Brad Keselowski isn’t afraid to question why something is or isn’t done in NASCAR. He’s inquisitive, reflective and thoughtful. Some ideas lead to fruitful discussions and some don’t.
Either way, Keselowski looks ahead, never satisfied with what is happening. It doesn’t mean he has the right answers for every issue or that every idea is wrong. What he does is make others ponder issues he raises.
Keselowski looks at the racing in NASCAR and knows it can be better. Certainly many fans say the same thing. But how? Aerodynamics dictate so much about the sport. So what then?
How about the tires? Keselowski wonders if it would be better for NASCAR to consider a soft and hard compound similar to what is done in Formula 1 and the Izod IndyCar Series, which uses two different tire compounds at road and street course events
Here’s how Keselowski explains his notion:
“I think our sport has evolved to where aerodynamics are generating the majority of the grip in the racecars, which naturally creates an issue when we’re in a pack to where the guy that’s in the front has a supreme advantage over the guys that are in the back — and that goes against I think what we all consider quality racing.
“As a sport we have a decision to make, we can either step backwards and remove aerodynamics from racing — and I think we all know that it’s impossible to really move backwards because we’ll keep pushing and we’ll find it back as we did with this new car.”
Keslowski notes that when the current Cup car was introduced in 2007 it produced about 1,700 pounds of downforce. Teams have refined the car to where it produces about 2,200 pounds now, an increase of more than 20 percent he notes.
“The teams persevered and we will with the money and resources that we dedicate,’’ Keselowski said. “So as you look forward to the issue of how to make the racing better, you can try to take a step backwards and remove aerodynamics or we can try to take a step forward and include new ideas that improve the quality of the racing.
“One of the easiest is to look over at what F1 has with their soft and hard (tire) options that create the possibility for coming in (pitting) at the end of the race and changing compounds and overcoming the aerodynamic deficiencies of the cars that run toward the back of the pack, and I think that will improve quality of the racing for us all.”
Interesting concept. Can it work in NASCAR since nearly all of its races are on ovals as opposed to Formula 1 and IndyCar?
Not everyone is convinced.
Mark Martin calls Keselowski’s idea “brilliant” but he also notes it’s flawed. Martin says this reminds him too much about what happened with the tires when Goodyear and Hoosier were competing in Cup.
“You can’t fuss with the tires,” Martin says. “You’ve got the fastest tire that you can put on now. If you make them any faster, they’re dangerous.
“Brad Keselowski didn’t live the tire war. He isn’t permanently injured from that. Many of us drivers carry permanent injuries for life from that. I know the cars are better now. I know the walls are better now. We don’t need that.
“They bring the best tire they can bring and have but if you made one that was worse ... put him out on them and let’s see if he still wants them. Let’s see how he likes them.”
Jeff Burton admits that “it’s always healthy that we’re looking to improve our sport,” but he’s not convinced this is the right idea.
“I’m not a proponent nor an opponent of talking about different ways to come up with better racing,” Burton says. “I think there’s been a general consensus that Goodyear has done a really, really good job on the tire, maybe too good. Maybe the tire needs to fall off a little more so that we lose speed as the run goes on.
“Things that we can do in the sport that don’t jeopardize the integrity of the sport to make the competition better, then we always need to be looking at that. Whether the tires will do that or not, I just don’t know.”
Stu Grant, Goodyear’s general manager of global race tires, said there hasn’t been any work on such a plan.
Grant notes that tire usage in NASCAR is greater than in IndyCar and Formula 1 because there are so many more teams and that would create among many issues.
“From a logistical standpoint, there is a lot of cost associated with that for everybody in the sport, for us as well the competitors as you pass on ... all that inventory on a second set of tires,” he says.
Grant says there’s no way Goodyear could provide a softer tire than what it has.
“If I did it, they would fail,” he notes. “They would blister. They would wear out. They would lose air and we would crash. Nobody wants that.
“The only option would be to make a harder tire. In the end it’s NASCAR’s call. We’re the tire supplier. We have not had any discussion with NASCAR about that. We have not looked at that.
“We would have to make a worse tire that they would have to run. Is that something the sport wants? I’m not so sure.”
Haven't we seen this movie before ... like in 2006, '08 and '09?
"Hey, watch the hair, Chad!" (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson (—) Johnson has had two crashes in 2012, resulting in 42nd- and 36th-place finishes and one engine failure, leading to a 35th-place run. Otherwise, he’s been 12th or better every week.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (—) Junior has been nearly as good as his Hendrick teammate through 20 races, with 17th- and 23rd-place runs the only blemishes outside of the top 15.
3. Matt Kenseth (—) Even before a crash ended his day in Indy, Kenseth wasn’t having a banner performance. How will this team handle its driver’s lame duck status down the stretch?
4. Denny Hamlin (+1) Hamlin is certainly back to his contender status, with two wins on the season and three finishes of sixth or better in the last four races (including a near-miss in Loudon).
5. Tony Stewart (-1) Stewart somehow snuck into the top 10 by day’s end at Indy despite being a non-factor throughout the race. In fact, it was his worst showing (10th) at IMS since forming his own team — or a team being handed to him. Whatever.
6. Brad Keselowski (—) Along with Hamlin, Keselowski seemed the only driver with anything for Johnson on Sunday. A slow pit stop doomed his chances and the three-time winner in 2012 settled for ninth.
7. Kasey Kahne (—) Front-end damage to Kahne’s Chevy forced the team to play catch-up all day in Indy. A popular pre-race pick, Kasey persevered to a 12th-place showing.
8. Greg Biffle (—) After a quiet three-race stretch where Biffle was all but invisible, he burst back onto the scene at the Brickyard with a confidence-building third-place finish. Keep an eye on him at Pocono.
9. Jeff Gordon (+1) Time is running out for Gordon, who finds himself a distant 15th in the point standings with zero wins. Try as they might, the 24 team has been a fifth- to sixth-place car the last six weeks. Still, if he can cash in just once...
10. Clint Bowyer (-1) Rebounded from what appeared to be some ugly sheet metal damage prior to the halfway mark at Indy to post a respectable 15th. It could’ve been worse.
They're not the King's cowboy boots or Marcis' wing tips, but hey, whatever works for ya, Carl. (ASP, Inc.)
