Hamlin's bold statement, split-screen commercials and rating Chicago
Denny Hamlin (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Round one is over in the Chase but it already has produced many changes on and off the track for fans. Races are starting later, fans are seeing more of it and there’s a new points leader with the former points leader saying he’ll win this weekend. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council examine these and other issues this week.
Denny Hamlin proclaims on Twitter he’ll win at New Hampshire After running out of fuel at the end and losing several spots last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, Denny Hamlin stated on Twitter he would win this weekend’s race at New Hampshire. Fan Council members were asked what they thought of his declaration:
72.0 percent said it was a great move to get his team looking ahead rather than back 28.0 percent said it was a bad move because it raised expectations and pressure
What Fan Council members said:
• These guys have to stay motivated and move on regardless of what happened in one race. I don't blame Denny one bit for being positive and knowing what his team is capable of!
• Denny, Denny, Denny … why did you have to open your mouth and make the statement, “We will win next week.” That statement just might come back and bite you in the a**. I have watched Denny want to win a race at any cost and he didn't care who he ran over to get the job done. Watch out Chasers!!!
• Denny's handling himself and his team MUCH better this year than in past years! The driver is the focal point that the team rallies around, and unlike his teammate who tends to isolate and turn off the team with his tirades, Denny seems to have learned his lesson and is doing what he needs to keep his team rolling along!
• It shows that while he has a fragile psyche (at times), he feels confident in himself and his team for next week. New Hampshire is one of Denny's best tracks and (crew chief Darian) Grubb won the race there last year ... why not make a bold prediction?
• Every driver should expect to win, so I see nothing wrong with expressing thoughts.
• I can remember the last time Denny had that same look on his face. Phoenix 2010 and his Chase was done as he folded like a house of cards. Only now we'll see him fold up the tent over nine races instead of two.
• There is a difference between confidence and cockiness — and that right there is confidence. He knows that he and his team can and WILL get it done. Any time Denny calls his shot, they deliver. They will be in Victory Lane next weekend when it's all said and done.
• It's a good thing. With NASCAR having become so vanilla, it could certainly use some more Joe Namath types.
Is later greater? As it has done in the past, start times for NASCAR Sprint Cup races in the Chase are later than they normally are before the Chase. Fan Council members were asked if they liked the later start times during the Chase:
48.5 percent said it didn’t matter to them 27.8 percent said they liked it 23.7 percent said they hated it
What Fan Council members said:
• I don't understand the thought process. How does pushing start times back bring in viewers? Football viewers are going to start watching those games and if they are intense and good how are you going to pull those viewers away? NASCAR would have to expect those games to be boring and not exciting to entice those viewers over. Just doesn't make sense.
• It doesn't matter to me what time the races start, I will watch them over the NFL.
• NASCAR is going to lose to NFL or college football, no matter what they do. The product and the number of cookie-cutter tracks lends to that. I watched football for most of the day and came back at the best time — when Brad took the lead from Jimmie. I had no problem with the earlier start times but whatever NASCAR believes, they go with, no matter how flawed the logic.
• There's no way it won't conflict with NFL so best bet would have been to have the race at the normal time. My (NFL) game was 4:00 pm and I had to stop watching the race 60 percent of the way in to watch my game. A 12:00 start might have worked out.
• I started watching NFL games. Almost forgot to turn the TV to the race. I see this as a serious problem with casual fans. If they tune into an NFL game and it turns out to be a good game, they are less likely to change the channel to watch the race.
• I like it. It gives me the chance to see the start of the race as I normally arrive home after church and the race has started.
• NASCAR should stop trying to worry about the NFL all the time. Changing start times is an inconvenience to people in every time zone.
• I couldn't care less ... I'm DVRing the races and watching NFL RedZone all day.
• Like it or not, it is best for our sport. The later in the day you run the races the more people who can tune in, especially on the West Coast.
Split-screen coverage Just as it did last year during the Chase, ESPN will show a split-screen of the race and commercials during the second half of the race. Fan Council members were asked about what they thought of this:
54.2 percent love it
30.5 percent like it
12.6 percent don’t care
2.7 percent hate it
What Fan Council members said:
• Just like last year, having the box there during the commercial is POINTLESS if ESPN isn't going to show any RACING. Showing a close-up of Jimmie Johnson during a commercial break is irrelevant.
• Keeps from missing out on racing action during those long string of commercials. LOVE IT!
• They should do this more and NOT just for select races. With all the commercials being poured into the races these days, us fans deserve to see more than 60 percent (max) of the racing action.
• I wish that all the TV partners would do a split screen for the entire race, every race. Actually, it's better because the advertiser's logo is seen separate of the commercial so you actually know what is being advertised. Maybe that can be worked out in the next TV contract. IndyCar does it and it's great. I understand that the local breaks have to be full-screen commercials; but, for the national commercials, they can do split-screen.
• Commercials pay for the sport, and this is a good way to accommodate the advertisers while making sure we don't miss something during a commercial break. I wish all the NASCAR networks did this from midway through, rather than just the last few laps.
• Watching in the UK, we have commercial free coverage for the whole race
• Not OK with the race being 25 percent and the ads being 75 percent of the screen. Needs to be a 50-50 split.
• Bravo to ESPN … I'd like to see this 100 percent for Homestead!
Brad Keselowski crossing the finish line at Chicagoland. (ASP, Inc.)
Rating Sunday’s race at Chicago
54.9 percent called it Good 34.3 percent called it Fair 7.1 percent called it Poor 3.7 percent called it Great
What Fan Council members said:
• Chicago always produces some of the worst "racing," if it can be called that, of the year. I understand that NASCAR needs a presence in that market but I just couldn't bring myself to watch the whole thing. No passing for the lead or really anywhere else for that matter.
• I was at Chicagoland and when I attend a race I always give it a GREAT rating because I can watch what is going on all over the race track. You don't get that luxury when you watch it on TV. There was some awesome racing. I was amazed as to how many cars Dale Jr. passed when the green flag dropped. Starting dead last and finishing eighth was quite the accomplishment and needs to be noticed. Just when you thought Smoke was smoked he drives up to the top 10. Then what the heck was that when Denny ran out of gas? Jimmie and Brad put on a nice show at the end. Fans, you have to be there at the track if you truly want to experience a NASCAR race!!!!!!!
