Kenseth survives, notches third Sprint Cup win of 2012
Matt Kenseth in Victory Lane at Kansas. (ASP, Inc.)
There is typically one race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship that throws the Sprint Cup field the proverbial curveball.
The perils of Talladega are well known, so drivers and teams approach it with a survivalist’s mentality. The 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway appears staid when compared to the aforementioned 2.66-mile behemoth or even the cramped confines of the half-mile Martinsville Speedway. But with a fresh coat of new asphalt, a narrow groove and changing weather conditions throughout the weekend, Kansas proved to be anything but normal.
Ill-timed pit stops, spins, hard crashes, paybacks and an emotional winner highlighted the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway. Matt Kenseth, on his way out at Roush Fenway Racing after a celebrated 14-year tenure, proved the “lame duck” tag doesn’t apply to him or his No. 17 team. Kenseth survived a harrowing moment early in the race to lead the final 49 laps en route to his third win of the 2012 season, and second in the last three weeks.
“It means lot,” an emotional Kenseth said in Victory Lane. “I just have to thank God for the opportunities he has put in front of me and the guidance he has given me throughout my whole life. I have to thank Jack Roush and (competition director) Robbie Reiser and (former teammate) Mark Martin. Without them, I would have never been at Roush Fenway Racing.”
Kenseth’s road to the winner’s circle was an arduous one. He slapped the wall on lap 173 of 267 while attmpting to miss a spinning Aric Almirola. That dropped him to 24th on the ensuing restart, deep in a field that had proven to be aggressive.
However, as Kenseth steadily advanced his position, others saw their hopes dashed.
Chase contenders Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart each spun, while Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman were involved in an altercation that will most certainly be continued before the season is over. Even Danica Patrick got into the action, spinning Landon Cassill and, in the process, wrecking herself, when she took exception to his on-track methods.
Kansas’ newly repaved surface narrowed the racing groove, forcing drivers to take advantage of any opportunity presented to them. A Kansas record 14 cautions was the result, as aggressiveness seemed the order of the day.
“The restarts were pretty wild,” Johnson said. “You had to run so hard that when something happened and you lost grip, the car just stood up on the tires and would take off and you couldn't control it, and guys were sliding everywhere.”
Johnson would know. He backed his No. 48 Chevy into the wall on lap 137. His team responded as title contenders do, furiously working on the car under yellow while remaining on the lead lap. Johnson finished ninth, one spot behind points leader Brad Keselowski.
“I’m glad I survived the carnage and brought back a decent car,” Keselowski said of his eighth-place run. “I dodged a bullet of a race.”
Keselowski’s lead over Johnson in the point standings remains at seven, while third-place Denny Hamlin lost five points due to a 13th-place showing. He sits third in the title hunt, 20 points back.
Clint Bowyer (sixth) finds himself still in contention, just 25 markers behind Keselowski. Kasey Kahne (fourth) has moved to within 30 points of the lead.
But while the championship continues to sort itself out—eyeing a final-race shootout in Homestead, Fla., Sunday was about Kenseth and the team that continues to give up.
“We still have some races left we want to win,” Kenseth said. “It says a lot about these guys—how hard they work to give me the best stuff and give me a chance to win every week.”
Rule Changes, Bowyer's Big Win and Earnhardt's Absence
Clint Bowyer (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Don’t be fooled by the court jester routine Clint Bowyer seems to play in press conferences. For all the joking he does, he’s serious about winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
With five races left in the Chase, Bowyer is fourth in the standings for car owner Michael Waltrip’s team, 28 points behind series leader Brad Keselowski.
“Who would have thought in a million years after making this switch and coming over to a new family and everything that was new that we would be in Victory Lane three times and (there are) still—how many races, five races left?” said Bowyer, who joined Michael Waltrip Racing after having spent the previous six seasons at Richard Childress Racing.
“Five races left, and we're still in contention for a championship. Our first year together, just to be able to do that with a brand-new sponsor, a brand-new manufacturer, I'm telling you the truth: I was almost uncomfortable going to the shop at the beginning of the year because I didn't know one face there. I knew Ty Norris (executive vice president) and (crew chief) Brian Pattie and Michael ... and if I could catch him when he was there I could talk, but other than that I didn't know anybody there.”
Bowyer’s press conference with Waltirp and Pattie after winning Saturday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway mirrored a comedy routine with references to the pre-race show that featured a tight-rope walker, “Days of Thunder” and other such moments.
For all the fun Bowyer has had this year, he’s played a role with teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin in raising Michael Waltrip Racing’s profile. Bowyer already has topped his career bests with three wins, eight top-five and 19 top-10 finishes.
He’s looking for more this weekend at Kansas Speedway, his home track.
“That's probably the biggest thing is to come off this win, going into your hometown, the family and friends, everybody that goes there, it's just so important to be able to roll in on a positive note,” Bowyer said. “And to be able to win there some day, we've gotten close, if we could possibly pull this off again in Kansas, it would be … that's my … do you dare say Daytona 500, but it truly is. That's the biggest race you can possibly win is in front of your hometown.”
2013 CHANGES NASCAR announced several competition changes for next season, including the end of the top 35 rule in the Sprint Cup Series.
Among the rule changes is that the Nationwide fields will be reduced from 43 to 40 cars next year. The Cup Series will continue to have 43-car fields and the Camping World Truck Series will again have 36-truck fields.
The top 35 rule—which guaranteed a starting spot to the top 35 in car owner points regardless of their speed in qualifying—ends after this season. NASCAR will return to the format it had before the top 35 rule was enacted in 2005.
Starting next year, the fastest 36 in Cup qualifying make the race with the final seven spots based on provisionals—one of those seven available to a former champion if they are entered, if not then it becomes a seventh provisional. The provisionals are based on car owner points, thus the six (or seven if there isn’t a former champion needing a provisional) highest cars in the car owner points that aren’t among the 36 fastest will make the race. Provisionals are unlimited.
Another change is that the qualifying order for Cup will be determined by a blind draw instead of based on speeds in the first practice session. If qualifying is canceled due to rain, the starting lineup will be determined by practice speeds.
Provisionals in the Cup, Nationwide and Truck series will be based upon the previous year’s car owner points for only the first three races of a season. Previously, it was for the first five races in Cup and Nationwide and the first four races in the Truck Series.
For the first time since 2008, teams will be able to test at tracks that host NASCAR events. NASCAR issued the ban in 2009 to help teams save money but with so many teams testing at tracks that didn’t host a NASCAR event, it made sense to allow teams to test on tracks they’ll race.
Cup organizations will be allowed four tests at tracks that host a NASCAR race. Thus, Hendrick Motorsports can have all four of its teams at a test and that counts as one test. Even if only one driver shows up for Hendrick to test at a track that hosts a NASCAR race, it will count as one of the four tests allowed per organization.
Organizations in the Nationwide and Truck series will be allowed two tests at tracks that host a NASCAR race. Nationwide and Truck organizations can receive an additional test if they have a driver who is an official Rookie of the Year candidate.
NEW STREAK With Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting out because of his concussion and Scott Riggs failing to qualify, last weekend’s Charlotte race marked the first Cup event since 1961 without a driver from the state of North Carolina. With Earnhardt still out and Riggs’ team withdrawing from Kansas, there won’t be a North Carolina driver in Sunday’s race, either.
BACK AT IT AJ Allmendinger is entered for Phoenix Racing for this weekend’s race at Kansas. Allmendinger finished 24th last weekend at Charlotte for the team in his first race since returning from a suspension for failing a drug test in late June. Allmendinger won the pole at Kansas in April when he was with Penske Racing.
TESTING Cup teams are scheduled to test Wednesday at Thursday at Kansas Speedway since the track has been repaved. Teams will be allowed to test their 2013 car if they choose.
The test is one of the reasons Stewart-Haas Racing chose this race as one of the 10 Cup events Danica Patrick will drive this season. This allows her to gain additional experience in the car and with the track.
PIT STOPS The last three winners at Kansas (Denny Hamlin in April, Jimmie Johnson in Oct. 2011 and Brad Keselowski in June 2011) rank in the top three in points. ... Jimmie Johnson has seven consecutive top-10 finishes at Kansas. ... Kyle Busch has led more laps than any other driver during the first five races of the Chase at 356 with 302 of those coming at Dover. ... Richard Childress Racing is winless in its last 35 races, dating back to Clint Bowyer’s win at Talladega in October 2011.
Bowyer back in title talk with win in Bank of America 500
Clint Bowyer celebrates in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
After four races, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin had seemingly separated themselves in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Not so fast, says Clint Bowyer.
As the sport’s version of a playoff completed the “first half” in its 10-race run, Bowyer and his No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team used strategy to outsmart the trio of favorites, winning the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with superior fuel mileage.
Bowyer’s third win of the season moved his team to within 28 points of Keselowski in the championship standings.
“I looked at it last week and going into this week, I still thought if one of those guys (Keselowski, Johnson, Hamlin) were to stub a toe, it would really open the door for about eight of us to get right back into the championship hunt,” Bowyer said. “With a win here, it definitely gave us new life and new hope.”
Crew chief Brian Pattie echoed the sentiment, saying that, “Twenty-eight points is achievable over the next five weeks. It’s a lot better than 40, how we started the weekend.
