Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses in Saturday's Quaker State 400
Kyle Busch crosses the finish line at Kentucky in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
Over the past three weeks the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has run on new surfaces twice at Pocono and Michigan. While Kentucky Speedway is not a new surface, Saturday night's Quaker State 400 is only the second Cup Series race on the 1.5-mile tri-oval. So while teams will have a slightly better idea of what to expect with the notes built from last year’s event, Kentucky Speedway still presents some unknowns.
One team that was a cut above the rest last year was Kyle Busch and his Dave Rogers-led No. 18 team for Joe Gibbs Racing. After scoring a victory in the Camping World Truck Series at Kentucky, Busch dominated the inaugural Cup event, leading 125 of the 267 laps en route to the win.
Yet, entering this weekend's race, Busch has been forced to swallow a string of poor finishes over the past month. After his Richmond win in April, Busch was able to score three-straight finishes of fourth or better. However, since the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, the No. 18 team has two DNFs, three finishes of 29th or worse with a best finish of 17th, which came last weekend in Sonoma. Busch commented on his poor luck earlier in the week through Twitter, saying he even bit through his tongue while eating lunch. Sometimes when guys have a string of bad luck, it's hard to kick.
Given his performance at Kentucky over the years in various series (and especially in last year's race), I expect Busch to knock the monkey from his back and get back to his contending ways.
If Busch wants to record his second-straight Sprint Cup Series victory at the track, he will have to beat his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano. Many expected the driver of the No. 20 Toyota to be a top contender in last year's race, given his previous success on the 1.5-mile track in the Nationwide Series. However, a 14th-place finish was a lackluster showing for the driver that won three consecutive Nationwide races in Sparta from 2008-10.
This year, however, Logano has a renewed confidence with a race win while the rumor mill churns around him. The performance of the No. 20 team has improved nearly each and every week. Despite a wreck in Michigan, Logano and his Jason Ratcliff-led team have three top 10s and one victory in the last four events.
Heading into the weekend, Logano will not be entered in the Nationwide Series event, allowing him to focus primarily on Saturday night's main event. Sitting 15th in the Sprint Cup standings, another solid run (or a second win) would certainly make the Chase a distinct possibility for the 22-year-old driver.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth
When the 2012 season got underway in Daytona, few would have imagined the quiet season last year's title runner-up Carl Edwards is having.
Despite missing out on his first Cup Series title thanks to a tie-breaker with Tony Stewart, Edwards and the No. 99 team have been lackluster at best through the first 16 races in 2012. Sitting just outside the top 10 in points in 11th, Edwards has not had a top-5 finish since Fontana in mid-March.
While he finished fifth in last year's inaugural event, Edwards has victories at Kentucky in both the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series. Looking to make it three-for-three, crew chief Bob Osborne is bringing a chassis that finished ninth at Charlotte and eighth at Texas earlier this year.
Could the news of Matt Kenseth's departure at the end of season give Edwards and the No. 99 team a boost of confidence (and resources) to drive through the summer months? Perhaps we shall see Saturday night in Kentucky.
Much like Logano, Stewart-Haas Racing's Ryan Newman is sitting outside the top 10 in points with one win and hoping for a spot in the Chase by the time the series rolls into Richmond in September. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet was fourth in last year's inaugural race after losing a lap and working with crew chief Tony Gibson to use pit strategy to get to the front.
Newman will need a solid showing Saturday if he wants to continue being a part of the Chase discussion, though. After scoring his only win of the season — in dramatic fashion — at Martinsville in April, Newman has failed to score another top-10 finish. In fact, the team's best showing came at Pocono, where they finished 12th on the repaved surface.
“We need to be a little bit better,” Newman admitted. “I think we’ll get things turned around. We’re still in a championship-contending position. We still have great opportunities with another win, and we still have plenty of time to move up in the points and be in the top 10. We just have to do a little bit better of a job.”
Will this be the weekend that Newman and his SHR team turn things around? A solid showing in last year's event seems to point to another good run, but the teams’ struggles over the last few months may be too large to overcome.
Five Undervalued Picks: Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart
Juan Pablo Montoya, tweeting about RC airplanes, no doubt. (ASP, Inc.)
Last year's outside pole-sitter Juan Pablo Montoya finished the race a disappointing 15th after a late speeding penalty on pit road mired him deep in the field. Prior to that infraction, Montoya ran in the top 10 for the majority of the race.
This season, Montoya and his No. 42 team have struggled to shake the gremlins that seem to haunt them each and every week. Since his dramatic start to the season in Daytona, Montoya's year has been up and down, to say the least.
The former open-wheel star struggled with a multitude of problems last week at Sonoma, traditionally one of his best tracks. Instead of contending for the win — or even a solid finish — Montoya recorded his worst result since Daytona (34th). In fact, this team has scored just two top 10s in the last 13 races.
Given his strong performance last year, Montoya may be a guy to keep an eye on Satuday night.
Could it be that Kurt Busch has shrugged his troubling ways and focused solely on racing and recording strong finishes? Not likely, but last week's third-place finish at Sonoma was a sure sign that the former Sprint Cup Series champion can still get the job done behind the wheel.
