Through the Gears: Five things we learned in the Daytona 500
Lined up single file at Daytona. (ASP, Inc.)
The Great American Race, for the first 180 laps, looked more like the Great American Parade. Cars ran single-file for much of the Daytona 500, content to ride in packs for fear that pulling out for a pass would leave them slower than the street cars the new Gen-6 models are supposed to resemble.
Just don’t expect Jimmie Johnson to complain. “Five-Time” saved his best for last, when the field bunched up inside the last 20 laps and the racing finally resembled some semblance of Sprint Cup competition. Out in front on the white-flag lap, he slammed on the gas pedal when cars wrecked behind him, easily outlasting teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the second Daytona 500 of his one-day Hall of Fame career.
This day, however, will never come close to those lofty standards, a disappointment for NASCAR during a time where plenty of extra eyes were paying attention. Their missed opportunity leads off this week’s “Through The Gears,” bringing you up to speed on the storylines that simmer following the 55th running of the Daytona 500.
First Gear: The Gen-6 needs work at Daytona. Serious, serious work
Daytona is NASCAR’s Super Bowl; but Sunday, the challenge for fans was nothing more than staying awake. That’s problematic. NASCAR’s Gen-6 model, while expected to improve the competition on intermediate tracks, sterilized it on a plate track. Strategy and track position — the latter an ugly word that’s castrated competition elsewhere — made its way into the restrictor plate world most thought it could never touch again. Whether or not NASCAR should be using the plates as a form of parity is a separate discussion. The fact this package caused cars to run single-file, repeatedly, with only 19 lead changes in the first 172 laps (mostly during cautions, restarts and green-flag stops) is a fact not easily ignored.
Some of that, whether NASCAR likes it or not, can be attributed to the plate package it built for the Gen-6 chassis. Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin tweeted the single-file racing was “frustrating,” attributed to the weakness of the inside line. Meanwhile, winner Johnson had another take – that the drivers themselves, sick of wrecking out of so many Russian Roulette, keep-the-pack-together-like superglue races had grown tired of actually trying to compete until the end.
“When we’re running single-file, we’re just trying to get to the finish,” Johnson said. “We’ve all crashed so many times and have torn up so much stuff … I feel for NASCAR, they’re trying to create a very competitive car.”
There’s a point to be made here, along with Saturday’s carnage that left 28 fans injured and many drivers clearly shaken. After 25 years, no matter the rules, these drivers know the name of the game. Did you know there has not been a plate race without a yellow (or several) within the last 20 laps since Daytona’s July 2004 Pepsi 400? Some of the drivers today hadn’t earned their high school diploma when that happened. That means the same type of pattern has been repeated, over and over; no matter what you do, no matter where you are on the track, as long as you stay on the lead lap a caution will bunch up the field with 20 to go (or less). After that … the real racing starts.
Competitors are smart and they adapt. So NASCAR needs to come up with a way where there’s a clear reason to race hard, from start to finish even in the sport’s Super Bowl, otherwise, drivers will just do it when it counts. NASCAR also needs to take a hard look at Johnson’s other point, how side-drafting permanently disabled the inside line Sunday. By all accounts, drivers pulled out of line and got railroaded because the Gen-6 car is so sensitive to that method of manipulation. Perhaps adjusting the spoiler will help? If NASCAR does that, it’s believed some form of tandem drafting would be the result. But as the Nationwide race showed us — before all hell broke loose — some hybrid version of that format isn’t all bad.
What NASCAR can’t have, whether the drivers like it or not, is a parade the likes of which was seen on Sunday — especially when the fan base is used to the heart attack that is Daytona’s last 20 laps. They say people are enthused about a style of racing that closely matches the early 1990s? Check the ratings: 1990 and ’91 were the two lowest-rated 500s since the race received full-time coverage in 1979.
Second Gear: Danica is the real deal … sort of
OK, raise your hand if you thought Danica would be a flop. She wasn’t. In truth, Patrick’s day surpassed most peoples’ expectations, becoming the first woman to lead a lap in the Great American Race and following it up with the best ever finish (eighth).
More importantly, Patrick remained consistent, running in the top 10 for the duration in a performance that she described perfectly: “steady.” If not for making a rookie mistake, in failing to follow Earnhardt with one lap left, she may have been on the podium.
“I definitely was a little uncertain how I was going to be able to do it pass for the win),” she said. “I think Dale did a nice job and I think he taught me something.”
What she needs to learn — much quicker — is how to get off pit road. At tracks where she won’t make track position back, like the intermediates, those mistakes could destroy a solid run. I do expect more Danica-mania to develop now, as the momentum train heads to Phoenix, where she was in position for a top-15 performance last November before a late wreck.
Third Gear: Johnson sets another milestone … to the detriment of Earnhardt Jr.
Johnson, taking advantage of track position opportunities, ran a smart, clean race. That’s expected when crew chief Chad Knaus can take center stage. He successfully kept the No. 48 out of drafting practice, gambling that this race was about who could stay in line, use pit strategy to stay up front and then make a calculated move when it counted.
The victory gives Johnson a victory in his 400th career start. In a weird quirk, five others have accomplished the feat, including Hall of Famers Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt. As if Johnson needing another notch on a resume that may see him reach 100 career wins (he’s at 61 now) before his career is complete.
You can’t say the same for Earnhardt, runner-up in this race for the third time in the last four years. It’s a huge win for Hendrick Motorsports, which runs the 48 and 88 out of the same shop. But you’ve got to wonder if the restrictor plate drought, now at eight-plus years, has Earnhardt wondering when it’ll finally be his turn again.
“Running second over and over is great and all for our team,” Earnhardt said. “But it’s been too long. I would love (to win), even having to go through all that (media) hassle that Jimmie is about to go through this week. It’s worth it.”
It was a tough Speedweeks for Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
Fourth Gear: Ford is behind the curve
Fusion? “Fusing” is a better descriptor of the week ahead for Blue Oval teams after Ford’s fleet left Daytona filled with enough busted pieces to fill a local junkyard. To say the Speedweeks has been disastrous for its main star is an understatement. Carl Edwards, from January testing through Sunday, wrecked a total of five times, although an innocent victim in each one, and was a complete non-factor in the 500.
Penske Racing, while fourth with Brad Keselowski, saw new hire Joey Logano stub his toe to the tune of 19th. Both drivers limped home with race cars Bondo’d together. In all, the beefed-up Ford fleet — with 15 Daytona entries, its largest number since 2002 — posted just three inside the top 10 while leading for just 17 laps.
But where you’ve really got to feel for this crowd is the bottom tier. Front Row Motorsports, which barely has money to compete, wiped out all three primary cars in the 500. The Wood Brothers, running a part-time schedule, wiped out two with Trevor Bayne over the course of Speedweeks. The parts shortage is bad enough for the big teams, for the small ones, it’s critical.
Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Carl Edwards' new crew chief, Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
Until last week, crew chief Jimmy Fennig admits he had “very seldom’’ talked to Carl Edwards in their years together at Roush Fenway Racing.
“I’m the type of crew chief that I focus in on the job at hand and the driver I have and don’t really pay too much attention to other drivers,” said Fennig, who most recently was Matt Kenseth’s crew chief.
Next season, Fennig and his crew will partner with Edwards as Kenseth drives for Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s part of a series of changes taking place at Roush Fenway Racing. Two-time defending Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. replaces Kenseth in the No. 17 Cup car. Trevor Bayne takes Stenhouse’s Nationwide ride. The Cup team of Greg Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia will remain intact.
Fennig, who became a crew chief in 1986 and won the 2004 championship with Kurt Busch, admits he doesn’t know Edwards too well but doesn’t see that as a hinderance in their pairing.
“My goal has always been to win races,” said Fennig, the winning crew chief in the 1988 Daytona 500 with Bobby Allison and this year’s Daytona 500 with Kenseth. “No matter who drives the car, that’s what I try to do every week and that’s something I know we already have in common.”
Fennig will be Edwards’ third crew chief since the start of the 2012 season. Bob Osborne started with Edwards. Osborne, citing health issues, stepped down as crew chief in July and was replaced by Chad Norris.
Edwards was winless this season and finished 15th in the points a year after losing the championship on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. Edwards scored only four top-10 finishes in the 17 races with Norris as crew chief, thus a change wasn’t surprising.
“We all just sat down and looked at it and Chad and I talked at length about it,” Edwards said of the change. “Everyone agrees the opportunity to have the experience of Jimmy Fennig on the box to get ... back to Victory Lane is what we should do. It wasn’t something that I single-handedly requested or just that Jack (Roush) wanted to do it. As a team we thought this was the best thing to do. The biggest thing at Roush is that he has so many good people that we can move people around and do things like this and it is good for the whole company.”
Along with that move, Roush will pair Stenhouse Jr. with crew chief Scott Graves. Both will be rookies in Cup.
“I would normally not be an advocate for bringing a crew chief who hadn’t been established with a rookie driver into the Cup Series, but Scott Graves – in my words – he’s been a prodigy for the small amount of experience he’s had making the final decisions,” Roush said.
“He made great decisions for Carl at Watkins Glen and he’s made great decisions for Ricky when he’s been with him this year. So I think given the fact he’s a mechanical engineer as well as an experienced team engineer, he’s going to bring enthusiasm and creativity to Ricky that we might not otherwise be able to achieve with somebody that had more experience.”
JR Motorsports' Regan Smith. (ASP, Inc.)
JR MOTORSPORTS MOVES JR Motorsports announced a new crew chief for Regan Smith on Tuesday and hinted that it could run just one team full-time next season in the Nationwide Series.
The team announced that Jimmie Johnson’s longtime engineer, Greg Ives, would become Regan Smith’s crew chief next season. Ives was the engineer for all five of Johnson’s Cup championships.
JR Motorsports also noted in a release how it “continues to streamline its race program.” The release stated that the team is preparing for the “likelihood” that it will run one full-time team with Smith as driver and one part-time with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and select drivers. This past season, Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt were the team’s two full-time drivers. Patrick is moving to Cup to drive full-time with Stewart-Haas Racing and has stated a desire to run some Nationwide events.
ROOKIES OF THE YEAR Ty Dillon was selected as the Rookie of the Year in the Truck series, marking the third consecutive year a Richard Childress Racing driver won that honor. Austin Dillon won it in 2010 and Joey Coulter won it last year. ... Austin Dillon was selected as the Nationwide Rookie of the Year and Stephen Leicht won the rookie of the year honors in Cup.
SEEKING SPONSORSHIP Kyle Busch said after Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race that Dollar General will not return as a sponsor on his Kyle Busch Motorsports entry.
“Unfortunately, we’re sponsor-less next year, so we’ll see what happens through the offseason,” Busch said.
The team announced earlier this month that Joey Coulter will drive full-time for it in the Truck series next year.
PIT STOPS Joe Gibbs Racing confirmed Monday that Elliott Sadler will join the team to run in the Nationwide Series next year. ... Paul Menard ran the most laps in Cup this season. He completed 10,406 of the 10,442 laps run (99.7 percent) this season. ... Jimmie Johnson led the most laps in Cup this season at 1,744. Kyle Busch was next, having led 1,436 laps. ... There were 15 different winners in Cup this season, down from 18 last year. This season marked the second consecutive year no driver won more than five Cup races. Champion Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin each won a series-high five races this year.
Dale Earnhardt had quite a reputation for doing whatever it took to win a race. And although he didn’t make it to Victory Lane in the 1993 Fram Filters 500K Busch Series race at Talladega, he called a spade a spade. “Intensive” research (read: a trip to racing-reference.info) shows that Tracy Leslie was “that boy in the 72.” I’d hate to have been Tracy Leslie that day.
by Matt Taliaferro
Ol’ Sterling tells it like it is
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“I guess we’ll do what we dun again at Daytona 'n wreck ‘em all again.” Sterling Marlin was never one to mince words, so I won’t either: Sterling was mad about restrictor plate racing and opened up a can on NASCAR in this post-race interview from 2001. For all the things Sterling brought to NASCAR—Tennessee drawl, chest hair, rugs—he is missed.
by Matt Taliaferro
Ryan Newman draws NASCAR’s ire
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For Ryan Newman, racing with restrictor plates is about as enjoyable as taking out the garbage. Maybe that’s because, more often than not, his racecar becomes garbage. But perhaps the scariest of all his incidents occurred in 2009, when the Car of Tomorrow came oh-too-close to losing its perfect safety record. That caused this classic tirade—one of the stronger criticisms from a package that draws constant negativity from drivers inside the garage. A lack of control over his own outcome? That’s the perfect inspiration for a driver to spout off about lack of respect. And, for NASCAR, the perfect opportunity to hit him in the wallet for 50 large.
by Tom Bowles
Waltrip (of course) injects some humor
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With Talladega’s big, windy packs that keep all 43 cars superglued together, a “Big One” involving multiple drivers is almost inevitable. And the other scary sidelight that seems to come with those crashes? One car, if not more, flipping faster than flapjacks at a Sunday morning diner. In this race in 2005, it was Michael Waltrip that was the innocent victim, getting dizzy in a wreck that didn’t sap the fun out of his day–but it certainly injected some fear into competitors wary of high speeds and high impact that could cause a serious injury at any time.
by Tom Bowles
Mark Martin … Soprano?
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For Mark Martin, his Charlie Brown-esque championship history (five runner-up finishes) also applies to many of his results at Talladega. It hasn’t always been pretty, with the driver flipping as recently as 2009, but perhaps the worst hit of all came in 1994. Back then, the focus on brake failure wasn’t quite so severe, so Martin was more relieved—even jovial—to come out of this incident feeling OK … except for one specific body part we fellas feel pretty sensitive about.
by Tom Bowles
What the “25 Points” was he thinking?
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With his win in the 2004 EA Sports 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. drafted into the points lead and looked like a title favorite as the calendar turned from September to October. However, a 25-point penalty levied against him for using a certain four-letter word on national television in Victory Lane dropped him 12 points behind Kurt Busch in NASCAR’s inaugural Chase. Although Junior won again five weeks later, he never fully recovered in the championship standings. Sidenote: A fun game has spawned from this. Instead of using your preferred four-letter word, substitute the words “25 points” in its place. You’ll be amazed at how funny it remains and how many people will instantly know what you’re referring to.
by Matt Taliaferro
"Sarcastic" Tony makes an appearance
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In this clip from May, Tony Stewart looked to be a mental disaster just moments after his No. 14 car wound up in the garage area. After years of drivers complaining about the plate package, Stewart decided to make his point by switching gears and doing the opposite: embracing its pitfalls. One of the more fascinating moments throughout this clip is the way in which the media seems baffled by Stewart’s responses, continuing to ask serious questions when the driver was anything but. Give him this: Dude can stay in character.
by Tom Bowles
Greatest collection of post-race quotes ever?
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Perhaps the most frightening incident seen at any NASCAR track in the recent past (naturally) spawned some of the most epic reactions. The Carl Edwards/Brad Keselowski battle royale of 2009 launched the former into the fence and the latter onto everyone’s radar. From the first-time winners' exuberance to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s James Finch-chuckle to Edwards’ genius sponsor plug—and bone-chilling description of his in-wreck concerns—this post-race summary has it all.
Fuel mileage, strategy, pay off for Keselowski, Penske Racing
Photo by ASP, Inc.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is only three races into its 10-race Chase for the Championship playoff stint. And thus far, three drivers seem to have separated themselves from the field.
One made a major statement in the AAA 400 from Dover International Speedway — a statement even bolder than Denny Hamlin’s perceived “called shot” and win a week earlier in New Hampshire.
Brad Keselowski led only 14 of 400 laps on Sunday, but 10 of those — the final 10 — were the most important of the day.
Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe executed a late-race fuel run to perfection, going the final 89 laps on a single tank of gas, outsmarting and outperforming Chase rivals Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, to score their second win in three playoff events.
“We slowly eked our way up from the 10th starting position up to fourth,” Keselowski said. “Kind of fell in there on that last run, after my pit crew got me out fourth, and that put us in position to really capitalize on good strategy and execution.
“My guys did that. They did a great job. Together we were able to manage it (fuel mileage) very well, which is important as anything else in racing these days.”
As with most races decided by fuel mileage, the best car wasn’t the one that completed the scheduled distance first. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch (302 laps led) and Hamlin (39), along with Johnson (43), were the unquestioned class of the field. However, as the laps wound down, all three realized a decision must be made: Run all-out and pit for fuel late, hoping for a caution flag, or slow down, conserve gas and settle for whatever respectable finish they could muster.
The Gibbs teams chose the former, as Busch pitted from the lead with 11 circuits remaining. That handed the lead to Hamlin, who hit pit road one lap later.
Johnson’s strategy had kicked in much earlier. Leading the race with 40 laps remaining, crew chief Chad Knaus radioed the driver that they would not make it to the end running their current pace. Johnson gave up the lead to Busch and peddled the car down the stretch.
Enter Keselowski and the No. 2 Penske Racing team, a bunch adept at stretching a tank of gas. Running a steady fourth with enough in the tank, they simply waited for others to make a mistake (Busch and Hamlin) or settle (Johnson).
Inheriting the lead on lap 391, Keselowski held off a charging Jeff Gordon to score his fifth win of the 2012 season and into the points lead.
Mark Martin was third, while Johnson’s fuel-saving gamble worked to the tune of a fourth-place run. Carl Edwards was fifth.
Busch finished one lap down in seventh while Hamlin was eighth.
“This fuel mileage game sucks,” a dejected Hamlin said. “All the hard work that you put in — drove as hard as I could drive for 400 laps — and then it’s like you look up and wonder why we’re eighth. That part of it is frustrating, but it’s just some people have different strategies. Some people have better fuel mileage, but not as good of a handling racecar. I’ll take good-handling racecars and good horsepower any day.”
So it’s Keselowski, with a pair of wins and a sixth-place showing through three Chase races, that finds himself leading the pack. But he’s not willing to play the role of championship favorite just yet.
“I can’t state loudly enough how much longer this (Chase) battle is,” Keselowski said. “It’s very tempting, whether it’s the media or the teams themselves, to get in a comfort zone of saying, ‘Such and such has control of this Chase.’ But there’s a reason why it’s 10 rounds. We’re not even halfway. We’re three rounds in.
“By no means do I feel like we’re the favorite. Certainly we’re not the underdog probably at this point.
“My perspective is we got a lot more racing to go. Let’s just let the racing play out and go from there.”
Days after Brad Keselowski employed some gamesmanship — and subsequent mind games — at Chicagoland Speedway, Tony Stewart detailed his use of mental deviousness, claiming that he knew even before last year’s NASCAR season finale at Homestead ended that he would beat Carl Edwards for the Sprint Cup championship.
He could see it in Edwards’ reaction that weekend.
Stewart recounted that story in a fan forum Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame when asked about his come-from-behind charge to win the championship.
Stewart had won four races to put himself within three points of Edwards heading into the Homestead race. Three days before the event, Stewart and Edwards met with the media to discuss their championship battle and Stewart unleashed his boxer’s bravado.
Asked how far they would go to win the title, Stewart started the following exchange that day:
“I’d wreck my mom to win a championship,” Stewart said. “I respect him as a driver, but this isn't about friendships this weekend. This is a war. This is a battle. This is for a national championship. It’s no-holds barred this weekend. I didn’t come this far to be one step away from it and let it slip away, so we're going to go for it.”
“Did you say something?” Edwards asked.
“Yeah, you can come visit my trophy in the room at (Las) Vegas when you come there,” Stewart responded, referring to the site of the season-ending banquet.
“He’s got the talking part figured out,” Edwards replied.
“They say there’s talkers and doers. I’ve done this twice,” Stewart said.
Tuesday, Stewart talked about that media session and what followed:
“The trash-talking started on Thursday at the media event, which wasn’t really necessarily my plan until I got there. When we got there, I saw that Carl was nervous and it was like a drop of blood for a shark. As soon as I saw that it was like instincts kicked in for me. I’ve been in championship battles before with guys that had that look. You just know that you can kind of take advantage of that situation a little bit.
“So we wore him out at media day, but then he came back and won the pole and pretty much made a statement that it didn’t look like it really phased him too much.”
While Edwards led much of that race, Stewart battled various issues, including running over debris that forced him at the back of the pack. Yet, Stewart continually moved toward the front.
During a red flag for rain about 150 laps from the end, NASCAR parked the cars on pit road. It was then that Stewart knew he would win the title even though Edwards led and Stewart was only a few positions behind.
“I saw what to me was the final blow to him,” Stewart said. “He got out of the car ... looks back and we’re four cars behind him. The look on his face was, ‘How did he get up there already?’ He sat there for ... that rain delay, he was with his crew chief and Jack Roush at the pit box and I was just sitting on the wall talking to crew guys, laughing and carrying on. I knew we had it won. I hadn’t raced him all day but I just knew mentally we had the advantage.”
Stewart also later said that his car’s handling was as good as it had been, allowing him to make various moves. He called the race “the most fun I’ve had on pavement, for sure.
“That’s by far the best pavement race I’ve ever had,” Stewart said. “Everybody goes, ‘Oh, he did something different, he rose above everything.’ My car was really good. That’s the moral of the story. My car was good and balanced all day. When you get it driving that nice, you can do things like we were doing. I put myself in spots that I wouldn’t normally do because it drove so well and it felt so good that I felt more comfortable getting myself in those positions.”
AJ Allmendinger. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
REINSTATED NASCAR announced Tuesday that it has reinstated driver AJ Allmendinger after his successful completion of its recovery program.
“I want to thank everyone for their support,” Allmendinger said in a statement issued Tuesday. “I am grateful for the opportunity to return. The Road to Recovery program was really helpful to me in getting my priorities reset away from the race track. And, honestly, that helped find my love of racing again and why I began racing in the first place.”
Allmendinger failed a drug test at Kentucky in late June and NASCAR temporarily suspended him for the Daytona race the following week, forcing him out of the car hours before the race. He had the opportunity to request his remaining urine sample be tested and that was done later that month. After it came back positive, NASCAR indefinitely suspended him July 24.
Penske Racing released Allmendinger on Aug. 1. That opened the No. 22 ride. Sam Hornish Jr. has driven the car since Daytona. Joey Logano will take over the ride next season.
SHOWING IMPROVEMENT With the opportunity to drive in the Cup Series after AJ Allmendinger’s suspension, Sam Hornish Jr. is showing signs he could be ready for another full-time effort in the series.
Hornish’s finish at Chicagoland Speedway was the third consecutive race he’s placed 11th. He’s finished in the top 12 in five of the last six races, including a fifth-place run at Watkins Glen.
In the Nationwide Series, Hornish’s sixth-place finish last weekend at Chicago marked his 13th top-10 finish in the last 14 races.
SPECIAL GROUP Ryan Blaney became the seventh first-time winner this season in the Camping World Truck Series and the 12th different winner in 15 races when he won at Iowa last weekend.
The first-time winners in the Truck series this season are John King (Daytona), James Buescher (Kansas), Justin Lofton (Charlotte), Joey Coulter (Pocono), Nelson Piquet (Michigan), Ty Dillon (Atlanta) and Blaney.
In the process, Blaney — at 18 years, eight months — became the youngest driver to win in NASCAR’s three national touring series.
PIT STOPS JR Motorsports announced Tuesday that Ryan Pemberton would serve as Danica Patrick’s interim crew chief for this weekend’s Nationwide race at Kentucky Speedway. The team released Patrick’s crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., earlier this week. ... A Chase driver has won the fall New Hampshire race every year since the Chase’s debut in 2004. ... The winner of the fall New Hampshire race has gone on to finish in the top three in points four of the last five years.
In 2003, Matt Kenseth became the final Winston Cup Champion in less-than-dazzling fashion. He won all of one of 36 races while posting 24 top 10s for an average finishing position of 10.2. He clinched the title by merely starting the second to last race of the year at Rockingham. After promptly blowing an engine and finishing dead last, he ended the year 90 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, and 207 ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With new series sponsor Nextel coming on board for 2004, and a desire by NASCAR CEO Brian France to have his sport compete more closely – and resemble – the NFL, a playoff-type championship format was instituted. The Chase has evolved over the years, but the cumulative year-long points battle was replaced by a final 10-race title bout for 10-12 drivers.
With Chicagoland the site of the 2012 Chase this Sunday, let’s take a look back at the previous eight Chase campaigns, and how they rank.
1. 2004 Nextel Cup — The Chase Era Begins
When it was announced that the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion would be determined by a 10-race playoff, purists scoffed. How could any new champion be judged against the likes of Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson, or even Jeff Gordon? The first 10-race playoff – or “raceoff,” if you prefer – helped relieve much of that anxiety. Going into the final race at Homestead, there were five drivers with a chance to win the title. Kurt Busch held an 18-point lead (under the old Latford points system – the equivalent of a five-point lead today) over Johnson, with Gordon, Earnhardt and Mark Martin in close pursuit.
This Chase featured some of the greatest moments of the past decade, including Earnhardt winning for the seventh time at Talladega just weeks after suffering burns and being knocked semi-conscious in an ALMS crash – and then being docked 25 points for blurting out a profanity during his post-race interview. The second to last race at Darlington was a testament to it being one of the finest tracks on the circuit with a back and forth contest between Gordon, Johnson, and Martin. The 48 team showed early on why it would go on to win five titles (thus far), by winning four of the final six races, and finishing second at Homestead.
The most poignant moment? Busch suffering a blown right front tire, and the tire liberating itself from his No. 97 Sharpie Ford, which missed knocking down the pit wall by a paper-thin margin. As the wheel continued onto the track, a caution came out, keeping him from losing a lap. The race came down to a green-white-checker finish, with Busch’s teammate, Greg Biffle winning while keeping the No. 48 at bay.
Busch’s eight-point title win over Johnson, at the time, was the closest ever. Be that as it may, the purists were incensed further, noting that had the championship been decided by a year-long cumulative points total as it had since 1975, Gordon would have won his fifth title.
2. 2011 Sprint Cup — The Tiebreaker
Ever poo-poo guys who stay out to lead a lap to get a bonus point or wrench on their car after caving the side of it in, just to come back out 80 laps down in hopes of picking up a position? If so, the 2011 Chase should be the slap in the face that illustrates that every position counts.
Tony Stewart stumbled into the Chase like a drunk guy at the club demanding another Red Bull and vodka. Smoke even admitted weeks earlier that if his team did make the Chase, that they’d just be in the way. All of that changed at the drop of a hat, as the No. 14 took the first two wins of the Chase at Chicago and Loudon.
Stewart ultimately would win five races of the 10 (put the calculator down, it’s a 50 percent win percentage), to Carl Edwards’ zero victories. Edwards played it safe, taking the slow and steady route to what should have been the year that he broke through for a title. Edwards finished second at Homestead despite leading the most laps and Stewart won, despite having a piece of Kurt Busch’s bell housing lodged in his radiator ductwork. With the two tied at race’s end, the Chase went to the first tie-breaker: Wins. And Stewart’s five bested Edwards’ one, which came at Las Vegas in March — a skid he has yet to break.
A bit of coincidence regarding that Vegas race: Edwards only won due to fuel miscalculation by Stewart, who had the race in hand until the closing laps.
3. 2006 Nextel Cup — Johnson’s Rally
Jimmie Johnson’s first title will be remembered for starting a dynasty. However, the most amazing thing about Johnson’s 2006 Chase performance was the hole from which he climbed out of to win.
After finishes of 39th, 13th, 14th and 24th to begin the Chase, the 48 team found itself in a seemingly insurmountable 156-point hole to Jeff Burton. Sitting eighth in the standings, the team, which wasn’t THE TEAM at the time, began its comeback in modest-enough ways, finishing second at Charlotte.
Who could have guessed that that finish would begin a streak of five consecutive runs of second or better, relentlessly beating away all comers. Johnson made up 10 points on first at Charlotte, a dropped the hammer at Martinsville, narrowing his deficit to 41 points with a dominating win.
From there, it was child’s play, moving into second in the standings (-26) after Atlanta and by Matt Kenseth for first the following week at Texas. Another runner-up showing followed in Phoenix, and by Homestead he only needed to play it safe to protect his 63-ppoint advantage. He did so, of course, coming home ninth and beating Kenseth by 56 points.
4. 2005 Nextel Cup — Winning Races and Climbing Fences
By the time the 2005 season rolled around, a couple of constants had been confirmed: Tony Stewart liked to eat, loved Indianapolis Motor Speedway and climbing things (specifically, catchfencing). Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson was in his fourth full Cup campaign, and had racked up a whopping 16 wins by the time that season’s Chase began.
The 48 came out strong, winning the second race at Dover, but then triggered a 30 car pile-up at Talladega, which would ultimately be Johnson’s downfall (despite another win at Charlotte).
Roush Racing was poised to win its second straight Chase by sheer numbers, owning half of the Chase field with Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards. Edwards was in his first-full year of competition, but wasted little time in showing he was for real, snatching a win away from Martin at Texas and sweeping both Atlanta races for the year. Biffle won the season finale at Homestead by a bumper over Martin, but the title fight that day was on between Stewart and Johnson.
Johnson needed to win to beat Stewart for the title, but ended up beating themselves — as they had on more than one occasion that season. Johnson blew a left rear tire on lap 127 of 267 and nearly took out Jeff Gordon in the process. The incident capped a season of friction between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, leading to the now-famous “milk and cookies” meeting arranged by owner Rick Hendrick in the offseason.
Stewart, on the other hand, shimmied his bulbous behind up the fence yet again, claiming his second championship in four years and becoming the first driver to claim a Cup title under two different point systems since Richard Petty in 1979. Petty, in fact, won titles under four different points systems. Beat that, Tony.
5. 2009 Sprint Cup — Score One for the Geritol Gang … Almost
When you’re 50 years old, you’re usually planning the next decade of work so you can punch out a few years early and retire. When you’re Mark Martin, you take a new full-time job and still answer the bell at 0600 every morning to start pounding steel.
After taking a couple of years off from the mental and physical grind of a yearly 10-month prize fight, Martin joined Hendrick Motorsports for his last best shot at bringing home the hardware. Through the regular season, Martin and the No. 5 team racked up four wins – his most since 1998 – and served notice that there was a new contender to the throne, both at HMS and in the Cup Series.
Out of the blocks fast with a win in Loudon, it would be up to Johnson to battle back and beat Martin to win a fourth consecutive title. The 48 team responded, with a 271-lap leading drubbing at Dover and follow that up with wins at Fontana and Charlotte. At Talladega, Johnson appeared to be on the verge of suffering a big blow, with Martin running in the top 10 and Johnson hung out, barely in the top 20. A green-white-wreckers finish ensured a flip-flopping in the order, as Martin ended up on his roof while Johnson skating through for an eighth-place finish.
It looked like the 48 would be mailing it in from there on out, except for the first lap at Texas a week later, when Sam Hornish Jr. went Sam Hornish Jr., and clipped Johnson’s car, sending it head-on into the inside wall. A week later, though, Johnson won at Phoenix, with Martin following in fourth. At Homestead, Johnson came home fifth, while the 5 team struggled with a in 12th.
It would be Johnson’s fourth consecutive title, while Martin ended the season second in points for the fifth time in his career.
6. 2010 Sprint Cup – Hamlin’s Collapse
The 2010 season will be remembered for many things: Jimmie Johnson’s obscene fifth consecutive title (which would give credence to the notion that the Chase was simply not working) and for Denny Hamlin firing a Desani bottle at the side of his FedEx Camry.
It was a title for the taking for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team; Chad Knaus had fiddled with success, swapping out his crew mid-race at Texas with that of his No. 24 shop mates — a race Hamlin won, his seventh victory of the year. So confident was the No. 11 team that then-crew chief Mike Ford declare,d “I think our race team is better than their race team ... and I'm not afraid to go toe to toe with them to do it.”
About two seconds after he said that, you could pretty much guess what would happen next.
At Phoenix, the 11 team all but had things sewed up. Hamlin had led 190 of 312 laps, and was well on his way to locking down his first title and the fourth for Joe Gibbs Racing. Then Ford got cold feet on fuel mileage and had Hamlin pit. When others — including Johnson — went the distance, Hamlin finished 12th to Johnson’s fifth. What followed at Homestead was a meltdown of mammoth proportions. Hamlin qualified 37th, and on lap 25 was throwing up chunks of sod on the backstretch. It actually was a pretty good save, and he managed to bring the car home 14th. Only problem: Johnson finished second and won the championship by 39 points.
Of note, had this been under the prior points system, Kevin Harvick would have been the season champion by a staggering 285 points.
7. 2008 Sprint Cup – Jimmie Ties Cale
Usually when you win nine races in a season like Carl Edwards in 2008, you’re pretty much guaranteed to come home with a championship. That is, of course, you’re up against Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team and their seven wins. In a season that was dominated by the obsession over Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning only one race in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports (while Jeff Gordon won zero) and eight wins by the new plot of the No. 18, it was Johnson and Edwards that emerged as the two Chase contenders.
Heading into Charlotte for the halfway point in the Chase, Johnson held a 72-point lead over Edwards. A week earlier, Edwards attempted a last lap pass on Johnson for the win that was last seen executed during my 10th season in career mode of NASCAR Thunder 2003 for PS2. Edwards barely cleared Johnson for the lead – then promptly walled it.
At Charlotte, it as though Edwards was in position to keep it close for the second half of the playoffs. That was until his ignition system went bonkers, leaving him 17 laps down in 33rd place, while Johnson came home sixth. Edwards would rally to win Atlanta, Texas and Homestead, but it was not enough to eclipse Johnson and the No. 48 team.
Edwards lost the Chase that year by 69 points. Under the prior system, he would have won by 16 points.
8. 2007 Nextel Cup – The Bomb … and Not in a Good Way
One word comes to mind when describing the 2007 Chase: Brutal. The field was expanded to 12, and it was the first year of NASCAR’s baby, the over-hyped and under-stylized Car of Tomorrow. Top-heavy turds with cow-catchers and Erector-Set wings replaced the shovel-nosed, cock-eyed machines that were sealed off at the nose, riding on collapsed front suspensions.
Jeff Gordon essentially dominated the year, posting a ridiculous 30 top 10 finishes, 21 top 5s, six wins and five second-place finishes. Unfortunately, he ran up against his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who was coming off his first title (and was on quite the tear himself, winning 10 races). With Charlotte being the halfway point of the Chase, Gordon won in a green-white-checker finish after Ryan Newman wrecked with two laps to go. Gordon had a 68-point lead and was heading to Martinsville, where Gordon has seven career wins. Naturally, the inevitable happened.
Johnson won four races in a row.
Gordon tried to keep pace, meeting each win with a top-10 run, but that didn’t work for long. Heading into the final race of the season, Gordon’s title hopes were virtually DOA, trailing J.J. by 86 points. Gordon finished fourth while Johnson cruised around in eighth en route to his second of five straight titles.
Just how bad did these two decimate the field in the first appearance of the CoT? While Johnson beat his teammate by 77 points, third-place Clint Bowyer was 346 points behind in third. Ninth-place Carl Edwards? 501 points — and he won Dover two races into the Chase. Had it been the points system used the first 26 races for the final 10, Gordon would have waltzed to his fifth career championship (sixth if the same criteria was used in 2004). Under the points system used from 1975-2003, he would have beat Johnson by 354 points and Tony Stewart by 706 points.
Considering that sort of margin, you can thank the Chase for helping to curb some real stinkers over the past eight years. If you’re a 24 or 99 fan, though, you’ll probably curse it for denying Gordon the chance at closing to within one title of Petty and Earnhardt, and Edwards from winning a title of his own.
Either way, you can blame Matt Kenseth.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Federated Auto Parts 400
(Photo by ASP, Inc.)
After 25 races, the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season will roll into Richmond International Raceway for the final event before the 12-driver Chase field is set. While the top 10 is essentially a lock, the race for the wild card positions is all about wins, with eight drivers still eligible for the two spots.
Although the points will reset for the Chase drivers after the checkered flag falls on Saturday night, the fantasy NASCAR season will roll on. What you will need to pay close attention to is what each driver in Saturday night's field has at stake.
With a host of differing agendas, many look at this race as a “no-holds-barred,” anything-goes contest. There is a ton of risk for those trying grab the two wild card spots, yet no risk at all for many others.
While Kasey Kahne leads the wild card contenders with two victories, the drivers to watch Saturday night are Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon. The two with the most on the line this weekend, both have stellar records at Richmond and will be doing all they can to put their cars in Victory Lane.
For Busch, there could be no better track than the .75-mile Richmond International Raceway. His lone win this season came here in April, he has the best average finish among active drivers (4.7), and has four wins in the last seven races — winning every other race dating back to May 2009.
However, this season has been anything but ordinary for Busch and his Dave Rogers-led team. Inconsistency, poor luck, wrecks and engine failures have led to his most difficult campaign since his sophomore season in 2007. Given the struggles, Busch says he feels “OK” about his chances of making the Chase, but knows there are no guarantees going into Saturday night’s race.
“I’m not saying I’m for sure going to be in at all,” he admits. “Anything can happen. Jeff is no slouch at Richmond, either. He will be fine. I feel like he’s the guy we’re racing — the 24 car. We’ll just have to see how it all plays out. Jeff could give us a run for our money.”
Truer words have never been spoken by young Busch. If he wants to make the Chase he must beat a four-time series champion in Gordon to do so.
Since the summer stretch kicked off, Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led team have been in contention to win nearly every week. In the 11 races since Michigan in June, Gordon has scored one win, five top 5s and eight top 10s, with a 21st-place finish at Watkins Glen due to a late-race spin in oil. In the last five races alone, Gordon has one win, a second and a third.
However, for one of NASCAR’s most decorated drivers, those numbers have not been enough to secure a Chase bid. He knows in order to celebrate his 20th season in the Cup Series with a shot at title No. 5, he has to win on Saturday night.
Taking a different approach than Busch, Gordon’s attention will be on his race — not the competitions’.
“Our focus won’t be on what ‘this team’ is doing or what ‘this driver’ is doing,” he says. “We’re just going to focus on our own program like we always do. We’ll focus on tuning the car, communicating and working the setup the best we possibly can to try to have the fastest racecar. I’m not going into the race thinking that we’ve got to finish 12 positions ahead of Kyle. I’m thinking we have to win.”
Unless Busch and Gordon suffer the poor luck that has put them in this situation in the first place, both should run and finish up front, capable of solid fantasy points.
That said, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin, heads to Richmond fresh off consecutive wins, giving him four on the season. Carrying momentum, confidence and the support of the hometown crowd behind him, the driver of the No. 11 Toyota will be hard to beat.
In 13 Cup starts at Richmond, Hamlin has only one finish outside the top 20, three finishes outside the top 10, six finishes of third or better and two wins. With 12 bonus points on his side heading into the Chase, the Virginia native has the opportunity to score another three bonus points with a win Saturday night. For fantasy players, Hamlin is about as sure of a bet as you will find in the field.
For the past few weeks, Carl Edwards has been our fantasy darkhorse pick. Nearly every week he has lived up to that title — while carrying the risk associated with a darkhorse — mixing strong runs with, ultimately, poor finishes.
Down and out after an engine failure ended his Atlanta race (and Chase hopes) early, Edwards struggled to come to terms with his situation after nearly winning the title last season. When the series last raced in Richmond, though, Edwards had the strongest car in the field. Leading 206 of the 400 laps, he was hit with a late-race penalty for beating the leader to the line on a restart and was penalized, forced to swallow a bitter 10th-place finish.
Feeling as if NASCAR stole a win out from under them, Edwards and his No. 99 team are heading to RIR looking for redemption, a little luck and a win. While he has yet to win at Richmond, the Roush Fenway Racing driver has three top 5s and five top 10s in his last five starts. The series runner-up in 2011 is likely to miss the Chase this season, but expect him to go out swinging, scoring strong fantasy points for your team.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ryan Newman. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
As the majority of focus will be on the wild card battle (as Danica Patrick is not entered), one driver that can fly under the radar and score his second win of the season is Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer.
A former Richmond winner, Bowyer has the third-best average finish (10.2) and MWR has been on a roll of late. While teammate Martin Truex Jr. has been making the most noise in the past few weeks, some of Bowyer’s best tracks begin with Richmond this weekend.
Much like Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman could sneak up and have a strong run Saturday night. Also a former winner at Richmond, Newman has the sixth-best average finish (11.8) among active drivers. However, over the past few weeks Newman has dealt with off-track contractual issues, has been caught up in two wrecks in two weeks and fallen from one of the top wild card contenders to 17th in the standings.
While a win would go a long way for Newman’s Chase hopes, he has not been on the competitive level of Busch and Gordon. If he can avoid trouble, expect Newman to have a strong night for your fantasy squad.
With two wins this season, Kahne is nearly a lock for this year’s Chase. As the rest of the field will be fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot, expect Kahne and his Kenny Francis-led team to do all they can to protect theirs. Solid fantasy points are certainly obtainable here, but the M.O. of the evening may not be to risk it all for a win.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin
Once a former champion, Bobby Labonte has not made much noise on the NASCAR circuit in quite some time. With only one top 10 this season, the driver of the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Toyota has moved to a mid-pack racer for the most part.
However, Labonte and crew chief Brian Burns have posted finishes of 14th (Bristol) and 19th (Atlanta) the last two weeks. Also, Labonte has finished 20th and 17th in his last two starts at Richmond.
Like Gordon, Labonte is celebrating his 20th season in the Sprint Cup Series. Unlike Gordon, the 2000 series champion will not contend for the win Saturday night, but he could easily score a solid top-20 finish and provide a good value pick.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears, Macros Ambrose, Jamie McMurray, Landon Cassill
Best Average Finish at Richmond (Wins):
1. Kyle Busch — 4.7 (4)
2. Denny Hamlin — 7.3 (2)
3. Clint Bowyer — 10.2 (1)
4. Tony Stewart — 10.6 (3)
5. Kevin Harvick — 11.8 (2)
6. Ryan Newman — 11.8 (1)
7. Mark Martin — 12.1 (1)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 13.9 (3)
9. Jeff Gordon — 14.7 (2)
10. Carl Edwards — 14.8 (0)
Kenseth, Logano and Chase wild cards take center stage
2012 Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth. (ASP, Inc.)
As a Green Bay Packers fan, Matt Kenseth knows the shock many had seeing quarterback Brett Favre wear another team’s uniform. Kenseth says he doesn’t think his fans will be as shocked with his new look at Joe Gibbs Racing next season after being with car owner Jack Roush’s team since 1999.
“I’ve had about 25 different uniforms in the last two years,” Kenseth said, exaggerating the numerous sponsors cobbled together to fund his Cup team. “I think most of my fans eventually are going to appreciate only having two different uniforms and paint jobs next year instead of 10. I’m really looking forward to the stability of the sponsorship and the team.”
What had been known for some time became official Tuesday when Joe Gibbs Racing introduced Kenseth as its driver for next season. Kenseth replaces Joey Logano, who is headed to drive the No. 22 car at Penske Racing in 2013. Home Depot and Dollar General will sponsor Kenseth’s No. 20 car. Jason Ratcliff will serve as his crew chief.
Team officials said having the 40-year-old Kenseth replace the 22-year-old Logano was good for the company’s future.
“It doesn’t matter what age you are, it doesn’t matter your experience, the question is are you good and can you communicate and can you be a part of a team?” said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. “I think Matt will fit that well for Denny (Hamlin) and for Kyle (Busch).”
Gibbs said that with Kenseth coming over, the team wanted Logano to do a full Nationwide schedule next season and some Cup races, but once the Penske ride opened, knew that they couldn’t compete with that. Gibbs could only offer such a program to Logano because of what sponsorship the team had available.
“We love Joey, he’s been here a long time, so we have a real fondness for him, but at the same time we understand that when he has an opportunity there, it’s hard to pass that up,” Gibbs said.
Kenseth said his focus the rest of this season is winning the championship at Roush Fenway Racing. Once his Roush contract ends, he’ll plan to spend as much time as possible with Ratfcliff and discuss the car and their program
“I know without a doubt it is the right place for me,” Kenseth said of moving to Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
DOWN TO TWO Officially eight drivers have a chance to gain a wild card spot at Richmond and make the Chase, but Kyle Busch admits he thinks it will be between he and Jeff Gordon for the final playoff spot. Kasey Kahne, who has two wins, is expected to make the Chase, most likely via the other wild card spot.
Busch leads Gordon by 12 points heading into Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway, the final one before the Chase field is set. Only once in 15 races they’ve raced each other at Richmond has Gordon finished more than 12 spots ahead of Busch. Also, Busch’s career average finish at Richmond is 4.7 (four wins). Gordon’s average finish in those 15 races is 17.0 (zero wins).
Busch said he doesn’t anticipate needing reports during the race to keep up with what Gordon is doing.
“If (Gordon) is front of me and I can’t see him, obviously we’re not having a good enough night, but if (Gordon) is in front of us and I can see him, I think everything will be fine,” Busch said.
Carl Edwards and team owner Jack Roush. (ASP, Inc.)
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN Carl Edwards, who lost last year’s title by a tiebreaker, needs to win Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond, have Kyle Busch finish 24th or worse and Jeff Gordon place 12th or worse to make the Chase.
Unless Edwards makes the Chase, it will mark the fifth consecutive year that the runner-up in the points finished no better than seventh the next season.
So, how did he get into this situation while teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are in the Chase?
“There are a couple reasons we’re in this position in points,” Edwards said. “One of them is not the fact that we finished second last year in the championship, truly. We’re adults. We’re good competitors and we’ve finished second before. I’ve had disappointment.
“As we went through the season there are two things that happened that I think really set us behind. Number one, terrible luck. Think of qualifying at Michigan the first time we went there, the bolt came off the secondary for fuel injection for the butterflies. I mean, it seems like things like that have happened to us. We got in that wreck at Bristol.
“We had the spark plug wire come off at Indy running fourth, I think. We’ve had all these things that happened during the year combined with, I believe, (former crew chief) Bob (Osborne) and his (health) situation – him not being able to really perform at the highest level that he has over the last few years – I think all of that kind of added up to just mediocre performance combined with terrible luck.”
PIT STOPS Travis Pastrana will drive the No. 60 Nationwide car for Roush Fenway Racing this weekend at Richmond. Pastrana didn’t have any more Nationwide races scheduled for the season before this one-race deal. ... Denny Hamlin goes for his third consecutive Cup victory on Saturday at his home track of Richmond, in a race that he won in 2009 and 0’10. The last time a driver won three Cup races in a row was Jimmie Johnson, who won four consecutive races during the Chase in 2007. He won at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix. … The NASCAR baby boom continues, as Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola and wife Janice welcomed a baby boy, Alex, into their family on Tuesday.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's AdvoCare 500
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Coming off another exciting race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads south to Atlanta Motor Speedway for this weekend's AdvoCare 500. Only two races remain before the Chase for the Cup gets underway in Chicago, and if the past few weeks are any indication of things to come, you better hold on a lot tighter than Tony Stewart holds onto one of his helmets.
Since the series hit the summer stretch in June, there have been 11 different winners in 11 races, dating back to Joey Logano's win at the repaved Pocono Raceway. Last week, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin that broke in the new configuration at Bristol and went to Victory Lane.
Just as the battle for wins each week has heated up, so has the battle to secure a spot in the 12-driver Chase field.
Hamlin's victory was his third of the season, making it a four-way tie for the most win on the seasons with Hamlin, Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. So far, only four drivers have locked themselves into the Chase: Johnson, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. This weekend, eight other drivers could mathematically lock themselves into the field.
While the top 10 is settling things amongst themselves, the fight for the two wild card spots are very much up for grabs. Entering this weekend's race, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch hold the coveted position, but anything can change, as Sunday night's race proved. Among those looking to secure a spot in the Chase through via wild card are Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards.
In the meantime, we've seen wild races over the course of the last three weeks. Last-lap drama, helmet throwing, finger pointing, accusations of teams testing the boundaries of the rulebook … you name it, it’s happened.
With a 500-mile race under the lights on the fast, high-banks of the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, the stage is set for yet another dramatic weekend for the Cup Series.
However, look for that streak of 11 different winners to end this week as Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the entire No. 48 team look to solidify their spot as the top seed heading into the Chase.
This organization has shown it is once again in championship form, with a win at Indianapolis, a second last week at Bristol, a third at Watkins Glen and a 14th at Pocono. Don’t forget, the 27th-place finish at Michigan is very deceiving as Johnson lost a motor leading in the closing laps.
A three-time winner in Atlanta, Johnson enters the weekend as the fantasy favorite. Already locked into the Chase, Johnson and Knaus are now looking solely for wins. While this group has not been to Victory Lane at AMS since it swept the races in 2007, Johnson was second last year and third in the September 2010 event. Look for him to improve that finishing position by one spot Sunday night and emerge as the Chase favorite heading to Richmond.
While questions arose about when last year's Atlanta event would be run after rain washed out the race until Tuesday, there was no question as to who had the best car when the green flag finally flew. Veteran Jeff Gordon dominated the day, leading seven times for a total of 146 laps en route to his fifth Atlanta win.
Marking the 20th anniversary of his historic first start in the Cup Series, the four-time series champion is on the verge of missing out on this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Currently third in the Chase wild card battle, with one win (Pocono), Gordon is 55 points out of the top 10, but only 16 behind fellow wild carder Kyle Busch. If Gordon can score his second win of the season, it would go a long way towards his quest to make the Chase.
The No. 24 team, led by crew chief Alan Gustafson, has been strong of late, but two poor finishes at Watkins Glen and Michigan have made things much more difficult. Expect Gordon to be a contender throughout Sunday night's race and be there in the end, challenging for the win.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne
This year, veteran Mark Martin has proven that you are only as old as you feel. The 53-year-old is running a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, but each time he climbs behind the wheel, he’s a threat for the win. Making only 15 starts thus far in 2012, Martin leads the series in poles (four) and has two top 5s and five top 10s.
Over the past few seasons, however, Martin has struggled a bit on the high banks of Atlanta. Since finishing second in the spring 2006 race, he has only two other top--10 finishes and seven finishes outside the top 20 (including three DNFs).
Despite his not-so-stellar record in Atlanta of late, Martin appears renewed at MWR and is this week's undervalued pick of the week.
When looking for another undervalued driver for your fantasy lineup, you might want to consider Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola. While Almirola has only one start in Atlanta, he sat on the pole earlier this year at Charlotte Motor Speedway, another mile-and-a-half track. The No. 43 team has not set the world on fire this season, but with crew chief Mike Ford now calling the shots they have steadily improved.
Do not expect this team to get up there and battle Johnson, Gordon, et al, for the win, but they could score a solid finish and give you the fantasy points you need as the season winds toward its home stretch.
Five Undervalued Picks: Mark Martin, Aric Almirola, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard
Have you ever seen a kid trying to eat an ice cream cone when it is about 100 degrees outside? Typically it’s a losing battle. That's where Carl Edwards currently finds himself with only two races left before the Chase field is set.
For the past few weeks, Edwards has been our darkhorse pick of the week. Each week, he has proved why. A sixth at Michigan was a solid finish, but not what the team needed to make the Chase. Last weekend at Bristol, Edwards was out front leading, but made a mistake late in the race, bypassing a fuel stop under caution. The resulting 22nd-place finish was the result when the tank ran dry.
With only two top 5s and 11 top 10s, Edwards has rarely been in contention to win races this season. After losing last year's championship battle to Tony Stewart by virtue of a tiebreaker, the driver of the No. 99 has struggled to bounce back.
Admitting there is a "real sense of urgency" at the moment, Edwards also pointed out earlier in the week there are a lot of talented drivers in a similar situation.
"It’s almost hard to put into words how close the competition is and any loss you have, there are gonna be a ton of people who capitalize on it, and any gain you have it’s really hard to have a real positive gain over the field technically or competitive-wise, points-wise," he said. "I don’t think that it could be any more competitive. Misery likes company and right now we’ve got a little bit of company back there, but I don’t know if it makes me feel any better, but it is good to see that it can happen to anybody.”
Once again, though, Edwards heads to a track where he is very capable of winning. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has three wins, eight top 5s and 10 top 10s on the 1.5-mile track, finishing second in the September 2010 race and fifth last season.
Although his last win cam in 2008, if he and crew chief Chad Norris can put together a strong setup under the car, stay out of trouble both on the track and in the pits, as well as play the strategy right, this could be the weekend Edwards finally gets out and does his signature backflip — and then the wild card battle really gets crazy. If not, you can pretty much write off his Chase hopes for 2012.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Carl Edwards, Landon Cassill, Jamie McMurray, Regan Smith, Danica Patrick
Best Average Finish at Atlanta (Wins/Starts)
Jimmie Johnson — 10.0 (3/20)
Tony Stewart — 11.2 (3/25)
Jeff Gordon — 12.2 (5/38)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 12.8 (1/24)
Matt Kenseth — 12.9 (0/23)
Carl Edwards — 13.6 (3/14)
Greg Biffle — 16.1 (0/17)
Jeff Burton — 16.6 (0/34)
Juan Pablo Montoya — 16.9 (0/9)
Mark Martin — 17.3 (2/51)