Kahne led the final 14 laps, beating Edwards to the finish line by .802 seconds. The win was Kahne’s eighth top-15 run in the last nine races — an admirable feet for team that likely will not exist next year due to Red Bull pulling out of NASCAR’s ownership ranks.
“It feels great to get a win for Red Bull and get a win in the 4 car,”?Kahne said. “It’s something new for both of us (Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis) to come over and have a one-year deal. It takes time to get familiar with things and the people and working together. To win a race at this level, as competitive as everything is right now, for myself, to see how happy all the pit crew guys were, it was pretty cool.”
Meanwhile, Edwards and Stewart are locked in a razor-thin battle for the title, using different means to achieve the same goal.
Edwards has used consistency to claim the top spot in the point standings — his worst finish since Bristol in late August was an 11th at treacherous Talladega. He and the No. 99 team have seemingly tip-toed through the Chase, averaging a 5.2-place finish thus far. He grabbed the lead at Dover in the Chase’s third event, but still has yet to win a playoff race.
“(It’s) a zero sum game, one of us is going to win, one of us is going to lose,” Edwards says. “It’s neat to me that Tony and the guys on the 14 (team) are running so well, won so many races, performing on a high level. It’s going to mean more if we’re able to beat them in this championship because of that.
“We haven’t gone out and got the trophies that we have in other Chases, but we’ve performed better than we ever have. If they’re beating us, they’re beating us at our best, and I think that’s pretty neat.”
Stewart, on the other hand, has attacked the playoffs with reckless abandon, throwing caution to the wind, ripping off four playoff wins to pull just shy of even with Edwards with one race remaining. His performance is in stark contrast to the 26-race regular season when Stewart’s No. 14 team failed to sniff Victory Lane.
“We’ve had one of those up-and-down years and we’re having a run in this Chase now where we’re hungry,” Stewart said after his third Chase win. “We’re hungry for this. I feel like our mind set into these next three weeks, we’ve been nice all year to a lot of guys, given guys a lot of breaks. We’re cashing tickets in these next three weeks.”
One final weekend, two determined drivers and three points separating them.
From the Spotter’s Stand
Jeff Gordon looked and sounded more like an unlikely 20 year-old Daytona 500 winner than a 20-year veteran with four titles in Phoenix International Raceway’s Victory Lane in February. Gordon broke a 66-race winless skid by moving past Kyle Busch with nine laps remaining to post the win.
While Gordon’s car was strong that day (138 laps led), don’t pencil him in for another win too fast. Phoenix has been repaved and reconfigured since the Cup Series’ last visit. It’s expected that until a second groove is rubbered-in, this may be a single-file show — something the drivers certainly don’t want to see — but if it races like the “old” Bristol, the fans may pleasantly surprised.
“It’s not just that there was not a second groove,” Gordon says of the Phoenix tire test conducted in August. “It was if you got a foot outside of that groove, you were either in the wall or you were going to lose a lap. It took that long to get back in the groove and clean the tires off and get back up to speed. That is the part where I say things could be very interesting and challenging.”
Two-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick agrres, painting a rather grim picture of what the racing could look like:
“If the second groove doesn’t come in, it is going to be a fuel mileage, single-file, tough to pass race. It will be a track position game with lots of wrecks.”
The desert also ended droughts for both Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards in 2010. Newman had gone 77 races since winning the Daytona 500 in 2008 before taking the checkers — after taking two tires rather than the full four — at Phoenix in April.
Meanwhile, Cousin Carl hadn’t back-flipped after a Cup win in 70 races prior to squeezing every last drop out of his fuel tank and dusting runner-up Newman by 4.77 seconds to take back-to-back Cup and Nationwide wins at the one-mile Avondale oval in November. This race will forever be burned into Denny Hamlin’s mind as the event where his team lost a championship. Yes, Hamlin and the team still had a shot the next weekend at Homestead, but after this bungled finish, they were mentally beaten.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Turns 1 and 2 are completely different than Turns 3 and 4 at Phoenix, which makes it difficult to find the right balance in the setup. And with a new surface as well as a reconfiguration, it’ll be all about track position. One groove — on the bottom — will probably make for a single-file race until some serious rubber gets worked into the track. Certain drivers — Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch come to mind — sort of know the tricks there. It takes a pretty talented driver to be willing to experiment out there, and Phoenix rewards the ones who find the tricks.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: You have to figure Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards are going to pull out all the stops. Pretty Solid Pick: Jeff Gordon led a race-high 138 laps here in February. Good Sleeper Pick: Martin Truex Jr. typically notches top-15 runs in the desert. Runs on Seven Cylinders: David Ragan needs some solid showings to end the season in order to score a 2012 ride, but his 26.1-place average finish here is nasty. Insider Tip: Friday and Saturday practice sessions may be the most critical of any all season. Pay close attention.
Classic Moments at PIR
For the first time in 13 years, The King returns to Victory Lane. Bobby Hamilton, driving Richard Petty’s No. 43 STP Pontiac, leads 40 laps in the 1996 Dura Lube 500 at PIR to earn his first career Cup win.
Hamilton loses the lead on pit road, falling to fourth for a lap 266 restart, but he blows by Mark Martin and Terry Labonte within seven laps, and gets by Geoff Bodine 10 laps later to secure his first of three career cup triumphs.
“I’ve told a lot of people, there’s Dale Earnhardt fans or Bill Elliott fans, but when those guys fall out of the race, they’re still Richard Petty fans,” Hamilton says. “I thought it was pretty cool to win this race for him.”
The "No Limits" Girls received entitrely too little coverage last weekend. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Momentum has clearly swung in Smoke’s favor. He’s always been a streaky driver, and now that he’s “on” it may be hard for Carl Edwards to hold him off.
2. Carl Edwards Averaging a 5.6-place finish in the Chase, but Stewart is blowing Cousin Carl’s doors off in the wins department. Still, NASCAR’s points format rewards consistency over winning, so is it advantage: Carl?
3. Matt Kenseth Talladega and Martinsville were considered the tracks that could derail Carl Edwards’ championship hopes. Turns out, they bit Matt.
4. Kevin Harvick It looked as if Harvick was going to pull another miraculous “Where’d he come from?” finish at Texas. However, a two-tire pit call dropped him to 13th, effectively ending his championship hopes.
5. Jimmie Johnson Johnson’s four finishes outside of the top 10 in this season’s Chase are more than in the last three Chases combined. That’s amazing.
6. Kasey Kahne Kahne has only one finish outside the top 15 in the last eight races. Credit the lame-duck driver and the Red Bull Racing team (who may lose their jobs at season’s end) for not throwing in the towel.
7. Brad Keselowski Since Keselowski and the No. 2 turned things around at Indy, they’ve recorded 11 top-12 runs in 15 races, winning twice. Unfortunately, Cinderella’s slipper isn’t going to fit.
8. Jeff Gordon Returns to the track where he won in February. Unfortunately for Gordon, the track has been repaved, reconfigured and has only one good racing groove. He better qualify well.
9. Deny Hamlin Was looking for a fourth consecutive top-10 run, which would have been his best string of finishes this year. Brad Keselowski saw to that, though.
10. Clint Bowyer Would be seventh in the standings had he made the Chase. Woulda, shoulda, coulda, right? It will be interesting to see if he can elevate Michael Waltrip Racing to the next level in 2012.
"You wanna piece of me?!" (ASP, Inc.)
11. Greg Biffle Five straight top-15 showings for Biffle and the boys. Finishing strong matters.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Consecutive seventh-place finishes, the best we’ve seen in a few months out of this bunch.
13. Kurt Busch Parked brother Kyle got more camera time than 30th-place Kurt at Texas.
14. Martin Truex Jr. Bowyer’s teammate-to-be has three stright top 10s. Again, finishing strong matters.
15. Kyle Busch There comes a turning point in every driver’s career. Maybe this was Kyle’s.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman
Tony Stewart is putting together a run in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship as impressive as any seen in its seven-year history. Stewart’s win in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway was his fourth in eight Chase races, and finds him just three points shy of Carl Edwards as the Sprint Cup Series heads to the penultimate race of the season in Phoenix.
What is even more impressive is that until Stewart won the first race of the Chase in Chicago, he was winless in the 26-race regular season and largely dismissed as a title contender. Even Stewart, the organization’s driver and co-owner, doubted his chances.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, at this point of the deal, if we’re going to run this bad, it really doesn't matter whether we make the Chase or not,” Stewart said after the Michigan race in August. “We’re going to be occupying a spot in the Chase that somebody else who can actually run for a championship is going to be trying to take. Our stuff is so bad right now that we’re wasting one of those top 12 spots right now.”
What a difference a month makes, as 29 days and four races later, Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb notched the Chicago win, a victory earned by saving fuel. The same events transpired the following week in New Hampshire, while a strong finish in Martinsville in the Chase’s seventh race found Stewart in Victory Lane for a third time.
Much akin to his first two victories, the last two have come in similar fashion: with powerhouse moves on late-race restarts on the high side of the track — largely considered the unconventional line.
At Martinsville, Stewart surged by five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. In Texas, he got the jump on chief-rival Edwards with five laps remaining and stormed off to a 1.092-second win.
“We’re aggressive right now,”?Stewart said of the restarts. “I’m taking charge and trying to control my own destiny. I think the restarts today showed what our intentions are and what we’re about for these next two weeks.”
Edwards held on for second, while Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle rounded out the top 5.
“I was surprised they (the No. 14 team) were able to put together two weeks that were so good,” Edwards admitted. “That was really good work on their part. There’s nothing saying that that will play into another solid two weeks, but it very well could.
“From the way practice went and everything, I thought we’d have a little advantage tonight. They did all their jobs very well.”
The circuit heads to the newly-repaved and reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500. With a new surface and on a track with a different layout than in the past, many are calling it the ultimate “wild card” race in the playoffs.
“I think that Phoenix is still a huge unknown,” Edwards said. “We really think next week has a larger opportunity, by a landslide, to change the outcome of this Chase. If Tony and I run 1-2 at Homestead, there’s not going to be much points change if we run like we did tonight, but Phoenix has the potential to be huge.”
That may be so, but judging by the last few weeks, it doesn’t matter where the series races — Edwards and Stewart have separated themselves as the class of the field. And Stewart, for one, is feeling the confidence a hot streak at just the right time is bound to instill:
“I’m pretty sure what we did on the racetrack said everything we needed to tell (Edwards) today. I mean, I don’t know how you top that. He knows. Trust me, he knows.
“The fun thing is I don’t feel like I have to say anything — I feel like I already got it done.”