“Reganomics” was the rule last Saturday at Talladega and paid huge dividends for the winner Regan Smith in the Nationwide Series event. However, the first installment of Reganonmics was at the 2011 Southern 500. After getting jobbed out of a win at Talladega in 2008, Smith would have to wait three years to get another crack at one — and he delivered in the clutch in Darlington, holding off Carl Edwards on new tires for the final two laps. The win did get a bit overshadowed with the antics between Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in the final laps and on pit road following the race. To Busch’s credit, he actually did try to avoid confrontation twice before Harvick’s car went on a ghost ride into the wall. Busch would later claim his transmission wouldn’t grab reverse, and he didn’t want to get clobbered by Harvick.
by Vito Pugliese
9. 1965 Southern 500: Cale has left the building
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In recent years, NASCAR has made great strides in safety, notably with the installation of “soft wall” SAFER Barriers that line most walls around the circuit’s 23 tracks. Cale Yarborough could have used something like that at Darlinton at the 1965 Southern 500, as his Banjo Matthews owned No. 27 Ford ollies the guardrail and parks it with the fans outside of Turn 1. Check out his comments about it at 3:05 with Richard Petty, Benny Parsons and Darrell Waltrip — as well as those retro New Balances that have just been re-released.
by Vito Pugliese
8. 1997 Southern 500: Earnhardt punches out
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A scary moment in the opening laps of the 1997 Southern 500 occurred when Dale Earnhardt basically blacked out coming to take the green flag and then had trouble finding his way onto pit road. He would later say that he had an episode of double-vision before the incident, but then didn’t remember anything until he got out of the car. Doctors attributed it to a migraine-like episode or broken blood vessel in his brain. A couple of years later, Earnhardt would have surgery to remove a piece of metal from his skull that occurred during a shop incident in the 70’s. Fitting since he was nicknamed “Ironhead.”
by Vito Pugliese
7. 1970 Rebel 500: That’s why they now have window nets
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After seeing the rash of accidents at Talladega — including Kurt Busch barrel rolling and landing atop Ryan Newman’s windshield — it is a wonder nobody was injured. Such was not the case during the height of speedway racing in late 1960s and early ’70s. Richard Petty endures this violent head-on impact into the concrete retaining wall (nothing “soft” about these walls), blasting it apart, and then barrel rolling his Roadrunner, with his body hanging halfway out of the window. Petty would miss the next five races with a broken shoulder, and despite 18 wins that season, finished fourth in the final point standings.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 1993 Southern 500: Martin wins fourth straight
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Mark Martin’s No. 6 Valvoline Thunderbird was on a roll in 1993, and the train kept booking through Darlington. A race that was delayed once for rain, but only featured three caution flags was the perfect complement to the Roush team’s raked Ford that ran roughshod all summer long, tying the modern era record for consecutive wins at four. Ford honored the win by placing a full page ad in the USA Today that read, “It Was Labor Day Weekend, But We Celebrated The Fourth.” Pick up the action around the 3:04 mark and check out the banzai run by Dale Earnahardt. Think things were dark at ‘Dega last weekend? Check out the sun setting behind Turn 2 when Martin pulls into Victory Lane. Also, awesome hat.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 1997 Southern 500: Brother, can you spare a million bucks?
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Jeff Gordon was eligible for the Winston Million in 1997 after winning the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600. We pick up the action at 2:25, with five laps to go, as Jeff Burton gets past Dale Jarrett to get a shot at Gordon’s lead. Don’t let Tony Stewart see this last lap — he will lose it after seeing Gordon’s defensive maneuver coming to take the white flag. After the race, Burton said he would have nailed Gordon had he been able to get back to him. It was only the second time the Winston Million had been won at the time.
by Vito Pugliese
4. 2004 Southern 500: The final “true” Southern 500
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From 1950 to 2004, the Southern 500 was run on Labor Day Weekend. That changed in 2005, when the push for major market exposure meant that Labor Day weekends would move to — gulp! — Southern California. The final “true” Southern 500 was the set up to the inaugural Nextel Cup under the new Chase format. We pick up the action at the 21:00 mark, as the final “true” Southern 500 finds a great race with championship implications unfolding. Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray exchange the lead over the final 100 laps, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has battery problems and some new guy named Carl Edwards is making video game passes with 25 to go. Remind me again why they aren’t racing here twice a year?
by Vito Pugliese
3. 1985 Southern 500: Million Dollar Bill
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In 1985, Bill Elliott was deemed “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” after his Ernie Elliott-powered Coors Ford became the scourge of the speedways in NASCAR. He won the Daytona 500 and Talladega 500, making him eligible for the $1 million bonus put up by Winston for any driver who could win three of NASCAR’s four most prestigious races: Daytona 500, Talladega 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500. Equally awesome call by Larry Nuber here, as Elliott comes to the checkers to become the first winner of the Winston Million. The fans seem pretty excited too, even though he had to beat native South Carolina son Cale Yarborough to do so. Mind you, this was a million dollars in 1985 money — back before the days of multi-million dollar driver contracts, huge purses and lucrative endorsement deals. I mean because now, a million dollars is chump change …
by Vito Pugliese
2. 1979 Rebel 500: A changing of the guard
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Picking up the action at the 6:20 mark, three-time Formula 1 champion Jackie Stewart calls the final five laps with ABC’s “Wide World of Sports’” Jim McKay. This race is cited as the changing of the guard between the previous generation to the next, led by drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott. Richard Petty and Waltrip battle back and forth, exchanging the lead several times. Coincidentally, three of the four cars involved in dictating the final lap of the ’79 Daytona 500 are charging for the win, but this time the outcome is reversed. Of note, nobody makes contact with each other or executes a “bump ‘n’ run” to win. There was a different code back then. And some big-assed boats, ‘70s style.
by Vito Pugliese
1. 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400: Greatest finish in NASCAR’s Modern Era
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The best recipe for cookie cutter tracks and nap-inducing races? Head to the oldest of the old-school racetracks: Darlington. After all, what other track on the circuit can lay claim to the myth that a minnow pond dictated its layout? Larry Mac goes bat guano during the final laps calling this one, with plenty of “hah-side” and “drag race” quips, as Darrell Waltrip cheers on Ricky Craven to victory – which I guess is unbiased and all. Interesting observation, however, by DW, that the pointy Pontiac nose helped get the win for Craven. Ten years later, this is still the closest finish in NASCAR history at .002 seconds. And contrary to what you may think, Kurt Busch wasn’t upset afterwards.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Richmond.
Kevin Harvick celebrates a win in Richmond. (ASP, Inc.)
One of the knocks on NASCAR in recent years has been that it’s too predictable Well, not anymore. Try telling that theory to Las Vegas bookies this week while they’re busy recovering from heart attacks. In the final 10 laps at Richmond, you had a driver with 75/1 odds out front as well as a man who’s never won a race on an oval and without a top-10 finish for 10 months. Moments later, the lead was surrendered to the equivalent of a 15 seed in the NCAA tournament — 100/1 odds, no laps led to that point in the season and no victories in nearly five years. Add in three types of tire strategies and a green-white-checker finish and you had a double-file restart where one of about 15 different drivers, many of them underdogs, had a chance at the win.
