Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Carl Edwards' new crew chief, Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
Until last week, crew chief Jimmy Fennig admits he had “very seldom’’ talked to Carl Edwards in their years together at Roush Fenway Racing.
“I’m the type of crew chief that I focus in on the job at hand and the driver I have and don’t really pay too much attention to other drivers,” said Fennig, who most recently was Matt Kenseth’s crew chief.
Next season, Fennig and his crew will partner with Edwards as Kenseth drives for Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s part of a series of changes taking place at Roush Fenway Racing. Two-time defending Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. replaces Kenseth in the No. 17 Cup car. Trevor Bayne takes Stenhouse’s Nationwide ride. The Cup team of Greg Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia will remain intact.
Fennig, who became a crew chief in 1986 and won the 2004 championship with Kurt Busch, admits he doesn’t know Edwards too well but doesn’t see that as a hinderance in their pairing.
“My goal has always been to win races,” said Fennig, the winning crew chief in the 1988 Daytona 500 with Bobby Allison and this year’s Daytona 500 with Kenseth. “No matter who drives the car, that’s what I try to do every week and that’s something I know we already have in common.”
Fennig will be Edwards’ third crew chief since the start of the 2012 season. Bob Osborne started with Edwards. Osborne, citing health issues, stepped down as crew chief in July and was replaced by Chad Norris.
Edwards was winless this season and finished 15th in the points a year after losing the championship on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. Edwards scored only four top-10 finishes in the 17 races with Norris as crew chief, thus a change wasn’t surprising.
“We all just sat down and looked at it and Chad and I talked at length about it,” Edwards said of the change. “Everyone agrees the opportunity to have the experience of Jimmy Fennig on the box to get ... back to Victory Lane is what we should do. It wasn’t something that I single-handedly requested or just that Jack (Roush) wanted to do it. As a team we thought this was the best thing to do. The biggest thing at Roush is that he has so many good people that we can move people around and do things like this and it is good for the whole company.”
Along with that move, Roush will pair Stenhouse Jr. with crew chief Scott Graves. Both will be rookies in Cup.
“I would normally not be an advocate for bringing a crew chief who hadn’t been established with a rookie driver into the Cup Series, but Scott Graves – in my words – he’s been a prodigy for the small amount of experience he’s had making the final decisions,” Roush said.
“He made great decisions for Carl at Watkins Glen and he’s made great decisions for Ricky when he’s been with him this year. So I think given the fact he’s a mechanical engineer as well as an experienced team engineer, he’s going to bring enthusiasm and creativity to Ricky that we might not otherwise be able to achieve with somebody that had more experience.”
JR Motorsports' Regan Smith. (ASP, Inc.)
JR MOTORSPORTS MOVES JR Motorsports announced a new crew chief for Regan Smith on Tuesday and hinted that it could run just one team full-time next season in the Nationwide Series.
The team announced that Jimmie Johnson’s longtime engineer, Greg Ives, would become Regan Smith’s crew chief next season. Ives was the engineer for all five of Johnson’s Cup championships.
JR Motorsports also noted in a release how it “continues to streamline its race program.” The release stated that the team is preparing for the “likelihood” that it will run one full-time team with Smith as driver and one part-time with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and select drivers. This past season, Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt were the team’s two full-time drivers. Patrick is moving to Cup to drive full-time with Stewart-Haas Racing and has stated a desire to run some Nationwide events.
ROOKIES OF THE YEAR Ty Dillon was selected as the Rookie of the Year in the Truck series, marking the third consecutive year a Richard Childress Racing driver won that honor. Austin Dillon won it in 2010 and Joey Coulter won it last year. ... Austin Dillon was selected as the Nationwide Rookie of the Year and Stephen Leicht won the rookie of the year honors in Cup.
SEEKING SPONSORSHIP Kyle Busch said after Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race that Dollar General will not return as a sponsor on his Kyle Busch Motorsports entry.
“Unfortunately, we’re sponsor-less next year, so we’ll see what happens through the offseason,” Busch said.
The team announced earlier this month that Joey Coulter will drive full-time for it in the Truck series next year.
PIT STOPS Joe Gibbs Racing confirmed Monday that Elliott Sadler will join the team to run in the Nationwide Series next year. ... Paul Menard ran the most laps in Cup this season. He completed 10,406 of the 10,442 laps run (99.7 percent) this season. ... Jimmie Johnson led the most laps in Cup this season at 1,744. Kyle Busch was next, having led 1,436 laps. ... There were 15 different winners in Cup this season, down from 18 last year. This season marked the second consecutive year no driver won more than five Cup races. Champion Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin each won a series-high five races this year.
Kenseth's departure, Roush's title chances and the next driver to score a win
Matt Kenseth in Victory Lane at Daytona. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The announcement that Matt Kenseth will leave Roush Fenway Racing after this season has been the talk of NASCAR. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council didn’t hold back on what they thought about the move on if it was good or bad for Roush and how this might impact Kenseth’s title hopes.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council also weighed in on Sunday’s race at Sonoma, who between 11th and 20th in the points will make the Chase and more. Here’s what they had to say.
KENSETH LEAVING A GOOD OR BAD MOVE FOR ROUSH?
68.3 percent called it a bad move for Roush trading a former champ for a Cup rookie 31.7 percent called it a good move, trading a 40-year-old for a 24-year-old in a nod to future
What Fan Council members said:
• Although I hate to see Matt Kenseth go, there are only so many cars that Jack Roush can put out there and if Ricky did not end up in a Cup car, then he may end up there with another team and that would be a bigger loss.
• Stenhouse will be a star. Cheaper for Roush as well. Kenseth can get on with Gibbs (if the rumors are true). WIN WIN for everyone.
• Ricky will never be as good as Matt. Matt is a great driver, has a wonderful sense of humor and he's humble. Put up against Matt, Ricky will never measure up.
• Bad move for no other reason than a continuation of the Roush mentality of abandoning career drivers for others. Nothing but money. Re: Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch. Jack Roush is a businessman that is dedicated to money, not his employees. His counter ego would appear to be Coach Gibbs.
• For the short run, I'd rather have Kenseth, but in the long run, Stenhouse will be an elite Cup driver.
• JACK HAS LOST HIS MIND. WOW what a mistake — just like some of the others Jack has made.
• As a die-hard Matt fan, I think it's a bad move and I blame it on the RFR sales department. Even in a down economy, it shouldn't be this hard to find sponsors for a championship-caliber driver on the track and a class individual off the track. Considering the same RFR sales department couldn't even sign any sponsors for Trevor Bayne after he won the 500 last year, I guess I shouldn't be surprised at their inability to do so (now).
• I can't believe the coldness with which a champion who is leading the points is dumped for a cheap, child driver. This is the same attitude toward employees that is killing this country. I'm sure Fenway had a big say in this.
• The financial environment is unwittingly making NASCAR more and more like major league sports with free agency. There is no loyalty any more, not that the teams wouldn't like to stay together, but because the finances don't work out. For whatever reason, Roush Fenway doesn't seem to be able to sell sponsorships well or at least at a level that permits them to field teams for their talent. Matt's ride this year was barely filled, and undoubtedly they all knew that sponsor commitments (or lack of) would make it impossible for RFR to pay him what his asking price was for next year.
• Kenseth is in position to win the championship and you're going to do that to him? That is beyond ridiculous. Stenhouse is a good driver with a bright future and there is no reason why they don't just bring back the fourth car since he apparently can get sponsorship and Trevor Bayne can't, which I don't understand, either.
• Stupid, stupid move on Roush's part! Wish Kenserh the best though ... as long as he doesn't go to Toyota!
• Nothing against Ricky, but if they cannot get Matt sponsorship for a full season who do they think will come aboard for a rookie with less talent?
• It's the only move Roush could make. Kenseth is going to command a very large new contract and Roush hasn't had a full slate of sponsors for him for a couple of years now. Kenseth can go to Gibbs and Home Depot and cash in and Roush can start his rebuild with a great young driver. I think Stenhouse is going to be a little like Tony Stewart: better in a more powerful Cup car than the Nationwide car. Those dirt guys love all that extra power. I think Kenseth will be a great asset at Gibbs as a calming influence, plus I think he might just have a title or two left in him. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
HOW WILL THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT KENSETH IS LEAVING AFTER THIS SEASON IMPACT HIS TITLE HOPES? Matt Kenseth noted on Twitter that he doesn't believe that announcing he'll leave the team after this season will hurt his title chances, noting crew chief Darian Gurbb knew he would not return with Tony Stewart last year and they won a title together. Fan Council members were asked what they thought.
51.6 percent said Kenseth’s titles chances will be unaffected 39.1 percent said Kenseth hurt his title chances 9.3 percent said Kenseth helped his title hopes since there will be a greater drive to win the title in the final year with the team
What Fan Council members said:
• I believe as long as his team believes in him and themselves he has just as much chance as anyone else to win the title.
• I think he could still go on to win it. But, just like contract talks, etc., at mid-season even though they "say” it doesn't affect them they always admit when it is over that it did. It has to. A NASCAR driver ain't no fry cook at McDonalds. This is big money and big impact at a high level.
• 1. A crew chief is not as public of a position as a driver. 2. Grubb's move wasn’t made public until AFTER the championship. 3. Grubb and Stewart didn't decide he was leaving until Charlotte IN THE CHASE. You can't tell me Biffle won't get better equipment knowing he'll be there next year. This may help Carl make the Chase now.
• Matt has always said over the years that he doesn't let front office issues (contracts, sponsorships, etc.) affect his racing, so I would like to think that would continue. Being the top-tier driver he is, it's not like he needs to worry about not being able to find a ride next year (even if a JGR agreement isn't already in place).
• Matt has gained the points lead during the most difficult point in his negotiations with Roush and his future team. The announcement has been made and Matt is liberated, free from care and any consternation, free to focus on his goal of winning the Sprint Cup.
• Grubb wasn't announced. It was all internal and there were no "extra" spotlights on Grubb/Stewart. ALL eyes will focus on ANY shift in performance with Kenseth the rest of the year. Stick a fork in his title hopes.
• Can anyone say “Quack, Quack!” This might not affect Matt right now, but once he announces where he is headed and then Roush starts uninviting him to team meetings, that is when you will see the effect.
• Solidarity amongst the entire team is necessary to win a title. What Tony Stewart did last year was super-human. I do not feel Matt Kenseth is of the same caliber of driver as Tony. I feel the driver leaving a team is more troubling than a crew chief.
• I still think the championship is going to come down to Johnson, Stewart and Kenseth this year. It might be tempting for Roush to play favorites and give Biffle some extra attention, but I don't think he will — Matt has been too important to Jack's company for him to do that. I think they will end this relationship in a classy way.
• I think what Matt said is totally right. Grubb knew he was out five races early and still ended up with the title, so it doesn't really matter. It may be a slight issue, especially since Matt's directly involved with where he goes, but not enough to distract him that bad. He is a championship driver still, even as a lame duck.
GRADE SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT SONOMA
47.3 percent called it Good 32.4 percent called it Fair 10.8 percent called it Great 9.5 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• My husband and I went to the race. I felt there was a lot of single-file racing, not a lot of action and got kind of bored during the race. Still liked being there, though.
• Typical road racing, very little passing or real racing. The only saving grace was Kurt Busch's valiant challenge near the end. Otherwise, completely sans drama or excitement.
• I had no problem with the race. Some will say it’s boring, but at least there was driving ability and strategy involved in this win.
• The race itself was good — if you don't count my driver's "genius crew chief" finding another way to lose a race. The TNT coverage, however, was an unmitigated disaster, capped by showing the GWC restart through the BACK of the grandstand. Seriously. They did that. I don't know how ANYONE would have found Sunday's telecast compelling.
• I thought the duel at the end between Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer was awesome. The rest of the race was so-so.
• I graded this race as fair just because for some reason there was no excitement. I'm not one that needs cautions or wrecks to have excitement but this race was just plain boring. But then again they all can’t be awesome all the time.
• I was there, and it was AWESOME!!
• Not crazy about road courses, but TNT's coverage just about ruined it all for me. Not quite sure about all that went on as they really showed none of what was happening. The lack of cautions and the bad luck my driver faced is making me rate this race as only “fair.”
• Had really high hopes for this race, but it turned out to be a real snoozer
• This was by far the WORST telecast of the season. Stuff was happening left and right and TNT completely ignored it or did a poor job presenting it. Even later on they would not go back to (or mention) important race happenings. Shame on you TNT. Thank goodness for Twitter so I actually knew what was going on with my driver and with the race.
Will Jeff Gordon be next? (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
WHO’S NEXT TO WIN? Nine drivers who won a race in 2011 have yet to win this year. Fan Council members were asked who among this group will win a race next?
48.2 percent said Jeff Gordon 29.9 percent said Kevin Harvick 14.0 percent said Carl Edwards 5.6 percent said Kurt Busch 1.7 percent said Marcos Ambrose 0.3 percent said Trevor Bayne 0.3 percent said Paul Menard
What Fan Council members said:
• Wow, I found this question to be very hard. I realize nothing hinges on my answer, but it really made me think about the list of drivers who did win last year and are having problems this year. And wow — what an impressive list. I picked Ku Busch but could have gone with Kevin Harvick. Just feel the luck factor for most of the others is all bad.
• I have to believe that the worst luck he has ever had has to come to an end and I say NOW would be the time. I believe Jeff Gordon — my sentimental favorite — wins next. He truly has had great cars and could have won races already.
• Wow, that's an interesting list. With the way most of these peoples’ seasons are going it's not looking too good. I would have to say Cousin Carl would be next on that list just because the way his teammates are running.
• I believe that Kevin Harvick will probably break into the winners circle next. I think he is going to start being more aggressive to get himself a win or two before the Chase starts.
• This is a tossup between Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. Both are running decent but bad luck seems to strike at the wrong moment. The first one to run a full race without any bad luck will win. Of course, what was Tony Stewart doing at this time last year?
• Jeff Gordon is due and has been running the best of these drivers, just has not had the finishes to show. He is a champ and will find victory lane. Next in line is Kevin Harvick, though that team still has some problems to iron out.
• I'm going with Kurt Busch for whatever tantrums he throws, he has proven he's a great driver and (Sunday) he was so close. Fingers crossed for him.
WHO WILL MAKE THE CHASE? Fan Council members were given a list of the drivers between 11th and 20th in the points and asked which ones would make the Chase.
60.9 percent said Kyle Busch 39.1 percent said Kasey Kahne 38.0 percent said Carl Edwards 29.0 percent said Jeff Gordon 22.2 percent said Ryan Newman 14.8 percent said Joey Logano 3.0 percent said Marcos Ambrose 2.0 percent said Paul Menard 1.7 percent said Jeff Burton 1.0 percent said Jamie McMurray
What Fan Council members said:
• Kyle and Carl are drivers who have been able to step it up in the past, and they don't have as far to go as the others.
• It might be wishful thinking, but I believe Joey Logano will continue to put up top-5 results and inch his way into the Chase. I believe Kasey Kahne will win another race or two and get the wild card spot. Kyle Busch may also make the Chase if JGR can calm the engine issues and allow him to put in some quality performances.
• Carl and Kyle are givens, and Joey will be fighting for his job and will slip right in on wins.
• I see Ryan Newman getting in. I hope Jeff Burton can get in the top 10 as well.
• I'm not sure ANY of them will make it into the top 10; it is going to come down to those wild card wins.
• Truex will fall out and Edwards will get in. Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon get in via the wild card.
• I'll go with Kahne and Newman because they each have a win and one more would essentially lock them in. Edwards is hungover from last year, in my opinion.
• I like Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch to make it. I know Kahne has fallen off a bit since his win in the Coke 600, but he has a lot of good tracks coming up and I see him getting at least one more win before the Chase. As for Kyle Busch, he is the kind of guy who can get it done anywhere. Once they figure out there engine woes, I see Kyle getting to victory lane and possible in the top 10.
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.
Points leader Matt Kenseth will leave Roush Fenway Racing after this season and be replaced by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the team announced Tuesday.
Reports state that Kenseth is headed to Joe Gibbs Racing although it is unclear if it will be with a fourth team or in place of Joey Logano, who is in the final year of his contract.
Kenseth wrote on Twitter: “I’m very thankful to Jack Roush for the opportunities he’s given me over the past 14 years. Together we have enjoyed a lot of success and as a team we are committed as ever to the remainder of the 2012 season and chasing a 3rd sprint cup title for Jack and RFR.
“Although I have nothing to announce regarding 2013, I feel the timing of this announcement gives RFR ample time to get things lined up. Darian (Grubb) and Tony (Stewart) proved to us last year there is no such thing as a “lame duck” team or season. We will continue to go to work and race hard.”
With the move, Roush loses the defending Daytona 500 winner but also a driver who is 40 years old. Taking over the No. 17 car for Kenseth next year will be 24-year-old Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the defending Nationwide Series champion.
“Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has more than proved his abilities on the race track,” said team co-owner Jack Roush in a statement issued by the team “We feel that he is not only a key piece of our team’s future, but a key piece of the future of the sport. Roush Fenway is an organization with a wonderful past and present, as well as an extremely promising future, and I can’t think of a better candidate than Ricky to usher in the next era of success for the team.
“Of course, I’d like to thank Matt Kenseth for his many years of loyal service. Matt has been an integral part of this organization for well over a decade, and we are extremely appreciative of his accomplishments and contributions to the team, and will always consider him a part of the Roush Fenway family.
“We’re fortunate that we were able to tap into Matt’s potential and bring him on board many years ago, and I’m proud that together we were able to combine the tools and the resources of Roush Fenway with his talent and determination to forge a partnership that yielded a championship at the Cup level and all of his 22 Cup victories, including two Daytona 500 wins. The No. 17 is positioned extremely well this season, and I’m committed to providing the team the best resources to continue their run for the 2012 championship. I have no doubt that Matt will do his part.”
Kenseth has run all but one Cup race in his career for Roush. Kenseth made his debut in 1998, subbing for Bill Elliott at Dover so Elliott could attend his father’s funeral (he finished sixth). Kenseth drove in five Cup races for Roush the following season before running full-time in 2000 when he beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. for rookie of the year honors in the Cup Series.
Stenhouse ranks third in the Nationwide standings this season with three victories. He has five career series wins in 87 starts heading into this weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway.
CHANGING WAYS Progress can’t come fast enough at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. As the NASCAR Sprint Cup season heads toward the midway point, Jamie McMurray is 20th in the points and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya is 22nd.
After an offseason of changes, the EGR teams have struggled to put together strong finishes. McMurray has three top-10 finishes and Montoya has two. At this time a year ago, Montoya was 16th in points with five top-10 finishes, and McMurray was 27th in points with two top-10 finishes.
Montoya says one must look beyond the results to see the change taking place after the it hired Max Jones as team manager in December. It was among a number of changes car owner Chip Ganassi started making last season to revamp his competition department and his teams.
“I think we’ve done a lot of progress,” Montoya said. “If you really go to the team right now and see how different everything is working, it’s pretty amazing. We haven’t had the results we want to have, but there have been a lot of really good changes and we’ve been putting people in the right place.
“Just because you put somebody in the right place doesn’t mean that overnight you are going to run better. You want to run better overnight, but things have got to change. Everybody has to adapt and it’s a process. I really feel we made a lot of gains on the car; we made a lot of gains on how the whole engine department is working. We’re definitely making progress I think.”
McMurray said the way the teams have been re-designed, its created better cohesion between them.
“It’s all for the better and Chip is still out hiring people and looking for more engineers and people to make it better than what it is right now,” McMurray said. “I think for us, my guess is somewhere around the last 10 races you’re going to see a lot of the progress. It takes time. There’s different suspensions, different simulations every week and sometimes they don’t always work. It’s kind of testing and trying to get things better. It’s a big difference than where it was a year ago.
“You don’t go from running 15th to winning just overnight. It takes baby steps. But, I feel like we’re heading in the right direction. I kind of say the last 10 races because I think it’s going to take that long to get to where we need to be.”
Earnhardt Ganssi Racing hopes to be the new version of Michael Waltrip Racing in improving its performance.
Jeff Gordon (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
LEAN ON ME Jeff Gordon’s struggles to make the Chase were typified Sunday at Sonoma when he had a strong car but ran out of fuel during the race and lost track position slowly heading back to pit road. He had been running in the top 5 and fell to 15th afterward. He recovered to finish sixth. While he needs all the points possible, he also needs at least one and likely two victories to make the Chase. Gordon is 18th in the points.
Gordon’s car has been fast all year but something seems to happen to him each week — from being involved in incidents to self-inflicted problems that have denied him the chance to win a few races and put him in the position he is.
Gordon said that this “has really been a test for us,” before last weekend’s race at Sonoma.
“To not have any results to show for it is extremely frustrating and it has really tested us in a big way,” Gordon said of he, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the team. “I just give a lot of credit to Alan. I feel like he and I have really come together through this. We really had great talks over the offseason and I think we just bonded in a way where we have confidence that no matter what happens, we’re not going to let it tear us apart.
“There have been times where he’s really had to step-up and be that glue and then there’s been times where I’ve had to as well, which is not something I’ve really had to do in the past. For me, from a leadership standpoint, it’s really more of just going out and getting the results and I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to go get those results and get the team rallied around that. This year, I’ve had to do it more on a personal level one on one and in the team meetings of really kind of stepping out there and putting some words out there that I feel like could be key to keeping us together and getting us through those tough times.”
NEW STRATEGY Although 10 races remain until the Chase field is set, Kasey Kahne said last week he’s adjusting his strategy.
“I really thought we would be able to race our way into the top 10,’’ he said.
A 29th-place finish at Pocono and a 33rd-place finish at Michigan altered his thinking.
“The way I look at it is we just need to win,’’ Kahne said before last weekend’s race at Sonoma, where he finished 14th and fell to 17th in the points.
“We have to win at least one more race and maybe two to to have real strong shot at making the Chase this year.’’
Taking stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series at the Easter break
Tony Stewart has two wins in 2012. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Taking Stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup at the Easter Break
Six weeks into the 2012 NASCAR season, the Sprint Cup Series heads into the first of only two off-weekends of the year. With no race this weekend, and thus no fantasy picks to make, let’s take a look at some of the biggest surprises thus far, which drivers and teams are on track for a solid season and which need to turn their season around before it is too late.
There is no doubt the hottest team in NASCAR is Stewart-Haas Racing. The defending series champion, Tony Stewart, has had an uncharacteristic start to the year, winning two races (Las Vegas, Fontana), while teammate Ryan Newman used an aggressive move during a green-white-checker finish to score his first career Cup win at Martinsville.
Typically slow starters, both SHR drivers have hit the ground running after last year's impressive showing in the Chase. Stewart currently sits third in points, while Newman climbed two spots to eighth after last week’s victory.
The mood is soaring at Stewart-Haas, the strong finishes and wins keep coming, the new partnership between Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington continues to roll on smoothly, but can that momentum continue through the summer months and into the Chase?
While the SHR brigade has been scoring wins and making headlines, Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle has quietly and consistently raced his way to the points lead. After starting the season with three consecutive third-place finishes, Biffle took command of the series standings after Las Vegas and has yet to relinquish the spot.
Frustrated and clearly upset with his team’s 16th-place points finish in 2011, Biffle had high expectations coming into this year and his performances to date have shown the changes made behind the scenes at Roush Fenway Racing have made all the difference.
Although The Biff has yet to hit Victory Lane, he hasn’t finished worse than 13th, with three top 5s and a sixth-place run to his credit. Determined to put last year's disappointing results behind him, expect Biffle and his No. 16 team to continue to lead the way at RFR as the season rolls on in two weeks in Texas — a track at which Biffle could easily break his 49-race winless skid.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Also on the verge of breaking a winless streak is perennial fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. Through the first six weeks of the season, the No. 88 team has been the workhorse of the Hendrick stable with three top 5s and four top 10s. Earnhardt nearly scored his second Daytona 500 victory to open the season, finishing second and proving he’ll be a contender at the plate tracks so long as “pack racing” is the draft du jour. He was oh-so-close yet again last weekend in Martinsville before settling for his second straight third-place finish.
Sitting second in the standings, Earnhardt appears confident in his team, the speed in his cars, crew chief Steve Letarte and, perhaps most importantly, himself. His average finish of 7.8 is impressive to say the least, and he has already led more laps in the first six races (75) than he did in all of 2011 (58).
While Junior’s winless streak has now reached 135 races, he truly only has two victories in the last 212 events, stretching back to 2006. His last multi-win season came in ’04 while racing for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. when he earned a career-high six trophies.
With the constant pressure to perform and deliver wins, Earnhardt appears more comfortable with his situation than he has since joining HMS is 2008. This team is nipping at the heels of a victory, and I expect them to be the group to deliver team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th Sprint Cup Series victory, lead the series standings throughout the course of the summer and be a serious contender come Chase time.
As Earnhardt Jr. has started the season with a bang, the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports stable has struggled with poor luck, disappointing finishes and controversy.
The team’s newest addition, Kasey Kahne, was expected to hit the ground running at Hendrick, competing for wins and battling for the points lead. Instead, the No. 5 team has two DNFs and a best finish of 14th, which came in the rain-shortened event in Fontana. Kahne has completed only 76.9 percent of the total laps this year and has four finishes of 39th or worse.
Mired deep in the standings at 31st, Kahne and his Kenny Francis-led team now have to focus on righting the ship and going after wins. Despite the slow start, Kahne's talent and ability to win could easily bump this team into the Chase “wild card” conversation as the season rolls into the summer months that are dominated by big intermediates tracks — a Kahne specialty.
Veteran Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon has also been hit with the bad luck bug, resulting in disappointing finishes thus far. An engine failure in Daytona set the tone for the No. 24 team’s season, with poor luck continuing nearly each and every week. Although he scored an eighth at Phoenix and a 12th in Las Vegas, Gordon is stuck in 21st in the championship standings, with three finishes outside the top 25.
Last weekend’s dominating performance at Martinsville seemed to show the tide might be turning for the four-time Sprint Cup champion, but a late-race spin battling for the lead and then subsequently running out of fuel resulted in a 14th-place finish. The No. 24 team has been strong at times this season, but the results simply have not shown.
Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson’s start to the 2012 season has been filled with drama and controversy instead of race wins and celebrations. A rules infraction at Daytona set the stage for a showdown between the No. 48 team and NASCAR that stretched on for weeks.
NASCAR's initial penalty on the No. 48 team would have kept crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec away from the track for a total of six weeks, plus cost Johnson 25 driver points. Leaving Daytona 42nd after a Lap 2 wreck and with the penalty hanging over the team’s head, things looked grim.
Yet after multiple appeals, Hendrick Motorsports got the answer it wanted. The suspensions levied on Knaus and Malec were dismissed, as was the points penalty for Johnson. Jumping from deep in the standings, Johnson climbed within reach of the top 10.
Despite all the drama surrounding the penalty and appeals, Johnson was able to knock off four top 10s in the ensuing four weeks. His battle with Gordon on Sunday at Martinsville was shaping up to be one for the ages, but Johnson was forced to swallow a 12th-place finish after also getting collected in the G-W-C melee at the front of the field.
So while things started off rough for Team 48, its performances are proving it has put the drama behind and are as focused as ever going for that sixth championship.
The 2012 season, while still in its initial stages, has been anything but dull. From rain delays, to jet-dryer fires, to appeals drama, to surprise success and surprise struggles, the storylines have been deep.
Following this weekend’s Easter break, the Cup Series hits a stretch of continuous racing that lasts until mid-July. As the temperatures soar, so will the intensity on the track and off. Expect slow starters like Kahne, Gordon, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards to make some noise, while Biffle, Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart hope to maintain their solid starts.
Be sure to take time this week to look over your spot in the fantasy standings, examine the good calls and questionable mistakes you've made in setting your lineup and look ahead to the upcoming events in the next few weeks. Much like the drivers and teams, preparation is the key to success in any fantasy league.
So what would you do with $13 million? In this economy, that’s a dollar amount that makes most middle-class Americans drool. It’ll certainly make major athletes jealous, too, after all, that’s more than the highest-paid NHL, NBA and major league baseball players earn, and fairly competitive with sport’s “holy grail” these days, the NFL.
Washington and Wall Street were in Mylanta mode on Thursday, as the stock market imploded, losing 512 points. Larger-than-expected gains by General Motors could not buoy the economic realities of being sunk financially, out of options and not being able to make the minimum payment on our national credit card.
In Dearborn, Mich., and Concord, N.C., however, the mood was a bit brighter.
The collective group of Roush Fenway Racing, Ford Racing and Blue Oval fans everywhere could breath a collective sigh of relief, following the announcement that Carl Edwards will be returning to RFR for 2012 and beyond. The 31-year old driver from Missouri had held a large portion of NASCAR nation hostage the last few months, while speculation ran rampant that he would sign with Joe Gibbs Racing and relieve Joey Logano of driving duties in the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. All the speculation was squelched though, with Edwards’ long-awaited announcement.
“I sincerely appreciate the amazing opportunity that Jack Roush has given me in this sport and am honored to race for him,” Edwards said. “As an organization, Roush Fenway provides the resources I need to win, and as a driver, that’s the most important thing. We’re having a fun season on the racetrack as we’re leading the points and in great position for the Chase. That’s the result of a lot of hard work from the men and women at Roush Fenway, Ford Motor Company and Roush-Yates Engines. I really enjoy competing with this group and looking forward to continuing that relationship into the future.”
With Roush Fenway Racing’s Boston Red Sox affiliation, call it a snow cone glove save for RFR and Ford Motor Company by keeping the biggest name in NASCAR free agency under their banner.
More accurately, it also means that Roush and Ford have avoided letting another tremendous talent walk out the door. The list of prime-time personnel that has left the ranks of Ford and Roush reads like a laundry list of who’s who in stock car racing. Those that they’ve missed out on does, as well.
In 1992, as a nasally, mullet-shod juvenile with a really bad pre-pubescent moustache, Jeff Gordon was lured away from Ford to the greener pastures of Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet. Seeing as how Gordon celebrated his 40th birthday this week, it was somewhat ironic that Ford got a big present of their own in the driver department.
Kasey Kahne was next touted as Ford’s newest “young gun” in 2003 when that stupid term was bandied about all-too-often. But Ray Evernham and Dodge were able to lure Kahne from Ford — a move that spilled over to the courts in a legal battle. The lingering ill-will as apparent when Kahne was driving for the remnants of Gillete Evernham Motorsports — renamed Richard Petty Motorsports and sporting Ford ovals.
When he was all of 15 years old, Joey Logano was touted by Mark Martin as the driver he’d like to see take over his ride in the flagship No. 6 Roush Ford. Martin’s last scouting score was Matt Kenseth, who brought the team its first Cup Series championship, so his keen eye was one to trust when it came to searching for a new driver. Logano was under consideration for a driver-development deal with Roush, but when team principles got wind that Logano’s father was discussing his son’s future with other teams, talks broke down and Logano landed at Joe Gibbs Racing.
So considering how virtually every news outlet outside of SPEED’s Bob Dillner had Edwards replacing Logano in the No. 20 car, you can chalk one up in the win column for Ford and Roush in this battle of driver retention.
Edwards made the move from the Craftsman Truck Series to the Cup level in 2004 at just the right time. One of the stalwarts of the Roush renascence, Jeff Burton, had hit a wall in the No. 99 car (figuratively, not literally), enduring three straight winless seasons. Midway through ’04, he left Roush and Ford to join Richard Childress Racing in the Chevrolet camp. Burton’s move likely would have happened eventually, as he was Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s choice to succeed him in the iconic No. 3 when he retired.
Edwards’s arrival in the 99 car was one of virtually instant success. In the final 13 races of the 2004 season, Edwards scored one top-5 and five top-10 finishes, winning his first Cup race just four races into the 2005 season. Roush’s Fords were the cars to beat that year, striking that sweet spot of newly-minted Roush-Yates horsepower, downforce and mechanical grip, going on to put all five teams in the Chase, although none were able to win the title.
That did not mean they were done losing some of their most productive members, though.
Kurt Busch, winner of the 2004 Sprint Cup while driving a Roush Ford, was benched with two races remaining in ’05 after a suspected impaired driving stop. Busch had earlier opted to depart Roush Racing for Penske to replace the retiring Rusty Wallace in the No. 2 car. While there seemed to be little love lost between Jack Roush and Busch, there was even less when his younger brother, Kyle, decided against following in his big brother’s footsteps and vacated his Roush Truck Series ride for Hendrick Motorsports.
Two years later, when Kyle would again be on the open market, Roush said of employing the Las Vegas native, “I am not interested in Kyle Busch. I’ve been there and I’ve done that.”
Martin, the cornerstone of the organization, and one of the drivers who helped put Ford back on the map in circle-track racing during the 1980s, was the key cog in Roush building his NASCAR empire. Roush’s first driver to head up his operation in 1988, Martin was recruited to come back in 2006, a year after he was set to pull back from the grind of full-time Cup competition. While running roughshod over the competition in the Truck Series that season, Martin realized that he would not be satisfied with that level of competition, and was looking for a part-time transitional role within Roush Fenway Racing.
When his wishes were essentially rejected through the press (including a less-than-complimentary good bye from Ford Racing executives at the time) Martin looked elsewhere, moving to Chevrolet and the reformed MB2 Motorsports team. The first race out, he nearly won the Daytona 500 — much like another former Roush Ford pilot, Johnny Benson Jr. in 2000 — with the team that would eventually become the No. 01 Ginn Racing operation. Martin would then move over to the mothership — HMS Hendrick Motorsports (British naval enthusiasts take heart) —where he’d win five races in ’09, challenging for the Sprint Cup down to the final race of the season.
If your head is not spinning yet with the interwoven exodus of excellence that has been allowed to flee Ford over the last decade like refugees escaping a war-torn Sudan, you’re probably starting to understand why Ford itself made such a play to retain the services of Cousin Carl — the company principles simply couldn’t afford to lose another star.
“We are pleased with Carl’s vote of confidence in Roush Fenway and Ford,” Director of Ford Racing, Jamie Allison, said. “This signals he believes he is with the right team and the right automaker to win races and championships. Now we can continue to focus on winning the 2011 championship.”
Yes, there have been a couple of unfortunate incidents with Edwards along the way — the “fake-almost-punch” with Matt Kenseth, a couple of aerial antics between he and Brad Keselowski, as well as a nasty Nationwide wreck dolled out by Edwards at Gateway last season. At Charlotte in 2009, Edwards tried to choke Kevin Harvick once and a few months later reiterated that he was “not a good person.”
But hey, if you’re a Ford guy how can you not get behind that?
In that time, though, Edwards has become the face of Ford — and to a lesser extent, NASCAR. Articulate, media-friendly and one of the most sought-after pitchmen in motorsports, he is everything a sponsor and team owner could ask for. Considering Edwards’ position to challenge for the title this season, as well as the mentoring role he has undertaken with both Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne, Ford is clearly banking their racing future on him.
In the eyes of Ford and those in the racing community, this time Jack Roush and Ford Motor Company have recouped many of the past losses in the Awesome Driver Department, and are about to start a rally of their own.