Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte stretch unequalled on schedule
Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte stretch unequalled on Cup schedule
Much was made of the first five races of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule being run on diametrically diverse tracks. From the season opening restrictor plate Daytona 500, to the bumper-car bonanza that made up the closing laps at Martinsville, and the intermediate downforce contests in Las Vegas and Fontana.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race in Kansas
Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet. (ASP, Inc.)
Typically known for dealing with the thunderous roar of tornadoes, this weekend the Sprint Cup Series storms into Kansas for the STP 400.
Sunday’s race will be the 12th for the Sprint Cup Series at the Kansas Speedway, and the last on the current surface. Following the 400-miler, the track will be repaved prior to the series returning for its mid-October Chase date.
The aged surface causes tires to wear dramatically over the course of a run, meaning drivers and crew chiefs will be working all weekend to find the perfect balance over the long run as the tires begin to fall off.
Be sure to keep an eye on the two practice sessions Friday afternoon — especially those teams that concentrate on longer runs. A key factor nearly every week — especially on a track with excessive tire wear — is the best 10-lap average. Look for that statistic and make your picks accordingly.
Five Favorites: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards
Veteran Jeff Gordon took the first two checkered flags at Kansas Speedway in 2001 and ’02, and is looking to take the last before the surface is replaced.
Aside from the four-time series champion’s two Kansas wins, Gordon has an additional six top-5 finishes on the Plains. Although he succumbed to an engine failure in Kansas last October, Gordon is always a favorite.
The No. 24 team has been a consistent threat throughout the early portion of the 2012 season, as well. However, the finishes don’t show it. The team's fourth-place run Saturday night in Texas was its first top 5 and only second top 10. Gordon currently has three finishes of 26th or worse.
Those statistics aside, the team has been producing consistently fast racecars. That fact has allowed Gordon, who is 17th in the series standings, to remain confident they can win races.
The team heads to Kansas this weekend with that goal in mind.
Gordon has the fourth-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Kansas. Not to mention, team owner Rick Hendrick is on the verge of earning his 200th career Sprint Cup Series win. This weekend, Gordon will be looking to give his long-time car owner that milestone victory.
In order to do so, he will have to beat teammate Jimmie Johnson.
The five-time series champion has the second-best average finish (8.4) among active drivers at Kansas, and was the driver celebrating in Victory Lane when the series last visited the facility in October.
All told, Johnson has two wins, three poles, four top 5s and nine top 10s in 11 starts on the 1.5-mile track. His two worst finishes at Kansas are 14th (2006) and 32nd (’04), his only DNF.
These two champions have duked it out on the track before for the win, and expect them to both be in contention Sunday afternoon. Also keep in mind Hendrick leads all team owners with four wins at Kansas.
“Whenever it happens is going to be very special for the company," Johnson said of the 200th win. “Again, I just want to win. I don’t care where it is, whatever reason. There are 36, 38 of these things a year, and I want to take home a bunch of trophies. Second is nice, but winning is everything.”
While the Hendrick teammates are focused on giving Hendrick Motorsports its 200th win, the rest of the field will be doing their best to keep it from happening — especially points leader Greg Biffle.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver is fresh off his first victory of the season last weekend in Texas, and is now heading to one of his best tracks. With two Kansas wins, six top 5s and eight top-10 finishes, Biffle leads all active drivers in average finish (8.3). Despite his dismal 2011 season, Biffle still recorded top 10s (10th, eighth) in both Kansas races last year.
This is a new year for the Biff, and his sixth-place average finish through the first seven races have given him the points lead. Carrying that momentum into one of his best tracks, Biffle will also be one of the drivers to beat in the final laps of Sunday’s race.
“I’m ready for Kansas,” he said. “Kansas is a great track and I have two wins there. We are coming off the win at Texas and I’m ready to go. Kansas and Texas might be the same distance, but they are extremely different tracks. Kansas is much flatter and the track is more uniform from one end to another. Hopefully we can follow up our Texas win with another victory in Kansas with our 3M Novec 1230 Ford.”
Brad Keselowski in Victory Lane at Kansas in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
Five Undervalued Picks: Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart
For this week's undervalued pick, look no further than defending race winner Brad Keselowski. Wait, how can Keselowski be an undervalued pick if he is the defending winner? Good question.
Keselowski was able to score the win last April by stretching his fuel 57 laps on the final run. Leading only nine laps, Keselowski celebrated the first of his three wins while former teammate Kurt Busch was forced to swallow a ninth-place finish after leading 152 laps.
The win was no fluke, though, as in his four starts at Kansas, Keselowski has an average finish of 10.0, with a worst finish of 23rd.
This season has been up and down for the No. 2 Penske Racing team. A 32nd in Daytona was followed up by a fifth in Phoenix, a 32nd in Las Vegas, the win at Bristol, an 18th in Fontana, a ninth at Martinsville and the 36th last weekend in Texas.
Looking at the trend, Keselowski is due a good run — provided no mechanical demons creep up. Keep in mind, he is the defending Nationwide Series race winner at Kansas, with finishes of sixth, third, second and first in the last four races.
Five Darkhorse Picks: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin
Keselowski’s Penske teammate, AJ Allmendinger, is this week's darkhorse pick at Kansas Speedway. The driver of the No. 22 Dodge has two top 10s at Kansas, but struggled in 2011 finishing 27th in the spring and 25th in the Chase.