It’s the perfect snapshot of why Richmond is one of NASCAR’s best facilities, worshipped by both fans and drivers alike. In the end, that was the only predictable part after a wild week off the track; this .75-mile oval, every time out, forces us to focus on nothing more than what happens on it.
Once the dust settled, Saturday’s winner could certainly relate to that theory as well. We delve into his shocking upset while shifting “Through the Gears” on Richmond storylines …
FIRST GEAR: And it’s Harvick for the steal
There’s a reason Kevin Harvick’s nickname is “The Closer.” Just two years ago, he won three races early in the season by leading a total of just nine laps. Saturday night’s trip to Victory Lane was another classic example of how Harvick has a knack for stepping up late. Starting 17th, his No. 29 Chevrolet was a 10th-place car through lap 300. It took a little strategy — pitting off sequence than other frontrunners for four fresh tires along with one final tweak — to loosen the car up that gave them an extra boost of speed.
“We probably made more adjustments on the car than we’ve made in any race in a couple years,” said crew chief Gil Martin. “But it was right when it needed to be.”
So was the luck. While shot out of a cannon, climbing up to second during the final 50 laps, Harvick would never have passed Juan Pablo Montoya unless a final yellow flag, flown for Brian Vickers’ wreck, to set up a free for all green-white-checker finish. The leaders, sitting ducks on old tires, were forced to pit in a move that jumbled the field. When the dust settled, after choices ranged from staying out to full-service stops, Harvick found himself on the inside line, seventh with four fresh tires while Montoya was stuck on the outside. That made the difference; when the cars came up to speed, “The Closer” had the room to throw his fastball, darting through traffic on the inside while Montoya wound up cornered by the wall.
“We were fortunate to have it all line up,” Harvick said. “I drove it in there, hoped for the best. Figured four, eight, 12 … whatever was on the outside tire-wise would be plenty to lean on and by the time we got to the backstretch, everything had cleared out.”
By the white-flag lap Harvick had moved up six spots, disposing of teammate Jeff Burton, and darted off to the win. His three laps led, total, tripled his total output in that category after a miserable first eight races of 2013.
That’s why this win is so big. Harvick, for all his bravado about dumping the “lame duck” status, is moving on from Richard Childress Racing at the end of the season. Outside the top 10 in points for much of the year, his No. 29 team has been little more than a top-15 car — six of his ninth finishes, in fact, are between 12th and 14th. Making the Chase was far from a guarantee, especially when considering his pending departure. Now, he and a penalized Matt Kenseth may be forcing struggling veterans like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and the injured Denny Hamlin to capture at least two victories should they use up those “wild card” spots.
Juan Pablo Montoya led 67 laps and finished fourth at RIR. (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND GEAR: An important consolation prize of confidence
For Montoya, fourth was a bitter pill to swallow after putting himself in position down the stretch. “I do feel bad for Juan,” said rival Clint Bowyer, speaking for most in the NASCAR garage. “He has struggled the last two or three years. He drove his ass off to keep Harvick behind him (before the final caution flag came out).”
“Really? Really?” Montoya, who led 67 laps said, jokingly, before turning serious about the race’s ending. “(I’m) pissed off. It is the luck of the draw. We restarted on the outside, (for the green-white-checker finish) and we were screwed.”
It’s understandable how this one hurts for him; it’s not like chances to win have been growing on trees. But once cooler heads prevail, Montoya will see the good side of Saturday night. It’s his first top-10 result of any kind since Michigan last June, ending that eternity at 30 races. After heartbreaking failures — from wrecks to rotten parts —he’s finally benefited from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s Hendrick-supplied engines. The speed is now there for Montoya to sweep both road course races, at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, a move that could sneak him in the Chase as a darkhorse. To do that, though, he needs to climb back inside the top 20 in points (currently 25th) and Saturday night was a good first step.
“Almost” could also turn into a confidence boost for Burton, who gambled on old tires to grab the lead heading to the green-white-checker finish. In the end, old rubber couldn’t hold and he faded to fifth, just two positions better than he would have finished otherwise. But it’s those types of gambles, led by crew chief Luke Lambert, that got these two clicking in the first place in late 2011. Can this run, his first top-5 result at an unrestricted track in 17 months, be a turning point after a slow start?
Ditto for Kurt Busch, who led 36 laps with his single-car Furniture Row Racing effort before circumstances (and over-aggression) had him slipping to ninth Saturday night. After a horrible month, one that included back-to-back 37th-place disasters, Busch righted the ship and proved this small-time operation is capable of winning. That’s crucial for an underdog to believe his team is in the mix, as the driver said himself heading to tracks like Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte, where they can steal one.
THIRD GEAR: Tony Stewart’s troublesome ending
Tony Stewart had smoke pouring out of his ears Saturday night after getting tapped by the aforementioned Busch during the green-white-checker finish. Fifth on the restart, Stewart wound up 18th and quickly showcased his displeasure by tearing Busch’s Chevy all to pieces after the checkered flag.
“I don’t know what (he) was upset about,” Busch said after the race after fending off an expletive-laced tirade in the garage from his rival. “I got hit from behind. I got hit every which-way. It was a free-for-all.”
Stewart, for his part, left the track without comment before sneaking one in through a post-race press release. “He just rammed right into us there at the end,” the release stated. “We were actually going to leave here with a decent finish until everything happened.”
That last comment is key. Frustration is boiling over for Stewart after “rear bumper” abuse has defined his 2013. At Fontana, it was the block from Joey Logano that cost him 15-20 spots. Richmond’s fiasco cost him another dozen. Add up those points, along with being an innocent victim at Daytona, and he’s in the top 10 — despite some obvious struggles elsewhere. Instead, he’s sitting an uncharacteristic 22nd … and tired of it.
What does it mean? Well, you know what they say about everything coming in threes. Saturday night marked Stewart’s second temper tantrum of 2013; next wreck, I wouldn’t get within 50 feet without two bodyguards and a stun gun.
FOURTH GEAR: Petty Blue comes of age
Quick, what’s the only driver on tour with three consecutive top-10 finishes at the moment? No, it’s not Jimmie Johnson, the runaway points leader, a flashy Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, or even Kyle Busch. It’s Aric Almirola, a rising star whose seventh-seventh-eighth stretch is easily the best of his Cup career. Now 11th in points, the driver of the No. 43 Ford is coming of age right before our eyes.
Saturday night was easily the most impressive of the three, as Almirola worked his way up from 34th. With the experience of Todd Parrott on the pit box – the mechanical mastermind behind Dale Jarrett’s 1999 championship – the building blocks are there to make a Chase run on points. While still a longshot, this pairing will only improve, and come Kansas in the fall, you might even see them in Victory Lane.
