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)
What makes for good racing ... and would "phantom" cautions help NASCAR?
Photo by ASP, Inc.
What makes for good racing ... and would "phantom" cautions help NASCAR?
Ask a NASCAR fan a question about the sport and you’ll likely get a strong opinion. Ask the Backseat Drivers Fan Council about the sport and you get many strong opinions — especially when the questions focus on the racing.
Fan Council members were not shy with their feelings when asked if NASCAR should throw a caution to break up a long green-flag run in a race, a topic that has garnered considerable debate this season. Here’s what Fan Council members said about that issue and others this week.
SHOULD NASCAR THROW A CAUTION TO BREAK UP A LONG GREEN-FLAG RUN?
79.8 percent said No 20.2 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• I may stop watching NASCAR if that's what they go to. If anyone says yes to this question they are not a true fan of NASCAR or racing. Period the end.
• Strung out racing is boring. The most exciting points are restarts — so why not have more of them?
• NO, dear Lord. Please, please, please DO NOT start creating "phantom" cautions to bunch up the field or do anything to change the outcome of the race. I firmly believe that if you do not have enough of an attention span to watch a race from green to checkers, with the chance there may be little or no caution laps, then I'm sorry but NASCAR may not be your cup of tea. I want to watch racing not wrecking. Please take this opportunity to exit NASCAR and go to the local demolition derby if you are in this for nothing but wrecks.
• Yes, I'd definitely like to see more cautions but there is a difference between hoping for cautions and looking for wrecks. Don't lump us all in together — there are those who like cautions because they bunch up the pack and those that want cautions because they want to see wrecks. Too often those two thoughts are combined into one.
• Of course not! No way should NASCAR cheat. I can't believe anyone would want NASCAR to throw a fake caution after all the complaints over the years blaming them for cautions that benefited various drivers. That just proves that the fans who complain are only complaining to complain.
• Everyone wants a late caution to bunch the field... unless their favorite driver is the one with the 10-second lead.
• Once the race is under green I want NASCAR to stay out of the “show making” business. A race, like every other sporting event, is an organic event that needs to play out on its own. NASCAR needs to let the teams and drivers determine the outcome. Not every race is going to come down to a last-lap pass with a win by 0.001 seconds, just like not every baseball game ends in a walk-off grand slam. What NASCAR can/should do is work on ways to encourage more passing and competition in the field by somehow finding a way to reduce the influence of clean air.
• People complained about their artificial debris cautions, now they complain about NASCAR not finding a reason for a caution. You can't please everyone all the time, and I, for one, am loving the racing this season. Feels much more real, it accentuates the drivers’ real talents behind the wheel. I'd much rather see two drivers and their styles clash to see who comes out on ahead.
• They do need to do something to make these races a little more exciting. I know I have turned off the last two.
• HELL NO! If NASCAR starts artificially manipulating races, then I am out. I prefer to see how the race unfolds naturally. If a driver manages to get out to a great lead, so be it. If a driver leads the whole race, that is okay with me.
• NASCAR's number one purpose is to entertain. Without fans in the seats and fans watching the races on TV, there would be no NASCAR. But if NASCAR wants to turn this into WWE and fabricate the results, I will no longer be a fan. Arbitrarily throwing a caution to add entertainment value is wrong.
• The restarts were the exciting part of this week’s race, so for entertainment purposes, yes.
WHAT MAKES FOR GOOD RACING?
54.8 percent said passing throughout the field 19.4 percent said a close battle for the lead at the end of the race 13.6 percent said Other 10.4 percent said many lead changes 1.8 percent said numerous cautions
What Fan Council members said:
• Just good hard racing makes the race more exciting to watch. It gets boring when the cars get strung out and there is really no side-by-side racing.
• Battling for the lead is what I remember most from watching on TV. You see more passes back in the pack when you attend live, but passing for the lead is what makes a race exciting.
• A good race to me is many lead changes, passing throughout the field, and a close battle for the lead at the end. I don't ask for much. When I am at the track I only need the sights, sounds, and smell.
• What every fan wants is drama, which always seems to be missing at California, Michigan and multiple cookie cutters.
• In my mind, auto racing should be a combination of human skills and equipment quality and endurance, the perfect blend of human and mechanical structures organized into a symphony action, reaction with an unknown outcome.
• I love good side-by-side racing, especially at the tracks that make up the bulk of the schedule (the 1.5- and 2-mile tracks). It’s exciting and you stay tuned to see who is going to prevail. There is an exception though, at the short tracks (Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond, etc.). That's when I like to see beating and banging and cautions because that is what short track racing was built upon.
• Not just a close a battle at the end but throughout. Making sure the pit crews do their job, the crew chief calls a good strategy all race long. All that stuff makes up a good race. I also like seeing many cars going for it, not just two or a few. A little sideways to watch now and then doesn't hurt either, but I don't watch for wrecks.
• I would like the teams to have a chance to work on their cars under caution and give more drivers a shot to drive up through the field and contend for the lead. Such few cautions don't allow for drivers to work on anything and pretty much the top 10 stays the same from qualifying to the finish.
• The battle between Hamlin & Truex was very exciting (at Kansas) and kept me on the edge of my seat. Neither are my favorite drivers, but I was cheering for Truex at the end to pass Hamlin.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
GRADE SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT KANSAS
53.8 percent said Good 27.8 percent said Fair 9.4 percent said Poor 9.0 percent said Great
What Fan Council members said:
• I like the multiple racing grooves at this large track. I saw lots of racing for positions between drivers, and I enjoy watching that.
• I'm sick of these cookie cutters, and I don't care what anybody says about what kind of fan that makes me. I am a die-hard fan of this sport, I love to see a great race where drivers are working on each other for multiple laps and make the pass when the other makes a mistake, but at the same time I HATE to see the same race 14 races a year. I understand the concept that NASCAR had to expand to other parts of the country, but the people that built the tracks should have stopped building the same kind of mile-and-a-half track and should have dared to be different.
• Bored me so much, I went to the kitchen and washed the dishes
• It was a good, competent race, and I have learned to appreciate the intermediate tracks for what they are. People complaining about the boring races need to learn to love the intermediate tracks because we are stuck with them. NASCAR made their bed with all these cookie-cutter tracks, now they have to figure out how to market a bunch of races with not a lot of action.
• The race was fine and I'm pleased with the results. Now that the other teams seem to have caught up to Hendrick, you really never know for sure who's going to win and that makes it interesting.
• After turning off the race on Sunday, I immediately thought of this question and the only thought that came to my head was “forgettable.” Not that great of a race and not that bad, just a typical 1.5-mile race.
• Except for the battle at the end and the restarts ... not much else to talk about in this race. I was more excited by playoff hockey which has continuous action throughout.
• One of the best Kansas races in a long time even with long green runs. I work nights and was extremely tired (but the) race still held my attention all the way through.
• A little better than Texas because it was only 400 miles of boring racing.
• As a Truex fan it was great. As a race fan it was boring until the end.
• Love the green flag runs and pit stops. Team efforts are on full display for the results. Today the drivers had to push every lap or get left behind. Today was a race!
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
If Denny Hamlin can win races now, it makes one wonder what he’ll do later this season as the communication with new crew chief Darian Grubb improves and Grubb puts more of his stamp on the team’s cars being built.
Hamlin is one of only two drivers with multiple wins this season after eight races (Tony Stewart is the other) and Hamlin could be the first driver to win three races this season with the series heading to Richmond this weekend. He has won two of the last five races at his hometown track.
Even with the success, Hamlin has had his ups and downs. He won at Phoenix and Kansas but finished 20th at Las Vegas and Bristol. Since Bristol, he’s not finished worse than 12th. That’s helped Hamlin climb to fifth in the points.
“It's hard to analyze your program by a one-week performance,’’ Hamlin said after his Kansas victory, the 19th of his career. “You look at it in the grand scheme of things. (At Texas) on a mile-and-a-half (mile track), we went almost a lap down, but we ... hung around 10th place for most of the day.
“I'm not going to analyze and say that everything is good, we just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we'll be fine. There's always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we've identified those areas and we've gone to work on them. So right now I feel like we're bringing better race cars to the race track than what we have, and it's still going to take time. There's still things that myself and Darian need to work on with communication, things like that, but he's still working within Joe Gibbs Racing trying to get cars that he feels like can be better to the race track, and all that stuff takes time. You just can't do it — it's a big process now.’’
Says Grubb: “My confidence in Denny's feedback is getting better and better. I know when to take what he says with what inflection in his voice, what it means.’’
This also has been an adjustment period for Grubb in how things are done at Joe Gibbs Racing after moving over from Stewart-Haas Racing. That also takes time.
“The technology is drastically different between the organizations, so the actual lessons you learn and things, it's probably more the style of working and being able to manage people and get the best out of the people that are there,’’ Grubb said. “Now that I'm at Joe Gibbs Racing I'm starting to learn those personalities and what I can get out of them.’’
This team will be worth watching as the season progresses.
NEW LOOK Bruton Smith, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Chairman and CEO, is scheduled to announce Wednesday his plans for changing the track surface at Bristol. The work will be completed before the August race and is in reaction to fan complaints about the racing there.
Bristol will mark the fourth track this year that will have a new surface, joining Michigan, Pocono and Kansas. Work on Kansas’ track began after Sunday’s race. Since 2010, six of the 23 tracks that host at least one Cup race will have had new surfaces by the time the series races at Kansas in October. Phoenix was reconfigured and repaved last year and Daytona was repaved in time for last year’s Daytona 500 after a pothole delayed the 2010 race.
Jeff Gordon says that in some cases, the track is not as much the problem, especially Bristol.
“The drivers love it,’’ Gordon said. “It’s a great racetrack I think. I thought they made huge improvements. Now we hear they want to go back to the old way.
“Tracks are getting too much of the blame or even credit sometimes. This car for the last five or six years has sort of put Goodyear, the tracks, everything into a different box. I’m looking forward to the 2013 car, but I look forward to cars down the road to sort of take some of the things in this car that are in there we can’t take out. It will help the racing; things that are going to help Goodyear to make it better tire that is more suitable for the car.’’
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
LOOKING BACK Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent the last six months studying his family’s genealogy and its made him appreciate the past.
“I’m trying to put together some kind of a well-organized document to sort of be able to show to family members,’’ he said. “I had one interesting experience. Ralph’s (Earnhardt) father, I didn’t know who he was and never really cared who he was, never thought about who he was or what his family would be like.
“Never thought past Ralph all these years and I started getting into his father and Ralph’s grandfather and I found their burial plots and so me and my grandmother Martha and my sister and my mom Brenda and my girlfriend rode up there one day, just in Kannapolis or Concord and visited their burial plots and a lot of relatives that were born in like 1809 and 1822 and stuff like that.
“It’s really cool to stand there over somebody that is responsible for you being there.”
PIT STOPS The Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown will be Thursday night at Richmond International Raceway. Cup drivers scheduled to compete in the late model race that raises funds for charity are Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Aric Almirola and Michael Waltrip. ... Steve Wallace will make his 2012 Nationwide Series debut on Friday at Richmond. His Ford was prepared out of Rusty Wallace Racing with collaboration from JTG Daugherty Racing. Bobby Labonte’s Cup pit crew will service Wallace’s car and Labonte’s crew chief, Todd Berrier, will call the race for Wallace.
Hamlin holds off Martin Truex Jr. to notch second Sprint Cup victory of 2012
Photo by ASP, Inc.
It seemed a formality that once Martin Truex Jr. had fended off a vicious challenge from Jimmie Johnson that Michael Waltrip Racing would score its first Sprint Cup Series win since 2010.
Truex had led 173 laps and seemed on virtual cruise control as the laps ticked away in the STP 400 from Kansas Speedway. He pulled away for chunks of laps at a time after green flag pit stops — 45, 81 and 43 consecutive laps led on successive occasions — separating himself from the runner-up competitor by whole seconds.
Then, with about 35 laps to go, something happened to Truex’s Toyota.
According to team co-owner Michael Waltrip, the sun came out and changed the track, loosening up the car. Truex, however, was unhappy with the last set of tires that he reckoned did not agree with his machine.
Whatever the reason, a charging Denny Hamlin caught Truex and got by shortly after the final round of green flag pit stops to score his second win of the season.
Hamlin’s race-winning pass came on lap 237 of 267, and despite a last-ditch banzai effort with three laps remaining by Truex to reclaim the lead, the aero advantage Hamlin enjoyed carried him to the win.
“I knew that the only advantage that I had is when his (Truex’s) car got so loose that last run, I was able to make up a lot of time on entry and a lot of time on exit (in and out of the corners) because he was really fighting his car,” Hamlin said. “So really, as the driver behind, you can manipulate his car and make it worse for him by getting up close to him — and that’s what I kind of did a few laps leading up to when we passed him, is that I tried to run as close up to him on entry as I could and as close on exit. It takes away rear grip, and to a car that was as loose as what his was, they have no choice really but to back off and not wreck their car.”
The win at the 1.5-mile intermediate oval was somewhat of a surprise, in that Hamlin’s best finish on a comparable track this season was 11th.
“We just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we’ll be fine,” Hamlin said. “There’s always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we’ve identified those areas and we’ve gone to work on them.
“So right now I feel like we’re bringing better race cars to the racetrack than what we have, and it’s still going to take time.
As for Truex, he and crew chief Chad Johnston continue to knock on Victory Lane’s door. Six of his finishes have been eighth or better this season and he has yet to finish outside of the top 20. That performance — he has averaged a 4.8-place finish in the last five races — places him second in the Sprint Cup point standings.
“The NAPA team was phenomenal today,” Truex said. “Just not really sure what to think about that last set of tires. (The) car had been really good all day, (then we) put the last set on and I was wrecking loose for the first 20 laps of that last run and Denny was able to get by me and once he did the race was over.
“(The) car got better longer in the run and I was able to get back to him, but I’d get three, four car lengths from him and pick up the aero push.”
Johnson held on for third after pit strategy forced him to climb out of a late-race hole. Matt Kenseth and points-leader Greg Biffle rounded out the top 5.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Texas
Carl Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series shrugs off the much-needed weekend off and heads to Texas Motor Speedway for this Saturday night's Samsung Mobile 500.
Anytime the series makes its way to the high-speed, mile-and-a-half track in Fort Worth, the Roush Fenway brigade is the team to watch. Since the inaugural event in 1997, the Roush cars have been among the fastest and the “Cat in the Hat” is usually holding a trophy at the end of the day.
All told, Jack Roush has eight Sprint Cup Series victories in Texas, along with seven Nationwide Series wins and one Camping World Truck Series victory.
However, when Matt Kenseth won last April’s night race by a whopping eight seconds, it snapped a two-year winless streak at TMS for the Roush teams.
After Carl Edwards swept the 2008 races, that dominance was called into question by non-Roush drivers Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart. Although they were kept from victory lane, Kenseth, Edwards and Greg Biffle were constant threats.
During that time, Hamlin was among the strongest, sweeping the Texas races in 2010. Yet, last season Hamlin struggled in both races, finishing 15th (one lap down) in the April's race, and 20th (again, a lap off the pace) during November’s Chase race.
Hamlin has November’s race-winning crew chief Darian Grubb on his side this weekend, as the pair looks to score their second victory of the 2012 season. Grubb led defending champion Stewart to Victory Lane ahead of Edwards then, and will look to do the same with Hamlin this weekend.
However, while Hamlin will be a threat again this Saturday, the driver that will be celebrating with the pistols and cowboy hat is Edwards.
Although he has yet to set the world on fire with his performances in 2012 (the Missouri native has yet to lead a single lap), Edwards was third to Kenseth last April and finished second to Stewart during the Chase. Pleased to come away from Martinsville with an 11th-place finish — and fresh off a vacation — the No. 99 team is poised to earn its first win of the 2012 season.
In order to do so, Edwards will have to hold off not only his teammates, Kenseth and Biffle, but Hamlin and Stewart, as well. This is a crucial part of the schedule where momentum can lead to wins and confidence leading into May’s All-Star weekend. Look for Edwards to be among the strongest cars on Saturday night, regrouping and beginning his trek to the Chase.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
This week's undervalued pick comes in the form of Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer.
Perhaps 13 is Bowyer’s lucky number, as he will make his 13th career start in Fort Worth and owns an average starting spot of 13.0 with an average finish of 13.0. Bowyer was second to Kenseth last April, and has six top 10s in the last eight races at the 1.5-mile track.
Thus far in 2012, Bowyer has finished 13th or better in all but one race (Phoenix). Consistently contending for a top 10 finish, the No. 15 team should continue that trend in the Lone Star State.
Kasey Kahne also has the opportunity to record a much-needed top 10 this weekend in Texas. After a dismal start to the season, his first with Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne heads to a track where he finished third in November and has one career win (2006).
The No. 5 team has speed, but have suffered from terrible luck. Kahne is excited about the team’s potential at mile-and-a-half tracks, though, and its luck has to turn around eventually. Look for that to happen this weekend.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton
Richard Childress Racing’s Paul Menard is this week’s underdog pick in Texas. Traditionally a fast starter, Menard has continued the trend this year with three top-10 finishes through the first six races — and he has solid numbers in the last three events at Texas Motor Speedway.
The No. 27 team came home with a fifth-place finish after a strong showing last April, while Menard finished 15th in November. Coming off a disappointing 26th in Martinsville, Menard and his Slugger Labbe-led crew will be looking to rebound from their poor showing.
Also keep an eye on 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne as he returns to the Sprint Cup Series this weekend in the iconic Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford. The young driver has finished 17th in each of this three previous starts at the 1.5-mile speedway, which was also the site of his first Nationwide Series win last November.
Five Underdog Picks: Paul Menard, Trevor Bayne, Ryan Newman, Bobby Labonte, Marcos Ambrose
Qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway provides some of the fastest speeds on the Cup circuit all season. The teams will have to find the perfect balance of speed and handling as they work to get the car working over the bumps in the corners. A team that can balance raw speed with favorable handling on Friday will find itself with good track position and a preferred pit stall on raceday.
Best Average Finish at Texas (Wins):
1. Matt Kenseth — 8.7 (2)
2. Denny Hamlin — 10.2 (2)
3. Jimmie Johnson — 10.2 (1)
4. Tony Stewart — 12.6 (2)
5. Kevin Harvick — 12.9 (0)
6. Clint Bowyer — 13.9 (0)
7. Mark Martin — 13.7 (1)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.1 (1)
9. Kurt Busch — 14.5 (1)
10. Carl Edwards — 15.5 (3)
It’s been nearly two weeks since Bruton Smith said that he would order changes to Bristol Motor Speedway’s track surface after a sharp decline in attendance for the spring race and an increase in fan complaints about the racing. Yet Smith has yet to announce what those changes will be made before NASCAR returns to the half-mile track in a little more than four months.
“I think it would be incredible if they paved the track asphalt,’‘ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I am not sure if that would work out but it would be awesome to try it.’’
Any changes to Bristol’s surface before the August race will mean the Cup Series will race at four tracks that have been changed since last season. Kansas Speedway is set to be repaved after its race later this month. Michigan has been repaved and drivers nearly topped 215 mph at a recent Goodyear tire test there. Pocono Raceway also has been repaved and has Goodyear tire test scheduled for April 24-25.
While some drivers are thrilled that Smith will change Bristol — count Kevin Harvick among that group who says, “It’s about time,’’ — Denny Hamlin wonders if the tires should be changed for Bristol instead of the track.
“If you look at Bristol, it had the least amount of fall off of any tire that we had during this year,’’ Hamlin said. “I think you start off around 16.40 fast time (seconds per lap) and you ended 100 laps later running 16.90s. That's just not enough fall off.
“You have to have overtaking and to have overtaking, you have to have cars that are running faster than others. If you look at any point during a Bristol race, everyone's running the same exact speed and you're not going to have any overtaking. You're not going to have any wrecks because no one's running close to each other to wreck.
“Back in the day when people used to lap the whole field and no one complained about the racing, it's because overtaking was happening. Cars were getting passed. You could watch your guy move from 15th to wherever up to the front. Now, it's like he's got to make all the room, all the space up in the first five laps of a restart and then he sits there for the rest of the run. That's because we don't have enough fall-off.
“It's a tough job to make a tire that does that and will live and ultimately not put our safety at risk of blowing tires. Really, Goodyear has made tires that are idiot proof now. We can't abuse them enough to blow them out. That's why you don't see the passing that we used to have."
Even with Smith’s declaration of change, as Carl Edwards notes, it doesn’t guarantee that things will be better.
“The thing that makes me nervous for Bruton and those guys is to spend all this money to change something and then it may not yield the result that you want,’’ Edwards said. “I think that’s the risk they take, but Bruton Smith seems like he doesn’t mind taking risks and going for it. If it works out like most things he does, it’ll probably work, but I give him a ton of credit for saying he’s gonna change this and make an adjustment.’’
It’s just a matter of what Smith will do.
BACK AT ROCKINGHAM It’s not often that you see NASCAR return to a venue it left, but the Camping World Truck Series will compete Sunday at Rockingham Speedway. It marks the return of NASCAR since the Cup series last raced there in Feb. 2004.
NASCAR is back because of the work of track owner Andy Hillenburg, a former racer. He’s spent the money to update the facilities and add SAFER barriers to the track.
Now it’s up to the fans to determine if NASCAR returns to Rockingham after this race. If attendance is strong and shows potential, then maybe a Nationwide race can be added at some point. Just don’t expect the Cup Series to return there. With Cup races in Darlington, Charlotte, Martinsville and Bristol, the region has enough Cup events.
If that’s not good enough, then fans have to ask themselves if they would rather see some NASCAR racing at the track or see as much NASCAR racing as there is at North Wilkesboro?
NASCAR is giving the track and fans a second chance. Will fans take NASCAR up on it and show that the track deserves more races?
Jeff Burton (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
A DRIVER’S TRACK? There’s often the discussion about what is a driver’s track — or at least why some tracks might be considered a driver’s track. Jeff Burton, though, has his own take on the subject.
“Wherever a driver is good at that is what he thinks is a driver’s race track,’’ Burton said. “He thinks that is where drivers matter. The fact of the matter is that drivers matter everywhere. And the cars matter everywhere. You can’t take apart the car and the driver and say “it’s this or it’s that’.
“The reason why is to get the car to do what it needs to do, the driver has to be part of that. The way he drives the car, how he drives the car, and how he communicates with the team. All those things go into making a good racecar, and all those things go into making a good set up. So that communication with the team along with the driver is vital. You really can’t separate it.’’
PIT STOPS In his last two races, Jeff Gordon started 21st at Auto Club Speedway and climbed to fourth before pit road issues, including a penalty that led to a 26th-place finish in the rain-shortened event. Then, Gordon led a race-high 329 laps, lost the lead on a restart and ran out of fuel and finished 14th at Bristol. ... Kevin Harvick has an average finish of 9.0 in the first six races. It’s the second-best start of his career. He had an average finish of 7.83 in 2008. ... Kurt Busch will drive for younger brother Kyle’s Nationwide team in Friday night’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. It’s the first time Kurt has driven for Kyle in NASCAR. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. also is doing double-duty at Texas Motor Speedway. He’ll drive in Friday night’s Nationwide race and Saturday night’s Cup race. It’s the first time he’s run in both events at Texas since 2009.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race at Martinsville
by Jay Pennell
Few sports crisscross the United States quite like NASCAR, and with that, the Sprint Cup Series returns to the East Coast this weekend for the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Rain got the best of the series last weekend in Fontana, Calif., with defending champion Tony Stewart scoring his second win of the season in an event shortened by weather. Just five races into the year, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have hit their stride early as others are simply struggling to get their season started.
With momentum and confidence on his side, Stewart returns to the site of one of his most dramatic runs of the 2011 Chase.
After struggling for the majority of the event last fall, Stewart was able to fight to hold on to a lead lap position and eventually worked his way through the field and to the front of the pack. Besting Jimmie Johnson on the final restart of the day, Stewart went to Victory Lane and kept his title hopes alive. That race would have as much to do with his eventual championship as the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
On a roll already this season and coming off one of the most impressive performances in recent memory, Stewart is among this week’s stronger plays, but is not the overall favorite.
That honor belongs to none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
While Stewart was methodically working his way to victory at Martinsville last October, Earnhardt Jr. was beating and banging his way to a seventh-place finish. His aggressive style was an enjoyable sight to the fans, but also evidence of his ability to score a solid finish on the paper-clip short track.
Last spring, Earnhardt nearly broke a winless streak that dates back to 2008. However, Kevin Harvick was able to capitalize on a late-race charge to make the pass for the lead with four laps to go and score the win, relegating Junior to a second-place finish.
Entering this weekend, Earnhardt is enjoying a strong start to the season with two top 5s, three top 10s, and sitting third in the championship standings. Winless in his last 134 starts, Earnhardt is on the verge of snapping that streak and giving team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.
That opportunity could not come at a better facility. The Hendrick cars have been among the strongest at Martinsville since they began showing up. Geoffrey Bodine scored the team’s first victory here in 1984, while Hendrick cars have a total of 18 wins — second only to Petty Enterprises — as drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lead the active duty drivers in wins at Martinsville with seven and six, respectively.
Yet this weekend, it won't be “Five-Time”' or “Four-Time” that will be earning another Grandfather clock trophy. With the numbers adding up, momentum on his side and a string of strong performances at Martinsville backing him up, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is this week’s fantasy favorite.
Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart
While Gordon has been one of the most successful drivers at Martinsville over the years — he leads all active drivers in wins (seven), top 5s (25), top 10s (31), laps led (3,094) and lead-lap finishes (30) there — his 2012 season has gotten off to a rocky start.
Despite high hopes and great expectations leading into his 20th season in the Cup Series, the four-time champion is 25th in points and has only one top-10 finish on the year (eighth, Phoenix).
An ill-timed miscue on pit road last weekend in Fontana cost the No. 24 team a strong finish and the ability to move up the standings and back into contention. So has the season has gone for Gordon, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the entire No. 24 team.
Yet through it all, Gordon is encouraged by the fast racecars he has each week and knows all the team needs to get back on track is one “complete” race. And what better place for that to happen than at Martinsville?
Gordon is the type of driver that can hit a streak of solid runs and race for wins. After a slow start to the season, this is the weekend it turns it around for the No. 24 team.
Five Undervalued Picks: Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Martinsville is a track in which veterans such as Gordon are supposed to excel, not the young guys. But this week’s underdog pick goes to 21-year-old Joey Logano.
In six starts at Martinsville, Logano has completed all but five laps, has one top 5, two top 10s, zero DNFs and an average finish of 13.8 in six starts. While he has yet to set the world on fire or take home the trophy at Martinsville, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver did finish second to the ever-present favorite at Martinsville, teammate Denny Hamlin, in 2010.
Already in 2012, Logano has shown he has Chase potential. Through the first five races of the season, Logano has two top 10s and his worst finish was 24th last weekend in Fontana.
If he can keep the fenders on the car and avoid trouble throughout the day, Logano should score solid fantasy points for your team. He might not be the one celebrating the win, but he could give you those extra points needed.
Three Underdog Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger
Best Average Finish at Martinsville (Wins):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 5.4 (6)
2. Denny Hamlin — 6.5 (4)
3. Jeff Gordon — 6.9 (7)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 13.0 (0)
5. Tony Stewart — 13.4 (3)
6. Joey Logano — 13.8 (0)
7. Ryan Newman — 14.4 (0)
8. Brad Keselowski — 14.5 (0)
9. Jeff Burton — 14.6 (1)
10. Juan Pablo Montoya — 14.7 (0)
Dustin Long Takes a Spin Around the NASCAR Circuit
Photo by ASP, Inc.
by Dustin Long
Kasey Kahne is not panicking about the start to his season. He’s relieved, in a way, heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway even though he’s 27th in championship standings.
Kahne feels better after a season-best 14th at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday. A poor finish might have dropped him outside the top 35 in the car owner standings, meaning he would not have been guaranteed a starting spot at Martinsville.
“I was a little worried at California,” Kahne said Tuesday afternoon. “If we had one more bad race there, we would have been fighting for a (starting) position at Martinsville, which would have been unheard of for us.”
While Kahne has not had the results in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports, his car has shown speed. That provides hope. Success will come when he can avoid trouble.
His season, so far, has been a litany of misfortune.
His Daytona 500 ended early because of a crash and he placed 29th. He hit the wall early at Phoenix and limped to a 34th-place finish. He crashed early at Bristol and finished 37th. His best finish before Sunday was 19th at Las Vegas.
Even after Sunday’s finish, Kahne wasn’t thrilled, writing on Twitter: “Pissed I ran bad. Happy my car is in one piece.”
Kahne, who started fifth at Auto Club Speedway, began sliding back in the pack shortly after the green flag flew.
“I started off really loose and was sliding around a lot and the race got over too quick,” Kahne said. “We didn’t have enough time to get the car right. By the end of it we were running probably seventh-place lap times, but we were so far behind because of all the green-flag laps. We were getting better. We had made a lot of gains. We just needed 200 laps. The rain came and we didn’t get it.”
He finished and that’s something considering his early woes.
Kahne heads to Martinsville 68 points out of 10th place in the points — the last spot guaranteed to make the Chase. A year ago, Brad Keselowski was 50 points out of 10th at this point. Keselowski fell further back during the summer and still made the Chase via the wildcard.
So there’s no reason yet for Kahne to panic.
“I’ve handled it pretty well,” he said of his struggles. “The biggest reason why is how fast our cars are and the way they feel. I think everything is there. The engines run incredibly good compared to what I have had in the past.
“I knew going in just because I was going to Hendrick Motorsports didn’t mean I was going to start winning more races. It’s still a huge team effort. There’s still a lot of things you have to do right in order to run up front and contend for those wins. It takes a little bit of time. I think we’re pretty good as a team. Hopefully, we can start running in the top 10.”
NEW FORMAT The Sprint All-Star race, which will be held May 19 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, will have a new format this year.
The 90-lap race will be divided into five segments. The first four will be 20 laps each with the final segment 10 laps.
Gone is the 10-minute break before the final segment. Instead, there will be a mandatory pit stop — with a twist.
The winners from the first four segments will move to the front of the field and be the first four cars to enter pit road for this stop. They’ll be followed by the rest of the field. The move was made to encourage drivers to race more for a win in the previous segments.
So the winner of the first segment will enter pit road first, followed by the winner of the second segment and so on. Should there be a repeat winner of segments, the second-place finisher in that segment moves up. Thus, if a driver wins the first two segments, he’ll be the first car in pit road (for winning the first segment) and the second-place car in the second segment will be the second car on pit road.
There will once again be a fan vote to add a driver to the All-Star Race. Also, the pit crew challenge on May 17 again will determine the order teams pick their pit stall for the all-star race.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
A-HA Carl Edwards was recently asked about having an “A-ha!” moment at a track — the moment where everything seems to come together at once — and if he’s had that moment at Martinsville Speedway.
“I still haven’t had my ‘a-ha’ moment at Martinsville,” said Edwards, who has five top-10 finishes in 15 starts at the half-mile track. “Martinsville definitely is tough. The guy that has helped me the most at Martinsville is Jeff Burton. He helped me when I was first starting and Bobby Hamilton spent a lot of time with me. I still don’t feel like I have that place mastered.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE Brian Vickers will be back in the No. 55 car for Michael Waltrip Racing this weekend at Martinsville. This is the second of six races Vickers will run for Mark Martin this season. Vickers is running both Bristol, Martinsville and New Hampshire races.
He’s coming off a fifth-place finish at Bristol. His next race with the team won’t be until July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
PIT STOPS Jeff Gordon has scored 13 top-five finishes in his last 14 starts at Martinsville. ... Travis Pastrana will compete in Global RallyCross driving a Dodge Dart. ... Joey Logano’s Nationwide victory last weekend at Auto Club Speedway marked the first time in five races a Cup regular had won a Nationwide race. ... Jimmie Johnson’s career average finish at Martinsville is 5.4, while Denny Hamlin’s career average finish there is 6.4. ... Jeb Burton, the 19-year-old son of 2002 Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton, makes his Camping World Truck Series debut this weekend at Martinsville.
1. Greg Biffle Biffle’s team was the one under the Roush Fenway banner that laid low during the offseason. The result has been third-place finishes across the board. Bristol is usually good to them, too.
2. Jimmie Johnson It’s highly unlikely Chad Knaus’ appeal is overturned, but by appealing, Hendrick Motorsports bought Johnson a pair of top-5 finishes. Win or lose with the committee, this team remains a lock for the Chase.
3. Denny Hamlin We’ll take the 20th-place finish at Vegas as a hiccup. Although, after fourth- and first-place runs at Daytona and Phoenix, the dip at an intermediate track was notable.
4. Tony Stewart “Hey Darian, anything you can do, I can do better!” One week after Stewart’s former pit boss earned his first win with Hamlin, Stewart and new boss Steve Addington even the score.
5. Kevin Harvick Worst finish so far this season is 11th. Harvick and the re-tooled No. 29 team have an uncanny knack for always being “there.” A couple wins in the next month or so could be on tap.
6. Matt Kenseth Kenseth was on the business end of a Carl Edwards late-race move once again. For some reason, those never work out too well for the 2003 champ.
7. Carl Edwards “The Aggressor” raced on to a fifth-place finish, his second top 10 of the year. Strangely, Edwards has yet to lead a lap this season. Is another hangover in store for last season’s championship runner-up?
8. Mark Martin Says he’s OK with Dale Earnhardt Jr. after their dust-up in Vegas. The odds of anything spilling over to Bristol would have already been long — and those odds are off the board since Martin won’t even run there.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. The dominating run in the first half of the Vegas race was encouraging, but fading to 10th was all-too-familiar. Bristol should be another top-10 performance, though.
10. Kyle Busch “Rowdy” is ranked here more on 2012 potential than 2012 accomplishment. Bristol may change that.
11. Joey Logano So far, so good for the new Logano/Jason Ratcliff pairing. Wonder if he’ll be looking for the 24 this weekend?
12. Brad Keselowski A fifth is sandwiched between two 32nd-place finishes. Again, potential/accomplishment. And again, that could change this weekend.
13. Paul Menard Has quietly enjoyed two top-7 runs at Daytona and Vegas. He was fifth in last year’s spring Bristol race.
14. Martin Truex Jr. If this team ever learns how to finish a race, it’ll be dangerous.
15. Marcos Ambrose An excellent Bristol darkhorse, Ambrose has three top 10s in six Cup Series starts.
Just off the lead pack: Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman
Joey Logano says he’s worked with the same sports psychologist teammate Denny Hamlin has, but that’s not the only reason why Logano could do something in Sunday’s Las Vegas race that he hasn’t in more than a year.
After finishing ninth in the Daytona 500 and 10th last weekend at Phoenix, Logano will seek to score his third consecutive top-10 finish — something he hasn’t done since his late-season charge in 2010.
A new attitude is important, as Logano admits, but it also helps to have better equipment, which Joe Gibbs Racing is providing.
If Logano’s early success continues, it could take some of the pressure off. He’s in a contract year and knows he needs to deliver on the potential that led Gibbs to put him in a Cup car full time when Logano was 18 years old.
Now 21 and able to legally walk through the Las Vegas casinos, Logano is learning what it takes to be a successful driver. He understands a key part is mental.
On the advice of Gibbs last year, Logano began talking with sports psychologist Bob Rotella. Hamlin credits Rotella for giving him a better outlook after his struggles last year. Logano also has seen the benefits after his talks with Rotella.
“(It) just kind of gives you some more answers and gives you some tools to be able to deal with certain situations and how to talk to people in a positive way, in a motivating way to keep everyone going,’’ Logano said. “All that stuff there is very, very important. It's people skills really, leadership skills.’’
That’s an area that Logano admits he was not prepared for when he moved to Cup. Then again, how many 18-year-olds are?
Logano’s struggles, compounded by the problems his team had last year, beat him down. He’s learned from talking with Rotella, known for working with several top PGA golfers, how to better handle such situations.
“The thing is you’ve got to show up at the race track with the right mindset and knowing that you can go out there and win the race and not going out there to finish in the top 10,” Logano said. “When you’re goal is to finish in the top 10, the best you’re ever going to finish is 10th. You need to focus in on winning.”
Better equipment also helps.
Engine woes saddled Gibbs’ team last year. Logano had to start at the rear of last year’s Daytona 500 because of an engine change and then blew an engine at Phoenix the following week. It started a season-long slide for the team. He finished on the lead lap twice in the first 11 races and by then was all but out of Chase contention. With Gibbs getting its engines from Toyota Racing Development this season, things seem to be better so far.
Logano helped Gibbs place all three cars in the top 10 at Phoenix with Hamlin winning and Kyle Busch placing sixth — something Gibbs did not do last season.
This year, Logano is one of only five drivers to open the season with consecutive top-10 finishes (the others are Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin).
Two races doesn’t guarantee anything and Logano understands that. Still, it’s a good way to start the season with a new crew chief, as Jason Ratcliff takes over after Greg Zipadelli left in the offseason to be the competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing.
One of the things Logano mentioned in the offseason was that the crew chief change would allow him to take on more leadership with the team. With what he’s learned talking to a sports psychologist, Logano says he’s taking a greater role this year.
“My attitude’s different,” Logano said. “I feel like I walk around with a lot more confidence in myself. That carries through the whole team. Granted, we’re only two races into this deal. But we need to stay focused and keep our eye on the prize like we’ve been doing.”
Photo by ASP, Inc.
GOOD SIGN While Kevin Harvick might have been disappointed with finishing second at Phoenix last weekend after leading a race-high 88 laps, it didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for this season.
After the race, car owner Richard Childress congratulated Harvick on the radio for his run. Harvick replied: “It’s going to be a good year.”
Harvick was excited with his run after struggling at Phoenix last year and finishing 19th.
“They’ve done a good job over the winter,” Harvick said of his team. “And hopefully that continues over the next few weeks in the preparation that they’ve done through the winter.”
PIT STOPS Goodyear held a tire test Tuesday at Rockingham Speedway in preparation for the April 15 Camping World Truck Series race there, the first NASCAR race at that track since the Cup Series left after 2004. Said Jason Leffler, among the drivers testing: “I’m just looking forward to coming back and seeing 35 other trucks out here racing hard to see what happens when the tires wear out and everybody gets slipping and sliding.” ... Dodge will reveal its 2013 Charger this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Prior to last weekend’s events at Phoenix International Raceway, Penske Racing announced it would switch to Ford at the conclusion of the 2012 season. “We do value our NASCAR program and will be evaluating the opportunities available moving forward,” Ralph Gilles, President and CEO SRT Brand and Motorsports, said. “As those opportunities materialize, we'll reveal our 2013 plans, not only in NASCAR but in other forms of motorsports.”