Dustin Long Takes a Spin Around the NASCAR Circuit
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by Dustin Long
Kasey Kahne is not panicking about the start to his season. He’s relieved, in a way, heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway even though he’s 27th in championship standings.
Kahne feels better after a season-best 14th at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday. A poor finish might have dropped him outside the top 35 in the car owner standings, meaning he would not have been guaranteed a starting spot at Martinsville.
“I was a little worried at California,” Kahne said Tuesday afternoon. “If we had one more bad race there, we would have been fighting for a (starting) position at Martinsville, which would have been unheard of for us.”
While Kahne has not had the results in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports, his car has shown speed. That provides hope. Success will come when he can avoid trouble.
His season, so far, has been a litany of misfortune.
His Daytona 500 ended early because of a crash and he placed 29th. He hit the wall early at Phoenix and limped to a 34th-place finish. He crashed early at Bristol and finished 37th. His best finish before Sunday was 19th at Las Vegas.
Even after Sunday’s finish, Kahne wasn’t thrilled, writing on Twitter: “Pissed I ran bad. Happy my car is in one piece.”
Kahne, who started fifth at Auto Club Speedway, began sliding back in the pack shortly after the green flag flew.
“I started off really loose and was sliding around a lot and the race got over too quick,” Kahne said. “We didn’t have enough time to get the car right. By the end of it we were running probably seventh-place lap times, but we were so far behind because of all the green-flag laps. We were getting better. We had made a lot of gains. We just needed 200 laps. The rain came and we didn’t get it.”
He finished and that’s something considering his early woes.
Kahne heads to Martinsville 68 points out of 10th place in the points — the last spot guaranteed to make the Chase. A year ago, Brad Keselowski was 50 points out of 10th at this point. Keselowski fell further back during the summer and still made the Chase via the wildcard.
So there’s no reason yet for Kahne to panic.
“I’ve handled it pretty well,” he said of his struggles. “The biggest reason why is how fast our cars are and the way they feel. I think everything is there. The engines run incredibly good compared to what I have had in the past.
“I knew going in just because I was going to Hendrick Motorsports didn’t mean I was going to start winning more races. It’s still a huge team effort. There’s still a lot of things you have to do right in order to run up front and contend for those wins. It takes a little bit of time. I think we’re pretty good as a team. Hopefully, we can start running in the top 10.”
NEW FORMAT The Sprint All-Star race, which will be held May 19 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, will have a new format this year.
The 90-lap race will be divided into five segments. The first four will be 20 laps each with the final segment 10 laps.
Gone is the 10-minute break before the final segment. Instead, there will be a mandatory pit stop — with a twist.
The winners from the first four segments will move to the front of the field and be the first four cars to enter pit road for this stop. They’ll be followed by the rest of the field. The move was made to encourage drivers to race more for a win in the previous segments.
So the winner of the first segment will enter pit road first, followed by the winner of the second segment and so on. Should there be a repeat winner of segments, the second-place finisher in that segment moves up. Thus, if a driver wins the first two segments, he’ll be the first car in pit road (for winning the first segment) and the second-place car in the second segment will be the second car on pit road.
There will once again be a fan vote to add a driver to the All-Star Race. Also, the pit crew challenge on May 17 again will determine the order teams pick their pit stall for the all-star race.
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A-HA Carl Edwards was recently asked about having an “A-ha!” moment at a track — the moment where everything seems to come together at once — and if he’s had that moment at Martinsville Speedway.
“I still haven’t had my ‘a-ha’ moment at Martinsville,” said Edwards, who has five top-10 finishes in 15 starts at the half-mile track. “Martinsville definitely is tough. The guy that has helped me the most at Martinsville is Jeff Burton. He helped me when I was first starting and Bobby Hamilton spent a lot of time with me. I still don’t feel like I have that place mastered.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE Brian Vickers will be back in the No. 55 car for Michael Waltrip Racing this weekend at Martinsville. This is the second of six races Vickers will run for Mark Martin this season. Vickers is running both Bristol, Martinsville and New Hampshire races.
He’s coming off a fifth-place finish at Bristol. His next race with the team won’t be until July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
PIT STOPS Jeff Gordon has scored 13 top-five finishes in his last 14 starts at Martinsville. ... Travis Pastrana will compete in Global RallyCross driving a Dodge Dart. ... Joey Logano’s Nationwide victory last weekend at Auto Club Speedway marked the first time in five races a Cup regular had won a Nationwide race. ... Jimmie Johnson’s career average finish at Martinsville is 5.4, while Denny Hamlin’s career average finish there is 6.4. ... Jeb Burton, the 19-year-old son of 2002 Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton, makes his Camping World Truck Series debut this weekend at Martinsville.
Stewart tops the list ... because, after all, wins count
This surf wagon actually beat three start & parkers. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington already have scored two wins this season — and in only five races. Hey, wins count above all else here.
2. Greg Biffle The points leader’s only misstep — and it was a only a small hiccup at that — was a 13th at Bristol. He’s been sixth or better in the other four events.
3. Kevin Harvick Happy and his retooled No. 29 team have been nearly as good as Biffle. Their worst performance thus far are a pair of 11th-place runs. Otherwise, they’re seventh or better every week.
4. Jimmie Johnson Things couldn’t look better for Johnson and Team 48. Not only have all suspensions and point penalties been rescinded, but they’re rolling through top 10s even with blown engines.
