The 2011 Sprint All-Star Race came down to Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin battling for the win. Denny fades high exiting Turn 2 as DW says, “Put ‘em een the wawll!!!” Kyle’s post-race reaction was succinct (ear muffs!) and complete with memorable radio wire yank from. I understand him being mad for getting run up into the wall, but did he really have it won? Busch never even got along side Hamlin …
by Vito Pugliese
11. 2004: With friends like this...
2 of 13
Kurt Busch offers a hand to Roush teammate Greg Biffle here in 2004. Unfortunately, you can’t really bump draft with Gen 4 cars. And not at Charlotte. And not through the quad-oval. What results when one does is a 195 mph debacle, taking out the two team cars, nearly a third, as well as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and others. It also helped set the stage for Biffle’s then-girlfriend (now wife) Nicole getting into it with Busch’s then-wife (now ex) Eva at Texas two years later after a similar incident. By the way, check out Junior driving through that, managing to miss everything.
by Vito Pugliese
10. 2007: Oh Brother, Why Art Thou … Wrecking Me
3 of 13
Witness Kyle Busch attempt to execute a move that I once tried in my fourth career season in NASCAR Thunder 2003. There’s no way in hell it’s going to stick, but it’s the All-Star Race and it was for the win. Mike Joy’s summation isn’t much different than what we’d hear over the next five years or so. This incident in part also helped set the stage for Busch’s move to Joe Gibbs Racing a year later. Kurt. Meanwhile, gives a great interview around the 3:00 mark. Joy’s comment following is even better. “So much ...”
by Vito Pugliese
9. 2001: Why NASCAR doesn’t race in the rain
4 of 13
Picking up the action at 3:33, the race gets going just as it gets going raining, with cars sideways out of Turn 4 and into Turn 1 as the sky opens. NASCAR made the, uh, "unprecedented" decision to let those involved in the wreck go to back up cars since it was a non-points paying exhibition race. One of those involved, Jeff Gordon, rebounds to win in the replacement ride.
by Vito Pugliese
8. 2000: The rookie rules the roost
5 of 13
Fresh off his first career win at Texas Motor Speedway just a month earlier, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pits while running second for a couple of adjustments to get him a car capable of contending for the win in the 200 All-Star Race. He proceeds to mow down the veterans in front of him setting up a duel with defending Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett. Junior wins the battle, and I find myself missing that exuberant guy celebrating with his team as opposed to the quiet and corporate dude of 2013. I also miss the other guy coming into congratulate him by putting him in a headlock.
by Vito Pugliese
7. 2002: The Mayor’s politically correct observation
6 of 13
Sometimes the fastest car doesn’t win; the smartest team does. Jeff Burton’s No. 99 crew, led by crew chief Frankie Stoddard, did just that in the first segment of the 2002 running of The Winston. Burton’s pit stall was positioned just 50 yards from the start-finish line, so the required four-tire stop was able to be delayed until the last lap. Burton lapped the field as others pitted, then cruised to a runner-up finish in Segment 1.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 1998: The well goes dry
7 of 13
In 1998, the new Ford Taurus was on a tear. Engineered from the get-go to make maximum downforce and excel on intermediate tracks like Charlotte, it was in a perfect position to continue its early season dominance. That is until Jeff Gordon and his Ray Evernham-engineered No. 24 showed up. Gordon and Mark Martin had dominated the event and the former was leading into the last lap of the final 10-lap segment with Martin and Bobby Labonte on new tires gobbling up his lead. As the 24 took the white flag, all went silent in the car. Later, Evernham would say they forgot to refuel it. Hmmm ... maybe. Or maybe they just didn’t want to call attention to something else. After all, Gordon would go on to win the 600 a week later.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 1985: Ka-ching and Ka-boom
8 of 13
It’s been debated for nearly 30 years now. Did he or didn’t he? As Darrell Waltrip crosses the finish line in the inaugural Winston in 1985, the engine goes up in a thick cloud of smoke. Like, literally as he crosses the finish line. Did he clutch it? Or did car owner Junior Johnson build, as Mike Joy notes, a 105-mile hand grenade? Johnson is a legend and all, but what are the odds? Let the debate rage on.
by Vito Pugliese
4. 1996: Mikey makes his move
9 of 13
Michael Waltrip had been racing for 10 years and made 309 career starts when he raced his way into The Winston in 1996. On the final lap, Dale Earnhardt rattles Terry Labonte’s cage, clearing the way for Mikey and the Wood Brothers Ford to cruise home to his first Cup win. As Waltrip would later recount, his first thoughts upon celebrating were, “It doesn’t count.” He would have to wait another five years for his first “official” Cup win.
by Vito Pugliese
3. 1987: The Pass in the Grass
10 of 13
Yeah, it’s kind of a misnomer. It’s not really “a pass in the grass” so much as a “block Bill, almost spin yourself out and save it while in the grass.” There was something special about that mid- to late-80s generation of cars and bias-ply tires that was a thing of beauty to watch. Sliding sideways, smoking the rear tires at 17 0mph, cars that legitimately looked “stock” … and “Woaaah, Nelly!” how about Keith Jackson calling the action?
by Vito Pugliese
2. 1989: “I hope he chokes on that money.”
11 of 13
While The Winston was first run in 1985, it wasn’t until ’89 that it really came of age with a watershed moment that “defined” what was to be expected forever more. Coming to take the white flag, Rusty Wallace makes ever-such-slight contact with a rejuvenated Darrell Waltrip — who had won three races already that season, including the Daytona 500. The contact sent DW’s Tide Ride sliding through the grass and triggered a fracas in the garage between the two teams. While the incident may have cost “Jaws” the $185,000 payday, it transformed him from heel to fan-favorite in an instant — propelling him to Most Popular Driver honors in ’89 and 1990.
by Vito Pugliese
1. 1992: One Hot Night
12 of 13
While the 1989 dust-up between Darrell and Rusty may have ruffled some feathers and bruised some egos, the 1992 running of The Winston went further: it sent Davey Allison to the hospital. Guys in cars do weird things when there’s big money on the line, and on the last lap they did just that in NASCAR’s first 1.5-mile night race. Kyle Petty’s Mello Yello Pontiac pulls down to pass Dale Earnhardt, and things get interesting. Of note, much like Kyle Busch and Kasey Kasey last week at Darlington, Petty never makes contact with Earnhardt. This also proves you don’t have to be going 200 mph on a 1.5-mile track for the racing to be exciting, and why SAFER Barriers should not be taken for granted.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch in the All-Star Race
1. All-Star race, qualifying format changes in store
The most exciting NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying event of the season happens Friday night at 6:00 pm EST.
That's a fact even without the new hair-raising rule change allowing drivers to speed both away from pit road (like always) as well as enter it without a speed limit (new).
Qualifying for drivers in the Sprint All-Star Race is unique in that it demands three total laps around the track and must include a four-tire pit stop. In the past, that's been plenty exciting because NASCAR hasn't enforced a pit road speed limit after the pit stop — forcing drivers to manage 800-plus horsepower hooking up to their rear wheels from a dead standstill.
Now, they'll be doing the same coming to pit road. Lassoing a race car from the corner banking to pit road while slowing down is an event right on the edge. Nursing it down without scrubbing speed has the potential to go flying over that edge.
Additionally, NASCAR initiated the "Johnson Rule" for this season after last year's winner Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus played the strategy too well. Johnson won the first of four segments in 2012 to earn the pole for the 10-lap heat race at the end. In the remaining three segments, he sandbagged to keep his car in one piece.
This year, NASCAR will use a method that makes sense but one without a thought to how fans at the track will be able to compute it. Essentially, the 10-lap finale returns after a mandatory pit road visit. But instead of individual segment winners getting automatic priority, NASCAR will set the pre-pit road lineup by average finish.
It's a smart fix, but a silly one all at once thanks to the calculators required to know who even leads.
2. Johnson aims for All-Star record
Defending All-Star race winner Johnson is bound to get plenty of coverage this weekend as he guns for a fourth win in the midseason exhibition race. A checkered flag for Johnson — or teammate Jeff Gordon, for that matter — would set a new bar for the most wins in the event.
Only one other driver has ever scored three wins in the race for not much else than money and pride. Of course, that's Dale Earnhardt.
Gordon and Johnson, however, haven't had the best of relationships with the All-Star event in recent seasons. For Gordon, a top 10 in the exhibition race hasn't happened since his third-place run in 2006 and he hasn't won since his epic 2001 victory in a back-up car after a rain shower on the first lap caused a massive Turn 1 crash.
Johnson, meanwhile, went three seasons (2009, ’10 and ’11) without an All-Star top 10. That's not exactly futility, sure, but we are talking about Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3. Gibbs still looks for first All-Star win
One of the greatest oddities left in the always odd weekends produced by the All-Star Race is that Joe Gibbs Racing has never been to Victory Lane in the event.
It's not like JGR has paraded slouches into the race. The lack of checkered flag success has occurred despite drivers like Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett all giving it a go.
JGR, though, will be the hot pick this weekend. A week after a near-miss on a 1-2-3 finish at Darlington Raceway, the Toyotas from that camp have proven to be the fastest machines this season despite reliability. Matt Kenseth, riding high off win No. 3, should be the team's primary favorite.
It will also be worth watching how the recently returned Hamlin will compete Saturday night. Will he be willing to take major chances for a win so soon after his return from his back injury?
We'll find out.
4. Using the All-Star Race for Coca-Cola 600 knowledge
The All-Star weekend festivities are the traditional kickoff of the Charlotte region's own version of Daytona's Speedweeks. Between the opening of Sprint Cup practice Friday for participants in the All-Star Race and the start of the Coca-Cola 600 next Sunday evening, drivers and teams are scheduled to have four hours and 50 minutes of open practice.
That doesn't even include the race conditions teams will get to experience Saturday night.
The result of all of this track time is often a line of thinking saying the teams who fare well this weekend have the inside line to a win — or at least record a good finish — in the 600 next weekend. Results, though, tell a different story.
In fact, five of last 10 All-Star Race winners haven't even finished in the top 10 of the following Coca-Cola 600. Plus, the last 10 years has produced an average of just four drivers scoring top-10 finishes in both events.
Whether you chalk it up to the normalization of racing or blame the effects of a 600-mile race, the result stays the same: a good run Saturday night doesn't guarantee a good one the following Sunday.
5. NASCAR remembers fun-loving, hard-charging Dick Trickle
News that former NASCAR driver Dick Trickle took his own life Thursday in North Carolina spread across the sport in a startling, sad fashion. By the evening, words from every corner of the sport were spoken, typed or sent expressing remorse.
The grief for Trickle, both for his death and in the somber realization of the extreme personal baggage he carried in the waning period of his life, had no bounds and reflected the wake he left in his now long-retired career. The most remarkable part of Trickle's impact, of course, is that his NASCAR numbers were never remarkable.
Trickle didn't drive a full season in today's Sprint Cup Series until he was 47 years old in 1989. Just three times — 1990, ’92 and ’95 — did the Wisconsin short track ace ever qualify for every race on a season's schedule. He made 303 Cup starts, scoring just 15 top-5 finishes and never a Cup win. He did rope two career Nationwide (then Busch) Series wins (1997, ’98).
Trickle's mark on the sport came in both his legend from his midwest short track days and the number of drivers he raced along the way. Of course, his trademark of enjoying a cigarette during a race's caution flag was unforgettable to even casual race fans in the 1990s.
It's not a stretch to wonder if today's NASCAR — good or bad — would ever have room for a character like Trickle that helped the sport's narrative in ways that leading laps and hoisting trophies could never do.
“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
2 of 11
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
3 of 11
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
4 of 11
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
5 of 11
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?
6 of 11
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
7 of 11
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
8 of 11
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
9 of 11
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
10 of 11
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.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Darlington
Darlington Raceway (ASP, Inc.)
1. Darlington celebrates a pair of 10-year milestones, good and bad
Darlington Raceway is the first place NASCAR ever raced on pavement, all the way back on Sept. 4, 1950. That event, the first Labor Day Weekend Southern 500, saw Johnny Mantz win his only NASCAR race as he beat Fireball Roberts and 73 other competitors by at least nine laps.
Saturday night's race will also be known as the Southern 500, but it'll mark the 10th season of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at Darlington without the race being held on the traditional end of summer weekend. NASCAR's shift of that race initially to a November date in 2004 and then completely off the schedule in favor of a second Auto Club Speedway race in 2005 remains one of its most controversial decisions of the past decade.
The race name returned to Darlington for the now-annual Mother's Day weekend race, but much of a the tradition hasn't. The Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend carried a certain swagger thanks to its holiday weekend placement and typically unforgiving daytime temperatures. It was a race every driver wanted to win thanks mostly to the cachet it awarded.
Saturday night's race also marks the 10th season since Darlington produced arguably the most riveting finish in the last decade, if not further. During the 400-mile 2003 spring race, Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven bounced off one another for much of the final three laps. Their tires worn and their cars growing ever more damaged, the pair came together for a final time exiting Turn 4 on the final lap.
Craven nipped Busch at the line by .002 seconds — a mark tied for the closest NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finish in history.
2. Denny Hamlin’s big return
Denny Hamlin's return to the driver's seat of his No. 11 a week ago at Talladega Superspeedway was short-lived, a bit contrived and ultimately unsuccessful in helping him claw back toward Chase for the Sprint Cup competition. Friday at Darlington, however, should mark the return of a full-time Hamlin to the series following his back injury at Auto Club Speedway on March 24.
He couldn't return to a better track, personally. Hamlin has a sterling average finish of 5.9 on the egg-shaped oval, and has led more than 50 laps in three of his seven Darlington starts. To follow up his career-worst 13th-place Darlington finish in 2009, Hamlin responded with his only win there in 2010.
Last year, Hamlin led 56 laps before falling to Jimmie Johnson by .781 seconds.
Saturday night's start marks the beginning of a critical stretch for Hamlin if he wants to bounce back from missing four starts so far in 2013 and qualify for the season's title fight. He's now 31st in points, 76 points behind 20th place and a possible wild card birth.
Should Hamlin nab a couple of wins and get inside the top 20 by Richmond in September, he'd be in excellent position to continue his seven-year streak of Chase qualifications.
"There is a formula," Hamlin said. "When this happened and we started figuring things out of missing races, if we just did what we did last year we would make it. But nothing is a given."
Defending race winner Jimmie Johnson. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Hendrick veterans tough to stop at the Track Too Tough to Tame
With Hamlin likely not physically 100 percent at Darlington, the door has opened a crack further for Hendrick Motorsports' longest tenured drivers in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson to continue their own excellence at the South Carolina track.
Combined, the two have 10 wins, 25 top 5s and 31 top 10s in 48 total starts at the track. Gordon ran into mechanical troubles last season as Johnson took the win, but went from 2004 to 2010 never once finishing worse than fifth. Johnson, meanwhile, led the most laps at Darlington last season (134) en route to his third career win at the track. Johnson's average finish is second best among active series drivers at 9.1, while Gordon's is 11.8 in 32 starts at the tricky speedway.
Gordon also celebrates a milestone Saturday night as he makes his 700th career Sprint Cup start. Gordon's feat also stands as the longest to start a Cup Series career, and will put him just 88 races away from Ricky Rudd's all-time record.
4. Air Titan ready for Round 2?
Rain affected all three races at Talladega Superspeedway a week ago. Sprint Cup and Nationwide both raced into near darkness after rain delayed their proceedings. ARCA had its race shortened Friday as showers rolled in.