While Busch is one of the best on the road courses, he also finished ninth in last year's Kentucky race, albeit behind the wheel of Penske Racing equipment and amid much less drama and scrutiny. But do not rule Busch out of another solid finish this weekend — that is, if he can manage the race from start to finish and stay out of trouble on the track and under the helmet.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Regan Smith, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton
2011 Top 10 at Kentucky Speedway (laps led):
1. Kyle Busch (125)
2. David Reutimann (7)
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Ryan Newman
5. Carl Edwards
6. Matt Kenseth
7. Brad Keselowski (79)
8. David Ragan (3)
9. Kurt Busch (41)
10. Jeff Gordon
"I don't know man ... I mean we're talking about the Redskins here." (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson It’s a toss up at the top, but J.J. has more wins and, as evidenced by his top-5 run at Sonoma, is a more well-rounded driver than Earnhardt or Kenseth.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. That said, championships are not won on road courses, so Junior’s 23rd-place showing — to be fair, he ran around 15th most of the day — will not hurt his title quest.
3. Matt Kenseth Can a “lame duck” driver win a championship? We know a crew chief can (see: Grubb, Darian). We’ll find out, as Kenseth leads the point standings but has an eye on new digs in 2013.
4. Tony Stewart Stewart has always been a somewhat streaky NASCAR driver, and his third-, second- and second-place runs in the last three weeks find him on a hot one.
5. Greg Biffle Impressive seventh at Sonoma (for Biffle) finds him back in second in the point standings, just 11 points behind his Roush Fenway teammate. Kentucky should be good to him.
6. Clint Bowyer Prior to his win in Sonoma, Bowyer had clicked off three consecutive finishes of seventh or better. What was surprising was that a dirt tracker from Kansas took his first win at MWR on a road course.
7. Denny Hamlin Hamlin won earlier this season in Kansas and, let’s be honest, what’s the difference between that cookie cutter and the one in Kentucky?
8. Brad Keselowski Last season’s Watkins Glen winner only registered a 12th at Sonoma, and was never really in contention. He needs to get out of the 12th- to 18th-place hole he’s been in of late.
9. Martin Truex Jr. Truex led 15 laps and ran in the top 5 for a large part of the day until contact with Joey Logano on the final lap knocked him from sixth to 22nd. That’s tough to take, folks.
10. Kasey Kahne Pit strategy wasn’t in Kahne’s favor on Sunday. In fact, he slipped from a certain top-10 run to 22nd only to rebound late and salvage a respectable 14th-place showing.
"Is that Biffle I hear talking smack again?" (ASP, Inc.)
11. Kevin Harvick TNT is just now noticing that Harvick ran out of fuel during a round of green flag pit stops.
12. Joey Logano Ruffled quite a few feathers (including a teammate’s) en route to his third straight road course top 10.
13. Jeff Gordon Pre-race favorite in Sonoma disappointed with a loose-handling car, managing a sixth-place finish.
14. Marcos Ambrose Grabbed second straight pole and second straight top 10 (Michigan and Sonoma).
15. Kyle Busch He’s ranked in the top 15 on raw talent alone. Has averaged a 27th in the last four races.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
We’ve said all along that Earnhardt’s consistency warranted the top spot, but a lack of any wins kept him from it. Well, the 143-race national nightmare is over, and Junior can now lead the way.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Replace the engine and start in the rear of the field? No problem for Chad Knaus and crew. They just handed the ball to J.J., who drove it to a fifth-place finish with blistered tires and an empty gas tank.
3. Matt Kenseth
Third-place runs at Dover and Michigan bookend a seventh at Pocono. Kenseth maintains his lead in the point standings heading to Sonoma, where neither he nor Earnhardt are ... well, good.
4. Greg Biffle
Looked to be the class of the field on Sunday until lap 70, when Earnhardt took to the point and Biffle’s handling went away just slightly. Still, a fourth-place finish works in the grand scheme of things.
No truth to rumor Nick Cage was driving. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
5. Denny Hamlin
Denny “Ghost Rider” Hamlin’s day went up in a blaze of glory after an accident on lap 134 at Michigan, capping an awful day for Joe Gibbs Racing.
6. Tony Stewart
Continuing his roller-coaster type trend, Stewart records runs of third and second following consecutive 25th-place finishes. It’s all about the Chase, right Smoke?
7. Clint Bowyer
In 15 events, Bowyer and his Michael Waltrip Racing team have 12 finishes between fourth and 13th. Not bad considering it’s a bunch with a new crew chief and driver.
8. Brad Keselowski
Has averaged a 12.6-place finish in the five races since his Talladega win. It wasn’t until this time last season that his Penske Racing team really started to take off.
9. Kevin Harvick
His season has mirrored Tony Stewart’s 2011 run thus far: Nothing splashy, zero wins, very few laps led. That said, he’s still sixth in points and as we all know, it’s all about performing in the Chase.
10. Kasey Kahne
His seven-race top-10 streak has come “crashing” down to the tune of 29th- and 33rd-place finishes. Not that it matters if you don’t finish, but his 7.5-place average starting spot is best on circuit.
11. Martin Truex Jr.
Free-agent-to-be is making a strong case for his services in 2013.
12. Carl Edwards
Free-agent-that-was made a strong case for his services last year but has failed to deliver in 2012.
13. Joey Logano
Keeping with the free agent theme, will Logano’s Pocono win convince JGR to re-sign him?
14. Jeff Gordon
Top 10s every three or four weeks won’t get Gordon anywhere near the Chase.
15. Kyle Busch
Hard to blame engine issues on the driver. JGR needs to iron out some things at the shop.
Just off the lead pack: Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
From the mountains of Pennsylvania to the rolling hills of Michigan, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400.