5. Matt Kenseth Kenseth is either top 3 by day’s end or forgotten somewhere in the mid-teens. Still, this is one of a handful of teams that can win on any given weekend.
6. Brad Keselowski See: Kenseth, Matt. The only thing that kept either from a top-10 result at Auto Club Speedway was pit road penalties and a rain-shortened event.
7. Carl Edwards Edwards and the No. 99 gang have two fifth-place runs in the last three weeks. Inexplicably, though, this group has yet to lead a single lap all season. That needs to change.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yes, Earnhardt is still mired in a winless skid that dates back to 2008, but top-15 finishes in every race this season — including second- and third-place runs — find him trending in the right direction.
9. Clint Bowyer Bowyer’s solid start with the surprising Michael Waltrip Racing operation shows an average finish of 12.8 with sixth- (Vegas) and fourth-place (Bristol) runs highlighting the early spring.
"Ear muffs!" (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
10. Denny Hamlin Hamlin had the same look on his face after the California race that he did after Phoenix 2010.
11. Kyle Busch The Gibbs cars are showing some impressive muscle on the big intermediates.
12. Martin Truex Jr. Truex has a 9.4-place average finish thus far. It’s amazing what a contract year will do for an athlete.
13. Ryan Newman Three consecutive performances of 12th or better aren’t as splashy as his teammate, but not bad.
14. Mark Martin When he’s in MWR’s No. 55 — and even when he’s not — the team is showing serious growth.
15. Paul Menard Quietly hanging tough at 10th in the standings with three top 10s.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray
The National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer, John Middlebrook, reduced a penalty handed down by NASCAR to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team on Tuesday. Middlebrook rescinded the loss of 25 owner and driver points and the six-race suspension of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec. The $100,000 fine remained in place.
What some fans say is wrong with NASCAR is what Brad Keselowski says was right for him. Keselowski credits running against Cup drivers in what was then called the Busch Series for his current success and helping him win on a variety of Cup tracks.
Keselowski’s victory at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday marked his fifth career Sprint Cup victory. Although it was his second consecutive Bristol win, his other victories have come at a unique set of tracks — Talladega (restrictor plate), Kansas (1.5-mile intermediate) and Pocono (2.5-mile flat track).
Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series is something that rankles some fans, who liken it to pro players competing in the minors. Many of those fans say when a Cup driver competes in the Nationwide Series, he prevents another “up-and-coming” driver from getting a chance to compete, blocking their path to Cup.
Keselowski sees the issue differently.
“I was very fortunate to race with some of the best,’‘ Keselowski said following his Bristol win. “I go back to my first Nationwide start for Dale (Earnhardt Jr. in 2007). It was in Chicago. To this day I think that race still has the record for the most amount of Cup drivers. But that's what I had to do to build my career. I mean, I had to go against the Cup drivers when I was still trying to figure out how to run Nationwide.’’
Keselowski raced against 25 Cup drivers in that Chicago race when he made his first start for JR Motorsports. Kevin Harvick won, as Cup drivers took the top nine spots. Keselowski placed 14th and was the second-highest finishing Busch regular. Stephen Leicht was the highest-finishing series regular, placing 10th.
“What I'm trying to say, it obviously frustrates me a little bit when I take some heat — any Cup driver takes some heat from the press, media, fans, whatever — about running the Nationwide Series, because it's really a character builder,’’ Keselowski said. “If you can run well over there, you can come here (to Cup) and get the job done.
“That series helped me build a lot of character. It helped me learn in a smaller spotlight. I feel like when I got over here (to Cup) that the learning process was a lot quicker. It just came down to getting with the right team that I jelled with and that believed in me.’’
Certainly, different methods help different drivers.
The varying style of tracks that Keselowski has won at so far compares favorably with other drivers.
Jeff Gordon’s first five victories were at Charlotte (1.5-mile banked intermediate), Indianapolis (2.5-mile flat), Rockingham (1-mile intermediate), Atlanta (1.5-mile banked intermediate) and Bristol (.5-mile short track).
Variety isn’t the only way to succeed. Three of former champion Kurt Busch’s first five victories came on short tracks. Three of Kevin Harvick’s first five victories came at 1.5-mile speedways.
While there aren’t as many Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series as in that ’07 Chicago race — Saturday’s Nationwide race at Bristol featured nine drivers who would start the Cup race the next day — Keselowski shows that drivers can compete against the Cup regulars in the Nationwide Series and move on to greater success.
Greg Biffle: The Studio Version. (ASP, Inc.)
READY TO GO Although points leader Greg Biffle saw his string of third-place finishes end at Bristol (he finished 13th), it doesn’t dampen his excitement heading to Auto Club Speedway this weekend.
“I am really excited about Fontana,’’ Biffle said. “We have a brand new car that has really good wind tunnel numbers and are really happy with the car. We feel it’s our best car in our fleet so far to date. I am really pumped up about going to California and seeing how this car drives. With the new fuel injection and all the data we will be able to keep a better eye on not burning our engine up, which is what we did there that one time. California is going to be a good race track for us. We will run very well there.”
CHANGE OF PLANS Travis Pastrana announced this past weekend at Bristol that he’s altering his plans to run the full NASCAR K&N Pro Series East schedule.
Pastrana is adding the Global RallyCross series to his schedule. Three of the series’ six events will conflict with K&N races for Pastrana.
“NASCAR's where I want to go, but unfortunately, or fortunately, my background in Rally, the sponsors know that I can do well,’’ Pastrana said. “I've had a proven record in Rally.
“We're funding a lot of the NASCAR races through the Global RallyCross and, I tell you what, that's a fun series. The problem was GRC actually just announced their schedule as of a couple of weeks ago, so it changed. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make three of the K&N races and the initial plan was to do the entire K&N championship, so that was very disappointing.’’
PIT STOPS All four manufacturers have won a race after four events in the Cup season. Ford won at Daytona with Matt Kenseth. Toyota won at Phoenix with Denny Hamlin. Chevrolet won at Las Vegas with Tony Stewart. Dodge won at Bristol with Brad Keselowski. It wasn’t until race 13 last year that each make had at least one Cup win. ... In 17 career starts at Auto Club Speedway, Jimmie Johnson has five wins and 12 top-five finishes. His average finish at the track is 5.1.
You could forgive team owner Rick Hendrick if he now believes NASCAR really is an acronym standing for “Never Appeal Suspensions for Chad And Ron”.
Following Tuesday’s initial appeal before the National Stock Car Appeals Panel, the suspensions of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were upheld, one-upping five-time Jimmie Johnson becoming six-time — as in, out of commission for six straight races. While Hendrick was diplomatic and conciliatory, recognizing NASCAR for providing the opportunity to state his case, he was nonetheless steadfast in his commitment to further escalate the appeals process. When asked if he accepted the outcome of the board’s review, he was unusually stern in his response:
“I don’t accept it. Period.”
So what of the perpetual appeal process for unapproved C-post modifications that has gone on since the Daytona 500? Are Hendrick and Knaus fighting a battle they cannot win, simply delaying the inevitable? Or is it a bit of formulated “strateegery” in an effort to help maximize the first few races of the season and build some much-needed momentum in the likelihood that the brain trust of race-weekend preparation will be out for the same time it takes a broken leg to heal?
As we have come to recognize since 2004, it is never too early to start thinking about The Chase.
Think back two weeks ago to the race at Phoenix. If not for an uncharacteristic mid-race loose wheel pit miscue, the No. 48 team would have checked out, standing in Victory Lane, and nothing would have been written about Denny Hamlin’s newfound confidence or Darian Grubb being a war wagon Zen master.
Last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in their sponsor’s Kobalt Tool’s 400, Johnson was snookered by quasi-teammate Tony Stewart on a restart with four laps to go, finishing second. Those two near-wins have catapulted Johnson — who was at –23 points just a couple of weeks ago — up to 23rd in the standings. While not exactly something the dynasty of the decade usually would rally around, it has brought the team to within 36 points of 10th-place driver Mark Martin.
This is significant for a few reasons. First, Martin is driving a part-time schedule and is taking this weekend off — which heading into the concrete mixing bowl of retaliation that is Bristol, is probably good news for Dale Earnhardt Jr. following their dust up in the closing laps in Vegas. The 10th-place position in points is of utmost importance, of course, as that is the cut off for marking the Chase after race No. 26 at Richmond.
Finally, 36 points is what is paid for finishing in eighth place. In the last six races at Bristol, Johnson has lead 694 laps and posted an average finish of 9.0. Factor in a bonus point for leading a lap, and you have eighth-place points for the 48 nearly guaranteed this weekend. The one anomaly during those last six Bristol races was a 35th-place finish at the night race in 2010. Even then, Johnson had led 175 of 263 laps before being turned into the backstretch wall by Juan Pablo Montoya.
A strong run at Bristol will provide much-needed momentum that will overcome the 25-point fine levied at Daytona, and should the final appeal be heard next Tuesday, Knaus and Malec will begin serving their suspensions during the weekend of Fontana when the series heads to the Auto Club Speedway. How has Johnson faired at what is essentially his home track in Southern California?
In the last eight races he’s won four times, posted two second-place finishes, a third and a downright shameful result of ninth in 2009. Safe to say, I could clamber up atop the box in Fontucky and engineer a top 10 for J.J. at Michigan International Speedway’s illegitimate sister track.
The schedule then winds back east to Martinsville, where the results are similar. Two wins in eight races with an average finish of 4.4. If he keeps the fenders on it and the curbs off it, a top 10 is a virtual certainty. Intermediate tracks Kansas and Texas follow where Johnson enjoys lifetime average finishes of 8.4 and 10.2.
Richmond would be the fifth race of the Knaus/Malec suspension, and may prove to be a stumbling block. The last eight races at the three-quarter mile track have produced an average finish of 16.3, although there is a 2008 win mixed in, and three of the last four visits producing top-10 runs. I know, “Oh the humanity!” Sub-par days for the 48 have most other teams buying a case of beer and fist-pumping into the wee hours of the morning. That said, if there is one race to write off in the final six, it just might end up being Richmond.
Or the next week at Talladega.
Always a crapshoot — and an even larger roll of the restrictor-plate dice than Daytona — Johnson traditionally finds himself involved in or triggering the requisite 30-car Alabama junkyard. No reason to throw in the towel though, as he is the defending race champion, Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t hurt for horsepower at the big tracks, and as long as he doesn’t get wiped out in two laps like at Daytona — and there are no shenanigans with the C-posts or calls to crack the back of the car — things should be fine.
That is, of course, if the big one doesn’t crack up the front of the car for him.
The six-week vacation for Knaus and Malec would wrap up following Talladega. In the meantime the duo will be able to spend a few extra days a week in their little shop of horrors, preparing new cars for the next races at Darlington for the Southern 500 and perhaps the most important event in the first third of the schedule, the Coca-Cola 600.
These two tracks are significant for a number of reasons. The Southern 500 has long been considered the second-most prestigious race on the schedule (until the advent of the big-money Brickyard 400), and while the Daytona 500 was the race the drivers wanted to win, crew chiefs and mechanics always longed to beat “The Track Too Tough To Tame.” After a month and a half off, Knaus and Malec will likely be itching to get back into pitched battle with The Lady In Black.
The Coca-Cola 600 run on Memorial Day weekend is the longest race of the year and puts the cap on two weeks spent at the epicenter of the NASCAR industry in Charlotte. It was the track that Knaus and Johnson once deemed “Our House” in reference to team sponsor Lowe’s, which once owned naming rights to the facility (and because the 48 won five of six races, as well as two wins in the All-Star Race). Going green just hours after the Indianapolis 500, it rivals the greatest spectacle in racing as the most important motorsports day in America, and is also the kickoff to the famed “Summer Stretch” of NASCAR: an eight-week grind that sees the series go north, west and south, comprised of intermediate tracks, a road course and the second restrictor plate race at Daytona.
It is during this time when teams find out if their latest generation of cars are up to snuff, provides an indication of who is top 10 material, and who will have to rely on pulling out a win to make the 12-driver Chase come September. If early-season performance has been any indication, the No. 48 team will easily qualify, as it has every season since the championship format was introduced in 2004.
If Knaus, Malec, Johnson and company should get their noses bloodied during Knaus’ and Malec’s absence, unable to overcome the 25-point penalty, they can still qualify for the playoffs on wins as a wild card. However, it is unlikely that will be necessary, and even if it is, is there any doubt this team could crank out a few wins if the entire might of Hendrick Motorsports was brought to bear?
As always, it is never too early to start thinking about the Chase. If the appeal strategy and timeline being followed by Hendrick and Knaus is any indication, they began thinking ahead as soon as they were pulled out of the inspection line nearly a month ago.
The National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel upheld NASCAR penalties against Hendrick Motorsports and crew chief Chad Knaus on Tuesday.
Knaus was fined $100,000 and, along with car chief Ron Malec, suspended six races for unapproved C-posts on the No. 48 Chevy driven by Jimmie Johnson prior to inspection for the Daytona 500. The No. 48 team was also levied 25-point fines in the championship and owner standings.
1. Greg Biffle Biffle’s team was the one under the Roush Fenway banner that laid low during the offseason. The result has been third-place finishes across the board. Bristol is usually good to them, too.
2. Jimmie Johnson It’s highly unlikely Chad Knaus’ appeal is overturned, but by appealing, Hendrick Motorsports bought Johnson a pair of top-5 finishes. Win or lose with the committee, this team remains a lock for the Chase.
3. Denny Hamlin We’ll take the 20th-place finish at Vegas as a hiccup. Although, after fourth- and first-place runs at Daytona and Phoenix, the dip at an intermediate track was notable.
4. Tony Stewart “Hey Darian, anything you can do, I can do better!” One week after Stewart’s former pit boss earned his first win with Hamlin, Stewart and new boss Steve Addington even the score.
5. Kevin Harvick Worst finish so far this season is 11th. Harvick and the re-tooled No. 29 team have an uncanny knack for always being “there.” A couple wins in the next month or so could be on tap.
6. Matt Kenseth Kenseth was on the business end of a Carl Edwards late-race move once again. For some reason, those never work out too well for the 2003 champ.
7. Carl Edwards “The Aggressor” raced on to a fifth-place finish, his second top 10 of the year. Strangely, Edwards has yet to lead a lap this season. Is another hangover in store for last season’s championship runner-up?
8. Mark Martin Says he’s OK with Dale Earnhardt Jr. after their dust-up in Vegas. The odds of anything spilling over to Bristol would have already been long — and those odds are off the board since Martin won’t even run there.
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9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. The dominating run in the first half of the Vegas race was encouraging, but fading to 10th was all-too-familiar. Bristol should be another top-10 performance, though.
10. Kyle Busch “Rowdy” is ranked here more on 2012 potential than 2012 accomplishment. Bristol may change that.
11. Joey Logano So far, so good for the new Logano/Jason Ratcliff pairing. Wonder if he’ll be looking for the 24 this weekend?
12. Brad Keselowski A fifth is sandwiched between two 32nd-place finishes. Again, potential/accomplishment. And again, that could change this weekend.
13. Paul Menard Has quietly enjoyed two top-7 runs at Daytona and Vegas. He was fifth in last year’s spring Bristol race.
14. Martin Truex Jr. If this team ever learns how to finish a race, it’ll be dangerous.
15. Marcos Ambrose An excellent Bristol darkhorse, Ambrose has three top 10s in six Cup Series starts.
Just off the lead pack: Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman
It took 27 races for Tony Stewart to find Victory Lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last year. Four additional wins followed in the remaining nine weeks and Stewart earned his third Cup championship in one of the more dramatic finales in the sport’s history.
Stewart made it known on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that his No. 14 team will not only be a force in the Chase, but in NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, as well. Stewart dominated the Kobalt Tools 400, leading a race-high 127 laps, holding off all challengers through three restarts in the final 34 laps to score his first win of the 2012 season.
“It seemed like if we could get six or eight laps under our belt, we could start building that margin out again,” Stewart said of leading the field in the closing laps. “As soon as you started pulling away, the caution would come out again. You hate having to reset it like that, knowing for the first three laps you had to be spot on and not let them take advantage of a restart like that.
“You sit there and go, ‘How many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart? Something is going to get taken away from us because of this.’ It's very nerve-wracking.”
Stewart’s eventual race-winning move came on the first of the final three restarts. When the green flag waved with 34 laps remaining, Stewart, lined up in row three, shot his car to the tri-oval apron and around Brad Keselowski for the lead in Turn 1.
“The big thing was, that was when Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie (Johnson) had taken four tires and we had taken two. We knew if we could clear those guys, it would give us a little bit of a buffer and have some lap cars that would keep them occupied. We didn't know we were going to have three or four restarts after that. It was key to get out front right away and try and build a gap.”
Johnson held on for second, his second straight top-5 finish after a disappointing 42nd in the Daytona 500. Greg Biffle inherited the lead in the point standings with his third consecutive third-place run. Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
The win was notable for Stewart in that it was his first career Cup triumph as Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway (which was added to the Cup schedule last season) are the only two active tracks where Stewart has yet to notch a Cup win.
“I take a lot of pride in being good in different types of cars, at least being competitive in different types of cars, being competitive at different racetracks,” Stewart said. “This is one we've been close a couple times and it got away. To finally check this off the list … that's what makes today so special — not so much the time of year we're getting it, just the fact we finally got this one.”
Encouraging run for Earnhardt Dale Earnhardt Jr. started second in the Kobalt Tools 400. By the exit of Turn 2, he wrested the lead from teammate Kasey Kahne and held it for the next 43 laps. So dominant was his Chevy that Earnhardt chose to not report a tight condition on his car because the speed was so good.
“Knowing how it drove that first run, even though it was really fast, we should have worked on it and I should have told Steve (Letarte, crew chief) more about it,” Earnhardt said. “I should have let him understand what was going on.”
The car tightened up further once in traffic, and he was never able to fight back to the point. He finished 10th. Still, his 70 laps led bested the 52 he led in the entirety of the 2011 season.
Watch what you say Brad Keselowski saw a good run go bad when his car appeared to run out of fuel on a restart with 17 laps remaining while running second.
Keselowski was fined last year for criticism of NASCAR’s new Electronic Fuel Injection system.
“We're not doing this because it's better for the teams,” Keselowski said in November. “I don't think we're really going to save any gas. It's a media circus, trying to make you guys happy so you write good stories. It gives them something to promote. We're always looking for something to promote, but the honest answer is it does nothing for the sport except cost the team owners money.
“Cars on the street are injected with real electronics, not a throttle body (like in NASCAR). So we've managed to go from 50-year-old technology to 35-year-old technology. I don't see what the big deal is.”
Following the 32nd-place finish in Vegas, Keselowski took to Twitter, noting that the problem he experienced was not an empty gas tank, but a lack of fuel being delivered to the engine: “Just to be clear. On the last restart the engine ran out of fuel, the fuel tank still had gas. This means the fuel system had a problem.”
Play nice, teammates Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards may need to have a meeting of the minds before drivers take the gloves off at Bristol.
Edwards dove beneath Kenseth on the race’s final restart with four laps remaining while both ran in the top 5. The move put Kenseth in a precarious middle-lane position as the bunched-up field maneuvered through Turns 1 and 2. Kenseth’s car broke loose on corner exit and sideswiped the wall. Edwards drove on to a fifth-place finish while the damage dropped Kenseth to 22nd.
“Carl just laid back and got me three-wide, and it just didn’t seem there was a lot of room getting into (Turn) 1,” Kenseth said. “And then I did get clear behind him and he just stopped in the middle of the corner. I don’t really know what happened.”
“Matt spun his tires a little bit (on the restart) and I got a run on him, “Edwards explained. “And then Greg (Biffle) and I went around him and he ended up getting wrecked. I feel terrible.”
After five years of skydiving downward in both ratings and relevance, 2011 appeared to be the season NASCAR pulled out the parachute. A white-knuckle championship battle, ending in a tie between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, led to a double-digit audience increase in the Chase. Five new first-time winners showcased the parity of competition, while the upcoming car models for 2013 are reported to put the “stock” back in stock cars. (What do we call them again? The Car of Tomorrow, Tomorrow?) Even with a disastrous start to 2012, courtesy of Mother Nature, the rain-delayed Daytona 500 pulled an 8.0 in the Nielsens, with a total of 36.5 million people tuning in for at least some portion of the event — making it the second-most watched stock car race in history.
But as evidence mounts that NASCAR is headed in the right direction on-track, its position in company boardrooms across America remains in a precarious position. Last year’s Daytona 500 champion, Trevor Bayne — despite being charismatic, youthful (21), and trouble-free — failed to secure a primary backer to run the Cup Series full-time this year. Even now, he’s positioned to start no more than 12 races, despite being paired with the legendary Wood Brothers while watching funding for his AAA-baseball type Nationwide ride dry up completely.
Matt Kenseth, this year’s 500 champion and a top-5 finisher in last year’s Cup Series point standings, remains without funding for a whopping 41 percent of this season’s schedule. Even teammate Edwards, who fell just short of the title, lost full-time backer AFLAC and is using a potpourri of a half-dozen primary sponsors to make it through.
Why does the financial bleeding refuse to stop? All other major sports continue to rake in the dough for everything from stadiums to postseason tournaments, watching their “recession revenues” skyrocket. According to Forbes’ yearly evaluations in the four major stick-and-ball sports, the average value of a franchise went up over the past 12 months: 7 percent in MLB, 6.5 percent in the NBA, 5 percent in the NHL and 4 percent in the NFL. And NASCAR? Its average value within the top nine teams declined 3 percent, down to $141 million — a number that pales in comparison to even the $240 million average value of a hockey franchise. So if “it’s the economy, stupid,” as many NASCAR executives like to claim, why are people and advertising dollars beefing up elsewhere? Money still makes the world go round, and even in the cases where there’s a limited amount, people are choosing to spend it in other places.
It’s because fixing the sport’s business model is harder than it looks. Every organization is a private contractor, meaning the sport has no control over everything from how they spend their money to how many races they enter. During NASCAR’s “boom” years, in the 1990s, that was a good thing: any Joe Schmo off the street with a license could come in with a racecar and attempt competition at even the sport’s top level. But as the price to play increased, NASCAR’s lack of leverage bit it as a “country club” level of elite owners gathered exorbitant amounts of money and resources to compete. Opening up their own engine shops, chassis centers and hiring the Best Buy geek squad of aerodynamic specialists, their price to play became bloated compared to the $5 million it took to win in the mid-’90s. Suddenly, $25 million for a sponsor was what a small, single-car team needed to match the amount a four-car organization was paying its glutton of 400-plus employees.
That’s important, because as the sport enters 2012 a decline in both owners and revenues continue to give us one crucial exception to the rule. Take a look at how the top 5 NASCAR race teams in value have evolved over the last five years since Forbes first rated them in mid-2006:
Forbes’ Most Valuable NASCAR Teams: 2007
1) Roush Fenway Racing - $316 million
2) Hendrick Motorsports - $297 million
3) Joe Gibbs Racing - $173 million
4) Evernham Motorsports - $128 million
5) Richard Childress Racing - $124 million
Total value of the top 9 teams in the sport: $1.444 billion
No. 1 Team (Roush Fenway Racing): 21.8 percent of that total
Forbes’ Most Valuable NASCAR Teams: February 2012
1) Hendrick Motorsports - $350 million
Percentage Difference: +17.8 percent
2) Roush Fenway Racing - $185 million
Percentage Difference: -41.5 percent
3) Joe Gibbs Racing: $155 million
Percentage Difference: -10.4 percent
4) Richard Childress Racing: $147 million
Percentage Difference: +15.6 percent
5) Stewart-Haas Racing: $108 million
Percentage Difference: N/A
Total value of the top 9 teams in the sport: $1.267 billion (8.7 percent decline)
No. 1 Team (Hendrick Motorsports): 27.6 percent of that total
You’ll notice that Hendrick, which was second before Jimmie Johnson racked up the first of five straight titles, now has nearly double the value of any other Cup Series organization. That’s not unusual in sports; in baseball, for example, the Yankees’ value ($1.7 billion) is almost twice that of the second-place Boston Red Sox. But in baseball, where every team is franchised, the Yankees pay a penalty for spending too much money, a luxury tax that benefits other teams and helps keep the sport’s competitive balance intact.
In NASCAR, there is no such thing, meaning as other teams fall further behind Hendrick can still charge top dollar for everything from advertising space to engines and chassis. Its equipment has now won six straight titles; even Stewart’s win last year, with his Stewart-Haas Racing team, came through the grace of Hendrick sheet metal and horsepower slapped on the side. As revenues increase, there are no consequences for Hendrick to consider cutting spending or streamlining its business. In fact, with the SHR partnership throwing an assist to “satellite” organizations, it only increases its value. And it’s A-plus marketing department, with statistics to sell, continues to rack up worldwide deals: they’re on the verge of getting a Chinese company, Trina Solar, to back Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 for nine events.
Does that mean money buys championships? Not necessarily, but the important thing is it appears that way to the owners who matter. Kenseth is the perfect example: he already has three sponsors in Best Buy, Zest (a new company) and Valvoline that, if Roush Fenway Racing lowered its operating costs could back him in all 36 events. Their presence is a sign the Fortune 500 isn’t completely ignoring the sport, they’re just putting their foot down and saying, “We’re not giving you a blank check anymore.”
But with the top team still pushing the envelope, how could Roush lower the price tag? No wonder Edwards has more logos on the side of his uniform than that guy with the pieces of flare in Office Space. Broken apart, then sold on particular drivers’ talent, that fleet of companies could back nearly 25 percent of the 43-car grid. But the price to play, uncontrolled, remains high enough that RFR believes the strategy must be to filter funding straight to their sponsor’s dream.
The same applies to an owner looking to enter the sport from the outside. No one wants to enter racing to run second, and right now, the impression is to run first, based on stats, you need to spend at a rate that creates a $350 million NASCAR organization. Even beyond Hendrick, the value for a team like Richard Childress Racing suggests an operating cost per team approaching $50 million.
Certainly in Hendrick’s case, considering Johnson left Daytona with negative points, the actual truth to that statement – money buys championships – is far from a guarantee. But the one place where NASCAR is right about the economy is too much money scares potential owners away, from Red Bull Racing bailing back to Europe to former Cup champion Robert Yates, who chose to retire rather than fall further behind the country club crowd.
This year, Forbes stopped short of ranking the top 10 NASCAR franchises because it only found nine that stood above the fray. What’s the solution? Some say franchising — the first step towards some sort of “salary cap” or “luxury tax” model the other major sports have employed. Others say an expansion of NASCAR’s one rule it tried to use to stop uncontrolled growth: a four-team “limit” per owner. Reducing that to two, plus outlawing the sales of engines and chassis to teams you do not own could limit information sharing, although it would do little to nothing to cut costs. Others feel like putting creativity back in the hands of the mechanics, like relaxing rules for the 2013 model and reducing dependence on aerodynamics, will give underdogs the ability to compete once again at the fraction of the cost. If it’s proven they can win — consistently, to the point a single-car team is making the Chase — perhaps the economics would magically reverse themselves.
There is no perfect solution out there right now. But it’s clear there’s a problem, and the quicker NASCAR stops denying it, blaming a dragging economy and starts working towards long-term fixes, the better off it’s going to be.
The Backseats Drivers Fan Council is back! While NASCAR and tracks have their own fan councils, most people don’t see the results of what fans are asked. That’s why I started a fan council last year where anyone could answer questions about the sport and see the results, along with comments fellow council members made.
Was NASCAR’s punishment of Chad Knaus fair? Do car brands matter anymore to NASCAR fans? Will rising gas prices force some fans to attend fewer NASCAR races? Those were among the topics members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debated in this week’s survey.
There’s much to discuss, which Fan Council members did, so, let’s get to what was said:
NASCAR’S PENALTIES TO CHAD KNAUS
NASCAR announced that it would suspend crew chief Chad Knaus six races, fine him $100,000 and dock Jimmie Johnson 25 driver points, among other penalties after issues were found with Johnson’s car at Daytona in the first day at the track. Fan Council members were asked what they thought of the penalties, which Hendrick Motorsports is appealing.
44.4 percent said the penalty was appropriate 41.4 percent said the penalty was too harsh 14.2 percent said the penalty was not severe enough
What Fan Council members said:
• It's about time that they start looking at the body of work and not individual events for the 48 bunch. Has a year gone by in recent history when they weren't caught trying something? They were warned not to mess with the body and they have repeatedly. Time to drop the hammer and let the chips fall where they may.
• NASCAR officials seemed to talk a lot in the off-season about being more transparent and consistent with the fans, but I don't think this decision is very transparent. I believe that this punishment is about more than just C-posts. It's no big secret that NASCAR has been unhappy with how far Knaus has pushed the limits of the rules, so it appears to me that they are trying to 'put him back in place' with the suspension and fine, rather than just respond to the C-post issue.
• Innovation has always been part of racing, why kill it altogether. Not a 48 fan, but come on NASCAR, give the teams a break.
• I feel like there is either more to this story we don't know or this is too harsh.
• I think NASCAR is way out of line on this one. I figure what makes a good crew chief is a natural talent for figuring things out. Their goal isn't to cheat, but to figure out how to go faster. NASCAR believes its job is to rein them in, but I believe it's wrong for NASCAR to penalize them for being innovative. Tell them no, we don't like that, go change it, but a suspension and penalty like this is just way over the top.
• Chad is a repeat offender. He didn't learn from his previous penalties so it is only right that NASCAR make these penalties more severe. Bottom line is that Chad Knaus was cheating and he got caught and he was punished appropriately.
• Should 100% be overturned on appeal.
• It's impossible for fans to know the true violation without some kind of evidentiary support. Until NASCAR does a 5-minute video presentation on why it was illegal or not, fans will never completely understand what was wrong and how bad it was or wasn't. Have to trust the sanctioning body on this one.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
IMPORTANCE OF CAR MANUFACTURERS TO FANS
In light of the recent announcement of Penske Racing moving from Dodge to Ford after this season, Fan Council members were asked how important is it that their favorite driver races a particular car brand.
38.3 percent said the car brand was not important 22.9 percent said the car brand was moderately important 20.8 percent said the car brand was slightly important 18.1 percent said the car brand was very important
What Fan Council members said:
• I don't pick my drivers based on car brand. I select drivers based on talent, contributions to the sport, and society, as well as their personality.
• Something in my brain makes me feel like it SHOULD matter, but in the end I don't think it does. I like my drivers because of their personalities and the way they perform on the track - if it takes a different manufacturer to help them achieve better results, then I think I'm OK with that!
• The cars don't look like anything that resembles a stock car, for a number of reasons. Therefore, there's hardly a reason for brand loyalty. Our favorite driver is Junior, and we could care less that he's driving a Chevy, even though our favorite vehicles are Fords.
• Historically, I have been a Chevy fan. I previously only cheered on drivers who were racing Chevys. I guess with the COT and the lack of "REAL" brand identity, I've soften a bunch. However, my favorite driver does drive a Chevy.
• As long as my driver doesn't switch to a Toyota, I'm fine...not saying I would pick a new driver at that point but I sure wouldn't be happy! This used to be referred to as "The Great American Sport" and it pains me to see that one manufacturer has changed all that!
• If the King can successfully shift to Ford, anyone should be able to drive the make that offers them the best opportunity for success
• Always been a Ford fan, but had to swallow hard and root when Mark Martin moved to Chevy and now Toyota.
• While I make it a point only to purchase vehicles made by NASCAR manufacturers, it actually isn't that important to me if my favorite is behind the wheel of a Chevy or a Toyota - as long as he's winning!
Fan Council members were asked what was their favorite car manufacturer competing in NASCAR and why.
58.1 percent listed Chevrolet as their favorite 22.0 percent listed Ford as their favorite 14.1 percent listed Toyota as their favorite 5.8 percent listed Dodge as their favorite
What Fan Council members said:
• My pops may not have had a whole lot of hard and fast rules when I was a kid, but I remember this one distinctly. "Don't ever drive up here in a FORD." We were Earnhardt fans, Chevy people through and through. I would even go so far to say that I honestly don't care who wins as long as they are driving a Chevy. To this day I tow my Chevy race car to Midwest dirt tracks with a Chevy Silverado.
• Don't have one. Personally, I don't have ties to any manufacturer and will not pledge blind allegiance to one. The American manufacturers were once the leaders in their industry. But they grew complacent and failed to listen to the consumers and continued to produce inferior products while selling better products overseas.
• For NASCAR it would be Chevrolet due to the deep history in the sport. For my personal use, it's Toyota due to dependability and value.
• I believe in the Toyota product and have owned several. Love Toyota being in NASCAR shaking up the good ole boys. And for me, my driver favorites are based upon the car they drive. Smoke in a Toyota, Go Smoke! Smoke in a Chevy, good for him. (Martin) Truex Jr. in a Chevy, good for him. Guess what? I now pull for Truex Jr.! I pull for all the big boys in a Toyota except for Kyle Busch. I am loyal to Brand.
• Ford, because they haven't taken a dime of your money that you haven't freely and willingly given them as a customer. Ford has supported the Wood Brothers since the late 50's, and I own a Ford.
• Was born and raised to like Chevy and hate Ford and Dodge.
• I drive a Ford. I like Jack Roush.
• Both my husband and I pull for Chevy drivers...plan on our next car being a Chevy mainly to reward their hard work to get the company back on track.
RISING GAS PRICES EQUALS SLIDING ATTENDANCE?
With gas prices rising (and topping $4 a gallon in some parts of the country), Fan Council members were asked if the cost of gas would impact their decision to attend a NASCAR race this year.
57.5 percent rising gas prices would not impact their travel plans 17.8 percent said they won’t be attending a NASCAR race, partly due to rising gas prices 16.8 percent said they are changing their plans to attend a NASCAR race closer to home 7.9 percent said gas prices won’t impact their plans unless it tops $4 a gallon nationally
What Fan Council members said:
• I won't attend Dover or Bristol as I'd planned to do.
• I go to both Talladega races each year, and that will not change. I haven't planned to go to any other tracks this year, but if gas was to go down it would help my decision a little bit.
• We're only a 7-hour drive from Kansas Speedway. My car does pretty good on fuel. I don't think it will affect me. We can only afford one race anyway. We'll just have to cut back on something else.
• Always make room in the budget for a race!
• I usually go to Martinsville and Pocono at least once a year. Both of those tracks are 4 hours from my home. This year my husband (a new fan finally) and I are attending the Richmond race in April. Richmond is about 1.5 hours from home.
• I have given up on going to TMS this year, but will go to Chicago since it is closer.
• It does make me re-consider plans, yet I am still attending Daytona, Martinsville, Rockingham, Richmond, and Dover this year. I am lucky that there are so many races I can go to and come back in the same day from my home in SE Virginia. If these high prices are sustained or get even higher it will certainly impact my future travel plans.
• I live in Seattle...I considered driving to Phoenix for the race. At 2800 miles I'm looking at $400.00 worth of gas alone to make that trip, so I watched from the sofa. I'm still considering Sonoma...a more reasonable 1600-mile roundtrip.
• We've already renewed our race tickets and camping spots for 2012 for the 5 races we plan on attending. We have a diesel motor home and fuel prices are important but this is what we do for vacation and budget accordingly. We take advantage of the easy pay plans and have them paid for before we attend them. It's great that the tracks offer these wonderful ways to make attending the races more affordable.
• Please. I'll drop my lattes before I'll cut back on my NASCAR races.
• My husband and I plan on going to Talladega in May. The only thing that could stop us are the gas prices. If they do go over $4 a gallon, we probably won't be able to make it.
• I’ll walk to Bristol if I have too.
RATING SUNDAY’S CUP RACE FROM PHOENIX
53.1 percent called it Good 33.1 percent called it Fair 11.7 percent called it Great 2.1 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Fair number of leader changes, good mix of drivers and manufacturers up front and not too many cautions. Just how I like it!
• It wasn't the most exciting race, but it never is at Phoenix.
• The racing was most exciting in the few laps after restarts. Things tended to get a bit strung out during the longer green flag runs, but the race race still held my attention pretty well. I also liked watching the drivers negotiate the dogleg on the backstretch - I think PIR did a good job re-configuring the track last year.
• Length was OK, not too long. Racing action was real good. I prefer tracks this size and smaller, or road courses.
• I was there in person, turn 1 Allison Grandstands, the race was absolutely fantastic. Saw the whole race ... no commercial interruption, and the great play-by-play work by MRN made it 100% enjoyable.
• Great. Fuel strategy and good side-by-side racing through the field. Some parts of the race were single file but you will have that at non-restrictor plate tracks. There's nothing we can do about it. It cannot be 3 or 4 wide every lap. People who understand racing will know this.
• I think I OD'd on Daytona because I just wasn't ready for another race. It was okay, but it didn't hold my attention very well.
• Fuel mileage races are not too exciting. I would prefer to see drivers race for the win. They call this sport racing not strategy.
Fans can join the Backseat Drivers Fan Council by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.