Drivers and teams to watch as the circuit hits its mid-summer classic in Daytona
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (please don’t call it the Pepsi 400 — Firecracker 400, however, will be accepted) marks the halfway point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
The year’s third restrictor plate race was once run on the morning of the fourth to beat the oppressive North Florida heat and humidity. “On the track by 11:00, on the beach by 2:00,” was the mantra before lights and night racing. NASCAR’s signature speedway has endured wildfires and truck fires in recent years, as well as Turn Two disemboweling itself in the middle of an event, but all should be solid as we’re knee-deep in the Summer Stretch. And as the championship chase begins to take shape, the contenders have begun to separate themselves from the pretenders. Unless, of course, it’s 2011 and you’re Tony Stewart, stumbling into the Chase like the town lush, but suddenly start running like Tony Stewart once the title fight begins.
But I digress. Let’s review our current top 10 in points, how they got here, and who on the outside looking in has to get their stuff together if they have any hopes of contending for the Cup come September.
1. Matt Kenseth Wins: 1 (Daytona 500)
Let’s see, Daytona 500: Check. Points leader: Check. Bailing on team mid-season: WTF? Kenseth’s announcement that he is leaving the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford at season’s end sent shockwaves through the fanbase. His likely destination appears to be Joe Gibbs Racing, although a proposed Andretti Autosport venture into NASCAR with Dodge assistance has been bandied about. It’s bad enough that Jack Roush’s former flagship No. 6 has been mothballed, but now the tried-and-true driver of the No. 17? Tragically coincidental — since it was the original driver of the No. 6, Mark Martin, who sold Roush on Kenseth, convincing him to field the No. 17 Cup ride for him in 2000. The last driver to win the Winston Cup in 2003 has been a model of consistency this year, much as he was that season. Kenseth’s low-key demeanor and approach will likely serve him well during what will prove to be a tumultuous few months in the Ford camp. With a win, eight top 5s and 12 top 10s to his credit this year, if Kenseth and the Wisconsin Mafia can keep the distractions at bay they very well could exit in style, giving Roush his third Cup Series championship. But distractions and fallout associated with being a “lame duck” lurk around every corner.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins: 1 (Michigan)
All together now: “JUUUUUNE-YEEERRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!” Finally, after 143 races and four years of futility, Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke into the winner’s circle at Michigan, the site of his last win in 2008. That victory did more for the psyche than the stat sheet, as Earnhardt is what Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket would deem, “Definitely born again hard.” With a win, seven top-5 and an even more impressive 13 top-10 finishes, the No. 88 team has done more in four months than it had in the last … well, forever. Credit Steve Letarte and Rick Hendrick, who essentially put Earnhardt with Jeff Gordon’s former team last season. The Prince of Kannapolis is doing his fans proud, so don’t be surprised to see a lot of old, red No. 8 gear being dusted off and thrust back into service in the coming months. Take heart Junior Nation — you’ve earned it, and your man is back near the top. Junior hasn’t been in a fierce title battle in so long, it’s hard to predict what type of showing he’ll make. But if a late-season slide doesn’t derail his momentum (and with Letarte calling the shots, it shouldn’t), Earnhardt is looking gbetter than he has in … well, forever.
3. Jimmie Johnson Wins: 2 (Darlington, Dover)
Oh yeah, don’t forget the “other driver” at Hendrick Motorsports. When he’s not cruising around with Mr. H on his windowsill, Jimmie Johnson is just being Jimmie Johnson; going about his business with painful precision and without much fanfare. Like a Glock pistol, he may be short on flash and flair, but he is dead-nuts reliable and never fails when the money is on the line. His nine top 5s and 13 top 10s are the most in both categories, and should serve as a harbinger of things to come in the fall. As in the past, the No. 48 team vets and fetters out the junk and finds what works during the summer months, then sets “phasers to kill” come September. For those who have tired of the “Five-Time” moniker, don’t worry. You may be calling him “Six-Time” by Thanksgiving.
4. Greg Biffle Wins: 1 (Texas)
Biffle started off the season strong, posting a trio of top-3 finishes in the first three races. He made a mockery of the last half of the April event at Texas Motor Speedway, and led the points from Las Vegas in early March until a 24th-place finish at Pocono, when he surrendered the top spot to his soon-to-be former teammate, Kenseth. A Roush veteran since his 1998 Truck Series debut, Biffle will prove to be the backbone of the team with Kenseth’s impending departure. While the No. 16 team started strong, it has stumbled in recent weeks, posting two sub-20th-place runs in the last four races. It was the No. 16 team that stopped Roush’s win skein in 2010, when the company got off track with misleading data simulation and sucky software on the engineering side. If there is a trend that must be watched with this bunch, it is that Biffle tends to go through crew chiefs quickly. Eight top 5s and 10 top 10s are a testament to his consistency, as well as the effect that current chief Matt Puccia has had for the driver who is in position to be the first in NASCAR history to win a championship in all three touring series.
