Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Auto Club Speedway
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Strong start, but when does Dale Earnhardt Jr. win?
Depending on how you judge these things, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the most impressive start to a NASCAR Sprint Cup season in his career. The claim comes with Earnhardt, now second in the point standings, putting together his best average finish (5.0) after four races since he started full-time in 2000.
Or, you could say that it's just been a really consistent start for NASCAR's top-billed man that rivals the start he worked in 2004. That season, he won the Daytona 500 and the season's fourth race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a start only derailed by a miserable day at Las Vegas in the season's third race.
Each, of course, has their merits. But only one — the incredibly consistent current campaign — matters now. It also begs the question we've asked of Earnhardt plenty in the last half decade: when he is going to win?
A trip to Auto Club Speedway for Earnhardt may provide that answer. It's a track that he both welcomes as a driver's venue and one where he's shown moderate past success. It doesn't hurt that four of the last nine races have been won by Hendrick Motorsports.
"You can run the bottom; you can run on the apron; you can run on the top. It’s a very fun racetrack to drive," Earnhardt said. "And so I’ve got a good attitude about it. I think Steve (Letarte, crew chief) is going to give me a good car. We ran good last year because Steve gave me a good car.”
Earnhardt was scored third last year when rain ended the race on lap 129, good for his fourth top 5 at ACS in 20 career starts.
"There are opportunities to pass when you run a guy down, you can change the line you’re running and get some clean air on your car," Earnhardt said. "You feel confident that if you do the right thing and drive the car well, that you can make a pass. I love that about that racetrack."
2. Toyota still waiting on the checkers to blow their way.
Another Sprint Cup entity hoping to break in to the win column Sunday is a bit larger than even Earnhardt. Toyota, winners of the last nine Nationwide Series races contested at ACS, has yet to find Victory Lane in a Sprint Cup car at the southern California speedway that stands closest to the Torrence, Calif.-based Toyota Racing Development facility where all TRD engines and other parts are manufactured for Toyota teams.
To do so Sunday, they'll have to break a five-race streak of wins held by the Chevrolet camp in NASCAR's top division. Helping the cause will be the addition of Matt Kenseth to the Toyota fold. The former Roush Fenway Racing Ford driver has three wins in Fontana. Kenseth, already a winner at Las Vegas two weeks ago, appeared on pace to grab another before Jeff Gordon's flat tire forced his exit at Bristol last week.
Kenseth will be pushed by his teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin was running second last year until an ill-advised pit stop as rain closed in on the track dropped him back in the pack to finish 11th. Kyle Busch was also plenty strong a year ago at ACS, leading 80 of 129 completed laps before taking second to Tony Stewart.
“We’ve had really fast race cars everywhere we’ve gone so far. Fontana is another place where I’ve always fared well over the years, and I’m hoping we can finally get that victory we’ve been looking for this weekend," Busch said.
Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Stewart-Haas Racing ready for turnaround?
More than just a win, the drivers representing Stewart-Haas Racing are looking merely for a few doses of good fortune. Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart are packed neatly together in the point standings at 23rd and 24th, respectively, and just ahead of rookie teammate Danica Patrick in 28th.
Already in 2013, Stewart has wrecked twice (a victim of a pack crash at Daytona and a flat tire at Bristol) while Newman has crashed due to a flat tire at Phoenix and a blown engine at Las Vegas. Stewart, at least, isn't worried. He thinks the finishes will come thanks in part to how well the Stewart-Haas organization has taken on the third full-time car with Patrick behind the wheel. He says the team has avoided alienating the new rookie driver in Patrick like he's seen others do in the past — to the extent that Newman and Patrick are akin to brother and sister.
They're also feeling some of the added home-track pressure usually reserved for racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Haas Automation, the company of team co-owner Gene Haas, is also located in southern California.
"(Newman and Patrick) get into conversation that I actually get uncomfortable with and I’m like, ‘Alright, you guys go ahead and talk about this, I’m leaving,'" Stewart said. "That’s hard to do with me, so she fits in really well with us as a group.'"
"I guess I give ourselves a better grade than where we were this time last year because everyone is working together a lot better and they’re a lot more comfortable with each other.”
4. Going’ back to Cali? Just fine for Jimmie.
The state of California, according a simple Wikipedia search, has been the subject of more than 390 songs recorded by a group of artists eclectic and diverse as the nation's third-largest state. A native son of The Golden State, Jimmie Johnson probably doesn't need even one of those for motivation to deliver results at Auto Club Speedway.
No, Johnson doesn't need any of The Beach Boys, Katy Perry or Notorious B.I.G. Even the Eagles can stay on pause. Especially the Eagles.
That's because the two-mile Southern California speedway could easily be argued as the very best track for Johnson and his No. 48 team. Johnson scored his very first Sprint Cup win in Fontana in 2002 (the first of now 61) and his since taken the checkered flag at ACS four more times. He has more wins at three other tracks, but Johnson's average finish at ACS is the best of any track outside of the two races he's participated in at Kentucky Speedway.
Johnson, 10th last year, hasn't finished outside the top-10 at ACS since 2006.
5. Championship race already taking shape?
Four races is entirely too small of a sample size to accurately pick title contenders when 22 races remain before the start this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. But in a year with a new car style, it's not outlandish to think the likelihood that those teams who are strongest to start the season will keep that pace through the end of it.
To that end, six of the top seven drivers in the current Sprint Cup point standings are the same ones who comprised the top six spots in the final rundown of last year's title fight. The seventh of that group — Dale Earnhardt Jr., now second in points — missed two races in the 2012 Chase thanks to concussion symptoms.
Certainly, nothing is a lock between Sunday's 400-miler and September's race in Richmond. But it's got to be ominous for the competitors of Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin to see how strong they've been to start this year. Of those six, only Biffle (down four spots in the standings year-to-year) and Hamlin (one spot back from post-Bristol 2012) have regressed from this time a year ago. Meanwhile, Keselowski is up 12 spots in the point standings from a year ago, Johnson is up 14 spots and Kasey Kahne is up an astounding 25 spots over last year.
Drivers who represented the back half of last year's final standings, though, are leaving their spots completely up for grabs as of now. Jeff Gordon, now 24th in the standings, is 17 spots lower than his finish a year ago. Tony Stewart is 15 spots down.
Sure, there's a ton of racing left. And sure, anything can and will happen. But when guys like Keselowski, Johnson and Bowyer are hot already, you have to wonder what everyone else is going to do to catch up.
The California Etc.
Five drivers have completed all 1,283 laps competed in the Sprint Cup Series so far in 2013, including Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. … Just as it did at Las Vegas and Bristol, Goodyear is bringing the same tire compound from 2012 to Auto Club Speedway. There was no test in the new Gen-6 car at the track … Sunday marks the 24th Sprint Cup Series race in Fontana, and three drivers (Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte) have started every race … Jimmie Johnson is the only current driver to finish on the lead lap in every start at Auto Club.