• While it did have a lot of green-flag racing to close out the race, there was still enough excitement going on around the track to keep my interest!
• Lots of strategy and guys chasing the setup. That makes for an interesting race.
• I have to say there was just no side-by-side racing. You could easily lose interest during this race. With hardly any cautions, when they get spread out the race gets boring.
• I attempted to watch the race but turned it off to watch a football game. I had no interest in the race. Sorry.
• I loved the battle between the 48 and the 2. They are by far the two best teams in NASCAR right now, and look like they'll be battling throughout the Chase.
• I will be watching a LOT of NFL if this was any indication of the next nine races
• If I could do the schedule, I would make Loudon the first Chase race. Having a great race like Richmond, with its Chase drama every year, and then following up with Chicago, a super-boring track, is a momentum killer. Good thing Loudon and Dover are the next two races. Both fun!!
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.
1. Brad Keselowski What has kept Keselowski and his team near the top of the Horsepower Rankings all season is the ability to win on most any style of track. To come out connecting in the Chase is big.
2. Jimmie Johnson Certainly, an argument could be made for Johnson to be No. 1. However, he got beat in a race he seemed to have in hand. Don’t worry about this bunch, though — they’ll get theirs in the coming weeks.
3. Denny Hamlin Mistakes like Hamlin’s team made (not getting the car full of fuel) are what turn top-5 runs into 16th-place finishes. It also costs teams championships.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. After a month of pre-Chase, live-fire testing, Earnhardt’s No. 88 team appears back to its fourth- to 10th-place ways. Is that good enough to win a title?
5. Clint Bowyer Follows up Richmond win with a 10th-place showing somewhere relatively near Chicago. Considering the last two months’ worth of performances, Bowyer and the boys may be getting overlooked.
6. Kasey Kahne Loudon’s July winner returns with the Chase lead in his sights. Like Bowyer, he may not be getting the credit he deserves for his pre-Chase surge.
7. Tony Stewart Look who appears to be rounding into form at just the right time. After a miserable month, Stewart clicks off a fourth at Richmond and a sixth to begin the Chase. Shouldn’t we all see this coming?
See it here while it still exists. (ASP, Inc.)
8. Jeff Gordon A boatload of momentum sinks with Gordon’s stuck throttle at Chicagoland. After a valiant run into the Chase, it’s a shame to see the hard work go for naught.
9. Martin Truex Jr. Credit this team for making a 20-something car into a top-10 ride by race’s end on Sunday. The “ultimate underdog” is still alive.
10. Matt Kenseth A broken shock? Really? Isn’t that something that would happen to Gordon this year? Kenseth and the guys go from top 5 to 18th ... but I’d bet we haven’t heard the last of them.
11. Kevin Harvick Harvick is averaging a 10.5-place finish since the return of Gil Martin as crew chief.
12. Greg Biffle Since his Michigan win in August, Biffle has looked extraordinarily mediocre.
13. Ryan Newman Could bust up the Chasers’ party in Loudon and steal a win this weekend.
14. Kyle Busch Wondering if his attention will suddenly shift to the Nationwide Series team he owns.
15. Sam Hornish Jr. Hornish has three consecutive 11th-place finishes. I wonder if Joey Logano has ever done that.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Paul Menard
If Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are the Muhammad Ali of NASCAR — the heavyweight that wins with both sheer power and poise — Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 Penske Racing bunch are the sport’s Sugar Ray Leonard. Not necessarily graced with the resources enjoyed by Johnson, Keselowski wins with smarts and guile — and a sweeping uppercut that comes, seemingly, from nowhere.
Therefore, it was fitting that Keselowski referred to his win in Sunday’s GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in boxer’s terms.
“It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout, just it’s a 10-round bout,” he said of the first Chase race in NASCAR’s 10-week playoff. “Week 1 is done and we won the round but we didn’t by any means knock them out. We’ve got a lot of racing left to go. We’re feeling good about today but know that we have a lot of work to do.”
They’ll be no checking of scorecards for this round, though. Johnson started second and was in control of the race, leading a commanding 172 of the first 228 laps. However, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe managed to maneuver their Dodge to the front, using a quick pit stop — and just a little gamesmanship — to take control of the point.
Trailing Johnson by a second as the final round of pit stops began, Keselowski exited the pits just in front of his rival and made a hasty entrance onto the racing surface. Johnson claimed Keselowski “blended” back onto the track too soon (NASCAR rules state a driver must keep all four wheels below the white line before the backstretch). Keselowski’s car cut in front of Johnson’s, briefly stalling his momentum.
The move drew the ire of Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, who asked NASCAR to review the move.
The sanctioning body’s response? “No harm, no foul.”
And with that, Keselowski used clean air to hold Johnson at bay for the final 26 laps to record his fourth win of the season and claim the top spot in the Chase.
“He did cut up early,” Johnson said. “It did impede my progress, I had to check up and wasn’t sure where things were going. But it didn’t affect the outcome I don’t believe.
“The way he made quick work in (lap) traffic and stretched it out on me, I’m not sure I would have held him off. At the time it messed me up, but I don’t think it played an outcome in the race.”
Keselowski, in turn, feigned ignorance as to why Johnson felt wronged:
“There is no enforced line like you see in other sports, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s just one more thing to monitor during the race. But it’s certainly — I don’t want to say a gentlemen’s agreement — it’s a policy of merging down the backstretch, off of Turn 2, I think it said specifically in the driver’s meeting. And I feel like that’s what we did.”
Chase participants made up nine of the top-15 finishers. The only one that suffered a crippling blow was Jeff?Gordon, who’s throttle stuck in lap 189. The damage resulted in a 35th-place showing. He now sits 12th in the Chase standings, 47 points out of first.