Racing on yet another repaved track, teams have two test sessions throughout the day on Thursday as they attempt to get acclimated with the new track surface, the higher speeds and how tires will react.
This is another great opportunity for NASCAR fantasy racers, as drivers will be in and out of the media center throughout the day providing insight that could go a long way when making your final lineup decisions.
While all teams will have the opportunity to hit the track for an extra day of testing, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya conducted a two-day tire test in April. Each of the drivers complimented the new surface's grip and indicated speeds were among the fastest they have experienced.
“This place is fast. I mean fast, fast,” Montoya said following the test session. “Our minimum speed this morning was over 180 mph through the corner when you think about it. We are doing easily over 210 mph at the end of the straight.”
Teams have backed that up as of mid-morning on Thursday, as drivers were clicking off average lap times of 200-plus mph. For perspective, Martin Truex Jr. was recorded at 218 mph going into Turn 1.
Already in the backyard of team owner Jack Roush and Ford Motor Company, the additional test in April should pay huge dividends for the current points leader, Kenseth.
Kenseth calls Michigan one of his “favorite tracks throughout the season,” and has two wins, 11 top 5s and 16 top 10s in 25 starts there. Veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig admits he has little use of the mountains of notes compiled prior to the April test session — instead, he will fall back on what they learned over that two-day period.
“There was a ton of grip, and I assume it would be a little faster as the track gets dusted off and rubbered in, so speeds should pick up a bit,” Kenseth said. “When we were in race trim, we were almost four seconds faster than we were racing last year, which is quite a difference.”
Taking the points lead for the first time since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Kenseth enters this weekend with a 10-point advantage of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For Earnhardt, the arduous task of ending his 143-winless streak returns to the site of his last victory. Coming off one of his strongest performances to date in Hendrick equipment at Pocono last week, Earnhardt and the No. 88 team head to Michigan with Victory Lane at their fingertips.
After leading 36 laps and finishing eighth last week, the frustration was clear on Earnhardt's face after he climbed from the car. Do not mistake this frustration as that of years past, though. Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led team are one of the most consistent teams in the series right now — with a circuit-best 11 top 10s this season — yet the one thing eluding them is a win.
Since his ’08 win, Earnhardt has only one top 5 and two top 10s on the two-mile D-shaped oval, with three consecutive finishes of 14th or worse. However, with the new racing surface, teams have thrown out their notes from previous years. While the No. 88 team did not take part in the April tire test, Hendrick’s No. 24 did, which may pay dividends.
That fact might have been evident in Thursday's test session, as Earnhardt was one of the fastest cars of the day, topping 200 mph (more than six mph faster than Ryan Newman's qualifying record set in 2005).
Other drivers to consider as favorites this weekend are Keselowski, the hometown hero, two-time Michigan winner Gordon, and Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards.
Five Favorites: Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards
The last time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was in Michigan, it was Kyle Busch that survived a green-white-checker finish to score the win. Busch has suffered from inconsistency over the years at MIS, but finished third and first in both races last year, leading a combined 81 laps.
Coming off consecutive engine failures at Dover and Pocono, Busch fell three spots to 12th in the series standings. While it is certainly not time to panic, Busch and the No. 18 team would be a lot more comfortable racing through the summer stretch inside the top 10 in points. Busch was also among the fastest cars in Thursday's test session.
Michigan has been known to be tough on engines, so be mindful of Joe Gibbs Racing's powerplant issues of late and chose carefully.
After slipping up in the final laps last week in Pocono, veteran Mark Martin heads to Michigan looking for another solid run. With 52 starts at MIS, Martin should be a threat again this weekend as he has five wins, 18 top 5s and 31 top 10s, giving him the seventh-best average finish among active drivers. And he — like many — was fast on Thursday, being the first to break the 201 mph barrier.
Much like Busch, however, Martin and his Toyota engines have suffered from issues throughout the year. In his 11 starts this season, Martin has had two engine failures, at Kansas and Charlotte.
It is hard to imagine five-time champion Jimmie Johnson could be an undervalued pick in any sense of the imagination. However, Michigan is one of only five tracks the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has yet to win. Despite having the 10th-best average finish, Johnson has come up short in each of his 20 starts here — and on a couple of occasions, coming up short has meant running out of fuel on the final lap.
Last June, Johnson struggled here, starting 21st, failing to lead a lap and coming home 27th. When the series returned in August, though, Johnson drove from a 19th starting spot up to a second-place finish, leading 18 laps in the process. Over the course of his last seven Michigan starts, Johnson has only two top-10 finishes, but has led an impressive 323 laps.
Kevin Harvick also enters this weekend's race as an undervalued pick. The Richard Childress Racing driver has the ninth-best average finish at Michigan, but was fast in Thursday's morning test session, breaking the 200 mph barrier.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman
Martin Truex Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
Throughout the 2012 season, Martin Truex Jr. has been within reach of Victory Lane, only to come up short. Coming off a hard-fought 20th-place finish at Pocono, Truex enters this weekend's race looking for consistency. After a solid start to the year, the No. 56 team has three finishes of 20th or worse in its last six events.
Despite his lackluster performance over the years at Michigan, Truex has been solid on the intermediate tracks this season. Not to mention, he was among the cars quick in Thursday's morning test session, joining Harvick in the plus-200 club.