Over the last 13 years, NAPA ads have become the most common and sometimes completely mind bending ads during a Sunday race (like you’ve never involuntarily blurted out “N-N-N-NAPA Know How!”). This spot from 2003 kind of comes off a little rough on Mikey, but what’s more shocking is to actually see Teresa Earnhardt.
by Vito Pugliese
9. "Deadpan" Dale Jarrett
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UPS had one of the more memorable ad campaigns when it signed on with Dale Jarrett in 2001. It was a relationship that lasted through the 2008 season, but it wasn’t until UPS joined Roush Fenway Racing that they actually painted the car brown on a regular basis. This spot from 2007 features Ned Jarrett — who I wish ESPN would have the good sense to let call a few laps with Bob Jenkins at The Brickyard this year; maybe invite Ken Squier in the mix as well.
by Vito Pugliese
8. Dick Trickle: 0-243
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During NASCAR’s ascension to national prominence in the 1990s, one of the keys to its success was getting a mention during ESPN’s SportsCenter, where Dan Patrick always made a point to let you know where Dick Trickle finished. Another key was self-deprecating humor, as Dick proves in this NAPA spot.
by Vito Pugliese
7. Domo arigato, Mr. Kenseth
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What’s this? Another NASCAR commercial with a Wisconsin racing hero? Matt Kenseth won the last Winston Cup in 2003, and was featured in this spot for Nextel. This ad is not only funny — as the knock on Kenseth at the time was that he was void of personality (not true) — but accurate, considering how Kenseth can still get out of 130-degree car after four hours and talk at Mach 2 without taking a breath. If only they had the foresight to bank this one for Jimmie Johnson … they really could have had some fun with it.
by Vito Pugliese
6. Backseat Driver
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ESPN had a slew of great NASCAR spots during the 1998 season with its “NASCAR Ride Along Program.” This one with Richard and Kyle Petty was one of the best, with The King offering some backseat driving for Kyle. For some reason, I have a feeling these conversations actually did take place on the way back to Level Cross.
by Vito Pugliese
5. Toyota Comes to Cup
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When Toyota came to the Cup Series in 2007, it faced a bit of an uphill battle. It was the first time since the 1950s that a foreign automaker had competed in NASCAR’s premier division. Toyota had to hit it right and knew it should tread lightly to gain fan acceptance and prevent an outright revolt – which appears to have happened with these R/C cars. Note Tony Stewart’s ode to Vince Neil with that hair.
by Vito Pugliese
4. Now They Throw the Flag!
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Another one of the “NASCAR Ride Along Program” spots, this one featuring Keyshawn Johnson and Mark Martin. These two are either great actors or actually got along very well.
by Vito Pugliese
3. There’s Two Ways To Do This…
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When the 2000 Chevy Monte Carlo debuted, it had a swoopy new body that emphasized lower drag and vastly improved downforce. After getting it’s headed handed to it by the Ford Taurus for two years (well, other than that No. 24 car…) Chevrolet’s new car was inexplicably heralded by … the Tasmanian Devil? Not sure why they’d select a babbling, sputtering maniac with an acute case of Tourette’s, but at least they managed to have the Earnhardt’s in this commercial together. As with the ad with the Richard and Kyle Petty spot, this one hit the mark probably because it was more fact than fiction. If you haven’t seen this one in a while, it’ll make you miss him that much more.
by Vito Pugliese
2. Speed Up!
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This Gatorade ad from 2003 featured 2002’s Rookie of the Year runner-up and the Winston Cup runner-up from the same season. Mark Martin looks more “D-FENS” from the movie “Falling Down” than a driver’s training instructor (and drives like him too). This would be the second time in a few months that Martin would drive into the side of Jimmie Johnson, as his power steering locked up on the pace lap of the fall Talladega race the season before, eventually costing Martin the title. Looks like Jimmie rebounded OK, though. As fair and gentlemanly as Martin has been throughout his career, I’ve always feared he’d snap one day and do this for real.
by Vito Pugliese
1. Octane 93
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This commercial with Jeremy Mayfield lives on in Mopar lore as one of the greatest ads ever. Kind of ironic that she’s pouring a bunch of chemicals in a tub … something that Jeremy would apparently develop an affinity for in later years. Jeremy’s date in this one is Candice Michelle, who would later go on to GoDaddy.com and WWE fame. She actually slides through the window like a champ. Oh yeah.
“Humdrum” is a word typically used to describe the racing action at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The two-mile Michigan clone was originally designed — it has received some touch-up work since being completed in 1997 — to be optimal for IndyCar-style race cars. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race might not offer much in terms of outright excitement, but there are some meaningful story lines hidden within a four-race sample size of advanced metrics.
Several driver and teams need a good outing — two of them are mentioned below — to right a wrong or two from earlier races this season. The hottest driver in the sport typically leaves California under a deluge of disappointment. As usual, if we focus on the stories behind the numbers, the overall game becomes far more intriguing.
7.000 After four races, Brad Keselowski has the highest Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) — a measure of a driver’s on-track production in an “all equipment even” scenario — in the Cup Series with a 7.000 rating.
The last time the No. 2 Penske Racing entry was this good, it was 1993, Rusty Wallace was the driver and the car was probably running on traction control. Keselowski’s bunch is a little more buttoned up, allowing him to capitalize on driving for the most consistent-finishing team in the Cup Series (a finish deviation of 0.6; a zero deviation is perfectly consistent). Keselowski has earned pairs of fourths and thirds to comprise his 3.5-place average finish, two of which were on tracks at which he has previously been a mundane producer (Phoenix and Las Vegas). Even more amazing is that the team has finished higher than its average running positions — 18th at Daytona, seventh at Phoenix, fifth at Las Vegas and ninth at Bristol — in each race. The team is frighteningly strong, but the ever-improving driver is earning his keep.
-1.188 Keselowski ranks 48th out of 49 drivers in PEER at Auto Club Speedway after averaging a finish of 22.8 in his only four Cup Series starts at the facility.
So yes, a driver off to a tremendous start to the season comes up against racetrack that has historically been a buzz killer for him. Something is sure to change on Sunday.
15.4 The start to Kasey Kahne’s 2013 season is 15.4 positions better than his first four-race effort last year.
To think that Kahne has essentially cut his average finish after four races in half is pretty nutty, though, when he was averaging a 29.8-place result following Bristol last year, it too was unfathomable for the consistently strong producer. To be fair, his win last Sunday and his second-place outing at Las Vegas are carrying his current 14.5-place average and his 16.5 finish deviation is the fourth-least consistent in the series. Kahne’s start to the season isn’t as explosive as Keselowski’s jump out of the starting blocks, but it is a foundation on which to build and can allow Kahne and his crew to focus more comfortably on Chase preparation rather than digging out of a hole created by spinning its tires at the start of a new year.
Kyle Busch owns 53 career Nationwide Series wins. (ASP, Inc.)
40.6% Kyle Busch has led 333 laps, or 40.6 percent of laps, across four NASCAR Nationwide Series races this season.
Busch’s return to Joe Gibbs Racing in America’s favorite Saturday series has been lucrative, paying out a currency of dominant performances. He has two victories, including last Saturday’s woodshed whipping at Bristol, and has spent 95.5 percent of the last four races running inside the top 15. He now heads to Auto Club Speedway this weekend where JGR has captured wins in the last eight Nationwide races. Uh oh.
7.375 Jimmie Johnson’s 7.375 PEER across the last eight races at Auto Club Speedway is better than Keselowski’s four-race 2013 sample size that is presently the most productive of the series.
Johnson’s10th-place finish there last season almost seems like an aberration. During the CoT era the California native protected his home turf, winning three times and finishing second twice and third once across eight races. That 3.62-place average finish is, by far, the best average among drivers in that timeframe.
100% Other than Johnson, the only driver to have finished in the top half of fields in all eight races of the CoT era at Auto Club is Clint Bowyer, for a relevance percentage of 100 percent.
We can actually take this a step further; Bowyer has never finished in the bottom half of a Cup Series field in Fontana. His average finish through 12 races of “Gen-4” and “Gen-5” technology is 10.8. That average drops to 7.8 in the five races dating back to the summer of 2009. Hitting that average would be helpful to a No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team looking to make up ground lost in its 27th-place finish at Las Vegas. Outside of that result, Bowyer and team have earned finishes of 11th, sixth and fifth for an average of around 7.3, in the neighborhood of the driver’s average performance on the Golden State oval.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Food City 500 at Bristol.
Bristol: Far from capacity. (ASP, Inc.)
There’s nothing about a rough start to the NASCAR season a short track can’t fix. During a thrilling weekend in Bristol, the sport had a near-photo finish in Saturday’s Nationwide race (remember this name: Kyle Larson) and several thrilling moments during Sunday’s big show. After plenty of criticism — from a driver’s $25,000 fine to fans railing about Daytona’s single-file 500 — it’s hard to find anyone complaining about the action in Thunder Valley. But honestly, when’s the last time fans left a short track feeling they threw their hard-earned money down the toilet?
It certainly wasn’t last spring at Martinsville, when the Clint Bowyer – Jeff Gordon feud officially began. Or last fall at Richmond, where Gordon’s epic charge to second knocked Kyle Busch out of the Chase. My point? These three speedways, even in the worst of times, make fans flock to them faster than this Sunday’s two-mile tedium, otherwise known as Auto Club Speedway ever will.
With all that said …
FIRST GEAR: Bristol’s back. So why is the attendance still awful?
The number of empty seats at Bristol, one year after Bruton Smith’s latest reconfiguration recommended by the fans themselves, was an eye-opener. A track which once sold out for 55 consecutive Cup races, from 1982-2009, had chasms full of unsold tickets noticeable both at the track and on television. (NASCAR no longer releases official attendance). Considering Bristol has over 160,000 seats, even 50 percent capacity is more than a sellout at Martinsville, Darlington or other facilities which don’t even have that much room in the stands. But it’s also highly disturbing considering its “crown jewel” reputation as one of the sport’s must-see events.
It’s a shame, considering Sunday offered the perfect mix of Bristol’s magic elixir: unpredictability. 110 laps before the finish, leader Jeff Gordon blew a tire and took out himself and second-place Matt Kenseth, changing the complexion of the race. The personal fireworks were also there, in the form of a budding rivalry between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano (see below). Record speeds combined with a healthy 17 lead changes mixed side-by-side action with the on-track rubbing still needed at times to get by other competitors.
Two theories abound here. One: fans, skeptical of the sport and the Gen-6 car chose to stay home, sending a message that both drivers and track need to be worthy of their cash. (The night race, in August and closer to NASCAR’s Chase, draws better.) But the more likely scenario surrounds a disturbing amount of price gouging still prevalent within the region. Lodging that typically would be $100 or less a night during a typical weekend went for four-, five-, even six-times that.
No amount of ticket price discount can fix that hit to a blue-collar fan’s wallet. That’s especially true considering the track’s location, so close to many other fine facilities. If you’re a fan from Charleston, S.C., for example, why spend $1,000 on lodging, plus mileage when you’ve got Talladega, Atlanta and Charlotte within a similar driving distance — for half the price.
The economy always makes an argument here; in smaller markets, the races are the only major event hitting the region, meaning hotels have to maximize profits in order to survive. But the TriCities unemployment rate, along with job creation, has generally been stronger than the national average. Add in Smith’s billions and there’s no excuse to get this problem fixed, even though he’s powerful enough (see: getting the state of Kentucky to custom build roads for his speedway in Sparta).
Looks like its time for Smith to flex some muscle again. Otherwise, it’ll be years (if ever) before his most prized possession fills up to capacity.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s third wheel pushing for first-rate attention
Kasey Kahne’s Bristol success, while continuing a sizzling 2013 start, was a bit of a shock. Even after Sunday, his highest career average finish at any short track is Richmond, with a mediocre 18.0. That’s also the location of his last win at an oval this small, scoring his first Cup victory there in May 2005 before bookending his victory total with a 1.7-second, cruise-control performance down the stretch on Sunday.
“This is a big race for me,” he said Sunday after scooting ahead of Brad Keselowski on the final restart. “Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver, you really feel like you need to win at. It’s a big confidence builder.”
So is his habit of qualifying up front — a 3.5-place average start leads all drivers, along with 223 laps led in 2013. But most importantly, he’s not digging the type of 2012 hole that expended almost all this team’s energy simply to make last year’s Chase. Instead, he’s showcasing the type of versatility (second at Las Vegas, first at Bristol, one of the favorites at Daytona before wrecking out) that one needs to take home a title in this sport.
To do it, Kahne would have to leapfrog Johnson within the organization, a feat once thought impossible. But keep in mind, head wrench Kenny Francis — not from the Hendrick mold — can step outside the box of Chad Knaus. Those at HMS were impressed with the ideas he brought to the table in ’12 and many credit them for the organization’s resurgence. Francis, working out of a different shop, won’t have to play nice as consistently this fall and has the better pit crew, Johnson’s Achilles Heel, in each of the last two seasons.
Will it happen? I’ll still believe it when I see it. But four races in, Kahne has started making a case.
Joey Logano (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Old teammates, new rivalry?
It wasn’t long on Sunday before Joey Logano’s post-race shouting match with Denny Hamlin transcended typical NASCAR media and went national. It’s the second time in a month the two drivers have been at war. In February, it was over Daytona drafting that went awry and cost both a better finish.
“That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car – probably the worst teammate I ever had,” Logano said afterwards. “I had to put up with him for years, so… he’s just driving like an idiot.”
In his defense, Penske’s newest addition was right to place blame. Hamlin may not have meant to spin him, but all it takes is one frustrating bump at Bristol. The two have since taken to Twitter, spouting back and forth like high-schoolers (Hamlin, in particular, could sell t-shirts over his “Hush, little child” slam alone.)
What’s next? Both drivers are the emotional type, so this incident won’t get swept under the rug. Most importantly, Logano’s now matched with Brad Keselowski, who has a colorful history with Hamlin, and who had his own issues with the No. 11 on Sunday. The one who pushed to pair up, Kes has taken Logano under his wing, the type of mentorship Hamlin or Kyle Busch never gave at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s possible some bitterness still exists there, along with a push from the reigning champ to “stand up for yourself” that will only increase. Stay tuned.
FOURTH GEAR: Where there’s Smoke, there’s a slump
Say what you will about Danica Patrick. But four races into 2013, she’s got as many top 10s, more poles and more laps led than her boss. The race wasn’t 10 laps old Sunday before Tony Stewart hit the wall, his second wreck in four races that’s left him 24th in points. That’s one spot ahead of Ryan Newman, who was seventh at Bristol but has suffered two other spectacular DNFs.
Typically, that wouldn’t be a problem for Smoke; he’s noted for not winning much until May. But landing 30 points outside the top 10, even this early in the season, could prove problematic. There’s a lot of talent to jump over, a potential “wild card” threat already in Matt Kenseth (reading three-four wins, just as many DNFs to keep him needing that fallback) and the dangers of falling too far behind development of NASCAR’s Gen-6. The more damaged cars, the more costly it becomes, and with over a dozen races unsponsored amongst his three teams, the money is not exactly growing on trees.
Danica, though, presents the biggest question of all. Could her struggles, combined with the media scrutiny surrounding them, make it that much harder to get on the same page? It’s the biggest mess Stewart’s had since purchasing the team in ’09. Has he matured as a boss to keep calm and work his way through it?
OVERDRIVE Paul Menard, RCR’s most consistent driver in 2013, has run better each week. He was 21st, 20th, then 10th before running ninth on Sunday. … Brad Keselowski’s the first since rival Jimmie Johnson, in 2005, with four top-5 finishes in the first four races. The difference? Johnson picked up a win (Las Vegas) with 270 laps led overall. No wonder why Penske’s top dog is so ticked. … Considering Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s freshman-year start in the Nationwide Series – four races, four wrecks – you have to give him credit for his start in Sprint Cup. Four straight top-20 finishes, leaving him 11th in points is the perfect foundation considering he should improve as the season progresses.
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Bristol so you don't have to.
Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit rolls on to one of its most anticipated stops of spring for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Bristol, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
A-List 1. Jimmie Johnson
Hottest driver on the circuit. Johnson has an average running position of 4.2, best in the season’s first three races, and has the best average finishing position (3.0) in the series. Also, he has four consecutive top 10s at Bristol, most among active drivers.
2. Brad Keselowski
Not too far behind Johnson in the fast start category (average finish of 3.7) and heads to a track in Bristol where he’s won two of the last three races.
3. Matt Kenseth
Has led a series-high 128 laps this season with 86 of those coming in the Daytona 500. His 25th-place finish in the Bristol night race in August broke a string of six consecutive top-10 finishes there. He’s led in each of the last three Bristol races.
4. Denny Hamlin
Won the Bristol night race in August, leading 70 laps. Has two top-10 finishes in his last three starts there.
5. Kasey Kahne
Has best average start this season (4.0) on the circuit. Has three top-10 finishes in last five races at Bristol and led 42 laps there in the night race.
6. Clint Bowyer
Scored a pair of top-10 finishes last year at Bristol. Best finish so far this season is a sixth at Phoenix.
7. Jeff Gordon
Has been passed 44 more times under green than he’s passed this season and has an average start of 5.7 but average finish of 18.0 in 2013. Has not a had a top-10 finish in the spring Bristol race in the past three years.
8. Tony Stewart
Has not finished better than 14th in his last five Bristol races. Seems to be typical Tony where he starts the season slow (his best finish so far is an eighth at Phoenix).
9. Kevin Harvick
Harvick has an average running position of 16.6 in the first three races of this season. Has one top-10 finish in last eight races at Bristol.
Kyle Busch (ASP, Inc.)
List-B 1. Kyle Busch
Has highest driver rating in the last 16 races at Bristol and has led the most laps among active drivers during that time. Busch has seven top-10 finishes, including four wins, in his last nine Bristol starts.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Off to the best start of his career with three consecutive top-10 finishes. Has the best average finish (9.9) of any active driver in the last 16 races at Bristol. However, he’s finished between 11th and 16th in his last five Bristol starts.
3. Brian Vickers
Making season debut in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 car. Finished in the top 5 in both Bristol races in this ride last year, leading 126 laps.
4. Carl Edwards
Last year marked the first time since 2009 that he did not have a top-10 finish in either Bristol race.
5. Greg Biffle
Has been hot and cold at Bristol. Biffle has not had a top-10 finish in his last three starts there. Before that, though, he had four consecutive top-10 results. He has started in the first two rows in three of the last four Bristol races.
6. Paul Menard
He’s among nine drivers to have completed every lap so far this season. Has three top-10 finishes in last four Bristol starts. Also ranks 10th in average running position through three races this year.
7. Martin Truex Jr.
Has three consecutive finishes of 11th or better at Bristol.
8. Ryan Newman
Last year marked the first time since 2005 that Newman did not score at least one top 10 at Bristol. Team could use a rebound after the tough start it has had with two consecutive DNFs (accident at Phoenix and engine at Las Vegas).
9. Jamie McMurray
Has four top-10 finishes in his last six Bristol starts. He’s also led laps in two of those races.
10. Joey Logano
Finished eight in last August’s night race and led 139 laps. It was his first top 10 there in eight Cup races. Coming off a 12th-place finish at Las Vegas, his best since joining Penske Racing.
11. Kurt Busch
Still knows his way around Bristol but has not finished better than 17th in his last three trips there.
12. Aric Almirola
Has finished between 13th and 16th in the first three races of the season.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has one top-10 finish in his last four Bristol starts.
14. Marcos Ambrose
Finished fifth in night race last August and led a lap. Has run in the top 15 in only 11.2 percent of the laps run this season.
15. Jeff Burton
Has one top-10 finish in his last five Bristol races.
16. Bobby Labonte
Has not finished better than 13th in his last 10 Bristol starts.
List-C 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Running his first Cup race at Bristol. Finished second in Nationwide race there last August and sixth in the spring. This season, he’s made more green-flag passes in Cup (359) than any other driver, but he’s been passed 358 times under green as well.
2. AJ Allmendinger
Finished in top 20 in last two Bristol starts.
3. Travis Kvapil
Placed 18th in most recent Bristol race, his best finish there in last six starts.
4. David Gilliland
Placed 20th in August race, his best Bristol finish in last nine starts there.
5. Michael McDowell
Finished 23rd in night race last August for best Bristol finish in five starts.
6. Casey Mears
Has an average finish of 24.0 in first three races of the season. His average finish in his last three Bristol races is 23.0.
7. Landon Cassill
Finished in top 30 in both Bristol starts last year (24th and 29th).
8. Danica Patrick
Finished 29th in lone Cup start at Bristol in her career but did finish ninth in August Nationwide race there.
9. David Ragan
Has finished no better than 16th in last six Bristol starts.
10. Dave Blaney
Has failed to finish six of the last eight Bristol races with his best finish during that time 25th.
11. David Reutimann
Has finished no better than 21st in last three Bristol races since placing second there in August 2010.
12. JJ Yeley
After 10th-place finish in Daytona 500, placed 28th at Phoenix and 36th at Las Vegas.
13. Scott Speed
Has failed to finish the last two races, placing 41st at Phoenix and Las Vegas.
14. Terry Labonte
This would mark only his second Bristol start since 2009. Last ran there in 2011 night race, finishing 33rd.
15. Josh Wise
Finished 38th and 43rd in Bristol races last year.
16. David Stremme
Has yet to run a lap in the top 15 in a race this season.
17. Scott Riggs
Has finished 41st or worse in each of his last three Bristol starts.
18. Mike Bliss
Finished 43rd in August race, only Bristol start he made last year. Has failed to qualify for two of the first three races of the season.
19. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish last seven Bristol races, placing no better than 39th.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Kobalt Tools 400 in Las Vegas
Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff. (ASP, Inc.)
If Matt Kenseth were a betting man, he’d have bought a Play 4 ticket on the way out of Las Vegas.
The numbers? 3-3-3-3.
Kenseth, in the third race of the 2013 season, became career Sprint Cup driver number three to win a race on his birthday (joining Cale Yarborough and Kyle Busch). The new, third member of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable also has more career victories in Vegas (along with Auto Club Speedway) than any other track on the circuit: Three.
Too bad Richard Childress isn’t willing to part with that number, huh? To me, the number could also apply to something else we’re getting a sense of: the list of early title favorites. Has Kenseth snuck into that picture? Let’s find out while going “Through the Gears” after a weekend out in Sin City…
FIRST GEAR: The title is shaping up to be a Johnson-Keselowski affair
One driver was third, the other sixth. Neither was a factor for the win late at Vegas although they combined to lead a total of 78 laps. But a quick look at the first three races shows that Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, the same two men who battled down the stretch for the 2012 Cup Series title, are in cruise control up front.
Leading the points is the No. 48 team, with top-10 starting spots in every event, an average finish of 3.0 and a Daytona 500 trophy on the shelf. Crew chief Chad Knaus, who was lauded for being ahead of the curve with NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow chassis, was expected to do the same with the Gen-6. That’s what you expect from the best mechanic in the sport, and to his credit, Knaus has delivered.
Sitting five points behind Hendrick’s top team is Keselowski, who has battled through far more adversity but still has the same number of top-10 results (three-for-three). Considering the offseason changeover (new manufacturer, new teammate, new engines) the speed and versatility Penske Racing’s top team has shown is just as impressive. It’s driver’s confidence as reigning champ is palpable, retaining his outspoken nature while continuing a role as an emerging leader within the sport. While Denny Hamlin’s “slap on the wrist” from NASCAR caused him to be a bit off on Sunday, finishing 15th, Keselowski has had no such detours after his talking-to at Daytona. That’s what separates the good from the great: an ability to tune out distractions and fight through the pressure.
The Gen-6 car was supposed to provide a big opportunity for the other teams to catch up to this duo. But the standings three races in aren’t an indictment on those changes; instead, it’s a showcase of how this rivalry is elevating both drivers to remain head and shoulders above everyone else. Too bad we have to wait until the Chase in September for them to push down on the accelerator for good.
SECOND GEAR: Meanwhile, Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing sit as sleepers
No question, anyone with a brain and a pulse expected Kenseth to outpace Joey Logano in Joe Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota. But even the most optimistic of souls has to raise an eyebrow on what this new combination is doing. Three races in, Kenseth is one-half way towards the total number of victories that car has had in the past four years. His 128 laps led, a NASCAR best, is well on its way to eclipsing Logano’s four-year total of 337 in a matter of several weeks. If not for a faulty engine in the waning laps of the Daytona 500 this team could be out in front of everyone — a point that’s not been lost on its pilot.
“All three races we had a car, if everything would have went right, that we could have won,” he said Sunday night. “And it feels pretty awesome to have this win here.”
Kenseth’s emotions during and after Sunday’s victory made it clear he’s a man on a mission to prove the choice to leave Roush Fenway was the right one. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff has worked out well; his pit strategy of a fuel-only stop was the winning call.
So can JGR catch the top two? The beauty of it is that there is six months left in the regular season to fine-tune on intermediates. But unlike Kenseth, the rest of the stable has to stop shooting itself in the foot. Case in point: Kyle Busch’s speeding penalty, which knocked him out of the top spot at Vegas and threatened to derail his day. Denny Hamlin, for all the fan support he has surrounding the Gen-6 criticism, caused a huge distraction by reacting emotionally to the situation. Add in the motor problems and that’s why this Toyota trio remains a step below for the time being. But the speed is there.
Junior Nation: Loud and ... green. (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Earnhardt’s loss could be Gordon’s gain
This theme of “three” brings up the ghost of the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s late father, who is likely smiling down on how well his boy is handling the new Gen-6. Sitting third in points and joining Johnson and Keselowski as the only drivers with three top-10 results, the No. 88 car has shown a habit of improving consistently throughout an event. Part of that has to be the benefits of top equipment — after all, this team works in the same shop as Knaus and Johnson.
But for Earnhardt, there’s more at play. From the first day I arrived at Daytona, you couldn’t help but notice Earnhardt’s enthusiasm for 2013. It’s clear the Gen-6 chassis for him was considered a prime opportunity for redemption; he’s perhaps the only one unconditionally harping on its success every time the camera lights go on (or off). I remember, in particular, an unsolicited rant in the media center about how great the season would be after this year’s Daytona 500. It was something you would never have heard from him even two years ago, when crew chief Steve Letarte was just the last-ditch experiment and a slumping driver had lost his confidence. Now, Earnhardt has begun to believe, pushing forward mentally in a sport where the smallest edge can make the biggest difference.
Compare that to Jeff Gordon, whose success with the Gen-5 (a record 30 top-10 finishes in 2007, the first year it was introduced) was expected to repeat itself. Instead, three races in the fourth member of the Hendrick stable looks a level very much below his mates. What’s troubling here is the opposite of Earnhardt: Gordon goes backwards the second the green flag drops. His average start is 5.7, one of NASCAR’s best, yet the difference between those spots and where he finishes is a disappointing -37. He and Gustafson aren’t on the same page with adjustments, and that needs to change before it’s too deep a hole from which to recover.
FOURTH GEAR: The real Gen-6 grade: Incomplete, no matter how much NASCAR tries to push the issue
The official statistics say 22 lead changes, an increase over 2012. And the loop data for Vegas had 2,342 green-flag passes, the highest number in seven years. But despite the drivers trumpeting praise, seemingly as a result of Hamlin’s $25,000 fine for even suggesting the Gen-6 still needs some work, Sunday’s race was far from an A-plus. It wasn’t bad; clearly, the end-of-race battle alone with Kenseth and Kahne was worth the price of admission. But it still seems, as the cars settle in after a restart, passing 20 to 30 laps into a run is a risk drivers seem afraid to take.
One issue that might help continues to be the tires. Goodyear’s latest compound, while safe on Sunday, was so rock hard speeds didn’t fall off quickly enough. Considering Vegas’ surface is one of the more abrasive, there was a missed opportunity for a more “Atlanta” or “Rockingham” style race where that type of management came into play.
Instead, what we were left with was a race that had a few stops and starts but wasn’t the A++ version NASCAR covets. And a simple point in the wake of the Hamlin discipline remains: if things were so peachy with this new Gen-6, making everyone from fans to television partners happy, why feel the need to even control perception? Stepping in, managing a comment mostly forgotten gives the impression there’s something wrong even if those concerns are overblown.
Kenseth gets first win for Joe Gibbs Racing in third start.
Matt Kenseth celebrates in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
The biggest name in NASCAR's 2012 version of Silly Season made his presence known early in the 2013 season. Matt Kenseth, in only his third start with Joe Gibbs Racing, gave the No. 20 team its first win since June 2012, when he won the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Having spent the first 13 years of his Cup Series career at Roush Fenway Racing where he won two Daytona 500s and the 2003 title, Kenseth accepted one of the most coveted seats in the Sprint Cup Series with Gibbs’ No. 20 team — a group that had only two wins since Tony Stewart left the team following the 2008 season. In the season opener in Daytona, Kenseth was one of a handful of favorites but lost an engine while leading with just over 50 laps remaining. He followed that up with a workman-like top 10 at Phoenix.