5. Denny Hamlin Wins: 2 (Phoenix, Kansas)
What a difference a year makes. This time last season, Denny Hamlin was, to be honest, a mess. With three top 5s and six top 10s, coupled win a number of cryptic comments made during interviews that at best sounded whiney, Hamlin was still suffering the side-effects from his team’s 2010 implosion. Now with a new attitude and re-found mental toughness (and 2011 championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb making decisive calls), Hamlin has a pair of wins, and eight top-5 finishes. Those runs account for nearly all of his top 10s, and it must be noted that he has two DNFs in his last three races — courtesy of a fiery exit in Michigan and the front bumper of teammate Joey Logano at Sonoma. If Hamlin can keep from getting wrecked or exploding — and a TRD IED does not find its way between the fenders of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota — he will likely find himself in contention to win the title, as he was in 2010. This time, however, he will be better prepared mentally and strategically to contend.
6. Kevin Harvick Wins: 0
The driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet hasn’t had a lot to brag about this year — but he hasn’t had much to really complain about, either. Usually the first one to ride his crew if they make the smallest of errors, Harvick has achieved his position not so much with poise and audacity, but on reliability and finishing races. A smattering of eight top 10s and three top 5s is decent, but not exactly championship caliber. If Harvick were to have a catastrophic failure in the coming weeks — which would lose him say, 40 points — the impact would be significant, and could potentially drop him out of the top 10 in points. He’s gotten by on a number of eighth- to 14th-place runs, but if he’s to solidify his place in the Chase, the No. 29 operation as a whole needs to step it up on the track, in the pits and in the garage while prepping the car for Sunday.
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
7. Clint Bowyer Wins: 1 (Sonoma)
Not only do you see him every 15 minutes in a 5-Hour Energy or NASCAR.com commercial, you now see him up front, leading and winning races. Bowyer’s move to Michael Waltrip Racing was seen by many as a risky move, albeit one he was essentially forced into after he lost his ride in the No. 33 at RCR (despite winning a Nationwide title in 2008 and qualifying for the Chase three times in six seasons). With former RCR crew chief and competition director Scott Miller making the move to MWR as well, the performance of all involved has risen substantially. With six top 5s and nine top 10s, the occasional win, or at least contention for the win, is no longer an oddity. This, coupled with some veteran leadership from Mark Martin in a part-time arrangement in the No. 55, along with teammate Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 56 group, finds MWR becoming this generation’s — dare I say it? — RCR.
8. Martin Truex Jr. Wins: 0
Martin Truex Jr. is enjoying his best season in Cup competition since his 2007 rookie campaign when he won a race, made the Chase and ended the year 11th in points. Currently sitting in eighth position on the strength of four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes, Truex has been a key cog in the MWR Renaissance of 2012. However, there may be storm clouds on the horizon. Truex’s finishes have begun to waver, his eighth-place run at Kentucky ending a string of three races without a top 10. Now is not the time to mix inconsistency into the equation, particularly with the crapshoot that is a restrictor plate race at Daytona on the docket. While Truex is only 10 points out of fifth in the standings, he’s also less than 20 points from 10th. If he keeps the steady-as-she-goes performance trend and avoids any back-to-back disasters or mechanical maladies, he looks to be a safe bet to make the Chase field for the first time in five years.
9. Tony Stewart Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Fontana)
Towards the bottom of the top 10, we find a pair of drivers on the tail end of making the Chase, but who are arguably the most potent in the field. Tony Stewart has seven top-5 finishes and eight top 10s, but it is how he came to those numbers that are the most telling: two wins, back-to-back second-place runs and three third-place showings. Add in some mechanical woes by way of EFI foul ups, and you have created the crusty Tony of old the last couple of months. Quite possibly the only person in the country who was not cheering the Earnhardt victory in Michigan, Smoke has found that delicate balance of diplomacy and irritability that has guided him to three championships. Streaky performances be damned, he’s in prime position to add a fourth to the mix — half of which would be as an owner/driver, something not seen since The King’s heydays of the 1970s.
10. Brad Keselowski Wins: 3 (Bristol, Talladega, Kentucky)
The one driver barely clinging to top-10 status is also the lynchpin in the Chase scenario. Keselowski has won three races at three diametrically different tracks: Bristol, Talladega and Kentucky. Plate track, short track, intermediate — it doesn’t seem to matter where the Miller Lite Dodge goes, it can be a force to be reckoned with. It would appear that the strategy being employed by the No. 2 team is to focus on wins ahead of all else. Three of his top 5s are victories while the other two barely made it as fifth-place performances. His top 10s are then comprised of a pair of ninth-place finishes, with the rest being mid-teens or worse-than-30th finishes. The only DNF they suffered was post-Tweet at the Daytona 500 in February, and it was about this time last year that Keselowski made the transition from promising driver to leader and motivator following a broken ankle during a testing crash. It remains a mystery why Penske is leaving Dodge to join forces with Ford, what with the modest win totals of the two-car team over the last few seasons. However, it remains committed to its current manufacturer and stands to make some noise for the Mopar faithful if its flagship No. 2 team can avoid any calamities in the coming weeks. Of course, even a tumble out of the top 10 finds Keselowski in the catbird seat, with three-times the wins as anyone from 11th to 20th in the standings.
On the Outside Looking In
To think that Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch would be reduced to relative obscurity in October is nearly unfathomable, especially considering Edwards’ 2011 consistency, Gordon’s seemingly resurrected career with crew chief Alan Gustafson and Busch’s ability to hammer out wins in quick succession. However, all three have missed the Chase before, and they’re nearing the point of no return without some wins. Nine races remain before the Chase for the Championship begins in Chicago, and of the three, only Busch has a 2012 win. Edwards’ and Gordon’s teams have had both bad luck and bad calls that have kept them out of Victory Lane, while the engines supplied to the No. 18 from TRD have been straight up TuRDs, with three straight engine failures conspiring to drop Busch to 12th in points.
Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman all reside within the top 20, and each have one win. Among them, only Kahne has displayed any sort of consistent speed to threaten breaking into the top 10. Even if that happened, it would likely require Keselowski and Stewart to fall out. With The Big Keselowski having three wins and Smoke two, that would also require Logano and Newman to crank out a couple of more wins apiece if they were to qualify — not out of the realm of possibility, but certainly not expected.
Paul Menard, in 13th, will need to repeat last year’s Brickyard 400 triumph to have a shot at taking one of the two open wildcard spots, as he has yet to claim a win this year. Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton are over 100 points out of 10th and have struggled to find the top 10, much less score wins. Marcos Ambrose isn’t in much better shape, though a trip to Watkins Glen may get him back in the wildcard conversation.
What was the reason for the rash of 2011 postseason crew chief changes on championship-caliber teams?
A perfect storm of circumstances and a desire to stay ahead of the competition at all costs.
Steve Addington had been berated enough, thank you, and saw greener pastures with one of the few more talented drivers in the sport. Darian Grubb’s fate was sealed prior to the Chase and no one — including his shopmates — saw a championship coming. Once on the market, Grubb, along with Nationwide Series mainstay Jason Ratcliff, were Joe Gibbs’ solution to the puzzling dilemmas that are the Nos. 11 and 20 teams. Of course, there were more, but these elite-level talent-swaps illustrate what happens when the competition is so tight. What was once thought of as radical — changing pit bosses on championship-caliber teams in December — is now a necessary step for success.
Why? As NASCAR forces teams into a smaller box in which they can operate from a mechanical perspective, they’re left with few alternatives to gain an edge on the competition. One, though, is dabbling with team chemistry. And with most sponsor contracts tied into the driver’s long-term deal, he’s not going to get the heave-ho — after all, the driver is the face of the corporate entity. Therefore, it’s hard for team owners (or drivers) to not fall in love with the successful head wrench across the way.
Will 2011 stand as a watershed moment in today’s NASCAR? Will true December offseason, headline-grabbing moves become the norm? A definitive and hard-lined “yes,” may be presumptuous, but it seems headed that way.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Will Danica Patrick’s success or failure in the Nationwide Series determine the long-term future for women in NASCAR? And how will she do, anyways?
Let's get this disclaimer out of the way first: Patrick is a fine driver who has paid her dues over the years and proven she can race and do so competitively in other forms of motorsports. That said, there’s no denying Danica is a marketing phenom. Her camp is a savvy bunch, and those smarts coupled with Patrick’s willingness to “play the game” have enabled her to obtain funding. Her brand brings in the bucks, aligning with a sponsor willing to exchange cash for sex appeal (despite some of it being tongue-in-cheek “comedy”).
That said, her level of success in the Nationwide Series may not have any effect on other women trying to get noticed. Why? Because regardless of their talent, they don’t have what Patrick does: Fame. Fame like most will never know. Patrick topped the list of Yahoo’s most searched athletes on the internet in 2011. Think about that. Think about the Sharapovas, Jeters, Tigers, Serenas and Kobes of the world. Danica bested them all. How does one ride those coattails?
That undying interest in the model/spokesperson/driver transcends NASCAR and, therefore, places her on a plane few in any sport can comprehend. At this point — and despite her success (or lack thereof) in NASCAR — Danica is more of a sports celebrity/marketing trailblazer than a stock car pioneer.
Well-funded and secure, Patrick will find her way in the Nationwide Series this year, post respectable showings (thanks in part to a financially unbalanced field) and move on to the Cup Series in 2013 where the true test lies. And that’s where the rubber meets the road, because no driver, regardless of financial backing, can enjoy a long and successful residence in the Cup Series without results.
There have been many women who have made a run at NASCAR glory and fallen well short — not that Danica will. But no matter what the racing future holds, let’s just not anoint her as some Jackie Robinson type, opening doors in a sport that, fairly or unfairly, has been pegged as a chauvinistic Boys Club over the years.
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.
Rusty's Motto: "You wreck it, you repair it." OK, not really. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart It’s tough to rank Stewart ahead of Carl Edwards or vise versa, but Smoke gets the edge here because he’s throwing wins on the board — and that’s fun to watch.
2. Carl Edwards His consistency — highlighted by consecutive runner-up showings — is unquestioned. Edwards won the season finale in Homestead last season. Winning a second straight would clinch the title.
3. Kasey Kahne Kahne and his Red Bull team have been as good as anyone in the Chase — well OK, outside of the two guys above. Had he made the playoffs, he’d still be mathematically alive.
4. Matt Kenseth Led 49 laps at Phoenix before the brakes started to fade. Then Brian Vickers did neither himself nor Kenseth any favors by flagrantly exacting some revenge.
5. Kevin Harvick Harvick will come up just shy of a championship once again, most likely finishing third. But that’s OK Kev, you still have the coolest paint scheme on tour.
6. Jimmie Johnson Johnson’s five-year reign may be over, but let’s not proclaim the Jimmie Johnson Era over. J.J. and Chad Knaus will probably just come back more focused and determined next season.
7. Brad Keselowski Keselowski’s three wins in 2011 are more than Penske’s No. 12 team have enjoyed in the six previous years combined. It’s possible he could double that number next year.
Make no mistake, he takes great pride in the hair. Wouldn't you? (ASP, Inc.)
8. Denny Hamlin When asked whether his sports psychologist might help teammate Kyle Busch he said, “We both have screws loose — it’s just that some are tighter than others. And they’re in different places.” That’s deep.
9. Clint Bowyer Bowyer is finishing his tenure at Richard Childress Racing strong with six top 10s in the nine Chase races thus far. Credit driver and team for hanging tough.
10. Greg Biffle Has averaged a 14th-place finish throughout the Chase which, incidentally, is probably where he’ll finish in the point standings if Kasey Kahne keeps coming on.
11. Jeff Gordon Looked as out to lunch at Phoenix as we’ve seen all year. Experimenting, maybe?
12. AJ Allmendinger Allmendinger will be the next driver to score his first Cup victory. Hell, it could come this weekend.
13. Marcos Ambrose Between Allmendinger and Ambrose, it’s obvious they’re doing something right at RPM (or they’re not tinkering with new setups as much as other teams are).
14. Kyle Busch Official reason for Kyle’s DNF at Phoenix: Karma.
15. Martin Truex Jr. If this team could ever learn to put an entire race together they’d be dangerous.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Ryan Newman
From the Spotter’s Stand
Brian France is doubling down on Kansas Speedway, bringing a second Cup race to the 1.5-mile tri-oval in Kansas City, an annual late September or early October stop since 2001. And with a sparkling new casino, the hope by NASCAR and its track operating wing, International Speedway Corp., is that Kansas will draw in more fans despite its cookie-cutter configuration and penchant for aero-racing.
In June, Bard Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe rolled the dice in a high-stakes game of fuel strategy and hit the jackpot, outlasting Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
Keselowski’s Penske Racing teammate, Kurt Busch, led a race-high 152 laps after starting on the pole. However, the fuel mileage wasn’t as kind to the Las Vegas native, and he slid to ninth at the finish.
Last year, Greg Biffle made winning at Kansas look like easy money, taking the checkers by 7.638 seconds ahead of 2008 winner Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and two-timer (2006, ’09) Tony Stewart. In his past four stops in K.C., Biffle has two wins and a pair of thirds.
Crew Chief’s Take
“As with many of the circuit’s 1.5- and 2-mile ovals, bump stops on the shocks play an important role at Kansas. A team must find an optimal setting for the bump stops or the car will be negatively affected by being too low — which drags the splitter and affects handling — or too high — which gets air under the car and results in a lack of front-end downforce. Kansas is a simple track, which means there are probably more teams that can win there than at most places.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Kurt Busch sat on the pole and led 152 laps before fuel mileage bit him to the tune of a ninth-place finish. Pretty Solid Pick: If Greg Biffle has a win in him this season, this is where he’ll get it. Good Sleeper Pick: If it comes down to fuel mileage, Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't a bad pick. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not that he’d be on your squad anyway, but Joey Logano averages a 26.8-place finish here. Insider Tip: Brad Keselowski won the June race here on fuel mileage. It’ll likely come down to that again.
Classic Moments at Kansas
Kansas Speedway has been the site of many oddball finishes, and with its traditional date in the Chase, it’s often had championship ramifications. The 2006 Banquet 400 is no different.
Jimmie Johnson has led 105 laps on the day and leads late when fuel mileage comes into play. Johnson surrenders the lead with four laps remaining to Tony Stewart, who runs out of gas on the backstretch of the final lap. However, with pit stops ongoing, Stewart has a nearly 20-second lead over Casey Mears and coasts the final half-lap to win with an empty fuel cell.
Johnson’s title hopes appear to take a fatal hit when he is caught speeding on pit road while coming in for a splash of gas and two tires. His 14th-place finish finds him 165 points out of the Chase lead. He rebounds, though, averaging a third-place finish over the final six races to win his first Cup.
Count out this cool customer? Not a good idea. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Mike Neff
For the last four years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, the mantra has been the same at the start of the Chase: Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have another title in him this season. Or crew chief Chad Knaus is behind the times. Or this will be the closest Chase ever. Or, quite simply, Johnson’s luck will run out. Yet somehow in each of the last four seasons, Johnson and Knaus have mastered the last 10 races better than the rest of the Chase field.
So before you stick a fork in the five-time defending champion — who happens to be in a 29-point hole after two Chase events — you might want to remember that this isn’t the first time the No. 48 team has faced playoff adversity. Taking a little trip down memory lane just may help freshen the memories of the doubters who are certain that this is the year Johnson’s dynasty crumbles.
In 2006, the first year of his five-year run, the Chase started at Loudon and Johnson not only stumbled out of the gate, he fell straight on his face. Johnson came home 39th, the bottom finisher of the title contenders and ahead of only Jeff Green, Morgan Shepherd, Ted Christopher and Bobby Labonte for the afternoon. Things didn’t get any better over the next three races, as Johnson finished 13th, 14th and 24th — the last of which came courtesy of a wreck at Talladega that included teammate Brian Vickers and future teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
However, from that point until Homestead, Johnson and his team were nearly perfect. They didn’t finish worse than second over the next five races and only finished ninth at Homestead because that was all they had to do to clinch the title, which they did by 56 points.
The following season was the year where even those fans who don’t like Johnson had to admit they never really felt like he was going to lose it. He finished outside of the top 10 twice during the final 10 races, both of which were 14th-place runs. Six of the final 10 races he finished in the top three, and four of those were consecutive wins from Martinsville through Phoenix. Even though his Chase performance was one of dominance that season, he was third in the standings after the first two races. That said, there’s no question that ’07 was the most dominant of Johnson’s five Chase wins.
Another strong year came in 2008, as Johnson cruised through the Chase with only two finishes outside the top 10, but they were both 15th-place showings. He began the Chase with second- and fifth-place finishes, but still sat third after two events. By the time the checkers fell at Homestead, though, Johnson had three wins and six top 5s in the playoffs and beat Carl Edwards by 69 points for his third championship.
Edwards was supposed to lay it on Johnson in 2009, but faltered to an 11th-place points finish. Instead, it was Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Mark Martin, that went toe-to-toe with the mighty 48. Johnson started the Chase off in a better position than the previous years, with a fourth and a first in the first two races. Still, Johnson ranked second to Martin through two.
However, Johnson beat Martin into submission from there, scoring single-digit finishes in all but one of the playoff races to win his fourth title by a comfortable 141 points.
Last season presented another foe for Johnson to outlast — check that, it brought two foes, in Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Johnson started the Chase with another bad run at Loudon, coming home 25th. He followed that with a win in Dover, but still in a 35-point hole to Hamlin. As is usually the case, Johnson and Knaus went on a run from there, averaging a 4.5-place finish over the final eight races to turn the tables on a choking Hamlin, and winning title No. 5 by 39 points.
The Chase for the Cup in 2011 has not opened up like a house on fire for Johnson, who is staring at his worst points position in since the beginning of the dynasty. And for all the talk of a rift between Johnson and Knaus, it could just as easily be the case that the two make a run like a scalded dog the rest of the Chase and everyone forgets about the talk of discord.
The only way we’ll find out is to run the rest of the races. Because while it may not appear so now, as long as the 48 team is in the playoffs it’s the team to beat.
From the Spotter’s Stand
Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson combined to lead 324 of the first 364 laps and were poised for a late-race showdown with late-comer Clint Bowyer in May. However, a late-race caution punctuated what was an otherwise staid event and pit strategy turned the field — and the results — upside down.
Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson took the time to take four fresh tires during the caution, while Mark Martin stayed out to inherit the lead. Meanwhile, a slew of teams elected to put on only two tires, including the No. 17 of Matt Kenseth, who led the pack off pit road.
And just as the Southern 500 the week prior proved that track position trumped fresh Goodyears, the FedEx 400 solidified it, as Martin and Kenseth sprinted away, while those who dominated the race remained mired in heavy traffic. By the time Kenseth slipped under Martin, only 31 laps remained on the fast, one-mile oval, and he ran away uncontested for a 2.122-second victory, his second career win at Dover.
Jimmie Johnson has been rock solid at the concrete 1-mile oval in Dover, and last year was no different. The 48 dominated for the sixth time at “The Monster Mile” — and for the third time in four races — by starting at the pole, leading a race-high 191 laps and taking the checkers by a 2.637-second margin over runner-up Jeff Burton in the second race of the Chase.
Earlier in 2010, Johnson led 225 laps but could not hold it together after being busted for speeding on pit road while going mano a mano with wild child and eventual winner Kyle Busch. Rowdy led 131 laps before raising the “Miles the Monster” trophy in Victory Lane for the second time in his career.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Dover is an all-concrete track and is banked all the way around; even the straights have nine degrees of banking. Therefore, right-side tire management is a race-long concern. Dover provides drivers with multiple grooves from which to choose, but normally, the best cars are the ones that will run the low line around the track. The transitions from turns to straights are unique. Drivers call it ‘falling down’ in the turns. Back in the 1990s, it was asphalt, but it was so rough it was more like a gravel road. Concrete has its pluses and minuses, but it made this track a lot better.”
Looking at Checkers: It’s hard to overlook Jimmie Johnson’s six wins at Dover. Pretty Solid Pick: Mark Martin has made no secret of his love of Dover. His four wins are proof of it. Good Sleeper Pick: Guys turn it up a notch when racing at their home track, and this is Martin Truex’s turf. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Juan Pablo Montoya has led only five of the 3,415 laps he’s completed at Dover. Insider Tip: Trouble happens quick here. Having a good qualifier who stays up front is a bonus.
Classic Moments at Dover
Proving his shocking win in the Daytona 500 earlier in the season was no fluke, Derrike Cope leads 93 laps and wins the 1990 Budweiser 500 in Dover.
Cope shoots to the lead by lap 160, but a miscalculation by his crew chief causes his No. 10 Purolator Chevy to run out of gas while pacing the field, dropping him off the lead lap.
Cope has a strong car, though, and races his way back onto the lead lap (without the aid of Lucky Dogs or wave-arounds). A fast pit stop under a lap 421 caution bumps him up to second, and on lap 446, he passes Rusty Wallace, who leads 131 laps in the Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac, for the lead. From there, Cope holds off Ken Schrader to earn his second, and final, career victory.
Tony Stewart passes Clint Bowyer in the Sylvania 300. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
Most had written off Tony Stewart as a legitimate 2011 championship contender — including himself, if you believed his words in the midst of a 27th-, ninth- and 28th-place string just six weeks ago. After all, his No. 14 team was winless through NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, averaging a pedestrian 14.2-place finish with only three top 5s.
Then the Chase for the Championship hit and, inexplicably, Stewart and his team have come alive. Stewart won his second straight race — the second of the Chase — in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, and in the process, assumed the points lead.
Stewart passed Clint Bowyer as Bowyer’s fuel cell ran dry with two laps remaining, reversing last season’s New Hampshire Chase outcome that saw Bowyer capitalize on Stewart’s empty gas tank.
“It’s amazing that it’s happened like that,” Stewart said. “But Clint was one of the first guys that called last year and, as happy as he was that he won the race, he knew how disappointing it was for us.
“You don’t want to win them that way (on fuel mileage) and you don’t want to see guys lose them that way. This is a sport that guys have a high level of respect for what happens and how it happens. To have a win get away from you that way, it’s disappointing for anybody.
“We may not have been the best car at the end — Clint was just a tick better than us. I definitely did not know he was in a situation to worry about fuel. So the good thing is Darian told us we were two, three laps to the good. I got to run hard all the way to the end.”
To be fair, Stewart’s car was good enough to win the race, and having the mileage to get there was just icing on the cake. He finished second at New Hampshire in July to his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Ryan Newman, in a fuel mileage duel, and won last week at Chicagoland under the same circumstances.
However, the one car that may have been better than his was Jeff Gordon’s No. 24. Gordon led a race-high 78 laps, but ran out of gas coming to pit road under green-flag pit stops with 70 laps remaining. It took the team valuable seconds to get the machine refired, and even then, they did not get the car full of fuel.
That forced Gordon into conservation mode. He backed off down the stretch to avoid running out of gas and settled for a fourth-place finish. Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle were second and third.
“It’s a bit of a surprise we ran out under green,” Gordon said. “We were expecting to get a couple more laps.
“We’re making great horsepower, but we’re not getting good fuel mileage. But Tony is figuring out a way to do it, so give those guys credit — those guys have the same engines we have and we have to do a better job at it. I have to do a better job at it.”
Defending five-time champion Jimmie Johnson got into a fender war with Kyle Busch with 21 laps remaining. Although neither wrecked, something in Johnson’s steering system was bent, and he finished 18th.
“Today we just didn’t have the speed,” Johnson, who is 29 points behind Stewart, said. “And track position was so important and we didn’t have some pit calls go our way.”
Johnson’s main competition last season, Denny Hamlin, had his second straight frustrating race. His No. 11 Toyota ran out of gas with three laps to go, despite the fact his crew chief, Mike Ford, assured him they could make it the distance. He finished 29th and, after a 31st-place showing last week, is 66 points out of the Chase lead and all but eliminated.
As for the points leader, though, his faith is renewed. “These guys have never quit,” Stewart said. “These guys have never given up and we got a shot at this thing.”
From the Spotter’s Stand
Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart flexed their muscles early and often in Loudon, N.H. in July. Both were top three cars throughout the event’s three practice sessions and followed that by sweeping the front row in qualifying, with Newman edging Stewart for the pole.
The duo then led 167 of 301 laps en route to first- and second-place finishes, with Newman — having milked a tank of gas for 41 laps — winning the day.
Clint Bowyer made the most of his opportunity as the last man in the Chase last season, leading 177 laps on his way to ending an 88-race winless drought by conserving fuel and holding off a charging Denny Hamlin. On the other side of the fuel gauge gamble, Smoke turned to fumes when Tony Stewart (100 laps led) ran out of gas and sputtered to a disappointing 24th-place finish.
Bowyer’s car was later found to be out of tolerance when NASCAR took his Chevy to its R&D Center. His RCR team claimed the car was damaged when it was pushed by a wrecker when the fuel cell ran dry while doing victory burnouts. NASCAR didn’t buy it and, while the win was allowed to stand, docked his team a title-crippling 150 points.
Earlier in 2010, Kasey Kahne’s Richard Petty Motorsports Ford was the car to beat until the engine grenaded after leading 110 laps. Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch took control from there, leading a combined 135 laps. However, in the end Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch played bumper cars in a shootout that got physical. The 48 got the last bump ’n’ run in, and won for the second straight week with its third checkers at Loudon.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Track position is the order of the day at New Hampshire. Cars generally have one to one-and-a-half lanes to play with, making passing — especially lap-down machines — difficult at best. Rubber buildup is widespread in the turns, and that determines where the driver can and can't run. If he can't run the line he wants because of the rubber buildup on the track, it makes it frustrating. Usually two or three teams hit it right, and if it doesn’t rain and it doesn’t come down to fuel, one of them is going to win it.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: A beefed up Martinsville, NHMS favors Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson. Pretty Solid Pick: When Kurt Busch isn’t highly irritated with his crew chief, spotter, over-the-wall gang, owner or another driver, he’s good here. Good Sleeper Pick: David Reutimann will roll the dice when the weather turns wet. Runs on Seven Cylinders: The RCR duds may have changed, but Paul Menard performance here has not. Insider Tip: Lingering feuds could play out in the tight confines.
Classic Moments at New Hampshire
It looks as if two of NASCAR’s bright young talents are going to decide the 2002 New England 300. However, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is dumped by Todd Bodine with 12 laps to go, and Matt Kenseth suffers a flat right rear tire with 10 laps remaining, clearing the way for the old guard.
Ward Burton, who won the Daytona 500 five months prior, records his final Cup victory in a race plagued by tire issues and spins in Turns 3 and 4 on the newly redone racing surface.
“There’s just something about the actual racing surface that needs some help,” Burton says. His brother, Jeff, agrees, saying, “I hate it to say it, but the racetrack was better the way it was before.”
Second-place finisher Jeff Green, driving Richard Childress’ No. 30 AOL Chevy, records his best career Cup finish.
From the Spotter's Stand
Denny Hamlin had one Heluva Good! run at the June 2010 race with the sour cream dip sponsor, leading 123 of 200 laps and cruising to his second straight win — after taking the checkers at Pocono the week before — with a 1.246-second margin over runner-up Kasey Kahne and pole-sitter Kurt Busch (60 laps led).
