Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Texas Motor Speedway
Eddie Gossage with spring 2012 pole winner Martin Truex Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
1. NASCAR finding Texas race sponsor to be questionable fit
When Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage announced the naming rights to Saturday night's race, eyebrows were raised in circles far wider than those just in the NASCAR garage. That'll happen when you allow a political group on one side of this country's hottest political debate to stake it's name to an event broadcast on national TV.
The buzz over the National Rifle Association's sponsorship of the NRA 500 this week has picked up steam once again, and NASCAR released a statement Thursday that seemed to indicate that it will review such sponsorships in the future. Tracks procure naming rights deals themselves, but each are subject to approval from the sanctioning body.
“The NRA’s sponsorship of the event at Texas Motor Speedway fit within existing parameters that NASCAR affords tracks in securing partnerships,” said NASCAR spokesman David Higdon in a statement that also noted NASCAR takes no stand in the gun rights debate. “However, this situation has made it clear that we need to take a closer look at our approval process moving forward, as current circumstances need to be factored in when making decisions.”
NASCAR's review of the approval likely stems from how the sport is being viewed by outsiders and, perhaps more importantly, by new fans. But it's a fine line for the sport to walk that has a considerable section of the fan base — especially in Texas — who share the same political views of the NRA.
NASCAR can't afford to alienate both sides of this debate or any other. How it handles situations such as these will be quite fascinating to watch.
Meanwhile, Gossage thinks the scrutiny is overblown.
"The only questions are coming from less than 10 reporters," Gossage said Thursday. "The public isn't asking (us) questions."
2. Let's hope you like the Gen-6
Back on track, NASCAR made another interesting announcement Thursday during the half-day open test afforded to teams as a way to get a better handle on NASCAR's latest model. Basically, don't expect major rule changes on the Gen-6 platform anytime soon.
"I think we're in a fairly good spot," NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said. "The teams — one of the things we've learned over the years is if you keep moving the targets, people have a tendency to … it's harder for them to keep chasing that. We feel like the playing field is fairly level."
After the small sample size of the latest two races for the Sprint Cup Series, shying from changes makes sense. Auto Club Speedway put on a show easily rivaling the best ever at the track for stock cars, and Martinsville Speedway seemed unfazed by the new body style. That's a good thing.
Pemberton's remarks bring the Gen-6 car nearly full circle after the sanctioning body used a test at Texas last fall at the track to narrow down what kind of speedway aerodynamic and mechanical package would be in use with the new car. That day, teams experimented with various levels of downforce and multiple tire combinations. Today's product isn't far from what the drivers tested that day.
"As long as the input is (that) it's still pretty rock solid as far as being positive, they've got plenty to work with. We feel like there's no reason to move the target on them right now," Pemberton said.
As you watch Saturday night's race and judge the Gen-6 on its third intermediate track visit of the season, remember that last year's spring Texas race was the impetus for many to wonder why NASCAR had lost the number of incidents and cautions everyone was used to. The caution flag waved just twice for 10 laps in last year's 334-lap event, both times for debris.
Defending race winner — and Ford driver — Greg Biffle. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Fords need Texas to get back in the mix
Carl Edwards may have won the season's second race at Phoenix International Raceway, but he won it primarily on track position and pit strategy. Since then, 2013 has been a season of catch-up for teams in the Ford camp.
Look at it this way: in 1,983 laps turned in 2013's six races of competition so far, Ford has led just 312 laps or 15.6 percent. Distilled further, Ford has led just 14 laps in the two races so far at the intermediate tracks most similar to TMS in Auto Club and Las Vegas.
By comparison, Jimmie Johnson, in a Chevrolet, has led more laps than all Ford drivers combined (21.7 percent).
Can this weekend in Texas be the perfect antidote? History is on the side of the Blue Oval gang in Fort Worth, as 11 of 24 races have been taken by a Ford. Nine of those have come from Roush Fenway Racing drivers, including last year's race won by Greg Biffle.
4. Has Hall of Fame nominee Bruton Smith hit the campaign trail?
One new nominee for this year's NASCAR Hall of Fame class was speedway magnate and renowned racing pot stirrer Bruton Smith. The chief of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., was nominated for his career of building racing facilities, track promotion and a litany of other contributions to the sport.
Thursday, if only subliminally, Smith seemed to be hitting all the right lines and making all the right proclamations for a guy hoping to become a first ballot Hall of Fame entrant. This is a guy, after all, who once threatened to "move" Charlotte Motor Speedway only to later have the road in front changed to honor him. A little bit of sly posturing isn't entirely out of the question.
First, Smith told reporters he was "delighted" his name came up and that if he was inducted he would "do whatever I can to help the grow the (Hall of Fame) facility in Charlotte" as well as the sport. Smith, who in 2005 was listed by Forbes being worth north of $1.5 billion, carries some significant clout in the Queen City.
Later, Smith found out that another Charlotte event — the annual pit crew challenge during the week of NASCAR's All-Star race — had been canceled for this year after Sprint opted to switch sponsorship to the preseason exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway. Quickly, he vowed to find a sponsor and host it at his still-new zMAX Dragway next to CMS.
Knowing how Smith works, that will likely happen. What isn't clear is if his benevolence is merely coincidental.
5. Truck Series returns to Rockingham for second year of track's comeback
A story not getting near the same attention it did one year ago is where the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will be racing Sunday.
For the third time this season, the trucks will take the green flag when Rockingham Speedway hosts the series for just its second NASCAR national series event since the venerable facility was shuttered amidst race realignment in 2004. Kasey Kahne won last year's event, but isn't entered to defend his title this year.