Ford’s Greg Biffle was the opposite of Almirola on an awful night at RIR. Starting 33rd, he spent the night stuck there before spinning out and damaging the No. 16 machine. None of Biffle’s 18 wins in the Cup Series have come on a short track, a weakness that must be mastered to be taken seriously in the Chase. … The crowd at Richmond, once an automatic sellout was noticeably sparse, especially in the grandstands surrounding the turns. There’s no official word on ticket sales, as NASCAR doesn’t release attendance figures this season, but the exodus from one of the sport’s most competitive tracks is alarming. … For those besides Burton that stayed out on old tires for the green-white-checker finish, it was a mixed bag. Jamie McMurray, restarting second, slipped outside the groove and was dropkicked to 26th; he would have had a top-10 finish otherwise.
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.
Who else but The Captain? After 15 Indianapolis 500 wins, a NASCAR Nationwide title, and currently in serious contention for a Cup title, it would be hard to deny a self-made billionaire who started out with a single Chevrolet dealership. He’s won in all makes, from a Taurus to a Matador, a Camaro and a Challenger, Chargers and Grand Prixs – and he came within a few hours of owning his own car company when GM was divesting itself of Saturn in 2009. Didn’t like Romney being derided for being a millionaire, you say? Well how about a legitimate billionaire? An added bonus: He hails from Ohio, a swing state everyone covets and worth its weight in sheet metal.
by Vito Pugliese
Vice President – Mark Martin
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Who else would make a better veep than Mark Martin, the guy who has finished second place in Cup titles on five occasions? Many contend that he won the title in 1990 (much like former VP Al Gore still contends he won in 2000). The same could be said for the 2007 Daytona 500 when NASCAR’s rules changed coming out of Turn 4 on the final lap — although you’d never hear Martin complain about it publicly. His current part-time gig is tailor made for vice presidential duties, allowing him time to attend state funerals, photo ops and ribbon cuttings, as well as bridging the gap between young and old voters. Who else better to extol the virtues of both hard work and Gucci Mane to the electorate? Besides, if you really need to find him (unlike Dick Cheney) his undisclosed location will be pretty easy to find – the gym in his basement.
by Vito Pugliese
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Chief of Staff – Chad Knaus
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The Chief of Staff sets the tone for the administration and directs the steps and actions of the day-to-day happenings within the White House. Chad Knaus is the obvious answer here. George W. Bush had Karl Rove as “The Architect” to his 2000 presidential campaign, while Jimmie Johnson had Knaus as his architect in five consecutive successful title runs from 2006-10. When Johnson backed it into the wall at Kansas a few weeks ago, it was Knaus who calmly surveyed the damage and directed his men on how to repair the No. 48 car. Could a mangled heap that was just shortened by two feet even make the minimum speed at the newly-repaved, downforce-dependent speedway? Naturally, he made it through with a ninth-place finish – just one spot behind rival Brad Keselowski.
by Vito Pugliese
Photo by ASP, Inc.
First Lady – Danica Patrick
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Yeah, I know. Kind of a cop out, but whatever. At least you get a nice picture out of it.
by Vito Pugliese
Photo by ASP, Inc.
White House Press Secretary – Carl Edwards
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The Press Secretary is the person responsible for going out in front of the public each day and making things seem better than they really are – or completely obfuscating any semblance of trouble, wrong-doing or dire consequence waiting around the corner. The “spin master in chief” must keep control of the story regardless of what may really be happening in plain sight, and the next time that Carl Edwards seems down and out or riddled with uncertainty will be the first. He’s the perfect driver for any sponsor, and after losing the 2011 championship on a tie-breaker and enduring a winless streak that in a couple of races will approach two years, Edwards could convince even the most skeptical voter that the cup isn’t just half full, it’s half as big as it should be — and he’d do it from the infield TV booth. Every weekend.
by Vito Pugliese
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Secretary of State – Jeff Burton
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No brainer. He is “The Mayor,” after all and may be destined for a career in politics once he ditches the firesuit. No matter how ridiculous a situation, if you ask Burton about it you’ll get a 10-minute explanation that begins with, “Well let’s take a look at it…” and at the end, you’ll wonder why there’s even a problem in the first place. If Secretary of State isn’t an option, perhaps Jedi Mind-Master is further down the chain of command. Heck, even when Jeff Gordon went after him at Texas a few years ago, he smoothed things over and they rode in the ambulance together. Originally recruited at one time to become the heir to Dale Earnhardt Sr. prior to his untimely passing, Burton is as positive a representative of the sport as one could ask for, making him the perfect man for the job.
by Vito Pugliese
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Secretary of Defense – Jack Roush
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What other guy arrives to the track in a World War II P-51D Mustang and has an SR-71 model of his own tuner Mustang GT? He definitely would be no fan of foreign aggression, as demonstrated by his disdain of Toyota entering NASCAR, and most certainly has “This Aggression Will Not Stand” crocheted on a pillow in his hauler's heavily fortified rec room. Jack started out drag racing with the Tijuana Taxi, dominated IMSA and Trans-Am in the late 1980s and into the '90s, and started up one of the most successful modern NASCAR teams 1988. He bleeds red, white and Blue Oval, and his answers to even the most mundane and routine questions sounds suspiciously like those that would be voiced by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. While Jack has had a couple of brushes with mortality the past decade with airplane crashes, he has no intention of grounding the fleet. He’s still at the track every weekend and signs his autographs with “U.S.A.” under his name. No questions as to where his loyalties lie.
by Vito Pugliese
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Speaker of The House – Kurt Busch
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There would be no mother****g doubt at what time a g******ed vote or motion is taking place, because Kurt Busch would be the first one to tell you when that s*** was going down and how the f*** it was going to happen. Maybe Patricia would take the gavel out of his hand before he goes after the leader of the Senate with it. NASCAR’s walking sound bite would be second in succession to the presidency, leading him to question what dumb son of a b**** drew up that stupid plan, and why he isn’t first. F***!
by Vito Pugliese
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Administrator of the EPA – Ward Burton
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Ward Burton walked away from racing a few years ago and began to focus his energies on conservation and environmental efforts in his home state of Virginia. In 2005, he was appointed to the Virginia Board of Game and Inland Fisheries. Ward is an avid hunter and his Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation works to promote hunting, fishing, care and stewardship of forests and wetlands. Besides, where else are you going to find a guy willing to state that, “I wish I had something to have shot through the damn window” in an interview following getting wrecked by Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Bristol?
by Vito Pugliese
Secretary of Health and Human Services – Jimmy Spencer
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Obviously. Slightly overweight, formerly sponsored by McDonald’s, a ketchup maker, muffler shops, and tobacco companies, Spencer smokes cigars and has the best hair money can buy. Or glue. Either way, Spencer — much like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — is a picture of health and would be a voice of reason amongst the sea of insanity that permeates through Washington (or Charlotte). He never forgets, isn’t afraid to take a swing and routinely hands out stogies, straight jackets and sob chamois on Race Hub. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
It’s been but three days since our nation elected its leaders, and we’re still all feeling a little bit of a political hangover. The Republicans can’t believe they got beat, the Democrats are relieved they won, and while half the country is wringing their hands over the results and what lies ahead, the other half is just glad it’s over. Or they’re smoking a bunch of weed since it was legalized in a couple locales. Either way, it got me to thinking what a NASCAR election cycle might look like. Here’s how I envision Capitol Hill looking, where D.C.
Jimmie Johnson’s fourth straight championship was arguably his most dominant performance; with three races left, he had a seemingly insurmountable 184-point edge over teammate Mark Martin under the old point system. But as Denny Hamlin should remember, entering this coming weekend after Martinsville’s mechanical monster, anything can and will happen. Johnson and Sam Hornish Jr. and got into it on lap 8, a three-wide choice turned into catastrophe when Johnson lost control, then spun off Turn 2. The man then known as “Three-Time” would run 38th, see Martin cut the deficit to 73 points and spend his post-race disgusted over what could have been the first opportunity ever to clinch the title pre-Homestead under the Chase format. What’s worse for the No. 48 group? Hornish never apologized, leaving hurt feelings that lasted months afterwards— even though J.J. still cruised to the title.
by Tom Bowles
9. Fall 2005: Edwards vs. Martin
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Texas hasn’t been a track where late-race passes for the lead are the norm. But Carl Edwards, one of five Roush drivers in contention for the 2005 season title, made this fall edition one to remember. Leading 82 laps, Edwards jumped out in front until one last caution, for debris, sent him scurrying to pit road. That left Martin out front, but with new tires Cousin Carl was able to race down the No. 6, then blow by him on the top side to secure an easy victory and pull within 77 points of Tony Stewart for the championship. As for Mark? It was his last, best chance to secure a victory in the No. 6 Roush car; he would never win again in Cup driving the famed Ford he put on the map.
by Tom Bowles
8. 1997: Lap 1 … And Done
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Turns out everything’s bigger in Texas—even the wrecks. The start of the first ever Cup race at the 1.5-mile oval, the first in the Lone Star State since 1981, didn’t even make it half-a-lap before nearly half the field was all torn up. With the new track basically a one-groove speedway, everyone was desperate to cut to the inside, including Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, who thought his No. 17 was clear of Johnny Benson’s No. 30. The second their sheet metal tangled, Waltrip went spinning in an incident that left him knocked out of the race in dead last. In all, 13 cars were involved, though most made it back on track. Only Dale Earnhardt (from a lap back to sixth) was able to work his way back into contention. And for DW, it would be a “double whammy.” One year later, he’d be a centerpiece of another major multi-car wreck to start the 1998 event. In two races, he’d struggle to complete more than two laps as the first key to this racetrack was “survival.”
by Tom Bowles
7. 1997: Throwing Caution To The Wind
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We all know the only real way to listen to a race is in Dutch. That said, you want to know why NASCAR doesn’t race back to the caution? Because there’s a risk of incidents like this one. After a multi-car crash off Turn 4, cars were racing back to the line with one particular problem: Greg Sacks’ hobbled No. 20 was slowing considerably, anticipating the dangerous incident that had happened on the tri-oval ahead. In the meantime, Ernie Irvan was focused on passing leader Terry Labonte to get a lap back instead of the mess of shattered sheet metal ahead. He didn’t see Sacks slowing until it was far too late, slamming into the No. 20 like a speeding car plowing into a safety vehicle on the highway in a wreck that left the stands eerily quiet. Until 2003, when a similar near-disaster with Dale Jarrett occurred at New Hampshire, this incident became the poster child in trying to get the rules changed. Luckily both drivers were unhurt, although each was obviously done for the day.
by Tom Bowles
6. 1997: Burton Gets First Win
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Hard to believe it has been 15-plus years since Jeff Burton, now 45, etched his name in the NASCAR record books. During a Demolition Derby of an inaugural edition, the No. 99 team and crew chief Buddy Parrott hit on the setup down the stretch. Pushing their way to the front, they avoided a late-race incident when Todd Bodine spun in front, pulled away from the homestate Labonte brothers, then outlasted Dale Jarrett to win his first Cup race by 4.067 seconds. Added bonus in this video: Kim Burton debuts on the NASCAR scene as “That NASCAR wife,” capping her emotional speech with the words “this is all he’s ever wanted his whole life.” What a nice reminder that back in the day, winning Cup Series races for the first time actually meant something more than a nice paycheck and an extra Monday appearance for your sponsor.
by Tom Bowles
5. Fall 2010: The Jeffs Play Pattycakes
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Who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks—or throw good uppercuts? Respected veterans Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon got into it when the two were involved a vicious wreck exiting Turn 2. Each man had his version of the incident to tell, but with Burton at full speed, the drivers connected and Gordon took a vicious hit into the outside wall. It was surprising enough that these two wrecked, but what people didn’t expect was the duo—known more for their intellectual pursuits—trying to solve this puzzling incident with punches. The funniest part of the whole thing? NASCAR still made both men ride inside the same ambulance (of note: the two haven’t wrecked each other on the racetrack since).
by Tom Bowles
4. 2000: The Son Rises
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Way, way back, before the Most Popular Driver Awards, the concussions and the “overrated” comments, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just a wide-eyed, introverted 25-year-old who loved computers, had a famous dad and was simply trying to make it in the wild world of the Cup Series. Big things were expected of the rookie, and some wondered if he could excel with a new team run by dad Dale Earnhardt Sr. But in just his 12th race at NASCAR’s highest level, Junior cashed in, leading a race-high 106 laps and virtually coasting to the checkers by 5.9 seconds in a performance that impressed everyone—even the old man. The tender moments between them, replayed all over the country, showcased how their relationship had progressed, back to an unbreakable bond after the elder Earnhardt was MIA at times during Junior’s childhood. Also not to be missed: a loving hug from Teresa Earnhardt, a sign of her love that’s eerie considering how badly their relationship would deteriorate in the coming years, following Senior’s death in 2001.
by Tom Bowles
3. Fall 2010: Knaus’ Switch-eroo
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At the time, it was a move that reeked of something unusual out of the 48 camp: Desperation. After several slow stops with crew consistently losing time to the No. 11 team and Denny Hamlin, crew chief Chad Knaus pulled something virtually unprecedented—he called in reinforcements. A team that, in some cases, had taken the car to four straight championships on the back of its tire-changing, fuel-pumping and chassis-adjusting knowledge was suddenly on the bench. In its place, at least for the rest of this race, was Jeff Gordon’s crew, which had been pulling off faster stops in the 24’s pit box, but in the end could never really do enough to put Johnson up front to catch Hamlin. The challenger went on to a dominating win in what seemed at the time a nail in Johnson’s coffin. Of course, Johnson, Knaus and the boys took advantage of the No. 11 team’s choke job one week later and sailed to Title No. 5.
by Tom Bowles
2. 2008: McBarrell Rolls
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In six years of covering races live, there have been only two instances where I thought a driver was dead. One was during an ARCA Daytona event, when a stopped Patrick Sheltra was broadsided at full speed. This one was the other. The full clip shows you how normal a qualifying run can be, a driver progressing through his normal rhythm before a split-second mistake, as simple as one bad deceleration point, which can turn things into a possible tragedy. End over end, flip over flip, a succession of barrel rolls. Miraculously, Michael McDowell walked away, surviving in part through NASCAR’s substantial safety innovations. But his experience, limited that year in his progression through to the Cup level, was questioned for months afterward. The danger, perhaps, of what can happen as a rookie at the sport’s top level.
by Tom Bowles
1. 2004: Sadler Sneaks One In
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Kasey Kahne’s rookie season was defined by two words: “near miss.” So many times, he had the No. 9 car in position to win only to be denied, sometimes by inches in the final laps. Texas was yet another example, as Jeff Gordon’s motor problem left Kahne in position to challenge Elliott Sadler for the victory. Sadler himself had not won since Bristol in 2001, and was desperate to score another for new employer Yates Racing. The problem? Kahne was clearly the faster car. Using the high line, he came off Turn 2 like a bullet, then appeared ready to jettison by through Turns 3 and 4 as Sadler was a sitting duck. But the lapped car of Johnny Sauter, which initially looked like it would hurt Sadler by not pulling out of the way, actually cost Kahne a shot. His insistence on running full speed, keeping the inside line, forced Sadler up and Kahne was unwilling to wreck either driver, unsure what to do and slowing up just enough he didn’t have enough momentum to make the pass down the tri-oval. Either way, it was the best Texas race for the victory we’ve seen. And based on NASCAR’s current intermediate package, not one we’ll get again anytime soon.
by Tom Bowles
BONUS 2011: Kyle’s “No No”
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This list is based on Cup, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention the one-year anniversary of the wreck that changed the career of Kyle Busch. After a three-wide incident put both he and Ron Hornaday in the wall, Busch’s anger got the best of him as the caution waved. While others slowed down, the No. 18 sped up, slammimg into the back of the No. 33 of Hornaday—a title contender in the Truck Series— and wrecked both in a move that conceivably cost his rival the big trophy while putting his own professionalism, and aggression, under the microscope. NASCAR’s response was swift and severe, parking Busch for the rest of the Texas weekend while sponsor M&M’s pulled out for the final three races of 2011. A tamer Kyle Busch has been seen ever since … and for good reason.
It was a hard-fought effort at New Hampshire, a solid third-place finish for Davey Allison as he tried to right the ship in a disappointing 1993. One year removed from title contention, he hadn’t won since Richmond in March and sat fifth in points, a whopping 323 behind Dale Earnhardt roughly halfway through the season.
“Just wait until next year,” he said after not winning that Sunday. “Come back and try it again.”
The tragic reality? There would be no 1994 trip to the Magic Mile. In a cryptic interview, one in which he specifically went out of his way to mention the wife and kids this post-race chat, was the last time we ever heard from Allison in public. The next day, en route to a test session at Talladega, Allison crashed his helicopter while landing at the speedway, killing himself and seriously injuring longtime friend Red Farmer. It’s a tragic reminder of how fragile life can be in the racing world.
by Tom Bowles
9. Rusty Wins Inaugural Race
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On the same Sunday as Allison’s interview, Rusty Wallace took control of the first ever Cup event held at New Hampshire’s 1.058-mile oval. Starting 33rd, it didn’t take long for the No. 2 Miller car to rip its way through the field, taking the lead shortly after the halfway point and establishing itself as the fastest car. For a debut race, the finish was fairly tame at the speedway – Wallace took the lead on a pit stop during the final caution with 30 laps remaining and breezed to a 1.31-second victory over Mark Martin. It was part of a 10-win season for Rusty, perhaps Penske Racing’s finest effort, but DNFs would ultimately derail him in a quest for a second title over Dale Earnhardt. And as for the Magic Mile? It’s a good thing Rusty cashed in early; he never won again at the speedway, leading just 145 laps in 21 additional starts after starting off his Loudon career by pacing the field for 106 circuits.
by Tom Bowles
7. Burton Wins Third Straight … When Stewart Runs Out of Gas
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Tony Stewart and fuel at Loudon seem to mesh as well as Juan Pablo Montoya and jet dryers. Dominating the 1999 Jiffy Lube 300, the Cup Series rookie appeared to be headed towards his first victory, but out of nowhere the fuel tank ran dry with just over two laps remaining. That left Burton, who started 38th, to seize control and take a shocking victory to become the only driver in NASCAR history to win three straight spring/summer races in New Hampshire. Overall, the Magic Mile has treated Burton well; his four career victories there are the most for him at any facility on the Cup circuit. But the race was notable just as much for Stewart’s temperamental reaction — a sign of things to come — after coasting to pit road, he waved off the media and stormed out of the race track without comment. “I was so consumed with emotion,” he said later. “I just didn’t do the right thing.” It wouldn’t be the last time we’d see that in this Sprint Cup career.
by Tom Bowles; Photo by NHMS
6. Payback Proves Costly in Chase
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Once upon a time, back when points didn’t consume drivers every minute of every race, they didn’t automatically tiptoe around championship contenders during the Chase. Robby Gordon, in 2004, was a prime example. During NASCAR’s first ever postseason event, at the height of drama and the unknown, he turned it into a “tete a tete” with Greg Biffle … other drivers be damned. After Biffle spun him out early, Gordon waited for an opportunity to hit the No. 16 back and piledrove him in Turn 1, igniting a multi-car wreck. Tony Stewart, then Jeremy Mayfield got involved as two Chasers saw their title dreams go up in smoke over someone else’s mess.
“I don’t know why they’re settling it on the race track,” said Mayfield after bringing his car behind the wall for repairs. “I guess they’re too scared to settle it outside the race track.”
Gordon got penalized two laps for starting the whole mess, but the die was cast: the reaction from Chasers seems to have started a trend where those not involved in the championship are extra careful not to interfere in the title race.
by Tom Bowles
5. Jimmie Johnson’s Spin … to Ultimate Win
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One year removed from the “milk and cookies” meeting — the infamous Rick Hendrick/Chad Knaus/Jimmie Johnson powwow that ultimately saved their relationship — Johnson headed into the 2006 Chase with high hopes. Having lost the championship to Tony Stewart the year prior, the group was determined to push forward but bad timing on a chain reaction incident, early in this race at New Hampshire, pushed the No. 48 right into the wall. It would leave them ninth in points after the race, 139 behind leader Kevin Harvick and seemingly out of the hunt for another title.
“There are nine more,” Johnson said cryptically. “There's a lot of time left. Anything can happen.”
And it did. J.J. roared back from the deficit to take the first of five consecutive titles. Fuel for thought in Jeff Gordon’s camp this season, perhaps?
by Tom Bowles
4. Mother Nature Smiles on Logano
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For the rookie known as “Sliced Bread,” New Hampshire was doing a good job of trying to slice his car into tiny little pieces in the spring of 2009. Falling a lap down at one point, he actually caused the race’s ninth caution by spinning out on lap 184. But another incident a few laps later, involving the No. 82 of Scott Speed, earned Logano his lap back via the Lucky Dog – and an opportunity.
Crew chief Greg Zipadelli, knowing the car would start at the end of the longest line anyway, brought his driver in for an extra splash of fuel, knowing Mother Nature had some storm clouds on the horizon. Turns out a long green-flag run immediately unfolded, and when other drivers had to make their stops, the battered and bruised No. 20 Toyota could go just a bit longer than anyone else. Running conservatively, in part because the car was a mangled mess, Logano was in front by just a few seconds at the perfect time – when a raging downpour soaked the track and forced a yellow, red, then a checkered flag 27 laps early.
It was the most surprising way anyone expected the “best driver of his generation,” according to friend Mark Martin, to win a race. But what’s even more shocking? It took until Pocono, in June 2012 for this once-promising youngster to take race number two on the Cup level.
by Tom Bowles
3. Jimmie Johnson vs. Kurt Busch
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Kurt Busch doesn’t like Jimmie Johnson. Jimmie Johnson doesn’t like Kurt Busch. So for the two of them to race together in the closing laps of New Hampshire in 2010, you knew something a little out of the ordinary was going to happen. Johnson clearly had the fastest car, but Busch had the best front bumper as he outright pushed the No. 48 car out of the way entering Turn 1. The defending Cup Series champ slipped, but never outright lost control, in a move that would prove to be Busch’s undoing. Losing about a second, Johnson quickly ran the No. 2 back down, produced payback with a little contact of his own, and scooted by for the win with about two laps remaining.
“I usually get caught up in it,” Johnson said after the race. “So I knew what my thought process was, ‘Wreck his ass.’”
Busch did hold on to finish third but the intimidation tactics didn’t really work; Johnson charged on to win the 2010 title over Denny Hamlin.
by Tom Bowles
2. Clash of the Gordons
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It was a Twilight Zone race, a crisp and cold day where New Hampshire served as a substitute season finale for NASCAR. Postponed from the attacks of September 11, 2011, to after Thanksgiving this event was purely for show, as Jeff Gordon clinched the championship one race earlier at Atlanta. But that didn’t stop him from stomping the field in Loudon. In all, the No. 24 car led 257 of 300 laps, and was in its own time zone until a series of late cautions changed the outcome of the race.
Losing the lead to Sterling Marlin on pit road, Gordon was put in heavy traffic and forced to fight his way back to the front. In the process, Robby Gordon, who had put together a credible, top-5 performance, closed in on the back bumper of Gordon and made his presence known. The two tangled, with Jeff losing control – and his edge – while their sheet metal rub slid them into Mike Wallace and spun the No. 12 out.
Jeff was angry, and retaliated under yellow, but Robby was focused from that point on and sped to his first ever Cup Series victory.
“Everybody thought you couldn't make me mad. You can make me mad,” said Jeff afterwards. “It was a heck of a battle. It was between me and him anyway. I just wish it would have been done fair and square instead of just knocking a guy out of the way.”
by Tom Bowles
1. Ernie Irvan Completes Comeback
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In August 1994, a wreck at Michigan left Ernie Irvan fighting for survival. The second tragedy in two years for Robert Yates Racing’s No. 28 Ford, you wondered what more could happen to an organization that was known as one of NASCAR’s classiest. But in a miraculous recovery that took over 14 months, Irvan bounced back and eventually returned to a racecar.
Competing full-time in 1996, he had run well at several tracks but Loudon was finally the place Irvan put it all together. Coasting to a five-second victory, bringing smiles to every crew member and race fan in the stands and taking the checkered flag made the miracle complete. In a “full circle” move, Irvan responded by doing a Polish Victory Lap, in honor of Alan Kulwicki and bringing to mind the late Davey Allison, who Irvan had replaced three years prior. It was also a sign of things to come for RYR, which saw its team finish 1-2 for the first time in history as the sport started towards the reality of multi-car programs continually on top of the charts.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for the Bristol Night Race
The Blue Deuce, looking racy at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
The Race for the Chase is heating up and after two weeks of late-race drama the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Thunder Valley for the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
When the series hits the high-banks, it will be on a much different racing surface than the drivers have been accustomed to over the past few seasons. After the 2007 reconfiguration of the track, progressive banking was added in the corners, allowing for multiple grooves and two- and three-wide racing.
The racing on the new configuration was exciting and competitive, however many fans bemoaned the changes and called for a return to the Bristol of old. While it may have been the changes to the track, a lagging economy, or a host of other reasons, attendance fell from 160,000 in August 2007 to 102,000 earlier this year.
Listening to the fans, Speedway Motorsports, Inc.'s Bruton Smith took measures into his own hands and altered the track layout for the second time in six years. By grinding down the top racing groove, Smith hopes to create the style of racing Bristol was synonymous with when the grandstands were full and there was a waiting list for tickets.
Yet for many of the drivers, the change to Bristol is an unwelcome sight. Making changes based solely off the opinion of fans, Smith did not consult the competitors before taking away the top groove, boasting, "I do not consult race drivers when I am building a speedway."
After a painstaking process of removing embanked concrete intended to last “15 to 18 years,” according to track general manager Jerry Caldwell, Goodyear brought in Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer for a two-day tire test of the new configuration.
Each of the drivers confirmed the field would be unable to race around the top groove, forcing drivers to fight for space on the bottom of the track.
“The drivers aren’t going to be happy, but the spectators probably will be because it is going to put more cars in a closer space,” Burton said following the June tire test. “By taking away that groove, it is going to change your mind about going up there. I think it is going to be two grooves, unless Goodyear brings a tire with a lot of grip. If that is the case, you’ll want to run around the bottom. Making the groove smaller is a good thing, it is going to put the action back to the bottom and middle of the track.”
So, now that the track has changed, what can you expect for your fantasy outlook?
Well, I wouldn’t stray far from the statistics — new Bristol or old. While the groove may have changed, the drivers that excel at Bristol will continue to do so this weekend under the lights.
To find the hottest driver at BMS the past two events, look no further than the man that has finished second the last two weeks: Brad Keselowski. The Penske Racing driver is the defending race winner, went to Victory Lane in dominant fashion here in March and is looking for his fourth win of the 2012 season.
Currently fifth in the Sprint Cup standings, Keselowski is tied with former champions Stewart and Jimmie Johnson with the most wins on the season. A win Saturday night would not only mean a sweep of the year's Bristol races, but would also move Keselowski into the top seed heading into the Chase.
In March, Keselowski dominated the final race on the multi-groove surface, leading 232 of the 500 laps. In the past two weeks, the No. 2 car has been in contention for the win, losing out by only a slight margin to Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen and Greg Biffle at Michigan.
Since his victory in Kentucky seven races ago, Keselowski has five top 5s and seven top 10s. So obviously, this team has been on a roll as of late — and that roll should continue right through the mountains of East Tennessee. With confidence on his side and the team gunning for another win or two before the Chase, it is hard to bet against Keselowski Saturday night under the lights.
