“Humdrum” is a word typically used to describe the racing action at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The two-mile Michigan clone was originally designed — it has received some touch-up work since being completed in 1997 — to be optimal for IndyCar-style race cars. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race might not offer much in terms of outright excitement, but there are some meaningful story lines hidden within a four-race sample size of advanced metrics.
Several driver and teams need a good outing — two of them are mentioned below — to right a wrong or two from earlier races this season. The hottest driver in the sport typically leaves California under a deluge of disappointment. As usual, if we focus on the stories behind the numbers, the overall game becomes far more intriguing.
7.000 After four races, Brad Keselowski has the highest Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) — a measure of a driver’s on-track production in an “all equipment even” scenario — in the Cup Series with a 7.000 rating.
The last time the No. 2 Penske Racing entry was this good, it was 1993, Rusty Wallace was the driver and the car was probably running on traction control. Keselowski’s bunch is a little more buttoned up, allowing him to capitalize on driving for the most consistent-finishing team in the Cup Series (a finish deviation of 0.6; a zero deviation is perfectly consistent). Keselowski has earned pairs of fourths and thirds to comprise his 3.5-place average finish, two of which were on tracks at which he has previously been a mundane producer (Phoenix and Las Vegas). Even more amazing is that the team has finished higher than its average running positions — 18th at Daytona, seventh at Phoenix, fifth at Las Vegas and ninth at Bristol — in each race. The team is frighteningly strong, but the ever-improving driver is earning his keep.
-1.188 Keselowski ranks 48th out of 49 drivers in PEER at Auto Club Speedway after averaging a finish of 22.8 in his only four Cup Series starts at the facility.
So yes, a driver off to a tremendous start to the season comes up against racetrack that has historically been a buzz killer for him. Something is sure to change on Sunday.
15.4 The start to Kasey Kahne’s 2013 season is 15.4 positions better than his first four-race effort last year.
To think that Kahne has essentially cut his average finish after four races in half is pretty nutty, though, when he was averaging a 29.8-place result following Bristol last year, it too was unfathomable for the consistently strong producer. To be fair, his win last Sunday and his second-place outing at Las Vegas are carrying his current 14.5-place average and his 16.5 finish deviation is the fourth-least consistent in the series. Kahne’s start to the season isn’t as explosive as Keselowski’s jump out of the starting blocks, but it is a foundation on which to build and can allow Kahne and his crew to focus more comfortably on Chase preparation rather than digging out of a hole created by spinning its tires at the start of a new year.
Kyle Busch owns 53 career Nationwide Series wins. (ASP, Inc.)
40.6% Kyle Busch has led 333 laps, or 40.6 percent of laps, across four NASCAR Nationwide Series races this season.
Busch’s return to Joe Gibbs Racing in America’s favorite Saturday series has been lucrative, paying out a currency of dominant performances. He has two victories, including last Saturday’s woodshed whipping at Bristol, and has spent 95.5 percent of the last four races running inside the top 15. He now heads to Auto Club Speedway this weekend where JGR has captured wins in the last eight Nationwide races. Uh oh.
7.375 Jimmie Johnson’s 7.375 PEER across the last eight races at Auto Club Speedway is better than Keselowski’s four-race 2013 sample size that is presently the most productive of the series.
Johnson’s10th-place finish there last season almost seems like an aberration. During the CoT era the California native protected his home turf, winning three times and finishing second twice and third once across eight races. That 3.62-place average finish is, by far, the best average among drivers in that timeframe.
100% Other than Johnson, the only driver to have finished in the top half of fields in all eight races of the CoT era at Auto Club is Clint Bowyer, for a relevance percentage of 100 percent.
We can actually take this a step further; Bowyer has never finished in the bottom half of a Cup Series field in Fontana. His average finish through 12 races of “Gen-4” and “Gen-5” technology is 10.8. That average drops to 7.8 in the five races dating back to the summer of 2009. Hitting that average would be helpful to a No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team looking to make up ground lost in its 27th-place finish at Las Vegas. Outside of that result, Bowyer and team have earned finishes of 11th, sixth and fifth for an average of around 7.3, in the neighborhood of the driver’s average performance on the Golden State oval.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Food City 500 at Bristol.
Bristol: Far from capacity. (ASP, Inc.)
There’s nothing about a rough start to the NASCAR season a short track can’t fix. During a thrilling weekend in Bristol, the sport had a near-photo finish in Saturday’s Nationwide race (remember this name: Kyle Larson) and several thrilling moments during Sunday’s big show. After plenty of criticism — from a driver’s $25,000 fine to fans railing about Daytona’s single-file 500 — it’s hard to find anyone complaining about the action in Thunder Valley. But honestly, when’s the last time fans left a short track feeling they threw their hard-earned money down the toilet?
It certainly wasn’t last spring at Martinsville, when the Clint Bowyer – Jeff Gordon feud officially began. Or last fall at Richmond, where Gordon’s epic charge to second knocked Kyle Busch out of the Chase. My point? These three speedways, even in the worst of times, make fans flock to them faster than this Sunday’s two-mile tedium, otherwise known as Auto Club Speedway ever will.
With all that said …
FIRST GEAR: Bristol’s back. So why is the attendance still awful?
The number of empty seats at Bristol, one year after Bruton Smith’s latest reconfiguration recommended by the fans themselves, was an eye-opener. A track which once sold out for 55 consecutive Cup races, from 1982-2009, had chasms full of unsold tickets noticeable both at the track and on television. (NASCAR no longer releases official attendance). Considering Bristol has over 160,000 seats, even 50 percent capacity is more than a sellout at Martinsville, Darlington or other facilities which don’t even have that much room in the stands. But it’s also highly disturbing considering its “crown jewel” reputation as one of the sport’s must-see events.
It’s a shame, considering Sunday offered the perfect mix of Bristol’s magic elixir: unpredictability. 110 laps before the finish, leader Jeff Gordon blew a tire and took out himself and second-place Matt Kenseth, changing the complexion of the race. The personal fireworks were also there, in the form of a budding rivalry between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano (see below). Record speeds combined with a healthy 17 lead changes mixed side-by-side action with the on-track rubbing still needed at times to get by other competitors.
Two theories abound here. One: fans, skeptical of the sport and the Gen-6 car chose to stay home, sending a message that both drivers and track need to be worthy of their cash. (The night race, in August and closer to NASCAR’s Chase, draws better.) But the more likely scenario surrounds a disturbing amount of price gouging still prevalent within the region. Lodging that typically would be $100 or less a night during a typical weekend went for four-, five-, even six-times that.
No amount of ticket price discount can fix that hit to a blue-collar fan’s wallet. That’s especially true considering the track’s location, so close to many other fine facilities. If you’re a fan from Charleston, S.C., for example, why spend $1,000 on lodging, plus mileage when you’ve got Talladega, Atlanta and Charlotte within a similar driving distance — for half the price.
The economy always makes an argument here; in smaller markets, the races are the only major event hitting the region, meaning hotels have to maximize profits in order to survive. But the TriCities unemployment rate, along with job creation, has generally been stronger than the national average. Add in Smith’s billions and there’s no excuse to get this problem fixed, even though he’s powerful enough (see: getting the state of Kentucky to custom build roads for his speedway in Sparta).
Looks like its time for Smith to flex some muscle again. Otherwise, it’ll be years (if ever) before his most prized possession fills up to capacity.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s third wheel pushing for first-rate attention
Kasey Kahne’s Bristol success, while continuing a sizzling 2013 start, was a bit of a shock. Even after Sunday, his highest career average finish at any short track is Richmond, with a mediocre 18.0. That’s also the location of his last win at an oval this small, scoring his first Cup victory there in May 2005 before bookending his victory total with a 1.7-second, cruise-control performance down the stretch on Sunday.
“This is a big race for me,” he said Sunday after scooting ahead of Brad Keselowski on the final restart. “Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver, you really feel like you need to win at. It’s a big confidence builder.”
So is his habit of qualifying up front — a 3.5-place average start leads all drivers, along with 223 laps led in 2013. But most importantly, he’s not digging the type of 2012 hole that expended almost all this team’s energy simply to make last year’s Chase. Instead, he’s showcasing the type of versatility (second at Las Vegas, first at Bristol, one of the favorites at Daytona before wrecking out) that one needs to take home a title in this sport.
To do it, Kahne would have to leapfrog Johnson within the organization, a feat once thought impossible. But keep in mind, head wrench Kenny Francis — not from the Hendrick mold — can step outside the box of Chad Knaus. Those at HMS were impressed with the ideas he brought to the table in ’12 and many credit them for the organization’s resurgence. Francis, working out of a different shop, won’t have to play nice as consistently this fall and has the better pit crew, Johnson’s Achilles Heel, in each of the last two seasons.
Will it happen? I’ll still believe it when I see it. But four races in, Kahne has started making a case.
Joey Logano (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Old teammates, new rivalry?
It wasn’t long on Sunday before Joey Logano’s post-race shouting match with Denny Hamlin transcended typical NASCAR media and went national. It’s the second time in a month the two drivers have been at war. In February, it was over Daytona drafting that went awry and cost both a better finish.
“That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car – probably the worst teammate I ever had,” Logano said afterwards. “I had to put up with him for years, so… he’s just driving like an idiot.”
In his defense, Penske’s newest addition was right to place blame. Hamlin may not have meant to spin him, but all it takes is one frustrating bump at Bristol. The two have since taken to Twitter, spouting back and forth like high-schoolers (Hamlin, in particular, could sell t-shirts over his “Hush, little child” slam alone.)
What’s next? Both drivers are the emotional type, so this incident won’t get swept under the rug. Most importantly, Logano’s now matched with Brad Keselowski, who has a colorful history with Hamlin, and who had his own issues with the No. 11 on Sunday. The one who pushed to pair up, Kes has taken Logano under his wing, the type of mentorship Hamlin or Kyle Busch never gave at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s possible some bitterness still exists there, along with a push from the reigning champ to “stand up for yourself” that will only increase. Stay tuned.
FOURTH GEAR: Where there’s Smoke, there’s a slump
Say what you will about Danica Patrick. But four races into 2013, she’s got as many top 10s, more poles and more laps led than her boss. The race wasn’t 10 laps old Sunday before Tony Stewart hit the wall, his second wreck in four races that’s left him 24th in points. That’s one spot ahead of Ryan Newman, who was seventh at Bristol but has suffered two other spectacular DNFs.
Typically, that wouldn’t be a problem for Smoke; he’s noted for not winning much until May. But landing 30 points outside the top 10, even this early in the season, could prove problematic. There’s a lot of talent to jump over, a potential “wild card” threat already in Matt Kenseth (reading three-four wins, just as many DNFs to keep him needing that fallback) and the dangers of falling too far behind development of NASCAR’s Gen-6. The more damaged cars, the more costly it becomes, and with over a dozen races unsponsored amongst his three teams, the money is not exactly growing on trees.
Danica, though, presents the biggest question of all. Could her struggles, combined with the media scrutiny surrounding them, make it that much harder to get on the same page? It’s the biggest mess Stewart’s had since purchasing the team in ’09. Has he matured as a boss to keep calm and work his way through it?
OVERDRIVE Paul Menard, RCR’s most consistent driver in 2013, has run better each week. He was 21st, 20th, then 10th before running ninth on Sunday. … Brad Keselowski’s the first since rival Jimmie Johnson, in 2005, with four top-5 finishes in the first four races. The difference? Johnson picked up a win (Las Vegas) with 270 laps led overall. No wonder why Penske’s top dog is so ticked. … Considering Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s freshman-year start in the Nationwide Series – four races, four wrecks – you have to give him credit for his start in Sprint Cup. Four straight top-20 finishes, leaving him 11th in points is the perfect foundation considering he should improve as the season progresses.
Kasey Kahne grabs first NASCAR Sprint Cup win of 2013
Kasey Kahne in Bristol's Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
After leading the most laps last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway only to run second to Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne felt he had something to prove on Sunday. And with Bristol Motor Speedway being the next stop on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, all the better, as Kahne had yet to win on the tough half-mile racetrack in East Tennessee.
And prove it he did. Kahne got the jump on Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin during the final restart of the Food City 500 and cruised, leading the final 40 laps to notch his first Cup victory on Bristol’s high banks.
“This is a big race (win) for me,” Kahne said. “I just feel like when you’re racing in the Sprint Cup Series, Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver you really feel like you need to win at, you want to win at. There's so many things that are thrown at you when you come to this place.
“We've been trying (to win at Bristol for) a long time. So to pull it off, I felt like it was a big accomplishment for our guys and myself. Just feel really good about it.”
Kahne, who led 109 laps, dueled with Hamlin at the front of the field throughout the afternoon. Keselowski joined the fray with less than 100 laps remaining and the trio swapped the point until Jimmie Johnson blew a tire to bring out the caution with 46 laps to go.
The nine cars at the front of the pack — led by Keselowski and Kahne — elected not to pit. When the green flag waved, Keselowski was bumped from behind by Hamlin, causing his No. 2 Ford to bobble. That momentary loss of traction was all Kahne’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevy needed.
Kahne held off the aggressive trio of Kyle Busch, Keselowski and Clint Bowyer for five laps, then pulled away to a 1.7-second victory. Busch, Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Bowyer rounded out the top 5.
“I just know my rear tires were off the ground before I got to the restart zone,” Keselowski said of the deciding restart. “Eventually I got hit so hard it pushed my foot in the gas pedal. That was the deal. Never had another chance.”
The win was Kahne’s first of 2013 after stumbling out of the gate to 36th- and 19th-place finishes. Keselowski’s third-place run was his fourth top 5 in four races this year. He leads in the point standings by nine over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who logged a sixth at Bristol.
As is typical in Bristol’s tight confines, it was a physical 500-mile affair. The race was slowed 10 times for cautions. The most notable came on lap 391, when Jeff Gordon blew a right front tire while leading. He collected second-place Kenseth in the process, ending each driver’s day.
Post-race fireworks erupted when Joey Logano had to be restrained from Hamlin’s parked No. 11 Toyota. Logano had been spun by his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate while the former ran second on lap 349.
