"Seriously Kyle, Scottsdale would do you a world of good." (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
Like every other NASCAR landing page on the web, Athlon Sports has a little fun each week ranking the drivers and teams of the Sprint Cup circuit. Our rankings go beyond how each finished the weekend prior and/or where they sit in the official championship standings.
The rankings you’ll see here represent what we (read: I) think are the strongest overall teams on tour, from top to bottom, based on performance, resources, strength of team/organization, overall talent of driver and, yeah, a tip of the cap to a job well done if they won the last race. Think of it as Athlon’s NASCAR version of the college basketball Top 25.
Keep in mind these are subjective, and often done somewhat tongue-in-cheek (depending on my mood), so have some fun with them and take them for what they are: a weekly spin around the circuit, highlighting the best teams and their drivers.
Oh, and our rankings have a cool name … why no one thought of “Horsepower” Rankings before is beyond me. That said, kick back for five minutes of leisurely reading that require no real thought on your part. Agree? Disagree? Have a better witty comment for any given driver? Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the page.
1. Denny Hamlin Let’s not overreact here, but Hamlin and new crew chief Darian Grubb led the most laps at Daytona prior to finishing fourth and followed it up with his first win since June 2011. Solid start for a team that needed one.
2. Greg Biffle Consecutive third-place runs to start the season from a team that had only three top 5s all season in 2011. And with Vegas on the horizon, it’s no stretch to think that Biffle may improve upon those results.
3. Kevin Harvick Seventh- and second-place showings for the driver some have made a championship favorite this year (ahem, myself included). That’s all the more impressive considering he has a new crew chief and retooled pit crew.
4. Matt Kenseth On SPEED’s post-race show following Phoenix, Kenny Wallace told Hamlin that his fourth- and first-place finishes to start the season were “unprecedented.” I bet Kenseth’s 2009 season would take exception to that.
5. Jimmie Johnson Johnson and the boys did what they needed to do at Phoenix (fourth) after a disastrous Daytona — which included wrecking on Lap 2 and possibly losing the crew and car chiefs to NASCAR-mandated vacations.
6. Mark Martin Back to a partial schedule, Martin has kicked off his tenure with Michael Waltrip Racing is style, with finishes of 10th (Daytona) and ninth (Phoenix). Don’t kid yourself, a big part of that is the driver.
7. Joey Logano Logano, also with a under the guidance of a new crew chief, is getting off to the start he needed in a contract year. His ninth- and 10th-place runs are the best results to start the season in his young career.
8. Kyle Busch Rowdy was strong at Daytona — leading 52 laps — before finishing 17th when the craziness started near the end. A sixth at Phoenix was a respectable follow-up. Dare I say … Kyle is flying under the radar?
9. Carl Edwards Edwards and company will find their footing soon enough, but having led zero laps with eighth- and 17th-place finishes to their credit is a little more quiet a start than anyone expected.
10. Brad Keselowski Much like Busch, Keselowski’s shot to win the Daytona 500 was ruined late but he rebounded nicely with a fifth-place run in the desert.
"Pssst, Junior, I put Icy Hot in Stevie's headset ... because I can!" (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
11. Tony Stewart Stewart got off to a slow start last year too, and look how that worked out.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Being happy with a top 15 in Phoenix isn’t exactly what you want to hear out of the team. Unfortunately, it looked like a lot of the same ’ol, same ’ol from the 88.
13. Jeff Burton A good run went bad when the engine went up in smoke late. Otherwise, the 31 team has had a promising start.
14. Jeff Gordon Made the most of a mediocre day at PIR with a solid eighth-place finish, which is what Jeff Gordon does best.
15. Marcos Ambrose The results may not show it, but Ambrose and his RPM bunch have been pretty racy so far. They may not be flashy, but don’t be surprised if the top 10s start to pile up as we go forward.
Just off the lead pack: Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Bobby Labonte, Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr.
Check back each Tuesday for Athlon Sports’ revised rankings, and follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
The second race of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season — the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway — served as a weekend of redemption for Denny Hamlin.
Fuel-strategy-gone-bad at PIR wrecked his championship hopes in 2010, when Hamlin's tank ran dry and he fell from first to 12th on the pylon. It was a blow from which Hamlin would not recover, as he lost the title to Jimmie Johnson the following week and a 2011 hangover that cost crew chief Mike Ford his job, ensued
So Hamlin took a different approach to the 2012 season by seeing a sports psychologist and getting out of the NASCAR hub that is Charlotte, N.C. Ironically, it was to the Phoenix area that Hamlin retreated, spending a relaxing offseason on the golf course and basketball courts for a warm winter away from all-things NASCAR.
