The defending winner of the Food City 500, Brad Keselowski. (ASP, Inc.)
Bristol Motor Speedway received a re-tooling of sorts following last spring’s race, so there will be a bevy of unknowns this weekend when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series takes to the high-banked half-mile oval.
What is known is that three races are in the books and two of the usual suspects, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, are running on all cylinders as others — and you’ll read of one below — are experiencing early-season struggles. We also know what we were able to learn from the Bristol race last August, an exciting caution flag-fueled event that paid dividends to those that had the ability to either move through the field or retain track position.
3.7 and 0.6 Brad Keselowski is averaging a 3.7-place finish, grouped with a strong 0.6 finish deviation.
Holy Keselowski! The Penske Racing No. 2 team is really, really good right now. The act of them being good isn’t a shock; the extent of their goodness is what is amazing. Through three races, the championship-winning entry from 2012 has amassed a 3.7-place average finish. How legitimate is that? Their 0.6 finish deviation — and mind you, zero is perfectly consistent — tells us the team isn’t wavering much from that average. Keselowski and team are both staggeringly fast and pinpoint consistent. If the champs want to repeat, they’re off to a blazing start.
-42.1 percent Jeff Gordon and team can’t hold onto positions late in races, suggested by their negative-42.1 percent position retainment difference.
What is going on with the No. 24? Averaging a 12.7-place running position at the 10 percent-to-go mark, a precipitous drop occurs in the final stages of races, in which they average an 18th-place finish. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson were more balanced position retainers last year, with a plus-3.4 percent difference. Races like last weekend at Las Vegas, in which they dropped from 21st to a finish of 25th in the final 27 laps, can’t be tolerated for a team hoping to land a Chase spot.
17.0 Thanks to a 17.0-place average finish, Paul Menard is the highest ranked Richard Childress Racing driver in the Cup Series standings.
Who would have thought? It’s true. After three races, Menard and team are the lead dogs in the RCR yard, ranking 12th in Cup Series standings; however, that’s probably not something that will last. Both Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton crashed out of Daytona, while Menard’s team has finished in the top half of the field in all three events. Harvick’s No. 29 team doesn’t often leave races on the table, evident by the team’s 88-plus Relevance percentage (read: percentage of races in a season finished in the top half of fields) in each of the last three years.
Brian Vickers will race MWR's No. 55 Toyota at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
4.000 Through eight races in 2012, Brian Vickers, who makes his 2013 Cup Series debut Sunday, earned a series-best 4.000 PEER, which measures the on-track production of a race car driver in an “all equipment even” scenario. Two of those races were at Bristol.
Surface schmurface, Vickers was good on both Bristol iterations last season, finishing fifth in the spring race (he led 125 laps) and fourth in August. Considering this specific facility comprised 25 percent of his schedule last season, it’s no wonder that the Hendrick castoff produced at a rate far beyond his average.
Bristol might also be a haven for Vickers in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race; after two finishes of 17th or worse have relegated him to seventh in the series standings, a kind track could alleviate the relatively underwhelming results for the former series champ driving in stellar equipment.
+40 August 2012 Bristol victor Denny Hamlin was an adept passer in his race-winning effort, recording a pass differential of plus-40.
A good-passing race car can go a long way at any track. Bristol is no different. In last August’s race, the first on the re-worked surface, Hamlin scored the win after totaling 57 green-flag passes, 40 more than the amount of times he was passed. Similarly, Jimmie Johnson finished second thanks in large part to his +28 pass differential.
139 Joey Logano, in a Joe Gibbs Racing entry, led a race-high 139 laps (that’s over a quarter of the race) in last August’s 500-lap event at Bristol.
Logano started fourth, took his initial lead on lap 27 and led on three more occasions during the race. His average running position of 7.24 ranked second that evening, but led to an eighth-place finish. This nugget presents an interesting dynamic. Logano now drives for Penske Racing, an organization that fielded a winning entry for Brad Keselowski last season and a front-row effort for AJ Allmendinger. The No. 20 JGR car is now driven by Matt Kenseth, the winner of last week’s race at Las Vegas, who led 25 laps in last August’s race. Both Logano, the driver and No. 20, the car should be key players in Sunday’s race.
9 for 25+ Nine different drivers led 25 laps or more in last August’s race at Bristol.
Want some competition that includes different names in the lead? I can’t guarantee it, but if last August’s race was any indication, there could be a flurry of activity at the front of the field. The high laps-led total for each driver is a result of there being a large number of laps in the race (500 to be exact), but the wide array of names is a fascinating occurrence. Leading isn’t everything, though. Of the nine drivers that led — Logano (139), Hamlin (70), Jimmie Johnson (52), Carl Edwards (45), Martin Truex Jr. (44), Kasey Kahne (42), Greg Biffle (41), Casey Mears (26) and Kenseth (25) — only Hamlin and Johnson finished inside the top 5.
Who are the wildcard drivers who could win the 55th running of the Daytona 500?
The Daytona 500 is the Great American Race for a reason. Dreams are realized, careers are validated and history is made each and every season. For the 55th time in history, 43 cars will attempt to finish 200 laps around the 2.5-mile asphalt tri-oval called the Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt to make NASCAR Sprint Cup return in Martinsville
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been medically cleared to race this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports announced Tuesday.
Earnhardt missed the past two races after suffering a concussion Oct. 7 in a last-lap crash at Talladega Superspeedway. It was his second concussion within six weeks. He suffered a concussion in a crash during an Aug. 29 tire test at Kansas Speedway.
Earnhardt’s rehabilitation program was directed by Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, who also consulted with Dr. Micky Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program.
“Dale Jr. has done everything asked of him,” Petty said in a statement issued by Hendrick Motorsports. “He hasn’t had a headache since Oct. 12, and we have not been able to provoke any symptoms since that time. I have informed NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports that he is medically cleared for all NASCAR-related activity.”
Earnhardt sought Dr. Petty because of lingering headaches after the Talladega race.
“The one symptom that is more important than all the tests is headache, and as long as there’s any headache, the brain is not healed,” Petty said Oct. 11 during a press conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway announcing that Earnhardt would miss the next two races because of a concussion.
“We want him to have four or five days after he has no headache, and then we'll give him some sort of test like to get his pulse rate up, see if we can provoke a headache, and then if we can't, we'll let him go out and drive a lap or two and see how that goes, and if that goes well, we'll probably clear him to race.”
Earnhardt drove 123 laps in a Sprint Cup car Monday at the half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga., without any issues.
Crew chief Steve Letarte wrote on Twitter after the test that Earnhardt “looked great and ran some awesome laps.”
Petty monitored the test. He cleared Earnhardt Tuesday morning after a final neuropsychological evaluation in Charlotte.
On Sunday at Kansas Speedway, car owner Rick Hendrick said that it was never a consideration to hold Earnhardt the rest of the season.
“He’s burning up to get in the car,” Hendrick said. “He wanted to run this weekend. He’s very anxious. He wants to get back. No way you’re going to hold him out unless the doctor wouldn’t clear him, but he’s good to go.”
While Earnhardt was out, Regan Smith drove his car. An engine failure left Smith with a 38th-place finish at Charlotte, but he placed seventh at Kansas last weekend.
Earnhardt is the second driver in NASCAR’s national series to suffer a concussion and miss races this season. Eric McClure suffered a concussion, along with other injuries, in a crash during the May 5 Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway. McClure, who suffered his third concussion in less than two years in that incident, sat out five races before returning.
Hendrick Motorsports’ announcement did not include a statement from Earnhardt. He’s scheduled to talk to the media Friday morning at Martinsville Speedway before practice.
Matt Kenseth (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
LAME DUCK? Sure, Matt Kenseth is leaving Roush Fenway Racing after this season to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, but he’s won two of the last three Cup- races. Had it not been for some mechanical issues earlier in the Chase, Kenseth, who won at Talladega two weeks ago, might have a chance to contend for the title.
“We've had two great races where they couldn't be better, and we had four that probably couldn't be a lot worse, other than Loudon,” Kenseth said after his 24th career Cup victory. “It's been up and down. I thought last year we were really strong. I thought in the Chase last year we had a shot to win the championship as far as performance. I feel like I let my guys down and didn't do a good enough job making decisions on the track or even off the track. I felt like I cost us, but our cars were fast enough to win.
“This season we started off real fast and could run in the top five every week it felt like. We went through a couple months where we didn't perform as well. Unfortunately, one of those months ran into the Chase. I just felt like we were a little off as a group, plus we made a few mistakes that we typically never make, have had some other problems that cost us some finishes. It feels good to get here, have a fast car, have everything happen right, be able to get the win.”
Another driver on the move after this season is Joey Logano, who will leave Joe Gibbs Racing for Penske Racing’s No. 22 ride. Although he finished 19th at Kansas on Sunday, he’s placed in the top 10 in four of his last six races.
PIT STOPS AJ Allmendinger is back in the car for Phoenix Racing this weekend at Martinsville. Allmendinger finished a career-best second there in the spring for Penske Racing. ... Points leader Brad Keselowski has an average finish of 13.4 in five previous starts there. ... Jimmie Johnson, second in the points, has six wins at Martinsville and has finished outside the top 10 there only twice since 2002 (20 races). ... Denny Hamlin, third in the points, has four Martinsville victories and only two finishes outside the top 20 there since 2005 (14 races).
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.
It was a hard-fought effort at New Hampshire, a solid third-place finish for Davey Allison as he tried to right the ship in a disappointing 1993. One year removed from title contention, he hadn’t won since Richmond in March and sat fifth in points, a whopping 323 behind Dale Earnhardt roughly halfway through the season.
“Just wait until next year,” he said after not winning that Sunday. “Come back and try it again.”