“There’s three guys you’ve got to pass, not only the points. We’ll go to Kansas on Wednesday and test like hell and try to pick up our program even more than we have now because we weren’t the fastest car tonight, we just had (a winning) strategy. It would be nice to win one of these things and actually drive to Victory Lane.”
Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin flexed their muscles throughout a tame event— leading a total of 228 of 334 laps—that witnessed five cautions, two of which were for debris.
But on lap 275, Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske Racing team did something it had largely avoided the previous four weeks: It made a mistake.
While attempting to stretch a tank of fuel, the championship leader—who led the most laps in the event (139)—ran out of gas while leading and coasted into the pits.
That opened the door for Bowyer, Johnson and Hamlin. With Keselowski mired in traffic, they went into fuel conservation mode, reasoning that, with one more full green-flag cycle left, everyone would be running on fumes as the race reached its conclusion.
And they were right. The twist, though, was that Bowyer was a forgotten soul, as the teams of Johnson and Hamlin calculated that they were the only two that would have enough in reserve to stretch one final cycle.
“We outfoxed him,” Bowyer said of Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus. “Any time you outfox him you know you’ve done a good job, especially at this racetrack.”
The miscalculations were not especially harmful to Johnson and Hamlin, though, as the latter finished second and the former third.
Even Keselowski, who managed an 11th-place showing, did not appear to be distraught. He explained that aggressiveness was what got his team here, and one shouldn’t expect them to back off from that stance:
“We’re not going to put the prevent defense out there. We’re going to go at you and try to sack the quarterback every time. Sometimes you’re going to miss, and they’re going to get a big payoff.
“We have hit them a lot, that’s why we’re in the points lead, and we’re going to keep after it.”
Fair enough. And the next stop for NASCAR’s traveling circus is the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway, Bowyer’s home track. And a place that has seen Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin each score a win in the series’ last three visits.
For those still alive with five races remaining, hope springs eternal.
Matt Kenseth’s win Sunday at Talladega completed one of the greatest seasons of restrictor-plate racing in NASCAR since 1988, the first season the plates were used for all the races at Daytona and Talladega.
Kenseth won the Daytona 500, finished third at Talladega in the spring, was third at Daytona in July and won at Talladega last weekend, giving him an average finish of 2.0 in those four plate races.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. owns the greatest average finish in NASCAR history in those four plates races at 1.5 in 1999. He won two of those races and finished second in the other two. Next is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2004 season when he had an average finish of 1.75 in the restrictor-plate races, recording two wins, one second-place finish and a third-place finish.
Kenseth’s 2.0 average finish is next, tied with what Dale Earnhardt Sr. did in 1990 and 1993.
Kenseth’s total might have been better. He led the next-to-last lap at Daytona in July before Tony Stewart took the lead and won. Kenseth led with two laps to go at Talladega in the spring before losing the lead to Brad Keselowski, who went on to win the race.
In an era where restrictor-plate racing can be a game of chance—Jimmie Johnson was collected in crashes in three of those four races and blew an engine in the other—Kenseth’s run is remarkable. Add to it that Kenseth isn’t known for his restrictor-plate prowess and the accomplishment is even more impressive.
“I feel like through my career, honestly, it’s been one of my weak points,” said Kenseth, whose average finish in plate races last year was 22.5. “I never felt like I was very good at it, felt like we’d make not the right decisions when we had really fast cars. I felt like that a couple of times, the second Daytona and the first Talladega, both of them races were mine to lose and I lost them for my team. I thought they gave me the stuff to win both of those races as well. Super, super thankful we were able to win this (past) weekend.
“I had no idea our plate stuff was going to run that good. After the 150 (-mile qualifying race at Daytona) with this package, I felt like we learned a few things and I learned a few things. Honestly, from the 150s all the way until we got done with the race last Sunday we’ve been surprisingly good.”
SPOKE TOO SOON Dale Earnhardt Jr. had some strong words to say about the racing at Talladega after he was collected in a 25-car crash on the last lap of a green-white-checker finish.
“If this is what we did every week I wouldn’t be doing it I will just put it to you like that,” Earnhardt said. “If this is how we raced every week I would find another job.”
When a reporter suggested that fans enjoyed such a chaotic finish with cars spinning and crash, Earnhardt said: “Really? It’s not safe. Wrecking like that is ridiculous. It’s bloodthirsty if that is what people want. It’s ridiculous.”
When asked what changes he’d like to see, Earnhardt said: “The way we are going ain’t the right direction. There are plenty of engineers out there I’m just a driver. There are plenty of smart people out there that can figure something out where when one guy gets in trouble we don’t have 30 cars tore up at the expense of it. I mean it’s awesome in a word and everybody can get on the chip about it and get excited about all that which just happened, but for the longevity of the sport that ain’t healthy.”
Tuesday, Earnhardt told SBNation.com he regretted what he said.
“I regret making a bit of a scene and not considering the fact we're going to be in a totally different racecar for 2013. It's probably going to present a totally different style of racing at those tracks, so I probably have a bit more of a positive outlook on the potential for that style of racing to be really good with the next car.
“It was a bit heat of the moment, and I kind of regret getting that emotional about it. But I was just really upset about how that all went down. We'd run so good. I was really, really happy with my car in that race and I thought we should have been able to finish really good.”
TV RATINGS FOR ’DEGA DOWN ESPN reported that Sunday’s broadcast of the Talladega Sprint Cup race earned a 3.7 household rating. That’s down from last year when the race drew a 3.9 household rating. In 2010, the race drew a 3.6 household rating.
ESPN also noted that the Talladega race drew an average audience of 5.1 million viewers. To compare, the Dover race the previous week on ESPN drew an average audience of 3.5 million viewers.
A GOOD SIGN The points leader after the fifth race in the Chase has gone on to win the title in five of the previous eight years.
The years the champion was not the points leader after the fifth race was 2011 when Tony Stewart was fifth in the points after the fifth race, 2007 when Jimmie Johnson was second in the points and 2006 when Johnson was sixth in the points. Saturday night’s Charlotte race is the fifth race in the Chase.
Is Chad Knaus the best crew chief in the Chase? (ASP, Inc.)
Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council take a wider look at the sport this week, judging who they think the best crew chief in the Chase is and if the length of the Chase should remain 10 races. Here’s a look at what they had to say:
Who is the best crew chief in the Chase?
42.4 percent said Chad Knaus (Jimmie Johnson) 25.2 percent said Paul Wolfe (Brad Keselowski) 18.3 percent said Darian Grubb (Denny Hamlin 5.0 percent said Steve Letarte (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) 2.7 percent said Alan Gustafson (Jeff Gordon) 1.5 percent said Kenny Francis (Kasey Kahne) 1.1 percent said Steve Addington (Tony Stewart) 1.1 percent said Jimmy Fennig (Matt Kenseth) 1.1 percent said Chad Johnston (Martin Truex Jr.) 0.8 percent said Gil Martin (Kevin Harvick) 0.8 percent said Brian Pattie (Clint Bowyer) 0.0 percent said Matt Puccia (Greg Biffle)
What Fan Council members said:
• Five championships, well in contention for six. Chad has been and continues to be the best.
• Chad, and then everyone else. Chad Knaus has revolutionized the crew chief position and forced every other one to step up. If it wasn't for him, I'm not sure J.J. has even one title under his belt.
• Paul Wolfe is not afraid of taking a chance and he and Brad sure make a good pair.
• I gotta give it to Paul for this year. So far they have not faltered, in fact they've shown the way to others by giving his driver all the adjustments necessary to excel at the end, when it counts. And he can count fuel mileage unlike others.
• Darian Grubb has shown that he has what it takes to be a great crew chief. He took Tony Stewart to a championship last year and then was dumped. He bounced back and has given Denny Hamlin his best year yet. No matter if he wins the championship or not, Denny is having a great year. And if he does win the championship, it will be with the help of a great crew chief.
• I think that Darian is the best in the garage. Look at his record the last two years and you can't say any other crew chief has won more races. He's the top dog.
• I chose Steve Letarte because he is responsible for the unbelievable transformation of Dale Jr. I rode with Junior during driver's introduction in 2010. What I saw was a very unhappy and depressed man with no confidence. Interviews were done with his head down. Now he appears to be a happy, confident driver who has an awesome relationship with his crew chief and is appreciative of what he has. One of the biggest changes is what you hear on the scanner.
• So far it's hard to bet against Alan Gustafson. Not only has he made the right calls, the obvious respect he and Jeff have for each other along with the trust Jeff has in Alan's decisions make them a team worth noting.
• Mr. Fennig has forgotten more about technical matters than the other crew chiefs can ever hope to learn.
• Gil is an outstanding crew chief and gets very little credit for having to put up with Harvick on a daily basis.
How long should the Chase be?
80.8 percent said 10 races
10.8 percent said 5 races
4.2 percent said 8 races
4.2 percent said 6 races
What Fan Council members said:
• 10 weeks is good, that way if you blow it one week it does not mean game over.
• I think 10 is perfect. It has most every type of track there is other than a road course. Put one of those in and take one of the 1.5-milers out and you have a perfect collection.
• I like the number of races just the way it is. With 10 races it gives the fans a chance to see who will be the cream of the crop — who really deserves to be in the Chase. The champion won't be fluke, but a team who has shown to have consistency and can win some races.
• Five races. Richmond to get in, Bristol to start, then Watkins Glen, Talladega, Martinsville, Homestead. 10 races is too long. We got spoiled last year with the epic battle to the last lap of the season. I have a feeling we wont see that ever again.
• The Chase is perfect the way it is. If the number of races is shortened there will be no suspense at all. The driver who wins the first race will most likely win the championship. Right now it is fun to watch Jeff Gordon try to redeem himself. He wouldn't have a chance with a shortened Chase.
• One race each at a short track, road course, plate, 2-mile, 1.5-mile and a 1-mile track. Change the 1.5-mile track each year for the finale or have it at Las Vegas permanently.
• I picked 10, but believe 12 drivers and 12 races (with the current 36-race schedule) works best. Makes sense: a greater spread of races and possibility to make moves to the current bland schedule. Richmond could move back to the Chase decider or become a late-season race (a la Rockingham back in the day). I like the thought of a 500-mile race at Atlanta opening the Chase more than Chicago or New Hampshire.
• I don't like the Chase, but 10 is a good number. Attrition/elimination are about to enter into the picture. Fewer races would just make it about luck and who's hot at the moment.
Grade Sunday’s race at Dover
45.2 percent called it Fair
33.3 percent called it Good
18.8 percent called it Poor
2.7 percent called it Great
What Fan Council members said:
• One word for Sunday's race: STRANGE.
• We attended the race and came up with three exciting moments: The one instance of three-wide racing in Turn 2, Kyle Busch gaining on Jimmie Johnson toward the end and the breath-holding laps of Jeff Gordon fans hoping Alan Gustafson was right about having enough fuel (thanks Alan & Jeff for a very nice birthday gift! lol) 400 miles of racing & three moments of excitement (unless you're also a big fan of Brad Keselowski, then add his win). No wonder the stands were barely half full and emptied out by another quarter by the time the race ended. We used to love going to Dover. It's a shame the racing has gone downhill there too.
• What is going on in this Chase? No exciting races yet! This is another “Poor” rating for me for watching another high-speed parade of cars go around the track.
• I was there and any race at Dover is a great “in-person” race.
• Boring race till the last 50 laps.
• Boring race from start to finish. Didn't seem to be much hard racing, excitement or drama. Strategy and fuel mileage races will always be a part of the sport but it really doesn't make for a very exciting finish when drivers can't race each other because they have to slow down so they don't run out of fuel.
• It certainly was not a great race at all but not the worst. Only having six cars on the lead lap shook it up, which was fun to see. Otherwise, it seemed there was only a few passes and the finish wasn't too bad.
• I was there. This was without a doubt the most boring race I've ever been to (or seen on TV)! I left with about 70 laps to go. I've never seen so many folks leave so early en mass. I used buses provided by local law enforcement and encouraged by the track. Six full buses left before I was able to get on one (before race was over)!
• I really hated to give it a rating of “Poor” because that first caution put a lot of cars a lap or more down. NASCAR can't do anything about that — just dumb luck.
• It was my first NASCAR race and I enjoyed every moment of it. Great strategy towards the end and a surprise winner.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Brad Keselowski in the May Talladega race. (ASP, Inc.)
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader Brad Keselowski admits he has conflicting emotions heading into this weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.
“There’s part of me that says no matter how bad Talladega goes I can only be 47 points back or 46 or so, so it can’t be that bad,” he said Tuesday. “Then there’s the other side of me that thinks that if we go to Talladega and have a bad day and end up losing a championship by those points, that would really be a shame.”
Keselowski admits he’s not trying to “overthink” the Chase and just race.
One thing he’s pondered, though, is how much he’ll compete in the Nationwide Series as he goes for his first Cup title. Keselowski said he will not run the Kansas Nationwide race — Ryan Blaney will — and could drop more races depending on how he’s doing in the Chase.
Keselowski enters this weekend’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 with three victories, eight top-five finishes and 12 top 10s in the last 13 races. He’s also won two of the first three Chase events to hold a five-point lead on Jimmie Johnson.
“There isn’t one silver bullet,” Keselowski said of his strong run since late June. “It’s everything. The cars are good. The execution on pit road has been strong. Knock on wood we haven’t had (mechanical) failures, which is a credit to the staff at Penske Racing. With the exception of Bristol, I haven’t driven it in the wall. That’s what it takes. Just having one of those pieces isn’t enough. You have to have them all. Just missing one of those pieces will keep you from having a solid day. Right now as a team we’ve had it all.”
As he did after winning Dover last weekend, Keselowski reiterated that seven races remain in the Chase. Defending series champion Tony Stewart was 24 points out of the lead with five races to go last year.
