Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Richmond.
Kevin Harvick celebrates a win in Richmond. (ASP, Inc.)
One of the knocks on NASCAR in recent years has been that it’s too predictable Well, not anymore. Try telling that theory to Las Vegas bookies this week while they’re busy recovering from heart attacks. In the final 10 laps at Richmond, you had a driver with 75/1 odds out front as well as a man who’s never won a race on an oval and without a top-10 finish for 10 months. Moments later, the lead was surrendered to the equivalent of a 15 seed in the NCAA tournament — 100/1 odds, no laps led to that point in the season and no victories in nearly five years. Add in three types of tire strategies and a green-white-checker finish and you had a double-file restart where one of about 15 different drivers, many of them underdogs, had a chance at the win.
It’s the perfect snapshot of why Richmond is one of NASCAR’s best facilities, worshipped by both fans and drivers alike. In the end, that was the only predictable part after a wild week off the track; this .75-mile oval, every time out, forces us to focus on nothing more than what happens on it.
Once the dust settled, Saturday’s winner could certainly relate to that theory as well. We delve into his shocking upset while shifting “Through the Gears” on Richmond storylines …
FIRST GEAR: And it’s Harvick for the steal
There’s a reason Kevin Harvick’s nickname is “The Closer.” Just two years ago, he won three races early in the season by leading a total of just nine laps. Saturday night’s trip to Victory Lane was another classic example of how Harvick has a knack for stepping up late. Starting 17th, his No. 29 Chevrolet was a 10th-place car through lap 300. It took a little strategy — pitting off sequence than other frontrunners for four fresh tires along with one final tweak — to loosen the car up that gave them an extra boost of speed.
“We probably made more adjustments on the car than we’ve made in any race in a couple years,” said crew chief Gil Martin. “But it was right when it needed to be.”
So was the luck. While shot out of a cannon, climbing up to second during the final 50 laps, Harvick would never have passed Juan Pablo Montoya unless a final yellow flag, flown for Brian Vickers’ wreck, to set up a free for all green-white-checker finish. The leaders, sitting ducks on old tires, were forced to pit in a move that jumbled the field. When the dust settled, after choices ranged from staying out to full-service stops, Harvick found himself on the inside line, seventh with four fresh tires while Montoya was stuck on the outside. That made the difference; when the cars came up to speed, “The Closer” had the room to throw his fastball, darting through traffic on the inside while Montoya wound up cornered by the wall.
“We were fortunate to have it all line up,” Harvick said. “I drove it in there, hoped for the best. Figured four, eight, 12 … whatever was on the outside tire-wise would be plenty to lean on and by the time we got to the backstretch, everything had cleared out.”
By the white-flag lap Harvick had moved up six spots, disposing of teammate Jeff Burton, and darted off to the win. His three laps led, total, tripled his total output in that category after a miserable first eight races of 2013.
That’s why this win is so big. Harvick, for all his bravado about dumping the “lame duck” status, is moving on from Richard Childress Racing at the end of the season. Outside the top 10 in points for much of the year, his No. 29 team has been little more than a top-15 car — six of his ninth finishes, in fact, are between 12th and 14th. Making the Chase was far from a guarantee, especially when considering his pending departure. Now, he and a penalized Matt Kenseth may be forcing struggling veterans like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and the injured Denny Hamlin to capture at least two victories should they use up those “wild card” spots.
Juan Pablo Montoya led 67 laps and finished fourth at RIR. (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND GEAR: An important consolation prize of confidence
For Montoya, fourth was a bitter pill to swallow after putting himself in position down the stretch. “I do feel bad for Juan,” said rival Clint Bowyer, speaking for most in the NASCAR garage. “He has struggled the last two or three years. He drove his ass off to keep Harvick behind him (before the final caution flag came out).”
“Really? Really?” Montoya, who led 67 laps said, jokingly, before turning serious about the race’s ending. “(I’m) pissed off. It is the luck of the draw. We restarted on the outside, (for the green-white-checker finish) and we were screwed.”
It’s understandable how this one hurts for him; it’s not like chances to win have been growing on trees. But once cooler heads prevail, Montoya will see the good side of Saturday night. It’s his first top-10 result of any kind since Michigan last June, ending that eternity at 30 races. After heartbreaking failures — from wrecks to rotten parts —he’s finally benefited from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s Hendrick-supplied engines. The speed is now there for Montoya to sweep both road course races, at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, a move that could sneak him in the Chase as a darkhorse. To do that, though, he needs to climb back inside the top 20 in points (currently 25th) and Saturday night was a good first step.
“Almost” could also turn into a confidence boost for Burton, who gambled on old tires to grab the lead heading to the green-white-checker finish. In the end, old rubber couldn’t hold and he faded to fifth, just two positions better than he would have finished otherwise. But it’s those types of gambles, led by crew chief Luke Lambert, that got these two clicking in the first place in late 2011. Can this run, his first top-5 result at an unrestricted track in 17 months, be a turning point after a slow start?
Ditto for Kurt Busch, who led 36 laps with his single-car Furniture Row Racing effort before circumstances (and over-aggression) had him slipping to ninth Saturday night. After a horrible month, one that included back-to-back 37th-place disasters, Busch righted the ship and proved this small-time operation is capable of winning. That’s crucial for an underdog to believe his team is in the mix, as the driver said himself heading to tracks like Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte, where they can steal one.
THIRD GEAR: Tony Stewart’s troublesome ending
Tony Stewart had smoke pouring out of his ears Saturday night after getting tapped by the aforementioned Busch during the green-white-checker finish. Fifth on the restart, Stewart wound up 18th and quickly showcased his displeasure by tearing Busch’s Chevy all to pieces after the checkered flag.
“I don’t know what (he) was upset about,” Busch said after the race after fending off an expletive-laced tirade in the garage from his rival. “I got hit from behind. I got hit every which-way. It was a free-for-all.”
Stewart, for his part, left the track without comment before sneaking one in through a post-race press release. “He just rammed right into us there at the end,” the release stated. “We were actually going to leave here with a decent finish until everything happened.”
That last comment is key. Frustration is boiling over for Stewart after “rear bumper” abuse has defined his 2013. At Fontana, it was the block from Joey Logano that cost him 15-20 spots. Richmond’s fiasco cost him another dozen. Add up those points, along with being an innocent victim at Daytona, and he’s in the top 10 — despite some obvious struggles elsewhere. Instead, he’s sitting an uncharacteristic 22nd … and tired of it.