Truex's Michael Waltrip Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer, has quietly worked his way into the top 10 in the series standings thanks to consistent runs. Coming off a fifth at Dover and a sixth at Pocono, Bowyer is looking for that breakout run that could jumpstart his season and make him a contender. Although he struggled in his early years at Michigan, Bowyer finished eighth in both races last season.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard, Kurt Busch
Much like last week, fantasy racers have a bit of an advantage this week thanks to Thursday's two test sessions on the repaved oval. As mentioned earlier, speeds were well over the track record in the morning session. While teams may be experimenting with a few things on Thursday, others are getting a head start on the weekend and practicing as normal. Check the speed charts from both sessions and keep an eye to the driver comments throughout the day for the best information. Be sure to take advantage of the extra day on the track before setting your lineup.
Best Average Finish at Michigan (Wins):
1. Carl Edwards — 8.2 (2)
2. Matt Kenseth — 9.5 (2)
3. Jeff Gordon — 11.4 (2)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (1)
5. Denny Hamlin — 12.1 (2)
6. Greg Biffle — 12.8 (2)
7. Mark Martin — 13.3 (5)
8. Brian Vickers — 14.9 (1)
9. Kevin Harvick — 15.0 (1)
10. Jimmie Johnson — 15.2 (0)
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Pocono 400
Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. (ASP, Inc.)
This week has certainly been an interesting one in the world of NASCAR.
Jimmie Johnson scored his seventh career Dover win on Sunday, tying him with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the most all-time wins at the Monster Mile. Kurt Busch was suspended for this weekend's race at Pocono after threatening Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass following Saturday's Nationwide Series race, also at Dover. Testing got underway on the freshly repaved Pocono Raceway, with Mark Martin leading the way on Wednesday. Kyle Busch won Wednesday night's Prelude to the Dream charity race at Eldora Speedway.
While much of the focus this week has centered around off-track news, it is time to put that aside and look ahead to this weekend's race a the Tricky Triangle.
With testing taking place Wednesday and Thursday, fantasy NASCAR players get a rare early glimpse of what teams are getting a handle on the freshly re-paved track.
To no one’s surprise, speeds have been much higher with the new pavement and tire combination provided by Goodyear. Martin’s top speed on Wednesday was 175.380 mph, while AJ Allmendinger was quickest in Thursday morning's session. Allmendinger's speed of 177.190 mph was nearly five miles per hour faster than the track record of 172.533 set in 2004 by Kasey Kahne.
“You never know what to expect when a race track gets paved,” Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton said on Wednesday. “This pavement is unbelievably nice, smooth. The quality of racing is going to be improved a great deal. [But] it’s still Pocono. It still has the same characteristics and the personality of Pocono, but just has more grip.”
AJ Allmendinger, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kahne, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top 10 speeds on Wednesday.
Keep an eye on the speed charts from Thursday's two test sessions, and even more so on Friday, when the Cup teams will enjoy nearly three hours worth of track time in both qualifying and race trim.
As Burton mentioned, the new pavement might have added more grip, but it is the same old Pocono. One of the trickiest tracks on the schedule, drivers and teams will have to setup their cars so they work through each of the track's three unique corners.
The same old Pocono also means Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon are three drivers to keep atop your list of fantasy favorites.
Coming off his second win of the season, Johnson and his No. 48 team are the hottest thing on the NASCAR circuit. While the championship battle is still many months ahead, the five-time champ seems to be preparing for a sixth title run.
Johnson also holds the best average finish at Pocono (9.0) with two wins, eight top 5s and 14 top 10s in 20 starts. The No. 48 car was third fastest in Wednesday's test session, so expect him to be among the front-runners come Sunday afternoon.
Whenever the series rolls into Pocono, Hamlin is also one of the drivers to beat. After sweeping the races in his rookie year, Hamlin has gone on to record a total of four wins on the 2.5-mile triangle. He has the second-best average finish (9.7) with seven top 5s and eight top 10s in 12 starts.
Like Johnson, Hamlin also has two wins this season, putting him fourth in the standings. With some security in his spot in the Chase, Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb are focused on scoring bonus points for wins and there is perhaps no better place for them to accomplish that than at Pocono.
If Hamlin wants to score his third win of the season, he'll have to best veteran Jeff Gordon, among others. Gordon has the third-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Pocono, with five wins, 17 top 5s and 27 top 10s in 38 starts.
Currently mired in a season plagued by bad luck, Gordon heads to Pocono on a mission to turn his season around and knock the monkey off his back. The No. 24 car was strong last Sunday in Dover, but a loose lug nut and a poorly-timed caution ruined any chance at a solid finish. If Gordon can avoid the poor luck that has been chasing him all season, expect the four-time champion to have a solid day on Sunday.
Also keep an eye on the ageless Martin and last August's Pocono winner Brad Keselowski.
As previously stated, Martin led the way in Wednesday's test session and has the fourth-best average finish (11.2) at Pocono, but the veteran has never been to Victory Lane.
Keselowski already has two wins this season, but is currently 11th in the standings. Look for him to try and work his way into the top 10 in points for the first time this season. Keselowski won here last August.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski
Kevin Harvick. #GrewOne (ASP, Inc.)
Although he has yet to win in Pocono, Kevin Harvick has always produced solid results on the 2.5-mile tri-oval. With the eighth-best average finish (14.0), Harvick has five top 5s and eight top 10s in 22 starts. In his last four Pocono starts, the driver of the No. 29 Chevy has three top 5s and finished 14th last August. Harvick was fourth-fastest in Wednesday's test session.
