NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship gets rolling this weekend in New Hampshire … no, wait … Chicago. Yeah, that’s right, Chicagoland Speedway. Answer me this: Could the sanctioning body have awarded the date to a track more devoid of character? I get that it’s a facility struggling in attendance and ratings numbers. A marquee date may help (or at least can’t hurt), but at what point does NASCAR think in the macro and not the micro? The sport benefits from an exciting Chase start, especially after last week’s action-packed Saturday night in Richmond, and this is the ultimate momentum killer.
Anyway, this column is supposed to be more of a Chase preview as my boy Vito Pugliese is taking track preview duties, so before it totally gets away from me, I’ll hit the brakes Starsky and Hutch style and refocus.
Any Chase preview column begins and ends with Jimmie Johnson. It doesn’t matter where he’s seeded or who else is currently loaded for bear. When you’re the five-time defending champion you get the nod. So, does Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have the magic in them for a sixth crown after an atypical one-win regular season?
I tend to agree with the contingent that says until the 48 team gives me a reason to pick against them, I won’t. I use to have the same conversation with our MLB editor here at Athlon. My beloved Atlanta Braves were in the midst of a 14-year division title streak, yet for two or three years, the thinking was to try and foresee the downfall by picking them to miss the playoffs in our preseason annuals.
Didn’t happen. Not until 2006. And by then we’d gotten tired of getting burned and actually hopped back on the bandwagon when they finally petered out. Same line of thinking with Johnson.
That’s not to say there aren’t some worthy candidates to knock off Johnson. In fact, this field looks as dangerous as any I can remember — but I seem to say that every year. Let’s start at the top:
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Ironic, isn’t it? You can just feel the love here. Actually, the Harvick/Busch tie at the top helps Kevin’s cause. Harvick admits to thriving on controversy, stirring the pot, fanning the flames. And he seems to take particular delight in needling Busch. From a performance standpoint, Harvick has the experience, the team, the machinery and the demeanor to be a champion. So what’s missing? Good question, but best I can tell it’s just a break here or there. The 29 team maneuvered through its roller coaster of a summer and seems to have come out stronger on the other side, as its last two finishes can attest.
But Johnson stands in his way, and Harvick has yet to prove he can beat J.J. heads-up. But he’s close.
Kevin Harvick (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
As for Busch, I’ll believe a “New Kyle Busch” exists just as soon as his older brother proves he’s really in Johnson’s head. Kyle is an on-track skirmish away from going thermonuclear still — although “thermonuclear” may be overstating it a tad. You can’t deny the progress he’s made in the “Quit Being a Jackass” department, but that attitude seemed to be what gave him an edge.
Busch’s equipment is the other concern. Despite all the wins over the last three years or so, Joe Gibbs Racing always manages to trip themselves up in the Chase somehow or another. That said, Busch seems to be much kinder to his equipment (under the hood equipment, that is) than his teammate, Denny Hamlin. This is a big Chase for Kyle from a career-standpoint perspective, so not fading is important. If he finishes in the top three I’ll be convinced he’s ready to take on the mantle of Sprint Cup Champion in 2012.
One driver who has no convincing to do is Jeff Gordon. A rejuvenated Gordon, with ace-in-the-hole crew chief Alan Gustafson, has the desire, hunger — and at long last, the pure speed — to give Johnson all he wants. The four-time champ is finally throwing W’s on the board again, and winning a race or two in the next 10 is imperative. If anyone is to slay the Goliath that is the 48 team, this is it.
Carl Edwards was the latest, and thus far, only multi-time preseason pick to give Johnson a run for his money. It’s been a strange season for Edwards, though, as he has enjoyed only one trip to Victory Lane thus far. Granted, it’s safe to say that the team was doing some R&D (and contract) work through the summer and has rounded into form. He’ll factor, although to what extent is not yet clear.
Skipping down the standings a bit, Brad Keselowski looks dangerous. Yeah, it’s easy to jump on a guy’s bandwagon when he’s hot and in his second full-time campaign on the Cup circuit, predicting a title run may be putting the cart before the horse. But Keselowski is a different bird. He seems to thrive on high-pressure situations, completely at ease while in the eye of the hurricane. Where Denny Hamlin fumbled one away last year, Keselowski can be counted on to keep both hands on the ball. If — and that’s admittedly a big “if” — he can keep pace through the first six races, he’s a guy the big boys don’t want to see near the top heading down the stretch.
What’s there to say about Matt Kenseth? He threw up a flurry of victories this year (for Kenseth, a flurry is two) and deceptively cruised through the first 26 races, showcasing a consistency that’s become his trademark. He’ll need another flurry to bag this title, which may be asking a lot, as his style is not conducive to a 10-race hot streak. That said, he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig will have their moments. Just not enough of them.
Kurt Busch’s No. 22 team is an enigma. World-beaters one week, out to lunch the next. Has the success of his teammate (Keselowski) hindered Busch’s performance? That may seem like an asinine question, but I’m convinced the more a guy shouts one thing from the rooftops, the less likely it’s true. In this case, Busch claims to be in Johnson’s head (riiiiippppp…), implying his team is the mentally superior of the two. I don’t buy it, and I don’t buy that Kurt and his crew are serious title threats.
