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.
Edwards survives green-white-checker finish in Subway Fresh Fit 500
Carl Edwards celebrates in Victory Lane in Phoenix. (ASP, Inc.)
A new season brings new hope. And no one in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is in more need of hope than Carl Edwards.
On the outside looking in at last season’s Chase for the Championship, Edwards has been mired in a winless skid that dates back to March 6, 2011. And his 2013 season got off to a dubious start in Daytona during Speedweeks, where he was involved in four wrecks (and a fifth in a test session in January), ultimately finishing 33rd in the Daytona 500.
Factor in a new contract that he signed in 2011 with Roush Fenway Racing that made the 33-year-old Ford Racing’s figurehead, as well as being given RFR’s ace crew chief in Jimmy Fennig, and it’s easy to understand how the pressure has mounted on Edwards to perform.
Consider the weight lifted.
Edwards led the final 78 laps in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Sunday, holding off Jimmie Johnson in a green-white-checker finish en route to the win at Phoenix International Raceway.
“It’s tough to go that long without winning, “Edwards said. “And then you come into the season with Jimmy (Fennig) who did so well last year (three wins with Matt Kenseth) … and everybody did so well. We’ve got the fastest pit crew on pit road — and I thought ‘We’ve got to go win some races.’”
Edwards seemingly had the scheduled 312-lap race in hand, cruising nearly a half-second in front of Johnson as the laps wound down. However, a caution for Ken Schrader’s blown tire with three circuits remaining forced the event into NASCAR’s version of an overtime finish. And with fuel an issue, many were unsure if they had enough in the tank to survive the caution laps and a three-lap shootout on Phoenix’s one-mile layout.
The leaders — Edwards, Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — had plenty in reserve, though. When the green waved, Keselowski pushed Edwards, on the inside lane, by Johnson and the driver of the No. 99 did the rest. In clean air, the Missouri native easily held off the pack, winning his 20th career Cup race.
“I was trying to suspend my emotions after that last caution.” Edwards said. “There was two laps to go and I’m saying, ‘Were going to win this race.’ And Brad pushed me — that sealed it right there. I knew that if we were the first ones down into the corner (Turn 1), we’d win this thing.”
Meanwhile, Johnson, Keselowski and Hamlin engaged in a thrilling battle for second. With Johnson and Keselowski door-to-door exiting Turn 2 on the final lap, Hamlin cut across the apron of the track in the dogleg, blocking Keselwoski and pulling even with Johnson. The two came to the finish line trading paint, with Johnson edging out Hamlin. Keselowski was fourth, Earnhardt Jr. fifth.
Johnson, though, was none-too-happy with the deciding restart.
“The leader is not supposed to slow down before he takes off (coming to the green),” Johnson said. “And he (Edwards) did that twice. It put me in a bad position with the 2 (Keselowski) inside of me … and off we went.”
“I was going for anything,” Hamlin said of the finish. “I didn’t have much all day. The pit crew and Darian (Grubb, crew chief) really carried us today getting track position. (It was) just so hard to pass. You’re going to hear it a lot this week that we’ve got a lot of work to do this week to get these cars to pass each other.”
Johnson, with finishes of first and second is off to a hot start this season, but Sunday was about Edwards, his new crew chief, a re-tooled team in only their second race together and NASCAR’s Gen-6 car, which seems to like clean air as much as its predecessor.
Is Phoenix an indication of what lies ahead for the 99 team? Will Edwards be a driver to deal with throughout the season as he was in 2011, or will he fade into obscurity like 2012?
“I think we are (back),” said Edwards. “But next week I think is going to be the true test (for the car) — at the mile-and-a-half (track in Las Vegas).”
NASCAR: Five Things to Watch at Phoenix International Raceway
Jimmie Johnson must re-focus. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Gen-6 downforce track debut
NASCAR's two weeks of warm sunshine in Daytona Beach provided the first on-track action of the much-acclaimed new car in the Sprint Cup Series. It proved to be amicable, handing drivers more input in restrictor plate-style car setup. In the race, it proved to be just a little too dominant as a lead car.
But for all that teams now know about how these cars race with the throttle essentially taped to the floor, none of that matters when the track opens for practice Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Fortunate or unfortunate as that may be depending how Daytona went for specific drivers, Phoenix invites a weekend where the Gen-6 platform will reveal quite a bit more about its racing ability and character. The proverbial NASCAR onion is destined to expose several more layers.
"This weekend will be one of the most difficult and challenging ever," said Alan Gustafson, crew chief on Jeff Gordon's No. 24. "Our new Chevy SS has significantly more downforce than last year's car. With the new Gen-6 car, the new rules, a new tire compound and new inspection process, we don't really have anything that we can base this weekend off of."
In the Toyota camp, Martin Truex Jr. predicts a weekend with "a lot of things that come up that we didn't expect" while his teammate is ready to take a swing at NASCAR's qualifying record books thanks to increased downforce from the old car.
“I think when we get in these cars at Phoenix they are going to stick like glue," Mark Martin said. "These new Gen-6 cars are going to break a lot of track records in 2013 and I think that could start as soon as Friday in Phoenix."
Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, however, thinks the biggest leap for the new piece is still a week away. Viva, Las Vegas, he says.
"I feel when we get to Vegas, we will have a downforce track under our belts," said Johnson, "We'll have a chance to see an amazing race at Vegas — great side-by-racing that everybody will want to see."
2. Can Johnson re-focus after a taxing week?
Johnson may also be looking ahead to Las Vegas because of what a week's worth of responsibilities as winner of the Daytona 500 has done to him. His public relations representative Kristine Curley tweeted Wednesday night that Johnson will have made stops in eight cities for interviews, events, media appearances and more since popping the champagne corks in Daytona's Victory Lane.
"It's going to be hard to re-focus," Johnson said. "There's such a high that comes from winning the 500 — and then the type of racing that starts now is so different than what we just had. It will be a challenge."
Johnson’s first Daytona 500 win in 2006 didn’t hamper his efforts a week later, however. He finished second to Matt Kenseth at Auto Club Speedway. Still, this week Johnson is putting a bit more on the shoulders of crew chief Chad Knaus.
“I know Chad's been buttoned up and the guys have been back at the shop all week, but from my side I've been very detached from my normal routine in preparing for the race,” Johnson said, detailing how he’s missed a debrief with Knaus and the entire Hendrick team. “I'll have to play catch-up as the week goes on and we get in to the weekend.”
It shouldn’t be terribly tough for the five-time champion: Johnson has four wins at Phoenix and also owns the best average running position of any current driver at the track. He’ll also have extra seat time this weekend as he’s racing the Nationwide Series event — the first oval event in that series he’s raced since 2008.
Tony Stewart looks to rebound. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Looking for a rebound
Forty-two other drivers haven’t been celebrating this week, dismayed from not winning NASCAR’s crown jewel. A select group, though, is looking for a staunch rebound from crashes and failures that dropped them from even having a shot at Johnson’s place in Victory Lane last week.
“If I told you I wasn’t heartbroken, I’d be lying to you,” Tony Stewart said after being caught up in Daytona’s first crash that collected nine cars and zapped contenders like Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne from a shot at a win.
Kahne, of course, has to be wondering if 2013 is starting with a bad case of déjà vu. A crash wiped him out of last year’s Daytona 500, too, and set him on a trajectory that left him without a top 10 until the season’s seventh race at Texas.
The mood is similar in Carl Edwards’s Roush-Fenway Racing camp. Last year’s Daytona polesitter couldn’t have left Daytona any worse after catching damage in five crashes during Speedweeks.
“I haven’t wrecked a car for a couple of days, so I hope our luck has changed,” Edwards said this week before Phoenix. Edwards will be looking for a solid finish using chassis RK-802, one used in Phoenix last fall by Matt Kenseth.
The timing of the Phoenix return should be good for Kevin Harvick. He’s the most recent winner in the desert, taking the checkers the very weekend that reports first leaked of his now-confirmed departure from Richard Childress Racing when 2013 wraps up.
One driver who won't be finding that redemption from Daytona in the Sprint Cup Series is Trevor Bayne. The Wood Brothers' No. 21 will be back on track in a week at Las Vegas.
4. Redemption for Kyle Busch?
Kyle Busch may be the driver raining on the parades of those looking to take a win after a Daytona defeat. He’s coming off his own bitter disappointment after his engine failed while running second in the 500.
Last year, though, Kyle Busch was marvelous around the Phoenix one-mile. He led 46 percent of the laps contested in the two Sprint Cup visits to the desert in 2012, but watched wins fall away from his grasp.
“I ran really well at Phoenix in both races last year, but I chose the wrong lane on the restart last November and ended up third,” Busch said. “It was devastating to be that dominant and not come home with the trophy.”
His teammate, Denny Hamlin, snared the victory in the spring race last year.
“The best way to get over the disappointment of the Daytona 500 is to get back in the car and have another chance at winning the next one,” Busch said.
5. Getting a grip
Along with the new car, Goodyear is bringing a new tire once again to PIR. The tire supplier tested at Phoenix last October with the early editions of NASCAR's Gen-6 race car to develop the best compound for a track surface heading for just its third Sprint Cup race weekend.
Goodyear will bring tire compounds for both left and right side tires that have never been used in competition before and that are designed to give cars more grip.
Phoenix has been a bit tricky for the tire manufacturer thanks to the increased speed and new pavement not providing ideal passing situations. However, the 2013 car test last year featured a heavier driver rotation than usual with Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Paul Menard, Regan Smith and Carl Edwards representing each of the sport's major teams.
Tire tests, of course, don't provide a team with free range on setup testing and other R&D but they can provide a baseline for setting up a new car. Those drivers who tested should have somewhat of a leg up this weekend — especially if Goodyear's chosen compound is similar to what was tested.