Much like last weekend, if Keselowski wants to end up in Victory Lane, he will have to beat Johnson. Looking as if he was on his way to his fourth victory of the season last week at Michigan, a blown motor in the final laps resulted in a frustrating 27th-place finish.
A former winner at Bristol, Johnson is always a threat on the high-speed short track. In his last seven races at BMS, the five-time champion has one win, four top 5s and six top 10s.
While Keselowski took advantage of Johnson's issues last Sunday, it was Kyle Busch who lost the win late in the race two weeks ago in Watkins Glen. Currently 14th in the standings, Busch is third in the Chase wild card hunt behind Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman. While the past few months have been more than frustrating for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota (only three top 10s in the last 11 races), there could be no better track for Busch than Bristol to get back into contention.
With the second-best average finish (10.6), Busch has five wins at Bristol, including four of the last seven races. With time running out before the Chase cut-off, Busch will need to get up on the wheel and get the job done.
Admittedly off at Bristol since his March 2011 win, he and crew chief Dave Rogers will have to dial the car in to the new configuration without over-thinking the setup, as they have done in the past.
Also consider last week's winner (and current points leader) Biffle, as well as fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. for your lineup Saturday night. Both have been extremely strong as of late and have run well at Bristol in the past.
MWR's Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr. at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
When part-time driver Brian Vickers gets the chance to pilot the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, he does his best to make the most of the opportunity. He certainly did that in his first start for MWR at Bristol in March.
Despite starting from the 25th spot, Vickers made his way to the front in the No. 55 car and led 125 of the 500 laps en route to a fifth-place finish. In Vickers' five starts thus far for MWR, has two top 5s, an 18th at Martinsville, a 15th at Loudon and a disappointing 43rd at Watkins Glen, due to a grenaded engine.
Running strong in the bottom groove so successfully in March, Vickers is optimistic he can have a solid showing under the lights.
“We had a great car that ran very well on the bottom and led a lot of laps,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how the upper groove has changed and how it will effect the racing. They wanted it like the ‘old Bristol,’ so we'll see. But again, we had the best car in the lower groove so hopefully it won't effect us too much.”
In fact, all of the MWR cars should be strong at Bristol this weekend. During the March race, the trio was in contention, with Martin Truex Jr. leading the team to third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes with Clint Bowyer and Vickers following suit, marking the first time MWR had all three cars finish in the top 5.
Five Undervalued Picks: Brian Vickers, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano
With only three races left before the Chase field is set, Kyle Busch is not the only driver in desperate need of a win. Both Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards have had their fair share of struggles over the season, but now is the time to put those behind and get the job done.
While both are former winners at Bristol (Gordon has five wins, Edwards two), they are darkhorse picks for the second week in a row considering the desperation that is setting in at this point.
The potential for a win is there for both drivers, but in March each found trouble early in the going with Gordon finishing 35th and Edwards coming home 39th. If you use either of these drivers in your fantasy lineup, do so with caution.
Much like the MWR cars, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing had a stellar showing at Bristol in March with Jamie McMurray finishing seventh and Juan Pablo Montoya right behind in eighth. McMurray was able to use pit strategy early in the race to make his way to the front, while Montoya took advantage of late-race cautions and fresh tires to score a solid finish.
This 2012 season has been nothing short of disappointing for the EGR organization after an offseason of drastic changes behind the scenes. The top 10 finish at Bristol was one of only three for McMurray and one of only two for Montoya. If the team can rekindle some of the success they had in March, they could score some worthy fantasy points.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose
For many, the look of Saturday night's race will be a bit of an unknown. With the change in the racing surface, the side-by-side racing could be much more difficult than in the past few seasons.
Judging by Wednesday night's Camping World Truck Series races, though, it appears while the very top goove is gone, the racing has remained much the same. Be sure to pay attention to Friday evening's Nationwide Series race to get a better idea of what Saturday night's race will look like.
Just remember, no matter how strong the stats, short track racing with multiple agendas and Chase implications on the line mean anything can — and probably will — happen.
Best Average Finish at Bristol (Wins/Starts):
1. Brad Keselowski — 10.4 (2/5)
2. Kyle Busch — 10.6 (5/15)
3. Matt Kenseth — 11.6 (2/25)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 11.8 (1/25)
5. Greg Biffle — 11.8 (0/19)
6. Jeff Gordon — 12.1 (5/39)
7. Kevin Harvick — 12.4 (1/23)
8. Kurt Busch — 13.1 (5/23)
9. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (2/16)
10. Jimmie Johnson — 14.6 (1/21)
Brad Keselowski isn’t afraid to question why something is or isn’t done in NASCAR. He’s inquisitive, reflective and thoughtful. Some ideas lead to fruitful discussions and some don’t.
Either way, Keselowski looks ahead, never satisfied with what is happening. It doesn’t mean he has the right answers for every issue or that every idea is wrong. What he does is make others ponder issues he raises.
Keselowski looks at the racing in NASCAR and knows it can be better. Certainly many fans say the same thing. But how? Aerodynamics dictate so much about the sport. So what then?
How about the tires? Keselowski wonders if it would be better for NASCAR to consider a soft and hard compound similar to what is done in Formula 1 and the Izod IndyCar Series, which uses two different tire compounds at road and street course events
Here’s how Keselowski explains his notion:
“I think our sport has evolved to where aerodynamics are generating the majority of the grip in the racecars, which naturally creates an issue when we’re in a pack to where the guy that’s in the front has a supreme advantage over the guys that are in the back — and that goes against I think what we all consider quality racing.
“As a sport we have a decision to make, we can either step backwards and remove aerodynamics from racing — and I think we all know that it’s impossible to really move backwards because we’ll keep pushing and we’ll find it back as we did with this new car.”
Keslowski notes that when the current Cup car was introduced in 2007 it produced about 1,700 pounds of downforce. Teams have refined the car to where it produces about 2,200 pounds now, an increase of more than 20 percent he notes.
“The teams persevered and we will with the money and resources that we dedicate,’’ Keselowski said. “So as you look forward to the issue of how to make the racing better, you can try to take a step backwards and remove aerodynamics or we can try to take a step forward and include new ideas that improve the quality of the racing.
“One of the easiest is to look over at what F1 has with their soft and hard (tire) options that create the possibility for coming in (pitting) at the end of the race and changing compounds and overcoming the aerodynamic deficiencies of the cars that run toward the back of the pack, and I think that will improve quality of the racing for us all.”
Interesting concept. Can it work in NASCAR since nearly all of its races are on ovals as opposed to Formula 1 and IndyCar?
Not everyone is convinced.
Mark Martin calls Keselowski’s idea “brilliant” but he also notes it’s flawed. Martin says this reminds him too much about what happened with the tires when Goodyear and Hoosier were competing in Cup.
“You can’t fuss with the tires,” Martin says. “You’ve got the fastest tire that you can put on now. If you make them any faster, they’re dangerous.
“Brad Keselowski didn’t live the tire war. He isn’t permanently injured from that. Many of us drivers carry permanent injuries for life from that. I know the cars are better now. I know the walls are better now. We don’t need that.
“They bring the best tire they can bring and have but if you made one that was worse ... put him out on them and let’s see if he still wants them. Let’s see how he likes them.”
Jeff Burton admits that “it’s always healthy that we’re looking to improve our sport,” but he’s not convinced this is the right idea.
“I’m not a proponent nor an opponent of talking about different ways to come up with better racing,” Burton says. “I think there’s been a general consensus that Goodyear has done a really, really good job on the tire, maybe too good. Maybe the tire needs to fall off a little more so that we lose speed as the run goes on.
“Things that we can do in the sport that don’t jeopardize the integrity of the sport to make the competition better, then we always need to be looking at that. Whether the tires will do that or not, I just don’t know.”
Stu Grant, Goodyear’s general manager of global race tires, said there hasn’t been any work on such a plan.
Grant notes that tire usage in NASCAR is greater than in IndyCar and Formula 1 because there are so many more teams and that would create among many issues.
“From a logistical standpoint, there is a lot of cost associated with that for everybody in the sport, for us as well the competitors as you pass on ... all that inventory on a second set of tires,” he says.
Grant says there’s no way Goodyear could provide a softer tire than what it has.
“If I did it, they would fail,” he notes. “They would blister. They would wear out. They would lose air and we would crash. Nobody wants that.
“The only option would be to make a harder tire. In the end it’s NASCAR’s call. We’re the tire supplier. We have not had any discussion with NASCAR about that. We have not looked at that.
“We would have to make a worse tire that they would have to run. Is that something the sport wants? I’m not so sure.”
Favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's LENOX Industrial Tools 301
Defending Loudon winner Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
The race may have ended Saturday night, but the smoke has yet to settle following the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway — both literally and figuratively.
Defending series champion Tony Stewart did what few could Saturday night, passing Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle for the lead. The two were attached at the bumper and out ahead of the pack for the majority of the night, leading a combined 124 of the 160 laps. Yet in the final frantic laps, Stewart was able to work with Kasey Kahne and push around the pair on the outside.
Earning his third victory of the year, Stewart tied Brad Keselowski with the most wins this season, and further solidified his spot in the Chase. Aside from a 32nd-place finish at Kentucky, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have one win and four finishes of third or better in the last five events.
The two-time champion typically hits his stride during the summer stretch, and that seems to be the case again this year, so the competition should pay heed at New Hampshire, a track where Stewart owns for victories.
At times is seems Stewart performs at his best when faced with adversity and distractions abound for his organization at the moment. With the U.S. Army pulling all funding from NASCAR at the end of the year and Ryan Newman's name coming up in the Silly Season talk, Stewart is going to have to start answering questions soon.
However, there are bigger controversies, more time for that to develop, and Smoke just so happens to be heading to one of his best tracks, statistically speaking.
Over the past two seasons, Stewart has one win and two runner-up finishes in four races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That 24th-place finish in the other event? He led 100 of the 300 laps, but ran out of fuel on the final lap giving the win to Clint Bowyer in September 2010.
Stewart-Haas Racing was the class of the field in this race last season when Newman led the organization to a 1-2 sweep of both qualifying and the race. Newman also led 62 laps in September's Chase race, but was among those short on fuel in the closing laps.
Despite a win this season, Newman currently trails Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in the wild card standings. A strong run (or a win) would move the No. 39 team closer to the championship battle.
Bowyer, the Sonoma winner, is another driver with his eye on the wild card standings. After scoring the win on the road course, Bowyer has dropped from seventh to 10th in the standings after a 16th at Kentucky and wreck-induced 29th in Daytona.
Bowyer is strong in Loudon though, with two wins and four top 5s in his 12 visits, however, also has seven finishes of 17th or worse. He has led a combined 229 laps in the last three New Hampshire races, with one win (Sept. 2010), a 17th and a 26th after running out of fuel with the lead in the final laps.
Five Favorites: Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin
The aforementioned wild card battle continues to intensify with each race, as Busch, Logano, Newman and Kahne jockey for the final two Chase spots over the next eight weeks. The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Busch and Logano currently hold the two transfer positions, but there is a lot of racing left before anything is decided.
While Busch has been trying to kick the trend of poor finishes, Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s in the last five races. Along with his strong runs on the Cup slate, Logano has also been tearing things up in the Nationwide Series (four wins, a fifth and a sixth in the last six events), leaving the 22-year-old feeling comfortable and confident behind the wheel, despite being a prominent figure in the Silly Season rumor mill.
The July New Hampshire race has been good to the driver of the No. 20 Toyota throughout his young career. In his three July starts at the “Magic Mile” Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s. Logano has not fared as well in the fall race, however, with three finishes outside the top 20 in four attempts.
Look for the trend of strong runs to continue this weekend as Logano and crew chief Jason Ratcliff go after their second win of the year, positioning themselves for a Chase berth.
Five Undervalued Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton
Darkhorse pick of the week: Brian Vickers. (ASP, Inc.)
As teams and sponsors look to 2013, free agent drivers shopping for rides are doing their best to impress. For Brian Vickers, who is driving a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, much must be accomplished in limited time.
In his three 2012 starts behind the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota, Vickers has two top 5s (Bristol, Sonoma) and an 18th at Martinsville. Team owner Michael Waltrip was behind the wheel of the No. 55 last weekend at Daytona, surviving the carnage at the end to finish inside the top 10.
Vickers was fifth in Loudon last September, but finished 34th in the July event. In fact, in his 13 starts at NHMS, Vickers has five finishes of 34th or worse. With so much on the line for his future — along with the success of the No. 55 throughout the season —Vickers is this weekend's darkhorse pick.
If a three-time Loudon winner can be considered a darkhorse, then Jeff Gordon is it for Sunday's 300-miler. While the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has the third-best average finish in New Hampshire (10.8), his luck this season has been devastating to his playoff hopes. Strong runs at historically successful tracks have gone to waste due to mechanical failures, wrecks and a host of other issues.
There is no doubt the four-time series champion will be a contender Sunday, but can his team put together a full race free of issues — self-inflicted, luck-related or otherwise? Given they are just on the outside of the wild card hunt and need solid finishes, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson understand they need to do all they can to score wins.
“We are not afraid of trying things with the setup or during the race,” Gordon says. “We're not afraid to take some risks. Each race that goes by without a win (means) the more risk we are willing to take. But I feel like we're still a long way from being out of this thing.”
Five Darkhorse Picks: Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr.
Best Average Finish at New Hampshire (wins):
1. Denny Hamlin — 9.0 (1)
2. Jimmie Johnson — 10.0 (3)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.8 (3)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (3)
5. Ryan Newman — 13.0 (3)
6. Jeff Burton — 13.6 (4)
7. Kurt Busch — 13.9 (3)
8. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (0)
9. Matt Kenseth — 14.0 (0)
10. Kevin Harvick — 14.1 (1) *Mark Martin, with one win and an average finish of 12.5, is not entered in this weekend’s event.