Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Kobalt Tools 400 in Las Vegas
Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff. (ASP, Inc.)
If Matt Kenseth were a betting man, he’d have bought a Play 4 ticket on the way out of Las Vegas.
The numbers? 3-3-3-3.
Kenseth, in the third race of the 2013 season, became career Sprint Cup driver number three to win a race on his birthday (joining Cale Yarborough and Kyle Busch). The new, third member of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable also has more career victories in Vegas (along with Auto Club Speedway) than any other track on the circuit: Three.
Too bad Richard Childress isn’t willing to part with that number, huh? To me, the number could also apply to something else we’re getting a sense of: the list of early title favorites. Has Kenseth snuck into that picture? Let’s find out while going “Through the Gears” after a weekend out in Sin City…
FIRST GEAR: The title is shaping up to be a Johnson-Keselowski affair
One driver was third, the other sixth. Neither was a factor for the win late at Vegas although they combined to lead a total of 78 laps. But a quick look at the first three races shows that Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, the same two men who battled down the stretch for the 2012 Cup Series title, are in cruise control up front.
Leading the points is the No. 48 team, with top-10 starting spots in every event, an average finish of 3.0 and a Daytona 500 trophy on the shelf. Crew chief Chad Knaus, who was lauded for being ahead of the curve with NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow chassis, was expected to do the same with the Gen-6. That’s what you expect from the best mechanic in the sport, and to his credit, Knaus has delivered.
Sitting five points behind Hendrick’s top team is Keselowski, who has battled through far more adversity but still has the same number of top-10 results (three-for-three). Considering the offseason changeover (new manufacturer, new teammate, new engines) the speed and versatility Penske Racing’s top team has shown is just as impressive. It’s driver’s confidence as reigning champ is palpable, retaining his outspoken nature while continuing a role as an emerging leader within the sport. While Denny Hamlin’s “slap on the wrist” from NASCAR caused him to be a bit off on Sunday, finishing 15th, Keselowski has had no such detours after his talking-to at Daytona. That’s what separates the good from the great: an ability to tune out distractions and fight through the pressure.
The Gen-6 car was supposed to provide a big opportunity for the other teams to catch up to this duo. But the standings three races in aren’t an indictment on those changes; instead, it’s a showcase of how this rivalry is elevating both drivers to remain head and shoulders above everyone else. Too bad we have to wait until the Chase in September for them to push down on the accelerator for good.
SECOND GEAR: Meanwhile, Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing sit as sleepers
No question, anyone with a brain and a pulse expected Kenseth to outpace Joey Logano in Joe Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota. But even the most optimistic of souls has to raise an eyebrow on what this new combination is doing. Three races in, Kenseth is one-half way towards the total number of victories that car has had in the past four years. His 128 laps led, a NASCAR best, is well on its way to eclipsing Logano’s four-year total of 337 in a matter of several weeks. If not for a faulty engine in the waning laps of the Daytona 500 this team could be out in front of everyone — a point that’s not been lost on its pilot.
“All three races we had a car, if everything would have went right, that we could have won,” he said Sunday night. “And it feels pretty awesome to have this win here.”
Kenseth’s emotions during and after Sunday’s victory made it clear he’s a man on a mission to prove the choice to leave Roush Fenway was the right one. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff has worked out well; his pit strategy of a fuel-only stop was the winning call.
So can JGR catch the top two? The beauty of it is that there is six months left in the regular season to fine-tune on intermediates. But unlike Kenseth, the rest of the stable has to stop shooting itself in the foot. Case in point: Kyle Busch’s speeding penalty, which knocked him out of the top spot at Vegas and threatened to derail his day. Denny Hamlin, for all the fan support he has surrounding the Gen-6 criticism, caused a huge distraction by reacting emotionally to the situation. Add in the motor problems and that’s why this Toyota trio remains a step below for the time being. But the speed is there.
Junior Nation: Loud and ... green. (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Earnhardt’s loss could be Gordon’s gain
This theme of “three” brings up the ghost of the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s late father, who is likely smiling down on how well his boy is handling the new Gen-6. Sitting third in points and joining Johnson and Keselowski as the only drivers with three top-10 results, the No. 88 car has shown a habit of improving consistently throughout an event. Part of that has to be the benefits of top equipment — after all, this team works in the same shop as Knaus and Johnson.
But for Earnhardt, there’s more at play. From the first day I arrived at Daytona, you couldn’t help but notice Earnhardt’s enthusiasm for 2013. It’s clear the Gen-6 chassis for him was considered a prime opportunity for redemption; he’s perhaps the only one unconditionally harping on its success every time the camera lights go on (or off). I remember, in particular, an unsolicited rant in the media center about how great the season would be after this year’s Daytona 500. It was something you would never have heard from him even two years ago, when crew chief Steve Letarte was just the last-ditch experiment and a slumping driver had lost his confidence. Now, Earnhardt has begun to believe, pushing forward mentally in a sport where the smallest edge can make the biggest difference.
Compare that to Jeff Gordon, whose success with the Gen-5 (a record 30 top-10 finishes in 2007, the first year it was introduced) was expected to repeat itself. Instead, three races in the fourth member of the Hendrick stable looks a level very much below his mates. What’s troubling here is the opposite of Earnhardt: Gordon goes backwards the second the green flag drops. His average start is 5.7, one of NASCAR’s best, yet the difference between those spots and where he finishes is a disappointing -37. He and Gustafson aren’t on the same page with adjustments, and that needs to change before it’s too deep a hole from which to recover.
FOURTH GEAR: The real Gen-6 grade: Incomplete, no matter how much NASCAR tries to push the issue
The official statistics say 22 lead changes, an increase over 2012. And the loop data for Vegas had 2,342 green-flag passes, the highest number in seven years. But despite the drivers trumpeting praise, seemingly as a result of Hamlin’s $25,000 fine for even suggesting the Gen-6 still needs some work, Sunday’s race was far from an A-plus. It wasn’t bad; clearly, the end-of-race battle alone with Kenseth and Kahne was worth the price of admission. But it still seems, as the cars settle in after a restart, passing 20 to 30 laps into a run is a risk drivers seem afraid to take.
One issue that might help continues to be the tires. Goodyear’s latest compound, while safe on Sunday, was so rock hard speeds didn’t fall off quickly enough. Considering Vegas’ surface is one of the more abrasive, there was a missed opportunity for a more “Atlanta” or “Rockingham” style race where that type of management came into play.
Instead, what we were left with was a race that had a few stops and starts but wasn’t the A++ version NASCAR covets. And a simple point in the wake of the Hamlin discipline remains: if things were so peachy with this new Gen-6, making everyone from fans to television partners happy, why feel the need to even control perception? Stepping in, managing a comment mostly forgotten gives the impression there’s something wrong even if those concerns are overblown.
The odd makers have spoken — and Vito Pugliese piles on
Photo by ASP, Inc.
As will be pointed out ad nauseam on FOX this weekend, Las Vegas is the home to gambling, betting, taking chances and all sorts of other illicit activities. So if you want to dial a cliché, cue up NASCAR’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. To honor this yearly tradition, the Vegas odds makers have beaten everybody to the punch and are already taking bets on who will win the race this Sunday.