Sitting 19th in the standings, this bunch had higher expectations coming into the season. Their lone top 5 came at Martinsville, when Allmendinger finished second to Ryan Newman.
According to crew chief Todd Gordon, Allmendinger admitted prior to the start of the season that Kansas was “not one of his strong points,” but he remains confident due to the team's performance on the intermediate tracks throughout the early part of the season.
While this will be Gordon's first Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas as a crew chief, he led Keselowski to a dominant win in last fall's Nationwide Series race. It might be a gamble, but this week I'm going with the ’Dinger as the darkhorse.
Best Average Finish at Kansas Speedway (wins):
1. Greg Biffle — 8.3 (2)
2. Jimmie Johnson — 8.4 (2)
3. Brad Keselowski — 10.0 (1)
4. Jeff Gordon — 10.2 (2)
5. Carl Edwards — 10.7
6. Clint Bowyer — 12.0
7. Tony Stewart — 12.2 (2)
8. Mark Martin — 13.1 (1)
9. Kevin Harvick — 13.6
10. Denny Hamlin — 15.8
1. Greg Biffle Cemented his status as the points leader with an impressive win in Texas. Biffle has yet to finish worse than 13th this season, and is looking forward to Kansas — one of his best tracks — this weekend.
2. Jimmie Johnson Joins Biffle and the two Juniors — Dale Earnhardt and Martin Truex — as the only drivers on the circuit with five top 10s in seven races. Kansas will most likely make six.
3. Tony Stewart How does Stewart — who won at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway — tank to the tune of 24th at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway?
4. Matt Kenseth As steady as they come, Kenseth moves into a tie for second with a certain Most Popular Driver after a fifth at TMS. Of course, Kenseth’s Daytona 500 win trumps Junior’s, uh, zero wins … in 136 races.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK, so he hasn’t won in a long, long time. But Junior is averaging an 8.1-place finish, which is second best in the series. Still, it really is time to break that winless streak and move on.
6. Martin Truex Jr. Truex has averaged a 26.3-place finish at Kansas with zero top 10s. If he brings it home eighth or better like he has in five of seven races so far this year, we’re all on board.
7. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s only finish outside of the top 11 in any single race was a 19th at Martinsville. He’s been awfully quiet for running so well. Maybe Baby Otis has thrown him off his typically vocal ways.
It beats those creepy '70s-era family portraits. I guess. OK, maybe not.(ASP, Inc.)
8. Carl Edwards Edwards’ fifth- to 11th-place finishes are fine, but after seven races he still has not led a lap. Allow me to repeat that: Through seven races in 2012, Carl Edwards has not led a single, competitive lap.
9. Denny Hamlin Hamlin’s 12th-place run at Texas is far from cringe-worthy, but he’s finished between 11th and 20th in all three big intermediate track races this year. That’s not going to work.
10. Jeff Gordon A clean fourth-place finish in Texas. Is the rotten luck behind him?
11. Brad Keselowski Mechanical issues beginning to plague Penske’s Dodge camp. Kes is good for a couple more wins, though.
12. Mark Martin If he raced every week, Martin would rank in the top 5 on this list.
13. Ryan Newman When not finishing in the top 12, Newman finishes 21st. Seriously. It’s happened three times.
14. Clint Bowyer Still working out some kinks, but all things considered, this new bunch is holding its own.
15. Kasey Kahne See, when there are no cautions for wrecks, Kasey can drive his Chevy to a top-10 showing.
Just off the lead pack: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Texas
Carl Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series shrugs off the much-needed weekend off and heads to Texas Motor Speedway for this Saturday night's Samsung Mobile 500.
Anytime the series makes its way to the high-speed, mile-and-a-half track in Fort Worth, the Roush Fenway brigade is the team to watch. Since the inaugural event in 1997, the Roush cars have been among the fastest and the “Cat in the Hat” is usually holding a trophy at the end of the day.
All told, Jack Roush has eight Sprint Cup Series victories in Texas, along with seven Nationwide Series wins and one Camping World Truck Series victory.
However, when Matt Kenseth won last April’s night race by a whopping eight seconds, it snapped a two-year winless streak at TMS for the Roush teams.
After Carl Edwards swept the 2008 races, that dominance was called into question by non-Roush drivers Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart. Although they were kept from victory lane, Kenseth, Edwards and Greg Biffle were constant threats.
During that time, Hamlin was among the strongest, sweeping the Texas races in 2010. Yet, last season Hamlin struggled in both races, finishing 15th (one lap down) in the April's race, and 20th (again, a lap off the pace) during November’s Chase race.
Hamlin has November’s race-winning crew chief Darian Grubb on his side this weekend, as the pair looks to score their second victory of the 2012 season. Grubb led defending champion Stewart to Victory Lane ahead of Edwards then, and will look to do the same with Hamlin this weekend.
However, while Hamlin will be a threat again this Saturday, the driver that will be celebrating with the pistols and cowboy hat is Edwards.
Although he has yet to set the world on fire with his performances in 2012 (the Missouri native has yet to lead a single lap), Edwards was third to Kenseth last April and finished second to Stewart during the Chase. Pleased to come away from Martinsville with an 11th-place finish — and fresh off a vacation — the No. 99 team is poised to earn its first win of the 2012 season.
