If not for Kenseth's smile, you'd think these two were having it out again. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jimmie Johnson Attention race fans: Do not count Jimmie Johnson out of the Chase until he is mathematically eliminated (which probably will not happen). Thank you. That is all.
2. Carl Edwards The preseason favorite to unseat Johnson had a quiet regular season but has pieced together six straight top 10s — including runs of fourth, eighth and third in the Chase — to tie for the points lead.
3. Tony Stewart Stewart seemed resigned to the fact that Dover would be unkind ... and it was. Expect the team to regroup at Kansas, where Stewart has two wins and was eighth earlier this season.
4. Jeff Gordon Gordon came into the Chase hot, but has cooled with finishes of 12th and 24th sandwiching a fourth-place run. You have to figure his No. 24 team will get it together, but the performance bears watching.
5. Brad Keselowski The eight-week breakout run Keselowski enjoyed — which may be the story of the year in the sport — comes to an end. However, this team’s strength remains that it doesn’t know it shouldn’t be here.
"Honestly Doc, I don't even know what Fastenal is." (ASP, Inc.)
6. Kevin Harvick Clinging to the points lead thanks to his four regular season wins and top-12 finishes. Still, Harvick seems to be lacking some of the mojo that got him here. Maybe he should pick a fight with Kyle Busch.
7. Matt Kenseth Running out of fuel in the Chase’s first race at Chicago may come back to haunt Kenseth, who had one of the best cars there. The result was a 21st, with fifth- and sixth-place runs since.
8. Kurt Busch Busch throws his hat back into the championship hunt with an impressive — and somewhat unexpected — win in Dover over Johnson, who he described as his “arch-nemesis.”
9. Kyle Busch A sixth at Dover helped his cause after subpar 22nd- and 11th-place showings. Leading laps is Kyle’s calling card, but he hasn’t done that since the onset of the Chase.
10. Ryan Newman There’s quite a gap between ninth and 10th on the list. Newman is sliding down the rankings thanks to 25th- and 23rd-place runs which have deep-sixed his Chase chances.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. That third-place run to open the Chase is proving to be the fuel-mileage fluke we believed it to be.
12. Clint Bowyer If he expects to run better at Michael Waltrip Racing next season he needs to think again.
13. AJ Allmendinger Back to his seventh- to 12th-place ways after a couple of down weeks.
14. Denny Hamlin Averaged an eighth-place finish in the three races prior to the Chase. Averaging a 26th-place finish in it.
15. Greg Biffle If a non-Chaser is to win a Chase race, Biffle may be that guy at Kansas.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr.
Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson entered Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway ranked ninth and 10th in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup — in 28- and 29-point holes. Many were already throwing dirt on Johnson’s bid for a sixth straight championship, while Busch was merely an afterthought in the title hunt.
That all changed in the Chase’s third race.
Busch got the jump on Johnson twice during late-race restarts — the first with 42 laps remaining and again with 35 to go — and never relinquished it, winning his second race of the 2011 and his first career on Dover’s high banks.
“My guys on pit road did a phenomenal job to be consistent, to be smooth, and to put us out there where we needed to be,” Busch said. “And I was able to wrestle the lead away from the 48 car (Johnson) and got to his high side and took the lead. And then with the final pit stop, Steve (Addington, crew chief) was thinking four (tires), I was thinking four, but we switched to two tires, and that was the perfect call.
“We beat Johnson out of the pits, had the inside lane on the final restart and we just took it to him. I knew we needed to get that jump on the restart and we never looked back.”
Johnson held on for second, while Carl Edwards overcame a mid-race pit-road violation and charged through the field to finish third. Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 5.
Tony Stewart, who won the first two races of the Chase and came into the Dover weekend the points leader, struggled throughout the day and finished 25th. That, along with the top-3 runs by Busch, Johnson and Edwards, tightened the standings up. Kevin Harvick and Edwards now sit tied for first, although Harvick’s four wins trump Edwards’ one in the tie-breaker. Stewart and Busch are now tied for third, nine points out, while Johnson jumped five spots to fifth, only 13 points in arrears.
“Are we out of it, still?” Johnson joked with the media afterwards. “Last week I was considered done.”
Johnson’s 157 laps led were the most any driver on the day, although Edwards seemed to have the best car early, having led 116 of the first 176 circuits. His pit-road speeding penalty dropped him two laps off the pace, though, and he spent the remainder of the day making up ground.