What does it mean? Well, you know what they say about everything coming in threes. Saturday night marked Stewart’s second temper tantrum of 2013; next wreck, I wouldn’t get within 50 feet without two bodyguards and a stun gun.
FOURTH GEAR: Petty Blue comes of age
Quick, what’s the only driver on tour with three consecutive top-10 finishes at the moment? No, it’s not Jimmie Johnson, the runaway points leader, a flashy Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, or even Kyle Busch. It’s Aric Almirola, a rising star whose seventh-seventh-eighth stretch is easily the best of his Cup career. Now 11th in points, the driver of the No. 43 Ford is coming of age right before our eyes.
Saturday night was easily the most impressive of the three, as Almirola worked his way up from 34th. With the experience of Todd Parrott on the pit box – the mechanical mastermind behind Dale Jarrett’s 1999 championship – the building blocks are there to make a Chase run on points. While still a longshot, this pairing will only improve, and come Kansas in the fall, you might even see them in Victory Lane.
Ford’s Greg Biffle was the opposite of Almirola on an awful night at RIR. Starting 33rd, he spent the night stuck there before spinning out and damaging the No. 16 machine. None of Biffle’s 18 wins in the Cup Series have come on a short track, a weakness that must be mastered to be taken seriously in the Chase. … The crowd at Richmond, once an automatic sellout was noticeably sparse, especially in the grandstands surrounding the turns. There’s no official word on ticket sales, as NASCAR doesn’t release attendance figures this season, but the exodus from one of the sport’s most competitive tracks is alarming. … For those besides Burton that stayed out on old tires for the green-white-checker finish, it was a mixed bag. Jamie McMurray, restarting second, slipped outside the groove and was dropkicked to 26th; he would have had a top-10 finish otherwise.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Kansas Speedway.
Jason Ratcliff and Matt Kenseth. (ASP, Inc.)
Two years ago, J.D. Gibbs came within a front bumper of stealing Carl Edwards away from Roush Fenway Racing. Then Ford’s hot young star, Edwards would have bumped Joey Logano out of the No. 20 ride to the tune of a reported $10 million.
Turns out, that could be the best money Gibbs ever saved.
What happened? Edwards got a sweeter deal, including stock options from Ford, to remain at RFR, then came within a whisker of the championship (losing to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker). But he’s won just once since, stuck in rebuilding mode after losing longtime crew chief Bob Osborne, and hasn’t found a full-time sponsor to replace AFLAC, causing multiple companies — and occasionally Ford itself — to foot the bill.
In the meantime, the money thrown at Edwards, combined with patchwork sponsorship for Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 effort, made the latter ripe for the taking. JGR, with Logano still struggling a year later, grabbed Kenseth for an undisclosed amount – but likely a fraction of the Edwards price — saving backer Home Depot from potentially jumping ship completely. In the meantime, Gibbs’ outgoing driver won once more before handing the keys to a car that desperately needed a veteran’s help.
Where are we now, eight races in? Kansas’ Victory Lane offers a clue as we go Through the Gears:
FIRST GEAR: Matt Kenseth could be Joe Gibbs Racing’s missing piece.
Observers felt that Kenseth, looking for a fresh start after 13 years with Roush Fenway Racing, would click with the No. 20 team. But no one expected this type of start: two wins and six races led in eight starts for a team that’s been downright dominant at times. A driver known for consistency as opposed to controlling races, Kenseth already has led more laps this season (482) than he did throughout all of 2012. And it’s not like he was off the pace in his last year with RFR; Kenseth captured three victories, including the Daytona 500, and landed seventh in series points.
“I think it can always go better but things have been pretty good from a performance standpoint,” was his comment on Sunday concerning 2013. “I’m really, really happy. I think as an organization one of our cars — if all the stars would have aligned — could have won every race this year if everything would have worked out.”
Compare that to Roush Fenway Racing, which has half the wins and just 207 laps led thus far. How ironic was it that Kenseth’s final on-track pass for the lead came at the hands of his old car, the No. 17 driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Clearly, JGR got itself the better end of the deal, one it feels includes a leader within its stable of high-profile drivers.
For Kenseth, it’s more that the pressure’s off, with sponsorship secure and no mentoring needed for teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The 2003 Cup champ has 10 times the experience than Logano, and add in top-15 finishes so far this season at every track that also hosts a Chase date (even Martinsville, once kryptonite), and it’s clear this addition could bring not just the 20 team, but the entire JGR organization into serious title contention this fall.
SECOND GEAR: Kyle Busch is cursed by Kansas.
Everyone talks about Kyle Busch’s newfound maturity. But the one person Busch still needs to see, fresh off an Anger Management appearance with Charlie Sheen, is a wizard. Kansas Speedway has been Busch’s Achilles Heel, the one track where he has yet to score a top-5 finish and a place where he’s been cursed for two-plus years. The spell was in full effect this weekend, as Busch wrecked three times — from practice through the race — en route to destroying two cars and winding up in 38th place.
“Spun twice on our own,” he quipped after the race-ending incident. “Just don’t know what to do with Kansas.”
Maybe one extra apology to David Reutimann would be a start. That driver, angry over the way Busch bumped him out of the way at Bristol in 2010, chose to get his revenge at Kansas later that season — at a crucial point in the Chase — which proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back on Busch’s title run. The Las Vegas native was wrecked by Reutimann, ran 21st and has done no better than 10th at the 1.5-mile oval since.
That remnant of “Old Kyle,” along with the mental frustration attached to it, still comes out on The Plains. That needs to stop, considering this track’s second date remains smack dab in the middle of the Chase.
THIRD GEAR: There is such a thing as too fast.
While Kansas put on a far better race compared to Texas a week ago, both experienced the same set of problems that hindered side-by-side competition. Average speeds in both cases were well over 190 miles an hour; straightaway speeds at Kansas approached 210. If NASCAR saw that high of a number at Daytona — considering what happened in February — restrictor plates would be replaced with parachutes attached to each car’s rear end.
So why didn’t NASCAR even blink at Kansas? For now, its answer to “slowing the cars down” is providing a safe, rock-hard Goodyear tire compound so that if a driver spins, it’s his or her own fault — sort of a weird way to deflect blame. But considering that’s exactly what’s happening — half-a-dozen cars spun out on their own Sunday — isn’t the risk failing to provide a reward? With the current compounds, cars can run upwards of 200 laps on left-side tires and have little to no falloff. That makes a car like Kenseth’s the best all day unless you can nip it through pit strategy to gain track position, which limits passing and excitement for fans.
The Gen-6 car, when provided a softer tire compound, has proven to be racier than the Car of Tomorrow. Restarts at Kansas showed its true potential, with cars four-wide at times in the desperate battle to gain positions before everyone bottomed out at the same speed. The pieces of the puzzle are there, NASCAR just has to find a way to slow the cars and pair them with a softer compound tire so the drivers can actually use them to their advantage.
Aric Almirola is currently 13th in the point standings. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: The window is opening for a Chase surprise.
The contenders at Kansas were about whom you’d expect. Kasey Kahne, always strong on intermediates, ran runner-up to Kenseth and sits a solid second in the standings. Jimmie Johnson, on the equivalent of cruise control, ran third and extended his points lead.
It’s further down the list where the results get intriguing. Martin Truex Jr., fresh off a runner-up performance at Texas, ran a strong fourth. Jamie McMurray, nearly wrecked at the front of the field by Mark Martin during a mid-race restart, fought back to seventh. Aric Almirola, driving the legendary STP colors for Richard Petty Motorsports, was eighth, giving him back-to-back top 10s for the first time in his short career. Paul Menard, Richard Childress Racing’s most consistent driver who makes a living on these 1.5-mile tracks, ran 10th.
It’s a set of four names, all unlikely to win a race this season, whose consistency keeps them in the Chase mix. Currently, Menard is 10th in points while McMurray, Almirola and Truex are inside the top 15 and within striking distance. With Jeff Gordon (15th) and Tony Stewart (21st) down the standings, a summer surge for either would make this battle for 10th a moot point. But what if they don’t bounce back? Last year, Gordon needed a wild card to make the Chase field. With the usual suspects already inside the top 10, Denny Hamlin’s injury may have provided an opportunity for this undercard battle to take shape. Considering how meaningful a postseason bid would be to any of those candidates (with two total Chase bids between them), I’d expect the stretch run to get wild.
You’ve gotta give Ricky Stenhouse Jr. credit. Driving for the team that won here last fall, he qualified third, used pit strategy to get up front late and led 26 laps. Eleventh ties his best career Cup finish, but more importantly, the rookie got over the hump of running up front for more than just a circuit or two. … How many more obstacles must Brad Keselowski overcome? First-lap contact from a backmarker left him with a fuel-filler issue that dropped his No. 2 car a lap down early. Then, leftover damage caused a debris caution when his back end ripped apart in Turn 3. It’s the third race in a row he’s had these type of problems, yet the team has finished top 10 every time (sixth on Sunday). It makes you wonder how dangerous it will be when the luck finally turns. … Tony Stewart, invisible at Kansas (21st), is off to the worst start of his Cup career. Leading just 18 laps, he’s 21st in points and without a top-5 finish through eight races. However, let’s not forget how notoriously slow a starter Stewart traditionally is. In 2005, he was 14th in points after eight races, winless (and rudderless) at Joe Gibbs Racing. That November? He was holding the title trophy. And who can forget his 2011 championship, when he was an afterthought through a zero-win regular season, yet ripped off five victories in the 10-race Chase? … Sunday marked the first time since 1985 that three consecutive Cup races have been won from the pole. It last happened with Bill Elliott (Michigan, Darlington) and Dale Earnhardt (Bristol) with Elliott capturing the Winston Million in the Southern 500.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Kansas Speedway
1. NASCAR honors victims, heroes of Boston Marathon explosions
Just as it did after the large-scale attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NASCAR will serve in the role of honoring those affected by Monday's horrific events at the Boston Marathon. Beyond the expected emotional pageantry of Sunday's pre-race ceremonies at Kansas Speedway, two Sprint Cup teams with unique ties to Boston and its annual road race have even made plans to recognize and support the victims and heroes in various ways.
Roush Fenway Racing, the NASCAR venture tightly partnered with Boston's Fenway Sports Group, will carry a unique "B-Strong" decal on each of its cars this weekend. Team owner Jack Roush has also pledged to donate $100 per lap led by his team to relief efforts in Boston. Fenway Sports Group, of course, owns the Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park and other Boston sports enterprises.
Meanwhile, Michael Waltrip will recognize his personal tie to the Boston Marathon by having each of his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota's sport car numbers this weekend in the same font as the marathon's bib number system.
“The news coming out of Boston this week was very personal to me,” said Waltrip. “When I ran the Boston Marathon in 2000, I remember thinking about what a privilege it was to be able to participate and all the hard work it took to be there. When you can see those international flags flying in Copley Square, you know you are about to complete your journey. I know the joy those runners were feeling at that moment when their worlds changed."
Undoubtedly, expect many in the garage to be sporting Boston Red Sox gear, too.
2. Streaking Kyle Busch hopes to avoid 2012 mistake
This season, when Kyle Busch has found the lead, there's been at least two times in seven races when he hasn't looked back. In three others — now good enough for a career-best streak — Busch at the very least hasn't fallen from the top 5 when the checkered flag fell.
A top 5 for Busch on Sunday would push that top-5 streak to six and, more importantly, overcome a major gaffe he had at Kansas just last fall. It'd also mark his first top 5 at the 1.5-mile track.
Busch was just about to assume the lead of last October's event on Kansas' newly-repaved surface when he lost control exiting Turn 4. He made slight contact in the process, but the damage was enough to steal any good handling from his No. 18. A later crash sealed his fate for the day in 31st.
"Hopefully, we have a good car like that this time around and I don’t make a mistake like that," Busch said.
Busch, of course, wasn't the only driver to fall prey to a tricky Kansas track. The caution flag waved a track record 14 times in October — good for a series high among all tracks in 2012.
3. Martin Truex Jr. has had enough second fiddle
If you didn't sense his disappointment after Saturday night's race at Texas Motor Speedway, let's make one thing abundantly clear: Martin Truex Jr. is straight tired of finishing second. It happened again at Texas, and it happened twice last season at Kansas.
Truex was by far more dominant in the spring race last season before the re-pave, leading 173 laps. The Texas runner-up meant it has been 210 races since Truex won his only career Sprint Cup race at Dover in 2007 for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. If you'll remember, Truex's win that day came in a Monday race after a Sunday washout and was overshadowed by antics between Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart that left both wrecked and Busch parked by NASCAR.
See why Truex might be a bit tired of playing back-up?
"We had a good run in (Las) Vegas, and ran well at Texas," Truex said this week, more removed from his disappointing Saturday night. "It seems like our mile-and-a-half, big track program is pretty good and kind of like Kansas, so (I) look forward to going there."
4. Almirola returns to site of best career Sprint Cup run
Predictions for Aric Almirola to run well in the season's first 1.5-mile track race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway fell way short, but a very solid seventh-place finish last weekend at Texas should bode quite well for the No. 43.
Leading 69 laps in last fall's Cup return to Kansas, Almirola fell out of contention from the lead when he began suffering tire issues. Eventually, despite turning the race's second fastest laps and proving to be a top-5 car by speed both early and late in green flag runs, a tire exploded on Almirola and put him in the Turn 4 wall.
He finished 29th.
It was both a glimmer of hope and a knotting defeat for the underdog Richard Petty Motorsports team. Almirola, still searching for his first career win and just his third career top-5 finish, admittedly hasn't stopped thinking about a return.
"I've been looking forward to Kansas since last October when we left there. We were so good last fall. To have it all taken away with some blown tires really stung," Almirola said.
A solid run at Kansas would be extra nice for Almirola due to sponsor Farmland being headquartered nearby. He'll do battle in a brand new chassis built by RPM.
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
5. Kansas' own Clint Bowyer still searching for hometown checkers
Speaking of new cars, Clint Bowyer probably has one to sell you.
NASCAR's lone native Kansan celebrated the opening of his recently-acquired car dealership Thursday in his hometown of Emporia, Kan. In something befitting NASCAR's newest witty character, the dealership is one where both he and his brother formerly worked in decidedly lower-paying positions. It's also directly across the street from Emporia's Clint Bowyer Community Building.
Now, Bowyer will sell Toyotas from the Clint Bowyer Autoplex.
"There's a lot of renovation work and a lot of stuff to do, but getting the doors opened up for business was really neat and a big day for me," Bowyer said.
Bowyer is yet to own a Sprint Cup checkered flag from his hometown speedway, however. In 2007, he was extremely close — some would even say he won — when a late caution flag created controversy surrounding Greg Biffle's win in a shortened race. Since that runner-up finish, Bowyer has led just five laps in seven races and has two top-10 finishes at the speedway. He's also spent just 54 percent of his nine races at the 1.5-mile track in the top 15.
Those stats don't tell the whole story of Bowyer from a year ago, though, and extra numbers could show Bowyer as an unexpected but popular favorite for Sunday's race. Last October, Bowyer took sixth despite having the race's best average running position (5.858) and most laps in the top 15 (98.9 percent).
Will Bowyer finally hit big at Kansas? I guess we'll find out Sunday.
NASCAR: Five Things to Watch at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Denny Hamlin is not as happy now. (ASP, Inc.)
Five storylines for the Kobalt Tools 500 in Las Vegas
1. Hamlin draws NASCAR’s (thin-skinned) ire
NASCAR suddenly, quickly and, well, mistakenly landed a $25,000 shot to Denny Hamlin's wallet on Thursday as Sprint Cup teams set up shop in Las Vegas. And no: this wasn't a case of Brian France cleaning Hamlin's clock at a swanky blackjack table.
Hamlin is expected to pay up for doing, allegedly, at least $25,000 in damage to NASCAR's apparently fragile image for answering a completely legitimate question at Phoenix International Raceway about NASCAR's new race car. Hamlin's most grievous offense can be found in the following span of sentences:
“I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning.”
Athlon Sports regrets posting such serious and offensive comments.
That was exactly Hamlin’s reaction Thursday during a break from testing and later in the night when he released a statement on Twitter. NASCAR never contacted Hamlin before the fine was issued, even though it came later than usual. Hamlin has vowed to appeal the fine and voiced even greater concern for the message it sends.
“I feel as if today NASCAR lost one of its biggest supporters vocally of where our sport is headed,” Hamlin wrote in a tweet, conscious of his 2010 “secret” fine for saying things that also crossed NASCAR. “So in the end there are no winners.”
Hamlin said the statement was “taken out of context” and that the fine isn't about money. Instead it’s about his ability to give an honest and fair assessment to reasonable questions.
“Since being fined in 2010 I have been a lot more careful about what I say to media and I felt this past weekend felt completely in my rights to give an assessment of the question asked,” Hamlin wrote.
2. Testing, testing, 1… 2… 3…
Beyond the Hamlin episode, teams got down to work earlier than usual on Thursday, as NASCAR opened the track in Las Vegas to a full day of testing.
It wasn't the first time NASCAR's new Gen-6 car has been on a 1.5-mile intermediate track, but Thursday was the first day Sprint Cup drivers got to toss the new car design around Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR opened the track a day early for two sessions of car fitness tests that, unlike a typical race weekend practice session, allowed the use of data and telemetry recording devices.
Greg Biffle's lap of 189.427 mph late in the second of two sessions put his No. 16 Ford atop the speed charts — a familiar place for Roush Fenway Racing at LVMS. Kasey Kahne set the track record a season ago in Sin City at 190.456 mph.
“It doesn’t matter how long you have practice or how much testing you have, there will be cars on the track until NASCAR throws the red and black flag,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “And even after all of that, we will always think, ‘Darn, if we only had two or three more laps.’ We are always striving for perfection so there is never enough time in my opinion to get ready for Sunday’s race.”
Indeed, many teams placed focus on race setups to start the second weekend of the early-season West Coast swing for NASCAR. Nine of the top-10 drivers in the second session’s speed charts posted their fastest lap in either the second-to-last or last run of the day, likely with qualifying setups installed.
The last major test on 1.5-mile tracks for most teams came at Charlotte Motor Speedway in January. Snow postponed part of that test conducted in extremely cold conditions — a stark contrast from Thursday’s sunny and mild weather in Las Vegas.
Aric Almirola: A Vegas sleeper? (ASP, Inc.)
3. Trump cards could quietly be in The King's court
The temperature at that Charlotte test before the start of the 2013 campaign wasn't a factor for the Florida-born Aric Almirola. His No. 43 Ford turned the quickest lap during that test that proved to be a culmination of a lot of right steps that both he and his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose have taken on NASCAR's intermediate tracks of late.
Expect both to be under-the-radar contenders when Sunday’s 400-mile race gets underway.
“Toward the end of last season, we were really good at the mile-and-a-half tracks, and doing well at the test gives us some momentum going into this weekend,” Almirola said.
Almirola picked up a pair of top-15 finishes in last season’s final two intermediate track races at Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Tire troubles and a crash ruined an even stronger day just weeks before at Kansas Speedway — another 1.5-miler — after Almirola led 69 laps.
Ambrose, the road course ace, has shown flashes of strength on the same types of tracks. To start this season, he has a pair of 18th-place finishes in Daytona and Phoenix.
“We haven't had a great finish yet, but we haven't had a terrible one either. We just need to get a little better,” Ambrose said.
Las Vegas, where Ambrose has a best finish of fourth in 2011, could be just the place.
4. Edwards thought Las Vegas, not Phoenix, was his ace in the hole
The backflip Carl Edwards executed after track position and a good handling car sent him to victory last weekend at Phoenix looked pretty good for a guy who had waited 70 Cup races since his last one. It also looked good for a guy who felt his gymnastic move wouldn't be needed for at least another week.
Edwards admitted this week he didn't expect to snap his win drought at Phoenix.
“I know this is probably wrong to admit, but I didn’t really have Phoenix marked on the calendar as the one that we were going to go win the first race,” Edwards said. “I was looking at Vegas as the race that would be the really good one, so I’m really excited about Vegas.”
Edwards can probably point to the success of his still fledgling relationship with tough-nosed crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Their relationship — a meeting of alpha personalities — has been one to keep track of early in 2013. Fennig has changed a lot Edwards’ routine and at-track preparation.
“(Fennig) wants me to make sure that I understand the changes they have planned for practice, that I make sure to be there and be available to the engineers after practice, and that I’m actually sitting there engaged with them so we don’t miss something,” Edwards said. “I thought that was pretty cool for him to just lay it out there. He didn’t say, ‘How did you do it last year?’ He said, ‘This is exactly what I want. This is how I’m going to do it.’
“I think that leadership and knowing what he wants is something that’s going to pay off a lot.”
Edwards, already the owner of two career Sprint Cup wins at Las Vegas (both after the 2006 reconfiguration), is a decent pick to hit it big Sunday.
5. The tricky nature (or lack thereof) of Las Vegas’ Turn 1
The 2006 reconfiguration of LVMS created a remarkably different track than drivers had been used to since the first Sprint Cup event at the track in 1998. The track added banking — it was the first purpose-built progressive banking track in NASCAR — and watched the average pole speed jump more than 12 miles per hour.
Just as any track, LVMS has aged under the extreme heat that Nevada desert summers bring. That process allows the track and its foundation to move and settle. Such character, drivers say, can now be found in Turn 1 at LVMS where a set of bumps have created uncertainty from lap to lap in the driving line.
“You’ve got to tune your car around (the bumps),” David Gilliland said. “It puts more in the hands of the individual teams and drivers to make it work.”
The bumps haven’t proved a notorious causal factor for crashes in that end of the speedway. The numbers, though, are slightly raised. Since reconfiguration six races ago, there have been 19 cautions for incidents in Turns 1 and 2 and 15 for crashes in Turns 3 and 4.
“It has a rougher surface in that there are more bumps. The track has some character to it,” Ryan Newman said. “Over the past couple of years, the bumps in the track have typically been pretty tricky, but that’s something I like.”
The bumps seem to be more noticeable to some drivers than others. Even teammates.
“The track is really smooth and that lets you work on the attitude of your car, and I think that’s a luxury that we have there that we don’t necessarily always get everywhere else because every track has its unique set of bumps,” said Tony Stewart. “Vegas has bumps too, but for the most part, it’s so smooth that you can really fine-tune the attitude of the car.”
For now, we'll listen to Stewart. A win at Las Vegas in 2012 and a second-place finish in 2011 give him a bit of credibility.
The Las Vegas et cetera
Mark Martin, now the second-oldest pole winner in NASCAR history after last week's top qualifying effort at Phoenix, now takes aim at being the oldest Sprint Cup winner. Martin, 54, would top Harry Gant who was 52 when he won in 1992 … Martin also won the inaugural race at Las Vegas in 1998 … Las Vegas is the first of 16 Sprint Cup races at intermediate tracks this season … Most teams had extra transporters meet them in Phoenix after last Sunday's race to swap cars and parts, as making a trek from Phoenix to Charlotte and back to Las Vegas in time is nearly impossible … Just one of 15 Sprint Cup races have gone past the scheduled distance at LVMS.
Kenseth, Logano and Chase wild cards take center stage
2012 Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth. (ASP, Inc.)
As a Green Bay Packers fan, Matt Kenseth knows the shock many had seeing quarterback Brett Favre wear another team’s uniform. Kenseth says he doesn’t think his fans will be as shocked with his new look at Joe Gibbs Racing next season after being with car owner Jack Roush’s team since 1999.
“I’ve had about 25 different uniforms in the last two years,” Kenseth said, exaggerating the numerous sponsors cobbled together to fund his Cup team. “I think most of my fans eventually are going to appreciate only having two different uniforms and paint jobs next year instead of 10. I’m really looking forward to the stability of the sponsorship and the team.”
What had been known for some time became official Tuesday when Joe Gibbs Racing introduced Kenseth as its driver for next season. Kenseth replaces Joey Logano, who is headed to drive the No. 22 car at Penske Racing in 2013. Home Depot and Dollar General will sponsor Kenseth’s No. 20 car. Jason Ratcliff will serve as his crew chief.
Team officials said having the 40-year-old Kenseth replace the 22-year-old Logano was good for the company’s future.
“It doesn’t matter what age you are, it doesn’t matter your experience, the question is are you good and can you communicate and can you be a part of a team?” said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. “I think Matt will fit that well for Denny (Hamlin) and for Kyle (Busch).”
Gibbs said that with Kenseth coming over, the team wanted Logano to do a full Nationwide schedule next season and some Cup races, but once the Penske ride opened, knew that they couldn’t compete with that. Gibbs could only offer such a program to Logano because of what sponsorship the team had available.
“We love Joey, he’s been here a long time, so we have a real fondness for him, but at the same time we understand that when he has an opportunity there, it’s hard to pass that up,” Gibbs said.
Kenseth said his focus the rest of this season is winning the championship at Roush Fenway Racing. Once his Roush contract ends, he’ll plan to spend as much time as possible with Ratfcliff and discuss the car and their program
“I know without a doubt it is the right place for me,” Kenseth said of moving to Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
DOWN TO TWO Officially eight drivers have a chance to gain a wild card spot at Richmond and make the Chase, but Kyle Busch admits he thinks it will be between he and Jeff Gordon for the final playoff spot. Kasey Kahne, who has two wins, is expected to make the Chase, most likely via the other wild card spot.
Busch leads Gordon by 12 points heading into Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway, the final one before the Chase field is set. Only once in 15 races they’ve raced each other at Richmond has Gordon finished more than 12 spots ahead of Busch. Also, Busch’s career average finish at Richmond is 4.7 (four wins). Gordon’s average finish in those 15 races is 17.0 (zero wins).
Busch said he doesn’t anticipate needing reports during the race to keep up with what Gordon is doing.
“If (Gordon) is front of me and I can’t see him, obviously we’re not having a good enough night, but if (Gordon) is in front of us and I can see him, I think everything will be fine,” Busch said.
Carl Edwards and team owner Jack Roush. (ASP, Inc.)
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN Carl Edwards, who lost last year’s title by a tiebreaker, needs to win Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond, have Kyle Busch finish 24th or worse and Jeff Gordon place 12th or worse to make the Chase.
Unless Edwards makes the Chase, it will mark the fifth consecutive year that the runner-up in the points finished no better than seventh the next season.
So, how did he get into this situation while teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are in the Chase?
“There are a couple reasons we’re in this position in points,” Edwards said. “One of them is not the fact that we finished second last year in the championship, truly. We’re adults. We’re good competitors and we’ve finished second before. I’ve had disappointment.
“As we went through the season there are two things that happened that I think really set us behind. Number one, terrible luck. Think of qualifying at Michigan the first time we went there, the bolt came off the secondary for fuel injection for the butterflies. I mean, it seems like things like that have happened to us. We got in that wreck at Bristol.
“We had the spark plug wire come off at Indy running fourth, I think. We’ve had all these things that happened during the year combined with, I believe, (former crew chief) Bob (Osborne) and his (health) situation – him not being able to really perform at the highest level that he has over the last few years – I think all of that kind of added up to just mediocre performance combined with terrible luck.”
PIT STOPS Travis Pastrana will drive the No. 60 Nationwide car for Roush Fenway Racing this weekend at Richmond. Pastrana didn’t have any more Nationwide races scheduled for the season before this one-race deal. ... Denny Hamlin goes for his third consecutive Cup victory on Saturday at his home track of Richmond, in a race that he won in 2009 and 0’10. The last time a driver won three Cup races in a row was Jimmie Johnson, who won four consecutive races during the Chase in 2007. He won at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix. … The NASCAR baby boom continues, as Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola and wife Janice welcomed a baby boy, Alex, into their family on Tuesday.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's AdvoCare 500
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Coming off another exciting race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads south to Atlanta Motor Speedway for this weekend's AdvoCare 500. Only two races remain before the Chase for the Cup gets underway in Chicago, and if the past few weeks are any indication of things to come, you better hold on a lot tighter than Tony Stewart holds onto one of his helmets.
Since the series hit the summer stretch in June, there have been 11 different winners in 11 races, dating back to Joey Logano's win at the repaved Pocono Raceway. Last week, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin that broke in the new configuration at Bristol and went to Victory Lane.
Just as the battle for wins each week has heated up, so has the battle to secure a spot in the 12-driver Chase field.
Hamlin's victory was his third of the season, making it a four-way tie for the most win on the seasons with Hamlin, Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. So far, only four drivers have locked themselves into the Chase: Johnson, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. This weekend, eight other drivers could mathematically lock themselves into the field.
While the top 10 is settling things amongst themselves, the fight for the two wild card spots are very much up for grabs. Entering this weekend's race, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch hold the coveted position, but anything can change, as Sunday night's race proved. Among those looking to secure a spot in the Chase through via wild card are Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards.
In the meantime, we've seen wild races over the course of the last three weeks. Last-lap drama, helmet throwing, finger pointing, accusations of teams testing the boundaries of the rulebook … you name it, it’s happened.
With a 500-mile race under the lights on the fast, high-banks of the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, the stage is set for yet another dramatic weekend for the Cup Series.
However, look for that streak of 11 different winners to end this week as Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the entire No. 48 team look to solidify their spot as the top seed heading into the Chase.
This organization has shown it is once again in championship form, with a win at Indianapolis, a second last week at Bristol, a third at Watkins Glen and a 14th at Pocono. Don’t forget, the 27th-place finish at Michigan is very deceiving as Johnson lost a motor leading in the closing laps.
A three-time winner in Atlanta, Johnson enters the weekend as the fantasy favorite. Already locked into the Chase, Johnson and Knaus are now looking solely for wins. While this group has not been to Victory Lane at AMS since it swept the races in 2007, Johnson was second last year and third in the September 2010 event. Look for him to improve that finishing position by one spot Sunday night and emerge as the Chase favorite heading to Richmond.
While questions arose about when last year's Atlanta event would be run after rain washed out the race until Tuesday, there was no question as to who had the best car when the green flag finally flew. Veteran Jeff Gordon dominated the day, leading seven times for a total of 146 laps en route to his fifth Atlanta win.
Marking the 20th anniversary of his historic first start in the Cup Series, the four-time series champion is on the verge of missing out on this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Currently third in the Chase wild card battle, with one win (Pocono), Gordon is 55 points out of the top 10, but only 16 behind fellow wild carder Kyle Busch. If Gordon can score his second win of the season, it would go a long way towards his quest to make the Chase.
The No. 24 team, led by crew chief Alan Gustafson, has been strong of late, but two poor finishes at Watkins Glen and Michigan have made things much more difficult. Expect Gordon to be a contender throughout Sunday night's race and be there in the end, challenging for the win.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne
This year, veteran Mark Martin has proven that you are only as old as you feel. The 53-year-old is running a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, but each time he climbs behind the wheel, he’s a threat for the win. Making only 15 starts thus far in 2012, Martin leads the series in poles (four) and has two top 5s and five top 10s.
Over the past few seasons, however, Martin has struggled a bit on the high banks of Atlanta. Since finishing second in the spring 2006 race, he has only two other top--10 finishes and seven finishes outside the top 20 (including three DNFs).
Despite his not-so-stellar record in Atlanta of late, Martin appears renewed at MWR and is this week's undervalued pick of the week.
When looking for another undervalued driver for your fantasy lineup, you might want to consider Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola. While Almirola has only one start in Atlanta, he sat on the pole earlier this year at Charlotte Motor Speedway, another mile-and-a-half track. The No. 43 team has not set the world on fire this season, but with crew chief Mike Ford now calling the shots they have steadily improved.
Do not expect this team to get up there and battle Johnson, Gordon, et al, for the win, but they could score a solid finish and give you the fantasy points you need as the season winds toward its home stretch.
Five Undervalued Picks: Mark Martin, Aric Almirola, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard
Have you ever seen a kid trying to eat an ice cream cone when it is about 100 degrees outside? Typically it’s a losing battle. That's where Carl Edwards currently finds himself with only two races left before the Chase field is set.
For the past few weeks, Edwards has been our darkhorse pick of the week. Each week, he has proved why. A sixth at Michigan was a solid finish, but not what the team needed to make the Chase. Last weekend at Bristol, Edwards was out front leading, but made a mistake late in the race, bypassing a fuel stop under caution. The resulting 22nd-place finish was the result when the tank ran dry.
With only two top 5s and 11 top 10s, Edwards has rarely been in contention to win races this season. After losing last year's championship battle to Tony Stewart by virtue of a tiebreaker, the driver of the No. 99 has struggled to bounce back.
Admitting there is a "real sense of urgency" at the moment, Edwards also pointed out earlier in the week there are a lot of talented drivers in a similar situation.
"It’s almost hard to put into words how close the competition is and any loss you have, there are gonna be a ton of people who capitalize on it, and any gain you have it’s really hard to have a real positive gain over the field technically or competitive-wise, points-wise," he said. "I don’t think that it could be any more competitive. Misery likes company and right now we’ve got a little bit of company back there, but I don’t know if it makes me feel any better, but it is good to see that it can happen to anybody.”
Once again, though, Edwards heads to a track where he is very capable of winning. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has three wins, eight top 5s and 10 top 10s on the 1.5-mile track, finishing second in the September 2010 race and fifth last season.
Although his last win cam in 2008, if he and crew chief Chad Norris can put together a strong setup under the car, stay out of trouble both on the track and in the pits, as well as play the strategy right, this could be the weekend Edwards finally gets out and does his signature backflip — and then the wild card battle really gets crazy. If not, you can pretty much write off his Chase hopes for 2012.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Carl Edwards, Landon Cassill, Jamie McMurray, Regan Smith, Danica Patrick
Best Average Finish at Atlanta (Wins/Starts)
Jimmie Johnson — 10.0 (3/20)
Tony Stewart — 11.2 (3/25)
Jeff Gordon — 12.2 (5/38)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 12.8 (1/24)
Matt Kenseth — 12.9 (0/23)
Carl Edwards — 13.6 (3/14)
Greg Biffle — 16.1 (0/17)
Jeff Burton — 16.6 (0/34)
Juan Pablo Montoya — 16.9 (0/9)
Mark Martin — 17.3 (2/51)
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for the Pure Michigan 400
Michigan's June winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
After a wild late-race battle for the win at Watkins Glen, the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Irish Hills of Michigan for this weekend's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Returning to MIS for the second time this season, the Chase is fast approaching and the action is heating up. In June, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended his 143-race winless streak and made the NASCAR Nation happier than a kid chowing down on some Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia.
This time, however, the series returns in the heat of the race to the Chase. With playoff implications all around and teams on varying strategies and objectives, things could get interesting.
Four drivers — Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth — have the opportunity to clinch their respective spot in the Chase in Sunday's race. At the same time, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and others are battling for the two wild card spots.
While the mindset of the teams and drivers may be different from earlier in the summer, one thing that will remain the same is the high speeds created by the new racing surface.
When the series first hit the freshly-paved 2-mile, D-shaped oval, the drivers were laying down some of the fastest speeds of the year recorded in practice and qualifying. After seeing some blistering on the tires, Goodyear officials made a late change in the compound and brought in a tougher left side tire for Sunday's race. Prior to returning this weekend, Goodyear worked with NASCAR, the track and the competitors to test various combinations to bring back a better tire. A total of 27 teams partook in the test on July 30.
One of the drivers most pleased with the test was Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has two wins, eight top 5s and 11 top 10s in nineteen starts in Detroit’s backyard, and is this week's fantasy favorite.
Over the last four Michigan races, Biffle has led a total of 258 of 803 laps en route to a pair of fourth-place finishes (including the June race), a 15th and a 20th (which came after sitting on the pole).
Sitting second in the series standings, just one point behind the five-time champion Johnson, Biffle has only one win this season, meaning he would fall behind Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin when the Chase field is reset after the Richmond race. Another win would go a long way in Biffle's quest to earn his first Sprint Cup Series title.
If Biffle wants to earn his second win of the season and first Cup title, he will likely have to beat Johnson for both. Always a contender at Michigan, Johnson has four top 5s and nine top 10s, but has yet to seal the deal and score a win.
Given the performance of the No. 48 organization over the four weeks, it is safe to say they will be a contender yet again this weekend.
The last time the series was in Michigan, it was Earnhardt Jr. that scored the win and ended the longest winless drought of his career. After a disappointing end to a solid day in Watkins Glen, Earnhardt lost the points lead, but is headed to a track he is very capable of sweeping.
Also keep an eye on Keselowski this weekend. Although he has an average finish of 21.0 at Michigan, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe always have an eye on pit strategy and could shake things up late in the race and have proven capable of winning on most any type of track at any given time.
Five Favorites: Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth
While Richard Petty Motorsports was celebrating a win last week at Watkins Glen, the team cars of Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose could have another strong showing this weekend.
Although they may not take The King to victory lane two weeks in a row, the teammates have had strong showings in the June race, with Ambrose leading 15 laps and finishing ninth, and Almirola coming home 17th in his first Sprint Cup start on the big oval.
Given their solid performance in June, along with the momentum built from last week's win, you may want to consider including Almirola and Ambrose in your lineup this week.
The ageless wonder, Mark Martin, returns to action this weekend behind the wheel of Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota. The timing could not be better, as Michigan is Martin's best track.
Although he fell out of the June race with an engine issue, Martin has a career-high five victories at Michigan. Given the success of the No. 55 team — especially with Martin behind the wheel — look for the Rodney Childers-led bunch to have a strong run on Sunday.
Martin’s teammates, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, have average finishes just outside the top 10 best at Michigan. Sitting sixth and seventh, respectively, in the series standings, both drivers could further solidify their spot in the Chase with good runs — and tack on bonus points with wins.
Five Undervalued Picks: Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.
With only four races left before the Chase field is set, time is running out for Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. Both sitting outside the top 10 in points, Edwards is without a win, while Gordon is currently fourth in the wild card battle behind Kahne, Newman and Kyle Busch.
Edwards enters the weekend with the best average finish among active drivers (8.4) and two wins at MIS. However, in his last five starts at Michigan, Edwards has three finishes outside the top 10 (including a 36th in the race last August).
If the 2011 championship runner-up wants the opportunity to make the Chase field, time is running out and the season that has yet to get on track needs to do so this weekend. At this point, solid finishes are not enough.
Much like Edwards, Gordon finds himself outside the Chase field at the moment. Needing wins, before the final cutoff race at Richmond, it is time for the No. 24 team to step up to the plate and get the job done. A victory two weeks ago at Pocono gave the four-time champion Chase hopes, but a late-race spin in the oil at Watkins Glen did his wild card hopes no favors.
The Alan Gustafson-led team has run strong throughout the season, but have struggled to put complete races together at times, albeit the issues were not always of their making. If they can use notes from the in-house No. 88 team, stay out of trouble, play the right strategy throughout the race and be there in the end, look for the No. 24 team to have a shot at the win.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Landon Cassill
Best Average Finish at Michigan (Wins/Starts):
1. Carl Edwards — 8.4 (2/16)
2. Matt Kenseth — 9.3 (2/26)
3. Tony Stewart — 11.2 (1/27)
4. Jeff Gordon — 11.3 (2/39)
5. Greg Biffle — 12.4 (2/19)
6. Mark Martin — 13.6 (5/53)
7. Denny Hamlin — 13.8 (2/13)
8. Jimmie Johnson — 14.7 (0/21)
9. Kevin Harvick — 14.8 (1/23)
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 15.2 (2/26)
What will 2013 hold for Dodge and its involvement in NASCAR?
As Brad Keselowski celebrated in Victory Lane at Talladega, it was a scene both bittersweet and conflicting. Dodge had just won at Talladega for the first time since 1976, and yet there was precious little for the manufacturer to celebrate.
If Denny Hamlin can win races now, it makes one wonder what he’ll do later this season as the communication with new crew chief Darian Grubb improves and Grubb puts more of his stamp on the team’s cars being built.
Hamlin is one of only two drivers with multiple wins this season after eight races (Tony Stewart is the other) and Hamlin could be the first driver to win three races this season with the series heading to Richmond this weekend. He has won two of the last five races at his hometown track.
Even with the success, Hamlin has had his ups and downs. He won at Phoenix and Kansas but finished 20th at Las Vegas and Bristol. Since Bristol, he’s not finished worse than 12th. That’s helped Hamlin climb to fifth in the points.
“It's hard to analyze your program by a one-week performance,’’ Hamlin said after his Kansas victory, the 19th of his career. “You look at it in the grand scheme of things. (At Texas) on a mile-and-a-half (mile track), we went almost a lap down, but we ... hung around 10th place for most of the day.
“I'm not going to analyze and say that everything is good, we just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we'll be fine. There's always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we've identified those areas and we've gone to work on them. So right now I feel like we're bringing better race cars to the race track than what we have, and it's still going to take time. There's still things that myself and Darian need to work on with communication, things like that, but he's still working within Joe Gibbs Racing trying to get cars that he feels like can be better to the race track, and all that stuff takes time. You just can't do it — it's a big process now.’’
Says Grubb: “My confidence in Denny's feedback is getting better and better. I know when to take what he says with what inflection in his voice, what it means.’’
This also has been an adjustment period for Grubb in how things are done at Joe Gibbs Racing after moving over from Stewart-Haas Racing. That also takes time.
“The technology is drastically different between the organizations, so the actual lessons you learn and things, it's probably more the style of working and being able to manage people and get the best out of the people that are there,’’ Grubb said. “Now that I'm at Joe Gibbs Racing I'm starting to learn those personalities and what I can get out of them.’’
This team will be worth watching as the season progresses.
NEW LOOK Bruton Smith, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Chairman and CEO, is scheduled to announce Wednesday his plans for changing the track surface at Bristol. The work will be completed before the August race and is in reaction to fan complaints about the racing there.
Bristol will mark the fourth track this year that will have a new surface, joining Michigan, Pocono and Kansas. Work on Kansas’ track began after Sunday’s race. Since 2010, six of the 23 tracks that host at least one Cup race will have had new surfaces by the time the series races at Kansas in October. Phoenix was reconfigured and repaved last year and Daytona was repaved in time for last year’s Daytona 500 after a pothole delayed the 2010 race.
Jeff Gordon says that in some cases, the track is not as much the problem, especially Bristol.
“The drivers love it,’’ Gordon said. “It’s a great racetrack I think. I thought they made huge improvements. Now we hear they want to go back to the old way.
“Tracks are getting too much of the blame or even credit sometimes. This car for the last five or six years has sort of put Goodyear, the tracks, everything into a different box. I’m looking forward to the 2013 car, but I look forward to cars down the road to sort of take some of the things in this car that are in there we can’t take out. It will help the racing; things that are going to help Goodyear to make it better tire that is more suitable for the car.’’
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
LOOKING BACK Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent the last six months studying his family’s genealogy and its made him appreciate the past.
“I’m trying to put together some kind of a well-organized document to sort of be able to show to family members,’’ he said. “I had one interesting experience. Ralph’s (Earnhardt) father, I didn’t know who he was and never really cared who he was, never thought about who he was or what his family would be like.
“Never thought past Ralph all these years and I started getting into his father and Ralph’s grandfather and I found their burial plots and so me and my grandmother Martha and my sister and my mom Brenda and my girlfriend rode up there one day, just in Kannapolis or Concord and visited their burial plots and a lot of relatives that were born in like 1809 and 1822 and stuff like that.
“It’s really cool to stand there over somebody that is responsible for you being there.”
PIT STOPS The Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown will be Thursday night at Richmond International Raceway. Cup drivers scheduled to compete in the late model race that raises funds for charity are Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Aric Almirola and Michael Waltrip. ... Steve Wallace will make his 2012 Nationwide Series debut on Friday at Richmond. His Ford was prepared out of Rusty Wallace Racing with collaboration from JTG Daugherty Racing. Bobby Labonte’s Cup pit crew will service Wallace’s car and Labonte’s crew chief, Todd Berrier, will call the race for Wallace.