Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Richmond so you don't have to.
Clint Bowyer. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit up the road to Richmond, Va., on Saturday for the Toyota Owners 400. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Goeffrey’s fantasy predictions for Richmond ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Clint Bowyer
Fourteen career Richmond starts. Two wins. Eight top 10s. Thirteen lead lap finishes. Don't tell me you're gonna pick against Clint freakin' Bowyer — in anything — on a Saturday night.
2. Tony Stewart
Smoke has the most points scored in the last four races at RIR, and is the only driver with four top 10s. One would think, because it's not a 1.5-mile track, that Stewart won't continue his early season stink.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick, twice a winner at Richmond, has led two of the last four races there. But he's only got one top 10 this year, and a grand total of one lap led. His 15 career top 10s at RIR are the most of any track on his Sprint Cup resume — even with Ricky Rudd stealing one away prior to a hood stomping in ’03.
4. Jeff Gordon
In 40 career starts, he boasts the best average starting spot (7.9) of any current driver and the most Richmond top 5s (16) of all current full-time drivers. Oddly, he hasn't won there since Bill Clinton was president (2000).
5. Jimmie Johnson
Led just three laps at Richmond last season and his last win at RIR was in 2008. Most widely celebrated Richmond moment was when he wrecked Kurt Busch intentionally in 2011. More people have him on their Richmond roster than any other driver, though.
6. Kasey Kahne
Held off Stewart for his first career victory at RIR in 2005 before performing a miracle at the .75-mile track in 2011: earning a top-3 finish in a Red Bull Racing car. Average finish of 8.5 last year in Hendrick equipment, and potentially still has Richmond beef with Marcos Ambrose.
7. Brad Keselowski
As long Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans — still angry about him "causing a caution" that hosed the No. 88 at Kansas — don't run him out of town, Keselowski figures to be average in Richmond. Two top 10s last year were his best yet, but he's still never led a lap at RIR.
8. Matt Kenseth
One top 5 since 2006 at Richmond for Kenseth doesn't make Saturday night's race look promising. However, he did race unusually well at Martinsville, so perhaps the JGR equipment can help him again. Don't expect that advantage to come from the engine, though.
9. Denny Hamlin
Not racing, but still has a better chance to win at Richmond than most. Obviously, take a pass this week.
B List 1. Kyle Busch
Missed the Chase at Richmond last year, wrecked four times last week. However, picking against career win No. 5 at RIR for Busch — he’s won the last four consecutive spring races — just seems silly for a guy so good at avenging defeat. A pre-race favorite who’s an absolute steal as a B-Lister.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Had a car capable of winning Phoenix — the track most similar to Richmond this season — in February and ultimately lost on pit road. Led 67 laps last fall, finished second last spring and has three career RIR wins. Beard again approaching untamable levels.
3. Carl Edwards
Got hosed out of a win by NASCAR last spring; finished a lap down last fall to end a streak of five top 10s at RIR. Has a favorable chance of smiling 652 times on TV this weekend (after removing sunglasses, of course).
4. Mark Martin
Will tie Terry Labonte for most RIR starts (55) among active drivers Saturday. Carries track's seventh-best average finish (11.9) among same group.
5. Brian Vickers
Don't forget he's driving the No. 11 car that has led 1,390 laps at RIR since 2006. That said, his 24.9-place average in 14 Richmond starts is cause for concern.
6. Ryan Newman
Six top 10s in last 10 Richmond races, but only one top 5. Expect more of the same.
7. Kurt Busch
One win in 24 starts at Richmond. Seven of only nine RIR lead lap finishes have been top 10s.
8. Martin Truex Jr.
Dale Earnhardt, Inc. was still a real company for Truex's last Richmond top 5 (2008). Typically finishes eight spots worse (24.1) than he starts (16.1).
9. Joey Logano
30th and 24th last season at RIR, and that's with access to Hamlin's setup. Problem?
10. Jeff Burton
Virginia native has ninth-most laps in the top 15 during the last eight seasons at Richmond. Track is home to his best average start (15.2) and most career laps led (942).
11. Greg Biffle
Never a winner at Richmond, and his last top 5 came in 2006. Fun fact: one of four tracks where he's raced a Chevrolet in Sprint Cup competition (2002, Andy Petree Racing).
12. Paul Menard
You probably don't have to worry about a classic "where did he come from?!" top 10 from Paul this week. He's led one lap in 12 starts at RIR, and never finished better than 13th. Has averaged a sickening 26.75-place run in RCR sheet metal (four starts).
14. Marcos Ambrose
You could be like me and pick Ambrose on a short track, but then he'll likely crash. Best finishes at RIR came with JTG-Daugherty Racing (ninth and fifth in 2010). Was 22nd and 15th there last season.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya
Worth picking if you like watching the world burn somewhere just past halfway.
16. Jamie McMurray
Two top 10s in the last three races make McMurray a nice underdog pick. I'm not quite ready to get hung up on it, as he’s not scored a top-10 run at RIR since 2009.
17. Bobby Labonte
Same number of RIR starts as Jeff Gordon. 15 fewer top 10s.
18. Aric Almirola
Two Richmond starts, two 26th-place finishes. Consistent.
1. AJ Allmendinger
Eleventh at Phoenix for Phoenix Racing seems like a good omen for a guy with two top 10s at RIR (2010, ’11 with Richard Petty Motorsports).
2. David Gilliland
Early candidate for quote of the year after Kansas' "Shut up and drive" line to Danica Patrick. Best Richmond finish in 13 career Cup starts is 18th.
3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Richmond is a good place for first-time winners, but he'd be good with his first top 10 of 2013. Has finished fourth or better in last three Nationwide Series starts at RIR — not that it’ll translate.
4. Casey Mears
Typically makes it to the end of a Richmond 400-miler, as he only has two DNFs in 20 starts. Downside? He averages a 24th-place showing.
5. Danica Patrick
Never finished above 18th in three Nationwide Series Richmond appearances.
6. David Ragan
Three career top-5 finishes at Richmond is easily the most of the C-list. However, those came in primo Roush equipment.
7. David Reutimann
Has a pole at Richmond, but just four career lead lap finishes and a 23.2-place average in 12 Cup starts.
8. Travis Kvapil
Matching his best finish of 11th at Richmond would give Kvapil his first top-20 result of the year. At the very least, he hopes to not blow a fourth engine this year.
9. Dave Blaney
Finished fourth at Richmond once upon a time (2004, Bill Davis Racing) amid 24 career starts. His average in Tom Baldwin Jr.’s Chevys is a paltry 24.8.
10. Joe Nemechek
Is a former Richmond winner while driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2003 (yes, he once drove for Hendrick Motorsports), but DNQ’d at Kansas last week in his own equipment.
11. Landon Cassill
Currently leads Sprint Cup with three separate crew chiefs used so far in 2013. It must be working: he finished a season-best 29th at Kansas.
12. David Stremme
After leading a lap at Kansas, Stremme hopes to finish on the lead lap at Richmond. It'd be a season-first for a driver with a 33.2-place average on the .75-miler track.
13. Josh Wise
Finished just two laps down in Kansas, his closest margin to the leader so far this year.
14. JJ Yeley
Two straight DNFs has Yeley at a season-low 30th in points. He did, however, snare one of his eight career top 10s at Richmond. (2007, Joe Gibbs Racing). He will not grab No. 9 this weekend.
15. Timmy Hill
Currently at a career best 42nd in Sprint Cup points with three starts. Little Timmy has even run the distance the last two weeks (36th at Texas, 33rd at Kansas).
16. Michael McDowell
One of Phil Parsons’ “Start & Park Specials,” McDowell has four more starts than Timmy Hill this year, but has completed 352 fewer laps. Avoid like a TRD push rod.
17. Mike Bliss
Leading NASCAR's start-and-park brigade with a perfect zero finishes in five races. “I want ya to be perfect, Cole.”