“It’s really easy to say (that) if we would not have made that mistake we would have won,” Edwards said of the penalty. “I definitely took myself out of position to fight for the win by doing that. So that’s something that painful, and I’m going to think about it — I’m going to think about it all the way home.”
The top-nine drivers in the standings are all still alive for the title with seven races remaining. Jeff Gordon, in ninth, is only 19 points out of the lead, while Kyle Busch (eighth) in 15 back and Kenseth and Brad Keselowski are tied for sixth, just 14 out.
Keselowski’s magical nine-race run — he had recorded nine straight top-12 finishes, including two wins — came to an end when his Penske Dodge threw a power steering belt. Until then, he had been a consistent top-10 car and had led two laps. Like Edwards, the malfunction dropped him two laps down and, while he was able to make it back onto the lead lap, he ran out of time and settled for a 20th-place finish.
Count out this cool customer? Not a good idea. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Mike Neff
For the last four years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, the mantra has been the same at the start of the Chase: Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have another title in him this season. Or crew chief Chad Knaus is behind the times. Or this will be the closest Chase ever. Or, quite simply, Johnson’s luck will run out. Yet somehow in each of the last four seasons, Johnson and Knaus have mastered the last 10 races better than the rest of the Chase field.
So before you stick a fork in the five-time defending champion — who happens to be in a 29-point hole after two Chase events — you might want to remember that this isn’t the first time the No. 48 team has faced playoff adversity. Taking a little trip down memory lane just may help freshen the memories of the doubters who are certain that this is the year Johnson’s dynasty crumbles.
In 2006, the first year of his five-year run, the Chase started at Loudon and Johnson not only stumbled out of the gate, he fell straight on his face. Johnson came home 39th, the bottom finisher of the title contenders and ahead of only Jeff Green, Morgan Shepherd, Ted Christopher and Bobby Labonte for the afternoon. Things didn’t get any better over the next three races, as Johnson finished 13th, 14th and 24th — the last of which came courtesy of a wreck at Talladega that included teammate Brian Vickers and future teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
However, from that point until Homestead, Johnson and his team were nearly perfect. They didn’t finish worse than second over the next five races and only finished ninth at Homestead because that was all they had to do to clinch the title, which they did by 56 points.
The following season was the year where even those fans who don’t like Johnson had to admit they never really felt like he was going to lose it. He finished outside of the top 10 twice during the final 10 races, both of which were 14th-place runs. Six of the final 10 races he finished in the top three, and four of those were consecutive wins from Martinsville through Phoenix. Even though his Chase performance was one of dominance that season, he was third in the standings after the first two races. That said, there’s no question that ’07 was the most dominant of Johnson’s five Chase wins.
Another strong year came in 2008, as Johnson cruised through the Chase with only two finishes outside the top 10, but they were both 15th-place showings. He began the Chase with second- and fifth-place finishes, but still sat third after two events. By the time the checkers fell at Homestead, though, Johnson had three wins and six top 5s in the playoffs and beat Carl Edwards by 69 points for his third championship.
Edwards was supposed to lay it on Johnson in 2009, but faltered to an 11th-place points finish. Instead, it was Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Mark Martin, that went toe-to-toe with the mighty 48. Johnson started the Chase off in a better position than the previous years, with a fourth and a first in the first two races. Still, Johnson ranked second to Martin through two.
However, Johnson beat Martin into submission from there, scoring single-digit finishes in all but one of the playoff races to win his fourth title by a comfortable 141 points.
Last season presented another foe for Johnson to outlast — check that, it brought two foes, in Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Johnson started the Chase with another bad run at Loudon, coming home 25th. He followed that with a win in Dover, but still in a 35-point hole to Hamlin. As is usually the case, Johnson and Knaus went on a run from there, averaging a 4.5-place finish over the final eight races to turn the tables on a choking Hamlin, and winning title No. 5 by 39 points.
The Chase for the Cup in 2011 has not opened up like a house on fire for Johnson, who is staring at his worst points position in since the beginning of the dynasty. And for all the talk of a rift between Johnson and Knaus, it could just as easily be the case that the two make a run like a scalded dog the rest of the Chase and everyone forgets about the talk of discord.