Popular pre-Chase favorite Denny Hamlin, who entered the event with the top spot, ran out of fuel on the final lap, dropping from a solid top-5 finish to 16th.
“This was just us making a big mistake with our fuel again,” said Hamlin. “It’s tough, but we’re strong enough and fast enough this Chase that we can make up 15 points easily.”
As the most recent drive to be anointed as the No. 1 contender, Keselowski knows it’s too early to get comfortable.
“Any time you win, it’s a bit of a mission accomplished for that particular weekend, but the Chase isn’t about one particular weekend, it’s about 10, and there’s a long row to hoe.”
1. Denny Hamlin
2,012 points; four wins
Hamlin certainly appears to be a changed driver from the one that, along with then-crew chief Mike Ford, cracked under the pressure of a 2010 title fight. Quiet confidence abounds with his No. 11 team, led by the unassuming yet firm guidance of Darian Grubb (you know, the lame-duck crew chief that strapped on a pair and led a team that was an afterthought to last year’s championship). Despite his series-best four wins, only delivering in the clutch will wash away memories of Denny’s monumental collapse two years ago.
by Matt Taliaferro
2. JIMMIE JOHNSON
2 of 13
2. Jimmie Johnson
2,009 points; three wins
Based on their track record alone, you can never count out Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus when the playoffs role around. This season will undoubtedly be no different, and by the way, if you’re making any other team the favorite, you’re not being honest with yourself. That’s not to say the 48 team is predestined to win this whole dog ‘n’ pony show, but make no mistake: This bunch is the favorite. Johnson has won Chases coming from behind, pulling away, winning in bundles and in being consistent. Contrary to popular (and short-sighted) belief, a team doesn’t have to win in spades during the Chase to be crowned the champion. This team probably will, though.
by Matt Taliaferro
3. TONY STEWART
3 of 13
3. Tony Stewart
2,009 points; three wins
For proof that a team doesn’t have to win races in the Chase to be a champion, look no further than Stewart’s 2005 title run. You’ll find he had zero Chase wins and that an 8.7-place average finish did the trick. Ironically, Tony’s 2011 five-win Chase spurt is the performance that perpetuated the “gotta-win-big” notion. Here’s the straight-talk concerning Stewart: He’s not going to win five of the next 10 but he probably won’t get skunked, either. But this probably isn’t his year to earn title No. 4.
by Matt Taliaferro
4. BRAD KESELOWSKI
4 of 13
4. Brad Keselowski
2,009 points; three wins
A little bit DW, a little bit JJ, Keselowski is the breath of fresh air this sport has needed for awhile. Keselowski is a champ-in-waiting — strike that, a multiple-time champ-in-waiting. Somewhere amid the media savvy, the heads-up racing style, the mind games and the raw talent lies an intangible factor that’s hard to pinpoint (thus, its intangibility). BK’s time may indeed be now … and the window may close for a year or so depending on how his Penske Racing organization adapts to its new Ford sheet metal and new factory mates. Don’t be surprised if we see a first-time Cup champ this year.
by Matt Taliaferro
5. GREG BIFFLE
5 of 13
5. Greg Biffle
2,006 points; two wins
Who? Oh yeah, the guy who won the regular season championship — not that NASCAR bothers to recognize the admirable feat. Perpetually flying under the radar, Biffle appears to be the Terry Labonte of his era — a great wheelman who never was viewed among the sport’s elite despite all evidence to the contrary. Of course, to be on par with Labonte, you have to win a Cup title and thus far, that’s eluded him. That said, he stands his best chance this year, with teammate and media-hound Carl Edwards out of the running and BFF Matt Kenseth on his way out at Roush Fenway Racing. Can the points leader after race No. 26 be considered a darkhorse? If so, Biffle’s your man.
by Matt Taliaferro
6. CLINT BOWYER
6 of 13
6. Clint Bowyer
2,006 points; two wins
Michael Waltrip Racing’s much-ballyhooed two-car 2012 Chase effort makes for a great story. And seriously, it’s good to see an upstart operation legitimately delivering the goods in its sixth year of Cup competition. However, let’s be honest: MWR isn’t going to win a title this year … right? Don’t tell that to Bowyer, who is one of only seven drivers on the circuit to cash in for multiple victories this year. And probably one of only seven drivers on the circuit that’ll buy YOU a beer down the street if he pulls a stunner.
by Matt Taliaferro
7. DALE EARNHARDT JR.
7 of 13
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2,003 points; one win
Even with NASCAR putting the clamps on Hendrick’s bushings (yes, that sounds painful … and just a bit dirty), you have to figure the 88 team has been doing some live-fire testing the last few weeks. Junior’s consistency is unquestioned and, as stated previously, that’s the real key here. Once he’s back at full song expect a return to the fourth- to 10th-place showings that were the hallmark of what’s been Earnhardt’s most successful post-DEI season to date. I’m of the opinion Junior will factor in this Chase — though whether or not he can trade licks with Johnson, Hamlin, et al, down the stretch is somewhat of an unknown.
by Matt Taliaferro
8. MATT KENSETH
8 of 13
8. Matt Kenseth
2,003 points; one win
Let’s get the lame duck thing out of the way first: Yes, Kenseth is out at Roush Fenway Racing at season’s end. And having already been introduced and serenaded in front of the media by his new roomies, it may have an effect in the current neighborhood. However, if any driver/crew chief combo can work past the circumstances at hand it’s Kenseth and Jimmy Fennig. It’s hard to imagine Uncle Jack not at least attempting to over-deliver for the driver that’s been the bedrock of his foundation for the last decade. But it’s also hard to imagine the 17 team actually breaking through with so many other teams running at full bore with no distractions.
by Matt Taliaferro
9. KEVIN HARVICK
9 of 13
9. Kevin Harvick
2,000 points; zero wins
If there’s a Tony Stewart-like run coming in this year’s Chase, you have to figure this is the driver and team to do it. There have been some Kevin Harvick sightings since his reunion with new/old crew chief Gil Martin, and the ceiling is still a ways up. The bigger issue here is whether the 29 team can rise above what seems to be an organization-wide lack of speed at Richard Childress Racing. If the magic that propelled Harvick and Martin to consecutive third-place points finishes is back, this could be a fun group to watch crash the party.