While Dover might be considered Martin Truex Jr.’s home track, Pocono Raceway is not far from his native New Jersey. Truex enters this weekend's race sixth in points, but still looking for that elusive win. With the 10th-best average finish (15.3) here, Truex has results of 12th or better in his last three races at Pocono. While he may not score the win, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver could lead to some solid fantasy points at the end of the day.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle
Another driver that could earn some strong fantasy points this weekend is Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard, who has only one top 10 at Pocono, but has four finishes of 16th or better in his last four starts.
Menard was able to score three top-10 finishes early in the 2012 season, but has run 13th to 18th over the last seven races. Do not expect Menard to be scoring his first win of the season, but he could easily have a strong day and provide some quality fantasy points.
Also keep an eye on Juan Pablo Montoya. In his last six Pocono starts, Montoya has four top-10 finishes, including a second in 2009. The driver of the No. 42 was seventh in last June's race, but finished 32nd when the series returned in August. With the new pavement, Montoya had the 10th-fastest time in Wednesday's test session. Sitting 20th in points, Montoya is looking to turn his season around before heading into the long summer months leading to the Chase.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer
Again, be sure to take advantage of the two days of testing leading up to this weekend's action at Pocono. It is a rare treat for NASCAR fantasy participants to get an early glimpse of who is fast, who is struggling, and who to watch out for on Sunday. With no testing being televised, check the speed charts and hold off until Friday’s Happy Hour session is complete before setting set your lineup.
Best Average Finish at Pocono (Wins):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 9.0 (2)
2. Denny Hamlin — 9.7 (4)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.2 (5)
4. Mark Martin — 11.2 (0)
5. Tony Stewart — 11.8 (2)
6. Ryan Newman — 12.7 (1)
7. Carl Edwards — 13.8 (2)
8. Kevin Harvick — 14.0 (0)
9. Matt Kenseth — 14.2 (0)
10. Martin Truex Jr. — 15.3 (0)
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600
Photo by ASP, Inc.
A happy Memorial Day weekend to all the fantasy NASCAR racers out there. This week it’s the most demanding 600 miles on the schedule, the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The annual tradition dating back to 1960 tests the best of driver, equipment and team. Coming one week after the All-Star Race, the Coke 600 also marks the next phase of the NASCAR season.
Teams have ebbed and flowed thus far over the season, but with a week of practice under their belts on the 1.5-mile speedway in Charlotte, this Sunday’s 600 miles provides an opportunity to make a statement, maintain consistent finishes, or turn a difficult season around before it is too late.
One team that certainly made a statement in Saturday night’s All-Star Race was the No. 48 team of Hendrick Motorsports. Driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus knew if they won the first of the five segments, the night would fall into their laps.
Starting from the sixth spot, Johnson was able to make his moves to the front in the first 20-lap segment. After taking the caution flag for the break, it was all about avoiding trouble in the back of the pack and making adjustments to the racecar throughout the night. Restarting in the lead for the final 10-lap segment, Johnson powered out front on the green flag and never looked back.
While the format of the All-Star Race is dramatically different from the one we'll see Sunday afternoon and evening, there are a lot of things that will transfer over. Primarily, the fact the No. 48 is the team to beat.
Coming off an historic 200th career win for Hendrick Motorsports in Darlington, the No. 48 team beat the two-time defending champion No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew for the 2012 Pit Crew Challenge. That momentum carried over into the All-Star Race, where the 48 Chevrolet was the dominant car on the evening.
Enjoying the extended time in the Charlotte area these past two weeks, Hendrick Motorsports enters the Coca-Cola 600 weekend with a ton of momentum, loads of confidence, and the rest of the field looking up at Johnson.
All told, Johnson has six career wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway, including three consecutive Coca-Cola 600 wins from 2003-05. However, Johnson has not found Victory Lane at Charlotte since 2009.
The win Saturday night gives the No. 48 team confidence heading into Sunday's marathon race, but Johnson knows it will not be easy.
“Even though we won the race, I saw a lot of strong cars tonight,” Johnson said following his third All-Star Race win. “I think track position at the end of the 600 is going to be key. Two or three pit stops from the end, being in the right position, having the right strategy, if it's fuel, two tires, four, none, whatever it might be, that’s going to be key.”
While Johnson will be this week’s fantasy favorite, also keep an eye on a few guys that had solid cars in Saturday's All-Star Race.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne ran down to the wire in a photo finish to end the third segment of the night. Both drivers had strong cars in that race and carry momentum from the past few weeks as well. Keselowski will be searching for his first victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway, while Kahne, a three-time winner at Charlotte, will be looking to rekindle some of his past success.
Roush Fenway Racing's Matt Kenseth also knows how to get the job done on the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 17 Ford was third in Saturday's All-Star Race after struggling on the outside on the final restart. The long 600-mile event is the type of race that falls right into Kenseth's style, so look for him to be a strong contender as well.
Fan-favorite and hometown hero Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally scored a win last week, but unfortunately it was in the Sprint Showdown to qualify for the All-Star Race. Although the win was not a points-paying event, and will not eliminate his winless streak dating back to 2008, the fact is Earnhardt won that event and won the fourth 20-lap segment in Saturday's main event.