The only way we’ll find out is to run the rest of the races. Because while it may not appear so now, as long as the 48 team is in the playoffs it’s the team to beat.
Tony Stewart in Victory Lane in Chicago. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
Just days ago, Tony Stewart called himself an underdog in the Chase for the Championship. Two weeks prior, he wondered aloud whether his No. 14 team even deserved a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs. On Monday, Stewart proved he’s no underdog — and he surely belongs in the company of title contenders — as the two-time Cup champion kicked off the Sprint Cup Series’ Chase by saving enough fuel to outlast the field in the GEICO 400 from Chicagoland Speedway.
Stewart, who co-owns the Chevrolet-backed Stewart-Haas Racing organization, entered the Chase in a four-way tie for last in the 12-driver field. However, his No. 14 team had shown encouraging signs of competitiveness since a head-scratching 28th-place run at Bristol on August 27, with a third at Atlanta and a seventh in last weekend’s regular season finale in Richmond.
“I’m not sure one weekend can do that,” Stewart said in reference to a change of outlook. “But I feel better about it, obviously. We’ve had three good weekends in a row. Today doesn’t change my mind, but the last three weeks definitely make me feel better about it.
“We’ve still got nine hard weeks to go. And we have some tracks that have been a struggle this year, so we’ve got a long way to go but this gets us off to the right start.”
Stewart’s No. 14 crew did not get off to a good start at Chicago. Although he said the car felt good in practice, they only qualified 26th. A methodical march through the field found him at the front after a restart with 62 laps remaining. But a long green-flag run over the event’s final 50 laps had every crew chief on pit road calculating fuel mileage to the last drop.
Stewart, Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth swapped the lead numerous times over the final run, but when Truex pitted for fuel, Stewart only had to feather the throttle and hold a pretty wheel — even with Kevin Harvick in hot pursuit.
A number of Chase contenders — including Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch — ran out of gas on the last lap, while others — Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch — had just enough to bring it home.
As such, Harvick, Earnhardt, Edwards and Keselowski rounded out the top 5.
“I felt like we had saved a fair amount of gas under caution in the first 15, 18 laps, and (I) never really had to push my car very hard and just kind of maintained the pace that I was running,” Harvick said. “And as we got a couple of gaps we were able to shut it off five or six times. And when Gil said ‘Go,’ I guessed it about right, (because I) ran out off pit road there after we took the checkered flag. Good calculation by the guys and good solid day.”
Like Stewart, it was Harvick’s third consecutive top 10. He capped off the regular season with a win in last weekend’s Richmond race and entered the Chase tied for the No. 1 seed with Kyle Busch.
Harvick maintained the position with his second-place finish, and sits seven points in front of Stewart in the standings.
Denny Hamlin took the biggest points hit in the Chase. After squeaking in as a wild card entry, Hamlin’s day quickly deteriorated when he was forced to pit on lap 86 with a vibration, falling two laps off the pace. After earning one lap back, a shredded left front tire dropped last season’s Chase runner-up three laps off the pace. He finished 31st and finds himself 41 points out of the Chase lead — almost one full race worth of points.
The other Chasers finishes included Kurt Busch (sixth), Newman (eighth), Johnson (10th), Kenseth (21st), Kyle Busch (22nd) and Jeff Gordon (24th).
NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship gets rolling this weekend in New Hampshire … no, wait … Chicago. Yeah, that’s right, Chicagoland Speedway. Answer me this: Could the sanctioning body have awarded the date to a track more devoid of character? I get that it’s a facility struggling in attendance and ratings numbers. A marquee date may help (or at least can’t hurt), but at what point does NASCAR think in the macro and not the micro? The sport benefits from an exciting Chase start, especially after last week’s action-packed Saturday night in Richmond, and this is the ultimate momentum killer.
Anyway, this column is supposed to be more of a Chase preview as my boy Vito Pugliese is taking track preview duties, so before it totally gets away from me, I’ll hit the brakes Starsky and Hutch style and refocus.
Any Chase preview column begins and ends with Jimmie Johnson. It doesn’t matter where he’s seeded or who else is currently loaded for bear. When you’re the five-time defending champion you get the nod. So, does Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have the magic in them for a sixth crown after an atypical one-win regular season?
