Athlon isn't afraid to ask the tough questions facing the sport, nor are we afraid to answer them
Article originally published in 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual
1. Should Junior’s expletive have cost him 25 points and had a potentially significant effect on the Championship?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the most popular driver award and uttered the most popular four-letter word in the process. When Junior had his slip of the tongue at Talladega, NASCAR lowered the boom. That boom was 25 points.
The "No Limits" Girls received entitrely too little coverage last weekend. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Momentum has clearly swung in Smoke’s favor. He’s always been a streaky driver, and now that he’s “on” it may be hard for Carl Edwards to hold him off.
2. Carl Edwards Averaging a 5.6-place finish in the Chase, but Stewart is blowing Cousin Carl’s doors off in the wins department. Still, NASCAR’s points format rewards consistency over winning, so is it advantage: Carl?
3. Matt Kenseth Talladega and Martinsville were considered the tracks that could derail Carl Edwards’ championship hopes. Turns out, they bit Matt.
4. Kevin Harvick It looked as if Harvick was going to pull another miraculous “Where’d he come from?” finish at Texas. However, a two-tire pit call dropped him to 13th, effectively ending his championship hopes.
5. Jimmie Johnson Johnson’s four finishes outside of the top 10 in this season’s Chase are more than in the last three Chases combined. That’s amazing.
6. Kasey Kahne Kahne has only one finish outside the top 15 in the last eight races. Credit the lame-duck driver and the Red Bull Racing team (who may lose their jobs at season’s end) for not throwing in the towel.
7. Brad Keselowski Since Keselowski and the No. 2 turned things around at Indy, they’ve recorded 11 top-12 runs in 15 races, winning twice. Unfortunately, Cinderella’s slipper isn’t going to fit.
8. Jeff Gordon Returns to the track where he won in February. Unfortunately for Gordon, the track has been repaved, reconfigured and has only one good racing groove. He better qualify well.
9. Deny Hamlin Was looking for a fourth consecutive top-10 run, which would have been his best string of finishes this year. Brad Keselowski saw to that, though.
10. Clint Bowyer Would be seventh in the standings had he made the Chase. Woulda, shoulda, coulda, right? It will be interesting to see if he can elevate Michael Waltrip Racing to the next level in 2012.
"You wanna piece of me?!" (ASP, Inc.)
11. Greg Biffle Five straight top-15 showings for Biffle and the boys. Finishing strong matters.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Consecutive seventh-place finishes, the best we’ve seen in a few months out of this bunch.
13. Kurt Busch Parked brother Kyle got more camera time than 30th-place Kurt at Texas.
14. Martin Truex Jr. Bowyer’s teammate-to-be has three stright top 10s. Again, finishing strong matters.
15. Kyle Busch There comes a turning point in every driver’s career. Maybe this was Kyle’s.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman
No article that mentions Martinsville is complete without this bad boy. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards
Talladega and Martinsville were the wild card tracks, and the two Edwards and crew were most apprehensive about. They went into ’Dega with a five-point lead and left Martinsville up eight.
2. Tony Stewart
There is something to be said for a driver winning the championship by going out and actually winning races. That’s what Stewart is doing, with three victories in seven Chase events.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick gained five points on Edwards in the standings at Martinsville, but he’ll need to do better than that over the final three races to catch the 99, much less pass it.
4. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth was the points leader with 40 laps to go in Martinsville. Then it all went south, as a spin bashed his Ford to the point where he’s now 36 back and basically out of title contention.
5. Jimmie Johnson
Credit Johnson for a fine run at Martinsville — only Brian Vickers’ aggression kept him out of Victory Lane — but even sweeping the last three races may not be enough at this point.
6. Brad Keselowski
Like Kenseth, BK’s late spin was costly. The Deuce may have lost up to 12 points in the standings after a solid top 10 went up in tire smoke. The difference between -15 an -27 is massive.
7. Denny Hamlin
Comparable to Edwards’ late-season performance improvement in 2010, Hamlin and the boys have strung together consecutive runs of ninth, eighth and fifth. Another win may be around the corner.
Ed Hardy comes to NASCAR. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
8. Jeff Gordon
It’s been a disappointing Chase for Gordon and the gang thus far. In fact, his third-place run at Martinsville was the best showing he’s had since a fourth in Loudon, five weeks ago.
9. Clint Bowyer
Will Bowyer’s hiring at Michael Waltrip Racing come at the expense of David Reutimann’s full-season effort? It just might ...
10. Kyle Busch
Has been wholly unspectacular throughout the Chase, which begs the question, “Why is he rated so high on this list?” Answer: Because he still has the ability to win on any given weekend.
11. Kasey Kahne
A strong six-race run comes to an end in Martinsville, which has never been a great “Kasey track.”
12. Kurt Busch
Sliding the wrong way since the win at Dover five weeks ago.
13. Jeff Burton
Follows runner-up showing at Talladega with a sixth at Martinsville.
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In lieu of a top-5 finish, it was at least good to hear Junior having fun in Martinsville.
15. Greg Biffle
Averaging a rather pedestrian 13th-place run over the last month.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr.
There’s a reason why Talladega continues to endure and endear itself to NASCAR Nation. Vito Pugliese provides a first-hand account of this past weekend’s racing from the 2.66-mile behemoth.
While some experiments and initiatives in NASCAR have not performed as expected, there are some constants that continue to produce. One of them has been producing for over 40 years: Talladega.
As I have written here and elsewhere quite often, everyone loves nostalgia — going retro is all the rage. From the newest versions of the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang, to the endless ’70s and ’80s remakes that are cranked out of Hollywood like P-51s during WWII, the past is always in style, and for those who fancy old-school NASCAR, it’s hard to beat Talladega — and last weekend’s Good Sam Club 500 was no exception.
Well, at least for the last 25 laps. Even Tony Stewart suggested cutting it down to 40 if most drivers were just going to cruise for the majority of the afternoon. But I digress.
One of the facets of NASCAR that permeated from the 1950s to the 1970s, was that of manufacturer loyalty among fans and racers alike. That aspect became relevant once again on Sunday, as team (and manufacturer) orders were apparently delivered — both internally and externally.
Ford’s Trevor Bayne was in position to help his childhood hero and racing idol, Chevy’s Jeff Gordon, to the finish in the final laps. Gordon’s teammate and BFF drafter, Mark Martin, got mangled with eight laps to go when Gordon, Martin, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano stacked up coming off Turn 2. Bayne committed to Gordon over the radio under caution, but then the partnership dissolved halfway down the backstretch, with Bayne betraying his bumpership, and falling in line with the Ford of quasi-teammate Matt Kenseth.
In this era of two-car tandems that have dictated that a driver work with whomever and whatever goes fastest, it is refreshing to see the element of manufacturer loyalty return. That’s not to say that I was happy to see Gordon get smoked on the white flag lap on what more or less was a lie on Bayne’s part (told to Gordon, who went out of his way to help the youngster during Speedweeks in Daytona). But when I first started following NASCAR intently, a Chevrolet driver working with a Ford driver was something just short of heresy.
Back in the heyday of manufacturer involvement, it was the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega that inspired competition between brands — so much so that Dodge and Ford developed wildly-successful models named after each respective track. In 1969, Dodge released two models specifically to better compete on the fast tracks: the flush-grilled fastback Charger 500, and later the Charger Daytona and Ford’s Torino Talladega.
During the 1990s, the same philosophy was echoed throughout the field. You wouldn’t see Dale Earnhardt drafting with Geoff Bodine in a Ford (OK, bad example), or Bill Elliott’s Ford partnering with Rusty Wallace’s Pontiac. As much cross-pollination as you could expect would be an Oldsmobile or Pontiac working with a Chevy Lumina. The Ford teams were islands unto themselves for the most part — which wasn’t a bad thing a couple of years later when it seemed everyone ran a Ford Thunderbird.
There were also orders of another kind at Talladega, namely Chad Knaus instructing Jimmie Johnson to ding up the rear of his car if he won to avoid any post-race template troubles. Considering the suspensions that were levied to the Michael Waltrip Racing teams for unapproved windshields last weekend, it’s probably for the best that ol’ Five-Time got drilled in the door by Andy Lally late in the going. A bit coincidental, considering the winner was Clint Bowyer, whose title hopes were dashed a year ago after having 150 points docked following a win at New Hampshire for what was alleged to be damage suffered by getting a push from a wrecker that caused his car to be out of tolerance.
One couldn’t help but be reminded of the 1985 Winston, when Darrell Waltrip just happened to blow the engine (some would claim the over-sized engine) in his Junior Johnson-prepared Monte Carlo SS immediately after taking the checkered flag.
The racing itself on Sunday was a bit 1980s-ish, as well. Speeds hovering consistently around 200 mph meant that the track, which was the first to honor the stock-car mark, was once again being used for what it was designed. We saw packs break away and catch up, as well as single-file racing, not unlike the days when cars had to lift through the corner as drivers sawed on the wheel — not so much driving as they were keeping their cars from lifting off and trying to feel where the front tires were pointed. Racing at speeds which most aircraft go wheels-up, that big blade on the back has to be a bit comforting, particularly when getting shot head-on into a wall at these speeds.
Reagan Smith’s impact in his black Chevrolet was both sobering and eerily reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash at Daytona in 2001. It was a testament to how far the sport has come safety-wise, as SAFER Barriers, HANS devices and any other acronym that has prevented the unthinkable from happening the last decade is one area where waxing poetic about open-faced helmets, smock dipped in some sort of concoction which was allegedly fire retardant (though most likely just Epsom salt) falls flat on its exposed face. It is nothing but dumb luck or divine intervention that prevented more drivers from dying during the 210-plus mph era of the late ’70s and mid- ’80s.
What is unique about Talladega is that it was conceived during an era when all of the tracks were different; each with its own idiosyncrasies. It’s kind of like NASCAR itself. What other track was said to have been built on a Native American burial ground, is allegedly cursed, had a driver boycott before its first race and, even though cars nearly ended up in the stands twice in virtually the same spot, routinely witnesses fans buying tickets to sit up front, right where said cars tore into fencing?
More than that, the track is as big a part of the racing story as the title bout it was hosting.
The wildcard of the Chase pulled a fast one on the front-runners and their title hopes. Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick all took huge hits, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all but had their Wonka tickets punched. In the end, it wasn’t about fuel mileage or a 30-car junkyard — it came down to two teammates with no championship implications whatsoever. And no one seemed to care one way or another that no Chasers were contending for the win.
We’ve since grown accustomed to seeing wide swathes of open seating, some tracks going so far as to widen the seats to help fill up the empty spaces where fans used to shoehorn in, or going so far as to remove entire sections of grandstands. Not so in Eastaboga, Alabama.
This go ’round I took to the seats rather than the media center. Sure, I had my Garage Pass in hand but decided to watch the race with the fans. And by “the fans,” I mean fans that still have a rabid appreciation for the sport, as every single seat that was available in the Birmingham Tower was filled.
What economic downturn? Those Occupy Wall Street miscreants couldn’t hold down much more than a wet fart if their lives depended on it in comparison. They’ve got nothing on my people (particularly in the hygiene department).
There were more bodies seated, on time and ready to go than there are at my church on most Sundays. Couple that with a flyover by a pair of F-22 Raptors (including a super slo-mo pass over the backstretch that looked like it was going about 100 mph courtesy of thrust vectoring) and a Kenworth pulling a massive American flag. There was a bit of relief amongst the chaos that is Talladega that at least here, things still make sense.
It’s not often you see and feel what racing was like 15 or 20 years ago — literally. A fat, sweaty stranger mere inches from you is gross, but once the race starts and everybody is standing, there actually is a bit more room. And if you knock back a few pops, your own breath and BAC trumps anyone else’s BO. Sure, those seats might be metal and some are a bit rusty, but every one of them was filled, and it was elbow-to-elbow. And no one seemed to mind. (A side note: Talladega is in the process of redoing the seating, expanding each seat to 22” so feel free to go nuts this holiday season and embrace your inner Adam Richman.)
There is a reason why even in the midst of yet another recession, where people are careful where and how they spend what little discretionary income they have right before Thanksgiving and Christmas, that many still make time for Talladega. With all of the talk of fuel-mileage races dictating a championship and conspiring to ruin racing, Sunday was an old-fashioned superspeedway race, where two of the fastest cars ran up front all day, pulled away from the pack at the end and settled it amongst themselves.
It’s not that hard to see why people keep showing up to Talladega in droves as they always have and why its two dates continue to be the most popular of the year:
From the Spotter's Stand
Kevin Harvick rained on Junior Nation's parade at Martinsville in April, when he slid by Dale Earnhardt Jr. wqith four laps remaining to earn his first Martinsville Grandfather clock.
Kyle Busch led a race-high 151 laps before Earnhardt brought back images of his legendary father, executing a textbook “bump 'n' run” to get by his arch-rival. However, 17 laps later Harvick made the race-winning pass — his first of two over Earnhardt this year for the win with less than five to go.
Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have combined to win 14 of the last 17 races at the shortest track on the Cup circuit — with only Kevin Harvick (2011), Tony Stewart (April 2006) and Rusty Wallace (April 2004) breaking the trio’s impressive streak.
Last year, Hamlin was the Mayor of Martinsville, leading 172 laps in March, but needing a late charge on a green-white-checkered restart to beat runner-up Joey Logano and seven-time winner Gordon (92 laps led).
Hamlin won his third straight and fourth in six runs at Martinsville during the return trip in October, edging out runner-up and two-time winner Mark Martin and taking the first of his two checkers in the Chase.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Brakes, brakes, brakes. Being able to get good forward bite off the corner allows for passing and plenty of speed in the straightaways, then braking hard twice a lap at the entrance to Turns 1 and 3 takes its toll. It’s not nearly as fast as Bristol, but we have as much contact at Martinsville as we do at Bristol. There aren’t as many incidents because the pace is slower. The faster you run, the more you’re on the edge of grip. When you lose grip, you make more contact. It’s inevitable, but a driver has to keep cool. The ones who don’t like to be touched don’t do well here.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Prior to a 12th in April, Denny Hamlin had averaged a 2.4-place finish in his last nine Martinsville starts. Pretty Solid Pick: Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are the other two you have to keep an eye on. Good Sleeper Pick: This is one of Junior’s favorites, made evident by his 12 top 10s in 23 starts. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Quite a few, led by Greg Biffle and David Reutimann. Insider Tip: It’s best to stay with the Big Three of Hamlin, Johnson and Gordon.
Classic Moments at Martinsville Speedway
The media in attendance for the 1960 Virginia 500 are treated to a luxury unheard of in the formative years of stock car racing: An air-conditioned press box — a NASCAR first.
It’s another NASCAR first as well, as Richard Petty wins his first of a series-best 15 races at Martinsville Speedway.
Petty leads laps 316 through 333, but relinquishes the lead to Bobby Johns, who takes over for the next 48 laps until he suffers a rear-end failure.
Jimmy Massey assumes the lead but is overtaken by Petty one lap later. The King leads the final 116 circuits to capture his second career Grand National win. Petty wins three races in the 1960 campaign and finishes second in the standings. It is another four years until he breaks through for his first title.
"Chad, at this rate I won't need to back into any walls if I win." (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards No one driver wins the Chase at Talladega, but many lose it. Edwards did neither, which is a good thing for him. Expect top-10 runs from here on out.
2. Matt Kenseth Edwards’ teammate and the 2003 champ, Kenseth, sits just 14 points back in second. Both are good (Texas, Homestead) and weak (Martinsville) at the same tracks.
3. Kevin Harvick At 26 points out, is Harvick done? Probably not, but his chances are on life support. The car his team is bringing to Martinsville this weekend has two wins in six starts — including at Martinsville in April.
4. Brad Keselowski Survives big, bad Talladega, notching the best finish (fourth) among all Chase drivers. At 18 points back in the title hunt, you have to like the kid’s chances.
5. Jimmie Johnson Food for thought: The last time Johnson had two straight finishes outside of the top 20 during the Chase, he won the next three races.
6. Tony Stewart Has elbowed his way back into title contention with consecutive runs of eighth and seventh. At fourth in the standings and 19 points out, Smoke may be that final driver with a good look at a title.
7. Kyle Busch Making up 40 points in the standings with four races remaining is unrealistic, and that’s where Kyle and the boys find themselves. Don’t be surprised if the lifted weight propels Busch to a win or two.
"Negative Kyle, we can't find that golden horseshoe back here."
8. Clint Bowyer Four of his six Chase races have resulted in finishes of eighth or better, including, of course, the big win at ’Dega. It may be the last one he sees for a while since MWR isn’t known as a big-win operation.
9. Jeff Gordon Gordon’s 27th at Talladega and the events that conspired to contribute to it may have been frustrating, but say this about him: He seemed to be the only Hendrick car that wanted to go to the front and race.
10. Kasey Kahne Kahne’s average finish in the last six races is 7.1, including four straight runs of sixth or better. It’s a shame everything is coming together for this bunch as the season winds down.
11. Denny Hamlin Back-to-back solid finishes with his favorite stop — Martinsville — up next.
12. Paul Menard Leads all drivers on the circuit with a 10.2-place average finish on the plate tracks in 2011.
13. Greg Biffle Winless thus far in 2011. That’s only happened once to the Biff in eight full-time Cup seasons.
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr. It ain’t getting any prettier, but I get hate mail if he’s not at least ranked in the top 15.
15. Joey Logano The final results (24th) don’t back up the great run Logano had at ’Dega with a torn up car.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr.
And then, there were five. So it seems. Maybe. The one thing that is beyond debate is Clint Bowyer’s continued strength on NASCAR’s plate tracks. Bowyer made a last-lap pass of teammate Jeff Burton in the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday to earn his first win of the 2011.
From the Spotter’s Stand
Brian France is doubling down on Kansas Speedway, bringing a second Cup race to the 1.5-mile tri-oval in Kansas City, an annual late September or early October stop since 2001. And with a sparkling new casino, the hope by NASCAR and its track operating wing, International Speedway Corp., is that Kansas will draw in more fans despite its cookie-cutter configuration and penchant for aero-racing.
In June, Bard Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe rolled the dice in a high-stakes game of fuel strategy and hit the jackpot, outlasting Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
Keselowski’s Penske Racing teammate, Kurt Busch, led a race-high 152 laps after starting on the pole. However, the fuel mileage wasn’t as kind to the Las Vegas native, and he slid to ninth at the finish.
Last year, Greg Biffle made winning at Kansas look like easy money, taking the checkers by 7.638 seconds ahead of 2008 winner Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and two-timer (2006, ’09) Tony Stewart. In his past four stops in K.C., Biffle has two wins and a pair of thirds.
Crew Chief’s Take
“As with many of the circuit’s 1.5- and 2-mile ovals, bump stops on the shocks play an important role at Kansas. A team must find an optimal setting for the bump stops or the car will be negatively affected by being too low — which drags the splitter and affects handling — or too high — which gets air under the car and results in a lack of front-end downforce. Kansas is a simple track, which means there are probably more teams that can win there than at most places.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Kurt Busch sat on the pole and led 152 laps before fuel mileage bit him to the tune of a ninth-place finish. Pretty Solid Pick: If Greg Biffle has a win in him this season, this is where he’ll get it. Good Sleeper Pick: If it comes down to fuel mileage, Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't a bad pick. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not that he’d be on your squad anyway, but Joey Logano averages a 26.8-place finish here. Insider Tip: Brad Keselowski won the June race here on fuel mileage. It’ll likely come down to that again.
Classic Moments at Kansas
Kansas Speedway has been the site of many oddball finishes, and with its traditional date in the Chase, it’s often had championship ramifications. The 2006 Banquet 400 is no different.
Jimmie Johnson has led 105 laps on the day and leads late when fuel mileage comes into play. Johnson surrenders the lead with four laps remaining to Tony Stewart, who runs out of gas on the backstretch of the final lap. However, with pit stops ongoing, Stewart has a nearly 20-second lead over Casey Mears and coasts the final half-lap to win with an empty fuel cell.
Johnson’s title hopes appear to take a fatal hit when he is caught speeding on pit road while coming in for a splash of gas and two tires. His 14th-place finish finds him 165 points out of the Chase lead. He rebounds, though, averaging a third-place finish over the final six races to win his first Cup.
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.