Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Richmond
Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Beaten down Joe Gibbs Racing should come out swinging
Matt Kenseth suffered perhaps the most crushing penalty NASCAR has ever assessed that isn't a driver suspension. Kyle Busch has a strong memory of team mistakes killing his chance to qualify for last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. And Denny Hamlin, the best Richmond International Raceway driver by advanced statistical measure in the last five-plus seasons, won't even get to suit up for Saturday night's race.
Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't had a good week, and it will be extremely interesting to see how it responds. Because it's Richmond, thinking that JGR will fold under the pressure seems almost impossible.
Since Busch joined the team in 2008, JGR six wins at RIR, just under half of the laps led (1,945 of 4,010) and 15 total top-5 finishes. It’s figured something out in the .75-mile track seemingly beyond other teams. It might have to do with Busch and Hamlin sharing similar demands from a race car at the short track, unlike other Cup venues.
"We do like similar setups there, unlike other mile-and-a-half tracks or two-mile tracks where we don’t run very similar setups," Busch says. "Richmond is one of those places where we both know what it takes to get around and we’re both similar to one another in that we both run well.”
Expect JGR to continue a streak more than a decade old Saturday night: having at least one car lead a lap. The last time that didn't happen? The fall of 2001.
Greg Zipadelli and Tony Stewart. (ASP, Inc.)
2. Racing the track, not the car, could be antidote to Stewart's slump
Tony Stewart has been in a funk. And Tony Stewart knows he's been in a funk.
“It’s not easy, for sure," Stewart says. "I mean, it was always hard as a driver, but it’s even worse as a driver-owner. When things are tough, the pressure and the burden is more on you knowing that you’re responsible for everything versus just being the guy driving the car."
A 21st-place finish at Kansas Speedway last weekend meant the No. 14 has gone nearly two months without a top-10 finish. Richmond provides relief in the form of not being a speedway track, and probably fits better into Stewart's comfort zone.
At the very least, it's an opportunity to race a track where style and line selection have more of a say than aerodynamic-focused Kansas.
"You never really get anybody who gets their car perfect," Stewart says of Richmond. "Even the guy that gets the lead still isn’t happy with his car. So, it’s really trying to find that balance and trying to figure out how to balance both ends of the track together.”
The 42-year-old led 333 laps in 1999 at RIR to win his first career Cup race. He's won twice at Richmond since (2001 and 2002) and also has four consecutive top 10s since a lap-down finish in 2010.
3. Teams bringing ideas from the desert to tackle Richmond
In a season with limited track time behind a still new car, teams are searching for methods to speed up the process and use information they've already gleaned to make setup decisions for coming race weekends. Richmond, and its similarities to the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway, is the latest example.
Every single Roush-Fenway Racing entry plus its satellite teams at Richard Petty Motorsports will use the cars they raced at Phoenix as primary cars this weekend. Carl Edwards won the race in the desert.
"Our package in Phoenix was very good," Edwards says. "I’m thinking some of that will help us with our race setup for Richmond."
The Ford teams also will use information that RPM’s Aric Almirola learned at Richmond during a test last month.
“The track was really fast which really surprised me," Almirola says, noting his first lap on the track in race trim came close to the track qualifying record. “We learned a lot from the test and felt that it helped us figure out what we need for our short-track package.”
Other teams using Phoenix cars this weekend include Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fifth at Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson (second) and Mark Martin (21st).
4. McMurray slowly leading Earnhardt-Ganassi out of struggles
Three was a nice number for Jamie McMurray in 2010, when he scored a trio of big wins at Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte. Last season, three stood for head-shaking disappointment as his No. 1 team mustered just three top-10 finishes in 36 starts.
But early in this 2013 season, three is starting to look better for McMurray as he looks to shed two straight frustrating seasons at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. The No. 1 now has three top 10s in just eight races after a seventh-place finish last weekend at Kansas.
He was another driver — along with snakebitten teammate Juan Pablo Montoya — who tested at Richmond.
"We have had two strong runs on short-tracks already this year," McMurray says, referring to a 10th at Bristol and a seventh at Martinsville. "I hope we can carry some of that momentum into this weekend."
5. Short schedule magnifies importance of unloading a fast race car.
Richmond isn't a place where teams can show up, miss the car setup during the first practice, and then still run well in the race. The two-day format for the Sprint Cup Series with practice and qualifying on Friday before the Saturday race just doesn't allow the track time to make wholesale changes and improvements.
Should a team find a decent setup in Friday afternoon practice, it also has to hope the setup will match Richmond's night-race conditions. Even a four-time champion struggles with that.
"When you practice during the day and race at night, you have to guess and I feel like every time we race here something is changing," says Jeff Gordon.
More unnerving for teams is how important nabbing a qualifying spot near the front tends to be. Eight of every 10 Richmond winners in the 113-race history of the track have come from inside the top 10, and an almost equally staggering 30 percent of Richmond winners have been from the front row.
The front qualifiers having an advantage isn't a trend that's going away, either. Going back to 2003 — a span of 20 races — just four winners have come from outside the top 10.
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.