It isn’t NASCAR — it’s ARCA — and these are old Cup cars anyway, so close enough. Ever see a stockcar Ollie a wall like Tony Hawk on a skateboard? Buster Graham might want to go X-Games if the racecar thing doesn’t work out, that is, if he can reliably and repeatedly execute this move, as seen in last August’s Pennsylvania 125.
by Vito Pugliese
9. Kyle Petty ... Born Entertainer
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Before he became a color commentator, Kyle Petty was one of the top contenders in NASCAR in the early 1990s (arguably the best era in the series’ history). He won the 1993 Champion Spark Plug 500 over Davey Allison, with an “AK” embroidered on his uniform in memory of Alan Kulwicki, who perished in an air plane crash in April of that year. Petty video taped his 1,700-mile journey from Charlotte, up the Eastern Seaboard, and had the camera in his car during the race – even capturing a fan who ran across the track on lap 106. Petty and Allison narrowly missed the man who dove over the wall once he realized there were cars bearing down on him at over 160 mph.
by Vito Pugliese
8. Elliott Walks Away from a Nasty One
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Ever wonder why Kurt Busch had so much animosity towards Jimmie (“Five-Time Chump”) Johnson at Richmond last year? Find out here, as Johnson triggers a massive double-impact (sans Jean-Claude Van Dame) with Busch’s Miller Lite Dodge and Elliott Sadler — in what may be the most devastating impact in NASCAR history. It isn’t often that you go from 190 mph to dead stop in three feet and live to tell about it – or eject your Roush Yates powerplant, depositing it onto the Long Pond straight. Sadler’s impact into the earthen embankment is the highest G-reading measured since NASCAR began installing black box data recorders in the cars.
by Vito Pugliese
7. As Does Gordon
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A testament to improved car construction, safety devices, and perhaps most importantly, the SAFER barrier, saved Jeff Gordon’s life in this severe impact at the June 2006 event. Gordon experienced brake failure going into Turn 1 at over 190 mph. He was able to scrub off some speed (but not much) by angling the car into the grass. Had he hit the wall without the current protections in place, things may have ended much worse for Gordon, who is ranked third on NASCAR’s all-time wins list.
by Vito Pugliese
6. The Tunnel Turn Claims Allison
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Bobby Allison’s career and nearly life-ending crash on the opening lap in the June race was the first of many sad chapters in the life and times of the 84-race winner. Allison suffered brain damage, a bruised heart and a broken leg in this incident. A cut tire sent him head on into the wall and was then T-boned by driver Jocko Maggiacomo. It would take more than two years for Allison to get back on his feet – literally. He would continue further trials and tribulations, including a divorce from wife Judy and the death of his sons Clifford and Davey. Clifford lost his life on August 13, 1992, in an ARCA crash and Davey at Talladega on July 13, 1993, while landing his helicopter. The story does have a happy ending of sorts: Bobby and Judy remarried in July 2000, reuniting and reconciling following the death of Adam Petty.
by Vito Pugliese
5. The Youngster vs. The Vet
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Many bemoan the absence of rivalries in NASCAR today. However, this video might serve as a fitting reason that may not be such a bad idea. Darrell Waltrip and Davey Allison had a lot of back and forth in the 1991 and ’92 seasons, with Davey coming out on the short end of the stick, first suffering broken ribs at Bristol, and this ridiculous wreck at Pocono in June 1992. Larry McReynolds, Davey’s crew chief, remembers hearing the radio traffic of drivers passing the scene, catching Mark Martin saying, “They better just go get a body bag for Davey …” Waltrip went on to win the race that day, and this wreck essentially cost Allison the 1992 championship. A bit reminiscent of the retaliatory strike by Carl Edwards on Brad Keselowski in Atlanta in 2010, Keselowski is often heard to say, “Man up and drive the damn racecar.” And Allison did just that a week later, with two black eyes (literally … like Beetlejuice) and a shattered wrist. The Robert Yates team had to velcro it to the shifter, as he gutted out a third-place finish, essentially driving one handed.
by Vito Pugliese
4. Junior Rushes to Teammates' Aid
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Steve Park’s 2002 return to Cup competition following an incident at a Busch Series race at Darlington in September 2001 did not go so well for his 16th start of the season. On the opening lap, Park was blocked by Rusty Wallace, which turned him across the track and into the path of DEI teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Park’s Pennzoil Chevrolet began a series of tumbles and flips after going head-on into the backstretch guardrail. Earnhardt sprinting to his stricken comrade’s crumpled car is one of the most indelible images in Pocono’s history. For a team and organization that had been through so much the previous year and a half, it was a welcome site to see Park exiting the car and walking arm in arm with Junior to the ambulance.
by Vito Pugliese
3. Dale Earnhardt: One Tough Customer
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Perhaps one of the reasons “The Intimidator” also received the nickname “Iron Head” – this lap 134 crash with Tim Richmond at the 4:35 mark. Earnhardt ended up with a broken knee in the crash, and was helped across the track by Richmond. Pocono seems to be the track where if you wreck, the other guy feels sorry for you and helps out. Lots of great things in this video: Richard Petty with a massive lead, Earnhardt driving a Ford and mustachioed Mark Martin in his rookie season, with foppish hair getting a relief driver after the shifter boot melted and started sucking 800-degree exhaust heat into the cockpit. Marin later would have to relieve relief driver Ronnie Thomas. Bobby Allison would go on to win both events at Pocono last year, ironic considering it would also end up being his final race just six years later.
by Vito Pugliese
2. Mayfield Rattle’s the Intimidator’s Cage
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Before he started testing positive for meth and getting caught with $100,000 in stolen property in his now-foreclosed upon home, Jeremy Mayfield was a pretty fair racecar driver. Clearly second in the pecking order at Penske, Mayfield was one of the Ford contingent’s up-and-coming drivers in the late 1990s and early 2000s before he defected to Dodge. This rain delayed race, run on a Monday afternoon, was a bit of a snoozer, with Dale Earnhardt poised to notch his second win of the season – that is until Mayfield decided to “rattle his cage.” While some Earnhardt fans cried foul, it was actually pretty clean and quite representative of what is considered fair in NASCAR these days. Perhaps more memorable than the win, was The Intimidator Mayfield know he was “No. 1” during the cool down lap.
by Vito Pugliese
1. The Late, Great Tim Richmond
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August 13, 2012, will mark 23 years since Tim Richmond passed away, yet he lives on in the hearts and minds of fans who were around long before “Five Time,” “Green-White-Checkers,” “Lucky Dogs,” and even restrictor plates. As quickly as he burst onto the scene, Richmond was gone, a victim of his own rambunctious lifestyle, the ignorance and excess of the 1980s – and NASCAR. The first driver who failed a NASCAR sanctioned drug test for what was legitimate medication, Richmond was suffering the effects of HIV and AIDS, which would eventually claim his life in 1989. He was hospitalized from December 1986 through January 1987, missing the first half of the ’87 season. After winning seven races in ’86, the following year should have been the one when Richmond contended for a title. Instead, he was in a fight for his life. Making his season debut — looking drawn, gaunt and with a persistent cough — Richmond held on for the final 47 laps, hounded by Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott and Kyle Petty, despite a damaged transmission which was highlighted (as much of his life was) in the film Days of Thunder. Richmond also would win the following week at Riverside, the last of his career. He made one final start at Michigan the week after, coming home fourth.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Pennsylvania 400
Fan- and Pennell-favorite (for Pocono), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the Pocono Mountains for the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway. When the series last hit the 2.5-mile oval in June, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Joey Logano that went to Victory Lane, leading 49 of the 160 laps and moving veteran Mark Martin out of the lead in the closing laps.
As the series heads back to Pocono, Logano is back in the rumor mill with his name being mentioned as a potential candidate for the No. 22 Penske Racing ride for 2013. While said rumor mill churns and silly season heats up, it is important to remain focused on the job at hand, and that is winning races — and for you, your weekly fantasy match up.
Last weekend at Indianapolis, it was five-time champion Jimmie Johnson that put on a dominant performance to earn his fourth Brickyard 400 trophy. The No. 48 car was the class of the field all day, with few cars even in the same zip code (to borrow a phrase).
This week, Johnson leads all drivers in average finish (8.8) and has two victories at Pocono. While he failed to lead a lap in June, the five-time series champion finished fourth. With the team looking as if it is rounding into championship form, it will be hard to pick against Johnson.
However, the two-time Pocono winner is not this week's fantasy favorite (although he is among the top five). That honor goes to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After his fourth-place finish last weekend at Indianapolis, Earnhardt took over the points lead from Matt Kenseth. Leading the championship standings for the first time since 2004, Earnhardt is enjoying his best season in years, but is still hungry for wins before the Chase field is reset for the final 10 races of the season.
In June, Earnhardt Jr. led 36 of the 160 laps at Pocono before finishing a disappointing eighth. One of the strongest cars that afternoon, crew chief Steve Letarte called his driver to pit road late in the race, concerned about making it to the end on fuel. When Logano and others on the same strategy stretched it to the end, Earnhardt understood it was too early in the season to start taking gambles and losing a host of points.
With six races left before the Chase field is set, Earnhardt is now in a position to gamble for wins. Hungry for victories and continuing his consistent ways, look for Earnhardt — who has finishes of sixth, ninth and eighth in his last three Pocono starts — to score his second victory of the season.
Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Tony Stewart
Carl Edwards ... still smiling (ASP, Inc.)
To say the 2012 season has been a disappointment for Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards would qualify as the understatement of the year. After losing last year's championship battle to Tony Stewart in a tie-breaker, Edwards and the No. 99 team have been off the mark in 2012, currently enduring a winless streak that dates back to March 2011 (53 races ago).
To make matters worse, Edwards has a new crew chief, Chad Norris, atop the pit box calling the shots while long-time pit boss Bob Osborne handles personal health issues away from the track.
Coming in at one of the most crucial times of the season, Norris now has the task of getting the near-champion into the Chase. Sitting 12th in the championship standings, Edwards is on the outside looking in, as Kyle Busch (1 win) and Kasey Kahne (2) currently hold the two Chase wild card spots.
Following another poor finish in Indy — this time caused by an engine issue — Edwards proclaimed they are done points racing and “officially racing only for wins” over the next six weeks.
“I think it will involve lots of pushing on the right pedal and turning left and going as fast as possible, Edwards said. “We have to take chances. We have to go race. We can do that; we can race like that. It will actually be a big relief in a way because there is no other choice. We just go race for wins. I wouldn’t bet against us. We can do it.”
With two wins, five top 5s, seven top 10s and an average finish of 13.6 at Pocono, this weekend provides a good locale for Edwards to get started on his quest for wins and a spot in the 12-driver Chase field.
In June, Edwards started the race from the outside of the front row, but was hit by pole-sitter Denny Hamlin in the first corner of the first lap and was forced to race his way through the field, placing 11th. Bringing the same car to the track this weekend, Edwards will be looking to finally turn his season before it's too late.
Also struggling to keep his Chase hopes alive is four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. Much like Edwards, Gordon's only hope of making into the final championship battle is to win, win, win.
While Gordon has finished inside the top 12 in the last six races, and advancing from 22nd to 15th in the standings, it is simply not enough for the veteran driver. However, there is no Chase for the fantasy racer, meaning you should not hesitate selecting him for the squad.
Gordon has been putting up solid numbers of late, and with time running out before the Chase field is set, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson will be doing all they can to include themselves in the elusive 12-driver field. With the third-best average finish at Pocono (10.4), look for the No. 24 car to be among the best cars in Sunday's race. While a solid finish may not go far in terms of Gordon's championship hopes, it may go a long way in determining this week's fantasy match up.
Five Undervalued Picks: Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer
The last time the Sprint Cup Series raced at Pocono Raceway, it did so without former champion Kurt Busch. Suspended from NASCAR competition following a post-race incident with a reporter at Dover, Busch had to sit out the 14th race of the season while the rest of the competition broke the new track surface in.
Although Busch was not in the race, his Phoenix Racing team finished 21st in the with David Reutimann behind the wheel.
Despite a rocky 2012 season, Busch owns the 10th-best average finish at Pocono (15.5). In a great showing with his former team, Penske Racing, the former champion sat on the pole once and finished second and third in both 2011 events.
If he can keep the car out of trouble, the team can get the job done on pit road — and if the engine lasts the full 400 miles — look for Busch to score a decent finish, which could make the difference for your fantasy team.
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind situation at Busch's former team, Penske Racing, as it has been forced to deal with the suspension of AJ Allmendinger. Stepping into the ride and getting a much-unexpected second chance has been Sam Hornish Jr.
Thrust into an awkward situation, Hornish has made the best of things to date and has been named the driver of the No. 22 for the “foreseeable future” by team owner Roger Penske. Perhaps auditioning for his future behind the wheel of the No. 22, Hornish scored a 22nd-place finish in Loudon and a 16th-place finish last weekend at Indianapolis.
Now four races into this unexpected venture, Hornish and the entire team head to Pocono as a bunch focused on working together as a cohesive unit and producing good results.
Perhaps no better track could come for Hornish and the Todd Gordon-led team. Hornish considers Pocono to be among his favorite tracks on the schedule, with one top 5, two top 10s and an average finish of 19.9.
“I’ve raced there enough that I can go to that track with a lot of confidence,” he says. “I think I can handle the compromising challenge pretty well. I think that there's a lot of guys that don't like going there, so they've already got this negative opinion about it. Their attitude is probably not in the right place.”
With this team finally coming together behind Hornish and his confidence level high, look for them to record a respectable finish.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, Regan Smith
Best Average Finish at Pocono (Wins/Starts):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 8.8 (2/21)
2. Denny Hamlin — 9.3 (4/13)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.4 (5/39)
4. Mark Martin — 11.1 (3/51)
5. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (2/27)
6. Ryan Newman —12.7 (1/21)
7. Carl Edwards — 13.6 (2/15)
8. Matt Kenseth — 13.9 (0/25)
9. Kevin Harvick — 14.0 (0/23)
10. Kurt Busch — 15.5 (2/22)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead at Indianapolis, giving his fans something to cheer about in a season where there have been plenty of highlights. Although the points will be reset at the start of the Chase, the question becomes can Earnhardt continue his successful season and win the championship?
That was among the questions Backseat Drivers Fan Council members were asked about last weekend’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Here’s what they had to say about those issues and more:
Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the championship? Earnhardt took the points lead at Indianapolis, the first time he’s led the points since late in the 2004 season. Fan Council members were asked if they thought he would win the championship this year:
64.5 percent said No
35.5 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• Even though I've been an Earnhardt fan all my life and have been hoping that Junior would finally win a Cup championship, I don't think this is the year. First, Jimmie Johnson served notice (Sunday) that anyone winning the championship this year will have to beat him to do it. Next, even though Junior is perhaps the most consistent driver in the sport this year, consistency, without wins won't get the job done. I think he'll win again. Ultimately, though, I think 5-Time becomes 6-Time. Jimmie is just too good.
• One win in four years. Letarte's track record in the Chase is pretty poor, especially when he got used up by Knaus in 2007. Earnhardt's record in the Chase isn't much better. There's no value in leading the points before the Chase.
• It's hard to pinpoint just why I don't think he will win. I think it's a combination of a lack of complete faith in Steve Letarte's ability to close the deal along with the feeling the luck he's had will not last. On the other hand, I do see maturity in Junior that just might supersede everything else.
• This has been his most consistent year. Consistency wins championships.
• He has yet to convince me he has the killer instinct to go out and drive beyond the car to go out and win more races and win the Chase.
• As a Junior fan, I'm just worried the team is gonna choke.
• As Steve Letarte said in a pre-race interview, “Give FIVE reasons why they won’t AND I’ll give ya FIVE reasons why they can.”
• Dale Jr. does not have the mental/emotional fortitude to win the championship. He has a tendency to get focused on and bothered by things that distract him. I believe Steve Letarte will give him the cars, and his crew will give him the performances necessary to win a championship, but I believe Junior will get distracted by something the media says, the fans want (or are saying) and he will lose enough focus to lose the championship. I believe he will learn that lesson and be a stronger contender for the championship the next time he's in the position.
• He has momentum behind him, a great owner and crew chief and crew. Plus he has Junior Nation behind him. It's his to lose.
• Even though he doesn't have the most wins this season has been the most consistent — but that isn't going to help with the last 10 races. Guys like Johnson and Stewart are going to step up and start rattling off wins and top 5s in the last 10 races. If Dale Jr. wins a couple more races before the Chase I would change my answer.
• Sorry Junior Nation, he's not going to win it. It will take multiple wins in the Chase to win it and his team is more about consistency. I also don't think he has the killer instinct it takes to win it. Until someone else wins one, I'm not sure anybody but Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart can win the title. I think it comes down to those two guys.
• Most consistent driver all year. He will win another race this year and capture that elusive championship. He is surviving the summer months well, where he typically does poor, which indicates that come fall, he will excel. I’ve never seen Junior this confident, mature and consistent.
• While he is my driver, I don't see domination. I see speed and consistency from the 88 team — and they belong in the Chase — but the winner of the Chase will dominate throughout it.
• I have to answer “yes.” I am a Junior fan and I have to have that faith. I am scared to even think it though, for fear that I will jinx him and Junior Nation! Regardless, I am so proud of his (and the entire 88 team’s) performance this year. BRAVO!
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Grade Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis
51.8 percent said it was Good 35.8 percent said it was Fair 6.6 percent said it was Poor 5.8 percent said it was Great
What Fan Council members said:
• Really not a lot of racing at all. It's understandable at IMS because these are big, heavy cars that are aero-dependent and not made to run big, flat tracks.
• We actually saw some racing instead of the parade I have been used to at Indy. It is still hard to pass with the cars being so aero-sensitive but it seems the most dominant car won Sunday, unlike Saturday.
• One guy dominated and the only time anyone could pass was the first couple of laps of the run (after a restart). Not exciting unless you were a Johnson fan.
• Extremely boring. NASCAR doesn't belong at Indy.
• Seven laps in and the field was strung out into a single line and from that point on the only passing was (with little exception) on pit road or at restarts. That's how it always is at Indy (and Pocono and California and Michigan), so not unexpected. The Indy race isn't there for the exciting racing, it’s there for the prestige of running tin tops at Indianapolis. It should stay there for the history. It’s not like it’s the only place with strung-out, not particularly exciting, racing.
• For an Indianapolis race which tends to be more about pageantry than great racing, this was a pretty good race. It had slow/boring spots, but also had action — that was covered on the television broadcast — throughout the field. The leader running away from the field typically makes for a boring race, but the restarts alleviated the lack of competition for the lead during the longer green flag runs. There was some passing on a track known for its lack of passing. There were tire and engine issues adding the element of surprise to portions of the race.
• More single-file racing. Very little passing. This track is just not made for stock cars. And did you see the number of empty seats?! WOW!
• I saw a lot of tweets stating the race was boring. I don't know how anyone said it was boring. I saw a lot of passing, pit strategy, green flag stops, etc. Yes, Jimmie Johnson spanked the field, but there are a lot of other races for points, wild card, etc., going on. In racing, it's not over until the checkered flag flies. I never find a race boring — some especially more exciting — but never boring.
• That was a horrible race. It is never good. Why did I even bother? A lot of people assign blame to the “tire debacle” a few years ago (2008) for the declining attendance. We've had four races since then with no tire issues, so let's face it: stock cars suck at this track. And most of the seats there are terrible — there are huge parts of the track you can't see. WHY would anybody go there for a Cup race? NASCAR weekends are expensive. If I am going to spend the money, it'll be at a track where I can see all the action! (Example: Richmond is our next race!)
• I attended the race at the Brickyard. Granted, you can't see much of the track, but I still thought the racing was pretty good. I focused on some battles between drivers — not just my driver. I did see passing until the field got too far apart. Neat to see Jimmie win his fourth Brickyard. Hated to see Matt get wrecked, but loved seeing Dale Jr. leave leading in the points.
Grade how ESPN showed the end of the Indianapolis Cup race. ESPN noted that it showed the final 23 minutes of the race and the first eight minutes of post-race coverage without commercial interruption. To do that required more commercial breaks earlier in the race. Fan Council members were asked if they were fine with the long commercial-free portion at the end of there race or if they would rather have the commercial breaks more evenly spaced.
88.8 percent liked how ESPN showed the end of the race minus commercials
11.2 percent wanted more evenly spaced commercial breaks throughout the race
What Fan Council members said:
• What I really liked was the actual post-race coverage. Usually, we don't get much and I have to start looking for more info online, but this time I could just stick with the TV.
• The end of the race is what matters. Sure, we might miss what causes a caution or two but I think we all agree, at the end of the race, when strategy is coming together we want to see that.
• At least they (ESPN) are making an effort to appease viewers. I didn't notice the commercials in this race, to be honest, which is a good thing. (Believe me, the mashed potatoes/macaroni & cheese debate has been tattooed into the national conscience of NASCAR Nation.) I don't need uninterrupted post-race coverage unless there's some sort of controversy, a la the Nationwide race this weekend.
• In an ideal world, there would be fewer commercials. However, I liked this because a lot of the time, the drivers don't “race” until later in the race.
• Whoopie do! For a good portion of those 23 final minutes they had a single-car camera shot of the 48. That's not really showing the race. Use a split screen if they want to focus on the leader — but show the racing in the field.
• I think their entire coverage was great! The timing of commercials was better than TNT.
• ESPN's coverage of the race was textbook how a race should be covered regarding commercials.
• I noticed more commercials in the early broadcast and was worried ESPN was going TNT on us, but then I also noticed the long run at the end going commercial-free and I approve of this immensely.
Grade the inaugural Nationwide race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
30.8 percent said it was Good 23.3 percent said it was Fair 21.5 percent didn’t watch 17.2 percent said it was Poor 7.2 percent said it was Great
What Fan Council members said:
• Maybe I'm just bitter, but I loved attending the NNS race at LOR. It was close racing and you can see the entire track. As a Speedway native, I love IMS with all my heart, but I chose to watch the NNS race on TV knowing I would be going to the Brickyard the next day. I didn't feel it was worth the money to watch a race with very little passing two days in a row.
• Any good feelings I might have had about the race were gone the minute NASCAR decided that, in spite of all the evidence in his favor, Elliott Sadler had to do the pass-thru penalty. The race ended for me right then. I've never been one to jump on conspiracy theories, but in that case, NASCAR made a decision that changed the outcome of the race and potentially the outcome of the season.
• Inconsistent calls and Cup drivers galore because they “needed” to be the first one to win at The Brickyard (in NNS). Roughly the same amount of people showed up that would have at LORP. It's time to go back to the short track.
• I think it was a HUGE mistake to take this race away from Lucas Oil Raceway and put on the big track. It did nothing but show two races that were boring this weekend. Since when is it better to take away all of the short tracks? I don't understand the thought process behind this move.
• It's great to see the NNS at Indy.
• They don't deserve to be running there. They were out of place and it just felt wrong. The race wasn't any good either.
• Fantastic action with the Nationwide race. I am in the “Support Elliott Saddler” camp. I think, truthfully, that Dillon was at fault and the correct action for that particular restart would have been to just do it over — very unfair to dump the whole blame on Elliott. And how could he possibly have slowed to give the position back without wrecking a lot of cars?
• I thought it was a little better than the Cup race. I don't know why — maybe because it was shorter? One thing I do know, though, is that Elliott Sadler got screwed. Bad call by NASCAR. That section of the rulebook might need to be updated. I'm not a Sadler fan, but he handled himself with a lot of dignity and class in that deal.
• It was very fun to watch. Some passing. Suspense. Well done.
• Lots and lots of drama! And some good racing!
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Haven't we seen this movie before ... like in 2006, '08 and '09?
"Hey, watch the hair, Chad!" (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson (—) Johnson has had two crashes in 2012, resulting in 42nd- and 36th-place finishes and one engine failure, leading to a 35th-place run. Otherwise, he’s been 12th or better every week.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (—) Junior has been nearly as good as his Hendrick teammate through 20 races, with 17th- and 23rd-place runs the only blemishes outside of the top 15.
3. Matt Kenseth (—) Even before a crash ended his day in Indy, Kenseth wasn’t having a banner performance. How will this team handle its driver’s lame duck status down the stretch?
4. Denny Hamlin (+1) Hamlin is certainly back to his contender status, with two wins on the season and three finishes of sixth or better in the last four races (including a near-miss in Loudon).
5. Tony Stewart (-1) Stewart somehow snuck into the top 10 by day’s end at Indy despite being a non-factor throughout the race. In fact, it was his worst showing (10th) at IMS since forming his own team — or a team being handed to him. Whatever.
6. Brad Keselowski (—) Along with Hamlin, Keselowski seemed the only driver with anything for Johnson on Sunday. A slow pit stop doomed his chances and the three-time winner in 2012 settled for ninth.
7. Kasey Kahne (—) Front-end damage to Kahne’s Chevy forced the team to play catch-up all day in Indy. A popular pre-race pick, Kasey persevered to a 12th-place showing.
8. Greg Biffle (—) After a quiet three-race stretch where Biffle was all but invisible, he burst back onto the scene at the Brickyard with a confidence-building third-place finish. Keep an eye on him at Pocono.
9. Jeff Gordon (+1) Time is running out for Gordon, who finds himself a distant 15th in the point standings with zero wins. Try as they might, the 24 team has been a fifth- to sixth-place car the last six weeks. Still, if he can cash in just once...
10. Clint Bowyer (-1) Rebounded from what appeared to be some ugly sheet metal damage prior to the halfway mark at Indy to post a respectable 15th. It could’ve been worse.
They're not the King's cowboy boots or Marcis' wing tips, but hey, whatever works for ya, Carl. (ASP, Inc.)
11. Martin Truex Jr. (+1) Indy was a typical run for Truex in 2012: Qualify in the mid-teens and finish about eighth.
12. Kyle Busch (+3) Up to 11th in the standings and currently a wild-card qualifier after a runner-up at the Brickyard.
13. Ryan Newman (—) Fifteen points behind Busch in the wild card standings with a single win. It can be done.
14. Kevin Harvick (-3) Averaging an 11.7-place finish — which Harvick has thus far — won’t win him a title.
15. Mark Martin (Unranked) Had he started every race this year, Martin would slot in around 13th or 14th in the point standings.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard
Jimmie Johnson dominates, scores fourth victory at Indianapolis
From left: Rick Hendrick, Jimmie, Genevieve and Chandra Johnson. (ASP, Inc.)
It took Jimmie Johnson only 29 laps to steer his No. 48 Chevrolet to the front of the field in Sunday’s Brickyard 400. Once there, he rarely looked back, leading 99 of the final 131 laps to score his fourth Sprint Cup Series win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Johnson, who qualified sixth, also gave Chevrolet its 10th straight win at the famed auto racing venue, while team owner Rick Hendrick scored his eighth win at IMS in NASCAR’s 19 visits.
“I knew (the) second or third lap yesterday on the track that we were going to have an awfully good chance at winning,” Johnson said of Saturday’s first practice session. “That confidence that I had helped us through practice yesterday. There were a couple moments where maybe an adjustment didn’t work and we lost a little pace, but I just had a feeling, and I just knew we were going to be fine.
“We qualified well and then went out there today and put it on them, so ... solid performance.”
Johnson beat Kyle Busch to the line by a race-record 4.758 seconds. Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 5. Johnson’s only real competition — Denny Hamlin (sixth) and Brad Keselowski (ninth) — led a total of 49 laps but faded late.
Johnson’s third win of the season ties him with Keselowski and Tony Stewart for most on the circuit.
Johnson’s previous three Brickyard wins also coincided with three of his four Cup titles (2006, ’08 and ’09).
“I feel that from a performance standpoint, we’re as strong as we’ve ever been,” Johnson said. “We’ve had issues late in a race that’s cost us track position for a variety of reasons, and that’s the part that we need to make sure is buttoned up before the Chase starts and carry that through the Chase.
“But from a performance standpoint, these are amazing racecars. We’ve made a lot of progress through the off-season and then getting started this year. I feel really good about the Chase — I’m ready for it to start.”
Johnson’s shop mate at Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr., ascended to the top of the Sprint Cup championship standings thanks to a fourth-place showing. Previous points leader, Matt Kenseth, was swept up in a wreck on lap 134 of 160 and finished 35th.
“You can't win the championship until you lead the points,” Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, said. “To lead at any time in the season, especially this late in the season, proves this team is capable of winning a championship.
“We definitely haven’t hit our stride yet. There’s still room for improvement.”
“We need to win more races,” Earnhardt added. “If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in the Chase. I don't know if finishing fourth or fifth (each week) is going to do it.”
Jimmie Johnson leads the pack (but don't tell Chad Norris)
"Hey Carl, my new crew chief drinks your sponsors product to help him fall sleep." (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson A Daytona crash is the only blemish on Johnson’s stat sheet since mid-May. Indianapolis is typically the event that Johnson, Chad Knaus & crew use as a jumping off point for the Chase.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. According to Junior's buddy Mike Davis, Earnhardt has completed the first 5,488 laps this season, a record in NASCAR’s Modern Era. He also has 20 consecutive lead lap finishes, dating back to 2011.
3. Matt Kenseth No flashy stats for Kenseth, just a stream of steadiness for the points leader. His 13th at Loudon, along with a 13th at Sonoma, are his worst showings since a 16th way back in March.
4. Tony Stewart Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski are closing the gap on the Big Three of Johnson, Earnhardt and Keselowski, although Smoke’s Loudon performance was disappointing after winning there last year.
5. Denny Hamlin “Hit or Miss” Hamlin was a hit on Sunday, despite falling short in the end due to miscommunication with the crew chief. Hamlin’s last six races: Three top 5s, three finishes of 25th or worse.
6. Brad Keselowski May deserve to be higher on the list, as BK and the boys appear to be gaining steam — which says something since they’re already weekly contenders.
7. Kasey Kahne Was Sunday’s win what we’ll look back on as his Chase-clinching run? Impossible to say, but suddenly, the heat is turned up on about five drivers clawing for a wild card slot in the Chase.
8. Greg Biffle His ninth-place finish in New Hampshire led the Roush Fenway contingent — odd in that the “Fenway” in the race team’s name is the same associated with a certain New England sports franchise.
"Hey Martin, I hear Carl has some badass new crew chief." (ASP, Inc.)
9. Clint Bowyer Back on track to the tune of a third-place run at Loudon after two hangover-esque weekends that proceded the Sonoma victory.
10. Jeff Gordon Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson are obviously going all-out for wins at this point, which explains his frustration after finishing a respectable sixth in Loudon. Those wins are now imperative.
11. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s eighth in Loudon was his best showing in over a month. A win would cinch things for him.
12. Martin Truex Jr. Has 50 points on 11th-place Carl Edwards. And at this rate — without a win — he’ll need ’em.
13. Ryan Newman Baby news for the second straight week: Ryan and Krissie welcomed Ashlyn Olivia on Monday.
14. Joey Logano Currently in a log jam with Newman and Kyle Busch for that second Chase wild card spot.
15. Kyle Busch Maybe if he went back to racing three times a weekend ... ?
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard
The majority of these cars didn't make it another 10 laps. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Matt Kenseth Kenseth was the man to beat at Daytona for a second straight trip, although the fortunes of plate racing found him third by night’s end. Still, RFR is the team to beat on the plate tracks.
2. Jimmie Johnson Johnson’s 2012 plate racing results: 42nd, 35th and 36th. In fact, his plate stats over the last few years — outside of a Talladega win — aren’t that impressive. Speaks more to the style of racing than the driver.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. You can throw a blanket over the top 3. Each has 13 top 10s in 18 races and at least one win. Junior slots third here because he trails Kenseth in the standings and Johnson in the wins column.
4. Tony Stewart Stewart closes the gap on the “Big Three” every three weeks or so. His problem lies in consistency — he seems to either finish in the top 3 on race day or outside of the top 20.
5. Denny Hamlin It’s hard to fault a guy for getting wrecked while racing for the win at Daytona. That was the story of Hamlin’s night, so we’ll give him a pass and see what New Hampshire holds.
6. Greg Biffle Biffle took the blame for the final “Big One” of the night in Daytona, though it’s hard to pin that on any one driver. His sliding from top 5 to 21st in the wreck is punishment enough.
7. Brad Keselowski Keselowski seems to always be near the center of the storm. From getting hit on pit road to spinning out without any help, he had a rough night but rebounded for a respectable eighth-place showing.
8. Kasey Kahne Stewart’s dancing partner at Daytona, Kahne managed a seventh-place run thanks to the craziness in the final two football field’s worth of the 400.
9. Clint Bowyer Since a scintillating four-week stretch that culminated in a win, Bowyer has limped to 16th- and 29th-place runs. That said, he’ll be a pre-race favorite in Loudon this Sunday.
10. Martin Truex Jr. Truex is still hanging tough at seventh in the point standings, but a win would go a long way in securing a spot in the Chase.
11. Jeff Gordon Somehow brought a wrecked racecar home to a 12th-place finish. Still 87 points out of a Chase birth.
12. Kevin Harvick Congrats to the Harvicks on the birth of their first child, Keelan Paul, born on Sunday.
13. Joey Logano Currently occupies wild card spot No. 2 — but it’s oh-so-close in the mid-teens.
14. Kyle Busch If it’s not mechanical woes that fell Busch, it’s a Daytona “Big One.”
15. Carl Edwards Thirty-two points out of 10th in the standings and desperately scrambling to get things on track.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Packs vs. tandems, tradition vs. change, shortened races and 2012 surprises
Jeff Gordon: Tradition or entertainment? (ASP, Inc.)
Tradition vs. Change. Shorten races vs. keeping them the same. Tandem drafting vs. pack racing. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council faced many choices with this week’s NASCAR survey.
There was more, including what has been the biggest surprise of the season to how they graded last weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Daytona. The opinions vary — and in some cases are quite strong. Here’s what the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say about these issues.
Tradition vs. Changes, which one matters most to you? Former champion Jeff Gordon was asked during a media session last weekend at Daytona about possible changes for the sport. Part of Gordon’s response included this statement: “What is more important — history and tradition or the most entertaining form of racing?” The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was asked that question — what means more to you? Tradition or changes to make the sport more exciting?
67.2 percent said traditions 32.8 percent said changes to make the sport more exciting
What Fan Council members said:
• Gimmicks are the road to ruin. This is a great sport, making changes to appease the fly-by-night fans will just alienate your most loyal fans while temporarily pleasing those who will leave you inevitably to follow some other trend.
• It's sad that some people need to be entertained. I prefer to keep the traditions. That said, I would understand if NASCAR was forced to make changes in order to compete. I just hope they realize they can keep the traditions while adding extra entertainment.
• I love the traditions, but I have to confess: If the entertainment value doesn't increase, I won't be watching much longer.
• I’m not an old fuddy-duddy veteran fan complaining all the time about these changes. I only started watching in 2005. I was confused by all the constant changing and thought it was strange. But isn’t the racing better?? I think so.
• This one was easy for me. In my opinion, history and tradition are exciting. I understand the need to tweak things now and then because the cars have changed and the level of competition has become more level. But major overhauls, such as instituting a playoff system where one was not only unnecessary but doesn't fit the sport, don't work. They provide a temporary shot of interest among non- or casual fans but when that dissipates (as it has done), the sport is left with unhappy core fans that are less prone to instill a love of the sport in their kids, which in turn creates a void in the fan base in the next generation.
• I think NASCAR is one of the few sports that have changed to make it more exciting. Traditions and history only will get you by for so long.
• It's nice to know we have input to NASCAR. At some point, the line needs to be drawn. The show is the show. Not all races are awesome and not all are stinkers. Whining about every flaw leads to constant criticism of our sport. NASCAR seems to be in good shape compared to some other forms of motorsports (AMA). I don't know exactly what criteria NASCAR uses to make changes, but I'd like to think they use surveys like this one.
• I would rather stick to our roots. Trying to give the fans what they want, in my opinion, has made the racing worse. Look at the All-Star Race in May. That race turned into a race of strategy rather than a showdown for a million bucks. Also, look at Bristol.
• I'm all for keeping the traditions in the sport so long as the teams are allowed to innovate and compete to be the best. If that doesn't happen, then you have to go the route of the WWE and do tricks to make the races/racing more exciting. There has to be more excitement even in the long races. Drivers/teams are riding around in the first half to 3/4 of the races just logging laps and then the exciting racing starts. Sad.
• Get back to basics and the numbers will improve.
• Sometimes traditions hinder progress.
What races need to be shortened (if any)? NASCAR Chairman Brian France said last weekend at Daytona that series officials would look to shorten races, noting it has “worked well” at Auto Club Speedway, Dover and Pocono. Fan Council members were asked what races, if any, needed to be shortened.
35.6 percent said the Atlanta race (500 miles ... last year’s race was 4 hours, 0 minutes) 34.9 percent said Texas fall race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 16 minutes last year) 34.2 percent said the Texas spring race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 7 minutes in April) 29.5 percent said “None” 27.4 percent said Charlotte fall race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 25 minutes last year) 26.0 percent said Talladega fall race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 29 minutes last year) 18.8 percent said Talladega spring race (516 miles with GWC ... was 3 hours, 13 minutes in April) (Every track received votes, but no other track received more than 15 percent of the votes)
What Fan Council members said:
• This makes no sense at all. Why would anyone want the races shortened? Are they going to reduce ticket prices by an equal ratio? Doubtful.
• Just about anything with a 500 after it should be shortened.
• Might as well shorten both ’Dega races if these guys are just gonna ride.
• The race I really think needs shortening is the Coke 600. I know it's traditionally been the one marathon race, but we saw this year that with the style of racing we're seeing the extra 100 miles is dreadfully boring.
• Stop catering to ADD Nation! The sport needs a few long races. The Coke 600 and Southern 500 should never be shortened.
• For me, the races don't need to be shortened because of the time of the race (with few exceptions). They need to be shortened to prevent drivers from riding around until the end of the race. The plate races are the prime example of this. But we see this at a lot of tracks. I think the road courses, Phoenix, NHMS and a few other have races that are about the right distance.
• I'm never in favor of cutting from any race. If you need to cut laps and miles from a track to make a race more interesting, maybe you should be taking a look at the product that's being put out there.
• I wouldn't mind the length of any race if they actually raced. I'm sick of them riding around for two to two-and-a-half hours and then racing the last 50 to 100 laps.
• No sir, no sir, no sir! Do not shorten any more races!
• I think the time from Atlanta is deceiving because there were so many cautions for the bad weather.
• I think there needs to be only three races longer than 400 miles: the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 (at Darlington over Labor Day weekend) and the 600-miler at Charlotte. These days the cars and drivers can handle the 500-mile length no problem, so it's no longer a matter of whether they will last the grueling length. Now it's drivers just logging laps in the middle, so let's cut that down some, especially at the cookie-cutter tracks.
What’s been the biggest surprise of the Cup season?
36.9 percent said Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick among winless drivers this year 30.4 percent said Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing after the season 13.4 percent said lack of cautions this season 8.2 percent said Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s strength 7.2 percent said success of Michael Waltrip Racing 3.9 percent said “Other”
What Fan Council members said:
• The big names who are winless is a HUGE story, but things happen. The Kenseth story is UNBELIEVABLE and I never thought it would ever happen.
• I HATE Toyota, but MWR has been a huge surprise, I have to admit.
• I'm in total disbelief over Carl's season. Something's gotta give. And since when did he become Jack's red-headed stepson?
• There are a lot of mid-season surprises, but I am most surprised at the lack of wins and great performances from drivers like Edwards, Harvick and Gordon.
• Danica Patrick still running after both Darlington events. Anybody who understands the nature of that beast would have bet against it.
• I would have picked Junior’s strength a couple of weeks ago, but I still can't believe that Kenseth is leaving Rousch Fenway after so many successful years there.
• Lack of cautions is really making this boring, but with the way the CoT has been, it's not a surprise when NASCAR isn't throwing cautions for water bottles. Dale Jr. is the big one for me. We all knew he had the equipment and was getting accustomed to Steve Letarte, but he is far more confident and focused than I've ever seen him. He's not just doing the best he can to get in the Chase as his main goal. He BELIEVES he can win
• AJ Allmendinger getting suspended for failing a drug test eclipsed my surprise at Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing. I initially ignored the mentions of Matt's contract because I fully expected him to re-sign with Roush. I was surprised when the rumor began that he was really a free agent. AJ's suspension 90 minutes before (Saturday night’s) race came out of left field.
• The lack of cautions is by far the story this year. That long green run at Texas brought it to the forefront. When there are green flag pit stops at Martinsville, you have a problem.
Pack racing or tandem drafting? (ASP, Inc.)
Grading Saturday's Cup race at Daytona
47.6 percent called it Good 26.8 percent called it Fair 14.1 percent called it Great 11.5 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Same old restrictor plate race. Drive around for 120 laps and wreck for the last 40. I can't really blame the drivers for just riding in the beginning. If they didn't, there would be no one left. I'm really over plate races. I think they should be for cash only and no points. My driver won and I'm still saying this.
• Great race that had lots of action for everyone.
• The million-dollar wreckfest. This isn't racing, it's Barnum & Bailey-style entertainment. Single-file draft, tag team — this is nothing more than high speed soap box derby racing combined with bumper cars. It might be exciting to those interested in near-fatal crashes, but talent never makes an appearance here.
• The first half of the race was comparable to 1.5-mile racing (insanely boring) but the last quarter of the race was insane. Stewart winning from 42nd after qualifying second showed how good of a car he had. Smoke is not a great qualifier, so when he does well, its trouble for the field. All the lovers of pack racing and carnage got what they wanted, except Junior winning.
• I love the drama that restrictor plate races bring, but I wish the cars didn't run so hot because that really hindered what the drivers could do.
• Again, another week of NO PASSING! Who would have thought I would ever have graded a restrictor plate race Poor? *YAWN*
• The current rules package got rid of the tandem racing but also got rid of the competition up front. Now that we have only 12 lead changes vs. 50-plus, I am not a huge fan. Throw in the demolition derby at the end and I am quickly losing interest in the Cup races at plate tracks.
• The only thing that stopped me from choosing “Great” is that the best car/driver (Kenseth) didn't win. Matt RACED the whole race and was in the thick of things all night. Stewart rode around in the back most of the time and ended up last man standing. That to me is NOT racing. Aside from that, the racing was very good.
• First great race of the year.
• Can we call it restrictor plate “racing” any longer? Four cars in contention for the win because the rest of the field has been wiped out behind them? Bring back the two-car tango, please. At least then it took true skill to win and not just blind luck.
Which do you prefer at restrictor-plate tracks: Tandem drafting or pack racing?
52.8 percent said pack racing evident in the Cup race 47.2 percent said tandem drafting evident in the Nationwide race
What Fan Council members said:
• I don't like tandem drafting, but the Nationwide race was more exciting than the Cup race, in my opinion.
• I thought the Nationwide race was very exciting. It kept me on the seat of my chair the entire time. Lots of lead changing and good solid racing. The Cup race was boring. By the end, most everyone had crashed. That’s what happens in pack racing … don't understand why everyone likes it so much!
• I do NOT like tandem because you are so dependent on getting pushed and to have to have a pusher to win the race is NOT racing in my opinion.
• I enjoyed the tandem drafting from the very beginning — I don't understand why people hate it so much.
• I like a mix of both.
• I was at both races and I felt the intensity more during the Nationwide race than the Sprint Cup race. It seemed like they were racing the last lap on every lap. The Sprint cars with the smaller radiators and restrictor plates kept the cars from getting too close to each other and hooking up for more than half a lap.
• Two by two is boring. This is racing, not boarding the Ark.
• Pack racing at least gives you the hope of some action, as the cars are side-by-side for several laps at a time.
• I think the pack racing is great. It makes for a more unpredictable race. And that is why I like tracks like Daytona and Talladega. I think it’s great because it gives the underdogs a shot a winning a race.
• I hate them both. I hate how so many cars get demolished. I know NASCAR has done a great job working on safety, but I feel like they are playing with fire with the plate races. Luckily, no one was injured and no cars went airborne.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Coke Zero 400
Carl Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
Here's hoping all the NASCAR fantasy players out there had a happy and safe Fourth of July holiday. After a week of firework displays around this great nation, the grand finale will come Saturday night under the lights at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 — let's just keep Juan Pablo Montoya away from any jet dryers, OK?
In all seriousness, this weekend's annual July stop at the beach is one in which drivers are racing with multiple agendas on one of the sport's biggest stages. Each time the series heads to Daytona, nearly anyone in the field has a shot at upsetting the world — or at least scoring a solid finish at a crucial part of the season.
With only nine races left before the Chase field is set, the battle for the wild card spots and the fight for the top 10 in the standings is intensifying.
Perhaps one of the biggest names currently outside the top 10 in points looking to score his first win of the season this is Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards. Last year's runner-up in the championship battle has yet to win in 2012, and currently sits 11th in points.
Edwards had a deceptively strong run going in Kentucky, but a late pit stop for fuel dropped the No. 99 Ford to a 20th-place finish at the end of the night. The finish was Edwards' fifth-straight outside the top 10. To find Edwards' last top-5 finish, you would have to go back to Fontana in March. Edwards did not lead a single lap of competition until Kansas, when he led one, then backed it up at Richmond by leading 206 of the 400 laps. Since then, Edwards has led a grand total of zero.
However, things have been shaken up of late at RFR. Daytona 500 champion and current points leader Matt Kenseth will be leaving the organization at the end of the season with Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moving up to the Cup ranks as his replacement. With a multitude of sponsorship support behind him and many beginning to ask questions, Edwards is determined to turn his season around at the halfway point.
The driver of the No. 99 has been among the best on the high banks of Daytona in recent visits. He was runner-up to Trevor Bayne in last year's Daytona 500. He entered last year's Coke Zero 400 the points leader, but was turned around while running third early in the race by teammate Greg Biffle, leading to a 37th-place finish. This season, Edwards sat on the pole for the 500 and came home eighth. And if there’s one thing that’s obvious in the Ford camp, it’s that their engineers have figured out how to keep the Blue Ovals running cooler — a major advantage on the plate tracks, circa 2012.
Looking to race his way back into the top 10 in points, earn his first win of the season and turn his year around, Edwards is this week's fantasy favorite.
While Edwards may be the fantasy favorite, the perennial fan favorite is Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has two wins on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, one of which came in the Coke Zero 400 on July 7, 2001. With Saturday night's race coming on July 7 once again, could seven be the lucky number for Earnhardt?
Although he is always counted among the best at Daytona — he finished second to Kenseth in February — Earnhardt's last win on the high banks was in 2004. With one victory already this season, the No. 88 team is eager to add to the win column and start collecting bonus points for the Chase.
Whether or not drivers are willing to admit it, momentum is a hard thing to beat, and right now Brad Keselowski has a lot of it. Coming off a strong performance last week in Kentucky, Keselowski’s three wins lead the circuit. He’s good on all types of tracks (with wins on short, plate and intermediate venues), making him a must-watch.
Based on their recent finishes at Daytona, never count out Edwards’ Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Biffle. Kenseth was second in this race last season and won his second Daytona 500 in February, while Biffle was third. The Roush cars are typically strong here, with former driver David Ragan besting Kenseth last July.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Like Keselowski, Sonoma race-winner Clint Bowyer proved he can get the job done on any style track — but especially on the high banks of Daytona and Talladega. His average finish of 14.8 at DIS is second-best among active drivers, however Bowyer has yet to score a win at Daytona.
Also like Keselowski, Bowyer has momentum on his side as the series hits the halfway point of the season. A winner two weeks ago on the road course, Bowyer is seventh in the standings and has only two finishes worse than 17th all season (a 30th, Phoenix; 36th, Kansas).
The month of July has historically been good to Bowyer in the past. Of the three tracks the series hits this month — Daytona, New Hampshire and Indianapolis — Bowyer has two wins, a pole, six top 5s and 12 top 10s. Expect him to add to those totals on Saturday.
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and teammate Clint Bowyer (15) at Daytona. (ASP, Inc.)
Bowyer's MWR teammate, Martin Truex Jr., has not had much luck when it comes to Daytona, but expect that to turn around this weekend. In his 14 previous starts on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Truex has a best finish of sixth in the 2010 Daytona 500 and an average finish of 21.5. In fact, that sixth-place finish is his lone top 10 at Daytona. Statistically, Truex has struggled mightily in the annual July event, with a best finish of 13th in 2007. Aside from that event, Truex has four finishes of 25th or worse in six races.
However, Truex and his No. 56 team have shown strength this season. Already 17 races into the season, Truex has more top 5 finishes (four) than in the last four seasons combined, and nearly as many top 10s (nine). Sitting eighth in the standings, Truex is looking to move further away from that 10th-place Chase cut off, break his winless streak dating back to 2007 and start building bonus points for the Chase.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson
There have been quite a few surprises throughout the first half of the 2012 season, but one that jumps out is the driver sitting just outside the top 10 in the standings in 13th-place. Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard has consistently stayed in contention, yet just outside the Chase cutoff, ahead of race-winners Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
Although he has only four top-10 finishes this season, Menard's average finish has been 16.1. Consistently finishing inside the top 20 is not enough to make the Chase or content for the title, so Menard needs to either score a win and enter the Chase via wild card, or make a run at the top 10.
Daytona is a great place for Menard to make a statement run as he did last year at Indianapolis. Heading into this weekend's race, Menard has three consecutive top-10 finishes at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, the only driver on the circuit to currently own such a streak, and something that should continue Saturday night.
Another of the biggest surprises this season has been the abysmal showing of AJ Allmendinger in his new Penske digs. For as successful a year as his teammate, Keselowski, has had, Allmendinger's year has been equally tough to swallow. Poor luck and other struggles have led to six finishes of 31st or worse. However, the driver of the No. 22 Dodge is coming off back-to-back top-10 finishes at Sonoma and Kentucky — his first such “streak” of the season.
Allmendinger showed strength in Daytona early in the season but sustained damage to the nose on pit road just 15 laps into the event. A solid run at Talladega also went to the wayside late in the race when he and Denny Hamlin got together on a late-race restart.
With the season at the halfway point and speculation beginning to build about Penske’s plans for the No. 22 Dodge in 2013, it is time for a solid string of runs through the summer months. With back-to-back top 10s in his pocket, look for Allmendinger to be a factor if he can make it through the entire event without any issues.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger, Landon Cassill, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray
Top 10 average finish at Daytona (points-paying wins):
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.5 (2)
2. Clint Bowyer — 14.8 (0)
3. Kevin Harvick — 15.0 (0)
4. Bill Elliott — 15.6 (4)
5. Jeff Gordon — 16.2 (6)
6. Tony Stewart — 16.7 (3)
7. Matt Kenseth — 16.7 (2)
8. Kurt Busch — 17.3 (0)
9. Carl Edwards — 17.3 (0)
10. Paul Menard — 17.3 (0)
Drivers and teams to watch as the circuit hits its mid-summer classic in Daytona
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (please don’t call it the Pepsi 400 — Firecracker 400, however, will be accepted) marks the halfway point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
The year’s third restrictor plate race was once run on the morning of the fourth to beat the oppressive North Florida heat and humidity. “On the track by 11:00, on the beach by 2:00,” was the mantra before lights and night racing. NASCAR’s signature speedway has endured wildfires and truck fires in recent years, as well as Turn Two disemboweling itself in the middle of an event, but all should be solid as we’re knee-deep in the Summer Stretch. And as the championship chase begins to take shape, the contenders have begun to separate themselves from the pretenders. Unless, of course, it’s 2011 and you’re Tony Stewart, stumbling into the Chase like the town lush, but suddenly start running like Tony Stewart once the title fight begins.
But I digress. Let’s review our current top 10 in points, how they got here, and who on the outside looking in has to get their stuff together if they have any hopes of contending for the Cup come September.
1. Matt Kenseth Wins: 1 (Daytona 500)
Let’s see, Daytona 500: Check. Points leader: Check. Bailing on team mid-season: WTF? Kenseth’s announcement that he is leaving the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford at season’s end sent shockwaves through the fanbase. His likely destination appears to be Joe Gibbs Racing, although a proposed Andretti Autosport venture into NASCAR with Dodge assistance has been bandied about. It’s bad enough that Jack Roush’s former flagship No. 6 has been mothballed, but now the tried-and-true driver of the No. 17? Tragically coincidental — since it was the original driver of the No. 6, Mark Martin, who sold Roush on Kenseth, convincing him to field the No. 17 Cup ride for him in 2000. The last driver to win the Winston Cup in 2003 has been a model of consistency this year, much as he was that season. Kenseth’s low-key demeanor and approach will likely serve him well during what will prove to be a tumultuous few months in the Ford camp. With a win, eight top 5s and 12 top 10s to his credit this year, if Kenseth and the Wisconsin Mafia can keep the distractions at bay they very well could exit in style, giving Roush his third Cup Series championship. But distractions and fallout associated with being a “lame duck” lurk around every corner.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins: 1 (Michigan)
All together now: “JUUUUUNE-YEEERRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!” Finally, after 143 races and four years of futility, Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke into the winner’s circle at Michigan, the site of his last win in 2008. That victory did more for the psyche than the stat sheet, as Earnhardt is what Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket would deem, “Definitely born again hard.” With a win, seven top-5 and an even more impressive 13 top-10 finishes, the No. 88 team has done more in four months than it had in the last … well, forever. Credit Steve Letarte and Rick Hendrick, who essentially put Earnhardt with Jeff Gordon’s former team last season. The Prince of Kannapolis is doing his fans proud, so don’t be surprised to see a lot of old, red No. 8 gear being dusted off and thrust back into service in the coming months. Take heart Junior Nation — you’ve earned it, and your man is back near the top. Junior hasn’t been in a fierce title battle in so long, it’s hard to predict what type of showing he’ll make. But if a late-season slide doesn’t derail his momentum (and with Letarte calling the shots, it shouldn’t), Earnhardt is looking gbetter than he has in … well, forever.
3. Jimmie Johnson Wins: 2 (Darlington, Dover)
Oh yeah, don’t forget the “other driver” at Hendrick Motorsports. When he’s not cruising around with Mr. H on his windowsill, Jimmie Johnson is just being Jimmie Johnson; going about his business with painful precision and without much fanfare. Like a Glock pistol, he may be short on flash and flair, but he is dead-nuts reliable and never fails when the money is on the line. His nine top 5s and 13 top 10s are the most in both categories, and should serve as a harbinger of things to come in the fall. As in the past, the No. 48 team vets and fetters out the junk and finds what works during the summer months, then sets “phasers to kill” come September. For those who have tired of the “Five-Time” moniker, don’t worry. You may be calling him “Six-Time” by Thanksgiving.
4. Greg Biffle Wins: 1 (Texas)
Biffle started off the season strong, posting a trio of top-3 finishes in the first three races. He made a mockery of the last half of the April event at Texas Motor Speedway, and led the points from Las Vegas in early March until a 24th-place finish at Pocono, when he surrendered the top spot to his soon-to-be former teammate, Kenseth. A Roush veteran since his 1998 Truck Series debut, Biffle will prove to be the backbone of the team with Kenseth’s impending departure. While the No. 16 team started strong, it has stumbled in recent weeks, posting two sub-20th-place runs in the last four races. It was the No. 16 team that stopped Roush’s win skein in 2010, when the company got off track with misleading data simulation and sucky software on the engineering side. If there is a trend that must be watched with this bunch, it is that Biffle tends to go through crew chiefs quickly. Eight top 5s and 10 top 10s are a testament to his consistency, as well as the effect that current chief Matt Puccia has had for the driver who is in position to be the first in NASCAR history to win a championship in all three touring series.
5. Denny Hamlin Wins: 2 (Phoenix, Kansas)
What a difference a year makes. This time last season, Denny Hamlin was, to be honest, a mess. With three top 5s and six top 10s, coupled win a number of cryptic comments made during interviews that at best sounded whiney, Hamlin was still suffering the side-effects from his team’s 2010 implosion. Now with a new attitude and re-found mental toughness (and 2011 championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb making decisive calls), Hamlin has a pair of wins, and eight top-5 finishes. Those runs account for nearly all of his top 10s, and it must be noted that he has two DNFs in his last three races — courtesy of a fiery exit in Michigan and the front bumper of teammate Joey Logano at Sonoma. If Hamlin can keep from getting wrecked or exploding — and a TRD IED does not find its way between the fenders of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota — he will likely find himself in contention to win the title, as he was in 2010. This time, however, he will be better prepared mentally and strategically to contend.
6. Kevin Harvick Wins: 0
The driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet hasn’t had a lot to brag about this year — but he hasn’t had much to really complain about, either. Usually the first one to ride his crew if they make the smallest of errors, Harvick has achieved his position not so much with poise and audacity, but on reliability and finishing races. A smattering of eight top 10s and three top 5s is decent, but not exactly championship caliber. If Harvick were to have a catastrophic failure in the coming weeks — which would lose him say, 40 points — the impact would be significant, and could potentially drop him out of the top 10 in points. He’s gotten by on a number of eighth- to 14th-place runs, but if he’s to solidify his place in the Chase, the No. 29 operation as a whole needs to step it up on the track, in the pits and in the garage while prepping the car for Sunday.
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
7. Clint Bowyer Wins: 1 (Sonoma)
Not only do you see him every 15 minutes in a 5-Hour Energy or NASCAR.com commercial, you now see him up front, leading and winning races. Bowyer’s move to Michael Waltrip Racing was seen by many as a risky move, albeit one he was essentially forced into after he lost his ride in the No. 33 at RCR (despite winning a Nationwide title in 2008 and qualifying for the Chase three times in six seasons). With former RCR crew chief and competition director Scott Miller making the move to MWR as well, the performance of all involved has risen substantially. With six top 5s and nine top 10s, the occasional win, or at least contention for the win, is no longer an oddity. This, coupled with some veteran leadership from Mark Martin in a part-time arrangement in the No. 55, along with teammate Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 56 group, finds MWR becoming this generation’s — dare I say it? — RCR.
8. Martin Truex Jr. Wins: 0
Martin Truex Jr. is enjoying his best season in Cup competition since his 2007 rookie campaign when he won a race, made the Chase and ended the year 11th in points. Currently sitting in eighth position on the strength of four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes, Truex has been a key cog in the MWR Renaissance of 2012. However, there may be storm clouds on the horizon. Truex’s finishes have begun to waver, his eighth-place run at Kentucky ending a string of three races without a top 10. Now is not the time to mix inconsistency into the equation, particularly with the crapshoot that is a restrictor plate race at Daytona on the docket. While Truex is only 10 points out of fifth in the standings, he’s also less than 20 points from 10th. If he keeps the steady-as-she-goes performance trend and avoids any back-to-back disasters or mechanical maladies, he looks to be a safe bet to make the Chase field for the first time in five years.
9. Tony Stewart Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Fontana)
Towards the bottom of the top 10, we find a pair of drivers on the tail end of making the Chase, but who are arguably the most potent in the field. Tony Stewart has seven top-5 finishes and eight top 10s, but it is how he came to those numbers that are the most telling: two wins, back-to-back second-place runs and three third-place showings. Add in some mechanical woes by way of EFI foul ups, and you have created the crusty Tony of old the last couple of months. Quite possibly the only person in the country who was not cheering the Earnhardt victory in Michigan, Smoke has found that delicate balance of diplomacy and irritability that has guided him to three championships. Streaky performances be damned, he’s in prime position to add a fourth to the mix — half of which would be as an owner/driver, something not seen since The King’s heydays of the 1970s.
10. Brad Keselowski Wins: 3 (Bristol, Talladega, Kentucky)
The one driver barely clinging to top-10 status is also the lynchpin in the Chase scenario. Keselowski has won three races at three diametrically different tracks: Bristol, Talladega and Kentucky. Plate track, short track, intermediate — it doesn’t seem to matter where the Miller Lite Dodge goes, it can be a force to be reckoned with. It would appear that the strategy being employed by the No. 2 team is to focus on wins ahead of all else. Three of his top 5s are victories while the other two barely made it as fifth-place performances. His top 10s are then comprised of a pair of ninth-place finishes, with the rest being mid-teens or worse-than-30th finishes. The only DNF they suffered was post-Tweet at the Daytona 500 in February, and it was about this time last year that Keselowski made the transition from promising driver to leader and motivator following a broken ankle during a testing crash. It remains a mystery why Penske is leaving Dodge to join forces with Ford, what with the modest win totals of the two-car team over the last few seasons. However, it remains committed to its current manufacturer and stands to make some noise for the Mopar faithful if its flagship No. 2 team can avoid any calamities in the coming weeks. Of course, even a tumble out of the top 10 finds Keselowski in the catbird seat, with three-times the wins as anyone from 11th to 20th in the standings.
On the Outside Looking In
To think that Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch would be reduced to relative obscurity in October is nearly unfathomable, especially considering Edwards’ 2011 consistency, Gordon’s seemingly resurrected career with crew chief Alan Gustafson and Busch’s ability to hammer out wins in quick succession. However, all three have missed the Chase before, and they’re nearing the point of no return without some wins. Nine races remain before the Chase for the Championship begins in Chicago, and of the three, only Busch has a 2012 win. Edwards’ and Gordon’s teams have had both bad luck and bad calls that have kept them out of Victory Lane, while the engines supplied to the No. 18 from TRD have been straight up TuRDs, with three straight engine failures conspiring to drop Busch to 12th in points.
Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman all reside within the top 20, and each have one win. Among them, only Kahne has displayed any sort of consistent speed to threaten breaking into the top 10. Even if that happened, it would likely require Keselowski and Stewart to fall out. With The Big Keselowski having three wins and Smoke two, that would also require Logano and Newman to crank out a couple of more wins apiece if they were to qualify — not out of the realm of possibility, but certainly not expected.
Paul Menard, in 13th, will need to repeat last year’s Brickyard 400 triumph to have a shot at taking one of the two open wildcard spots, as he has yet to claim a win this year. Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton are over 100 points out of 10th and have struggled to find the top 10, much less score wins. Marcos Ambrose isn’t in much better shape, though a trip to Watkins Glen may get him back in the wildcard conversation.