11. Martin Truex Jr. (+1) Indy was a typical run for Truex in 2012: Qualify in the mid-teens and finish about eighth.
12. Kyle Busch (+3) Up to 11th in the standings and currently a wild-card qualifier after a runner-up at the Brickyard.
13. Ryan Newman (—) Fifteen points behind Busch in the wild card standings with a single win. It can be done.
14. Kevin Harvick (-3) Averaging an 11.7-place finish — which Harvick has thus far — won’t win him a title.
15. Mark Martin (Unranked) Had he started every race this year, Martin would slot in around 13th or 14th in the point standings.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard
Favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson in Victory Lane at Phoenix last season. (ASP, Inc.)
After a well-deserved off week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the famed yard of bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend's Crown Royal presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard.
The annual Brickyard 400 is considered one of the most prestigious races of the season by those in the garage area. In 18 visits, 11 drivers have put their name on the winner's trophy at the famed speedway, seven of them former series champions. Winning at Indianapolis is no simple feat, and will rank among the most important victories in a driver's career.
Veteran Jeff Gordon knows just how special it is to score a victory at IMS. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won the inaugural event in 1994, and has since gone on to collect a total of four Brickyard 400 wins, the most among all Cup drivers.
In last year's event, Gordon had one of the strongest cars in the field, leading 36 of the 160 laps. While he had plenty of fuel to make it to the end, his task was to chase down leader Paul Menard, who was attempting to stretch his fuel mileage to the end. Gordon charged nearly to the back bumper of Menard's No. 27 Chevrolet, but was forced to settle for second as Menard went on to score his first career Sprint Cup Series victory.
As the season moves to Indianapolis this weekend, Gordon is mired in 17th in the series standings and running out of time if he wants to be a part of the championship battle in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. An up-and-down season has left him scratching his head for answers, it seems things have finally started to fall into place for Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led team.
Since their 35th-place showing at Darlington in May, Gordon’s No. 24 team has scored five top 10s in the last eight races — moving him from 24th in points to 17th. Headed to one of his best tracks (he holds the second-best average finish), the four-time champion is in dire need of a win. Going off their notes from last year, look for the veteran to record his name in the record books again and kiss the bricks for the fifth time.
If Gordon wants to score that all-important fifth Brickyard 400 win and join the in Chase wild card discussion, he will have to beat teammate Kasey Kahne and defending series champion Tony Stewart.
Kahne started on the outside of the front row in last year's event, led 48 laps, but was foiled in the fuel mileage gamble in the closing laps and finished 18th. This season, Kahne has been making the most of his time at Hendrick Motorsports, scoring two wins, including the last Cup Series race at Loudon two weeks ago.
While Gordon may hold the most wins at Indianapolis, Stewart holds the best average finish among active drivers (8.1). The former open-wheel star has two wins at the Brickyard and has finished inside the top 10 in nine of his 13 starts. This season Stewart and his Steve Addington-prepped team have three wins, and this organization knows how to step up when it matters most. It’s safe to say that anytime the circuit hits the brickyard, Stewart is on everyone’s radar.
Five Favorites: Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth
Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick has flown a bit under the radar thus far in the 2012 season, but that is about to change as the series heads closer to the Chase. Currently sitting sixth in the championship standings, Harvick has three top 5s and nine top 10s through the first 19 races.
The proud new father has been solidly consistent this year, finishing outside the top 20 on only two occasions. Harvick is the 2003 Brickyard 400 champion and also holds the third-best average finish (10.0) among active drivers.
Although it appears Harvick is a safe bet to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a win would go a long way when the 12-driver field is reset following Richmond in September. Look for Harvick and his Shane Wilson-led crew to contend for that win on Sunday.
Whenever any form of motorsports heads to Indianapolis, one name stands above the rest is Roger Penske. The famed team owner has a total of 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500, but is searching for his first NASCAR victory at the yard of bricks.
While the majority of attention surrounding this organization has focused on AJ Allmendinger’s failed drug test and the fallout from that announcement, Brad Keselowski is set to put the attention back where it belongs: on the track.
“It definitely gives you a sense of pride when you go to Indy as a member of Penske Racing," Keselowski said. "You look at everything Mr. Penske has been able to accomplish there in open-wheel racing. It would be one of the coolest things I could ever do in a racecar if I could get him his first win in the Brickyard 400. I really think we have a good chance to do that on Sunday.”
Keselowski is among the best in the garage at overcoming adversity and rising to the occasion at the most significant times, and this week should be no different. At the famed speedway, Keselowski holds the 10th-best average finish (14.0) and was ninth in last year's race.
With three wins to his credit in 2012, Keselowski is 10th in the championship standings, but in search of more victories. Overcoming adversity and stepping up on the sport's biggest stages are among Keselowski's most notable attributes, so look for a solid day out of the No. 2 team this weekend.
The defending Brickyard 400 winner, the aforementioned Menard, was able to score that illusive first career Sprint Cup Series victory last year by stretching his fuel mileage to the end, but result was no fluke, as he also had one of the strongest cars of the day. Only once has the defending race winner gone on to win the following year at Indianapolis (Jimmie Johnson, 2008 and ’09), but could Menard be the second?
Much like in 2011, Menard is currently on the outside of the top 10 in championship standings in 15th. With time running out before the Chase field is set, a win would once again put Menard solidly in the wild card discussion heading to Richmond.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer
It is not often that a former race winner at a track is a darkhorse pick, but considering the type of season Jamie McMurray and his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, are having, it is hard not to consider them as such.
McMurray, the 2010 Brickyard 400 winner, has the seventh-best average finish (13.1) among active drivers with one win, three top 5s and five top 10s. McMurray was fourth in last year's event, but has finished outside the top 15 on four occasions.
This season, however, both McMurray and Montoya have been out to lunch. After a host of internal changes during the offseason, the expectations were high for team owner Chip Ganassi, however his cars currently sit 20th and 21st in the championship standings.
Of course, this is Indy, and much like fellow team owner Penske, Ganassi expects to run well here. Montoya has been a contender throughout the years in the Brickyard 400, only to have mistakes on pit road and accidents ruin solid runs. In fact, aside from finishing second in his first attempt at Indy in a stock car in 2007, Montoya has finished 28th or worse in three of his five starts.
This weekend, however, the Ganassi teammates are running in Friday’s Grand-Am Road Racing Series at Indy. Whether this will take away or contribute to the team's overall effort is up for debate.
Another former Indianapolis 500 winner you may want to keep an eye on is Penske Racing's Sam Hornish Jr. Taking the reins of the No. 22 Dodge from the suspended Allmendinger, Hornish now has the rare opportunity at a second chance in the Sprint Cup Series.
Hornish has struggled to adjust to the unexpected promotion to Cup over the past two races, but at a track he is comfortable racing at, perhaps this team will come into their own with Hornish as their driver this weekend at Indianapolis.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr., Regan Smith, Jeff Burton
If there is one certainty for this weekend's race at Indianapolis, perhaps it is going with Chevrolet drivers on your fantasy lineup. Since the Cup Series has been racing at IMS, the bowtie brigade has won 13 of 18 races, including the last nine events.
Among the most unique tracks on the schedule, the key to success at Indy will be a solid setup that makes the car work well throughout all four of the track's unique corners. Fuel mileage was a deciding factor in last year's race, and may play a major role in this year's race as well.
Best of luck to all the fantasy racers out there this weekend, and if you win, don't think twice about going out and kissing the bricks on your patio.
Best Average Finish at Indianapolis (Wins):
1. Tony Stewart — 8.1 (2)
2. Jeff Gordon — 9.1 (4)
3. Kevin Harvick — 10.0 (1)
4. Carl Edwards — 11.0 (0)
5. Clint Bowyer — 11.8 (0)
6. Mark Martin — 12.9 (0)
7. Jamie McMurray — 13.1 (1)
8. Greg Biffle — 13.1 (0)
9. Kyle Busch — 13.1 (0)
10. Brad Keselowski — 14.0 (0)
BK has it his way, dishes on drugs and the 'Dinger
Brad Keselowski (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
With one week off before the Brickyard 400, the stars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are enjoying life away from the motorhome gauntlet that is their home away from home for the better part of the year.
Jeff Gordon is in Rwanda (which is beautiful this time of year) with former President Bill Clinton. No, he really is — that’s not just a cover for WJC. His teammate, Jimmie Johnson, went triatholoning with another teammate, Kasey Kahne, while A.J. Allmendinger is likely holed up somewhere resembling Riggs in the first 10 minutes of Lethal Weapon (YouTube it) while he awaits the results of his “B” sample.
Speaking of Allmendinger, his teammate Brad Keselowski had a few things to say about substance abuse and NASCAR’s policy, as well as his own feelings of what should and shouldn’t be allowed in the sport.
While last Sunday’s race was largely forgettable (save for those two passes for the lead under green – that’s right, literally two of them) Keselowski’s comments regarding the plight of Allmendinger and the state of the sport’s drug testing procedure was notable. Keselowski disagreed with Carl Edwards’ assertion that drivers should have their own testing firm representing them to validate the findings of Aegis Analytical Laboratories, NASCAR’s chosen testing group. I would side with BK on this one, as that smacks of a “driver’s union” which, as we’ve seen in the past, only ends badly, and never accomplishes much of an objective.
Where I disagree with Keselowski’s meandering rant is with his attitude towards taking any supplements – legal or otherwise.
“My personal belief that nothing should be allowed,” Keselowski stated. “Nothing. I don't feel like you should be able to take Flintstones (vitamins) pills. It's my personal belief. You're racecar drivers, you should have to overcome it. I think it's a bunch of bull___ people should be allowed to take supplements, any of those things. I don't think that's right. I don't think any athlete should be allowed to take that. But that's my own personal belief.”
Now, I’ll preface my reaction to this by saying I am a huge Brad K. guy. I think he’s great for the sport. I always appreciate his insight and honesty and believe he truly is one of the most talented drivers of our era and will one day deliver Roger Penske that elusive Sprint Cup championship.
That said, his comments are those made by someone who has no clue whatsoever about nutrition, training and taking care of one’s body.
First of all, let’s take a look at the term “supplement”: “Something that completes or enhances something else when added to it. Typically that would include things such as protein powders (i.e., powdered milk), thermogenics (herbal extracts which help burn fat, increase metabolism, and provide alertness – not unlike coffee), vitamins, (basic minerals and nutrients required for proper cell and organ function), and a host of other powders, shakes, creams, oils, and things both natural or made in a lab to help you recover and perform during the course of strenuous physical activity.”
This, as opposed to say, slamming beers in Victory Lane minutes after losing 10 pounds in water weight over the course of a three-hour race. Regardless of what sport you’re in or your feelings toward physical fitness, alcohol + dehydration is not a winning combination — and using Keselowski’s rigorous standards, would have almost guaranteed that he would have failed a random test prior to his press conference after his winning the Nationwide event Sunday in Loudon.
“I laugh out loud when I read that people say, ‘Well I have my supplements checked,’” Keselowski said in response to Danica Patrick’s statement that her trainer reviews her dietary supplements to ensure there’s no risk of her taking something she should not. “Like there's some special list of supplements that are OK, but these aren't! What kind of world is that? That's terrible. Nothing should be allowed. Because then it comes down to if you've got a doctor or a lawyer who says, ‘This is OK and this is not.’ And I think we all know you can get a doctor or a lawyer these days to say you're OK with anything you do.”
As my Dad would say: “He’s talking like a man with a paper a$$hole.” To this day I have no idea what that means, and is yet another reason why I regret not having served in the Air Force, where apparently he encountered many such individuals with pulpwood colons.
Checking supplements for items that, at certain levels, may a positive reading for something untoward is imperative. Whispers centering around Allmendinger testing positive for a stimulant in an energy drink or a substance that is performance-related have been the focus of some speculation. But speculation is just that. The point is, doctors and lawyers actually do decide what is OK, as that is part of their job; this level/substance/supplement is safe, this is not. This will probably kill you, this will make you not have to leave your shirt on at the pool.
While Keselowski’s comments make for good sound bites (and are the type of no-nonsense/tough-guy talk the sport has desperately missed) it is ignorant at best, and at worst, misinformed. They’re also insulting to those who train, sacrifice, and take a fanatical approach to physical health and nutrition. Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray have all taken conditioning and preparation to the next level in NASCAR which is at least part of the reason they are consistently able to perform at the level they do — and not look or sound like they’ve been through five rounds in the Octagon with Anderson Silva after climbing from a 500-mile summer Sunday afternoon.
Then again, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have never been known to cruise around with their shirts off – and those trips to Dairy Queen didn’t seem to slow Smoke down in last year’s Chase.
Keselowski’s closing remarks brought the argument full-circle:
“I'm sure I have different views than everyone else. I don't think there needs to be any committee that approves drugs or supplements because I think you shouldn't be allowed to take anything. You should just man up and drive the damn racecar.”
Nobody – certainly not I – would accuse Keselowski of not manning up and driving his racecar. From his grotesquely violent accident at Road Atlanta to getting walled (and roofed) by Edwards at Atlanta in 2010 to getting T-boned by half the field at Gateway later that same season, Brad’s “Bad” moniker should be recognized for his intestinal fortitude and tough-as-nails efforts for his team. He’s as close to a throwback driver as we have today, along with Stewart and Martin; Martin simply because, at 53, was part of another era.
There is, however, a distinct difference between supplements, performance-enhancing drugs and otherwise illegal-unless-prescribed drugs. Thus, there may be a completely logical explanation in the case of Allmendinger. Is this Jeremy Mayfield running speed? Lord, I hope not. Is it Aaron Fike going Layne Staley with a syringe and spoon in an amusement park parking lot? Doubtful.
Linking the three as Keselowski was doing was both unfortunate, distorted and a bit misleading – even if unintentionally so.
Insinuating that nutritional aids and supplements are of a similar caliber as anabolic-androgenic steroids, synthetic hormones, narcotics or amphetamines, and speaking to it publicly as if fact was inaccurate and only served to spread patently false information, painting basic nutrition and training tools as something underhanded and unethical.
If this was a matter of semantics and confusing the terminology, then I understand. Until then, I remain a bit confused and bristle at the suggestion that perfectly safe and legal substances that promote health and wellness are suddenly thrown under the bus, then backed over for good measure.
Jimmie Johnson leads the pack (but don't tell Chad Norris)
"Hey Carl, my new crew chief drinks your sponsors product to help him fall sleep." (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson A Daytona crash is the only blemish on Johnson’s stat sheet since mid-May. Indianapolis is typically the event that Johnson, Chad Knaus & crew use as a jumping off point for the Chase.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. According to Junior's buddy Mike Davis, Earnhardt has completed the first 5,488 laps this season, a record in NASCAR’s Modern Era. He also has 20 consecutive lead lap finishes, dating back to 2011.
3. Matt Kenseth No flashy stats for Kenseth, just a stream of steadiness for the points leader. His 13th at Loudon, along with a 13th at Sonoma, are his worst showings since a 16th way back in March.
4. Tony Stewart Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski are closing the gap on the Big Three of Johnson, Earnhardt and Keselowski, although Smoke’s Loudon performance was disappointing after winning there last year.
5. Denny Hamlin “Hit or Miss” Hamlin was a hit on Sunday, despite falling short in the end due to miscommunication with the crew chief. Hamlin’s last six races: Three top 5s, three finishes of 25th or worse.
6. Brad Keselowski May deserve to be higher on the list, as BK and the boys appear to be gaining steam — which says something since they’re already weekly contenders.
7. Kasey Kahne Was Sunday’s win what we’ll look back on as his Chase-clinching run? Impossible to say, but suddenly, the heat is turned up on about five drivers clawing for a wild card slot in the Chase.
8. Greg Biffle His ninth-place finish in New Hampshire led the Roush Fenway contingent — odd in that the “Fenway” in the race team’s name is the same associated with a certain New England sports franchise.
"Hey Martin, I hear Carl has some badass new crew chief." (ASP, Inc.)
9. Clint Bowyer Back on track to the tune of a third-place run at Loudon after two hangover-esque weekends that proceded the Sonoma victory.
10. Jeff Gordon Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson are obviously going all-out for wins at this point, which explains his frustration after finishing a respectable sixth in Loudon. Those wins are now imperative.
11. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s eighth in Loudon was his best showing in over a month. A win would cinch things for him.
12. Martin Truex Jr. Has 50 points on 11th-place Carl Edwards. And at this rate — without a win — he’ll need ’em.
13. Ryan Newman Baby news for the second straight week: Ryan and Krissie welcomed Ashlyn Olivia on Monday.
14. Joey Logano Currently in a log jam with Newman and Kyle Busch for that second Chase wild card spot.
15. Kyle Busch Maybe if he went back to racing three times a weekend ... ?
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard
The majority of these cars didn't make it another 10 laps. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Matt Kenseth Kenseth was the man to beat at Daytona for a second straight trip, although the fortunes of plate racing found him third by night’s end. Still, RFR is the team to beat on the plate tracks.
2. Jimmie Johnson Johnson’s 2012 plate racing results: 42nd, 35th and 36th. In fact, his plate stats over the last few years — outside of a Talladega win — aren’t that impressive. Speaks more to the style of racing than the driver.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. You can throw a blanket over the top 3. Each has 13 top 10s in 18 races and at least one win. Junior slots third here because he trails Kenseth in the standings and Johnson in the wins column.
4. Tony Stewart Stewart closes the gap on the “Big Three” every three weeks or so. His problem lies in consistency — he seems to either finish in the top 3 on race day or outside of the top 20.
5. Denny Hamlin It’s hard to fault a guy for getting wrecked while racing for the win at Daytona. That was the story of Hamlin’s night, so we’ll give him a pass and see what New Hampshire holds.
6. Greg Biffle Biffle took the blame for the final “Big One” of the night in Daytona, though it’s hard to pin that on any one driver. His sliding from top 5 to 21st in the wreck is punishment enough.
7. Brad Keselowski Keselowski seems to always be near the center of the storm. From getting hit on pit road to spinning out without any help, he had a rough night but rebounded for a respectable eighth-place showing.
8. Kasey Kahne Stewart’s dancing partner at Daytona, Kahne managed a seventh-place run thanks to the craziness in the final two football field’s worth of the 400.
9. Clint Bowyer Since a scintillating four-week stretch that culminated in a win, Bowyer has limped to 16th- and 29th-place runs. That said, he’ll be a pre-race favorite in Loudon this Sunday.
10. Martin Truex Jr. Truex is still hanging tough at seventh in the point standings, but a win would go a long way in securing a spot in the Chase.
11. Jeff Gordon Somehow brought a wrecked racecar home to a 12th-place finish. Still 87 points out of a Chase birth.
12. Kevin Harvick Congrats to the Harvicks on the birth of their first child, Keelan Paul, born on Sunday.
13. Joey Logano Currently occupies wild card spot No. 2 — but it’s oh-so-close in the mid-teens.
14. Kyle Busch If it’s not mechanical woes that fell Busch, it’s a Daytona “Big One.”
15. Carl Edwards Thirty-two points out of 10th in the standings and desperately scrambling to get things on track.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's LENOX Industrial Tools 301
Defending Loudon winner Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
The race may have ended Saturday night, but the smoke has yet to settle following the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway — both literally and figuratively.
Defending series champion Tony Stewart did what few could Saturday night, passing Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle for the lead. The two were attached at the bumper and out ahead of the pack for the majority of the night, leading a combined 124 of the 160 laps. Yet in the final frantic laps, Stewart was able to work with Kasey Kahne and push around the pair on the outside.
Earning his third victory of the year, Stewart tied Brad Keselowski with the most wins this season, and further solidified his spot in the Chase. Aside from a 32nd-place finish at Kentucky, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have one win and four finishes of third or better in the last five events.
The two-time champion typically hits his stride during the summer stretch, and that seems to be the case again this year, so the competition should pay heed at New Hampshire, a track where Stewart owns for victories.
At times is seems Stewart performs at his best when faced with adversity and distractions abound for his organization at the moment. With the U.S. Army pulling all funding from NASCAR at the end of the year and Ryan Newman's name coming up in the Silly Season talk, Stewart is going to have to start answering questions soon.
However, there are bigger controversies, more time for that to develop, and Smoke just so happens to be heading to one of his best tracks, statistically speaking.
Over the past two seasons, Stewart has one win and two runner-up finishes in four races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That 24th-place finish in the other event? He led 100 of the 300 laps, but ran out of fuel on the final lap giving the win to Clint Bowyer in September 2010.
Stewart-Haas Racing was the class of the field in this race last season when Newman led the organization to a 1-2 sweep of both qualifying and the race. Newman also led 62 laps in September's Chase race, but was among those short on fuel in the closing laps.
Despite a win this season, Newman currently trails Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in the wild card standings. A strong run (or a win) would move the No. 39 team closer to the championship battle.
Bowyer, the Sonoma winner, is another driver with his eye on the wild card standings. After scoring the win on the road course, Bowyer has dropped from seventh to 10th in the standings after a 16th at Kentucky and wreck-induced 29th in Daytona.
Bowyer is strong in Loudon though, with two wins and four top 5s in his 12 visits, however, also has seven finishes of 17th or worse. He has led a combined 229 laps in the last three New Hampshire races, with one win (Sept. 2010), a 17th and a 26th after running out of fuel with the lead in the final laps.
Five Favorites: Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin
The aforementioned wild card battle continues to intensify with each race, as Busch, Logano, Newman and Kahne jockey for the final two Chase spots over the next eight weeks. The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Busch and Logano currently hold the two transfer positions, but there is a lot of racing left before anything is decided.
While Busch has been trying to kick the trend of poor finishes, Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s in the last five races. Along with his strong runs on the Cup slate, Logano has also been tearing things up in the Nationwide Series (four wins, a fifth and a sixth in the last six events), leaving the 22-year-old feeling comfortable and confident behind the wheel, despite being a prominent figure in the Silly Season rumor mill.
The July New Hampshire race has been good to the driver of the No. 20 Toyota throughout his young career. In his three July starts at the “Magic Mile” Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s. Logano has not fared as well in the fall race, however, with three finishes outside the top 20 in four attempts.
Look for the trend of strong runs to continue this weekend as Logano and crew chief Jason Ratcliff go after their second win of the year, positioning themselves for a Chase berth.
Five Undervalued Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton
Darkhorse pick of the week: Brian Vickers. (ASP, Inc.)
As teams and sponsors look to 2013, free agent drivers shopping for rides are doing their best to impress. For Brian Vickers, who is driving a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, much must be accomplished in limited time.
In his three 2012 starts behind the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota, Vickers has two top 5s (Bristol, Sonoma) and an 18th at Martinsville. Team owner Michael Waltrip was behind the wheel of the No. 55 last weekend at Daytona, surviving the carnage at the end to finish inside the top 10.
Vickers was fifth in Loudon last September, but finished 34th in the July event. In fact, in his 13 starts at NHMS, Vickers has five finishes of 34th or worse. With so much on the line for his future — along with the success of the No. 55 throughout the season —Vickers is this weekend's darkhorse pick.
If a three-time Loudon winner can be considered a darkhorse, then Jeff Gordon is it for Sunday's 300-miler. While the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has the third-best average finish in New Hampshire (10.8), his luck this season has been devastating to his playoff hopes. Strong runs at historically successful tracks have gone to waste due to mechanical failures, wrecks and a host of other issues.
There is no doubt the four-time series champion will be a contender Sunday, but can his team put together a full race free of issues — self-inflicted, luck-related or otherwise? Given they are just on the outside of the wild card hunt and need solid finishes, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson understand they need to do all they can to score wins.
“We are not afraid of trying things with the setup or during the race,” Gordon says. “We're not afraid to take some risks. Each race that goes by without a win (means) the more risk we are willing to take. But I feel like we're still a long way from being out of this thing.”
Five Darkhorse Picks: Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr.
Best Average Finish at New Hampshire (wins):
1. Denny Hamlin — 9.0 (1)
2. Jimmie Johnson — 10.0 (3)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.8 (3)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (3)
5. Ryan Newman — 13.0 (3)
6. Jeff Burton — 13.6 (4)
7. Kurt Busch — 13.9 (3)
8. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (0)
9. Matt Kenseth — 14.0 (0)
10. Kevin Harvick — 14.1 (1) *Mark Martin, with one win and an average finish of 12.5, is not entered in this weekend’s event.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Coke Zero 400
Carl Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
Here's hoping all the NASCAR fantasy players out there had a happy and safe Fourth of July holiday. After a week of firework displays around this great nation, the grand finale will come Saturday night under the lights at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 — let's just keep Juan Pablo Montoya away from any jet dryers, OK?
In all seriousness, this weekend's annual July stop at the beach is one in which drivers are racing with multiple agendas on one of the sport's biggest stages. Each time the series heads to Daytona, nearly anyone in the field has a shot at upsetting the world — or at least scoring a solid finish at a crucial part of the season.
With only nine races left before the Chase field is set, the battle for the wild card spots and the fight for the top 10 in the standings is intensifying.
Perhaps one of the biggest names currently outside the top 10 in points looking to score his first win of the season this is Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards. Last year's runner-up in the championship battle has yet to win in 2012, and currently sits 11th in points.
Edwards had a deceptively strong run going in Kentucky, but a late pit stop for fuel dropped the No. 99 Ford to a 20th-place finish at the end of the night. The finish was Edwards' fifth-straight outside the top 10. To find Edwards' last top-5 finish, you would have to go back to Fontana in March. Edwards did not lead a single lap of competition until Kansas, when he led one, then backed it up at Richmond by leading 206 of the 400 laps. Since then, Edwards has led a grand total of zero.
However, things have been shaken up of late at RFR. Daytona 500 champion and current points leader Matt Kenseth will be leaving the organization at the end of the season with Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moving up to the Cup ranks as his replacement. With a multitude of sponsorship support behind him and many beginning to ask questions, Edwards is determined to turn his season around at the halfway point.
The driver of the No. 99 has been among the best on the high banks of Daytona in recent visits. He was runner-up to Trevor Bayne in last year's Daytona 500. He entered last year's Coke Zero 400 the points leader, but was turned around while running third early in the race by teammate Greg Biffle, leading to a 37th-place finish. This season, Edwards sat on the pole for the 500 and came home eighth. And if there’s one thing that’s obvious in the Ford camp, it’s that their engineers have figured out how to keep the Blue Ovals running cooler — a major advantage on the plate tracks, circa 2012.
Looking to race his way back into the top 10 in points, earn his first win of the season and turn his year around, Edwards is this week's fantasy favorite.
While Edwards may be the fantasy favorite, the perennial fan favorite is Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has two wins on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, one of which came in the Coke Zero 400 on July 7, 2001. With Saturday night's race coming on July 7 once again, could seven be the lucky number for Earnhardt?
Although he is always counted among the best at Daytona — he finished second to Kenseth in February — Earnhardt's last win on the high banks was in 2004. With one victory already this season, the No. 88 team is eager to add to the win column and start collecting bonus points for the Chase.
Whether or not drivers are willing to admit it, momentum is a hard thing to beat, and right now Brad Keselowski has a lot of it. Coming off a strong performance last week in Kentucky, Keselowski’s three wins lead the circuit. He’s good on all types of tracks (with wins on short, plate and intermediate venues), making him a must-watch.
Based on their recent finishes at Daytona, never count out Edwards’ Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Biffle. Kenseth was second in this race last season and won his second Daytona 500 in February, while Biffle was third. The Roush cars are typically strong here, with former driver David Ragan besting Kenseth last July.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Like Keselowski, Sonoma race-winner Clint Bowyer proved he can get the job done on any style track — but especially on the high banks of Daytona and Talladega. His average finish of 14.8 at DIS is second-best among active drivers, however Bowyer has yet to score a win at Daytona.
Also like Keselowski, Bowyer has momentum on his side as the series hits the halfway point of the season. A winner two weeks ago on the road course, Bowyer is seventh in the standings and has only two finishes worse than 17th all season (a 30th, Phoenix; 36th, Kansas).
The month of July has historically been good to Bowyer in the past. Of the three tracks the series hits this month — Daytona, New Hampshire and Indianapolis — Bowyer has two wins, a pole, six top 5s and 12 top 10s. Expect him to add to those totals on Saturday.
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and teammate Clint Bowyer (15) at Daytona. (ASP, Inc.)
Bowyer's MWR teammate, Martin Truex Jr., has not had much luck when it comes to Daytona, but expect that to turn around this weekend. In his 14 previous starts on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Truex has a best finish of sixth in the 2010 Daytona 500 and an average finish of 21.5. In fact, that sixth-place finish is his lone top 10 at Daytona. Statistically, Truex has struggled mightily in the annual July event, with a best finish of 13th in 2007. Aside from that event, Truex has four finishes of 25th or worse in six races.
However, Truex and his No. 56 team have shown strength this season. Already 17 races into the season, Truex has more top 5 finishes (four) than in the last four seasons combined, and nearly as many top 10s (nine). Sitting eighth in the standings, Truex is looking to move further away from that 10th-place Chase cut off, break his winless streak dating back to 2007 and start building bonus points for the Chase.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson
There have been quite a few surprises throughout the first half of the 2012 season, but one that jumps out is the driver sitting just outside the top 10 in the standings in 13th-place. Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard has consistently stayed in contention, yet just outside the Chase cutoff, ahead of race-winners Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
Although he has only four top-10 finishes this season, Menard's average finish has been 16.1. Consistently finishing inside the top 20 is not enough to make the Chase or content for the title, so Menard needs to either score a win and enter the Chase via wild card, or make a run at the top 10.
Daytona is a great place for Menard to make a statement run as he did last year at Indianapolis. Heading into this weekend's race, Menard has three consecutive top-10 finishes at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, the only driver on the circuit to currently own such a streak, and something that should continue Saturday night.
Another of the biggest surprises this season has been the abysmal showing of AJ Allmendinger in his new Penske digs. For as successful a year as his teammate, Keselowski, has had, Allmendinger's year has been equally tough to swallow. Poor luck and other struggles have led to six finishes of 31st or worse. However, the driver of the No. 22 Dodge is coming off back-to-back top-10 finishes at Sonoma and Kentucky — his first such “streak” of the season.
Allmendinger showed strength in Daytona early in the season but sustained damage to the nose on pit road just 15 laps into the event. A solid run at Talladega also went to the wayside late in the race when he and Denny Hamlin got together on a late-race restart.
With the season at the halfway point and speculation beginning to build about Penske’s plans for the No. 22 Dodge in 2013, it is time for a solid string of runs through the summer months. With back-to-back top 10s in his pocket, look for Allmendinger to be a factor if he can make it through the entire event without any issues.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger, Landon Cassill, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray
Top 10 average finish at Daytona (points-paying wins):
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.5 (2)
2. Clint Bowyer — 14.8 (0)
3. Kevin Harvick — 15.0 (0)
4. Bill Elliott — 15.6 (4)
5. Jeff Gordon — 16.2 (6)
6. Tony Stewart — 16.7 (3)
7. Matt Kenseth — 16.7 (2)
8. Kurt Busch — 17.3 (0)
9. Carl Edwards — 17.3 (0)
10. Paul Menard — 17.3 (0)
Drivers and teams to watch as the circuit hits its mid-summer classic in Daytona
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (please don’t call it the Pepsi 400 — Firecracker 400, however, will be accepted) marks the halfway point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
The year’s third restrictor plate race was once run on the morning of the fourth to beat the oppressive North Florida heat and humidity. “On the track by 11:00, on the beach by 2:00,” was the mantra before lights and night racing. NASCAR’s signature speedway has endured wildfires and truck fires in recent years, as well as Turn Two disemboweling itself in the middle of an event, but all should be solid as we’re knee-deep in the Summer Stretch. And as the championship chase begins to take shape, the contenders have begun to separate themselves from the pretenders. Unless, of course, it’s 2011 and you’re Tony Stewart, stumbling into the Chase like the town lush, but suddenly start running like Tony Stewart once the title fight begins.
But I digress. Let’s review our current top 10 in points, how they got here, and who on the outside looking in has to get their stuff together if they have any hopes of contending for the Cup come September.
1. Matt Kenseth Wins: 1 (Daytona 500)
Let’s see, Daytona 500: Check. Points leader: Check. Bailing on team mid-season: WTF? Kenseth’s announcement that he is leaving the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford at season’s end sent shockwaves through the fanbase. His likely destination appears to be Joe Gibbs Racing, although a proposed Andretti Autosport venture into NASCAR with Dodge assistance has been bandied about. It’s bad enough that Jack Roush’s former flagship No. 6 has been mothballed, but now the tried-and-true driver of the No. 17? Tragically coincidental — since it was the original driver of the No. 6, Mark Martin, who sold Roush on Kenseth, convincing him to field the No. 17 Cup ride for him in 2000. The last driver to win the Winston Cup in 2003 has been a model of consistency this year, much as he was that season. Kenseth’s low-key demeanor and approach will likely serve him well during what will prove to be a tumultuous few months in the Ford camp. With a win, eight top 5s and 12 top 10s to his credit this year, if Kenseth and the Wisconsin Mafia can keep the distractions at bay they very well could exit in style, giving Roush his third Cup Series championship. But distractions and fallout associated with being a “lame duck” lurk around every corner.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins: 1 (Michigan)
All together now: “JUUUUUNE-YEEERRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!” Finally, after 143 races and four years of futility, Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke into the winner’s circle at Michigan, the site of his last win in 2008. That victory did more for the psyche than the stat sheet, as Earnhardt is what Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket would deem, “Definitely born again hard.” With a win, seven top-5 and an even more impressive 13 top-10 finishes, the No. 88 team has done more in four months than it had in the last … well, forever. Credit Steve Letarte and Rick Hendrick, who essentially put Earnhardt with Jeff Gordon’s former team last season. The Prince of Kannapolis is doing his fans proud, so don’t be surprised to see a lot of old, red No. 8 gear being dusted off and thrust back into service in the coming months. Take heart Junior Nation — you’ve earned it, and your man is back near the top. Junior hasn’t been in a fierce title battle in so long, it’s hard to predict what type of showing he’ll make. But if a late-season slide doesn’t derail his momentum (and with Letarte calling the shots, it shouldn’t), Earnhardt is looking gbetter than he has in … well, forever.
3. Jimmie Johnson Wins: 2 (Darlington, Dover)
Oh yeah, don’t forget the “other driver” at Hendrick Motorsports. When he’s not cruising around with Mr. H on his windowsill, Jimmie Johnson is just being Jimmie Johnson; going about his business with painful precision and without much fanfare. Like a Glock pistol, he may be short on flash and flair, but he is dead-nuts reliable and never fails when the money is on the line. His nine top 5s and 13 top 10s are the most in both categories, and should serve as a harbinger of things to come in the fall. As in the past, the No. 48 team vets and fetters out the junk and finds what works during the summer months, then sets “phasers to kill” come September. For those who have tired of the “Five-Time” moniker, don’t worry. You may be calling him “Six-Time” by Thanksgiving.
4. Greg Biffle Wins: 1 (Texas)
Biffle started off the season strong, posting a trio of top-3 finishes in the first three races. He made a mockery of the last half of the April event at Texas Motor Speedway, and led the points from Las Vegas in early March until a 24th-place finish at Pocono, when he surrendered the top spot to his soon-to-be former teammate, Kenseth. A Roush veteran since his 1998 Truck Series debut, Biffle will prove to be the backbone of the team with Kenseth’s impending departure. While the No. 16 team started strong, it has stumbled in recent weeks, posting two sub-20th-place runs in the last four races. It was the No. 16 team that stopped Roush’s win skein in 2010, when the company got off track with misleading data simulation and sucky software on the engineering side. If there is a trend that must be watched with this bunch, it is that Biffle tends to go through crew chiefs quickly. Eight top 5s and 10 top 10s are a testament to his consistency, as well as the effect that current chief Matt Puccia has had for the driver who is in position to be the first in NASCAR history to win a championship in all three touring series.
5. Denny Hamlin Wins: 2 (Phoenix, Kansas)
What a difference a year makes. This time last season, Denny Hamlin was, to be honest, a mess. With three top 5s and six top 10s, coupled win a number of cryptic comments made during interviews that at best sounded whiney, Hamlin was still suffering the side-effects from his team’s 2010 implosion. Now with a new attitude and re-found mental toughness (and 2011 championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb making decisive calls), Hamlin has a pair of wins, and eight top-5 finishes. Those runs account for nearly all of his top 10s, and it must be noted that he has two DNFs in his last three races — courtesy of a fiery exit in Michigan and the front bumper of teammate Joey Logano at Sonoma. If Hamlin can keep from getting wrecked or exploding — and a TRD IED does not find its way between the fenders of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota — he will likely find himself in contention to win the title, as he was in 2010. This time, however, he will be better prepared mentally and strategically to contend.
6. Kevin Harvick Wins: 0
The driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet hasn’t had a lot to brag about this year — but he hasn’t had much to really complain about, either. Usually the first one to ride his crew if they make the smallest of errors, Harvick has achieved his position not so much with poise and audacity, but on reliability and finishing races. A smattering of eight top 10s and three top 5s is decent, but not exactly championship caliber. If Harvick were to have a catastrophic failure in the coming weeks — which would lose him say, 40 points — the impact would be significant, and could potentially drop him out of the top 10 in points. He’s gotten by on a number of eighth- to 14th-place runs, but if he’s to solidify his place in the Chase, the No. 29 operation as a whole needs to step it up on the track, in the pits and in the garage while prepping the car for Sunday.
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
7. Clint Bowyer Wins: 1 (Sonoma)
Not only do you see him every 15 minutes in a 5-Hour Energy or NASCAR.com commercial, you now see him up front, leading and winning races. Bowyer’s move to Michael Waltrip Racing was seen by many as a risky move, albeit one he was essentially forced into after he lost his ride in the No. 33 at RCR (despite winning a Nationwide title in 2008 and qualifying for the Chase three times in six seasons). With former RCR crew chief and competition director Scott Miller making the move to MWR as well, the performance of all involved has risen substantially. With six top 5s and nine top 10s, the occasional win, or at least contention for the win, is no longer an oddity. This, coupled with some veteran leadership from Mark Martin in a part-time arrangement in the No. 55, along with teammate Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 56 group, finds MWR becoming this generation’s — dare I say it? — RCR.
8. Martin Truex Jr. Wins: 0
Martin Truex Jr. is enjoying his best season in Cup competition since his 2007 rookie campaign when he won a race, made the Chase and ended the year 11th in points. Currently sitting in eighth position on the strength of four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes, Truex has been a key cog in the MWR Renaissance of 2012. However, there may be storm clouds on the horizon. Truex’s finishes have begun to waver, his eighth-place run at Kentucky ending a string of three races without a top 10. Now is not the time to mix inconsistency into the equation, particularly with the crapshoot that is a restrictor plate race at Daytona on the docket. While Truex is only 10 points out of fifth in the standings, he’s also less than 20 points from 10th. If he keeps the steady-as-she-goes performance trend and avoids any back-to-back disasters or mechanical maladies, he looks to be a safe bet to make the Chase field for the first time in five years.
9. Tony Stewart Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Fontana)
Towards the bottom of the top 10, we find a pair of drivers on the tail end of making the Chase, but who are arguably the most potent in the field. Tony Stewart has seven top-5 finishes and eight top 10s, but it is how he came to those numbers that are the most telling: two wins, back-to-back second-place runs and three third-place showings. Add in some mechanical woes by way of EFI foul ups, and you have created the crusty Tony of old the last couple of months. Quite possibly the only person in the country who was not cheering the Earnhardt victory in Michigan, Smoke has found that delicate balance of diplomacy and irritability that has guided him to three championships. Streaky performances be damned, he’s in prime position to add a fourth to the mix — half of which would be as an owner/driver, something not seen since The King’s heydays of the 1970s.
10. Brad Keselowski Wins: 3 (Bristol, Talladega, Kentucky)
The one driver barely clinging to top-10 status is also the lynchpin in the Chase scenario. Keselowski has won three races at three diametrically different tracks: Bristol, Talladega and Kentucky. Plate track, short track, intermediate — it doesn’t seem to matter where the Miller Lite Dodge goes, it can be a force to be reckoned with. It would appear that the strategy being employed by the No. 2 team is to focus on wins ahead of all else. Three of his top 5s are victories while the other two barely made it as fifth-place performances. His top 10s are then comprised of a pair of ninth-place finishes, with the rest being mid-teens or worse-than-30th finishes. The only DNF they suffered was post-Tweet at the Daytona 500 in February, and it was about this time last year that Keselowski made the transition from promising driver to leader and motivator following a broken ankle during a testing crash. It remains a mystery why Penske is leaving Dodge to join forces with Ford, what with the modest win totals of the two-car team over the last few seasons. However, it remains committed to its current manufacturer and stands to make some noise for the Mopar faithful if its flagship No. 2 team can avoid any calamities in the coming weeks. Of course, even a tumble out of the top 10 finds Keselowski in the catbird seat, with three-times the wins as anyone from 11th to 20th in the standings.
On the Outside Looking In
To think that Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch would be reduced to relative obscurity in October is nearly unfathomable, especially considering Edwards’ 2011 consistency, Gordon’s seemingly resurrected career with crew chief Alan Gustafson and Busch’s ability to hammer out wins in quick succession. However, all three have missed the Chase before, and they’re nearing the point of no return without some wins. Nine races remain before the Chase for the Championship begins in Chicago, and of the three, only Busch has a 2012 win. Edwards’ and Gordon’s teams have had both bad luck and bad calls that have kept them out of Victory Lane, while the engines supplied to the No. 18 from TRD have been straight up TuRDs, with three straight engine failures conspiring to drop Busch to 12th in points.
Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman all reside within the top 20, and each have one win. Among them, only Kahne has displayed any sort of consistent speed to threaten breaking into the top 10. Even if that happened, it would likely require Keselowski and Stewart to fall out. With The Big Keselowski having three wins and Smoke two, that would also require Logano and Newman to crank out a couple of more wins apiece if they were to qualify — not out of the realm of possibility, but certainly not expected.
Paul Menard, in 13th, will need to repeat last year’s Brickyard 400 triumph to have a shot at taking one of the two open wildcard spots, as he has yet to claim a win this year. Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton are over 100 points out of 10th and have struggled to find the top 10, much less score wins. Marcos Ambrose isn’t in much better shape, though a trip to Watkins Glen may get him back in the wildcard conversation.
No. 1 in our rankings, No. 1 in her heart. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson Lost a shot at the win during the final restart in Kentucky when he picked up trash on his tires. Managed to rebound to sixth after a quick backslide, his 13th top 10 of the season.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Was never a factor for the win at Kentucky, but ran consistently in the top 10 most of the evening before climbing to fourth at race’s end.
3. Matt Kenseth A classic Kenseth performance, he was invisible all Saturday afternoon, but popped into the top 10 after the sun went down and drove to seventh, retaining the points lead.
4. Tony Stewart There’s a sizeable gap between the top 3 and the rest of the field. Smoke was the victim of electrical demons in his ignition system and was most likely cursing NASCAR’s EFI system and that damn KFC commerical the rest of the night.
5. Denny Hamlin Fifth- and third-place runs bookend 34th- and 35th-place showings. When he stays out of the wrecks and the suspension holds up, he’s as good as creamy mac 'n' cheese.
6. Clint Bowyer String of top 10s ended at Kentucky when Bowyer became the victim of Ryan Newman and Joey Logano’s dust-up on the front stretch.
7. Greg Biffle Was a 10th- to 12th-place car until he thought his tire went down late. The pit stop resulted in a 21st-place showing and a drop in the point standings, to fourth.
That ain't beer, kids. (ASP, Inc.)
8. Brad Keselowski Wins at Bristol, Talladega and Kansas prove that this team is capable of winning on any type of track and at any time. Confidence has to be boiling over heading back to the beach.
9. Kasey Kahne A loose wheel cost him a lap early in the going at Kentucky. Kahne soldiered on though, and had an absolute rocketship at the end of the race, when he claimed second.
10. Martin Truex Jr. The 1-to-2-mile intermediate tracks have been where Truex and crew have flexed their NAPA-supported muscle this season. Though not a contender for the win at Kentucky, the eighth-place run sufficed.
11. Jeff Gordon Stop the press: Jeff Gordon did not have any fluky problems on Saturday. The result: fifth-place.
12. Kevin Harvick How Harvick has managed to stay around sixth in the standings is a mystery.
13. Joey Logano Note to Joey: Newman outweighs you by probably 75 pounds. Let it go, man.
14. Kyle Busch Kyle’s game of Duck, Duck, Goose continues with “Engine, Engine, Engine, Shock!”
15. AJ Allmendinger Back-to-back top 10s a good sign as the circuit prepares to enter the second half of the season.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard