Against odds, Keselowski hanging with Johnson in Chase battle
Brad Keselowski. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Brad Keselowski is not supposed to be challenging for a NASCAR Sprint Cup title. At least this year’s title. Many expect him to be a championship contender for years to come but the prevailing thought entering the Chase was that this wouldn’t be his year.
The reasons varied:
• Dodge, the team’s manufacturer, is leaving NASCAR after this season.
• Keselowski hadn’t truly been in a race for the Sprint Cup title to the final race.
• Others viewed Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin as having a better shot.
Yet, with three races to go, Keselowski trails Johnson by two points. No other driver is within 25 points of Johnson. Unless something unexpected happens, the championship race is between Johnson and Keselowski.
So, how has Keselowski gotten to this point?
Crew chief Paul Wolfe says that the team has “put blinders on all of that and not really focused on the things around us.
“I think we’ve shown growth in this team. We’ve shown improvement from the beginning of the season. I think we were lacking speed earlier the season. We were able to run well and get good finishes and win some races, but we didn’t have dominant race cars. We continued to work on our stuff and as we got closer to the Chase and, as we’ve been in the Chase, there have been tracks where I feel we’ve been dominant or as good as anybody here and that’s the improvement part I see of having the speed in the car.”
The team also has shown little impact in Dodge’s announcement that it won’t return to the sport next year and that Penske Racing will switch to Ford. Keselowski has been fast and also benefited from Wolfe’s pit strategy to win two Chase races (Chicagoland and Dover).
Another key is how the team benefited from last year’s Chase even though its title hopes ended before the season finale. The No. 2 bunch was third in the point standings with four races to go in 2011, heading to Martinsville. Keselowski was sixth in that race when he was collected in a chain-reaction incident in the final laps. NASCAR didn’t throw a caution and it cost him about 10 positions, dropping him further behind Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards and all but ending his title hopes. Although Keselowski didn’t challenge to the end, Jeff Gordon recently said he thought that was a valuable experience that has helped that team for this season.
Such experience has helped even when things have not gone as planned in the Chase.
Keselowski stayed out an extra lap at Charlotte but ran out of fuel in a race he was dominant but finished 11th. They struggled at Kansas but still managed an eighth-place finish. Qualifying has been an issue, as Keselowski has not started in the top 20 in the last four races. Each time the team didn’t panic.
It’s why Keselowski is so close to winning the Sprint Cup championship.
“It shows the potential we have together and that we’re still growing together,” Keselowski said after finishing sixth at Martinsville last weekend. “I believe that we can do this, I really do. We’ve got work ahead of us, and I know that, but we’re doing all the right things. If you do that long enough, good things will happen to you and good things are happening to us.”
HITTING THEIR STRIDE Jimmie Johnson said his title run began months ago.
“I feel kind of mid-to-late summer we started hitting on all eight cylinders,” he says. “I guess the Indy weekend (in late July) would be a good landmark weekend for us.”
Since Indy, where he won, Johnson has scored nine top-10 finishes in 14 races. He’s led in all but two of those events.
“We were around it, hitting on things, but starting at Indy, everything started clicking really, really well for us,” Johnson says. “I feel as focused and prepared as I’ve ever been in my career. We have some very smart guys with experience. Everybody is managing their emotions well, working very hard on their individual positions and executing.”
BEST OF THE REST Kyle Busch’s runner-up finish at Martinsville continued his strong run. Although he didn’t make the Chase, he’s had five top-10 finishes, including four top 5s, in the last seven races.
The 232 points he’s scored in the Chase is more than what seven title contenders have tallied in the same period. He’s outscored Denny Hamlin (230 points), Martin Truex Jr. (228), Matt Kenseth (223), Greg Biffle (216), Tony Stewart (211), Kevin Harvick (203) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (148), who missed two races because of a concussion suffered at Talladega.
Jimmie Johnson has scored the most points in the Chase at 282 with Brad Keselowski next at 280.
Non-Chase drivers who have scored the most points in the Chase are Busch (232 points), Joey Logano (207), Ryan Newman (202) and Carl Edwards and Paul Menard (190 each).
AT THE TOP Michael Waltrip Racing has placed one of its drivers in the top 5 in eight of the last 10 races.
All four MWR drivers have scored at least one top-5 finish during that stretch. Clint Bowyer has four top 5s, Martin Truex Jr. has two, Mark Martin has two and Brian Vickers has one.
Only Hendrick Motorsports can top MWR’s streak of races with at least one driver in the top 5. Hendrick has had a top-5 finisher in 15 consecutive races.
CREW CHIEF SHUFFLE Richard Petty Motorsports announced Tuesday that it has hired Drew Blickensderfer to be the crew chief for Marcos Ambrose, replacing Mike Ford.
Blickensderfer moved over from Richard Childress Racing where he had been Jeff Burton’s crew chief this season. Shane Wilson will replace Blickensderfer for the season’s final three races. Luke Lambert, who is serving as Elliott Sadler’s crew chief for RCR in the Nationwide Series, will be Burton’s crew chief next season.
Damage at Pocono Raceway from Hurricane Sandy. (Photo via Brandon Igdalsky Twitter feed)
PIT STOPSBrandon Igdalsky, president of Pocono Raceway, tweeted a picture (right) Tuesday showing that one of the track’s steeples atop the grandstand had been knocked off as a result from the storm that went through that area. ... Chase drivers have won all seven Chase races. Kyle Busch’s second-place finish at Martinsville was the first time a non-Chase driver had finished in the top two in a Chase race this season. ... Paul Menard and Martin Truex Jr. are tied for first in most laps completed this season. Both have run 9,488 out of a possible 9,521 laps.
Kenseth survives, notches third Sprint Cup win of 2012
Matt Kenseth in Victory Lane at Kansas. (ASP, Inc.)
There is typically one race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship that throws the Sprint Cup field the proverbial curveball.
The perils of Talladega are well known, so drivers and teams approach it with a survivalist’s mentality. The 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway appears staid when compared to the aforementioned 2.66-mile behemoth or even the cramped confines of the half-mile Martinsville Speedway. But with a fresh coat of new asphalt, a narrow groove and changing weather conditions throughout the weekend, Kansas proved to be anything but normal.
Ill-timed pit stops, spins, hard crashes, paybacks and an emotional winner highlighted the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway. Matt Kenseth, on his way out at Roush Fenway Racing after a celebrated 14-year tenure, proved the “lame duck” tag doesn’t apply to him or his No. 17 team. Kenseth survived a harrowing moment early in the race to lead the final 49 laps en route to his third win of the 2012 season, and second in the last three weeks.
“It means lot,” an emotional Kenseth said in Victory Lane. “I just have to thank God for the opportunities he has put in front of me and the guidance he has given me throughout my whole life. I have to thank Jack Roush and (competition director) Robbie Reiser and (former teammate) Mark Martin. Without them, I would have never been at Roush Fenway Racing.”
Kenseth’s road to the winner’s circle was an arduous one. He slapped the wall on lap 173 of 267 while attmpting to miss a spinning Aric Almirola. That dropped him to 24th on the ensuing restart, deep in a field that had proven to be aggressive.
However, as Kenseth steadily advanced his position, others saw their hopes dashed.
Chase contenders Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart each spun, while Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman were involved in an altercation that will most certainly be continued before the season is over. Even Danica Patrick got into the action, spinning Landon Cassill and, in the process, wrecking herself, when she took exception to his on-track methods.
Kansas’ newly repaved surface narrowed the racing groove, forcing drivers to take advantage of any opportunity presented to them. A Kansas record 14 cautions was the result, as aggressiveness seemed the order of the day.
“The restarts were pretty wild,” Johnson said. “You had to run so hard that when something happened and you lost grip, the car just stood up on the tires and would take off and you couldn't control it, and guys were sliding everywhere.”
Johnson would know. He backed his No. 48 Chevy into the wall on lap 137. His team responded as title contenders do, furiously working on the car under yellow while remaining on the lead lap. Johnson finished ninth, one spot behind points leader Brad Keselowski.
“I’m glad I survived the carnage and brought back a decent car,” Keselowski said of his eighth-place run. “I dodged a bullet of a race.”
Keselowski’s lead over Johnson in the point standings remains at seven, while third-place Denny Hamlin lost five points due to a 13th-place showing. He sits third in the title hunt, 20 points back.
Clint Bowyer (sixth) finds himself still in contention, just 25 markers behind Keselowski. Kasey Kahne (fourth) has moved to within 30 points of the lead.
But while the championship continues to sort itself out—eyeing a final-race shootout in Homestead, Fla., Sunday was about Kenseth and the team that continues to give up.
“We still have some races left we want to win,” Kenseth said. “It says a lot about these guys—how hard they work to give me the best stuff and give me a chance to win every week.”
Rule Changes, Bowyer's Big Win and Earnhardt's Absence
Clint Bowyer (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Don’t be fooled by the court jester routine Clint Bowyer seems to play in press conferences. For all the joking he does, he’s serious about winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
With five races left in the Chase, Bowyer is fourth in the standings for car owner Michael Waltrip’s team, 28 points behind series leader Brad Keselowski.
“Who would have thought in a million years after making this switch and coming over to a new family and everything that was new that we would be in Victory Lane three times and (there are) still—how many races, five races left?” said Bowyer, who joined Michael Waltrip Racing after having spent the previous six seasons at Richard Childress Racing.
“Five races left, and we're still in contention for a championship. Our first year together, just to be able to do that with a brand-new sponsor, a brand-new manufacturer, I'm telling you the truth: I was almost uncomfortable going to the shop at the beginning of the year because I didn't know one face there. I knew Ty Norris (executive vice president) and (crew chief) Brian Pattie and Michael ... and if I could catch him when he was there I could talk, but other than that I didn't know anybody there.”
Bowyer’s press conference with Waltirp and Pattie after winning Saturday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway mirrored a comedy routine with references to the pre-race show that featured a tight-rope walker, “Days of Thunder” and other such moments.
For all the fun Bowyer has had this year, he’s played a role with teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin in raising Michael Waltrip Racing’s profile. Bowyer already has topped his career bests with three wins, eight top-five and 19 top-10 finishes.
He’s looking for more this weekend at Kansas Speedway, his home track.
“That's probably the biggest thing is to come off this win, going into your hometown, the family and friends, everybody that goes there, it's just so important to be able to roll in on a positive note,” Bowyer said. “And to be able to win there some day, we've gotten close, if we could possibly pull this off again in Kansas, it would be … that's my … do you dare say Daytona 500, but it truly is. That's the biggest race you can possibly win is in front of your hometown.”
2013 CHANGES NASCAR announced several competition changes for next season, including the end of the top 35 rule in the Sprint Cup Series.
Among the rule changes is that the Nationwide fields will be reduced from 43 to 40 cars next year. The Cup Series will continue to have 43-car fields and the Camping World Truck Series will again have 36-truck fields.
The top 35 rule—which guaranteed a starting spot to the top 35 in car owner points regardless of their speed in qualifying—ends after this season. NASCAR will return to the format it had before the top 35 rule was enacted in 2005.
Starting next year, the fastest 36 in Cup qualifying make the race with the final seven spots based on provisionals—one of those seven available to a former champion if they are entered, if not then it becomes a seventh provisional. The provisionals are based on car owner points, thus the six (or seven if there isn’t a former champion needing a provisional) highest cars in the car owner points that aren’t among the 36 fastest will make the race. Provisionals are unlimited.
Another change is that the qualifying order for Cup will be determined by a blind draw instead of based on speeds in the first practice session. If qualifying is canceled due to rain, the starting lineup will be determined by practice speeds.
Provisionals in the Cup, Nationwide and Truck series will be based upon the previous year’s car owner points for only the first three races of a season. Previously, it was for the first five races in Cup and Nationwide and the first four races in the Truck Series.
For the first time since 2008, teams will be able to test at tracks that host NASCAR events. NASCAR issued the ban in 2009 to help teams save money but with so many teams testing at tracks that didn’t host a NASCAR event, it made sense to allow teams to test on tracks they’ll race.
Cup organizations will be allowed four tests at tracks that host a NASCAR race. Thus, Hendrick Motorsports can have all four of its teams at a test and that counts as one test. Even if only one driver shows up for Hendrick to test at a track that hosts a NASCAR race, it will count as one of the four tests allowed per organization.
Organizations in the Nationwide and Truck series will be allowed two tests at tracks that host a NASCAR race. Nationwide and Truck organizations can receive an additional test if they have a driver who is an official Rookie of the Year candidate.
NEW STREAK With Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting out because of his concussion and Scott Riggs failing to qualify, last weekend’s Charlotte race marked the first Cup event since 1961 without a driver from the state of North Carolina. With Earnhardt still out and Riggs’ team withdrawing from Kansas, there won’t be a North Carolina driver in Sunday’s race, either.
BACK AT IT AJ Allmendinger is entered for Phoenix Racing for this weekend’s race at Kansas. Allmendinger finished 24th last weekend at Charlotte for the team in his first race since returning from a suspension for failing a drug test in late June. Allmendinger won the pole at Kansas in April when he was with Penske Racing.
TESTING Cup teams are scheduled to test Wednesday at Thursday at Kansas Speedway since the track has been repaved. Teams will be allowed to test their 2013 car if they choose.
The test is one of the reasons Stewart-Haas Racing chose this race as one of the 10 Cup events Danica Patrick will drive this season. This allows her to gain additional experience in the car and with the track.
PIT STOPS The last three winners at Kansas (Denny Hamlin in April, Jimmie Johnson in Oct. 2011 and Brad Keselowski in June 2011) rank in the top three in points. ... Jimmie Johnson has seven consecutive top-10 finishes at Kansas. ... Kyle Busch has led more laps than any other driver during the first five races of the Chase at 356 with 302 of those coming at Dover. ... Richard Childress Racing is winless in its last 35 races, dating back to Clint Bowyer’s win at Talladega in October 2011.
Bowyer back in title talk with win in Bank of America 500
Clint Bowyer celebrates in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
After four races, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin had seemingly separated themselves in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Not so fast, says Clint Bowyer.
As the sport’s version of a playoff completed the “first half” in its 10-race run, Bowyer and his No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team used strategy to outsmart the trio of favorites, winning the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with superior fuel mileage.
Bowyer’s third win of the season moved his team to within 28 points of Keselowski in the championship standings.
“I looked at it last week and going into this week, I still thought if one of those guys (Keselowski, Johnson, Hamlin) were to stub a toe, it would really open the door for about eight of us to get right back into the championship hunt,” Bowyer said. “With a win here, it definitely gave us new life and new hope.”
Crew chief Brian Pattie echoed the sentiment, saying that, “Twenty-eight points is achievable over the next five weeks. It’s a lot better than 40, how we started the weekend.
“There’s three guys you’ve got to pass, not only the points. We’ll go to Kansas on Wednesday and test like hell and try to pick up our program even more than we have now because we weren’t the fastest car tonight, we just had (a winning) strategy. It would be nice to win one of these things and actually drive to Victory Lane.”
Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin flexed their muscles throughout a tame event— leading a total of 228 of 334 laps—that witnessed five cautions, two of which were for debris.
But on lap 275, Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske Racing team did something it had largely avoided the previous four weeks: It made a mistake.
While attempting to stretch a tank of fuel, the championship leader—who led the most laps in the event (139)—ran out of gas while leading and coasted into the pits.
That opened the door for Bowyer, Johnson and Hamlin. With Keselowski mired in traffic, they went into fuel conservation mode, reasoning that, with one more full green-flag cycle left, everyone would be running on fumes as the race reached its conclusion.
And they were right. The twist, though, was that Bowyer was a forgotten soul, as the teams of Johnson and Hamlin calculated that they were the only two that would have enough in reserve to stretch one final cycle.
“We outfoxed him,” Bowyer said of Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus. “Any time you outfox him you know you’ve done a good job, especially at this racetrack.”
The miscalculations were not especially harmful to Johnson and Hamlin, though, as the latter finished second and the former third.
Even Keselowski, who managed an 11th-place showing, did not appear to be distraught. He explained that aggressiveness was what got his team here, and one shouldn’t expect them to back off from that stance:
“We’re not going to put the prevent defense out there. We’re going to go at you and try to sack the quarterback every time. Sometimes you’re going to miss, and they’re going to get a big payoff.
“We have hit them a lot, that’s why we’re in the points lead, and we’re going to keep after it.”
Fair enough. And the next stop for NASCAR’s traveling circus is the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway, Bowyer’s home track. And a place that has seen Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin each score a win in the series’ last three visits.
For those still alive with five races remaining, hope springs eternal.
Do NASCAR fans want to see wrecks? Were they thrilled by the wild action on the last lap at Talladega or was it the 25-car pileup that made the finish more exciting?
Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debated what they thought about the final lap at Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s comments about the racing and the big wreck and much more. Here’s what they said:
How would you describe the final lap of Sunday’s race at Talladega?
71.6 percent said Terrible
28.4 percent said Fantastic
What Fan Council members said:
• Fantastically terrible. Everyone walked away OK, so yeah, if I'm being honest: Fantastic.
• NASCAR should be held liable for the next death during a restrictor-plate race.
• There's no excuse in this day and age and with the technology available to us that such an all-encompassing wreck would still occur. It's a minor miracle no one was hurt. And a major miracle that no one was killed. It is shameful that something so idiotic is considered desirable by some “race fans.” I call B.S. on that because any true fan of racing wants to see racing, not crashing. Take Talladega out of the Chase. It is too unpredictable and too costly, both in points and money.
• I love it as long as NO ONE gets hurt.
• I will admit, I do enjoy a multi-car wreck, but what happened at Talladega is ridiculous. There is no reason that the cars should be that bunched up. NASCAR has hurt themselves by putting too many restrictions, like the restrictor plates.
• Where to start? The destruction of millions of dollars of equipment, so many drivers could have been seriously injured or killed and the end result of the race was ultimately unsatisfying for viewers and for drivers with respect to the Chase standings. There has got to be a way to address this, to keep the excitement about Talladega without this kind of carnage. These are real people in these cars and I am really horrified that it is being portrayed almost like an action movie where everybody gets up and dusts themselves off after the shoot. I don't know why this is tolerated in the sport. They don't replay illegal head hits over and over again to promote future NFL games. This is far worse.
• Even though my driver wrecked, watching those cars four-wide with cars bouncing off each other and the wall while bump drafting through the corners was awesome. The wreck was cool, but without Tony's mistake, I think they were gonna pull off a four-wide pack coming across the finish line for an awesome finish.
• Everybody seemed to be doing their best to win — except Denny Hamlin. I want my Chase champion to be the best, to be a winner, to be smart, but have guts and talent in equal parts. Smoke did everything he could think of to win. It resulted in a less-than-great finish for my driver BUT I prefer an all-out assault on the win to taking it easy, being careful and finishing with a whimper.
• Probably would have thought it was awesome if my driver had made it through the carnage and passed a few guys in the championship race.
• Worse than terrible. Horrendous. Awful. Abhorrent. Repulsive. Dreadful. Disastrous. Revolting. Unpleasant. I just cannot understand what morbid excitement anyone can get from wrecked cars and the possibility that a driver will get hurt or killed. It's eventually going to happen and that's sad.
Was Dale Earnhardt Jr. right in complaining about the racing and calling fans that like the big multi-car wrecks bloodthirsty?
77.1 percent agreed with Dale Jr.
22.9 percent disagreed with Dale Jr.
What Fan Council members said:
• Amen, Junior! What a huge waste! Look at all the steps NASCAR has taken to save the teams money and then they throw it all away in one lap of one race. I've never understood fans that like wrecking. And the media feeds it by repeating every wreck over and over and over again. Races are usually advertised using the wrecks from previous years. “Bloodthirsty” is a good way to put it, and I'm glad Dale Jr. said it. I get really sick of reports that “fans want to see” wrecks. Sometimes I wonder just who those fans are and why everyone is so eager to have those kinds of people as fans.
• This is what fans want to see. It is bloodthirsty but that is what fans are expecting to see. When you see a commercial for race tickets, what do you see? Wrecking, beating and banging. This is what fans want. Look at Bristol: Burton Smith changed the track so fans could get the wrecks back.
• Amen! Dale Jr. is right, it is bloodthirsty and for someone to want that is crazy. Bring on the Gladiators and Lions!!
• Boring as things have been lately, they needed a good wreck.
• Loving a track because it provides massive wrecks like this race at Talladega is no different than being a Roman and enjoying a trip to the Colosseum to watch lions eat Christians. Same level of barbarianism.
• I used to like these big wrecks, but that carnage is scary. I don't care how safe the car is, it feels like playing with fire when we see the Big One.
• No, I don't agree with Dale Jr., but in all fairness what do you expect to come out of a driver's mouth when he was just wrecked on the last lap and is speaking with emotions? Was he supposed to say, "Oh well, that was just racin’ and we will get them the next week." I thought fans wanted to hear emotions out of the drivers.
• Give me a break Dale. Junior had a very different tune when he was winning a bunch of these races. He complained about the tandem racing a couple years ago, saying you can't see anything but the bumper ahead of you. He doesn't like the pack racing either, apparently. Maybe as he gets older he likes it less — I can understand that. But the last lap crash was like every other "Talladega Big One." It is what it is.
• No one who is a true fan would want to see a wreck like that.
Grading Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega
49.3 percent called it Good
19.9 percent called it Great
19.3 percent called it Fair
11.5 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Call me bloodthirsty or a non-purist, but the wreck at the end (and knowing the drivers are well protected) was the best part.
• That was the most fun, exciting race at Talladega for the past few years ... I didn't have a problem with the wreck occurring and I prefer to see the drivers go all out for the win and end up wrecked rather than carefully making their way across the start/finish line and being awarded the victory for their cautious behavior.
• Absolutely the best race of the year. The action was unbelievable and the last two laps were jaw-dropping. Nothing in sports even comes close to the excitement that Talladega delivers!
• This is complete B.S. racing. No wonder the attendance is at its lowest in 15 years. What we saw was a monumental waste of time.
• I attended the race. I love Talladega, however, I only really get interested in the race the last 50 laps or so unlike other tracks where my attention is held all race long.
• While I'm glad to see pack racing and not the terrible tandem trash, that wasn't a race until the last three laps, it was a parade. Should it be changed? Yes, with bulldozers! (RIP DAVID POOLE.)
• The last lap made up for the rest of the race in my opinion. To see “Mr. Don't Block Me” block and wreck half the field was funny. Good race overall.
• Wish I could say it was great. I will say I always respect those that have the ability to be racecar drivers and the amazing skill it takes to race at anywhere, but especially Talladega. One of the good things that did happen was a PINK car won and as a breast cancer survivor this made me happy.
• It was not enjoyable waiting for disaster to happen. Not racing.
• Outstanding race. I felt most of the field was running much more competitively from the drop of the green flag to the finish. The big teams (88, 18, etc.) who got themselves a lap down put on a tremendous battle lap after lap to get in front of each other for the lucky dog. And the GWC! It was four deep row after row after row coming to the white flag! You had to know it wasn't going to last the whole lap. I do wish the race finished clean because it would have been absolutely nuts to see how it developed down the straightaway.
(Photo by ASP, Inc.)
With six races left, what are your feelings about the rest of the season?
39.7 percent say they have mixed emotions
37.4 percent say they’re pumped and can’t wait to see what happens
22.9 percent say they don’t have high expectations for the rest of the year
What Fan Council members said:
• I am pumped to see what is going happen because there is still a lot of racing and the point standings could still be shaken up. I have a feeling something that is totally unexpected is going to happen. Maybe it's just wishful thinking.
• I think the remaining races are gonna leave some people feeling a little let down after seeing what they saw at Talladega. I'm sure I will be watching...but doubt with the same intensity I did for ’Dega.
• I believe it's too hard for anyone to make up much ground in terms of points, so it looks like it's now just a three-man race. With that being said, the Chase has kind of lost its excitement factor.
• I think there will be a lot of boring races with cars strung out and not able to pass or the dreaded fuel-mileage race.
• I have mixed emotions about the final six races. I am glad there will be tons of drama and tons of storylines that we will all talk about until the season is over. I also think it is kinda disappointing that there are "really" only three guys that still have a shot at the title.
• Brad's made being a 2 fan incredibly fun again — it's amazing what he's been able to accomplish. I hesitate to let myself think about what the possibilities are with as good as he's running — but absolutely I'm looking forward to finding out.
• Mile-and-a-half races have been known to be boring. Other than Martinsville, the rest of the Chase may be in trouble as far as entertainment.
• I have very mixed emotions for the rest of the season. With the first three races being boring, I worry that the next ones will be all spread out with no passing or no real racing. I still think there could still be some small changes to keep more of the drivers in the hunt for the championship that would make it more exciting.
• I want to enjoy the championship, but 1.5-mile cookie cutter-tracks bore me to tears. I'm sorry that Brian France is so clueless that he can't understand the difference between a good and a boring race.
• I don't know. It's been a weird Chase so far with not that many have-to-see moments. I hope the rest of the year is better and they don't turn into gas-mileage showdowns.
• The battle between Brad and Jimmie has been excellent. The two best in the sport right now giving it all they’ve got. I am mega-pumped to see Brad take down Five Time.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Dale Earnhardt had quite a reputation for doing whatever it took to win a race. And although he didn’t make it to Victory Lane in the 1993 Fram Filters 500K Busch Series race at Talladega, he called a spade a spade. “Intensive” research (read: a trip to racing-reference.info) shows that Tracy Leslie was “that boy in the 72.” I’d hate to have been Tracy Leslie that day.
by Matt Taliaferro
Ol’ Sterling tells it like it is
2 of 9
“I guess we’ll do what we dun again at Daytona 'n wreck ‘em all again.” Sterling Marlin was never one to mince words, so I won’t either: Sterling was mad about restrictor plate racing and opened up a can on NASCAR in this post-race interview from 2001. For all the things Sterling brought to NASCAR—Tennessee drawl, chest hair, rugs—he is missed.
by Matt Taliaferro
Ryan Newman draws NASCAR’s ire
3 of 9
For Ryan Newman, racing with restrictor plates is about as enjoyable as taking out the garbage. Maybe that’s because, more often than not, his racecar becomes garbage. But perhaps the scariest of all his incidents occurred in 2009, when the Car of Tomorrow came oh-too-close to losing its perfect safety record. That caused this classic tirade—one of the stronger criticisms from a package that draws constant negativity from drivers inside the garage. A lack of control over his own outcome? That’s the perfect inspiration for a driver to spout off about lack of respect. And, for NASCAR, the perfect opportunity to hit him in the wallet for 50 large.
by Tom Bowles
Waltrip (of course) injects some humor
4 of 9
With Talladega’s big, windy packs that keep all 43 cars superglued together, a “Big One” involving multiple drivers is almost inevitable. And the other scary sidelight that seems to come with those crashes? One car, if not more, flipping faster than flapjacks at a Sunday morning diner. In this race in 2005, it was Michael Waltrip that was the innocent victim, getting dizzy in a wreck that didn’t sap the fun out of his day–but it certainly injected some fear into competitors wary of high speeds and high impact that could cause a serious injury at any time.
by Tom Bowles
Mark Martin … Soprano?
5 of 9
For Mark Martin, his Charlie Brown-esque championship history (five runner-up finishes) also applies to many of his results at Talladega. It hasn’t always been pretty, with the driver flipping as recently as 2009, but perhaps the worst hit of all came in 1994. Back then, the focus on brake failure wasn’t quite so severe, so Martin was more relieved—even jovial—to come out of this incident feeling OK … except for one specific body part we fellas feel pretty sensitive about.
by Tom Bowles
What the “25 Points” was he thinking?
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With his win in the 2004 EA Sports 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. drafted into the points lead and looked like a title favorite as the calendar turned from September to October. However, a 25-point penalty levied against him for using a certain four-letter word on national television in Victory Lane dropped him 12 points behind Kurt Busch in NASCAR’s inaugural Chase. Although Junior won again five weeks later, he never fully recovered in the championship standings. Sidenote: A fun game has spawned from this. Instead of using your preferred four-letter word, substitute the words “25 points” in its place. You’ll be amazed at how funny it remains and how many people will instantly know what you’re referring to.
by Matt Taliaferro
"Sarcastic" Tony makes an appearance
7 of 9
In this clip from May, Tony Stewart looked to be a mental disaster just moments after his No. 14 car wound up in the garage area. After years of drivers complaining about the plate package, Stewart decided to make his point by switching gears and doing the opposite: embracing its pitfalls. One of the more fascinating moments throughout this clip is the way in which the media seems baffled by Stewart’s responses, continuing to ask serious questions when the driver was anything but. Give him this: Dude can stay in character.
by Tom Bowles
Greatest collection of post-race quotes ever?
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Perhaps the most frightening incident seen at any NASCAR track in the recent past (naturally) spawned some of the most epic reactions. The Carl Edwards/Brad Keselowski battle royale of 2009 launched the former into the fence and the latter onto everyone’s radar. From the first-time winners' exuberance to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s James Finch-chuckle to Edwards’ genius sponsor plug—and bone-chilling description of his in-wreck concerns—this post-race summary has it all.
Is Chad Knaus the best crew chief in the Chase? (ASP, Inc.)
Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council take a wider look at the sport this week, judging who they think the best crew chief in the Chase is and if the length of the Chase should remain 10 races. Here’s a look at what they had to say:
Who is the best crew chief in the Chase?
42.4 percent said Chad Knaus (Jimmie Johnson) 25.2 percent said Paul Wolfe (Brad Keselowski) 18.3 percent said Darian Grubb (Denny Hamlin 5.0 percent said Steve Letarte (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) 2.7 percent said Alan Gustafson (Jeff Gordon) 1.5 percent said Kenny Francis (Kasey Kahne) 1.1 percent said Steve Addington (Tony Stewart) 1.1 percent said Jimmy Fennig (Matt Kenseth) 1.1 percent said Chad Johnston (Martin Truex Jr.) 0.8 percent said Gil Martin (Kevin Harvick) 0.8 percent said Brian Pattie (Clint Bowyer) 0.0 percent said Matt Puccia (Greg Biffle)
What Fan Council members said:
• Five championships, well in contention for six. Chad has been and continues to be the best.
• Chad, and then everyone else. Chad Knaus has revolutionized the crew chief position and forced every other one to step up. If it wasn't for him, I'm not sure J.J. has even one title under his belt.
• Paul Wolfe is not afraid of taking a chance and he and Brad sure make a good pair.
• I gotta give it to Paul for this year. So far they have not faltered, in fact they've shown the way to others by giving his driver all the adjustments necessary to excel at the end, when it counts. And he can count fuel mileage unlike others.
• Darian Grubb has shown that he has what it takes to be a great crew chief. He took Tony Stewart to a championship last year and then was dumped. He bounced back and has given Denny Hamlin his best year yet. No matter if he wins the championship or not, Denny is having a great year. And if he does win the championship, it will be with the help of a great crew chief.
• I think that Darian is the best in the garage. Look at his record the last two years and you can't say any other crew chief has won more races. He's the top dog.
• I chose Steve Letarte because he is responsible for the unbelievable transformation of Dale Jr. I rode with Junior during driver's introduction in 2010. What I saw was a very unhappy and depressed man with no confidence. Interviews were done with his head down. Now he appears to be a happy, confident driver who has an awesome relationship with his crew chief and is appreciative of what he has. One of the biggest changes is what you hear on the scanner.
• So far it's hard to bet against Alan Gustafson. Not only has he made the right calls, the obvious respect he and Jeff have for each other along with the trust Jeff has in Alan's decisions make them a team worth noting.
• Mr. Fennig has forgotten more about technical matters than the other crew chiefs can ever hope to learn.
• Gil is an outstanding crew chief and gets very little credit for having to put up with Harvick on a daily basis.
How long should the Chase be?
80.8 percent said 10 races
10.8 percent said 5 races
4.2 percent said 8 races
4.2 percent said 6 races
What Fan Council members said:
• 10 weeks is good, that way if you blow it one week it does not mean game over.
• I think 10 is perfect. It has most every type of track there is other than a road course. Put one of those in and take one of the 1.5-milers out and you have a perfect collection.
• I like the number of races just the way it is. With 10 races it gives the fans a chance to see who will be the cream of the crop — who really deserves to be in the Chase. The champion won't be fluke, but a team who has shown to have consistency and can win some races.
• Five races. Richmond to get in, Bristol to start, then Watkins Glen, Talladega, Martinsville, Homestead. 10 races is too long. We got spoiled last year with the epic battle to the last lap of the season. I have a feeling we wont see that ever again.
• The Chase is perfect the way it is. If the number of races is shortened there will be no suspense at all. The driver who wins the first race will most likely win the championship. Right now it is fun to watch Jeff Gordon try to redeem himself. He wouldn't have a chance with a shortened Chase.
• One race each at a short track, road course, plate, 2-mile, 1.5-mile and a 1-mile track. Change the 1.5-mile track each year for the finale or have it at Las Vegas permanently.
• I picked 10, but believe 12 drivers and 12 races (with the current 36-race schedule) works best. Makes sense: a greater spread of races and possibility to make moves to the current bland schedule. Richmond could move back to the Chase decider or become a late-season race (a la Rockingham back in the day). I like the thought of a 500-mile race at Atlanta opening the Chase more than Chicago or New Hampshire.
• I don't like the Chase, but 10 is a good number. Attrition/elimination are about to enter into the picture. Fewer races would just make it about luck and who's hot at the moment.
Grade Sunday’s race at Dover
45.2 percent called it Fair
33.3 percent called it Good
18.8 percent called it Poor
2.7 percent called it Great
What Fan Council members said:
• One word for Sunday's race: STRANGE.
• We attended the race and came up with three exciting moments: The one instance of three-wide racing in Turn 2, Kyle Busch gaining on Jimmie Johnson toward the end and the breath-holding laps of Jeff Gordon fans hoping Alan Gustafson was right about having enough fuel (thanks Alan & Jeff for a very nice birthday gift! lol) 400 miles of racing & three moments of excitement (unless you're also a big fan of Brad Keselowski, then add his win). No wonder the stands were barely half full and emptied out by another quarter by the time the race ended. We used to love going to Dover. It's a shame the racing has gone downhill there too.
• What is going on in this Chase? No exciting races yet! This is another “Poor” rating for me for watching another high-speed parade of cars go around the track.
• I was there and any race at Dover is a great “in-person” race.
• Boring race till the last 50 laps.
• Boring race from start to finish. Didn't seem to be much hard racing, excitement or drama. Strategy and fuel mileage races will always be a part of the sport but it really doesn't make for a very exciting finish when drivers can't race each other because they have to slow down so they don't run out of fuel.
• It certainly was not a great race at all but not the worst. Only having six cars on the lead lap shook it up, which was fun to see. Otherwise, it seemed there was only a few passes and the finish wasn't too bad.
• I was there. This was without a doubt the most boring race I've ever been to (or seen on TV)! I left with about 70 laps to go. I've never seen so many folks leave so early en mass. I used buses provided by local law enforcement and encouraged by the track. Six full buses left before I was able to get on one (before race was over)!
• I really hated to give it a rating of “Poor” because that first caution put a lot of cars a lap or more down. NASCAR can't do anything about that — just dumb luck.
• It was my first NASCAR race and I enjoyed every moment of it. Great strategy towards the end and a surprise winner.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Brad Keselowski in the May Talladega race. (ASP, Inc.)
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader Brad Keselowski admits he has conflicting emotions heading into this weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.
“There’s part of me that says no matter how bad Talladega goes I can only be 47 points back or 46 or so, so it can’t be that bad,” he said Tuesday. “Then there’s the other side of me that thinks that if we go to Talladega and have a bad day and end up losing a championship by those points, that would really be a shame.”
Keselowski admits he’s not trying to “overthink” the Chase and just race.
One thing he’s pondered, though, is how much he’ll compete in the Nationwide Series as he goes for his first Cup title. Keselowski said he will not run the Kansas Nationwide race — Ryan Blaney will — and could drop more races depending on how he’s doing in the Chase.
Keselowski enters this weekend’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 with three victories, eight top-five finishes and 12 top 10s in the last 13 races. He’s also won two of the first three Chase events to hold a five-point lead on Jimmie Johnson.
“There isn’t one silver bullet,” Keselowski said of his strong run since late June. “It’s everything. The cars are good. The execution on pit road has been strong. Knock on wood we haven’t had (mechanical) failures, which is a credit to the staff at Penske Racing. With the exception of Bristol, I haven’t driven it in the wall. That’s what it takes. Just having one of those pieces isn’t enough. You have to have them all. Just missing one of those pieces will keep you from having a solid day. Right now as a team we’ve had it all.”
As he did after winning Dover last weekend, Keselowski reiterated that seven races remain in the Chase. Defending series champion Tony Stewart was 24 points out of the lead with five races to go last year.
“There’s a lot of fight left,” Keselowski said.
INSIDE A WRECK It will likely happen often this weekend at Talladega, cars skidding, sliding and slamming into each other. It’s one thing to see it from the stands or watching on TV, but what’s it like inside a car during a crash at Talladega?
Jimmie Johnson explains:
“When something happens you start evaluating the damage to your car. If there are a couple of small bumps along the way, your mind’s thinking, ‘OK, that’s not too bad. I didn’t get hit in a wheel, maybe just a fender. We can fix that. We can fix that.’ And you’re keeping some hope until there’s always typically a moment when you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s going to hurt, that’s going to require some behind-the-wall time to fix that up.’
“So, you just kind of hang on and go for the ride. I’ve been fortunate to stay on my wheels and not be upside-down, so I don’t necessarily have a good play on that. Although it would be kind of cool to flip if you’re going to out, you may as well go out in style. But you just kind of evaluate what’s going on and hope that you don’t hit anything too hard and you can get to pit lane and get it fixed.”
STRONG START Joey Logano has recorded a top-10 finish in each of the three Chase races so far. He’s actually scored more points (107) than Chase drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. (100), Martin Truex Jr. (100), Kevin Harvick (96), Jeff Gordon (94), Greg Biffle (85) and Matt Kenseth (67).
Logano opened the Chase by finishing seventh at Chicagoland Speedway, was eighth at New Hampshire and placed 10th at Dover last weekend. It’s the first time this season he’s scored three consecutive top-10 finishes.
Ryan Newman's Quicken Loans Chevy. (ASP, Inc.)
CHANGES ABOUND Quicken Loans’ decision to double the number of races it will serve as Ryan Newman’s primary sponsor next season from nine is just one of what appears to be many changes that will take place for Newman.
Car owner Tony Stewart said the organization is looking at different options for a crew chief for Newman. The possible change is related to Danica Patrick moving to Cup full-time next season. Newman, who has worked with Tony Gibson, has failed to make the Chase in two of his four seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“We have to consider all options for everybody,” Newman said. “It’s not just about me. It’s about myself, it’s about Danica, it’s about Tony. They all have to work together.”
So what is Newman looking for as he plans for 2013?
“Just more consistency,” he said. “We just need to be more consistent performance-wise and that starts here in the shop and continues on at the race track.”
Newman has one victory and 11 top-10 finishes this season, but he also has failed to finish four races, equaling his total for the past two seasons combined. The fewest top-10 finishes he’s had while at Stewart-Haas Racing was 14 in 2010.
PIT STOPS Points leader Brad Keselowski has the best average finish among active drivers at Talladega at 13.0. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is next at 14.8 with Kurt Busch next at 15.1. ... Greg Biffle has completed all but five of the 8,231 laps run this season, most among any driver. Kevin Harvick is next, completing all but 16 laps this season. ... The Nationwide Series is off this weekend. The Camping World Truck Series joins the Cup series at Talladega for the fred’s 250 on Saturday.
Fuel mileage, strategy, pay off for Keselowski, Penske Racing
Photo by ASP, Inc.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is only three races into its 10-race Chase for the Championship playoff stint. And thus far, three drivers seem to have separated themselves from the field.
One made a major statement in the AAA 400 from Dover International Speedway — a statement even bolder than Denny Hamlin’s perceived “called shot” and win a week earlier in New Hampshire.
Brad Keselowski led only 14 of 400 laps on Sunday, but 10 of those — the final 10 — were the most important of the day.
Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe executed a late-race fuel run to perfection, going the final 89 laps on a single tank of gas, outsmarting and outperforming Chase rivals Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, to score their second win in three playoff events.
“We slowly eked our way up from the 10th starting position up to fourth,” Keselowski said. “Kind of fell in there on that last run, after my pit crew got me out fourth, and that put us in position to really capitalize on good strategy and execution.
“My guys did that. They did a great job. Together we were able to manage it (fuel mileage) very well, which is important as anything else in racing these days.”
As with most races decided by fuel mileage, the best car wasn’t the one that completed the scheduled distance first. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch (302 laps led) and Hamlin (39), along with Johnson (43), were the unquestioned class of the field. However, as the laps wound down, all three realized a decision must be made: Run all-out and pit for fuel late, hoping for a caution flag, or slow down, conserve gas and settle for whatever respectable finish they could muster.
The Gibbs teams chose the former, as Busch pitted from the lead with 11 circuits remaining. That handed the lead to Hamlin, who hit pit road one lap later.
Johnson’s strategy had kicked in much earlier. Leading the race with 40 laps remaining, crew chief Chad Knaus radioed the driver that they would not make it to the end running their current pace. Johnson gave up the lead to Busch and peddled the car down the stretch.
Enter Keselowski and the No. 2 Penske Racing team, a bunch adept at stretching a tank of gas. Running a steady fourth with enough in the tank, they simply waited for others to make a mistake (Busch and Hamlin) or settle (Johnson).
Inheriting the lead on lap 391, Keselowski held off a charging Jeff Gordon to score his fifth win of the 2012 season and into the points lead.
Mark Martin was third, while Johnson’s fuel-saving gamble worked to the tune of a fourth-place run. Carl Edwards was fifth.
Busch finished one lap down in seventh while Hamlin was eighth.
“This fuel mileage game sucks,” a dejected Hamlin said. “All the hard work that you put in — drove as hard as I could drive for 400 laps — and then it’s like you look up and wonder why we’re eighth. That part of it is frustrating, but it’s just some people have different strategies. Some people have better fuel mileage, but not as good of a handling racecar. I’ll take good-handling racecars and good horsepower any day.”
So it’s Keselowski, with a pair of wins and a sixth-place showing through three Chase races, that finds himself leading the pack. But he’s not willing to play the role of championship favorite just yet.
“I can’t state loudly enough how much longer this (Chase) battle is,” Keselowski said. “It’s very tempting, whether it’s the media or the teams themselves, to get in a comfort zone of saying, ‘Such and such has control of this Chase.’ But there’s a reason why it’s 10 rounds. We’re not even halfway. We’re three rounds in.
“By no means do I feel like we’re the favorite. Certainly we’re not the underdog probably at this point.
“My perspective is we got a lot more racing to go. Let’s just let the racing play out and go from there.”
1. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson, Chad Kanus and the boys have methodically clicked off consecutive second-place finishes to begin the Chase. Next up is Dover, where the 48 dominated in June. Last week: 2
2. Brad Keselowski
Much of the talk since Sunday’s New Hampshire event has centered on Denny Hamlin being Johnson’s biggest threat. Oh, how quickly we forget about Keselowski’s big win in Chicago. Last week: 1