by Matt Taliaferro
10. MARTIN TRUEX JR.
10 of 13
10. Martin Truex Jr.
2,000 points; zero wins
See: Bowyer, Clint; minus the wins. Mikey’s NAPA team has been the little engine that could this season, yet a lack of victories — and there have been opportunities — is worrisome. What Truex, Chad Johnston and the boys have done thus far in 2012 is admirable. However, to win a championship you first must prove able to win races. The ultimate underdog in a back half of a field chock-full of them, Truex will look to Dover as his sink-or-swim Chase moment.
by Matt Taliaferro
11. KASEY KAHNE
11 of 13
11. Kasey Kahne
2,000 points; two wins
Wild card qualifier No. 1, Kahne is a tough one to figure, though he could make some serious noise. This new team at Hendrick Motorsports hit its stride around midseason and has been as consistent as any other since. The thinking on Kahne is that, for years, he’s been an able pilot stuck in eroding situations that were not of his making. That’s not the case anymore. Time for ol’ blue eyes and crew chief Kenny Francis to deliver.
by Matt Taliaferro
12. JEFF GORDON
12 of 13
12. Jeff Gordon
2,000 points; one win
The post-Richmond talk has centered on Kyle Busch and his No. 18 team’s implosion, but credit Gordon and his 24 team: They flat out-raced the opposition down the stretch to the tune of third-, second- and second-place showings. History suggests that teams which “turn it on” late and sneak into the Chase have to take a breath once there, at which point the powerhouses that were stroking go flying by. Hard to imagine this being the case with Gordon and Alan Gustafson, who’ve made their own momentum the way championship-caliber teams are supposed to.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's GEICO 400
Defending Chicago race-winner Tony Stewart. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2012 regular season may have been put in the books last weekend in dramatic fashion at Richmond International Raceway, and the Chase for the Sprint Cup may get underway at Chicagoland Speedway, but for NASCAR fantasy players the season simply rolls on to the sweeping 1.5-mile track in Joliet, Ill.
While most fantasy leagues will continue without any change in format, the mindset of the 12 drivers battling for the title and the 31 “other” drivers in the field will certainly change.
Although most are reluctant to admit it – you often hear them say, “We’ll keep doing the same thing we have all year,” – there is no doubt that those in the Chase will be gunning for wins and maximum points each and every weekend.
While the Chase drivers will steal the majority of the spotlight the next 10 races, there are a number of those on the outside looking in that can shake up the finishing order week-to-week. Some are looking for redemption for missing this year’s Chase, others are working on setups and plans for the 2013 season, while still others will be out there proving their worth to potential rides and sponsorship dollars.
In essence, the next 10 weeks will be a mixed-bag of agendas with high-intensity racing. It will be tough to top last year’s epic battle to the final laps, but if any Chase class could do it, I bet this one can.
However, before we get too wrapped up Chase talk, it’s time to look at this weekend’s race at Chicagoland Speedway.
After 10 years of hosting NASCAR Sprint Cup races, the 2011 trip to Chicagoland Speedway marked the first time it opened the Chase. Defending series champion Tony Stewart turned his season around then and there by saving enough fuel to score his first of five Chase wins.
Much like last season, Stewart enters the Chase struggling to keep pace with the competition. Since his third win of the season came in July at Daytona, the former champion has just two top 5s and three top 10s – not exactly the type of momentum you want heading into the Chase.
However, if last year proved anything, it’s that Stewart has the opportunity to come out swinging in Chicago. The defending champ leads all drivers in victories at the 1.5-mile tri-oval (three) and at 8.7, has the best average finish among active drivers.
If he and crew chief Steve Addington are able to put the struggles of the summer months behind them, bring a solid setup to the track and play the strategy correctly, it will be hard to bet against Stewart.
That said, once the Chase gets underway it is also nearly impossible to bet against the five-time series champion, Jimmie Johnson. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet leads the series in Chase wins (20) and has an average finish of 9.0 in the playoffs. With the third-best average finish (10.0) at Chicagoland Speedway — and bringing the car that dominated at both Dover and Indianapolis — Johnson should also be among the favorites this weekend.
With all four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the Chase, perhaps the driver you want to watch out for this weekend is veteran Jeff Gordon. The four-time champion earned the final wild card spot in dramatic fashion on Saturday in Richmond by out-racing Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch when it mattered most.
The 2012 season has been one of up and downs for the No. 24 team, but throughout the struggles and poor luck, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the team have provided fast racecars. Gordon enters the first race of the Chase with his sights set on a fifth title, and with a win and a 10th-place average finish at Chicagoland, he will be tough to beat.
Five Favorites: Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon
Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. (ASP, Inc.)
Even though Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer enters the Chase fresh off a victory in Richmond, he remains an undervalued pick this weekend in Chicago. While many look at Johnson, Stewart and Denny Hamlin as favorites for the title, Bowyer and his MWR teammate, Martin Truex Jr., could sneak in and truly mix it up in the championship battle – starting immediately
Bowyer’s No. 15 team has been consistently solid through the summer and early fall, scoring the Richmond win along with three top-5 and six top-10 finishes since the July race in Daytona. Also, don’t forget that Bowyer certainly knows how to open the Chase in dramatic fashion, having won the opening race at Loudon in 2010. With the fourth-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Chicagoland, Bowyer could easily thrust himself into title contention this weekend and, at the very least, score solid fantasy points for your team.
For Truex, the 2012 season has been one of renewed confidence and opportunity. Although he is still battling a winless drought that dates to June 2007, he and the No. 56 team led by crew chief Chad Johnston have consistently contended each week.
With only one top 10 finish at Chicagoland Speedway (2008), Truex will have to buck the trend of years past and continue to do the things that got them into the Chase.