"We were fortunate to take the Miller Lite Ford to Phoenix for a Goodyear tire test last year and I came away feeling positive about how it will race," said Keselowski. "On top of that, Phoenix has had a couple years to cure so we should see the groove widen out a bit. I’m expecting a good race.
“I think we’re all anxious to see how the car performs this weekend when we all get on the track together. It’s our first true test.”
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Phoenix so you don't have to.
Jimmie Johnson (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season rolls on to Phoenix International Raceway for the Subway Fresh Fit 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports will be offering up our best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, we'll break down our picks according to its NASCAR driver classes—A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, NASCAR scribe Dustin Long's fantasy predictions for Phoenix, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag (or at least finishing toward the front):
1. Jimmie Johnson — Has the highest driver rating (115.8) in the last eight years at Phoenix. Also has the best average finish among current drivers at 6.7, scoring 12 top-five finishes in 19 starts
2. Kevin Harvick — Has three top-four finishes in his last four Phoenix starts, including a win last fall.
3. Denny Hamlin — Took second in the fall Phoenix race (46 laps led) and won the spring race last year (61 laps led).
4. Jeff Gordon — In the last three spring races at Phoenix, he’s finished eighth, first and second
5. Brad Keselowski — Finished no worse than seventh in his last five races at tracks 1.1 miles and under last season, including a sixth-place finish at Phoenix.
6. Kasey Kahne — Joined Hamlin and Kyle Busch as only drivers to run every lap of last fall’s race in the top 15, finishing fourth.
7. Tony Stewart — Has never gone more than three consecutive races without a top-10 at Phoenix. Last two finishes there are 19th and 22nd.
8. Matt Kenseth — Last four finishes at Phoenix have been 14th, 13th, 34th and 12th. He’s led 52 laps during that time, leading 49 of those laps in November 2011 race before being eliminated in a crash.
9. Clint Bowyer — Has more finishes of 20th or worse (eight) in his career at Phoenix than he has top-10 finishes (five) there.
Kyle Busch (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch — Led 289 of the 631 laps run (45.8 percent) at Phoenix last season.
2. Ryan Newman — Has finished in the top 5 in five of his last six Phoenix races, including a win in 2010.
3. Mark Martin — Has qualified in the top four in two of his last three starts at Phoenix. Also has six top-10 finishes in his last eight runs there.
4. Kurt Busch — Finished eighth at PIR last fall while driving for Furniture Row. It was part of a season-ending, three-race streak of top-10 finishes after joining that team.
5. Carl Edwards — Best news is that Daytona is behind him after he was involved in numerous incidents during Speedweeks. As for Phoenix? It’s been a mixed bag lately with a first and a second along with three finishes outside the top 15 in his last five starts there.
6. Greg Biffle — While he has four top-10 finishes in his last eight Phoenix starts, he has not led a lap in any of those races.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Has one top-10 finish in his last eight races at Phoenix. Has not led a lap in his last seven races there.
8. Jeff Burton — Has more green-flag passes for position (854) than any other active driver in the last eight years at Phoenix. Also had the most green-flag passes for position (76) in last fall’s race there, finishing 13th.
9. Joey Logano — Has had two DNFs in last six Phoenix races but has finished 11th or better in the other four races during that stretch.
10. Martin Truex Jr. — Has one top-10 finish in his last six Phoenix starts.
11. Paul Menard — Two ninth-place finishes in the last three Phoenix races are the only times he’s scored a top-10 finish in 12 career starts there. Also has never led a lap at Phoenix.
12. Bobby Labonte — Ranks second among active drivers in green-flag passes for position (783) in the last eight years at Phoenix.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya — Has finished between 11th and 19th in each of his last five Phoenix races.
14. Marcos Ambrose — Best Phoenix finish in nine races there is an eighth, which he scored in November 2011.
15. Jamie McMurray — Has one top-10 finish in his last eight Phoenix starts.
16. Aric Almirola — Has best finish of 12th in four Phoenix starts and has yet to lead a lap there.
1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Running his first Cup race at Phoenix. Never finished outside the top 10 in six Nationwide races there.
2. Austin Dillon — Also running his first Cup race at Phoenix. Finished sixth and fourth in two Nationwide races there last season.
3. Danica Patrick — Started 37th but finished 17th in November in lone Cup start at Phoenix.
4. AJ Allmendinger — Making season debut. Started in top two in three of his last five races there. Started 15th and finished 18th in spring Phoenix race last year (did not run November race).
5. Casey Mears — Last five finishes at Phoenix: 22nd, 39th, 26th, 18th, 24th.
6. David Ragan — Last five finishes at Phoenix: 33rd, 25th, 33rd, 36th, 25th.
7. Dave Blaney — Has placed between 23rd and 27th in last three Phoenix starts.
8. David Stremme — Making his season debut after Michael Waltrip drove for the team at Daytona. Finished 34th and 29th in Phoenix races last year.