I tend to agree with the contingent that says until the 48 team gives me a reason to pick against them, I won’t. I use to have the same conversation with our MLB editor here at Athlon. My beloved Atlanta Braves were in the midst of a 14-year division title streak, yet for two or three years, the thinking was to try and foresee the downfall by picking them to miss the playoffs in our preseason annuals.
Didn’t happen. Not until 2006. And by then we’d gotten tired of getting burned and actually hopped back on the bandwagon when they finally petered out. Same line of thinking with Johnson.
That’s not to say there aren’t some worthy candidates to knock off Johnson. In fact, this field looks as dangerous as any I can remember — but I seem to say that every year. Let’s start at the top:
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Ironic, isn’t it? You can just feel the love here. Actually, the Harvick/Busch tie at the top helps Kevin’s cause. Harvick admits to thriving on controversy, stirring the pot, fanning the flames. And he seems to take particular delight in needling Busch. From a performance standpoint, Harvick has the experience, the team, the machinery and the demeanor to be a champion. So what’s missing? Good question, but best I can tell it’s just a break here or there. The 29 team maneuvered through its roller coaster of a summer and seems to have come out stronger on the other side, as its last two finishes can attest.
But Johnson stands in his way, and Harvick has yet to prove he can beat J.J. heads-up. But he’s close.
Kevin Harvick (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
As for Busch, I’ll believe a “New Kyle Busch” exists just as soon as his older brother proves he’s really in Johnson’s head. Kyle is an on-track skirmish away from going thermonuclear still — although “thermonuclear” may be overstating it a tad. You can’t deny the progress he’s made in the “Quit Being a Jackass” department, but that attitude seemed to be what gave him an edge.
Busch’s equipment is the other concern. Despite all the wins over the last three years or so, Joe Gibbs Racing always manages to trip themselves up in the Chase somehow or another. That said, Busch seems to be much kinder to his equipment (under the hood equipment, that is) than his teammate, Denny Hamlin. This is a big Chase for Kyle from a career-standpoint perspective, so not fading is important. If he finishes in the top three I’ll be convinced he’s ready to take on the mantle of Sprint Cup Champion in 2012.
One driver who has no convincing to do is Jeff Gordon. A rejuvenated Gordon, with ace-in-the-hole crew chief Alan Gustafson, has the desire, hunger — and at long last, the pure speed — to give Johnson all he wants. The four-time champ is finally throwing W’s on the board again, and winning a race or two in the next 10 is imperative. If anyone is to slay the Goliath that is the 48 team, this is it.
Carl Edwards was the latest, and thus far, only multi-time preseason pick to give Johnson a run for his money. It’s been a strange season for Edwards, though, as he has enjoyed only one trip to Victory Lane thus far. Granted, it’s safe to say that the team was doing some R&D (and contract) work through the summer and has rounded into form. He’ll factor, although to what extent is not yet clear.
Skipping down the standings a bit, Brad Keselowski looks dangerous. Yeah, it’s easy to jump on a guy’s bandwagon when he’s hot and in his second full-time campaign on the Cup circuit, predicting a title run may be putting the cart before the horse. But Keselowski is a different bird. He seems to thrive on high-pressure situations, completely at ease while in the eye of the hurricane. Where Denny Hamlin fumbled one away last year, Keselowski can be counted on to keep both hands on the ball. If — and that’s admittedly a big “if” — he can keep pace through the first six races, he’s a guy the big boys don’t want to see near the top heading down the stretch.
What’s there to say about Matt Kenseth? He threw up a flurry of victories this year (for Kenseth, a flurry is two) and deceptively cruised through the first 26 races, showcasing a consistency that’s become his trademark. He’ll need another flurry to bag this title, which may be asking a lot, as his style is not conducive to a 10-race hot streak. That said, he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig will have their moments. Just not enough of them.
Kurt Busch’s No. 22 team is an enigma. World-beaters one week, out to lunch the next. Has the success of his teammate (Keselowski) hindered Busch’s performance? That may seem like an asinine question, but I’m convinced the more a guy shouts one thing from the rooftops, the less likely it’s true. In this case, Busch claims to be in Johnson’s head (riiiiippppp…), implying his team is the mentally superior of the two. I don’t buy it, and I don’t buy that Kurt and his crew are serious title threats.
There’s quite a dip down to the four remaining Chasers. Ryan Newman has put together a nice season thus far with 13 top 10s. But is the sixth Hendrick team — OK, we’ll call them the fifth Hendrick team with Mark Martin all but gone — capable of winning this whole dog ’n’ pony show? And what of his Stewart-Haas teammate and car owner, Tony Stewart? What a long strange trip it’s been for his No. 14 team. Quite frankly, something’s amiss there to the point that there is no magical switch for Smoke to throw and make it all right. Maybe Danica Patrick’s input next season will help …
Then there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin. Look, Junior made for a nice story earlier this season when he posted a slew of top-12 showings, but while other teams have improved, Junior’s has stagnated. Some of the Chase tracks favor The Son, but like Stewart, there’s no magic switch to be thrown.
That leaves Hamlin, the latest in a long line of drivers who got out-drank by Johnson last season and is suffering a year-long hangover. Hamlin could actually surprise, although if he gets in an early hole, it’ll be R&D Season for the 11 team. A win isn’t out of the question, but a championship is.
So in the end, I believe it’s a two-horse race between Johnson and Gordon, with Harvick, Edwards and Keselowski not too far behind. And like I said earlier: Until someone proves they can take down the most dominant team of the decade, I have to side with the 48 team.
Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter@MattTaliaferro
NASCAR’s version of the playoffs gets started this weekend in Chicago, just as Major League Baseball is winding down, the NFL regular season is heating up and fantasy football geeks are going berserk. I say that lovingly mind you, as I am pretty pumped about my acquisition of Robert Meachem at wide receiver for this weekend. Like any responsible owner, you need to game plan each race, and see what key player will perform there. That means pouring over stats, reviewing game tape and dissecting Athlon Sports' Fantasy Football page.
Hey I’m a company guy — but don’t worry, because I’ve put together a comprehensive guide for each race in the 10-week Chase for the Sprint Cup. I’ve listed a winner and drivers to watch. If you have a fantasy team or an all-consuming gambling addiction, please take the following into consideration before you cash out what’s left of the 401k or the kid’s college fund.
Chicagoland has had a stigma as being a cookie-cutter track, another 1.5-mile oval that resembles many others on schedule. Looking back at who ran well this season at tracks that have a similar layout — Kansas and Kentucky — there are a couple of names that stand out. Kurt Busch dominated Kansas in June, leading 152 laps before teammate Brad Keselowski grabbed the win on a fuel-mileage gamble. Denny Hamlin led for 34 laps and finished third, while Carl Edwards led for 29 circuits and came home fifth. Busch led 41 laps in Kentucky in July, while his brother, Kyle, checked out and wasn’t really seriously challenged for the win until the final restart, leading 125 laps on the day. Kansas winner Keselowski led for 79 laps and ended up seventh, while Edwards posted another fifth-place run.
Prediction: A guy named Busch wins. Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin are solid selections as well.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway
You know things have moved along in NASCAR when we’re talking about a championship playoff format and a one-mile oval as a short track. Short tracks are supposed to be under a mile, but nobody listens to me anyway. The definition of a short track now is, if you can still run competitive with a wrinkled fender — and New Hampshire, the track that Kyle Petty once suggested could be filled with water and made a bass lake — has in recent years produced some of the best racing and closest finishes. The Magic Mile got demoted from being the Chase kickoff for 2011, but second billing’s not bad either.
With the struggles that Stewart-Haas had getting into the Chase — well OK, Tony Stewart had getting into the Chase — Loudon will be welcome relief for this two-car team. Smoke should have won here last year for the third time before running out of fuel on the final lap, while teammate Ryan Newman won here in July for the third time in his career. Kurt Busch led for 66 laps that day before slipping to 10th, while Denny Hamlin has a win here and came home third. Kyle Busch’s Chase hopes have been dashed here in years past, so even though the 18 car is fast everywhere, I’m leery of looking in his direction in New Hampshire. Jeff Gordon has speed and the 24 team won here as the No. 5 team in 2009 with Mark Martin at the helm, and the Gordon Renaissance started this year at Phoenix, the other flat-mile track on the schedule.
Prediction: Tony Stewart remembers he’s Tony Stewart. Then Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin in that order.
Dover International Speedway
The white cliffs … er, banks … of Dover pose a different kind of challenge to drivers. It’s basically a big Bristol, with the straights feeling like they’re banked more than the corners. “Concrete” Carl Edwards is hard to handle at Dover, as is his Roush Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth. Edwards led 119 laps earlier this year while Kenseth, who is looking for sponsorship in 2012, took the win. Kyle Busch posted a top 5, but the real “five” you need to watch for is ol’ “Five Time”. Jimmie Johnson decimated the field in May, leading 207 laps, before sliding to ninth by day’s end, and has six of his 54-career wins here. Not a toughie to figure this one out.
Prediction: Jimmie Johnson wins but Carl Edwards makes him earn it. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick follow.
Clint, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore! Actually, I don’t think you’re at RCR anymore, but that doesn’t mean your teammate, Kevin Harvick, is in any better position to win in Kansas. While Kurt Busch ran away with things here in July, Brad Keselowski conquered on fuel (not consisting of corn), and was the fastest car on the track late in the going at Michigan — a similar layout — in August. Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied from disaster after spinning to a second-place run that day, highlighting another pitfall for this track. Things can get spread out in the wide-open spaces of the Great Plains, and there aren’t usually many cautions to slow the action. If you get into trouble here, you’re most likely done — but you if can stay the first car one-lap down, you might be able to salvage your day — or sneak one out on gas mileage.
Prediction: Keselowski wins but this time on speed. Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch round out the top 5.
Charlotte Motor Speedway
The Queen City and capitol of the NASCAR city-state marks the midpoint of the Chase, and is usually the barometer to determine who’s in and who’s out as the playoffs hit their “second season.” No longer Lowe’s Motor Speedway, it is also no longer the 48’s house, and others have been able to prosper on what was once Jimmie Johnson’s personal playground like that episode of South Park when Cartman buys an amusement park.
Downforce is king at 1.5-mile tracks, and Fords have that aplenty with their cool-running FR9 engines allowing the front ends to be sealed up while still hauling the mail. Matt Kenseth set sail for 103 laps in the Coca-Cola 600, while Carl Edwards was next in line leading 61 laps. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevy had the checkered flag in sight but his car coughed through Turn 3, running out of fuel as he surrendered his first win in three years to Kevin Harvick, to the heartbreak and unfathomable sorrow of Junior Nation. Jeff Gordon won in Atlanta, which is kind of like Charlotte, holding off Johnson. This could be a Hendrick Motorsports affair in Charlotte once again, just like the old days when it was their house.
Prediction: Carl Edwards reigns supreme, and does not tear the front end off the car doing victory donuts. Jeff Gordon is in the conversation, as is Jimmie Johnson. Junior doesn’t win here, but starts to build some momentum. Kyle Busch is dangerous anywhere.
With the advent of two-car tandems, just about anybody could win at Talladega. Don’t think so? Ask Brad Keselowski, who won his first race here in 2009 with James Finch’s part-time team. This one is a crapshoot — you could literally pick anyone in the top 15 with 10 laps to go and have a shot at getting it right. What it sets the stage for, however, is a very big win that will be very popular for a lot of people, which means a lot of stuff is going to get thrown onto the track afterwards.
Prediction: By the grace of God, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins and the infield resembles Woodstock ’99. His Hendrick teammate, Jimmie Johnson, follows, with the Stewart-Haas sister cars of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman.
Martinsville Speedway (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Hey, didn’t that Dale Earnhardt Jr. guy nearly win here in April? Luckily for him, the track doesn’t change much over the season, so he could definitely continue to score some points on the paperclip half-mile that is a legitimate short track. Junior lost this one then in the closing laps to Kevin Harvick, who won the last short track race at Richmond, as well. Jeff Gordon has been nails here over his career with seven wins, while teammate Jimmie Johnson has six.
Prediction: Kevin Harvick wins a Chase race and keeps his hopes alive. Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin to follow in succession.
Texas Motor Speedway
Texas looks a lot like Charlotte and Atlanta because it is a lot like Charlotte and Atlanta — being shaped like Charlotte and nearly as fast as Atlanta. The Tuesday race at AMS a few weeks back is probably a better indicator of how things will pan out, since the first Texas race this year was too long ago to give a good indicator of how teams have adjusted and massaged their cars over the course of the year.
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will be the ones to beat, but Smoke usually shows well here. Horsepower is king and the Ford duo of Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards don’t want for anything in the engine room. Penske Racing’s Mopar tandem may be the sleepers.
Prediction: Kurt Busch wins and looks completely out of place wearing a cowboy hat and firing Colt Single Action Army pistols into the air. Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski follow in kind.
Phoenix International Raceway
A repave and reconfiguration means that this is a totally different track than before. When any existing NASCAR track is repaved, it’s usually for the worse, as racing suffers, taking another 10 years for the groove to get worn in. No matter, as long as they remove walls at obtuse angles and put up some bigger billboards or start the race at 7:00 p.m. so the drivers aren’t blinded, that should be the focus.
Kurt Busch has been on the track and part of a tire test, and says it is really slick. I think this is a wild card track that will see a number of cautions and key contenders eliminated from the hunt. Busch has an upper hand with his on-track experience which should help him, but it is brother Kyle who will emerge the better Busch brother.
However, that doesn’t mean either win; it was Carl Edwards who had things in hand at the first race here — and he will exact revenge on the track that denied him. Well, Kyle Busch denied him after he wrecked him, but I don’t think he’ll flip him on his lid. They don’t go fast enough here.
Prediction: Carl Edwards wins, Kyle Busch holds off Jeff Gordon in a reversal from the spring. Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson plow into each other. Johnson calmly recites a different version of what happens and Kurt Busch rips something up and takes a swing at me.
Ford Championship Weekend and the Ford 400! You know what that means, Right? A Chevrolet wins the title, of course.
Since teaming up with Alan Gustafson this season, Jeff Gordon has been born again and is no longer the softer side of the 24-48 shop at Hendrick Motorsports. Perhaps the best known secret weapon in NASCAR is Gordon’s crew chief, and the team that resurrected another veteran driver who hadn’t visited Victory Lane in a while in 2009 with Mark Martin. The No. 24 team has won at short, flat tracks like Phoenix; fast, high-banked ovals such as Atlanta; and whatever the hell Pocono is. There is going to be another “five-time” in Sprint Cup competition following the final race of the season, and that will be Gordon.
Currently the author of 85 wins, his fifth title will tie him with Jimmie Johnson, while ranking him closer to Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and David Pearson as the best the sport has ever known.
First, there is a race to be run to make it all official. I don’t think it will be a last-lap nail bitter as it was in the first year of the Chase, but it will change the final standings considering the lack of variance in the point standings, and narrow 10-week window of the championship format.
Prediction: Denny Hamlin wins and thinks someone is sending him through some cruel time warp. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson line up next.
Johnson and Busch, just moments before it hit the fan. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jeff Gordon The four-time champ has averaged a 3.25-place finish over the last month. Gordon is looking like the “Wonderboy” of old at just the right time.
2. Jimmie Johnson It looks as if his biggest threat in the Chase may come from within — as in within Hendrick Motorsports in the form of the aforementioned Gordon. Haven’t we seen this movie before?
3. Kyle Busch The best part of the Kurt vs. Jenna press conference? Watching Kyle, sitting next to brother Kurt, smirk. You can almost hear him thinking, “Thank God ‘Old Kurt’ is back!”
4. Brad Keselowski The top-10 streak is over, but Keselowski still looks solid after a 12th at Richmond. They say water finds its level, and that could be the case here but he gets the benefit of the doubt for now.
5. Carl Edwards Consecutive runs of ninth, fifth and second prove the testing has been over for about three weeks for the No. 99 team. We’ll see how the notes transfer into the Chase.
6. Kevin Harvick Another team that is rounding into form, Harvick’s group brings the momentum of a Richmond win into the Chase. And — OMG! — he got to meet Snooki in Victory Lane!
7. Matt Kenseth Kenseth was sponsored by “Ollie’s Bargain Outlet” at Richmond. And the way he ran, you’d think they bought the car there.
Smile, bud ... I ranked you above your teammate! (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
8. Ryan Newman Newman continues to throw top 10s on the board — he was eighth at Richmond — but he must avoid the hiccup his team seems to have once every month if a title is to be won.
9. Kurt Busch When you finish in the top 5 but receive more pub for your post-race antics, you know you’ve got some explaining and/or apologizing to do. When the cameras are on, of course.