Earnhardt has a lot of confidence and momentum on his side, not to mention that he nearly won last year's Coca-Cola 600. Leading on the final lap, his No. 88 Chevy ran out of fuel coming through the final corners, giving the win to Kevin Harvick. The team is bringing the same car they ran the All-Star Race with, so expect Earnhardt to bring fans to their feet late in the race and possibly end that daunting winless streak.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
One driver that caught my eye throughout last weekend's All-Star events was Richard Petty Motorsports’ Marcos Ambrose. Although he did not lead a single lap, Ambrose was one of, if not the, strongest cars on each restart. Whenever the No. 9 Ford restarted on the outside line, Ambrose had passed a handful of cars before exiting Turn 2 onto the backstretch.
Ambrose scored two top-10 finishes at Charlotte last year, and is hungry to score that elusive oval win. This team has ratcheted it up a notch, and I expect them to be a solid contender in Sunday's race, leading to solid fantasy points at the end of the day.
AJ Allmendinger drove his heart out in the Sprint Showdown to finish second and qualify for the night's main event. Once in the Sprint All-Star Race, Allmendinger powered his No. 22 Dodge to the front of the field on numerous occasions.
Since joining Penske Racing, Allmendinger has struggled mainly to find any luck on the track. This week he is looking to turn his poor luck around and finally score the all-so-difficult first Sprint Cup Series win.
Five Undervalued Picks: Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards
One organization that heads into this weekend looking to turn its season around before it is too late is the two-car Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team. After significant changes behind the scenes during the offseason, precious few result have come to pass in the first part of 2012.
However, both Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya enter this weekend's race as our darkhorse picks. McMurray has two wins at Charlotte, but struggled there in 2011. The 2010 fall Charlotte race winner nearly raced his way into Saturday night's All-Star Race, but came up one position short.
Montoya has one top-10 finish at Charlotte (2009), but has been knocking on the door over the past few years, finishing 11th, 12th and 14th in his last three starts. While this weekend may not be the one in which he scores his first oval win, he should put up solid fantasy numbers.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Aric Almirola, Landon Cassill
Best Average Finish at Charlotte (Wins)
1. Joey Logano - 8.2 (0)
2. Jimmie Johnson - 11.9 (6)
3. Carl Edwards - 12.6 (0)
4. Kasey Kahne - 13.4 (3)
5. Tony Stewart - 13.6 (1)
6. Matt Kenseth - 14.4 (2)
7. Bobby Labonte - 14.7 (2)
8. Jeff Burton - 15.4 (3)
9. David Reutimann - 15.8 (1)
10. Jeff Gordon - 15.9 (5)
Brad Keselowski was smiling but you could sense the resolve in the 28-year-old after he finished second to Jimmie Johnson in last weekend’s Sprint All-Star Race.
“I think we’re a really young team that’s growing and getting better every week, every day and every hour,” Keselowski said moments after climbing from this car. “We got beat by a five-time champ. I think we’re doing pretty good, but I want that one more spot.”
Considering where Keselowski was a year ago, he and his team have made tremendous gains.
A year ago, Keselowski was 24th in the NASCAR championship point standings heading into the Coca-Cola 600 with zero wins, one top-five and one top-10 finish — and that came in the Southern 500 when he didn’t pit late, using the same strategy as race winner Regan Smith, and finished third.
This season, Keselowski is 12th in points with two victories, three top-five and five top-10 finishes.
Go back to last year’s Coca-Cola 600 and only one driver has more wins than Keselowski in that time. Tony Stewart has seven victories to Keselowski’s five. Just as impressive is that Keselowski and his team have won two races since the abrupt departure of Kurt Busch after last season. The team brought in AJ Allmendinger to replace him, making Keselowski the de facto No. 1 driver at Penske Racing. He has accepted and handled those responsibilities well.
Certainly, the team’s performance could have been better this season had both Keselowski and Allmendinger not been saddled with problems with the fuel pickup system. Both teams seemed to have solved those issues and the All-Star Race showed how strong both can be with Allmendinger going from last to second in the preliminary race to make the All-Star event and Keselowski winning the third segment before finishing second in the final 10-lap shootout.
Both teams seem to be headed in the right direction as summer approaches with Keselowski virtually locked into the Chase courtesy of his wins at Bristol and Talladega. Both Keselowski and Allmendinger will be worth watching the coming months.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
ON A ROLL Kasey Kahne heads into this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 having scored five consecutive top-10 finishes — six if you count the All-Star Race. It’s quite a turnaround after he opened the season by finishing 29th or worse in four of the first six races and was as low as 32nd in the points at one time.
Kahne is 16th in the points this week. He’s gained spots in each of the last five points races.
What’s impressive is his top-10 streak has come at a variety of tracks from 1.5-mile speedways (Texas, Kanas) to a short track (Richmond), a restrictor-plate track (Talladega) and a driver’s track (Darlington).
This is the Kahne many expected to see at the start of the season — his first with Hendrick Motorsports — and one who has shed his bad luck early this season. The question will be if he can continue the run and climb into the top 10 in points.
HALL OF FAME More than 50 voters, including myself, will gather Wednesday to determine the next five-member class to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The class will be announced at 6:00 p.m. EST on Wednesday.
There are 25 nominees. Among those who received votes but didn’t make it last year (but are again on the ballot) are former modified champion Jerry Cook, driver/car owner Cotton Owens, car owner Raymond Parks and two-time champion driver Herb Thomas.
The five new nominees are: Ray Fox (engine builder/car owner), Anne B. France (administrator/wife of Bill France Sr.), Wendell Scott (first African-American driver to compete full-time in NASCAR’s top series), Ralph Seagraves (R.J. Reynolds official), and Rusty Wallace (1989 series champion).
