Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Pocono 400
Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. (ASP, Inc.)
This week has certainly been an interesting one in the world of NASCAR.
Jimmie Johnson scored his seventh career Dover win on Sunday, tying him with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the most all-time wins at the Monster Mile. Kurt Busch was suspended for this weekend's race at Pocono after threatening Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass following Saturday's Nationwide Series race, also at Dover. Testing got underway on the freshly repaved Pocono Raceway, with Mark Martin leading the way on Wednesday. Kyle Busch won Wednesday night's Prelude to the Dream charity race at Eldora Speedway.
While much of the focus this week has centered around off-track news, it is time to put that aside and look ahead to this weekend's race a the Tricky Triangle.
With testing taking place Wednesday and Thursday, fantasy NASCAR players get a rare early glimpse of what teams are getting a handle on the freshly re-paved track.
To no one’s surprise, speeds have been much higher with the new pavement and tire combination provided by Goodyear. Martin’s top speed on Wednesday was 175.380 mph, while AJ Allmendinger was quickest in Thursday morning's session. Allmendinger's speed of 177.190 mph was nearly five miles per hour faster than the track record of 172.533 set in 2004 by Kasey Kahne.
“You never know what to expect when a race track gets paved,” Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton said on Wednesday. “This pavement is unbelievably nice, smooth. The quality of racing is going to be improved a great deal. [But] it’s still Pocono. It still has the same characteristics and the personality of Pocono, but just has more grip.”
AJ Allmendinger, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kahne, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top 10 speeds on Wednesday.
Keep an eye on the speed charts from Thursday's two test sessions, and even more so on Friday, when the Cup teams will enjoy nearly three hours worth of track time in both qualifying and race trim.
As Burton mentioned, the new pavement might have added more grip, but it is the same old Pocono. One of the trickiest tracks on the schedule, drivers and teams will have to setup their cars so they work through each of the track's three unique corners.
The same old Pocono also means Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon are three drivers to keep atop your list of fantasy favorites.
Coming off his second win of the season, Johnson and his No. 48 team are the hottest thing on the NASCAR circuit. While the championship battle is still many months ahead, the five-time champ seems to be preparing for a sixth title run.
Johnson also holds the best average finish at Pocono (9.0) with two wins, eight top 5s and 14 top 10s in 20 starts. The No. 48 car was third fastest in Wednesday's test session, so expect him to be among the front-runners come Sunday afternoon.
Whenever the series rolls into Pocono, Hamlin is also one of the drivers to beat. After sweeping the races in his rookie year, Hamlin has gone on to record a total of four wins on the 2.5-mile triangle. He has the second-best average finish (9.7) with seven top 5s and eight top 10s in 12 starts.
Like Johnson, Hamlin also has two wins this season, putting him fourth in the standings. With some security in his spot in the Chase, Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb are focused on scoring bonus points for wins and there is perhaps no better place for them to accomplish that than at Pocono.
If Hamlin wants to score his third win of the season, he'll have to best veteran Jeff Gordon, among others. Gordon has the third-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Pocono, with five wins, 17 top 5s and 27 top 10s in 38 starts.
Currently mired in a season plagued by bad luck, Gordon heads to Pocono on a mission to turn his season around and knock the monkey off his back. The No. 24 car was strong last Sunday in Dover, but a loose lug nut and a poorly-timed caution ruined any chance at a solid finish. If Gordon can avoid the poor luck that has been chasing him all season, expect the four-time champion to have a solid day on Sunday.
Also keep an eye on the ageless Martin and last August's Pocono winner Brad Keselowski.
As previously stated, Martin led the way in Wednesday's test session and has the fourth-best average finish (11.2) at Pocono, but the veteran has never been to Victory Lane.
Keselowski already has two wins this season, but is currently 11th in the standings. Look for him to try and work his way into the top 10 in points for the first time this season. Keselowski won here last August.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski
Kevin Harvick. #GrewOne (ASP, Inc.)
Although he has yet to win in Pocono, Kevin Harvick has always produced solid results on the 2.5-mile tri-oval. With the eighth-best average finish (14.0), Harvick has five top 5s and eight top 10s in 22 starts. In his last four Pocono starts, the driver of the No. 29 Chevy has three top 5s and finished 14th last August. Harvick was fourth-fastest in Wednesday's test session.
While Dover might be considered Martin Truex Jr.’s home track, Pocono Raceway is not far from his native New Jersey. Truex enters this weekend's race sixth in points, but still looking for that elusive win. With the 10th-best average finish (15.3) here, Truex has results of 12th or better in his last three races at Pocono. While he may not score the win, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver could lead to some solid fantasy points at the end of the day.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle
Another driver that could earn some strong fantasy points this weekend is Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard, who has only one top 10 at Pocono, but has four finishes of 16th or better in his last four starts.
Menard was able to score three top-10 finishes early in the 2012 season, but has run 13th to 18th over the last seven races. Do not expect Menard to be scoring his first win of the season, but he could easily have a strong day and provide some quality fantasy points.
Also keep an eye on Juan Pablo Montoya. In his last six Pocono starts, Montoya has four top-10 finishes, including a second in 2009. The driver of the No. 42 was seventh in last June's race, but finished 32nd when the series returned in August. With the new pavement, Montoya had the 10th-fastest time in Wednesday's test session. Sitting 20th in points, Montoya is looking to turn his season around before heading into the long summer months leading to the Chase.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer
Again, be sure to take advantage of the two days of testing leading up to this weekend's action at Pocono. It is a rare treat for NASCAR fantasy participants to get an early glimpse of who is fast, who is struggling, and who to watch out for on Sunday. With no testing being televised, check the speed charts and hold off until Friday’s Happy Hour session is complete before setting set your lineup.
Best Average Finish at Pocono (Wins):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 9.0 (2)
2. Denny Hamlin — 9.7 (4)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.2 (5)
4. Mark Martin — 11.2 (0)
5. Tony Stewart — 11.8 (2)
6. Ryan Newman — 12.7 (1)
7. Carl Edwards — 13.8 (2)
8. Kevin Harvick — 14.0 (0)
9. Matt Kenseth — 14.2 (0)
10. Martin Truex Jr. — 15.3 (0)
Is on-track comfort to blame for "boring" racing in 2012?
Comfortable (adj.) — Providing physical ease and relaxation; comfy; cozy; free from stress or fear
When people speak that word, it’s most likely in reference to the summer vacations we’ll take within the next few of months. Comfortable is what we hope to achieve at our jobs, financial security that affords us to do the other things we want in life. In a cruel twist of irony, we watch sports to get comfortable, relaxation afforded after a long day on the job.
On Tuesday, Toyota became the latest manufacturer to unveil its 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup racecar. It is the second generation of the Car of Tomorrow, which debuted in the 2007 season to jeers and sneers — that is until Michael McDowell walked away from a head-on impact at 200 mph, tumbling down the three stories of banking and emerging unscathed. Since then, most have been on board with the new car, more so following the early 2010 refresh that saw the spoiler and the splitter going the way of the Convertible Division.
Toyota also confirmed that it has inked extensions to be the engine provider and car make for Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing for the foreseeable future. You can cross out these teams as potential candidates for Dodge, which is scrambling to find a team — and an engine provider — for 2013 and beyond. Toyota, in fact, is poised to add more teams to the fold, though not necessarily more organizations.
“We’re happy with the guys we’ve got,” Toyota Racing Development president Lee White says. “I would hope the economy turns around a little bit and we very easily could get back to eight or nine cars.”
One of the teams that Dodge was rumored to have been interested in was that of Joe Gibbs Racing. Gibbs had fielded Chevrolets and Pontiacs since its arrival in the sport 20 years ago, its first win coming one year after its debut in the 1993 Daytona 500. JGR’s move to Toyota in 2007, in part, set the stage for a departure by then two-time champion Tony Stewart. Stewart’s replacement was a driver who many had predicted would be the next Jeff Gordon: Joey Logano. To date, Logano has one race win in the iconic No. 20 Home Depot machine — compared to five championships by the other big-box home improvement chain retailer, Lowe’s.
It has long been a point of contention with the HD brass that Sliced Bread isn’t exactly cutting the mustard in the results department; cutting the cheese is more like it.
With the manufacturer side of things sealed up for JGR, which no longer has to worry about manning an engine shop with TRD now the sole supplier for all Toyota Cup teams, might Coach and J.D. be looking to test the free agent market for a replacement for their No. 20 machine? After all, it was about a year ago that many had penciled in Carl Edwards to be the heir apparent to the No. 20, but after Ford Motor Company scratched a big check and a ton of stock for Edwards, Logano received a reprieve. Logano currently sits 15th in points, however the No. 20 has finished no better than 16th in points since Stewart jumped ship following the ’08 season.
Following the departure of long-time JGR crew chief Greg Zipadelli to become competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing — while monitoring the progress of Danica Patrick in her limited Cup appearances — the performance of the No. 20 seems to be slowly picking up. But will it improve enough to retain Logano, or will the sponsor wield the whip hand and demand a change be made with one of the available free agent drivers for 2013?
Ryan Newman has been mentioned as a viable candidate for the No. 20 car, which is an ironic choice following his run-in with Logano at Michigan in the August 2010 event. The timing makes a bit of sense as the Senate Armed Services Committee this week added an amendment to next year’s spending bill that would ban all military sponsorship of motorsports — which includes Newman’s US Army affiliation — leaving a sizeable hole to fill at SHR. Would Stewart forsake his friend and fellow Hoosier, Newman, if a supplement to the Army sponsorship does not materialize?
With Patrick waiting in the wings, expecting to announce a full-time 2013 campaign in the Cup Series shortly, it may come down to dollars and common sense. If SHR does not have the funding to prepare a third team for Patrick, the GoDaddy.com colors might only end up on the No. 10 next year, keeping the organization at a two-car level.
That leaves one other option on the table — one that could be deemed “The Nuclear Option.” Kurt Busch.
The stars have aligned seemlessly with this one. Busch is a free agent, serving his penance in post-Penske purgatory, driving on a handshake deal for James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team, an 18-employee independent team that receives cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Think of it as a poor-man’s Stewart Haas Racing. A damn-near-broke man’s Stewart Haas Racing. For the most part, Busch has kept his legendary temper at bay, until a self-inflicted flat tire in the closing laps of the Southern 500 at Darlington dashed any hopes of a top-10 finish.
Might Busch be JGR and Home Depot Toyota material?
Think back to 2011 and the biggest story of the summer stretch: Busch and Jimmie Johnson feuding following some last-lap dicing at Pocono. Busch had been taken out by Johnson at Pocono a year earlier in a vicious backstretch crash, as well as at Sonoma and Chicago in ’09. That sort of anti-48 sentiment might play well with Home Depot, which has been less-than-pleased watching Lowe’s garner the lion’s share of the championships over the last six years. In fact, Smoke’s last two titles bookend those by Johnson, the latter with a different Depot on the hood.
Kurt’s brother Kyle is currently in the No. 18 at Joe Gibbs Racing, and having migrated his Kyle Busch Motorsports team to Nationwide this season, helped his brother out by essentially splitting the schedule with him in his No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota — an appropriate sponsor given their struggles with respective inner green-rage monsters.
The matte black Toyotas have been fast, with Kyle narrowly clearing the last-turn pile-up at Daytona before getting hooked into the outside wall, and Kurt capturing the team’s first win at Richmond just a few weeks ago over the other JGR pilot, Denny Hamlin. Hamlin had his own run-in with the No. 48 team two years ago, and chucked his own bottle of water at his No. 11 in frustration following a fuel mileage foul-up at the penultimate race at Phoenix that prevented him from winning his first Cup title. Think back to Busch throwing a bottle of water of his own at the Miller Lite Dodge at Bristol in 2009, when he declared there were 41 other driver’s he’d rather finish second to, rather than that No. 48 car.
Might JGR be the perfect home for Busch — and, more important, Home Depot the ideal sponsor?
HD was more than patient with Stewart during his most volatile and petulant years. The sport had much more attention back then, and though Stewart nearly lost his ride at JGR during a tumultuous 2002 campaign, winning his first Winston Cup title went a long way to cure those ills. This was during a period when Stewart had to be physically restrained from going after NASCAR officials, kicking reporter’s tape recorders under trailers and allegedly pushing a fan. Kyle Busch faced a similar fate last season after turning Ron Hornaday Jr. head-on into the wall during a Truck Series race (albeit in a KBM rig, not Gibbs equipment); NASCAR sat him out for the Sunday Cup race.
It left the younger Busch reeling, wondering if he would even have a job in 2013. Message: delivered. And received.
Kurt went through a similar situation with both Roush and Penske Racing. An incident involving a traffic stop for suspected impaired driving on race weekend in Phoenix in 2005 saw Roush suspend Busch for the final two races of the year, even while being a Chase driver, while the team issued the release that Roush Racing was “done being Kurt Busch’s apologists.” Busch was noticeably moved by the incident, barely holding back legitimate tears when interviewed about it. What followed at Penske Racing were six seasons of salty salutations over the team radio, indicating everyone from the crew chief, engineers and the owner himself, addressing revered team owner Roger Penske not be his well-known nickname, but rather as “Dude.”
The Captain did not abide.
Things came to a head during the 2011 Chase with Busch melting down during driver intros and issuing a terse response to ESPN reporter Jamie Little en route to his car — a car that did not pass tech inspection initially — at Loudon. He followed that up with the now famous YouTube video of Busch being less than cordial with ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch following an early exit at the season finale at Homestead. Actually, everything got off to a poor start as soon as the 2011 Chase began. Following the final race of the regular season at Richmond, Busch went after NASCAR.com reporter Joe Menzer in the garage, slapped away a member of his PR camp, and then got into it with AP writer Jenna Fryer, tearing up a Dodge press release in the media center following a disagreement over a quote about getting inside Jimmie Johnson’s head.
The real question is, could Joe Gibbs get into Kurt’s head the way he has his brother, and the way both Roush and Penske were unable to? There are already signs of cracking on the surface after the incident on pit road at Darlington, as well as a colorful meeting with the press outside of his hauler at Charlotte last week.
This is not meant to pick apart Busch with the well-documented history of a short temper and manic outbursts. He remains a championship-winning (and contending) driver, who clearly gets more out of the equipment than virtually anyone else in the series — short of his brother. His one step forward/two-steps back anger management program seems to stall out every few months, and the new dynamic of a smaller team this season was to be an audition to prove to the racing world that he is a changed man, not the acid-tongued driver on the verge of meltdown.
His Nationwide ride with KBM has provided him with some brotherly love and proved that he’s still a race winner — not that it was ever really in doubt. Could a partnership with Gibbs, an owner well known for being both a man of faith and having the patience of a saint, provide Kurt with just the place to be born again?
It very well might be the type of environment that he needs to get back to the form that saw him win the first Chase in 2004.
NASCAR fined Kurt Busch $50,000 on Tuesday for his actions toward the end and after Saturday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington.
Busch was one of three people fined and one of four people placed on probation.
NASCAR put Busch on probation until July 25, citing Busch for “reckless driving on pit road during the race’’ and for being involved in an altercation with another competitor after the race.
Busch’s reckless driving on pit road was for shooting through Ryan Newman’s pits after a stop late in the race. Newman’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, said that his pit crew had “to jump out of the way ... and try not to get hit.”
After the race, Busch ran into Newman’s car on pit road. Newman told SI.com that Busch said it was an accident and it happened as he was taking off his helmet.
“I’m pretty sure there were 42 other guys that are taking their helmets off and doing whatever for the last 10 years and that’s the first time that’s happened to me. Circumstances, I think, are that he lied and was so frustrated that he doesn’t know how to deal with his anger.”
As for when Busch fired out of his pit stall late in the race, Newman told SI.com: “I’m not sure why [Busch] did it and tried to run over our guys and NASCAR officials. And nobody is. I think the chemical imbalance speaks for itself.”
Busch will be on probation for the All-Star Race, along with the Coca-Cola 600 and races at Dover, Pocono, Michigan, Sonoma, Kentucky, Daytona and New Hampshire. Provided he has no other issues, his probation would end before Indianapolis.
NASCAR also issued other penalties for an incident after the race between the teams.
• NASCAR fined Newman’s gas man, Andrew Rueger, $5,000 and placed him on probation until June 27 for failing to comply with a directive from a NASCAR official.
• NASCAR placed Gibson on probation until June 27 since the crew chief assumes responsibility for the actions of his team members.
• NASCAR fined Craig Strickler, Busch’s motorcoach driver, $5,000 and placed him on probation until Dec. 31 for interfering with a member of the broadcast media.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
TEST PASSED Danica Patrick didn’t crash and she didn’t wreck anyone else. While it wasn’t easy, she made it through a full weekend at Darlington, running a total of 635 laps between her Sprint Cup and Nationwide cars in races, practices and qualifying.
She admitted that she isn’t as comfortable running beside the wall and it was evident that her line through the corners during the Cup race was half a car width further from the wall than many drivers at times.
Still, she made it through the weekend. For those who questioned why car owner Tony Stewart wanted her to run one of her 10 Cup races this year at that track since the series runs there only once a year, the answer is simple. It’s difficult. Very difficult. She’s going to face this challenge at some time, so she might as well do it now.
“I accomplished all the things I wanted to accomplish,’’ Patrick said after finishing 31st in the Cup race, six laps behind the leaders. “Things went good on the Nationwide side. Here on the Cup side, my goals were to be respectable out there. I think I held my own alright. And, the other one was to finish, and both of those things happened. I will be much less worried coming back to this place.
“I definitely got a feel for all the elements. Starts, restarts and pitting, obviously I made a mistake there; and all that stuff. Just how to get runs on cars. What to do when the car feels a certain way. Which lines to take, and to accommodate for the car and how it feels.”
Said Stewart, her Cup car owner: “What she did in these two days is hard to do. To have the result, the way she ran (in the Nationwide race, finishing 12th), I’m sure I’ll get a chance to watch more of what she did after we get home. The time I was around, got to watch, she did a really good job.”
PROPER MENTALITY Denny Hamlin on what type of mentality a driver has to have for this weekend’s All-Star race: “Bulldog. You have to be just a guy that puts it all on the line. Nowadays, more than ever, the All-Star Race — teams pretty much take disposable cars that they know there’s a good chance it’s not going to come back.
“The driver’s mentality is that it’s all for money, so there’s nothing to lose. It takes someone who’s willing to drive 100 percent qualifying lap every single lap. Those are the guys that are usually successful in winning.”
NATIONWIDE DEBUT Darrell Wallace Jr., who has been a part of the Drive for Diversity program, will make his Nationwide debut this weekend at Iowa Speedway driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“The goals have to be just kind of running up front, hopefully making a name for myself, running top 10,” Wallace said.
SILENT TREATMENT Kevin Harvick was asked if he ever talked to Kyle Busch about their incident in last year’s Southern 500 that led to a post-race pit road altercation. Harvick said: “I don’t talk about Kyle or to Kyle.”
PIT STOPS Martin Truex Jr.’s fifth-place finish at Darlington was his fourth top-five finish of the season. He had only three top-five results last season. ... Five drivers have won the All-Star Race and series title in the same season: Darrell Waltrip (1985), Dale Earnhardt (1987, ’90, ’93), Rusty Wallace (1989), Jeff Gordon (1995, ’97, 2001) and Jimmie Johnson (2006). ... Jeff Gordon is 24th in the points. He’s one point behind Mark Martin, who has skipped three races this season.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Darlington
Brad Keselowski ... lookin' up. (ASP, Inc.)
In honor of Mother’s Day, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the “Lady In Black” for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. On the schedule for 62 years, Darlington is steeped in NASCAR history and is one of the toughest tracks on the circuit.
One crew chief called Darlington “the most unique track” the series runs at throughout the year. The egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval has one of the most unique grooves in the sport, and with nearly every driver earning the well-known “Darlington Stripe” the crews will have the bondo and hammers on hand.
More than any track in the sport, drivers will truly have to race the track and not the competition to be successful Saturday night under the lights. The pit crews will have to get the job done on pit road as well, especially leading into next week’s Sprint Pit Crew Challenge.
Be sure to keep an eye on the best 10-lap average stat after both Friday practice sessions before setting your lineup. That stat didn’t matter too much last weekend at Talladega, where Brad Keselowski pulled away on the final lap to score his second win of the season. Leading on the final lap with Kyle Busch tucked behind in tandem, it appeared Keselowski was a sitting duck to Busch. However, Keselowski was able to disconnect from Busch’s car and had the race in hand off Turn 4.
Making his 100th career Sprint Cup Series start, Keselowski heads to the Track Too Tough To Tame as this week’s NASCAR fantasy favorite.
With two wins in the first 10 races of the season, the Penske Racing driver is confident he will be in the Chase as a championship contender and feels “the shackles are off” in the remaining races before the final regular season race at Richmond. In layman’s terms, he’s focused on adding more trophies to his collection as opposed to “point racing.”
Keselowski also considers Darlington one of his favorite tracks. He currently holds the second-best average finish (7.3) behind Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin (6.5), but is without a win at the legendary facility.
Series points leader Greg Biffle certainly knows the joys of winning at Darlington, with back-to-back Southern 500 wins in 2005 and ’06. The Roush Fenway Racing driver comes off a fifth-place finish at Talladega, his sixth top 5 and seventh top 10 of the season.
Despite his two wins, Biffle has only two top 10 finishes in the five Darlington races since his victoreis. However, he has momentum on his side heading to this weekend’s race, making him another fantasy favorite.
Another driver entering this weekend’s race with “the shackles off,” as Keselowski put it, also happens to have the best average finish among active drivers at Darlington. Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb have been solid together throughout the first 10 races, and Hamlin has one win at Darlington, so expect the No. 11 team to be a strong contender Saturday night.
Five Favorites: Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch
Regan Smith enters this weekend’s race as the defending winner, earning his first official NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory last May on older tires over Carl Edwards. That win was one of only two top-10 finishes up to that point in 2011. This season, Smith heads to Darlington with zero top 10 finishes, suffering through a disappointing stretch of races.
An engine failure last week dropped the Furniture Row Racing’s driver to 27th in the standings. Looking to break his slump and kick-start his season before the All-Star break, Smith is a solid pick for this weekend’s race. Despite his poor start to 2012, Smith and his team will walk through the garage the defending champions for the weekend. That confidence boost could go a long way for a team that is looking to turn things around.
While Smith is the defending winner, Edwards goes into Darlington with three top-5 finishes in his last five starts — two of those being second-place showings. Searching for that first victory at Darlington — as well as his first of 2012 — look for Edwards to be among the front-runners on Saturday.
If there is one group of drivers that the Lady In Black favors, it is the veterans. Therefore, consider Jeff Burton,Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon as well. They have a combined 11 Darlington wins.
Five Undervalued Picks: Regan Smith, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon
Martin Truex Jr. ... lookin' cool. (ASP, Inc.)
Michael Waltrip Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. is coming off the two worst finishes of his season, but registers as our darkhorse pick for Saturday night’s Southern 500. The New Jersey-native considers the egg-shaped demon among his best on the circuit. While he only has two top-10 finishes in six Darlington starts, his worst finish is 19th (2010). Looking to rebound from a pair of disappointing outings, expect Truex to put up solid fantasy numbers.
Typically known for their road course skills, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya both enter this weekend’s race as darkhorse fantasy picks.
In each of his three starts, Ambrose has had a solid qualifying effort (three top-10 starts), but has struggled to produce the results. His best finish was 13th last May. This season has not been the best for Ambrose and the Richard Petty Motorsports team. It seems each week they bounce between top-15 and sub-25th-place runs. Coming off a 14th-place finish in Talladega, Ambrose may be on course for another lackluster finish, so pay attention to Friday’s practice session.
Montoya has an average finish of 18.8 in five Darlington starts, with his best finish (fifth) coming in 2010. This season has also been an up-and-down ride for Montoya, but prior to his 32nd-place finish at Talladega, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver had one top 10 and six top 20s. Montoya will not score you the big points this weekend, but he may give you that solid 12th- to 20th-place finished needed to push you past your opponents.
In case you haven’t heard, some driver named Danica Patrick will be making her first career start at the famed Darlington Raceway. It is uncertain how the stock-car convert will handle the Lady in Black on her maiden voyage. If you’re feeling adventurous, put her in the lineup. But know the consequences.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Ragan, Danica Patrick
Best Average Finish at Darlington Raceway (wins):
1. Denny Hamlin — 6.5 (1)
2. Brad Keselowski — 7.3 (0)
3. Jimmie Johnson — 9.8 (2)
4. Jeff Gordon — 11.1 (7)
5. Ryan Newman — 11.6 (0)
6. Jeff Burton — 12.1 (2)
7. Mark Martin — 12.2 (2)
8. Tony Stewart — 12.3 (0)
9. Martin Truex Jr. — 12.3 (0)
10. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (0)
Brad Keselowski’s victory in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega did more than put him in position to make the Chase again, it reaffirmed his position as one of the sport’s top drivers.
Over the past 26 races — the length of the “regular season’’ in the Sprint Cup Series — only Tony Stewart has more victories than Keselowski. Stewart has seven; Keselowski four. No other driver has more than two in that span, which dates to Pocono in August 2011.
Keselowski’s victories during that stretch have come at Pocono, both Bristol races and Talladega. He’s finished second twice.
Keselowski has done more, too. He has finished in the top 10 in 14 of the last 26 races and placed in the top five in 11 of 26 races as well as led at least one lap in 18 of 26 races.
“He’s matured a lot,” car owner Roger Penske says of Keselowski. “He’s been a tremendous asset to the team, not just for Brad Keselowski, for Penske Racing. You can see when he comes in the shop, he’s spending a lot of time. I wouldn't trade him for anybody right now.
“He came to me before he went to work for us, he said, ‘I’d like to come to Penske Racing and help build a winning Cup team.’ He’s certainly demonstrated that from the driving ability. His chemistry with (crew chief) Paul Wolfe and that whole team has made a difference.
“This is not about the driver, the car, the sponsor — it’s about the whole team. He's the real package. What we're trying to do is give him everything we can to make him a winner.”
Keselowski made the Chase via a “wild card” entry last year with three victories. Discounted as a title threat, he climbed to third in the standings and was 18 points out of the lead with four races to go. He was in position for a top-10 finish at Martinsville until he was wrecked in the final laps and finished 17th. That dropped him to fourth in the season standings, 27 points out of the lead. Keselowski and Wolfe were more aggressive with their strategy after that and it backfired as Keselowski ultimately finished fifth.
What he and the team learned last year could make it a stronger contender this year. With two wins in 2012, he seems sure to at least take a wild card spot again.
“I refuse to label this year a failure if we don’t win a championship,” Keselowski says. “Part of what defines a man is what code you live by. One of my codes — it’s probably my strongest code — is to be better today than I was yesterday, and to be even better tomorrow than I was today.
“We’ve shown that we’re better here at this point in the year than we were last year, at this point in the year, and we were better last year at this point in the year than we were the year before. You know, that’s my code. I'm surrounded by the proper people to execute it.”
It’s worked so far.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
POINTS RACING Even with the five yellow flags at Talladega, the number of cautions this season compared to last year remains down significantly. Last year, there were 86 cautions in the first 10 races. This year it’s 53. Many theories abound for the drop. Points leader Greg Biffle says the notion that the points system has led to more careful driving is not a cause for fewer cautions.
“A lot has been talked about how people might be racing careful because every point counts because of the way it came down at the end of the season with Carl (Edwards) and Tony (Stewart),” Biffle says, noting how Edwards and Stewart finished tied for the title with Stewart winning the crown based on the tiebreaker of having more victories last year.
“But if you really think about it, the points right now don’t count right now, provided if I make the Chase. It doesn’t matter if I finish seventh, fifth, 13th or second. The only way I can get points right now for the Chase is to win. To me, sixth or seventh means no difference simply from the fact that the only way I can get points for the Chase is to win. Our importance right now is to win. Yeah, we want to keep leading the points and that is important, but, in order to win the championship, we’ve gotta win races to get bonus points for the Chase.”
TOUGH START Marcos Ambrose finished 14th at Talladega. His best finish this season is 13th at Daytona and Las Vegas. He’s 21st in the points.
“It has been a disaster in terms of points,” Ambrose said of his season before the Talladega race. “We have had four or five top-10 runs that we have thrown away. It is just terrible and we know it. We want to turn our season around. We have had absolutely no luck and it is a shame. We should be sitting here solid in the points with three or four top 10s and feeling good about ourselves.”
PIT STOPS Brad Keselowski’s victory at Talladega marked the sixth consecutive restrictor-plate race with a different winner. Matt Kenseth won this year’s Daytona 500. Last year’s winners in plate races were Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Jimmie Johnson and Trevor Bayne. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth remain the only drivers to have completed all 3,120 laps this season. ... Clint Bowyer has not finished better than 31st in his last three starts at Darlington. ... Denny Hamlin has five top-10 finishes in six career Cup starts at Darlington. ... Bobby Labonte has finished 18th in three of the last four Darlington races. ... Ryan Newman has three consecutive top 10s at Darlington and placed in the top 10 in six of the last seven races at that track.
1. Greg Biffle Found himself in roughly the same position at Talladega as he was in at Daytona ... which isn’t bad when you’re clicking off top 5s like it’s the ARCA Series.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Doesn’t seem able to finish outside of the top 10 if he tries, but this is Dale Earnhardt Jr. we’re talking about, so only a win will keep the critics at bay.
3. Matt Kenseth Kenseth has roared to within five points of Biffle’s lead in the standings on the strength of four top 5s in the last five races.
4. Denny Hamlin Hamlin was running in the top 5 at Talladega when he was the victim of a block-gone-bad. It’s hard to factor the resulting 23rd-place finish into these standings, so I will not.
5. Brad Keselowski He may not have the most consistent team on the circuit, but it’s one that has proven capable of winning on any given weekend. Bristol and Talladega are proof of that.
6. Tony Stewart Like Hamlin, it’s hard to fault Stewart for a mid-20s finish at Talladega. Unlike Hamlin, Stewart was in position to win despite running out of fuel twice and battling overheating issues throughout the day.
7. Jimmie Johnson The roll-of-the-dice tracks at Daytona and Talladega are the only ones that can consistently keep Johnson from a top-10 finish. Take plate racing as the anomaly it is and move on.
8. Kyle Busch Consecutive runs of first (Richmond) and second (Talladega) find Rowdy’s stock on the rise. Could this be the beginning of a scorching summer run?
Photo by ASP, Inc.
9. Kasey Kahne A fourth at Talladega made it four runs in a row of eighth or better for Kahne and the No. 5 team. It would come as no surprise if they — not the 24, 48 or 88 teams — earned Hendrick’s 200th win.
10. Carl Edwards Cousin Carl’s streak of five finishes of 11th or better came to a grinding (and wreck-induced) halt at Talladega. Expect big things in Darlington and Charlotte.
11. Kevin Harvick He’s been notably quiet this season — in the sense that he may be about to break out. And he’s still fifth in points.
12. Martin Truex Jr. May deserve to be ranked higher, but honestly, the track records of those listed previously factored.
13. Clint Bowyer Didn’t lead any laps at Talladega, but snuck in a solid sixth — with clean sheet metal.
14. Mark Martin If you got to pick and choose your starts you’d be smart to take a pass on Talladega, too.
15. Paul Menard Bet you didn’t realize that Menard is holding steady at 14th in the standings, just on the cusp.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya
Kasey Kahne (5) and Jeff Gordon (24). (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The Long and Short of It
What was supposed to be a celebration has become a burden for Hendrick Motorsports. Mired in a 15-race winless drought, its longest since 2002-03, the organization remains at 199 Cup victories as the series heads to Talladega.
Whenever the team scores its 200th victory — a significant number in a sport that reveres Richard Petty’s 200 career victories as a driver — it will be more relief than triumph.
Yet, even as some focus on what Hendrick hasn’t done, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is second in the point standings and Jimmie Johnson is sixth. It’s surprising they haven’t won. Earnhardt has finished second or third four times and Johnson has done so three times. Hendrick has placed at least one car in the top 5 in each of the last five races. Twice it has had two cars among the top 5 in that stretch, including last weekend at Richmond when Earnhardt was second to Kyle Busch and Kahne placed a season-best fifth.
What makes this winless drought less dire for this organization is how much speed many of these cars have. It’s not like they’re struggling to stay on the lead lap in many races. Still, there are issues.
Gordon has struggled in qualifying. His three top-10 starts came at the short tracks. While he’s led 339 laps, second only to Johnson’s 362, nearly all of the laps Gordon came at Martinsville. He, Johnson and Earnhardt appeared as if they would all finish in the top three and give Hendrick his noteworthy victory at a track where he won his first Cup race. A late caution bunched the field and Gordon and Johnson got knocked out of the lead on the restart, symbolizing how agonizing close they’ve been to victory at times this season.
Gordon understands how important it is to score a victory soon.
“Well, it’s always important to win,” he says. “And we’re always trying to win as hard as we possibly can. It’s just like getting ready for the All-Star race. No points involved; we’re going to really go all-out to win. Well, we do it every weekend.
“But we do recognize that at this point, and it’s not completely out of the question that we could make up those points and get in the top 10 legitimately. If you look at our season last year, the amount of points that we made up from this point until the Chase, we did it. And we can do it again. But we’ve got to get a lot more things going our way than what’s happening right now. And we’ve definitely put ourselves at a huge deficit.”
Kahne has had all sorts of misfortune. He had only two finishes in the top 20 in the first six races. He fell out of one race because of an accident and another with engine problems. Gordon also had an engine problem, coming in the Daytona 500.
Even with such issues, it’s not hard to think that it won’t be long before a Hendrick car arrives in Victory Lane. Maybe this weekend. Gordon’s six victories at Talladega are most among active drivers and Earnhardt is next with five.
Johnson, the last Hendrick driver to win a Cup race, remains confident.
“My mindset from when I started and through the championships and still now, is if you run in the top 5, especially the top three week after week, you’re going to win your fair share of races,” says Johnson, who has seven top-10 finishes, tying Earnhardt for most this season. “And I fully believe in that statement. And although there are times I’ve left the track disappointed with a second or a third or whatever it may be — or 12th at Martinsville because I felt like we had a good shot at it — I still really believe in that philosophy and I’m very happy with how we’re running and the speed we have in our cars.”
LOOK AT THIS KID The talk beforehand was about Travis Pastrana making his Nationwide Series debut last weekend at Richmond, but 18-year-old Ryan Blaney had people talking afterward when he finished seventh in his series debut.
“It exceeded my expectations a little bit,’’ said Blaney, the son of Cup driver Dave Blaney. “We thought coming out ... with the racecar all still intact and a good top-15 finish would be real nice.”
He’ll return to the series in a couple of weeks at Darlington — a track he’s never visited.
Blaney said he’ll prepare for Darlington by watching tapes of the racing as he did before the Richmond race, along with talking with other drivers.
Mark Martin (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
NOT GOOD TO BE NO. 1 Mark Martin continued the trend the pole-winner not winning the race. No pole winner has won a race this year. No pole winner has won in the last 27 races. The average finishing position for the pole winner during those races is 16.5.
The last pole winner to win a race was Ryan Newman at New Hampshire in July 2011.
This streak likely will continue. The pole-winner has won only once in the last 27 races at Talladega.
PIT STOPS Kevin Harvick has been running at the end of all 22 starts he’s had at Talladega. ... Matt Kenseth has failed to finish in the top 10 in each of the last 10 races at Talladega. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth are the only Cup drivers to have completed all 2,926 laps in the first nine races of the season. ... This weekend will be the first race for Mike Ford as crew chief for Aric Almirola on the No. 43 car. Ford helped Denny Hamlin nearly win the series title in 2010. ... Carl Edwards will use the same chassis at Talladega that he used to win the Daytona 500 pole.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Richmond
Denny Hamlin (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits Richmond International Raceway for some good ol’ fashioned short track racing in the hopes of putting on an exciting race — something many fans are clamoring for after a dull month. Typically one of the more action-packed tracks on the schedule, Richmond has averaged 10.8 cautions since 2007 and last year's September race saw a total of 15 yellow flag periods.
In short, expect more action Saturday night under the lights in the Capital City 400 than the last five weeks combined.
Sunday's race in Kansas primarily featured green flag racing, yet came down to a good battle to the checkered flag. Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. was the dominant car on the day, leading 173 of the 267 laps.
However, Denny Hamlin and his Darian Grubb-led crew were in position in the end to jump out front with 31 laps to go. Clearly the best car of the day, Truex's Toyota didn't work well on the final set of tires, allowing Hamlin to take advantage.
This weekend, the Virginian driver-crew chief duo head to their home state with momentum, confidence and the advantage of two race wins already under their belts.
To say Hamlin considers Richmond his home track would be quite the understatement. Hamlin is from nearby Midlothian, the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown is held at RIR and he has two wins, six top 5s and eight top 10s in 12 Sprint Cup starts on the three-quarter mile oval. He is also the defending champion of the Nationwide Series race, a title he will attempt to defend this weekend.
Hitting its stride early in the season, the No. 11 team is fifth in points, with two wins, three top 5s and four top 10s through the first eight races. Hamlin has been the class of the JGR field in 2012, a trend that will continue this weekend in Richmond.
With an average finish of 7.6 at RIR, plus the momentum from last week's win and the excitement of heading back to Virginia, Hamlin, Grubb and the No. 11 crew are this week's overwhelming fantasy favorites.
Frustrated on missing out on last week’s win, Truex's disappointment is a testament to how far the No. 56 NAPA team has come. Throughout the first part of the season, the group has been on its game, as it sits second in points with three top 5s and six top 10s in the first eight races while chasing a winless drought that dates back to June 2007.
While Truex’s results are not noteworthy at RIR through his two seasons with MWR — he has only one top 10 (seventh, 2010) — he and the team are running well regardless of track at the moment. Given the strong start, Truex could disappoint Hamlin's hometown crowd Saturday night by cashing in on the win that is coming.
Also keep an eye on Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch. Currently 14th in points, Busch has not had the greatest of starts to the season. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has only one top 5 and three top 10s to go along with three finishes of 23rd or worse.
Busch holds the best average finish of any active driver at RIR (5.0), with three wins, 11 top 5s and 12 top 10s in 14 starts. Dating back to ’09, Busch has won each of the spring races and is looking to continue that trend Saturday night. In fact, Busch has never finished worse than fifth (2006) in the spring race at RIR.
Five Favorites: Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart
The Hendrick Motorsports brigade has been hot on the heels of that elusive 200th win for team owner Rick Hendrick of late. Unable to capture the historic win over the last 14 races, they’ll soldier on at Richmond this weekend.
HMS has 10 Cup wins at Richmond, the last of which came in 2008 when Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag. Since then, Hendrick cars have been shut out of Victory Lane, but perennial fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. could fly under the radar this weekend and end two winless streaks that many fans would like to see come to an end.
Earnhardt has three wins on the short track in Richmond, but has struggled to produce the results of late. Since his last win in ’06, Earnhardt has only on top-5 finish and nine finishes of 15th or worse. Yet, the No. 88 team has been one of the best Hendrick cars throughout the early part of the 2012 season. Fourth in points, Earnhardt appears to be on the verge of snapping a winless skid that dates back to June 2008 nearly ever week. Running well seems to have rekindled a fire in both Earnhardt and the No. 88 team, led by crew chief Steve Letarte.
Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick enters Saturday night's race as the last driver to win on the .75-mile short track. The No. 29 team has had a solid — not flashy — start to the 2012 season, with a worst finish of 19th in Martinsville.
Aggressive short-track racing fits perfectly into “Happy” Harvick's style. Richmond illustrates that fact, as Harvick has enjoyed two wins, six top 5s, 14 top 10s and only two finishes of 25th or worse in 22 starts here.
Five Undervalued Picks: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson
Harvick's RCR teammate, Jeff Burton, also bears watching. The Virginia native will make his 36th career start at the track down the road from his hometown of South Boston. Throughout his career, Burton has one win, nine top 5s and 15 top 10s for an average finish of 14.8 at RIR.
Of late, Burton has struggled to produce solid results at Richmond, with his last top-5 finish coming in 2010. The veteran has also struggled throughout the start of the 2012 season, finishing 22nd or worse in five of the first eight races. After a 20th-place finish in last year's standings — his worst since 1995 — Burton was optimistic coming into the new season, especially working with new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. However, things have not gone according to plan, and now is the time this team can hit its stride at tracks like Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte.
Stewart-Haas Racing's Ryan Newman has also put up fairly consistent numbers at Richmond in his 20 Cup starts. His lone Cup Series win at RIR came in 2003, but he has eight finishes of 11th or better in the last 10 events at the track.
Already a race winner this year, Newman is gunning for more bonus points to secure a Wild Card spot (at the least) in the Chase. After taking the Grandfather clock in Martinsville, the No. 39 team has finished 21st (Texas) and 20th (Kansas). Look for a return to a short track to be kind on Saturday.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jeff Burton, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger, Joey Logano
Best Average Finish at Richmond (Wins):
1. Kyle Busch — 5.0 (3)
2. Denny Hamlin — 7.6 (2)
3. Clint Bowyer — 10.5 (1)
4. Tony Stewart — 10.9 (3)
5. Kevin Harvick — 11.5 (2)
6. Ryan Newman — 11.6 (1)
7. Mark Martin — 12.2 (1)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.4 (3)
9. Jeff Gordon — 14.5 (2)
10. Jeff Burton — 14.8 (1)