There’s quite a dip down to the four remaining Chasers. Ryan Newman has put together a nice season thus far with 13 top 10s. But is the sixth Hendrick team — OK, we’ll call them the fifth Hendrick team with Mark Martin all but gone — capable of winning this whole dog ’n’ pony show? And what of his Stewart-Haas teammate and car owner, Tony Stewart? What a long strange trip it’s been for his No. 14 team. Quite frankly, something’s amiss there to the point that there is no magical switch for Smoke to throw and make it all right. Maybe Danica Patrick’s input next season will help …
Then there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin. Look, Junior made for a nice story earlier this season when he posted a slew of top-12 showings, but while other teams have improved, Junior’s has stagnated. Some of the Chase tracks favor The Son, but like Stewart, there’s no magic switch to be thrown.
That leaves Hamlin, the latest in a long line of drivers who got out-drank by Johnson last season and is suffering a year-long hangover. Hamlin could actually surprise, although if he gets in an early hole, it’ll be R&D Season for the 11 team. A win isn’t out of the question, but a championship is.
So in the end, I believe it’s a two-horse race between Johnson and Gordon, with Harvick, Edwards and Keselowski not too far behind. And like I said earlier: Until someone proves they can take down the most dominant team of the decade, I have to side with the 48 team.
Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter@MattTaliaferro
NASCAR’s version of the playoffs gets started this weekend in Chicago, just as Major League Baseball is winding down, the NFL regular season is heating up and fantasy football geeks are going berserk. I say that lovingly mind you, as I am pretty pumped about my acquisition of Robert Meachem at wide receiver for this weekend. Like any responsible owner, you need to game plan each race, and see what key player will perform there. That means pouring over stats, reviewing game tape and dissecting Athlon Sports' Fantasy Football page.
Hey I’m a company guy — but don’t worry, because I’ve put together a comprehensive guide for each race in the 10-week Chase for the Sprint Cup. I’ve listed a winner and drivers to watch. If you have a fantasy team or an all-consuming gambling addiction, please take the following into consideration before you cash out what’s left of the 401k or the kid’s college fund.
Chicagoland has had a stigma as being a cookie-cutter track, another 1.5-mile oval that resembles many others on schedule. Looking back at who ran well this season at tracks that have a similar layout — Kansas and Kentucky — there are a couple of names that stand out. Kurt Busch dominated Kansas in June, leading 152 laps before teammate Brad Keselowski grabbed the win on a fuel-mileage gamble. Denny Hamlin led for 34 laps and finished third, while Carl Edwards led for 29 circuits and came home fifth. Busch led 41 laps in Kentucky in July, while his brother, Kyle, checked out and wasn’t really seriously challenged for the win until the final restart, leading 125 laps on the day. Kansas winner Keselowski led for 79 laps and ended up seventh, while Edwards posted another fifth-place run.
Prediction: A guy named Busch wins. Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin are solid selections as well.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway
You know things have moved along in NASCAR when we’re talking about a championship playoff format and a one-mile oval as a short track. Short tracks are supposed to be under a mile, but nobody listens to me anyway. The definition of a short track now is, if you can still run competitive with a wrinkled fender — and New Hampshire, the track that Kyle Petty once suggested could be filled with water and made a bass lake — has in recent years produced some of the best racing and closest finishes. The Magic Mile got demoted from being the Chase kickoff for 2011, but second billing’s not bad either.
With the struggles that Stewart-Haas had getting into the Chase — well OK, Tony Stewart had getting into the Chase — Loudon will be welcome relief for this two-car team. Smoke should have won here last year for the third time before running out of fuel on the final lap, while teammate Ryan Newman won here in July for the third time in his career. Kurt Busch led for 66 laps that day before slipping to 10th, while Denny Hamlin has a win here and came home third. Kyle Busch’s Chase hopes have been dashed here in years past, so even though the 18 car is fast everywhere, I’m leery of looking in his direction in New Hampshire. Jeff Gordon has speed and the 24 team won here as the No. 5 team in 2009 with Mark Martin at the helm, and the Gordon Renaissance started this year at Phoenix, the other flat-mile track on the schedule.
Prediction: Tony Stewart remembers he’s Tony Stewart. Then Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin in that order.
Dover International Speedway
The white cliffs … er, banks … of Dover pose a different kind of challenge to drivers. It’s basically a big Bristol, with the straights feeling like they’re banked more than the corners. “Concrete” Carl Edwards is hard to handle at Dover, as is his Roush Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth. Edwards led 119 laps earlier this year while Kenseth, who is looking for sponsorship in 2012, took the win. Kyle Busch posted a top 5, but the real “five” you need to watch for is ol’ “Five Time”. Jimmie Johnson decimated the field in May, leading 207 laps, before sliding to ninth by day’s end, and has six of his 54-career wins here. Not a toughie to figure this one out.
Prediction: Jimmie Johnson wins but Carl Edwards makes him earn it. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick follow.
Clint, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore! Actually, I don’t think you’re at RCR anymore, but that doesn’t mean your teammate, Kevin Harvick, is in any better position to win in Kansas. While Kurt Busch ran away with things here in July, Brad Keselowski conquered on fuel (not consisting of corn), and was the fastest car on the track late in the going at Michigan — a similar layout — in August. Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied from disaster after spinning to a second-place run that day, highlighting another pitfall for this track. Things can get spread out in the wide-open spaces of the Great Plains, and there aren’t usually many cautions to slow the action. If you get into trouble here, you’re most likely done — but you if can stay the first car one-lap down, you might be able to salvage your day — or sneak one out on gas mileage.
Prediction: Keselowski wins but this time on speed. Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch round out the top 5.
Charlotte Motor Speedway
The Queen City and capitol of the NASCAR city-state marks the midpoint of the Chase, and is usually the barometer to determine who’s in and who’s out as the playoffs hit their “second season.” No longer Lowe’s Motor Speedway, it is also no longer the 48’s house, and others have been able to prosper on what was once Jimmie Johnson’s personal playground like that episode of South Park when Cartman buys an amusement park.
Downforce is king at 1.5-mile tracks, and Fords have that aplenty with their cool-running FR9 engines allowing the front ends to be sealed up while still hauling the mail. Matt Kenseth set sail for 103 laps in the Coca-Cola 600, while Carl Edwards was next in line leading 61 laps. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevy had the checkered flag in sight but his car coughed through Turn 3, running out of fuel as he surrendered his first win in three years to Kevin Harvick, to the heartbreak and unfathomable sorrow of Junior Nation. Jeff Gordon won in Atlanta, which is kind of like Charlotte, holding off Johnson. This could be a Hendrick Motorsports affair in Charlotte once again, just like the old days when it was their house.
Prediction: Carl Edwards reigns supreme, and does not tear the front end off the car doing victory donuts. Jeff Gordon is in the conversation, as is Jimmie Johnson. Junior doesn’t win here, but starts to build some momentum. Kyle Busch is dangerous anywhere.
With the advent of two-car tandems, just about anybody could win at Talladega. Don’t think so? Ask Brad Keselowski, who won his first race here in 2009 with James Finch’s part-time team. This one is a crapshoot — you could literally pick anyone in the top 15 with 10 laps to go and have a shot at getting it right. What it sets the stage for, however, is a very big win that will be very popular for a lot of people, which means a lot of stuff is going to get thrown onto the track afterwards.
Prediction: By the grace of God, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins and the infield resembles Woodstock ’99. His Hendrick teammate, Jimmie Johnson, follows, with the Stewart-Haas sister cars of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman.
Martinsville Speedway (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Hey, didn’t that Dale Earnhardt Jr. guy nearly win here in April? Luckily for him, the track doesn’t change much over the season, so he could definitely continue to score some points on the paperclip half-mile that is a legitimate short track. Junior lost this one then in the closing laps to Kevin Harvick, who won the last short track race at Richmond, as well. Jeff Gordon has been nails here over his career with seven wins, while teammate Jimmie Johnson has six.
Prediction: Kevin Harvick wins a Chase race and keeps his hopes alive. Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin to follow in succession.
Texas Motor Speedway
Texas looks a lot like Charlotte and Atlanta because it is a lot like Charlotte and Atlanta — being shaped like Charlotte and nearly as fast as Atlanta. The Tuesday race at AMS a few weeks back is probably a better indicator of how things will pan out, since the first Texas race this year was too long ago to give a good indicator of how teams have adjusted and massaged their cars over the course of the year.
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will be the ones to beat, but Smoke usually shows well here. Horsepower is king and the Ford duo of Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards don’t want for anything in the engine room. Penske Racing’s Mopar tandem may be the sleepers.
Prediction: Kurt Busch wins and looks completely out of place wearing a cowboy hat and firing Colt Single Action Army pistols into the air. Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski follow in kind.
Phoenix International Raceway
A repave and reconfiguration means that this is a totally different track than before. When any existing NASCAR track is repaved, it’s usually for the worse, as racing suffers, taking another 10 years for the groove to get worn in. No matter, as long as they remove walls at obtuse angles and put up some bigger billboards or start the race at 7:00 p.m. so the drivers aren’t blinded, that should be the focus.
Kurt Busch has been on the track and part of a tire test, and says it is really slick. I think this is a wild card track that will see a number of cautions and key contenders eliminated from the hunt. Busch has an upper hand with his on-track experience which should help him, but it is brother Kyle who will emerge the better Busch brother.
However, that doesn’t mean either win; it was Carl Edwards who had things in hand at the first race here — and he will exact revenge on the track that denied him. Well, Kyle Busch denied him after he wrecked him, but I don’t think he’ll flip him on his lid. They don’t go fast enough here.
Prediction: Carl Edwards wins, Kyle Busch holds off Jeff Gordon in a reversal from the spring. Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson plow into each other. Johnson calmly recites a different version of what happens and Kurt Busch rips something up and takes a swing at me.
Ford Championship Weekend and the Ford 400! You know what that means, Right? A Chevrolet wins the title, of course.
Since teaming up with Alan Gustafson this season, Jeff Gordon has been born again and is no longer the softer side of the 24-48 shop at Hendrick Motorsports. Perhaps the best known secret weapon in NASCAR is Gordon’s crew chief, and the team that resurrected another veteran driver who hadn’t visited Victory Lane in a while in 2009 with Mark Martin. The No. 24 team has won at short, flat tracks like Phoenix; fast, high-banked ovals such as Atlanta; and whatever the hell Pocono is. There is going to be another “five-time” in Sprint Cup competition following the final race of the season, and that will be Gordon.
Currently the author of 85 wins, his fifth title will tie him with Jimmie Johnson, while ranking him closer to Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and David Pearson as the best the sport has ever known.
First, there is a race to be run to make it all official. I don’t think it will be a last-lap nail bitter as it was in the first year of the Chase, but it will change the final standings considering the lack of variance in the point standings, and narrow 10-week window of the championship format.
Prediction: Denny Hamlin wins and thinks someone is sending him through some cruel time warp. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson line up next.
From the Spotter's Stand
In last year’s Windy City run, David Reutimann won his first Cup race without an asterisk while old man Jeff Gordon made the 600th Cup start of his career.
Reutimann seemed apologetic after stumbling into a rain-shortened 227-lap win at the Coca-Cola 600 in 2009. But no one could question the Tums 00 Toyota after a gut-wrenching race to beat Carl Edwards and Gordon to the line in a green-white-checker finish.
Jimmie Johnson led the opening 92 laps of the night. But uncharacteristic miscues led to a 25th-place finish. Expect the 48’s mistakes to be corrected, however, as the 1.5-mile tri-oval of Chicagoland Speedway will (inexplicably) host the first Chase race in 2011.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Negotiating a smooth entry into Chicago’s sweeping turns sets the car up for a good exit, which is where the passing is going to take place. Chicago is all about handling on the track’s surprisingly weathered surface. Racing at night normally increases grip on a cool track surface, but Chicago’s bumpy ride doesn’t guarantee that. It’s close to Kansas, but thanks to a back straight with a really gradual, almost unnoticeable curve, it’s unique in its own way. I don’t really think that curved back straight makes any difference at all in terms of setting the car up.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Jeff Gordon, with a win and seven top 10s in 10 Chi-Town starts. Pretty Solid Pick: Richmond winner Kevin Harvick, who won the first two races here. Good Sleeper Pick: Do not overlook Brian Vickers’ stats at Chicago. Runs on Seven Cylinders: You’d think this would be a Greg Biffle-type track, but it’s not. Insider Tip: We’re in the Chase now, so teams like the 48, 18, 24 and 99 will come to play.
Classic Moments at Chicagoland
Before Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon swapped pit crews at Texas last year, the most notable team swap in NASCAR came at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2005.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters the USG Sheetrock 400 mired at 16th in the point standings while his teammate, Michael Waltrip — and former crew — ranks 17th. Although Matt Kenseth thoroughly dominates the race, Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Hmiel, makes a gutsy two-tire call during the final caution period, giving the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy valuable track position. Junior holds off Kenseth in clean air over the final 13 laps to earn his only win of the campaign.
Following the race, Jeff Gordon gives Mike Bliss a black eye at the airport after the two tangled to bring out the final caution that set the table for Hmiel’s pit call.
Johnson and Busch, just moments before it hit the fan. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jeff Gordon The four-time champ has averaged a 3.25-place finish over the last month. Gordon is looking like the “Wonderboy” of old at just the right time.
2. Jimmie Johnson It looks as if his biggest threat in the Chase may come from within — as in within Hendrick Motorsports in the form of the aforementioned Gordon. Haven’t we seen this movie before?
3. Kyle Busch The best part of the Kurt vs. Jenna press conference? Watching Kyle, sitting next to brother Kurt, smirk. You can almost hear him thinking, “Thank God ‘Old Kurt’ is back!”
4. Brad Keselowski The top-10 streak is over, but Keselowski still looks solid after a 12th at Richmond. They say water finds its level, and that could be the case here but he gets the benefit of the doubt for now.
5. Carl Edwards Consecutive runs of ninth, fifth and second prove the testing has been over for about three weeks for the No. 99 team. We’ll see how the notes transfer into the Chase.
6. Kevin Harvick Another team that is rounding into form, Harvick’s group brings the momentum of a Richmond win into the Chase. And — OMG! — he got to meet Snooki in Victory Lane!
7. Matt Kenseth Kenseth was sponsored by “Ollie’s Bargain Outlet” at Richmond. And the way he ran, you’d think they bought the car there.
Smile, bud ... I ranked you above your teammate! (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
8. Ryan Newman Newman continues to throw top 10s on the board — he was eighth at Richmond — but he must avoid the hiccup his team seems to have once every month if a title is to be won.
9. Kurt Busch When you finish in the top 5 but receive more pub for your post-race antics, you know you’ve got some explaining and/or apologizing to do. When the cameras are on, of course.
10. Tony Stewart Tony’s antics came on Friday and, like Busch, were because of a confrontation with reporters. When are these guys going to learn that life can be a lot easier when they’re on friendly terms with the media?
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Somehow rebounded from a number of issues at RIR and snuck in the Chase. Sorry Junior Nation, but don’t expect much more.
12. Denny Hamlin Led zero laps and finished ninth at one of his favorite tracks. That’s not a great sign.
13. AJ Allmendinger AJ’s top-12 streak has hit five races in a row and he’s 13th in points. Not bad, young man.
14. Mark Martin There’s still a little gas left in the tank, as Martin’s 10th-place finish in Richmond proved. Not bad, old man.
15. Jamie McMurray This week will mark the start of “R&D Season” for McMurray and the Ganassi gang.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, David Ragan
Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter@MattTaliaferro
The 2011 Chase for the Championship field. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
The final 300 miles of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ regular season were some of the most intense of 2011. Chase bubble boys Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin were involved in a lap 8 wreck; Chase longshot Marcos Ambrose spun three times; and Chase locks Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson continued a feud that has slowly festered over the last two seasons.
In the end though, the top 12 drivers going into the Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway were the same 12 that came out, as Earnhardt, Hamlin and Tony Stewart held on to secure bids to NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.
Oh, and by the way, Kevin Harvick held off Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon to capture his fourth win of the season. It may be difficult to look past the Chase scenarios, implications and results, but the race itself was a thriller — chock full of short-track aggression topped off with a dramatic conclusion.
Gordon was hunting for his second consecutive victory, leading on lap 384 when a spin by Paul Menard brought out the evening’s 15th caution. When the field hit pit road, it was Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing crew that won the race off. He lined up for the restart in the front row alongside Gordon, and when the green flag waved, pulled away. Edwards was able to get by Gordon, though, and quickly narrowed the gap Harvick had built.
Whether Edwards would have capped a night of physicality off with a bump ’n’ run is unknown. Edwards’ No. 99 Ford was never able to get to Harvick’s bumper, and the Bakersfield, Ca., native held on for his second career Richmond win.
“The guys on pit road had just a great last pit stop and were able to get us the track position,” Harvick said. “I struggled on the restarts getting going with the races that we had, so to be in control of that last restart I felt like it was pretty important to get going.
“Our car was really good all night on the restarts, and that last run there we were actually too tight and Carl was actually a little bit better. And then with about three or four laps to go, I just locked it on the bottom and hoped for the best there, so it all worked out.”
Gordon finished third, while David Ragan and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 5.
Busch had to recover from a pair of incidents with Johnson en route to his solid finish. The first accident came on lap 186, when Busch locked up his front brakes going into Turn 1 while battling the five-time defending champion for position. Johnson spun and restarted 24th while Busch continued unimpeded.
Jimmie Johnson after his second run-in with Kurt Busch. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Sixty laps later, Johnson got his revenge, diving into Turn 1 under Busch and spinning the No. 22 around. Johnson hit the wall in the process, requiring a lengthy stay in the garage, but once again, Busch marched on.
“I know we’re in his head,” Busch said later. “If we’re going to race this way, he’s got to know that there’s 10 other guys in this Chase, not just the 22 (car).
“He’s got to learn to race. He’s been able to beat guys in the last five years just by out-driving them with what he has for equipment.”
Johnson replied with a shrug, saying, “OK ... I got run over going into (Turn) 1, so if you’re going to spin me out, I’m going to spin you out.
“I’m sure I’ll go find him and talk to him and he’ll run his mouth. And we’ll go from there.”
Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Earnhardt, had a tough, but ultimately successful, evening. Earnhardt qualified for his first Chase since 2008 by recovering from the lap 8 accident that crushed the nose of his Chevrolet. He then used up what was left of the front end by spinning Ambrose and Travis Kvapil in separate incidents, displaying an aggression not typically seen in the 36-year-old. He finished 16th.
Earnhardt joins Johnson, Busch, Gordon, Edwards, Harvick, Hamlin and Stewart, along with Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman in the Chase.
“I’m proud to be in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like I’m a good enough driver to be in the Chase, (and) my team is good enough to be there.
“I can look back over the season and just easily think of several instances where we cost ourselves 10 or 15 points and made this situation difficult this weekend. Had we been more conscious and smarter at certain times we wouldn’t have had to even worry about it this weekend.”
From the Spotter's Stand
Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin did it again in 2010, splitting the Richmond runs in déjà vu-all-over-again fashion. For the second straight year, Rowdy won in May and Denny celebrated a September win — only this time, with Busch on his bumper as the runner-up.
Each thoroughly dominated his respective race. A pole-sitting Busch led 226 laps to outrace runner-up Jeff Gordon (144 laps led) on a restart with five to go. Meanwhile, Hamlin led 251 laps to edge out Busch and rival Jimmie Johnson to clinch the top seed in the Chase in the final race of the “regular season.”
The song remained the same in May 2011, when Busch and Hamlin rolled over the field. This time, it was Busch's turn, as he led for a race-high 235 of 400 laps to beat Hamlin by nearly two seconds.
All told, the JGR duo have combined to win the last five Cup events at RIR. That stat will most likely change to six in a row this weekend.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Getting the car to roll through the center of the corner is the key to a fast lap at Richmond. While that tends to cause a drop in speed off the corner, a car that turns well in the center uses less brake, and that’s a good thing on a short track where brakes can get hot. Most teams run a short track brake package even though Richmond runs faster than its 3⁄4-mile layout suggests. If you want to talk about a balance between what the drivers like and what the fans like, Richmond probably strikes the best balance in NASCAR. There aren’t many races that teams look forward to more.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Kyle Busch, with an astounding 11 top 5s in 13 Cup starts at Richmond, makes him the natural choice. Pretty Solid Pick: His teammate, Denny Hamlin, always turns it up a notch when he’s racing in his home state of Virginia. Good Sleeper Pick: Marcos Ambrose has runs of 11th, ninth and fifth in only five career RIR Cup starts. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Brad Keselowski, although he only has four Cup starts here. Insider Tip: Junior raves about this joint, and Steve Letarte knows how to tune the car here. Only problem is that they'll most likely run conservatively — as they have for the last month.
Classic Moments at Richmond
The old .542-mile Richmond Fairgrounds layout is home to an early season shocker on Feb. 21, 1982, in the Richmond 400.
A crash by leader Joe Ruttman on lap 244 brings out the caution, and the leaders head to pit road — except for one. With thick, black clouds in the area, Dave Marcis’ crew chief, Jerry Darling, instructs his fourth-place driver to stay out as Richard Petty, Benny Parsons and Dale Earnhardt pit.
The strategy works, as the sky opens and a torrential rain falls, forcing NASCAR to call the event.
“During the red flag I didn’t exactly pray for the rain to continue,” Marcis says. “But I said if the Good Lord ever wanted to help a poor ol’ independent driver who fields his own cars and builds his engines, then this was His chance.”
Clint Bowyer in the wall after contact with Juan Pablo Montoya at Atlanta. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Tom Bowles
Kermit the Frog may have it tough being green, but in the muppet-like drama of NASCAR I’m betting it’s 1,000 times tougher to be driving the red No. 42 Target Chevy these days. Indeed, every driver appears to see a bulls-eye on Juan Pablo Montoya’s back, past the point of marriage counseling and consulting every lawyer possible to see if they can initiate stock car divorce.
“You can’t race around the jackass,” Clint Bowyer said as the “Oh, Snap!” quote of the shortened Sprint Cup week when he was eliminated in an ugly Tuesday wreck courtesy of Montoya’s front bumper. “You never can. Anybody in this sport knows what you’re up against when the No. 42 comes up. He dive-bombs the starts and bullies his way up in there and before you know it, he’s in the way and wrecking with somebody. I’m tired of it. Everybody in the garage area fights him. He’s just an idiot.”
Some may dispute that version of events — including Montoya himself, who wasted no time pulling his patented “counterpunch” where taking blame was the last item on the agenda. “I heard that Bowyer wasn't too happy,” he posted on Twitter. “I guess next time he'll give me a little room.”
Who’s really at fault? I don’t think in matters, because in looking back at this incident, there’s one quote I find hard to disagree with Bowyer on: no one seems to be on Montoya’s side, regardless of truth. Shockingly enough, in this “peace and love” era of NASCAR where information sharing is second nature, Montoya really has become the sport’s red herring — the one man few, if any, can stand.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick cross-section of those not on Montoya’s Christmas card list. Grab a cold one and get settled in, because this one could take awhile …
Jamie McMurray (teammate) McMurray’s partnership with Montoya was ruined on a rare occasion where the Colombian became a clear victim. But after McMurray wrecked out the No. 42 at Las Vegas in the spring of 2010, it was Montoya who stepped over the line.
“I'm sure [McMurray] is going to say, 'Oh, I didn't mean that,'” he said after heading to the garage early. “Every time I'm around him, he wants to run the s--t out of me. I don't know if it's OK to say that but I just did [laughing]. He's just trying to prove to people he can drive a race car and I guess he isn't doing too many favors on this team.”
Montoya’s wife, Connie, even went a step further, insinuating in Spanish that McMurray “drives like a giant chicken” on Twitter. The two have supposedly made up since, but when your co-worker says that to you is it really so easy to forgive and forget?
Brad Keselowski Montoya’s disgust with Keselowski began earlier this year at Sonoma when the No. 2 Dodge used the No. 42 for “Target practice” en route to a fifth-place finish.
“We (went) through the corner and I just got on his bumper a little bit and moved him a little,” Montoya said of the pre-wreck contact. “Got a good run and I guess he didn’t like it. I mean, it is just hard to run with people who have never run well on road courses or have no experience at it.”
As expected, Keselowski hardly waved the white flag of surrender in response.
“The body language of Juan’s car said he was going to wreck me,” he explained. “I just made sure that didn’t happen.”
Kasey Kahne Just laps earlier in that same Sonoma event it was Kahne who ended up wounded after Montoya drove through his No. 4 Red Bull Toyota. That caused the Washington native, normally as quiet as can be, to get personal.
“Montoya just drove through me at the top of the hill … that’s just obvious,” he said. “Last year when [the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing] cars were really, really good and Jamie McMurray was the man, Juan still couldn’t win a race. That shows about what he can do here in NASCAR anyways.”
Mark Martin For years, Martin’s been known as one of the cleanest drivers this sport has ever seen (although I’ll admit 2011 has been a black mark on that reputation). But try telling that to Montoya, who’s complained at times that the gray-haired veteran becomes a moving obstacle on-track.
“He didn't like the way I passed him there on the last lap,” Martin said after the two had issues in Chicagoland last year. “[Called it] borderline stupid driving and suggested I take some smart driving lessons from him.” Montoya also complained about Martin’s driving style when — gasp! — the No. 5 car held its winning line during the closing laps of a fall 2009 Loudon race where the No. 42 wound up second.
Tony Stewart It’s been awhile since Smoke, err … blew his top. But remember the 2009 Homestead season finale? He turned racing with Montoya into a high-speed game of bumper cars with disastrous results. The two haven’t exactly been friends since.
Montoya and Joey Logano. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Kyle Busch In the days before “New Kyle,” the old version would rant about literally everything that happened to him on-track. The July 2010 Coke Zero 400 was no exception, but this time Busch had evidence to back it up, claiming Montoya flat out wrecked him while battling for the lead at Daytona on Lap 104.
“The replay shows I turned right across the nose of the 42, so apparently I wanted to wreck myself,” he said. “Some people don’t understand what happens in these cars. With the old tires like that, I’ve got no grip, I’m barely hanging on sliding around as it is out there.”
Joey Logano The typically mild-mannered “Sliced Bread” nearly sliced Montoya in half after the two made contact at Homestead last year. How bad did it get? Felix Sabates, Montoya’s co-owner, literally threatened J.D. Gibbs title contender Denny Hamlin would wind up wrecked if Logano didn’t cut it out. Apparently, the youngster (are you sensing a theme?) was upset about the way he was being raced, retaliating after the first incident so both men would end their day with time spent inside the garage.
“I gave him plenty of room,” Logano said. “I just felt like I got hooked. That’s two times with him this year. I don’t know what the deal is.”
“It just seems like he runs over somebody every week,” Harvick said that day, and he should know, as these two have made contact several times over Montoya’s five years in Cup, averaging to about once a season. Perhaps RCR’s most heated intra-Cup rivalry until …
Clint Bowyer See Atlanta. Tuesday. And a Cheerios car that looks like mush.
Ryan Newman The No. 1 anti-Montoya suspect. These two tangled both on the track and off this spring, after a series of Richmond incidents inciting a meeting in the NASCAR hauler where Newman supposedly socked Montoya. It was a prizefight no one would actually confirm happened, even though when reached for comment it was the Colombian who said, “Newman punches like a girl.”
Frankly, these two have had it out for each other ever since Montoya’s Homestead Cup debut went up in flames after they tangled in 2006. It got so bad this time around, the “suckerpunch victim” threatened legal action unless NASCAR dished out one of those “secret fines” to his Stewart-Haas Racing rival.
Jimmie Johnson Where do we begin? The latest tiff between the two occurred in July, when contact up in New Hampshire sent Johnson spinning and forced the No. 48 into hyper-aggressive mode simply to claw back up to fifth by the finish.
“The No. 42 — I don’t think of the three times he’s wrecked me it’s been intentional,” said Johnson. “But he’s out of mulligans. I’ve had enough of, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, and you’re spun out.’ It’s happened way too often.”
Apparently, that’s the case with everyone. So far, we’ve listed 10 drivers, nearly a quarter of the Sprint Cup field each week, with whom a Montoya feud has gone public — and that’s not including the private scrapes even the media can’t get hold of each week. Even those drivers some might classify as underdogs — like Regan Smith, who was a Montoya victim in May 2010 at Charlotte — have developed a grudge. But how could you now when the Colombian responds to an accident like he did after that one?
“It's just hard when you have guys that don't belong there running there,” Montoya said of Smith, who has now won just as many races (one) on the Cup level during the past two seasons. “He never gave me any room … I wanted to run the middle and he just turned down. That's what happens when you start by a lottery and not by performance, and he just doesn't have any [talent]."
The irony of it all is that it’s Montoya’s performance that has suffered the most. All of the drivers on this list, save Logano and Smith, have more career victories while more than half will make the Chase this season. Compare that to an ugly track record for Earnhardt-Ganassi’s top team, which will miss the playoffs for the second straight year and fourth time in five, currently sitting 21st in points and armed with just two top-5 finishes in 25 starts. But don’t expect Montoya himself to take the blame for that, as his crew chief Brian Pattie was axed in July after playing “anger management” on top of the pit box for three seasons.
Bowyer may have stepped over the line in calling Montoya names. But when will Montoya utter the two most important words all these drivers want to hear?
An “I’m sorry” would go a long way, right? But I guess the first problem with that is you actually have to believe that something was your fault.
OK, I'll humor you with the infamous Jeff Gordon "Rookie Sensation" poster by Sam Bass.
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jimmie Johnson Two runner-up finishes in the last three races but no wins since Talladega in April. It’s almost Chase time, though, and Johnson finds himself leading the pack (albeit in a controlled four-wheel drift) as September begins. Surprise, surprise.
2. Jeff Gordon Win No. 85 was a hard-fought victory for Gordon, and possibly one of the best finishes this season. The 24 team is going to be hard to handle in the playoffs. (Sorry folks, no ‘stache and mullet jokes. There’s plenty of those hack jobs on every other power ranking post this week.)
3. Kyle Busch The handle on Kyle’s car went away prior to halfway at Atlanta and never came back. After three consecutive top-3 runs at Pocono, the Glen and Bristol, the 18 team has showings of 14th and 23rd. Will rebound at RIR.
4. Brad Keselowski The “Top 3 Streak” came to an end, but Keselowski still stood strong, notching a sixth at Atlanta. His average finish over the last six races is 2.8.
5. Carl Edwards It’s hard not to figure the 99 team has been in R&D mode. That may be over, though, after Carl turned up the heat at AMS, duking it out with the leaders all day and finishing fifth.
6. Matt Kenseth Kenseth makes for a popular sleeper Chase pick but he’s straight faded in the closing laps the last two weeks and that can’t happen in the Chase.
7. Ryan Newman Newman was more or less out to lunch at Atlanta after seven pretty nice looking performances. We’ll chalk it up to not being able to have a good day every day.
8. Denny Hamlin Denny would have to choke harder at Richmond than he did in last year’s Chase to miss the playoffs. Yeah, that’s harsh but it’s the truth.
Kurt Busch is bringing the bell bottom look to NASCAR firesuits. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
9. Kurt Busch Like the little girl with the curl, Kurt can be very, very good or very, very bad. Problem is, that doesn’t translate into Chase success.
10. Kevin Harvick After back-to-back 22nd-place finishes, Harvick and the boys rebound with a respectable seventh at AMS. Still, something is amiss here.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’ll probably make the Chase, but at this rate that’s about all you can expect.
12. Tony Stewart Finally broke out of a nasty slump with a big third-place showing at Atlanta. More should follow. Should.
13. Martin Truex Jr. He keeps showing flashes of brilliance but just can’t finish like the big boys.
14. AJ Allmendinger Somehow ranks 13th in the standings. Probably because that’s about where he finishes each week.
15. Clint Bowyer If you were at work, YouTube his comments about Juan Pablo Montoya. Classic.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Paul Menard
Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter@MattTaliaferro
It’s been almost 19 years since a 20-year-old Jeff Gordon made his first NASCAR Sprint Cup start. The day was November 15, 1992; the race the Hooter’s 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And it would go down as the most notable of the sport’s modern era.
Gordon making his first start, Richard Petty his last; six drivers entered the season finale with a mathematical shot at the title; the underfunded, single-car outfit of Alan Kulwicki edged Junior Johnson’s powerhouse team headed by Bill Elliott for the championship by outsmarting it. It’s a race talked about to this day and revered for its significance.
Fast forward to a 40-year-old Gordon, now a four-time champion and elder statesman of the sport. He may never catch Richard Petty’s unattainable 200 wins, but win No. 85 placed him alone in third on NASCAR’s all-time wins list — and the sight of the achievement came at a track that will always be linked to Gordon: Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“I’ve always enjoyed this racetrack,” Gordon said. “Running my first race here, winning some big races here, celebrating championships here — this place has always been a place I’ve enjoyed going to.”
Gordon fought protégé teammate and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson in a thrilling dogfight over the final 11 laps at AMS to win the AdvoCare 500.
“To me (this race) is going to stand out in my mind because it’s a great victory,” Gordon said. “And certainly when you’re battling with a guy as talented as Jimmie and a team as good as they are, it’s definitely going to be one (a win) that’s significant.”
The race was delayed nearly two days after heavy rains from what was Tropical Depression Lee saturated the Atlanta area, postponing Sunday’s Labor Day weekend race to Tuesday morning. Gordon, who started fifth, found the race lead by lap 46 and led 100 of the next 156 laps. On lap 202, the race went into a rain-induced caution and red-flag period. Another yellow for rain followed just one lap after the field had gone back to green.
Matt Kenseth, who led 64 laps, had taken control of the race by then, followed closely by Gordon, Johnson and Carl Edwards.
An accident involving Mark Martin and Regan Smith on lap 251 brought out the event’s final caution. Johnson, Edwards, Kenseth and Gordon occupied the first two rows when the race went green, and Johnson sprinted out to a decisive lead.
Gordon picked off the contenders one-by-one, though, passing Kenseth for third with 64 laps to go and Edwards for second with 60 remaining. Eleven laps later, he squeezed by Johnson and led for eight laps.
Green flag pit stops for fresh tires and gas found Gordon with a shrunken advantage over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate as the field’s stops cycled through. And although the duo sparred, slid and roared door-to-door through the race’s final dozen laps, Gordon never relinquished the lead.
“I just didn’t have enough to get by (Gordon),” Johnson said of the final duel. “I got inside of him a couple times, got to the outside once, and just didn’t have enough regroup to kind of get there and stay there. The time I got to the outside of him, I felt I was going to be in good shape. But I think we had a lap car get in the way there and use me as a pick a little bit, couldn’t complete the pass.”
Tony Stewart charged through the top 10 over the final 70 laps to finish third. Kurt Busch and Edwards rounded out the top 5.
Brad Keselowski finished sixth, but more importantly, secured one of the two wild card spots in the Chase. Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman also clinched Chase berths based on points earned.
Brad Keselowski had sniffed the lead all night long, but it wasn’t until the final restart of the Irwin Tools Bristol Night Race that he finally grabbed it and took it as his own. Keselowski shot past Martin Truex Jr. on the race’s final restart, and with clean air and a clean windshield, cruised to an impressive win at Bristol Motor Speedway’s famed night race.
Keselowski — the hottest young phenom on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit — used crafty pit road work by himself and his No. 2 Penske Racing team to position himself on the outside of the front row beside Truex after the race was flagged for its final caution period. And when the green flag waved with 80 laps remaining, his four tires propelled him past Truex’s two, and the Michigan native walked away with his third win of the season.
“The Bristol Night Race!” An ecstatic Keselowski yelled from Victory Lane. “This is a race like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt win — this is a race of champions! There’s races that pay more, there’s races that might have a little more prestige, but this is the coolest damn one of them all. We won today!”
Truex, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top 5.
Keselowski’s win is the latest result in a hot streak out of the second-year Cup driver that has witnessed runs of ninth, first, second, third and first in the last five races. In that time he has vaulted up the Sprint Cup championship rankings, from 23rd to 11th, just 21 points out of the final spot in the Chase for the Championship standings. Whether he catches Tony Stewart in 10th is almost irrelevant, as Keselowski’s three wins all but guarantee him a wild card slot in NASCAR’s Chase playoff system. However, wild card entries into the Chase are not awarded bonus points for wins, so if Keselowski fails to qualify via points, his victories — and the 30 points he would receive for them — would be voided.
“Twenty-one points is still a lot of points,”?Keselowski said. “That means you’ve got to beat the guy (in 10th) by over 10 positions over the course of two races. Beating Tony Stewart by an average of 10 positions over two races — that’s going to be pretty tough to be honest.
“I’m just happy with what we’ve done here tonight and I hate to look too far ahead, but having those (bonus) points for three wins would be huge in the Chase.”
Keselowski’s unlikely run began with a ninth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his fifth top-10 run of the season. But a broken ankle sustained in a practice crash at Road Atlanta looked to derail his Chase hopes. However, Keselowski soldiered on, notching a surprising win at Pocono just days later and followed that up with an even more unlikely runner-up showing at the road course in Watkins Glen. A third-place run at his home track in Michigan was his career best finish on the two-mile oval and preceded the unlikely Bristol triumph on Saturday.
“Keselowski (and) those guys are on a roll right now,” the four-time champ Gordon said. “We all have to keep our eye on him. He’s strong. They’re to me as strong of a team out there as there is.
“Since (the Road Atlanta crash) he’s been on fire. He proved to all of us he’s tougher than we thought. We always knew he was a great racecar driver.”
Johnson’s fourth-place finish tied him atop the point standings with Kyle Busch, who had an uncharacteristically off night at Bristol, finishing 14th.
The top 5 in the standings — Busch, Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick — are all locked into the Chase. Denny Hamlin currently occupies the final wild card spot courtesy of his win at Michigan in June.