Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350
Marcos Ambrose, following his win at Watkins Glen in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
After two weeks of high speeds and flat out racing, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the twists and turns of Sonoma Raceway for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The 12-turn, 1.99-mile road course is the first test for the teams this season as they turn left and right.
Over the past few years, road course races have turned very aggressive, with more torn up racecars than some short track afternoons. These events also have a tendency to turn into fuel-mileage contests, with strategy playing a major role in how the race unfolds.
One driver that understands the importance of fuel conservation at Sonoma is Richard Petty Motorsports' Marcos Ambrose. The former Australian V-8 Supercar champion has long been known as a road course specialists, and nearly scored his first Sprint Cup Series victory at Sonoma in 2010.
After leading 35 of the 110 laps, Ambrose was attempting to save fuel under caution in the event’s waning laps by shutting his engine off and coasting around the circuit. When the pace car led the field up the hill past the start/finish line, Ambrose's car would not re-fire and dropped him back in the running order. The mistake was costly for Ambrose, who would have to wait until the 2011 race at Watkins Glen International to score that elusive first win.
This weekend, Ambrose heads back to Sonoma with much better equipment, the seventh-best average finish at the track, and is this week's NASCAR fantasy favorite.
Throughout the 2012 season, Ambrose has shown he is no longer simply a road course specialist. Sitting 17th in the series standings, he is coming off three finishes of 13th or better in the last three weeks. Despite a 32nd-place finish in Charlotte for an issue with the left front hub, the No. 9 Ford was among the fastest that weekend, as well.
Heading to one of his best tracks, Ambrose is confident in his team's ability to get the job done week-in and week-out.
“People know we’re around and it’s a good situation to be in,” he said. “I feel good about our team. I feel good about being part of the growth of Richard Petty Motorsports and I think that curve is continuing to go upwards. I think you’ve yet to see the best of us and you’ve yet to see the best of me.”
While Ambrose may enter the favorite, you can never count out five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon. The veteran driver has been nipping on the heels of solid finishes each week, but his season has had about as many twists and turns as this weekend's race.
Gordon has the best average finish among active drivers at Sonoma (8.7), and was second in this race last year. Celebrating his 20th season at the Sprint Cup level, Gordon is now the only Hendrick driver without a win this year, something that could change on Sunday.
Much like Ambrose, former open-wheel driver Juan Pablo Montoya is also considered a threat any time the Sprint Cup Series heads to the road course in Sonoma. Montoya went to Victory Lane in his first attempt at Sonoma in ’07, but has yet to record a top-5 finish since. While he has the second-best average finish (9.0), the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver was 22nd in last year's event.
While the 2012 season has been a struggle for Montoya, he is coming off an eighth-place finish last weekend at Michigan, only his second top 10 of the year. If Monotya can keep the car in one piece and crew chief Chris Heroy can play the right strategy, the No. 42 team could score some solid fantasy points.
Five Favorites: Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson
There's no telling what Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick are discussing. (ASP, Inc.)
Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer may not be the first driver you think of when it comes to road course racing, but the former dirt tracker is this weekend's undervalued pick of the week.
Although he has yet to score a win at Sonoma, Bowyer has the third-best average finish (11.2) with three top 5s and four top 10s in his last five trips out west.
Bowyer has also been fairly consistent over the past seven races. Since losing an engine in front of his hometown crowd in Kansas, Bowyer and his Brian Pattie-led team have recorded five top 10s, with their worst finish (13th) coming at Charlotte.
Pocono winner Joey Logano carried momentum into last weekend's race at Michigan, but ended the day with a wrecked racecar and a 35th-place finish. While Logano only has three starts at Sonoma, he is the defending pole sitter, and led five laps en route to a sixth-place showing.
This year, Logano has proven that previous statistics at tracks are not a great indication of how he will perform. Trying to put last week's disappointing finish behind him, he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff will focus on getting the No. 20 Toyota to handle well and power through the slow U-turn breaking zone in Turn 11.
Logano's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, also had a rough outing at Michigan. In fact, since scoring the win at Richmond and following it up with second-, fourth- and third-place runs in April and May, Busch has failed to finish better than 29th (at Dover, Pocono and Michigan), the victim of engine troubles that JGR has vowed to correct.
Despite his recent troubles, Busch is a skilled road course racer. He swept the roadies in 2008, was 11th in this race last year, and sat on the pole, led 49 and finished third at Watkins Glen last August.
This is a great week for Busch to get the bad luck monkey off his back and record a solid finish, leading to solid fantasy points.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick
How can last week's winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., be a darkhorse pick just one week later? Simple: Just look at Earnhardt's numbers at Sonoma, which is one of only three tracks on the Cup schedule where he has yet to deliver a top-10 finish (the other two are Homestead and Kentucky). In fact, in 12 starts, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has only five finishes inside the top 15. Last year's 41st-place finish was his worst of the entire season.
However, Earnhardt is carrying a ton of momentum enter Wine Country and has been one of the most consistent entries in 2012. While he most likely will not record his first Sonoma win, do not be surprised if the perennial fan favorite finishes well inside the top 10 for the first time in his career.
Fresh off a European trip to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Brian Vickers is back behind the wheel of the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota this weekend at Sonoma. Vickers tested with the team at Virginia International Raceway in preparation for the weekend.
“We ran very competitive laps times against some guys that are considered the road race experts,” he said. “So I am pretty pumped about that. I’ve had some success at Sonoma, too. The last being the pole in 2009 and leading a bunch of laps before getting caught up in an incident.”
Like everyone else, if Vickers can keep the fenders on the car, he could continue the solid runs the Rodney Childers-led team have built upon thus far in 2012.