“There’s a lot of fight left,” Keselowski said.
INSIDE A WRECK It will likely happen often this weekend at Talladega, cars skidding, sliding and slamming into each other. It’s one thing to see it from the stands or watching on TV, but what’s it like inside a car during a crash at Talladega?
Jimmie Johnson explains:
“When something happens you start evaluating the damage to your car. If there are a couple of small bumps along the way, your mind’s thinking, ‘OK, that’s not too bad. I didn’t get hit in a wheel, maybe just a fender. We can fix that. We can fix that.’ And you’re keeping some hope until there’s always typically a moment when you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s going to hurt, that’s going to require some behind-the-wall time to fix that up.’
“So, you just kind of hang on and go for the ride. I’ve been fortunate to stay on my wheels and not be upside-down, so I don’t necessarily have a good play on that. Although it would be kind of cool to flip if you’re going to out, you may as well go out in style. But you just kind of evaluate what’s going on and hope that you don’t hit anything too hard and you can get to pit lane and get it fixed.”
STRONG START Joey Logano has recorded a top-10 finish in each of the three Chase races so far. He’s actually scored more points (107) than Chase drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. (100), Martin Truex Jr. (100), Kevin Harvick (96), Jeff Gordon (94), Greg Biffle (85) and Matt Kenseth (67).
Logano opened the Chase by finishing seventh at Chicagoland Speedway, was eighth at New Hampshire and placed 10th at Dover last weekend. It’s the first time this season he’s scored three consecutive top-10 finishes.
Ryan Newman's Quicken Loans Chevy. (ASP, Inc.)
CHANGES ABOUND Quicken Loans’ decision to double the number of races it will serve as Ryan Newman’s primary sponsor next season from nine is just one of what appears to be many changes that will take place for Newman.
Car owner Tony Stewart said the organization is looking at different options for a crew chief for Newman. The possible change is related to Danica Patrick moving to Cup full-time next season. Newman, who has worked with Tony Gibson, has failed to make the Chase in two of his four seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“We have to consider all options for everybody,” Newman said. “It’s not just about me. It’s about myself, it’s about Danica, it’s about Tony. They all have to work together.”
So what is Newman looking for as he plans for 2013?
“Just more consistency,” he said. “We just need to be more consistent performance-wise and that starts here in the shop and continues on at the race track.”
Newman has one victory and 11 top-10 finishes this season, but he also has failed to finish four races, equaling his total for the past two seasons combined. The fewest top-10 finishes he’s had while at Stewart-Haas Racing was 14 in 2010.
PIT STOPS Points leader Brad Keselowski has the best average finish among active drivers at Talladega at 13.0. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is next at 14.8 with Kurt Busch next at 15.1. ... Greg Biffle has completed all but five of the 8,231 laps run this season, most among any driver. Kevin Harvick is next, completing all but 16 laps this season. ... The Nationwide Series is off this weekend. The Camping World Truck Series joins the Cup series at Talladega for the fred’s 250 on Saturday.
Fuel mileage, strategy, pay off for Keselowski, Penske Racing
Photo by ASP, Inc.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is only three races into its 10-race Chase for the Championship playoff stint. And thus far, three drivers seem to have separated themselves from the field.
One made a major statement in the AAA 400 from Dover International Speedway — a statement even bolder than Denny Hamlin’s perceived “called shot” and win a week earlier in New Hampshire.
Brad Keselowski led only 14 of 400 laps on Sunday, but 10 of those — the final 10 — were the most important of the day.
Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe executed a late-race fuel run to perfection, going the final 89 laps on a single tank of gas, outsmarting and outperforming Chase rivals Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, to score their second win in three playoff events.
“We slowly eked our way up from the 10th starting position up to fourth,” Keselowski said. “Kind of fell in there on that last run, after my pit crew got me out fourth, and that put us in position to really capitalize on good strategy and execution.
“My guys did that. They did a great job. Together we were able to manage it (fuel mileage) very well, which is important as anything else in racing these days.”
As with most races decided by fuel mileage, the best car wasn’t the one that completed the scheduled distance first. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch (302 laps led) and Hamlin (39), along with Johnson (43), were the unquestioned class of the field. However, as the laps wound down, all three realized a decision must be made: Run all-out and pit for fuel late, hoping for a caution flag, or slow down, conserve gas and settle for whatever respectable finish they could muster.
The Gibbs teams chose the former, as Busch pitted from the lead with 11 circuits remaining. That handed the lead to Hamlin, who hit pit road one lap later.
Johnson’s strategy had kicked in much earlier. Leading the race with 40 laps remaining, crew chief Chad Knaus radioed the driver that they would not make it to the end running their current pace. Johnson gave up the lead to Busch and peddled the car down the stretch.
Enter Keselowski and the No. 2 Penske Racing team, a bunch adept at stretching a tank of gas. Running a steady fourth with enough in the tank, they simply waited for others to make a mistake (Busch and Hamlin) or settle (Johnson).
Inheriting the lead on lap 391, Keselowski held off a charging Jeff Gordon to score his fifth win of the 2012 season and into the points lead.
Mark Martin was third, while Johnson’s fuel-saving gamble worked to the tune of a fourth-place run. Carl Edwards was fifth.
Busch finished one lap down in seventh while Hamlin was eighth.
“This fuel mileage game sucks,” a dejected Hamlin said. “All the hard work that you put in — drove as hard as I could drive for 400 laps — and then it’s like you look up and wonder why we’re eighth. That part of it is frustrating, but it’s just some people have different strategies. Some people have better fuel mileage, but not as good of a handling racecar. I’ll take good-handling racecars and good horsepower any day.”
So it’s Keselowski, with a pair of wins and a sixth-place showing through three Chase races, that finds himself leading the pack. But he’s not willing to play the role of championship favorite just yet.
“I can’t state loudly enough how much longer this (Chase) battle is,” Keselowski said. “It’s very tempting, whether it’s the media or the teams themselves, to get in a comfort zone of saying, ‘Such and such has control of this Chase.’ But there’s a reason why it’s 10 rounds. We’re not even halfway. We’re three rounds in.
“By no means do I feel like we’re the favorite. Certainly we’re not the underdog probably at this point.
“My perspective is we got a lot more racing to go. Let’s just let the racing play out and go from there.”
NASCAR vs. NFL, Hamlin's win total and grading Loudon
Denny Hamlin dominated in Loudon. (ASP, Inc.)
Even with replacement referees, the NFL is drawing large TV audiences. With NASCAR’s title Chase under way, members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council were asked what they’re watching more of — NASCAR or NFL. The answer, from a group of NASCAR fans, might surprise you. That’s just among the questions Fan Council members debated this week.
Which did you watch more of Sunday — NASCAR or NFL?
61.5 percent said NASCAR 16.9 percent said NFL 15.8 percent said both about the same 5.8 percent said neither
What Fan Council members said:
• I dislike football. I only watch NASCAR. My husband used to force me to watch football so I divorced him. ;)
• Usually NASCAR would NEVER get changed to watch football in our house, but the race was so boring on Sunday we wanted to watch some kind of action.
• I actually watched the race more than the NFL game, but since the race was VERY boring again, I'm thinking of recording the race and watching the games next week.
• I don't watch the NFL.
• I watched the NASCAR race. Why? Because no matter how bad a race might be, I stay loyal to the sport and remember that the racing can only get BETTER with time.
• Normally I watch NASCAR, and football during commercial, but if the next few races are like Chicagoland and Loudon, I may just watch all of the football game and monitor the race during commercials and on Twitter.
• Watched more HGTV than the race.
• The easiest choice I make every week is what to watch on Sunday afternoon. NASCAR is king in my house!
• DirecTV offered “The Sunday Ticket” at a reduced price this year, so I bought it and have been watching more football instead of boring races at NHMS.
• I'm a NASCAR fan first and my first choice every Sunday will be the race until the season is over, then I'll start watching football.
After scoring his fifth win of the season Sunday, how many wins will Denny Hamlin finish with this year?
36.3 percent said six wins 30.1 percent said five wins 30.1 percent said seven wins 3.5 percent said eight or more wins
What Fan Council members said:
• I think Denny is done. The team’s inconsistency will kick in, but kudos to Darian Grubb for an excellent season. Darian can certainly thumb his nose at Tony.
• I am shocked that he has won this many. Usually by now he has choked himself into a hole too deep to come out. Who knows!? Maybe this could be the year!
• I think he’s going to get his championship. I think they are building great cars. I think Denny is a good driver. And Darian Grubb has the experience.
• Think he gets Martinsville, Charlotte and Phoenix. Possibly Homestead.
• He'll win at Martinsville. I guarantee it ... but not really. But if he does, I'll say I guaranteed it.
• He's a legitimate threat at all the rest of the tracks except for Dover.
• He's on his way to fulfilling his promise to Joe Gibbs! Like they say, you got to lose a championship before you can win one, so he's ready.
• For some reason my gut doesn't take Denny seriously as a contender this season. I know he's the hot tamale right now, but my gut says Matt Kenseth is going to come back and come back strong. I was surprised Denny won Sunday's race. For some reason he just doesn't strike me as the best driver from the best team of 2012.