Below is how things are shaping up according to the LVH Superbook. If you happen to be going this weekend or have buddy at a bachelor party on site (or still have access to some clandestine off-shore gambling sites) here are the top-10 drivers who stand a shot at making you some cash. Assuming nobody’s right front tire blows out.
JIMMIE JOHNSON 5-1
So far in 2013, Johnson has finished first and second — and he was whining about the latter result — so you know he’s going to be loaded for bear. The Hendrick camp always comes correct when there’s a new car, plus his sponsor is on the walls this weekend. Remember when Charlotte was Lowe’s Motor Speedway and he’d win everything in sight? This could be the second coming of this for JJ and company this weekend at a track where they’ve won four times in only 11 starts.
KYLE BUSCH 8-1
It has been an inauspicious start to 2013 for Kyle Busch, who blew an engine at Daytona and cracked the nose at Phoenix. He dominated the Nationwide race last Saturday in his Monster Energy car, but the odds makers are only concerned about what happens on Sunday. Las Vegas is Busch’s hometown, so it is the one track on the circuit where he won’t be showered with the kind of boos that are typically reserved for third world dictators once they’ve passed. Yah, hear that Hugo?! As high as Rowdy is on the list, he may find a rough go of it this weekend. Kyle does have a pair of poles and a win here back in 2009, but his last three finishes have been 23rd, 38th and 15th.
BRAD KESELOWSKI 8-1
Brad Keselowski is making great strides to project the persona of a Sprint Cup champion. His brutal honesty has gotten him in some hot water with NASCAR, but I seem to remember The Intimidator making a few pointed comments here and there that ended up helping the sport, as well. In 2013, Keselowski has had to work with a new car, a new manufacturer, his fourth teammate in two years and a new engine shop. No matter – a pair of fourth-place finishes have been the result, with Daytona being a constant battle with garbage bag bodywork. The Keselowski/Paul Wolfe combo have once again put this team on their collective back. You saw his championship interview at Homestead, so you know he likes to party. The Blue Deuce will be ready for Vegas.
MATT KENSETH 8-1
Matt Kenseth has shown muscle early in his move from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing. Two races in, and the No. 20 is running as it did in the Tony Stewart days. Kenseth had what may have been the strongest car in Daytona (at least the strongest car left) before it fell out with engine failure. He was near the front most of the day in Phoenix, as well. He and crew chief Jason Ratcliff are still working to get on the same page as far as adjustments and late-race decisions, but that is part of a process that takes time to perfect. Kenseth has won twice at LVMS, but back in the, uh, Generation 4 cars, though he did win a pole as recently as 2011. The understated Kenseth has made his bones in recent years on superspeedways, but he’s still a 1.5-miler at heart.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
CARL EDWARDS 9-1
After he crashed out of the Daytona 500, wiping out his fourth car of Speedweeks, Edwards declared that, “We’re just going to go to Phoenix and win.” He did just that, snapping a 70-race winless streak and showing Jay Glazer how to do a backflip without knocking yourself silly. Roush cars always run well at Las Vegas, having won seven of the 15 Cup races. Edwards snatched one away from Tony Stewart here in 2011, which coincidentally was the last race he had won before the Phoenix performance. Might we be seeing the resurgence of Edwards as a Sprint Cup contender? Vegas will be telling.
KASEY KAHNE 9-1
This season was supposed to be the year that Kasey Kahne went on a tear in his now-familiar Hendrick surroundings. So far, that tear has been more of a tear (i.e., the kind that run down your face when you are overwhelmed with unfathomable sorrow). Kahne was turned early at Daytona, and after a front row qualifying effort in Phoenix, the No. 5 faded to a 19th-place finish. The season is young, and so is Kahne, and girls still think he’s dreamy. The Beiber haircut is a bit disconcerting, but No. 5 is about to come alive as it did in 2009 and challenge for the championship. Half of Kahne’s 14 career wins have come on banked tracks 1.5 miles or larger (Charlotte, Texas, Michigan and California). Las Vegas fits that bill. So, there you go girls: he has a shot at winning this weekend. Just don’t try to claw at Miss Sprint Cup if she’s smiling at him in Victory Lane. That’s her job.
DENNY HAMLIN 10-1
Denny Hamlin seems to be regaining the performance, perspective and promise that he showed throughout the 2010 season when he won eight races and came this close to being a titlist. How his $25,000 fine — levied by NASCAR after he supposedly criticized the Gen-6 car — will affect him is a mystery. He was mad as hell during Thursday’s test session, which could serve him well. However, what he really needs are some wins to help set things off. That last lap banzai pass attempt on Jimmie Johnson missed by only about six inches at PIR, but his record of late in Vegas may come up even shorter: 20th, seventh, 19th and 22nd isn’t an encouraging stat-line.
TONY STEWART 12-1
Tony Stewart shows up to win in Las Vegas, particularly after becoming an owner, with finishes of seventh, second and first in the last three trips. The second-place run would have been a win, but miscommunication during a pit stop after leading 163 laps was his undoing. Stewart needs a rebound performance, especially after the crushing disappointment that was his Daytona 500. Stewart’s teammate has been getting most of the attention lately — not that that’s a bad thing — as has talk of Kevin Harvick coming on board at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. No matter. A few good finishes (and possibly a win this weekend) to follow up last season’s Vegas triumph will have Smoke catching fire en route to a possible fourth championship. How’s that for bad clichés?
JEFF GORDON 12-1
Gordon is in a similar situation as Stewart. A multiple-time champion who had bad luck at Daytona with rising water temps and falling water pressure had him falling back at the end after leading 31 laps. A top-10 run at Phoenix was steady, but there’s been nothing remarkable thus far. His last few years at LVMS have been up and down – sixth, third, 36th and 12th in the last four visits. Gordon has one win here (2001) but his most vivid Vegas memory was a last lap crash in ’08 that ripped the radiator and front end off the car. Hopefully, he doesn’t put the new Gen-6 car to the test this weekend in a similar fashion.
DALE EARNHARDT JR 12-1
This year looks to be picking up where 2012 left off for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Before he got a concussion at Talladega, that is. Second in points through two races with a pair of top 5s, Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte look to be killing ’em with consistency again. His recent record in Vegas is OK – 10th, 16th, eighth and 10th. At the very least, he’ll net a top-10 run, but wins are all that matter for the most part. If you’re picking him for a top-three run, he’s still a solid pick, as the Hendrick cars typically adapt quicker to car changes. And this one is supposed to drive more like the Generation 4 car, which Junior drove to 17 wins.
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Las Vegas so you don't have to.
Tony Stewart took checkers in Vegas last year. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season rolls on to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering up his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes—A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Las Vegas, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag (or at least finishing toward the front):
Won last year’s race after finishing second there the year before. Has led 290 of 534 laps (54.3 percent) run in the last two races at Las Vegas.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Has the highest driver rating (110.9) in the last eight races at Las Vegas. Also has the highest average finish of 9.4 during that span. Has a victory and a runner-up finish in last five starts but placed 16th or worse in the other three starts in that stretch.