9. David Gilliland — Has not finished better than 22nd in last nine Phoenix starts.
10. Travis Kvapil — Placed 20th at Phoenix last November and led four laps.
11. David Reutimann — Finished 36th and 40th at Phoenix last season.
12. JJ Yeley — Coming off top 10 at Daytona. Has not finished better than 26th in last five Phoenix starts.
13. Ken Schrader — Last start at Phoenix was November 2008 when he finished 27th. Last top-10 finish at Phoenix was in 1997.
14. Scott Speed — Last made Phoenix race in November 2011, finishing 39th.
15. Mike Bliss — Career-best Phoenix finish came in 2005 when he finished 20th.
16. Josh Wise — Finished 37th and 38th at Phoenix last year
17. Joe Nemechek — Has recorded seven consecutive DNFs at Phoenix.
18. Michael McDowell — Announced on Wednesday via Twitter that his Phil Parsons Racing team would not make the trip to Phoenix.
After a Daytona 500 that catered to the more intelligent teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage — track position and strategy reigned supreme — one of the two duels this season in the Arizona desert greets America’s best drivers on Sunday.
There are a lot of unknowns with the Gen-6 car taking to a surface and configuration at Phoenix International Raceway that is just three races old. What we do know, and what we could anticipate, is revealed in the numbers.
78.8% Following his win in the Daytona 500, Jimmie Johnson currently has a 78.8 percent chance of making the Chase, the highest percentage in the series through one race.
And that’s a conservative figure based on past averages. If Johnson and the No. 48 team out-performs their past selves at a few tracks during the 26-race “regular season,” then they are even more of a lock to clinch a playoff berth for the 10th time in 10 years. One such track is Phoenix, where, when we last saw Johnson, he crashed in the penultimate race of last year’s Chase that served as the first blow of the self inflicted 1-2 punch that knocked him out of contention for the championship. He is followed by Brad Keselowski (68.7 percent) and Greg Biffle (53.1 percent) in the current race to the Chase.
7.500 According to PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating), Denny Hamlin, the winner of last year’s race, is the most productive driver at Phoenix, heading into the weekend with a 7.500.
Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb scored a win in their second race together as a driver-crew chief combination, leading the last 59 laps en route to the win in 2012. Additionally, he finished second there last fall after leading 46 laps and averaging a third-place running position.
Kevin Harvick (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
3.21 In the March Phoenix race last year, Kevin Harvick finished second but had the race’s best average running position, 3.21.
Ironically, it was the fall race, in which he averaged an eighth-place running spot, that Harvick won. It’s pretty clear that, in the brief time we’ve seen this iteration of the Phoenix layout, Harvick has figured out something to his liking about this one-mile racetrack.
1,658 There were 1,658 green-flag passes in the most recent Cup Series race at Phoenix, which included eight passes for the lead.
This is actually a drop from the prior two races on the current surface. In the first race (fall 2011), there were 1,680 total green-flag passes, including 10 for the lead. In this race last season, the green-flag pass total increased to 1,995 with 26 passes for the lead.
+30 Brad Keselowski passed 30 more times than he was passed in last fall’s Phoenix race.
That plus-30 pass differential was as good as gold in a race in which, by comparison to preceding events, passing came at a premium. Keselowski and the No. 2 team endured six pit stops — Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne only pitted four times — so his ability to move forward on a track that rejected such a thing was a life saver, helping him earn a sixth-place finish.
3.78 Through three races on the new Phoenix surface, Mark Martin has the smallest finish deviation among the track’s top 10 drivers in PEER.
What does this mean? Martin has been a reliably high finisher in the last three races, with scores of 16th, ninth and 10th, so it’s a good bet that he’ll find his way into the top 10 of the final running order at the end of Sunday’s race. If he’s not able, then it might serve as indictment on Michael Waltrip Racing’s Gen-6 mile-track program.
289 Kyle Busch led 289 laps (of 631) across two Phoenix races last year.
After blowing an engine in 2011’s race, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was a force with which to be reckoned in 2012, leading 52 laps in the February event, eventually finishing sixth. He finished third last fall after leading a race-best 237 laps and averaging a running position of 1.56. Busch’s 289 laps-led tally is far and away the best of the series in the last three races; Tony Stewart has the next-best mark with 169.
1.167 A serviceable producer according to his 1.167 PEER in three races on the new PIR surface, Bobby Labonte could fare well for himself if all is good with his ride.
Labonte’s finishes there have increased from 21st to 16th to 15th dating back to the fall 2011 race. If JTG-Daugherty Racing brings a drivable setup and a fast Gen-6 to the desert, the 2000 champion is a candidate to secure a decent finish. This is a possibility; over the offseason JTG-Daugherty quintupled its roster of engineers (going from one to five) and focused on enhancing its relationship with Toyota. We’ll soon find out whether this investment for improvement pays immediate dividends.
Gordon/Bowyer Fallout, Harvick's New Home and Grading Phoenix
Photo by ASP, Inc.