The tragic reality? There would be no 1994 trip to the Magic Mile. In a cryptic interview, one in which he specifically went out of his way to mention the wife and kids this post-race chat, was the last time we ever heard from Allison in public. The next day, en route to a test session at Talladega, Allison crashed his helicopter while landing at the speedway, killing himself and seriously injuring longtime friend Red Farmer. It’s a tragic reminder of how fragile life can be in the racing world.
by Tom Bowles
9. Rusty Wins Inaugural Race
2 of 10
On the same Sunday as Allison’s interview, Rusty Wallace took control of the first ever Cup event held at New Hampshire’s 1.058-mile oval. Starting 33rd, it didn’t take long for the No. 2 Miller car to rip its way through the field, taking the lead shortly after the halfway point and establishing itself as the fastest car. For a debut race, the finish was fairly tame at the speedway – Wallace took the lead on a pit stop during the final caution with 30 laps remaining and breezed to a 1.31-second victory over Mark Martin. It was part of a 10-win season for Rusty, perhaps Penske Racing’s finest effort, but DNFs would ultimately derail him in a quest for a second title over Dale Earnhardt. And as for the Magic Mile? It’s a good thing Rusty cashed in early; he never won again at the speedway, leading just 145 laps in 21 additional starts after starting off his Loudon career by pacing the field for 106 circuits.
by Tom Bowles
7. Burton Wins Third Straight … When Stewart Runs Out of Gas
3 of 10
Tony Stewart and fuel at Loudon seem to mesh as well as Juan Pablo Montoya and jet dryers. Dominating the 1999 Jiffy Lube 300, the Cup Series rookie appeared to be headed towards his first victory, but out of nowhere the fuel tank ran dry with just over two laps remaining. That left Burton, who started 38th, to seize control and take a shocking victory to become the only driver in NASCAR history to win three straight spring/summer races in New Hampshire. Overall, the Magic Mile has treated Burton well; his four career victories there are the most for him at any facility on the Cup circuit. But the race was notable just as much for Stewart’s temperamental reaction — a sign of things to come — after coasting to pit road, he waved off the media and stormed out of the race track without comment. “I was so consumed with emotion,” he said later. “I just didn’t do the right thing.” It wouldn’t be the last time we’d see that in this Sprint Cup career.
by Tom Bowles; Photo by NHMS
6. Payback Proves Costly in Chase
4 of 10
Once upon a time, back when points didn’t consume drivers every minute of every race, they didn’t automatically tiptoe around championship contenders during the Chase. Robby Gordon, in 2004, was a prime example. During NASCAR’s first ever postseason event, at the height of drama and the unknown, he turned it into a “tete a tete” with Greg Biffle … other drivers be damned. After Biffle spun him out early, Gordon waited for an opportunity to hit the No. 16 back and piledrove him in Turn 1, igniting a multi-car wreck. Tony Stewart, then Jeremy Mayfield got involved as two Chasers saw their title dreams go up in smoke over someone else’s mess.
“I don’t know why they’re settling it on the race track,” said Mayfield after bringing his car behind the wall for repairs. “I guess they’re too scared to settle it outside the race track.”
Gordon got penalized two laps for starting the whole mess, but the die was cast: the reaction from Chasers seems to have started a trend where those not involved in the championship are extra careful not to interfere in the title race.
by Tom Bowles
5. Jimmie Johnson’s Spin … to Ultimate Win
5 of 10
One year removed from the “milk and cookies” meeting — the infamous Rick Hendrick/Chad Knaus/Jimmie Johnson powwow that ultimately saved their relationship — Johnson headed into the 2006 Chase with high hopes. Having lost the championship to Tony Stewart the year prior, the group was determined to push forward but bad timing on a chain reaction incident, early in this race at New Hampshire, pushed the No. 48 right into the wall. It would leave them ninth in points after the race, 139 behind leader Kevin Harvick and seemingly out of the hunt for another title.
“There are nine more,” Johnson said cryptically. “There's a lot of time left. Anything can happen.”
And it did. J.J. roared back from the deficit to take the first of five consecutive titles. Fuel for thought in Jeff Gordon’s camp this season, perhaps?
by Tom Bowles
4. Mother Nature Smiles on Logano
6 of 10
For the rookie known as “Sliced Bread,” New Hampshire was doing a good job of trying to slice his car into tiny little pieces in the spring of 2009. Falling a lap down at one point, he actually caused the race’s ninth caution by spinning out on lap 184. But another incident a few laps later, involving the No. 82 of Scott Speed, earned Logano his lap back via the Lucky Dog – and an opportunity.
Crew chief Greg Zipadelli, knowing the car would start at the end of the longest line anyway, brought his driver in for an extra splash of fuel, knowing Mother Nature had some storm clouds on the horizon. Turns out a long green-flag run immediately unfolded, and when other drivers had to make their stops, the battered and bruised No. 20 Toyota could go just a bit longer than anyone else. Running conservatively, in part because the car was a mangled mess, Logano was in front by just a few seconds at the perfect time – when a raging downpour soaked the track and forced a yellow, red, then a checkered flag 27 laps early.