And after a strong fourth-place showing in the Daytona 500, Hamlin and new crew chief Darian Grubb — who won the 2011 championship with Tony Stewart — put the series on high alert that their pairing may be a potent one. Hamlin conserved just enough gas in the waning laps at Phoenix on Sunday, outlasting Kevin Harvick to grab his first win of the 2012 season.
“This is as good as it can get for me,” Hamlin said. “I consider this my offseason second home. I’ve got a lot of friends and whatnot out here now, and so coming back to the track where essentially we did lose the championship in 2010 … it just feels so good to come out and be competitive again.
“We’ve been non-existent for 14 months, and now, here we come.”
Jimmie Johnson led 55 laps and was the dominant player through the event’s halfway point. However, a loose wheel dropped him deep in the field and he spent the rest of the afternoon methodically working his way through it. Instead, it was Hamlin and Harvick that battled for the win over the final 60 laps. When Harvick’s fuel tank ran dry with one-and-a-half laps remaining, Hamlin cruised to his 18th career Cup win.
Greg Biffle, who ran third in Daytona, Johnson and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 5.
“I don’t know that I could get to him,” Harvick, who led a race-high 88 laps, said when asked if he could have gotten by Hamlin if not for the fuel issue. “Our cars were so evenly matched. He was a little bit better on the restarts than I was. If I could get out front on the restart and have enough room to slide my car around, then I could take off after that. But he was able to get out there and get in front of me.”
As the series stays out west for a trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Hamlin, Grubb and their Joe Gibbs Racing team look to be the early-season squad to beat — a surprising and scary notion considering they have all of two points-paying races together.
“We haven’t even gotten some things in our racecars that Darian wants to put in them,” Hamelin said. “The chemistry and all is still so new — Darian is still learning the system within JGR. There’s a lot of reasons why we’re going to be going forward even more in the next few weeks. So to start out a year like this with a fresh new relationship with him … it’s just a great feeling. I can’t really put it into words.”
The 1979 Daytona 500 is considered by many to be the most noteworthy in the event’s 54-year history. A snowstorm blanketed much of the East Coast, providing a captivated audience; a last-lap battle for the win, ending in a wreck and a surprise winner; and of course, an infamous post-race fight in the infield between Cale Yarborough and brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison.
The 2012 edition of The Great American Race did its best to top it. And just may have done so.
Rained out for the first time ever, the Daytona 500 took NASCAR’s premier turn on a weeknight, prime-time slot on network television, and it didn’t take long for the storylines to develop. A wreck on Lap 2 eliminated five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, along with Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick, Trevor Bayne and David Ragan.
A somewhat subdued period followed, as drivers filed in line, ran in formation and waited to make their moves as the possibility of rain kept crew chiefs chewing their pencils. A Ryan Newman single-car spin, a blown engine in Jeff Gordon’s Chevy and another blown powerplant, this in David Stremme’s ride, punctuated a largely two-by-two affair.
And then, it all went up in flames.
While under caution for Stremme’s blown engine, Juan Pablo Montoya’s rear wheels locked up as he was catching up to the field due to a faulty transmission. His No. 42 Chevy crashed violently into a jet dryer that was blowing debris off of the track, igniting the safety vehicle into a ball of jet-fueled fire. Two hundred gallons of jet fuel burned on the track as safety personnel attempted to put out the blaze and then remove the vehicle while questions circulated that the race may not be resumed.
A two hour and five minute red-flag period ensued while NASCAR and track personnel repaired the surface, cleaning the spilt fuel and patching damaged areas of the surface. Meanwhile, drivers exited their parked cars on the backstretch, taking to Twitter — Brad Keselowski is believed to have gained 55,000 followers during the break — huddling around unlikely leader Dave Blaney’s car and doing television interviews.
Once racing resumed — at midnight in the eastern time zone — and with 40 laps remaining, Matt Kenseth inherited the lead. And it was a lead he would hold for the duration, which included two additional wrecks, the first with 13 laps to go that involved seven cars and the second, an eight-car affair that took the race into a green-white-checker finish.