There have been three previous classes inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Bill France Sr., Bill France Jr., Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Junior Johnson were in the inaugural class. David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Lee Petty, Ned Jarrett and Bud Moore were in the second class. Last year’s class had Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Dale Inman, Richie Evans and Glen Wood.
PIT STOPS Joey Coulter will make his Nationwide Series debut this weekend at Charlotte for Richard Childress Racing. He’ll be in the No. 21 car. ... All-Star Race winner Jimmie Johnson is looking to win that race and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same year a second time. He performed the feat in 2003. The only other drivers to win both events in the last decade are Kasey Kahne (2008) and Kurt Busch (2010).
What will 2013 hold for Dodge and its involvement in NASCAR?
As Brad Keselowski celebrated in Victory Lane at Talladega, it was a scene both bittersweet and conflicting. Dodge had just won at Talladega for the first time since 1976, and yet there was precious little for the manufacturer to celebrate.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Darlington
Brad Keselowski ... lookin' up. (ASP, Inc.)
In honor of Mother’s Day, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the “Lady In Black” for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. On the schedule for 62 years, Darlington is steeped in NASCAR history and is one of the toughest tracks on the circuit.
One crew chief called Darlington “the most unique track” the series runs at throughout the year. The egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval has one of the most unique grooves in the sport, and with nearly every driver earning the well-known “Darlington Stripe” the crews will have the bondo and hammers on hand.
More than any track in the sport, drivers will truly have to race the track and not the competition to be successful Saturday night under the lights. The pit crews will have to get the job done on pit road as well, especially leading into next week’s Sprint Pit Crew Challenge.
Be sure to keep an eye on the best 10-lap average stat after both Friday practice sessions before setting your lineup. That stat didn’t matter too much last weekend at Talladega, where Brad Keselowski pulled away on the final lap to score his second win of the season. Leading on the final lap with Kyle Busch tucked behind in tandem, it appeared Keselowski was a sitting duck to Busch. However, Keselowski was able to disconnect from Busch’s car and had the race in hand off Turn 4.
Making his 100th career Sprint Cup Series start, Keselowski heads to the Track Too Tough To Tame as this week’s NASCAR fantasy favorite.
With two wins in the first 10 races of the season, the Penske Racing driver is confident he will be in the Chase as a championship contender and feels “the shackles are off” in the remaining races before the final regular season race at Richmond. In layman’s terms, he’s focused on adding more trophies to his collection as opposed to “point racing.”
Keselowski also considers Darlington one of his favorite tracks. He currently holds the second-best average finish (7.3) behind Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin (6.5), but is without a win at the legendary facility.
Series points leader Greg Biffle certainly knows the joys of winning at Darlington, with back-to-back Southern 500 wins in 2005 and ’06. The Roush Fenway Racing driver comes off a fifth-place finish at Talladega, his sixth top 5 and seventh top 10 of the season.
Despite his two wins, Biffle has only two top 10 finishes in the five Darlington races since his victoreis. However, he has momentum on his side heading to this weekend’s race, making him another fantasy favorite.
Another driver entering this weekend’s race with “the shackles off,” as Keselowski put it, also happens to have the best average finish among active drivers at Darlington. Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb have been solid together throughout the first 10 races, and Hamlin has one win at Darlington, so expect the No. 11 team to be a strong contender Saturday night.
Five Favorites: Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch
Regan Smith enters this weekend’s race as the defending winner, earning his first official NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory last May on older tires over Carl Edwards. That win was one of only two top-10 finishes up to that point in 2011. This season, Smith heads to Darlington with zero top 10 finishes, suffering through a disappointing stretch of races.
An engine failure last week dropped the Furniture Row Racing’s driver to 27th in the standings. Looking to break his slump and kick-start his season before the All-Star break, Smith is a solid pick for this weekend’s race. Despite his poor start to 2012, Smith and his team will walk through the garage the defending champions for the weekend. That confidence boost could go a long way for a team that is looking to turn things around.
While Smith is the defending winner, Edwards goes into Darlington with three top-5 finishes in his last five starts — two of those being second-place showings. Searching for that first victory at Darlington — as well as his first of 2012 — look for Edwards to be among the front-runners on Saturday.
If there is one group of drivers that the Lady In Black favors, it is the veterans. Therefore, consider Jeff Burton,Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon as well. They have a combined 11 Darlington wins.
Five Undervalued Picks: Regan Smith, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon
Martin Truex Jr. ... lookin' cool. (ASP, Inc.)
Michael Waltrip Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. is coming off the two worst finishes of his season, but registers as our darkhorse pick for Saturday night’s Southern 500. The New Jersey-native considers the egg-shaped demon among his best on the circuit. While he only has two top-10 finishes in six Darlington starts, his worst finish is 19th (2010). Looking to rebound from a pair of disappointing outings, expect Truex to put up solid fantasy numbers.
Typically known for their road course skills, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya both enter this weekend’s race as darkhorse fantasy picks.
In each of his three starts, Ambrose has had a solid qualifying effort (three top-10 starts), but has struggled to produce the results. His best finish was 13th last May. This season has not been the best for Ambrose and the Richard Petty Motorsports team. It seems each week they bounce between top-15 and sub-25th-place runs. Coming off a 14th-place finish in Talladega, Ambrose may be on course for another lackluster finish, so pay attention to Friday’s practice session.