NASCAR reacted this week to Jeff Gordon intentionally wrecking Clint Bowyer at Phoenix and the melee between the crews, but was its penalty enough? Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debate what should have been done and what they would do if Bowyer exacts revenge this weekend at Homestead. Those are just among a few of the topics the Fan Council debated. Here’s what they said:
What should NASCAR have done in regards to the Jeff Gordon-Clint Bowyer incident on and off the track? On Monday, NASCAR announced it had fined Jeff Gordon $100,000, docked him 25 points and placed him in on probation until Dec. 31. NASCAR did not penalize Clint Bowyer but fined Bowyer’s crew chief, Brian Pattie, $25,000 and placed him on probation until Dec. 31 (crew chief is responsible for the team). Gordon’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, was placed on probation until Dec. 31. Fan Council members were asked what they would have done:
33.7 percent would have suspended Jeff Gordon for Homestead 23.3 percent would have issued no penalties at all 16.5 percent would have fined Gordon, Bowyer & crew members 12.6 percent would have done “other” 7.4 percent would have suspended Gordon and instigators of melee and fined Gordon, Bowyer and crew members 6.5 percent would have suspended instigators of the garage fight for Homestead
What Fan Council members said:
• Jeff Gordon needs to be suspended. And that is coming from someone who got into the sport because of him. Kyle Busch got "parked" for wrecking Hornaday at the Texas Truck race last year. Gordon didn't just take out Bowyer, he also took out Joey Logano and Aric Almirola, who had nothing to do with the feud. Fining Jeff won't do anything, since he’s earned more than just about anyone in the sport's history. $100,000 is chump change for Gordon. Sit him out.
• Boys have at it. ENOUGH SAID!
• Donate $50,000 to each of Jeff and Clint's charities and throw a ticker-tape parade in their honor for waking us all up from a season-long slumber and giving sports outlets not known for their coverage of NASCAR to realize it exists! At the most, I'd pick the "fine everybody" option. But I still say this is what NASCAR needed.
• I think what Gordon did was unacceptable and not appropriate at all. He should be suspended for one race with a $100,000 fine.
• Make Gordon and Bowyer pay the expenses for the 20 and 43 cars.
• Gordon is not one to do this type of thing often, the crew members were charged up and lost control and the melee ensued. I don't think that penalizing them will do any good. I'm not sure you could tell who the instigators were of that mess. Just let it be and move on.
• Gordon's blatant disregard for NASCAR's black flag definitely needs to be addressed. As well as whomever it was that "jumped" Gordon in the garage area. As far as Bowyer's alleged contact with Gordon on track, chalk that up to competitive racing — incidental and lacking true malice. To lie in wait, however, speaks to intent and the collateral damage that could have been avoided is inexcusable.
• Without a Kyle Busch-like rap sheet, I feel all they can do is put Gordon on probation. If Bowyer pays him back next year, then it's deserved ... as is probation at that time for him as well.
If you were NASCAR, would you be OK with it if Clint Bowyer retaliated and wrecked Jeff Gordon at Homestead this weekend?
51.7 percent said No
48.3 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• They did say "Boys have it" so I think Bowyer would be within his rights to retaliate.
• If I were NASCAR ... no. Drivers shouldn't use their cars to retaliate. As a fan ... you bet I want to see Bowyer retaliate. :D
• I don't really believe any driver should retaliate with their car. If you're pissed off someone ruined your day, when you get out of the car, go find them and settle it face-to-face, man-to-man, or fist-to-face. The fighting was the most exciting part of the whole race! At least Clint wanted to settle it right. As exciting as it might be to have him dish out some payback, I really hope he doesn't do it on track.
• I would be OK with it. Emotions ON THE TRACK are very good and needed in this sport. All anybody does these days is talk. People watch when there's controversy like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick or Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards.
• Two wrongs don't make a right; someone will eventually get hurt.
• Premeditated retaliation at a high-speed track is unacceptable. Gordon's actions were heat of the moment. A calculated act carried over to another event should be a more serious offense.
• I would be fine with it. An eye for an eye, right?
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Rate Sunday’s race at Phoenix
54.4 percent called it Good 28.7 percent called it Great 13.7 percent called it Fair 3.3 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Any race that gets me to jump up out of my chair and go, “HOLY CRAP DID YOU SEE THAT!?” multiple times has GOT to receive a “GREAT!”
• A 10-lap crash fest does not make it a great race.
• A lot of excitement and drama ... still can't compete with the NFL, but I did have a split screen at the end and I watched the Speed Channel’s post-race coverage for the first-time ever.
• Fantastically old-school-style racin'! I know there's folks upset at how things unfolded, but c'mon, tell me you EXPECTED to see the melees that happened! It was a great race — even if two of my drivers in my pool were taken out as a result! Now THAT is NASCAR racing!
• The finish alone made the race worth watching. The Brawl. Epic. Haven't enjoyed a race ending like that since Harvick had his car wrecked by Shrub on pit road after the (Darlington) race.
• This is one I watched flag-to-flag. Even though Kyle led for much of the race, there was just so much going on that it held my attention throughout. With J.J. blowing a tire and the whole Clint/Gordon melee, this race was awesome.
• This is the race NASCAR needed! ^^^Ratings!
• This was a pathetic race which ended in a gang war. Punks will be punks whether in a back alley or a racetrack in front of thousands of people. This is a sport?
• A lady at work (casual NASCAR fan): “If every race was like (Sunday) I’d watch it every week religiously.” So, I think it was a GREAT race.
• I was in the grandstands. I always love being at PIR but watching the one driver I can't stand dominate most of the race makes it a very loooong race for me. I was so happy he didn't win. The Jeff Gordon/Clint Bowyer deal was very entertaining! Watching first Clint's crew running towards the garage, and then Clint running like crazy was awesome! The last-lap crash-fest seemed uncalled for. I still can't understand why NASCAR didn't throw a caution with Danica stopped in the middle of the track. Very eventful race and I'm glad I was there.
What do you think of Kevin Harvick’s move? Last weekend, it was reported that Harvick will leave Richard Childress Racing after the 2013 season to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Fan Council members were asked what they thought of the move.
52.5 percent said great move by Harvick 33.9 percent said move will hurt Harvick in the short-term but be good long-term 13.6 percent said it was a bad move by Harvick
What Fan Council members said:
• It's clear that Richard Chidlress’ only focus is on his grandkids and their future in Cup. Burton is only keeping the seat warm for one of them and Menard is only there because of the sponsorship money. I think Harvick desperately needs a change in scenery.
• I believe RCR is a sinking ship, so I think it's a great thing for Harvick to get out as soon as his contract is up. I think he will be able to get aggressive again and become the Happy Harvick we all know and love.
• It's going to hurt Harvick in the short term. I just would not like being in the lame-duck situation as a driver, especially for a whole year. I had Harvick pegged as a championship contender for next year. Now, however, I feel he'll have a very similar year to this season. Overall, this could be a great move, having two championship-caliber drivers at SHR will be huge for that team and not to mention can only be beneficial in Danica's career.
• 2013 will be a total waste of time for RCR and Harvick. Lame-duck drivers never succeed.
• Matt Kenseth is one of the few drivers that I know that could handle the lame-duck status with class. Kevin and RCR will implode toward the end of next year — sooner if they are not running good.
• I am a huge 29 fan and I was shocked at this news. I really wish that he would stay with Richard, but for an organization that is getting ready for his grandsons as flagship drivers (not that I blame Richard for doing this at all) I don't blame Harvick for wanting to join his friend Tony.
• Change can be a good thing. Harvick hit a rut before signing in 2010 and I think that giving RCR another chance then was good. Now, however, I think that a change will help give Harvick a renewed spirit.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Gordon/Bowyer melee mars AdvoCar500; Keselowski turns tables on Johnson in points battle
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Once the smoke cleared, the cars (or what was left of them) were loaded and the Sunday sun set over Phoenix International Raceway, a new championship landscape had emerged in NASCAR. But tempers as hot and raw as the surrounding Sonora Desert shifted the focus of the Sprint Cup Series’ AdvoCare 500 from said title battle—and the race’s previously-MIA winner—to wrecked racecars, fist fights and talk of on-track payback.
Kevin Harvick, last seen in Victory Lane following a Cup Series event in Sept. 2011, led the final 15 laps to notch his third career Cup win in Avondale, Ariz.
However, a shakeup atop the Chase standings took center stage when Jimmie Johnson—the points leader entering the race—spent over 20 laps behind the wall after his right front tire’s bead melted, resulting in a hard hit to his No. 48 Chevy. That opened the door for Brad Keselowski to execute a 27-point swing by finishing sixth in the event while Johnson limped to a 32nd-place showing, and regain the points lead by a daunting 20 markers with one race remaining in the 2012 campaign.
But a dose of on-track retribution and off-track fisticuffs trumped even the championship fight, as Jeff Gordon wrecked Clint Bowyer with just over one lap remaining in the scheduled 312-lap event. Gordon, upset with Bowyer for contact that wounded his No. 24 moments earlier and for incidents that he deemed had “escalated over the year,” waited on the latter and hooked him into the Turn 4 wall. The crash also swept up Aric Almirola and Joey Logano and nearly involved Keselowski, who was able to scoot low to avoid the mess of tangled cars.
As Gordon exited his demolished car in the garage, Bowyer’s team rushed to the scene and engaged the No. 24 team in what resembled a Wild West bar room brawl in Tombstone.
Gordon was ushered into his hauler without contact while Bowyer emerged from his injured vehicle on pit road and sprinted into the garage where he attempted to confront Gordon but was unsuccessful.
“Clint has run into me numerous times, wrecked me,” a curt Gordon said as he exited the track. “He got into me on the back straightaway and pretty much ruined our day. I had it. That was it, and I got him back.”
Said Bowyer: “I barely touched him and then I feel him get into Turn 3 and try to turn me and he missed and then next thing I know Brett’s (Griffin, spotter) telling me on the radio that he’s waiting on me. It’s pretty embarrassing for a four-time champion and what I consider one of the best this sport’s ever seen. To act like that is just completely ridiculous.”
Photo by ASP, Inc.
The incident also ended any title aspirations Bowyer may have had, however slim.
“That was my opportunity to try to get myself back in the championship hunt,” Bowyer said. “When you’re disrupting a championship run like that, it’s too bad. They ask us not to do that in the drivers’ meeting and there’s usually a lot of respect there.”
The drama was far from over, though, as the field went back to racing in a green-white-checker restart. With Harvick holding off Kyle Busch—who led a race-high 237 laps—Danica Patrick was spun in Turn 3 but no caution was displayed. As she slowly rolled her car away, an oil slick was visible in Turns 3 and 4 and down the frontstretch.
As the pack raced at speed through the oil, cars began bouncing off one another with the checkered flag in the air, triggering an accident that collected a half dozen cars. Even Keselowski got a piece of the action, but managed to bull through to finish sixth.
Denny Hamlin, Busch, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.
The post-race fallout, however, centered around the Gordon/Bowyer skirmish.
“The sport was made on fights. We should have more fights,” a victorious Harvick deadpanned. “I like fights. They’re not always fun to be in—sometimes you’re on the wrong end—but fights are what made NASCAR what it is.”
His simplistic, if not tongue-in-cheek, opinions were not reflected by the new points leader.
“It just drives me absolutely crazy that I get lambasted for racing somebody hard (the previous week in Texas) without there even being a wreck and then you see stuff like this, and that’s OK from the same people that criticized me,” Keselowski said. “It’s OK to just take somebody out, but you race somebody hard, put a fender on somebody and try to go for the win, and you’re an absolute villain. That’s ridiculous.
“But then we can just go out and retaliate against each other and come back in and smile about it, and it’s fine? That’s not what this sport needs. It needs hard racing, it needs people that go for broke, try to win races and put it all out there on the line, not a bunch of people that have anger issues. That’s not good for anybody, and it really hurt my feelings to be a part of a Chase race for the championship and have that jeopardized from people that can’t keep control of their emotions.”
Keselowki goes to the season finale having only to finish 15th in Sunday’s Ford 400—and that’s if Johnson leads the most laps and wins the race.
“Unfortunately, we lost a lot of control, or all control, in the championship,” Johnson said. “We can go down there and win the race and do everything on our behalf and it still won’t net us a championship. So, we’ll go down and do our part and just see how things unfold. Today was proof that anything can happen in this sport and we’ll see how things shake out in Miami.”
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Joey Logano says he’s worked with the same sports psychologist teammate Denny Hamlin has, but that’s not the only reason why Logano could do something in Sunday’s Las Vegas race that he hasn’t in more than a year.
After finishing ninth in the Daytona 500 and 10th last weekend at Phoenix, Logano will seek to score his third consecutive top-10 finish — something he hasn’t done since his late-season charge in 2010.
A new attitude is important, as Logano admits, but it also helps to have better equipment, which Joe Gibbs Racing is providing.
If Logano’s early success continues, it could take some of the pressure off. He’s in a contract year and knows he needs to deliver on the potential that led Gibbs to put him in a Cup car full time when Logano was 18 years old.
Now 21 and able to legally walk through the Las Vegas casinos, Logano is learning what it takes to be a successful driver. He understands a key part is mental.
On the advice of Gibbs last year, Logano began talking with sports psychologist Bob Rotella. Hamlin credits Rotella for giving him a better outlook after his struggles last year. Logano also has seen the benefits after his talks with Rotella.
“(It) just kind of gives you some more answers and gives you some tools to be able to deal with certain situations and how to talk to people in a positive way, in a motivating way to keep everyone going,’’ Logano said. “All that stuff there is very, very important. It's people skills really, leadership skills.’’
That’s an area that Logano admits he was not prepared for when he moved to Cup. Then again, how many 18-year-olds are?
Logano’s struggles, compounded by the problems his team had last year, beat him down. He’s learned from talking with Rotella, known for working with several top PGA golfers, how to better handle such situations.
“The thing is you’ve got to show up at the race track with the right mindset and knowing that you can go out there and win the race and not going out there to finish in the top 10,” Logano said. “When you’re goal is to finish in the top 10, the best you’re ever going to finish is 10th. You need to focus in on winning.”
Better equipment also helps.
Engine woes saddled Gibbs’ team last year. Logano had to start at the rear of last year’s Daytona 500 because of an engine change and then blew an engine at Phoenix the following week. It started a season-long slide for the team. He finished on the lead lap twice in the first 11 races and by then was all but out of Chase contention. With Gibbs getting its engines from Toyota Racing Development this season, things seem to be better so far.
Logano helped Gibbs place all three cars in the top 10 at Phoenix with Hamlin winning and Kyle Busch placing sixth — something Gibbs did not do last season.
This year, Logano is one of only five drivers to open the season with consecutive top-10 finishes (the others are Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin).
Two races doesn’t guarantee anything and Logano understands that. Still, it’s a good way to start the season with a new crew chief, as Jason Ratcliff takes over after Greg Zipadelli left in the offseason to be the competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing.
One of the things Logano mentioned in the offseason was that the crew chief change would allow him to take on more leadership with the team. With what he’s learned talking to a sports psychologist, Logano says he’s taking a greater role this year.
“My attitude’s different,” Logano said. “I feel like I walk around with a lot more confidence in myself. That carries through the whole team. Granted, we’re only two races into this deal. But we need to stay focused and keep our eye on the prize like we’ve been doing.”
Photo by ASP, Inc.
GOOD SIGN While Kevin Harvick might have been disappointed with finishing second at Phoenix last weekend after leading a race-high 88 laps, it didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for this season.
After the race, car owner Richard Childress congratulated Harvick on the radio for his run. Harvick replied: “It’s going to be a good year.”
Harvick was excited with his run after struggling at Phoenix last year and finishing 19th.
“They’ve done a good job over the winter,” Harvick said of his team. “And hopefully that continues over the next few weeks in the preparation that they’ve done through the winter.”
PIT STOPS Goodyear held a tire test Tuesday at Rockingham Speedway in preparation for the April 15 Camping World Truck Series race there, the first NASCAR race at that track since the Cup Series left after 2004. Said Jason Leffler, among the drivers testing: “I’m just looking forward to coming back and seeing 35 other trucks out here racing hard to see what happens when the tires wear out and everybody gets slipping and sliding.” ... Dodge will reveal its 2013 Charger this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Prior to last weekend’s events at Phoenix International Raceway, Penske Racing announced it would switch to Ford at the conclusion of the 2012 season. “We do value our NASCAR program and will be evaluating the opportunities available moving forward,” Ralph Gilles, President and CEO SRT Brand and Motorsports, said. “As those opportunities materialize, we'll reveal our 2013 plans, not only in NASCAR but in other forms of motorsports.”
The second race of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season — the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway — served as a weekend of redemption for Denny Hamlin.
Fuel-strategy-gone-bad at PIR wrecked his championship hopes in 2010, when Hamlin's tank ran dry and he fell from first to 12th on the pylon. It was a blow from which Hamlin would not recover, as he lost the title to Jimmie Johnson the following week and a 2011 hangover that cost crew chief Mike Ford his job, ensued
So Hamlin took a different approach to the 2012 season by seeing a sports psychologist and getting out of the NASCAR hub that is Charlotte, N.C. Ironically, it was to the Phoenix area that Hamlin retreated, spending a relaxing offseason on the golf course and basketball courts for a warm winter away from all-things NASCAR.
And after a strong fourth-place showing in the Daytona 500, Hamlin and new crew chief Darian Grubb — who won the 2011 championship with Tony Stewart — put the series on high alert that their pairing may be a potent one. Hamlin conserved just enough gas in the waning laps at Phoenix on Sunday, outlasting Kevin Harvick to grab his first win of the 2012 season.
“This is as good as it can get for me,” Hamlin said. “I consider this my offseason second home. I’ve got a lot of friends and whatnot out here now, and so coming back to the track where essentially we did lose the championship in 2010 … it just feels so good to come out and be competitive again.
“We’ve been non-existent for 14 months, and now, here we come.”
Jimmie Johnson led 55 laps and was the dominant player through the event’s halfway point. However, a loose wheel dropped him deep in the field and he spent the rest of the afternoon methodically working his way through it. Instead, it was Hamlin and Harvick that battled for the win over the final 60 laps. When Harvick’s fuel tank ran dry with one-and-a-half laps remaining, Hamlin cruised to his 18th career Cup win.
Greg Biffle, who ran third in Daytona, Johnson and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 5.
“I don’t know that I could get to him,” Harvick, who led a race-high 88 laps, said when asked if he could have gotten by Hamlin if not for the fuel issue. “Our cars were so evenly matched. He was a little bit better on the restarts than I was. If I could get out front on the restart and have enough room to slide my car around, then I could take off after that. But he was able to get out there and get in front of me.”
As the series stays out west for a trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Hamlin, Grubb and their Joe Gibbs Racing team look to be the early-season squad to beat — a surprising and scary notion considering they have all of two points-paying races together.
“We haven’t even gotten some things in our racecars that Darian wants to put in them,” Hamelin said. “The chemistry and all is still so new — Darian is still learning the system within JGR. There’s a lot of reasons why we’re going to be going forward even more in the next few weeks. So to start out a year like this with a fresh new relationship with him … it’s just a great feeling. I can’t really put it into words.”
Few could have predicted the 2012 season would open with such historic and unforeseen events taking place at Daytona. Rain delays, prime-time racing on a Monday, jet dryer explosions … I‘m surprised the Mayan calendar didn’t signal the end of civilization when the checkered flag fell.