Hamlin, Johnson, Keselowski separate from the pack
"Hmmm ... what should I ask him?" (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson Denny Hamlin may be the hottest driver on the Cup circuit at the moment, but Johnson’s team will still be the one everyone keeps an eye on going into the Chase.
2. Denny Hamlin Became the first driver since Tony Stewart in last season’s playoffs to score consecutive wins on the Cup circuit, with victories at Bristol and Atlanta. This is not the Denny Hamlin of 2011, folks.
3. Brad Keselowski Throw out Keselowski’s disastrous night in Bristol (which is a real rarity) and you’ll find a driver with eight straight runs of ninth or better. Along with Johnson and Hamlin, he has to be a title favorite.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Persevered for a respectable seventh-place showing on what was shaping up to be an off night in Atlanta. The consistency is unquestioned, but can Junior post a couple wins in the Chase?
5. Greg Biffle Was expecting more out of the points leader at the fast and slick Atlanta track. That said, his team of intermediate-track specialists will be ready for the Chase kickoff at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway.
6. Martin Truex Jr. Victory slips through Truex’s fingers once again. He and the No. 56 team’s performance in the closing laps at Atlanta are what separate the “title contenders” from the “playoff participants.”
7. Matt Kenseth One has to wonder how his Roush Fenway bunch will react now that Kenseth has walked the halls and officially announced his Joe Gibbs Racing relationship.
8. Clint Bowyer Moved into the top 10 from a rear-of-the-field starting spot at Atlanta before battery issues cost him three laps. Could Bowyer be a guy who breaks up the Kyle Busch/Jeff Gordon battle royal in Richmond?
Truex's 2013 Toyota. Pretty spiffy. (ASP, Inc.)
9. Kasey Kahne Looking to make up the 19 points he’ll need to slide ahead of Tony Stewart in the standings and take advantage of the bonus points he’ll receive for the two wins. That may be a lot to ask.
10. Jeff Gordon Gordon regretted not putting the fender to Hamlin on the final lap at Atlanta. Considering all that’s riding on a win, I’m scratching my head as to why he didn’t, either.
11. Kyle Busch Busch can win at Richmond, no doubt. But can JGR give him a piece that lasts the whole race?
12. Kevin Harvick The last couple of weeks makes me wonder why Harvick and Gill Martin split up in the first place.
13. Tony Stewart Point to ponder: Danica Patrick is currently the only driver at SHR with full sponsorship for 2013.
14. Marcos Ambrose Valiant performances by Ambrose and the team over the last month is example of too little, too late.
15. Paul Menard Here’s betting the “Paul Menard Empire” is the only group that knew he has three straight top 10s.
Just off the lead pack: Carl Edwards, Sam Hornish Jr., Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for the Bristol Night Race
The Blue Deuce, looking racy at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
The Race for the Chase is heating up and after two weeks of late-race drama the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Thunder Valley for the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
When the series hits the high-banks, it will be on a much different racing surface than the drivers have been accustomed to over the past few seasons. After the 2007 reconfiguration of the track, progressive banking was added in the corners, allowing for multiple grooves and two- and three-wide racing.
The racing on the new configuration was exciting and competitive, however many fans bemoaned the changes and called for a return to the Bristol of old. While it may have been the changes to the track, a lagging economy, or a host of other reasons, attendance fell from 160,000 in August 2007 to 102,000 earlier this year.
Listening to the fans, Speedway Motorsports, Inc.'s Bruton Smith took measures into his own hands and altered the track layout for the second time in six years. By grinding down the top racing groove, Smith hopes to create the style of racing Bristol was synonymous with when the grandstands were full and there was a waiting list for tickets.
Yet for many of the drivers, the change to Bristol is an unwelcome sight. Making changes based solely off the opinion of fans, Smith did not consult the competitors before taking away the top groove, boasting, "I do not consult race drivers when I am building a speedway."
After a painstaking process of removing embanked concrete intended to last “15 to 18 years,” according to track general manager Jerry Caldwell, Goodyear brought in Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer for a two-day tire test of the new configuration.
Each of the drivers confirmed the field would be unable to race around the top groove, forcing drivers to fight for space on the bottom of the track.
“The drivers aren’t going to be happy, but the spectators probably will be because it is going to put more cars in a closer space,” Burton said following the June tire test. “By taking away that groove, it is going to change your mind about going up there. I think it is going to be two grooves, unless Goodyear brings a tire with a lot of grip. If that is the case, you’ll want to run around the bottom. Making the groove smaller is a good thing, it is going to put the action back to the bottom and middle of the track.”
So, now that the track has changed, what can you expect for your fantasy outlook?
Well, I wouldn’t stray far from the statistics — new Bristol or old. While the groove may have changed, the drivers that excel at Bristol will continue to do so this weekend under the lights.
To find the hottest driver at BMS the past two events, look no further than the man that has finished second the last two weeks: Brad Keselowski. The Penske Racing driver is the defending race winner, went to Victory Lane in dominant fashion here in March and is looking for his fourth win of the 2012 season.
Currently fifth in the Sprint Cup standings, Keselowski is tied with former champions Stewart and Jimmie Johnson with the most wins on the season. A win Saturday night would not only mean a sweep of the year's Bristol races, but would also move Keselowski into the top seed heading into the Chase.
In March, Keselowski dominated the final race on the multi-groove surface, leading 232 of the 500 laps. In the past two weeks, the No. 2 car has been in contention for the win, losing out by only a slight margin to Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen and Greg Biffle at Michigan.
Since his victory in Kentucky seven races ago, Keselowski has five top 5s and seven top 10s. So obviously, this team has been on a roll as of late — and that roll should continue right through the mountains of East Tennessee. With confidence on his side and the team gunning for another win or two before the Chase, it is hard to bet against Keselowski Saturday night under the lights.
Much like last weekend, if Keselowski wants to end up in Victory Lane, he will have to beat Johnson. Looking as if he was on his way to his fourth victory of the season last week at Michigan, a blown motor in the final laps resulted in a frustrating 27th-place finish.
A former winner at Bristol, Johnson is always a threat on the high-speed short track. In his last seven races at BMS, the five-time champion has one win, four top 5s and six top 10s.
While Keselowski took advantage of Johnson's issues last Sunday, it was Kyle Busch who lost the win late in the race two weeks ago in Watkins Glen. Currently 14th in the standings, Busch is third in the Chase wild card hunt behind Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman. While the past few months have been more than frustrating for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota (only three top 10s in the last 11 races), there could be no better track for Busch than Bristol to get back into contention.
With the second-best average finish (10.6), Busch has five wins at Bristol, including four of the last seven races. With time running out before the Chase cut-off, Busch will need to get up on the wheel and get the job done.
Admittedly off at Bristol since his March 2011 win, he and crew chief Dave Rogers will have to dial the car in to the new configuration without over-thinking the setup, as they have done in the past.
Also consider last week's winner (and current points leader) Biffle, as well as fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. for your lineup Saturday night. Both have been extremely strong as of late and have run well at Bristol in the past.
MWR's Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr. at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
When part-time driver Brian Vickers gets the chance to pilot the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, he does his best to make the most of the opportunity. He certainly did that in his first start for MWR at Bristol in March.
Despite starting from the 25th spot, Vickers made his way to the front in the No. 55 car and led 125 of the 500 laps en route to a fifth-place finish. In Vickers' five starts thus far for MWR, has two top 5s, an 18th at Martinsville, a 15th at Loudon and a disappointing 43rd at Watkins Glen, due to a grenaded engine.
Running strong in the bottom groove so successfully in March, Vickers is optimistic he can have a solid showing under the lights.
“We had a great car that ran very well on the bottom and led a lot of laps,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how the upper groove has changed and how it will effect the racing. They wanted it like the ‘old Bristol,’ so we'll see. But again, we had the best car in the lower groove so hopefully it won't effect us too much.”
In fact, all of the MWR cars should be strong at Bristol this weekend. During the March race, the trio was in contention, with Martin Truex Jr. leading the team to third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes with Clint Bowyer and Vickers following suit, marking the first time MWR had all three cars finish in the top 5.
Five Undervalued Picks: Brian Vickers, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano
With only three races left before the Chase field is set, Kyle Busch is not the only driver in desperate need of a win. Both Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards have had their fair share of struggles over the season, but now is the time to put those behind and get the job done.
While both are former winners at Bristol (Gordon has five wins, Edwards two), they are darkhorse picks for the second week in a row considering the desperation that is setting in at this point.
The potential for a win is there for both drivers, but in March each found trouble early in the going with Gordon finishing 35th and Edwards coming home 39th. If you use either of these drivers in your fantasy lineup, do so with caution.
Much like the MWR cars, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing had a stellar showing at Bristol in March with Jamie McMurray finishing seventh and Juan Pablo Montoya right behind in eighth. McMurray was able to use pit strategy early in the race to make his way to the front, while Montoya took advantage of late-race cautions and fresh tires to score a solid finish.
This 2012 season has been nothing short of disappointing for the EGR organization after an offseason of drastic changes behind the scenes. The top 10 finish at Bristol was one of only three for McMurray and one of only two for Montoya. If the team can rekindle some of the success they had in March, they could score some worthy fantasy points.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose
For many, the look of Saturday night's race will be a bit of an unknown. With the change in the racing surface, the side-by-side racing could be much more difficult than in the past few seasons.
Judging by Wednesday night's Camping World Truck Series races, though, it appears while the very top goove is gone, the racing has remained much the same. Be sure to pay attention to Friday evening's Nationwide Series race to get a better idea of what Saturday night's race will look like.
Just remember, no matter how strong the stats, short track racing with multiple agendas and Chase implications on the line mean anything can — and probably will — happen.
Best Average Finish at Bristol (Wins/Starts):
1. Brad Keselowski — 10.4 (2/5)
2. Kyle Busch — 10.6 (5/15)
3. Matt Kenseth — 11.6 (2/25)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 11.8 (1/25)
5. Greg Biffle — 11.8 (0/19)
6. Jeff Gordon — 12.1 (5/39)
7. Kevin Harvick — 12.4 (1/23)
8. Kurt Busch — 13.1 (5/23)
9. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (2/16)
10. Jimmie Johnson — 14.6 (1/21)
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for the Pure Michigan 400
Michigan's June winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
After a wild late-race battle for the win at Watkins Glen, the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Irish Hills of Michigan for this weekend's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Returning to MIS for the second time this season, the Chase is fast approaching and the action is heating up. In June, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended his 143-race winless streak and made the NASCAR Nation happier than a kid chowing down on some Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia.
This time, however, the series returns in the heat of the race to the Chase. With playoff implications all around and teams on varying strategies and objectives, things could get interesting.
Four drivers — Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth — have the opportunity to clinch their respective spot in the Chase in Sunday's race. At the same time, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and others are battling for the two wild card spots.
While the mindset of the teams and drivers may be different from earlier in the summer, one thing that will remain the same is the high speeds created by the new racing surface.
When the series first hit the freshly-paved 2-mile, D-shaped oval, the drivers were laying down some of the fastest speeds of the year recorded in practice and qualifying. After seeing some blistering on the tires, Goodyear officials made a late change in the compound and brought in a tougher left side tire for Sunday's race. Prior to returning this weekend, Goodyear worked with NASCAR, the track and the competitors to test various combinations to bring back a better tire. A total of 27 teams partook in the test on July 30.
One of the drivers most pleased with the test was Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has two wins, eight top 5s and 11 top 10s in nineteen starts in Detroit’s backyard, and is this week's fantasy favorite.
Over the last four Michigan races, Biffle has led a total of 258 of 803 laps en route to a pair of fourth-place finishes (including the June race), a 15th and a 20th (which came after sitting on the pole).
Sitting second in the series standings, just one point behind the five-time champion Johnson, Biffle has only one win this season, meaning he would fall behind Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin when the Chase field is reset after the Richmond race. Another win would go a long way in Biffle's quest to earn his first Sprint Cup Series title.
If Biffle wants to earn his second win of the season and first Cup title, he will likely have to beat Johnson for both. Always a contender at Michigan, Johnson has four top 5s and nine top 10s, but has yet to seal the deal and score a win.
Given the performance of the No. 48 organization over the four weeks, it is safe to say they will be a contender yet again this weekend.
The last time the series was in Michigan, it was Earnhardt Jr. that scored the win and ended the longest winless drought of his career. After a disappointing end to a solid day in Watkins Glen, Earnhardt lost the points lead, but is headed to a track he is very capable of sweeping.
Also keep an eye on Keselowski this weekend. Although he has an average finish of 21.0 at Michigan, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe always have an eye on pit strategy and could shake things up late in the race and have proven capable of winning on most any type of track at any given time.
Five Favorites: Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth
While Richard Petty Motorsports was celebrating a win last week at Watkins Glen, the team cars of Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose could have another strong showing this weekend.
Although they may not take The King to victory lane two weeks in a row, the teammates have had strong showings in the June race, with Ambrose leading 15 laps and finishing ninth, and Almirola coming home 17th in his first Sprint Cup start on the big oval.
Given their solid performance in June, along with the momentum built from last week's win, you may want to consider including Almirola and Ambrose in your lineup this week.
The ageless wonder, Mark Martin, returns to action this weekend behind the wheel of Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota. The timing could not be better, as Michigan is Martin's best track.
Although he fell out of the June race with an engine issue, Martin has a career-high five victories at Michigan. Given the success of the No. 55 team — especially with Martin behind the wheel — look for the Rodney Childers-led bunch to have a strong run on Sunday.
Martin’s teammates, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, have average finishes just outside the top 10 best at Michigan. Sitting sixth and seventh, respectively, in the series standings, both drivers could further solidify their spot in the Chase with good runs — and tack on bonus points with wins.
Five Undervalued Picks: Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.
With only four races left before the Chase field is set, time is running out for Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. Both sitting outside the top 10 in points, Edwards is without a win, while Gordon is currently fourth in the wild card battle behind Kahne, Newman and Kyle Busch.
Edwards enters the weekend with the best average finish among active drivers (8.4) and two wins at MIS. However, in his last five starts at Michigan, Edwards has three finishes outside the top 10 (including a 36th in the race last August).
If the 2011 championship runner-up wants the opportunity to make the Chase field, time is running out and the season that has yet to get on track needs to do so this weekend. At this point, solid finishes are not enough.
Much like Edwards, Gordon finds himself outside the Chase field at the moment. Needing wins, before the final cutoff race at Richmond, it is time for the No. 24 team to step up to the plate and get the job done. A victory two weeks ago at Pocono gave the four-time champion Chase hopes, but a late-race spin in the oil at Watkins Glen did his wild card hopes no favors.
The Alan Gustafson-led team has run strong throughout the season, but have struggled to put complete races together at times, albeit the issues were not always of their making. If they can use notes from the in-house No. 88 team, stay out of trouble, play the right strategy throughout the race and be there in the end, look for the No. 24 team to have a shot at the win.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Landon Cassill
Best Average Finish at Michigan (Wins/Starts):
1. Carl Edwards — 8.4 (2/16)
2. Matt Kenseth — 9.3 (2/26)
3. Tony Stewart — 11.2 (1/27)
4. Jeff Gordon — 11.3 (2/39)
5. Greg Biffle — 12.4 (2/19)
6. Mark Martin — 13.6 (5/53)
7. Denny Hamlin — 13.8 (2/13)
8. Jimmie Johnson — 14.7 (0/21)
9. Kevin Harvick — 14.8 (1/23)
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 15.2 (2/26)
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the Northeast this weekend as it hits Watkins Glen International for the Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen. The second of two road course races this season, teams will have to adjust to turning both left and right, carrying high speeds and preparing for heavy braking with multiple elevation changes and opposite-side pit stops.
Always a challenge, some in the garage have excelled at the road course events while others have struggled mightily. While road racing experience and an open-wheel background may have made a significant difference in years past, the level of competition has evened out of late.
Track position, however, has always been a major factor in deciding a winner at Watkins Glen. Starting up front and staying there is one of the biggest keys to a successful day at the Glen. In the 29 Cup races here, 19 have been won from the top-5 starting spots — so pay attention Saturday’s qualifying.
Last year, race winner Marcos Ambrose used both road course experience and a solid starting spot to earn his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory. Always one of the strongest drivers at Watkins Glen, Ambrose leads the field in terms of average finish, with an impressive 2.3.
In fact, in his four starts at the Glen, Ambrose has failed to finish worse than third. In addition, the Australian-native has won three of the four Nationwide Series races he has run.
Given his prior success at Watkins Glen, Ambrose is definitely among the top 5 favorites in this week's fantasy outlook, but he is not the favorite. That belongs to a determined, hard-nosed, skilled road course driver known as “Rowdy.”
While Ambrose scored the victory in last year's event, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch that led the most laps (49 of 92). Although he led the field to the green flag on a final green-white-checker finish, Busch was muscled out of the way by Ambrose and Brad Keselowski, eventually settling in at the third spot. With one of the best cars that day, the third-place finish was a tough pill to swallow for the 2008 Watkins Glen winner.
Heading into this weekend's race, Busch is in need of not only a solid finish, but a win. After a disappointing 33rd-place finish last weekend at Pocono, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota is currently fourth in the wild card standings behind Kasey Kahne (2 wins), Jeff Gordon (1) and Ryan Newman (1).
Following the wreck at Pocono, Busch and his Dave Rogers-led team know if they want to be a part of the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup they have to win their way in. One of the most dangerous teams when it comes to recording a string of wins, the JGR driver admits their season struggles give them little hope. Despite having one win, six top 5s and nine top 10s, Busch also has eight finishes of 23rd or worse, including three DNFs.
Yet, if there was one driver and team that could turn their luck around in the final five regular-season races, it’s this one. Already a former winner at the Glen, Busch has an average finish of 9.3 (fourth best) at Watkins Glen and has finished in the top 10 in six of his seven Cup starts.
With playoff implications on the line and one of his best tracks in front of him, look for Busch and the No. 18 team to employ the right strategy and have a strong enough car to best the rest.
Among those Busch will have to beat is last week's winner at Pocono, Jeff Gordon.
Now in the thick of the Chase wild card battle after winning the rain-shortened race Sunday afternoon, Gordon has momentum on his side and is eager to celebrate his 20th year in the Sprint Cup Series by making the Chase. Although he admits the No. 24 team has struggled to find speed over the past decade at the Glen, that momentum and confidence can go a long way for a driver that could use another win in the next five races.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart
Sonoma winner Clint Bowyer. (ASP, Inc.)
The last time the Sprint Cup Series hit the road course, Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer earned his first win for the company in Sonoma, Calif.
While Bowyer has not fared as well in the past at Watkins Glen (he has only one top 10 and an average finish of 21.3), his crew chief Brian Pattie has victories in all three NASCAR touring series here.
Currently 10th in the standings, Bowyer and the No. 15 team are on the edge of the Chase cut-off spot. Bringing the winning car from Sonoma, Pattie knows it will take a different setup than earlier in the year to be successful on Sunday.
“Sonoma is slower speeds and probably closer to setting a car up for Martinsville,” Bowyer says. "Watkins Glen is big and fast. It has longer breaking zones and much higher speeds, so the setups are a lot different. If you bring the same setup that we used to win at Sonoma to Watkins Glen, (it) would be like taking a car built and setup for Martinsville and trying to use it for Dover. It’s that much different.”
With a confident crew chief, an undervalued road-course racer behind the wheel and Chase implications all around them, expect the No. 15 team to have a strong day and possibly contend for the win.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick
Much like this week's undervalued pick, the darkhorse pick for Sunday's Finger Lakes 355 comes out of the Michael Waltrip Racing stable. Back in the car this weekend for the fifth time in 2012, Brian Vickers is looking to continue his success behind the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota.
Fourth in the first road course race of the year in Sonoma, Vickers has quietly become a much better road racer over the years, and has found success in the No. 55 car in his first four starts with the team (fifth, 18th, fourth, 15th).
While Vickers has only one top 10 at the Glen (eighth, 2005), he has finished 18th or better in his last three trips to the Finger Lakes region. With his success this season in the No. 55 and the budding potential of MWR in 2012, look for Vickers to stand out as the darkhorse pick of the week.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Brian Vickers, Joey Logano, Jeff Burton, Sam Hornish Jr., Kurt Busch
Best Average Finish at Watkins Glen (Wins/Starts)
1. Marcos Ambrose — 2.2 (1/4)
2. Tony Stewart — 7.1 (5/13)
3. Carl Edwards — 8.7 (0/7)
4. Kyle Busch — 9.3 (1/7)
5. Brad Keselowski — 11.0 (0/2)
6. Juan Pablo Montoya — 11.4 (1/5)
7. Kevin Harvick — 12.9 (0/11)
8. Jimmie Johnson — 14.2 (0/10)
9. Martin Truex Jr. — 14.3 (0/6)
10. Jeff Gordon — 14.5 (4/19)
Jimmie Johnson leads the pack (but don't tell Chad Norris)
"Hey Carl, my new crew chief drinks your sponsors product to help him fall sleep." (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson A Daytona crash is the only blemish on Johnson’s stat sheet since mid-May. Indianapolis is typically the event that Johnson, Chad Knaus & crew use as a jumping off point for the Chase.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. According to Junior's buddy Mike Davis, Earnhardt has completed the first 5,488 laps this season, a record in NASCAR’s Modern Era. He also has 20 consecutive lead lap finishes, dating back to 2011.
3. Matt Kenseth No flashy stats for Kenseth, just a stream of steadiness for the points leader. His 13th at Loudon, along with a 13th at Sonoma, are his worst showings since a 16th way back in March.
4. Tony Stewart Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski are closing the gap on the Big Three of Johnson, Earnhardt and Keselowski, although Smoke’s Loudon performance was disappointing after winning there last year.
5. Denny Hamlin “Hit or Miss” Hamlin was a hit on Sunday, despite falling short in the end due to miscommunication with the crew chief. Hamlin’s last six races: Three top 5s, three finishes of 25th or worse.
6. Brad Keselowski May deserve to be higher on the list, as BK and the boys appear to be gaining steam — which says something since they’re already weekly contenders.
7. Kasey Kahne Was Sunday’s win what we’ll look back on as his Chase-clinching run? Impossible to say, but suddenly, the heat is turned up on about five drivers clawing for a wild card slot in the Chase.
8. Greg Biffle His ninth-place finish in New Hampshire led the Roush Fenway contingent — odd in that the “Fenway” in the race team’s name is the same associated with a certain New England sports franchise.
"Hey Martin, I hear Carl has some badass new crew chief." (ASP, Inc.)
9. Clint Bowyer Back on track to the tune of a third-place run at Loudon after two hangover-esque weekends that proceded the Sonoma victory.
10. Jeff Gordon Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson are obviously going all-out for wins at this point, which explains his frustration after finishing a respectable sixth in Loudon. Those wins are now imperative.
11. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s eighth in Loudon was his best showing in over a month. A win would cinch things for him.
12. Martin Truex Jr. Has 50 points on 11th-place Carl Edwards. And at this rate — without a win — he’ll need ’em.
13. Ryan Newman Baby news for the second straight week: Ryan and Krissie welcomed Ashlyn Olivia on Monday.
14. Joey Logano Currently in a log jam with Newman and Kyle Busch for that second Chase wild card spot.
15. Kyle Busch Maybe if he went back to racing three times a weekend ... ?
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard
The majority of these cars didn't make it another 10 laps. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Matt Kenseth Kenseth was the man to beat at Daytona for a second straight trip, although the fortunes of plate racing found him third by night’s end. Still, RFR is the team to beat on the plate tracks.
2. Jimmie Johnson Johnson’s 2012 plate racing results: 42nd, 35th and 36th. In fact, his plate stats over the last few years — outside of a Talladega win — aren’t that impressive. Speaks more to the style of racing than the driver.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. You can throw a blanket over the top 3. Each has 13 top 10s in 18 races and at least one win. Junior slots third here because he trails Kenseth in the standings and Johnson in the wins column.
4. Tony Stewart Stewart closes the gap on the “Big Three” every three weeks or so. His problem lies in consistency — he seems to either finish in the top 3 on race day or outside of the top 20.
5. Denny Hamlin It’s hard to fault a guy for getting wrecked while racing for the win at Daytona. That was the story of Hamlin’s night, so we’ll give him a pass and see what New Hampshire holds.
6. Greg Biffle Biffle took the blame for the final “Big One” of the night in Daytona, though it’s hard to pin that on any one driver. His sliding from top 5 to 21st in the wreck is punishment enough.
7. Brad Keselowski Keselowski seems to always be near the center of the storm. From getting hit on pit road to spinning out without any help, he had a rough night but rebounded for a respectable eighth-place showing.
8. Kasey Kahne Stewart’s dancing partner at Daytona, Kahne managed a seventh-place run thanks to the craziness in the final two football field’s worth of the 400.
9. Clint Bowyer Since a scintillating four-week stretch that culminated in a win, Bowyer has limped to 16th- and 29th-place runs. That said, he’ll be a pre-race favorite in Loudon this Sunday.
10. Martin Truex Jr. Truex is still hanging tough at seventh in the point standings, but a win would go a long way in securing a spot in the Chase.
11. Jeff Gordon Somehow brought a wrecked racecar home to a 12th-place finish. Still 87 points out of a Chase birth.
12. Kevin Harvick Congrats to the Harvicks on the birth of their first child, Keelan Paul, born on Sunday.
13. Joey Logano Currently occupies wild card spot No. 2 — but it’s oh-so-close in the mid-teens.
14. Kyle Busch If it’s not mechanical woes that fell Busch, it’s a Daytona “Big One.”
15. Carl Edwards Thirty-two points out of 10th in the standings and desperately scrambling to get things on track.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's LENOX Industrial Tools 301
Defending Loudon winner Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
The race may have ended Saturday night, but the smoke has yet to settle following the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway — both literally and figuratively.
Defending series champion Tony Stewart did what few could Saturday night, passing Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle for the lead. The two were attached at the bumper and out ahead of the pack for the majority of the night, leading a combined 124 of the 160 laps. Yet in the final frantic laps, Stewart was able to work with Kasey Kahne and push around the pair on the outside.
Earning his third victory of the year, Stewart tied Brad Keselowski with the most wins this season, and further solidified his spot in the Chase. Aside from a 32nd-place finish at Kentucky, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have one win and four finishes of third or better in the last five events.
The two-time champion typically hits his stride during the summer stretch, and that seems to be the case again this year, so the competition should pay heed at New Hampshire, a track where Stewart owns for victories.
At times is seems Stewart performs at his best when faced with adversity and distractions abound for his organization at the moment. With the U.S. Army pulling all funding from NASCAR at the end of the year and Ryan Newman's name coming up in the Silly Season talk, Stewart is going to have to start answering questions soon.
However, there are bigger controversies, more time for that to develop, and Smoke just so happens to be heading to one of his best tracks, statistically speaking.
Over the past two seasons, Stewart has one win and two runner-up finishes in four races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That 24th-place finish in the other event? He led 100 of the 300 laps, but ran out of fuel on the final lap giving the win to Clint Bowyer in September 2010.
Stewart-Haas Racing was the class of the field in this race last season when Newman led the organization to a 1-2 sweep of both qualifying and the race. Newman also led 62 laps in September's Chase race, but was among those short on fuel in the closing laps.
Despite a win this season, Newman currently trails Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in the wild card standings. A strong run (or a win) would move the No. 39 team closer to the championship battle.
Bowyer, the Sonoma winner, is another driver with his eye on the wild card standings. After scoring the win on the road course, Bowyer has dropped from seventh to 10th in the standings after a 16th at Kentucky and wreck-induced 29th in Daytona.
Bowyer is strong in Loudon though, with two wins and four top 5s in his 12 visits, however, also has seven finishes of 17th or worse. He has led a combined 229 laps in the last three New Hampshire races, with one win (Sept. 2010), a 17th and a 26th after running out of fuel with the lead in the final laps.
Five Favorites: Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin
The aforementioned wild card battle continues to intensify with each race, as Busch, Logano, Newman and Kahne jockey for the final two Chase spots over the next eight weeks. The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Busch and Logano currently hold the two transfer positions, but there is a lot of racing left before anything is decided.
While Busch has been trying to kick the trend of poor finishes, Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s in the last five races. Along with his strong runs on the Cup slate, Logano has also been tearing things up in the Nationwide Series (four wins, a fifth and a sixth in the last six events), leaving the 22-year-old feeling comfortable and confident behind the wheel, despite being a prominent figure in the Silly Season rumor mill.
The July New Hampshire race has been good to the driver of the No. 20 Toyota throughout his young career. In his three July starts at the “Magic Mile” Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s. Logano has not fared as well in the fall race, however, with three finishes outside the top 20 in four attempts.
Look for the trend of strong runs to continue this weekend as Logano and crew chief Jason Ratcliff go after their second win of the year, positioning themselves for a Chase berth.
Five Undervalued Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton
Darkhorse pick of the week: Brian Vickers. (ASP, Inc.)
As teams and sponsors look to 2013, free agent drivers shopping for rides are doing their best to impress. For Brian Vickers, who is driving a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, much must be accomplished in limited time.
In his three 2012 starts behind the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota, Vickers has two top 5s (Bristol, Sonoma) and an 18th at Martinsville. Team owner Michael Waltrip was behind the wheel of the No. 55 last weekend at Daytona, surviving the carnage at the end to finish inside the top 10.
Vickers was fifth in Loudon last September, but finished 34th in the July event. In fact, in his 13 starts at NHMS, Vickers has five finishes of 34th or worse. With so much on the line for his future — along with the success of the No. 55 throughout the season —Vickers is this weekend's darkhorse pick.
If a three-time Loudon winner can be considered a darkhorse, then Jeff Gordon is it for Sunday's 300-miler. While the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has the third-best average finish in New Hampshire (10.8), his luck this season has been devastating to his playoff hopes. Strong runs at historically successful tracks have gone to waste due to mechanical failures, wrecks and a host of other issues.
There is no doubt the four-time series champion will be a contender Sunday, but can his team put together a full race free of issues — self-inflicted, luck-related or otherwise? Given they are just on the outside of the wild card hunt and need solid finishes, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson understand they need to do all they can to score wins.
“We are not afraid of trying things with the setup or during the race,” Gordon says. “We're not afraid to take some risks. Each race that goes by without a win (means) the more risk we are willing to take. But I feel like we're still a long way from being out of this thing.”
Five Darkhorse Picks: Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr.
Best Average Finish at New Hampshire (wins):
1. Denny Hamlin — 9.0 (1)
2. Jimmie Johnson — 10.0 (3)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.8 (3)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (3)
5. Ryan Newman — 13.0 (3)
6. Jeff Burton — 13.6 (4)
7. Kurt Busch — 13.9 (3)
8. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (0)
9. Matt Kenseth — 14.0 (0)
10. Kevin Harvick — 14.1 (1) *Mark Martin, with one win and an average finish of 12.5, is not entered in this weekend’s event.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Coke Zero 400
Carl Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
Here's hoping all the NASCAR fantasy players out there had a happy and safe Fourth of July holiday. After a week of firework displays around this great nation, the grand finale will come Saturday night under the lights at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 — let's just keep Juan Pablo Montoya away from any jet dryers, OK?
In all seriousness, this weekend's annual July stop at the beach is one in which drivers are racing with multiple agendas on one of the sport's biggest stages. Each time the series heads to Daytona, nearly anyone in the field has a shot at upsetting the world — or at least scoring a solid finish at a crucial part of the season.
With only nine races left before the Chase field is set, the battle for the wild card spots and the fight for the top 10 in the standings is intensifying.
Perhaps one of the biggest names currently outside the top 10 in points looking to score his first win of the season this is Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards. Last year's runner-up in the championship battle has yet to win in 2012, and currently sits 11th in points.
Edwards had a deceptively strong run going in Kentucky, but a late pit stop for fuel dropped the No. 99 Ford to a 20th-place finish at the end of the night. The finish was Edwards' fifth-straight outside the top 10. To find Edwards' last top-5 finish, you would have to go back to Fontana in March. Edwards did not lead a single lap of competition until Kansas, when he led one, then backed it up at Richmond by leading 206 of the 400 laps. Since then, Edwards has led a grand total of zero.
However, things have been shaken up of late at RFR. Daytona 500 champion and current points leader Matt Kenseth will be leaving the organization at the end of the season with Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moving up to the Cup ranks as his replacement. With a multitude of sponsorship support behind him and many beginning to ask questions, Edwards is determined to turn his season around at the halfway point.
The driver of the No. 99 has been among the best on the high banks of Daytona in recent visits. He was runner-up to Trevor Bayne in last year's Daytona 500. He entered last year's Coke Zero 400 the points leader, but was turned around while running third early in the race by teammate Greg Biffle, leading to a 37th-place finish. This season, Edwards sat on the pole for the 500 and came home eighth. And if there’s one thing that’s obvious in the Ford camp, it’s that their engineers have figured out how to keep the Blue Ovals running cooler — a major advantage on the plate tracks, circa 2012.
Looking to race his way back into the top 10 in points, earn his first win of the season and turn his year around, Edwards is this week's fantasy favorite.
While Edwards may be the fantasy favorite, the perennial fan favorite is Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has two wins on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, one of which came in the Coke Zero 400 on July 7, 2001. With Saturday night's race coming on July 7 once again, could seven be the lucky number for Earnhardt?
Although he is always counted among the best at Daytona — he finished second to Kenseth in February — Earnhardt's last win on the high banks was in 2004. With one victory already this season, the No. 88 team is eager to add to the win column and start collecting bonus points for the Chase.
Whether or not drivers are willing to admit it, momentum is a hard thing to beat, and right now Brad Keselowski has a lot of it. Coming off a strong performance last week in Kentucky, Keselowski’s three wins lead the circuit. He’s good on all types of tracks (with wins on short, plate and intermediate venues), making him a must-watch.
Based on their recent finishes at Daytona, never count out Edwards’ Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Biffle. Kenseth was second in this race last season and won his second Daytona 500 in February, while Biffle was third. The Roush cars are typically strong here, with former driver David Ragan besting Kenseth last July.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Like Keselowski, Sonoma race-winner Clint Bowyer proved he can get the job done on any style track — but especially on the high banks of Daytona and Talladega. His average finish of 14.8 at DIS is second-best among active drivers, however Bowyer has yet to score a win at Daytona.
Also like Keselowski, Bowyer has momentum on his side as the series hits the halfway point of the season. A winner two weeks ago on the road course, Bowyer is seventh in the standings and has only two finishes worse than 17th all season (a 30th, Phoenix; 36th, Kansas).
The month of July has historically been good to Bowyer in the past. Of the three tracks the series hits this month — Daytona, New Hampshire and Indianapolis — Bowyer has two wins, a pole, six top 5s and 12 top 10s. Expect him to add to those totals on Saturday.
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and teammate Clint Bowyer (15) at Daytona. (ASP, Inc.)
Bowyer's MWR teammate, Martin Truex Jr., has not had much luck when it comes to Daytona, but expect that to turn around this weekend. In his 14 previous starts on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Truex has a best finish of sixth in the 2010 Daytona 500 and an average finish of 21.5. In fact, that sixth-place finish is his lone top 10 at Daytona. Statistically, Truex has struggled mightily in the annual July event, with a best finish of 13th in 2007. Aside from that event, Truex has four finishes of 25th or worse in six races.
However, Truex and his No. 56 team have shown strength this season. Already 17 races into the season, Truex has more top 5 finishes (four) than in the last four seasons combined, and nearly as many top 10s (nine). Sitting eighth in the standings, Truex is looking to move further away from that 10th-place Chase cut off, break his winless streak dating back to 2007 and start building bonus points for the Chase.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson
There have been quite a few surprises throughout the first half of the 2012 season, but one that jumps out is the driver sitting just outside the top 10 in the standings in 13th-place. Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard has consistently stayed in contention, yet just outside the Chase cutoff, ahead of race-winners Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
Although he has only four top-10 finishes this season, Menard's average finish has been 16.1. Consistently finishing inside the top 20 is not enough to make the Chase or content for the title, so Menard needs to either score a win and enter the Chase via wild card, or make a run at the top 10.
Daytona is a great place for Menard to make a statement run as he did last year at Indianapolis. Heading into this weekend's race, Menard has three consecutive top-10 finishes at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, the only driver on the circuit to currently own such a streak, and something that should continue Saturday night.
Another of the biggest surprises this season has been the abysmal showing of AJ Allmendinger in his new Penske digs. For as successful a year as his teammate, Keselowski, has had, Allmendinger's year has been equally tough to swallow. Poor luck and other struggles have led to six finishes of 31st or worse. However, the driver of the No. 22 Dodge is coming off back-to-back top-10 finishes at Sonoma and Kentucky — his first such “streak” of the season.
Allmendinger showed strength in Daytona early in the season but sustained damage to the nose on pit road just 15 laps into the event. A solid run at Talladega also went to the wayside late in the race when he and Denny Hamlin got together on a late-race restart.
With the season at the halfway point and speculation beginning to build about Penske’s plans for the No. 22 Dodge in 2013, it is time for a solid string of runs through the summer months. With back-to-back top 10s in his pocket, look for Allmendinger to be a factor if he can make it through the entire event without any issues.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger, Landon Cassill, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray
Top 10 average finish at Daytona (points-paying wins):
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.5 (2)
2. Clint Bowyer — 14.8 (0)
3. Kevin Harvick — 15.0 (0)
4. Bill Elliott — 15.6 (4)
5. Jeff Gordon — 16.2 (6)
6. Tony Stewart — 16.7 (3)
7. Matt Kenseth — 16.7 (2)
8. Kurt Busch — 17.3 (0)
9. Carl Edwards — 17.3 (0)
10. Paul Menard — 17.3 (0)
Drivers and teams to watch as the circuit hits its mid-summer classic in Daytona
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (please don’t call it the Pepsi 400 — Firecracker 400, however, will be accepted) marks the halfway point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
The year’s third restrictor plate race was once run on the morning of the fourth to beat the oppressive North Florida heat and humidity. “On the track by 11:00, on the beach by 2:00,” was the mantra before lights and night racing. NASCAR’s signature speedway has endured wildfires and truck fires in recent years, as well as Turn Two disemboweling itself in the middle of an event, but all should be solid as we’re knee-deep in the Summer Stretch. And as the championship chase begins to take shape, the contenders have begun to separate themselves from the pretenders. Unless, of course, it’s 2011 and you’re Tony Stewart, stumbling into the Chase like the town lush, but suddenly start running like Tony Stewart once the title fight begins.
But I digress. Let’s review our current top 10 in points, how they got here, and who on the outside looking in has to get their stuff together if they have any hopes of contending for the Cup come September.
1. Matt Kenseth Wins: 1 (Daytona 500)
Let’s see, Daytona 500: Check. Points leader: Check. Bailing on team mid-season: WTF? Kenseth’s announcement that he is leaving the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford at season’s end sent shockwaves through the fanbase. His likely destination appears to be Joe Gibbs Racing, although a proposed Andretti Autosport venture into NASCAR with Dodge assistance has been bandied about. It’s bad enough that Jack Roush’s former flagship No. 6 has been mothballed, but now the tried-and-true driver of the No. 17? Tragically coincidental — since it was the original driver of the No. 6, Mark Martin, who sold Roush on Kenseth, convincing him to field the No. 17 Cup ride for him in 2000. The last driver to win the Winston Cup in 2003 has been a model of consistency this year, much as he was that season. Kenseth’s low-key demeanor and approach will likely serve him well during what will prove to be a tumultuous few months in the Ford camp. With a win, eight top 5s and 12 top 10s to his credit this year, if Kenseth and the Wisconsin Mafia can keep the distractions at bay they very well could exit in style, giving Roush his third Cup Series championship. But distractions and fallout associated with being a “lame duck” lurk around every corner.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins: 1 (Michigan)
All together now: “JUUUUUNE-YEEERRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!” Finally, after 143 races and four years of futility, Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke into the winner’s circle at Michigan, the site of his last win in 2008. That victory did more for the psyche than the stat sheet, as Earnhardt is what Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket would deem, “Definitely born again hard.” With a win, seven top-5 and an even more impressive 13 top-10 finishes, the No. 88 team has done more in four months than it had in the last … well, forever. Credit Steve Letarte and Rick Hendrick, who essentially put Earnhardt with Jeff Gordon’s former team last season. The Prince of Kannapolis is doing his fans proud, so don’t be surprised to see a lot of old, red No. 8 gear being dusted off and thrust back into service in the coming months. Take heart Junior Nation — you’ve earned it, and your man is back near the top. Junior hasn’t been in a fierce title battle in so long, it’s hard to predict what type of showing he’ll make. But if a late-season slide doesn’t derail his momentum (and with Letarte calling the shots, it shouldn’t), Earnhardt is looking gbetter than he has in … well, forever.
3. Jimmie Johnson Wins: 2 (Darlington, Dover)
Oh yeah, don’t forget the “other driver” at Hendrick Motorsports. When he’s not cruising around with Mr. H on his windowsill, Jimmie Johnson is just being Jimmie Johnson; going about his business with painful precision and without much fanfare. Like a Glock pistol, he may be short on flash and flair, but he is dead-nuts reliable and never fails when the money is on the line. His nine top 5s and 13 top 10s are the most in both categories, and should serve as a harbinger of things to come in the fall. As in the past, the No. 48 team vets and fetters out the junk and finds what works during the summer months, then sets “phasers to kill” come September. For those who have tired of the “Five-Time” moniker, don’t worry. You may be calling him “Six-Time” by Thanksgiving.
4. Greg Biffle Wins: 1 (Texas)
Biffle started off the season strong, posting a trio of top-3 finishes in the first three races. He made a mockery of the last half of the April event at Texas Motor Speedway, and led the points from Las Vegas in early March until a 24th-place finish at Pocono, when he surrendered the top spot to his soon-to-be former teammate, Kenseth. A Roush veteran since his 1998 Truck Series debut, Biffle will prove to be the backbone of the team with Kenseth’s impending departure. While the No. 16 team started strong, it has stumbled in recent weeks, posting two sub-20th-place runs in the last four races. It was the No. 16 team that stopped Roush’s win skein in 2010, when the company got off track with misleading data simulation and sucky software on the engineering side. If there is a trend that must be watched with this bunch, it is that Biffle tends to go through crew chiefs quickly. Eight top 5s and 10 top 10s are a testament to his consistency, as well as the effect that current chief Matt Puccia has had for the driver who is in position to be the first in NASCAR history to win a championship in all three touring series.
5. Denny Hamlin Wins: 2 (Phoenix, Kansas)
What a difference a year makes. This time last season, Denny Hamlin was, to be honest, a mess. With three top 5s and six top 10s, coupled win a number of cryptic comments made during interviews that at best sounded whiney, Hamlin was still suffering the side-effects from his team’s 2010 implosion. Now with a new attitude and re-found mental toughness (and 2011 championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb making decisive calls), Hamlin has a pair of wins, and eight top-5 finishes. Those runs account for nearly all of his top 10s, and it must be noted that he has two DNFs in his last three races — courtesy of a fiery exit in Michigan and the front bumper of teammate Joey Logano at Sonoma. If Hamlin can keep from getting wrecked or exploding — and a TRD IED does not find its way between the fenders of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota — he will likely find himself in contention to win the title, as he was in 2010. This time, however, he will be better prepared mentally and strategically to contend.
6. Kevin Harvick Wins: 0
The driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet hasn’t had a lot to brag about this year — but he hasn’t had much to really complain about, either. Usually the first one to ride his crew if they make the smallest of errors, Harvick has achieved his position not so much with poise and audacity, but on reliability and finishing races. A smattering of eight top 10s and three top 5s is decent, but not exactly championship caliber. If Harvick were to have a catastrophic failure in the coming weeks — which would lose him say, 40 points — the impact would be significant, and could potentially drop him out of the top 10 in points. He’s gotten by on a number of eighth- to 14th-place runs, but if he’s to solidify his place in the Chase, the No. 29 operation as a whole needs to step it up on the track, in the pits and in the garage while prepping the car for Sunday.
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
7. Clint Bowyer Wins: 1 (Sonoma)
Not only do you see him every 15 minutes in a 5-Hour Energy or NASCAR.com commercial, you now see him up front, leading and winning races. Bowyer’s move to Michael Waltrip Racing was seen by many as a risky move, albeit one he was essentially forced into after he lost his ride in the No. 33 at RCR (despite winning a Nationwide title in 2008 and qualifying for the Chase three times in six seasons). With former RCR crew chief and competition director Scott Miller making the move to MWR as well, the performance of all involved has risen substantially. With six top 5s and nine top 10s, the occasional win, or at least contention for the win, is no longer an oddity. This, coupled with some veteran leadership from Mark Martin in a part-time arrangement in the No. 55, along with teammate Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 56 group, finds MWR becoming this generation’s — dare I say it? — RCR.
8. Martin Truex Jr. Wins: 0
Martin Truex Jr. is enjoying his best season in Cup competition since his 2007 rookie campaign when he won a race, made the Chase and ended the year 11th in points. Currently sitting in eighth position on the strength of four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes, Truex has been a key cog in the MWR Renaissance of 2012. However, there may be storm clouds on the horizon. Truex’s finishes have begun to waver, his eighth-place run at Kentucky ending a string of three races without a top 10. Now is not the time to mix inconsistency into the equation, particularly with the crapshoot that is a restrictor plate race at Daytona on the docket. While Truex is only 10 points out of fifth in the standings, he’s also less than 20 points from 10th. If he keeps the steady-as-she-goes performance trend and avoids any back-to-back disasters or mechanical maladies, he looks to be a safe bet to make the Chase field for the first time in five years.
9. Tony Stewart Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Fontana)
Towards the bottom of the top 10, we find a pair of drivers on the tail end of making the Chase, but who are arguably the most potent in the field. Tony Stewart has seven top-5 finishes and eight top 10s, but it is how he came to those numbers that are the most telling: two wins, back-to-back second-place runs and three third-place showings. Add in some mechanical woes by way of EFI foul ups, and you have created the crusty Tony of old the last couple of months. Quite possibly the only person in the country who was not cheering the Earnhardt victory in Michigan, Smoke has found that delicate balance of diplomacy and irritability that has guided him to three championships. Streaky performances be damned, he’s in prime position to add a fourth to the mix — half of which would be as an owner/driver, something not seen since The King’s heydays of the 1970s.
10. Brad Keselowski Wins: 3 (Bristol, Talladega, Kentucky)
The one driver barely clinging to top-10 status is also the lynchpin in the Chase scenario. Keselowski has won three races at three diametrically different tracks: Bristol, Talladega and Kentucky. Plate track, short track, intermediate — it doesn’t seem to matter where the Miller Lite Dodge goes, it can be a force to be reckoned with. It would appear that the strategy being employed by the No. 2 team is to focus on wins ahead of all else. Three of his top 5s are victories while the other two barely made it as fifth-place performances. His top 10s are then comprised of a pair of ninth-place finishes, with the rest being mid-teens or worse-than-30th finishes. The only DNF they suffered was post-Tweet at the Daytona 500 in February, and it was about this time last year that Keselowski made the transition from promising driver to leader and motivator following a broken ankle during a testing crash. It remains a mystery why Penske is leaving Dodge to join forces with Ford, what with the modest win totals of the two-car team over the last few seasons. However, it remains committed to its current manufacturer and stands to make some noise for the Mopar faithful if its flagship No. 2 team can avoid any calamities in the coming weeks. Of course, even a tumble out of the top 10 finds Keselowski in the catbird seat, with three-times the wins as anyone from 11th to 20th in the standings.
On the Outside Looking In
To think that Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch would be reduced to relative obscurity in October is nearly unfathomable, especially considering Edwards’ 2011 consistency, Gordon’s seemingly resurrected career with crew chief Alan Gustafson and Busch’s ability to hammer out wins in quick succession. However, all three have missed the Chase before, and they’re nearing the point of no return without some wins. Nine races remain before the Chase for the Championship begins in Chicago, and of the three, only Busch has a 2012 win. Edwards’ and Gordon’s teams have had both bad luck and bad calls that have kept them out of Victory Lane, while the engines supplied to the No. 18 from TRD have been straight up TuRDs, with three straight engine failures conspiring to drop Busch to 12th in points.
Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman all reside within the top 20, and each have one win. Among them, only Kahne has displayed any sort of consistent speed to threaten breaking into the top 10. Even if that happened, it would likely require Keselowski and Stewart to fall out. With The Big Keselowski having three wins and Smoke two, that would also require Logano and Newman to crank out a couple of more wins apiece if they were to qualify — not out of the realm of possibility, but certainly not expected.
Paul Menard, in 13th, will need to repeat last year’s Brickyard 400 triumph to have a shot at taking one of the two open wildcard spots, as he has yet to claim a win this year. Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton are over 100 points out of 10th and have struggled to find the top 10, much less score wins. Marcos Ambrose isn’t in much better shape, though a trip to Watkins Glen may get him back in the wildcard conversation.
No. 1 in our rankings, No. 1 in her heart. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson Lost a shot at the win during the final restart in Kentucky when he picked up trash on his tires. Managed to rebound to sixth after a quick backslide, his 13th top 10 of the season.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Was never a factor for the win at Kentucky, but ran consistently in the top 10 most of the evening before climbing to fourth at race’s end.
3. Matt Kenseth A classic Kenseth performance, he was invisible all Saturday afternoon, but popped into the top 10 after the sun went down and drove to seventh, retaining the points lead.
4. Tony Stewart There’s a sizeable gap between the top 3 and the rest of the field. Smoke was the victim of electrical demons in his ignition system and was most likely cursing NASCAR’s EFI system and that damn KFC commerical the rest of the night.
5. Denny Hamlin Fifth- and third-place runs bookend 34th- and 35th-place showings. When he stays out of the wrecks and the suspension holds up, he’s as good as creamy mac 'n' cheese.
6. Clint Bowyer String of top 10s ended at Kentucky when Bowyer became the victim of Ryan Newman and Joey Logano’s dust-up on the front stretch.
7. Greg Biffle Was a 10th- to 12th-place car until he thought his tire went down late. The pit stop resulted in a 21st-place showing and a drop in the point standings, to fourth.
That ain't beer, kids. (ASP, Inc.)
8. Brad Keselowski Wins at Bristol, Talladega and Kansas prove that this team is capable of winning on any type of track and at any time. Confidence has to be boiling over heading back to the beach.
9. Kasey Kahne A loose wheel cost him a lap early in the going at Kentucky. Kahne soldiered on though, and had an absolute rocketship at the end of the race, when he claimed second.
10. Martin Truex Jr. The 1-to-2-mile intermediate tracks have been where Truex and crew have flexed their NAPA-supported muscle this season. Though not a contender for the win at Kentucky, the eighth-place run sufficed.
11. Jeff Gordon Stop the press: Jeff Gordon did not have any fluky problems on Saturday. The result: fifth-place.
12. Kevin Harvick How Harvick has managed to stay around sixth in the standings is a mystery.
13. Joey Logano Note to Joey: Newman outweighs you by probably 75 pounds. Let it go, man.
14. Kyle Busch Kyle’s game of Duck, Duck, Goose continues with “Engine, Engine, Engine, Shock!”
15. AJ Allmendinger Back-to-back top 10s a good sign as the circuit prepares to enter the second half of the season.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard