1. Greg Biffle Found himself in roughly the same position at Talladega as he was in at Daytona ... which isn’t bad when you’re clicking off top 5s like it’s the ARCA Series.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Doesn’t seem able to finish outside of the top 10 if he tries, but this is Dale Earnhardt Jr. we’re talking about, so only a win will keep the critics at bay.
3. Matt Kenseth Kenseth has roared to within five points of Biffle’s lead in the standings on the strength of four top 5s in the last five races.
4. Denny Hamlin Hamlin was running in the top 5 at Talladega when he was the victim of a block-gone-bad. It’s hard to factor the resulting 23rd-place finish into these standings, so I will not.
5. Brad Keselowski He may not have the most consistent team on the circuit, but it’s one that has proven capable of winning on any given weekend. Bristol and Talladega are proof of that.
6. Tony Stewart Like Hamlin, it’s hard to fault Stewart for a mid-20s finish at Talladega. Unlike Hamlin, Stewart was in position to win despite running out of fuel twice and battling overheating issues throughout the day.
7. Jimmie Johnson The roll-of-the-dice tracks at Daytona and Talladega are the only ones that can consistently keep Johnson from a top-10 finish. Take plate racing as the anomaly it is and move on.
8. Kyle Busch Consecutive runs of first (Richmond) and second (Talladega) find Rowdy’s stock on the rise. Could this be the beginning of a scorching summer run?
Photo by ASP, Inc.
9. Kasey Kahne A fourth at Talladega made it four runs in a row of eighth or better for Kahne and the No. 5 team. It would come as no surprise if they — not the 24, 48 or 88 teams — earned Hendrick’s 200th win.
10. Carl Edwards Cousin Carl’s streak of five finishes of 11th or better came to a grinding (and wreck-induced) halt at Talladega. Expect big things in Darlington and Charlotte.
11. Kevin Harvick He’s been notably quiet this season — in the sense that he may be about to break out. And he’s still fifth in points.
12. Martin Truex Jr. May deserve to be ranked higher, but honestly, the track records of those listed previously factored.
13. Clint Bowyer Didn’t lead any laps at Talladega, but snuck in a solid sixth — with clean sheet metal.
14. Mark Martin If you got to pick and choose your starts you’d be smart to take a pass on Talladega, too.
15. Paul Menard Bet you didn’t realize that Menard is holding steady at 14th in the standings, just on the cusp.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race in Kansas
Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet. (ASP, Inc.)
Typically known for dealing with the thunderous roar of tornadoes, this weekend the Sprint Cup Series storms into Kansas for the STP 400.
Sunday’s race will be the 12th for the Sprint Cup Series at the Kansas Speedway, and the last on the current surface. Following the 400-miler, the track will be repaved prior to the series returning for its mid-October Chase date.
The aged surface causes tires to wear dramatically over the course of a run, meaning drivers and crew chiefs will be working all weekend to find the perfect balance over the long run as the tires begin to fall off.
Be sure to keep an eye on the two practice sessions Friday afternoon — especially those teams that concentrate on longer runs. A key factor nearly every week — especially on a track with excessive tire wear — is the best 10-lap average. Look for that statistic and make your picks accordingly.
Five Favorites: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards
Veteran Jeff Gordon took the first two checkered flags at Kansas Speedway in 2001 and ’02, and is looking to take the last before the surface is replaced.
Aside from the four-time series champion’s two Kansas wins, Gordon has an additional six top-5 finishes on the Plains. Although he succumbed to an engine failure in Kansas last October, Gordon is always a favorite.
The No. 24 team has been a consistent threat throughout the early portion of the 2012 season, as well. However, the finishes don’t show it. The team's fourth-place run Saturday night in Texas was its first top 5 and only second top 10. Gordon currently has three finishes of 26th or worse.
Those statistics aside, the team has been producing consistently fast racecars. That fact has allowed Gordon, who is 17th in the series standings, to remain confident they can win races.
The team heads to Kansas this weekend with that goal in mind.
Gordon has the fourth-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Kansas. Not to mention, team owner Rick Hendrick is on the verge of earning his 200th career Sprint Cup Series win. This weekend, Gordon will be looking to give his long-time car owner that milestone victory.
In order to do so, he will have to beat teammate Jimmie Johnson.
The five-time series champion has the second-best average finish (8.4) among active drivers at Kansas, and was the driver celebrating in Victory Lane when the series last visited the facility in October.
All told, Johnson has two wins, three poles, four top 5s and nine top 10s in 11 starts on the 1.5-mile track. His two worst finishes at Kansas are 14th (2006) and 32nd (’04), his only DNF.
These two champions have duked it out on the track before for the win, and expect them to both be in contention Sunday afternoon. Also keep in mind Hendrick leads all team owners with four wins at Kansas.
“Whenever it happens is going to be very special for the company," Johnson said of the 200th win. “Again, I just want to win. I don’t care where it is, whatever reason. There are 36, 38 of these things a year, and I want to take home a bunch of trophies. Second is nice, but winning is everything.”
While the Hendrick teammates are focused on giving Hendrick Motorsports its 200th win, the rest of the field will be doing their best to keep it from happening — especially points leader Greg Biffle.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver is fresh off his first victory of the season last weekend in Texas, and is now heading to one of his best tracks. With two Kansas wins, six top 5s and eight top-10 finishes, Biffle leads all active drivers in average finish (8.3). Despite his dismal 2011 season, Biffle still recorded top 10s (10th, eighth) in both Kansas races last year.
This is a new year for the Biff, and his sixth-place average finish through the first seven races have given him the points lead. Carrying that momentum into one of his best tracks, Biffle will also be one of the drivers to beat in the final laps of Sunday’s race.
“I’m ready for Kansas,” he said. “Kansas is a great track and I have two wins there. We are coming off the win at Texas and I’m ready to go. Kansas and Texas might be the same distance, but they are extremely different tracks. Kansas is much flatter and the track is more uniform from one end to another. Hopefully we can follow up our Texas win with another victory in Kansas with our 3M Novec 1230 Ford.”
Brad Keselowski in Victory Lane at Kansas in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
Five Undervalued Picks: Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart
For this week's undervalued pick, look no further than defending race winner Brad Keselowski. Wait, how can Keselowski be an undervalued pick if he is the defending winner? Good question.
Keselowski was able to score the win last April by stretching his fuel 57 laps on the final run. Leading only nine laps, Keselowski celebrated the first of his three wins while former teammate Kurt Busch was forced to swallow a ninth-place finish after leading 152 laps.
The win was no fluke, though, as in his four starts at Kansas, Keselowski has an average finish of 10.0, with a worst finish of 23rd.
This season has been up and down for the No. 2 Penske Racing team. A 32nd in Daytona was followed up by a fifth in Phoenix, a 32nd in Las Vegas, the win at Bristol, an 18th in Fontana, a ninth at Martinsville and the 36th last weekend in Texas.
Looking at the trend, Keselowski is due a good run — provided no mechanical demons creep up. Keep in mind, he is the defending Nationwide Series race winner at Kansas, with finishes of sixth, third, second and first in the last four races.
Five Darkhorse Picks: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin
Keselowski’s Penske teammate, AJ Allmendinger, is this week's darkhorse pick at Kansas Speedway. The driver of the No. 22 Dodge has two top 10s at Kansas, but struggled in 2011 finishing 27th in the spring and 25th in the Chase.
Sitting 19th in the standings, this bunch had higher expectations coming into the season. Their lone top 5 came at Martinsville, when Allmendinger finished second to Ryan Newman.
According to crew chief Todd Gordon, Allmendinger admitted prior to the start of the season that Kansas was “not one of his strong points,” but he remains confident due to the team's performance on the intermediate tracks throughout the early part of the season.
While this will be Gordon's first Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas as a crew chief, he led Keselowski to a dominant win in last fall's Nationwide Series race. It might be a gamble, but this week I'm going with the ’Dinger as the darkhorse.
Best Average Finish at Kansas Speedway (wins):
1. Greg Biffle — 8.3 (2)
2. Jimmie Johnson — 8.4 (2)
3. Brad Keselowski — 10.0 (1)
4. Jeff Gordon — 10.2 (2)
5. Carl Edwards — 10.7
6. Clint Bowyer — 12.0
7. Tony Stewart — 12.2 (2)
8. Mark Martin — 13.1 (1)
9. Kevin Harvick — 13.6
10. Denny Hamlin — 15.8
Taking stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series at the Easter break
Tony Stewart has two wins in 2012. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Taking Stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup at the Easter Break
Six weeks into the 2012 NASCAR season, the Sprint Cup Series heads into the first of only two off-weekends of the year. With no race this weekend, and thus no fantasy picks to make, let’s take a look at some of the biggest surprises thus far, which drivers and teams are on track for a solid season and which need to turn their season around before it is too late.
There is no doubt the hottest team in NASCAR is Stewart-Haas Racing. The defending series champion, Tony Stewart, has had an uncharacteristic start to the year, winning two races (Las Vegas, Fontana), while teammate Ryan Newman used an aggressive move during a green-white-checker finish to score his first career Cup win at Martinsville.
Typically slow starters, both SHR drivers have hit the ground running after last year's impressive showing in the Chase. Stewart currently sits third in points, while Newman climbed two spots to eighth after last week’s victory.
The mood is soaring at Stewart-Haas, the strong finishes and wins keep coming, the new partnership between Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington continues to roll on smoothly, but can that momentum continue through the summer months and into the Chase?
While the SHR brigade has been scoring wins and making headlines, Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle has quietly and consistently raced his way to the points lead. After starting the season with three consecutive third-place finishes, Biffle took command of the series standings after Las Vegas and has yet to relinquish the spot.
Frustrated and clearly upset with his team’s 16th-place points finish in 2011, Biffle had high expectations coming into this year and his performances to date have shown the changes made behind the scenes at Roush Fenway Racing have made all the difference.
Although The Biff has yet to hit Victory Lane, he hasn’t finished worse than 13th, with three top 5s and a sixth-place run to his credit. Determined to put last year's disappointing results behind him, expect Biffle and his No. 16 team to continue to lead the way at RFR as the season rolls on in two weeks in Texas — a track at which Biffle could easily break his 49-race winless skid.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Also on the verge of breaking a winless streak is perennial fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. Through the first six weeks of the season, the No. 88 team has been the workhorse of the Hendrick stable with three top 5s and four top 10s. Earnhardt nearly scored his second Daytona 500 victory to open the season, finishing second and proving he’ll be a contender at the plate tracks so long as “pack racing” is the draft du jour. He was oh-so-close yet again last weekend in Martinsville before settling for his second straight third-place finish.
Sitting second in the standings, Earnhardt appears confident in his team, the speed in his cars, crew chief Steve Letarte and, perhaps most importantly, himself. His average finish of 7.8 is impressive to say the least, and he has already led more laps in the first six races (75) than he did in all of 2011 (58).
While Junior’s winless streak has now reached 135 races, he truly only has two victories in the last 212 events, stretching back to 2006. His last multi-win season came in ’04 while racing for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. when he earned a career-high six trophies.
With the constant pressure to perform and deliver wins, Earnhardt appears more comfortable with his situation than he has since joining HMS is 2008. This team is nipping at the heels of a victory, and I expect them to be the group to deliver team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th Sprint Cup Series victory, lead the series standings throughout the course of the summer and be a serious contender come Chase time.
As Earnhardt Jr. has started the season with a bang, the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports stable has struggled with poor luck, disappointing finishes and controversy.
The team’s newest addition, Kasey Kahne, was expected to hit the ground running at Hendrick, competing for wins and battling for the points lead. Instead, the No. 5 team has two DNFs and a best finish of 14th, which came in the rain-shortened event in Fontana. Kahne has completed only 76.9 percent of the total laps this year and has four finishes of 39th or worse.
Mired deep in the standings at 31st, Kahne and his Kenny Francis-led team now have to focus on righting the ship and going after wins. Despite the slow start, Kahne's talent and ability to win could easily bump this team into the Chase “wild card” conversation as the season rolls into the summer months that are dominated by big intermediates tracks — a Kahne specialty.
Veteran Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon has also been hit with the bad luck bug, resulting in disappointing finishes thus far. An engine failure in Daytona set the tone for the No. 24 team’s season, with poor luck continuing nearly each and every week. Although he scored an eighth at Phoenix and a 12th in Las Vegas, Gordon is stuck in 21st in the championship standings, with three finishes outside the top 25.
Last weekend’s dominating performance at Martinsville seemed to show the tide might be turning for the four-time Sprint Cup champion, but a late-race spin battling for the lead and then subsequently running out of fuel resulted in a 14th-place finish. The No. 24 team has been strong at times this season, but the results simply have not shown.
Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson’s start to the 2012 season has been filled with drama and controversy instead of race wins and celebrations. A rules infraction at Daytona set the stage for a showdown between the No. 48 team and NASCAR that stretched on for weeks.
NASCAR's initial penalty on the No. 48 team would have kept crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec away from the track for a total of six weeks, plus cost Johnson 25 driver points. Leaving Daytona 42nd after a Lap 2 wreck and with the penalty hanging over the team’s head, things looked grim.
Yet after multiple appeals, Hendrick Motorsports got the answer it wanted. The suspensions levied on Knaus and Malec were dismissed, as was the points penalty for Johnson. Jumping from deep in the standings, Johnson climbed within reach of the top 10.
Despite all the drama surrounding the penalty and appeals, Johnson was able to knock off four top 10s in the ensuing four weeks. His battle with Gordon on Sunday at Martinsville was shaping up to be one for the ages, but Johnson was forced to swallow a 12th-place finish after also getting collected in the G-W-C melee at the front of the field.
So while things started off rough for Team 48, its performances are proving it has put the drama behind and are as focused as ever going for that sixth championship.
The 2012 season, while still in its initial stages, has been anything but dull. From rain delays, to jet-dryer fires, to appeals drama, to surprise success and surprise struggles, the storylines have been deep.
Following this weekend’s Easter break, the Cup Series hits a stretch of continuous racing that lasts until mid-July. As the temperatures soar, so will the intensity on the track and off. Expect slow starters like Kahne, Gordon, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards to make some noise, while Biffle, Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart hope to maintain their solid starts.
Be sure to take time this week to look over your spot in the fantasy standings, examine the good calls and questionable mistakes you've made in setting your lineup and look ahead to the upcoming events in the next few weeks. Much like the drivers and teams, preparation is the key to success in any fantasy league.
Stewart tops the list ... because, after all, wins count
This surf wagon actually beat three start & parkers. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington already have scored two wins this season — and in only five races. Hey, wins count above all else here.
2. Greg Biffle The points leader’s only misstep — and it was a only a small hiccup at that — was a 13th at Bristol. He’s been sixth or better in the other four events.
3. Kevin Harvick Happy and his retooled No. 29 team have been nearly as good as Biffle. Their worst performance thus far are a pair of 11th-place runs. Otherwise, they’re seventh or better every week.
4. Jimmie Johnson Things couldn’t look better for Johnson and Team 48. Not only have all suspensions and point penalties been rescinded, but they’re rolling through top 10s even with blown engines.
5. Matt Kenseth Kenseth is either top 3 by day’s end or forgotten somewhere in the mid-teens. Still, this is one of a handful of teams that can win on any given weekend.
6. Brad Keselowski See: Kenseth, Matt. The only thing that kept either from a top-10 result at Auto Club Speedway was pit road penalties and a rain-shortened event.
7. Carl Edwards Edwards and the No. 99 gang have two fifth-place runs in the last three weeks. Inexplicably, though, this group has yet to lead a single lap all season. That needs to change.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yes, Earnhardt is still mired in a winless skid that dates back to 2008, but top-15 finishes in every race this season — including second- and third-place runs — find him trending in the right direction.
9. Clint Bowyer Bowyer’s solid start with the surprising Michael Waltrip Racing operation shows an average finish of 12.8 with sixth- (Vegas) and fourth-place (Bristol) runs highlighting the early spring.
"Ear muffs!" (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
10. Denny Hamlin Hamlin had the same look on his face after the California race that he did after Phoenix 2010.
11. Kyle Busch The Gibbs cars are showing some impressive muscle on the big intermediates.
12. Martin Truex Jr. Truex has a 9.4-place average finish thus far. It’s amazing what a contract year will do for an athlete.
13. Ryan Newman Three consecutive performances of 12th or better aren’t as splashy as his teammate, but not bad.
14. Mark Martin When he’s in MWR’s No. 55 — and even when he’s not — the team is showing serious growth.
15. Paul Menard Quietly hanging tough at 10th in the standings with three top 10s.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray
What some fans say is wrong with NASCAR is what Brad Keselowski says was right for him. Keselowski credits running against Cup drivers in what was then called the Busch Series for his current success and helping him win on a variety of Cup tracks.
Keselowski’s victory at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday marked his fifth career Sprint Cup victory. Although it was his second consecutive Bristol win, his other victories have come at a unique set of tracks — Talladega (restrictor plate), Kansas (1.5-mile intermediate) and Pocono (2.5-mile flat track).
Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series is something that rankles some fans, who liken it to pro players competing in the minors. Many of those fans say when a Cup driver competes in the Nationwide Series, he prevents another “up-and-coming” driver from getting a chance to compete, blocking their path to Cup.
Keselowski sees the issue differently.
“I was very fortunate to race with some of the best,’‘ Keselowski said following his Bristol win. “I go back to my first Nationwide start for Dale (Earnhardt Jr. in 2007). It was in Chicago. To this day I think that race still has the record for the most amount of Cup drivers. But that's what I had to do to build my career. I mean, I had to go against the Cup drivers when I was still trying to figure out how to run Nationwide.’’
Keselowski raced against 25 Cup drivers in that Chicago race when he made his first start for JR Motorsports. Kevin Harvick won, as Cup drivers took the top nine spots. Keselowski placed 14th and was the second-highest finishing Busch regular. Stephen Leicht was the highest-finishing series regular, placing 10th.
“What I'm trying to say, it obviously frustrates me a little bit when I take some heat — any Cup driver takes some heat from the press, media, fans, whatever — about running the Nationwide Series, because it's really a character builder,’’ Keselowski said. “If you can run well over there, you can come here (to Cup) and get the job done.
“That series helped me build a lot of character. It helped me learn in a smaller spotlight. I feel like when I got over here (to Cup) that the learning process was a lot quicker. It just came down to getting with the right team that I jelled with and that believed in me.’’
Certainly, different methods help different drivers.
The varying style of tracks that Keselowski has won at so far compares favorably with other drivers.
Jeff Gordon’s first five victories were at Charlotte (1.5-mile banked intermediate), Indianapolis (2.5-mile flat), Rockingham (1-mile intermediate), Atlanta (1.5-mile banked intermediate) and Bristol (.5-mile short track).
Variety isn’t the only way to succeed. Three of former champion Kurt Busch’s first five victories came on short tracks. Three of Kevin Harvick’s first five victories came at 1.5-mile speedways.
While there aren’t as many Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series as in that ’07 Chicago race — Saturday’s Nationwide race at Bristol featured nine drivers who would start the Cup race the next day — Keselowski shows that drivers can compete against the Cup regulars in the Nationwide Series and move on to greater success.
Greg Biffle: The Studio Version. (ASP, Inc.)
READY TO GO Although points leader Greg Biffle saw his string of third-place finishes end at Bristol (he finished 13th), it doesn’t dampen his excitement heading to Auto Club Speedway this weekend.
“I am really excited about Fontana,’’ Biffle said. “We have a brand new car that has really good wind tunnel numbers and are really happy with the car. We feel it’s our best car in our fleet so far to date. I am really pumped up about going to California and seeing how this car drives. With the new fuel injection and all the data we will be able to keep a better eye on not burning our engine up, which is what we did there that one time. California is going to be a good race track for us. We will run very well there.”
CHANGE OF PLANS Travis Pastrana announced this past weekend at Bristol that he’s altering his plans to run the full NASCAR K&N Pro Series East schedule.
Pastrana is adding the Global RallyCross series to his schedule. Three of the series’ six events will conflict with K&N races for Pastrana.
“NASCAR's where I want to go, but unfortunately, or fortunately, my background in Rally, the sponsors know that I can do well,’’ Pastrana said. “I've had a proven record in Rally.
“We're funding a lot of the NASCAR races through the Global RallyCross and, I tell you what, that's a fun series. The problem was GRC actually just announced their schedule as of a couple of weeks ago, so it changed. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make three of the K&N races and the initial plan was to do the entire K&N championship, so that was very disappointing.’’
PIT STOPS All four manufacturers have won a race after four events in the Cup season. Ford won at Daytona with Matt Kenseth. Toyota won at Phoenix with Denny Hamlin. Chevrolet won at Las Vegas with Tony Stewart. Dodge won at Bristol with Brad Keselowski. It wasn’t until race 13 last year that each make had at least one Cup win. ... In 17 career starts at Auto Club Speedway, Jimmie Johnson has five wins and 12 top-five finishes. His average finish at the track is 5.1.
Brad Keselowski celebrates in Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
There’s something about the half-mile Bristol bullring in East Tennessee that lends itself to certain drivers.
NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough (nine wins), Darrell Waltrip (12) and Dale Earnhardt (nine) each went on dominant runs at Bristol in the 1970s and ’80s. Rusty Wallace won nine of his own from 1986-2000. Jeff Gordon won five events from 1995-2002, while the Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, also have five wins each.
Following Sunday’s Food City 500, it appears a new name may be added to the exclusive list of Bristol dominators: Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski scored his second straight win at BMS, leading a race-high 289 laps — including the last 111 consecutively — en route to his first win of the 2012 season.
Keselwoski enjoyed a spirited, side-by-side duel with Matt Kenseth prior to pulling away in a race marked by its intense, door-to-door action.
“I mean, what can I say? I love Bristol and Bristol loves me,” Keselowski said. “There’s other places that perhaps have a little more prestige, and I said that last year as well, but this place defines a race team.
“It asks so much of you, whether it’s just in practice, being lined up on pit road, dealing with the noise, the havoc that practice can be, or the hot day of getting through tech, making those last adjustments, or as a driver 500 laps in a bowl trying to keep your composure. This racetrack can really test a team.”
Kenseth easily held on for second, while Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers swept positions three-five.
It appeared Kenseth jumped the final two restarts when Keselowski led, but NASCAR assessed no penalty and Keselowski was able to clear Kenseth’s Ford.
“I didn’t floor it till I got to the start/finish line,” Kenseth explained. “I don’t know if he (Keselowski) was trying to let me beat him on purpose. I was half throttle for five car lengths. I was finally, ‘I got to go or Martin (Truex) or whoever was behind me was going to go around me.’”
Since 2009, Keselowski has two wins on Cup Series short tracks to go along with plate (Talladega) and flat track (Pocono) wins. He was also second on the road course at Watkins Glen last season.
“My dad taught me this very early on, (that) it was important not to be a ‘One-Track Jack,’” Keselowski said of his versatility. “I think now that we have (the right team), I have the experience base to run competitively on almost every style of racetrack.
“I was able to learn that in a time and place where it was acceptable to make mistakes, which is what the Nationwide (Series) was for me. The training and the lower level series of NASCAR — the way they’re structured right now — certainly helped me when I got to this level to be perhaps more prepared than many drivers in the past.”
An early-race accident eliminated some of the favorites. Kasey Kahne got into Regan Smith on lap 25, triggering a seven-car pileup. The incident eliminated Kahne, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Marcos Ambrose from contention. Kevin Harvick sustained damage but continued on. Keselowski snaked through the melee with slight nose damage.
“Regan Smith was pretty slow,” Kahne said. “I was under him for a couple of laps. When my spotter cleared me in the center, I just took off, and he was there on exit. It is disappointing to have that good of a car and be out this early. I've had awesome race cars, and I have nothing to show for it.”
Keselowski moved from 21st to 13th in the championship standings by virtue of the max number of points (48) earned at Bristol. Greg Biffle, who enjoyed three consecutive third-place finishes to start the season, slumped to 13th at Bristol. He holds a nine-point lead over Kevin Harvick and 12-point advantage over Kenseth in the standings.
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the hills of East Tennessee for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. NASCAR’s modern day Colosseum has been home to some of the most dramatic moments in the sport’s history, and always produces great racing.
Once known for its rough-and-tumble ways, Bristol now has multiple grooves that allows for two, and at times, three-wide racing. The action is non-stop, fast-paced and full of action.
When it comes to Bristol, one name has stood out above the rest in recent years: Kyle Busch.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has a total of five Sprint Cup Series victories at the World's Fastest Half Mile, including four out of the last six events. When taking the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events into consideration, Busch has simply owned the place. All told, Busch has five Sprint Cup wins, four Nationwide Series wins (including the last three consecutively), and three straight Camping World Truck Series wins.
So, after a frustrating 23rd-place finish in front of his hometown crowd last week in Las Vegas, Busch is eager to get back to one of his best tracks on the schedule.
“It’s just a fun racetrack no matter what series I’m running there,” Busch said of Bristol. “You really have to be on your game because you make one mistake, or someone else makes one mistake — like what happened in the fall Nationwide Series race there in 2009 when a car with a flat tire came down the track and essentially ended our day — that’s it.”
After a lackluster start to the season — with only one top 5 in three starts — Busch and his Dave Rogers-led team should be at the top of their game this weekend. This bunch struggled during last year’s night race in August, relying too heavily on the Nationwide setup and fighting the changes throughout the Sprint Cup race. With that lesson learned and a proven history of success, Busch is this week's fantasy favorite.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski
Yet Kyle is not the only Busch to have success on the half-mile concrete oval. Older brother Kurt Busch also has five Sprint Cup Series wins at Bristol, the last of which came in 2006.
While the Busch brothers are tied with Jeff Gordon and NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson for third on the all-time Bristol wins list, younger brother Kyle is the only one of that group to have a victory on the new configuration.
As for older brother Kurt, this weekend is a monumental moment in his career. Returning to one of his most successful tracks, Busch is doing so with a humbled attitude and quite the hole to climb from. After the first three races with team owner James Finch’s Phoenix Racing, the ’04 series champion has a best finish of 15th (Phoenix International Raceway) and sits 30th in the standings. Since joining Phoenix Racing, Busch has said he believes this team can compete for wins — especially at a track like Bristol.
However, the season has not gotten off to the kind of start this group was looking for and Busch heads to Bristol with his eye on climbing back into contending for wins. That has the older Busch brother as my driver to watch this weekend. With this marking the 10th anniversary of his first career Sprint Cup Series victory, perhaps there is no better time to get back to his winning ways.
The former champion has the ability to give Finch his second career Cup win, but he’s also just as likely to bring home yet another wrecked race car.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
This week’s darkhorse pick goes to Martin Truex Jr. out of the Michael Waltrip Racing stable.
The driver of the No. 56 NAPA Toyota is in a “put up or shut up” season, with contract negotiations on the books for later in the year. To say the New Jersey native has underperformed over the past few seasons is a bit of an understatement. Many expected big things from the two-time Nationwide Series champion, but with only one Sprint Cup Series victory in 228 starts, time is running out.
Yet, Truex entered the season optimistic about the newly remodeled and upgraded MWR. The addition of teammates Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin and competition director Scott Miller has Truex pleased with fast race cars and the opportunity to run up front.
And run up front is exactly what Truex did in this race last season. Leading a total of 63 laps, it looked as if the No. 56 was set for a solid day until the handling went away and Truex faded late in the race. Learning from their mistakes, the team showed up prepared to finish the job in August, scoring a second-place finish behind race winner Brad Keselowski.
With Truex looking to quell the contract talk and get back to Victory Lane, Bristol might just be the place to make a statement. If he and crew chief Chad Johnston can avoid trouble and keep up with the changing racetrack throughout, I expect a solid day out of him.
Three Darkhorse Picks: Martin Truex Jr., Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray
Best of luck to all the fantasy NASCAR participants out there, and most importantly, don't forget to set your lineups!
Average Bristol Finish, Last Six Races (Wins)
1. Kyle Busch — 4.5 (4)
2. Ryan Newman — 8.8 (0)
3. Jimmie Johnson — 9.0 (1)
4. Kurt Busch — 9.0 (0)
5. Carl Edwards — 10.0 (0)
6. Matt Kenseth — 11.3 (0)
7. Jeff Gordon — 11.5 (0)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 11.7 (0)
9. Brad Keselowski — 12.8 (1)*
10. Jamie McMurray — 14.2 (0) * Four starts
It took 27 races for Tony Stewart to find Victory Lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last year. Four additional wins followed in the remaining nine weeks and Stewart earned his third Cup championship in one of the more dramatic finales in the sport’s history.
Stewart made it known on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that his No. 14 team will not only be a force in the Chase, but in NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, as well. Stewart dominated the Kobalt Tools 400, leading a race-high 127 laps, holding off all challengers through three restarts in the final 34 laps to score his first win of the 2012 season.
“It seemed like if we could get six or eight laps under our belt, we could start building that margin out again,” Stewart said of leading the field in the closing laps. “As soon as you started pulling away, the caution would come out again. You hate having to reset it like that, knowing for the first three laps you had to be spot on and not let them take advantage of a restart like that.
“You sit there and go, ‘How many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart? Something is going to get taken away from us because of this.’ It's very nerve-wracking.”
Stewart’s eventual race-winning move came on the first of the final three restarts. When the green flag waved with 34 laps remaining, Stewart, lined up in row three, shot his car to the tri-oval apron and around Brad Keselowski for the lead in Turn 1.
“The big thing was, that was when Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie (Johnson) had taken four tires and we had taken two. We knew if we could clear those guys, it would give us a little bit of a buffer and have some lap cars that would keep them occupied. We didn't know we were going to have three or four restarts after that. It was key to get out front right away and try and build a gap.”
Johnson held on for second, his second straight top-5 finish after a disappointing 42nd in the Daytona 500. Greg Biffle inherited the lead in the point standings with his third consecutive third-place run. Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
The win was notable for Stewart in that it was his first career Cup triumph as Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway (which was added to the Cup schedule last season) are the only two active tracks where Stewart has yet to notch a Cup win.
“I take a lot of pride in being good in different types of cars, at least being competitive in different types of cars, being competitive at different racetracks,” Stewart said. “This is one we've been close a couple times and it got away. To finally check this off the list … that's what makes today so special — not so much the time of year we're getting it, just the fact we finally got this one.”
Encouraging run for Earnhardt Dale Earnhardt Jr. started second in the Kobalt Tools 400. By the exit of Turn 2, he wrested the lead from teammate Kasey Kahne and held it for the next 43 laps. So dominant was his Chevy that Earnhardt chose to not report a tight condition on his car because the speed was so good.
“Knowing how it drove that first run, even though it was really fast, we should have worked on it and I should have told Steve (Letarte, crew chief) more about it,” Earnhardt said. “I should have let him understand what was going on.”
The car tightened up further once in traffic, and he was never able to fight back to the point. He finished 10th. Still, his 70 laps led bested the 52 he led in the entirety of the 2011 season.
Watch what you say Brad Keselowski saw a good run go bad when his car appeared to run out of fuel on a restart with 17 laps remaining while running second.
Keselowski was fined last year for criticism of NASCAR’s new Electronic Fuel Injection system.
“We're not doing this because it's better for the teams,” Keselowski said in November. “I don't think we're really going to save any gas. It's a media circus, trying to make you guys happy so you write good stories. It gives them something to promote. We're always looking for something to promote, but the honest answer is it does nothing for the sport except cost the team owners money.
“Cars on the street are injected with real electronics, not a throttle body (like in NASCAR). So we've managed to go from 50-year-old technology to 35-year-old technology. I don't see what the big deal is.”
Following the 32nd-place finish in Vegas, Keselowski took to Twitter, noting that the problem he experienced was not an empty gas tank, but a lack of fuel being delivered to the engine: “Just to be clear. On the last restart the engine ran out of fuel, the fuel tank still had gas. This means the fuel system had a problem.”
Play nice, teammates Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards may need to have a meeting of the minds before drivers take the gloves off at Bristol.
Edwards dove beneath Kenseth on the race’s final restart with four laps remaining while both ran in the top 5. The move put Kenseth in a precarious middle-lane position as the bunched-up field maneuvered through Turns 1 and 2. Kenseth’s car broke loose on corner exit and sideswiped the wall. Edwards drove on to a fifth-place finish while the damage dropped Kenseth to 22nd.
“Carl just laid back and got me three-wide, and it just didn’t seem there was a lot of room getting into (Turn) 1,” Kenseth said. “And then I did get clear behind him and he just stopped in the middle of the corner. I don’t really know what happened.”
“Matt spun his tires a little bit (on the restart) and I got a run on him, “Edwards explained. “And then Greg (Biffle) and I went around him and he ended up getting wrecked. I feel terrible.”
During Monday's bizarre Juan Pablo Montoya crash that left drivers waiting around for a couple of hours, two drivers kept racing…sort of. Dale Earnhardt Jr and Brad Keselowski both made a mad dash for the Port-o-Potty at the Daytona track. There was some drafting and a little bumping along the way before Earnhardt nudged out Keselowski.
For a moment, well, actually about two hours on Monday night, it appeared as if the Daytona 500 would conclude one of the greatest weekends in racing upsets.
As crews doused a jet fuel fire and then washed Turn 3 with Tide, Dave Blaney was in the lead. Rain appeared on its way. The race was past the halfway mark. If it was called, Blaney, who had to race his way into the 500, would be the winner.
It seemed a fitting end to what had been a crazy few days at the track. Wild rides, wild finishes and unlikely winners made Daytona a place where dreams come true — instead of that Disney place about an hour down the road.
It began with the Camping World Truck race when John King, making only his eighth career series start, won and upon climbing out of his truck in Victory Lane, said: “Man, I’m a rookie, I’m not supposed to be here. Oh my gosh. This is unreal.’’
King, in his first race for Red Horse Racing, had never finished better than 15th in a Truck race before Daytona. He called Friday’s victory “feature win number three’’ for his career, noting he’d won one dirt late model racing and one late model race.
His victory didn’t come without controversy, though. Contact from King’s truck caused leader Johnny Sauter to crash during the second of the three attempts to finish the race under green.
“I’ve never pushed in my life,’’ King said of the drafting at Daytona. “I apologize from the bottom of my heart.’’
The next day, the Nationwide Series topped King’s dramatics when James Buescher, running 11th in the final corner of the final lap, won. Yes, he was 11th on the final corner and won the race when the 10 cars in front of him wrecked.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Buescher said of his victory.
It was hard to believe, considering those collected in the crash among the leaders included Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
So, it was with those finishes as a backdrop, the sport faced a trifecta of upsets with Blaney in first as the clock moved beyond 11 pm EST on Monday.
But the track was repaired, the rain didn’t stop the race and Blaney didn’t win (finishing 15th). Instead, Matt Kenseth held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle in a car that had overheating issues, fuel problems, a bad tachometer and radio woes throughout the race to score his second Daytona 500 victory. Kenseth’s victory brought a sense of order — the Roush Fenway Racing cars had been strong all week and Kenseth won his qualifying race — amid all the chaos of Speedweeks.
PRIMETIME Sunday’s rainout and rain Monday afternoon gave the sport and its fans a chance to see what it would be like to have a prime-time weeknight Cup race.
It’s something some fans have called for in recent years. The theory being that it would draw a larger TV audience than a Sunday afternoon race or a Saturday afternoon race.
FOX reported that Monday night’s Daytona 500 drew an 8.0 rating, down eight percent from last year’s race, which was held on Sunday afternoon. Monday night’s rating was up four percent from the 2010 Daytona 500, which was twice delayed by a pothole.
FOX also reported that the total audience watching at least a portion of Monday night’s race was 36.5 million, up from last year’s 30 million.
So, let the debate continue if it’s worth it for the sport to run a prime-time weeknight race.
FUNNY BUSINESS? Did Greg Biffle protect teammate Matt Kenseth, who was leading, from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the green-white-checker finish that decided the Daytona 500?
Here’s what Earnhardt and Biffle had to say about the final lap:
Earnhardt: “I know that they're teammates, but his group of guys that specifically work on that car or travel down here to pit the car during the race, his crew chief, Greg himself, they work way too hard to decide to run second in a scenario like that. I'm pretty sure that … if (Biffle) had an opportunity to get around Matt and had a chance to win the Daytona 500, he would have took it immediately.
“He's trying to do what he could do. If I were him, I can't imagine what his game plan was in his head, but if I were him, I would have tried to let me push him by and then pull down in front of Matt, and force Matt to be my pusher and then leave the 88 for the dogs.’’
Said Biffle: “Once (Earnhardt) got against my bumper ... I was about three-quarters throttle, and then once we got straight I pushed the gas down. I thought that we would drive up on the back of (Kenseth’s car) without a problem. It must have just pushed enough air out in front of my car that it pushed (Kenseth’s) car out about five or six feet in front of me and I couldn’t get any closer.
“We were all going the same speed, so when I moved over, Matt moved over real easy and Junior is against my back bumper. So, I am trying not to wreck because he is shoving on me, and I am doing this down the back(stetch) thinking, ‘I am not going to be able to get a run at him.’
“The only thing I could have done was got real straight down the backstretch and pushed the brake pedal down and kept going straight and slow our cars down a fair enough and then let Junior make a run at Matt around (turns) three and four and we could have moved up beside him coming off the corner and then Junior and I would have had to dice it out to the line. That is probably what I should have done.’’
PIT STOPS Matt Kenseth collected $1,589,387 for winning Sunday’s Daytona 500. David Ragan, who finished last, collected $267,637. Ragan ran one lap before he was eliminated by a crash. ... Last year, eight of the 12 drivers who made the Chase finished 20th or worse in the Daytona 500. That could be good news for Jimmie Johnson (42nd Monday), Jeff Gordon (40th), Brad Keselowski (32nd), Kasey Kahne (29th) and Ryan Newman (21st). ... The difference in limiting the tandem draft? Last year’s Daytona 500 featured 74 lead changes. Monday night’s race had 25 lead changes.