It was the most surprising way anyone expected the “best driver of his generation,” according to friend Mark Martin, to win a race. But what’s even more shocking? It took until Pocono, in June 2012 for this once-promising youngster to take race number two on the Cup level.
by Tom Bowles
3. Jimmie Johnson vs. Kurt Busch
7 of 10
Kurt Busch doesn’t like Jimmie Johnson. Jimmie Johnson doesn’t like Kurt Busch. So for the two of them to race together in the closing laps of New Hampshire in 2010, you knew something a little out of the ordinary was going to happen. Johnson clearly had the fastest car, but Busch had the best front bumper as he outright pushed the No. 48 car out of the way entering Turn 1. The defending Cup Series champ slipped, but never outright lost control, in a move that would prove to be Busch’s undoing. Losing about a second, Johnson quickly ran the No. 2 back down, produced payback with a little contact of his own, and scooted by for the win with about two laps remaining.
“I usually get caught up in it,” Johnson said after the race. “So I knew what my thought process was, ‘Wreck his ass.’”
Busch did hold on to finish third but the intimidation tactics didn’t really work; Johnson charged on to win the 2010 title over Denny Hamlin.
by Tom Bowles
2. Clash of the Gordons
8 of 10
It was a Twilight Zone race, a crisp and cold day where New Hampshire served as a substitute season finale for NASCAR. Postponed from the attacks of September 11, 2011, to after Thanksgiving this event was purely for show, as Jeff Gordon clinched the championship one race earlier at Atlanta. But that didn’t stop him from stomping the field in Loudon. In all, the No. 24 car led 257 of 300 laps, and was in its own time zone until a series of late cautions changed the outcome of the race.
Losing the lead to Sterling Marlin on pit road, Gordon was put in heavy traffic and forced to fight his way back to the front. In the process, Robby Gordon, who had put together a credible, top-5 performance, closed in on the back bumper of Gordon and made his presence known. The two tangled, with Jeff losing control – and his edge – while their sheet metal rub slid them into Mike Wallace and spun the No. 12 out.
Jeff was angry, and retaliated under yellow, but Robby was focused from that point on and sped to his first ever Cup Series victory.
“Everybody thought you couldn't make me mad. You can make me mad,” said Jeff afterwards. “It was a heck of a battle. It was between me and him anyway. I just wish it would have been done fair and square instead of just knocking a guy out of the way.”
by Tom Bowles
1. Ernie Irvan Completes Comeback
9 of 10
In August 1994, a wreck at Michigan left Ernie Irvan fighting for survival. The second tragedy in two years for Robert Yates Racing’s No. 28 Ford, you wondered what more could happen to an organization that was known as one of NASCAR’s classiest. But in a miraculous recovery that took over 14 months, Irvan bounced back and eventually returned to a racecar.
Competing full-time in 1996, he had run well at several tracks but Loudon was finally the place Irvan put it all together. Coasting to a five-second victory, bringing smiles to every crew member and race fan in the stands and taking the checkered flag made the miracle complete. In a “full circle” move, Irvan responded by doing a Polish Victory Lap, in honor of Alan Kulwicki and bringing to mind the late Davey Allison, who Irvan had replaced three years prior. It was also a sign of things to come for RYR, which saw its team finish 1-2 for the first time in history as the sport started towards the reality of multi-car programs continually on top of the charts.
Kenseth, Logano and Chase wild cards take center stage
2012 Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth. (ASP, Inc.)
As a Green Bay Packers fan, Matt Kenseth knows the shock many had seeing quarterback Brett Favre wear another team’s uniform. Kenseth says he doesn’t think his fans will be as shocked with his new look at Joe Gibbs Racing next season after being with car owner Jack Roush’s team since 1999.
“I’ve had about 25 different uniforms in the last two years,” Kenseth said, exaggerating the numerous sponsors cobbled together to fund his Cup team. “I think most of my fans eventually are going to appreciate only having two different uniforms and paint jobs next year instead of 10. I’m really looking forward to the stability of the sponsorship and the team.”
What had been known for some time became official Tuesday when Joe Gibbs Racing introduced Kenseth as its driver for next season. Kenseth replaces Joey Logano, who is headed to drive the No. 22 car at Penske Racing in 2013. Home Depot and Dollar General will sponsor Kenseth’s No. 20 car. Jason Ratcliff will serve as his crew chief.
Team officials said having the 40-year-old Kenseth replace the 22-year-old Logano was good for the company’s future.
“It doesn’t matter what age you are, it doesn’t matter your experience, the question is are you good and can you communicate and can you be a part of a team?” said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. “I think Matt will fit that well for Denny (Hamlin) and for Kyle (Busch).”
Gibbs said that with Kenseth coming over, the team wanted Logano to do a full Nationwide schedule next season and some Cup races, but once the Penske ride opened, knew that they couldn’t compete with that. Gibbs could only offer such a program to Logano because of what sponsorship the team had available.
“We love Joey, he’s been here a long time, so we have a real fondness for him, but at the same time we understand that when he has an opportunity there, it’s hard to pass that up,” Gibbs said.
