Plenty about Matt Kenseth (left) and Jeff Burton below. (ASP, Inc.)
Kansas Speedway was the site for one of the weirdest races of the year in 2012. On a newly paved surface with an unfamiliar tire compound, the race offered drama (Jimmie Johnson crashing), comedy (Danica Patrick attempting to wreck Landon Cassill, but wrecking herself instead) and action (Matt Kenseth stormed to the front late in the race – there is more on this below – to scoop up the surprise win).
Statistically, one race is really, really tough for information-gleaning purposes, but we can try. There are a few hot drivers leaving Texas, one under-the-radar performer last year at Kansas and a driver with a lot to lose, desperate for a sound Sunday run.
56.29% Kyle Busch is the most efficient passer in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with a 56.29 percent passing efficiency.
The winner in two of the last three Cup Series races is Busch, who also happens to be the most adept navigator through traffic in the new Gen-6 car. Ironically, Texas, the site of his most recent win, served as the only reliable race in which his pass efficiency was negative — 44.12 percent — but he started on the pole and averaged a 1.58-place running position en route to a fairly easy victory. Two of his three best single-race efficiencies, 56.25 percent at Fontana and 55.91 percent at Las Vegas this season came large intermediate tracks on which high horsepower matters, not totally unlike Kansas.
42.5% Martin Truex Jr. led his first laps of 2013 at Texas, pacing the field for 42.5 percent of the race (142 laps).
He didn’t get the victory, but it was a strong showing for Truex, who has had a forgettable season thus far, finishing 24th or worse in three out of seven races. He heads to Kansas Speedway this weekend with two consecutive runner-up finishes, coming on both old and new pavement iterations of the track. There’s a caveat to that, though…
10.09 He finished second, but Truex only averaged a 10.09-place running position in last fall’s race at Kansas.
Truex is going to receive a lot of attention this week as a win favorite and a fantasy pick, but is the hype to be believed? He wasn’t nearly as polished on the freshly paved Kansas surface as he was on the old track. That 10.09 was the sixth-highest average running spot in a race that was caution-filled and as jumbled as your run-of-the-mill restrictor plate race. He might very well be a contender for the win on Sunday, but he isn’t nearly the lock as many will suggest.
128 Last fall’s Kansas race winner, Matt Kenseth, didn’t take the lead until lap 128. He led 78 laps on way to earning his only non-restrictor plate win of 2012.
I don’t think anyone expected Kansas to be a 1.5-mile version of Darlington. There were 14 cautions for 66 laps, meaning 24.7 percent of the race was run under caution. Patience was key and Kenseth’s approach to the race proved brilliant. None of the drivers that led in the first 100 laps of that race finished in the top 15. It’s not a guarantee that this kind of craziness will repeat itself, but understand that early leaders clearly aren’t impervious to adversity on this fast, frantic track.
Jimmie Johnson led 44 laps until this happened. (ASP, Inc.)
44 In a race in which his crash was the highlight, Jimmie Johnson led 44 laps (16.5 percent) and looked like a potential race-win contender in last year’s fall race at Kansas.
Prior to the lap 137 accident, Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team looked awfully fast — and in fact, they were; they ranked third in average green-flag speed for the race — which meant one of the smartest teams in the garage area was one of the earliest adopters to the new Kansas pavement. No surprise there, huh?
0.57 Jeff Burton has the second-worst crash frequency in the Cup Series, currently crashing 0.57 times per race.
That isn’t a good-look for the 45-year-old veteran, who has had an abysmal — and possibly, final — season in the No. 31 car for Richard Childress Racing, ranking 38th out of 38 drivers with a -0.143 Production in Equal Equipment Rating. He needs a decent Kansas finish in the worst of ways. Currently averaging a 24.3-place finish in races with new crew chief Luke Lambert atop the pit box, his early-season production can be aided with an above-average finish this weekend. He finished 28th in last fall’s race.
8.500 James Buescher earned a PEER of 8.500 across five soft intermediate track races in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last year.
Buescher is the reigning Kansas winner, which makes sense considering the driver’s statistical fondness for the 1.5-mile non-quad-oval facilities. He won four out of those five races, claiming two at Kentucky and one at Chicagoland, in addition to the score at Kansas. He’s been quiet through three races in 2013, averaging a 13.7-place finish, so Saturday’s companion race to the Cup Series could help right his defense of the 2012 series championship.
The first time Brad Keselowski asked Paul Wolfe to be his crew chief, Wolfe didn’t flinch.
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘No, I don’t want to do it,’” Keselowski said. “I think he was kind of mad at me because I had wrecked (his car).”
It was Aug. 2009 when Keselowski posed the question to Wolfe, a former driver turned crew chief working for CJM Racing.
A few months later, as Keselowski and Penske Racing officials made plans for the following season, they told Keselowski they were considering Wolfe as his crew chief.
“I kind of laughed and said, ‘good luck,’” Keselowski said. “They said, ‘We’ve been talking to him the last two weeks and he wants to do it.’”
So, what changed? What led to the pairing of a driver and crew chief on the cusp of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship this weekend at Homestead?
Simple, the funding for Wolfe’s team wasn’t there. He had said no to Keselowski because of his loyalty to CJM Racing but with the lack of funding a question, Wolfe considered other options, including Penske.
“As I sat down and looked at them, I had raced with Brad and seen what he was able to do,” Wolfe said. “I felt like together, him and I, could hopefully win races and contend for championships. The opportunity was here at Penske to do that.”
Keselowski says he first approached Wolfe to be his crew chief because he saw something most outside the sport couldn’t see in what Wolfe was doing.
“He was a guy who outperformed his resources,” Keselowski said. “In this sport excellence is defined by the media and the fans as those who win. Those inside the sport, those who actually compete, define excellence as those who outperform their resources. So if you’re running 20th in 30th-place equipment, that’s how we would define excellence as a driver or as a crew chief you’re putting together race-winning cars with a team that has C- or D-level budget. That’s how you define excellence. That’s what I saw in Paul. That’s what he saw in me.”
Now, they are on the verge of winning the Cup title two years after they combined to win the Nationwide championship.
TITLE RACES Here’s a look at the clinch scenarios for each of NASCAR’s three national series this weekend in Homestead.
Sprint Cup: Brad Keselelowski has a 20-point lead on Jimmie Johnson. Keselowski wins the title, regardless of what Johnson does, by finishing at least 15th. Keselowski also can clinch the title by finishing 16th and collecting a bonus point for leading a lap or by finishing 17th and adding the bonus point for leading the most laps.
Nationwide: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has a 20-point lead on Elliott Sadler. Stenhouse wins the title, regardless of what Sadler does, by finishing 16th or better. Stenhouse also can clinch the title by earning the bonus point for leading a lap and finishing 17th or by adding the bonus point for leading the most laps and finishing 18th.
Camping World Trucks: James Buescher has an 11-point lead on Timothy Peters. Buescher clinches the title, no matter what Peters does, by finishing seventh or better. Peters also can clinch by securing the bonus point for leading a lap and finishing eighth or adding the bonus point for most laps led and finishing ninth.
NATIONWIDE SCHEDULE RELEASED Mid-Ohio will replace the Montreal road race on the 2013 Nationwide schedule, series officials announced Tuesday.
The Mid-Ohio race will be Aug. 17. It marks the first time the series has run on the 2.4-mile, 15-turn course. Mid-Ohio will be one of three road courses on the schedule, joining Road America (June 22) and Watkins Glen (Aug. 10).
Mid-Ohio was added after the Montreal race promoter decided not to renew its contract with NASCAR since it could not get a Sprint Cup race. The Mid-Ohio course is located about an hour drive from Columbus, Ohio, which is home of series sponsor Nationwide Insurance.
The 33-race Nationwide schedule for next season features six standalone races — Iowa (June 8 and Aug. 3), Chicagoland Speedway (July 21), Kentucky Speedway (Sept. 21), Mid-Ohio and Road America. The remaining 27 races will be run on the same weekend with the Cup Series.
The Nationwide season will open Feb. 23 at Daytona and end Nov. 16 at Homestead.
STREAKING As NASCAR’s top three series head into the final weekend of the season, a few drivers are trying to keep streaks alive. Among them:
Ryan Newman is seeking to win a Cup pole for a 12th consecutive season. Only Jeff Gordon (20 consecutive years) has a longer streak among active drivers.
Kurt Busch is looking to win a Cup race for the 11th consecutive season. Only Tony Stewart (14 years in a row) and Jimmie Johnson (11) have longer streaks among current drivers.
In the Nationwide Series, Kyle Busch seeks a win to extend his streak of consecutive seasons with at least a victory to nine.
In the Camping World Truck Series, both Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday need a win to extend their streak of consecutive seasons with at least a victory to eight. Hornaday’s streak of seven consecutive seasons with at least a pole will end if he doesn’t win the pole this weekend.
PIT STOPS Tony Stewart will make his 500th career Cup start Sunday at Homestead. He’s scored 47 wins, 174 top-5 and 282 top-10 finishes in his first 499 career Cup starts. ... Homestead will mark Jeff Gordon’s 689th consecutive start, third on the all-time list. Ricky Rudd holds the record with 788 consecutive starts and Rusty Wallace is next at 697. With the current schedule at 36 races, Gordon could pass Rudd late in the 2015 season.
by Dustin Long Follow Dustin Long on Twitter:@DustinLong
The 2013 Sprint Cup, Brad Keselowski's spike in popularity and Kyle Busch's hot streak
Chevrolet's as-yet-unveiled 2013 Cup car. (ASP, Inc.)
A Goodyear tire test Tuesday and Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway could provide a clue as to how racy NASCAR’s 2013 Sprint Cup car can be.
While the focus will be on tires at the test, NASCAR also will experiment with the car in hopes of making it easier for drivers to run closer together. One of the reasons mentioned this year for the relative lack of cautions was that it was so hard to race close together for a stretch, although Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski showed it can be done late in last weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, said Monday that “there are some things that we are working on that show promise” and could create tighter racing when the cars debut next season.
He noted that officials are experimenting with the car’s underbody, along with the front of it and the rear spoiler.
Andy Graves, Toyota’s Cup manager, notes that when a car is alone in clean air, it has maximum downforce, thus is compressed and as close to the ground as possible. When two cars are running near each other, the trailing car loses some of that air pressure and the car rises.
“If the car is very pitch-sensitive and very ride-height sensitive, then, unfortunately, you lose more downforce when you’re behind someone,” Graves says.
“We’re trying to develop from the splitter, the spoiler, studying the data, looking at wind tunnel information that is more advanced than it’s ever been; we’re trying to understand and come up with some characteristics that performance stays the same whether you’re all by yourself or in traffic. That is going to help the racing.”
Pemberton said he’s confident that the new car will be better than when the current car debuted as the Car of Tomorrow in 2007.
“It goes back to us spending more time getting the car closer developed when we hand the car off,” he says. “It will be a far, far, better racing car to start off with and then the teams will take it to the next level.”
Brad Keselowski suggests not judging the car’s performance too early next season, though.
“The odds are that this car is not going to come out of the gate perfect,” he says. “It’s going to take time. But much like if you unveiled a new iPhone and rolled it out and said, ‘In a year we’ll have it working right,’ your customers probably aren’t going to be happy about that. I think we all know that and are braced for it, but we know long-term that this car is going to be part of the solution for getting NASCAR as strong as it possibly can be.”
If everything goes as NASCAR hopes, Graves says the cars should be easier to drive than the current cars but says the driver ability will still matter.
“Making cars hard to drive, that’s not what separates talent on the race track,” he says. “It’s all the other intangibles. It’s operating in traffic from setting someone up for the pass, it’s managing your tires, managing the race, understanding fuel mileage. There’s a lot of different aspects, in my opinion, rather than making the cars hard to drive and say the best driver is going to be the guy that best manages that.”
NEW FAVORITE At one point during last weekend’s race at Texas, the crowd roared when Brad Keselowski took the lead. He missed that.
“I would have liked to have heard that,” Keselowski said. “That’s one of my biggest regrets of being a race car driver is missing out on those moments. In other sports, like football or basketball or baseball when they do something and the crowd cheers, you really feel it, (but) racing, you’ve got none of that. It’s really a big bummer because I would have loved to have heard that.”
Keselowski knows that he’s gained fans during this Chase as he battles five-time champion Jimmie Johnson for the championship.
“I think I have a lot of Jimmie-hater fans,” said Keselowski, who trails Johnson by seven points with two races to go.
“I’m not sure how I feel about it. I try really hard to engage a very informed and positive fan base. That might not be necessarily along those lines, but I’ll take every fan I can get.”
Keselowski understands why some fans feel the way they do toward Johnson.
“It’s American culture, build somebody up just so you can tear them down, whether it’s the president or sports star,” he said. “It’s just American culture. Maybe one day I’ll be so fortunate as to be torn down.”
CHARGING Although not a title contender, Kyle Busch has scored 274 points in the Chase, fifth-most among all drivers. Busch is coming off a third-place finish at Texas last weekend, his fifth top-5 finish in the Chase.
“I wish we were in the deal,” Busch said after last weekend’s race at Texas, “but that’s what next year is for.”
TITLE RACES With two races to go, Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse are tied for the points lead in the Nationwide Series. Austin Dillon is third, 21 points behind them.
In the Camping World Truck Series, James Buescher has a 15-point lead on Ty Dillon with Timothy Peters 25 points back and Parker Kligerman 27 points out with two races to go.
PIT STOPS NASCAR announced Tuesday that comedian Howie Mandel will host the Sprint Cup Series Awards program on Nov. 30 in Las Vegas. ... Donny Schatz won the World of Outlaws championship driving for Tony Stewart’s team. ... Kyle Larson, a development driver for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, won the K&N Pro Series East championship last weekend with a sixth-place finish in the season finale at Rockingham Speedway. ... Sunday’s Cup race marks Danica Patrick’s 10th and final one of the season. She is coming off her career-best Cup finish of 24th last weekend at Texas. ... Jimmie Johnson, victorious last weekend at Texas, has won 22 races in the Chase. Next on the list is Tony Stewart with 11 Chase victories.