Jimmie Johnson’s fourth straight championship was arguably his most dominant performance; with three races left, he had a seemingly insurmountable 184-point edge over teammate Mark Martin under the old point system. But as Denny Hamlin should remember, entering this coming weekend after Martinsville’s mechanical monster, anything can and will happen. Johnson and Sam Hornish Jr. and got into it on lap 8, a three-wide choice turned into catastrophe when Johnson lost control, then spun off Turn 2. The man then known as “Three-Time” would run 38th, see Martin cut the deficit to 73 points and spend his post-race disgusted over what could have been the first opportunity ever to clinch the title pre-Homestead under the Chase format. What’s worse for the No. 48 group? Hornish never apologized, leaving hurt feelings that lasted months afterwards— even though J.J. still cruised to the title.
by Tom Bowles
9. Fall 2005: Edwards vs. Martin
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Texas hasn’t been a track where late-race passes for the lead are the norm. But Carl Edwards, one of five Roush drivers in contention for the 2005 season title, made this fall edition one to remember. Leading 82 laps, Edwards jumped out in front until one last caution, for debris, sent him scurrying to pit road. That left Martin out front, but with new tires Cousin Carl was able to race down the No. 6, then blow by him on the top side to secure an easy victory and pull within 77 points of Tony Stewart for the championship. As for Mark? It was his last, best chance to secure a victory in the No. 6 Roush car; he would never win again in Cup driving the famed Ford he put on the map.
by Tom Bowles
8. 1997: Lap 1 … And Done
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Turns out everything’s bigger in Texas—even the wrecks. The start of the first ever Cup race at the 1.5-mile oval, the first in the Lone Star State since 1981, didn’t even make it half-a-lap before nearly half the field was all torn up. With the new track basically a one-groove speedway, everyone was desperate to cut to the inside, including Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, who thought his No. 17 was clear of Johnny Benson’s No. 30. The second their sheet metal tangled, Waltrip went spinning in an incident that left him knocked out of the race in dead last. In all, 13 cars were involved, though most made it back on track. Only Dale Earnhardt (from a lap back to sixth) was able to work his way back into contention. And for DW, it would be a “double whammy.” One year later, he’d be a centerpiece of another major multi-car wreck to start the 1998 event. In two races, he’d struggle to complete more than two laps as the first key to this racetrack was “survival.”
by Tom Bowles
7. 1997: Throwing Caution To The Wind
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We all know the only real way to listen to a race is in Dutch. That said, you want to know why NASCAR doesn’t race back to the caution? Because there’s a risk of incidents like this one. After a multi-car crash off Turn 4, cars were racing back to the line with one particular problem: Greg Sacks’ hobbled No. 20 was slowing considerably, anticipating the dangerous incident that had happened on the tri-oval ahead. In the meantime, Ernie Irvan was focused on passing leader Terry Labonte to get a lap back instead of the mess of shattered sheet metal ahead. He didn’t see Sacks slowing until it was far too late, slamming into the No. 20 like a speeding car plowing into a safety vehicle on the highway in a wreck that left the stands eerily quiet. Until 2003, when a similar near-disaster with Dale Jarrett occurred at New Hampshire, this incident became the poster child in trying to get the rules changed. Luckily both drivers were unhurt, although each was obviously done for the day.
by Tom Bowles
6. 1997: Burton Gets First Win
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Hard to believe it has been 15-plus years since Jeff Burton, now 45, etched his name in the NASCAR record books. During a Demolition Derby of an inaugural edition, the No. 99 team and crew chief Buddy Parrott hit on the setup down the stretch. Pushing their way to the front, they avoided a late-race incident when Todd Bodine spun in front, pulled away from the homestate Labonte brothers, then outlasted Dale Jarrett to win his first Cup race by 4.067 seconds. Added bonus in this video: Kim Burton debuts on the NASCAR scene as “That NASCAR wife,” capping her emotional speech with the words “this is all he’s ever wanted his whole life.” What a nice reminder that back in the day, winning Cup Series races for the first time actually meant something more than a nice paycheck and an extra Monday appearance for your sponsor.
by Tom Bowles
5. Fall 2010: The Jeffs Play Pattycakes
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Who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks—or throw good uppercuts? Respected veterans Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon got into it when the two were involved a vicious wreck exiting Turn 2. Each man had his version of the incident to tell, but with Burton at full speed, the drivers connected and Gordon took a vicious hit into the outside wall. It was surprising enough that these two wrecked, but what people didn’t expect was the duo—known more for their intellectual pursuits—trying to solve this puzzling incident with punches. The funniest part of the whole thing? NASCAR still made both men ride inside the same ambulance (of note: the two haven’t wrecked each other on the racetrack since).
by Tom Bowles
4. 2000: The Son Rises
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Way, way back, before the Most Popular Driver Awards, the concussions and the “overrated” comments, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just a wide-eyed, introverted 25-year-old who loved computers, had a famous dad and was simply trying to make it in the wild world of the Cup Series. Big things were expected of the rookie, and some wondered if he could excel with a new team run by dad Dale Earnhardt Sr. But in just his 12th race at NASCAR’s highest level, Junior cashed in, leading a race-high 106 laps and virtually coasting to the checkers by 5.9 seconds in a performance that impressed everyone—even the old man. The tender moments between them, replayed all over the country, showcased how their relationship had progressed, back to an unbreakable bond after the elder Earnhardt was MIA at times during Junior’s childhood. Also not to be missed: a loving hug from Teresa Earnhardt, a sign of her love that’s eerie considering how badly their relationship would deteriorate in the coming years, following Senior’s death in 2001.
by Tom Bowles
3. Fall 2010: Knaus’ Switch-eroo
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At the time, it was a move that reeked of something unusual out of the 48 camp: Desperation. After several slow stops with crew consistently losing time to the No. 11 team and Denny Hamlin, crew chief Chad Knaus pulled something virtually unprecedented—he called in reinforcements. A team that, in some cases, had taken the car to four straight championships on the back of its tire-changing, fuel-pumping and chassis-adjusting knowledge was suddenly on the bench. In its place, at least for the rest of this race, was Jeff Gordon’s crew, which had been pulling off faster stops in the 24’s pit box, but in the end could never really do enough to put Johnson up front to catch Hamlin. The challenger went on to a dominating win in what seemed at the time a nail in Johnson’s coffin. Of course, Johnson, Knaus and the boys took advantage of the No. 11 team’s choke job one week later and sailed to Title No. 5.
by Tom Bowles
2. 2008: McBarrell Rolls
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In six years of covering races live, there have been only two instances where I thought a driver was dead. One was during an ARCA Daytona event, when a stopped Patrick Sheltra was broadsided at full speed. This one was the other. The full clip shows you how normal a qualifying run can be, a driver progressing through his normal rhythm before a split-second mistake, as simple as one bad deceleration point, which can turn things into a possible tragedy. End over end, flip over flip, a succession of barrel rolls. Miraculously, Michael McDowell walked away, surviving in part through NASCAR’s substantial safety innovations. But his experience, limited that year in his progression through to the Cup level, was questioned for months afterward. The danger, perhaps, of what can happen as a rookie at the sport’s top level.
by Tom Bowles
1. 2004: Sadler Sneaks One In
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Kasey Kahne’s rookie season was defined by two words: “near miss.” So many times, he had the No. 9 car in position to win only to be denied, sometimes by inches in the final laps. Texas was yet another example, as Jeff Gordon’s motor problem left Kahne in position to challenge Elliott Sadler for the victory. Sadler himself had not won since Bristol in 2001, and was desperate to score another for new employer Yates Racing. The problem? Kahne was clearly the faster car. Using the high line, he came off Turn 2 like a bullet, then appeared ready to jettison by through Turns 3 and 4 as Sadler was a sitting duck. But the lapped car of Johnny Sauter, which initially looked like it would hurt Sadler by not pulling out of the way, actually cost Kahne a shot. His insistence on running full speed, keeping the inside line, forced Sadler up and Kahne was unwilling to wreck either driver, unsure what to do and slowing up just enough he didn’t have enough momentum to make the pass down the tri-oval. Either way, it was the best Texas race for the victory we’ve seen. And based on NASCAR’s current intermediate package, not one we’ll get again anytime soon.
by Tom Bowles
BONUS 2011: Kyle’s “No No”
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This list is based on Cup, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention the one-year anniversary of the wreck that changed the career of Kyle Busch. After a three-wide incident put both he and Ron Hornaday in the wall, Busch’s anger got the best of him as the caution waved. While others slowed down, the No. 18 sped up, slammimg into the back of the No. 33 of Hornaday—a title contender in the Truck Series— and wrecked both in a move that conceivably cost his rival the big trophy while putting his own professionalism, and aggression, under the microscope. NASCAR’s response was swift and severe, parking Busch for the rest of the Texas weekend while sponsor M&M’s pulled out for the final three races of 2011. A tamer Kyle Busch has been seen ever since … and for good reason.
Weighing in on Hall of Fame Nominees and Racing at The Rock
Thunder Road at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. (ASP, Inc.)
Hall of Fame Nominees, Grading Texas and a Return to "The Rock"
With NASCAR’s recent announcement of the 25 nominees for its next Hall of Fame class, members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council selected the five people they think should be inducted next and why. They didn’t stop there, though, adding suggestions on who deserves to be nominated but hasn’t yet so far.
Fan Council members also discussed Rockingham’s return to the NASCAR schedule and what’s next there and dissected the racing at Texas. There’s much to debate this week, so here’s what the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say:
WHO WOULD YOU ELECT TO THE HALL OF FAME?
Fan Council members were asked to select five of the 25 nominees for their ballot. Here’s the five people they would vote into the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the percentage of votes each received:
Fireball Roberts ... 52.4 percent Leonard Wood ... 50.0 percent Benny Parsons ... 44.3 percent Wendell Scott ... 41.9 percent Red Byron ... 39.9 percent
AND THE REST OF THE FIELD ...
Buck Baker ... 37.5 percent Raymond Parks ... 31.8 percent Rick Hendrick ... 18.2 percent H. Clay Earles … 17.9 percent Rusty Wallace ... 17.2 percent Curtis Turner ... 16.2 percent Richard Childress ... 15.9 percent Tim Flock ... 14.5 percent Fred Lorenzen ... 13.2 percent T. Wayne Robertson ... 13.2 percent Anne B. France ... 12.6 percent Ray Fox ... 12.5 percent Cotton Owens ... 10.1 percent Herb Thomas ... 9.8 percent Jack Ingram ... 9.1 percent Joe Weatherly ... 6.1 percent Ralph Seagraves ... 5.4 percent Jerry Cook ... 4.7 percent Les Richter ... 1.7 percent Bobby Isaac ... 1.0 percent
What Fan Council members said:
• I think this is the year to recognize the very early days of NASCAR. The one thing really lacking at the Hall of Fame is an appreciation of the stars of the 50s and early 60s. Curtis Turner was really the first superstar of stock car racing, and should be recognized. His accomplishments in stock car racing were great, plus you need to consider the great record he had in NASCAR's convertible series, as well as in road racing. He was also the man who had the vision to build the Charlotte Motor Speedway, an icon in this sport.
• Wow that's tough to only pick 5 from that list ... so many are deserving. I think Childress and Hendrick are no-brainers as far as the current. Turner and Fireball should be the two recognized from the past because of what they accomplished in their time, and having the pleasure to work with him, I think Benny is just as deserving as a driver as he is for his broadcasting work.
• Without Ralph Seagraves and Winston, we may not even be talking about a Hall of Fame. Flock, Baker and Fireball's records speak for themselves and Cotton Owens is my pick for his success with Pearson and Buddy Baker.
• My choices were Leonard Wood, Raymond Parks, H. Clay Earles, Red Byron, and Buck Baker. Reasons being Wood deserves to be in the HOF for all they have done for this sport everything from fielding winning cars for anyone and everyone that has ever been a factor in this sport, they also changed the way pit stops were completed. Byron was the very first series champion and that stands for itself; Earles because he founded a wonderful facility that helped BUILD this sport; Parks for being the first championship car owner. Baker was one of the best drivers in his era and like everyone else on my list he helped BUILD this sport. If you take anything from my votes these people helped BUILD this sport.
• Wendell Scott ABSOLUTELY must make it to the Hall this year. First and ONLY African American to win a Cup series-level race at the time when he was running? This really needs to happen — now rather than later.
• I'm not buying Wendell Scott deserves a spot over people who helped build the sport to what it is today. H. Clay Earles founded a track that is still here today. Raymond Parks, first champion car owner and helped behind the scenes. Both deserve a spot first. I understand the need to show that he broke a barrier but would he have broke that barrier without others in this nominee class stepping up?
• Wendell Scott should be inducted since it must have been an incredibly difficult thing to compete the stock car racing as an African American in the time period that he did it. He did it on a shoestring and won. IMO, that achievement should be recognized.
• The shoe-ins were covered by the first 3 classes. Now it's time to catch up on the founding fathers
• You cannot tell the meteoric rise of NASCAR without T. Wayne. Shame they skipped over Leonard Wood last year.
• In my mind the early members of the Hall of Fame should have changed the sport. Anne B. France — Big Bill couldn't have, wouldn't have, done it without her. All of the previous members have stressed how much their families sacrificed for the sport. Anne B. France is the first representative of that group.
• Why is Anne B France on this list? I guess anyone that worked in the office in the beginning of NASCAR deserves to be in the Hall of Fame?! How about the first ticket collector?
• I believe Raymond Parks should have been in the Hall of Fame in the first or second class due to his contributions to keeping the sport alive in its infancy. Fred Lorenzen is one of the greats of the sport and health has deteriorated, which means this might be his last chance to enjoy the spoils of making the Hall. Since Glen Wood made the Hall of Fame last year, his brother Leonard coming in the following year makes perfect sense. Just like the Petty family over the first three years, the Wood brothers have a chance to take their place in the Hall. Buck Baker is the first repeat champion in Cup racing and having Buddy Baker up there would be a great representation for the building and for NASCAR. I chose Jack Ingram because they should incorporate the other series greats as well and The Ironman was a legend in Nationwide.
WHO BELONGS AMONG THE 25 NOMINEES FOR THE NASCAR HALL OF FAME?
I provided a list — not a complete list certainly — of people to be considered for the NASCAR Hall and Fame. Here’s how the Backseat Drivers Fan Council voted:
THE FIVE THEY WOULD ADD AS NOMINEES NEXT YEAR
Ken Squier .. 46.6 percent Barney Hall ... 45.6 percent Smokey Yunick ... 43.9 percent Alan Kulwicki ... 37.8 percent Davey Allison ... 35.4 percent
AND THE REST OF THE FIELD ...
Humpy Wheeler ... 34.0 percent Chris Economaki ... 32.0 percent Sam Ard ... 29.6 percent Bruton Smith ... 28.2 percent Tim Richmond ... 21.1 percent Janet Guthrie ... 19.7 percent Ray Evernham ... 18.7 percent Hershel McGriff ... 17.0 percent Jake Elder ... 16.7 percent Ralph Moody ... 11.9 percent Rex White ... 11.2 percent Harold Brasington ... 5.4 percent Paul Sawyer ... 3.7 percent
What Fan Council members said:
• Maurice Petty seems to always be forgotten, yet, accomplished more than most listed above
• Moody & Yunick because of their work on car development. Hall, Squier & Economaki because without their voices, the sport would not be the same ...
• Humpy Wheeler was one of the first promoters in this sport to truly understand the concept of what fans wanted from a racetrack besides just the race.
• To me, Barney Hall is the voice of NASCAR. I am 59 years old and went to my first NASCAR race when I was 12. Barney Hall was there and has been there ever since. Along with Chris Economaki and Ken Squier. These three men helped build the fan following of NASCAR and without the fans we wouldn't have NASCAR!!!!!!!!!
• Barney Hall has always been the voice of NASCAR for me. There will never be a better NASCAR announcer period. You can't have that Hall without him being in it. Squier, too. Davey, Ard and Richmond had their careers cut by tragedy. Who knows what kind of numbers they would have put up.
• Harold Brasington is also not given the credit he deserves. People don't stop and think how risky and pioneering it was to build a superspeedway for stock cars at the time; and out in the middle of nowhere to boot.
• Many of the early stories I can recall reading about in regards to NASCAR involved stories of “Suitcase” Jake Elder. He was a man who had influence in many drivers’ careers, and is usually mentioned in connection with those drivers as opposed to getting his own mention. It’s time to tell his story. It is amazing what Janet Guthrie was able to accomplish in what was considered a man's sport. Her story is an inspiration and deserves recognition.
• I want to add Harry Hyde to this list also!
• Red Vogt, one of the founding fathers of NASCAR, the man who coined the term NASCAR, and championship winning crew chief deserves to be in the HOF.
GRADING SATURDAY NIGHT’S CUP RACE AT TEXAS
41.0 percent called it Fair 33.2 percent called it Good 20.0 percent called it Poor 5.8 percent called it Great
What Fan Council members said:
• It was boring. Too many green flag laps — we needed some phantom yellow flags to bring the field back together. Nice race for Biff but not much excitement for the rest of us.
• I'm glad there was no phony caution at the end just to add excitement.
• I like what Dave Despain said about viewers expecting blow-ups and excitement every lap: long green flag runs “IS RACING!” If there had been caution after caution, fans would have bitched about THAT, too. I enjoyed the race. Was I enthralled every single moment? Well, I had my heart in my throat praying Kasey Kahne would not have another night of bad luck, so I was watching intently, but no, I simply enjoyed it. That's all I ask of a race!
• Very little passing. I'm OK with long green flag runs if lots of guys are passing. This was not the case on Saturday. I felt like it was an Indy follow-the-leader type of race.
• You're going to get a lot of “OMG that was so BORING” comments, but I thought it was fine. Sometimes in sports there are blowouts, but only NASCAR can essentially wipe out a three-touchdown lead with a wave of the flag. It is to NASCAR's credit (and credibility) that they didn't throw a sketchy caution to bunch up the field, because the two cars that deserved to battle for the win did so.
• 224 green flag laps at Texas is just not what I wanted to see...
• YAWN. I had to force myself to stay awake just in case anything happened in the last 10 laps. Racing thus far in 2012 has been boring. I think Goodyear needs to change the tires so they will wear more.
• I hate to say this, but it was the most boring race I have seen in the last three years. At the same time, it’s good to have a clean race, unencumbered by wrecks and long delays. Basically, it just lacked good fender banging competitiveness.
• I guarantee a lot of folks will say poor, but I didn't mind the long, green-flag runs. The race was not boring, as many will say. I can remember watching races back in the day that went caution free for long periods of time. The best drivers with the best teams usually do well in these races. That's what we saw on Saturday night
• It was decent. It was nice to watch Jeff Gordon's drive from deep in the field to fourth. It would have been nice to have a caution with under 10 to go to see if he had anything for the 16 or 48.
Racing at Rockingham Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
WHAT SHOULD BE NEXT FOR ROCKINGHAM SPEEDWAY?
After a NASCAR-estimated crowd of 27,500 watched the Camping World Truck Series race at Rockingham on Sunday — the first NASCAR race there since the Cup series left after 2004 — Fan Council members were asked what should be next for the track:
86.0 percent said run both the Truck and Nationwide series there next year 13.4 percent said run only the Trucks there next year 0.3 percent said run only the Nationwide series there next year 0.3 percentdo not return to the track next year
What Fan Council members said:
• I was at the Rock, and it was an awesome event. Andy Hillenburg has done a great job, and NASCAR should embrace it with both series next year.
• Great to see The Rock back. Let's build back the base first before we get carried away with bringing other series back there.
• Let the trucks have a “Showcase” event like this from time to time. Cup ran on Saturday and let them be the Sunday event. Loved it.
• It is unrealistic to see NASCAR move a Cup date to the track, but it would be great to see commitment to a track that can produce exciting racing for the fans.
• I was there. Traveled from California to be there. The numbers don’t tell the whole story. The event was great. The racing was great. The crowd on Saturday for practice and qualifying was bigger than some race crowds I’ve seen for truck races at other tracks. The community was so supportive and appreciative of those of us visiting and spending our money in their businesses.
• Seems like people want to see the races there so try it out with two races and see how is goes-people want it, people should show up!
• Although I don't think we'll ever see a Cup race at The Rock again, I think today's attendance proves the track can definitely support another truck race, AND a NW race.
• Too soon to take away a Nationwide race from another track until there is consecutive “almost sell out” crowds at the track. If today's effort is duplicated next year and the year (after) it would make sense.
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.
It’s been nearly two weeks since Bruton Smith said that he would order changes to Bristol Motor Speedway’s track surface after a sharp decline in attendance for the spring race and an increase in fan complaints about the racing. Yet Smith has yet to announce what those changes will be made before NASCAR returns to the half-mile track in a little more than four months.
“I think it would be incredible if they paved the track asphalt,’‘ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I am not sure if that would work out but it would be awesome to try it.’’
Any changes to Bristol’s surface before the August race will mean the Cup Series will race at four tracks that have been changed since last season. Kansas Speedway is set to be repaved after its race later this month. Michigan has been repaved and drivers nearly topped 215 mph at a recent Goodyear tire test there. Pocono Raceway also has been repaved and has Goodyear tire test scheduled for April 24-25.
While some drivers are thrilled that Smith will change Bristol — count Kevin Harvick among that group who says, “It’s about time,’’ — Denny Hamlin wonders if the tires should be changed for Bristol instead of the track.
“If you look at Bristol, it had the least amount of fall off of any tire that we had during this year,’’ Hamlin said. “I think you start off around 16.40 fast time (seconds per lap) and you ended 100 laps later running 16.90s. That's just not enough fall off.
“You have to have overtaking and to have overtaking, you have to have cars that are running faster than others. If you look at any point during a Bristol race, everyone's running the same exact speed and you're not going to have any overtaking. You're not going to have any wrecks because no one's running close to each other to wreck.
“Back in the day when people used to lap the whole field and no one complained about the racing, it's because overtaking was happening. Cars were getting passed. You could watch your guy move from 15th to wherever up to the front. Now, it's like he's got to make all the room, all the space up in the first five laps of a restart and then he sits there for the rest of the run. That's because we don't have enough fall-off.
“It's a tough job to make a tire that does that and will live and ultimately not put our safety at risk of blowing tires. Really, Goodyear has made tires that are idiot proof now. We can't abuse them enough to blow them out. That's why you don't see the passing that we used to have."
Even with Smith’s declaration of change, as Carl Edwards notes, it doesn’t guarantee that things will be better.
“The thing that makes me nervous for Bruton and those guys is to spend all this money to change something and then it may not yield the result that you want,’’ Edwards said. “I think that’s the risk they take, but Bruton Smith seems like he doesn’t mind taking risks and going for it. If it works out like most things he does, it’ll probably work, but I give him a ton of credit for saying he’s gonna change this and make an adjustment.’’
It’s just a matter of what Smith will do.
BACK AT ROCKINGHAM It’s not often that you see NASCAR return to a venue it left, but the Camping World Truck Series will compete Sunday at Rockingham Speedway. It marks the return of NASCAR since the Cup series last raced there in Feb. 2004.
NASCAR is back because of the work of track owner Andy Hillenburg, a former racer. He’s spent the money to update the facilities and add SAFER barriers to the track.
Now it’s up to the fans to determine if NASCAR returns to Rockingham after this race. If attendance is strong and shows potential, then maybe a Nationwide race can be added at some point. Just don’t expect the Cup Series to return there. With Cup races in Darlington, Charlotte, Martinsville and Bristol, the region has enough Cup events.
If that’s not good enough, then fans have to ask themselves if they would rather see some NASCAR racing at the track or see as much NASCAR racing as there is at North Wilkesboro?
NASCAR is giving the track and fans a second chance. Will fans take NASCAR up on it and show that the track deserves more races?
Jeff Burton (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
A DRIVER’S TRACK? There’s often the discussion about what is a driver’s track — or at least why some tracks might be considered a driver’s track. Jeff Burton, though, has his own take on the subject.
“Wherever a driver is good at that is what he thinks is a driver’s race track,’’ Burton said. “He thinks that is where drivers matter. The fact of the matter is that drivers matter everywhere. And the cars matter everywhere. You can’t take apart the car and the driver and say “it’s this or it’s that’.
“The reason why is to get the car to do what it needs to do, the driver has to be part of that. The way he drives the car, how he drives the car, and how he communicates with the team. All those things go into making a good racecar, and all those things go into making a good set up. So that communication with the team along with the driver is vital. You really can’t separate it.’’
PIT STOPS In his last two races, Jeff Gordon started 21st at Auto Club Speedway and climbed to fourth before pit road issues, including a penalty that led to a 26th-place finish in the rain-shortened event. Then, Gordon led a race-high 329 laps, lost the lead on a restart and ran out of fuel and finished 14th at Bristol. ... Kevin Harvick has an average finish of 9.0 in the first six races. It’s the second-best start of his career. He had an average finish of 7.83 in 2008. ... Kurt Busch will drive for younger brother Kyle’s Nationwide team in Friday night’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. It’s the first time Kurt has driven for Kyle in NASCAR. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. also is doing double-duty at Texas Motor Speedway. He’ll drive in Friday night’s Nationwide race and Saturday night’s Cup race. It’s the first time he’s run in both events at Texas since 2009.
Tony Stewart is putting together a run in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship as impressive as any seen in its seven-year history. Stewart’s win in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway was his fourth in eight Chase races, and finds him just three points shy of Carl Edwards as the Sprint Cup Series heads to the penultimate race of the season in Phoenix.
What is even more impressive is that until Stewart won the first race of the Chase in Chicago, he was winless in the 26-race regular season and largely dismissed as a title contender. Even Stewart, the organization’s driver and co-owner, doubted his chances.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, at this point of the deal, if we’re going to run this bad, it really doesn't matter whether we make the Chase or not,” Stewart said after the Michigan race in August. “We’re going to be occupying a spot in the Chase that somebody else who can actually run for a championship is going to be trying to take. Our stuff is so bad right now that we’re wasting one of those top 12 spots right now.”
What a difference a month makes, as 29 days and four races later, Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb notched the Chicago win, a victory earned by saving fuel. The same events transpired the following week in New Hampshire, while a strong finish in Martinsville in the Chase’s seventh race found Stewart in Victory Lane for a third time.
Much akin to his first two victories, the last two have come in similar fashion: with powerhouse moves on late-race restarts on the high side of the track — largely considered the unconventional line.
At Martinsville, Stewart surged by five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. In Texas, he got the jump on chief-rival Edwards with five laps remaining and stormed off to a 1.092-second win.
“We’re aggressive right now,”?Stewart said of the restarts. “I’m taking charge and trying to control my own destiny. I think the restarts today showed what our intentions are and what we’re about for these next two weeks.”
Edwards held on for second, while Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle rounded out the top 5.
“I was surprised they (the No. 14 team) were able to put together two weeks that were so good,” Edwards admitted. “That was really good work on their part. There’s nothing saying that that will play into another solid two weeks, but it very well could.
“From the way practice went and everything, I thought we’d have a little advantage tonight. They did all their jobs very well.”
The circuit heads to the newly-repaved and reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500. With a new surface and on a track with a different layout than in the past, many are calling it the ultimate “wild card” race in the playoffs.
“I think that Phoenix is still a huge unknown,” Edwards said. “We really think next week has a larger opportunity, by a landslide, to change the outcome of this Chase. If Tony and I run 1-2 at Homestead, there’s not going to be much points change if we run like we did tonight, but Phoenix has the potential to be huge.”
That may be so, but judging by the last few weeks, it doesn’t matter where the series races — Edwards and Stewart have separated themselves as the class of the field. And Stewart, for one, is feeling the confidence a hot streak at just the right time is bound to instill:
“I’m pretty sure what we did on the racetrack said everything we needed to tell (Edwards) today. I mean, I don’t know how you top that. He knows. Trust me, he knows.
“The fun thing is I don’t feel like I have to say anything — I feel like I already got it done.”
From the Spotter's Stand
It was a Ford-type of evening at Texas in April. Jack Roush's Fusions took four of the top seven positions, led by Matt Kenseth, who led a race-high 169 of 334 laps to break a 76-race winless skid.
Tony Stewart put himself in position to take the checkered flag late, but was busted for speeding on pit road, relegating him to a 12th-place finish. Kenseth took it from there, leading 32 of the final 58 laps en route to his second career win at TMS.
After perfecting the Texas two-step, Denny Hamlin joined Carl Edwards (2008) as the only drivers to sweep at Texas since the track became a biannual stop in 2005. Kenseth (2), Cousin Carl (3) and Jeff Burton (2) are the other multi-win drivers in the 21-race history of TMS.
In April 2010, Hamlin beat runner-up Jimmie Johnson to the line (.152 seconds) after pole-sitter Tony Stewart (74 laps led) lost control and started a nine-car pileup that also wrecked Jeff Gordon (124 laps led).
The other boot dropped in November, when Hamlin earned his second spurred trophy and series-best eighth win of the year — leaving Ft. Worth in first in the Chase, 33 points ahead of JJ with two races to go.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Texas is all about downforce, and generating it in race conditions — with cars all over the track — is tricky, yet paramount. Speed at Texas is important, but so is a good shock and suspension package that allows the car to handle the bumps that have formed in Turns 1, 2 and 3. The exit of two and the entrance of three are the trouble spots, both from a driver’s and a mechanic’s perspective. It’s one of those places where, in my mind, strange things happen. I’m always extra wary when we go there.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: It’s hard not to like the way Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth have performed on the big intermediates — particularly Texas — throughout their careers. Pretty Solid Pick: Denny Hamlin’s track record in Texas is good and the team is looking to finish 2011 strong. Good Sleeper Pick: Jeff Burton has two wins and nine top 10s here in 21 starts. Yippee ki-yay, cowboy! Runs on Seven Cylinders: Brian Vickers has yet to record a top-10 finish at Texas in 13 starts. Insider Tip: Sticking with Hamlin, Kenseth or Edwards is smart, but keep an eye on a surging Tony Stewart.
Classic Moments at Texas
Texas Motor Speedway’s first two Cup dates are brutal affairs. The 1997 Interstate Batteries 500 and ’98 Texas 500 are plagued by savage wrecks — one that nearly ends Greg Sacks’ career and another that sidelines Mike Skinner for weeks — and weepers that cancel practice and qualifying sessions. The mayhem even leads to whispers, though not verified, that Texas would have its single date stripped.
Therefore, following the ’98 race, track owner Bruton Smith purchases a share of North Wilkesboro Speedway to move one if its two dates to his track in Texas. He has the track repaved and reconfigured and installs a new drainage system. The results are immediate, as TMS stands as one of the great facilities on the circuit.