In order to do so, Edwards will have to hold off not only his teammates, Kenseth and Biffle, but Hamlin and Stewart, as well. This is a crucial part of the schedule where momentum can lead to wins and confidence leading into May’s All-Star weekend. Look for Edwards to be among the strongest cars on Saturday night, regrouping and beginning his trek to the Chase.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
This week's undervalued pick comes in the form of Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer.
Perhaps 13 is Bowyer’s lucky number, as he will make his 13th career start in Fort Worth and owns an average starting spot of 13.0 with an average finish of 13.0. Bowyer was second to Kenseth last April, and has six top 10s in the last eight races at the 1.5-mile track.
Thus far in 2012, Bowyer has finished 13th or better in all but one race (Phoenix). Consistently contending for a top 10 finish, the No. 15 team should continue that trend in the Lone Star State.
Kasey Kahne also has the opportunity to record a much-needed top 10 this weekend in Texas. After a dismal start to the season, his first with Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne heads to a track where he finished third in November and has one career win (2006).
The No. 5 team has speed, but have suffered from terrible luck. Kahne is excited about the team’s potential at mile-and-a-half tracks, though, and its luck has to turn around eventually. Look for that to happen this weekend.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton
Richard Childress Racing’s Paul Menard is this week’s underdog pick in Texas. Traditionally a fast starter, Menard has continued the trend this year with three top-10 finishes through the first six races — and he has solid numbers in the last three events at Texas Motor Speedway.
The No. 27 team came home with a fifth-place finish after a strong showing last April, while Menard finished 15th in November. Coming off a disappointing 26th in Martinsville, Menard and his Slugger Labbe-led crew will be looking to rebound from their poor showing.
Also keep an eye on 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne as he returns to the Sprint Cup Series this weekend in the iconic Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford. The young driver has finished 17th in each of this three previous starts at the 1.5-mile speedway, which was also the site of his first Nationwide Series win last November.
Five Underdog Picks: Paul Menard, Trevor Bayne, Ryan Newman, Bobby Labonte, Marcos Ambrose
Qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway provides some of the fastest speeds on the Cup circuit all season. The teams will have to find the perfect balance of speed and handling as they work to get the car working over the bumps in the corners. A team that can balance raw speed with favorable handling on Friday will find itself with good track position and a preferred pit stall on raceday.
Best Average Finish at Texas (Wins):
1. Matt Kenseth — 8.7 (2)
2. Denny Hamlin — 10.2 (2)
3. Jimmie Johnson — 10.2 (1)
4. Tony Stewart — 12.6 (2)
5. Kevin Harvick — 12.9 (0)
6. Clint Bowyer — 13.9 (0)
7. Mark Martin — 13.7 (1)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.1 (1)
9. Kurt Busch — 14.5 (1)
10. Carl Edwards — 15.5 (3)
It’s been nearly two weeks since Bruton Smith said that he would order changes to Bristol Motor Speedway’s track surface after a sharp decline in attendance for the spring race and an increase in fan complaints about the racing. Yet Smith has yet to announce what those changes will be made before NASCAR returns to the half-mile track in a little more than four months.
“I think it would be incredible if they paved the track asphalt,’‘ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I am not sure if that would work out but it would be awesome to try it.’’
Any changes to Bristol’s surface before the August race will mean the Cup Series will race at four tracks that have been changed since last season. Kansas Speedway is set to be repaved after its race later this month. Michigan has been repaved and drivers nearly topped 215 mph at a recent Goodyear tire test there. Pocono Raceway also has been repaved and has Goodyear tire test scheduled for April 24-25.
While some drivers are thrilled that Smith will change Bristol — count Kevin Harvick among that group who says, “It’s about time,’’ — Denny Hamlin wonders if the tires should be changed for Bristol instead of the track.
“If you look at Bristol, it had the least amount of fall off of any tire that we had during this year,’’ Hamlin said. “I think you start off around 16.40 fast time (seconds per lap) and you ended 100 laps later running 16.90s. That's just not enough fall off.
“You have to have overtaking and to have overtaking, you have to have cars that are running faster than others. If you look at any point during a Bristol race, everyone's running the same exact speed and you're not going to have any overtaking. You're not going to have any wrecks because no one's running close to each other to wreck.
“Back in the day when people used to lap the whole field and no one complained about the racing, it's because overtaking was happening. Cars were getting passed. You could watch your guy move from 15th to wherever up to the front. Now, it's like he's got to make all the room, all the space up in the first five laps of a restart and then he sits there for the rest of the run. That's because we don't have enough fall-off.
“It's a tough job to make a tire that does that and will live and ultimately not put our safety at risk of blowing tires. Really, Goodyear has made tires that are idiot proof now. We can't abuse them enough to blow them out. That's why you don't see the passing that we used to have."
Even with Smith’s declaration of change, as Carl Edwards notes, it doesn’t guarantee that things will be better.
“The thing that makes me nervous for Bruton and those guys is to spend all this money to change something and then it may not yield the result that you want,’’ Edwards said. “I think that’s the risk they take, but Bruton Smith seems like he doesn’t mind taking risks and going for it. If it works out like most things he does, it’ll probably work, but I give him a ton of credit for saying he’s gonna change this and make an adjustment.’’
It’s just a matter of what Smith will do.
BACK AT ROCKINGHAM It’s not often that you see NASCAR return to a venue it left, but the Camping World Truck Series will compete Sunday at Rockingham Speedway. It marks the return of NASCAR since the Cup series last raced there in Feb. 2004.
NASCAR is back because of the work of track owner Andy Hillenburg, a former racer. He’s spent the money to update the facilities and add SAFER barriers to the track.
Now it’s up to the fans to determine if NASCAR returns to Rockingham after this race. If attendance is strong and shows potential, then maybe a Nationwide race can be added at some point. Just don’t expect the Cup Series to return there. With Cup races in Darlington, Charlotte, Martinsville and Bristol, the region has enough Cup events.
If that’s not good enough, then fans have to ask themselves if they would rather see some NASCAR racing at the track or see as much NASCAR racing as there is at North Wilkesboro?
NASCAR is giving the track and fans a second chance. Will fans take NASCAR up on it and show that the track deserves more races?
Jeff Burton (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
A DRIVER’S TRACK? There’s often the discussion about what is a driver’s track — or at least why some tracks might be considered a driver’s track. Jeff Burton, though, has his own take on the subject.
“Wherever a driver is good at that is what he thinks is a driver’s race track,’’ Burton said. “He thinks that is where drivers matter. The fact of the matter is that drivers matter everywhere. And the cars matter everywhere. You can’t take apart the car and the driver and say “it’s this or it’s that’.
“The reason why is to get the car to do what it needs to do, the driver has to be part of that. The way he drives the car, how he drives the car, and how he communicates with the team. All those things go into making a good racecar, and all those things go into making a good set up. So that communication with the team along with the driver is vital. You really can’t separate it.’’
PIT STOPS In his last two races, Jeff Gordon started 21st at Auto Club Speedway and climbed to fourth before pit road issues, including a penalty that led to a 26th-place finish in the rain-shortened event. Then, Gordon led a race-high 329 laps, lost the lead on a restart and ran out of fuel and finished 14th at Bristol. ... Kevin Harvick has an average finish of 9.0 in the first six races. It’s the second-best start of his career. He had an average finish of 7.83 in 2008. ... Kurt Busch will drive for younger brother Kyle’s Nationwide team in Friday night’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. It’s the first time Kurt has driven for Kyle in NASCAR. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. also is doing double-duty at Texas Motor Speedway. He’ll drive in Friday night’s Nationwide race and Saturday night’s Cup race. It’s the first time he’s run in both events at Texas since 2009.
Taking stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series at the Easter break
Tony Stewart has two wins in 2012. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Taking Stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup at the Easter Break
Six weeks into the 2012 NASCAR season, the Sprint Cup Series heads into the first of only two off-weekends of the year. With no race this weekend, and thus no fantasy picks to make, let’s take a look at some of the biggest surprises thus far, which drivers and teams are on track for a solid season and which need to turn their season around before it is too late.
There is no doubt the hottest team in NASCAR is Stewart-Haas Racing. The defending series champion, Tony Stewart, has had an uncharacteristic start to the year, winning two races (Las Vegas, Fontana), while teammate Ryan Newman used an aggressive move during a green-white-checker finish to score his first career Cup win at Martinsville.
Typically slow starters, both SHR drivers have hit the ground running after last year's impressive showing in the Chase. Stewart currently sits third in points, while Newman climbed two spots to eighth after last week’s victory.
The mood is soaring at Stewart-Haas, the strong finishes and wins keep coming, the new partnership between Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington continues to roll on smoothly, but can that momentum continue through the summer months and into the Chase?
While the SHR brigade has been scoring wins and making headlines, Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle has quietly and consistently raced his way to the points lead. After starting the season with three consecutive third-place finishes, Biffle took command of the series standings after Las Vegas and has yet to relinquish the spot.
Frustrated and clearly upset with his team’s 16th-place points finish in 2011, Biffle had high expectations coming into this year and his performances to date have shown the changes made behind the scenes at Roush Fenway Racing have made all the difference.
Although The Biff has yet to hit Victory Lane, he hasn’t finished worse than 13th, with three top 5s and a sixth-place run to his credit. Determined to put last year's disappointing results behind him, expect Biffle and his No. 16 team to continue to lead the way at RFR as the season rolls on in two weeks in Texas — a track at which Biffle could easily break his 49-race winless skid.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Also on the verge of breaking a winless streak is perennial fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. Through the first six weeks of the season, the No. 88 team has been the workhorse of the Hendrick stable with three top 5s and four top 10s. Earnhardt nearly scored his second Daytona 500 victory to open the season, finishing second and proving he’ll be a contender at the plate tracks so long as “pack racing” is the draft du jour. He was oh-so-close yet again last weekend in Martinsville before settling for his second straight third-place finish.
Sitting second in the standings, Earnhardt appears confident in his team, the speed in his cars, crew chief Steve Letarte and, perhaps most importantly, himself. His average finish of 7.8 is impressive to say the least, and he has already led more laps in the first six races (75) than he did in all of 2011 (58).
While Junior’s winless streak has now reached 135 races, he truly only has two victories in the last 212 events, stretching back to 2006. His last multi-win season came in ’04 while racing for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. when he earned a career-high six trophies.
With the constant pressure to perform and deliver wins, Earnhardt appears more comfortable with his situation than he has since joining HMS is 2008. This team is nipping at the heels of a victory, and I expect them to be the group to deliver team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th Sprint Cup Series victory, lead the series standings throughout the course of the summer and be a serious contender come Chase time.
As Earnhardt Jr. has started the season with a bang, the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports stable has struggled with poor luck, disappointing finishes and controversy.
The team’s newest addition, Kasey Kahne, was expected to hit the ground running at Hendrick, competing for wins and battling for the points lead. Instead, the No. 5 team has two DNFs and a best finish of 14th, which came in the rain-shortened event in Fontana. Kahne has completed only 76.9 percent of the total laps this year and has four finishes of 39th or worse.
Mired deep in the standings at 31st, Kahne and his Kenny Francis-led team now have to focus on righting the ship and going after wins. Despite the slow start, Kahne's talent and ability to win could easily bump this team into the Chase “wild card” conversation as the season rolls into the summer months that are dominated by big intermediates tracks — a Kahne specialty.
Veteran Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon has also been hit with the bad luck bug, resulting in disappointing finishes thus far. An engine failure in Daytona set the tone for the No. 24 team’s season, with poor luck continuing nearly each and every week. Although he scored an eighth at Phoenix and a 12th in Las Vegas, Gordon is stuck in 21st in the championship standings, with three finishes outside the top 25.
Last weekend’s dominating performance at Martinsville seemed to show the tide might be turning for the four-time Sprint Cup champion, but a late-race spin battling for the lead and then subsequently running out of fuel resulted in a 14th-place finish. The No. 24 team has been strong at times this season, but the results simply have not shown.
Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson’s start to the 2012 season has been filled with drama and controversy instead of race wins and celebrations. A rules infraction at Daytona set the stage for a showdown between the No. 48 team and NASCAR that stretched on for weeks.
NASCAR's initial penalty on the No. 48 team would have kept crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec away from the track for a total of six weeks, plus cost Johnson 25 driver points. Leaving Daytona 42nd after a Lap 2 wreck and with the penalty hanging over the team’s head, things looked grim.
Yet after multiple appeals, Hendrick Motorsports got the answer it wanted. The suspensions levied on Knaus and Malec were dismissed, as was the points penalty for Johnson. Jumping from deep in the standings, Johnson climbed within reach of the top 10.
Despite all the drama surrounding the penalty and appeals, Johnson was able to knock off four top 10s in the ensuing four weeks. His battle with Gordon on Sunday at Martinsville was shaping up to be one for the ages, but Johnson was forced to swallow a 12th-place finish after also getting collected in the G-W-C melee at the front of the field.
So while things started off rough for Team 48, its performances are proving it has put the drama behind and are as focused as ever going for that sixth championship.
The 2012 season, while still in its initial stages, has been anything but dull. From rain delays, to jet-dryer fires, to appeals drama, to surprise success and surprise struggles, the storylines have been deep.
Following this weekend’s Easter break, the Cup Series hits a stretch of continuous racing that lasts until mid-July. As the temperatures soar, so will the intensity on the track and off. Expect slow starters like Kahne, Gordon, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards to make some noise, while Biffle, Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart hope to maintain their solid starts.
Be sure to take time this week to look over your spot in the fantasy standings, examine the good calls and questionable mistakes you've made in setting your lineup and look ahead to the upcoming events in the next few weeks. Much like the drivers and teams, preparation is the key to success in any fantasy league.
Rating the racing in California and early Chase prognostications
Tony Stewart is a virtual lock to make the Chase according to the Fan Council. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Dustin Long
Five races into the season and a few drivers expected to make the Chase are struggling. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne both are outside the top 20 in points. Last year’s runner-up, Carl Edwards, has not shown the strength he did last season just yet. Kyle Busch, a regular in the Chase, is 14th in points.
While there’s plenty of time to reverse course for those drivers — the Chase field won’t be set for more than five months — members of the Backstreet Drivers Fan Council are not confident all those drivers will be among the top 12 when the Chase field is set after Richmond in September.
This week, the Fan Council looks at who will make the Chase and who won’t, along with grading last weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.
WHO WILL MAKE THE CHASE?
After five races last year, nine of the top 12 (if you factor in the wildcard spots) went on the make the Chase. Backseat Drivers Fan Council members were given a list of the 12 drivers who would make the Chase (if it started today with the top 10 and two wildcard drivers) and asked which ones would make the Chase. Here’s how they voted:
98.3 percent picked Tony Stewart (4th in points but has 2 wins)
97.0 percent picked Kevin Harvick (2nd in points)
95.0 percent picked Jimmie Johnson (9th in points)
90.0 percent picked Matt Kenseth (6th in points with 1 win)
89.0 percent picked Brad Keselowski (would be 11th via wildcard with 1 win)
85.7 percent picked Greg Biffle (points leader)
83.4 percent picked Denny Hamlin (7th in points with 1 win)
76.4 percent picked Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3rd in points)
45.2 percent picked Ryan Newman (10th in points)
25.6 percent picked Clint Bowyer (8th in points)
18.3 percent picked Martin Truex Jr. (5th in points)
4.7 percent picked Paul Menard (11th in points)
What Fan Council members said:
• Hamlin and Newman are simply not showing the consistency and I don't think they will recover. If they make it, it will be by wildcard only. Truex, Bowyer and Menard are simply not strong enough in their current situations to make the Chase this year, though I do believe all three will (be a) threat and all will possibly get wins this season.
• Think the switch to Ford from Dodge is going to impact (Brad Keselowski) toward the end of the season. Not sure (Martin Truex Jr.) and (Paul Menard) still have the consistency needed.
• MWR cars (Truex and Bowyer) will not make it into the Chase. Their luck will run out.
• Junior still has his summer swoon coming. I think ultimately that and the fact that he doesn't win will keep him out. Truex will not be able to sustain nor will Menard or Bowyer.
• It's really too early to tell.
• Sorry, I just don't see Jr. having the consistency needed to make the Chase
• Believe it or not, I think it's Jimmie's year to miss it
• Not convinced on either Jr. or Menard, and I have Newman falling out too.
• The Biff will fade in time. The 39 has never really showed any strength. Martin Truex has a good team this year and will make it in.
Carl Edwards will not be on the outside looking in for long. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
SO WHO WILL MAKE THE CHASE OF THOSE NOT IN THE TOP 12?
Fan Council members were given a list of the drivers who would not make the Chase if it started today and asked which ones will be there come September:
84.7 percent picked Carl Edwards (12th in points)
82.0 percent picked Kyle Busch (14th in points)
61.0 percent picked Jeff Gordon (25th in points)
27.7 percent picked Kasey Kahne (27th in points)
17.0 percent picked Jeff Burton (15th in points)
14.3 percent picked Joey Logano (13th in points)
8.3 percent picked AJ Allmendinger (26th in points)
7.7 percent picked Jamie McMurray (22nd in points)
7.3 percent picked Mark Martin (17th in points)
7.3 percent picked Juan Pablo Montoya (18th in points)
7.0 percent picked Marcos Ambrose (24th in points)
6.7 percent picked Kurt Busch (23rd in points)
6.3 percent picked Regan Smith (19th in points)
5.3 percent picked Bobby Labonte (20th in points)
5.3 percent picked Casey Mears (29th in points)
5.0 percent picked Aric Almirola (21st in points)
5.0 percent picked Dave Blaney (28th in points)
5.0 percent picked David Gilliland (30th in points)
What Fan Council members said:
• I don't see Joey Logano even winning a race this year and continuing to struggle to adapt to the Cup level. Jeff Burton has a winless streak almost as long as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and he needs to find victory lane again before he can contend for a championship.
• Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, & AJ would be possibilities. Chose Jeff just because he seems to have better luck.
• Carl and Kasey both have good equipment and just are having rotten luck. I don't think Carl is suffering from the Denny Hamlin-post-championship-loss syndrome.
• I think it is Joey's time. This year should see all 3 Gibbs cars in the Chase. I think that Kyle and Denny have the best chance of winning the championship. I think Gordon and the 24 team will get things on track and get back into the mix in the next 6-8 races, too.
• How sad is it that Juan Pablo Montoya and Jaime McMurray have been in each of the first five races this year, yet Mark Martin missed Bristol and is still ahead of both in points. EGR needs help.
• I do think that Kasey Kahne could possibly win multiple races and get in via the wildcard.
• I think Carl, Kyle and Jeff Gordon are head and shoulders above the rest of this group. Marcos Ambrose and JPM might have a shot at a wildcard if they can win the road races or finally pick up an oval win.
• I think Logano is gonna shock the world since this is his "contract" year. Expect him to have a breakout (year) like Brad K did last season.
• Think Carl Edwards will barely make it. Kyle Busch took such a blow to his ego last year not sure he will make it at all this time.
• Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Gordon. Too good to miss it.
GRADING SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY
41.2 percent called it Good 39.9 percent called it Fair 15.3 percent called it Poor 3.7 percent called it Great
What Fan Council members said:
• Last three years at this track have been much more enjoyable than prior to then, last year’s race probably being the greatest ever at the track. There was some really outstanding racing Sunday especially watching Tony Stewart race his way through the field, however it was about half and half exciting and boring. I think if the race had gotten a chance at going the distance, then we would have seen another great finish much like last year with Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson
• When drivers are racing the rain, the races are typically quiet and rather boring.
• With all the negative comments about Bristol and the lack of cautions, where are all those people this week?
• Fontana is just a boring race — add the rain & at least it put me out of my misery more quickly
• Fast and strange come to mind when thinking about this race. It really seemed as though they were trying to outrun the rain. I also wondered if the amount of pit road penalties in some sense was due to the impending rain. But it did make the whole rain-shortened race more exciting.
• I was at the race, and although there were no cautions, there were plenty of duels going on anywhere on the track. I'm guessing this didn't play as well on TV as it did if you were at ACS.
• The intensity of racing to halfway really drove up the level of driving. No one was just cruising.
• In the 13 years I’ve been watching the sport, that was the worst race I've ever watched.
• I know Cali is supposed to be boring, but I wasn't bored. Perhaps it was because of low expectations or perhaps TV camera coverage was better.
• I was on top of a motor home in turn 3. The racing looked great from there. I liked the fact that there were no cautions until the rain came.
• Any race that ends early can't be considered "good."
• I normally find the "racing" at Fontana boring because of the long green-flag runs that allows for the field to be strung out. This one, however, was exciting. It's amazing what looming rain will do to a boring race.
I don't particularly care for long green flag racing. I like it when drivers can come in and adjust their cars better than they can do in a green flag pit stop.
Fans can join the Backseat Drivers Fan Council by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Dustin Long Takes a Spin Around the NASCAR Circuit
Photo by ASP, Inc.
by Dustin Long
Kasey Kahne is not panicking about the start to his season. He’s relieved, in a way, heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway even though he’s 27th in championship standings.
Kahne feels better after a season-best 14th at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday. A poor finish might have dropped him outside the top 35 in the car owner standings, meaning he would not have been guaranteed a starting spot at Martinsville.
“I was a little worried at California,” Kahne said Tuesday afternoon. “If we had one more bad race there, we would have been fighting for a (starting) position at Martinsville, which would have been unheard of for us.”
While Kahne has not had the results in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports, his car has shown speed. That provides hope. Success will come when he can avoid trouble.
His season, so far, has been a litany of misfortune.
His Daytona 500 ended early because of a crash and he placed 29th. He hit the wall early at Phoenix and limped to a 34th-place finish. He crashed early at Bristol and finished 37th. His best finish before Sunday was 19th at Las Vegas.
Even after Sunday’s finish, Kahne wasn’t thrilled, writing on Twitter: “Pissed I ran bad. Happy my car is in one piece.”
Kahne, who started fifth at Auto Club Speedway, began sliding back in the pack shortly after the green flag flew.
“I started off really loose and was sliding around a lot and the race got over too quick,” Kahne said. “We didn’t have enough time to get the car right. By the end of it we were running probably seventh-place lap times, but we were so far behind because of all the green-flag laps. We were getting better. We had made a lot of gains. We just needed 200 laps. The rain came and we didn’t get it.”
He finished and that’s something considering his early woes.
Kahne heads to Martinsville 68 points out of 10th place in the points — the last spot guaranteed to make the Chase. A year ago, Brad Keselowski was 50 points out of 10th at this point. Keselowski fell further back during the summer and still made the Chase via the wildcard.
So there’s no reason yet for Kahne to panic.
“I’ve handled it pretty well,” he said of his struggles. “The biggest reason why is how fast our cars are and the way they feel. I think everything is there. The engines run incredibly good compared to what I have had in the past.
“I knew going in just because I was going to Hendrick Motorsports didn’t mean I was going to start winning more races. It’s still a huge team effort. There’s still a lot of things you have to do right in order to run up front and contend for those wins. It takes a little bit of time. I think we’re pretty good as a team. Hopefully, we can start running in the top 10.”
NEW FORMAT The Sprint All-Star race, which will be held May 19 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, will have a new format this year.
The 90-lap race will be divided into five segments. The first four will be 20 laps each with the final segment 10 laps.
Gone is the 10-minute break before the final segment. Instead, there will be a mandatory pit stop — with a twist.
The winners from the first four segments will move to the front of the field and be the first four cars to enter pit road for this stop. They’ll be followed by the rest of the field. The move was made to encourage drivers to race more for a win in the previous segments.
So the winner of the first segment will enter pit road first, followed by the winner of the second segment and so on. Should there be a repeat winner of segments, the second-place finisher in that segment moves up. Thus, if a driver wins the first two segments, he’ll be the first car in pit road (for winning the first segment) and the second-place car in the second segment will be the second car on pit road.
There will once again be a fan vote to add a driver to the All-Star Race. Also, the pit crew challenge on May 17 again will determine the order teams pick their pit stall for the all-star race.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
A-HA Carl Edwards was recently asked about having an “A-ha!” moment at a track — the moment where everything seems to come together at once — and if he’s had that moment at Martinsville Speedway.
“I still haven’t had my ‘a-ha’ moment at Martinsville,” said Edwards, who has five top-10 finishes in 15 starts at the half-mile track. “Martinsville definitely is tough. The guy that has helped me the most at Martinsville is Jeff Burton. He helped me when I was first starting and Bobby Hamilton spent a lot of time with me. I still don’t feel like I have that place mastered.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE Brian Vickers will be back in the No. 55 car for Michael Waltrip Racing this weekend at Martinsville. This is the second of six races Vickers will run for Mark Martin this season. Vickers is running both Bristol, Martinsville and New Hampshire races.
He’s coming off a fifth-place finish at Bristol. His next race with the team won’t be until July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
PIT STOPS Jeff Gordon has scored 13 top-five finishes in his last 14 starts at Martinsville. ... Travis Pastrana will compete in Global RallyCross driving a Dodge Dart. ... Joey Logano’s Nationwide victory last weekend at Auto Club Speedway marked the first time in five races a Cup regular had won a Nationwide race. ... Jimmie Johnson’s career average finish at Martinsville is 5.4, while Denny Hamlin’s career average finish there is 6.4. ... Jeb Burton, the 19-year-old son of 2002 Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton, makes his Camping World Truck Series debut this weekend at Martinsville.
Stewart tops the list ... because, after all, wins count
This surf wagon actually beat three start & parkers. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington already have scored two wins this season — and in only five races. Hey, wins count above all else here.
2. Greg Biffle The points leader’s only misstep — and it was a only a small hiccup at that — was a 13th at Bristol. He’s been sixth or better in the other four events.
3. Kevin Harvick Happy and his retooled No. 29 team have been nearly as good as Biffle. Their worst performance thus far are a pair of 11th-place runs. Otherwise, they’re seventh or better every week.
4. Jimmie Johnson Things couldn’t look better for Johnson and Team 48. Not only have all suspensions and point penalties been rescinded, but they’re rolling through top 10s even with blown engines.
5. Matt Kenseth Kenseth is either top 3 by day’s end or forgotten somewhere in the mid-teens. Still, this is one of a handful of teams that can win on any given weekend.
6. Brad Keselowski See: Kenseth, Matt. The only thing that kept either from a top-10 result at Auto Club Speedway was pit road penalties and a rain-shortened event.
7. Carl Edwards Edwards and the No. 99 gang have two fifth-place runs in the last three weeks. Inexplicably, though, this group has yet to lead a single lap all season. That needs to change.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yes, Earnhardt is still mired in a winless skid that dates back to 2008, but top-15 finishes in every race this season — including second- and third-place runs — find him trending in the right direction.
9. Clint Bowyer Bowyer’s solid start with the surprising Michael Waltrip Racing operation shows an average finish of 12.8 with sixth- (Vegas) and fourth-place (Bristol) runs highlighting the early spring.
"Ear muffs!" (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
10. Denny Hamlin Hamlin had the same look on his face after the California race that he did after Phoenix 2010.
11. Kyle Busch The Gibbs cars are showing some impressive muscle on the big intermediates.
12. Martin Truex Jr. Truex has a 9.4-place average finish thus far. It’s amazing what a contract year will do for an athlete.
13. Ryan Newman Three consecutive performances of 12th or better aren’t as splashy as his teammate, but not bad.
14. Mark Martin When he’s in MWR’s No. 55 — and even when he’s not — the team is showing serious growth.
15. Paul Menard Quietly hanging tough at 10th in the standings with three top 10s.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray
Brad Keselowski celebrates in Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
There’s something about the half-mile Bristol bullring in East Tennessee that lends itself to certain drivers.
NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough (nine wins), Darrell Waltrip (12) and Dale Earnhardt (nine) each went on dominant runs at Bristol in the 1970s and ’80s. Rusty Wallace won nine of his own from 1986-2000. Jeff Gordon won five events from 1995-2002, while the Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, also have five wins each.
Following Sunday’s Food City 500, it appears a new name may be added to the exclusive list of Bristol dominators: Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski scored his second straight win at BMS, leading a race-high 289 laps — including the last 111 consecutively — en route to his first win of the 2012 season.
Keselwoski enjoyed a spirited, side-by-side duel with Matt Kenseth prior to pulling away in a race marked by its intense, door-to-door action.
“I mean, what can I say? I love Bristol and Bristol loves me,” Keselowski said. “There’s other places that perhaps have a little more prestige, and I said that last year as well, but this place defines a race team.
“It asks so much of you, whether it’s just in practice, being lined up on pit road, dealing with the noise, the havoc that practice can be, or the hot day of getting through tech, making those last adjustments, or as a driver 500 laps in a bowl trying to keep your composure. This racetrack can really test a team.”
Kenseth easily held on for second, while Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers swept positions three-five.
It appeared Kenseth jumped the final two restarts when Keselowski led, but NASCAR assessed no penalty and Keselowski was able to clear Kenseth’s Ford.
“I didn’t floor it till I got to the start/finish line,” Kenseth explained. “I don’t know if he (Keselowski) was trying to let me beat him on purpose. I was half throttle for five car lengths. I was finally, ‘I got to go or Martin (Truex) or whoever was behind me was going to go around me.’”
Since 2009, Keselowski has two wins on Cup Series short tracks to go along with plate (Talladega) and flat track (Pocono) wins. He was also second on the road course at Watkins Glen last season.
“My dad taught me this very early on, (that) it was important not to be a ‘One-Track Jack,’” Keselowski said of his versatility. “I think now that we have (the right team), I have the experience base to run competitively on almost every style of racetrack.
“I was able to learn that in a time and place where it was acceptable to make mistakes, which is what the Nationwide (Series) was for me. The training and the lower level series of NASCAR — the way they’re structured right now — certainly helped me when I got to this level to be perhaps more prepared than many drivers in the past.”
An early-race accident eliminated some of the favorites. Kasey Kahne got into Regan Smith on lap 25, triggering a seven-car pileup. The incident eliminated Kahne, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Marcos Ambrose from contention. Kevin Harvick sustained damage but continued on. Keselowski snaked through the melee with slight nose damage.
“Regan Smith was pretty slow,” Kahne said. “I was under him for a couple of laps. When my spotter cleared me in the center, I just took off, and he was there on exit. It is disappointing to have that good of a car and be out this early. I've had awesome race cars, and I have nothing to show for it.”
Keselowski moved from 21st to 13th in the championship standings by virtue of the max number of points (48) earned at Bristol. Greg Biffle, who enjoyed three consecutive third-place finishes to start the season, slumped to 13th at Bristol. He holds a nine-point lead over Kevin Harvick and 12-point advantage over Kenseth in the standings.