10. Tony Stewart Tony’s antics came on Friday and, like Busch, were because of a confrontation with reporters. When are these guys going to learn that life can be a lot easier when they’re on friendly terms with the media?
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Somehow rebounded from a number of issues at RIR and snuck in the Chase. Sorry Junior Nation, but don’t expect much more.
12. Denny Hamlin Led zero laps and finished ninth at one of his favorite tracks. That’s not a great sign.
13. AJ Allmendinger AJ’s top-12 streak has hit five races in a row and he’s 13th in points. Not bad, young man.
14. Mark Martin There’s still a little gas left in the tank, as Martin’s 10th-place finish in Richmond proved. Not bad, old man.
15. Jamie McMurray This week will mark the start of “R&D Season” for McMurray and the Ganassi gang.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, David Ragan
Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter@MattTaliaferro
The 2011 Chase for the Championship field. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
The final 300 miles of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ regular season were some of the most intense of 2011. Chase bubble boys Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin were involved in a lap 8 wreck; Chase longshot Marcos Ambrose spun three times; and Chase locks Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson continued a feud that has slowly festered over the last two seasons.
In the end though, the top 12 drivers going into the Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway were the same 12 that came out, as Earnhardt, Hamlin and Tony Stewart held on to secure bids to NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.
Oh, and by the way, Kevin Harvick held off Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon to capture his fourth win of the season. It may be difficult to look past the Chase scenarios, implications and results, but the race itself was a thriller — chock full of short-track aggression topped off with a dramatic conclusion.
Gordon was hunting for his second consecutive victory, leading on lap 384 when a spin by Paul Menard brought out the evening’s 15th caution. When the field hit pit road, it was Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing crew that won the race off. He lined up for the restart in the front row alongside Gordon, and when the green flag waved, pulled away. Edwards was able to get by Gordon, though, and quickly narrowed the gap Harvick had built.
Whether Edwards would have capped a night of physicality off with a bump ’n’ run is unknown. Edwards’ No. 99 Ford was never able to get to Harvick’s bumper, and the Bakersfield, Ca., native held on for his second career Richmond win.
“The guys on pit road had just a great last pit stop and were able to get us the track position,” Harvick said. “I struggled on the restarts getting going with the races that we had, so to be in control of that last restart I felt like it was pretty important to get going.
“Our car was really good all night on the restarts, and that last run there we were actually too tight and Carl was actually a little bit better. And then with about three or four laps to go, I just locked it on the bottom and hoped for the best there, so it all worked out.”
Gordon finished third, while David Ragan and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 5.
Busch had to recover from a pair of incidents with Johnson en route to his solid finish. The first accident came on lap 186, when Busch locked up his front brakes going into Turn 1 while battling the five-time defending champion for position. Johnson spun and restarted 24th while Busch continued unimpeded.
Jimmie Johnson after his second run-in with Kurt Busch. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Sixty laps later, Johnson got his revenge, diving into Turn 1 under Busch and spinning the No. 22 around. Johnson hit the wall in the process, requiring a lengthy stay in the garage, but once again, Busch marched on.
“I know we’re in his head,” Busch said later. “If we’re going to race this way, he’s got to know that there’s 10 other guys in this Chase, not just the 22 (car).
“He’s got to learn to race. He’s been able to beat guys in the last five years just by out-driving them with what he has for equipment.”
Johnson replied with a shrug, saying, “OK ... I got run over going into (Turn) 1, so if you’re going to spin me out, I’m going to spin you out.
“I’m sure I’ll go find him and talk to him and he’ll run his mouth. And we’ll go from there.”
Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Earnhardt, had a tough, but ultimately successful, evening. Earnhardt qualified for his first Chase since 2008 by recovering from the lap 8 accident that crushed the nose of his Chevrolet. He then used up what was left of the front end by spinning Ambrose and Travis Kvapil in separate incidents, displaying an aggression not typically seen in the 36-year-old. He finished 16th.
Earnhardt joins Johnson, Busch, Gordon, Edwards, Harvick, Hamlin and Stewart, along with Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman in the Chase.
“I’m proud to be in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like I’m a good enough driver to be in the Chase, (and) my team is good enough to be there.
“I can look back over the season and just easily think of several instances where we cost ourselves 10 or 15 points and made this situation difficult this weekend. Had we been more conscious and smarter at certain times we wouldn’t have had to even worry about it this weekend.”