3. Clint Bowyer
Has finished eight or better in three of the last four Las Vegas races. Also has qualified in the top four in three of the last four races on 1.5-mile tracks (same size as Las Vegas).
4. Jeff Gordon
Has run a series-high 84 percent of his laps in the top 15 in the last eight races at Las Vegas. Also has led the most laps (370) during that time, among current drivers.
5. Kevin Harvick
Has two top-five finishes in his last five Las Vegas races and has led 15 laps during that stretch.
6. Kasey Kahne
Has three poles in Vegas, including last year, but only finished 19th in the race.
7. Matt Kenseth
Won the pole in Vegas in 2011, but has one top-10 finish in last five starts here.
8. Denny Hamlin
Has never started better than 16th at Las Vegas. Has one top-10 in his last four starts there, a seventh in 2011. Has never led a lap in a Cup car at Vegas.
9. Brad Keselowski
Has never finished better than 26th in four career starts at Las Vegas. Best starting position in that time is a 13th in 2009. Also has led only one lap there.
Kyle Busch is in need of a solid finish. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch
Has started no worse than fifth in the last five races at his hometown track, but has only one top-10 finish, a win in 2009, during that stretch. Does have eight top-10 finishes in the last nine races on 1.5-mile tracks in the series.
2. Carl Edwards
Phoenix winner has finished fifth and first in his last two starts at Las Vegas.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has started in the top four twice in the last three years at Vegas and has four top-10 finishes in last five races here. Started fourth and finished 10th last year, leading 70 laps.
4. Greg Biffle
Has four top-10s in last five Las Vegas races, including a third last year, and has led 57 laps during that stretch. He’s also been running at the finish a series-high 38 consecutive races.
5. Ryan Newman
Has two consecutive top-five finishes at Las Vegas.
6. Mark Martin
Has one top-10 in last four Las Vegas races.
7. Kurt Busch
Scored two top-10 finishes in the four races on 1.5-mile tracks he ran with Furniture Row Racing at the end of last season.
8. Jamie McMurray
Finished eighth at Las Vegas last year, the second time in the last four races here he scored a top-10 finish.
9. Paul Menard
Finished 11th or better in two of the last three races on 1.5-mile tracks last season, including a third at Kansas. Placed seventh at Las Vegas last year.
10. Joey Logano
Has one top-10 in four career starts at Las Vegas.
11. Juan Pablo Montoya
Placed third at Las Vegas in 2011 but finished 25th here last year.
12. Marcos Ambrose
Has never finished worse than 20th in four starts at Las Vegas, placing 13th, fourth, 14th and 20th.
13. Martin Truex Jr.
Has one top-10 finish in seven career starts at Las Vegas.
14. Jeff Burton
Did not have a top-10 finish in any of the 11 Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks last season (best finish on such tracks was a 12th at Atlanta).
15. Bobby Labonte
Has finished 26th, 24th and 38th in last three Las Vegas races.
16. Aric Almirola
Has never finished better than 24th in a Cup car at Las Vegas in four starts.
1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
One of 12 drivers to have completed every lap in the first two races of the season.
2. Austin Dillon
Making Cup debut at Las Vegas. Finished seventh in Nationwide race here last year. Won a truck race at the track in 2010.
3. Casey Mears
Has a best finish of 13th in last five races at Las Vegas.
4. Danica Patrick
Making Cup debut at the track but has three Nationwide races here with finishes of 12th, fourth and 36th.
5. David Ragan
Finished seventh at Las Vegas in 2008, only time in six starts here he’s placed in the top 20.
6. David Stremme
Best finish at track is an 18th, which came in 2009
7. Dave Blaney
Finished no better than 29th in last three starts here.
8. Travis Kvapil
Has not finished better than 24th in last three Las Vegas starts.
9. David Gilliland
Has not finished better than 30th in last three Las Vegas starts.
10. David Reutimann
Finished 31st here last year. Best finish at track was a fourth in 2009.
11. Scott Speed
Finished 22nd at Las Vegas in 2010, last time he raced Cup here.
12. JJ Yeley
Failed to finish the last two races at Las Vegas.
13. Ken Schrader
Has not had a top-20 at Las Vegas since 2000.
14. Michael McDowell
Has never finished better than 38th in three career starts at track.
15. Mike Bliss
Finished 39th in 2010 in last start at the track.
16. Josh Wise
Finished 40th here last year in only Cup start at track.
17. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish in each of his last five starts here.
Honestly, Carl Edwards hasn't been that bad. (ASP, Inc.)
The Gen-6 car for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, after a two-race introduction, appears to be a work in progress. Passing last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway was at an all-time low for its current configuration (1,213 green-flag passes, down from 1,995 in the 2012 race) and pit stop speed decided the race for a driver who hadn’t seen Victory Lane in almost two calendar years.
This weekend’s race at speedy intermediate Las Vegas Motor Speedway is expected to provide a jump in on-track excitement. While I can’t possibly guarantee a more enticing product, there are some intriguing story lines within the numbers this week that should pique your interest and they involve a bevy of fan-favorite drivers. So that’s some excitement there, right?
12.8 and 84.29 percent During the Carl Edwards 70-race winless streak, the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team averaged a 12.8-place showing and finished in the top half of fields 84.29 percent of the time.
Those numbers aren’t awful. Despite not winning, Edwards and team were, for most intents and purposes, admirable across that two-year winless stretch. The perceived slump is just that; any team in the Cup Series would welcome the finishing average and that high of a relevance mark (finishes in the top half of fields encapsulates a team’s ability to avoid mistakes). The No. 99 team was never a downtrodden unit. It just didn’t win for an extended period of time. The last place Edwards won at prior to Phoenix? Funny you should ask …
6.750 With two Vegas wins in the last five races, Edwards leads the series in track-specific PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating) during that time frame.
The most recent winner in the Cup Series just happens to be a stud on the Vegas 1.5-mile quad-oval track. His performance has been feast with a little bit of famine; outside of his two victories at LVMS in the CoT era, he has finished fifth (last year), 12th and 17th. His winning past doesn’t make him a lock for the victory this weekend, but with the recent headlines, he’ll be one of a handful of drivers in the spotlight.
Does Kyle Busch have something figured out? (ASP, Inc.)
+54 Kyle Busch’s combined pass differential in the Cup Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series races last weekend at Phoenix was a plus-54.
By virtue of a bad pit stop in the Nationwide Series race and a pre-race motor change in the Cup Series race, Busch was given the task of having to navigate through the field from a low-ranking position. The plus-26 differential — he made 26 more green-flag passes than the amount of times he got passed — resulted in his first Nationwide win since 2011; however, his march on Sunday had a different result. His plus-28 differential was one of the afternoon’s best on a day in which passing came at a premium — it was down over 39 percent from last year’s race — but his early-race spin placed him off the lead lap. Still, if passing in the Gen-6 is an elusive trait, Busch has demonstrated that he might be one of the few that is able to positively maneuver in traffic.
+56.3 percentDale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team have been stalwarts in the final 10 percent of races, improving their running positions by 56.3 percent.
That plus-56.3 percent position retainment difference is helped by his 12th-to-second run in the waning laps at Daytona, but Earnhardt, crew chief Steve Letarte and team were also factors at Phoenix — where they finished fifth — a track previously unkind to them during the CoT era. Their 3.5-place average finish through the first two races this season places them second in the current Cup Series standings.
290 Across two races and 534 total laps in the last two Las Vegas races, Tony Stewart has led a combined 290 laps.
That’s a 54.3 percent take, which is dominant to say the least. These performances resulted in finishes of second and first in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Through the last five races in Vegas, which includes a last-place finish in 2008, he ranks second to Carl Edwards in track-specific PEER. Fans of Smoke can expect a concerted charge for the win on a track that he’s averaged a 3.3-palce finish the last three years, especially considering he and the No. 14 team are currently rank 23rd in the point standings.
-0.750 Las Vegas native Kurt Busch’s Las Vegas-specific PEER is -0.750, which ranks 45 out of 49 drivers with at least two starts in the last five seasons.
This isn’t the kind of homecoming Busch would prefer. He finished ninth behind the wheel of a Penske Racing entry in 2011, but beyond that, his showings have been dismal. Finishes of 38th (DNF), 23rd, 35th (after starting on the pole) and 35th (DNF) constitute the norm for him during the CoT era. Additionally, he’s only led briefly; he has paced the field for a total of two laps in that five-race sample size.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 from Phoenix.
Track position was key in Phoenix. (ASP, Inc.)
In the midst of a near two-year winless skid on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, Carl Edwards, perhaps more than any driver, needed a confidence boost. And after winning the Subway Fresh Fit 500 — in only his second start with crew chief Jimmy Fennig — that’s exactly what the Missouri native received at Phoenix International Raceway.
After the No. 99 team wrecked five cars during a devastating two months at Daytona — perhaps Roush Fenway Racing’s most expensive Speedweeks ever — Edwards rebounded big at Phoenix. Ending a 70-race winless streak puts him in perfect early-season position to make the Chase — a feat he failed to accomplish in 2012. But besides that stat-busting, feel-good ending, did NASCAR have anything else to hang its hat on with the Gen-6 chassis in its first competitive visit away from a plate track?
Whether they made the grade on an unrestricted track starts us “Through the Gears” on stock car competition out in the desert…
First Gear: Gen-6 + Goodyear + Phoenix = Needs Improvement
All you needed to know about the tires at Phoenix came from a mid-race pit stop. Mark Martin, who had been leading along with Tony Stewart, took four tires while most everyone else took two. That left both sitting mid-pack, hoping fresh rubber would lead to better speed in the long run.
It didn’t. With passing at a premium, Stewart claimed his car arguably handled worse as both men were stuck in neutral, near the back half of the top 20. Under the right scenarios, each would have had top-5 cars but were handicapped by the horror of the words that continue to plague NASCAR racing: track position.
Track position means you can turn off the television when Carl Edwards wins a race off pit road with 70-something laps remaining. Track position racing means you can see two cars, running nose-to-tail in a battle for position, never get side-by-side. It means a race gets won by a call a crew chief makes in his head, which is fun for engineering students but harder to translate into a three-hour, on-air television broadcast. There’s a reason they don’t televise chess on FOX, after all.
So what was the problem at Phoenix? New pavement coupled with Goodyear tires that just never seemed to wear out proved a poor combination. Indeed, it was a feast-or-famine type of day; either your tires held up, leaving you holding position or excessive brake heat, due to ill-handling equipment, melted a bead and found you in the outside wall. The Stewart-Haas Racing cars of Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman, among others, had spectacular tire failures that ended their days early.
Having little-to-no tire wear makes things tough enough — drivers are stuck at the same speed, making the old racing adage of preserving your equipment virtually meaningless. But the post-race quote that raised my eyebrows came from (who else?) reigning Cup champ Brad Keselowski, who ran fourth.
“I think these cars probably drive easier than any race car I’ve ever driven in my life by themselves,” he said. “And probably the hardest to drive of any race car I’ve ever driven in traffic.”
Uh-oh. Trouble in traffic? Isn’t that what killed the Car of Tomorrow on intermediate tracks? We better not see the same type of concern next week, at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, or the single-file phenomenon that turned intermediate racing into a day at the library will be very much front and center.
“I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars,” added third-place Denny Hamlin. “Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up.”
Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
Second Gear: Ford’s front man is relevant again
Carl Edwards, after losing the 2011 title in a tiebreaker, was handsomely rewarded by Ford with a new contract that made him the manufacturer’s de facto figurehead. His repayment? Spending 2012 its highest-paid flop. Running a career-worst 15th in points and losing crew chief Bob Osborne to health-related issues midseason, the one-time weekly contender looked lost. That’s why over the offseason, Roush Fenway Racing charged the best head wrench in its shop, Jimmy Fennig, to rebuild confidence from the ground up on the 99 team. Fennig oozes experience, having won the 1988 Daytona 500 with Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and the 2004 championship with the contentious Kurt Busch. There isn’t a mood he can’t fix, a problem he won’t solve and a crisis where he’ll lose his cool.
That played well during the days after Speedweeks, when an abundance of crushed sheet metal could have crippled this team. Instead, it pushed a desire to focus, with Fennig having his crew poised to seize the moment. On average, the pit crew churned out stops consistently a second better than the No. 48 team at Phoenix, including a crucial final one in order to take control of the race.
“Those guys are bad to the bone,” said Edwards, who ended a 70-race victory drought for the second straight time – right here at this track. “This win feels as good or better than any I’ve had.”
His only concern down the stretch came not from the competition, but a possible jump on the restart. Not once, but twice, he built substantial leads before the start-finish line on a restart while the second-place car (Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Jimmie Johnson) looked like they spun tires.
“I felt like Carl didn't follow the restart protocol and was slower than the pace car on his last two restarts,” Johnson claimed. “It gives the leader a huge advantage when that happens. You're supposed to wait until you get between the two lines and take off and this was all going on before it.”
In his defense, Edwards claimed Johnson took a little too long to go on the final restart. My take? Borderline decision — and in sports, “makeup calls” are part of the game. I seem to remember a restart in Richmond last season where Edwards was called for a restart penalty no one seemed to agree with.
He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.
Third Gear: Team Hendrick is tops on the Gen-6 development list
No, Hendrick Motorsports didn’t win Phoenix, but days after a whirlwind media tour wore out Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, his No. 48 team cruised to a runner-up showing. That has him leading the point standings, with shop-mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. tied for second after two strong top-5 results to start the season.
Quick flashback to the last time NASCAR rolled out a new car in 2007. Who was on top? Hendrick’s lead shop, led at the time by Chad Knaus (Johnson’s crew chief) and Jeff Gordon’s then-head wrench, Steve Letarte. Their drivers combined for 16 race wins that year – nearly 50 percent of the schedule – ran 1-2 in the Chase and collected 54 of a possible 72 top-10 finishes.
Flash forward to 2013: the main mechanical minds remain in place, with Earnhardt, not Gordon, now poised to reap the benefits. At this point, the rest of the competition should be very, very scared of what could be coming.
Fourth Gear: Good teams, bad starts, Chase trouble?
People hate to talk about the championship this early, but in a 26-race regular season, with 20 or so drivers realistically in contention to make the Chase by points, slow starts can be an absolute killer. Three drivers, in particular, stand out as being in trouble. “Lame duck” Kevin Harvick, after a 42nd at Daytona, didn’t lead a single lap Sunday at a track where he won last fall. Running 13th, he’s tied for 29th in the standings when on paper, based on a superior Speedweeks, he should be solidly inside the top 5.
Second on the list is Kyle Busch, shoveling a hole in the points for a second straight year. He was a force at Daytona until the engine blew. Then another engine issue at Phoenix left him starting from the rear. Overaggressive in his quest to drive to the front, Busch spun out early, lost a lap and got it back far too late to climb back through the field (23rd). He’s 29 points outside the top 10.
But the driver in arguably the worst position is 2012 surprise Chaser Martin Truex Jr. Two mechanical issues to start the year — first an engine, then a rear axle — leave him a distant 34th in the standings. Carrying a five-year winless streak, the “wild card” qualifying method for the Chase seems a remote possibility for this bunch, meaning they’re already out of mulligans.
Check back each Monday throughout the season as Tom Bowles highlights the four themes of each weekend’s race.
Edwards survives green-white-checker finish in Subway Fresh Fit 500
Carl Edwards celebrates in Victory Lane in Phoenix. (ASP, Inc.)
A new season brings new hope. And no one in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is in more need of hope than Carl Edwards.
On the outside looking in at last season’s Chase for the Championship, Edwards has been mired in a winless skid that dates back to March 6, 2011. And his 2013 season got off to a dubious start in Daytona during Speedweeks, where he was involved in four wrecks (and a fifth in a test session in January), ultimately finishing 33rd in the Daytona 500.
Factor in a new contract that he signed in 2011 with Roush Fenway Racing that made the 33-year-old Ford Racing’s figurehead, as well as being given RFR’s ace crew chief in Jimmy Fennig, and it’s easy to understand how the pressure has mounted on Edwards to perform.
Consider the weight lifted.
Edwards led the final 78 laps in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Sunday, holding off Jimmie Johnson in a green-white-checker finish en route to the win at Phoenix International Raceway.
“It’s tough to go that long without winning, “Edwards said. “And then you come into the season with Jimmy (Fennig) who did so well last year (three wins with Matt Kenseth) … and everybody did so well. We’ve got the fastest pit crew on pit road — and I thought ‘We’ve got to go win some races.’”
Edwards seemingly had the scheduled 312-lap race in hand, cruising nearly a half-second in front of Johnson as the laps wound down. However, a caution for Ken Schrader’s blown tire with three circuits remaining forced the event into NASCAR’s version of an overtime finish. And with fuel an issue, many were unsure if they had enough in the tank to survive the caution laps and a three-lap shootout on Phoenix’s one-mile layout.
The leaders — Edwards, Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — had plenty in reserve, though. When the green waved, Keselowski pushed Edwards, on the inside lane, by Johnson and the driver of the No. 99 did the rest. In clean air, the Missouri native easily held off the pack, winning his 20th career Cup race.
“I was trying to suspend my emotions after that last caution.” Edwards said. “There was two laps to go and I’m saying, ‘Were going to win this race.’ And Brad pushed me — that sealed it right there. I knew that if we were the first ones down into the corner (Turn 1), we’d win this thing.”
Meanwhile, Johnson, Keselowski and Hamlin engaged in a thrilling battle for second. With Johnson and Keselowski door-to-door exiting Turn 2 on the final lap, Hamlin cut across the apron of the track in the dogleg, blocking Keselwoski and pulling even with Johnson. The two came to the finish line trading paint, with Johnson edging out Hamlin. Keselowski was fourth, Earnhardt Jr. fifth.
Johnson, though, was none-too-happy with the deciding restart.
“The leader is not supposed to slow down before he takes off (coming to the green),” Johnson said. “And he (Edwards) did that twice. It put me in a bad position with the 2 (Keselowski) inside of me … and off we went.”
“I was going for anything,” Hamlin said of the finish. “I didn’t have much all day. The pit crew and Darian (Grubb, crew chief) really carried us today getting track position. (It was) just so hard to pass. You’re going to hear it a lot this week that we’ve got a lot of work to do this week to get these cars to pass each other.”
Johnson, with finishes of first and second is off to a hot start this season, but Sunday was about Edwards, his new crew chief, a re-tooled team in only their second race together and NASCAR’s Gen-6 car, which seems to like clean air as much as its predecessor.
Is Phoenix an indication of what lies ahead for the 99 team? Will Edwards be a driver to deal with throughout the season as he was in 2011, or will he fade into obscurity like 2012?
“I think we are (back),” said Edwards. “But next week I think is going to be the true test (for the car) — at the mile-and-a-half (track in Las Vegas).”
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Phoenix so you don't have to.
Jimmie Johnson (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season rolls on to Phoenix International Raceway for the Subway Fresh Fit 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports will be offering up our best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, we'll break down our picks according to its NASCAR driver classes—A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, NASCAR scribe Dustin Long's fantasy predictions for Phoenix, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag (or at least finishing toward the front):
1. Jimmie Johnson — Has the highest driver rating (115.8) in the last eight years at Phoenix. Also has the best average finish among current drivers at 6.7, scoring 12 top-five finishes in 19 starts
2. Kevin Harvick — Has three top-four finishes in his last four Phoenix starts, including a win last fall.
3. Denny Hamlin — Took second in the fall Phoenix race (46 laps led) and won the spring race last year (61 laps led).
4. Jeff Gordon — In the last three spring races at Phoenix, he’s finished eighth, first and second
5. Brad Keselowski — Finished no worse than seventh in his last five races at tracks 1.1 miles and under last season, including a sixth-place finish at Phoenix.
6. Kasey Kahne — Joined Hamlin and Kyle Busch as only drivers to run every lap of last fall’s race in the top 15, finishing fourth.
7. Tony Stewart — Has never gone more than three consecutive races without a top-10 at Phoenix. Last two finishes there are 19th and 22nd.
8. Matt Kenseth — Last four finishes at Phoenix have been 14th, 13th, 34th and 12th. He’s led 52 laps during that time, leading 49 of those laps in November 2011 race before being eliminated in a crash.
9. Clint Bowyer — Has more finishes of 20th or worse (eight) in his career at Phoenix than he has top-10 finishes (five) there.
Kyle Busch (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch — Led 289 of the 631 laps run (45.8 percent) at Phoenix last season.
2. Ryan Newman — Has finished in the top 5 in five of his last six Phoenix races, including a win in 2010.
3. Mark Martin — Has qualified in the top four in two of his last three starts at Phoenix. Also has six top-10 finishes in his last eight runs there.
4. Kurt Busch — Finished eighth at PIR last fall while driving for Furniture Row. It was part of a season-ending, three-race streak of top-10 finishes after joining that team.
5. Carl Edwards — Best news is that Daytona is behind him after he was involved in numerous incidents during Speedweeks. As for Phoenix? It’s been a mixed bag lately with a first and a second along with three finishes outside the top 15 in his last five starts there.
6. Greg Biffle — While he has four top-10 finishes in his last eight Phoenix starts, he has not led a lap in any of those races.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Has one top-10 finish in his last eight races at Phoenix. Has not led a lap in his last seven races there.
8. Jeff Burton — Has more green-flag passes for position (854) than any other active driver in the last eight years at Phoenix. Also had the most green-flag passes for position (76) in last fall’s race there, finishing 13th.
9. Joey Logano — Has had two DNFs in last six Phoenix races but has finished 11th or better in the other four races during that stretch.
10. Martin Truex Jr. — Has one top-10 finish in his last six Phoenix starts.
11. Paul Menard — Two ninth-place finishes in the last three Phoenix races are the only times he’s scored a top-10 finish in 12 career starts there. Also has never led a lap at Phoenix.
12. Bobby Labonte — Ranks second among active drivers in green-flag passes for position (783) in the last eight years at Phoenix.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya — Has finished between 11th and 19th in each of his last five Phoenix races.
14. Marcos Ambrose — Best Phoenix finish in nine races there is an eighth, which he scored in November 2011.
15. Jamie McMurray — Has one top-10 finish in his last eight Phoenix starts.
16. Aric Almirola — Has best finish of 12th in four Phoenix starts and has yet to lead a lap there.
1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Running his first Cup race at Phoenix. Never finished outside the top 10 in six Nationwide races there.
2. Austin Dillon — Also running his first Cup race at Phoenix. Finished sixth and fourth in two Nationwide races there last season.
3. Danica Patrick — Started 37th but finished 17th in November in lone Cup start at Phoenix.
4. AJ Allmendinger — Making season debut. Started in top two in three of his last five races there. Started 15th and finished 18th in spring Phoenix race last year (did not run November race).
5. Casey Mears — Last five finishes at Phoenix: 22nd, 39th, 26th, 18th, 24th.
6. David Ragan — Last five finishes at Phoenix: 33rd, 25th, 33rd, 36th, 25th.
7. Dave Blaney — Has placed between 23rd and 27th in last three Phoenix starts.
8. David Stremme — Making his season debut after Michael Waltrip drove for the team at Daytona. Finished 34th and 29th in Phoenix races last year.
9. David Gilliland — Has not finished better than 22nd in last nine Phoenix starts.
10. Travis Kvapil — Placed 20th at Phoenix last November and led four laps.
11. David Reutimann — Finished 36th and 40th at Phoenix last season.
12. JJ Yeley — Coming off top 10 at Daytona. Has not finished better than 26th in last five Phoenix starts.
13. Ken Schrader — Last start at Phoenix was November 2008 when he finished 27th. Last top-10 finish at Phoenix was in 1997.
14. Scott Speed — Last made Phoenix race in November 2011, finishing 39th.
15. Mike Bliss — Career-best Phoenix finish came in 2005 when he finished 20th.
16. Josh Wise — Finished 37th and 38th at Phoenix last year
17. Joe Nemechek — Has recorded seven consecutive DNFs at Phoenix.
18. Michael McDowell — Announced on Wednesday via Twitter that his Phil Parsons Racing team would not make the trip to Phoenix.
Through the Gears: Five things we learned in the Daytona 500
Lined up single file at Daytona. (ASP, Inc.)
The Great American Race, for the first 180 laps, looked more like the Great American Parade. Cars ran single-file for much of the Daytona 500, content to ride in packs for fear that pulling out for a pass would leave them slower than the street cars the new Gen-6 models are supposed to resemble.
Just don’t expect Jimmie Johnson to complain. “Five-Time” saved his best for last, when the field bunched up inside the last 20 laps and the racing finally resembled some semblance of Sprint Cup competition. Out in front on the white-flag lap, he slammed on the gas pedal when cars wrecked behind him, easily outlasting teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the second Daytona 500 of his one-day Hall of Fame career.
This day, however, will never come close to those lofty standards, a disappointment for NASCAR during a time where plenty of extra eyes were paying attention. Their missed opportunity leads off this week’s “Through The Gears,” bringing you up to speed on the storylines that simmer following the 55th running of the Daytona 500.
First Gear: The Gen-6 needs work at Daytona. Serious, serious work
Daytona is NASCAR’s Super Bowl; but Sunday, the challenge for fans was nothing more than staying awake. That’s problematic. NASCAR’s Gen-6 model, while expected to improve the competition on intermediate tracks, sterilized it on a plate track. Strategy and track position — the latter an ugly word that’s castrated competition elsewhere — made its way into the restrictor plate world most thought it could never touch again. Whether or not NASCAR should be using the plates as a form of parity is a separate discussion. The fact this package caused cars to run single-file, repeatedly, with only 19 lead changes in the first 172 laps (mostly during cautions, restarts and green-flag stops) is a fact not easily ignored.
Some of that, whether NASCAR likes it or not, can be attributed to the plate package it built for the Gen-6 chassis. Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin tweeted the single-file racing was “frustrating,” attributed to the weakness of the inside line. Meanwhile, winner Johnson had another take – that the drivers themselves, sick of wrecking out of so many Russian Roulette, keep-the-pack-together-like superglue races had grown tired of actually trying to compete until the end.
“When we’re running single-file, we’re just trying to get to the finish,” Johnson said. “We’ve all crashed so many times and have torn up so much stuff … I feel for NASCAR, they’re trying to create a very competitive car.”
There’s a point to be made here, along with Saturday’s carnage that left 28 fans injured and many drivers clearly shaken. After 25 years, no matter the rules, these drivers know the name of the game. Did you know there has not been a plate race without a yellow (or several) within the last 20 laps since Daytona’s July 2004 Pepsi 400? Some of the drivers today hadn’t earned their high school diploma when that happened. That means the same type of pattern has been repeated, over and over; no matter what you do, no matter where you are on the track, as long as you stay on the lead lap a caution will bunch up the field with 20 to go (or less). After that … the real racing starts.
Competitors are smart and they adapt. So NASCAR needs to come up with a way where there’s a clear reason to race hard, from start to finish even in the sport’s Super Bowl, otherwise, drivers will just do it when it counts. NASCAR also needs to take a hard look at Johnson’s other point, how side-drafting permanently disabled the inside line Sunday. By all accounts, drivers pulled out of line and got railroaded because the Gen-6 car is so sensitive to that method of manipulation. Perhaps adjusting the spoiler will help? If NASCAR does that, it’s believed some form of tandem drafting would be the result. But as the Nationwide race showed us — before all hell broke loose — some hybrid version of that format isn’t all bad.
What NASCAR can’t have, whether the drivers like it or not, is a parade the likes of which was seen on Sunday — especially when the fan base is used to the heart attack that is Daytona’s last 20 laps. They say people are enthused about a style of racing that closely matches the early 1990s? Check the ratings: 1990 and ’91 were the two lowest-rated 500s since the race received full-time coverage in 1979.