Kenseth said his focus the rest of this season is winning the championship at Roush Fenway Racing. Once his Roush contract ends, he’ll plan to spend as much time as possible with Ratfcliff and discuss the car and their program
“I know without a doubt it is the right place for me,” Kenseth said of moving to Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
DOWN TO TWO Officially eight drivers have a chance to gain a wild card spot at Richmond and make the Chase, but Kyle Busch admits he thinks it will be between he and Jeff Gordon for the final playoff spot. Kasey Kahne, who has two wins, is expected to make the Chase, most likely via the other wild card spot.
Busch leads Gordon by 12 points heading into Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway, the final one before the Chase field is set. Only once in 15 races they’ve raced each other at Richmond has Gordon finished more than 12 spots ahead of Busch. Also, Busch’s career average finish at Richmond is 4.7 (four wins). Gordon’s average finish in those 15 races is 17.0 (zero wins).
Busch said he doesn’t anticipate needing reports during the race to keep up with what Gordon is doing.
“If (Gordon) is front of me and I can’t see him, obviously we’re not having a good enough night, but if (Gordon) is in front of us and I can see him, I think everything will be fine,” Busch said.
Carl Edwards and team owner Jack Roush. (ASP, Inc.)
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN Carl Edwards, who lost last year’s title by a tiebreaker, needs to win Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond, have Kyle Busch finish 24th or worse and Jeff Gordon place 12th or worse to make the Chase.
Unless Edwards makes the Chase, it will mark the fifth consecutive year that the runner-up in the points finished no better than seventh the next season.
So, how did he get into this situation while teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are in the Chase?
“There are a couple reasons we’re in this position in points,” Edwards said. “One of them is not the fact that we finished second last year in the championship, truly. We’re adults. We’re good competitors and we’ve finished second before. I’ve had disappointment.
“As we went through the season there are two things that happened that I think really set us behind. Number one, terrible luck. Think of qualifying at Michigan the first time we went there, the bolt came off the secondary for fuel injection for the butterflies. I mean, it seems like things like that have happened to us. We got in that wreck at Bristol.
“We had the spark plug wire come off at Indy running fourth, I think. We’ve had all these things that happened during the year combined with, I believe, (former crew chief) Bob (Osborne) and his (health) situation – him not being able to really perform at the highest level that he has over the last few years – I think all of that kind of added up to just mediocre performance combined with terrible luck.”
PIT STOPS Travis Pastrana will drive the No. 60 Nationwide car for Roush Fenway Racing this weekend at Richmond. Pastrana didn’t have any more Nationwide races scheduled for the season before this one-race deal. ... Denny Hamlin goes for his third consecutive Cup victory on Saturday at his home track of Richmond, in a race that he won in 2009 and 0’10. The last time a driver won three Cup races in a row was Jimmie Johnson, who won four consecutive races during the Chase in 2007. He won at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix. … The NASCAR baby boom continues, as Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola and wife Janice welcomed a baby boy, Alex, into their family on Tuesday.
The changes to Bristol may not have worked quite how track officials imagined, but most members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council liked what they saw there last weekend. Is it enough to get them back to the track? You might find those responses interesting. Also, Fan Council members updated their selection on who they think will get the wild card spots in the final two races before the Chase.
Grade Saturday’s Cup race at Bristol
49.7 percent called it Great 40.6 percent called it Good 7.0 percent called it Fair 2.7 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• I LOVED this race. Passing, crashing, sliding, cussing and even helmet throwing!! What's not to love? To me the best part is seeing so many different drivers up front (Vickers, Ambrose, etc.) as well as a lot of favorites. The fact that they all stay so close and race so close makes it very exciting. Enough yellows to keep them even more bunched up … it was just a really fun race to watch. I know the drivers hated the track, but man it was fun to watch!!
• I was opposed to the recent changes at Bristol, but I have to admit, it made for good racing. They struck a good balance of bumping and banging and racing.
• They fixed Bristol for the fans, ruined it for the drivers. LOVE IT!!!
• I was at the race and it exceeded my expectations!
• Finally! An exciting race at Bristol again. Absolutely loved it. The surprise that the top groove was the one that came in and proved fastest; the beating and banging; the emotion; pit, fuel and tire strategy all coming in to play. Seriously, if you didn't like this why are you even watching racing? It had everything.
• Don't like to watch wreckfests! That was AWFUL!
• If you did not think that Bristol was the best race of the year then perhaps you should switch the channel to ESPN3 and watch bowling for your excitement because clearly NASCAR is not for you.
• I was there and loved every minute of it. Not bad considering I left the same race with 150 to go last year.
• The changes Bruton made did exactly what I had hoped they would do. I was hoping for a hybrid between “Old” Bristol and “New” Bristol. The “New-New” Bristol had the side-by-side, rubbing, beating & banging with some tempers flying without the massive 12-car wrecks. No more conveyor belt! That is what we got! Tony throwing his helmet was just a bonus. I miss helmet (or heat shields if you are Ward Burton) throwing, and pointing to a driver you happen to be displeased with. I paid more attention to this race than any other this season! It's BRISTOL BABY!!!
• Not exactly the Bristol of old but pretty close to it! Good racing, lots of action — just out and out fun. Of course, Tony Stewart bringing back the helmet toss certainly didn't hurt and he wasn't the only one showing some temper. Good racing, good fun.
Did the Bristol race make you want to attend a race there more?
54.4 percent said Yes
45.6 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• Been a season ticket holder for eight years, but never have I been more excited about renewing!
• 25-year season ticket holder and will never return!
• I gave up my season tickets two years ago, but after (Saturday) night, I will be getting them back.
• I'm still boycotting Bruton Smith's tracks after the I-71 parking lot.
• I've always wanted to go to Bristol's night race and Saturday night made me want to go even more. I will be working on plans to hopefully go next year!
• No, in fact. I was a season ticket holder and will not be renewing my tickets. I can see a demolition derby anytime I want to at the local fairgrounds.
• Used to attend Bristol until my school district decided to change the starting date. Too early in the year to take time off, but I might have to reconsider next year.
• Hearing about all the gouging of the fans on hotel rates will keep me away from this track.
• Absolutely! From the atmosphere during pre-race on through the race, it seems like an exciting and fun place to be. Lord willing, I WILL be there next year.
• I've made the trip to Bristol twice, once for "original Bristol,” once for progressive-banking Bristol. My personal preference was the progressive banking, and since that's now gone and likely not to return, I doubt I'll pay the airfare and outrageous hotel bills to go watch another race there live.
What was the best race at Bristol last weekend?
84.4 percent said the Cup race 11.7 percent said the Nationwide race 3.9 percent said the Truck race
What Fan Council members said:
• The Truck Race was just awful, and the Nationwide race was pretty boring. So the Cup race wins by default.
• I thought all three races were pretty good — even the Truck race where Peters led every lap. More of the racing from the Cup race sticks out in my mind, so that's why I picked the Cup race as the best race of the weekend.
• The Whelen Modified race was the best race at Bristol last week. It was awesome! The battles, the passing, the surprises. It was virtually non-stop action and kept me on the edge of my seat until the end.
• I watched all three races and hands down the Cup race was the best. It was one of the most entertaining races I have seen in a long time. It had everything. Top entertaining moment has to go to Tony and Matt. Think Tony will be nominated for one of his own Stewie Awards this year for throwing his helmet at Matt's car.
• Usually I have to say the Trucks have the better racing of the three series, but this week I will say the Cup racing was the best. The racing was great all night long and never really had a dull moment. I'm usually always checking Twitter during the Cup races, but this race, I didn't want to stop watching the TV. Was really exciting for a change.
• I picked the Nationwide race because Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick had a long battle for the lead ... and maybe I have lower expectations of the Nationwide drivers so the multitude of cautions in that race didn't bother me so much.
Who will make the Chase via wild card?
89.2 percent said Kasey Kahne
47.6 percent said Kyle Busch
34.8 percent said Jeff Gordon
9.8 percent said Carl Edwards
4.7 percent said Ryan Newman
4.4 percent said Marcos Ambrose
1.7 percent said Joey Logano
0.3 percent said Paul Menard
What Fan Council members said:
• I see Gordon and Kahne getting in just for the fact that they are HMS. Hendrick is bringing everything to the table these next two weeks. Everyone else on this list is a long shot in my opinion.
• I'd love for a surprise driver to grab a wild card spot such as Joey Logano or Marcos Ambrose, but I think Kasey and Kyle will hold on to take the wild card spots.
• Kahne is easy to call. Second driver is harder. I really think Kahne will pass Stewart for 10th and Stewart will be 11th. But you didn't give me that choice. So I'm giving it to you.
• Kasey is not only a lock but may well get into the top 10 (on points). Carl's luck cannot keep being this bad can it? Roush has always run well at Atlanta generally and Carl specifically, so I have a feeling he wins Atlanta and outscores Kyle in points over the last two races for the last spot.
• If the trends continue the way they are now, I think Tony Stewart falls out of the top 10 and Kasey Kahne makes the Chase on points. Stewart and Kyle Busch will be the wild cards for the Chase. Hopefully Stewart can focus on his own championship, and his threats don't come to fruition, which could in turn costs Kenseth a shot at a championship.
• I say Kasey and Kyle. I know that Carl Edwards is capable of doing it if he gets one win, but they really haven't been close to being competitive in any race this year.
• Poor strategies in two races recently have cost Carl. He seems to be missing opportunities to move into the top 10 by bad pit calls.
• I picked Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch as of right now but I really think it’s going to be Tony Stewart and Busch getting the wild cards. Kahne is fast right now and Tony isn’t doing as well. Kasey closed the gap from 33 points to 16 (Saturday) with a wrecked racecar. I say he makes the top 10.
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.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for the Bristol Night Race
The Blue Deuce, looking racy at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
The Race for the Chase is heating up and after two weeks of late-race drama the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Thunder Valley for the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
When the series hits the high-banks, it will be on a much different racing surface than the drivers have been accustomed to over the past few seasons. After the 2007 reconfiguration of the track, progressive banking was added in the corners, allowing for multiple grooves and two- and three-wide racing.
The racing on the new configuration was exciting and competitive, however many fans bemoaned the changes and called for a return to the Bristol of old. While it may have been the changes to the track, a lagging economy, or a host of other reasons, attendance fell from 160,000 in August 2007 to 102,000 earlier this year.
Listening to the fans, Speedway Motorsports, Inc.'s Bruton Smith took measures into his own hands and altered the track layout for the second time in six years. By grinding down the top racing groove, Smith hopes to create the style of racing Bristol was synonymous with when the grandstands were full and there was a waiting list for tickets.
Yet for many of the drivers, the change to Bristol is an unwelcome sight. Making changes based solely off the opinion of fans, Smith did not consult the competitors before taking away the top groove, boasting, "I do not consult race drivers when I am building a speedway."
After a painstaking process of removing embanked concrete intended to last “15 to 18 years,” according to track general manager Jerry Caldwell, Goodyear brought in Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer for a two-day tire test of the new configuration.
Each of the drivers confirmed the field would be unable to race around the top groove, forcing drivers to fight for space on the bottom of the track.
“The drivers aren’t going to be happy, but the spectators probably will be because it is going to put more cars in a closer space,” Burton said following the June tire test. “By taking away that groove, it is going to change your mind about going up there. I think it is going to be two grooves, unless Goodyear brings a tire with a lot of grip. If that is the case, you’ll want to run around the bottom. Making the groove smaller is a good thing, it is going to put the action back to the bottom and middle of the track.”
So, now that the track has changed, what can you expect for your fantasy outlook?
Well, I wouldn’t stray far from the statistics — new Bristol or old. While the groove may have changed, the drivers that excel at Bristol will continue to do so this weekend under the lights.
To find the hottest driver at BMS the past two events, look no further than the man that has finished second the last two weeks: Brad Keselowski. The Penske Racing driver is the defending race winner, went to Victory Lane in dominant fashion here in March and is looking for his fourth win of the 2012 season.
Currently fifth in the Sprint Cup standings, Keselowski is tied with former champions Stewart and Jimmie Johnson with the most wins on the season. A win Saturday night would not only mean a sweep of the year's Bristol races, but would also move Keselowski into the top seed heading into the Chase.
In March, Keselowski dominated the final race on the multi-groove surface, leading 232 of the 500 laps. In the past two weeks, the No. 2 car has been in contention for the win, losing out by only a slight margin to Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen and Greg Biffle at Michigan.
Since his victory in Kentucky seven races ago, Keselowski has five top 5s and seven top 10s. So obviously, this team has been on a roll as of late — and that roll should continue right through the mountains of East Tennessee. With confidence on his side and the team gunning for another win or two before the Chase, it is hard to bet against Keselowski Saturday night under the lights.
Much like last weekend, if Keselowski wants to end up in Victory Lane, he will have to beat Johnson. Looking as if he was on his way to his fourth victory of the season last week at Michigan, a blown motor in the final laps resulted in a frustrating 27th-place finish.
A former winner at Bristol, Johnson is always a threat on the high-speed short track. In his last seven races at BMS, the five-time champion has one win, four top 5s and six top 10s.
While Keselowski took advantage of Johnson's issues last Sunday, it was Kyle Busch who lost the win late in the race two weeks ago in Watkins Glen. Currently 14th in the standings, Busch is third in the Chase wild card hunt behind Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman. While the past few months have been more than frustrating for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota (only three top 10s in the last 11 races), there could be no better track for Busch than Bristol to get back into contention.
With the second-best average finish (10.6), Busch has five wins at Bristol, including four of the last seven races. With time running out before the Chase cut-off, Busch will need to get up on the wheel and get the job done.
Admittedly off at Bristol since his March 2011 win, he and crew chief Dave Rogers will have to dial the car in to the new configuration without over-thinking the setup, as they have done in the past.
Also consider last week's winner (and current points leader) Biffle, as well as fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. for your lineup Saturday night. Both have been extremely strong as of late and have run well at Bristol in the past.
MWR's Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr. at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
When part-time driver Brian Vickers gets the chance to pilot the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, he does his best to make the most of the opportunity. He certainly did that in his first start for MWR at Bristol in March.
Despite starting from the 25th spot, Vickers made his way to the front in the No. 55 car and led 125 of the 500 laps en route to a fifth-place finish. In Vickers' five starts thus far for MWR, has two top 5s, an 18th at Martinsville, a 15th at Loudon and a disappointing 43rd at Watkins Glen, due to a grenaded engine.
Running strong in the bottom groove so successfully in March, Vickers is optimistic he can have a solid showing under the lights.
“We had a great car that ran very well on the bottom and led a lot of laps,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how the upper groove has changed and how it will effect the racing. They wanted it like the ‘old Bristol,’ so we'll see. But again, we had the best car in the lower groove so hopefully it won't effect us too much.”
In fact, all of the MWR cars should be strong at Bristol this weekend. During the March race, the trio was in contention, with Martin Truex Jr. leading the team to third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes with Clint Bowyer and Vickers following suit, marking the first time MWR had all three cars finish in the top 5.
Five Undervalued Picks: Brian Vickers, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano
With only three races left before the Chase field is set, Kyle Busch is not the only driver in desperate need of a win. Both Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards have had their fair share of struggles over the season, but now is the time to put those behind and get the job done.
While both are former winners at Bristol (Gordon has five wins, Edwards two), they are darkhorse picks for the second week in a row considering the desperation that is setting in at this point.
The potential for a win is there for both drivers, but in March each found trouble early in the going with Gordon finishing 35th and Edwards coming home 39th. If you use either of these drivers in your fantasy lineup, do so with caution.
Much like the MWR cars, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing had a stellar showing at Bristol in March with Jamie McMurray finishing seventh and Juan Pablo Montoya right behind in eighth. McMurray was able to use pit strategy early in the race to make his way to the front, while Montoya took advantage of late-race cautions and fresh tires to score a solid finish.
This 2012 season has been nothing short of disappointing for the EGR organization after an offseason of drastic changes behind the scenes. The top 10 finish at Bristol was one of only three for McMurray and one of only two for Montoya. If the team can rekindle some of the success they had in March, they could score some worthy fantasy points.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose
For many, the look of Saturday night's race will be a bit of an unknown. With the change in the racing surface, the side-by-side racing could be much more difficult than in the past few seasons.
Judging by Wednesday night's Camping World Truck Series races, though, it appears while the very top goove is gone, the racing has remained much the same. Be sure to pay attention to Friday evening's Nationwide Series race to get a better idea of what Saturday night's race will look like.
Just remember, no matter how strong the stats, short track racing with multiple agendas and Chase implications on the line mean anything can — and probably will — happen.
Best Average Finish at Bristol (Wins/Starts):
1. Brad Keselowski — 10.4 (2/5)
2. Kyle Busch — 10.6 (5/15)
3. Matt Kenseth — 11.6 (2/25)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 11.8 (1/25)
5. Greg Biffle — 11.8 (0/19)
6. Jeff Gordon — 12.1 (5/39)
7. Kevin Harvick — 12.4 (1/23)
8. Kurt Busch — 13.1 (5/23)
9. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (2/16)
10. Jimmie Johnson — 14.6 (1/21)
Kasey Kahne in Victory Lane in New Hampshire. (ASP, Inc.)
NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship wild card hunt took a definitive turn at the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Denny Hamlin and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team dominated the LENOX Industrial Tools 301, leading 150 laps. However, miscommunication during the final round of pit stops on lap 235 of 301 between Kahne and crew chief Darian Grubb dropped their Toyota from first to 14th.
At issue was their decision to take two tires or four under caution. Hamlin’s team put four tires on, while the majority of the leaders only took two. The time lost in the pits handed the lead to Kasey Kahne, who led the final 66 laps — the only laps he led all day — en route to his second win of the season.
Hamlin staged an epic run through the field in the closing laps, but came up shy, finishing second.
“If he (Hamlin) was to keep the track position, I never would have passed him,” Kahne said. “For him to be on four tires and us on two, he was catching us pretty fast. (It’s) just what they chose to do. Somebody said they said something about tires — they took four, he meant two — I don’t know how it happened.
“We had great luck today. For those guys to miscommunicate, that helped us a ton. I’ll take ’em any way we can.”
Denny Hamlin (ASP, Inc.)
Hamlin later explained the crux of the problem.
“When the caution flies, when pit road opens, that time is so small, your time to communicate, figure out what you're going to do, you really have about 45 seconds to get it.
“What happened was Darian asked me, he said how much of the tires he felt like I used up. I said I felt like I used them up a substantial amount. So my information to him was, ‘Yeah, I’ve used up the tires.’ He said, ‘I think two is the call.’ I said, ‘OK, just give me tires and no adjustments.’
“He took that as I meant four tires. So it’s just that small miscommunication just messed us up a little bit.”
The miscue may have very little influence on Hamlin’s playoff positioning with seven races left in the Cup Series’ regular season. He sits fifth in the standings, with a 61-point cushion over 11th place. His two wins also provide a nice insurance policy, as the final two spots in the Chase are awarded to drivers with the most wins not already qualified.
Meanwhile, Kahne’s victory may be the turning point in his quest for a Chase appearance. Ranked 16th with a single win entering the New Hampshire race, Kahne vaulted up the standings to 12th by day’s end. Further, his two victories currently find him with the No. 1 wild card slot.
Kyle Busch (13th in the standings), Ryan Newman (14th) and Joey Logano (16th) all have a single win, as well.
“I think three (wins) would put you in a real good spot,” Kahne said of making the Chase. “Two helps, but three would put you in a real good spot. We’re going to stay after it. We have some really good tracks coming up. I like my car a lot, so I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Carl Edwards sits 11th in the point standings but has yet to win this season. At 46 points behind 10th-place Brad Keselowski, it would seem at least one victory is needed for last season’s championship runner-up to transfer into the playoffs. He finished 18th in Loudon.
“I think this will be good for us,” Edwards said of the upcoming off-weekend. “We’ll go back to the shop and get a real war plan. I say war plan because I think it’s going to be tough, but we’ve got to plan for the next seven races. We can do it, though, and now we’ve just got to get it done.”