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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.”
Favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's LENOX Industrial Tools 301
Defending Loudon winner Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
The race may have ended Saturday night, but the smoke has yet to settle following the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway — both literally and figuratively.
Defending series champion Tony Stewart did what few could Saturday night, passing Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle for the lead. The two were attached at the bumper and out ahead of the pack for the majority of the night, leading a combined 124 of the 160 laps. Yet in the final frantic laps, Stewart was able to work with Kasey Kahne and push around the pair on the outside.
Earning his third victory of the year, Stewart tied Brad Keselowski with the most wins this season, and further solidified his spot in the Chase. Aside from a 32nd-place finish at Kentucky, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have one win and four finishes of third or better in the last five events.
The two-time champion typically hits his stride during the summer stretch, and that seems to be the case again this year, so the competition should pay heed at New Hampshire, a track where Stewart owns for victories.
At times is seems Stewart performs at his best when faced with adversity and distractions abound for his organization at the moment. With the U.S. Army pulling all funding from NASCAR at the end of the year and Ryan Newman's name coming up in the Silly Season talk, Stewart is going to have to start answering questions soon.
However, there are bigger controversies, more time for that to develop, and Smoke just so happens to be heading to one of his best tracks, statistically speaking.
Over the past two seasons, Stewart has one win and two runner-up finishes in four races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That 24th-place finish in the other event? He led 100 of the 300 laps, but ran out of fuel on the final lap giving the win to Clint Bowyer in September 2010.
Stewart-Haas Racing was the class of the field in this race last season when Newman led the organization to a 1-2 sweep of both qualifying and the race. Newman also led 62 laps in September's Chase race, but was among those short on fuel in the closing laps.
Despite a win this season, Newman currently trails Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in the wild card standings. A strong run (or a win) would move the No. 39 team closer to the championship battle.
Bowyer, the Sonoma winner, is another driver with his eye on the wild card standings. After scoring the win on the road course, Bowyer has dropped from seventh to 10th in the standings after a 16th at Kentucky and wreck-induced 29th in Daytona.
Bowyer is strong in Loudon though, with two wins and four top 5s in his 12 visits, however, also has seven finishes of 17th or worse. He has led a combined 229 laps in the last three New Hampshire races, with one win (Sept. 2010), a 17th and a 26th after running out of fuel with the lead in the final laps.
Five Favorites: Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin
The aforementioned wild card battle continues to intensify with each race, as Busch, Logano, Newman and Kahne jockey for the final two Chase spots over the next eight weeks. The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Busch and Logano currently hold the two transfer positions, but there is a lot of racing left before anything is decided.
While Busch has been trying to kick the trend of poor finishes, Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s in the last five races. Along with his strong runs on the Cup slate, Logano has also been tearing things up in the Nationwide Series (four wins, a fifth and a sixth in the last six events), leaving the 22-year-old feeling comfortable and confident behind the wheel, despite being a prominent figure in the Silly Season rumor mill.
The July New Hampshire race has been good to the driver of the No. 20 Toyota throughout his young career. In his three July starts at the “Magic Mile” Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s. Logano has not fared as well in the fall race, however, with three finishes outside the top 20 in four attempts.
Look for the trend of strong runs to continue this weekend as Logano and crew chief Jason Ratcliff go after their second win of the year, positioning themselves for a Chase berth.
Five Undervalued Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton
Darkhorse pick of the week: Brian Vickers. (ASP, Inc.)
As teams and sponsors look to 2013, free agent drivers shopping for rides are doing their best to impress. For Brian Vickers, who is driving a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, much must be accomplished in limited time.
In his three 2012 starts behind the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota, Vickers has two top 5s (Bristol, Sonoma) and an 18th at Martinsville. Team owner Michael Waltrip was behind the wheel of the No. 55 last weekend at Daytona, surviving the carnage at the end to finish inside the top 10.
Vickers was fifth in Loudon last September, but finished 34th in the July event. In fact, in his 13 starts at NHMS, Vickers has five finishes of 34th or worse. With so much on the line for his future — along with the success of the No. 55 throughout the season —Vickers is this weekend's darkhorse pick.
If a three-time Loudon winner can be considered a darkhorse, then Jeff Gordon is it for Sunday's 300-miler. While the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has the third-best average finish in New Hampshire (10.8), his luck this season has been devastating to his playoff hopes. Strong runs at historically successful tracks have gone to waste due to mechanical failures, wrecks and a host of other issues.
There is no doubt the four-time series champion will be a contender Sunday, but can his team put together a full race free of issues — self-inflicted, luck-related or otherwise? Given they are just on the outside of the wild card hunt and need solid finishes, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson understand they need to do all they can to score wins.
“We are not afraid of trying things with the setup or during the race,” Gordon says. “We're not afraid to take some risks. Each race that goes by without a win (means) the more risk we are willing to take. But I feel like we're still a long way from being out of this thing.”
Five Darkhorse Picks: Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr.
Best Average Finish at New Hampshire (wins):
1. Denny Hamlin — 9.0 (1)
2. Jimmie Johnson — 10.0 (3)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.8 (3)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (3)
5. Ryan Newman — 13.0 (3)
6. Jeff Burton — 13.6 (4)
7. Kurt Busch — 13.9 (3)
8. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (0)
9. Matt Kenseth — 14.0 (0)
10. Kevin Harvick — 14.1 (1) *Mark Martin, with one win and an average finish of 12.5, is not entered in this weekend’s event.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses in Saturday's Quaker State 400
Kyle Busch crosses the finish line at Kentucky in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
Over the past three weeks the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has run on new surfaces twice at Pocono and Michigan. While Kentucky Speedway is not a new surface, Saturday night's Quaker State 400 is only the second Cup Series race on the 1.5-mile tri-oval. So while teams will have a slightly better idea of what to expect with the notes built from last year’s event, Kentucky Speedway still presents some unknowns.
One team that was a cut above the rest last year was Kyle Busch and his Dave Rogers-led No. 18 team for Joe Gibbs Racing. After scoring a victory in the Camping World Truck Series at Kentucky, Busch dominated the inaugural Cup event, leading 125 of the 267 laps en route to the win.
Yet, entering this weekend's race, Busch has been forced to swallow a string of poor finishes over the past month. After his Richmond win in April, Busch was able to score three-straight finishes of fourth or better. However, since the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, the No. 18 team has two DNFs, three finishes of 29th or worse with a best finish of 17th, which came last weekend in Sonoma. Busch commented on his poor luck earlier in the week through Twitter, saying he even bit through his tongue while eating lunch. Sometimes when guys have a string of bad luck, it's hard to kick.
Given his performance at Kentucky over the years in various series (and especially in last year's race), I expect Busch to knock the monkey from his back and get back to his contending ways.
If Busch wants to record his second-straight Sprint Cup Series victory at the track, he will have to beat his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano. Many expected the driver of the No. 20 Toyota to be a top contender in last year's race, given his previous success on the 1.5-mile track in the Nationwide Series. However, a 14th-place finish was a lackluster showing for the driver that won three consecutive Nationwide races in Sparta from 2008-10.
This year, however, Logano has a renewed confidence with a race win while the rumor mill churns around him. The performance of the No. 20 team has improved nearly each and every week. Despite a wreck in Michigan, Logano and his Jason Ratcliff-led team have three top 10s and one victory in the last four events.
Heading into the weekend, Logano will not be entered in the Nationwide Series event, allowing him to focus primarily on Saturday night's main event. Sitting 15th in the Sprint Cup standings, another solid run (or a second win) would certainly make the Chase a distinct possibility for the 22-year-old driver.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth
When the 2012 season got underway in Daytona, few would have imagined the quiet season last year's title runner-up Carl Edwards is having.
Despite missing out on his first Cup Series title thanks to a tie-breaker with Tony Stewart, Edwards and the No. 99 team have been lackluster at best through the first 16 races in 2012. Sitting just outside the top 10 in points in 11th, Edwards has not had a top-5 finish since Fontana in mid-March.
While he finished fifth in last year's inaugural event, Edwards has victories at Kentucky in both the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series. Looking to make it three-for-three, crew chief Bob Osborne is bringing a chassis that finished ninth at Charlotte and eighth at Texas earlier this year.
Could the news of Matt Kenseth's departure at the end of season give Edwards and the No. 99 team a boost of confidence (and resources) to drive through the summer months? Perhaps we shall see Saturday night in Kentucky.
Much like Logano, Stewart-Haas Racing's Ryan Newman is sitting outside the top 10 in points with one win and hoping for a spot in the Chase by the time the series rolls into Richmond in September. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet was fourth in last year's inaugural race after losing a lap and working with crew chief Tony Gibson to use pit strategy to get to the front.
Newman will need a solid showing Saturday if he wants to continue being a part of the Chase discussion, though. After scoring his only win of the season — in dramatic fashion — at Martinsville in April, Newman has failed to score another top-10 finish. In fact, the team's best showing came at Pocono, where they finished 12th on the repaved surface.
“We need to be a little bit better,” Newman admitted. “I think we’ll get things turned around. We’re still in a championship-contending position. We still have great opportunities with another win, and we still have plenty of time to move up in the points and be in the top 10. We just have to do a little bit better of a job.”
Will this be the weekend that Newman and his SHR team turn things around? A solid showing in last year's event seems to point to another good run, but the teams’ struggles over the last few months may be too large to overcome.
Five Undervalued Picks: Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart
Juan Pablo Montoya, tweeting about RC airplanes, no doubt. (ASP, Inc.)
Last year's outside pole-sitter Juan Pablo Montoya finished the race a disappointing 15th after a late speeding penalty on pit road mired him deep in the field. Prior to that infraction, Montoya ran in the top 10 for the majority of the race.
This season, Montoya and his No. 42 team have struggled to shake the gremlins that seem to haunt them each and every week. Since his dramatic start to the season in Daytona, Montoya's year has been up and down, to say the least.
The former open-wheel star struggled with a multitude of problems last week at Sonoma, traditionally one of his best tracks. Instead of contending for the win — or even a solid finish — Montoya recorded his worst result since Daytona (34th). In fact, this team has scored just two top 10s in the last 13 races.
Given his strong performance last year, Montoya may be a guy to keep an eye on Satuday night.
Could it be that Kurt Busch has shrugged his troubling ways and focused solely on racing and recording strong finishes? Not likely, but last week's third-place finish at Sonoma was a sure sign that the former Sprint Cup Series champion can still get the job done behind the wheel.
While Busch is one of the best on the road courses, he also finished ninth in last year's Kentucky race, albeit behind the wheel of Penske Racing equipment and amid much less drama and scrutiny. But do not rule Busch out of another solid finish this weekend — that is, if he can manage the race from start to finish and stay out of trouble on the track and under the helmet.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Regan Smith, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton
2011 Top 10 at Kentucky Speedway (laps led):
1. Kyle Busch (125)
2. David Reutimann (7)
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Ryan Newman
5. Carl Edwards
6. Matt Kenseth
7. Brad Keselowski (79)
8. David Ragan (3)
9. Kurt Busch (41)
10. Jeff Gordon
Joey Logano, you captured your first race win since 2009 less than two weeks ago. You passed a future Hall of Famer, Mark Martin, to do it. You’re now just 51 points away from the Chase with a possible wild card ticket in your back pocket. What’s next for you?
The answer, surprisingly enough, may not be Disneyworld, but the unemployment line. Unless Mickey Mouse can find a few million hidden inside Epcot Center, Logano faces the possibility that Home Depot, Dollar General and other major sponsors may start drooling over a free agent class that’s the biggest NASCAR’s had in several years. The catch, of course, is whether some of these companies will stick around or opt for a veteran considering the alarming number of blank quarterpanels of late. But assuming the money is there, the long list of drivers available could mean we have a mean game of musical chairs in a few months.
Here’s a look at how some of the major NASCAR teams stand for next year and which wheelmen could be hotly pursued as Silly Season heats up:
Driver Lineup: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne Signed For 2013: All four. Analysis: Think Hendrick Motorsports is slumping? Try telling that to the guy polishing the trophies. He’s been working overtime this month, as HMS has won five of the last six races (including the All-Star event) since Mother’s Day weekend. Moving forward, driver and sponsor stability should only help as it attempts to place all four team cars in the Chase for the first time in HMS history. Jeff Gordon’s a longshot there, but should he make the playoffs along with his trio of teammates, they’ll have the added benefit of avoiding a media circus over future plans. You can still win the Chase in that environment (see: Tony Stewart, cutting crew chief Darian Grubb) but it’s not an obstacle you’d like to place in your path.
Driver Lineup: Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth Signed For 2013: Biffle, Edwards. Analysis: Jack Roush has been publicly adamant that he wants Kenseth, the only Cup champion on Ford’s roster, signed for the long-term. And why not? He’s the 2012 Daytona 500 winner, leads the standings and has been with the team for a dozen years. But the fact he’s run the last two Sundays unsponsored — particularly the one in Ford’s backyard (the EcoBoost sponsorship means no company stepped up to cover) — is a troubling sign. Young Ricky Stenhouse Jr., one of the sport’s up-and-coming talents, is rolling over the competition in the Nationwide Series. Ideally, Roush wants to bring him up and expand to four cars, but how long can he fund Kenseth partially out of his own pocket? A similar situation occurred with Jeff Burton, in 2004 and he wound up at Richard Childress Racing despite a sterling track record.
So where would Kenseth go? Remember, Penske Racing is switching to Ford next season and has a possible opening in AJ Allmendinger’s No. 22, and there’s already a Roush-to-Penske pipeline history (Kurt Busch). I’d call it an unlikely scenario, for certain, but if the money doesn’t materialize here … it may dictate some moves.