Also consider Penske Racing's AJ Allmendinger, but keep in mind his poor luck throughout the season. A former open-wheel driver, Allmendinger has the chance to turn his season around, but the frustration could also continue.
Independent owner/driver Robby Gordon is back in a Cup car for only the third time in 2012. While he recorded two DNFs at Daytona and Phoenix, Gordon will be in his element this weekend at Sonoma, where he finished second in 2010. His aggressive driving style could be an issue throughout the race, but it could also lead to a good finish.
Kurt Busch is the defending race winner at Sonoma, and can never be considered a non-factor on the road courses, regardless of the equipment. However, the tumultuous past few weeks raise a major red flag with the elder Busch brother. Be sure to weigh the risk versus reward when considering this choice.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brian Vickers, AJ Allmendinger, Robby Gordon, Kurt Busch
Best Average Finish at Sonoma (Wins):
1. Jeff Gordon — 8.7 (5)
2. Juan Pablo Montoya — 9.0 (1)
3. Clint Bowyer — 11.2 (0)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (2)
5. Ryan Newman — 12.4 (0)
6. Marcos Ambrose — 14.0 (0)
7. Jimmie Johnson — 14.7 (1)
8. Greg Biffle — 15.8 (0)
9. Kevin Harvick — 16.1 (0)
10. Carl Edwards — 16.6 (0)
* Mark Martin (one win, 11.9-place average finish) is not entered in this weekend's race. Brian Vickers will drive the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota.
Junior's title hopes, grading Michigan and road racing in Sonoma
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory celebration is long over and now it’s time to look ahead. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council were asked to look ahead on what Earnhardt’s victory means related to the title race and at this weekend’s race — the first race on a road course this season. Of course, members did have time to look back at Michigan and give that race a grade.
Here’s what members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say:
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF DALE EARNHARDT JR.’S VICTORY AT MICHIGAN?
56.2 percent said it’s a sign that he truly is a title contender this year 35.8 percent said it was nice but it’s only one win, let’s not get carried away 8.0 percent said it does not matter to me
What Fan Council members said:
• I am less impressed with the victory then I am his other numbers for the season so far. Twelve top 10s, six top 5s, 218 laps led, average finish of seventh, and he has completed every lap of competition this season, all in just 15 races. The extraordinary numbers that team has posted are Jimmie Johnson-esque and are remarkable for any driver. I may not be a Junior fan, but I believe that team is the best in the garage this year and may possibly do what I previously thought was impossible and win Junior a championship.
• Junior obviously has momentum right now, but let's all take a deep breath and realize how long the season is. We're “Pro-Junior” in our household, but I'm not gonna run out and get an 88 tattoo any time soon …
• Steve Letarte has put together a team that believes in themselves and they are staying consistent. They need to win more to compete for the title, but I believe they are on the right track.
• Consistent season so far + contending for wins + second in points + a win = title contender.
• Of course he is a title contender!! Have you looked at his stats this year???
• I feel like Smoke in this regard. Glad to see it happen, but give it a rest like it’s the second coming. With Hendrick equipment, he should win more than two points races in five years. If he runs well at Sonoma and Kentucky and even takes the points lead, then I would be more impressed.
• One win in the past four years in the best equipment (in) NASCAR . It’s quite sad that there was this much celebration over it.
• He's a virtual lock for the Chase now. I expect the team to take more chances and be a huge threat in the Chase. He's got the consistency down, and now has proven the team can win in dominating fashion.
• That was a strong showing for the 88. I think this season will finally shut the mouths of some of the naysayers.
• I like Junior, but one win doesn't mean he's going to win the championship this year. Let's wait and see what the future brings.
• Don't understand all the hype! Hasn't proved anything in his career. If he didn't have the name Earnhardt, he probably would be in the 51 car!
• I thought he was a title contender even before the win Sunday (and this is coming from a non-Junior fan). He and Letarte seem to have great chemistry with each other, (and) with guys like Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards having somewhat off years Junior could definitely pull out a championship and probably spark off victory riots across the country.
GRADING SUNDAY’S RACE AT MICHIGAN
57.1 percent called it Good 29.8 percent called it Great 10.2 percent called it Fair 2.8 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Are you kidding me? Junior led almost half the race and won going away. And Kyle Busch kicked rocks while his brother kept spinning himself out. It doesn't get any better.
• When the post-race excitement matches the pre-race excitement with equally exciting racing in between, then it's a pretty great race.
• It was a lot better than I thought it would be. With all the speed/tire problems leading up to the green flag, I was afraid we were in for another gas mileage race.
• I will enjoy Michigan more when the groove widens back out to the wall
• Being there was great, even with the rain delay. The place was electric. Especially at the end of the race, I have never seen so many excited people. It was like the section I was in was holding its breath and then went crazy.
• I thought it was a very good race and think NASCAR made the right decision in the tire change.
• I attend this race every year and this one felt “racier” than normal. Perhaps the suspense from all the pre-race unknowns — tires, engines, speeds — carried over into the race.
• I thought it was a good race. Suspense because no one knew what the tires were going to do, adding to that the rain washed all the rubber off the track. The race itself was just solid.
• Today's race was the first I unhesitatingly checked “Great.” There was passing all over the place, racing three- and four-wide, hard racing side-by-side with give and go. No phantom cautions, (the) cautions (were) called when necessary, no speeding debacles or major issues with tires or fuel. I also have to give props to NASCAR for making sure this didn't turn into “Indy Tire Fiasco Part II.” They saw the probability of the race either being run 10 to 15 laps at a time or 30 cars hitting the wall at 200 mph due to tire blowouts. I'm more than willing to watch cars running at slightly slower speeds if it saves injury and/or equipment.
• Pretty interesting race with lots of storylines: Dale’s win, JGR’s tumultuous day, Kurt Busch’s bad luck continuing, tires blistering, fast speeds and other things, as well. I enjoyed it even though my driver wasn't a contender for most of the race.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
SONOMA IS NEXT ON THE CUP SCHEDULE. ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO A RACE ON A ROAD COURSE?
74.1 percent said Yes 25.9 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• I used to not even watch the road courses, but during the last few years they have turned into must-see races. Always tons of action, and it’s nice to see the drivers out of their element.
• I do not think stock cars should race on road courses. So, this and Watkins Glen will be on the bottom of my list for the ones I'm excited about watching.
• Yes … It's one of only two tracks left with beatin' and bangin' action.
• Road courses were not on the top of my list of races to watch, but after attending one I really enjoy them now. I will be at Road America, but I will DVR the Cup race and watch it when I get home.
• The road course races are my favorite two of the season. I wish they would run Laguna Seca, Road America or maybe a street course.
• Not really looking forward to it. It will very likely be a wreckfest and I know a lot of people like that, but I'd much rather see good hard racing. Beating and banging I'm all for, it as long as no one gets sent into the fence.
• YES!! Road courses break up the NASCAR monotony. There is always more action on the track than any other race, plus you have 43 different pit and fuel strategies. A road course is a race I can watch all the way through, unlike most other races that I watch in one hour or less on my DVR.
• Road courses have replaced what Bristol once was: An excuse to drive like an idiot and chalk it up to good, hard racing. This is the first of two “off weeks” for me as a fan.
• Sonoma and Watkins Glen have replaced Bristol and Martinsville on the schedule as the most exciting races of the year!
• A solid YES! Start, stop, shift, turn left and turn RIGHT! A real challenge to see who is the best!
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.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
We’ve said all along that Earnhardt’s consistency warranted the top spot, but a lack of any wins kept him from it. Well, the 143-race national nightmare is over, and Junior can now lead the way.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Replace the engine and start in the rear of the field? No problem for Chad Knaus and crew. They just handed the ball to J.J., who drove it to a fifth-place finish with blistered tires and an empty gas tank.
3. Matt Kenseth
Third-place runs at Dover and Michigan bookend a seventh at Pocono. Kenseth maintains his lead in the point standings heading to Sonoma, where neither he nor Earnhardt are ... well, good.
4. Greg Biffle
Looked to be the class of the field on Sunday until lap 70, when Earnhardt took to the point and Biffle’s handling went away just slightly. Still, a fourth-place finish works in the grand scheme of things.
No truth to rumor Nick Cage was driving. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
5. Denny Hamlin
Denny “Ghost Rider” Hamlin’s day went up in a blaze of glory after an accident on lap 134 at Michigan, capping an awful day for Joe Gibbs Racing.
6. Tony Stewart
Continuing his roller-coaster type trend, Stewart records runs of third and second following consecutive 25th-place finishes. It’s all about the Chase, right Smoke?
7. Clint Bowyer
In 15 events, Bowyer and his Michael Waltrip Racing team have 12 finishes between fourth and 13th. Not bad considering it’s a bunch with a new crew chief and driver.
8. Brad Keselowski
Has averaged a 12.6-place finish in the five races since his Talladega win. It wasn’t until this time last season that his Penske Racing team really started to take off.
9. Kevin Harvick
His season has mirrored Tony Stewart’s 2011 run thus far: Nothing splashy, zero wins, very few laps led. That said, he’s still sixth in points and as we all know, it’s all about performing in the Chase.
10. Kasey Kahne
His seven-race top-10 streak has come “crashing” down to the tune of 29th- and 33rd-place finishes. Not that it matters if you don’t finish, but his 7.5-place average starting spot is best on circuit.
11. Martin Truex Jr.
Free-agent-to-be is making a strong case for his services in 2013.
12. Carl Edwards
Free-agent-that-was made a strong case for his services last year but has failed to deliver in 2012.
13. Joey Logano
Keeping with the free agent theme, will Logano’s Pocono win convince JGR to re-sign him?
14. Jeff Gordon
Top 10s every three or four weeks won’t get Gordon anywhere near the Chase.
15. Kyle Busch
Hard to blame engine issues on the driver. JGR needs to iron out some things at the shop.
Just off the lead pack: Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane on Sunday. (ASP, Inc.)
Four years and 143 races. That’s how long it had been since NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had won a Sprint Cup Series race.
In that time, the sport’s favorite son went from wildly popular to wildly questioned. The theories from fans and talking heads alike grew in relation to his winless skid: Would Earnhardt ever be a championship contender again? Heck, was he even capable of engineering a race win? Was he all “show” and no “go?” Had the surname simply carried him this far, to a cushy ride at stock-car behemoth Hendrick Motorsports? Was he the Anna Kournikova of NASCAR, or a great athlete slumping beneath the pressures of his singular situation?
The answers, of course, are as elusively undetermined as the questions are radically rash and, often, unfair, borne out of ignorance of the sport, the driver and/or the circumstances that have shaped his career. But that comes with the territory when a legion of fans — residing within the sport and in the hazy midst of casual onlookers that value sticks ’n’ balls over gears ’n’ lugs — expect, then simply yearn, for results. Big-time results. Race-winning results. Results that are assumed when interest resides at a fever-pitch.
All that said, Earnhardt’s 2012 season has been more successful than most in the Sprint Cup ranks. A series-best 11 top 10s in the season’s first 14 races — including two runner-up and two third-place showings — found him second in the point standings. He and crew chief Steve Letarte have been on the brink of a return to Victory Lane, but until the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, it had eluded them.
On Sunday, that consistency was trumped by dominance, as Earnhardt led a race-high 95 laps en route to a nearly 4.5-second win over Tony Stewart.
It was a performance that harkened back to his six-win season in 2004.
“I feel like we are getting stronger,” Earnhardt said of his team’s performance. “One of the things that we did last year throughout the season was kind of maintain, and I was a little — even though I was happy as hell to be with Steve and be able to run well and be competitive — I was a little disheartened that I didn’t progress through the year. I didn’t find more speed as the year went on.
“This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick and we have gotten quicker, and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that’s been a thrill for me.”
His No. 88 team certainly did not disappoint on Sunday. With a repaved racetrack, record speeds and new tires flown in to curtail blistering, the event had the feel of a perfect storm —a perfect storm of uncertainty, that is.
But while other drivers came and went — Stewart, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth all spent time atop the pylon — Earnhardt’s crew took one big setup-adjustment swing in the early stages of the race and left the driver to do the rest. It worked, as Earnhardt ascended to the point on lap 70 and remained there for 95 of the remaining 130 circuits.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane in 2008. (ASP, Inc.)
Now, with the long-awaited win behind him, the questions will shift to whether Earnhardt can maintain his winning ways. After all, following his last win in 2008 (which, ironically, came at Michigan International Speedway) his season slowly sputtered, from sitting as high as second in the championship standings to ultimately finishing a distant 12th.
“You know, I feel like we want to win some more races before the Chase starts, obviously, and we’ll think about where we are points-wise when that all happens after Richmond.
“But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. We have to go to Sonoma and figure out how to get around there and how to get my first top 10 at that place. We have a lot to accomplish this year.”
How much the team accomplishes in the season’s 21 remaining events may well go a long way in answering questions, both fair and frivolous alike, about the driver.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
From the mountains of Pennsylvania to the rolling hills of Michigan, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400.
Racing on yet another repaved track, teams have two test sessions throughout the day on Thursday as they attempt to get acclimated with the new track surface, the higher speeds and how tires will react.
This is another great opportunity for NASCAR fantasy racers, as drivers will be in and out of the media center throughout the day providing insight that could go a long way when making your final lineup decisions.
While all teams will have the opportunity to hit the track for an extra day of testing, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya conducted a two-day tire test in April. Each of the drivers complimented the new surface's grip and indicated speeds were among the fastest they have experienced.
“This place is fast. I mean fast, fast,” Montoya said following the test session. “Our minimum speed this morning was over 180 mph through the corner when you think about it. We are doing easily over 210 mph at the end of the straight.”
Teams have backed that up as of mid-morning on Thursday, as drivers were clicking off average lap times of 200-plus mph. For perspective, Martin Truex Jr. was recorded at 218 mph going into Turn 1.
Already in the backyard of team owner Jack Roush and Ford Motor Company, the additional test in April should pay huge dividends for the current points leader, Kenseth.
Kenseth calls Michigan one of his “favorite tracks throughout the season,” and has two wins, 11 top 5s and 16 top 10s in 25 starts there. Veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig admits he has little use of the mountains of notes compiled prior to the April test session — instead, he will fall back on what they learned over that two-day period.
“There was a ton of grip, and I assume it would be a little faster as the track gets dusted off and rubbered in, so speeds should pick up a bit,” Kenseth said. “When we were in race trim, we were almost four seconds faster than we were racing last year, which is quite a difference.”
Taking the points lead for the first time since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Kenseth enters this weekend with a 10-point advantage of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For Earnhardt, the arduous task of ending his 143-winless streak returns to the site of his last victory. Coming off one of his strongest performances to date in Hendrick equipment at Pocono last week, Earnhardt and the No. 88 team head to Michigan with Victory Lane at their fingertips.
After leading 36 laps and finishing eighth last week, the frustration was clear on Earnhardt's face after he climbed from the car. Do not mistake this frustration as that of years past, though. Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led team are one of the most consistent teams in the series right now — with a circuit-best 11 top 10s this season — yet the one thing eluding them is a win.
Since his ’08 win, Earnhardt has only one top 5 and two top 10s on the two-mile D-shaped oval, with three consecutive finishes of 14th or worse. However, with the new racing surface, teams have thrown out their notes from previous years. While the No. 88 team did not take part in the April tire test, Hendrick’s No. 24 did, which may pay dividends.
That fact might have been evident in Thursday's test session, as Earnhardt was one of the fastest cars of the day, topping 200 mph (more than six mph faster than Ryan Newman's qualifying record set in 2005).
Other drivers to consider as favorites this weekend are Keselowski, the hometown hero, two-time Michigan winner Gordon, and Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards.
Five Favorites: Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards
The last time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was in Michigan, it was Kyle Busch that survived a green-white-checker finish to score the win. Busch has suffered from inconsistency over the years at MIS, but finished third and first in both races last year, leading a combined 81 laps.
Coming off consecutive engine failures at Dover and Pocono, Busch fell three spots to 12th in the series standings. While it is certainly not time to panic, Busch and the No. 18 team would be a lot more comfortable racing through the summer stretch inside the top 10 in points. Busch was also among the fastest cars in Thursday's test session.
Michigan has been known to be tough on engines, so be mindful of Joe Gibbs Racing's powerplant issues of late and chose carefully.