In the two-lap overtime conclusion, Kenseth held off teammate Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the pair failed to piece together a run that could dethrone Kenseth’s powerful Ford.
“It was like the 17 (Kenseth) had more motor at the end,” an incredulous Biffle said. “It was like he floored it and we couldn’t catch him.
“I thought Junior would push up to his back bumper and I’d side-draft him (Kenseth) and go by him and then it’d be me and Junior over here at the (finish) line. But it wasn’t meant to be.”
Earnhardt squeezed by Biffle for second. Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 5.
The win was Kenseth's his second of Speedweeks 2012 after taking checkers in his Gatorade Duel race on Thursday, and his second Daytona 500 triumph in the last four years. It was also earned under difficult circumstances, as his Ford experienced water system issues early in the race (nearly falling a lap down) and radio problems late.
“Our car, for some reason, was a lot faster out front than it was in traffic,” Kenseth said. “It took a long time to get to the front, but like Thursday (in the Duel) once we were in the front, it was hard for anybody to get locked onto you.
“My car was one of the faster cars, so it was harder for some of the cars to push you and stay locked onto you. And I learned a little bit on Thursday about the last couple laps there, and kind of what to do and what not to do and what this car liked. And we had enough speed once we took the white (flag), I felt sort of OK about it, but I still thought they were going to get a run and pass me. By the time I got to (Turn) 3 and could see they couldn't get enough speed mustered up to try to make a move.”
So while the final lap may have lacked the fireworks seen in the ’79 edition, the rest of the event certainly had more twists, turns and downright surreal circumstances. Earnhardt, for one, was just happy to get out of a long Speedweeks with a clean car and a solid finish.
“You know, you bring such a nice car down here, and the chances of you tearing it up is pretty high. Odds are always kind of high you get caught up in something like what we saw at the end of the race. But I was really happy to be able to take the car home in one piece, and liked the way the motor ran, liked the way the car drove.”
And in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, following a race that was supposed to be completed on Sunday afternoon, Earnhardt summed up a marathon weekend well: “It was a little bit of a bizarre week with the rain and all that, but you know, we stuck around and got it all done.”
For whatever reason, Daytona International Speedway enjoys playing with some of NASCAR’s most successful drivers, making them endure years of anguish before winning the 500. Darrell Waltrip waited 17 years, Dale Earnhardt 20. Tony Stewart is at 13 and counting.
Waltrip and Earnhardt showed how much their Daytona victories meant when they finally achieved them. Waltrip danced. Earnhardt exclaimed. “Yes!’’ Earnhardt said as he climbed from the roof of his car after winning the 500.
“The Daytona 500 is ours,’’ Earnhardt said in Victory Lane that day in 1998. “We’ve won it. We’ve won it. We’ve won it.’’
Those are experiences Stewart can’t share. Maybe some day. Maybe even Sunday.
Stewart again will be a favorite to win the 500 after another sterling Speedweeks where he finished second in the Bud Shootout before winning his qualifying race Thursday.
Of course, Stewart’s success during Speedweeks is not new. It’s the 500 that he has problems with. Just like Kyle Busch finds ways to falter in the Chase, Stewart has misfortune in the 500.
He is the only driver in NASCAR history with three or more championships who does not have a Daytona 500 victory.
Consider that he was winless in five attempts at the Indianapolis 500, and, for as talented as he is, Stewart is without a victory in the crown jewels of two racing series that he has won championships.
Stewart likely will never get another chance to win the Indy 500 but for how long will the Daytona 500 frustrate him?
Recently asked where winning the Daytona 500 ranked among his personal bucket list, Stewart said: “Very high on it.’’
Stewart can win any other race at Daytona — his 17 overall victories put him second on the all-time wins list there behind Earnhardt’s 34.
While not as dramatic as some of Earnhardt’s Daytona defeats, Stewart’s disappointments have been nearly as great.
Last year, he was beside Trevor Bayne on the final restart but got detached from Mark Martin, who was pushing him, and fell back in the field.
In 2007, Stewart won the Shootout and his qualifying race only to finish last in the 500 after he was wrecked by Kurt Busch. In 2008, Stewart’s worst finish in all of Speedweeks was a third-place showing — in the 500.
In 2005, Stewart led a race-high 107 laps, falling out of the lead in the final laps and engaging in a spirited duel with Jimmie Johnson that continued after the race and sent both to the NASCAR hauler to meet with series officials.