Joe Gibbs Racing
Driver Lineup: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano Signed For 2013: Busch and Hamlin. Analysis: Gibbs’ contracts are a little tricky to figure out in the press — there’s no public end date for Busch and Hamlin’s deals — but it’s assumed both will be back in 2013. Hamlin, in particular, is surging back towards his 2010 brilliance with new crew chief Darian Grubb. The real question mark surrounds the No. 20, which was almost handed to Carl Edwards in 2011 before he spurned Gibbs’ advances for Ford. Logano now has a victory, but he’s still led less than 200 laps over a four-year Cup career. Rumor has it Home Depot has been looking for someone who could run up front more consistently; Kurt Busch had been mentioned as a possible replacement, pushed heavily by his brother until this month’s Dover debacle took that signing off the table.
Will Logano have yet another chance to save his job? I would have to think it’s Chase or bust despite Joe Gibbs’ vote of confidence at Michigan on Sunday. Without the postseason, summer’s success will be forgotten once the No. 20 gets ignored over the final 10 races. Ryan Newman, Brian Vickers (a Toyota guy) and possibly even Martin Truex Jr. could be available to replace him. Logic would have it Logano wouldn’t look elsewhere – this ride would be the best opportunity available for him. So it’s on the Gibbs family to decide whether Logano will ever match those lofty expectations Mark Martin anointed him with all those years ago.
Richard Childress Racing
Driver Lineup: Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard Signed For 2013: All three. Analysis: RCR may be having an awful season by tits standards – only Harvick is currently in the Chase – but the Childress lineup appears to be set moving forward. Burton is signed for the next two years, while Menard brings sponsorship to the table. The only question is whether Childress wants to expand to a fourth car, having equipment ready for Austin Dillon’s rookie run in 2014. Kurt Busch was briefly rumored here, but that is again off the table and RCR can easily stick with what it has. So unless a top-tier driver is available, with the right sponsor and the right opportunity, RCR is probably out of this year’s free agent chase.
Driver Lineup: A.J. Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski Signed For 2013: Keselowski Analysis: Now here’s where it gets interesting. With the nightmare season Allmendinger has had – six finishes outside the top 30 in 15 races – it’s hard to imagine him being re-signed. So who gets the offer? Parker Kligerman, a Newman-like prospect, has excelled in the Truck Series this season but is at least a year away. Sam Hornish Jr. has had a B-plus year in the Nationwide Series, at best, and Penske would rather put him in a third Cup car when ready than the No. 22.
That means Penske will look outside for a replacement for a ride that hasn’t won a Cup title but remains well-respected inside the garage (and has a solid sponsor). Would Penske take a chance on Logano if the youngster were set free? Or how about Regan Smith, whose contract with single-car Furniture Row is also up? Darkhorses include Kenseth, Vickers or even Stenhouse with the switch to Ford. Remember, Kurt Busch came out of nowhere the last time Penske plucked a big name – he was even under contract and had to buy out of the deal at Roush. Expect this domino to make the biggest difference in where drivers head.
Driver Lineup: Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart Signed For 2013: Patrick, Stewart. Analysis: Stewart has made it publicly clear he wants Newman back for 2013. What he doesn’t have right now is the money to do it. Should the U.S. Army be prevented from sponsoring a car next year, patchwork deals aren’t enough to keep the No. 39 competitive enough to Newman’s liking. On the fringes of the Chase and without a top-10 finish in two months, Newman’s team is acting like one that’s turning into a “lame duck” program. But would Stewart really be willing to stick to a two-car operation with Patrick as the only option for direct feedback? There was speculation Kurt Busch, who drives for Phoenix Racing with Hendrick chassis, could have been an option (oh, the irony in how Stewart defended him). But again, sponsorship becomes a concern — as does Stewart and Busch’s history) making this one a bit of a question mark.
Michael Waltrip Racing
Driver Lineup: Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin, Martin Truex Jr., Brian Vickers Signed For 2013: Bowyer Analysis: We’ll start with Truex, who is in position to make the Chase for the first time with the NAPA Toyota. Considering the auto parts company stuck through tough times in the worst of the Michael Waltrip years, it’s hard to see it leaving as long as Truex sticks around and continues to perform. Will the New Jersey native, enjoying his finest season, think this car is the best option for the long-term? As long as he makes the Chase, the answer will almost certainly be yes. If not, in-house Vickers becomes an immediate option. Martin, as always, will have the ball in his court on a possible return; at 53, he’s still driving at a 30-year-old level.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Driver Lineup: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya Signed For 2013: Montoya Analysis: 2010’s Cinderella story lost his slipper in the winter that year – and he’s still looking to get it back. Jamie McMurray has just two top-5 finishes in his last 49 starts, far removed from Daytona and Brickyard glory. And with sponsorship in question for 2013, so is his employment. The problem for Earnhardt Ganassi is getting a top-tier replacement to believe in the future of its NASCAR program. Despite a full-scale overhaul last season, letting longtime employees like Steve Hmiel and Tony Glover go, it’s still on pace to miss the Chase with both cars. Only once, in 2009 (Montoya), has an EGR car made the postseason, meaning only another Cinderella-in-waiting might look at that car. A long way to go, but if Allmendinger gets released, he has the open-wheel background and resume that’s perfect for that seat.
Richard Petty Motorsports
Driver Lineup: Marcos Ambrose, Aric Almirola Signed For 2013: Ambrose? Analysis: RPM’s possible switch to Dodge in 2013 continues to be the hot topic around the garage. A rumor the switch would be announced last weekend was firmly denied by officials on both sides — and it did not. Were it to eventually happen, it could mean tough times for Aric Almirola despite recent improvement behind the wheel. Why? Wouldn’t Dodge go after a marquis name after losing Brad Keselowski from its lineup? Ambrose, too, continues to be an enigma after a strong first season in the No. 9 Ford. Remember, he had a similar beginning driving for JTG-Daugherty’s No. 47 but by the end of his second season, a “sophomore slump” had him moving elsewhere. With zero top-5 finishes in 15 starts this season, success on the road courses will be critical to making the Chase. Without them? It’s almost certainly a disappointing year.
One thing we know for sure at Phoenix Racing: Kurt Busch will not be back in 2013, either after being kicked to the curb or signing with another high-profile ride. As for Furniture Row, Regan Smith will be a hot commodity and this time, it’s going to need to show improvement for him to re-sign. The team had recently pursued sponsorship to land Busch and may need to expand to keep last season’s upset Southern 500 winner.
AJ Allmendinger's damaged Dodge sits on pit road at Pocono. (ASP, Inc.)
One race can reveal only so much about a season but could Sunday’s event at Pocono forecast the future for some drivers? Joey Logano, AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch are among those trying to solidify their status for next season, yet Pocono pulled them in opposite directions.
One of the biggest questions from Sunday’s race is what did the victory do for Logano’s future with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Logano presents an interesting case. For all the talk that he has not fulfilled his potential, remember that he’s only 22 years old and now has two Cup victories. Jeff Gordon didn’t win his first Cup race (the Coca-Cola 600) until he was 22. Gordon’s second win (Indianapolis) didn’t come until days after he turned 23.
Logano’s win Sunday, though, was his first top-five finish of the season and only the second time he’s led a race this year.
“For sure right now my future is not set with anybody,” Logano said. “You need to go out there and win races. To get this win means a lot. It's at a perfect time.
“My hope is to obviously stay with what I’ve got. But you never know. You know, those things go back and forth and switch around a lot, and all I can do is stay focused on my job, and that’s driving the race car.”
Allmendinger, hired after last season to replace Busch at Penske Racing, hasn’t had it as good this season. Foxsports.com reports he’s in a contract year and Sunday’s race typified his struggles this season. He was collected in a crash on the second lap and finished 31st — the third time he’s placed 30th or worse in the last four races.
“In my worst nightmare, I didn’t think the season would go this bad,” Allmendinger said. “You’ve got two options: you quit or you keep working harder. I’ve been six years in this. I’ve experienced bad stuff before in NASCAR, so I ain’t going to quit. We’ll just keep working harder. We’ve got to figure out how to turn it around. It’s tough. I definitely don’t want to be in this position, nobody does.”
And then there’s Busch, who needed to prove he could avoid issues outside the car. That lasted barely a third of the way through the season after NASCAR suspended him a week for verbally abusing a reporter. The incident happened with Busch already on probation for incidents during and after the Southern 500 last month.
Tuesday, car owner James Finch met with Busch about his future with the team and later announced that Busch will continue driving for Phoenix Racing.
Those are just a few of the drivers who could switch teams after this season. Ryan Newman’s contract expires at season’s end, as does Martin Truex Jr.’s. The Sporting News reports that Matt Kenseth’s contract is up — but he’s expected to remain at Roush Fenway Racing — as is Jamie McMurray’s at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Regan Smith’s at Furniture Row Racing.
It likely will come down to sponsorship and what drivers companies want. Logano has the opportunity to rise among the free-agent list but he must back up his win with more strong finishes. If not, he could be bypassed for a ride by those also looking for a job next year.
FAST TIMES For the second weekend in a row, the Cup Series races on a repaved track. This time it’s Michigan International Speedway, where speeds neared 215 mph in a recent tire test.
“I did the tire test there, but it was a very comfortable feeling pace,” Jeff Gordon said. “The cars drove really good. They stuck to the race track. I like the tire that Goodyear brought there. Just like (at Pocono), we just need the groove to widen out a little bit. That is only going to come with laps.”
Points leader Matt Kenseth, who also participated in the tire test, said he’s not worried about the speeds.
“If you go off into Turn 1 and blow a tire at 200 (mph) compared to 207 or whatever we’re running now, I don’t know it’s much of a difference because you’re still gonna hit something pretty hard,” he said. “Other than that, it’s not any harder to drive here. It’s actually probably a little bit easier just because it’s not bumpy and the line is pretty defined where you’re going to run.”
SPONSOR SEARCH CONTINUES Todd Bodine won the Camping World Truck Series race earlier this month at Dover without a primary sponsor and also didn’t have one at Texas last weekend. Red Horse Racing owner Tom DeLoach recently shut down Daytona winner John King’s team for lack of sponsorship, leaving Bodine and Timothy Peters.
What happens to the two remaining teams will depend on sponsorship.
“My wife Janet is working really hard on getting us sponsorship and she's actually having some success,” Bodine said. “We’ve got some major corporations that are interested in doing things, unfortunately their time frame doesn't work the same as it does in our world. We need it yesterday and they're OK getting it five months from now.
“There’s three different deals, three different corporations we’re talking to and they all three called up and said they wish they were on (at Dover). That's a good thing.
“I can't speak for Tom saying that we're going to continue without sponsorship. But, I think Tom sees the light at the end of the tunnel and knows this is a great opportunity for his race team. Not only for right now, but for the future and when you see that kind of opportunity, there's times when you have to dig deep and keep going. I think that's where we're at.
“All I can say is stay tuned — we have a lot of great things happening at Red Horse Racing.”
PIT STOPS Clint Bowyer on if he’s surprised by some of the struggles at Richard Childress Racing, his former team: “I’m not there anymore. I guess you never wish bad things upon anybody, but if you’re not there anymore, you don’t really care as long as they are behind you.” ... Jimmie Johnson on his hunger for a sixth title: “That desire is there, and when that desire fades I guess it’s time to hang up the helmet.” Tony Stewart, after Tuesday's tire test at Bristol: "You've definitely lost the top groove. There's going to be less room to race, that's for sure. We've gone from a three-groove track to two grooves."
Logano scores second career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory
Joey Logano in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
Of all the race tracks to add a little spice to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Pocono Raceway was not expected to be it. A 2.5-mile, flat tri-oval that’s seen its share of strung-out racing, the speedway was also recently repaved — a move that doesn’t lend itself to door-banging action.
Sometimes, though, the racing gods smile on the fans when and where they least expect it.
After a bizarre first half of the race that saw numerous drivers get penalized for speeding on pit road and an event that appeared to be heading toward a fuel-mileage finish, a driver looking to break a 104-race winless skid used a bump-and-run move to get by a respected series veteran. And for the driver in question, a fuel-mileage win was the last thing he wanted.
Joey Logano, his future with the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team highly-speculated, used the ol’ “chrome horn” to scoot by Mark Martin with four laps remaining in the Pocono 400 to earn his second career Sprint Cup Series win in his fourth season on the circuit.
“You work so hard to do this, and them (JGR) teaming me up with Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) has been an awesome experience,” Logano said. “We’ve been growing together a lot lately and able to make our cars better. To get a victory, it meant so much, and pulling the Home Depot car into Victory Lane at a Sprint Cup race and winning it the right way was just an amazing, amazing feeling that you can’t replicate and you can’t explain what it means.”
Logano’s only other win came at New Hampshire in his rookie season of 2009, the result of a rain-shortened finished that saw his team gamble on staying out while others pitted. It paid off, as Logano, at 19-years-old, became the youngest winner in Cup Series history. The Pocono win, in contrast, was won not on strategy or weather, but on speed and pure racing.
“That feels awesome to win one the right way,” Logano yelled on his in-car radio as he took the checkered flag. “No stupid rain!”
Martin held on for second, while Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.
“It’s not how I would have done it,” Martin said of Logano’s bump-and-run move to get by. “But certainly if I’d have had a fast enough car, he would have gotten a return. But I couldn’t quite keep up with him.”
Logano’s move came after a restart with eight laps remaining. Martin, who restarted second, got by Logano and was pulling away. However, Martin’s Toyota wiggled in Turn 3 with five laps to go. The loss in momentum allowed Logano to close the gap down the 3,740-foot frontstretch, and as the two entered Turn 1, Logano nudged the rear bumper of Martin’s car. He sailed by on the low side and quickly scooted away, winning by nearly one second.
Fuel became a concern late in the going. When Kasey Kahne brought out a caution with 22 laps remaining, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had led 36 laps and was running third, pitted to top off the tank in his No. 88 Chevy.
However, fuel never factored, as an additional yellow for debris waved with 11 laps to go. The drivers that did not pit earlier — namely Logano, Martin, Stewart, Johnson and Hamlin — were able to conserve enough gas under the caution periods to make it to the finish without incident. Earnhardt settled for an eighth-place showing.
Points leader Greg Biffle limped to a 24th-place run after engine issues ruined his day. He surrendered the championship points lead for the first time since gaining the spot after the third race of the year.
Biffle’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, inherits the lead on the strength of a seventh-place finish at Pocono. Earnhardt sits 10 points back, while Biffle falls to third.
On Tuesday, Toyota became the latest manufacturer to unveil its 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup racecar. It is the second generation of the Car of Tomorrow, which debuted in the 2007 season to jeers and sneers — that is until Michael McDowell walked away from a head-on impact at 200 mph, tumbling down the three stories of banking and emerging unscathed. Since then, most have been on board with the new car, more so following the early 2010 refresh that saw the spoiler and the splitter going the way of the Convertible Division.
Toyota also confirmed that it has inked extensions to be the engine provider and car make for Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing for the foreseeable future. You can cross out these teams as potential candidates for Dodge, which is scrambling to find a team — and an engine provider — for 2013 and beyond. Toyota, in fact, is poised to add more teams to the fold, though not necessarily more organizations.
“We’re happy with the guys we’ve got,” Toyota Racing Development president Lee White says. “I would hope the economy turns around a little bit and we very easily could get back to eight or nine cars.”
One of the teams that Dodge was rumored to have been interested in was that of Joe Gibbs Racing. Gibbs had fielded Chevrolets and Pontiacs since its arrival in the sport 20 years ago, its first win coming one year after its debut in the 1993 Daytona 500. JGR’s move to Toyota in 2007, in part, set the stage for a departure by then two-time champion Tony Stewart. Stewart’s replacement was a driver who many had predicted would be the next Jeff Gordon: Joey Logano. To date, Logano has one race win in the iconic No. 20 Home Depot machine — compared to five championships by the other big-box home improvement chain retailer, Lowe’s.
It has long been a point of contention with the HD brass that Sliced Bread isn’t exactly cutting the mustard in the results department; cutting the cheese is more like it.
With the manufacturer side of things sealed up for JGR, which no longer has to worry about manning an engine shop with TRD now the sole supplier for all Toyota Cup teams, might Coach and J.D. be looking to test the free agent market for a replacement for their No. 20 machine? After all, it was about a year ago that many had penciled in Carl Edwards to be the heir apparent to the No. 20, but after Ford Motor Company scratched a big check and a ton of stock for Edwards, Logano received a reprieve. Logano currently sits 15th in points, however the No. 20 has finished no better than 16th in points since Stewart jumped ship following the ’08 season.
Following the departure of long-time JGR crew chief Greg Zipadelli to become competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing — while monitoring the progress of Danica Patrick in her limited Cup appearances — the performance of the No. 20 seems to be slowly picking up. But will it improve enough to retain Logano, or will the sponsor wield the whip hand and demand a change be made with one of the available free agent drivers for 2013?
Ryan Newman has been mentioned as a viable candidate for the No. 20 car, which is an ironic choice following his run-in with Logano at Michigan in the August 2010 event. The timing makes a bit of sense as the Senate Armed Services Committee this week added an amendment to next year’s spending bill that would ban all military sponsorship of motorsports — which includes Newman’s US Army affiliation — leaving a sizeable hole to fill at SHR. Would Stewart forsake his friend and fellow Hoosier, Newman, if a supplement to the Army sponsorship does not materialize?
With Patrick waiting in the wings, expecting to announce a full-time 2013 campaign in the Cup Series shortly, it may come down to dollars and common sense. If SHR does not have the funding to prepare a third team for Patrick, the GoDaddy.com colors might only end up on the No. 10 next year, keeping the organization at a two-car level.
That leaves one other option on the table — one that could be deemed “The Nuclear Option.” Kurt Busch.
The stars have aligned seemlessly with this one. Busch is a free agent, serving his penance in post-Penske purgatory, driving on a handshake deal for James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team, an 18-employee independent team that receives cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Think of it as a poor-man’s Stewart Haas Racing. A damn-near-broke man’s Stewart Haas Racing. For the most part, Busch has kept his legendary temper at bay, until a self-inflicted flat tire in the closing laps of the Southern 500 at Darlington dashed any hopes of a top-10 finish.
Might Busch be JGR and Home Depot Toyota material?
Think back to 2011 and the biggest story of the summer stretch: Busch and Jimmie Johnson feuding following some last-lap dicing at Pocono. Busch had been taken out by Johnson at Pocono a year earlier in a vicious backstretch crash, as well as at Sonoma and Chicago in ’09. That sort of anti-48 sentiment might play well with Home Depot, which has been less-than-pleased watching Lowe’s garner the lion’s share of the championships over the last six years. In fact, Smoke’s last two titles bookend those by Johnson, the latter with a different Depot on the hood.
Kurt’s brother Kyle is currently in the No. 18 at Joe Gibbs Racing, and having migrated his Kyle Busch Motorsports team to Nationwide this season, helped his brother out by essentially splitting the schedule with him in his No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota — an appropriate sponsor given their struggles with respective inner green-rage monsters.
The matte black Toyotas have been fast, with Kyle narrowly clearing the last-turn pile-up at Daytona before getting hooked into the outside wall, and Kurt capturing the team’s first win at Richmond just a few weeks ago over the other JGR pilot, Denny Hamlin. Hamlin had his own run-in with the No. 48 team two years ago, and chucked his own bottle of water at his No. 11 in frustration following a fuel mileage foul-up at the penultimate race at Phoenix that prevented him from winning his first Cup title. Think back to Busch throwing a bottle of water of his own at the Miller Lite Dodge at Bristol in 2009, when he declared there were 41 other driver’s he’d rather finish second to, rather than that No. 48 car.
Might JGR be the perfect home for Busch — and, more important, Home Depot the ideal sponsor?
HD was more than patient with Stewart during his most volatile and petulant years. The sport had much more attention back then, and though Stewart nearly lost his ride at JGR during a tumultuous 2002 campaign, winning his first Winston Cup title went a long way to cure those ills. This was during a period when Stewart had to be physically restrained from going after NASCAR officials, kicking reporter’s tape recorders under trailers and allegedly pushing a fan. Kyle Busch faced a similar fate last season after turning Ron Hornaday Jr. head-on into the wall during a Truck Series race (albeit in a KBM rig, not Gibbs equipment); NASCAR sat him out for the Sunday Cup race.
It left the younger Busch reeling, wondering if he would even have a job in 2013. Message: delivered. And received.
Kurt went through a similar situation with both Roush and Penske Racing. An incident involving a traffic stop for suspected impaired driving on race weekend in Phoenix in 2005 saw Roush suspend Busch for the final two races of the year, even while being a Chase driver, while the team issued the release that Roush Racing was “done being Kurt Busch’s apologists.” Busch was noticeably moved by the incident, barely holding back legitimate tears when interviewed about it. What followed at Penske Racing were six seasons of salty salutations over the team radio, indicating everyone from the crew chief, engineers and the owner himself, addressing revered team owner Roger Penske not be his well-known nickname, but rather as “Dude.”
The Captain did not abide.
Things came to a head during the 2011 Chase with Busch melting down during driver intros and issuing a terse response to ESPN reporter Jamie Little en route to his car — a car that did not pass tech inspection initially — at Loudon. He followed that up with the now famous YouTube video of Busch being less than cordial with ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch following an early exit at the season finale at Homestead. Actually, everything got off to a poor start as soon as the 2011 Chase began. Following the final race of the regular season at Richmond, Busch went after NASCAR.com reporter Joe Menzer in the garage, slapped away a member of his PR camp, and then got into it with AP writer Jenna Fryer, tearing up a Dodge press release in the media center following a disagreement over a quote about getting inside Jimmie Johnson’s head.
The real question is, could Joe Gibbs get into Kurt’s head the way he has his brother, and the way both Roush and Penske were unable to? There are already signs of cracking on the surface after the incident on pit road at Darlington, as well as a colorful meeting with the press outside of his hauler at Charlotte last week.
This is not meant to pick apart Busch with the well-documented history of a short temper and manic outbursts. He remains a championship-winning (and contending) driver, who clearly gets more out of the equipment than virtually anyone else in the series — short of his brother. His one step forward/two-steps back anger management program seems to stall out every few months, and the new dynamic of a smaller team this season was to be an audition to prove to the racing world that he is a changed man, not the acid-tongued driver on the verge of meltdown.
His Nationwide ride with KBM has provided him with some brotherly love and proved that he’s still a race winner — not that it was ever really in doubt. Could a partnership with Gibbs, an owner well known for being both a man of faith and having the patience of a saint, provide Kurt with just the place to be born again?
It very well might be the type of environment that he needs to get back to the form that saw him win the first Chase in 2004.