On Sunday in Las Vegas, it all came together for the driver, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 bunch.
In classic Kenseth fashion, the Wisconsin native showed up when the money was on the line. In a race dominated by Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth assumed the lead late — with 41 laps remaining — and used clean air at the front of the field to his advantage.
A strategy call on a pit stop under yellow earned Kenseth the point. Taking zero tires while most others took two, he led the field to green and held the top spot even after the second-place machine of Brad Keselowski appeared to jump the start.
A blown engine in the Chevy of Ryan Newman precipitated another restart with 27 laps to go. Again, it appeared that Keselowski jumped the start, but no ruling came from NASCAR. Still, Kenseth recovered quickly, pulling by on the backstretch.
However, Kenseth’s toughest challenge would come from Kahne, who also disposed of Keselowski within a lap of the restart.
Kahne, who led a race-high 114 laps, prowled in Kenseth’s tire tracks for the final 26 laps, but in an ending that proved anti-climactic, never mounted a serious attempt at the pass. Clean air for the leader, coupled with a lack of front-end downforce on his No. 5 Chevy, forced Kahne to settle for second.
“We're only three weeks in, but man, all three races we had a car — if everything would have went right — that we could have won, and it feels pretty awesome to have this win here,” said Kenseth.
Keselowski, Busch and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5 on an afternoon that witnessed five caution periods.
NASCAR opened the track on Thursday for a test session to give teams extra time with the new Gen-6 car on the circuit’s first intermediate track stop. High-banked intermediate tracks — typically 1.5- or 2-miles in length — make up more than half of the Sprint Cup Series’ 36-race season. The new cars are designed with the intent to improve action on these tracks to allow more side-by-side racing.
Still, aero-dependency ruled the day on Sunday, as evidenced by Kahne not being able to pass Kenseth in the waning laps despite having newer tires — and by all outward appearances, a faster car.
“Clean air is like an extra tire,” said Carl Edwards.
“When I was out front my car was fast as heck,” Busch said. “As soon as (Kahne) went by me (for the lead) I was out of the racetrack, wrecking loose. I had to give up 10 car lengths to him in order to get my car comfortable again to where I could drive it.”
Those teams that were able to hit the setup thrived, as five cars — Kenseth, Kahne, Keselowski, Busch and Johnson — led 261 of the 267 laps. This on the heels of a largely single-file Daytona 500 and a veritably regular trip to Phoenix’s eccentric one-mile oval.
So while the cars may be a work in progress, the chemistry on JGR’s No. 20 team looks well ahead of the curve.
“I'm glad we got a win, but it's still only week three,” Kenseth said of his new team. “I feel like this is the beginning, you know, and I have a lot of confidence — I had a lot of confidence after our first meeting and decided to go do this and just had a great feeling about it. And I still do.”
The odd makers have spoken — and Vito Pugliese piles on
Photo by ASP, Inc.
As will be pointed out ad nauseam on FOX this weekend, Las Vegas is the home to gambling, betting, taking chances and all sorts of other illicit activities. So if you want to dial a cliché, cue up NASCAR’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. To honor this yearly tradition, the Vegas odds makers have beaten everybody to the punch and are already taking bets on who will win the race this Sunday.
Below is how things are shaping up according to the LVH Superbook. If you happen to be going this weekend or have buddy at a bachelor party on site (or still have access to some clandestine off-shore gambling sites) here are the top-10 drivers who stand a shot at making you some cash. Assuming nobody’s right front tire blows out.
JIMMIE JOHNSON 5-1
So far in 2013, Johnson has finished first and second — and he was whining about the latter result — so you know he’s going to be loaded for bear. The Hendrick camp always comes correct when there’s a new car, plus his sponsor is on the walls this weekend. Remember when Charlotte was Lowe’s Motor Speedway and he’d win everything in sight? This could be the second coming of this for JJ and company this weekend at a track where they’ve won four times in only 11 starts.
KYLE BUSCH 8-1
It has been an inauspicious start to 2013 for Kyle Busch, who blew an engine at Daytona and cracked the nose at Phoenix. He dominated the Nationwide race last Saturday in his Monster Energy car, but the odds makers are only concerned about what happens on Sunday. Las Vegas is Busch’s hometown, so it is the one track on the circuit where he won’t be showered with the kind of boos that are typically reserved for third world dictators once they’ve passed. Yah, hear that Hugo?! As high as Rowdy is on the list, he may find a rough go of it this weekend. Kyle does have a pair of poles and a win here back in 2009, but his last three finishes have been 23rd, 38th and 15th.
BRAD KESELOWSKI 8-1
Brad Keselowski is making great strides to project the persona of a Sprint Cup champion. His brutal honesty has gotten him in some hot water with NASCAR, but I seem to remember The Intimidator making a few pointed comments here and there that ended up helping the sport, as well. In 2013, Keselowski has had to work with a new car, a new manufacturer, his fourth teammate in two years and a new engine shop. No matter – a pair of fourth-place finishes have been the result, with Daytona being a constant battle with garbage bag bodywork. The Keselowski/Paul Wolfe combo have once again put this team on their collective back. You saw his championship interview at Homestead, so you know he likes to party. The Blue Deuce will be ready for Vegas.
MATT KENSETH 8-1
Matt Kenseth has shown muscle early in his move from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing. Two races in, and the No. 20 is running as it did in the Tony Stewart days. Kenseth had what may have been the strongest car in Daytona (at least the strongest car left) before it fell out with engine failure. He was near the front most of the day in Phoenix, as well. He and crew chief Jason Ratcliff are still working to get on the same page as far as adjustments and late-race decisions, but that is part of a process that takes time to perfect. Kenseth has won twice at LVMS, but back in the, uh, Generation 4 cars, though he did win a pole as recently as 2011. The understated Kenseth has made his bones in recent years on superspeedways, but he’s still a 1.5-miler at heart.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
CARL EDWARDS 9-1
After he crashed out of the Daytona 500, wiping out his fourth car of Speedweeks, Edwards declared that, “We’re just going to go to Phoenix and win.” He did just that, snapping a 70-race winless streak and showing Jay Glazer how to do a backflip without knocking yourself silly. Roush cars always run well at Las Vegas, having won seven of the 15 Cup races. Edwards snatched one away from Tony Stewart here in 2011, which coincidentally was the last race he had won before the Phoenix performance. Might we be seeing the resurgence of Edwards as a Sprint Cup contender? Vegas will be telling.
KASEY KAHNE 9-1
This season was supposed to be the year that Kasey Kahne went on a tear in his now-familiar Hendrick surroundings. So far, that tear has been more of a tear (i.e., the kind that run down your face when you are overwhelmed with unfathomable sorrow). Kahne was turned early at Daytona, and after a front row qualifying effort in Phoenix, the No. 5 faded to a 19th-place finish. The season is young, and so is Kahne, and girls still think he’s dreamy. The Beiber haircut is a bit disconcerting, but No. 5 is about to come alive as it did in 2009 and challenge for the championship. Half of Kahne’s 14 career wins have come on banked tracks 1.5 miles or larger (Charlotte, Texas, Michigan and California). Las Vegas fits that bill. So, there you go girls: he has a shot at winning this weekend. Just don’t try to claw at Miss Sprint Cup if she’s smiling at him in Victory Lane. That’s her job.
DENNY HAMLIN 10-1
Denny Hamlin seems to be regaining the performance, perspective and promise that he showed throughout the 2010 season when he won eight races and came this close to being a titlist. How his $25,000 fine — levied by NASCAR after he supposedly criticized the Gen-6 car — will affect him is a mystery. He was mad as hell during Thursday’s test session, which could serve him well. However, what he really needs are some wins to help set things off. That last lap banzai pass attempt on Jimmie Johnson missed by only about six inches at PIR, but his record of late in Vegas may come up even shorter: 20th, seventh, 19th and 22nd isn’t an encouraging stat-line.
TONY STEWART 12-1
Tony Stewart shows up to win in Las Vegas, particularly after becoming an owner, with finishes of seventh, second and first in the last three trips. The second-place run would have been a win, but miscommunication during a pit stop after leading 163 laps was his undoing. Stewart needs a rebound performance, especially after the crushing disappointment that was his Daytona 500. Stewart’s teammate has been getting most of the attention lately — not that that’s a bad thing — as has talk of Kevin Harvick coming on board at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. No matter. A few good finishes (and possibly a win this weekend) to follow up last season’s Vegas triumph will have Smoke catching fire en route to a possible fourth championship. How’s that for bad clichés?
JEFF GORDON 12-1
Gordon is in a similar situation as Stewart. A multiple-time champion who had bad luck at Daytona with rising water temps and falling water pressure had him falling back at the end after leading 31 laps. A top-10 run at Phoenix was steady, but there’s been nothing remarkable thus far. His last few years at LVMS have been up and down – sixth, third, 36th and 12th in the last four visits. Gordon has one win here (2001) but his most vivid Vegas memory was a last lap crash in ’08 that ripped the radiator and front end off the car. Hopefully, he doesn’t put the new Gen-6 car to the test this weekend in a similar fashion.
DALE EARNHARDT JR 12-1
This year looks to be picking up where 2012 left off for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Before he got a concussion at Talladega, that is. Second in points through two races with a pair of top 5s, Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte look to be killing ’em with consistency again. His recent record in Vegas is OK – 10th, 16th, eighth and 10th. At the very least, he’ll net a top-10 run, but wins are all that matter for the most part. If you’re picking him for a top-three run, he’s still a solid pick, as the Hendrick cars typically adapt quicker to car changes. And this one is supposed to drive more like the Generation 4 car, which Junior drove to 17 wins.
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Las Vegas so you don't have to.
Tony Stewart took checkers in Vegas last year. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season rolls on to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering up his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes—A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Las Vegas, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag (or at least finishing toward the front):
Won last year’s race after finishing second there the year before. Has led 290 of 534 laps (54.3 percent) run in the last two races at Las Vegas.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Has the highest driver rating (110.9) in the last eight races at Las Vegas. Also has the highest average finish of 9.4 during that span. Has a victory and a runner-up finish in last five starts but placed 16th or worse in the other three starts in that stretch.
3. Clint Bowyer
Has finished eight or better in three of the last four Las Vegas races. Also has qualified in the top four in three of the last four races on 1.5-mile tracks (same size as Las Vegas).
4. Jeff Gordon
Has run a series-high 84 percent of his laps in the top 15 in the last eight races at Las Vegas. Also has led the most laps (370) during that time, among current drivers.
5. Kevin Harvick
Has two top-five finishes in his last five Las Vegas races and has led 15 laps during that stretch.
6. Kasey Kahne
Has three poles in Vegas, including last year, but only finished 19th in the race.
7. Matt Kenseth
Won the pole in Vegas in 2011, but has one top-10 finish in last five starts here.
8. Denny Hamlin
Has never started better than 16th at Las Vegas. Has one top-10 in his last four starts there, a seventh in 2011. Has never led a lap in a Cup car at Vegas.
9. Brad Keselowski
Has never finished better than 26th in four career starts at Las Vegas. Best starting position in that time is a 13th in 2009. Also has led only one lap there.
Kyle Busch is in need of a solid finish. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch
Has started no worse than fifth in the last five races at his hometown track, but has only one top-10 finish, a win in 2009, during that stretch. Does have eight top-10 finishes in the last nine races on 1.5-mile tracks in the series.
2. Carl Edwards
Phoenix winner has finished fifth and first in his last two starts at Las Vegas.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has started in the top four twice in the last three years at Vegas and has four top-10 finishes in last five races here. Started fourth and finished 10th last year, leading 70 laps.
4. Greg Biffle
Has four top-10s in last five Las Vegas races, including a third last year, and has led 57 laps during that stretch. He’s also been running at the finish a series-high 38 consecutive races.
5. Ryan Newman
Has two consecutive top-five finishes at Las Vegas.
6. Mark Martin
Has one top-10 in last four Las Vegas races.
7. Kurt Busch
Scored two top-10 finishes in the four races on 1.5-mile tracks he ran with Furniture Row Racing at the end of last season.
8. Jamie McMurray
Finished eighth at Las Vegas last year, the second time in the last four races here he scored a top-10 finish.
9. Paul Menard
Finished 11th or better in two of the last three races on 1.5-mile tracks last season, including a third at Kansas. Placed seventh at Las Vegas last year.
10. Joey Logano
Has one top-10 in four career starts at Las Vegas.
11. Juan Pablo Montoya
Placed third at Las Vegas in 2011 but finished 25th here last year.
12. Marcos Ambrose
Has never finished worse than 20th in four starts at Las Vegas, placing 13th, fourth, 14th and 20th.
13. Martin Truex Jr.
Has one top-10 finish in seven career starts at Las Vegas.
14. Jeff Burton
Did not have a top-10 finish in any of the 11 Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks last season (best finish on such tracks was a 12th at Atlanta).
15. Bobby Labonte
Has finished 26th, 24th and 38th in last three Las Vegas races.
16. Aric Almirola
Has never finished better than 24th in a Cup car at Las Vegas in four starts.
1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
One of 12 drivers to have completed every lap in the first two races of the season.
2. Austin Dillon
Making Cup debut at Las Vegas. Finished seventh in Nationwide race here last year. Won a truck race at the track in 2010.
3. Casey Mears
Has a best finish of 13th in last five races at Las Vegas.
4. Danica Patrick
Making Cup debut at the track but has three Nationwide races here with finishes of 12th, fourth and 36th.
5. David Ragan
Finished seventh at Las Vegas in 2008, only time in six starts here he’s placed in the top 20.
6. David Stremme
Best finish at track is an 18th, which came in 2009
7. Dave Blaney
Finished no better than 29th in last three starts here.
8. Travis Kvapil
Has not finished better than 24th in last three Las Vegas starts.
9. David Gilliland
Has not finished better than 30th in last three Las Vegas starts.
10. David Reutimann
Finished 31st here last year. Best finish at track was a fourth in 2009.
11. Scott Speed
Finished 22nd at Las Vegas in 2010, last time he raced Cup here.
12. JJ Yeley
Failed to finish the last two races at Las Vegas.
13. Ken Schrader
Has not had a top-20 at Las Vegas since 2000.
14. Michael McDowell
Has never finished better than 38th in three career starts at track.
15. Mike Bliss
Finished 39th in 2010 in last start at the track.
16. Josh Wise
Finished 40th here last year in only Cup start at track.
17. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish in each of his last five starts here.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 from Phoenix.
Track position was key in Phoenix. (ASP, Inc.)
In the midst of a near two-year winless skid on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, Carl Edwards, perhaps more than any driver, needed a confidence boost. And after winning the Subway Fresh Fit 500 — in only his second start with crew chief Jimmy Fennig — that’s exactly what the Missouri native received at Phoenix International Raceway.
After the No. 99 team wrecked five cars during a devastating two months at Daytona — perhaps Roush Fenway Racing’s most expensive Speedweeks ever — Edwards rebounded big at Phoenix. Ending a 70-race winless streak puts him in perfect early-season position to make the Chase — a feat he failed to accomplish in 2012. But besides that stat-busting, feel-good ending, did NASCAR have anything else to hang its hat on with the Gen-6 chassis in its first competitive visit away from a plate track?
Whether they made the grade on an unrestricted track starts us “Through the Gears” on stock car competition out in the desert…
First Gear: Gen-6 + Goodyear + Phoenix = Needs Improvement
All you needed to know about the tires at Phoenix came from a mid-race pit stop. Mark Martin, who had been leading along with Tony Stewart, took four tires while most everyone else took two. That left both sitting mid-pack, hoping fresh rubber would lead to better speed in the long run.
It didn’t. With passing at a premium, Stewart claimed his car arguably handled worse as both men were stuck in neutral, near the back half of the top 20. Under the right scenarios, each would have had top-5 cars but were handicapped by the horror of the words that continue to plague NASCAR racing: track position.
Track position means you can turn off the television when Carl Edwards wins a race off pit road with 70-something laps remaining. Track position racing means you can see two cars, running nose-to-tail in a battle for position, never get side-by-side. It means a race gets won by a call a crew chief makes in his head, which is fun for engineering students but harder to translate into a three-hour, on-air television broadcast. There’s a reason they don’t televise chess on FOX, after all.
So what was the problem at Phoenix? New pavement coupled with Goodyear tires that just never seemed to wear out proved a poor combination. Indeed, it was a feast-or-famine type of day; either your tires held up, leaving you holding position or excessive brake heat, due to ill-handling equipment, melted a bead and found you in the outside wall. The Stewart-Haas Racing cars of Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman, among others, had spectacular tire failures that ended their days early.
Having little-to-no tire wear makes things tough enough — drivers are stuck at the same speed, making the old racing adage of preserving your equipment virtually meaningless. But the post-race quote that raised my eyebrows came from (who else?) reigning Cup champ Brad Keselowski, who ran fourth.
“I think these cars probably drive easier than any race car I’ve ever driven in my life by themselves,” he said. “And probably the hardest to drive of any race car I’ve ever driven in traffic.”
Uh-oh. Trouble in traffic? Isn’t that what killed the Car of Tomorrow on intermediate tracks? We better not see the same type of concern next week, at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, or the single-file phenomenon that turned intermediate racing into a day at the library will be very much front and center.
“I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars,” added third-place Denny Hamlin. “Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up.”
Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
Second Gear: Ford’s front man is relevant again
Carl Edwards, after losing the 2011 title in a tiebreaker, was handsomely rewarded by Ford with a new contract that made him the manufacturer’s de facto figurehead. His repayment? Spending 2012 its highest-paid flop. Running a career-worst 15th in points and losing crew chief Bob Osborne to health-related issues midseason, the one-time weekly contender looked lost. That’s why over the offseason, Roush Fenway Racing charged the best head wrench in its shop, Jimmy Fennig, to rebuild confidence from the ground up on the 99 team. Fennig oozes experience, having won the 1988 Daytona 500 with Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and the 2004 championship with the contentious Kurt Busch. There isn’t a mood he can’t fix, a problem he won’t solve and a crisis where he’ll lose his cool.
That played well during the days after Speedweeks, when an abundance of crushed sheet metal could have crippled this team. Instead, it pushed a desire to focus, with Fennig having his crew poised to seize the moment. On average, the pit crew churned out stops consistently a second better than the No. 48 team at Phoenix, including a crucial final one in order to take control of the race.
“Those guys are bad to the bone,” said Edwards, who ended a 70-race victory drought for the second straight time – right here at this track. “This win feels as good or better than any I’ve had.”
His only concern down the stretch came not from the competition, but a possible jump on the restart. Not once, but twice, he built substantial leads before the start-finish line on a restart while the second-place car (Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Jimmie Johnson) looked like they spun tires.
“I felt like Carl didn't follow the restart protocol and was slower than the pace car on his last two restarts,” Johnson claimed. “It gives the leader a huge advantage when that happens. You're supposed to wait until you get between the two lines and take off and this was all going on before it.”
In his defense, Edwards claimed Johnson took a little too long to go on the final restart. My take? Borderline decision — and in sports, “makeup calls” are part of the game. I seem to remember a restart in Richmond last season where Edwards was called for a restart penalty no one seemed to agree with.
He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.
Third Gear: Team Hendrick is tops on the Gen-6 development list
No, Hendrick Motorsports didn’t win Phoenix, but days after a whirlwind media tour wore out Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, his No. 48 team cruised to a runner-up showing. That has him leading the point standings, with shop-mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. tied for second after two strong top-5 results to start the season.
Quick flashback to the last time NASCAR rolled out a new car in 2007. Who was on top? Hendrick’s lead shop, led at the time by Chad Knaus (Johnson’s crew chief) and Jeff Gordon’s then-head wrench, Steve Letarte. Their drivers combined for 16 race wins that year – nearly 50 percent of the schedule – ran 1-2 in the Chase and collected 54 of a possible 72 top-10 finishes.
Flash forward to 2013: the main mechanical minds remain in place, with Earnhardt, not Gordon, now poised to reap the benefits. At this point, the rest of the competition should be very, very scared of what could be coming.
Fourth Gear: Good teams, bad starts, Chase trouble?
People hate to talk about the championship this early, but in a 26-race regular season, with 20 or so drivers realistically in contention to make the Chase by points, slow starts can be an absolute killer. Three drivers, in particular, stand out as being in trouble. “Lame duck” Kevin Harvick, after a 42nd at Daytona, didn’t lead a single lap Sunday at a track where he won last fall. Running 13th, he’s tied for 29th in the standings when on paper, based on a superior Speedweeks, he should be solidly inside the top 5.
Second on the list is Kyle Busch, shoveling a hole in the points for a second straight year. He was a force at Daytona until the engine blew. Then another engine issue at Phoenix left him starting from the rear. Overaggressive in his quest to drive to the front, Busch spun out early, lost a lap and got it back far too late to climb back through the field (23rd). He’s 29 points outside the top 10.
But the driver in arguably the worst position is 2012 surprise Chaser Martin Truex Jr. Two mechanical issues to start the year — first an engine, then a rear axle — leave him a distant 34th in the standings. Carrying a five-year winless streak, the “wild card” qualifying method for the Chase seems a remote possibility for this bunch, meaning they’re already out of mulligans.
Check back each Monday throughout the season as Tom Bowles highlights the four themes of each weekend’s race.