Aside from all the Chase contenders, one driver you will want to watch this weekend is Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman. Not a part of the championship battle, Newman is one of those driving to court sponsors for next season. With one win, two top 5s and six top 10s at Chicagoland Speedway, he could mix things up and prove to be an undervalued fantasy start.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Joey Logano
It’s not usually a good thing when a driver thanks you in Victory Lane for wrecking him, but that is exactly what Bowyer did to Juan Pablo Montoya Saturday night in Richmond.
Struggling through his worst year since his sophomore season in 2008, Montoya has only two top-10 finishes thus far in 2012. After team owner Chip Ganassi made drastic internal changes within his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing shop during the offseason, the thought was the company would return to the winning ways it experienced in 2010. To the contrary, both Montoya and Jamie McMurray have essentially been also-rans throughout the year. Of late, Montoya has been a target of criticism among many drivers, as he has been involved in multiple incidents the last few weeks.
Yet with the season winding down, Montoya heads to Chicagoland Speedway on the outside of the Chase looking in, and attempting to salvage something of his dismal season. With the eighth-best average finish (14.6) in Chicago, the Colombia native may have a rare top-10 showing – if he can stay out of trouble, of course.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Marcos Ambrose, Aric Almirola, Danica Patrick
Best Average finish at Chicagoland (Wins):
1. Tony Stewart – 8.7 (3)
2. Jeff Gordon – 10.0 (1)
3. Jimmie Johnson – 10.0 (0)
4. Clint Bowyer – 10.2 (0)
5. Kevin Harvick – 10.4 (2)
6. Matt Kenseth – 12.3 (0)
7. Mark Martin – 12.5 (1)
8. Juan Pablo Montoya – 14.6 (0)
9. Kyle Busch – 14.7 (1)
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 14.8 (1)
Handicapping the Chase and the year's biggest surprises
NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship is here and with it comes the question of who will win it. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council tackle that question and more, including what is the biggest surprise this year and if they think drivers give their best effort every race. Here’s what the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say about those issues and more.
In 2003, Matt Kenseth became the final Winston Cup Champion in less-than-dazzling fashion. He won all of one of 36 races while posting 24 top 10s for an average finishing position of 10.2. He clinched the title by merely starting the second to last race of the year at Rockingham. After promptly blowing an engine and finishing dead last, he ended the year 90 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, and 207 ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With new series sponsor Nextel coming on board for 2004, and a desire by NASCAR CEO Brian France to have his sport compete more closely – and resemble – the NFL, a playoff-type championship format was instituted. The Chase has evolved over the years, but the cumulative year-long points battle was replaced by a final 10-race title bout for 10-12 drivers.
With Chicagoland the site of the 2012 Chase this Sunday, let’s take a look back at the previous eight Chase campaigns, and how they rank.
1. 2004 Nextel Cup — The Chase Era Begins
When it was announced that the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion would be determined by a 10-race playoff, purists scoffed. How could any new champion be judged against the likes of Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson, or even Jeff Gordon? The first 10-race playoff – or “raceoff,” if you prefer – helped relieve much of that anxiety. Going into the final race at Homestead, there were five drivers with a chance to win the title. Kurt Busch held an 18-point lead (under the old Latford points system – the equivalent of a five-point lead today) over Johnson, with Gordon, Earnhardt and Mark Martin in close pursuit.
This Chase featured some of the greatest moments of the past decade, including Earnhardt winning for the seventh time at Talladega just weeks after suffering burns and being knocked semi-conscious in an ALMS crash – and then being docked 25 points for blurting out a profanity during his post-race interview. The second to last race at Darlington was a testament to it being one of the finest tracks on the circuit with a back and forth contest between Gordon, Johnson, and Martin. The 48 team showed early on why it would go on to win five titles (thus far), by winning four of the final six races, and finishing second at Homestead.
The most poignant moment? Busch suffering a blown right front tire, and the tire liberating itself from his No. 97 Sharpie Ford, which missed knocking down the pit wall by a paper-thin margin. As the wheel continued onto the track, a caution came out, keeping him from losing a lap. The race came down to a green-white-checker finish, with Busch’s teammate, Greg Biffle winning while keeping the No. 48 at bay.
Busch’s eight-point title win over Johnson, at the time, was the closest ever. Be that as it may, the purists were incensed further, noting that had the championship been decided by a year-long cumulative points total as it had since 1975, Gordon would have won his fifth title.
2. 2011 Sprint Cup — The Tiebreaker
Ever poo-poo guys who stay out to lead a lap to get a bonus point or wrench on their car after caving the side of it in, just to come back out 80 laps down in hopes of picking up a position? If so, the 2011 Chase should be the slap in the face that illustrates that every position counts.
Tony Stewart stumbled into the Chase like a drunk guy at the club demanding another Red Bull and vodka. Smoke even admitted weeks earlier that if his team did make the Chase, that they’d just be in the way. All of that changed at the drop of a hat, as the No. 14 took the first two wins of the Chase at Chicago and Loudon.
Stewart ultimately would win five races of the 10 (put the calculator down, it’s a 50 percent win percentage), to Carl Edwards’ zero victories. Edwards played it safe, taking the slow and steady route to what should have been the year that he broke through for a title. Edwards finished second at Homestead despite leading the most laps and Stewart won, despite having a piece of Kurt Busch’s bell housing lodged in his radiator ductwork. With the two tied at race’s end, the Chase went to the first tie-breaker: Wins. And Stewart’s five bested Edwards’ one, which came at Las Vegas in March — a skid he has yet to break.
A bit of coincidence regarding that Vegas race: Edwards only won due to fuel miscalculation by Stewart, who had the race in hand until the closing laps.
3. 2006 Nextel Cup — Johnson’s Rally
Jimmie Johnson’s first title will be remembered for starting a dynasty. However, the most amazing thing about Johnson’s 2006 Chase performance was the hole from which he climbed out of to win.
After finishes of 39th, 13th, 14th and 24th to begin the Chase, the 48 team found itself in a seemingly insurmountable 156-point hole to Jeff Burton. Sitting eighth in the standings, the team, which wasn’t THE TEAM at the time, began its comeback in modest-enough ways, finishing second at Charlotte.
