1. Greg Biffle Cemented his status as the points leader with an impressive win in Texas. Biffle has yet to finish worse than 13th this season, and is looking forward to Kansas — one of his best tracks — this weekend.
2. Jimmie Johnson Joins Biffle and the two Juniors — Dale Earnhardt and Martin Truex — as the only drivers on the circuit with five top 10s in seven races. Kansas will most likely make six.
3. Tony Stewart How does Stewart — who won at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway — tank to the tune of 24th at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway?
4. Matt Kenseth As steady as they come, Kenseth moves into a tie for second with a certain Most Popular Driver after a fifth at TMS. Of course, Kenseth’s Daytona 500 win trumps Junior’s, uh, zero wins … in 136 races.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK, so he hasn’t won in a long, long time. But Junior is averaging an 8.1-place finish, which is second best in the series. Still, it really is time to break that winless streak and move on.
6. Martin Truex Jr. Truex has averaged a 26.3-place finish at Kansas with zero top 10s. If he brings it home eighth or better like he has in five of seven races so far this year, we’re all on board.
7. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s only finish outside of the top 11 in any single race was a 19th at Martinsville. He’s been awfully quiet for running so well. Maybe Baby Otis has thrown him off his typically vocal ways.
It beats those creepy '70s-era family portraits. I guess. OK, maybe not.(ASP, Inc.)
8. Carl Edwards Edwards’ fifth- to 11th-place finishes are fine, but after seven races he still has not led a lap. Allow me to repeat that: Through seven races in 2012, Carl Edwards has not led a single, competitive lap.
9. Denny Hamlin Hamlin’s 12th-place run at Texas is far from cringe-worthy, but he’s finished between 11th and 20th in all three big intermediate track races this year. That’s not going to work.
10. Jeff Gordon A clean fourth-place finish in Texas. Is the rotten luck behind him?
11. Brad Keselowski Mechanical issues beginning to plague Penske’s Dodge camp. Kes is good for a couple more wins, though.
12. Mark Martin If he raced every week, Martin would rank in the top 5 on this list.
13. Ryan Newman When not finishing in the top 12, Newman finishes 21st. Seriously. It’s happened three times.
14. Clint Bowyer Still working out some kinks, but all things considered, this new bunch is holding its own.
15. Kasey Kahne See, when there are no cautions for wrecks, Kasey can drive his Chevy to a top-10 showing.
Just off the lead pack: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya
Biffle finds Victory Lane in the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway
Photo by ASP, Inc.
by Matt Taliaferro
The NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings have always been more consistency-based than win-centric. This season alone, two-time race winner Tony Stewart found himself third in the standings behind winless drivers Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Biffle and Earnhardt — both saddled with winless skids of 49 or more races — had employed the tried and true “top-10 ’em to death” method in 2012, each with four in six races.
However, Biffle separated himself at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday evening, scoring his first Cup Series victory since October 2010 in the Samsung Mobile 500.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” Biffle said of whether a win validated his position atop the point standings. “To win like this and put a bunch of ground on the guys — all the cars behind us — that certainly makes a statement, I think, for all the people that were wondering if this was kind of a fluke that we were still leading the points this far in.”
Biffle assumed the points lead following the third race of the season, which marked his third consecutive third-place finish.
On Saturday, Biffle had to hold off a determined Jimmie Johnson, who now has only two wins in the last 50 races — a relative stat, yet one that opens eyes when it’s the five-time champion. Johnson led a race-high 156 laps, but was beat by Biffle’s slide job exiting Turn 4 with 31 laps to go. Johnson eventually skated up and into the wall while trying to catch Biffle’s No. 16 Ford, and limped to a second-place finish, 3.25-seconds behind the race winner.
“The last two or three runs the 16 and I were pretty equal, run(ning) pretty similar lap times,” Johnson said. “I just got tangled up in some lapped traffic and (Biffle) made a great move and got by me. And then I was pacing him from there and didn’t have anything left to go get him. I tried and ran out of grip going into Turn 3 and drilled the fence.”
Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 5.
The strong early-season performance of Michael Waltrip Racing’s three cars continued. Martin, who is splitting driving duties in the No. 55 Toyota with Brian Vickers, notched the team’s second top 5 and fourth top 10 this year. Martin Truex Jr. turned heads once again with a sixth-place showing, his fifth top 10 in the No. 56 NAPA machine. Truex sits fourth in the point standings.
“The teamwork I’m feeling right now at MWR is second to none I’ve ever been at,” Martin said. “Martin Truex Jr., is really, really engaged, and he’s working hard to help the whole program.
“We’re racing three cars to put two in the Chase for sure and win races and try to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Hendrick and Roush and those guys. That’s a tall order for right now. I’m very proud of the results we’re getting. It’s coming from a lot of good attitudes and hard-working people.”
The other storylines of the evening were a lack of cautions throughout the 500-mile race. Only two yellow flags — both for debris on the track — marred an otherwise spotless event that lasted just over three hours. The strength of the Texas wind also grabbed drivers’ attentions.
“The wind was a huge factor,” Biffle said. “The wind was blowing you all over the place. I was swatting flies all night long. The wind was blowing the car back and forth and over ... that could be a factor in why there was no accidents. You would think that would cause one. Well, it made it so you couldn’t really race side by side with a guy.
“I wouldn’t run up on a guy coming off the corner like I normally would. I’d leave more room because I wasn’t sure when the wind was going to blow my car one way or another. I was cautious when I was around (other) cars, and I think probably everybody else was tonight.”
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)
2012 surprises, tips for the track and listening to NASCAR on SiriusXM Radio
Photo by ASP, Inc.
2012 surprises, tips for the track and listening to NASCAR on SiriusXM Radio
by Dustin Long
A weekend without racing didn’t mean that the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had a break. While offering opinions throughout the season, the Backseat Drivers Fan Council also is here to help fans with tips this week on how to make your experience at the track better.
And oh yes, the Fan Council also is weighing in on a few subjects, including the biggest surprise this season.
TIPS TO MAKE THE RACE MORE ENJOYABLE
With many of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council veterans of numerous races, I asked them what they would tell someone going to the track that they should do to make that event more enjoyable.
Here’s what Fan Council members said:
• Camp... pretty much any track. Camp at least once and walk around; meet and get to know other campers/NASCAR fans. Will meet some of the best people and greatest fans around camping at a NASCAR track. Have met folks over the years that will be lifelong friends and my first time was on a whim at the invite of another friend.
• I would tell any fan going to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to go to the infield and visit the museum along with sitting in turn one during practice or qualifying. The speed is amazing and the sound reverberates off the stands. It's like sitting at the old Yankee Stadium or other places similar.
• 1. The museum at Darlington. 2. Go to a Tweetup! 3. Hit a local short track on Friday night and see where these guys got their starts!
• Pit passes at least once in your life.
• Experience a night race, day races are great but night races have a whole different vibe to them.
• Going to the Driver introductions. It costs extra at most tracks but it is well worth it! Being on the track so close to the drivers, the national anthem and the flyover is incredible from right on the track.
• Go to Jeff Gluck Tweetup. Jeff enjoys meeting the fans & he usually has a surprise.
• When at RIR take an extra day to visit the places of historical interest around the central VA region, the museum of the Confederacy, The Wilderness battlefield, Seven Pines, Tredegar, the state Capitol, St. John's Church, Monticello.
• Eating at Ridgewood BBQ about a mile from Bristol Motor Speedway is a must, if you don’t mind the wait obviously.
• Get a scanner to listen to the drivers. Very entertaining.
• Be prepared to have a long wait after the race to leave the parking area. Just pull out the grill, cook some food and enjoy some cool drinks. After an hour or so you will be able to leave and so you will be behind the cars that left as soon as the race was over. A lot less stress this way & saves gas.
• You have to do the No Limits celebration at Texas. Eddie Gossage knows how to throw a party and entertain people. He always has drivers there and the music and food is awesome.
• Stand with your face on the fence in Turn Four at Daytona when the cars are coming by. Absolutely amazing.
• At Dover, be sure to go a little south and east to see the Delaware Bay and some of the beach communities like Rehoboth and Lewes which are less than hour away. Also some of the best birding in the country is within 15 minutes of the track at Bombay Wildlife and other Wildlife Preserves nearby.
• Since I'm a “people watcher,” I think the hidden gem is studying the fans. Big, small, skinny, fat, half-dressed, over-dressed, beer-swilling, pretzel-stuffing, you name it. It's a study in Americana at the best _ and sometimes the worst. Yet, when standing for the invocation, they take off their hats, they sing along (thankfully at times) with the musical artist struggling with the national anthem, and they erupt in joyous shouts as the jets roar overhead.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST SURPRISE OF THIS SEASON?
26.3 percent said Michael Waltrip Racing having all three cars in the top 10 in owners points 22.2 percent said Kasey Kahne 31st in the driver point standings 13.7 percent said Jimmie Johnson and his team having most of their Daytona penalties overturned on appeal 11.3 percent said Hendrick Motorsports winless in the first six races 7.8 percent said Jeff Gordon 21st in the driver point standings 7.5 percent said Dale Earnhardt Jr. second in the driver point standings 4.1 percent said Greg Biffle leading the driver point standings 4.1 percent said Other 2.4 percent said five different winners in the first six races 0.7 percent said no major feuds so far this season
What Fan Council members said:
• This was a tough question to pick just one answer. Dale Jr. 2nd in points, MWR having all three cars in the top 10, Biffle leading points and the 48’s penalties being overturned are all kind of neck in neck.
• I still can’t believe they gave the points back...
• None of the listed options... it was Kevin Harvick announcing DeLana’s pregnancy.
• Poor Kasey, if he didn't have bad luck he wouldn't have any luck at all. I believe he can pull out of his slump, but not sure he will make it in the Chase unless he finds himself in Victory Lane a few times.
• I thought the sport as a whole was going to build on the momentum from a great 2011 season, but to me the opposite has happened and it just feels kind of flat now.
• Tony Stewart picking up 2 wins before the thermometer hits triple digits, If you called that one, then I need you to tell me this week’s winning lottery numbers.
• I think it’s great what MWR has accomplished, their drivers are getting to be 'must' picks instead of risky picks in the weekly fantasy pools. I'm happy for Mikey to begin to see some success. I think they'll soon be somewhat regular visitors to Victory Lane.
• Lack of phantom debris cautions. I was shocked NASCAR has let them go on so many long green runs.
• My biggest surprise is Bristol and Burton Smith announcing that he will change the track.
• Truly, it could be any of these, but for the Hendrick cars to be so incredibly fast and not have the results because of wrecks, blown engines and others’ bad driving just seals it for me.
• Five different winners in the first six races seals the deal as the biggest surprise of the season and we will see more.
ARE YOU LISTENING?
Recently, SiriusXM announced that its NASCAR Channel was being made available to listen to online. Fan Council members were asked if they were listening more to the channel since that announcement.
51.4 percent said they don’t have SiriusXM 32.2 percent said No 16.4 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• They charge extra $$$ to listen online. Not worth it!!
• Have SiriusXM in my car and at home. Can’t listen to it work or I would be fired.
• I had my SiriusXM subscription before, but am thrilled I won’t miss any of the action at work. I can listen to it on my phone even. I'm so excited to have full time access!!!
• Love it!! Now I don't have to sit in my car in the morning to keep up with Bagley and Pistone.
• Haven’t reactivated yet. Need $.
• THANK HEAVEN & it’s about time!!! Love listening anywhere!!!
• I listen every day now. I spend 75% of my time at home on computer working and have it running in background. Used to only listen when I was in one of my cars.
• A little irritated that I had to purchase a radio and Premium plan but I just have some kind of feeling about this year and I have increased my NASCAR spending to include more races and SiriusXM, etc.
• I bought the service with great expectations but the callers who persist in contacting every show and spewing the exact same monologue have made listening often tedious. I'm not interested in any more of that.
• Still refuse to pay for radio
• I’ve been asking for this for years. I can’t get reception at home or at work so I'm relegated to listening only in my car. Good thing I have a horribly long commute!
Fans can join the Backseat Drivers Fan Council 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.
Taking stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series at the Easter break
Tony Stewart has two wins in 2012. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Taking Stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup at the Easter Break
Six weeks into the 2012 NASCAR season, the Sprint Cup Series heads into the first of only two off-weekends of the year. With no race this weekend, and thus no fantasy picks to make, let’s take a look at some of the biggest surprises thus far, which drivers and teams are on track for a solid season and which need to turn their season around before it is too late.
There is no doubt the hottest team in NASCAR is Stewart-Haas Racing. The defending series champion, Tony Stewart, has had an uncharacteristic start to the year, winning two races (Las Vegas, Fontana), while teammate Ryan Newman used an aggressive move during a green-white-checker finish to score his first career Cup win at Martinsville.
Typically slow starters, both SHR drivers have hit the ground running after last year's impressive showing in the Chase. Stewart currently sits third in points, while Newman climbed two spots to eighth after last week’s victory.
The mood is soaring at Stewart-Haas, the strong finishes and wins keep coming, the new partnership between Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington continues to roll on smoothly, but can that momentum continue through the summer months and into the Chase?
While the SHR brigade has been scoring wins and making headlines, Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle has quietly and consistently raced his way to the points lead. After starting the season with three consecutive third-place finishes, Biffle took command of the series standings after Las Vegas and has yet to relinquish the spot.
Frustrated and clearly upset with his team’s 16th-place points finish in 2011, Biffle had high expectations coming into this year and his performances to date have shown the changes made behind the scenes at Roush Fenway Racing have made all the difference.
Although The Biff has yet to hit Victory Lane, he hasn’t finished worse than 13th, with three top 5s and a sixth-place run to his credit. Determined to put last year's disappointing results behind him, expect Biffle and his No. 16 team to continue to lead the way at RFR as the season rolls on in two weeks in Texas — a track at which Biffle could easily break his 49-race winless skid.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Also on the verge of breaking a winless streak is perennial fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. Through the first six weeks of the season, the No. 88 team has been the workhorse of the Hendrick stable with three top 5s and four top 10s. Earnhardt nearly scored his second Daytona 500 victory to open the season, finishing second and proving he’ll be a contender at the plate tracks so long as “pack racing” is the draft du jour. He was oh-so-close yet again last weekend in Martinsville before settling for his second straight third-place finish.
Sitting second in the standings, Earnhardt appears confident in his team, the speed in his cars, crew chief Steve Letarte and, perhaps most importantly, himself. His average finish of 7.8 is impressive to say the least, and he has already led more laps in the first six races (75) than he did in all of 2011 (58).
While Junior’s winless streak has now reached 135 races, he truly only has two victories in the last 212 events, stretching back to 2006. His last multi-win season came in ’04 while racing for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. when he earned a career-high six trophies.
With the constant pressure to perform and deliver wins, Earnhardt appears more comfortable with his situation than he has since joining HMS is 2008. This team is nipping at the heels of a victory, and I expect them to be the group to deliver team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th Sprint Cup Series victory, lead the series standings throughout the course of the summer and be a serious contender come Chase time.
As Earnhardt Jr. has started the season with a bang, the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports stable has struggled with poor luck, disappointing finishes and controversy.
The team’s newest addition, Kasey Kahne, was expected to hit the ground running at Hendrick, competing for wins and battling for the points lead. Instead, the No. 5 team has two DNFs and a best finish of 14th, which came in the rain-shortened event in Fontana. Kahne has completed only 76.9 percent of the total laps this year and has four finishes of 39th or worse.
Mired deep in the standings at 31st, Kahne and his Kenny Francis-led team now have to focus on righting the ship and going after wins. Despite the slow start, Kahne's talent and ability to win could easily bump this team into the Chase “wild card” conversation as the season rolls into the summer months that are dominated by big intermediates tracks — a Kahne specialty.
Veteran Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon has also been hit with the bad luck bug, resulting in disappointing finishes thus far. An engine failure in Daytona set the tone for the No. 24 team’s season, with poor luck continuing nearly each and every week. Although he scored an eighth at Phoenix and a 12th in Las Vegas, Gordon is stuck in 21st in the championship standings, with three finishes outside the top 25.
Last weekend’s dominating performance at Martinsville seemed to show the tide might be turning for the four-time Sprint Cup champion, but a late-race spin battling for the lead and then subsequently running out of fuel resulted in a 14th-place finish. The No. 24 team has been strong at times this season, but the results simply have not shown.
Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson’s start to the 2012 season has been filled with drama and controversy instead of race wins and celebrations. A rules infraction at Daytona set the stage for a showdown between the No. 48 team and NASCAR that stretched on for weeks.
NASCAR's initial penalty on the No. 48 team would have kept crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec away from the track for a total of six weeks, plus cost Johnson 25 driver points. Leaving Daytona 42nd after a Lap 2 wreck and with the penalty hanging over the team’s head, things looked grim.
Yet after multiple appeals, Hendrick Motorsports got the answer it wanted. The suspensions levied on Knaus and Malec were dismissed, as was the points penalty for Johnson. Jumping from deep in the standings, Johnson climbed within reach of the top 10.
Despite all the drama surrounding the penalty and appeals, Johnson was able to knock off four top 10s in the ensuing four weeks. His battle with Gordon on Sunday at Martinsville was shaping up to be one for the ages, but Johnson was forced to swallow a 12th-place finish after also getting collected in the G-W-C melee at the front of the field.
So while things started off rough for Team 48, its performances are proving it has put the drama behind and are as focused as ever going for that sixth championship.
The 2012 season, while still in its initial stages, has been anything but dull. From rain delays, to jet-dryer fires, to appeals drama, to surprise success and surprise struggles, the storylines have been deep.
Following this weekend’s Easter break, the Cup Series hits a stretch of continuous racing that lasts until mid-July. As the temperatures soar, so will the intensity on the track and off. Expect slow starters like Kahne, Gordon, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards to make some noise, while Biffle, Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart hope to maintain their solid starts.
Be sure to take time this week to look over your spot in the fantasy standings, examine the good calls and questionable mistakes you've made in setting your lineup and look ahead to the upcoming events in the next few weeks. Much like the drivers and teams, preparation is the key to success in any fantasy league.
Stewart tops the list ... because, after all, wins count
This surf wagon actually beat three start & parkers. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington already have scored two wins this season — and in only five races. Hey, wins count above all else here.
2. Greg Biffle The points leader’s only misstep — and it was a only a small hiccup at that — was a 13th at Bristol. He’s been sixth or better in the other four events.
3. Kevin Harvick Happy and his retooled No. 29 team have been nearly as good as Biffle. Their worst performance thus far are a pair of 11th-place runs. Otherwise, they’re seventh or better every week.
4. Jimmie Johnson Things couldn’t look better for Johnson and Team 48. Not only have all suspensions and point penalties been rescinded, but they’re rolling through top 10s even with blown engines.
5. Matt Kenseth Kenseth is either top 3 by day’s end or forgotten somewhere in the mid-teens. Still, this is one of a handful of teams that can win on any given weekend.
6. Brad Keselowski See: Kenseth, Matt. The only thing that kept either from a top-10 result at Auto Club Speedway was pit road penalties and a rain-shortened event.
7. Carl Edwards Edwards and the No. 99 gang have two fifth-place runs in the last three weeks. Inexplicably, though, this group has yet to lead a single lap all season. That needs to change.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yes, Earnhardt is still mired in a winless skid that dates back to 2008, but top-15 finishes in every race this season — including second- and third-place runs — find him trending in the right direction.
9. Clint Bowyer Bowyer’s solid start with the surprising Michael Waltrip Racing operation shows an average finish of 12.8 with sixth- (Vegas) and fourth-place (Bristol) runs highlighting the early spring.
"Ear muffs!" (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
10. Denny Hamlin Hamlin had the same look on his face after the California race that he did after Phoenix 2010.
11. Kyle Busch The Gibbs cars are showing some impressive muscle on the big intermediates.
12. Martin Truex Jr. Truex has a 9.4-place average finish thus far. It’s amazing what a contract year will do for an athlete.
13. Ryan Newman Three consecutive performances of 12th or better aren’t as splashy as his teammate, but not bad.
14. Mark Martin When he’s in MWR’s No. 55 — and even when he’s not — the team is showing serious growth.
15. Paul Menard Quietly hanging tough at 10th in the standings with three top 10s.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray
What some fans say is wrong with NASCAR is what Brad Keselowski says was right for him. Keselowski credits running against Cup drivers in what was then called the Busch Series for his current success and helping him win on a variety of Cup tracks.
Keselowski’s victory at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday marked his fifth career Sprint Cup victory. Although it was his second consecutive Bristol win, his other victories have come at a unique set of tracks — Talladega (restrictor plate), Kansas (1.5-mile intermediate) and Pocono (2.5-mile flat track).
Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series is something that rankles some fans, who liken it to pro players competing in the minors. Many of those fans say when a Cup driver competes in the Nationwide Series, he prevents another “up-and-coming” driver from getting a chance to compete, blocking their path to Cup.
Keselowski sees the issue differently.
“I was very fortunate to race with some of the best,’‘ Keselowski said following his Bristol win. “I go back to my first Nationwide start for Dale (Earnhardt Jr. in 2007). It was in Chicago. To this day I think that race still has the record for the most amount of Cup drivers. But that's what I had to do to build my career. I mean, I had to go against the Cup drivers when I was still trying to figure out how to run Nationwide.’’
Keselowski raced against 25 Cup drivers in that Chicago race when he made his first start for JR Motorsports. Kevin Harvick won, as Cup drivers took the top nine spots. Keselowski placed 14th and was the second-highest finishing Busch regular. Stephen Leicht was the highest-finishing series regular, placing 10th.
“What I'm trying to say, it obviously frustrates me a little bit when I take some heat — any Cup driver takes some heat from the press, media, fans, whatever — about running the Nationwide Series, because it's really a character builder,’’ Keselowski said. “If you can run well over there, you can come here (to Cup) and get the job done.
“That series helped me build a lot of character. It helped me learn in a smaller spotlight. I feel like when I got over here (to Cup) that the learning process was a lot quicker. It just came down to getting with the right team that I jelled with and that believed in me.’’
Certainly, different methods help different drivers.
The varying style of tracks that Keselowski has won at so far compares favorably with other drivers.
Jeff Gordon’s first five victories were at Charlotte (1.5-mile banked intermediate), Indianapolis (2.5-mile flat), Rockingham (1-mile intermediate), Atlanta (1.5-mile banked intermediate) and Bristol (.5-mile short track).
Variety isn’t the only way to succeed. Three of former champion Kurt Busch’s first five victories came on short tracks. Three of Kevin Harvick’s first five victories came at 1.5-mile speedways.
While there aren’t as many Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series as in that ’07 Chicago race — Saturday’s Nationwide race at Bristol featured nine drivers who would start the Cup race the next day — Keselowski shows that drivers can compete against the Cup regulars in the Nationwide Series and move on to greater success.
Greg Biffle: The Studio Version. (ASP, Inc.)
READY TO GO Although points leader Greg Biffle saw his string of third-place finishes end at Bristol (he finished 13th), it doesn’t dampen his excitement heading to Auto Club Speedway this weekend.
“I am really excited about Fontana,’’ Biffle said. “We have a brand new car that has really good wind tunnel numbers and are really happy with the car. We feel it’s our best car in our fleet so far to date. I am really pumped up about going to California and seeing how this car drives. With the new fuel injection and all the data we will be able to keep a better eye on not burning our engine up, which is what we did there that one time. California is going to be a good race track for us. We will run very well there.”
CHANGE OF PLANS Travis Pastrana announced this past weekend at Bristol that he’s altering his plans to run the full NASCAR K&N Pro Series East schedule.
Pastrana is adding the Global RallyCross series to his schedule. Three of the series’ six events will conflict with K&N races for Pastrana.
“NASCAR's where I want to go, but unfortunately, or fortunately, my background in Rally, the sponsors know that I can do well,’’ Pastrana said. “I've had a proven record in Rally.
“We're funding a lot of the NASCAR races through the Global RallyCross and, I tell you what, that's a fun series. The problem was GRC actually just announced their schedule as of a couple of weeks ago, so it changed. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make three of the K&N races and the initial plan was to do the entire K&N championship, so that was very disappointing.’’
PIT STOPS All four manufacturers have won a race after four events in the Cup season. Ford won at Daytona with Matt Kenseth. Toyota won at Phoenix with Denny Hamlin. Chevrolet won at Las Vegas with Tony Stewart. Dodge won at Bristol with Brad Keselowski. It wasn’t until race 13 last year that each make had at least one Cup win. ... In 17 career starts at Auto Club Speedway, Jimmie Johnson has five wins and 12 top-five finishes. His average finish at the track is 5.1.
Brad Keselowski celebrates in Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
There’s something about the half-mile Bristol bullring in East Tennessee that lends itself to certain drivers.
NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough (nine wins), Darrell Waltrip (12) and Dale Earnhardt (nine) each went on dominant runs at Bristol in the 1970s and ’80s. Rusty Wallace won nine of his own from 1986-2000. Jeff Gordon won five events from 1995-2002, while the Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, also have five wins each.
Following Sunday’s Food City 500, it appears a new name may be added to the exclusive list of Bristol dominators: Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski scored his second straight win at BMS, leading a race-high 289 laps — including the last 111 consecutively — en route to his first win of the 2012 season.
Keselwoski enjoyed a spirited, side-by-side duel with Matt Kenseth prior to pulling away in a race marked by its intense, door-to-door action.
“I mean, what can I say? I love Bristol and Bristol loves me,” Keselowski said. “There’s other places that perhaps have a little more prestige, and I said that last year as well, but this place defines a race team.
“It asks so much of you, whether it’s just in practice, being lined up on pit road, dealing with the noise, the havoc that practice can be, or the hot day of getting through tech, making those last adjustments, or as a driver 500 laps in a bowl trying to keep your composure. This racetrack can really test a team.”
Kenseth easily held on for second, while Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers swept positions three-five.
It appeared Kenseth jumped the final two restarts when Keselowski led, but NASCAR assessed no penalty and Keselowski was able to clear Kenseth’s Ford.
“I didn’t floor it till I got to the start/finish line,” Kenseth explained. “I don’t know if he (Keselowski) was trying to let me beat him on purpose. I was half throttle for five car lengths. I was finally, ‘I got to go or Martin (Truex) or whoever was behind me was going to go around me.’”
Since 2009, Keselowski has two wins on Cup Series short tracks to go along with plate (Talladega) and flat track (Pocono) wins. He was also second on the road course at Watkins Glen last season.
“My dad taught me this very early on, (that) it was important not to be a ‘One-Track Jack,’” Keselowski said of his versatility. “I think now that we have (the right team), I have the experience base to run competitively on almost every style of racetrack.
“I was able to learn that in a time and place where it was acceptable to make mistakes, which is what the Nationwide (Series) was for me. The training and the lower level series of NASCAR — the way they’re structured right now — certainly helped me when I got to this level to be perhaps more prepared than many drivers in the past.”
An early-race accident eliminated some of the favorites. Kasey Kahne got into Regan Smith on lap 25, triggering a seven-car pileup. The incident eliminated Kahne, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Marcos Ambrose from contention. Kevin Harvick sustained damage but continued on. Keselowski snaked through the melee with slight nose damage.
“Regan Smith was pretty slow,” Kahne said. “I was under him for a couple of laps. When my spotter cleared me in the center, I just took off, and he was there on exit. It is disappointing to have that good of a car and be out this early. I've had awesome race cars, and I have nothing to show for it.”
Keselowski moved from 21st to 13th in the championship standings by virtue of the max number of points (48) earned at Bristol. Greg Biffle, who enjoyed three consecutive third-place finishes to start the season, slumped to 13th at Bristol. He holds a nine-point lead over Kevin Harvick and 12-point advantage over Kenseth in the standings.
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
While our 2012 fantasy season got off to a great start in Daytona, last weekend's race at Phoenix International Raceway proved even the hands-down favorite — in this case Kasey Kahne — can find trouble and ruin a fantasy day.
Anything can, and will, happen throughout the course of a race, making NASCAR one of the toughest fantasy sports to predict.
This weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits the desert for the second time in as many weeks, as the early season schedule rolls into the Sin City for the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Simply looking at the statistics, it is easy to see which team will head into Sunday's race the favorite. In a town built on gambling, this weekend's safe bet is Roush Fenway Racing. In the speedway's 14-year history, no organization has had more success than the Roush cars.
The “Cat in the Hat” Jack Roush has had one of his drivers celebrating in Victory Lane in seven of the 14 Sprint Cup events held at the venue. Carl Edwards earned his lone victory of the 2011 season on the 1.5-mile track, beating an otherwise dominant Tony Stewart in the process. Edwards was coming off two impressive performances at Daytona and Phoenix, although a wreck at PIR led to a 28th-place finish. This year, another Roush Fenway Racing driver finds himself in a similar situation.
Greg Biffle has a renewed confidence in 2012, after an extremely disappointing performance last year. He has been candid in his comments and criticism of the team’s 2011 showing and also outspoken about its upcoming trip to Vegas. With consecutive third-place finishes to open the season, Biffle seems poised to make his return to Victory Lane this weekend at a 1.5-mile venue where he’s clicked off five top 10s in eight starts. Biffle tops the list as this week’s fantasy favorite.
While Biffle’s teammate, Edwards, went to Victory Lane in last year’s Vegas race, his No. 99 Ford was not the most dominant car that day. That honor went to the aforementioned Stewart.
Leading 163 of the 267 laps, Stewart had to come through the field after a pit road penalty sent him to the back of the pack. Taking two tires to regain track position, Stewart was forced to take four tires on the final pit stop while Edwards took two.
Las Vegas is one of only two tracks currently on the Cup schedule where the defending series champion has yet to win (the other being Kentucky Speedway). After last year’s disappointing second-place finish, Stewart is eager to knock Vegas off his yet to win list.
Stewart was on par for a strong finish last Sunday in Phoenix, but an issue with the Electronic Fuel Injection system led to a 22nd-place finish (following a 16th at Daytona). Given their disappointing finish last weekend, I expect Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew to put up a solid finish this week, making the defending champion my safe play of the weekend.
Another driver I have my eye on this weekend is five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Like Stewart, the 2012 season has not gotten off to the kind of start Johnson or his Hendrick Motorsports team expected. Issues during the initial inspection at Daytona cost the No. 48 team 25 driver and owner points, a hefty fine, and the loss of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec for six races (pending appeal).
Once in the race, a wreck on Lap 2 resulted in a 42nd-place — and his sixth straight finish of 27th or worse in the Daytona 500. The subsequent penalty from the failed inspection left Johnson heading to Phoenix with negative points in the championship standings.
While Knaus and Malec have been able to remain at the track as NASCAR and HMS work through the appeal process, the No. 48 team is in a huge hole. That said, the team was able to recover nicely in Phoenix, scoring a fourth-place finish on Sunday, but Johnson is currently 38th in the standings, 71 points out of the lead.
Sitting so deep in the standings, Johnson has set his focus on making the Chase — one way or another. Well out of contention for the points lead, the former champion understands that at this point, his best bet to make the Chase could be through one of the two Wild Card spots. That means the No. 48 team will be looking to win races early and often.
And if that’s the objective, Vegas is a good track for Johnson to meet the goal. His 48 team has four wins, four top 5s and five top 10s in 10 LVMS starts. With that track record and Knaus and Malec still at the track, I expect the 48 to be among the front-runners throughout Sunday’s race, leading to a strong day on the fantasy side of things.
For this weekend’s darkhorse pick, I’m looking towards Richard Petty Motorsports’ Marcos Ambrose. Although the driver of the No. 9 Ford has only three starts at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Ambrose lists the track among his favorite on the circuit. During last year's event, Ambrose started from the outside pole and finished the day in fourth after showings of 14th in 2010 and 20th in ’09.
Already in 2012, Ambrose and the team have shown they are capable of running up front and contending for wins. After a strong run throughout the afternoon in Phoenix, engine issues late in the race ruined what looked to be an assured top-10 run. If Ambrose and his Todd Parrott-led team can avoid mistakes and engine issues, I expect a solid fantasy day from the No. 9 group.
Throughout the weekend, keep a close eye on practices and qualifying, as track position will be key in Sunday's race. Clean air and pit strategy will be paramount in determining the winner at the end of 400 miles in Vegas.