It marked the first true test of NASCAR's Air Titan track drying system that early claims touted as being exponentially faster than the long-used jet dryer system. The combination of the two at Talladega didn't prove to be markedly faster — I know, I know, it's no shock that a NASCAR proclamation fell a bit short — but the system may have saved just enough time to get the full races in. All told, 16 of the Air Titan compressed air systems were used at Talladega alongside 10 jet dryers.
Based on forecasts for NASCAR's weekend in Darlington, they might be called in to action again as soon as Friday. Forecasters pinned a 20 percent chance of rain in the vicinity for Friday night's Nationwide Series race, and a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms all day and night Saturday.
Darlington’s 1.366-mile distance, of course, is considerably less than Talladega’s 2.66 miles and will undoubtedly take less time to dry. But rainouts aren't unprecedented at the South Carolina track. In 2007, the Saturday night race was pushed to Sunday afternoon — not long after FOX's Chris Myers insisted to viewers that the race would go off on the night originally planned.
5. Last chance for double All-Star Race qualification
David Ragan's surprising win during last weekend's seven-hour Talladega Superspeedway race gave him all the typical accolades befit that of a Sprint Cup race winner. It includes all of the essentials: the trophy, the points and the big check.
But it also paid off in the form two guaranteed entries to the main event of NASCAR's All-Star Race over the next two years. The race's rules permit entry for race winners in both the current and most recently completed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series seasons. Series and all-star event champions from the past decade also earn automatic entry to the race.
That leaves roughly 25 Sprint Cup regulars still on the outside looking in for next weekend's "A-main" that could pay as much as $2 million. Drivers like Jeff Burton, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. will have to find the checkered flag either Saturday night at Darlington or next weekend in the Sprint Showdown qualifier event.
A win at Darlington is much preferred because it counts in the same two-for-one fashion as Ragan's Talladega win. Before Ragan, Marcos Ambrose was the latest unqualified driver to earn a 2013 all-star event bid with his win last August on the road course at Watkins Glen.
Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Darlington so you don't have to.
Dancing with The Lady. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to venerable Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Saturday evening. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Geoffrey’s fantasy predictions for Darlington ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least surviving an evening of dancing with the Lady in Black.
1. Jeff Gordon
The four-time champ survived two wrecks at Talladega to squeak out an 11th-place finish. In Darlington, he hits a track where he leads all active drivers with seven wins and 18 top 5s. In the last eight Darlington races, Gordon has a series-high average position of 8.3.
2. Jimmie Johnson
How will Jimmie screw up Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race this week? He could do it by replicating 2012 at Darlington when he led 134 laps and took the checkered flag. His two other Darlington wins came back-to-back in 2004.
3. Kasey Kahne
Kahne has yet to score a Darlington win, but he's done something nearly as impressive: Kahne has finished all 10 of his Darlington starts. We'll see if Kyle Busch has anything to say about that statistic Saturday night.
4. Matt Kenseth
All 19 of Matt Kenseth's Darlington starts have netted him a mediocre average finish of 17th, but those were also in Roush Fenway Racing cars. How will the Joe Gibbs Racing setups treat one of the strongest drivers on the circuit?
5. Denny Hamlin
He's been better than Gordon in the last seven Darlington races, but it's still not clear if Hamlin will finish Saturday night's race. That makes you wonder if he can grab top 10 No. 7 at Darlington — a feat he's accomplished in 85 percent of his starts there.
6. Kevin Harvick
NASCAR's self-proclaimed lame duck has averaged 223 laps per race in the top 15 in his last eight Darlington starts, but has just two top-5 finishes and zero wins.
7. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski's never led a lap in his four Sprint Cup starts at Darlington. That's probably legitimate because he hasn't taken to Twitter to blame another competitor for the lack of performance.
8. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer's average Darlington finish is worse than drivers like Ambrose, Bliss, Montoya, Ragan and Sadler. His 11th-place finish last season was his first lead lap Darlington result since 2008.
9. Tony Stewart
Smoke has 20 starts at Darlington since 1999, completing 6,567 laps. He's never won, though, and has led a total of only 20 laps in that period. Combine that with his No. 14's performance in 2013 and … well, you get the point.
The King's three Darlington victories came in 1966-67. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch
Kyle's recent average race performance at Darlington is better than most A-Listers. The ’08 winner has three straight showings of 11th or better and has averaged over 302 laps in the top 15 in his last eight starts.
2. Greg Biffle
Biffle's a little sore from his early wreck at Talladega, but a bounce back at Darlington makes sense. He led 74 laps a year ago and claims more fastest in-race laps (283) than any active driver since 2005.
3. Ryan Newman
He's never been the first to the checkered flag at Darlington, but it's not a track where Newman has his head up his posterior when it comes to performance. Since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, Newman has three Darlington top 10s in four starts.
4. Carl Edwards
Expect a solid run for Edwards at Darlington, where he's only finished off the lead lap twice. The No. 99 has two straight Darlington top 10s, too.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Driver 88 has never won at Darlington, and it's probably Jimmie Johnson's fault. Otherwise, he's got three top 5s and seven top 10s in South Carolina.
6. Martin Truex Jr.
He was fifth a year ago after leading 25 laps for his second Darlington top 10 in as many starts. In eight total starts, Truex has never been worse than 20th. Makes for a nice sleeper.
7. Jamie McMurray
Three career top 5s at Darlington, five top 10s and Big Macs are two for $4.44 right now. At least something good will come of this weekend.
8. Joey Logano
Logano's been on a roller coaster since the Fontana wreck with Hamlin. He's finished 23rd, fifth, 39th, third and then 35th at Talladega. Now, he gets to race without his normal crew chief, car chief and top engineer. Getting a first career Darlington top 5 seems like a longshot.
9. Kurt Busch
It's been 10 years since Busch lost to Ricky Craven at Darlington by roughly two inches. It's been five years since he led a lap there. It's been one year since he had a pit road dust up there.
10. Jeff Burton
The two-time Darlington winner probably still smirks at losing his battle to prevent the Rainbow Warrior from winning the 1997 Winston Million. In consolation, Darlington does provide Burton his highest top 10 per start ratio (16 of 30) of any track he's raced.
11. Mark Martin
Rejuvenated from watching the Sprint Cup whipper snappers crash everywhere at Talladega from his couch, Martin's in the No. 55 in search of his 18th Darlington top 5. He's finished 43 of 46 Darlington starts.
12. Paul Menard
Darlington is one of eight tracks where Paul Menard doesn't have a top 10. Coincidentally, he's raced just 95 of 2,161 career Darlington laps placed inside the top 15.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya leads the series in 23rd-place Darlington finishes with three. He once scored a top 5 (2010) but went back to where he felt comfortable in the next two seasons, recording 23rd- and 24th-place finishes. Lesser writers would also note he's buoyed by his lack of jet dryer collisions at Talladega despite an inordinate amount of opportunities.
14. Marcos Ambrose
He's improved his Darlington finish by some multiple of four in each of his four starts. Last year he was ninth. That pattern isn't looking good for a win.
15. Aric Almirola
His lone Sprint Cup start at Darlington came last year, and Almirola finished 19th. A top-10 run this weekend would be his fifth straight.
16. Bobby Labonte
The former Darlington winner (1997) ran 17th in his final Joe Gibbs Racing start in 2005 at the track. He hasn't topped it since.
C-List 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
First Darlington Cup start, but his Nationwide numbers are respectable, with two top 10s and a pole. He's got the best equipment of the C group.
2. David Ragan
500 miles at Darlington is a little bit different than 500 miles at Talladega for Front Row Motorsports, but I won't rain on Ragan's parade.
4. David Reutimann
Fared pretty well at Darlington with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2010 with a fourth-place start and 11th-place finish. A finish like that for BK Racing would be a real Whopper.
5. Casey Mears
Mears, never better than 15th at Darlington, will try to finish on the lead lap for the first time in his 11-start career there.
6. Travis Kvapil
With the right equipment, Kvapil can finish in the top 10 at Darlington. In his current equipment, he can hope to continue just finishing at Darlington.
7. David Gilliland
The good news is Gilliland finishes better than he starts at Darlington. The bad news is Gilliland averages a 31st-place finish.
8. Danica Patrick
Ricky’s girlfriend was 31st and six laps down at the finish at year ago in her first Darlington start. A lead lap finish would be a write-home-to-momma improvement.
9. Dave Blaney
Fun fact: Team owner Tommy Baldwin Jr. once won two of four Darlington races as a crew chief for Ward Burton in 2000 and ’01. Somebody get Jeb on the phone.
10. David Stremme
Stremme's seventh start has potential for many personal firsts at Darlington: a win, a top 5, a top 10, a top 15, a top 20, leading a lap and/or a lead-lap finish.
11. J.J. Yeley
Three-straight Darlington DNFs for Yeley don't exactly make for a good time. Or a good fantasy play.
12. Josh Wise
Start-and-parked Darlington last year, but has raced every event this year.
13. Timmy Hill
He's raced Las Vegas, Talladega, Charlotte, Kansas, Phoenix, Texas, Fontana and Richmond in his career. Someone put a Go Pro camera inside Hill's car for his first Darlington practice.
14. Joe Nemechek
Nemechek made $9,670 for finishing 19th at Darlington in 1994. In 2012, he finished 40th and won $72,050. Those are Joe's most interesting Darlington facts, aside from the sixth he had in 1999 for Felix Sabates.
Entered drivers on start-and-park watch:
Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Talladega so you don't have to.
Matt Kenseth: First and third at Talladega in 2012. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Deep South this weekend to big, bad Talladega Superspeedway for the Aaron’s 499. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Goeffrey’s fantasy predictions for Talaldega ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth has the most laps in the top-15 during the last 16 Talladega races of any driver (63 percent) and he’s the defending track winner. Of course, that was before the whole “three grams” incident.
2. Clint Bowyer
No one has scored more points at Talladega in the last 10 races than NASCAR’s favorite Kansan. Seven career Talladega top 10s with two wins in 14 starts isn’t shabby, either. He might even stop by your Talladega infield party.
3. Brad Keselowski
Two wins, three top 5s and six top 10s in his last eight Talladega races. Oh, and he's back in that familiar Blue Deuce instead of that bad luck red Richmond car.
4. Kevin Harvick
Don't sleep on how good Harvick and that No. 29 were at Daytona. Talladega's a great place to continue his anti-lame duck crusade.
5. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson basically has a whole race on the rest of the field in the point standings and, after Richmond, an angry Chad Knaus. Doesn't have a top 5 at Talladega since his win in 2011.
6. Jeff Gordon
Six-time Talladega winner seems to have gotten really good at making the wrong move just in time for the checkered flag at restrictor plate tracks. Still, how much can you bet against the sport's active Talladega wins and top-5 finishes leader?
7. Tony Stewart
He'll certainly block someone on Sunday, causing a stink thanks to his outspoken anti-blocking crusade of late. It's a bit hard to believe Stewart has just one top-15 finish at 'Dega since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008.
8. Kasey Kahne
He might have an average Talladega finish of 20.3, but his last three Talladega races have produced a slightly better average of 7.3.
9. Denny Hamlin
Even if starts the race, he's not finishing it thanks to the back issues. Still, if you pick Hamlin, he starts the race, and then his substitute driver pulls off a miracle, you'll get full points Sunday. Of all the places it could happen, Talladega is it.
Beard or no, Junior is a force at Talladega. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Do you need more of a steal at Talladega than an Earnhardt in the B-list? With five career Talladega wins, Earnhardt finishes half of his Talladega starts in the top 10. He also lost the beard, so that should probably help with aerodynamics, or something.
2. Kurt Busch
Busch is winless at Talladega, but has 13 top 10s and gets to use notes from Richard Childress Racing this weekend thanks to Furniture Row Racing’s alliance. However, the possibility of a paramedic still mad from last fall’s incident on the backstretch sabotaging Busch’s car is higher than normal.
3. Jeff Burton
Burton turned in just 11 top 10 finishes in the previous two seasons. Three of those were at Talladega. Even when he’s bad, at Talladega he’s good.
4. Joey Logano
Logano has the third best average of laps completed to starts in his Talladega career of any active driver. That’s translated to four top 10s.
5. Kyle Busch
This isn’t unusual for the aggressive Busch, but it’s checkers or wreckers for him at Talladega. It should be noted that he notched impressive second- and third-place showing here last season … after finishes of 33rd and 35th the previous year (see what I mean?).
6. Bobby Labonte
Talladega gives us the chance to rank Labonte higher than we likely will at any other race in 2013, if only so we can remember when he beat Jimmy Spencer by 0.167 seconds to the Talladega checkered flag in 1998.
7. Greg Biffle
Biffle has been decidedly average at Talladega — two top 5s, five top 10s — but the recent Roush Fenway Racing restrictor plate resurgence means he’s riding a streak of consecutive top 10 finishes at the 2.66-mile track.
8. Jamie McMurray
Three of McMurray’s six career wins have been on restrictor plate tracks, including one in 2009 at Talladega.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
2010 was Montoya’s best NASCAR season to date, and he had a pair of third-place finishes and a pole position at Talladega. There’s no telling if his Richmond momentum was a precursor to the same thing.
10. Aric Almirola
If Almirola makes it four straight top-10 finishes in the Sprint Cup Series, he’ll also mark his first career Talladega top 10.
11. Ryan Newman
Before last fall’s top 10 amid the craziness induced on the last lap by his teammate, Newman finished 23rd or worse at Talladega in six straight races. It may be his least favorite track, so don’t get your free Bloomin’ Onion hopes too high.
12. Carl Edwards
Edwards led eight laps at Talladega during the spring 2011 event, the most he’s ever strung together in one race. His best chance to win in 2009 ended with his car shredding the tri-oval fence. Talladega isn’t nice to Carl Edwards.
13. Paul Menard
Menard hasn’t shattered expectations at Talladega (only one top 10) but he has finished on the lead lap in four of the last five races.
14. Martin Truex Jr.
Every finish for Truex at Talladega has been on the lead lap, but that’s only been in seven of his 16 starts.
15. Marcos Ambrose
Ambrose finished fourth in his first Talladega appearance, but hasn’t touched the top 10 since.
16. Brian Vickers
If Denny Hamlin ultimately can’t start Sunday’s race, it’ll be Vickers getting points for the No. 11 instead. Don’t waste a start on that chance.
1. David Ragan
Trust the stats on this one. In 12 career Talladega races, David Ragan has finished on the lead lap 10 times for an average finish of 16th. No one in NASCAR has a higher ratio of lead lap finishes to starts.
2. Michael Waltrip
One of two former Talladega winners in the C-group, Waltrip could pull some nice points if he can finish while driving the No. 55 this weekend.
3. Danica Patrick
She’s never raced at Talladega in Sprint Cup, but her showing at Daytona in February proved she can race pretty well in restrictor plate conditions. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her and teammate Tony Stewart ride most of the race in the back, away from the danger of the big pack.
4. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The other half of “Stenica” is also making his first Talladega Sprint Cup start. He was third in the Nationwide Series race last spring, and will have some teammates to help him in the draft.
5. Elliott Sadler
Sadler is an interesting pick because he’ll be with a Joe Gibbs Racing team that showed major promise at Daytona before engine failures systematically knocked them out. In 23 starts, Sadler has just one top 5 at Talladega. He’s also not running a full schedule, so you won’t be wasting a start better used somewhere else.
6. Trevor Bayne
Former Daytona 500 winner returns to Sprint Cup for his fourth start of 2013. At minimum, he’s got plenty of drafting friends in the field and lead lap finishes in his last three Talladega starts.
7. Travis Kvapil
After 10 Talladega starts, Kvapil’s average finish of 17.8 ranks 11th-best among active drivers. That is not a typo.
8. Scott Speed
If you’re looking to differentiate in your league (or maybe you’re just a Scott Speed fan), Talladega is about the only place I’d start him this year. He has a Talladega top 10 and three lead lap finishes.
9. David Gillilland
He’s finished 82 percent of his Talladega starts, which puts him in the top 10 of active drivers.
10. Casey Mears
Four career Talladega top 10s and 60 career laps led is … something?
11. Regan Smith
Remember when Tony Stewart was awarded Smith’s rightful Talladega win in 2008? That doesn’t have much to do with Sunday, but it shows Regan has been close in Alabama.
12. David Reutimann
The BK Racing driver has finished 50 percent of his Talladega starts on the lead lap, but has just one top 10.
13. Dave Blaney
This former start and park team comes to Talladega riding the high of its best 2013 finish (23rd) at Richmond.
14. Joe Nemechek
Nemechek has nearly as many poles (4) as top 10s (5) at Talladega. He’s also scored four straight 41st-place finishes at Talladega after starting and parking.
15. David Stremme
Stremme has failed to finish four of his 10 Talladega starts, and has just three lead-lap finishes.
16. Landon Cassill
Holds the dubious honor of being just one of four active drivers to have never led a lap at Talladega.
17. Josh Wise
He’s raced all nine starts so far this year, but Wise has only completed 10 laps in two starts at Talladega.
18. Terry Labonte
Terry has more starts and laps completed at Talladega than anyone. Still, consider him on full start and park alert.
19. Michael McDowell
Ran the full distance of the Daytona 500 to a ninth-place finish. Has start-and-parked every start since.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Richmond
Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Beaten down Joe Gibbs Racing should come out swinging
Matt Kenseth suffered perhaps the most crushing penalty NASCAR has ever assessed that isn't a driver suspension. Kyle Busch has a strong memory of team mistakes killing his chance to qualify for last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. And Denny Hamlin, the best Richmond International Raceway driver by advanced statistical measure in the last five-plus seasons, won't even get to suit up for Saturday night's race.
Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't had a good week, and it will be extremely interesting to see how it responds. Because it's Richmond, thinking that JGR will fold under the pressure seems almost impossible.
Since Busch joined the team in 2008, JGR six wins at RIR, just under half of the laps led (1,945 of 4,010) and 15 total top-5 finishes. It’s figured something out in the .75-mile track seemingly beyond other teams. It might have to do with Busch and Hamlin sharing similar demands from a race car at the short track, unlike other Cup venues.
"We do like similar setups there, unlike other mile-and-a-half tracks or two-mile tracks where we don’t run very similar setups," Busch says. "Richmond is one of those places where we both know what it takes to get around and we’re both similar to one another in that we both run well.”
Expect JGR to continue a streak more than a decade old Saturday night: having at least one car lead a lap. The last time that didn't happen? The fall of 2001.
Greg Zipadelli and Tony Stewart. (ASP, Inc.)
2. Racing the track, not the car, could be antidote to Stewart's slump
Tony Stewart has been in a funk. And Tony Stewart knows he's been in a funk.
“It’s not easy, for sure," Stewart says. "I mean, it was always hard as a driver, but it’s even worse as a driver-owner. When things are tough, the pressure and the burden is more on you knowing that you’re responsible for everything versus just being the guy driving the car."
A 21st-place finish at Kansas Speedway last weekend meant the No. 14 has gone nearly two months without a top-10 finish. Richmond provides relief in the form of not being a speedway track, and probably fits better into Stewart's comfort zone.
At the very least, it's an opportunity to race a track where style and line selection have more of a say than aerodynamic-focused Kansas.
"You never really get anybody who gets their car perfect," Stewart says of Richmond. "Even the guy that gets the lead still isn’t happy with his car. So, it’s really trying to find that balance and trying to figure out how to balance both ends of the track together.”
The 42-year-old led 333 laps in 1999 at RIR to win his first career Cup race. He's won twice at Richmond since (2001 and 2002) and also has four consecutive top 10s since a lap-down finish in 2010.
3. Teams bringing ideas from the desert to tackle Richmond
In a season with limited track time behind a still new car, teams are searching for methods to speed up the process and use information they've already gleaned to make setup decisions for coming race weekends. Richmond, and its similarities to the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway, is the latest example.
Every single Roush-Fenway Racing entry plus its satellite teams at Richard Petty Motorsports will use the cars they raced at Phoenix as primary cars this weekend. Carl Edwards won the race in the desert.
"Our package in Phoenix was very good," Edwards says. "I’m thinking some of that will help us with our race setup for Richmond."
The Ford teams also will use information that RPM’s Aric Almirola learned at Richmond during a test last month.
“The track was really fast which really surprised me," Almirola says, noting his first lap on the track in race trim came close to the track qualifying record. “We learned a lot from the test and felt that it helped us figure out what we need for our short-track package.”
Other teams using Phoenix cars this weekend include Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fifth at Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson (second) and Mark Martin (21st).
4. McMurray slowly leading Earnhardt-Ganassi out of struggles
Three was a nice number for Jamie McMurray in 2010, when he scored a trio of big wins at Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte. Last season, three stood for head-shaking disappointment as his No. 1 team mustered just three top-10 finishes in 36 starts.
But early in this 2013 season, three is starting to look better for McMurray as he looks to shed two straight frustrating seasons at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. The No. 1 now has three top 10s in just eight races after a seventh-place finish last weekend at Kansas.
He was another driver — along with snakebitten teammate Juan Pablo Montoya — who tested at Richmond.
"We have had two strong runs on short-tracks already this year," McMurray says, referring to a 10th at Bristol and a seventh at Martinsville. "I hope we can carry some of that momentum into this weekend."
5. Short schedule magnifies importance of unloading a fast race car.
Richmond isn't a place where teams can show up, miss the car setup during the first practice, and then still run well in the race. The two-day format for the Sprint Cup Series with practice and qualifying on Friday before the Saturday race just doesn't allow the track time to make wholesale changes and improvements.
Should a team find a decent setup in Friday afternoon practice, it also has to hope the setup will match Richmond's night-race conditions. Even a four-time champion struggles with that.
"When you practice during the day and race at night, you have to guess and I feel like every time we race here something is changing," says Jeff Gordon.
More unnerving for teams is how important nabbing a qualifying spot near the front tends to be. Eight of every 10 Richmond winners in the 113-race history of the track have come from inside the top 10, and an almost equally staggering 30 percent of Richmond winners have been from the front row.
The front qualifiers having an advantage isn't a trend that's going away, either. Going back to 2003 — a span of 20 races — just four winners have come from outside the top 10.
Geoffrey Miller predicts the best fantasy drivers in Richmond so you don't have to.
Clint Bowyer. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit up the road to Richmond, Va., on Saturday for the Toyota Owners 400. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Goeffrey’s fantasy predictions for Richmond ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Clint Bowyer
Fourteen career Richmond starts. Two wins. Eight top 10s. Thirteen lead lap finishes. Don't tell me you're gonna pick against Clint freakin' Bowyer — in anything — on a Saturday night.
2. Tony Stewart
Smoke has the most points scored in the last four races at RIR, and is the only driver with four top 10s. One would think, because it's not a 1.5-mile track, that Stewart won't continue his early season stink.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick, twice a winner at Richmond, has led two of the last four races there. But he's only got one top 10 this year, and a grand total of one lap led. His 15 career top 10s at RIR are the most of any track on his Sprint Cup resume — even with Ricky Rudd stealing one away prior to a hood stomping in ’03.
4. Jeff Gordon
In 40 career starts, he boasts the best average starting spot (7.9) of any current driver and the most Richmond top 5s (16) of all current full-time drivers. Oddly, he hasn't won there since Bill Clinton was president (2000).
5. Jimmie Johnson
Led just three laps at Richmond last season and his last win at RIR was in 2008. Most widely celebrated Richmond moment was when he wrecked Kurt Busch intentionally in 2011. More people have him on their Richmond roster than any other driver, though.
6. Kasey Kahne
Held off Stewart for his first career victory at RIR in 2005 before performing a miracle at the .75-mile track in 2011: earning a top-3 finish in a Red Bull Racing car. Average finish of 8.5 last year in Hendrick equipment, and potentially still has Richmond beef with Marcos Ambrose.
7. Brad Keselowski
As long Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans — still angry about him "causing a caution" that hosed the No. 88 at Kansas — don't run him out of town, Keselowski figures to be average in Richmond. Two top 10s last year were his best yet, but he's still never led a lap at RIR.
8. Matt Kenseth
One top 5 since 2006 at Richmond for Kenseth doesn't make Saturday night's race look promising. However, he did race unusually well at Martinsville, so perhaps the JGR equipment can help him again. Don't expect that advantage to come from the engine, though.
9. Denny Hamlin
Not racing, but still has a better chance to win at Richmond than most. Obviously, take a pass this week.
B List 1. Kyle Busch
Missed the Chase at Richmond last year, wrecked four times last week. However, picking against career win No. 5 at RIR for Busch — he’s won the last four consecutive spring races — just seems silly for a guy so good at avenging defeat. A pre-race favorite who’s an absolute steal as a B-Lister.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Had a car capable of winning Phoenix — the track most similar to Richmond this season — in February and ultimately lost on pit road. Led 67 laps last fall, finished second last spring and has three career RIR wins. Beard again approaching untamable levels.
3. Carl Edwards
Got hosed out of a win by NASCAR last spring; finished a lap down last fall to end a streak of five top 10s at RIR. Has a favorable chance of smiling 652 times on TV this weekend (after removing sunglasses, of course).
4. Mark Martin
Will tie Terry Labonte for most RIR starts (55) among active drivers Saturday. Carries track's seventh-best average finish (11.9) among same group.
5. Brian Vickers
Don't forget he's driving the No. 11 car that has led 1,390 laps at RIR since 2006. That said, his 24.9-place average in 14 Richmond starts is cause for concern.
6. Ryan Newman
Six top 10s in last 10 Richmond races, but only one top 5. Expect more of the same.
7. Kurt Busch
One win in 24 starts at Richmond. Seven of only nine RIR lead lap finishes have been top 10s.
8. Martin Truex Jr.
Dale Earnhardt, Inc. was still a real company for Truex's last Richmond top 5 (2008). Typically finishes eight spots worse (24.1) than he starts (16.1).
9. Joey Logano
30th and 24th last season at RIR, and that's with access to Hamlin's setup. Problem?
10. Jeff Burton
Virginia native has ninth-most laps in the top 15 during the last eight seasons at Richmond. Track is home to his best average start (15.2) and most career laps led (942).
11. Greg Biffle
Never a winner at Richmond, and his last top 5 came in 2006. Fun fact: one of four tracks where he's raced a Chevrolet in Sprint Cup competition (2002, Andy Petree Racing).
12. Paul Menard
You probably don't have to worry about a classic "where did he come from?!" top 10 from Paul this week. He's led one lap in 12 starts at RIR, and never finished better than 13th. Has averaged a sickening 26.75-place run in RCR sheet metal (four starts).
14. Marcos Ambrose
You could be like me and pick Ambrose on a short track, but then he'll likely crash. Best finishes at RIR came with JTG-Daugherty Racing (ninth and fifth in 2010). Was 22nd and 15th there last season.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya
Worth picking if you like watching the world burn somewhere just past halfway.
16. Jamie McMurray
Two top 10s in the last three races make McMurray a nice underdog pick. I'm not quite ready to get hung up on it, as he’s not scored a top-10 run at RIR since 2009.
17. Bobby Labonte
Same number of RIR starts as Jeff Gordon. 15 fewer top 10s.
18. Aric Almirola
Two Richmond starts, two 26th-place finishes. Consistent.
1. AJ Allmendinger
Eleventh at Phoenix for Phoenix Racing seems like a good omen for a guy with two top 10s at RIR (2010, ’11 with Richard Petty Motorsports).
2. David Gilliland
Early candidate for quote of the year after Kansas' "Shut up and drive" line to Danica Patrick. Best Richmond finish in 13 career Cup starts is 18th.
3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Richmond is a good place for first-time winners, but he'd be good with his first top 10 of 2013. Has finished fourth or better in last three Nationwide Series starts at RIR — not that it’ll translate.
4. Casey Mears
Typically makes it to the end of a Richmond 400-miler, as he only has two DNFs in 20 starts. Downside? He averages a 24th-place showing.
5. Danica Patrick
Never finished above 18th in three Nationwide Series Richmond appearances.
6. David Ragan
Three career top-5 finishes at Richmond is easily the most of the C-list. However, those came in primo Roush equipment.
7. David Reutimann
Has a pole at Richmond, but just four career lead lap finishes and a 23.2-place average in 12 Cup starts.
8. Travis Kvapil
Matching his best finish of 11th at Richmond would give Kvapil his first top-20 result of the year. At the very least, he hopes to not blow a fourth engine this year.
9. Dave Blaney
Finished fourth at Richmond once upon a time (2004, Bill Davis Racing) amid 24 career starts. His average in Tom Baldwin Jr.’s Chevys is a paltry 24.8.
10. Joe Nemechek
Is a former Richmond winner while driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2003 (yes, he once drove for Hendrick Motorsports), but DNQ’d at Kansas last week in his own equipment.
11. Landon Cassill
Currently leads Sprint Cup with three separate crew chiefs used so far in 2013. It must be working: he finished a season-best 29th at Kansas.
12. David Stremme
After leading a lap at Kansas, Stremme hopes to finish on the lead lap at Richmond. It'd be a season-first for a driver with a 33.2-place average on the .75-miler track.
13. Josh Wise
Finished just two laps down in Kansas, his closest margin to the leader so far this year.
14. JJ Yeley
Two straight DNFs has Yeley at a season-low 30th in points. He did, however, snare one of his eight career top 10s at Richmond. (2007, Joe Gibbs Racing). He will not grab No. 9 this weekend.
15. Timmy Hill
Currently at a career best 42nd in Sprint Cup points with three starts. Little Timmy has even run the distance the last two weeks (36th at Texas, 33rd at Kansas).
16. Michael McDowell
One of Phil Parsons’ “Start & Park Specials,” McDowell has four more starts than Timmy Hill this year, but has completed 352 fewer laps. Avoid like a TRD push rod.
17. Mike Bliss
Leading NASCAR's start-and-park brigade with a perfect zero finishes in five races. “I want ya to be perfect, Cole.”
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Kansas Speedway.
Jason Ratcliff and Matt Kenseth. (ASP, Inc.)
Two years ago, J.D. Gibbs came within a front bumper of stealing Carl Edwards away from Roush Fenway Racing. Then Ford’s hot young star, Edwards would have bumped Joey Logano out of the No. 20 ride to the tune of a reported $10 million.
Turns out, that could be the best money Gibbs ever saved.
What happened? Edwards got a sweeter deal, including stock options from Ford, to remain at RFR, then came within a whisker of the championship (losing to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker). But he’s won just once since, stuck in rebuilding mode after losing longtime crew chief Bob Osborne, and hasn’t found a full-time sponsor to replace AFLAC, causing multiple companies — and occasionally Ford itself — to foot the bill.
In the meantime, the money thrown at Edwards, combined with patchwork sponsorship for Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 effort, made the latter ripe for the taking. JGR, with Logano still struggling a year later, grabbed Kenseth for an undisclosed amount – but likely a fraction of the Edwards price — saving backer Home Depot from potentially jumping ship completely. In the meantime, Gibbs’ outgoing driver won once more before handing the keys to a car that desperately needed a veteran’s help.
Where are we now, eight races in? Kansas’ Victory Lane offers a clue as we go Through the Gears:
FIRST GEAR: Matt Kenseth could be Joe Gibbs Racing’s missing piece.
Observers felt that Kenseth, looking for a fresh start after 13 years with Roush Fenway Racing, would click with the No. 20 team. But no one expected this type of start: two wins and six races led in eight starts for a team that’s been downright dominant at times. A driver known for consistency as opposed to controlling races, Kenseth already has led more laps this season (482) than he did throughout all of 2012. And it’s not like he was off the pace in his last year with RFR; Kenseth captured three victories, including the Daytona 500, and landed seventh in series points.
“I think it can always go better but things have been pretty good from a performance standpoint,” was his comment on Sunday concerning 2013. “I’m really, really happy. I think as an organization one of our cars — if all the stars would have aligned — could have won every race this year if everything would have worked out.”
Compare that to Roush Fenway Racing, which has half the wins and just 207 laps led thus far. How ironic was it that Kenseth’s final on-track pass for the lead came at the hands of his old car, the No. 17 driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Clearly, JGR got itself the better end of the deal, one it feels includes a leader within its stable of high-profile drivers.
For Kenseth, it’s more that the pressure’s off, with sponsorship secure and no mentoring needed for teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The 2003 Cup champ has 10 times the experience than Logano, and add in top-15 finishes so far this season at every track that also hosts a Chase date (even Martinsville, once kryptonite), and it’s clear this addition could bring not just the 20 team, but the entire JGR organization into serious title contention this fall.
SECOND GEAR: Kyle Busch is cursed by Kansas.
Everyone talks about Kyle Busch’s newfound maturity. But the one person Busch still needs to see, fresh off an Anger Management appearance with Charlie Sheen, is a wizard. Kansas Speedway has been Busch’s Achilles Heel, the one track where he has yet to score a top-5 finish and a place where he’s been cursed for two-plus years. The spell was in full effect this weekend, as Busch wrecked three times — from practice through the race — en route to destroying two cars and winding up in 38th place.
“Spun twice on our own,” he quipped after the race-ending incident. “Just don’t know what to do with Kansas.”
Maybe one extra apology to David Reutimann would be a start. That driver, angry over the way Busch bumped him out of the way at Bristol in 2010, chose to get his revenge at Kansas later that season — at a crucial point in the Chase — which proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back on Busch’s title run. The Las Vegas native was wrecked by Reutimann, ran 21st and has done no better than 10th at the 1.5-mile oval since.
That remnant of “Old Kyle,” along with the mental frustration attached to it, still comes out on The Plains. That needs to stop, considering this track’s second date remains smack dab in the middle of the Chase.
THIRD GEAR: There is such a thing as too fast.
While Kansas put on a far better race compared to Texas a week ago, both experienced the same set of problems that hindered side-by-side competition. Average speeds in both cases were well over 190 miles an hour; straightaway speeds at Kansas approached 210. If NASCAR saw that high of a number at Daytona — considering what happened in February — restrictor plates would be replaced with parachutes attached to each car’s rear end.
So why didn’t NASCAR even blink at Kansas? For now, its answer to “slowing the cars down” is providing a safe, rock-hard Goodyear tire compound so that if a driver spins, it’s his or her own fault — sort of a weird way to deflect blame. But considering that’s exactly what’s happening — half-a-dozen cars spun out on their own Sunday — isn’t the risk failing to provide a reward? With the current compounds, cars can run upwards of 200 laps on left-side tires and have little to no falloff. That makes a car like Kenseth’s the best all day unless you can nip it through pit strategy to gain track position, which limits passing and excitement for fans.
The Gen-6 car, when provided a softer tire compound, has proven to be racier than the Car of Tomorrow. Restarts at Kansas showed its true potential, with cars four-wide at times in the desperate battle to gain positions before everyone bottomed out at the same speed. The pieces of the puzzle are there, NASCAR just has to find a way to slow the cars and pair them with a softer compound tire so the drivers can actually use them to their advantage.
Aric Almirola is currently 13th in the point standings. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: The window is opening for a Chase surprise.
The contenders at Kansas were about whom you’d expect. Kasey Kahne, always strong on intermediates, ran runner-up to Kenseth and sits a solid second in the standings. Jimmie Johnson, on the equivalent of cruise control, ran third and extended his points lead.
It’s further down the list where the results get intriguing. Martin Truex Jr., fresh off a runner-up performance at Texas, ran a strong fourth. Jamie McMurray, nearly wrecked at the front of the field by Mark Martin during a mid-race restart, fought back to seventh. Aric Almirola, driving the legendary STP colors for Richard Petty Motorsports, was eighth, giving him back-to-back top 10s for the first time in his short career. Paul Menard, Richard Childress Racing’s most consistent driver who makes a living on these 1.5-mile tracks, ran 10th.
It’s a set of four names, all unlikely to win a race this season, whose consistency keeps them in the Chase mix. Currently, Menard is 10th in points while McMurray, Almirola and Truex are inside the top 15 and within striking distance. With Jeff Gordon (15th) and Tony Stewart (21st) down the standings, a summer surge for either would make this battle for 10th a moot point. But what if they don’t bounce back? Last year, Gordon needed a wild card to make the Chase field. With the usual suspects already inside the top 10, Denny Hamlin’s injury may have provided an opportunity for this undercard battle to take shape. Considering how meaningful a postseason bid would be to any of those candidates (with two total Chase bids between them), I’d expect the stretch run to get wild.
You’ve gotta give Ricky Stenhouse Jr. credit. Driving for the team that won here last fall, he qualified third, used pit strategy to get up front late and led 26 laps. Eleventh ties his best career Cup finish, but more importantly, the rookie got over the hump of running up front for more than just a circuit or two. … How many more obstacles must Brad Keselowski overcome? First-lap contact from a backmarker left him with a fuel-filler issue that dropped his No. 2 car a lap down early. Then, leftover damage caused a debris caution when his back end ripped apart in Turn 3. It’s the third race in a row he’s had these type of problems, yet the team has finished top 10 every time (sixth on Sunday). It makes you wonder how dangerous it will be when the luck finally turns. … Tony Stewart, invisible at Kansas (21st), is off to the worst start of his Cup career. Leading just 18 laps, he’s 21st in points and without a top-5 finish through eight races. However, let’s not forget how notoriously slow a starter Stewart traditionally is. In 2005, he was 14th in points after eight races, winless (and rudderless) at Joe Gibbs Racing. That November? He was holding the title trophy. And who can forget his 2011 championship, when he was an afterthought through a zero-win regular season, yet ripped off five victories in the 10-race Chase? … Sunday marked the first time since 1985 that three consecutive Cup races have been won from the pole. It last happened with Bill Elliott (Michigan, Darlington) and Dale Earnhardt (Bristol) with Elliott capturing the Winston Million in the Southern 500.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Texas Motor Speedway.
Kyle Busch wins in Texas. (ASP, Inc.)
It’s hard to believe that last year Kyle Busch went a whole season and won just once in NASCAR’s top three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Trucks. Why? Two months into 2013, he’s on pace to win 28 times across the board, lead over 2,000 laps in Cup and shatter any Nationwide Series record he hasn’t already.
But it’s the average start for Busch this season, on the Cup side, that’s making the biggest difference. Armed with a league-leading 5.4-place average start, his latest pole became the crucial difference in a tit-for-tat battle with Martin Truex Jr. at Texas. That first stall, a huge advantage on any stop, got him out first on the race’s final caution and made the last few minutes a coronation for a man who’s come full circle. It was at this 1.5-mile oval one and a half years ago when a wreck with Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Truck Series got Busch parked, left sponsor M&M’s questioning it’s commitment and left one of the sport’s most aggressive drivers at a crossroads with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Now? As we awaken this Monday morning, it’s Hornaday involved in the middle of a Truck Series mess, accused of deliberately wrecking another competitor while Busch is sitting on top of the NASCAR world. Funny how things come full circle, right?
Let’s go “Through the Gears” on what we learned from a weekend in Fort Worth …
FIRST GEAR: Texas + Gen-6 = Tough Sledding
You know when the biggest story of a race weekend is a sponsorship issue that is raised before the start of the event, you’ve got a problem. Texas, while giving us some decent racing back in the pack, was every bit the snoozer Fontana was not. The Gen-6 car, credited for improving racing at intermediates in 2013, seemed to take a time machine that morphed it back into the Car of Tomorrow. The second a driver claimed clean air, it was all she wrote, as Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to lead 313 of 334 laps. The aero advantage was so pronounced, Truex admitted afterwards that dropping back to second was too much to overcome.
“The race was over when we got beat out of the pits,” Truex said. “The bottom was so fast for a couple laps and I was really worried, honestly, that I was going to lose second because Carl (Edwards) was on the inside of me. I was just somehow able to run (turns) one and two wide open and get him cleared. Just the guy that gets clean air is hard to get. It’s hard to catch (them) in 10 laps.”
Others, like Greg Biffle, used dreaded race-killer terms like “track position” and “aero” Sunday night on SPEED’s Wind Tunnel when describing their struggles to move through the field. Even a flurry of cautions for what seemed like nothing — only three of the seven were caused by accidents — did nothing to tighten a field that, at the 450-mile mark, had only 15 cars on the lead lap. It’s the latest reminder that the Gen-6 is not an automatic miracle worker; week-to-week, there will be some tracks where improvement takes time.
Texas is certainly one of those, which is unfortunate, considering its grandstand capacity produces a six-figure crowd. Goodyear would be prudent to hold a test there before the fall event in the Chase, to come up with a tire that has more pronounced falloff, produces slower speeds and helps reduce aero dependency. Too many drivers were running the same speed, lap after lap, with little chance of being able to gain on anyone else. That produces the single-file parade witnessed Saturday night that hopefully, fans won’t be victim to much more.
Penalties may be forthcoming for Penske Racing. (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND GEAR: Will the book be thrown at Penske Racing?
The next sign you know the race was a snoozer: the biggest story everyone’s talking about after the race involves a driver yelling at NASCAR over an inspection issue. That’s what Brad Keselowski did, going off in front of a crowd of reporters after NASCAR confiscated rear-end housings from his No. 2 car and teammate Joey Logano’s No. 22 before the start of the race. The cars barely made it to the green flag – Logano actually started from the rear after being late – and will likely be assessed heavy penalties that will negate the hard-fought top-10 finishes both earned.
"There's so much stuff going on … you have no f------ idea what's going on,'' was Keselowski’s heavily-reported, signature quote to the reporting scrum. "And that's not your fault and that's not a slam on you. I could tell you there's nobody, no team in this garage with the integrity of the 2 team. And the way we've been treated over the last seven days is absolutely shameful.”
Keselowski’s anger certainly trails back to Martinsville, where a poor official’s call that he pitted outside the box (questionable at best) cost the No. 2 team a better finish. In that race, the team clawed back to sixth and pulled off a ninth at Texas despite being a lap down for much of the race’s second half. But those results represent the way this team has had to fight from virtually the drop of the green at Daytona. Think about it: Keselowski starts his year meeting with NASCAR’s top brass after a controversial interview with USA Today. He then tears his car into pieces, during the 500, only to somehow claw back to fourth. Some reception for the defending champion, right?
Those small obstacles, whether luck or speed-related each week, make Keselowski’s second-place standing in points, along with a Cup Series best six top-10 results, that much more impressive. But feeling like you’re a step behind, as many of the Ford drivers have felt this season, can take its toll and that adds up to some of the anger we saw released Saturday night. What’s next? Expect a lot of comparisons to Hendrick’s Daytona penalties, from 2012 in the coming days which were mostly revoked on appeal; chances are, come Wednesday we’ll see that type of process unfold again with high-level fines and multi-race suspensions for both Penske Racing crew chiefs.
It wouldn’t have surprised me to see Keselowski get fined for his post-race comments (considering the Brian France reaction to Denny Hamlin’s public criticism of the Gen-6 car in March), but inexplicably, France noted in a Monday interview with FOX Business that no fines would be levied. NASCAR vice president and CCO Brett Jewkes reiterated the sanctioning body’s stance on Twitter.
THIRD GEAR: Keeping confidence high
That’s the running theme at several race shops after Texas left several teams wondering what might have been. Martin Truex Jr. was on top of that list; similar to Kansas a year ago, he had the car to beat only to wind up in second place. It’s now six years since the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran has won a Sprint Cup race (Dover, 2007) a drought that’s left him understandably at wit’s end.
“Shoulda, woulda, coulda,” he said. “It just hurts when you give them away.”
The pill is tougher to swallow this time considering Truex is in a difficult spot with the Chase. Already, he’s got more finishes of 36th or worse (two) than he had all of last season. Considering big-name talent resides outside the top 10, Truex has to be thinking “Wild Card,” and the next few weeks he’ll have a car that’s capable. Can he replicate his run at Kansas last April? Or will frustration lead to failure?
The same can be said for two Hendrick drivers: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt, falling victim to a battery problem, had his second straight difficult week. Suddenly, he’s sixth in points, 35 behind the top spot and within striking distance of falling out. With only 47 laps led in one event, it’s not like the No. 88 has been running up front — and HMS has had its problems on intermediates. Gordon knows that all too well; he broke a suspension at Texas running third. Bad luck has him a disappointing 15th in points and battling other stars like Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman to climb back up.
“I’m pretty upset,” said Gordon, who watched a top-5 finish go up in smoke. “This team has worked so hard to claw ourselves back.”
The answer now is to keep clawing harder for both; there’s no more mulligans left on the schedule to place a “mental breakdown.”
FOURTH GEAR: Kyle’s tough road ahead
Third in the standings, 18 points behind Johnson, sits Kyle Busch, who one could argue has actually been the better driver in 2013. Between more laps led, 435 – 430, and better finishes on intermediates — the tracks that make up half the Chase — you’d have to think the No. 18 has the edge. But what’s frustrating about the latest cycle of dominance is it all means nothing under NASCAR’s playoff system. With a well-documented set of Chase failures dating back to a dominant eight-win season in 2008, it all means nothing if Busch can’t get it done in the last 10 weeks.
Will things be different in 2013? There’s still five months for fans to wait to find out. Not the best supporting argument for NASCAR’s current point system …
Bobby Labonte’s night got cut short early once the driver asked out with a stomach virus. But comedy ensued when the selected sub, Mike Bliss, was still running his No. 19 car on the track. C’Mon, JTG … with all the young drivers out there in Nationwide and Trucks you couldn’t pay for one of them to be on standby? It didn’t matter in the end, as engine issues left them in the garage 42nd. … A rumored sale of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing comes at a bad time for Jamie McMurray. Sixteenth at Texas, he’s in the best shape since winning three major Cup races in 2010 and could be an outside Chase contender. But any type of sale will be a distraction that should dash those hopes.