Who could have guessed that that finish would begin a streak of five consecutive runs of second or better, relentlessly beating away all comers. Johnson made up 10 points on first at Charlotte, a dropped the hammer at Martinsville, narrowing his deficit to 41 points with a dominating win.
From there, it was child’s play, moving into second in the standings (-26) after Atlanta and by Matt Kenseth for first the following week at Texas. Another runner-up showing followed in Phoenix, and by Homestead he only needed to play it safe to protect his 63-ppoint advantage. He did so, of course, coming home ninth and beating Kenseth by 56 points.
4. 2005 Nextel Cup — Winning Races and Climbing Fences
By the time the 2005 season rolled around, a couple of constants had been confirmed: Tony Stewart liked to eat, loved Indianapolis Motor Speedway and climbing things (specifically, catchfencing). Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson was in his fourth full Cup campaign, and had racked up a whopping 16 wins by the time that season’s Chase began.
The 48 came out strong, winning the second race at Dover, but then triggered a 30 car pile-up at Talladega, which would ultimately be Johnson’s downfall (despite another win at Charlotte).
Roush Racing was poised to win its second straight Chase by sheer numbers, owning half of the Chase field with Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards. Edwards was in his first-full year of competition, but wasted little time in showing he was for real, snatching a win away from Martin at Texas and sweeping both Atlanta races for the year. Biffle won the season finale at Homestead by a bumper over Martin, but the title fight that day was on between Stewart and Johnson.
Johnson needed to win to beat Stewart for the title, but ended up beating themselves — as they had on more than one occasion that season. Johnson blew a left rear tire on lap 127 of 267 and nearly took out Jeff Gordon in the process. The incident capped a season of friction between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, leading to the now-famous “milk and cookies” meeting arranged by owner Rick Hendrick in the offseason.
Stewart, on the other hand, shimmied his bulbous behind up the fence yet again, claiming his second championship in four years and becoming the first driver to claim a Cup title under two different point systems since Richard Petty in 1979. Petty, in fact, won titles under four different points systems. Beat that, Tony.
5. 2009 Sprint Cup — Score One for the Geritol Gang … Almost
When you’re 50 years old, you’re usually planning the next decade of work so you can punch out a few years early and retire. When you’re Mark Martin, you take a new full-time job and still answer the bell at 0600 every morning to start pounding steel.
After taking a couple of years off from the mental and physical grind of a yearly 10-month prize fight, Martin joined Hendrick Motorsports for his last best shot at bringing home the hardware. Through the regular season, Martin and the No. 5 team racked up four wins – his most since 1998 – and served notice that there was a new contender to the throne, both at HMS and in the Cup Series.
Out of the blocks fast with a win in Loudon, it would be up to Johnson to battle back and beat Martin to win a fourth consecutive title. The 48 team responded, with a 271-lap leading drubbing at Dover and follow that up with wins at Fontana and Charlotte. At Talladega, Johnson appeared to be on the verge of suffering a big blow, with Martin running in the top 10 and Johnson hung out, barely in the top 20. A green-white-wreckers finish ensured a flip-flopping in the order, as Martin ended up on his roof while Johnson skating through for an eighth-place finish.
It looked like the 48 would be mailing it in from there on out, except for the first lap at Texas a week later, when Sam Hornish Jr. went Sam Hornish Jr., and clipped Johnson’s car, sending it head-on into the inside wall. A week later, though, Johnson won at Phoenix, with Martin following in fourth. At Homestead, Johnson came home fifth, while the 5 team struggled with a in 12th.
It would be Johnson’s fourth consecutive title, while Martin ended the season second in points for the fifth time in his career.
6. 2010 Sprint Cup – Hamlin’s Collapse
The 2010 season will be remembered for many things: Jimmie Johnson’s obscene fifth consecutive title (which would give credence to the notion that the Chase was simply not working) and for Denny Hamlin firing a Desani bottle at the side of his FedEx Camry.
It was a title for the taking for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team; Chad Knaus had fiddled with success, swapping out his crew mid-race at Texas with that of his No. 24 shop mates — a race Hamlin won, his seventh victory of the year. So confident was the No. 11 team that then-crew chief Mike Ford declare,d “I think our race team is better than their race team ... and I'm not afraid to go toe to toe with them to do it.”
About two seconds after he said that, you could pretty much guess what would happen next.
At Phoenix, the 11 team all but had things sewed up. Hamlin had led 190 of 312 laps, and was well on his way to locking down his first title and the fourth for Joe Gibbs Racing. Then Ford got cold feet on fuel mileage and had Hamlin pit. When others — including Johnson — went the distance, Hamlin finished 12th to Johnson’s fifth. What followed at Homestead was a meltdown of mammoth proportions. Hamlin qualified 37th, and on lap 25 was throwing up chunks of sod on the backstretch. It actually was a pretty good save, and he managed to bring the car home 14th. Only problem: Johnson finished second and won the championship by 39 points.
Of note, had this been under the prior points system, Kevin Harvick would have been the season champion by a staggering 285 points.
7. 2008 Sprint Cup – Jimmie Ties Cale
Usually when you win nine races in a season like Carl Edwards in 2008, you’re pretty much guaranteed to come home with a championship. That is, of course, you’re up against Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team and their seven wins. In a season that was dominated by the obsession over Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning only one race in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports (while Jeff Gordon won zero) and eight wins by the new plot of the No. 18, it was Johnson and Edwards that emerged as the two Chase contenders.
Heading into Charlotte for the halfway point in the Chase, Johnson held a 72-point lead over Edwards. A week earlier, Edwards attempted a last lap pass on Johnson for the win that was last seen executed during my 10th season in career mode of NASCAR Thunder 2003 for PS2. Edwards barely cleared Johnson for the lead – then promptly walled it.
At Charlotte, it as though Edwards was in position to keep it close for the second half of the playoffs. That was until his ignition system went bonkers, leaving him 17 laps down in 33rd place, while Johnson came home sixth. Edwards would rally to win Atlanta, Texas and Homestead, but it was not enough to eclipse Johnson and the No. 48 team.
Edwards lost the Chase that year by 69 points. Under the prior system, he would have won by 16 points.
8. 2007 Nextel Cup – The Bomb … and Not in a Good Way
One word comes to mind when describing the 2007 Chase: Brutal. The field was expanded to 12, and it was the first year of NASCAR’s baby, the over-hyped and under-stylized Car of Tomorrow. Top-heavy turds with cow-catchers and Erector-Set wings replaced the shovel-nosed, cock-eyed machines that were sealed off at the nose, riding on collapsed front suspensions.
Jeff Gordon essentially dominated the year, posting a ridiculous 30 top 10 finishes, 21 top 5s, six wins and five second-place finishes. Unfortunately, he ran up against his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who was coming off his first title (and was on quite the tear himself, winning 10 races). With Charlotte being the halfway point of the Chase, Gordon won in a green-white-checker finish after Ryan Newman wrecked with two laps to go. Gordon had a 68-point lead and was heading to Martinsville, where Gordon has seven career wins. Naturally, the inevitable happened.
Johnson won four races in a row.
Gordon tried to keep pace, meeting each win with a top-10 run, but that didn’t work for long. Heading into the final race of the season, Gordon’s title hopes were virtually DOA, trailing J.J. by 86 points. Gordon finished fourth while Johnson cruised around in eighth en route to his second of five straight titles.
Just how bad did these two decimate the field in the first appearance of the CoT? While Johnson beat his teammate by 77 points, third-place Clint Bowyer was 346 points behind in third. Ninth-place Carl Edwards? 501 points — and he won Dover two races into the Chase. Had it been the points system used the first 26 races for the final 10, Gordon would have waltzed to his fifth career championship (sixth if the same criteria was used in 2004). Under the points system used from 1975-2003, he would have beat Johnson by 354 points and Tony Stewart by 706 points.
Considering that sort of margin, you can thank the Chase for helping to curb some real stinkers over the past eight years. If you’re a 24 or 99 fan, though, you’ll probably curse it for denying Gordon the chance at closing to within one title of Petty and Earnhardt, and Edwards from winning a title of his own.
Either way, you can blame Matt Kenseth.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and Clint Bowyer (15). (ASP, Inc.)
The race shop was once a movie theatre. The team’s finances proved as stable as a house of cards. No surprise that one of NASCAR’s biggest dreamers was the owner.
Five years later, Michael Waltrip’s team is in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time. Michael Waltrip Racing brings an intriguing mix with drivers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., who both have shown the ability to string several strong races together this season.
Neither likely will be among the Chase favorites, though, because most people will be smitten with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin or Dale Earnhardt Jr. All are worthy picks and make it easy to overlook Waltrip’s group.
While much will be made of Hendrick Motorsports putting all four cars in the Chase after Jeff Gordon’s determined drive at Richmond to secure the final wild card spot, just think what could have been for Waltrip’s team. Had Mark Martin run the entire schedule instead of a majority of races, he could have been in position to make the Chase and put all three MWR cars in it. Still, Waltrip’s team has more cars in the Chase than traditional powerhouses Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and defending champions Stewart-Haas Racing.
That’s a credit to what Waltrip has built along with co-owner Rob Kauffman, who joined the organization in Oct. 2007 and saved it with his infusion of cash.
“They hired the right people,” Denny Hamlin says. “They hired the right drivers. That's how you become successful.
“(MWR) is going to be around for a long time. You look at the progression of the race team, they’re legit now. I mean, they are guys you're going to have to beat week in, week out.”
Bowyer, who joined the team this season, enters the Chase with two wins after his victory last weekend at Richmond. He’s finished in the top 10 in five of the last six races.
“With everything new, never would (I) have dreamed in a million years all this would have happened this quickly,” Bowyer said after his win last weekend.
Asked about the possibility of winning the title, Bowyer said: “Jimmie (Johnson) seems like he has a blast doing it. I promise you I could throw a better party than him. Might not survive it, but we would have a lot of fun.”
As for Truex, he seeks his first win since 2007, but has shown signs of contending for victories, especially during a stretch in the spring where he finished fifth at Martinsville, sixth at Texas and second at Kansas — all Chase tracks. He had finished no worse than 11th in seven races until placing 21st at Richmond. Still, he’s lead in four consecutive races entering the Chase, his longest streak of the season.
"I'm going to be honest with you, the way our cars are running and as fast as we've been the last six or seven weeks we're dangerous,” Truex says. “I know we're kind of an underdog and not a lot of people expect us to do much. It's a good position to be in. We just need to be smart, make good decisions and our Toyotas are strong enough to do this thing. (I’m) looking forward to going out and having some fun and hopefully we'll put together 10 good races and be in the hunt.
Regan Smith (ASP, Inc.)
GETTING BETTER It’s easy to miss because Regan Smith has not been in contention for a Chase spot, but a team that showed promise last year, winning the Southern 500, is displaying signs of improvement after struggling much of this season.
Since Todd Berrier was hired as crew chief before Indianapolis, Smith has had an average finish of 17.0. Not spectacular by any means, but in the seven races before the crew chief change was made, Smith’s average finish was 28.0.
“We weren’t happy with what was going on at the beginning part of the year,” Smith says. “Certainly none of us were happy with how we were running, myself included. This is a race team that up until the start of the season, and maybe the last five races of last year, was on the uphill swing.
“We seemed to get better each week and seemed to learn new stuff each week and we went through a period there of probably 15 races or so until we made some changes a (few) weeks ago. We were having the same problems week-in and week-out and weren’t learning and weren’t fixing and didn’t understand them. Todd Barrier came in and he’s done a great job.”
NUMBER CRUNCHING Tony Stewart has the best average finish of any driver at Chicagoland Speedway, which hosts the opening Chase race Sunday. Stewart’s average finish there is 8.7 with three wins and nine top-10 finishes in 11 starts. ... Of the 10 Chase tracks, the series has raced at eight of them this season. Greg Biffle has the best average finish among this year’s title contenders at those tracks at 6.4. ... Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to have made the Chase all nine years.
PIT STOPS Matt Kenseth will debut a new chassis this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. ... The chassis Kevin Harvick will use was first raced by Austin Dillon (24th at Michigan) and then run by Harvick at Pocono (14th). ... The chassis Dale Earnhardt Jr. will drive was run at both Pocono races this season where his best finish with it was eighth in June. ... Kasey Kahne’s chassis will be one he’s raced three times this season, including at Charlotte when he won the Coca-Cola 600. ... Greg Biffle will use the same chassis this weekend that he won with at Michigan last month.
"Third?! I'm gonna tear @MattTaliaferro a new one on Twitter." (ASP, Inc.)
1. Denny Hamlin Hamlin slips ahead of Jimmie Johnson thanks to having the strongest car for a third consecutive week (despite the fact he didn’t win). He also gets a hat tip for those four regular season victories. Last week: 2
2. Jimmie Johnson Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are bringing the car that they dominated and won with at Dover and Indianapolis to Chicago. My thought is it goes three-for-three this season. You heard it here first. Last week: 1
3. Brad Keselowski Drove to a quiet seventh at Richmond, his ninth top-10 showing in the last 10 races. This kid is for real, people, and his time is now. Last week: 3
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Give him props for the consistency throughout the regular season. Now the question becomes whether this team and its driver can deliver in crunch time or get passed by the heavy-hitters. Last week: 4
5. Jeff Gordon Gets a huge bump up the rankings this week after being Mr. Clutch the last three weeks, with finishes of third, second and second. Now we’ll see if they have any gas left in the tank. Last week: 10
6. Clint Bowyer One win per season is impressive and all, but multiple victories rachet a team and its driver up the “keep an eye on” list. Bowyer and the 15 bunch are there — and at just the right time. Last week: 8
7. Greg Biffle Lest we forget about the “Regular Season Champion” — that is, if there were one. When is NASCAR going to at least acknowledge that achievement? At the least, an “Atta boy!” would do. Last week: 5
8. Matt Kenseth Kenseth’s standing takes a hit based more on what others have done as opposed to the performance of his No. 17 team. That said, there are still questions how this team will do in the Chase. Last week: 7
9. Kasey Kahne Many are looking at Kahne as a nice darkhorse Chase pick. It’s hard to argue with those types, especially when you consider that his two wins this year have come on Chase tracks (Charlotte, Loudon). Last week: 9
"My one team has more cars in the Chase than both of yours!" (ASP, Inc.)
10. Martin Truex Jr. Was once again strong, but failed to cash in. Make no mistake, this team has performed admirably this season, but if you can’t finish out a race, how can you finish out a championship? Last week: 6
11. Kevin Harvick Showings of 15th, fifth and 10th since the crew chief swap. Can Harvick be this year’s Tony Stewart? Last week: 12
12. Tony Stewart Speaking of Stewart, his fourth at RIR was his first top 10 in over a month. Last week: 13
13. Kyle Busch Will be interesting to see if this team comes out firing or packs it in after a failed Chase bid. Last week: 11
14. Marcos Ambrose Has averaged an 8.8-place finish over the last six weeks. Will a new crew chief improve that? Last week: 14
15. Ryan Newman Eighth-place finishes at Michigan and Richmond bookend two weeks worth of crashes. Last week: N/R
Just off the lead pack: Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Sam Hornish Jr., Mark Martin, Paul Menard
Hamlin, Johnson, Keselowski separate from the pack
"Hmmm ... what should I ask him?" (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson Denny Hamlin may be the hottest driver on the Cup circuit at the moment, but Johnson’s team will still be the one everyone keeps an eye on going into the Chase.
2. Denny Hamlin Became the first driver since Tony Stewart in last season’s playoffs to score consecutive wins on the Cup circuit, with victories at Bristol and Atlanta. This is not the Denny Hamlin of 2011, folks.
3. Brad Keselowski Throw out Keselowski’s disastrous night in Bristol (which is a real rarity) and you’ll find a driver with eight straight runs of ninth or better. Along with Johnson and Hamlin, he has to be a title favorite.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Persevered for a respectable seventh-place showing on what was shaping up to be an off night in Atlanta. The consistency is unquestioned, but can Junior post a couple wins in the Chase?
5. Greg Biffle Was expecting more out of the points leader at the fast and slick Atlanta track. That said, his team of intermediate-track specialists will be ready for the Chase kickoff at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway.
6. Martin Truex Jr. Victory slips through Truex’s fingers once again. He and the No. 56 team’s performance in the closing laps at Atlanta are what separate the “title contenders” from the “playoff participants.”
7. Matt Kenseth One has to wonder how his Roush Fenway bunch will react now that Kenseth has walked the halls and officially announced his Joe Gibbs Racing relationship.
8. Clint Bowyer Moved into the top 10 from a rear-of-the-field starting spot at Atlanta before battery issues cost him three laps. Could Bowyer be a guy who breaks up the Kyle Busch/Jeff Gordon battle royal in Richmond?
Truex's 2013 Toyota. Pretty spiffy. (ASP, Inc.)
9. Kasey Kahne Looking to make up the 19 points he’ll need to slide ahead of Tony Stewart in the standings and take advantage of the bonus points he’ll receive for the two wins. That may be a lot to ask.
10. Jeff Gordon Gordon regretted not putting the fender to Hamlin on the final lap at Atlanta. Considering all that’s riding on a win, I’m scratching my head as to why he didn’t, either.
11. Kyle Busch Busch can win at Richmond, no doubt. But can JGR give him a piece that lasts the whole race?
12. Kevin Harvick The last couple of weeks makes me wonder why Harvick and Gill Martin split up in the first place.
13. Tony Stewart Point to ponder: Danica Patrick is currently the only driver at SHR with full sponsorship for 2013.
14. Marcos Ambrose Valiant performances by Ambrose and the team over the last month is example of too little, too late.
15. Paul Menard Here’s betting the “Paul Menard Empire” is the only group that knew he has three straight top 10s.
Just off the lead pack: Carl Edwards, Sam Hornish Jr., Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman