Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Kansas Speedway.
Jason Ratcliff and Matt Kenseth. (ASP, Inc.)
Two years ago, J.D. Gibbs came within a front bumper of stealing Carl Edwards away from Roush Fenway Racing. Then Ford’s hot young star, Edwards would have bumped Joey Logano out of the No. 20 ride to the tune of a reported $10 million.
Turns out, that could be the best money Gibbs ever saved.
What happened? Edwards got a sweeter deal, including stock options from Ford, to remain at RFR, then came within a whisker of the championship (losing to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker). But he’s won just once since, stuck in rebuilding mode after losing longtime crew chief Bob Osborne, and hasn’t found a full-time sponsor to replace AFLAC, causing multiple companies — and occasionally Ford itself — to foot the bill.
In the meantime, the money thrown at Edwards, combined with patchwork sponsorship for Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 effort, made the latter ripe for the taking. JGR, with Logano still struggling a year later, grabbed Kenseth for an undisclosed amount – but likely a fraction of the Edwards price — saving backer Home Depot from potentially jumping ship completely. In the meantime, Gibbs’ outgoing driver won once more before handing the keys to a car that desperately needed a veteran’s help.
Where are we now, eight races in? Kansas’ Victory Lane offers a clue as we go Through the Gears:
FIRST GEAR: Matt Kenseth could be Joe Gibbs Racing’s missing piece.
Observers felt that Kenseth, looking for a fresh start after 13 years with Roush Fenway Racing, would click with the No. 20 team. But no one expected this type of start: two wins and six races led in eight starts for a team that’s been downright dominant at times. A driver known for consistency as opposed to controlling races, Kenseth already has led more laps this season (482) than he did throughout all of 2012. And it’s not like he was off the pace in his last year with RFR; Kenseth captured three victories, including the Daytona 500, and landed seventh in series points.
“I think it can always go better but things have been pretty good from a performance standpoint,” was his comment on Sunday concerning 2013. “I’m really, really happy. I think as an organization one of our cars — if all the stars would have aligned — could have won every race this year if everything would have worked out.”
Compare that to Roush Fenway Racing, which has half the wins and just 207 laps led thus far. How ironic was it that Kenseth’s final on-track pass for the lead came at the hands of his old car, the No. 17 driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Clearly, JGR got itself the better end of the deal, one it feels includes a leader within its stable of high-profile drivers.
For Kenseth, it’s more that the pressure’s off, with sponsorship secure and no mentoring needed for teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The 2003 Cup champ has 10 times the experience than Logano, and add in top-15 finishes so far this season at every track that also hosts a Chase date (even Martinsville, once kryptonite), and it’s clear this addition could bring not just the 20 team, but the entire JGR organization into serious title contention this fall.
SECOND GEAR: Kyle Busch is cursed by Kansas.
Everyone talks about Kyle Busch’s newfound maturity. But the one person Busch still needs to see, fresh off an Anger Management appearance with Charlie Sheen, is a wizard. Kansas Speedway has been Busch’s Achilles Heel, the one track where he has yet to score a top-5 finish and a place where he’s been cursed for two-plus years. The spell was in full effect this weekend, as Busch wrecked three times — from practice through the race — en route to destroying two cars and winding up in 38th place.
“Spun twice on our own,” he quipped after the race-ending incident. “Just don’t know what to do with Kansas.”
Maybe one extra apology to David Reutimann would be a start. That driver, angry over the way Busch bumped him out of the way at Bristol in 2010, chose to get his revenge at Kansas later that season — at a crucial point in the Chase — which proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back on Busch’s title run. The Las Vegas native was wrecked by Reutimann, ran 21st and has done no better than 10th at the 1.5-mile oval since.
That remnant of “Old Kyle,” along with the mental frustration attached to it, still comes out on The Plains. That needs to stop, considering this track’s second date remains smack dab in the middle of the Chase.
THIRD GEAR: There is such a thing as too fast.
While Kansas put on a far better race compared to Texas a week ago, both experienced the same set of problems that hindered side-by-side competition. Average speeds in both cases were well over 190 miles an hour; straightaway speeds at Kansas approached 210. If NASCAR saw that high of a number at Daytona — considering what happened in February — restrictor plates would be replaced with parachutes attached to each car’s rear end.
So why didn’t NASCAR even blink at Kansas? For now, its answer to “slowing the cars down” is providing a safe, rock-hard Goodyear tire compound so that if a driver spins, it’s his or her own fault — sort of a weird way to deflect blame. But considering that’s exactly what’s happening — half-a-dozen cars spun out on their own Sunday — isn’t the risk failing to provide a reward? With the current compounds, cars can run upwards of 200 laps on left-side tires and have little to no falloff. That makes a car like Kenseth’s the best all day unless you can nip it through pit strategy to gain track position, which limits passing and excitement for fans.
The Gen-6 car, when provided a softer tire compound, has proven to be racier than the Car of Tomorrow. Restarts at Kansas showed its true potential, with cars four-wide at times in the desperate battle to gain positions before everyone bottomed out at the same speed. The pieces of the puzzle are there, NASCAR just has to find a way to slow the cars and pair them with a softer compound tire so the drivers can actually use them to their advantage.
Aric Almirola is currently 13th in the point standings. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: The window is opening for a Chase surprise.
The contenders at Kansas were about whom you’d expect. Kasey Kahne, always strong on intermediates, ran runner-up to Kenseth and sits a solid second in the standings. Jimmie Johnson, on the equivalent of cruise control, ran third and extended his points lead.
It’s further down the list where the results get intriguing. Martin Truex Jr., fresh off a runner-up performance at Texas, ran a strong fourth. Jamie McMurray, nearly wrecked at the front of the field by Mark Martin during a mid-race restart, fought back to seventh. Aric Almirola, driving the legendary STP colors for Richard Petty Motorsports, was eighth, giving him back-to-back top 10s for the first time in his short career. Paul Menard, Richard Childress Racing’s most consistent driver who makes a living on these 1.5-mile tracks, ran 10th.
It’s a set of four names, all unlikely to win a race this season, whose consistency keeps them in the Chase mix. Currently, Menard is 10th in points while McMurray, Almirola and Truex are inside the top 15 and within striking distance. With Jeff Gordon (15th) and Tony Stewart (21st) down the standings, a summer surge for either would make this battle for 10th a moot point. But what if they don’t bounce back? Last year, Gordon needed a wild card to make the Chase field. With the usual suspects already inside the top 10, Denny Hamlin’s injury may have provided an opportunity for this undercard battle to take shape. Considering how meaningful a postseason bid would be to any of those candidates (with two total Chase bids between them), I’d expect the stretch run to get wild.
You’ve gotta give Ricky Stenhouse Jr. credit. Driving for the team that won here last fall, he qualified third, used pit strategy to get up front late and led 26 laps. Eleventh ties his best career Cup finish, but more importantly, the rookie got over the hump of running up front for more than just a circuit or two. … How many more obstacles must Brad Keselowski overcome? First-lap contact from a backmarker left him with a fuel-filler issue that dropped his No. 2 car a lap down early. Then, leftover damage caused a debris caution when his back end ripped apart in Turn 3. It’s the third race in a row he’s had these type of problems, yet the team has finished top 10 every time (sixth on Sunday). It makes you wonder how dangerous it will be when the luck finally turns. … Tony Stewart, invisible at Kansas (21st), is off to the worst start of his Cup career. Leading just 18 laps, he’s 21st in points and without a top-5 finish through eight races. However, let’s not forget how notoriously slow a starter Stewart traditionally is. In 2005, he was 14th in points after eight races, winless (and rudderless) at Joe Gibbs Racing. That November? He was holding the title trophy. And who can forget his 2011 championship, when he was an afterthought through a zero-win regular season, yet ripped off five victories in the 10-race Chase? … Sunday marked the first time since 1985 that three consecutive Cup races have been won from the pole. It last happened with Bill Elliott (Michigan, Darlington) and Dale Earnhardt (Bristol) with Elliott capturing the Winston Million in the Southern 500.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Texas Motor Speedway
Eddie Gossage with spring 2012 pole winner Martin Truex Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
1. NASCAR finding Texas race sponsor to be questionable fit
When Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage announced the naming rights to Saturday night's race, eyebrows were raised in circles far wider than those just in the NASCAR garage. That'll happen when you allow a political group on one side of this country's hottest political debate to stake it's name to an event broadcast on national TV.
The buzz over the National Rifle Association's sponsorship of the NRA 500 this week has picked up steam once again, and NASCAR released a statement Thursday that seemed to indicate that it will review such sponsorships in the future. Tracks procure naming rights deals themselves, but each are subject to approval from the sanctioning body.
“The NRA’s sponsorship of the event at Texas Motor Speedway fit within existing parameters that NASCAR affords tracks in securing partnerships,” said NASCAR spokesman David Higdon in a statement that also noted NASCAR takes no stand in the gun rights debate. “However, this situation has made it clear that we need to take a closer look at our approval process moving forward, as current circumstances need to be factored in when making decisions.”
NASCAR's review of the approval likely stems from how the sport is being viewed by outsiders and, perhaps more importantly, by new fans. But it's a fine line for the sport to walk that has a considerable section of the fan base — especially in Texas — who share the same political views of the NRA.
NASCAR can't afford to alienate both sides of this debate or any other. How it handles situations such as these will be quite fascinating to watch.
Meanwhile, Gossage thinks the scrutiny is overblown.
"The only questions are coming from less than 10 reporters," Gossage said Thursday. "The public isn't asking (us) questions."
2. Let's hope you like the Gen-6
Back on track, NASCAR made another interesting announcement Thursday during the half-day open test afforded to teams as a way to get a better handle on NASCAR's latest model. Basically, don't expect major rule changes on the Gen-6 platform anytime soon.
"I think we're in a fairly good spot," NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said. "The teams — one of the things we've learned over the years is if you keep moving the targets, people have a tendency to … it's harder for them to keep chasing that. We feel like the playing field is fairly level."
After the small sample size of the latest two races for the Sprint Cup Series, shying from changes makes sense. Auto Club Speedway put on a show easily rivaling the best ever at the track for stock cars, and Martinsville Speedway seemed unfazed by the new body style. That's a good thing.
Pemberton's remarks bring the Gen-6 car nearly full circle after the sanctioning body used a test at Texas last fall at the track to narrow down what kind of speedway aerodynamic and mechanical package would be in use with the new car. That day, teams experimented with various levels of downforce and multiple tire combinations. Today's product isn't far from what the drivers tested that day.
"As long as the input is (that) it's still pretty rock solid as far as being positive, they've got plenty to work with. We feel like there's no reason to move the target on them right now," Pemberton said.
As you watch Saturday night's race and judge the Gen-6 on its third intermediate track visit of the season, remember that last year's spring Texas race was the impetus for many to wonder why NASCAR had lost the number of incidents and cautions everyone was used to. The caution flag waved just twice for 10 laps in last year's 334-lap event, both times for debris.
Defending race winner — and Ford driver — Greg Biffle. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Fords need Texas to get back in the mix
Carl Edwards may have won the season's second race at Phoenix International Raceway, but he won it primarily on track position and pit strategy. Since then, 2013 has been a season of catch-up for teams in the Ford camp.
Look at it this way: in 1,983 laps turned in 2013's six races of competition so far, Ford has led just 312 laps or 15.6 percent. Distilled further, Ford has led just 14 laps in the two races so far at the intermediate tracks most similar to TMS in Auto Club and Las Vegas.
By comparison, Jimmie Johnson, in a Chevrolet, has led more laps than all Ford drivers combined (21.7 percent).
Can this weekend in Texas be the perfect antidote? History is on the side of the Blue Oval gang in Fort Worth, as 11 of 24 races have been taken by a Ford. Nine of those have come from Roush Fenway Racing drivers, including last year's race won by Greg Biffle.
4. Has Hall of Fame nominee Bruton Smith hit the campaign trail?
One new nominee for this year's NASCAR Hall of Fame class was speedway magnate and renowned racing pot stirrer Bruton Smith. The chief of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., was nominated for his career of building racing facilities, track promotion and a litany of other contributions to the sport.
Thursday, if only subliminally, Smith seemed to be hitting all the right lines and making all the right proclamations for a guy hoping to become a first ballot Hall of Fame entrant. This is a guy, after all, who once threatened to "move" Charlotte Motor Speedway only to later have the road in front changed to honor him. A little bit of sly posturing isn't entirely out of the question.
First, Smith told reporters he was "delighted" his name came up and that if he was inducted he would "do whatever I can to help the grow the (Hall of Fame) facility in Charlotte" as well as the sport. Smith, who in 2005 was listed by Forbes being worth north of $1.5 billion, carries some significant clout in the Queen City.
Later, Smith found out that another Charlotte event — the annual pit crew challenge during the week of NASCAR's All-Star race — had been canceled for this year after Sprint opted to switch sponsorship to the preseason exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway. Quickly, he vowed to find a sponsor and host it at his still-new zMAX Dragway next to CMS.
Knowing how Smith works, that will likely happen. What isn't clear is if his benevolence is merely coincidental.
5. Truck Series returns to Rockingham for second year of track's comeback
A story not getting near the same attention it did one year ago is where the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will be racing Sunday.
For the third time this season, the trucks will take the green flag when Rockingham Speedway hosts the series for just its second NASCAR national series event since the venerable facility was shuttered amidst race realignment in 2004. Kasey Kahne won last year's event, but isn't entered to defend his title this year.
For the sake of what's good in NASCAR — and let's make it perfectly clear that racing at Rockingham is about as good as NASCAR gets, no matter the series — I hope Kahne's reluctance to return isn't indicative of what Sunday's crowd will look like. Track owner and former NASCAR driver Andy Hillenburg has poured plenty into reviving “The Rock,” and with a flood of nostalgia the track was an extremely popular stop last year.
More importantly, though, was that the on-track racing was great. There were multiple grooves, tire wear and drivers forced to manage their equipment in a way too often cast aside in today's NASCAR. Sunday's race will come early after the late night 500-miler in Texas, but it'll be well worth watching.
by Geoffrey Miller Check back each Thursday to get Geoffrey’s take on what to watch for in the upcoming NASCAR weekend. For daily insight, follow Geoffrey on Twitter:@GeoffreyMiller
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has assumed the top spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings, but it's defending champion Brad Keselowski who finds himself atop the Athlon Sports Horsepower Rankings.
1. Brad Keselowski
If not for an overheating issue late in Fontana (while running fifth), Keselowski would most likely be five-for-five in the top-5 finishes category. The defending champ has come out swinging.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior has a quintet of top-10 runs thus far in 2013. He will not ascend to the top of this list until the No. 88 team proves it can win on a consistent basis.
3. Jimmie Johnson
You just know ace crew chief Chad Knaus has used the off-weekend to widen the chasm between teams that have and have not figured out the nuances of the Gen-6 car.
4. Matt Kenseth
Not surprisingly, the veteran Kenseth has comfortably made the transition to Joe Gibbs Racing in a seemless manner. In fact, he may be ranked a bit low on this list.
5. Kyle Busch
Busch is riding a three-race streak that has witnessed finishes of fourth or better, punctuated by a dramatic win at Auto Club Speedway. This bunch is going to be hard to handle this season.
6. Kasey Kahne
Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have a full season under their belts at Hendrick Motorsports. The duo has led the No. 5 team to consecutive showings of second, first and ninth.
7. Carl Edwards
Somewhat of a feast or famine team, the No. 99 bunch has a win (Phoenix) and two additional top-5 runs in 2013. Those showings are offset by 18th- and 33rd-place stinkers.
8. Greg Biffle
Going about things the way only Biffle can. Through five races, he has zero top 5s and two top 10s, yet finds himself fourth in the point standings. He’s nothing if not consistent.
9. Paul Menard
Menard’s No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team are off to their annual semi-hot start, with three top 10s and an average run of 13.6. The question this year, as it is every year, is can they sustain it?
10. Ryan Newman
Yes, he’s an uninspiring 20th in the point standings, but Newman is actually carrying the Stewart-Haas Racing banner with three top 10s. Like Edwards, this is a feast or famine group, albeit without a “W.”
11. Clint Bowyer
Can this team avoid the dreaded championship runner-up hangover? The thinking here is they can.
Riding dirty? Not in the classical sense, anyway. (ASP, Inc.)
12. Joey Logano
How about a nickname change, from “Sliced Bread” to “The Tempest.”
13. Tony Stewart
It’s been a tough go thus far for Stewart, but he’s too good to stay down long.
14. Kurt Busch
With two straight top 5s, Busch is delivering results to Furniture Row Racing’s potential.
15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The rookie has completed every lap thus far this season and is 12th in points. Nice start, kid.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray
Kyle Busch wins Auto Club 400; Logano, Hamlin rivalry intensifies.
Kyle Busch in Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
A frenetic final 20 laps in the Auto Club 400 concluded in a last-lap crash involving rivals Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, a surprise winner in Kyle Busch, and a fight on pit road between Logano and Tony Stewart. And it all happened at the most unlikely of venues: Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
The two-mile oval in Southern California has historically been known for its single-file, strung-out style of racing where aerodynamics and downforce — not tight-quarters beating and banging — are key. That all changed on Sunday.
A bevy of late-race three- and four-wide racing hit its crescendo on a restart with 11 laps to go. Race leader Logano threw a block on Stewart as the field took the green flag, killing the latter’s momentum and costing him valuable positions. That opened the door for Kyle Busch, who shot to the lead in the high groove.
As Busch built a cushion up front, the fight for second between Logano, Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. intensified. The quintet sparred for three laps before Logano and Hamlin prevailed. They chased down the leader and overtook him in a physical fight in the tri-oval with five laps remaining.
The former teammates, whose rivalry has made headlines since Daytona and reached a new high in Bristol when Hamlin spun Logano, sparking a post-race confrontation and a war of words, ran nose-to-tail until the final lap, when Hamlin made his move as the white flagged wave.
Hamlin loosened Logano up in the tri-oval and powered by on the outside. However, Logano was far from done. He dove to the inside in Turn 1 and pulled alongside on the backstretch. As Logano’s car got loose in Turn 3, he washed up the racetrack, making contact with the No. 11 of Hamlin. That allowed a stalking Kyle Busch to skate by near the wall, charging to the lead as Logano and Hamlin wrecked.
Logano bounced off the wall but righted the ship for a third-place finish. Hamlin cut hard to the inside of the track and crashed head-on into a concrete wall devoid of energy-absorbing SAFER Barriers. Hamlin exited his car but quickly collapsed to the pavement as track safety personnel attended to him. He was airlifted to a local hospital complaining of back pain for what Joe Gibbs Racing officials called “precautionary reasons.”
“They forgot about me. I knew they were gonna,” Busch said of the two leaders as they parried for the win. “When they went to the bottom side of (Turns) 3 and 4, I thought, ‘Oh man, this golden — I got enough (momentum) up here to make this happen.’ Lo and behold, I put my foot to it and drove around the outside of them before they were crashing … or maybe as they were crashing, I’m not sure.”
The victory was Busch’s first of the season and 25th of his career.
Earnhardt Jr., Logano, Edwards and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 5. Hamlin was credited with a 25th-place finish. Earnhardt assumed the lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings after former leader, Brad Keselowski, limped to a 23rd-place showing.
Tony Stewart, following his pit road confrontation with Joey Logano. (ASP, Inc.)
As Busch celebrated in Victory Lane, Stewart confronted Logano on pit road, having taken exception to the block that dropped him from third to, ultimately, 22nd. A fight broke out between the two drivers and members of their respective teams, though no punches appeared to connect. The drivers were quickly restrained and separated.
When asked by a FOX television reporter about the incident, Stewart went on an expletive-laden tirade, taking Logano to task and promising retribution, then later referred to him as “a rich kid who never had to work a day in his life.”
Logano was unapologetic concerning his tactics, saying, “I had to throw the block there — that was the race for the lead. I felt like if the 14 (Stewart) got underneath me, that was going to be the end of my opportunity to win the race. I was just trying to protect the spot I had.”
As for the violent ending to his race with Hamlin, the Connecticut native again displayed little remorse.
“He probably shouldn’t have done what he did last week,” Logano said. “So that’s what he gets.”
Kenseth gets first win for Joe Gibbs Racing in third start.
Matt Kenseth celebrates in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
The biggest name in NASCAR's 2012 version of Silly Season made his presence known early in the 2013 season. Matt Kenseth, in only his third start with Joe Gibbs Racing, gave the No. 20 team its first win since June 2012, when he won the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Having spent the first 13 years of his Cup Series career at Roush Fenway Racing where he won two Daytona 500s and the 2003 title, Kenseth accepted one of the most coveted seats in the Sprint Cup Series with Gibbs’ No. 20 team — a group that had only two wins since Tony Stewart left the team following the 2008 season. In the season opener in Daytona, Kenseth was one of a handful of favorites but lost an engine while leading with just over 50 laps remaining. He followed that up with a workman-like top 10 at Phoenix.
On Sunday in Las Vegas, it all came together for the driver, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 bunch.
In classic Kenseth fashion, the Wisconsin native showed up when the money was on the line. In a race dominated by Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth assumed the lead late — with 41 laps remaining — and used clean air at the front of the field to his advantage.
A strategy call on a pit stop under yellow earned Kenseth the point. Taking zero tires while most others took two, he led the field to green and held the top spot even after the second-place machine of Brad Keselowski appeared to jump the start.
A blown engine in the Chevy of Ryan Newman precipitated another restart with 27 laps to go. Again, it appeared that Keselowski jumped the start, but no ruling came from NASCAR. Still, Kenseth recovered quickly, pulling by on the backstretch.
However, Kenseth’s toughest challenge would come from Kahne, who also disposed of Keselowski within a lap of the restart.
Kahne, who led a race-high 114 laps, prowled in Kenseth’s tire tracks for the final 26 laps, but in an ending that proved anti-climactic, never mounted a serious attempt at the pass. Clean air for the leader, coupled with a lack of front-end downforce on his No. 5 Chevy, forced Kahne to settle for second.
“We're only three weeks in, but man, all three races we had a car — if everything would have went right — that we could have won, and it feels pretty awesome to have this win here,” said Kenseth.
Keselowski, Busch and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5 on an afternoon that witnessed five caution periods.
NASCAR opened the track on Thursday for a test session to give teams extra time with the new Gen-6 car on the circuit’s first intermediate track stop. High-banked intermediate tracks — typically 1.5- or 2-miles in length — make up more than half of the Sprint Cup Series’ 36-race season. The new cars are designed with the intent to improve action on these tracks to allow more side-by-side racing.
Still, aero-dependency ruled the day on Sunday, as evidenced by Kahne not being able to pass Kenseth in the waning laps despite having newer tires — and by all outward appearances, a faster car.
“Clean air is like an extra tire,” said Carl Edwards.
“When I was out front my car was fast as heck,” Busch said. “As soon as (Kahne) went by me (for the lead) I was out of the racetrack, wrecking loose. I had to give up 10 car lengths to him in order to get my car comfortable again to where I could drive it.”
Those teams that were able to hit the setup thrived, as five cars — Kenseth, Kahne, Keselowski, Busch and Johnson — led 261 of the 267 laps. This on the heels of a largely single-file Daytona 500 and a veritably regular trip to Phoenix’s eccentric one-mile oval.
So while the cars may be a work in progress, the chemistry on JGR’s No. 20 team looks well ahead of the curve.
“I'm glad we got a win, but it's still only week three,” Kenseth said of his new team. “I feel like this is the beginning, you know, and I have a lot of confidence — I had a lot of confidence after our first meeting and decided to go do this and just had a great feeling about it. And I still do.”
NASCAR: Five Things to Watch at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Denny Hamlin is not as happy now. (ASP, Inc.)
Five storylines for the Kobalt Tools 500 in Las Vegas
1. Hamlin draws NASCAR’s (thin-skinned) ire
NASCAR suddenly, quickly and, well, mistakenly landed a $25,000 shot to Denny Hamlin's wallet on Thursday as Sprint Cup teams set up shop in Las Vegas. And no: this wasn't a case of Brian France cleaning Hamlin's clock at a swanky blackjack table.
Hamlin is expected to pay up for doing, allegedly, at least $25,000 in damage to NASCAR's apparently fragile image for answering a completely legitimate question at Phoenix International Raceway about NASCAR's new race car. Hamlin's most grievous offense can be found in the following span of sentences:
“I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning.”
Athlon Sports regrets posting such serious and offensive comments.
That was exactly Hamlin’s reaction Thursday during a break from testing and later in the night when he released a statement on Twitter. NASCAR never contacted Hamlin before the fine was issued, even though it came later than usual. Hamlin has vowed to appeal the fine and voiced even greater concern for the message it sends.
“I feel as if today NASCAR lost one of its biggest supporters vocally of where our sport is headed,” Hamlin wrote in a tweet, conscious of his 2010 “secret” fine for saying things that also crossed NASCAR. “So in the end there are no winners.”
Hamlin said the statement was “taken out of context” and that the fine isn't about money. Instead it’s about his ability to give an honest and fair assessment to reasonable questions.
“Since being fined in 2010 I have been a lot more careful about what I say to media and I felt this past weekend felt completely in my rights to give an assessment of the question asked,” Hamlin wrote.
2. Testing, testing, 1… 2… 3…
Beyond the Hamlin episode, teams got down to work earlier than usual on Thursday, as NASCAR opened the track in Las Vegas to a full day of testing.
It wasn't the first time NASCAR's new Gen-6 car has been on a 1.5-mile intermediate track, but Thursday was the first day Sprint Cup drivers got to toss the new car design around Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR opened the track a day early for two sessions of car fitness tests that, unlike a typical race weekend practice session, allowed the use of data and telemetry recording devices.
Greg Biffle's lap of 189.427 mph late in the second of two sessions put his No. 16 Ford atop the speed charts — a familiar place for Roush Fenway Racing at LVMS. Kasey Kahne set the track record a season ago in Sin City at 190.456 mph.
“It doesn’t matter how long you have practice or how much testing you have, there will be cars on the track until NASCAR throws the red and black flag,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “And even after all of that, we will always think, ‘Darn, if we only had two or three more laps.’ We are always striving for perfection so there is never enough time in my opinion to get ready for Sunday’s race.”
Indeed, many teams placed focus on race setups to start the second weekend of the early-season West Coast swing for NASCAR. Nine of the top-10 drivers in the second session’s speed charts posted their fastest lap in either the second-to-last or last run of the day, likely with qualifying setups installed.
The last major test on 1.5-mile tracks for most teams came at Charlotte Motor Speedway in January. Snow postponed part of that test conducted in extremely cold conditions — a stark contrast from Thursday’s sunny and mild weather in Las Vegas.
Aric Almirola: A Vegas sleeper? (ASP, Inc.)
3. Trump cards could quietly be in The King's court
The temperature at that Charlotte test before the start of the 2013 campaign wasn't a factor for the Florida-born Aric Almirola. His No. 43 Ford turned the quickest lap during that test that proved to be a culmination of a lot of right steps that both he and his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose have taken on NASCAR's intermediate tracks of late.
Expect both to be under-the-radar contenders when Sunday’s 400-mile race gets underway.
“Toward the end of last season, we were really good at the mile-and-a-half tracks, and doing well at the test gives us some momentum going into this weekend,” Almirola said.
Almirola picked up a pair of top-15 finishes in last season’s final two intermediate track races at Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Tire troubles and a crash ruined an even stronger day just weeks before at Kansas Speedway — another 1.5-miler — after Almirola led 69 laps.
Ambrose, the road course ace, has shown flashes of strength on the same types of tracks. To start this season, he has a pair of 18th-place finishes in Daytona and Phoenix.
“We haven't had a great finish yet, but we haven't had a terrible one either. We just need to get a little better,” Ambrose said.
Las Vegas, where Ambrose has a best finish of fourth in 2011, could be just the place.
4. Edwards thought Las Vegas, not Phoenix, was his ace in the hole
The backflip Carl Edwards executed after track position and a good handling car sent him to victory last weekend at Phoenix looked pretty good for a guy who had waited 70 Cup races since his last one. It also looked good for a guy who felt his gymnastic move wouldn't be needed for at least another week.
Edwards admitted this week he didn't expect to snap his win drought at Phoenix.
“I know this is probably wrong to admit, but I didn’t really have Phoenix marked on the calendar as the one that we were going to go win the first race,” Edwards said. “I was looking at Vegas as the race that would be the really good one, so I’m really excited about Vegas.”
Edwards can probably point to the success of his still fledgling relationship with tough-nosed crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Their relationship — a meeting of alpha personalities — has been one to keep track of early in 2013. Fennig has changed a lot Edwards’ routine and at-track preparation.
“(Fennig) wants me to make sure that I understand the changes they have planned for practice, that I make sure to be there and be available to the engineers after practice, and that I’m actually sitting there engaged with them so we don’t miss something,” Edwards said. “I thought that was pretty cool for him to just lay it out there. He didn’t say, ‘How did you do it last year?’ He said, ‘This is exactly what I want. This is how I’m going to do it.’
“I think that leadership and knowing what he wants is something that’s going to pay off a lot.”
Edwards, already the owner of two career Sprint Cup wins at Las Vegas (both after the 2006 reconfiguration), is a decent pick to hit it big Sunday.
5. The tricky nature (or lack thereof) of Las Vegas’ Turn 1
The 2006 reconfiguration of LVMS created a remarkably different track than drivers had been used to since the first Sprint Cup event at the track in 1998. The track added banking — it was the first purpose-built progressive banking track in NASCAR — and watched the average pole speed jump more than 12 miles per hour.
Just as any track, LVMS has aged under the extreme heat that Nevada desert summers bring. That process allows the track and its foundation to move and settle. Such character, drivers say, can now be found in Turn 1 at LVMS where a set of bumps have created uncertainty from lap to lap in the driving line.
“You’ve got to tune your car around (the bumps),” David Gilliland said. “It puts more in the hands of the individual teams and drivers to make it work.”
The bumps haven’t proved a notorious causal factor for crashes in that end of the speedway. The numbers, though, are slightly raised. Since reconfiguration six races ago, there have been 19 cautions for incidents in Turns 1 and 2 and 15 for crashes in Turns 3 and 4.
“It has a rougher surface in that there are more bumps. The track has some character to it,” Ryan Newman said. “Over the past couple of years, the bumps in the track have typically been pretty tricky, but that’s something I like.”
The bumps seem to be more noticeable to some drivers than others. Even teammates.
“The track is really smooth and that lets you work on the attitude of your car, and I think that’s a luxury that we have there that we don’t necessarily always get everywhere else because every track has its unique set of bumps,” said Tony Stewart. “Vegas has bumps too, but for the most part, it’s so smooth that you can really fine-tune the attitude of the car.”
For now, we'll listen to Stewart. A win at Las Vegas in 2012 and a second-place finish in 2011 give him a bit of credibility.
The Las Vegas et cetera
Mark Martin, now the second-oldest pole winner in NASCAR history after last week's top qualifying effort at Phoenix, now takes aim at being the oldest Sprint Cup winner. Martin, 54, would top Harry Gant who was 52 when he won in 1992 … Martin also won the inaugural race at Las Vegas in 1998 … Las Vegas is the first of 16 Sprint Cup races at intermediate tracks this season … Most teams had extra transporters meet them in Phoenix after last Sunday's race to swap cars and parts, as making a trek from Phoenix to Charlotte and back to Las Vegas in time is nearly impossible … Just one of 15 Sprint Cup races have gone past the scheduled distance at LVMS.
The odd makers have spoken — and Vito Pugliese piles on
Photo by ASP, Inc.
As will be pointed out ad nauseam on FOX this weekend, Las Vegas is the home to gambling, betting, taking chances and all sorts of other illicit activities. So if you want to dial a cliché, cue up NASCAR’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. To honor this yearly tradition, the Vegas odds makers have beaten everybody to the punch and are already taking bets on who will win the race this Sunday.
Below is how things are shaping up according to the LVH Superbook. If you happen to be going this weekend or have buddy at a bachelor party on site (or still have access to some clandestine off-shore gambling sites) here are the top-10 drivers who stand a shot at making you some cash. Assuming nobody’s right front tire blows out.
JIMMIE JOHNSON 5-1
So far in 2013, Johnson has finished first and second — and he was whining about the latter result — so you know he’s going to be loaded for bear. The Hendrick camp always comes correct when there’s a new car, plus his sponsor is on the walls this weekend. Remember when Charlotte was Lowe’s Motor Speedway and he’d win everything in sight? This could be the second coming of this for JJ and company this weekend at a track where they’ve won four times in only 11 starts.
KYLE BUSCH 8-1
It has been an inauspicious start to 2013 for Kyle Busch, who blew an engine at Daytona and cracked the nose at Phoenix. He dominated the Nationwide race last Saturday in his Monster Energy car, but the odds makers are only concerned about what happens on Sunday. Las Vegas is Busch’s hometown, so it is the one track on the circuit where he won’t be showered with the kind of boos that are typically reserved for third world dictators once they’ve passed. Yah, hear that Hugo?! As high as Rowdy is on the list, he may find a rough go of it this weekend. Kyle does have a pair of poles and a win here back in 2009, but his last three finishes have been 23rd, 38th and 15th.
BRAD KESELOWSKI 8-1
Brad Keselowski is making great strides to project the persona of a Sprint Cup champion. His brutal honesty has gotten him in some hot water with NASCAR, but I seem to remember The Intimidator making a few pointed comments here and there that ended up helping the sport, as well. In 2013, Keselowski has had to work with a new car, a new manufacturer, his fourth teammate in two years and a new engine shop. No matter – a pair of fourth-place finishes have been the result, with Daytona being a constant battle with garbage bag bodywork. The Keselowski/Paul Wolfe combo have once again put this team on their collective back. You saw his championship interview at Homestead, so you know he likes to party. The Blue Deuce will be ready for Vegas.
MATT KENSETH 8-1
Matt Kenseth has shown muscle early in his move from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing. Two races in, and the No. 20 is running as it did in the Tony Stewart days. Kenseth had what may have been the strongest car in Daytona (at least the strongest car left) before it fell out with engine failure. He was near the front most of the day in Phoenix, as well. He and crew chief Jason Ratcliff are still working to get on the same page as far as adjustments and late-race decisions, but that is part of a process that takes time to perfect. Kenseth has won twice at LVMS, but back in the, uh, Generation 4 cars, though he did win a pole as recently as 2011. The understated Kenseth has made his bones in recent years on superspeedways, but he’s still a 1.5-miler at heart.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
CARL EDWARDS 9-1
After he crashed out of the Daytona 500, wiping out his fourth car of Speedweeks, Edwards declared that, “We’re just going to go to Phoenix and win.” He did just that, snapping a 70-race winless streak and showing Jay Glazer how to do a backflip without knocking yourself silly. Roush cars always run well at Las Vegas, having won seven of the 15 Cup races. Edwards snatched one away from Tony Stewart here in 2011, which coincidentally was the last race he had won before the Phoenix performance. Might we be seeing the resurgence of Edwards as a Sprint Cup contender? Vegas will be telling.
KASEY KAHNE 9-1
This season was supposed to be the year that Kasey Kahne went on a tear in his now-familiar Hendrick surroundings. So far, that tear has been more of a tear (i.e., the kind that run down your face when you are overwhelmed with unfathomable sorrow). Kahne was turned early at Daytona, and after a front row qualifying effort in Phoenix, the No. 5 faded to a 19th-place finish. The season is young, and so is Kahne, and girls still think he’s dreamy. The Beiber haircut is a bit disconcerting, but No. 5 is about to come alive as it did in 2009 and challenge for the championship. Half of Kahne’s 14 career wins have come on banked tracks 1.5 miles or larger (Charlotte, Texas, Michigan and California). Las Vegas fits that bill. So, there you go girls: he has a shot at winning this weekend. Just don’t try to claw at Miss Sprint Cup if she’s smiling at him in Victory Lane. That’s her job.
DENNY HAMLIN 10-1
Denny Hamlin seems to be regaining the performance, perspective and promise that he showed throughout the 2010 season when he won eight races and came this close to being a titlist. How his $25,000 fine — levied by NASCAR after he supposedly criticized the Gen-6 car — will affect him is a mystery. He was mad as hell during Thursday’s test session, which could serve him well. However, what he really needs are some wins to help set things off. That last lap banzai pass attempt on Jimmie Johnson missed by only about six inches at PIR, but his record of late in Vegas may come up even shorter: 20th, seventh, 19th and 22nd isn’t an encouraging stat-line.
TONY STEWART 12-1
Tony Stewart shows up to win in Las Vegas, particularly after becoming an owner, with finishes of seventh, second and first in the last three trips. The second-place run would have been a win, but miscommunication during a pit stop after leading 163 laps was his undoing. Stewart needs a rebound performance, especially after the crushing disappointment that was his Daytona 500. Stewart’s teammate has been getting most of the attention lately — not that that’s a bad thing — as has talk of Kevin Harvick coming on board at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. No matter. A few good finishes (and possibly a win this weekend) to follow up last season’s Vegas triumph will have Smoke catching fire en route to a possible fourth championship. How’s that for bad clichés?
JEFF GORDON 12-1
Gordon is in a similar situation as Stewart. A multiple-time champion who had bad luck at Daytona with rising water temps and falling water pressure had him falling back at the end after leading 31 laps. A top-10 run at Phoenix was steady, but there’s been nothing remarkable thus far. His last few years at LVMS have been up and down – sixth, third, 36th and 12th in the last four visits. Gordon has one win here (2001) but his most vivid Vegas memory was a last lap crash in ’08 that ripped the radiator and front end off the car. Hopefully, he doesn’t put the new Gen-6 car to the test this weekend in a similar fashion.
DALE EARNHARDT JR 12-1
This year looks to be picking up where 2012 left off for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Before he got a concussion at Talladega, that is. Second in points through two races with a pair of top 5s, Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte look to be killing ’em with consistency again. His recent record in Vegas is OK – 10th, 16th, eighth and 10th. At the very least, he’ll net a top-10 run, but wins are all that matter for the most part. If you’re picking him for a top-three run, he’s still a solid pick, as the Hendrick cars typically adapt quicker to car changes. And this one is supposed to drive more like the Generation 4 car, which Junior drove to 17 wins.
Honestly, Carl Edwards hasn't been that bad. (ASP, Inc.)
The Gen-6 car for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, after a two-race introduction, appears to be a work in progress. Passing last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway was at an all-time low for its current configuration (1,213 green-flag passes, down from 1,995 in the 2012 race) and pit stop speed decided the race for a driver who hadn’t seen Victory Lane in almost two calendar years.
This weekend’s race at speedy intermediate Las Vegas Motor Speedway is expected to provide a jump in on-track excitement. While I can’t possibly guarantee a more enticing product, there are some intriguing story lines within the numbers this week that should pique your interest and they involve a bevy of fan-favorite drivers. So that’s some excitement there, right?
12.8 and 84.29 percent During the Carl Edwards 70-race winless streak, the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team averaged a 12.8-place showing and finished in the top half of fields 84.29 percent of the time.
Those numbers aren’t awful. Despite not winning, Edwards and team were, for most intents and purposes, admirable across that two-year winless stretch. The perceived slump is just that; any team in the Cup Series would welcome the finishing average and that high of a relevance mark (finishes in the top half of fields encapsulates a team’s ability to avoid mistakes). The No. 99 team was never a downtrodden unit. It just didn’t win for an extended period of time. The last place Edwards won at prior to Phoenix? Funny you should ask …
6.750 With two Vegas wins in the last five races, Edwards leads the series in track-specific PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating) during that time frame.
The most recent winner in the Cup Series just happens to be a stud on the Vegas 1.5-mile quad-oval track. His performance has been feast with a little bit of famine; outside of his two victories at LVMS in the CoT era, he has finished fifth (last year), 12th and 17th. His winning past doesn’t make him a lock for the victory this weekend, but with the recent headlines, he’ll be one of a handful of drivers in the spotlight.
Does Kyle Busch have something figured out? (ASP, Inc.)
+54 Kyle Busch’s combined pass differential in the Cup Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series races last weekend at Phoenix was a plus-54.
By virtue of a bad pit stop in the Nationwide Series race and a pre-race motor change in the Cup Series race, Busch was given the task of having to navigate through the field from a low-ranking position. The plus-26 differential — he made 26 more green-flag passes than the amount of times he got passed — resulted in his first Nationwide win since 2011; however, his march on Sunday had a different result. His plus-28 differential was one of the afternoon’s best on a day in which passing came at a premium — it was down over 39 percent from last year’s race — but his early-race spin placed him off the lead lap. Still, if passing in the Gen-6 is an elusive trait, Busch has demonstrated that he might be one of the few that is able to positively maneuver in traffic.
+56.3 percentDale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team have been stalwarts in the final 10 percent of races, improving their running positions by 56.3 percent.
That plus-56.3 percent position retainment difference is helped by his 12th-to-second run in the waning laps at Daytona, but Earnhardt, crew chief Steve Letarte and team were also factors at Phoenix — where they finished fifth — a track previously unkind to them during the CoT era. Their 3.5-place average finish through the first two races this season places them second in the current Cup Series standings.
290 Across two races and 534 total laps in the last two Las Vegas races, Tony Stewart has led a combined 290 laps.
That’s a 54.3 percent take, which is dominant to say the least. These performances resulted in finishes of second and first in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Through the last five races in Vegas, which includes a last-place finish in 2008, he ranks second to Carl Edwards in track-specific PEER. Fans of Smoke can expect a concerted charge for the win on a track that he’s averaged a 3.3-palce finish the last three years, especially considering he and the No. 14 team are currently rank 23rd in the point standings.
-0.750 Las Vegas native Kurt Busch’s Las Vegas-specific PEER is -0.750, which ranks 45 out of 49 drivers with at least two starts in the last five seasons.
This isn’t the kind of homecoming Busch would prefer. He finished ninth behind the wheel of a Penske Racing entry in 2011, but beyond that, his showings have been dismal. Finishes of 38th (DNF), 23rd, 35th (after starting on the pole) and 35th (DNF) constitute the norm for him during the CoT era. Additionally, he’s only led briefly; he has paced the field for a total of two laps in that five-race sample size.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 from Phoenix.
Track position was key in Phoenix. (ASP, Inc.)
In the midst of a near two-year winless skid on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, Carl Edwards, perhaps more than any driver, needed a confidence boost. And after winning the Subway Fresh Fit 500 — in only his second start with crew chief Jimmy Fennig — that’s exactly what the Missouri native received at Phoenix International Raceway.
After the No. 99 team wrecked five cars during a devastating two months at Daytona — perhaps Roush Fenway Racing’s most expensive Speedweeks ever — Edwards rebounded big at Phoenix. Ending a 70-race winless streak puts him in perfect early-season position to make the Chase — a feat he failed to accomplish in 2012. But besides that stat-busting, feel-good ending, did NASCAR have anything else to hang its hat on with the Gen-6 chassis in its first competitive visit away from a plate track?
Whether they made the grade on an unrestricted track starts us “Through the Gears” on stock car competition out in the desert…
First Gear: Gen-6 + Goodyear + Phoenix = Needs Improvement
All you needed to know about the tires at Phoenix came from a mid-race pit stop. Mark Martin, who had been leading along with Tony Stewart, took four tires while most everyone else took two. That left both sitting mid-pack, hoping fresh rubber would lead to better speed in the long run.
It didn’t. With passing at a premium, Stewart claimed his car arguably handled worse as both men were stuck in neutral, near the back half of the top 20. Under the right scenarios, each would have had top-5 cars but were handicapped by the horror of the words that continue to plague NASCAR racing: track position.
Track position means you can turn off the television when Carl Edwards wins a race off pit road with 70-something laps remaining. Track position racing means you can see two cars, running nose-to-tail in a battle for position, never get side-by-side. It means a race gets won by a call a crew chief makes in his head, which is fun for engineering students but harder to translate into a three-hour, on-air television broadcast. There’s a reason they don’t televise chess on FOX, after all.
So what was the problem at Phoenix? New pavement coupled with Goodyear tires that just never seemed to wear out proved a poor combination. Indeed, it was a feast-or-famine type of day; either your tires held up, leaving you holding position or excessive brake heat, due to ill-handling equipment, melted a bead and found you in the outside wall. The Stewart-Haas Racing cars of Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman, among others, had spectacular tire failures that ended their days early.
Having little-to-no tire wear makes things tough enough — drivers are stuck at the same speed, making the old racing adage of preserving your equipment virtually meaningless. But the post-race quote that raised my eyebrows came from (who else?) reigning Cup champ Brad Keselowski, who ran fourth.
“I think these cars probably drive easier than any race car I’ve ever driven in my life by themselves,” he said. “And probably the hardest to drive of any race car I’ve ever driven in traffic.”
Uh-oh. Trouble in traffic? Isn’t that what killed the Car of Tomorrow on intermediate tracks? We better not see the same type of concern next week, at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, or the single-file phenomenon that turned intermediate racing into a day at the library will be very much front and center.
“I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars,” added third-place Denny Hamlin. “Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up.”
Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
Second Gear: Ford’s front man is relevant again
Carl Edwards, after losing the 2011 title in a tiebreaker, was handsomely rewarded by Ford with a new contract that made him the manufacturer’s de facto figurehead. His repayment? Spending 2012 its highest-paid flop. Running a career-worst 15th in points and losing crew chief Bob Osborne to health-related issues midseason, the one-time weekly contender looked lost. That’s why over the offseason, Roush Fenway Racing charged the best head wrench in its shop, Jimmy Fennig, to rebuild confidence from the ground up on the 99 team. Fennig oozes experience, having won the 1988 Daytona 500 with Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and the 2004 championship with the contentious Kurt Busch. There isn’t a mood he can’t fix, a problem he won’t solve and a crisis where he’ll lose his cool.
That played well during the days after Speedweeks, when an abundance of crushed sheet metal could have crippled this team. Instead, it pushed a desire to focus, with Fennig having his crew poised to seize the moment. On average, the pit crew churned out stops consistently a second better than the No. 48 team at Phoenix, including a crucial final one in order to take control of the race.
“Those guys are bad to the bone,” said Edwards, who ended a 70-race victory drought for the second straight time – right here at this track. “This win feels as good or better than any I’ve had.”
His only concern down the stretch came not from the competition, but a possible jump on the restart. Not once, but twice, he built substantial leads before the start-finish line on a restart while the second-place car (Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Jimmie Johnson) looked like they spun tires.
“I felt like Carl didn't follow the restart protocol and was slower than the pace car on his last two restarts,” Johnson claimed. “It gives the leader a huge advantage when that happens. You're supposed to wait until you get between the two lines and take off and this was all going on before it.”
In his defense, Edwards claimed Johnson took a little too long to go on the final restart. My take? Borderline decision — and in sports, “makeup calls” are part of the game. I seem to remember a restart in Richmond last season where Edwards was called for a restart penalty no one seemed to agree with.
He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.
Third Gear: Team Hendrick is tops on the Gen-6 development list
No, Hendrick Motorsports didn’t win Phoenix, but days after a whirlwind media tour wore out Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, his No. 48 team cruised to a runner-up showing. That has him leading the point standings, with shop-mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. tied for second after two strong top-5 results to start the season.
Quick flashback to the last time NASCAR rolled out a new car in 2007. Who was on top? Hendrick’s lead shop, led at the time by Chad Knaus (Johnson’s crew chief) and Jeff Gordon’s then-head wrench, Steve Letarte. Their drivers combined for 16 race wins that year – nearly 50 percent of the schedule – ran 1-2 in the Chase and collected 54 of a possible 72 top-10 finishes.
Flash forward to 2013: the main mechanical minds remain in place, with Earnhardt, not Gordon, now poised to reap the benefits. At this point, the rest of the competition should be very, very scared of what could be coming.
Fourth Gear: Good teams, bad starts, Chase trouble?
People hate to talk about the championship this early, but in a 26-race regular season, with 20 or so drivers realistically in contention to make the Chase by points, slow starts can be an absolute killer. Three drivers, in particular, stand out as being in trouble. “Lame duck” Kevin Harvick, after a 42nd at Daytona, didn’t lead a single lap Sunday at a track where he won last fall. Running 13th, he’s tied for 29th in the standings when on paper, based on a superior Speedweeks, he should be solidly inside the top 5.
Second on the list is Kyle Busch, shoveling a hole in the points for a second straight year. He was a force at Daytona until the engine blew. Then another engine issue at Phoenix left him starting from the rear. Overaggressive in his quest to drive to the front, Busch spun out early, lost a lap and got it back far too late to climb back through the field (23rd). He’s 29 points outside the top 10.
But the driver in arguably the worst position is 2012 surprise Chaser Martin Truex Jr. Two mechanical issues to start the year — first an engine, then a rear axle — leave him a distant 34th in the standings. Carrying a five-year winless streak, the “wild card” qualifying method for the Chase seems a remote possibility for this bunch, meaning they’re already out of mulligans.
Check back each Monday throughout the season as Tom Bowles highlights the four themes of each weekend’s race.
Edwards survives green-white-checker finish in Subway Fresh Fit 500
Carl Edwards celebrates in Victory Lane in Phoenix. (ASP, Inc.)
A new season brings new hope. And no one in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is in more need of hope than Carl Edwards.
On the outside looking in at last season’s Chase for the Championship, Edwards has been mired in a winless skid that dates back to March 6, 2011. And his 2013 season got off to a dubious start in Daytona during Speedweeks, where he was involved in four wrecks (and a fifth in a test session in January), ultimately finishing 33rd in the Daytona 500.
Factor in a new contract that he signed in 2011 with Roush Fenway Racing that made the 33-year-old Ford Racing’s figurehead, as well as being given RFR’s ace crew chief in Jimmy Fennig, and it’s easy to understand how the pressure has mounted on Edwards to perform.
Consider the weight lifted.
Edwards led the final 78 laps in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Sunday, holding off Jimmie Johnson in a green-white-checker finish en route to the win at Phoenix International Raceway.
“It’s tough to go that long without winning, “Edwards said. “And then you come into the season with Jimmy (Fennig) who did so well last year (three wins with Matt Kenseth) … and everybody did so well. We’ve got the fastest pit crew on pit road — and I thought ‘We’ve got to go win some races.’”
Edwards seemingly had the scheduled 312-lap race in hand, cruising nearly a half-second in front of Johnson as the laps wound down. However, a caution for Ken Schrader’s blown tire with three circuits remaining forced the event into NASCAR’s version of an overtime finish. And with fuel an issue, many were unsure if they had enough in the tank to survive the caution laps and a three-lap shootout on Phoenix’s one-mile layout.
The leaders — Edwards, Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — had plenty in reserve, though. When the green waved, Keselowski pushed Edwards, on the inside lane, by Johnson and the driver of the No. 99 did the rest. In clean air, the Missouri native easily held off the pack, winning his 20th career Cup race.
“I was trying to suspend my emotions after that last caution.” Edwards said. “There was two laps to go and I’m saying, ‘Were going to win this race.’ And Brad pushed me — that sealed it right there. I knew that if we were the first ones down into the corner (Turn 1), we’d win this thing.”
Meanwhile, Johnson, Keselowski and Hamlin engaged in a thrilling battle for second. With Johnson and Keselowski door-to-door exiting Turn 2 on the final lap, Hamlin cut across the apron of the track in the dogleg, blocking Keselwoski and pulling even with Johnson. The two came to the finish line trading paint, with Johnson edging out Hamlin. Keselowski was fourth, Earnhardt Jr. fifth.
Johnson, though, was none-too-happy with the deciding restart.
“The leader is not supposed to slow down before he takes off (coming to the green),” Johnson said. “And he (Edwards) did that twice. It put me in a bad position with the 2 (Keselowski) inside of me … and off we went.”
“I was going for anything,” Hamlin said of the finish. “I didn’t have much all day. The pit crew and Darian (Grubb, crew chief) really carried us today getting track position. (It was) just so hard to pass. You’re going to hear it a lot this week that we’ve got a lot of work to do this week to get these cars to pass each other.”
Johnson, with finishes of first and second is off to a hot start this season, but Sunday was about Edwards, his new crew chief, a re-tooled team in only their second race together and NASCAR’s Gen-6 car, which seems to like clean air as much as its predecessor.
Is Phoenix an indication of what lies ahead for the 99 team? Will Edwards be a driver to deal with throughout the season as he was in 2011, or will he fade into obscurity like 2012?
“I think we are (back),” said Edwards. “But next week I think is going to be the true test (for the car) — at the mile-and-a-half (track in Las Vegas).”