Second Gear: Danica is the real deal … sort of
OK, raise your hand if you thought Danica would be a flop. She wasn’t. In truth, Patrick’s day surpassed most peoples’ expectations, becoming the first woman to lead a lap in the Great American Race and following it up with the best ever finish (eighth).
More importantly, Patrick remained consistent, running in the top 10 for the duration in a performance that she described perfectly: “steady.” If not for making a rookie mistake, in failing to follow Earnhardt with one lap left, she may have been on the podium.
“I definitely was a little uncertain how I was going to be able to do it pass for the win),” she said. “I think Dale did a nice job and I think he taught me something.”
What she needs to learn — much quicker — is how to get off pit road. At tracks where she won’t make track position back, like the intermediates, those mistakes could destroy a solid run. I do expect more Danica-mania to develop now, as the momentum train heads to Phoenix, where she was in position for a top-15 performance last November before a late wreck.
Third Gear: Johnson sets another milestone … to the detriment of Earnhardt Jr.
Johnson, taking advantage of track position opportunities, ran a smart, clean race. That’s expected when crew chief Chad Knaus can take center stage. He successfully kept the No. 48 out of drafting practice, gambling that this race was about who could stay in line, use pit strategy to stay up front and then make a calculated move when it counted.
The victory gives Johnson a victory in his 400th career start. In a weird quirk, five others have accomplished the feat, including Hall of Famers Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt. As if Johnson needing another notch on a resume that may see him reach 100 career wins (he’s at 61 now) before his career is complete.
You can’t say the same for Earnhardt, runner-up in this race for the third time in the last four years. It’s a huge win for Hendrick Motorsports, which runs the 48 and 88 out of the same shop. But you’ve got to wonder if the restrictor plate drought, now at eight-plus years, has Earnhardt wondering when it’ll finally be his turn again.
“Running second over and over is great and all for our team,” Earnhardt said. “But it’s been too long. I would love (to win), even having to go through all that (media) hassle that Jimmie is about to go through this week. It’s worth it.”
It was a tough Speedweeks for Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
Fourth Gear: Ford is behind the curve
Fusion? “Fusing” is a better descriptor of the week ahead for Blue Oval teams after Ford’s fleet left Daytona filled with enough busted pieces to fill a local junkyard. To say the Speedweeks has been disastrous for its main star is an understatement. Carl Edwards, from January testing through Sunday, wrecked a total of five times, although an innocent victim in each one, and was a complete non-factor in the 500.
Penske Racing, while fourth with Brad Keselowski, saw new hire Joey Logano stub his toe to the tune of 19th. Both drivers limped home with race cars Bondo’d together. In all, the beefed-up Ford fleet — with 15 Daytona entries, its largest number since 2002 — posted just three inside the top 10 while leading for just 17 laps.
But where you’ve really got to feel for this crowd is the bottom tier. Front Row Motorsports, which barely has money to compete, wiped out all three primary cars in the 500. The Wood Brothers, running a part-time schedule, wiped out two with Trevor Bayne over the course of Speedweeks. The parts shortage is bad enough for the big teams, for the small ones, it’s critical.
Jimmie Johnson celebrates in Daytona's Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car gave way to a new style of drafting in the Great American Race, while newcomer Danica Patrick once again made history. The ultimate result, though, was all too familiar. Jimmie Johnson scored career Cup win No. 61 by holding off a charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a frantic final lap to win the 55th Daytona 500.
“This Lowe’s Chevrolet was so fast,” said Johnson, a two-time 500 champion. “Chad (Knaus, crew chief) did an amazing job. We stuck to our plan all week long, kept the car straight through the practice sessions and the Duel and knew it was a fast car that would race well. We got that done here today.”
Johnson led 17 laps on the afternoon, but took the lead for good with 10 laps remaining, just prior to the event’s final caution.
“My lane was bunched up tight and helped me surge by the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) at the start-finish line when the (final) caution came out,” Johnson said. “That was the move that set things up for us.”
Leading the high line on the ensuing restart with six laps to go, Johnson, Greg Biffle and Patrick shoved their way out front. With Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer in tow, Keselowski attempted to pull the low line alongside Johnson, but three-wide racing took over as drivers scrambled for position, breaking up the run.
That’s when Earnhardt made his move — a move that would ultimately come up short.
The 2004 Daytona 500 winner lurked in fifth when the field took the white flag, but hooked up with Mark Martin in a sleek, two-car draft. Slicing low on the backstretch, the pair drafted under Patrick and Biffle, nearly pulling even with the leader.
“Once we came off of (Turn) 2, we just mashed the gas and got a run on Danica and side-drafted a little bit,” Earnhardt said of the last-lap move. “Once we come to (Turn) 4, we kind of ran out of steam. We didn’t have enough to get to Jimmie.”
“The end got exciting,” Johnson said. “The 88 (Earnhardt) got a big shove and was up the inside and I moved down to defend that.”
That move, combined with Earnhardt’s momentum stalling in Turns 3 and 4, allowed Johnson to shut the door. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates ran nose-to-tail through the tri-oval, with Johnson winning by .129 seconds. Martin, Keselowski and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.
“There’s no better way to start the season than to win the Daytona 500,” Johnson said. “I’m a very lucky man to have won it twice. I’m very honored to be on that trophy with all the greats that have ever been in our sport.”
Passing was at a premium over the course of the 200-lap, 500-mile race — and that suited Patrick, who qualified on the pole. She became the first female to lead a green flag lap in Cup competition — she led five laps total — and rarely dropped out of the top 10, backing up the speed her Chevrolet showed in qualifying.
“It was nice to lead laps in the race — just to have done that,” said Patrick, who finished eighth. “It was a steady day.”
A clean start to the race evolved into a largely single-file procession that was punctuated by a nine-car accident on lap 34 that eliminated many of the favorites. Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart were among those forced to the garage when Kyle Busch got into the back of Kahne, turning him in front of the field.
“The cars in front of us slowed up, so I was just slowing up right on Jeff Gordon’s bumper,” Kahne said. “I got hit from behind. Kyle was probably getting pushed and it all happened so quick.”
“To hell with the season,” a frustrated Stewart said. “I wanted to win the 500.”
The three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas took over at that point. Matt Kenseth led 83 of the next 115 laps with teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin neatly tucked in behind. But the complexion of the race changed on lap 149, when Kenseth — while leading — and Busch retired due to engine issues within two laps of one another.
Hamlin led the next 23 laps until Keselowski and Johnson began swapping the lead over the final 26 circuits.
The win was Hendrick Motorsports’ seventh Daytona 500 triumph and came in Johnson’s 400th career start. Johnson joins Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dave Marcis, David Pearson and Lee and Richard Petty in having won in their 400th starts.
“It’s a huge honor,” Johnson said. “There’s no other way to put it. Any time you’re mentioned with those greats, it’s a huge honor.”
Sunday's Daytona 500, the 55th in the long, storied history of The Great American Race, officially has the field set. There are endless stories emanating from NASCAR's biggest event, but here are the five that will most impact Sunday's race.
No horsing around: Harvick is the favorite
There's just one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver batting 1.000 with trophies on the line in 2013: Kevin Harvick. Both of those trophies, of course, have come in the last week at Daytona where NASCAR's resident "lame duck" has scored impressive wins in the last Saturday's Sprint Unlimited and the first race of Thursday's Budweiser Duel at Daytona.
But statistics aren't the only thing supporting Harvick's case as the head-turning favorite before Sunday's race. Instead, it's the manner in which Harvick has taken control at the end of both races and held on with the grip of a vice.
In the Sprint Unlimited, Harvick first moved to the lead on lap 34 of the 75-lap, three-segment race. Just twice, and for two total laps, did the No. 29 not cross the start-finish as the designated leader. And when the heat turned up on the final lap, Harvick was able to play both lanes and make a bold, sweeping block of Greg Biffle on the backstretch of the money lap. He wasn't pressured again before the checkered flag.
Thursday was much the same in his 150-mile qualifying race, except Harvick was better. A savvy move exiting pit road pinned Trevor Bayne — the only other driver to lead Duel No. 1 — against the infield grass and then behind him as the two rushed through the gears to get up to speed. Bayne never recovered and eventually ended up in a crash while Harvick maintained his position. Even the restart wasn't a hassle for the No. 29, as Harvick managed the high then low line to keep competitors at bay and the Budweiser victory lane bath in sight.
Afterward, many of his competitors noted handling played a huge role in their ability to challenge. Harvick seemed almost incredulous at the thought.
"We never experienced any of that," Harvick said. "I think it's a matter of how you came down here with the balance of your race car."
Translation: the No. 29 is good. You can bet the field has taken notice.
Follow the leader
One factor playing into Harvick's hand as he has dominated so far is the apparent advantage held by the leader in the Gen-6 chassis when drivers form the long, snake-like lines of cars. Just seven different drivers led in the qualifying races Thursday, with just four of them leading for more than one lap.
"It's hard to pass the leader," Kyle Busch said after winning the second Duel race. "Just stay out front when you can get out front and you can run pretty good and just try to hold everybody off behind you."
That showed on the final lap of Busch's race when Kasey Kahne, with a push from Austin Dillon, edged under Matt Kenseth in second but couldn't punch past Busch. Kahne never even got alongside Busch.
"It's really tough to pass. When another car gets near your rear tire, it's like you threw the parachute out," Jimmie Johnson said.
Harvick and Jeff Gordon said Daytona now requires more planning to make a pass for position — not just finding someone to push like the recent years of tandem racing at restrictor plate tracks. The consequences can be dire.
"You've just got be precise in your moves," Harvick said. "If you get yourself in the wrong spot like we did at the beginning of the race in the middle, you just can't go anywhere. The only place you're going is backwards. It's hard to get yourself into the hole that you need when you make a mistake."
Gordon agreed, saying Daytona in 2013 feels like the Daytona of old.
"This is a real thinking race now. It comes down to the way it used to," Gordon said. "You get yourself in position. Everybody kind of rides, and thinks about what they have. You have to have your car handling pretty good, which is tough to do further back in traffic."
But Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, doesn't think passing the leader will be completely impossible come Sunday”
"You have got to have somebody go with you; you can't do it by yourself. But you can get a run, definitely. No doubt about it.”
Handling the unexpected
In order to get the kind of run Gordon is talking about, and to time it at the point where it'll put a driver in prime position to walk away with that coveted Harley J. Earl trophy, a driver has to first be in the position to make that move. In a 500-mile race, that's no easy feat.
No, the Daytona 500 isn't the same test of attrition that it once was. Parts last longer. Teams hit setups with more regularity. Drivers, typically, are smarter.
But 500 miles is still 500 miles — especially with a new car putting drivers more on the edge than they were with the stuck-to-the-track Car of Tomorrow chassis. Ryan Newman found that out during Wednesday's practice, and Denny Hamlin found it out late in the first qualifying race Thursday. Both suddenly lost control of race cars that weren't handling particularly poorly before they encountered a set of aerodynamic variables strong enough to send the car into a spin quicker than a blink of an eye. That will happen again Sunday and a driver (or drivers) in contention will pay the price.
It's a measure of the new car that has several, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., searching for answers in the two days of practice left before the 500.
"I didn't anticipate really the balance being a big deal because the car does have a good downforce package; we thought the balance would be pretty close," Earnhardt Jr. said. "(I) figured we would be fighting loose a little bit. We have to work on it."
Should drivers withstand that challenge, they'll have to be ready to execute flawless pit stops, too. Kyle Busch took the lead in the second qualifying race thanks to a call for no tires during his pit stop. Trevor Bayne lost his lead in the first race partially because he locked up his tires coming to pit road under green, necessitating a change. Busch wound up winning his qualifying race; Bayne wrecked.
"Pit crews are going to make a huge difference on Sunday," said Tony Stewart. "That's going to be the difference between which pack you come out in. You're going to have to have good stops to stay up there all day."
Like Gordon said, Sunday will feel more like Daytona of old. Carl Edwards, despite wrecking four times at Daytona, is looking forward to that.
"There will be groups of cars that separate themselves, some pit strategy and some guys that slide around and can't keep up," Edwards said. "I think it will make it a really dynamite, fun race."
Not everyone will leave Daytona Sunday night using the words Edwards did, but you can bet one of NASCAR's three competing manufacturers will be celebrating well into the night.
For the first time since the 1990s, cars in the Sprint Cup Series actually resemble their showroom counterparts. It's been a concerted effort by NASCAR, after pressure from those manufacturers, to make those comparisons easier.
It also introduces the realistic potential of Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota having a slight advantage come race day thanks to their body design. NASCAR has worked to prevent the issues, but competitors are competitors, and competitors like to complain.
Just look at the starting lineup for Sunday's race: seven of the top-10 are Chevrolets. If the finishing order resembles that, Jack Roush's comments won't be far behind.
Danica Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson. (ASP, Inc.)
And of course, especially at the start, all eyes will be on the most historic moment Daytona has seen in years as Danica Patrick leads the field to green as the first woman to ever win the pole position of a Daytona 500 — or any NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Patrick, 17th in her qualifying race, didn't do much to turn heads in the one dose of racing experience she's had at Daytona this year. Her team's goal Thursday was to play it conservative and finish with the green No. 10 intact.
Mission accomplished — even if Patrick didn't feel she gleaned much from the racing.
"I'll be really honest, I didn't feel like I got a lot of experience on how to pass or the draft so much. I was able to hang with the group," Patrick said.
Patrick and Co. were worried about the car being too loose during the race and tightened the car up more and more leading to Thursday's 150-miler. She did later confirm that turning 60 laps in race conditions did prove at least somewhat valuable.
"I guess I did learn that being too tight is pretty detrimental here," Patrick said. "If you can't keep your foot in it and run up behind cars, then you're going to struggle to make moves. It looks really hard to pass, to be honest."
Patrick, who crashed on lap two in her first Daytona 500 start one year ago, should drastically improve her showing this time around. Expecting a win, though, is way too much.
by Geoffrey Miller. Check back each Friday, as Geoffrey Miller examines the five storylines to watch entering each NASCAR weekend. And follow Geoffrey on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller