Drivers and teams to watch as the circuit hits its mid-summer classic in Daytona
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (please don’t call it the Pepsi 400 — Firecracker 400, however, will be accepted) marks the halfway point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
The year’s third restrictor plate race was once run on the morning of the fourth to beat the oppressive North Florida heat and humidity. “On the track by 11:00, on the beach by 2:00,” was the mantra before lights and night racing. NASCAR’s signature speedway has endured wildfires and truck fires in recent years, as well as Turn Two disemboweling itself in the middle of an event, but all should be solid as we’re knee-deep in the Summer Stretch. And as the championship chase begins to take shape, the contenders have begun to separate themselves from the pretenders. Unless, of course, it’s 2011 and you’re Tony Stewart, stumbling into the Chase like the town lush, but suddenly start running like Tony Stewart once the title fight begins.
But I digress. Let’s review our current top 10 in points, how they got here, and who on the outside looking in has to get their stuff together if they have any hopes of contending for the Cup come September.
1. Matt Kenseth Wins: 1 (Daytona 500)
Let’s see, Daytona 500: Check. Points leader: Check. Bailing on team mid-season: WTF? Kenseth’s announcement that he is leaving the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford at season’s end sent shockwaves through the fanbase. His likely destination appears to be Joe Gibbs Racing, although a proposed Andretti Autosport venture into NASCAR with Dodge assistance has been bandied about. It’s bad enough that Jack Roush’s former flagship No. 6 has been mothballed, but now the tried-and-true driver of the No. 17? Tragically coincidental — since it was the original driver of the No. 6, Mark Martin, who sold Roush on Kenseth, convincing him to field the No. 17 Cup ride for him in 2000. The last driver to win the Winston Cup in 2003 has been a model of consistency this year, much as he was that season. Kenseth’s low-key demeanor and approach will likely serve him well during what will prove to be a tumultuous few months in the Ford camp. With a win, eight top 5s and 12 top 10s to his credit this year, if Kenseth and the Wisconsin Mafia can keep the distractions at bay they very well could exit in style, giving Roush his third Cup Series championship. But distractions and fallout associated with being a “lame duck” lurk around every corner.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins: 1 (Michigan)
All together now: “JUUUUUNE-YEEERRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!” Finally, after 143 races and four years of futility, Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke into the winner’s circle at Michigan, the site of his last win in 2008. That victory did more for the psyche than the stat sheet, as Earnhardt is what Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket would deem, “Definitely born again hard.” With a win, seven top-5 and an even more impressive 13 top-10 finishes, the No. 88 team has done more in four months than it had in the last … well, forever. Credit Steve Letarte and Rick Hendrick, who essentially put Earnhardt with Jeff Gordon’s former team last season. The Prince of Kannapolis is doing his fans proud, so don’t be surprised to see a lot of old, red No. 8 gear being dusted off and thrust back into service in the coming months. Take heart Junior Nation — you’ve earned it, and your man is back near the top. Junior hasn’t been in a fierce title battle in so long, it’s hard to predict what type of showing he’ll make. But if a late-season slide doesn’t derail his momentum (and with Letarte calling the shots, it shouldn’t), Earnhardt is looking gbetter than he has in … well, forever.
3. Jimmie Johnson Wins: 2 (Darlington, Dover)
Oh yeah, don’t forget the “other driver” at Hendrick Motorsports. When he’s not cruising around with Mr. H on his windowsill, Jimmie Johnson is just being Jimmie Johnson; going about his business with painful precision and without much fanfare. Like a Glock pistol, he may be short on flash and flair, but he is dead-nuts reliable and never fails when the money is on the line. His nine top 5s and 13 top 10s are the most in both categories, and should serve as a harbinger of things to come in the fall. As in the past, the No. 48 team vets and fetters out the junk and finds what works during the summer months, then sets “phasers to kill” come September. For those who have tired of the “Five-Time” moniker, don’t worry. You may be calling him “Six-Time” by Thanksgiving.
4. Greg Biffle Wins: 1 (Texas)
Biffle started off the season strong, posting a trio of top-3 finishes in the first three races. He made a mockery of the last half of the April event at Texas Motor Speedway, and led the points from Las Vegas in early March until a 24th-place finish at Pocono, when he surrendered the top spot to his soon-to-be former teammate, Kenseth. A Roush veteran since his 1998 Truck Series debut, Biffle will prove to be the backbone of the team with Kenseth’s impending departure. While the No. 16 team started strong, it has stumbled in recent weeks, posting two sub-20th-place runs in the last four races. It was the No. 16 team that stopped Roush’s win skein in 2010, when the company got off track with misleading data simulation and sucky software on the engineering side. If there is a trend that must be watched with this bunch, it is that Biffle tends to go through crew chiefs quickly. Eight top 5s and 10 top 10s are a testament to his consistency, as well as the effect that current chief Matt Puccia has had for the driver who is in position to be the first in NASCAR history to win a championship in all three touring series.
5. Denny Hamlin Wins: 2 (Phoenix, Kansas)
What a difference a year makes. This time last season, Denny Hamlin was, to be honest, a mess. With three top 5s and six top 10s, coupled win a number of cryptic comments made during interviews that at best sounded whiney, Hamlin was still suffering the side-effects from his team’s 2010 implosion. Now with a new attitude and re-found mental toughness (and 2011 championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb making decisive calls), Hamlin has a pair of wins, and eight top-5 finishes. Those runs account for nearly all of his top 10s, and it must be noted that he has two DNFs in his last three races — courtesy of a fiery exit in Michigan and the front bumper of teammate Joey Logano at Sonoma. If Hamlin can keep from getting wrecked or exploding — and a TRD IED does not find its way between the fenders of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota — he will likely find himself in contention to win the title, as he was in 2010. This time, however, he will be better prepared mentally and strategically to contend.
6. Kevin Harvick Wins: 0
The driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet hasn’t had a lot to brag about this year — but he hasn’t had much to really complain about, either. Usually the first one to ride his crew if they make the smallest of errors, Harvick has achieved his position not so much with poise and audacity, but on reliability and finishing races. A smattering of eight top 10s and three top 5s is decent, but not exactly championship caliber. If Harvick were to have a catastrophic failure in the coming weeks — which would lose him say, 40 points — the impact would be significant, and could potentially drop him out of the top 10 in points. He’s gotten by on a number of eighth- to 14th-place runs, but if he’s to solidify his place in the Chase, the No. 29 operation as a whole needs to step it up on the track, in the pits and in the garage while prepping the car for Sunday.
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
7. Clint Bowyer Wins: 1 (Sonoma)
Not only do you see him every 15 minutes in a 5-Hour Energy or NASCAR.com commercial, you now see him up front, leading and winning races. Bowyer’s move to Michael Waltrip Racing was seen by many as a risky move, albeit one he was essentially forced into after he lost his ride in the No. 33 at RCR (despite winning a Nationwide title in 2008 and qualifying for the Chase three times in six seasons). With former RCR crew chief and competition director Scott Miller making the move to MWR as well, the performance of all involved has risen substantially. With six top 5s and nine top 10s, the occasional win, or at least contention for the win, is no longer an oddity. This, coupled with some veteran leadership from Mark Martin in a part-time arrangement in the No. 55, along with teammate Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 56 group, finds MWR becoming this generation’s — dare I say it? — RCR.
8. Martin Truex Jr. Wins: 0
Martin Truex Jr. is enjoying his best season in Cup competition since his 2007 rookie campaign when he won a race, made the Chase and ended the year 11th in points. Currently sitting in eighth position on the strength of four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes, Truex has been a key cog in the MWR Renaissance of 2012. However, there may be storm clouds on the horizon. Truex’s finishes have begun to waver, his eighth-place run at Kentucky ending a string of three races without a top 10. Now is not the time to mix inconsistency into the equation, particularly with the crapshoot that is a restrictor plate race at Daytona on the docket. While Truex is only 10 points out of fifth in the standings, he’s also less than 20 points from 10th. If he keeps the steady-as-she-goes performance trend and avoids any back-to-back disasters or mechanical maladies, he looks to be a safe bet to make the Chase field for the first time in five years.
9. Tony Stewart Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Fontana)
Towards the bottom of the top 10, we find a pair of drivers on the tail end of making the Chase, but who are arguably the most potent in the field. Tony Stewart has seven top-5 finishes and eight top 10s, but it is how he came to those numbers that are the most telling: two wins, back-to-back second-place runs and three third-place showings. Add in some mechanical woes by way of EFI foul ups, and you have created the crusty Tony of old the last couple of months. Quite possibly the only person in the country who was not cheering the Earnhardt victory in Michigan, Smoke has found that delicate balance of diplomacy and irritability that has guided him to three championships. Streaky performances be damned, he’s in prime position to add a fourth to the mix — half of which would be as an owner/driver, something not seen since The King’s heydays of the 1970s.
10. Brad Keselowski Wins: 3 (Bristol, Talladega, Kentucky)
The one driver barely clinging to top-10 status is also the lynchpin in the Chase scenario. Keselowski has won three races at three diametrically different tracks: Bristol, Talladega and Kentucky. Plate track, short track, intermediate — it doesn’t seem to matter where the Miller Lite Dodge goes, it can be a force to be reckoned with. It would appear that the strategy being employed by the No. 2 team is to focus on wins ahead of all else. Three of his top 5s are victories while the other two barely made it as fifth-place performances. His top 10s are then comprised of a pair of ninth-place finishes, with the rest being mid-teens or worse-than-30th finishes. The only DNF they suffered was post-Tweet at the Daytona 500 in February, and it was about this time last year that Keselowski made the transition from promising driver to leader and motivator following a broken ankle during a testing crash. It remains a mystery why Penske is leaving Dodge to join forces with Ford, what with the modest win totals of the two-car team over the last few seasons. However, it remains committed to its current manufacturer and stands to make some noise for the Mopar faithful if its flagship No. 2 team can avoid any calamities in the coming weeks. Of course, even a tumble out of the top 10 finds Keselowski in the catbird seat, with three-times the wins as anyone from 11th to 20th in the standings.
On the Outside Looking In
To think that Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch would be reduced to relative obscurity in October is nearly unfathomable, especially considering Edwards’ 2011 consistency, Gordon’s seemingly resurrected career with crew chief Alan Gustafson and Busch’s ability to hammer out wins in quick succession. However, all three have missed the Chase before, and they’re nearing the point of no return without some wins. Nine races remain before the Chase for the Championship begins in Chicago, and of the three, only Busch has a 2012 win. Edwards’ and Gordon’s teams have had both bad luck and bad calls that have kept them out of Victory Lane, while the engines supplied to the No. 18 from TRD have been straight up TuRDs, with three straight engine failures conspiring to drop Busch to 12th in points.
Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman all reside within the top 20, and each have one win. Among them, only Kahne has displayed any sort of consistent speed to threaten breaking into the top 10. Even if that happened, it would likely require Keselowski and Stewart to fall out. With The Big Keselowski having three wins and Smoke two, that would also require Logano and Newman to crank out a couple of more wins apiece if they were to qualify — not out of the realm of possibility, but certainly not expected.
Paul Menard, in 13th, will need to repeat last year’s Brickyard 400 triumph to have a shot at taking one of the two open wildcard spots, as he has yet to claim a win this year. Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton are over 100 points out of 10th and have struggled to find the top 10, much less score wins. Marcos Ambrose isn’t in much better shape, though a trip to Watkins Glen may get him back in the wildcard conversation.
No. 1 in our rankings, No. 1 in her heart. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson Lost a shot at the win during the final restart in Kentucky when he picked up trash on his tires. Managed to rebound to sixth after a quick backslide, his 13th top 10 of the season.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Was never a factor for the win at Kentucky, but ran consistently in the top 10 most of the evening before climbing to fourth at race’s end.
3. Matt Kenseth A classic Kenseth performance, he was invisible all Saturday afternoon, but popped into the top 10 after the sun went down and drove to seventh, retaining the points lead.
4. Tony Stewart There’s a sizeable gap between the top 3 and the rest of the field. Smoke was the victim of electrical demons in his ignition system and was most likely cursing NASCAR’s EFI system and that damn KFC commerical the rest of the night.
5. Denny Hamlin Fifth- and third-place runs bookend 34th- and 35th-place showings. When he stays out of the wrecks and the suspension holds up, he’s as good as creamy mac 'n' cheese.
6. Clint Bowyer String of top 10s ended at Kentucky when Bowyer became the victim of Ryan Newman and Joey Logano’s dust-up on the front stretch.
7. Greg Biffle Was a 10th- to 12th-place car until he thought his tire went down late. The pit stop resulted in a 21st-place showing and a drop in the point standings, to fourth.
That ain't beer, kids. (ASP, Inc.)
8. Brad Keselowski Wins at Bristol, Talladega and Kansas prove that this team is capable of winning on any type of track and at any time. Confidence has to be boiling over heading back to the beach.
9. Kasey Kahne A loose wheel cost him a lap early in the going at Kentucky. Kahne soldiered on though, and had an absolute rocketship at the end of the race, when he claimed second.
10. Martin Truex Jr. The 1-to-2-mile intermediate tracks have been where Truex and crew have flexed their NAPA-supported muscle this season. Though not a contender for the win at Kentucky, the eighth-place run sufficed.
11. Jeff Gordon Stop the press: Jeff Gordon did not have any fluky problems on Saturday. The result: fifth-place.
12. Kevin Harvick How Harvick has managed to stay around sixth in the standings is a mystery.
13. Joey Logano Note to Joey: Newman outweighs you by probably 75 pounds. Let it go, man.
14. Kyle Busch Kyle’s game of Duck, Duck, Goose continues with “Engine, Engine, Engine, Shock!”
15. AJ Allmendinger Back-to-back top 10s a good sign as the circuit prepares to enter the second half of the season.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard
"I don't know man ... I mean we're talking about the Redskins here." (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson It’s a toss up at the top, but J.J. has more wins and, as evidenced by his top-5 run at Sonoma, is a more well-rounded driver than Earnhardt or Kenseth.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. That said, championships are not won on road courses, so Junior’s 23rd-place showing — to be fair, he ran around 15th most of the day — will not hurt his title quest.
3. Matt Kenseth Can a “lame duck” driver win a championship? We know a crew chief can (see: Grubb, Darian). We’ll find out, as Kenseth leads the point standings but has an eye on new digs in 2013.
4. Tony Stewart Stewart has always been a somewhat streaky NASCAR driver, and his third-, second- and second-place runs in the last three weeks find him on a hot one.
5. Greg Biffle Impressive seventh at Sonoma (for Biffle) finds him back in second in the point standings, just 11 points behind his Roush Fenway teammate. Kentucky should be good to him.
6. Clint Bowyer Prior to his win in Sonoma, Bowyer had clicked off three consecutive finishes of seventh or better. What was surprising was that a dirt tracker from Kansas took his first win at MWR on a road course.
7. Denny Hamlin Hamlin won earlier this season in Kansas and, let’s be honest, what’s the difference between that cookie cutter and the one in Kentucky?
8. Brad Keselowski Last season’s Watkins Glen winner only registered a 12th at Sonoma, and was never really in contention. He needs to get out of the 12th- to 18th-place hole he’s been in of late.
9. Martin Truex Jr. Truex led 15 laps and ran in the top 5 for a large part of the day until contact with Joey Logano on the final lap knocked him from sixth to 22nd. That’s tough to take, folks.
10. Kasey Kahne Pit strategy wasn’t in Kahne’s favor on Sunday. In fact, he slipped from a certain top-10 run to 22nd only to rebound late and salvage a respectable 14th-place showing.
"Is that Biffle I hear talking smack again?" (ASP, Inc.)
11. Kevin Harvick TNT is just now noticing that Harvick ran out of fuel during a round of green flag pit stops.
12. Joey Logano Ruffled quite a few feathers (including a teammate’s) en route to his third straight road course top 10.
13. Jeff Gordon Pre-race favorite in Sonoma disappointed with a loose-handling car, managing a sixth-place finish.
14. Marcos Ambrose Grabbed second straight pole and second straight top 10 (Michigan and Sonoma).
15. Kyle Busch He’s ranked in the top 15 on raw talent alone. Has averaged a 27th in the last four races.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.