The August trip in 2010 to the 2-mile oval in Brooklyn, Mich., was a little more exciting. Kevin Harvick became the first driver to clinch a spot in the Chase after outdueling runner-up Hamlin, passing the 11 ride on Lap 190 before taking a 1.731-second victory. Despite not taking tires on the final caution, Harvick was able to handle well enough for his first MIS win.
Earlier this season, it was Hamlin again finding Victory Lane. Although Greg Biffle led the most laps (68), but Hamlin's FedEx crew got the No. 11 Toyota on track first under a round of yellow-flag stops with under 10 laps remaining. He then outran Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards to grab his one and only win of the year thus far.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Michigan is a track that demands a driver hit his marks lap after lap, setting the car up for a run into the next corner. If the momentum is lost, the lap time goes with it. A delicate combination of balance, using downforce and grip, ultimately separates the contenders from the mid-packers. Drivers love Michigan, and a large part of that is because it’s easy. It’s wall-to-wall racing. The driver can run low, high or in the middle. It’s easy to pass. It’s not the fans’ idea of a perfect track, but it’s pretty close for the drivers. Michigan’s pavement has very low grip, but it’s not too big a problem because the track is so wide and there’s so much room.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Carl Edwards’ 12 top 10s in 14 starts (two wins) at MIS is ridiculous. Pretty Solid Pick: Carl’s Roush Fenway Racing teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Good Sleeper Pick: Red Bull Racing’s Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers could turn heads here, as each has one Michigan win already on the resume. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Despite being red hot lately, Brad Keselowski has been ice cold at his home track. Insider Tip: Fuel mileage will come into play. Know which teams get good MPG and have crafty crew chiefs.
Classic Moments at Michigan
It’s Awesome Bill’s most awesome performance at what may be his best racetrack, as Bill Elliott drives the iconic No. 9 Coors Melling Thunderbird to its fourth consecutive win at Michigan in the 1986 Champion Spark Plug 400.
Elliott leads 125 of 200 laps in an event that isn’t without controversy. A hard-charging Tim Richmond falls from second to fifth late in the race after confusion over when a caution is displayed. Richmond races back to second after the restart but is not able to run Elliott down on the last lap.
The race is also notable in that David Pearson makes his final NASCAR start. Pearson, who won a record nine races at MIS, finishes 10th in the No. 21 Chattanooga Chew Chevy.
"It's raining Kurt's and Kyle's, Ryan." Photo by ASP, Inc.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Kyle Busch For the second race in a row, Busch overcame issues that hindered his early-race gains to post a top-10 finish. The runner-up at Pocono finds him just 11 points out of the points lead.
2. Jimmie Johnson Entertained us all by engaging in a “I-don’t-really-wanna-fight” shouting match with Kurt Busch following his fourth-place finish at Pocono. Oh, and he did so with a faulty clutch (which was clutch).
3. Jeff Gordon The June Pocono winner wasn’t nearly as stout on Sunday, but he’ll gladly take the sixth-place run and move on to a road course. Have we mentioned Gordon is NASCAR’s “road course king?”
4. Carl Edwards OK, so the contract thing is behind Edwards and he still sits atop the point standings. The only question is whether any damage was done within the team that may bite him down the road.
5. Kurt Busch Kurt tried to play off the incident with Johnson as simple “hard racing.” Problem is, it sometimes seems Busch is putting on his media-friendly face and feeding us a line.
6. Ryan Newman His 5.5-place average finish over the last month is as impressive a stat as you’ll find in the series, but maintaining that level of performance over the next 17 weeks will be close to impossible.
7. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s slide is the polar opposite of Newman’s, as he’s averaged a 15.5-place showing in the last four events. History shows he’ll finish stronger, though.
8. Matt Kenseth Eighth may be a bit low for Kenseth, but that’s probably the way he prefers it with his low-key nature. Could make for a nice Chase darkhorse.
9. Brad Keselowski I said last week Keselowski probably wouldn’t make the Chase this year but was a shoe-in for 2012. I stand correct: He’s not only a shoe-in for 2012, but for this year as well.
10. Tony Stewart Something is amiss with Smoke. Still, would it surprise you if he and the No. 14 team rattled off a win at the Glen this weekend and defended their Atlanta title three weeks later?
11. Denny Hamlin That’s two Pocono races that have gotten away this year. Sunday’s shouldn’t have happened.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Just when we were throwing dirt on his grave, Junior rolls to a top-10 finish.
13. Paul Menard Follows his big Brickyard win with a 10th at Pocono. We’ll see what the Glen holds ...
14. Greg Biffle Consecutive top 10s for Biffle and the new crew chief. However, they needs wins. A couple.
15. Joey Logano A win evaporates like the water on the track. As do his Chase hopes.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, David Ragan