Grade Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire:
46.9 percent called it Fair 34.1 percent called it Good 15.9 percent called it Poor 3.1 percent called it Great
What Fan Council members said:
• Didn't really like the race much. One person dominating the race combined with three cautions for what seemed to be fake debris didn't please me much. Never have rated any race “Poor” all season, but this one gets the honor.
• I’m putting good, because I was there. And a bad day of racing is better than a good day of work. Or something like that. It was kind of boring watching someone run away with it. In person, there was some passing and some bumping. Thank God they threw some cautions.
• Completely un-entertaining. Why this is a “Chase” race that is supposed to attract viewers away from the NFL is completely beyond my comprehension.
• I did not think the race was boring. I was entertained. NHMS is one of my favorite tracks.
• Denny’s run from the back to the front before the race reached 100 laps was exhilarating. After that, I didn't see a whole lot of excitement.
• From the stands it was awful. First time I have left early. Left at lap 240. Denny dominated. No passing. No close racing. I damn near dozed off in the stands.
• Wow, it was downright painful to watch. The most boring race of this year.
• Just one of those races that, through no fault of its own, is extremely boring. No real challenges to win it, no excitement.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson, Chad Kanus and the boys have methodically clicked off consecutive second-place finishes to begin the Chase. Next up is Dover, where the 48 dominated in June. Last week: 2
2. Brad Keselowski
Much of the talk since Sunday’s New Hampshire event has centered on Denny Hamlin being Johnson’s biggest threat. Oh, how quickly we forget about Keselowski’s big win in Chicago. Last week: 1
Hamlin decimates field, scores fifth win of NASCAR season
Denny Hamlin's hat tip to Babe Ruth. (ASP, Inc.)
It appeared Denny Hamlin had a good idea that he would win the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Or at least run well. Maybe.
Actually, it’s hard to know exactly what he was thinking leading up to the second race of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
After dropping from a top-10 finish to 16th with an empty fuel tank the previous week at Chicagoland Speedway, Hamlin tweeted, “This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week.”
Most took it as a prediction; a called-shot of sorts. And why not? Since his Sprint Cup Series debut in 2005, Hamlin has shown a flare for NASCAR’s flat tracks, registering 10 of his 22 career wins on the minimally-banked facilities in Loudon, N.H., Martinsville, Va., Phoenix, Az. and Pocono, Penn.
At the least it was a bold statement, even from a driver touted as a title favorite . However, Hamlin clarified his social-media sentiment on Friday, when he again took to Twitter, saying, “Not really sure what all the buzz in the media is about my tweet last week. I didn’t guarantee, didn’t promise, just made a statement.”
The theme persisted in his media availability later in the day, when he stated that, “I’ve had confidence before and I said at Pocono and different race tracks (that), ‘I expect to win’ — and it’s no different. Given our history here, given how we ran the first practice and hopefully how we run tomorrow, I’ll expect to win.”
Regardless of what it was, Hamlin backed it up on Sunday. Starting 32nd due to incorrect air pressure in his tires during qualifying, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver sliced through the field after the green flag waved.
By lap 30 he had entered the top 15, and 64 laps later took the point, passing teammate Kyle Busch.
From there, the route was on, as Hamlin led 193 of the final 206 laps to earn his series-best fifth victory of the season. In the process, he vaulted to within seven points of championship leader Jimmie Johnson.
“Once we got to about lap 50 and started working our way to sixth, seventh position, I knew that we had the winning car,” Hamlin said.
To find anyone else in the field that thought different would be a tall order. Second- and third-place finishers Johnson and Jeff Gordon could only shake there heads in retrospect.
“No,” was Gordon’s definitive response when asked if anyone had anything for Hamlin’s Toyota. “I don’t think that thing bobbled all day.”
“Never slipped,” Johnson concurred.
The only reason for concern on Hamlin’s part — and hope on Johnson’s — came when NASCAR threw a yellow flag for debris with 26 laps remaining. Hamlin, who enjoyed a nearly six-second lead at the time, could only show his disgust over the team’s in-car radio.
“Really, I don’t understand why they do this,” he complained after his spotter informed him that a caution had been thrown for “phantom debris.”
Hamlin got the jump on the lap 278 restart, though, and quickly pulled away for the 2.67-second win.
“I had a little bit of hope for just, you know, a quarter of a lap there,” Johnson said of possibly wresting the lead from Hamlin on the final restart. “And then it was like, ‘Uh-oh, don’t lose second.’ And then pulled away from Jeff and got going from there.”
And with victory claimed and burnouts complete, Hamlin threw one final “called-shot” innuendo into play — furthering the “did he or didn’t he” question — striking a Babe Ruth, circa 1932, home run pose after completing victory burnouts on the frontstretch.