In ‘04, he led a race-high 97 laps only to watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. take the lead with 20 laps to go and beat him by a few yards. In ‘02, Stewart won the Shootout, placed second in his qualifying race and then finished last when his engine blew on the third lap.
It is this past that keeps Stewart from boasting even after the week he’s had.
“Even though we had success today, it’s no guarantee that can happen Sunday,’’ Stewart said of the 500, moments after his Duel win. “I think we showed the rest of the field that we have a car that has good speed. That’s a really strong point, just like Trevor Bayne showed last year he had a strong car, so people wanted to go with him. Hopefully, that will work for us on Sunday, too.’’
Maybe this will be Stewart’s year. Then again ...
Photo by ASP, Inc.
ROUSH RESURGENCE Even after watching Matt Kenseth win the second qualifying race on Thursday, car owner Jack Roush admitted to being embarrassed by it.
It was the first time in 25 years a Roush car had won a qualifying race at Daytona.
Kenseth’s victory means that three of the top four starting spots in Sunday’s race will be Roush Fenway Racing entries. Carl Edwards won the pole with teammate Greg Biffle second. Kenseth will start fourth.
The resurgence goes back to last season. Hendrick Motorsports swept the pole for all four restrictor-plate races but the Wood Brothers, who are aligned with Roush, had success. Eventually that information transferred to the Roush cars and they began to qualify better at those races as the year progressed. That trend has continued.
The key now is to continue Ford’s success at Daytona. Ford won both Cup races there last year with Bayne winning the 500 and Roush’s David Ragan winning the July race.
PIT STOPS A number of drivers complained about overheating issues in the Gatorade Duel. With temperatures expected to be much cooler for Sunday’s race, it might not be as big a problem in the 500. ... Danica Patrick on her impact at the end of the first qualifying race: “You just have to brace yourself,’’ she said. “I just have to be glad that I’m a small driver and that I’ve got room.” ... Regan Smith finished second to Matt Kenseth in the second qualifying race. It marked the second year in a row Smith finished second in a Daytona qualifying race. ... Jimmie Johnson wasn’t thrilled with some cars not on the lead lap racing with the leaders on the last lap: “It was unfortunate there at the end that there were some lapped cars that were kind of mixed in with the leaders. It would have been nice if they would have let us race there; at least from the white flag on. I understand trying to get a lap back, but when the white (flag) came out I wish they would have gotten out of there and I would have had a shot at winning that thing.”
Get Dustin's thoughts weekly throughout the 2012 NASCAR season at AthlonSports.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter: @DustinLong
As is usually the case, there was one wild and crazy Gatorade Duel race at Daytona International Speedway, and one much more staid. Such was the case on Thursday, when the field was set for the 54th annual Daytona 500.
Kyle Busch won a crash-filled Budweiser Shootout on Saturday evening, kicking off Daytona Speedweeks in spectacular fashion.
Busch’s .013-second win over Tony Stewart (right) was the closest finish in the Shootout’s 34-year history. In route to the win, Busch found himself completely sideways on two occasions, but was able to save his Toyota — itself a backup car rolled out after an accident in practice — each time.
“I was trying to push (Ryan) Newman and hook up with him, then he was hooked up with whoever was in front of him,” Busch said of his final charge to the front. “I’m like, ‘All right, fine.’ The hole opened up behind Stewart. I ducked in behind there knowing he had a fast car, (and) pushed him.
“We got up through there. He made the way to the outside and everything. Coming to the line — I’ve been in that situation in reverse before with Tony (and it) hadn’t ended up so well. This time it turned out all right. We made it past him and beat him to the line, so it was cool.”
Busch earned nearly $200,000 for the victory.
While the ending came down to Busch and Stewart teaming up in a tandem draft to separate from the field, the majority of the race witnessed “pack racing.”
Fan displeasure with the two-car tandem drafts that had become the norm at Daytona and Talladega prompted NASCAR to make changes to the cars’ plate, grille and spoiler sizes as well as the max radiator pressure. The result was cars bunched together in three-wide packs.
“It was definitely a lot more fun and you felt a lot more eager to be engaged in the race this way than in the two-car deal,” Stewart said. “I actually had fun racing at Daytona again which I haven’t had for a while, so I’m really, really appreciative to the work that NASCAR has done in the offseason and the test session and even after the test of the changes that they made to try to make it better for us out there.”
Marcos Ambrose, Brad Keselowski and Deny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.
An eight-car wreck with eight laps remaining resulted in Jeff Gordon on his roof. That incident, which also included Jimmie Johnson, AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, sent the event into a green-white-checker finish. Busch and Ambrose were also involved, but continued after minimal repairs.
“It was just getting down to the end of the race and it was time to go,” Gordon said. “Me and Jimmie were looking good there. We knew those guys were coming, and once Kyle got in front of me, I was just trying to keep Jimmie on me and trying to stay with Kyle.
“Every time I got to Kyle’s bumper, he just started getting so sideways, like he was a lot tonight. And I thought he was going to wreck. I saw him start to spin, so I went wide, not knowing someone had gotten to my outside. That got me into those guys and into the wall and along for a ride.”
Edwards on Pole Carl Edwards will lead the 43-car field to green in Sunday’s Daytona 500. Edwards topped Sunday’s qualifying session with a fast lap of 194.738 mph (46.216 seconds). Edwards nipped his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Greg Biffle, by .155 seconds. Both are locked into the front row.
It was Edwards’ first Daytona 500 pole.
Positions 3-39 will be determined in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel races. Four additional spots will be awarded to the fastest qualifiers on Sunday that did not qualify via the Duels. The 43rd spot will likely go to a past champion, although if all former champions qualify in the Duels or on speed, the final spot will be awarded to the fifth-fastest Sunday qualifier not already in.
Tony Stewart is putting together a run in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship as impressive as any seen in its seven-year history. Stewart’s win in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway was his fourth in eight Chase races, and finds him just three points shy of Carl Edwards as the Sprint Cup Series heads to the penultimate race of the season in Phoenix.
What is even more impressive is that until Stewart won the first race of the Chase in Chicago, he was winless in the 26-race regular season and largely dismissed as a title contender. Even Stewart, the organization’s driver and co-owner, doubted his chances.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, at this point of the deal, if we’re going to run this bad, it really doesn't matter whether we make the Chase or not,” Stewart said after the Michigan race in August. “We’re going to be occupying a spot in the Chase that somebody else who can actually run for a championship is going to be trying to take. Our stuff is so bad right now that we’re wasting one of those top 12 spots right now.”
What a difference a month makes, as 29 days and four races later, Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb notched the Chicago win, a victory earned by saving fuel. The same events transpired the following week in New Hampshire, while a strong finish in Martinsville in the Chase’s seventh race found Stewart in Victory Lane for a third time.
Much akin to his first two victories, the last two have come in similar fashion: with powerhouse moves on late-race restarts on the high side of the track — largely considered the unconventional line.
At Martinsville, Stewart surged by five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. In Texas, he got the jump on chief-rival Edwards with five laps remaining and stormed off to a 1.092-second win.
“We’re aggressive right now,”?Stewart said of the restarts. “I’m taking charge and trying to control my own destiny. I think the restarts today showed what our intentions are and what we’re about for these next two weeks.”
Edwards held on for second, while Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle rounded out the top 5.
“I was surprised they (the No. 14 team) were able to put together two weeks that were so good,” Edwards admitted. “That was really good work on their part. There’s nothing saying that that will play into another solid two weeks, but it very well could.
“From the way practice went and everything, I thought we’d have a little advantage tonight. They did all their jobs very well.”
The circuit heads to the newly-repaved and reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500. With a new surface and on a track with a different layout than in the past, many are calling it the ultimate “wild card” race in the playoffs.
“I think that Phoenix is still a huge unknown,” Edwards said. “We really think next week has a larger opportunity, by a landslide, to change the outcome of this Chase. If Tony and I run 1-2 at Homestead, there’s not going to be much points change if we run like we did tonight, but Phoenix has the potential to be huge.”
That may be so, but judging by the last few weeks, it doesn’t matter where the series races — Edwards and Stewart have separated themselves as the class of the field. And Stewart, for one, is feeling the confidence a hot streak at just the right time is bound to instill:
“I’m pretty sure what we did on the racetrack said everything we needed to tell (Edwards) today. I mean, I don’t know how you top that. He knows. Trust me, he knows.
“The fun thing is I don’t feel like I have to say anything — I feel like I already got it done.”
From the Spotter’s Stand
Brian France is doubling down on Kansas Speedway, bringing a second Cup race to the 1.5-mile tri-oval in Kansas City, an annual late September or early October stop since 2001. And with a sparkling new casino, the hope by NASCAR and its track operating wing, International Speedway Corp., is that Kansas will draw in more fans despite its cookie-cutter configuration and penchant for aero-racing.
In June, Bard Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe rolled the dice in a high-stakes game of fuel strategy and hit the jackpot, outlasting Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
Keselowski’s Penske Racing teammate, Kurt Busch, led a race-high 152 laps after starting on the pole. However, the fuel mileage wasn’t as kind to the Las Vegas native, and he slid to ninth at the finish.
Last year, Greg Biffle made winning at Kansas look like easy money, taking the checkers by 7.638 seconds ahead of 2008 winner Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and two-timer (2006, ’09) Tony Stewart. In his past four stops in K.C., Biffle has two wins and a pair of thirds.
Crew Chief’s Take
“As with many of the circuit’s 1.5- and 2-mile ovals, bump stops on the shocks play an important role at Kansas. A team must find an optimal setting for the bump stops or the car will be negatively affected by being too low — which drags the splitter and affects handling — or too high — which gets air under the car and results in a lack of front-end downforce. Kansas is a simple track, which means there are probably more teams that can win there than at most places.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Kurt Busch sat on the pole and led 152 laps before fuel mileage bit him to the tune of a ninth-place finish. Pretty Solid Pick: If Greg Biffle has a win in him this season, this is where he’ll get it. Good Sleeper Pick: If it comes down to fuel mileage, Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't a bad pick. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not that he’d be on your squad anyway, but Joey Logano averages a 26.8-place finish here. Insider Tip: Brad Keselowski won the June race here on fuel mileage. It’ll likely come down to that again.
Classic Moments at Kansas
Kansas Speedway has been the site of many oddball finishes, and with its traditional date in the Chase, it’s often had championship ramifications. The 2006 Banquet 400 is no different.
Jimmie Johnson has led 105 laps on the day and leads late when fuel mileage comes into play. Johnson surrenders the lead with four laps remaining to Tony Stewart, who runs out of gas on the backstretch of the final lap. However, with pit stops ongoing, Stewart has a nearly 20-second lead over Casey Mears and coasts the final half-lap to win with an empty fuel cell.
Johnson’s title hopes appear to take a fatal hit when he is caught speeding on pit road while coming in for a splash of gas and two tires. His 14th-place finish finds him 165 points out of the Chase lead. He rebounds, though, averaging a third-place finish over the final six races to win his first Cup.
Tony Stewart passes Clint Bowyer in the Sylvania 300. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
Most had written off Tony Stewart as a legitimate 2011 championship contender — including himself, if you believed his words in the midst of a 27th-, ninth- and 28th-place string just six weeks ago. After all, his No. 14 team was winless through NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, averaging a pedestrian 14.2-place finish with only three top 5s.
Then the Chase for the Championship hit and, inexplicably, Stewart and his team have come alive. Stewart won his second straight race — the second of the Chase — in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, and in the process, assumed the points lead.
Stewart passed Clint Bowyer as Bowyer’s fuel cell ran dry with two laps remaining, reversing last season’s New Hampshire Chase outcome that saw Bowyer capitalize on Stewart’s empty gas tank.
“It’s amazing that it’s happened like that,” Stewart said. “But Clint was one of the first guys that called last year and, as happy as he was that he won the race, he knew how disappointing it was for us.
“You don’t want to win them that way (on fuel mileage) and you don’t want to see guys lose them that way. This is a sport that guys have a high level of respect for what happens and how it happens. To have a win get away from you that way, it’s disappointing for anybody.
“We may not have been the best car at the end — Clint was just a tick better than us. I definitely did not know he was in a situation to worry about fuel. So the good thing is Darian told us we were two, three laps to the good. I got to run hard all the way to the end.”
To be fair, Stewart’s car was good enough to win the race, and having the mileage to get there was just icing on the cake. He finished second at New Hampshire in July to his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Ryan Newman, in a fuel mileage duel, and won last week at Chicagoland under the same circumstances.
However, the one car that may have been better than his was Jeff Gordon’s No. 24. Gordon led a race-high 78 laps, but ran out of gas coming to pit road under green-flag pit stops with 70 laps remaining. It took the team valuable seconds to get the machine refired, and even then, they did not get the car full of fuel.
That forced Gordon into conservation mode. He backed off down the stretch to avoid running out of gas and settled for a fourth-place finish. Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle were second and third.
“It’s a bit of a surprise we ran out under green,” Gordon said. “We were expecting to get a couple more laps.
“We’re making great horsepower, but we’re not getting good fuel mileage. But Tony is figuring out a way to do it, so give those guys credit — those guys have the same engines we have and we have to do a better job at it. I have to do a better job at it.”
Defending five-time champion Jimmie Johnson got into a fender war with Kyle Busch with 21 laps remaining. Although neither wrecked, something in Johnson’s steering system was bent, and he finished 18th.
“Today we just didn’t have the speed,” Johnson, who is 29 points behind Stewart, said. “And track position was so important and we didn’t have some pit calls go our way.”
Johnson’s main competition last season, Denny Hamlin, had his second straight frustrating race. His No. 11 Toyota ran out of gas with three laps to go, despite the fact his crew chief, Mike Ford, assured him they could make it the distance. He finished 29th and, after a 31st-place showing last week, is 66 points out of the Chase lead and all but eliminated.
As for the points leader, though, his faith is renewed. “These guys have never quit,” Stewart said. “These guys have never given up and we got a shot at this thing.”
A green-white-checker finish, savagely wrecked racecars, a fight in the garage and a first-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series.
No, this wasn’t Bristol, it was Watkins Glen — one of two road courses, which have become NASCAR’s new destination for can’t-miss excitement. And the person most excited following Monday’s rain-delayed Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen was Marcos Ambrose.
Ambrose became the fifth first-time winner in Cup competition this season after getting by Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski in the first turn of the final restart at Watkins Glen International.
It was a daring move executed by Ambrose, a road-racing ace from Launceston, Tasmania, Australia. Starting on the outside of the front row alongside Busch, he was rooted out of the way when the green waved by Keselowski. However, Ambrose fought back, opening a hole in between the two and driving off from there.
One-half lap later, a violent crash occurred when Boris Said and David Ragan got together. Ragan slammed an angled wall, then skidded back onto the track where he caught David Reutimann’s machine, tipping it sideways, rolling it over and into another wall.
Both walked away sore but otherwise uninjured.
When NASCAR threw the yellow flag for the incident, the field was frozen and Ambrose, Keselowski and Busch cruised to the podium finishes well under full throttle. Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano rounded out the top 5.
“We survived today,” Ambrose said. “We fought our way back to the front. We had a late race restart. You know, fought and gouged our way to the front and got the win — just a dream day, and very thankful for the opportunity that I’ve got to be here and that I’ve made the most of it today. ”
As Ambrose and Keselowski were handling their post-race media obligations, Said and Greg Biffle were taking care of unfinished business in the garage area.
Biffle, who was directly behind the last-lap skirmish that eliminated his teammate, Ragan, confronted Said. Biffle reportedly got a couple of punches into Said’s window as he sat with his helmet on.
Said then exited the car, tracked down Biffle when yelling and shoving match amongst a scrum of crewmen ensued. Said had harsh words for Biffle in an interview with ESPN:
“(Biffle is) the most unprofessional little scaredy cat I’ve ever seen in my life. He won’t even fight me like a man. If someone texts me his address, I’ll go see him Wednesday at his house and show him what he really needs. He needs a friggin’ whooping — and I’m going to give it to him.
“I went over there to go talk to him, and he wouldn’t even let me get out of the car. Throws a few little baby punches and then he runs away and hides behind some big guys. But he won’t hide from me for long. I’ll find him. I won’t settle it out on the track – it’s not right to wreck cars — but he’ll show up with a black eye one of these days. I’ll see him somewhere.”
Biffle later typed a response on Twitter:
"1st of all I want to make sure everyone sees the wreck between David (Ragan) and David (Reutimann), now that's coming from a guy (Boris Said) that says I am unprofessional.
“Let me tell u something Boris, “the roadcourse ringer” caused that wreck. He did the same thing to me earlier in the race off the carousel.”
"The same place Sam (Hornish) got off & caused the horrific wreck with (Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton in 2009). Thank God, they paved that run off.
"Then Mr. Class pulls in behind my truck after the race today?! Shouldn't you go check on David & David? How unprofessional & disrespectful!''
The point standings were shaken up after the wild affair. The third-place finisher, Busch, is now tied with Carl Edwards (12th) atop the standings. Keselowski, who has consecutive finishes of first and second since suffering a broken ankle, moved into 14th after being mired in 23rd just four races ago.