Montoya has an average finish of 18.8 in five Darlington starts, with his best finish (fifth) coming in 2010. This season has also been an up-and-down ride for Montoya, but prior to his 32nd-place finish at Talladega, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver had one top 10 and six top 20s. Montoya will not score you the big points this weekend, but he may give you that solid 12th- to 20th-place finished needed to push you past your opponents.
In case you haven’t heard, some driver named Danica Patrick will be making her first career start at the famed Darlington Raceway. It is uncertain how the stock-car convert will handle the Lady in Black on her maiden voyage. If you’re feeling adventurous, put her in the lineup. But know the consequences.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Ragan, Danica Patrick
Best Average Finish at Darlington Raceway (wins):
1. Denny Hamlin — 6.5 (1)
2. Brad Keselowski — 7.3 (0)
3. Jimmie Johnson — 9.8 (2)
4. Jeff Gordon — 11.1 (7)
5. Ryan Newman — 11.6 (0)
6. Jeff Burton — 12.1 (2)
7. Mark Martin — 12.2 (2)
8. Tony Stewart — 12.3 (0)
9. Martin Truex Jr. — 12.3 (0)
10. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (0)
Brad Keselowski’s victory in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega did more than put him in position to make the Chase again, it reaffirmed his position as one of the sport’s top drivers.
Over the past 26 races — the length of the “regular season’’ in the Sprint Cup Series — only Tony Stewart has more victories than Keselowski. Stewart has seven; Keselowski four. No other driver has more than two in that span, which dates to Pocono in August 2011.
Keselowski’s victories during that stretch have come at Pocono, both Bristol races and Talladega. He’s finished second twice.
Keselowski has done more, too. He has finished in the top 10 in 14 of the last 26 races and placed in the top five in 11 of 26 races as well as led at least one lap in 18 of 26 races.
“He’s matured a lot,” car owner Roger Penske says of Keselowski. “He’s been a tremendous asset to the team, not just for Brad Keselowski, for Penske Racing. You can see when he comes in the shop, he’s spending a lot of time. I wouldn't trade him for anybody right now.
“He came to me before he went to work for us, he said, ‘I’d like to come to Penske Racing and help build a winning Cup team.’ He’s certainly demonstrated that from the driving ability. His chemistry with (crew chief) Paul Wolfe and that whole team has made a difference.
“This is not about the driver, the car, the sponsor — it’s about the whole team. He's the real package. What we're trying to do is give him everything we can to make him a winner.”
Keselowski made the Chase via a “wild card” entry last year with three victories. Discounted as a title threat, he climbed to third in the standings and was 18 points out of the lead with four races to go. He was in position for a top-10 finish at Martinsville until he was wrecked in the final laps and finished 17th. That dropped him to fourth in the season standings, 27 points out of the lead. Keselowski and Wolfe were more aggressive with their strategy after that and it backfired as Keselowski ultimately finished fifth.
What he and the team learned last year could make it a stronger contender this year. With two wins in 2012, he seems sure to at least take a wild card spot again.
“I refuse to label this year a failure if we don’t win a championship,” Keselowski says. “Part of what defines a man is what code you live by. One of my codes — it’s probably my strongest code — is to be better today than I was yesterday, and to be even better tomorrow than I was today.
“We’ve shown that we’re better here at this point in the year than we were last year, at this point in the year, and we were better last year at this point in the year than we were the year before. You know, that’s my code. I'm surrounded by the proper people to execute it.”
It’s worked so far.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
POINTS RACING Even with the five yellow flags at Talladega, the number of cautions this season compared to last year remains down significantly. Last year, there were 86 cautions in the first 10 races. This year it’s 53. Many theories abound for the drop. Points leader Greg Biffle says the notion that the points system has led to more careful driving is not a cause for fewer cautions.
“A lot has been talked about how people might be racing careful because every point counts because of the way it came down at the end of the season with Carl (Edwards) and Tony (Stewart),” Biffle says, noting how Edwards and Stewart finished tied for the title with Stewart winning the crown based on the tiebreaker of having more victories last year.
“But if you really think about it, the points right now don’t count right now, provided if I make the Chase. It doesn’t matter if I finish seventh, fifth, 13th or second. The only way I can get points right now for the Chase is to win. To me, sixth or seventh means no difference simply from the fact that the only way I can get points for the Chase is to win. Our importance right now is to win. Yeah, we want to keep leading the points and that is important, but, in order to win the championship, we’ve gotta win races to get bonus points for the Chase.”
TOUGH START Marcos Ambrose finished 14th at Talladega. His best finish this season is 13th at Daytona and Las Vegas. He’s 21st in the points.
“It has been a disaster in terms of points,” Ambrose said of his season before the Talladega race. “We have had four or five top-10 runs that we have thrown away. It is just terrible and we know it. We want to turn our season around. We have had absolutely no luck and it is a shame. We should be sitting here solid in the points with three or four top 10s and feeling good about ourselves.”
PIT STOPS Brad Keselowski’s victory at Talladega marked the sixth consecutive restrictor-plate race with a different winner. Matt Kenseth won this year’s Daytona 500. Last year’s winners in plate races were Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Jimmie Johnson and Trevor Bayne. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth remain the only drivers to have completed all 3,120 laps this season. ... Clint Bowyer has not finished better than 31st in his last three starts at Darlington. ... Denny Hamlin has five top-10 finishes in six career Cup starts at Darlington. ... Bobby Labonte has finished 18th in three of the last four Darlington races. ... Ryan Newman has three consecutive top 10s at Darlington and placed in the top 10 in six of the last seven races at that track.