“That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car — probably the worst teammate I ever had, so I learned that now,” Logano said. “He decided to run into the back of me … I have a scorecard and I’m not putting up with that. What goes around comes around.”
“He said he was comin’ for me,” Hamlin stated, when asked what Logano said upon confronting him. “I usually don’t see him (on the track), so it’s usually not a factor.
“It’s Bristol racing and everyone is fighting for the top. He knew he had to get to the top (groove) as soon as he could, but I was up there. I did mean to (hit him), but I didn’t mean to wreck him. That was a mistake.”
Logano wasn’t buying it.
“Oh, OK, sure,” Logano said. “If he didn’t mean to wreck me he would have said he was sorry, but he didn’t say that. It’s just frustrating.”
The two drivers engaged in a war of words on Twitter following the Daytona 500, when Hamlin tweeted to Logano's Penske Racing teammate, Keselowski, that he was “sorry I couldn’t get close to you (to draft) cuz your genius teammate was too busy messing up the inside lane 1 move at a time.”
The events at Bristol spilled over to the popular social media site once again.
Logano started the string of tweets, saying about their confrontation: “Hey @dennyhamlin great job of protecting that genius brain of yours by keeping your helmet on.”
“Why’s that … what would you do?” replied Hamlin.
“Show you some love and appreciation.”
“Last time I checked he had my cell and direct message button to choose from if he’s got a problem,” Hamlin concluded. “Otherwise, hush little child.”
The defending winner of the Food City 500, Brad Keselowski. (ASP, Inc.)
Bristol Motor Speedway received a re-tooling of sorts following last spring’s race, so there will be a bevy of unknowns this weekend when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series takes to the high-banked half-mile oval.
What is known is that three races are in the books and two of the usual suspects, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, are running on all cylinders as others — and you’ll read of one below — are experiencing early-season struggles. We also know what we were able to learn from the Bristol race last August, an exciting caution flag-fueled event that paid dividends to those that had the ability to either move through the field or retain track position.
3.7 and 0.6 Brad Keselowski is averaging a 3.7-place finish, grouped with a strong 0.6 finish deviation.
Holy Keselowski! The Penske Racing No. 2 team is really, really good right now. The act of them being good isn’t a shock; the extent of their goodness is what is amazing. Through three races, the championship-winning entry from 2012 has amassed a 3.7-place average finish. How legitimate is that? Their 0.6 finish deviation — and mind you, zero is perfectly consistent — tells us the team isn’t wavering much from that average. Keselowski and team are both staggeringly fast and pinpoint consistent. If the champs want to repeat, they’re off to a blazing start.
-42.1 percent Jeff Gordon and team can’t hold onto positions late in races, suggested by their negative-42.1 percent position retainment difference.
What is going on with the No. 24? Averaging a 12.7-place running position at the 10 percent-to-go mark, a precipitous drop occurs in the final stages of races, in which they average an 18th-place finish. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson were more balanced position retainers last year, with a plus-3.4 percent difference. Races like last weekend at Las Vegas, in which they dropped from 21st to a finish of 25th in the final 27 laps, can’t be tolerated for a team hoping to land a Chase spot.
17.0 Thanks to a 17.0-place average finish, Paul Menard is the highest ranked Richard Childress Racing driver in the Cup Series standings.
Who would have thought? It’s true. After three races, Menard and team are the lead dogs in the RCR yard, ranking 12th in Cup Series standings; however, that’s probably not something that will last. Both Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton crashed out of Daytona, while Menard’s team has finished in the top half of the field in all three events. Harvick’s No. 29 team doesn’t often leave races on the table, evident by the team’s 88-plus Relevance percentage (read: percentage of races in a season finished in the top half of fields) in each of the last three years.
Brian Vickers will race MWR's No. 55 Toyota at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
4.000 Through eight races in 2012, Brian Vickers, who makes his 2013 Cup Series debut Sunday, earned a series-best 4.000 PEER, which measures the on-track production of a race car driver in an “all equipment even” scenario. Two of those races were at Bristol.
Surface schmurface, Vickers was good on both Bristol iterations last season, finishing fifth in the spring race (he led 125 laps) and fourth in August. Considering this specific facility comprised 25 percent of his schedule last season, it’s no wonder that the Hendrick castoff produced at a rate far beyond his average.
Bristol might also be a haven for Vickers in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race; after two finishes of 17th or worse have relegated him to seventh in the series standings, a kind track could alleviate the relatively underwhelming results for the former series champ driving in stellar equipment.
+40 August 2012 Bristol victor Denny Hamlin was an adept passer in his race-winning effort, recording a pass differential of plus-40.
A good-passing race car can go a long way at any track. Bristol is no different. In last August’s race, the first on the re-worked surface, Hamlin scored the win after totaling 57 green-flag passes, 40 more than the amount of times he was passed. Similarly, Jimmie Johnson finished second thanks in large part to his +28 pass differential.
139 Joey Logano, in a Joe Gibbs Racing entry, led a race-high 139 laps (that’s over a quarter of the race) in last August’s 500-lap event at Bristol.
Logano started fourth, took his initial lead on lap 27 and led on three more occasions during the race. His average running position of 7.24 ranked second that evening, but led to an eighth-place finish. This nugget presents an interesting dynamic. Logano now drives for Penske Racing, an organization that fielded a winning entry for Brad Keselowski last season and a front-row effort for AJ Allmendinger. The No. 20 JGR car is now driven by Matt Kenseth, the winner of last week’s race at Las Vegas, who led 25 laps in last August’s race. Both Logano, the driver and No. 20, the car should be key players in Sunday’s race.
9 for 25+ Nine different drivers led 25 laps or more in last August’s race at Bristol.
Want some competition that includes different names in the lead? I can’t guarantee it, but if last August’s race was any indication, there could be a flurry of activity at the front of the field. The high laps-led total for each driver is a result of there being a large number of laps in the race (500 to be exact), but the wide array of names is a fascinating occurrence. Leading isn’t everything, though. Of the nine drivers that led — Logano (139), Hamlin (70), Jimmie Johnson (52), Carl Edwards (45), Martin Truex Jr. (44), Kasey Kahne (42), Greg Biffle (41), Casey Mears (26) and Kenseth (25) — only Hamlin and Johnson finished inside the top 5.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Kobalt Tools 400 in Las Vegas
Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff. (ASP, Inc.)
If Matt Kenseth were a betting man, he’d have bought a Play 4 ticket on the way out of Las Vegas.
The numbers? 3-3-3-3.
Kenseth, in the third race of the 2013 season, became career Sprint Cup driver number three to win a race on his birthday (joining Cale Yarborough and Kyle Busch). The new, third member of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable also has more career victories in Vegas (along with Auto Club Speedway) than any other track on the circuit: Three.
Too bad Richard Childress isn’t willing to part with that number, huh? To me, the number could also apply to something else we’re getting a sense of: the list of early title favorites. Has Kenseth snuck into that picture? Let’s find out while going “Through the Gears” after a weekend out in Sin City…
FIRST GEAR: The title is shaping up to be a Johnson-Keselowski affair
One driver was third, the other sixth. Neither was a factor for the win late at Vegas although they combined to lead a total of 78 laps. But a quick look at the first three races shows that Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, the same two men who battled down the stretch for the 2012 Cup Series title, are in cruise control up front.
Leading the points is the No. 48 team, with top-10 starting spots in every event, an average finish of 3.0 and a Daytona 500 trophy on the shelf. Crew chief Chad Knaus, who was lauded for being ahead of the curve with NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow chassis, was expected to do the same with the Gen-6. That’s what you expect from the best mechanic in the sport, and to his credit, Knaus has delivered.
Sitting five points behind Hendrick’s top team is Keselowski, who has battled through far more adversity but still has the same number of top-10 results (three-for-three). Considering the offseason changeover (new manufacturer, new teammate, new engines) the speed and versatility Penske Racing’s top team has shown is just as impressive. It’s driver’s confidence as reigning champ is palpable, retaining his outspoken nature while continuing a role as an emerging leader within the sport. While Denny Hamlin’s “slap on the wrist” from NASCAR caused him to be a bit off on Sunday, finishing 15th, Keselowski has had no such detours after his talking-to at Daytona. That’s what separates the good from the great: an ability to tune out distractions and fight through the pressure.
The Gen-6 car was supposed to provide a big opportunity for the other teams to catch up to this duo. But the standings three races in aren’t an indictment on those changes; instead, it’s a showcase of how this rivalry is elevating both drivers to remain head and shoulders above everyone else. Too bad we have to wait until the Chase in September for them to push down on the accelerator for good.
SECOND GEAR: Meanwhile, Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing sit as sleepers
No question, anyone with a brain and a pulse expected Kenseth to outpace Joey Logano in Joe Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota. But even the most optimistic of souls has to raise an eyebrow on what this new combination is doing. Three races in, Kenseth is one-half way towards the total number of victories that car has had in the past four years. His 128 laps led, a NASCAR best, is well on its way to eclipsing Logano’s four-year total of 337 in a matter of several weeks. If not for a faulty engine in the waning laps of the Daytona 500 this team could be out in front of everyone — a point that’s not been lost on its pilot.
“All three races we had a car, if everything would have went right, that we could have won,” he said Sunday night. “And it feels pretty awesome to have this win here.”
Kenseth’s emotions during and after Sunday’s victory made it clear he’s a man on a mission to prove the choice to leave Roush Fenway was the right one. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff has worked out well; his pit strategy of a fuel-only stop was the winning call.
So can JGR catch the top two? The beauty of it is that there is six months left in the regular season to fine-tune on intermediates. But unlike Kenseth, the rest of the stable has to stop shooting itself in the foot. Case in point: Kyle Busch’s speeding penalty, which knocked him out of the top spot at Vegas and threatened to derail his day. Denny Hamlin, for all the fan support he has surrounding the Gen-6 criticism, caused a huge distraction by reacting emotionally to the situation. Add in the motor problems and that’s why this Toyota trio remains a step below for the time being. But the speed is there.
Junior Nation: Loud and ... green. (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Earnhardt’s loss could be Gordon’s gain
This theme of “three” brings up the ghost of the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s late father, who is likely smiling down on how well his boy is handling the new Gen-6. Sitting third in points and joining Johnson and Keselowski as the only drivers with three top-10 results, the No. 88 car has shown a habit of improving consistently throughout an event. Part of that has to be the benefits of top equipment — after all, this team works in the same shop as Knaus and Johnson.
But for Earnhardt, there’s more at play. From the first day I arrived at Daytona, you couldn’t help but notice Earnhardt’s enthusiasm for 2013. It’s clear the Gen-6 chassis for him was considered a prime opportunity for redemption; he’s perhaps the only one unconditionally harping on its success every time the camera lights go on (or off). I remember, in particular, an unsolicited rant in the media center about how great the season would be after this year’s Daytona 500. It was something you would never have heard from him even two years ago, when crew chief Steve Letarte was just the last-ditch experiment and a slumping driver had lost his confidence. Now, Earnhardt has begun to believe, pushing forward mentally in a sport where the smallest edge can make the biggest difference.
Compare that to Jeff Gordon, whose success with the Gen-5 (a record 30 top-10 finishes in 2007, the first year it was introduced) was expected to repeat itself. Instead, three races in the fourth member of the Hendrick stable looks a level very much below his mates. What’s troubling here is the opposite of Earnhardt: Gordon goes backwards the second the green flag drops. His average start is 5.7, one of NASCAR’s best, yet the difference between those spots and where he finishes is a disappointing -37. He and Gustafson aren’t on the same page with adjustments, and that needs to change before it’s too deep a hole from which to recover.
FOURTH GEAR: The real Gen-6 grade: Incomplete, no matter how much NASCAR tries to push the issue
The official statistics say 22 lead changes, an increase over 2012. And the loop data for Vegas had 2,342 green-flag passes, the highest number in seven years. But despite the drivers trumpeting praise, seemingly as a result of Hamlin’s $25,000 fine for even suggesting the Gen-6 still needs some work, Sunday’s race was far from an A-plus. It wasn’t bad; clearly, the end-of-race battle alone with Kenseth and Kahne was worth the price of admission. But it still seems, as the cars settle in after a restart, passing 20 to 30 laps into a run is a risk drivers seem afraid to take.
One issue that might help continues to be the tires. Goodyear’s latest compound, while safe on Sunday, was so rock hard speeds didn’t fall off quickly enough. Considering Vegas’ surface is one of the more abrasive, there was a missed opportunity for a more “Atlanta” or “Rockingham” style race where that type of management came into play.
Instead, what we were left with was a race that had a few stops and starts but wasn’t the A++ version NASCAR covets. And a simple point in the wake of the Hamlin discipline remains: if things were so peachy with this new Gen-6, making everyone from fans to television partners happy, why feel the need to even control perception? Stepping in, managing a comment mostly forgotten gives the impression there’s something wrong even if those concerns are overblown.
Kenseth gets first win for Joe Gibbs Racing in third start.
Matt Kenseth celebrates in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
The biggest name in NASCAR's 2012 version of Silly Season made his presence known early in the 2013 season. Matt Kenseth, in only his third start with Joe Gibbs Racing, gave the No. 20 team its first win since June 2012, when he won the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Having spent the first 13 years of his Cup Series career at Roush Fenway Racing where he won two Daytona 500s and the 2003 title, Kenseth accepted one of the most coveted seats in the Sprint Cup Series with Gibbs’ No. 20 team — a group that had only two wins since Tony Stewart left the team following the 2008 season. In the season opener in Daytona, Kenseth was one of a handful of favorites but lost an engine while leading with just over 50 laps remaining. He followed that up with a workman-like top 10 at Phoenix.
On Sunday in Las Vegas, it all came together for the driver, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 bunch.
In classic Kenseth fashion, the Wisconsin native showed up when the money was on the line. In a race dominated by Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth assumed the lead late — with 41 laps remaining — and used clean air at the front of the field to his advantage.
A strategy call on a pit stop under yellow earned Kenseth the point. Taking zero tires while most others took two, he led the field to green and held the top spot even after the second-place machine of Brad Keselowski appeared to jump the start.
A blown engine in the Chevy of Ryan Newman precipitated another restart with 27 laps to go. Again, it appeared that Keselowski jumped the start, but no ruling came from NASCAR. Still, Kenseth recovered quickly, pulling by on the backstretch.
However, Kenseth’s toughest challenge would come from Kahne, who also disposed of Keselowski within a lap of the restart.
Kahne, who led a race-high 114 laps, prowled in Kenseth’s tire tracks for the final 26 laps, but in an ending that proved anti-climactic, never mounted a serious attempt at the pass. Clean air for the leader, coupled with a lack of front-end downforce on his No. 5 Chevy, forced Kahne to settle for second.
“We're only three weeks in, but man, all three races we had a car — if everything would have went right — that we could have won, and it feels pretty awesome to have this win here,” said Kenseth.
Keselowski, Busch and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5 on an afternoon that witnessed five caution periods.
NASCAR opened the track on Thursday for a test session to give teams extra time with the new Gen-6 car on the circuit’s first intermediate track stop. High-banked intermediate tracks — typically 1.5- or 2-miles in length — make up more than half of the Sprint Cup Series’ 36-race season. The new cars are designed with the intent to improve action on these tracks to allow more side-by-side racing.
Still, aero-dependency ruled the day on Sunday, as evidenced by Kahne not being able to pass Kenseth in the waning laps despite having newer tires — and by all outward appearances, a faster car.
“Clean air is like an extra tire,” said Carl Edwards.
“When I was out front my car was fast as heck,” Busch said. “As soon as (Kahne) went by me (for the lead) I was out of the racetrack, wrecking loose. I had to give up 10 car lengths to him in order to get my car comfortable again to where I could drive it.”
Those teams that were able to hit the setup thrived, as five cars — Kenseth, Kahne, Keselowski, Busch and Johnson — led 261 of the 267 laps. This on the heels of a largely single-file Daytona 500 and a veritably regular trip to Phoenix’s eccentric one-mile oval.
So while the cars may be a work in progress, the chemistry on JGR’s No. 20 team looks well ahead of the curve.
“I'm glad we got a win, but it's still only week three,” Kenseth said of his new team. “I feel like this is the beginning, you know, and I have a lot of confidence — I had a lot of confidence after our first meeting and decided to go do this and just had a great feeling about it. And I still do.”
NASCAR: Five Things to Watch at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Denny Hamlin is not as happy now. (ASP, Inc.)
Five storylines for the Kobalt Tools 500 in Las Vegas
1. Hamlin draws NASCAR’s (thin-skinned) ire
NASCAR suddenly, quickly and, well, mistakenly landed a $25,000 shot to Denny Hamlin's wallet on Thursday as Sprint Cup teams set up shop in Las Vegas. And no: this wasn't a case of Brian France cleaning Hamlin's clock at a swanky blackjack table.
Hamlin is expected to pay up for doing, allegedly, at least $25,000 in damage to NASCAR's apparently fragile image for answering a completely legitimate question at Phoenix International Raceway about NASCAR's new race car. Hamlin's most grievous offense can be found in the following span of sentences:
“I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning.”
Athlon Sports regrets posting such serious and offensive comments.
That was exactly Hamlin’s reaction Thursday during a break from testing and later in the night when he released a statement on Twitter. NASCAR never contacted Hamlin before the fine was issued, even though it came later than usual. Hamlin has vowed to appeal the fine and voiced even greater concern for the message it sends.
“I feel as if today NASCAR lost one of its biggest supporters vocally of where our sport is headed,” Hamlin wrote in a tweet, conscious of his 2010 “secret” fine for saying things that also crossed NASCAR. “So in the end there are no winners.”
Hamlin said the statement was “taken out of context” and that the fine isn't about money. Instead it’s about his ability to give an honest and fair assessment to reasonable questions.
“Since being fined in 2010 I have been a lot more careful about what I say to media and I felt this past weekend felt completely in my rights to give an assessment of the question asked,” Hamlin wrote.
2. Testing, testing, 1… 2… 3…
Beyond the Hamlin episode, teams got down to work earlier than usual on Thursday, as NASCAR opened the track in Las Vegas to a full day of testing.
It wasn't the first time NASCAR's new Gen-6 car has been on a 1.5-mile intermediate track, but Thursday was the first day Sprint Cup drivers got to toss the new car design around Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR opened the track a day early for two sessions of car fitness tests that, unlike a typical race weekend practice session, allowed the use of data and telemetry recording devices.
Greg Biffle's lap of 189.427 mph late in the second of two sessions put his No. 16 Ford atop the speed charts — a familiar place for Roush Fenway Racing at LVMS. Kasey Kahne set the track record a season ago in Sin City at 190.456 mph.
“It doesn’t matter how long you have practice or how much testing you have, there will be cars on the track until NASCAR throws the red and black flag,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “And even after all of that, we will always think, ‘Darn, if we only had two or three more laps.’ We are always striving for perfection so there is never enough time in my opinion to get ready for Sunday’s race.”
Indeed, many teams placed focus on race setups to start the second weekend of the early-season West Coast swing for NASCAR. Nine of the top-10 drivers in the second session’s speed charts posted their fastest lap in either the second-to-last or last run of the day, likely with qualifying setups installed.
The last major test on 1.5-mile tracks for most teams came at Charlotte Motor Speedway in January. Snow postponed part of that test conducted in extremely cold conditions — a stark contrast from Thursday’s sunny and mild weather in Las Vegas.
Aric Almirola: A Vegas sleeper? (ASP, Inc.)
3. Trump cards could quietly be in The King's court
The temperature at that Charlotte test before the start of the 2013 campaign wasn't a factor for the Florida-born Aric Almirola. His No. 43 Ford turned the quickest lap during that test that proved to be a culmination of a lot of right steps that both he and his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose have taken on NASCAR's intermediate tracks of late.
Expect both to be under-the-radar contenders when Sunday’s 400-mile race gets underway.
“Toward the end of last season, we were really good at the mile-and-a-half tracks, and doing well at the test gives us some momentum going into this weekend,” Almirola said.
Almirola picked up a pair of top-15 finishes in last season’s final two intermediate track races at Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Tire troubles and a crash ruined an even stronger day just weeks before at Kansas Speedway — another 1.5-miler — after Almirola led 69 laps.
Ambrose, the road course ace, has shown flashes of strength on the same types of tracks. To start this season, he has a pair of 18th-place finishes in Daytona and Phoenix.
“We haven't had a great finish yet, but we haven't had a terrible one either. We just need to get a little better,” Ambrose said.
Las Vegas, where Ambrose has a best finish of fourth in 2011, could be just the place.
4. Edwards thought Las Vegas, not Phoenix, was his ace in the hole
The backflip Carl Edwards executed after track position and a good handling car sent him to victory last weekend at Phoenix looked pretty good for a guy who had waited 70 Cup races since his last one. It also looked good for a guy who felt his gymnastic move wouldn't be needed for at least another week.
Edwards admitted this week he didn't expect to snap his win drought at Phoenix.
“I know this is probably wrong to admit, but I didn’t really have Phoenix marked on the calendar as the one that we were going to go win the first race,” Edwards said. “I was looking at Vegas as the race that would be the really good one, so I’m really excited about Vegas.”
Edwards can probably point to the success of his still fledgling relationship with tough-nosed crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Their relationship — a meeting of alpha personalities — has been one to keep track of early in 2013. Fennig has changed a lot Edwards’ routine and at-track preparation.
“(Fennig) wants me to make sure that I understand the changes they have planned for practice, that I make sure to be there and be available to the engineers after practice, and that I’m actually sitting there engaged with them so we don’t miss something,” Edwards said. “I thought that was pretty cool for him to just lay it out there. He didn’t say, ‘How did you do it last year?’ He said, ‘This is exactly what I want. This is how I’m going to do it.’
“I think that leadership and knowing what he wants is something that’s going to pay off a lot.”
Edwards, already the owner of two career Sprint Cup wins at Las Vegas (both after the 2006 reconfiguration), is a decent pick to hit it big Sunday.
5. The tricky nature (or lack thereof) of Las Vegas’ Turn 1
The 2006 reconfiguration of LVMS created a remarkably different track than drivers had been used to since the first Sprint Cup event at the track in 1998. The track added banking — it was the first purpose-built progressive banking track in NASCAR — and watched the average pole speed jump more than 12 miles per hour.
Just as any track, LVMS has aged under the extreme heat that Nevada desert summers bring. That process allows the track and its foundation to move and settle. Such character, drivers say, can now be found in Turn 1 at LVMS where a set of bumps have created uncertainty from lap to lap in the driving line.
“You’ve got to tune your car around (the bumps),” David Gilliland said. “It puts more in the hands of the individual teams and drivers to make it work.”
The bumps haven’t proved a notorious causal factor for crashes in that end of the speedway. The numbers, though, are slightly raised. Since reconfiguration six races ago, there have been 19 cautions for incidents in Turns 1 and 2 and 15 for crashes in Turns 3 and 4.
“It has a rougher surface in that there are more bumps. The track has some character to it,” Ryan Newman said. “Over the past couple of years, the bumps in the track have typically been pretty tricky, but that’s something I like.”
The bumps seem to be more noticeable to some drivers than others. Even teammates.
“The track is really smooth and that lets you work on the attitude of your car, and I think that’s a luxury that we have there that we don’t necessarily always get everywhere else because every track has its unique set of bumps,” said Tony Stewart. “Vegas has bumps too, but for the most part, it’s so smooth that you can really fine-tune the attitude of the car.”
For now, we'll listen to Stewart. A win at Las Vegas in 2012 and a second-place finish in 2011 give him a bit of credibility.
The Las Vegas et cetera
Mark Martin, now the second-oldest pole winner in NASCAR history after last week's top qualifying effort at Phoenix, now takes aim at being the oldest Sprint Cup winner. Martin, 54, would top Harry Gant who was 52 when he won in 1992 … Martin also won the inaugural race at Las Vegas in 1998 … Las Vegas is the first of 16 Sprint Cup races at intermediate tracks this season … Most teams had extra transporters meet them in Phoenix after last Sunday's race to swap cars and parts, as making a trek from Phoenix to Charlotte and back to Las Vegas in time is nearly impossible … Just one of 15 Sprint Cup races have gone past the scheduled distance at LVMS.
The odd makers have spoken — and Vito Pugliese piles on
Photo by ASP, Inc.
As will be pointed out ad nauseam on FOX this weekend, Las Vegas is the home to gambling, betting, taking chances and all sorts of other illicit activities. So if you want to dial a cliché, cue up NASCAR’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. To honor this yearly tradition, the Vegas odds makers have beaten everybody to the punch and are already taking bets on who will win the race this Sunday.
Below is how things are shaping up according to the LVH Superbook. If you happen to be going this weekend or have buddy at a bachelor party on site (or still have access to some clandestine off-shore gambling sites) here are the top-10 drivers who stand a shot at making you some cash. Assuming nobody’s right front tire blows out.
JIMMIE JOHNSON 5-1
So far in 2013, Johnson has finished first and second — and he was whining about the latter result — so you know he’s going to be loaded for bear. The Hendrick camp always comes correct when there’s a new car, plus his sponsor is on the walls this weekend. Remember when Charlotte was Lowe’s Motor Speedway and he’d win everything in sight? This could be the second coming of this for JJ and company this weekend at a track where they’ve won four times in only 11 starts.
KYLE BUSCH 8-1
It has been an inauspicious start to 2013 for Kyle Busch, who blew an engine at Daytona and cracked the nose at Phoenix. He dominated the Nationwide race last Saturday in his Monster Energy car, but the odds makers are only concerned about what happens on Sunday. Las Vegas is Busch’s hometown, so it is the one track on the circuit where he won’t be showered with the kind of boos that are typically reserved for third world dictators once they’ve passed. Yah, hear that Hugo?! As high as Rowdy is on the list, he may find a rough go of it this weekend. Kyle does have a pair of poles and a win here back in 2009, but his last three finishes have been 23rd, 38th and 15th.
BRAD KESELOWSKI 8-1
Brad Keselowski is making great strides to project the persona of a Sprint Cup champion. His brutal honesty has gotten him in some hot water with NASCAR, but I seem to remember The Intimidator making a few pointed comments here and there that ended up helping the sport, as well. In 2013, Keselowski has had to work with a new car, a new manufacturer, his fourth teammate in two years and a new engine shop. No matter – a pair of fourth-place finishes have been the result, with Daytona being a constant battle with garbage bag bodywork. The Keselowski/Paul Wolfe combo have once again put this team on their collective back. You saw his championship interview at Homestead, so you know he likes to party. The Blue Deuce will be ready for Vegas.
MATT KENSETH 8-1
Matt Kenseth has shown muscle early in his move from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing. Two races in, and the No. 20 is running as it did in the Tony Stewart days. Kenseth had what may have been the strongest car in Daytona (at least the strongest car left) before it fell out with engine failure. He was near the front most of the day in Phoenix, as well. He and crew chief Jason Ratcliff are still working to get on the same page as far as adjustments and late-race decisions, but that is part of a process that takes time to perfect. Kenseth has won twice at LVMS, but back in the, uh, Generation 4 cars, though he did win a pole as recently as 2011. The understated Kenseth has made his bones in recent years on superspeedways, but he’s still a 1.5-miler at heart.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
CARL EDWARDS 9-1
After he crashed out of the Daytona 500, wiping out his fourth car of Speedweeks, Edwards declared that, “We’re just going to go to Phoenix and win.” He did just that, snapping a 70-race winless streak and showing Jay Glazer how to do a backflip without knocking yourself silly. Roush cars always run well at Las Vegas, having won seven of the 15 Cup races. Edwards snatched one away from Tony Stewart here in 2011, which coincidentally was the last race he had won before the Phoenix performance. Might we be seeing the resurgence of Edwards as a Sprint Cup contender? Vegas will be telling.
KASEY KAHNE 9-1
This season was supposed to be the year that Kasey Kahne went on a tear in his now-familiar Hendrick surroundings. So far, that tear has been more of a tear (i.e., the kind that run down your face when you are overwhelmed with unfathomable sorrow). Kahne was turned early at Daytona, and after a front row qualifying effort in Phoenix, the No. 5 faded to a 19th-place finish. The season is young, and so is Kahne, and girls still think he’s dreamy. The Beiber haircut is a bit disconcerting, but No. 5 is about to come alive as it did in 2009 and challenge for the championship. Half of Kahne’s 14 career wins have come on banked tracks 1.5 miles or larger (Charlotte, Texas, Michigan and California). Las Vegas fits that bill. So, there you go girls: he has a shot at winning this weekend. Just don’t try to claw at Miss Sprint Cup if she’s smiling at him in Victory Lane. That’s her job.
DENNY HAMLIN 10-1
Denny Hamlin seems to be regaining the performance, perspective and promise that he showed throughout the 2010 season when he won eight races and came this close to being a titlist. How his $25,000 fine — levied by NASCAR after he supposedly criticized the Gen-6 car — will affect him is a mystery. He was mad as hell during Thursday’s test session, which could serve him well. However, what he really needs are some wins to help set things off. That last lap banzai pass attempt on Jimmie Johnson missed by only about six inches at PIR, but his record of late in Vegas may come up even shorter: 20th, seventh, 19th and 22nd isn’t an encouraging stat-line.
TONY STEWART 12-1
Tony Stewart shows up to win in Las Vegas, particularly after becoming an owner, with finishes of seventh, second and first in the last three trips. The second-place run would have been a win, but miscommunication during a pit stop after leading 163 laps was his undoing. Stewart needs a rebound performance, especially after the crushing disappointment that was his Daytona 500. Stewart’s teammate has been getting most of the attention lately — not that that’s a bad thing — as has talk of Kevin Harvick coming on board at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. No matter. A few good finishes (and possibly a win this weekend) to follow up last season’s Vegas triumph will have Smoke catching fire en route to a possible fourth championship. How’s that for bad clichés?
JEFF GORDON 12-1
Gordon is in a similar situation as Stewart. A multiple-time champion who had bad luck at Daytona with rising water temps and falling water pressure had him falling back at the end after leading 31 laps. A top-10 run at Phoenix was steady, but there’s been nothing remarkable thus far. His last few years at LVMS have been up and down – sixth, third, 36th and 12th in the last four visits. Gordon has one win here (2001) but his most vivid Vegas memory was a last lap crash in ’08 that ripped the radiator and front end off the car. Hopefully, he doesn’t put the new Gen-6 car to the test this weekend in a similar fashion.
DALE EARNHARDT JR 12-1
This year looks to be picking up where 2012 left off for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Before he got a concussion at Talladega, that is. Second in points through two races with a pair of top 5s, Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte look to be killing ’em with consistency again. His recent record in Vegas is OK – 10th, 16th, eighth and 10th. At the very least, he’ll net a top-10 run, but wins are all that matter for the most part. If you’re picking him for a top-three run, he’s still a solid pick, as the Hendrick cars typically adapt quicker to car changes. And this one is supposed to drive more like the Generation 4 car, which Junior drove to 17 wins.
Honestly, Carl Edwards hasn't been that bad. (ASP, Inc.)
The Gen-6 car for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, after a two-race introduction, appears to be a work in progress. Passing last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway was at an all-time low for its current configuration (1,213 green-flag passes, down from 1,995 in the 2012 race) and pit stop speed decided the race for a driver who hadn’t seen Victory Lane in almost two calendar years.
This weekend’s race at speedy intermediate Las Vegas Motor Speedway is expected to provide a jump in on-track excitement. While I can’t possibly guarantee a more enticing product, there are some intriguing story lines within the numbers this week that should pique your interest and they involve a bevy of fan-favorite drivers. So that’s some excitement there, right?
12.8 and 84.29 percent During the Carl Edwards 70-race winless streak, the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team averaged a 12.8-place showing and finished in the top half of fields 84.29 percent of the time.
Those numbers aren’t awful. Despite not winning, Edwards and team were, for most intents and purposes, admirable across that two-year winless stretch. The perceived slump is just that; any team in the Cup Series would welcome the finishing average and that high of a relevance mark (finishes in the top half of fields encapsulates a team’s ability to avoid mistakes). The No. 99 team was never a downtrodden unit. It just didn’t win for an extended period of time. The last place Edwards won at prior to Phoenix? Funny you should ask …
6.750 With two Vegas wins in the last five races, Edwards leads the series in track-specific PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating) during that time frame.
The most recent winner in the Cup Series just happens to be a stud on the Vegas 1.5-mile quad-oval track. His performance has been feast with a little bit of famine; outside of his two victories at LVMS in the CoT era, he has finished fifth (last year), 12th and 17th. His winning past doesn’t make him a lock for the victory this weekend, but with the recent headlines, he’ll be one of a handful of drivers in the spotlight.
Does Kyle Busch have something figured out? (ASP, Inc.)
+54 Kyle Busch’s combined pass differential in the Cup Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series races last weekend at Phoenix was a plus-54.
By virtue of a bad pit stop in the Nationwide Series race and a pre-race motor change in the Cup Series race, Busch was given the task of having to navigate through the field from a low-ranking position. The plus-26 differential — he made 26 more green-flag passes than the amount of times he got passed — resulted in his first Nationwide win since 2011; however, his march on Sunday had a different result. His plus-28 differential was one of the afternoon’s best on a day in which passing came at a premium — it was down over 39 percent from last year’s race — but his early-race spin placed him off the lead lap. Still, if passing in the Gen-6 is an elusive trait, Busch has demonstrated that he might be one of the few that is able to positively maneuver in traffic.
+56.3 percentDale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team have been stalwarts in the final 10 percent of races, improving their running positions by 56.3 percent.
That plus-56.3 percent position retainment difference is helped by his 12th-to-second run in the waning laps at Daytona, but Earnhardt, crew chief Steve Letarte and team were also factors at Phoenix — where they finished fifth — a track previously unkind to them during the CoT era. Their 3.5-place average finish through the first two races this season places them second in the current Cup Series standings.
290 Across two races and 534 total laps in the last two Las Vegas races, Tony Stewart has led a combined 290 laps.
That’s a 54.3 percent take, which is dominant to say the least. These performances resulted in finishes of second and first in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Through the last five races in Vegas, which includes a last-place finish in 2008, he ranks second to Carl Edwards in track-specific PEER. Fans of Smoke can expect a concerted charge for the win on a track that he’s averaged a 3.3-palce finish the last three years, especially considering he and the No. 14 team are currently rank 23rd in the point standings.
-0.750 Las Vegas native Kurt Busch’s Las Vegas-specific PEER is -0.750, which ranks 45 out of 49 drivers with at least two starts in the last five seasons.
This isn’t the kind of homecoming Busch would prefer. He finished ninth behind the wheel of a Penske Racing entry in 2011, but beyond that, his showings have been dismal. Finishes of 38th (DNF), 23rd, 35th (after starting on the pole) and 35th (DNF) constitute the norm for him during the CoT era. Additionally, he’s only led briefly; he has paced the field for a total of two laps in that five-race sample size.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 from Phoenix.
Track position was key in Phoenix. (ASP, Inc.)
In the midst of a near two-year winless skid on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, Carl Edwards, perhaps more than any driver, needed a confidence boost. And after winning the Subway Fresh Fit 500 — in only his second start with crew chief Jimmy Fennig — that’s exactly what the Missouri native received at Phoenix International Raceway.
After the No. 99 team wrecked five cars during a devastating two months at Daytona — perhaps Roush Fenway Racing’s most expensive Speedweeks ever — Edwards rebounded big at Phoenix. Ending a 70-race winless streak puts him in perfect early-season position to make the Chase — a feat he failed to accomplish in 2012. But besides that stat-busting, feel-good ending, did NASCAR have anything else to hang its hat on with the Gen-6 chassis in its first competitive visit away from a plate track?
Whether they made the grade on an unrestricted track starts us “Through the Gears” on stock car competition out in the desert…
First Gear: Gen-6 + Goodyear + Phoenix = Needs Improvement
All you needed to know about the tires at Phoenix came from a mid-race pit stop. Mark Martin, who had been leading along with Tony Stewart, took four tires while most everyone else took two. That left both sitting mid-pack, hoping fresh rubber would lead to better speed in the long run.
It didn’t. With passing at a premium, Stewart claimed his car arguably handled worse as both men were stuck in neutral, near the back half of the top 20. Under the right scenarios, each would have had top-5 cars but were handicapped by the horror of the words that continue to plague NASCAR racing: track position.
Track position means you can turn off the television when Carl Edwards wins a race off pit road with 70-something laps remaining. Track position racing means you can see two cars, running nose-to-tail in a battle for position, never get side-by-side. It means a race gets won by a call a crew chief makes in his head, which is fun for engineering students but harder to translate into a three-hour, on-air television broadcast. There’s a reason they don’t televise chess on FOX, after all.
So what was the problem at Phoenix? New pavement coupled with Goodyear tires that just never seemed to wear out proved a poor combination. Indeed, it was a feast-or-famine type of day; either your tires held up, leaving you holding position or excessive brake heat, due to ill-handling equipment, melted a bead and found you in the outside wall. The Stewart-Haas Racing cars of Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman, among others, had spectacular tire failures that ended their days early.
Having little-to-no tire wear makes things tough enough — drivers are stuck at the same speed, making the old racing adage of preserving your equipment virtually meaningless. But the post-race quote that raised my eyebrows came from (who else?) reigning Cup champ Brad Keselowski, who ran fourth.
“I think these cars probably drive easier than any race car I’ve ever driven in my life by themselves,” he said. “And probably the hardest to drive of any race car I’ve ever driven in traffic.”
Uh-oh. Trouble in traffic? Isn’t that what killed the Car of Tomorrow on intermediate tracks? We better not see the same type of concern next week, at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, or the single-file phenomenon that turned intermediate racing into a day at the library will be very much front and center.
“I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars,” added third-place Denny Hamlin. “Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up.”
Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
Second Gear: Ford’s front man is relevant again
Carl Edwards, after losing the 2011 title in a tiebreaker, was handsomely rewarded by Ford with a new contract that made him the manufacturer’s de facto figurehead. His repayment? Spending 2012 its highest-paid flop. Running a career-worst 15th in points and losing crew chief Bob Osborne to health-related issues midseason, the one-time weekly contender looked lost. That’s why over the offseason, Roush Fenway Racing charged the best head wrench in its shop, Jimmy Fennig, to rebuild confidence from the ground up on the 99 team. Fennig oozes experience, having won the 1988 Daytona 500 with Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and the 2004 championship with the contentious Kurt Busch. There isn’t a mood he can’t fix, a problem he won’t solve and a crisis where he’ll lose his cool.
That played well during the days after Speedweeks, when an abundance of crushed sheet metal could have crippled this team. Instead, it pushed a desire to focus, with Fennig having his crew poised to seize the moment. On average, the pit crew churned out stops consistently a second better than the No. 48 team at Phoenix, including a crucial final one in order to take control of the race.
“Those guys are bad to the bone,” said Edwards, who ended a 70-race victory drought for the second straight time – right here at this track. “This win feels as good or better than any I’ve had.”
His only concern down the stretch came not from the competition, but a possible jump on the restart. Not once, but twice, he built substantial leads before the start-finish line on a restart while the second-place car (Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Jimmie Johnson) looked like they spun tires.
“I felt like Carl didn't follow the restart protocol and was slower than the pace car on his last two restarts,” Johnson claimed. “It gives the leader a huge advantage when that happens. You're supposed to wait until you get between the two lines and take off and this was all going on before it.”
In his defense, Edwards claimed Johnson took a little too long to go on the final restart. My take? Borderline decision — and in sports, “makeup calls” are part of the game. I seem to remember a restart in Richmond last season where Edwards was called for a restart penalty no one seemed to agree with.
He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.
Third Gear: Team Hendrick is tops on the Gen-6 development list
No, Hendrick Motorsports didn’t win Phoenix, but days after a whirlwind media tour wore out Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, his No. 48 team cruised to a runner-up showing. That has him leading the point standings, with shop-mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. tied for second after two strong top-5 results to start the season.
Quick flashback to the last time NASCAR rolled out a new car in 2007. Who was on top? Hendrick’s lead shop, led at the time by Chad Knaus (Johnson’s crew chief) and Jeff Gordon’s then-head wrench, Steve Letarte. Their drivers combined for 16 race wins that year – nearly 50 percent of the schedule – ran 1-2 in the Chase and collected 54 of a possible 72 top-10 finishes.
Flash forward to 2013: the main mechanical minds remain in place, with Earnhardt, not Gordon, now poised to reap the benefits. At this point, the rest of the competition should be very, very scared of what could be coming.
Fourth Gear: Good teams, bad starts, Chase trouble?
People hate to talk about the championship this early, but in a 26-race regular season, with 20 or so drivers realistically in contention to make the Chase by points, slow starts can be an absolute killer. Three drivers, in particular, stand out as being in trouble. “Lame duck” Kevin Harvick, after a 42nd at Daytona, didn’t lead a single lap Sunday at a track where he won last fall. Running 13th, he’s tied for 29th in the standings when on paper, based on a superior Speedweeks, he should be solidly inside the top 5.
Second on the list is Kyle Busch, shoveling a hole in the points for a second straight year. He was a force at Daytona until the engine blew. Then another engine issue at Phoenix left him starting from the rear. Overaggressive in his quest to drive to the front, Busch spun out early, lost a lap and got it back far too late to climb back through the field (23rd). He’s 29 points outside the top 10.
But the driver in arguably the worst position is 2012 surprise Chaser Martin Truex Jr. Two mechanical issues to start the year — first an engine, then a rear axle — leave him a distant 34th in the standings. Carrying a five-year winless streak, the “wild card” qualifying method for the Chase seems a remote possibility for this bunch, meaning they’re already out of mulligans.
Check back each Monday throughout the season as Tom Bowles highlights the four themes of each weekend’s race.