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Texas Motor Speedway.
Kyle Busch wins in Texas. (ASP, Inc.)
It’s hard to believe that last year Kyle Busch went a whole season and won just once in NASCAR’s top three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Trucks. Why? Two months into 2013, he’s on pace to win 28 times across the board, lead over 2,000 laps in Cup and shatter any Nationwide Series record he hasn’t already.
But it’s the average start for Busch this season, on the Cup side, that’s making the biggest difference. Armed with a league-leading 5.4-place average start, his latest pole became the crucial difference in a tit-for-tat battle with Martin Truex Jr. at Texas. That first stall, a huge advantage on any stop, got him out first on the race’s final caution and made the last few minutes a coronation for a man who’s come full circle. It was at this 1.5-mile oval one and a half years ago when a wreck with Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Truck Series got Busch parked, left sponsor M&M’s questioning it’s commitment and left one of the sport’s most aggressive drivers at a crossroads with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Now? As we awaken this Monday morning, it’s Hornaday involved in the middle of a Truck Series mess, accused of deliberately wrecking another competitor while Busch is sitting on top of the NASCAR world. Funny how things come full circle, right?
Let’s go “Through the Gears” on what we learned from a weekend in Fort Worth …
FIRST GEAR: Texas + Gen-6 = Tough Sledding
You know when the biggest story of a race weekend is a sponsorship issue that is raised before the start of the event, you’ve got a problem. Texas, while giving us some decent racing back in the pack, was every bit the snoozer Fontana was not. The Gen-6 car, credited for improving racing at intermediates in 2013, seemed to take a time machine that morphed it back into the Car of Tomorrow. The second a driver claimed clean air, it was all she wrote, as Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to lead 313 of 334 laps. The aero advantage was so pronounced, Truex admitted afterwards that dropping back to second was too much to overcome.
“The race was over when we got beat out of the pits,” Truex said. “The bottom was so fast for a couple laps and I was really worried, honestly, that I was going to lose second because Carl (Edwards) was on the inside of me. I was just somehow able to run (turns) one and two wide open and get him cleared. Just the guy that gets clean air is hard to get. It’s hard to catch (them) in 10 laps.”
Others, like Greg Biffle, used dreaded race-killer terms like “track position” and “aero” Sunday night on SPEED’s Wind Tunnel when describing their struggles to move through the field. Even a flurry of cautions for what seemed like nothing — only three of the seven were caused by accidents — did nothing to tighten a field that, at the 450-mile mark, had only 15 cars on the lead lap. It’s the latest reminder that the Gen-6 is not an automatic miracle worker; week-to-week, there will be some tracks where improvement takes time.
Texas is certainly one of those, which is unfortunate, considering its grandstand capacity produces a six-figure crowd. Goodyear would be prudent to hold a test there before the fall event in the Chase, to come up with a tire that has more pronounced falloff, produces slower speeds and helps reduce aero dependency. Too many drivers were running the same speed, lap after lap, with little chance of being able to gain on anyone else. That produces the single-file parade witnessed Saturday night that hopefully, fans won’t be victim to much more.
Penalties may be forthcoming for Penske Racing. (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND GEAR: Will the book be thrown at Penske Racing?
The next sign you know the race was a snoozer: the biggest story everyone’s talking about after the race involves a driver yelling at NASCAR over an inspection issue. That’s what Brad Keselowski did, going off in front of a crowd of reporters after NASCAR confiscated rear-end housings from his No. 2 car and teammate Joey Logano’s No. 22 before the start of the race. The cars barely made it to the green flag – Logano actually started from the rear after being late – and will likely be assessed heavy penalties that will negate the hard-fought top-10 finishes both earned.
"There's so much stuff going on … you have no f------ idea what's going on,'' was Keselowski’s heavily-reported, signature quote to the reporting scrum. "And that's not your fault and that's not a slam on you. I could tell you there's nobody, no team in this garage with the integrity of the 2 team. And the way we've been treated over the last seven days is absolutely shameful.”
Keselowski’s anger certainly trails back to Martinsville, where a poor official’s call that he pitted outside the box (questionable at best) cost the No. 2 team a better finish. In that race, the team clawed back to sixth and pulled off a ninth at Texas despite being a lap down for much of the race’s second half. But those results represent the way this team has had to fight from virtually the drop of the green at Daytona. Think about it: Keselowski starts his year meeting with NASCAR’s top brass after a controversial interview with USA Today. He then tears his car into pieces, during the 500, only to somehow claw back to fourth. Some reception for the defending champion, right?
Those small obstacles, whether luck or speed-related each week, make Keselowski’s second-place standing in points, along with a Cup Series best six top-10 results, that much more impressive. But feeling like you’re a step behind, as many of the Ford drivers have felt this season, can take its toll and that adds up to some of the anger we saw released Saturday night. What’s next? Expect a lot of comparisons to Hendrick’s Daytona penalties, from 2012 in the coming days which were mostly revoked on appeal; chances are, come Wednesday we’ll see that type of process unfold again with high-level fines and multi-race suspensions for both Penske Racing crew chiefs.
It wouldn’t have surprised me to see Keselowski get fined for his post-race comments (considering the Brian France reaction to Denny Hamlin’s public criticism of the Gen-6 car in March), but inexplicably, France noted in a Monday interview with FOX Business that no fines would be levied. NASCAR vice president and CCO Brett Jewkes reiterated the sanctioning body’s stance on Twitter.
THIRD GEAR: Keeping confidence high
That’s the running theme at several race shops after Texas left several teams wondering what might have been. Martin Truex Jr. was on top of that list; similar to Kansas a year ago, he had the car to beat only to wind up in second place. It’s now six years since the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran has won a Sprint Cup race (Dover, 2007) a drought that’s left him understandably at wit’s end.
“Shoulda, woulda, coulda,” he said. “It just hurts when you give them away.”
The pill is tougher to swallow this time considering Truex is in a difficult spot with the Chase. Already, he’s got more finishes of 36th or worse (two) than he had all of last season. Considering big-name talent resides outside the top 10, Truex has to be thinking “Wild Card,” and the next few weeks he’ll have a car that’s capable. Can he replicate his run at Kansas last April? Or will frustration lead to failure?
The same can be said for two Hendrick drivers: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt, falling victim to a battery problem, had his second straight difficult week. Suddenly, he’s sixth in points, 35 behind the top spot and within striking distance of falling out. With only 47 laps led in one event, it’s not like the No. 88 has been running up front — and HMS has had its problems on intermediates. Gordon knows that all too well; he broke a suspension at Texas running third. Bad luck has him a disappointing 15th in points and battling other stars like Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman to climb back up.
“I’m pretty upset,” said Gordon, who watched a top-5 finish go up in smoke. “This team has worked so hard to claw ourselves back.”
The answer now is to keep clawing harder for both; there’s no more mulligans left on the schedule to place a “mental breakdown.”
FOURTH GEAR: Kyle’s tough road ahead
Third in the standings, 18 points behind Johnson, sits Kyle Busch, who one could argue has actually been the better driver in 2013. Between more laps led, 435 – 430, and better finishes on intermediates — the tracks that make up half the Chase — you’d have to think the No. 18 has the edge. But what’s frustrating about the latest cycle of dominance is it all means nothing under NASCAR’s playoff system. With a well-documented set of Chase failures dating back to a dominant eight-win season in 2008, it all means nothing if Busch can’t get it done in the last 10 weeks.
Will things be different in 2013? There’s still five months for fans to wait to find out. Not the best supporting argument for NASCAR’s current point system …
Bobby Labonte’s night got cut short early once the driver asked out with a stomach virus. But comedy ensued when the selected sub, Mike Bliss, was still running his No. 19 car on the track. C’Mon, JTG … with all the young drivers out there in Nationwide and Trucks you couldn’t pay for one of them to be on standby? It didn’t matter in the end, as engine issues left them in the garage 42nd. … A rumored sale of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing comes at a bad time for Jamie McMurray. Sixteenth at Texas, he’s in the best shape since winning three major Cup races in 2010 and could be an outside Chase contender. But any type of sale will be a distraction that should dash those hopes.
Dustin Long predicts the best fantasy drivers in Texas so you don't have to.
Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Lone Star state this weekend for the NRA 500 from Texas Motor Speedway. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Texas, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Matt Kenseth
Among the favorites at Texas. He’s scored five consecutive top-5 finishes at that track, including a win in April 2011. He’s led 274 laps in those five races. He won at Las Vegas — a similar 1.5-mile oval — last month. Finished seventh at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, which crew chief says was their worst race of the year.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Points leader has nine top 5s in 19 career starts at Texas, including a win last fall there. Led 48.4 percent of the laps run in both Texas races last season. Finished sixth at Las Vegas in the only race so far on a 1.5-mile speedway this season. Coming off Martinsville victory.
3. Kasey Kahne
One of the hottest drivers on the circuit with four consecutive top-10 finishes. He placed second at Las Vegas (leading 114 laps), won at Bristol, took ninth at Auto Club Speedway and is coming off a fourth-place finish at Martinsville. Has two top 10s in his last three Texas starts.
4. Brad Keselowski
Finished second to Johnson in last fall’s race at Texas. It marked his first top-10 finish there in nine starts. Has finished worse than sixth only once this year. Placed third at Las Vegas in only race so far on a 1.5-mile speedway in 2013.
5. Clint Bowyer
Has four top-10 finishes in his last five Texas starts. Has three top-10 finishes this season but all have come on tracks 1 mile or less in length.
6. Kevin Harvick
Outside his 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500, he’s finished between ninth and 14th in every race. He’s coming off a 13th-place finish — his third such finish in six races — last weekend at Martinsville. He finished ninth in both Texas races last year.
7. Jeff Gordon
Has two top 10s in his last seven Texas starts. Car seemed to be off at Las Vegas (where he was 25th) and Auto Club Speedway (11th) earlier this season.
8. Tony Stewart
Has two top 10s in his last six Texas starts but one was a win (Nov. 2011) and the other was a fifth-place finish in last fall’s race there. Struggled at Las Vegas with a late rally allowing him to finish 11th in only race so far at 1.5-mile track this season.
Defending race winner Greg Biffle. (ASP, Inc.)
B-List Drivers 1. Greg Biffle
One of the best at Texas. He’s scored nine consecutive top-10 finishes there, including a win last April. Has started in the top four in five of the last six Texas races.
2. Kyle Busch
Has two top-10 finishes in his last seven Texas starts, both are third-place finishes (including last fall’s race there). Won five consecutive Nationwide races there from 2008-10. Is one of the series’ hottest drivers with four consecutive top-5 finishes. He was fourth at Las Vegas, second at Bristol, won at Auto Club Speedway and fifth at Martinsville. He’s led 264 laps during that run.
3. Carl Edwards
Has three top-10s in his last four Texas starts. Finished fifth at Las Vegas in only race at 1.5-mile speedway this season. Finished fourth at Auto Club Speedway, a 2-mile track where horsepower and aerodynamics are as important as they are at Texas
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Finished 24th at Martinsville, first time this season he’s been outside the top 10. His worst finish prior to that this season was a seventh at Las Vegas. Has placed in the top 10 in each of his last four Texas starts.
5. Martin Truex Jr.
Won the pole for this race a year ago and finished sixth. Qualified fifth and finished 13th last fall in Texas. Had season-best finish of eighth at Las Vegas in only race so far at 1.5-mile speedway this year.
6. Mark Martin
Back in the No. 55 car at Michael Waltrip Racing. Finished third in this race last year. Placed 14th at Las Vegas earlier this year.
7. Joey Logano
Has one top-10 finish in nine Texas starts but placed 12th at Las Vegas and nearly won at Auto Club Speedway this season.
8. Kurt Busch
Finished eighth with this Furniture Row Racing team last fall at Texas. Since joining FRR late last season, has an average finish of 16.6 in five races on 1.5-mile speedways, including a 20th at Las Vegas earlier this year.
9. Ryan Newman
Feast-or-famine season continues. Finished 31st at Martinsville last weekend. He has three top-10 finishes this year but also has finished 30th or worse in three races. Does not have a top-10 finish in his last nine Texas starts (average finish 16.55 during that time).
10. Brian Vickers
Filling in for the injured Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 car. Vickers has never finished in the top 10 at Texas in 14 Cup starts there.
11. Jamie McMurray
Coming off season-best seventh-place finish at Martinsville, his second top-10 finish in the last three races (was 10th at Bristol). Has not finished better than 14th in his last eight Texas starts.
12. Paul Menard
Has finished 27th, 18th and 15th in his last three Texas starts. His 19th-place finish at Martinsville, a track he struggles at, snapped his consecutive top-10 streak at three races.
13. Aric Almirola
Best finish in four Texas starts is 15th, which came last fall. Other than 37th at Bristol, he’s finished between 13th and 20th in every race this season.
14. Marcos Ambrose
Finished 32nd last fall and 20th in the spring race at Texas last year. Has one top-10 finish there in nine Cup starts. Coming off season-best eighth-place finish at Martinsville.
15. Jeff Burton
Has not had a top 10 in his last six Texas starts. Best finish this year is a 10th at Phoenix. Has not finished better than 17th in any other race this year.
16. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has not had a top-10 finish in his last seven Texas starts. Best finish this season is a 12th at Phoenix.
17. Bobby Labonte
Has one top-20 finish in his last 10 Texas starts. Last top 10 there came in April 2006.
C-List Drivers 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
This will be his first Cup race at this track. He placed in the top 10, with one win, in his last four Nationwide starts at Texas.
2. Austin Dillon
Driving the No. 51 car of Phoenix Racing this weekend at Texas. This will be his third Cup start of the season, second with the team. He finished 21st at Las Vegas in the 51 car.
3. Casey Mears
Has finished 16th or better in four of the first six races this season. Worst finish of the year is 29th, which came in the Daytona 500 and at Las Vegas.
4. Danica Patrick
Finished 24th in her Texas Cup debut last fall. Coming off 12th-place run at Martinsville.
5. Trevor Bayne
This will be his third race of the year. Placed 27th in Daytona 500 and 23rd at Las Vegas for Wood Brothers.
6. Dave Blaney
Has had better success on bigger tracks than smaller ones this season with a 17th in Daytona 500, 21st at Auto Club Speedway and a 24th at Las Vegas.
7. David Ragan
Best finish this year is a 21st at Bristol. Finished 28th at Texas last fall and 35th last spring.
8. David Gilliland
Has not finished better than 24th this season.
9. JJ Yeley
Has finished 27th in each of the last three Cup races (Bristol, Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville).
10. David Stremme
Seeking to make first Texas start since April 2009. Has one top-20 finish this year.
11. David Reutimann
Has finished 33rd or worse in each of the last four races.
12. Travis Kvapil
Has placed 34th or worse in each of the last four races.
13. Landon Cassill
Season-best finish of 30th came at Auto Club Speedway when he was six laps behind the leaders.
14. Joe Nemechek
Season-best finish of 29th came at Bristol.
15. Josh Wise
Has finished better than 35th once this season, a 26th at Bristol.
16. Scott Speed
Has not finished better than 40th since placing 23rd in the Daytona 500.
17. Michael McDowell
Has finished 42nd or 43rd in each of the past four races.
18. Timmy Hill
Seeking to make second start of the season. Finished 39th at Auto Club Speedway in season debut.
19. Scott Riggs
Has an average finish of 42.0 in three starts this year.
20. Mike Bliss
Has failed to qualify in three of the first six races this season.
I hope you all enjoyed restrictor plate action (or in this year’s case, inaction), short track madness and whatever it is we’re calling Fontana now, because all of that is in the rearview mirror. The intermediate tracks, referred to by some fans as “cookie cutters,” provide a semblance of statistical normalcy. Speed and strategy reins on these 1.5- and 2-milers, and while last year’s fall race at Texas Motor Speedway — this weekend’s destination — was an action-packed affair, the top finishers at these tracks are anything but random. We know who the key players will be, thanks to their statistical history on the tracks that comprise the bulk of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.
69.2% Jimmie Johnson led a whopping 346 laps (69.2 percent of the race) last Sunday at Martinsville, en route to this eighth win at the facility.
We are used to Johnson’s sheer dominance on the half-mile paperclip-shaped track, but in seven previous wins he never threw down a performance like the one witnessed last weekend. It was a showing of team strength and driving expertise. As he did last fall, Johnson departs Martinsville’s Victory Lane for Texas, where he won following an exciting late-race battle with Brad Keselowski.
64.56% Danica Patrick recorded her best single-race passing efficiency, winning 64.56 percent of her pass encounters in her debut race at Martinsville.
The 12th-place finish was aided by her plus-passing — her pass differential for the day was plus-23 — after starting from the rear of the field due to an engine change. On a track that isn’t often kind to first-time racers (ask Ricky Stenhouse), Patrick had, arguably, her best Cup Series performance to date.
5.700 In the 10 CoT races that took place at Texas Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth amassed a series-high 5.700 Production in Equal Equipment Rating.
A beacon of consistency in the Lone Star State, Kenseth has finished ninth or better in nine of the last 10 races for an incredible 6.2-place average finish (backed by an amazingly consistent 5.5 finish deviation). Strangely, his average green-flag speed and his finishes at TMS don’t often coalesce; the one time he had the fastest car at Texas, he won (April 2011), but it is more typical that he radically out-performs his equipment, like his fourth-place finish last fall while averaging the 10th-best green-flag speed, or under-performs, like his ninth-place score while averaging the fourth-fastest speed in the spring of 2008.
Greg Biffle: Texas Stud. (ASP, Inc.)
452 Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle, the reigning winner of this weekend’s event, has led a series-best 452 laps in the last 10 races at Texas.
As a team, Roush Fenway won four of the 10 CoT events held at Texas. Its cars are often speedy, but it helps when the drivers are also adept. Of the current roster, Biffle is the standout on this particular quad-oval track, holding onto a 5.200 Texas-specific PEER (ranked second to Kenseth) to go along with the most laps led across the last five years. Carl Edwards ranks fourth with a 3.850 PEER thanks to a sweep of 2008’s races.
4.8 Keeping with Roush Fenway’s Texas success, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. averaged a 4.8-place finish in the last four NASCAR Nationwide Series races there, including a victory in last year’s spring race.
Does past lower division performance indicate future success? Not necessarily. Stenhouse, a Cup Series rookie, won’t be anyone’s pick to claim the victory Saturday night at Texas (especially with a re-tooled No. 17 team with rookie crew chief Scott Graves still building his personal notebook), but he could be destined for a good finish, something that could help raise the 17.8-place average finish he has through six Cup races this season.
0.583 Brad Keselowski ranks 23rd in Texas PEER with a 0.583 rating.
Historically, Texas has not been the best track for the 2012 series champion, but considering his gritty second-place run last year, history might not matter. True, his best finish prior to last fall’s race was 14th and his average finish in nine starts is 22.7, but if we have learned anything about the driver that currently sits second in the point standings it’s that he shouldn’t be counted out solely based on past performance. His runner-up finish last year was legitimized by his third-place average running position and 75 laps (22.4 percent of the race) led.
23.1 Brian Vickers, the driver subbing for the injured Denny Hamlin this weekend, averaged a 23.1-place finish at Texas in his last seven starts.
Hamlin was a two-time winner at Texas in the CoT era, so Vickers represents a significant drop-off. Vickers ranks 43rd out of 47 drivers in Texas-specific PEER with a -0.536 rating and his best finish is 16th, twice, in 2008 and 2009. A fast car can hide a lot of blemishes, though, so fans of the consistently speedy No. 11 still might have something for which to root.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Martinsville Speedway.
Joey Logano with the "buckled hood" look. (ASP, Inc.)
Joey Logano. Tony Stewart. Denny Hamlin. Clint Bowyer. Jeff Gordon. The list of NASCAR drivers ticked off, for one reason or another, entering Martinsville could even knock the former Jersey Shore castmates down a peg. Add in a half-mile paperclip oval — one of the sport’s best — two weeks to ponder what’s gone wrong and Sunday was supposed to be an all-out explosion of revenge.
Instead? I’ve seen senior center bingo arguments come off with more energy than how it all panned out. (I guess maybe that’s what you get when a 54-year-old steps into Hamlin’s seat?) For all those expecting fireworks of historic proportions, somebody forgot to tell the watchman responsible for lighting that fuse.
Part of the problem was that some of these drivers never even got close to one another. Logano and Stewart, for example, had just a handful of opportunities where they were racing bumper-to-bumper. But in a sport where the championship — or more accurately, the playoff — is front and center, drivers are thinking about consequences even early in the season. Just like Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson won’t show their cards now when the results matter less, there’s no reason for a struggling Stewart to risk wiping himself out, digging a deeper hole to climb up when it comes to what really matters for paying sponsors: the Chase.
Such is the nature of the NASCAR beast these days. Bottom lines mean every race can’t turn out like your wildest dreams — matching the sanctioning body’s hype — as drivers sometimes choose to use their head over their heart. It’s a shame, though. Most times, this race at Martinsville, with plenty of action throughout the pack, would get itself a “B” grade or better without hesitation. But we’re in 2013, which is quickly becoming a year of high expectations. A race at one of the best tracks on the schedule should be an automatic A-plus under the circumstances.
Anything less? Feels like a missed opportunity … even though the “temper, temper” moments could well come back into play this fall.
Let’s go through the gears…
ONE: Jimmie Johnson owns Martinsville.
For exceptional athletes, there’s always one venue that fits their style better than any other. Tiger Woods has Augusta, Roger Federer has a set of tennis courts in Queens and Michael Jordan once thrived in Madison Square Garden.
For Jimmie Johnson, that magical place is Martinsville, Va. With eight victories in 23 career starts, third to only Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, the half-mile oval launch his performances into another stratosphere. Sixteen times he’s finished top 5 or better, and a 34.7 percent winning clip basically guarantees a victory once every year and a half there. Considering 43 Cup competitors start each race and those types of odds happen oh, about next to never.
“His car is so much better than everybody else,” explained sixth-place finisher Brad Keselowski, “That he just plays with everybody the whole race just to make it look good.”
No one encapsulated this day any better. Even when Johnson was being challenged by Martinsville 0-fers Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, the vibe still leaned his way. Not once for a single lap did the No. 48 put itself in position to run outside the top 5, simple history dictating the track would eventually come to him.
“It’s probably the most calm, relaxed thought-out weekend that we've had as the 48,” said the winner. “We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that.”
The end result now sees Johnson with 14,000 laps led overall in the Cup Series, a career best 2,327 of them at Martinsville. In comparison, peer Jamie McMurray, a six-time Cup winner in his own right, has led just 1,416 laps during his whole career. It seems between pit road, crew chief strategy and driver ability, this short track brings out the best in the five-time champ – the sport’s new points leader, to boot.
SECOND: See Hendrick go. See Gibbs go. See everyone else watch and get jealous.
The new Gen-6 car, while promoting parity, is bound to be figured out by a few organizations quicker than most. A look at Sunday’s laps-led totals reaffirm the answer: 2013 is developing into Hendrick, Gibbs and then every man for himself.
Only Marcos Ambrose, who led lap 1 and Travis Kvapil, who paced the field a single lap under yellow, broke the 498-lap spell up front rotated by HMS’ Jimmie Johnson, JGR veteran Kyle Busch and newcomer Matt Kenseth. But their performances are far from one-hit wonders. This trio, along with JGR’s Denny Hamlin and HMS’ Kasey Kahne, make up the top 5 in laps led on the circuit, six races into a young season.
Yes, Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards has a win at Phoenix. And Brad Keselowski over at Penske Racing has kept up that championship consistency. But by and large, the teams showing the most strength these days are coming squarely out of two race shops. Of the seven drivers, Kenseth, has been the most surprising, leading more laps at Martinsville Sunday – one of his worst tracks – then in his 13-year career at the track up to that point. If they can make him into a contender here, that bodes well for the 1.5-mile ovals right in his wheelhouse coming up next.
Brian Vickers manning MWR's No. 55 Toyota. (ASP, Inc.)
THREE: Substitute driving ain’t easy.
Brian Vickers wasn’t allowed to jump into Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 at Martinsville. But in a way, it helped showcase how impressive his record of six top 10s in 10 races has been filling in for part-timer Mark Martin in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota. Martin, one of the most respected drivers on the circuit, had a hard go of it on Sunday. Battling a super-tight condition early, he ran outside the top 20 before his pit crew dropped the jack too early during a stop. Martin left, not realizing the tires weren’t fully on the left side and the resultant penalty of pitting outside the box cost him a lap. Involved in a nasty mid-race wreck, the car hit the checkered a shell of its former self, a 10th-place finish admirable under the circumstances, but feeling like 40th considering how often this car is a threat to win here.
“We were capable,” Martin said afterwards. “But we kept stubbing our toe. I did not fill Denny Hamlin’s shoes, I can tell you that much.”
The ailing driver, while praising his sub, indirectly agreed, tweeting after the race, “Jimmie Johnson won’t have it that easy, in the fall, I promise.”
“I'm more mentally tired then after a race I was in,” he added later. “I don't know what watching your child race is like but I'm sure it's a lot like this.”
Too bad the end result couldn’t have been slightly better.
FOUR: Danica’s day showcases a different problem – the wave-around rule.
For many, the other big story revolved around “the most notable 12th-place finish in recent history.” That’s how it seemed post-race when Danica Patrick, fresh off her first lead-lap, competitive result since Daytona fielded more questions than second- and third-place finishers Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon combined.
On the one hand, you’ve got to give her credit. After spinning early and causing the race’s first caution, she was two laps down, mired well outside the top 30. To come back from that is admirable, considering this track is one of the toughest on rookies. (Anyone remember David Ragan’s “dart without feathers” debut?) But Patrick’s return also revealed one of NASCAR’s lingering weaknesses: the wave-around rule.
This rule, which allows cars that don’t pit a chance to “earn” a lap back under yellow should lead-lappers in front of them stop, needs to be revised. On Sunday teams were taking full advantage, knowing that at a place like Martinsville, cautions breed cautions. Staying out, knowing that your position will be cemented one lap ahead a few moments later, makes this an easy decision for a struggling group.
You can’t blame Patrick’s team for doing it. Several, in fact, used the same strategy under the rules. But how can NASCAR go to a place like Charlotte, for example, and expect drivers to race hard all 600 miles under those circumstances? When a driver drops two laps off the pace only to earn them back through zero on-track effort, it makes running hard early in the race unadvisable. Overcoming adversity should be about talent and effort, not luck.
The solution? I’m an old school guy, so lapped cars on the inside are always the way to go in my book. It gives the whole field more exposure, puts everyone on a level playing field (how awful was it to be outside on the double-file restarts Sunday?) and that’s how NASCAR did it, growing successfully, for years. Simply put — and it won’t happen — but make teams earn it…
Jamie McMurray, seventh Sunday, now has two top-10 finishes in the first six races. Last season he had three in 36. … What is up with Ford and Martinsville? No car ran inside the top 5 (Brad Keselowski had its best run, sixth) while Fusions led only one lap all day. No Ford has reached Victory Lane there since Kurt Busch did it for Roush in the fall of 2002. … It was a poor day for NASCAR’s Most Popular Points Leader, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. tumbled from the top spot in the standings after the handling went away late in the going. Also suffering from a late-race spin, it didn’t help that teammate Jimmie Johnson put the No. 88 down an extra lap before Junior could get the thing fully re-fired.
Dustin Long predicts the best fantasy drivers in Martinsville so you don't have to.
Jimmie Johnson (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit treks back east to quaint little Martinsville for the STP Gas Booster 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Martinsville ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
A-List 1. Jimmie Johnson
Won at Martinsville last fall from the pole and has seven career victories there. Scored 12 top-5 finishes in his last 15 starts there. Johnson has led 430 laps in his last four Martinsville starts. He has the best average running position (7.2) in the first five races of the season. He also has the best driver rating (110.2) at this point in the season.
2. Jeff Gordon
Has seven career wins at Martinsville. Appeared headed for No. 8 last spring when wrecked after contact by Clint Bowyer on a late restart and finished 14th. Gordon has 15 top-5 finishes in his last 20 Martinsville starts. Has led 534 laps in the last three races there. Has led an average of 113.4 laps in his last 13 starts at that track.
3. Brad Keselowski
Has scored seven consecutive finishes of sixth or better at ovals 1.1 miles or less, dating back to last season (that includes a sixth at Martinsville last fall, a career-best finish at the track). His 23rd-place finish at Auto Club Speedway ended his streak of four consecutive top-5s to open the season. That also was the first race this year he had not led. Dating back to last year’s Chase, he’s led laps in 11 of the last 15 races. Has an average finish of 12.1 in six starts at Martinsville.
4. Clint Bowyer
Finished fifth last fall at Martinsville and 10th in the spring. He led 154 laps last fall and had an average running position of 3.6 in that race, second only to race winner Jimmie Johnson’s average running position (3.2). Bowyer has four top 10s in his last six Martinsville starts.
5. Kasey Kahne
Placed third at Martinsville last fall. That ended an 11-race streak of finishing outside the top 10 there. Has recorded the fastest lap (149) more times than any other driver in the first five races of the season. He’s tied with Matt Kenseth with most laps led this year at 223 but has led only 31 laps in 18 career starts at Martinsville.
6. Matt Kenseth
Has placed in the top 10 in the past two spring races at Martinsville with a fourth last year and a sixth in April 2011. Those are his only two top-10 finishes in his last eight overall starts at the track. Tied with Kasey Kahne for most laps led this season at 223, which is 15 percent of all laps run.
7. Kevin Harvick
Won at Martinsville in April 2011 but since has finished fourth, 19th and 32nd there. Since being in a crash and finishing 42nd in the Daytona 500, Harvick has placed between ninth and 14th in each Cup race this season.
8. Tony Stewart
Has placed outside the top 20 in four of his last six Martinsville starts. In the other two races there, he won and finished seventh. Stewart has led only 15 laps in his last 11 starts at that track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
B-List 1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has four top-10 finishes in his last five starts at Martinsville. Has led 110 laps during that stretch. Is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in each of the first five races of this season. He’s made more green-flag passes for position (588) and more quality passes (passing a car running in the top 15 under a green flag) with 354 than any other driver this season.
2. Brian Vickers
Making his second Cup start of the season in the No. 55 car. Started fourth and finished eighth at Bristol last month. Started second and placed eighth at Martinsville last fall. Tied winner Jimmie Johnson in that race for most laps run in the top 15 (495 of 500 laps).
3. Kyle Busch
Finished second at Martinsville last fall, part of his feast-or-famine routine at the track. In his last 12 starts there, he has six top-5 finishes. In the other six races, he’s finished outside the top 20. Has finished fourth (Las Vegas), second (Bristol) and first (Auto Club Speedway) in his last three starts this season. Has led 208 laps in those three races.
4. Ryan Newman
Hot and cold. Has three top-10 finishes this season. Other two races he failed to finish (accident at Phoenix and engine at Las Vegas). Won last spring’s race at Martinsville after leaders were taken out in a late restart. Has an average finish of 11.1 in last eight Martinsville starts.
5. Martin Truex Jr.
Has two top-10 finishes in last three Martinsville starts. Has led one lap at that track in 14 races.
6. Greg Biffle
Has placed in the top 15 in each of his last three visits to Martinsville, a track he’s acknowledged is far from his best track. Last time he led there was in Oct. 2009 when he paced the field for six laps.
7. Carl Edwards
Has finished outside the top 10 in three of his last four Martinsville starts. Has led 31 laps in 17 career starts at that track. Coming off a fourth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway. That’s his third top-5 finish this season.
8. Mark Martin
Driving in place of the injured Denny Hamlin at Martinsville. Martin did not race at Martinsville last year. In 2011, he finished 10th in the spring race there and 28th in the fall race.
9. Aric Almirola
Finished in the top 10 in both Martinsville races last year, placing fourth in the fall and eighth in the spring. Those are his only top-10 finishes in eight starts there.
10. Paul Menard
Enters this weekend with three consecutive top-10 finishes after placing eighth at Auto Club Speedway. Martinsville has not been kind to him. Finished 12th there last fall, his best finish at the track. Has finished outside the top 20 in seven of his 11 career Cup starts at Martinsville.
11. Joey Logano
Coming off his third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway — his first top-10 finish in his last 10 races, dating back to last season. Has run 68.5 percent of his laps in the top 15 this season, a higher percentage than for Kyle Busch (67.2 percent), Mark Martin (66.1) and Jeff Gordon (61.1). Has finished between 13th and 23rd in his last four Martinsville starts.
12. Kurt Busch
Heads to Martinsville after back-to-back top-5 finishes. Martinsville, though, has not been kind to him in recent years. His last top-10 finish there came in Oct. 2005. He has placed in the top 20 in four of the last five races there.
13. Jeff Burton
Has an average finish of 23.0 this season with one top-10 finish (10th at Phoenix). Has two top-10 results in his last nine Martinsville starts.
14. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has finished between 19th and 22nd in four of his last five Martinsville starts with the exception a fourth-place result in April 2011 race. His best finish this season is a 12th at Phoenix. He’s placed 30th or worse in three of the other four races this year.
15. Jamie McMurray
Has one top-10 finish in his last six Martinsville starts. Finished 10th at Bristol for only top-10 finish of this season. Has placed inside the top 20 in each of the last three Cup races.
16. Bobby Labonte
Since placing 15th in the Daytona 500, he has not finished better than 24th this season. Took ninth at Martinsville last fall, breaking an 11-race stretch there without a top-10 finish.
17. Marcos Ambrose
Has never had a top-10 finish in eight Martinsville starts (best finish is 11th in March 2010). Has not had a top-10 finish in his last 17 Cup races, dating back to last season. Average finish this season is 22.6.
1. Regan Smith
Career-best Martinsville finish is 13th in eight starts there.
2. Casey Mears
Best finish is 12th in last seven Martinsville starts. Has three top-15 finishes this season. He had only one top-15 finish all of last season.
3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Will be making his first start at Martinsville among any of NASCAR’s top three national series.
4. Dave Blaney
Has three top-25 finishes this season. He had seven such finishes last season.
5. Landon Cassill
Finished 19th at Martinsville last fall, his best result in five starts there.
6. David Ragan
Has four top-15 finishes in 13 Martinsville starts but has an average finish of 27.7 in last three races at that track.
7. Ken Schrader
Placed 34th at Phoenix and 37th at Las Vegas in his only starts this season. Finished 29th in last fall’s Martinsville race and was 32nd in the spring event there.
8. Danica Patrick
Making her Martinsville debut. Since placing eighth in Daytona 500, she has not finished better than 26th this season.
9. JJ Yeley
After 10th-place finish in Daytona 500, he has not finished better than 27th this season.
10. David Reutimann
Has an average finish of 29.4 this season.
11. Travis Kvapil
Has an average finish of 33.0 this season.
12. David Stremme
Has not finished better than 30th in his last five Martinsville starts.
13. David Gilliland
Has an average finish of 31.2 this season. Has an average finish of 32.4 in his last five Martinsville starts.
14. Michael McDowell
Has never had a top-25 finish at Martinsville in seven starts.
15. Josh Wise
Has an average finish of 35.2 this season.
16. Scott Speed
Was not entered for Auto Club Speedway. After finishing 23rd in Daytona 500, he has not placed better than 40th.
17. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish the last nine Martinsville races (best finish 38th).
18. Scott Riggs
Best finish this season is a 41st at Auto Club Speedway.
19. Mike Bliss
Has failed to qualify for two races this year and finished no better than 42nd in any of the three races he’s made.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has assumed the top spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings, but it's defending champion Brad Keselowski who finds himself atop the Athlon Sports Horsepower Rankings.
1. Brad Keselowski
If not for an overheating issue late in Fontana (while running fifth), Keselowski would most likely be five-for-five in the top-5 finishes category. The defending champ has come out swinging.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior has a quintet of top-10 runs thus far in 2013. He will not ascend to the top of this list until the No. 88 team proves it can win on a consistent basis.
3. Jimmie Johnson
You just know ace crew chief Chad Knaus has used the off-weekend to widen the chasm between teams that have and have not figured out the nuances of the Gen-6 car.
4. Matt Kenseth
Not surprisingly, the veteran Kenseth has comfortably made the transition to Joe Gibbs Racing in a seemless manner. In fact, he may be ranked a bit low on this list.
5. Kyle Busch
Busch is riding a three-race streak that has witnessed finishes of fourth or better, punctuated by a dramatic win at Auto Club Speedway. This bunch is going to be hard to handle this season.
6. Kasey Kahne
Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have a full season under their belts at Hendrick Motorsports. The duo has led the No. 5 team to consecutive showings of second, first and ninth.
7. Carl Edwards
Somewhat of a feast or famine team, the No. 99 bunch has a win (Phoenix) and two additional top-5 runs in 2013. Those showings are offset by 18th- and 33rd-place stinkers.
8. Greg Biffle
Going about things the way only Biffle can. Through five races, he has zero top 5s and two top 10s, yet finds himself fourth in the point standings. He’s nothing if not consistent.
9. Paul Menard
Menard’s No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team are off to their annual semi-hot start, with three top 10s and an average run of 13.6. The question this year, as it is every year, is can they sustain it?
10. Ryan Newman
Yes, he’s an uninspiring 20th in the point standings, but Newman is actually carrying the Stewart-Haas Racing banner with three top 10s. Like Edwards, this is a feast or famine group, albeit without a “W.”
11. Clint Bowyer
Can this team avoid the dreaded championship runner-up hangover? The thinking here is they can.
Riding dirty? Not in the classical sense, anyway. (ASP, Inc.)
12. Joey Logano
How about a nickname change, from “Sliced Bread” to “The Tempest.”
13. Tony Stewart
It’s been a tough go thus far for Stewart, but he’s too good to stay down long.
14. Kurt Busch
With two straight top 5s, Busch is delivering results to Furniture Row Racing’s potential.
15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The rookie has completed every lap thus far this season and is 12th in points. Nice start, kid.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray
In the 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races that took place at Martinsville Speedway during the Car of Tomorrow era, two drivers won nine races: Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. It is a track that rewards its best competitors more reliably than other tracks do with top-performing drivers, making the event somewhat of a cinch to prognosticate. Granted each race, especially in the current ultra-competitive Cup Series landscape, is subject to a heavy dose of randomness, past performance at Martinsville does, more often than not, indicate future success.
So a hint at who Sunday’s key players will be shines through past statistics. Here is a glimmer of what we all will be seeing — and in one notable case, missing — in this weekend’s rough-and-tumble race at Martinsville.
6.208, 1,111 and 4 What are we going to miss from Sunday’s race? A driver who ranks second at Martinsville in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) with a 6.208 rating, has led 1,111 laps and won four races.
Denny Hamlin’s absence impacts this race in a major way. Not only is he a race win contender, Martinsville is arguably one of his two best racetracks (Richmond is the other), in terms of production. With him sidelined due to injury, it opens the door for other good Martinsville drivers that have been on the cusp of winning in recent events there. One of them is a household name.
9 and 0 Jeff Gordon earned nine top-5 finishes in 12 CoT races. Zero of those finishes were victories.
Gordon ranks third in PEER with a 4.958 rating — PEER being a measure of a driver’s on-track production in an “all equipment even” scenario. That mark is crazy high considering he was unable to seal the deal in all those races. For the better part of the last six years, Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson were bestowed the crowns as kings of Martinsville; however, Gordon, despite the lack of wins, is also befitting of the throne.
1,309 Gordon has led 1,309 laps across the last 12 races at Martinsville.
That is absolutely absurd. It means he has led just over 21 percent of all laps there the last six seasons. That kind of dominance isn’t for the feint of heart; in eight of those races he led at least 90 laps. Yes, when the lap counts are high — Martinsville is a 500-lap race — the laps-led totals are inflated, but his 1,309 total laps led is the second most in the series over that span and noteworthy because, again, he won nary a race in all those dominant outings. He may be overdue.
3.93 and 3.62 Clint Bowyer averaged running positions of 3.93-place and 3.62-place in last year’s races at Martinsville.
Disappointingly, Bowyer finished 10th and fifth, respectively, in those races. His attempted pass for the lead in the waning laps of last year’s spring race took out Johnson and Gordon, but outside of that, he has been a pleasant (and quiet) producer at Martinsville throughout his career. His 2.708 track-specific PEER ranks seventh out of 54 drivers and he is one of five drivers with at least eight top-10 finishes in the last 12 races there.
12.67 Mark Martin, replacing Hamlin in the No. 11 for Joe Gibbs Racing, has averaged just under a 13th-place (12.67, to be exact) finish in his six CoT-era finishes at Martinsville.
Hamlin he ain’t, but Martin is not half bad at a track that, in a perfect world (for him, that is a partial schedule), he would elect to skip each year. He finished as high as second during that time frame while driving for Hendrick Motorsports and also secured three other top-10 results. He’ll need to redeem himself from his most recent outing there, which was a 28th-place finish that saw him earn a poor 44.7 percent passing efficiency along with a 21st-place average running position.
Brad Keselowski: No Martinsville slouch, either. (ASP, Inc.)
55.1% Brad Keselowski’s passing efficiency at Martinsville was 55.1 percent across both 2012 races.
Remember when there was a mild freakout after Keselowski qualified 32nd for the Martinsville Chase race last year? And then he finished sixth, which apparently was a major surprise to fans and mainstream media alike? Well, any success regardless of track position shouldn’t be a shock when it comes to the reigning champ. Keselowski can move through traffic arguably better than anyone in the series and his Martinsville production, though in a smaller sample size than the majority, is beyond serviceable (2.583 PEER, ranks eighth). The lesson? Don’t count him out of Sunday’s race until the checkered flag falls.
4 of 6 Four of the last six NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race winners at Martinsville were Cup Series interlopers.
Those four wins are split between Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Harvick is entered into Saturday’s companion race in a third entry for NTS Motorsports, which also fields trucks for Ron Hornaday and Brennan Newberry. As of now, Harvick is the only Cup Series regular entered, which could open the door for a Truck Series point-earner to swoop in and collect a victory. Hornaday, Johnny Sauter and Timothy Peters are former Martinsville winners that warrant your watching.
“Humdrum” is a word typically used to describe the racing action at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The two-mile Michigan clone was originally designed — it has received some touch-up work since being completed in 1997 — to be optimal for IndyCar-style race cars. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race might not offer much in terms of outright excitement, but there are some meaningful story lines hidden within a four-race sample size of advanced metrics.
Several driver and teams need a good outing — two of them are mentioned below — to right a wrong or two from earlier races this season. The hottest driver in the sport typically leaves California under a deluge of disappointment. As usual, if we focus on the stories behind the numbers, the overall game becomes far more intriguing.
7.000 After four races, Brad Keselowski has the highest Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) — a measure of a driver’s on-track production in an “all equipment even” scenario — in the Cup Series with a 7.000 rating.
The last time the No. 2 Penske Racing entry was this good, it was 1993, Rusty Wallace was the driver and the car was probably running on traction control. Keselowski’s bunch is a little more buttoned up, allowing him to capitalize on driving for the most consistent-finishing team in the Cup Series (a finish deviation of 0.6; a zero deviation is perfectly consistent). Keselowski has earned pairs of fourths and thirds to comprise his 3.5-place average finish, two of which were on tracks at which he has previously been a mundane producer (Phoenix and Las Vegas). Even more amazing is that the team has finished higher than its average running positions — 18th at Daytona, seventh at Phoenix, fifth at Las Vegas and ninth at Bristol — in each race. The team is frighteningly strong, but the ever-improving driver is earning his keep.
-1.188 Keselowski ranks 48th out of 49 drivers in PEER at Auto Club Speedway after averaging a finish of 22.8 in his only four Cup Series starts at the facility.
So yes, a driver off to a tremendous start to the season comes up against racetrack that has historically been a buzz killer for him. Something is sure to change on Sunday.
15.4 The start to Kasey Kahne’s 2013 season is 15.4 positions better than his first four-race effort last year.
To think that Kahne has essentially cut his average finish after four races in half is pretty nutty, though, when he was averaging a 29.8-place result following Bristol last year, it too was unfathomable for the consistently strong producer. To be fair, his win last Sunday and his second-place outing at Las Vegas are carrying his current 14.5-place average and his 16.5 finish deviation is the fourth-least consistent in the series. Kahne’s start to the season isn’t as explosive as Keselowski’s jump out of the starting blocks, but it is a foundation on which to build and can allow Kahne and his crew to focus more comfortably on Chase preparation rather than digging out of a hole created by spinning its tires at the start of a new year.
Kyle Busch owns 53 career Nationwide Series wins. (ASP, Inc.)
40.6% Kyle Busch has led 333 laps, or 40.6 percent of laps, across four NASCAR Nationwide Series races this season.
Busch’s return to Joe Gibbs Racing in America’s favorite Saturday series has been lucrative, paying out a currency of dominant performances. He has two victories, including last Saturday’s woodshed whipping at Bristol, and has spent 95.5 percent of the last four races running inside the top 15. He now heads to Auto Club Speedway this weekend where JGR has captured wins in the last eight Nationwide races. Uh oh.
7.375 Jimmie Johnson’s 7.375 PEER across the last eight races at Auto Club Speedway is better than Keselowski’s four-race 2013 sample size that is presently the most productive of the series.
Johnson’s10th-place finish there last season almost seems like an aberration. During the CoT era the California native protected his home turf, winning three times and finishing second twice and third once across eight races. That 3.62-place average finish is, by far, the best average among drivers in that timeframe.
100% Other than Johnson, the only driver to have finished in the top half of fields in all eight races of the CoT era at Auto Club is Clint Bowyer, for a relevance percentage of 100 percent.
We can actually take this a step further; Bowyer has never finished in the bottom half of a Cup Series field in Fontana. His average finish through 12 races of “Gen-4” and “Gen-5” technology is 10.8. That average drops to 7.8 in the five races dating back to the summer of 2009. Hitting that average would be helpful to a No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team looking to make up ground lost in its 27th-place finish at Las Vegas. Outside of that result, Bowyer and team have earned finishes of 11th, sixth and fifth for an average of around 7.3, in the neighborhood of the driver’s average performance on the Golden State oval.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Food City 500 at Bristol.
Bristol: Far from capacity. (ASP, Inc.)
There’s nothing about a rough start to the NASCAR season a short track can’t fix. During a thrilling weekend in Bristol, the sport had a near-photo finish in Saturday’s Nationwide race (remember this name: Kyle Larson) and several thrilling moments during Sunday’s big show. After plenty of criticism — from a driver’s $25,000 fine to fans railing about Daytona’s single-file 500 — it’s hard to find anyone complaining about the action in Thunder Valley. But honestly, when’s the last time fans left a short track feeling they threw their hard-earned money down the toilet?
It certainly wasn’t last spring at Martinsville, when the Clint Bowyer – Jeff Gordon feud officially began. Or last fall at Richmond, where Gordon’s epic charge to second knocked Kyle Busch out of the Chase. My point? These three speedways, even in the worst of times, make fans flock to them faster than this Sunday’s two-mile tedium, otherwise known as Auto Club Speedway ever will.
With all that said …
FIRST GEAR: Bristol’s back. So why is the attendance still awful?
The number of empty seats at Bristol, one year after Bruton Smith’s latest reconfiguration recommended by the fans themselves, was an eye-opener. A track which once sold out for 55 consecutive Cup races, from 1982-2009, had chasms full of unsold tickets noticeable both at the track and on television. (NASCAR no longer releases official attendance). Considering Bristol has over 160,000 seats, even 50 percent capacity is more than a sellout at Martinsville, Darlington or other facilities which don’t even have that much room in the stands. But it’s also highly disturbing considering its “crown jewel” reputation as one of the sport’s must-see events.
It’s a shame, considering Sunday offered the perfect mix of Bristol’s magic elixir: unpredictability. 110 laps before the finish, leader Jeff Gordon blew a tire and took out himself and second-place Matt Kenseth, changing the complexion of the race. The personal fireworks were also there, in the form of a budding rivalry between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano (see below). Record speeds combined with a healthy 17 lead changes mixed side-by-side action with the on-track rubbing still needed at times to get by other competitors.
Two theories abound here. One: fans, skeptical of the sport and the Gen-6 car chose to stay home, sending a message that both drivers and track need to be worthy of their cash. (The night race, in August and closer to NASCAR’s Chase, draws better.) But the more likely scenario surrounds a disturbing amount of price gouging still prevalent within the region. Lodging that typically would be $100 or less a night during a typical weekend went for four-, five-, even six-times that.
No amount of ticket price discount can fix that hit to a blue-collar fan’s wallet. That’s especially true considering the track’s location, so close to many other fine facilities. If you’re a fan from Charleston, S.C., for example, why spend $1,000 on lodging, plus mileage when you’ve got Talladega, Atlanta and Charlotte within a similar driving distance — for half the price.
The economy always makes an argument here; in smaller markets, the races are the only major event hitting the region, meaning hotels have to maximize profits in order to survive. But the TriCities unemployment rate, along with job creation, has generally been stronger than the national average. Add in Smith’s billions and there’s no excuse to get this problem fixed, even though he’s powerful enough (see: getting the state of Kentucky to custom build roads for his speedway in Sparta).
Looks like its time for Smith to flex some muscle again. Otherwise, it’ll be years (if ever) before his most prized possession fills up to capacity.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s third wheel pushing for first-rate attention
Kasey Kahne’s Bristol success, while continuing a sizzling 2013 start, was a bit of a shock. Even after Sunday, his highest career average finish at any short track is Richmond, with a mediocre 18.0. That’s also the location of his last win at an oval this small, scoring his first Cup victory there in May 2005 before bookending his victory total with a 1.7-second, cruise-control performance down the stretch on Sunday.
“This is a big race for me,” he said Sunday after scooting ahead of Brad Keselowski on the final restart. “Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver, you really feel like you need to win at. It’s a big confidence builder.”
So is his habit of qualifying up front — a 3.5-place average start leads all drivers, along with 223 laps led in 2013. But most importantly, he’s not digging the type of 2012 hole that expended almost all this team’s energy simply to make last year’s Chase. Instead, he’s showcasing the type of versatility (second at Las Vegas, first at Bristol, one of the favorites at Daytona before wrecking out) that one needs to take home a title in this sport.
To do it, Kahne would have to leapfrog Johnson within the organization, a feat once thought impossible. But keep in mind, head wrench Kenny Francis — not from the Hendrick mold — can step outside the box of Chad Knaus. Those at HMS were impressed with the ideas he brought to the table in ’12 and many credit them for the organization’s resurgence. Francis, working out of a different shop, won’t have to play nice as consistently this fall and has the better pit crew, Johnson’s Achilles Heel, in each of the last two seasons.
Will it happen? I’ll still believe it when I see it. But four races in, Kahne has started making a case.
Joey Logano (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Old teammates, new rivalry?
It wasn’t long on Sunday before Joey Logano’s post-race shouting match with Denny Hamlin transcended typical NASCAR media and went national. It’s the second time in a month the two drivers have been at war. In February, it was over Daytona drafting that went awry and cost both a better finish.
“That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car – probably the worst teammate I ever had,” Logano said afterwards. “I had to put up with him for years, so… he’s just driving like an idiot.”
In his defense, Penske’s newest addition was right to place blame. Hamlin may not have meant to spin him, but all it takes is one frustrating bump at Bristol. The two have since taken to Twitter, spouting back and forth like high-schoolers (Hamlin, in particular, could sell t-shirts over his “Hush, little child” slam alone.)
What’s next? Both drivers are the emotional type, so this incident won’t get swept under the rug. Most importantly, Logano’s now matched with Brad Keselowski, who has a colorful history with Hamlin, and who had his own issues with the No. 11 on Sunday. The one who pushed to pair up, Kes has taken Logano under his wing, the type of mentorship Hamlin or Kyle Busch never gave at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s possible some bitterness still exists there, along with a push from the reigning champ to “stand up for yourself” that will only increase. Stay tuned.
FOURTH GEAR: Where there’s Smoke, there’s a slump
Say what you will about Danica Patrick. But four races into 2013, she’s got as many top 10s, more poles and more laps led than her boss. The race wasn’t 10 laps old Sunday before Tony Stewart hit the wall, his second wreck in four races that’s left him 24th in points. That’s one spot ahead of Ryan Newman, who was seventh at Bristol but has suffered two other spectacular DNFs.
Typically, that wouldn’t be a problem for Smoke; he’s noted for not winning much until May. But landing 30 points outside the top 10, even this early in the season, could prove problematic. There’s a lot of talent to jump over, a potential “wild card” threat already in Matt Kenseth (reading three-four wins, just as many DNFs to keep him needing that fallback) and the dangers of falling too far behind development of NASCAR’s Gen-6. The more damaged cars, the more costly it becomes, and with over a dozen races unsponsored amongst his three teams, the money is not exactly growing on trees.
Danica, though, presents the biggest question of all. Could her struggles, combined with the media scrutiny surrounding them, make it that much harder to get on the same page? It’s the biggest mess Stewart’s had since purchasing the team in ’09. Has he matured as a boss to keep calm and work his way through it?
OVERDRIVE Paul Menard, RCR’s most consistent driver in 2013, has run better each week. He was 21st, 20th, then 10th before running ninth on Sunday. … Brad Keselowski’s the first since rival Jimmie Johnson, in 2005, with four top-5 finishes in the first four races. The difference? Johnson picked up a win (Las Vegas) with 270 laps led overall. No wonder why Penske’s top dog is so ticked. … Considering Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s freshman-year start in the Nationwide Series – four races, four wrecks – you have to give him credit for his start in Sprint Cup. Four straight top-20 finishes, leaving him 11th in points is the perfect foundation considering he should improve as the season progresses.