For the sake of what's good in NASCAR — and let's make it perfectly clear that racing at Rockingham is about as good as NASCAR gets, no matter the series — I hope Kahne's reluctance to return isn't indicative of what Sunday's crowd will look like. Track owner and former NASCAR driver Andy Hillenburg has poured plenty into reviving “The Rock,” and with a flood of nostalgia the track was an extremely popular stop last year.
More importantly, though, was that the on-track racing was great. There were multiple grooves, tire wear and drivers forced to manage their equipment in a way too often cast aside in today's NASCAR. Sunday's race will come early after the late night 500-miler in Texas, but it'll be well worth watching.
by Geoffrey Miller Check back each Thursday to get Geoffrey’s take on what to watch for in the upcoming NASCAR weekend. For daily insight, follow Geoffrey on Twitter:@GeoffreyMiller
I hope you all enjoyed restrictor plate action (or in this year’s case, inaction), short track madness and whatever it is we’re calling Fontana now, because all of that is in the rearview mirror. The intermediate tracks, referred to by some fans as “cookie cutters,” provide a semblance of statistical normalcy. Speed and strategy reins on these 1.5- and 2-milers, and while last year’s fall race at Texas Motor Speedway — this weekend’s destination — was an action-packed affair, the top finishers at these tracks are anything but random. We know who the key players will be, thanks to their statistical history on the tracks that comprise the bulk of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.
69.2% Jimmie Johnson led a whopping 346 laps (69.2 percent of the race) last Sunday at Martinsville, en route to this eighth win at the facility.
We are used to Johnson’s sheer dominance on the half-mile paperclip-shaped track, but in seven previous wins he never threw down a performance like the one witnessed last weekend. It was a showing of team strength and driving expertise. As he did last fall, Johnson departs Martinsville’s Victory Lane for Texas, where he won following an exciting late-race battle with Brad Keselowski.
64.56% Danica Patrick recorded her best single-race passing efficiency, winning 64.56 percent of her pass encounters in her debut race at Martinsville.
The 12th-place finish was aided by her plus-passing — her pass differential for the day was plus-23 — after starting from the rear of the field due to an engine change. On a track that isn’t often kind to first-time racers (ask Ricky Stenhouse), Patrick had, arguably, her best Cup Series performance to date.
5.700 In the 10 CoT races that took place at Texas Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth amassed a series-high 5.700 Production in Equal Equipment Rating.
A beacon of consistency in the Lone Star State, Kenseth has finished ninth or better in nine of the last 10 races for an incredible 6.2-place average finish (backed by an amazingly consistent 5.5 finish deviation). Strangely, his average green-flag speed and his finishes at TMS don’t often coalesce; the one time he had the fastest car at Texas, he won (April 2011), but it is more typical that he radically out-performs his equipment, like his fourth-place finish last fall while averaging the 10th-best green-flag speed, or under-performs, like his ninth-place score while averaging the fourth-fastest speed in the spring of 2008.
Greg Biffle: Texas Stud. (ASP, Inc.)
452 Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle, the reigning winner of this weekend’s event, has led a series-best 452 laps in the last 10 races at Texas.
As a team, Roush Fenway won four of the 10 CoT events held at Texas. Its cars are often speedy, but it helps when the drivers are also adept. Of the current roster, Biffle is the standout on this particular quad-oval track, holding onto a 5.200 Texas-specific PEER (ranked second to Kenseth) to go along with the most laps led across the last five years. Carl Edwards ranks fourth with a 3.850 PEER thanks to a sweep of 2008’s races.
4.8 Keeping with Roush Fenway’s Texas success, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. averaged a 4.8-place finish in the last four NASCAR Nationwide Series races there, including a victory in last year’s spring race.
Does past lower division performance indicate future success? Not necessarily. Stenhouse, a Cup Series rookie, won’t be anyone’s pick to claim the victory Saturday night at Texas (especially with a re-tooled No. 17 team with rookie crew chief Scott Graves still building his personal notebook), but he could be destined for a good finish, something that could help raise the 17.8-place average finish he has through six Cup races this season.
0.583 Brad Keselowski ranks 23rd in Texas PEER with a 0.583 rating.
Historically, Texas has not been the best track for the 2012 series champion, but considering his gritty second-place run last year, history might not matter. True, his best finish prior to last fall’s race was 14th and his average finish in nine starts is 22.7, but if we have learned anything about the driver that currently sits second in the point standings it’s that he shouldn’t be counted out solely based on past performance. His runner-up finish last year was legitimized by his third-place average running position and 75 laps (22.4 percent of the race) led.
23.1 Brian Vickers, the driver subbing for the injured Denny Hamlin this weekend, averaged a 23.1-place finish at Texas in his last seven starts.
Hamlin was a two-time winner at Texas in the CoT era, so Vickers represents a significant drop-off. Vickers ranks 43rd out of 47 drivers in Texas-specific PEER with a -0.536 rating and his best finish is 16th, twice, in 2008 and 2009. A fast car can hide a lot of blemishes, though, so fans of the consistently speedy No. 11 still might have something for which to root.
This weekend provides a rare off day on the jam-packed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, but that doesn’t mean analysis will stop. After five races, there is a litany of story-telling statistics in a series that continues to one-up itself, to the delight of news desks everywhere.
Secondary to all the controversial opinions, fighting and crashing, the most popular driver in the sport is the one sitting atop the NASCAR mountain. Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the point standings, which, as you will read below, is well deserved.
4.4 and 2.3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team lead full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors in average finish (4.4) and finish deviation (2.3).
What does this mean? Earnhardt is the most consistent driver in the series right now — a zero deviation would mean the same finish over and over — while bringing home tremendous results. Junior Nation should be rejoicing, because that isn’t just the sort of thing that gets a driver to the Chase; what Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led race team are doing are habits of potential champions.
+54.2% Earnhardt’s finishes are an increase of 54.2 percent over his average running position with 10 percent of a race to go.
That plus-54.2 percent position retainment difference is another habit of a title contender. That increase is worth about 26 positions — think of that as 26 extra points — earned in the waning laps of each race. On fresh tires, Earnhardt navigated through a firestorm of activity last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, driving from 13th to second in the final 20 laps for his most lucrative home-stretch run of the season.
100% Four teams in the Cup Series have finished in the top half of fields in all five races for a relevance percentage of 100.
“Relevance” is finishing in the top half of fields (21st or better in the Cup Series). This is important because hitting the 80 percent mark through the 26-race regular season all but lands a team one of the 10 automatic Chase spots. Of the four driver-team combinations currently with perfect relevance percentages, two of them aren’t surprises (Earnhardt and the No. 88 team and Greg Biffle with his No. 16 team) and two sort of are (Paul Menard and the No. 27 team and rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and the new-look No. 17 team). It is no coincidence that all four teams are currently inside the top 12 of the point standings at this juncture.
41 The No. 16 team with Greg Biffle has gone 41 races without registering a DNF (Did Not Finish, a status frequently used in NASCAR box scores to indicate why a driver finished so poorly).
In today’s NASCAR, with Chase implications attached to every position gained or lost, consistency matters. That starts with finishing races, which is something Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia have done in their sleep over the last year. Their most recent DNF was an engine failure in the 2011 season finale at Homestead, so credit the Roush Yates engine department for holding strong behind one of Ford’s best entries. Biffle himself deserves a tip of the cap for being able to avoid accidents well enough to go 76 races without an accident-related DNF.
Casey Mears (ASP, Inc.)
3 Casey Mears and the No. 13 Germain Racing team have scored three top-15 finishes through five races this season.
That is an intriguing factoid considering this driver-team combo only secured one top-15 finish all of last year. The improvement should be attributed to Mears, who is finishing in the top 15 at a rate 54 percent higher than the amount of laps he is running in the top 15. This time last season, the No. 13 ranked 28th in average green-flag speed. They currently rank 27th on this year’s average speed chart, making it difficult to see any discernible improvement in regular on-track performance.
13.3 The average finish of AJ Allmendinger and the No. 51 Phoenix Racing team, through three starts, is 13.3.
It’s a nice upgrade from the 26.1-place finish the team averaged in 2012 with Kurt Busch behind the wheel for the majority of the races. The team is currently ninth in the Cup Series owner point standings, after Regan Smith finished seventh at Daytona and Austin Dillon secured a 21st-place finish at Las Vegas. Is it early-season luck for the plucky crew out of South Carolina? Or do results change when the team isn’t crashing in just under half of the races as Busch did last year?
0.80 David Gilliland has a series-high 0.80 crash frequency.
The season has gotten off to a rough start for Gilliland, who has crashed four times in five races. He holds a -0.250 Production in Equal Equipment Rating (ranks 34th of 35 drivers), has a best finish of 24th (Bristol) and has his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team ranked 35th in the owner standings. If car counts for future events expand and his 27th-place average starting spot gets worse, he could be in danger of missing races.
Kyle Busch wins Auto Club 400; Logano, Hamlin rivalry intensifies.
Kyle Busch in Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
A frenetic final 20 laps in the Auto Club 400 concluded in a last-lap crash involving rivals Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, a surprise winner in Kyle Busch, and a fight on pit road between Logano and Tony Stewart. And it all happened at the most unlikely of venues: Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
The two-mile oval in Southern California has historically been known for its single-file, strung-out style of racing where aerodynamics and downforce — not tight-quarters beating and banging — are key. That all changed on Sunday.
A bevy of late-race three- and four-wide racing hit its crescendo on a restart with 11 laps to go. Race leader Logano threw a block on Stewart as the field took the green flag, killing the latter’s momentum and costing him valuable positions. That opened the door for Kyle Busch, who shot to the lead in the high groove.
As Busch built a cushion up front, the fight for second between Logano, Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. intensified. The quintet sparred for three laps before Logano and Hamlin prevailed. They chased down the leader and overtook him in a physical fight in the tri-oval with five laps remaining.
The former teammates, whose rivalry has made headlines since Daytona and reached a new high in Bristol when Hamlin spun Logano, sparking a post-race confrontation and a war of words, ran nose-to-tail until the final lap, when Hamlin made his move as the white flagged wave.
Hamlin loosened Logano up in the tri-oval and powered by on the outside. However, Logano was far from done. He dove to the inside in Turn 1 and pulled alongside on the backstretch. As Logano’s car got loose in Turn 3, he washed up the racetrack, making contact with the No. 11 of Hamlin. That allowed a stalking Kyle Busch to skate by near the wall, charging to the lead as Logano and Hamlin wrecked.
Logano bounced off the wall but righted the ship for a third-place finish. Hamlin cut hard to the inside of the track and crashed head-on into a concrete wall devoid of energy-absorbing SAFER Barriers. Hamlin exited his car but quickly collapsed to the pavement as track safety personnel attended to him. He was airlifted to a local hospital complaining of back pain for what Joe Gibbs Racing officials called “precautionary reasons.”
“They forgot about me. I knew they were gonna,” Busch said of the two leaders as they parried for the win. “When they went to the bottom side of (Turns) 3 and 4, I thought, ‘Oh man, this golden — I got enough (momentum) up here to make this happen.’ Lo and behold, I put my foot to it and drove around the outside of them before they were crashing … or maybe as they were crashing, I’m not sure.”
The victory was Busch’s first of the season and 25th of his career.
Earnhardt Jr., Logano, Edwards and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 5. Hamlin was credited with a 25th-place finish. Earnhardt assumed the lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings after former leader, Brad Keselowski, limped to a 23rd-place showing.
Tony Stewart, following his pit road confrontation with Joey Logano. (ASP, Inc.)
As Busch celebrated in Victory Lane, Stewart confronted Logano on pit road, having taken exception to the block that dropped him from third to, ultimately, 22nd. A fight broke out between the two drivers and members of their respective teams, though no punches appeared to connect. The drivers were quickly restrained and separated.
When asked by a FOX television reporter about the incident, Stewart went on an expletive-laden tirade, taking Logano to task and promising retribution, then later referred to him as “a rich kid who never had to work a day in his life.”
Logano was unapologetic concerning his tactics, saying, “I had to throw the block there — that was the race for the lead. I felt like if the 14 (Stewart) got underneath me, that was going to be the end of my opportunity to win the race. I was just trying to protect the spot I had.”
As for the violent ending to his race with Hamlin, the Connecticut native again displayed little remorse.
“He probably shouldn’t have done what he did last week,” Logano said. “So that’s what he gets.”
The theme of NASCAR Speedweeks in Daytona thus far?
New cars that do not line up square and are volatile in the draft; a supposed lack of quality body parts back at the team shops in North Carolina; valued information gleaned on specific cars that crew chiefs don’t want sacrificed.
For these reasons — and possibly because there’s no need to show one’s hand just yet — the action has been relatively staid at Daytona International Speedway.
In Thursday’s Budweiser Duel No. 1 — historically the crazier of the two — the much-ballyhooed No. 10 car of Danica Patrick led the field to green and, with teammate Tony Stewart, promptly drifted to the rear of the pack — part strategy play, part over-adjusted car.
Trevor Bayne inherited the lead and the field largely ran in formation in the high groove until lap 32 of 60, when Kevin Harvick led a train on the inside that propelled him to the lead with 14 laps to go. Like Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, when Harvick grabbed the point with 13 laps remaining en route to the win, it was a lead he would not relinquish.
He was forced to fight for it, though.
On lap 52, Denny Hamlin’s Toyota abruptly broke loose off of Turn 2 and collected Bayne, Carl Edwards and Regan Smith, setting up a four-lap dash when the green flag waved.
But with Jimmie Johnson planted on his bumper, Harvick held the lead, again utilizing the high groove after the restart. Greg Biffle and Juan Pablo Montoya tried in vain to mount separate assaults, but as in Saturday’s event, the No. 29 Chevy was too strong out front.
“Today, both lines were side-by-side and you were able to kind of feed each line a little bit of air (while leading) and try to keep ’em even,” Harvick said. “That's the best way to keep them at bay is keep them side-by-side.
“If we can get to that point and be able to dictate whether you need to block, move up, move down, side draft … you have options as the leader. That's the position I want to be in.”
Harvick, for certain, looks strong. In his final year with Richard Childress Racing, he’s started the year off by leading 40 of 75 laps in the Unlimited and 23 on Thursday, making him a favorite entering Sunday’s Daytona 500. He’ll do his best to downplay it, though, knowing the unpredictable nature of restrictor plate racing.
“We've been fortunate to win the first two races of Speedweeks," Harvick said. "We just got to keep a level head on our shoulders, not get too high over what we've done, just do the same things that we've done. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I think we definitely have the car and team to be in contention to do that.”
Kyle Busch celebrates Duel No. 2 win. (ASP, Inc.)
Duel No. 2 provided an even more docile 60-lapper. Jeff Gordon started on the pole and led the first 38 laps as the field, once again, largely flew in single-file formation.
However, a wacky round of pit stops on lap 39 shuffled the deck, as Gordon was penalized for speeding on pit road. It was a mistake from which he would not recover.
And that was when Kyle Busch took over.
Antsy running fourth prior to the stops and with no partner willing to work to make something happen, Busch’s crew chief obliged, making a call for no tires and a splash of fuel. That brief stint on pit road allowed the No. 18 Toyota to emerge second. When Gordon ducked to pit road to serve his penalty, the lead was handed to Busch — and that was that.
Busch led the final 19 laps, holding off a charging Kasey Kahne as teammate Matt Kenseth ran cover in the waning laps to capture the fourth starting spot for the 500.
“Our original plan was two tires, but he (crew chief Dave Rogers) called it,” Busch said. “They were just harping on me to make sure, don’t slide your tires. Because you don’t want to slide a left front (tire) and then have to take four.
“So, I felt like I got a really good pit road entry. I felt like I ran good pit road speed all of the way down pit road and getting into my box was great. The guys just filled the tank for five seconds. It’s all we needed and we ended up back here. We got out front where it mattered most and got teamed up with a couple of Toyota’s which was great."
So have the Unlimited or the Duels given any insight as to what Sunday’s 500-miler may provide? Possibly. Passing is at a premium, but it seems that if the race runs unimpeded for any number of laps, the giant packs of four-wide racing may not be as prominent. Drivers are complaining — quietly — that the Gen-6 cars are frightfully unstable in the draft and have them weary of taking unnecessary risks.
Therefore, the high groove acts as a cruising line of sorts, where drivers can click off laps. And with that in mind, the first half of the 500 may resemble Thursday’s Duels, as teams play it conservatively to be assured of simply seeing the finish.
Alternately, the low lane is a power groove to be utilized when it’s time to make a move. Harvick and Tony Stewart have demonstrated that a strong car can pull two or three others along if the drivers are willing to work together. If the Great American Race is to get crazy in the final laps, this is where the challenge will come.
And lastly, who are the favorites now that an exhibition race, pole day and two qualifying races are in the books? Harvick, obviously, has made the biggest statement with two wins in two races. And Biffle, with two runner-up showings in two starts, can’t be overlooked.
Neither can Stewart, whose name has been on most everyone’s lips in the garage since the Unlimited. And then there’s Busch, Gordon and Kenseth, who have all shown strength at one point or another.
All that said, an unknown rookie won the 500 in 2011 and another rookie is on the pole now. And with as many questions that remain concerning the behavior of the cars, the unexpected is almost assured.
Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Carl Edwards' new crew chief, Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
Until last week, crew chief Jimmy Fennig admits he had “very seldom’’ talked to Carl Edwards in their years together at Roush Fenway Racing.
“I’m the type of crew chief that I focus in on the job at hand and the driver I have and don’t really pay too much attention to other drivers,” said Fennig, who most recently was Matt Kenseth’s crew chief.
Next season, Fennig and his crew will partner with Edwards as Kenseth drives for Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s part of a series of changes taking place at Roush Fenway Racing. Two-time defending Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. replaces Kenseth in the No. 17 Cup car. Trevor Bayne takes Stenhouse’s Nationwide ride. The Cup team of Greg Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia will remain intact.
Fennig, who became a crew chief in 1986 and won the 2004 championship with Kurt Busch, admits he doesn’t know Edwards too well but doesn’t see that as a hinderance in their pairing.
“My goal has always been to win races,” said Fennig, the winning crew chief in the 1988 Daytona 500 with Bobby Allison and this year’s Daytona 500 with Kenseth. “No matter who drives the car, that’s what I try to do every week and that’s something I know we already have in common.”
Fennig will be Edwards’ third crew chief since the start of the 2012 season. Bob Osborne started with Edwards. Osborne, citing health issues, stepped down as crew chief in July and was replaced by Chad Norris.
Edwards was winless this season and finished 15th in the points a year after losing the championship on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. Edwards scored only four top-10 finishes in the 17 races with Norris as crew chief, thus a change wasn’t surprising.
“We all just sat down and looked at it and Chad and I talked at length about it,” Edwards said of the change. “Everyone agrees the opportunity to have the experience of Jimmy Fennig on the box to get ... back to Victory Lane is what we should do. It wasn’t something that I single-handedly requested or just that Jack (Roush) wanted to do it. As a team we thought this was the best thing to do. The biggest thing at Roush is that he has so many good people that we can move people around and do things like this and it is good for the whole company.”
Along with that move, Roush will pair Stenhouse Jr. with crew chief Scott Graves. Both will be rookies in Cup.
“I would normally not be an advocate for bringing a crew chief who hadn’t been established with a rookie driver into the Cup Series, but Scott Graves – in my words – he’s been a prodigy for the small amount of experience he’s had making the final decisions,” Roush said.
“He made great decisions for Carl at Watkins Glen and he’s made great decisions for Ricky when he’s been with him this year. So I think given the fact he’s a mechanical engineer as well as an experienced team engineer, he’s going to bring enthusiasm and creativity to Ricky that we might not otherwise be able to achieve with somebody that had more experience.”
JR Motorsports' Regan Smith. (ASP, Inc.)
JR MOTORSPORTS MOVES JR Motorsports announced a new crew chief for Regan Smith on Tuesday and hinted that it could run just one team full-time next season in the Nationwide Series.
The team announced that Jimmie Johnson’s longtime engineer, Greg Ives, would become Regan Smith’s crew chief next season. Ives was the engineer for all five of Johnson’s Cup championships.
JR Motorsports also noted in a release how it “continues to streamline its race program.” The release stated that the team is preparing for the “likelihood” that it will run one full-time team with Smith as driver and one part-time with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and select drivers. This past season, Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt were the team’s two full-time drivers. Patrick is moving to Cup to drive full-time with Stewart-Haas Racing and has stated a desire to run some Nationwide events.
ROOKIES OF THE YEAR Ty Dillon was selected as the Rookie of the Year in the Truck series, marking the third consecutive year a Richard Childress Racing driver won that honor. Austin Dillon won it in 2010 and Joey Coulter won it last year. ... Austin Dillon was selected as the Nationwide Rookie of the Year and Stephen Leicht won the rookie of the year honors in Cup.
SEEKING SPONSORSHIP Kyle Busch said after Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race that Dollar General will not return as a sponsor on his Kyle Busch Motorsports entry.
“Unfortunately, we’re sponsor-less next year, so we’ll see what happens through the offseason,” Busch said.
The team announced earlier this month that Joey Coulter will drive full-time for it in the Truck series next year.
PIT STOPS Joe Gibbs Racing confirmed Monday that Elliott Sadler will join the team to run in the Nationwide Series next year. ... Paul Menard ran the most laps in Cup this season. He completed 10,406 of the 10,442 laps run (99.7 percent) this season. ... Jimmie Johnson led the most laps in Cup this season at 1,744. Kyle Busch was next, having led 1,436 laps. ... There were 15 different winners in Cup this season, down from 18 last year. This season marked the second consecutive year no driver won more than five Cup races. Champion Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin each won a series-high five races this year.
1. Denny Hamlin
2,012 points; four wins
Hamlin certainly appears to be a changed driver from the one that, along with then-crew chief Mike Ford, cracked under the pressure of a 2010 title fight. Quiet confidence abounds with his No. 11 team, led by the unassuming yet firm guidance of Darian Grubb (you know, the lame-duck crew chief that strapped on a pair and led a team that was an afterthought to last year’s championship). Despite his series-best four wins, only delivering in the clutch will wash away memories of Denny’s monumental collapse two years ago.
by Matt Taliaferro
2. JIMMIE JOHNSON
2 of 13
2. Jimmie Johnson
2,009 points; three wins
Based on their track record alone, you can never count out Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus when the playoffs role around. This season will undoubtedly be no different, and by the way, if you’re making any other team the favorite, you’re not being honest with yourself. That’s not to say the 48 team is predestined to win this whole dog ‘n’ pony show, but make no mistake: This bunch is the favorite. Johnson has won Chases coming from behind, pulling away, winning in bundles and in being consistent. Contrary to popular (and short-sighted) belief, a team doesn’t have to win in spades during the Chase to be crowned the champion. This team probably will, though.
by Matt Taliaferro
3. TONY STEWART
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3. Tony Stewart
2,009 points; three wins
For proof that a team doesn’t have to win races in the Chase to be a champion, look no further than Stewart’s 2005 title run. You’ll find he had zero Chase wins and that an 8.7-place average finish did the trick. Ironically, Tony’s 2011 five-win Chase spurt is the performance that perpetuated the “gotta-win-big” notion. Here’s the straight-talk concerning Stewart: He’s not going to win five of the next 10 but he probably won’t get skunked, either. But this probably isn’t his year to earn title No. 4.
by Matt Taliaferro
4. BRAD KESELOWSKI
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4. Brad Keselowski
2,009 points; three wins
A little bit DW, a little bit JJ, Keselowski is the breath of fresh air this sport has needed for awhile. Keselowski is a champ-in-waiting — strike that, a multiple-time champ-in-waiting. Somewhere amid the media savvy, the heads-up racing style, the mind games and the raw talent lies an intangible factor that’s hard to pinpoint (thus, its intangibility). BK’s time may indeed be now … and the window may close for a year or so depending on how his Penske Racing organization adapts to its new Ford sheet metal and new factory mates. Don’t be surprised if we see a first-time Cup champ this year.
by Matt Taliaferro
5. GREG BIFFLE
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5. Greg Biffle
2,006 points; two wins
Who? Oh yeah, the guy who won the regular season championship — not that NASCAR bothers to recognize the admirable feat. Perpetually flying under the radar, Biffle appears to be the Terry Labonte of his era — a great wheelman who never was viewed among the sport’s elite despite all evidence to the contrary. Of course, to be on par with Labonte, you have to win a Cup title and thus far, that’s eluded him. That said, he stands his best chance this year, with teammate and media-hound Carl Edwards out of the running and BFF Matt Kenseth on his way out at Roush Fenway Racing. Can the points leader after race No. 26 be considered a darkhorse? If so, Biffle’s your man.
by Matt Taliaferro
6. CLINT BOWYER
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6. Clint Bowyer
2,006 points; two wins
Michael Waltrip Racing’s much-ballyhooed two-car 2012 Chase effort makes for a great story. And seriously, it’s good to see an upstart operation legitimately delivering the goods in its sixth year of Cup competition. However, let’s be honest: MWR isn’t going to win a title this year … right? Don’t tell that to Bowyer, who is one of only seven drivers on the circuit to cash in for multiple victories this year. And probably one of only seven drivers on the circuit that’ll buy YOU a beer down the street if he pulls a stunner.
by Matt Taliaferro
7. DALE EARNHARDT JR.
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7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2,003 points; one win
Even with NASCAR putting the clamps on Hendrick’s bushings (yes, that sounds painful … and just a bit dirty), you have to figure the 88 team has been doing some live-fire testing the last few weeks. Junior’s consistency is unquestioned and, as stated previously, that’s the real key here. Once he’s back at full song expect a return to the fourth- to 10th-place showings that were the hallmark of what’s been Earnhardt’s most successful post-DEI season to date. I’m of the opinion Junior will factor in this Chase — though whether or not he can trade licks with Johnson, Hamlin, et al, down the stretch is somewhat of an unknown.
by Matt Taliaferro
8. MATT KENSETH
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8. Matt Kenseth
2,003 points; one win
Let’s get the lame duck thing out of the way first: Yes, Kenseth is out at Roush Fenway Racing at season’s end. And having already been introduced and serenaded in front of the media by his new roomies, it may have an effect in the current neighborhood. However, if any driver/crew chief combo can work past the circumstances at hand it’s Kenseth and Jimmy Fennig. It’s hard to imagine Uncle Jack not at least attempting to over-deliver for the driver that’s been the bedrock of his foundation for the last decade. But it’s also hard to imagine the 17 team actually breaking through with so many other teams running at full bore with no distractions.
by Matt Taliaferro
9. KEVIN HARVICK
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9. Kevin Harvick
2,000 points; zero wins
If there’s a Tony Stewart-like run coming in this year’s Chase, you have to figure this is the driver and team to do it. There have been some Kevin Harvick sightings since his reunion with new/old crew chief Gil Martin, and the ceiling is still a ways up. The bigger issue here is whether the 29 team can rise above what seems to be an organization-wide lack of speed at Richard Childress Racing. If the magic that propelled Harvick and Martin to consecutive third-place points finishes is back, this could be a fun group to watch crash the party.
by Matt Taliaferro
10. MARTIN TRUEX JR.
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10. Martin Truex Jr.
2,000 points; zero wins
See: Bowyer, Clint; minus the wins. Mikey’s NAPA team has been the little engine that could this season, yet a lack of victories — and there have been opportunities — is worrisome. What Truex, Chad Johnston and the boys have done thus far in 2012 is admirable. However, to win a championship you first must prove able to win races. The ultimate underdog in a back half of a field chock-full of them, Truex will look to Dover as his sink-or-swim Chase moment.
by Matt Taliaferro
11. KASEY KAHNE
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11. Kasey Kahne
2,000 points; two wins
Wild card qualifier No. 1, Kahne is a tough one to figure, though he could make some serious noise. This new team at Hendrick Motorsports hit its stride around midseason and has been as consistent as any other since. The thinking on Kahne is that, for years, he’s been an able pilot stuck in eroding situations that were not of his making. That’s not the case anymore. Time for ol’ blue eyes and crew chief Kenny Francis to deliver.
by Matt Taliaferro
12. JEFF GORDON
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12. Jeff Gordon
2,000 points; one win
The post-Richmond talk has centered on Kyle Busch and his No. 18 team’s implosion, but credit Gordon and his 24 team: They flat out-raced the opposition down the stretch to the tune of third-, second- and second-place showings. History suggests that teams which “turn it on” late and sneak into the Chase have to take a breath once there, at which point the powerhouses that were stroking go flying by. Hard to imagine this being the case with Gordon and Alan Gustafson, who’ve made their own momentum the way championship-caliber teams are supposed to.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's AdvoCare 500
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Coming off another exciting race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads south to Atlanta Motor Speedway for this weekend's AdvoCare 500. Only two races remain before the Chase for the Cup gets underway in Chicago, and if the past few weeks are any indication of things to come, you better hold on a lot tighter than Tony Stewart holds onto one of his helmets.
Since the series hit the summer stretch in June, there have been 11 different winners in 11 races, dating back to Joey Logano's win at the repaved Pocono Raceway. Last week, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin that broke in the new configuration at Bristol and went to Victory Lane.
Just as the battle for wins each week has heated up, so has the battle to secure a spot in the 12-driver Chase field.
Hamlin's victory was his third of the season, making it a four-way tie for the most win on the seasons with Hamlin, Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. So far, only four drivers have locked themselves into the Chase: Johnson, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. This weekend, eight other drivers could mathematically lock themselves into the field.
While the top 10 is settling things amongst themselves, the fight for the two wild card spots are very much up for grabs. Entering this weekend's race, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch hold the coveted position, but anything can change, as Sunday night's race proved. Among those looking to secure a spot in the Chase through via wild card are Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards.
In the meantime, we've seen wild races over the course of the last three weeks. Last-lap drama, helmet throwing, finger pointing, accusations of teams testing the boundaries of the rulebook … you name it, it’s happened.
With a 500-mile race under the lights on the fast, high-banks of the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, the stage is set for yet another dramatic weekend for the Cup Series.
However, look for that streak of 11 different winners to end this week as Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the entire No. 48 team look to solidify their spot as the top seed heading into the Chase.
This organization has shown it is once again in championship form, with a win at Indianapolis, a second last week at Bristol, a third at Watkins Glen and a 14th at Pocono. Don’t forget, the 27th-place finish at Michigan is very deceiving as Johnson lost a motor leading in the closing laps.
A three-time winner in Atlanta, Johnson enters the weekend as the fantasy favorite. Already locked into the Chase, Johnson and Knaus are now looking solely for wins. While this group has not been to Victory Lane at AMS since it swept the races in 2007, Johnson was second last year and third in the September 2010 event. Look for him to improve that finishing position by one spot Sunday night and emerge as the Chase favorite heading to Richmond.
While questions arose about when last year's Atlanta event would be run after rain washed out the race until Tuesday, there was no question as to who had the best car when the green flag finally flew. Veteran Jeff Gordon dominated the day, leading seven times for a total of 146 laps en route to his fifth Atlanta win.
Marking the 20th anniversary of his historic first start in the Cup Series, the four-time series champion is on the verge of missing out on this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Currently third in the Chase wild card battle, with one win (Pocono), Gordon is 55 points out of the top 10, but only 16 behind fellow wild carder Kyle Busch. If Gordon can score his second win of the season, it would go a long way towards his quest to make the Chase.
The No. 24 team, led by crew chief Alan Gustafson, has been strong of late, but two poor finishes at Watkins Glen and Michigan have made things much more difficult. Expect Gordon to be a contender throughout Sunday night's race and be there in the end, challenging for the win.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne
This year, veteran Mark Martin has proven that you are only as old as you feel. The 53-year-old is running a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, but each time he climbs behind the wheel, he’s a threat for the win. Making only 15 starts thus far in 2012, Martin leads the series in poles (four) and has two top 5s and five top 10s.
Over the past few seasons, however, Martin has struggled a bit on the high banks of Atlanta. Since finishing second in the spring 2006 race, he has only two other top--10 finishes and seven finishes outside the top 20 (including three DNFs).
Despite his not-so-stellar record in Atlanta of late, Martin appears renewed at MWR and is this week's undervalued pick of the week.
When looking for another undervalued driver for your fantasy lineup, you might want to consider Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola. While Almirola has only one start in Atlanta, he sat on the pole earlier this year at Charlotte Motor Speedway, another mile-and-a-half track. The No. 43 team has not set the world on fire this season, but with crew chief Mike Ford now calling the shots they have steadily improved.
Do not expect this team to get up there and battle Johnson, Gordon, et al, for the win, but they could score a solid finish and give you the fantasy points you need as the season winds toward its home stretch.
Five Undervalued Picks: Mark Martin, Aric Almirola, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard
Have you ever seen a kid trying to eat an ice cream cone when it is about 100 degrees outside? Typically it’s a losing battle. That's where Carl Edwards currently finds himself with only two races left before the Chase field is set.
For the past few weeks, Edwards has been our darkhorse pick of the week. Each week, he has proved why. A sixth at Michigan was a solid finish, but not what the team needed to make the Chase. Last weekend at Bristol, Edwards was out front leading, but made a mistake late in the race, bypassing a fuel stop under caution. The resulting 22nd-place finish was the result when the tank ran dry.
With only two top 5s and 11 top 10s, Edwards has rarely been in contention to win races this season. After losing last year's championship battle to Tony Stewart by virtue of a tiebreaker, the driver of the No. 99 has struggled to bounce back.
Admitting there is a "real sense of urgency" at the moment, Edwards also pointed out earlier in the week there are a lot of talented drivers in a similar situation.
"It’s almost hard to put into words how close the competition is and any loss you have, there are gonna be a ton of people who capitalize on it, and any gain you have it’s really hard to have a real positive gain over the field technically or competitive-wise, points-wise," he said. "I don’t think that it could be any more competitive. Misery likes company and right now we’ve got a little bit of company back there, but I don’t know if it makes me feel any better, but it is good to see that it can happen to anybody.”
Once again, though, Edwards heads to a track where he is very capable of winning. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has three wins, eight top 5s and 10 top 10s on the 1.5-mile track, finishing second in the September 2010 race and fifth last season.
Although his last win cam in 2008, if he and crew chief Chad Norris can put together a strong setup under the car, stay out of trouble both on the track and in the pits, as well as play the strategy right, this could be the weekend Edwards finally gets out and does his signature backflip — and then the wild card battle really gets crazy. If not, you can pretty much write off his Chase hopes for 2012.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Carl Edwards, Landon Cassill, Jamie McMurray, Regan Smith, Danica Patrick
Best Average Finish at Atlanta (Wins/Starts)
Jimmie Johnson — 10.0 (3/20)
Tony Stewart — 11.2 (3/25)
Jeff Gordon — 12.2 (5/38)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 12.8 (1/24)
Matt Kenseth — 12.9 (0/23)
Carl Edwards — 13.6 (3/14)
Greg Biffle — 16.1 (0/17)
Jeff Burton — 16.6 (0/34)
Juan Pablo Montoya — 16.9 (0/9)
Mark Martin — 17.3 (2/51)
Biffle, Earnhardt, Stewart and Truex making Cup Series news
Roush Fenway teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. (ASP, Inc.)
Greg Biffle credits an aggressive approach with his team’s return to the points lead and says once NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup starts, there won’t be any backing down.
Biffle regained the points lead after his victory at Michigan and held it despite finishing 19th last weekend at Bristol. That finish was good enough to clinch a Chase spot and return him to NASCAR’s playoffs after missing it last year.
Biffle has three finishes of sixth or better in the last five races, including the Michigan win and a third-place finish at Indianapolis. He notes that with his team comfortably in the playoffs, they could try more things and, often, the experiments have worked.
“We have been decent in the points so we have kind of tried to step out of the box and do some things to try and learn for the Chase and really be more aggressive with the setup and go for the win and say, ‘Hey, if it doesn’t work we won’t cry over spilled milk,’” says Biffle, who led the points after 11 races earlier in the season. “That is all you can do. You can’t flip a switch. We are already running as hard as we can.”
Once the Chase begins, Biffle says little will change on how the team races.
“I think we will be and we will have to be pretty aggressive on the setups simply for the fact that we will have to be conscious of our finishes,” he notes. “That is going to be a huge factor, but it is almost like if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. What we are doing is working. We are having consistent races so we are only going to be six points ahead of about half the guys in the Chase (after the points are reset). We are only going to be three behind, as of right now, four of them. That could change this weekend but it is going to be really tight in the points.
“That 12-20 point cushion (on the top four) I have is all going to disappear and it is going to be really super tight on the points. Each position is super-important. I think everybody realizes that going to Chicago.”
CHASE-CLINCHING SCENARIOS Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth clinched Chase spots last weekend at Bristol. Kenseth clinched only a wild card spot. He can clinch a full Chase spot (and thus use the bonus points for his win) by finishing 40th at Atlanta, finishing 41st and leading a lap or finishing 42nd and leading the most laps.
Any driver who leaves Atlanta 49 points ahead of 11th place in the points clinches a Chase spot.
Other Chase-clinching scenarios are:
• Martin Truex Jr: Finish 14th or place 15th and lead a lap or finish 16th and lead the most laps.
• Clint Bowyer: Finish 11th or place 12th and lead a lap or finish 13th and lead the most laps.
• Brad Keselowski: Finish seventh or place eighth and lead a lap or finish ninth and lead the most laps.
A victory would secure at least a wild card spot for Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick or Tony Stewart. They would need help from others to clinch a top-10 Chase spot at Atlanta.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND CHANCES Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked last weekend at Bristol if as an owner he would ever consider hiring a driver who had previously failed a drug test.
“Well, I think it would be difficult to convince certain people — whether it be sponsors or just any individuals,” Earnhardt said. “Some people are always going to be skeptics when you have a failed drug test.
“I believe in second chances and if I felt a guy was talented and felt he could help my race team and be competitive I wouldn’t have any problem with hiring him. I would want to understand the rehabilitation process and want to feel good about his current state, but yeah, if I felt like he could help my team I wouldn’t have any problem hiring him.”
IS MORE BETTER? Kyle Busch is entered in the Camping World Truck, Nationwide and Sprint Cup races this weekend at Atlanta. That’s a rarity for Busch, who used to run double- and triple-duty often. That changed after he wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Truck race at Texas last year. NASCAR barred him from competing in the Nationwide and Cup races that weekend while Busch’s team Cup team owner, Joe Gibbs, was forced to make nice with sponsor Mars/M&M’s. Since, he’s limited his racing outside of Cup.
This will be Busch’s 15th Nationwide start and first Truck start of the season.
Busch was asked at Bristol if running more Nationwide and Truck races could help him in Cup.
“Not necessarily, I think our Cup program is fine, it's running good, it’s fast,” said Busch, who is battling for a wild card spot to make the Chase. “The only other thing I can do is run more Nationwide and Truck races to get my bad luck out of the way there so it doesn’t move over to Sunday. Besides that, how much better do you want me to run before an engine blows up or before a brake rotor falls off or before you blow a right-front tire. You name it, we’ve had it.”
PIT STOPS Michael Waltrip Racing has a press conference scheduled for Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway where it is expected the team will announce the signing of Martin Truex Jr. and sponsor NAPA to contract extensions. ... NASCAR announced it would not penalize Tony Stewart for tossing his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car at Bristol on Saturday. That’s not a surprise since NASCAR didn’t penalize Todd Bodine for throwing his helmet at Nelson Piquet’s truck at Pocono earlier this month. ... Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose have each scored four consecutive top-10 finishes, the longest active streak in Cup. Ambrose’s 160 points earned in that time leads the series.