Athlon pinpoints the best young drivers in the NASCAR ranks.
To suggest that any player, athlete, coach or driver in any sport after just a few seasons is a lock to make the Hall of Fame is ridiculous. But it is always fun to look at guys who have had instant success and try to extrapolate long-term potential. Limiting the scope to the last three rookie classes, here are the most likely future NASCAR Hall of Famers.
Who are the wildcard drivers who could win the 55th running of the Daytona 500?
The Daytona 500 is the Great American Race for a reason. Dreams are realized, careers are validated and history is made each and every season. For the 55th time in history, 43 cars will attempt to finish 200 laps around the 2.5-mile asphalt tri-oval called the Daytona International Speedway.
The Harbaugh Brothers are both in Super Bowl XLVII, but are not the only active siblings in sports.
The Harbaugh Brothers are hogging — or Har-gging or whatever — all the attention at Super Bowl XLVII. But little Johnny and Jimbo aren’t the only tikes in the backyard turned titans in the world of sports. Here’s a rundown of the top 30 sets of active athlete siblings, with the combined accomplishments of the top 10 brothers, sisters and twins.
The 2013 Sprint Cup, Brad Keselowski's spike in popularity and Kyle Busch's hot streak
Chevrolet's as-yet-unveiled 2013 Cup car. (ASP, Inc.)
A Goodyear tire test Tuesday and Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway could provide a clue as to how racy NASCAR’s 2013 Sprint Cup car can be.
While the focus will be on tires at the test, NASCAR also will experiment with the car in hopes of making it easier for drivers to run closer together. One of the reasons mentioned this year for the relative lack of cautions was that it was so hard to race close together for a stretch, although Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski showed it can be done late in last weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, said Monday that “there are some things that we are working on that show promise” and could create tighter racing when the cars debut next season.
He noted that officials are experimenting with the car’s underbody, along with the front of it and the rear spoiler.
Andy Graves, Toyota’s Cup manager, notes that when a car is alone in clean air, it has maximum downforce, thus is compressed and as close to the ground as possible. When two cars are running near each other, the trailing car loses some of that air pressure and the car rises.
“If the car is very pitch-sensitive and very ride-height sensitive, then, unfortunately, you lose more downforce when you’re behind someone,” Graves says.
“We’re trying to develop from the splitter, the spoiler, studying the data, looking at wind tunnel information that is more advanced than it’s ever been; we’re trying to understand and come up with some characteristics that performance stays the same whether you’re all by yourself or in traffic. That is going to help the racing.”
Pemberton said he’s confident that the new car will be better than when the current car debuted as the Car of Tomorrow in 2007.
“It goes back to us spending more time getting the car closer developed when we hand the car off,” he says. “It will be a far, far, better racing car to start off with and then the teams will take it to the next level.”
Brad Keselowski suggests not judging the car’s performance too early next season, though.
“The odds are that this car is not going to come out of the gate perfect,” he says. “It’s going to take time. But much like if you unveiled a new iPhone and rolled it out and said, ‘In a year we’ll have it working right,’ your customers probably aren’t going to be happy about that. I think we all know that and are braced for it, but we know long-term that this car is going to be part of the solution for getting NASCAR as strong as it possibly can be.”
If everything goes as NASCAR hopes, Graves says the cars should be easier to drive than the current cars but says the driver ability will still matter.
“Making cars hard to drive, that’s not what separates talent on the race track,” he says. “It’s all the other intangibles. It’s operating in traffic from setting someone up for the pass, it’s managing your tires, managing the race, understanding fuel mileage. There’s a lot of different aspects, in my opinion, rather than making the cars hard to drive and say the best driver is going to be the guy that best manages that.”
NEW FAVORITE At one point during last weekend’s race at Texas, the crowd roared when Brad Keselowski took the lead. He missed that.
“I would have liked to have heard that,” Keselowski said. “That’s one of my biggest regrets of being a race car driver is missing out on those moments. In other sports, like football or basketball or baseball when they do something and the crowd cheers, you really feel it, (but) racing, you’ve got none of that. It’s really a big bummer because I would have loved to have heard that.”
Keselowski knows that he’s gained fans during this Chase as he battles five-time champion Jimmie Johnson for the championship.
“I think I have a lot of Jimmie-hater fans,” said Keselowski, who trails Johnson by seven points with two races to go.
“I’m not sure how I feel about it. I try really hard to engage a very informed and positive fan base. That might not be necessarily along those lines, but I’ll take every fan I can get.”
Keselowski understands why some fans feel the way they do toward Johnson.
“It’s American culture, build somebody up just so you can tear them down, whether it’s the president or sports star,” he said. “It’s just American culture. Maybe one day I’ll be so fortunate as to be torn down.”
CHARGING Although not a title contender, Kyle Busch has scored 274 points in the Chase, fifth-most among all drivers. Busch is coming off a third-place finish at Texas last weekend, his fifth top-5 finish in the Chase.
“I wish we were in the deal,” Busch said after last weekend’s race at Texas, “but that’s what next year is for.”
TITLE RACES With two races to go, Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse are tied for the points lead in the Nationwide Series. Austin Dillon is third, 21 points behind them.
In the Camping World Truck Series, James Buescher has a 15-point lead on Ty Dillon with Timothy Peters 25 points back and Parker Kligerman 27 points out with two races to go.
PIT STOPS NASCAR announced Tuesday that comedian Howie Mandel will host the Sprint Cup Series Awards program on Nov. 30 in Las Vegas. ... Donny Schatz won the World of Outlaws championship driving for Tony Stewart’s team. ... Kyle Larson, a development driver for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, won the K&N Pro Series East championship last weekend with a sixth-place finish in the season finale at Rockingham Speedway. ... Sunday’s Cup race marks Danica Patrick’s 10th and final one of the season. She is coming off her career-best Cup finish of 24th last weekend at Texas. ... Jimmie Johnson, victorious last weekend at Texas, has won 22 races in the Chase. Next on the list is Tony Stewart with 11 Chase victories.
Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
To break one trend, Marcos Ambrose knows he’ll likely endure another when the Sprint Cup Series competes at Sonoma in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday in the first of two races at road courses this season.
Ambrose, who won at Watkins Glen last year for his first Cup victory, seeks to break a string of seven different winners on road courses. To do so, he’ll have to avoid the litany of trouble that lurks on the tight, 12-turn road course.
The last couple of races on the Northern California course have featured beating and banging synonymous with short-track racing.
“It is a technically challenging track, it’s hard to make passes,” Ambrose says. “Even if it’s clean, it’s very easy to make contact.
“The drivers understand that you’re going to have to do a few bump-and-runs, and you’re going to have to make contact to win the race. We’re all prepared for that, and we all understand the consequences of that.”
Ambrose, who is 17th in the point standings, needs a victory to have a chance at a wildcard spot in the Chase.
“We still feel like we’ve got a chance to make the Chase if we can win some races,” he says. “We’ve got speed. We just have to convert those speed runs into good results.”
Ambrose has finished between ninth and 14th in four of the last five races. He goes to Sonoma with higher expectation since his racing background is in road racing.
After finishing 42nd in his first time at Sonoma in 2008, Ambrose has not finished worse than sixth since. He led 35 laps in 2010 but lost the lead when, as he was saving fuel, he turned the engine off and couldn’t restart it under caution. A few cars passed him when he stopped on course and NASCAR placed him in the lineup where he regained caution speed. Only seven laps remained and the mistake cost Ambrose a chance to win. That helped Jimmie Johnson win and continue the streak of different winners on road courses.
On the other road course at Watkins Glen, Ambrose has recorded four top 5s in four Cup starts and owns a 2.2-place finish.
Kyle Busch started the different-winner streak when he won at Watkins Glen in ’08. Kasey Kahne won at Sonoma and Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen in ’09, while Jimmie Johnson was victorious at Sonoma in 2010 and Juan Pablo Montoya was first at Watkins Glen. Last season, Kurt Busch won at Sonoma and Ambrose won at Watkins Glen.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane in Michigan. (ASP, Inc.)
ATTENTION GETTER The question was straightforward, leaving no room to hide: “Do you think Jimmie Johnson is better than you?”
“No,” was the first word Dale Earnhardt Jr. uttered after he was asked that question in April at Kansas. “He’s a hell of a racecar driver, but I feel like I’m the best. I think that’s the way you have to feel. I feel that I’m smarter than everybody and I can drive better than everybody and I know a lot of people ain’t going to agree with that, but I feel pretty strong about it.”
When car owner Rick Hendrick heard Earnhardt’s comment, it struck him.
“He had not said anything close to that before,’’ Hendrick said Tuesday in a teleconference with reporters. “He, as a matter of fact, would say, ‘Man, Jimmie is unbelievable, Jeff is unbelievable, Kasey is really fast.’ But when he came out and said, ‘I'm getting the job done, I’m the “A” horse in the stable right now,’ and felt good about saying that, that just showed me that he was at max confidence.”
LOOKING AHEAD Nationwide points leader Elliott Sadler is focused on a championship this season but he also admits he’d liked to make it back to Cup, noting he has “some unfinished business there.”
Sadler, 37, ran in Cup from 1998-2010 before getting a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series in 2011 with Kevin Harvick Inc. Sadler moved to Richard Childress Racing this season when Harvick’s team merged with RCR.
“Of course I want to go back,” Sadler said of Cup. “Have to be in the right situation and right team to make that happen. Hopefully, one day it will. I’m not going to lie, it feels good to outrun some of the guys I outrun on Saturday and turn the TV on Sunday and watch those same guys run in the top 5 all day. I’m like, ‘We just outran them yesterday in the same equipment.’”
NEW LOOK Austin Dillon recently started wearing a cowboy hat regularly. Dillon’s cowboy hat is from the same company that makes Richard Petty’s cowboy hats. So, how did Dillon get on this habit?
“My hero is John Wayne,” says Dillon, grandson of car owner Richard Childress. “I used to watch John Wayne movies with my grandfather while we were out at Montana. Got a lot of pictures of when we were younger, me and my brother (Ty), both going camping and horseback riding and wearing our cowboy hats. I wore it at Texas last year (at) a Truck race. I have a country music singer who is one of my buddies, Tim Dugger. He’s like, ‘Why don’t you wear that hat?’ I started wearing it again. Now, it’s like a regular ballcap to me. I have fun wearing it wherever we go.”
SUMMER VACATION Mark Martin won’t race again until Indianapolis in late July, as he skips the next four races.
Brian Vickers, who raced last weekend at LeMans, will drive the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing car this weekend at Sonoma. Michael Waltrip returns to the seat to drive the car at Kentucky and Daytona before Vickers drives the car at New Hampshire next month.
Vickers already has competed twice for the team, finishing fifth at Bristol and 18th at Martinsville. His remaining races after Sonoma and New Hampshire will be Watkins Glen (Aug.), Bristol (Aug.), New Hampshire (Sept.) and Martinsville (Oct.). Waltrip’s remaining race after Kentucky and Daytona will be Talladega (Oct.). Martin will do the other races.
PIT STOPS With the Cup Series headed to the road course at Sonoma this weekend, there’s a few drivers fans don’t normally see who will be running. Robby Gordon is among them. He’s back for the first time since Phoenix (he failed to qualify at Las Vegas and Auto Club Speedway). Boris Said is scheduled to drive the No. 32 car for owner Frank Stoddard at Sonoma this weekend. ... Points leader Matt Kenseth has scored nine top-10 finishes in the last 10 races, but Sonoma is not one of his better tracks. He’s had one top-10 finish in 12 races there.