After slipping up in the final laps last week in Pocono, veteran Mark Martin heads to Michigan looking for another solid run. With 52 starts at MIS, Martin should be a threat again this weekend as he has five wins, 18 top 5s and 31 top 10s, giving him the seventh-best average finish among active drivers. And he — like many — was fast on Thursday, being the first to break the 201 mph barrier.
Much like Busch, however, Martin and his Toyota engines have suffered from issues throughout the year. In his 11 starts this season, Martin has had two engine failures, at Kansas and Charlotte.
It is hard to imagine five-time champion Jimmie Johnson could be an undervalued pick in any sense of the imagination. However, Michigan is one of only five tracks the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has yet to win. Despite having the 10th-best average finish, Johnson has come up short in each of his 20 starts here — and on a couple of occasions, coming up short has meant running out of fuel on the final lap.
Last June, Johnson struggled here, starting 21st, failing to lead a lap and coming home 27th. When the series returned in August, though, Johnson drove from a 19th starting spot up to a second-place finish, leading 18 laps in the process. Over the course of his last seven Michigan starts, Johnson has only two top-10 finishes, but has led an impressive 323 laps.
Kevin Harvick also enters this weekend's race as an undervalued pick. The Richard Childress Racing driver has the ninth-best average finish at Michigan, but was fast in Thursday's morning test session, breaking the 200 mph barrier.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman
Martin Truex Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
Throughout the 2012 season, Martin Truex Jr. has been within reach of Victory Lane, only to come up short. Coming off a hard-fought 20th-place finish at Pocono, Truex enters this weekend's race looking for consistency. After a solid start to the year, the No. 56 team has three finishes of 20th or worse in its last six events.
Despite his lackluster performance over the years at Michigan, Truex has been solid on the intermediate tracks this season. Not to mention, he was among the cars quick in Thursday's morning test session, joining Harvick in the plus-200 club.
Truex's Michael Waltrip Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer, has quietly worked his way into the top 10 in the series standings thanks to consistent runs. Coming off a fifth at Dover and a sixth at Pocono, Bowyer is looking for that breakout run that could jumpstart his season and make him a contender. Although he struggled in his early years at Michigan, Bowyer finished eighth in both races last season.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard, Kurt Busch
Much like last week, fantasy racers have a bit of an advantage this week thanks to Thursday's two test sessions on the repaved oval. As mentioned earlier, speeds were well over the track record in the morning session. While teams may be experimenting with a few things on Thursday, others are getting a head start on the weekend and practicing as normal. Check the speed charts from both sessions and keep an eye to the driver comments throughout the day for the best information. Be sure to take advantage of the extra day on the track before setting your lineup.
Best Average Finish at Michigan (Wins):
1. Carl Edwards — 8.2 (2)
2. Matt Kenseth — 9.5 (2)
3. Jeff Gordon — 11.4 (2)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (1)
5. Denny Hamlin — 12.1 (2)
6. Greg Biffle — 12.8 (2)
7. Mark Martin — 13.3 (5)
8. Brian Vickers — 14.9 (1)
9. Kevin Harvick — 15.0 (1)
10. Jimmie Johnson — 15.2 (0)
Logano scores second career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory
Joey Logano in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
Of all the race tracks to add a little spice to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Pocono Raceway was not expected to be it. A 2.5-mile, flat tri-oval that’s seen its share of strung-out racing, the speedway was also recently repaved — a move that doesn’t lend itself to door-banging action.
Sometimes, though, the racing gods smile on the fans when and where they least expect it.
After a bizarre first half of the race that saw numerous drivers get penalized for speeding on pit road and an event that appeared to be heading toward a fuel-mileage finish, a driver looking to break a 104-race winless skid used a bump-and-run move to get by a respected series veteran. And for the driver in question, a fuel-mileage win was the last thing he wanted.
Joey Logano, his future with the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team highly-speculated, used the ol’ “chrome horn” to scoot by Mark Martin with four laps remaining in the Pocono 400 to earn his second career Sprint Cup Series win in his fourth season on the circuit.
“You work so hard to do this, and them (JGR) teaming me up with Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) has been an awesome experience,” Logano said. “We’ve been growing together a lot lately and able to make our cars better. To get a victory, it meant so much, and pulling the Home Depot car into Victory Lane at a Sprint Cup race and winning it the right way was just an amazing, amazing feeling that you can’t replicate and you can’t explain what it means.”
Logano’s only other win came at New Hampshire in his rookie season of 2009, the result of a rain-shortened finished that saw his team gamble on staying out while others pitted. It paid off, as Logano, at 19-years-old, became the youngest winner in Cup Series history. The Pocono win, in contrast, was won not on strategy or weather, but on speed and pure racing.
“That feels awesome to win one the right way,” Logano yelled on his in-car radio as he took the checkered flag. “No stupid rain!”
Martin held on for second, while Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.
“It’s not how I would have done it,” Martin said of Logano’s bump-and-run move to get by. “But certainly if I’d have had a fast enough car, he would have gotten a return. But I couldn’t quite keep up with him.”
Logano’s move came after a restart with eight laps remaining. Martin, who restarted second, got by Logano and was pulling away. However, Martin’s Toyota wiggled in Turn 3 with five laps to go. The loss in momentum allowed Logano to close the gap down the 3,740-foot frontstretch, and as the two entered Turn 1, Logano nudged the rear bumper of Martin’s car. He sailed by on the low side and quickly scooted away, winning by nearly one second.
Fuel became a concern late in the going. When Kasey Kahne brought out a caution with 22 laps remaining, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had led 36 laps and was running third, pitted to top off the tank in his No. 88 Chevy.
However, fuel never factored, as an additional yellow for debris waved with 11 laps to go. The drivers that did not pit earlier — namely Logano, Martin, Stewart, Johnson and Hamlin — were able to conserve enough gas under the caution periods to make it to the finish without incident. Earnhardt settled for an eighth-place showing.
Points leader Greg Biffle limped to a 24th-place run after engine issues ruined his day. He surrendered the championship points lead for the first time since gaining the spot after the third race of the year.
Biffle’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, inherits the lead on the strength of a seventh-place finish at Pocono. Earnhardt sits 10 points back, while Biffle falls to third.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's FedEx 400
Defending Dover winners Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
The two-week homestretch in Charlotte is now in the books and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the Monster Mile in Dover, Del., for Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.
Not only is Dover one of the most demanding tracks on the NASCAR schedule, it also kicks off the seven-week summer stretch that takes the series to the newly-repaved tracks of Pocono and Michigan, the road course in Sonoma, night races at Kentucky and Daytona, then to New Hampshire before another break in the action.
Teams will be looking to build momentum towards the Chase for the Sprint Cup during this time. Some will try to maintain their spot in the top 10 in points, while those just on the outside will be looking to claw their way in.
At the same time, for those well outside the top 10, the name of the game is “Win, Win, Win.” The Wild Card aspect of the Chase will play a major role in the coming weeks as drivers and teams look to win their way into a spot in the championship battle.
First, those teams will have to conquer the Monster and survive Sunday's 400 miles around the high-banked concrete oval — which is no simple task … unless you drive with the Roush Fenway brigade.
The Roush cars have been stellar at Dover over the past 10 years, scoring six wins in that time. Current drivers Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth have all been to Victory Lane at Dover and enter the weekend as the organization to beat.
Kenseth, who sits second in points to Biffle, he is the defending race winner, and this week's fantasy favorite. All told, Kenseth has two wins, 12 top 5s and 17 top 10s in 26 Dover starts, giving him the second-best driver rating at the one-mile oval.
Not only does Kenseth have a stellar record at Dover, he describes the demanding track as his favorite on the schedule.
“The track is so fast and challenging, and it’s unique because of the way you drive up out of the turns,” Kenseth says. “The turns sit a bit lower than the straightaways and you can feel it when you’re driving out there.”
Dover is the type of track that suits Kenseth’s driving style, so look for him to surpass Biffle in the points while scoring his second win of the season.
While Biffle has maintained his points lead since the third race of the year, Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are steadily cutting into that lead.
One of the most consistent drivers this season, Biffle has bounced between finishes inside the top 5 and outside the top 10 week-to-week, of late. Following a fifth-place finish at Kansas, Biffle was 18th at Richmond. Then came a fifth at Talladega, followed by a 12th at Darlington, then a fourth in last Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.
While this trend might pass at such a strong track for Biffle, it is definitely worth keeping in the back of your head when setting your lineup.
Edwards has struggled to back up his near-championship run of 2011 through the first 12 races of the 2012 season. The Missouri native has one win at Dover and is coming off a ninth-place finish in Charlotte and is on a run of seven finishes of 11th or better in the last eight races.
What is striking about Edwards’ season, however, is he has led in only two races — one lap at Kansas and 206 at Richmond. In last year's races at Dover, Edwards led a combined 233 circuits, so look for him to produce when it comes time on Sunday.
Given the success of the Roush organization this season (and at Dover), it is very likely we could se a reply of the Sept. 2008 event in which Biffle, Kenseth and Edwards battled lap after lap for the win and swept the top-3 spots.
While the Roush cars may consistently be among the best, they will have to contend with six-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson. The five-time series champion has the second-best average finish (9.3) at the Monster Mile, the series-best average running position (7.9), as well as the series-best driver rating, fastest laps run, average green flag speed and laps in the top 15. Not too shabby.
To boot, Johnson has been on quite the roll of late. His win at Darlington gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career Cup win, his pit crew won the Sprint Pit Crew Challenge during All-Star week, he scored his third All-Star Race victory in Charlotte, and was in contention in the Coca-Cola 600 until a botched pit stop late in the race.
Heading to one of his best tracks on the circuit, Johnson will be looking to tie Bobby Allison and Richard Petty for the all-time winningest drivers at Dover. If his Chad Knaus-led pit crew can keep its composure and execute without mistakes, Johnson will factor.
Five Favorites: Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch
Jeff Gordon (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Who would have ever thought four-time series champion Jeff Gordon would become that dreaded “fourth car” at Hendrick Motorsports? It seems each year, one of Hendrick’s four teams struggle to keep pace despite the resources, equipment and all-around talent.
Now in his 20th season in the Sprint Cup Series, Gordon has become “that” driver within the organization struggling to keep pace. After the first 12 races of the season, Gordon is 22nd in the standings with only one top 5 and three top 10s.
Yet, throughout the season, the No. 24 team has shown up with fast cars and solid outings. The problem for this group has not been bad performances, but bad luck. This weekend at Dover, I expect that luck to turn around.
While Gordon has four Dover wins on his resume, his last top-10 finish there came in 2009. Although the results have not been spectacular, he has only one finish outside the top 20 (a 26th in 2009) in his last 12 Dover starts.
Gordon has remained confident in his team's ability throughout these trying times, finding solace in their fast racecars.
“We are a good team and we’re just having some bad stuff happen,” he said. “And we’re being tested and I hope there is a reason why we’re being tested that’s going to make us stronger because of it; and that we do recover and get out of it and learn from it.”
Gordon is the type of driver that can gain momentum and start contending for wins week-in and week-out, and following a seventh-place finish in Charlotte, the momentum may be starting to build.
Five Undervalued Picks: Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick
Another driver that has been snake-bit this year is Penske Racing's AJ Allmendinger. Despite having solid equipment, problems have cost Allmendinger from scoring the results many expected when he was named Kurt Busch’s replacement in the No. 22 Dodge.
In 2010, he led 143 laps at Dover before finishing a disappointing 10th after a flat tire ruined his day. Last year, Allmendinger had a solid car, started on the outside of the front row, but suffered an engine failure that resulted in a 37th-place finish. In the fall Chase race, he started seventh and finished seventh.
Also keep in mind that Allmendinger was part of the Goodyear tire test held at Dover in April.
“To me, I just show up to the race track and I am excited to be there,” he said. “I just genuinely like the race track and think when you are able to do that you can go there and have a good attitude about it and be pretty fast.”
Five Darkhorse Picks: A.J. Allmendinger, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch
Just like any track on the schedule these days, track position will be paramount during Sunday's 400-miler. Look for pit strategy to come into play as the trend of long green-flag runs should continue. The team that can manage the race from start to finish, stay on top of making changes throughout the afternoon and keep the car full of fuel to the end will be the one celebrating in Victory Lane.
With Toyota extending it’s deal with Michael Waltrip Racing, along with Joe Gibbs Racing and JTG Daugherty, it leads to the question of what will happen to Martin Truex Jr., who is in the final year of his contract at MWR.
Truex enters this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover sixth in the point standings with seven top-10 finishes in the first 12 races. He turns 32 later this month and with the improvements at MWR, seems set to show what he can do in the prime of his career. Then again, someone else also could be interested in his services.
“I’ll tell you this, I really hope to be back where I'm at right now,” Truex said last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I love this team. I love the direction we’re going. And, hopefully we’ll just have to see how everything lines up. My heart is with the team and that's where I want to be.
“I feel like we’ve come a long, long way. We’ve worked very, very hard to get to where we are. It would be a shame to have to do something different after coming this far. My career has been one of those where it seems like every time things would start going good — something big happened or something big changes and really hurt progress. Hopefully, that won’t be the case this time.”
This is Truex’s third season with Waltrip’s team and he’s headed toward his best season with the organization. His four top-five finishes thus far equal how many he’s had the past two seasons combined. His best finish in the points at MWR was last year when he was 18th.
Truex also notes that the extension with Toyota is important for Michael Waltrip Racing for various reasons.
“I think it’s a big thing for NAPA to know that Toyota is behind them 100 percent for the next number of years,” Truex said. “Great manufacturer, great support team — they do so much for Michael Waltrip Racing and really Toyota Racing Development ... has been a huge part of the turnaround and the resurgence of Michael Waltrip Racing. To have that support going forward for the next few years, it obviously has to make Michael (Waltrip, team owner) and Rob (Kaufmann, team owner) and everybody there feel good about the direction the team’s headed.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to get our deal done soon too and kind of coincide with all that and be able to go race and go after wins for a lot of years to come.”
GIVE-AND-TAKE Ryan Newman often was considered among the toughest drivers to pass during a race. He explains what earned him that distinction and how he’s changed over the years.
“I was never taught to give-and-take,” Newman said. “I was always taught to race hard. Going back to quarter midgets and then especially in the stock cars, I was always taught to race hard. Buddy Baker never taught me (about give-and-take). And I don’t think that they did that back in the ’80s.
“I always had fast-enough racecars that I never had to give. I could always take. And that came back to haunt me I guess for a few years there because I was the one getting turned around because I wasn’t giving it up and rightfully so — probably because I didn’t know and didn’t get taught that. So, I’m trying to be better at the give-and-take thing.
“I’ve had problems with other guys who are just as bullheaded as I am and I’m not afraid to say it. A guy like Paul Menard is just that. We race each other hard every time we got around each other. That’s just how we did it. And it was frustrating to both of us, but we made good out of it. We never crashed each other per se, so it was just the way we raced. So, we don’t do that quite so much anymore. We’ve both learned how to adjust to that a little bit and be faster in the end for both of us.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
STILL GOING Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver in the Cup Series who has completed all 3,888 laps run this season. Matt Kenseth had completed every lap this season entering the Coca-Cola 600 but lost a lap when he had to pit for a loose wheel just past the halfway mark and didn’t make it up before the finish.
Earnhardt’s consistency has helped him score a series-high nine top-10 finishes in the first 12 points races.
He’s looking for more, though.
“We want to win a race,” Earnhardt said after finishing sixth in the Coca-Cola 600. “We want to win so bad we can’t stand it. We’re getting kind of close. It feels good to be competitive. I don’t want to take our consistency for granted, but we would like to improve just a little bit more and get some wins.”
LAST STOP This weekend’s Cup race at Dover marks the final broadcast of the season for FOX. TNT will take over for the next six races, beginning at Pocono. ESPN/ABC then takes over at Indianapolis in late July and broadcasts the rest of the Cup season.
PIT STOPS Red Horse Racing announced Tuesday that it will suspend operations of its No. 7 Truck team due to a lack of funding. John King won at Daytona with that team. Red Horse Racing announced that it will continue to operate the No. 17 entry for Timothy Peters and No. 11 entry for Todd Bodine. ... Cup drivers who won last year but remain looking for a victory this season are: Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard, Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600
Photo by ASP, Inc.
A happy Memorial Day weekend to all the fantasy NASCAR racers out there. This week it’s the most demanding 600 miles on the schedule, the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The annual tradition dating back to 1960 tests the best of driver, equipment and team. Coming one week after the All-Star Race, the Coke 600 also marks the next phase of the NASCAR season.
Teams have ebbed and flowed thus far over the season, but with a week of practice under their belts on the 1.5-mile speedway in Charlotte, this Sunday’s 600 miles provides an opportunity to make a statement, maintain consistent finishes, or turn a difficult season around before it is too late.
One team that certainly made a statement in Saturday night’s All-Star Race was the No. 48 team of Hendrick Motorsports. Driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus knew if they won the first of the five segments, the night would fall into their laps.
Starting from the sixth spot, Johnson was able to make his moves to the front in the first 20-lap segment. After taking the caution flag for the break, it was all about avoiding trouble in the back of the pack and making adjustments to the racecar throughout the night. Restarting in the lead for the final 10-lap segment, Johnson powered out front on the green flag and never looked back.
While the format of the All-Star Race is dramatically different from the one we'll see Sunday afternoon and evening, there are a lot of things that will transfer over. Primarily, the fact the No. 48 is the team to beat.
Coming off an historic 200th career win for Hendrick Motorsports in Darlington, the No. 48 team beat the two-time defending champion No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew for the 2012 Pit Crew Challenge. That momentum carried over into the All-Star Race, where the 48 Chevrolet was the dominant car on the evening.
Enjoying the extended time in the Charlotte area these past two weeks, Hendrick Motorsports enters the Coca-Cola 600 weekend with a ton of momentum, loads of confidence, and the rest of the field looking up at Johnson.
All told, Johnson has six career wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway, including three consecutive Coca-Cola 600 wins from 2003-05. However, Johnson has not found Victory Lane at Charlotte since 2009.
The win Saturday night gives the No. 48 team confidence heading into Sunday's marathon race, but Johnson knows it will not be easy.
“Even though we won the race, I saw a lot of strong cars tonight,” Johnson said following his third All-Star Race win. “I think track position at the end of the 600 is going to be key. Two or three pit stops from the end, being in the right position, having the right strategy, if it's fuel, two tires, four, none, whatever it might be, that’s going to be key.”
While Johnson will be this week’s fantasy favorite, also keep an eye on a few guys that had solid cars in Saturday's All-Star Race.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne ran down to the wire in a photo finish to end the third segment of the night. Both drivers had strong cars in that race and carry momentum from the past few weeks as well. Keselowski will be searching for his first victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway, while Kahne, a three-time winner at Charlotte, will be looking to rekindle some of his past success.
Roush Fenway Racing's Matt Kenseth also knows how to get the job done on the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 17 Ford was third in Saturday's All-Star Race after struggling on the outside on the final restart. The long 600-mile event is the type of race that falls right into Kenseth's style, so look for him to be a strong contender as well.
Fan-favorite and hometown hero Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally scored a win last week, but unfortunately it was in the Sprint Showdown to qualify for the All-Star Race. Although the win was not a points-paying event, and will not eliminate his winless streak dating back to 2008, the fact is Earnhardt won that event and won the fourth 20-lap segment in Saturday's main event.
Earnhardt has a lot of confidence and momentum on his side, not to mention that he nearly won last year's Coca-Cola 600. Leading on the final lap, his No. 88 Chevy ran out of fuel coming through the final corners, giving the win to Kevin Harvick. The team is bringing the same car they ran the All-Star Race with, so expect Earnhardt to bring fans to their feet late in the race and possibly end that daunting winless streak.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
One driver that caught my eye throughout last weekend's All-Star events was Richard Petty Motorsports’ Marcos Ambrose. Although he did not lead a single lap, Ambrose was one of, if not the, strongest cars on each restart. Whenever the No. 9 Ford restarted on the outside line, Ambrose had passed a handful of cars before exiting Turn 2 onto the backstretch.
Ambrose scored two top-10 finishes at Charlotte last year, and is hungry to score that elusive oval win. This team has ratcheted it up a notch, and I expect them to be a solid contender in Sunday's race, leading to solid fantasy points at the end of the day.
AJ Allmendinger drove his heart out in the Sprint Showdown to finish second and qualify for the night's main event. Once in the Sprint All-Star Race, Allmendinger powered his No. 22 Dodge to the front of the field on numerous occasions.
Since joining Penske Racing, Allmendinger has struggled mainly to find any luck on the track. This week he is looking to turn his poor luck around and finally score the all-so-difficult first Sprint Cup Series win.
Five Undervalued Picks: Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards
One organization that heads into this weekend looking to turn its season around before it is too late is the two-car Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team. After significant changes behind the scenes during the offseason, precious few result have come to pass in the first part of 2012.
However, both Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya enter this weekend's race as our darkhorse picks. McMurray has two wins at Charlotte, but struggled there in 2011. The 2010 fall Charlotte race winner nearly raced his way into Saturday night's All-Star Race, but came up one position short.
Montoya has one top-10 finish at Charlotte (2009), but has been knocking on the door over the past few years, finishing 11th, 12th and 14th in his last three starts. While this weekend may not be the one in which he scores his first oval win, he should put up solid fantasy numbers.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Aric Almirola, Landon Cassill
Best Average Finish at Charlotte (Wins)
1. Joey Logano - 8.2 (0)
2. Jimmie Johnson - 11.9 (6)
3. Carl Edwards - 12.6 (0)
4. Kasey Kahne - 13.4 (3)
5. Tony Stewart - 13.6 (1)
6. Matt Kenseth - 14.4 (2)
7. Bobby Labonte - 14.7 (2)
8. Jeff Burton - 15.4 (3)
9. David Reutimann - 15.8 (1)
10. Jeff Gordon - 15.9 (5)