Jimmie Johnson blows engine late, hands win to Biffle in Michigan
Greg Biffle in Victory Lane in Michigan. (ASP, Inc.)
Neither Greg Biffle nor team owner Jack Roush is unaccustomed to visiting Victory Lane at Michigan International Speedway. So it was no surprise that the duo ended up spraying champagne following Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 Sprint Cup race. What was a surprise were the circumstances that landed them there.
Running second to a scorchingly fast Jimmie Johnson, it looked as if Biffle would have to settle for a runner-up showing and “a good points day” after leading a respectable 19 laps and being a top-5 contender throughout the day.
However, as Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy streaked down Michigan’s long backstretch and near certain victory with six laps remaining, the engine sputtered, then detonated, becoming the fourth Hendrick powerplant of the weekend to experience problems.
As Johnson shifted to neutral, coasting to the garage on the track’s apron, Biffle assumed the lead as a yellow flag waved for oil dropped by Johnson’s shattered motor.
On the ensuing green-white-checker restart, Biffle fended off a gaggle of challengers as the field raced into Turn 1, nosing in front of Brad Keselowski and driving away in clean air to his second win of the 2012 season.
“It was going to be a great race no matter what,” Biffle said. “I felt like I could catch (Johnson), but we’ll never know. Passing him might have been a different story. But I certainly think that with seven (laps) to go, I probably could have pulled up close to him.”
Keselowski held on for second, while Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top 5. Johnson was relegated to a 27th-place finish and left the garage area, and then the facility, without speaking to reporters.
Keselowski, though, had plenty to say in his post-race press conference.
“I don’t know what to say other than I was just close to getting what would have been one of the biggest wins of my career,” the Michigan native said. “That would have been really special, but it wasn’t in the cards today.”
Then he took aim at the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared cars, which seem to have had a chassis advantage after winning seven of the last 13 races since early May.
“There’s parts and pieces on the car that are moving after inspection that make the car more competitive,” Keselowski explained when elaborating on a perceived advantage. “Some guys have it, some don’t. There’s a question to the interpretation of the rule. Penske Racing errs on the safe side because we don't want to be the guys that get the big penalty.
“Obviously, there’s a question to the interpretation (of the rule) that as of right now it’s legal, but I’m sure that Roger (Penske, team owner) doesn’t want to be the one caught red-handed.
“As a group at Penske Racing, we have not felt comfortable enough to risk that name and reputation that Roger has over those parts and pieces. Others have, which is their prerogative — I’m not going to slam them for it.”
He made it well known, though, that while Johnson may still be a pre-Chase title favorite, his No. 2 team is preparing for a 10-race war.
“The 48 has the most speed and the best history as far as the Chase is concerned,” Keselowski stated. “But it’s my job to not roll over and give it to them. We’re doing everything we can do and we nailed it on that last green-flag (pit) sequence (Keselowski beat Johnson off pit road). I’m proud as hell of my guys for doing that.
“The 48 might be the favorite for the championship, but we’re not going to roll over and just let them have it.”
So even in victory, Biffle, ironically the new points leader, flies under the radar — as he has throughout the season. And that seems just fine by him:
“I know that a lot of people don’t expect us to win the championship, don’t expect us to compete for the title. I don’t care what they say or who they want to talk about or what they talk about.
“We will be a factor when it comes down to Homestead, I promise you that.”
News & Notes: Michigan
• Hendrick Motorsports had four engines experience problems — or all-out failures — over the Michigan race weekend. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart experienced valve train failures in Sunday’s race, while Jimmie Johnson had engine problems in practice, prompting a change. He had another go terminal with six laps to go on Sunday, costing him a fourth win this season.
On the flipside of the Hendrick engine docket was Kasey Kahne, who finished third, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fourth) and Ryan Newman (eighth). Stewart and Gordon’s issues mirrored one another. As for Johnson, might ace crew chief Chad Knaus simply be testing the limits of durability prior to the Chase? For the time being, one can only speculate.
• Mark Martin was involved in a scary wreck while leading the Pure Michigan 400 on lap 65. After colliding with Juan Montoya, Kasey Kahne and Bobby Labonte, Martin’s car careened into the edge of an opening in the pit road wall. The edge of the wall impaled his No. 55 Toyota, puncturing the oil cooler just behind the seat of the car, nearly striking some bystanders. All walked away unhurt.
• Justin Allgaier nudged his way past Jacques Villeneuve and on to his first Nationwide Series win of the 2012 season at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. Allgaier used the bumper to move Villeneuve, who appeared to slow, on the final lap at the road course. Coincidentally (or not), Villeneuve used the same tactic to obtain the lead from Alex Tagliani on lap 66 of 81.
"They use this finger to call me No. 1, Kyle." (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson Once an Achilles heel, Johnson rolled to his fourth consecutive road course top 10 with a third at Watkins Glen. In the process, he vaulted to the top of the championship point standings. Last week: 1
2. Brad Keselowski Dating back to his Kentucky win in late June, Keselowski has racked up six straight finishes of ninth or better — including a runner-up finish at the Glen that will be talked about for quite some time. Last week: 4
3. Matt Kenseth An eighth at the Glen was his best road result since another eighth, which came at Sonoma in June 2008. The timing couldn’t have been better, as Kenseth sits two points behind Johnson in the standings. Last week: 3
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Tried his best to not throw NASCAR under the bus for the no-call for oil on the track at the Glen. Try as he might, he didn’t do a very good job. Last week: 2
5. Greg Biffle Slowly (and very quietly) making himself a major player in the championship race. His sixth at the Glen moved him to within one point of Johnson at the top of the standings. Last week: 8
6. Kasey Kahne His wild card position is looking stronger each week, as Kahne sits 11th in the standings with a pair of wins. And the Hendrick engines and chassis aren’t hurting, either. Last week: 9
7. Jeff Gordon The hot streak comes crashing down at the Glen for Gordon, who now sits 10 points behind Ryan Newman for the second wild card Chase spot. Last week: 7
8. Tony Stewart Once the man to beat in Watkins Glen, when he won five events from 2002-09, Stewart has showings of 27th and 19th the last two visits. This is a hard team to figure. Last week: 6
9. Denny Hamlin Hamlin has five finishes of 25th or worse in the last eight races, so he may not deserve this ranking. However, those two wins on his scorecard are hard to dismiss. Last week: 5
10. Clint Bowyer Couldn’t follow up his road win in Sonoma with another at the Glen, but a fourth-place run was impressive, considering the battle royale that was going on at the front of the field. Last week: 11
Despite what the shirt says, he's not lovin' it. (ASP, Inc.)
11. Kyle Busch A win at the Glen would have given him a Chase spot. Maybe Bristol will provide the boost. Last week: 14
12. Ryan Newman Doing his best to be a wild carder, having averaged a 7.8-place finish over the last five races. Last week: 12
13. Martin Truex Jr. Claims a contract renewal with Michael Waltrip Racing and NAPA is all but done. Last week: 10
14. Kevin Harvick Is basically a 13th- to 15th-place finisher at this point. Can they turn it around for the Chase? Last week: 13
15. Marcos Ambrose Hard to keep this week’s winner out of the top 15. Now he must learn how to stay here. Last week: Unranked
Just off the lead pack: Carl Edwards, Sam Hornish Jr., Joey Logano, Paul Menard, Regan Smith
Sorry Pepsi, but it looks like a Miller Lite. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson Although a flat tire foiled Johnson’s hopes for a second straight victory, it’s pretty obvious who the best team on the circuit is these days. Last week: 1
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. See: Johnson, Jimmie, then substitute “second best” for “best” and “transmission” for “flat tire.” The Pocono troubles won’t derail this bunch much, if at all. Last week: 2
3. Matt Kenseth Said Kenseth of the final, fateful restart: “He (Johnson) just drove in incredibly far and spun out. Maybe he had a flat, but I am not so sure about that.” Not a happy camper. Last week: 3
4. Brad Keselowski Played the off-cync pit strategy game for a second straight week. And for a second straight, came up short. But hey, when you have three wins, you’re free to give it a go.Last week: 6
5. Denny Hamlin Was on his way to a third consecutive top-10 finish until Kenseth took a hard left directly in front of him. Was later released from the infield car center on Sunday after experiencing abdominal pain.Last week: 4
6. Tony Stewart Drove from 28th to fifth at Pocono, which is no easy feat. Has advanced to sixth in the standings on the strength of four consecutive top 12s.Last week: 5
7. Jeff Gordon When the circuit last visited Pocono in June, Gordon sat 22nd in points with zero wins and three top 10s. After its return trip, he sits 13th in points with a win and nine top 10s.Last week: 9
8. Greg Biffle Lined up fourth for the final restart at Pocono which, in hindsight, wasn’t a good place to be. Although he was shuffled back to 15th, he now finds himself only six points out of the championship lead.Last week: 8
White is slimming. (ASP, Inc.)
9. Kasey Kahne Things are tight in this area of the rankings, where Biffle, Kahne, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer have jockeyed back and forth. Kahne’s runner-up at Pocono was fortuitous, but he’ll take it.Last week: 7
10. Martin Truex Jr. Truex’s third at Pocono was his best finish since a runner-up at Kansas in April. Using consistency over flash, he’s remained in the top 10, currently slotting in safely at fifth.Last week: 11
11. Clint Bowyer Like Truex, Bowyer has held fast to his top-10 spot. Unlike Truex, he actually has a win (Sonoma).Last week: 10
12. Ryan Newman Riding a streak that includes consecutive showings of fifth, 10th, seventh and sixth.Last week: 13
13. Kevin Harvick Harvick better hope he has a Stewart-esque Chase run in him, cause it ain’t pretty right now.Last week: 14
14. Kyle Busch The ability is there — as the Indy runner-up proved — but mechanical issues are killing this bunch.Last week: 12
15. Carl Edwards Squeaks back into the top 15 after a decent seventh at Pocono. Now needs two wins in five races.Last week: Not ranked
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Paul Menard, Regan Smith
Haven't we seen this movie before ... like in 2006, '08 and '09?
"Hey, watch the hair, Chad!" (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson (—) Johnson has had two crashes in 2012, resulting in 42nd- and 36th-place finishes and one engine failure, leading to a 35th-place run. Otherwise, he’s been 12th or better every week.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (—) Junior has been nearly as good as his Hendrick teammate through 20 races, with 17th- and 23rd-place runs the only blemishes outside of the top 15.
3. Matt Kenseth (—) Even before a crash ended his day in Indy, Kenseth wasn’t having a banner performance. How will this team handle its driver’s lame duck status down the stretch?
4. Denny Hamlin (+1) Hamlin is certainly back to his contender status, with two wins on the season and three finishes of sixth or better in the last four races (including a near-miss in Loudon).
5. Tony Stewart (-1) Stewart somehow snuck into the top 10 by day’s end at Indy despite being a non-factor throughout the race. In fact, it was his worst showing (10th) at IMS since forming his own team — or a team being handed to him. Whatever.
6. Brad Keselowski (—) Along with Hamlin, Keselowski seemed the only driver with anything for Johnson on Sunday. A slow pit stop doomed his chances and the three-time winner in 2012 settled for ninth.
7. Kasey Kahne (—) Front-end damage to Kahne’s Chevy forced the team to play catch-up all day in Indy. A popular pre-race pick, Kasey persevered to a 12th-place showing.
8. Greg Biffle (—) After a quiet three-race stretch where Biffle was all but invisible, he burst back onto the scene at the Brickyard with a confidence-building third-place finish. Keep an eye on him at Pocono.
9. Jeff Gordon (+1) Time is running out for Gordon, who finds himself a distant 15th in the point standings with zero wins. Try as they might, the 24 team has been a fifth- to sixth-place car the last six weeks. Still, if he can cash in just once...
10. Clint Bowyer (-1) Rebounded from what appeared to be some ugly sheet metal damage prior to the halfway mark at Indy to post a respectable 15th. It could’ve been worse.
They're not the King's cowboy boots or Marcis' wing tips, but hey, whatever works for ya, Carl. (ASP, Inc.)
11. Martin Truex Jr. (+1) Indy was a typical run for Truex in 2012: Qualify in the mid-teens and finish about eighth.
12. Kyle Busch (+3) Up to 11th in the standings and currently a wild-card qualifier after a runner-up at the Brickyard.
13. Ryan Newman (—) Fifteen points behind Busch in the wild card standings with a single win. It can be done.
14. Kevin Harvick (-3) Averaging an 11.7-place finish — which Harvick has thus far — won’t win him a title.
15. Mark Martin (Unranked) Had he started every race this year, Martin would slot in around 13th or 14th in the point standings.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard
Favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson in Victory Lane at Phoenix last season. (ASP, Inc.)
After a well-deserved off week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the famed yard of bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend's Crown Royal presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard.
The annual Brickyard 400 is considered one of the most prestigious races of the season by those in the garage area. In 18 visits, 11 drivers have put their name on the winner's trophy at the famed speedway, seven of them former series champions. Winning at Indianapolis is no simple feat, and will rank among the most important victories in a driver's career.
Veteran Jeff Gordon knows just how special it is to score a victory at IMS. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won the inaugural event in 1994, and has since gone on to collect a total of four Brickyard 400 wins, the most among all Cup drivers.
In last year's event, Gordon had one of the strongest cars in the field, leading 36 of the 160 laps. While he had plenty of fuel to make it to the end, his task was to chase down leader Paul Menard, who was attempting to stretch his fuel mileage to the end. Gordon charged nearly to the back bumper of Menard's No. 27 Chevrolet, but was forced to settle for second as Menard went on to score his first career Sprint Cup Series victory.
As the season moves to Indianapolis this weekend, Gordon is mired in 17th in the series standings and running out of time if he wants to be a part of the championship battle in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. An up-and-down season has left him scratching his head for answers, it seems things have finally started to fall into place for Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led team.
Since their 35th-place showing at Darlington in May, Gordon’s No. 24 team has scored five top 10s in the last eight races — moving him from 24th in points to 17th. Headed to one of his best tracks (he holds the second-best average finish), the four-time champion is in dire need of a win. Going off their notes from last year, look for the veteran to record his name in the record books again and kiss the bricks for the fifth time.
If Gordon wants to score that all-important fifth Brickyard 400 win and join the in Chase wild card discussion, he will have to beat teammate Kasey Kahne and defending series champion Tony Stewart.
Kahne started on the outside of the front row in last year's event, led 48 laps, but was foiled in the fuel mileage gamble in the closing laps and finished 18th. This season, Kahne has been making the most of his time at Hendrick Motorsports, scoring two wins, including the last Cup Series race at Loudon two weeks ago.
While Gordon may hold the most wins at Indianapolis, Stewart holds the best average finish among active drivers (8.1). The former open-wheel star has two wins at the Brickyard and has finished inside the top 10 in nine of his 13 starts. This season Stewart and his Steve Addington-prepped team have three wins, and this organization knows how to step up when it matters most. It’s safe to say that anytime the circuit hits the brickyard, Stewart is on everyone’s radar.
Five Favorites: Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth
Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick has flown a bit under the radar thus far in the 2012 season, but that is about to change as the series heads closer to the Chase. Currently sitting sixth in the championship standings, Harvick has three top 5s and nine top 10s through the first 19 races.
The proud new father has been solidly consistent this year, finishing outside the top 20 on only two occasions. Harvick is the 2003 Brickyard 400 champion and also holds the third-best average finish (10.0) among active drivers.
Although it appears Harvick is a safe bet to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a win would go a long way when the 12-driver field is reset following Richmond in September. Look for Harvick and his Shane Wilson-led crew to contend for that win on Sunday.
Whenever any form of motorsports heads to Indianapolis, one name stands above the rest is Roger Penske. The famed team owner has a total of 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500, but is searching for his first NASCAR victory at the yard of bricks.
While the majority of attention surrounding this organization has focused on AJ Allmendinger’s failed drug test and the fallout from that announcement, Brad Keselowski is set to put the attention back where it belongs: on the track.
“It definitely gives you a sense of pride when you go to Indy as a member of Penske Racing," Keselowski said. "You look at everything Mr. Penske has been able to accomplish there in open-wheel racing. It would be one of the coolest things I could ever do in a racecar if I could get him his first win in the Brickyard 400. I really think we have a good chance to do that on Sunday.”
Keselowski is among the best in the garage at overcoming adversity and rising to the occasion at the most significant times, and this week should be no different. At the famed speedway, Keselowski holds the 10th-best average finish (14.0) and was ninth in last year's race.
With three wins to his credit in 2012, Keselowski is 10th in the championship standings, but in search of more victories. Overcoming adversity and stepping up on the sport's biggest stages are among Keselowski's most notable attributes, so look for a solid day out of the No. 2 team this weekend.
The defending Brickyard 400 winner, the aforementioned Menard, was able to score that illusive first career Sprint Cup Series victory last year by stretching his fuel mileage to the end, but result was no fluke, as he also had one of the strongest cars of the day. Only once has the defending race winner gone on to win the following year at Indianapolis (Jimmie Johnson, 2008 and ’09), but could Menard be the second?
Much like in 2011, Menard is currently on the outside of the top 10 in championship standings in 15th. With time running out before the Chase field is set, a win would once again put Menard solidly in the wild card discussion heading to Richmond.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer
It is not often that a former race winner at a track is a darkhorse pick, but considering the type of season Jamie McMurray and his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, are having, it is hard not to consider them as such.
McMurray, the 2010 Brickyard 400 winner, has the seventh-best average finish (13.1) among active drivers with one win, three top 5s and five top 10s. McMurray was fourth in last year's event, but has finished outside the top 15 on four occasions.
This season, however, both McMurray and Montoya have been out to lunch. After a host of internal changes during the offseason, the expectations were high for team owner Chip Ganassi, however his cars currently sit 20th and 21st in the championship standings.
Of course, this is Indy, and much like fellow team owner Penske, Ganassi expects to run well here. Montoya has been a contender throughout the years in the Brickyard 400, only to have mistakes on pit road and accidents ruin solid runs. In fact, aside from finishing second in his first attempt at Indy in a stock car in 2007, Montoya has finished 28th or worse in three of his five starts.
This weekend, however, the Ganassi teammates are running in Friday’s Grand-Am Road Racing Series at Indy. Whether this will take away or contribute to the team's overall effort is up for debate.
Another former Indianapolis 500 winner you may want to keep an eye on is Penske Racing's Sam Hornish Jr. Taking the reins of the No. 22 Dodge from the suspended Allmendinger, Hornish now has the rare opportunity at a second chance in the Sprint Cup Series.
Hornish has struggled to adjust to the unexpected promotion to Cup over the past two races, but at a track he is comfortable racing at, perhaps this team will come into their own with Hornish as their driver this weekend at Indianapolis.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr., Regan Smith, Jeff Burton
If there is one certainty for this weekend's race at Indianapolis, perhaps it is going with Chevrolet drivers on your fantasy lineup. Since the Cup Series has been racing at IMS, the bowtie brigade has won 13 of 18 races, including the last nine events.
Among the most unique tracks on the schedule, the key to success at Indy will be a solid setup that makes the car work well throughout all four of the track's unique corners. Fuel mileage was a deciding factor in last year's race, and may play a major role in this year's race as well.
Best of luck to all the fantasy racers out there this weekend, and if you win, don't think twice about going out and kissing the bricks on your patio.
Best Average Finish at Indianapolis (Wins):
1. Tony Stewart — 8.1 (2)
2. Jeff Gordon — 9.1 (4)
3. Kevin Harvick — 10.0 (1)
4. Carl Edwards — 11.0 (0)
5. Clint Bowyer — 11.8 (0)
6. Mark Martin — 12.9 (0)
7. Jamie McMurray — 13.1 (1)
8. Greg Biffle — 13.1 (0)
9. Kyle Busch — 13.1 (0)
10. Brad Keselowski — 14.0 (0)
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.”
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Coke Zero 400
Carl Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
Here's hoping all the NASCAR fantasy players out there had a happy and safe Fourth of July holiday. After a week of firework displays around this great nation, the grand finale will come Saturday night under the lights at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 — let's just keep Juan Pablo Montoya away from any jet dryers, OK?
In all seriousness, this weekend's annual July stop at the beach is one in which drivers are racing with multiple agendas on one of the sport's biggest stages. Each time the series heads to Daytona, nearly anyone in the field has a shot at upsetting the world — or at least scoring a solid finish at a crucial part of the season.
With only nine races left before the Chase field is set, the battle for the wild card spots and the fight for the top 10 in the standings is intensifying.
Perhaps one of the biggest names currently outside the top 10 in points looking to score his first win of the season this is Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards. Last year's runner-up in the championship battle has yet to win in 2012, and currently sits 11th in points.
Edwards had a deceptively strong run going in Kentucky, but a late pit stop for fuel dropped the No. 99 Ford to a 20th-place finish at the end of the night. The finish was Edwards' fifth-straight outside the top 10. To find Edwards' last top-5 finish, you would have to go back to Fontana in March. Edwards did not lead a single lap of competition until Kansas, when he led one, then backed it up at Richmond by leading 206 of the 400 laps. Since then, Edwards has led a grand total of zero.
However, things have been shaken up of late at RFR. Daytona 500 champion and current points leader Matt Kenseth will be leaving the organization at the end of the season with Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moving up to the Cup ranks as his replacement. With a multitude of sponsorship support behind him and many beginning to ask questions, Edwards is determined to turn his season around at the halfway point.
The driver of the No. 99 has been among the best on the high banks of Daytona in recent visits. He was runner-up to Trevor Bayne in last year's Daytona 500. He entered last year's Coke Zero 400 the points leader, but was turned around while running third early in the race by teammate Greg Biffle, leading to a 37th-place finish. This season, Edwards sat on the pole for the 500 and came home eighth. And if there’s one thing that’s obvious in the Ford camp, it’s that their engineers have figured out how to keep the Blue Ovals running cooler — a major advantage on the plate tracks, circa 2012.
Looking to race his way back into the top 10 in points, earn his first win of the season and turn his year around, Edwards is this week's fantasy favorite.
While Edwards may be the fantasy favorite, the perennial fan favorite is Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has two wins on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, one of which came in the Coke Zero 400 on July 7, 2001. With Saturday night's race coming on July 7 once again, could seven be the lucky number for Earnhardt?
Although he is always counted among the best at Daytona — he finished second to Kenseth in February — Earnhardt's last win on the high banks was in 2004. With one victory already this season, the No. 88 team is eager to add to the win column and start collecting bonus points for the Chase.
Whether or not drivers are willing to admit it, momentum is a hard thing to beat, and right now Brad Keselowski has a lot of it. Coming off a strong performance last week in Kentucky, Keselowski’s three wins lead the circuit. He’s good on all types of tracks (with wins on short, plate and intermediate venues), making him a must-watch.
Based on their recent finishes at Daytona, never count out Edwards’ Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Biffle. Kenseth was second in this race last season and won his second Daytona 500 in February, while Biffle was third. The Roush cars are typically strong here, with former driver David Ragan besting Kenseth last July.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Like Keselowski, Sonoma race-winner Clint Bowyer proved he can get the job done on any style track — but especially on the high banks of Daytona and Talladega. His average finish of 14.8 at DIS is second-best among active drivers, however Bowyer has yet to score a win at Daytona.
Also like Keselowski, Bowyer has momentum on his side as the series hits the halfway point of the season. A winner two weeks ago on the road course, Bowyer is seventh in the standings and has only two finishes worse than 17th all season (a 30th, Phoenix; 36th, Kansas).
The month of July has historically been good to Bowyer in the past. Of the three tracks the series hits this month — Daytona, New Hampshire and Indianapolis — Bowyer has two wins, a pole, six top 5s and 12 top 10s. Expect him to add to those totals on Saturday.
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and teammate Clint Bowyer (15) at Daytona. (ASP, Inc.)
Bowyer's MWR teammate, Martin Truex Jr., has not had much luck when it comes to Daytona, but expect that to turn around this weekend. In his 14 previous starts on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Truex has a best finish of sixth in the 2010 Daytona 500 and an average finish of 21.5. In fact, that sixth-place finish is his lone top 10 at Daytona. Statistically, Truex has struggled mightily in the annual July event, with a best finish of 13th in 2007. Aside from that event, Truex has four finishes of 25th or worse in six races.
However, Truex and his No. 56 team have shown strength this season. Already 17 races into the season, Truex has more top 5 finishes (four) than in the last four seasons combined, and nearly as many top 10s (nine). Sitting eighth in the standings, Truex is looking to move further away from that 10th-place Chase cut off, break his winless streak dating back to 2007 and start building bonus points for the Chase.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson
There have been quite a few surprises throughout the first half of the 2012 season, but one that jumps out is the driver sitting just outside the top 10 in the standings in 13th-place. Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard has consistently stayed in contention, yet just outside the Chase cutoff, ahead of race-winners Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
Although he has only four top-10 finishes this season, Menard's average finish has been 16.1. Consistently finishing inside the top 20 is not enough to make the Chase or content for the title, so Menard needs to either score a win and enter the Chase via wild card, or make a run at the top 10.
Daytona is a great place for Menard to make a statement run as he did last year at Indianapolis. Heading into this weekend's race, Menard has three consecutive top-10 finishes at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, the only driver on the circuit to currently own such a streak, and something that should continue Saturday night.
Another of the biggest surprises this season has been the abysmal showing of AJ Allmendinger in his new Penske digs. For as successful a year as his teammate, Keselowski, has had, Allmendinger's year has been equally tough to swallow. Poor luck and other struggles have led to six finishes of 31st or worse. However, the driver of the No. 22 Dodge is coming off back-to-back top-10 finishes at Sonoma and Kentucky — his first such “streak” of the season.
Allmendinger showed strength in Daytona early in the season but sustained damage to the nose on pit road just 15 laps into the event. A solid run at Talladega also went to the wayside late in the race when he and Denny Hamlin got together on a late-race restart.
With the season at the halfway point and speculation beginning to build about Penske’s plans for the No. 22 Dodge in 2013, it is time for a solid string of runs through the summer months. With back-to-back top 10s in his pocket, look for Allmendinger to be a factor if he can make it through the entire event without any issues.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger, Landon Cassill, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray
Top 10 average finish at Daytona (points-paying wins):
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.5 (2)
2. Clint Bowyer — 14.8 (0)
3. Kevin Harvick — 15.0 (0)
4. Bill Elliott — 15.6 (4)
5. Jeff Gordon — 16.2 (6)
6. Tony Stewart — 16.7 (3)
7. Matt Kenseth — 16.7 (2)
8. Kurt Busch — 17.3 (0)
9. Carl Edwards — 17.3 (0)
10. Paul Menard — 17.3 (0)
"I don't know man ... I mean we're talking about the Redskins here." (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson It’s a toss up at the top, but J.J. has more wins and, as evidenced by his top-5 run at Sonoma, is a more well-rounded driver than Earnhardt or Kenseth.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. That said, championships are not won on road courses, so Junior’s 23rd-place showing — to be fair, he ran around 15th most of the day — will not hurt his title quest.
3. Matt Kenseth Can a “lame duck” driver win a championship? We know a crew chief can (see: Grubb, Darian). We’ll find out, as Kenseth leads the point standings but has an eye on new digs in 2013.
4. Tony Stewart Stewart has always been a somewhat streaky NASCAR driver, and his third-, second- and second-place runs in the last three weeks find him on a hot one.
5. Greg Biffle Impressive seventh at Sonoma (for Biffle) finds him back in second in the point standings, just 11 points behind his Roush Fenway teammate. Kentucky should be good to him.
6. Clint Bowyer Prior to his win in Sonoma, Bowyer had clicked off three consecutive finishes of seventh or better. What was surprising was that a dirt tracker from Kansas took his first win at MWR on a road course.
7. Denny Hamlin Hamlin won earlier this season in Kansas and, let’s be honest, what’s the difference between that cookie cutter and the one in Kentucky?
8. Brad Keselowski Last season’s Watkins Glen winner only registered a 12th at Sonoma, and was never really in contention. He needs to get out of the 12th- to 18th-place hole he’s been in of late.
9. Martin Truex Jr. Truex led 15 laps and ran in the top 5 for a large part of the day until contact with Joey Logano on the final lap knocked him from sixth to 22nd. That’s tough to take, folks.
10. Kasey Kahne Pit strategy wasn’t in Kahne’s favor on Sunday. In fact, he slipped from a certain top-10 run to 22nd only to rebound late and salvage a respectable 14th-place showing.
"Is that Biffle I hear talking smack again?" (ASP, Inc.)
11. Kevin Harvick TNT is just now noticing that Harvick ran out of fuel during a round of green flag pit stops.
12. Joey Logano Ruffled quite a few feathers (including a teammate’s) en route to his third straight road course top 10.
13. Jeff Gordon Pre-race favorite in Sonoma disappointed with a loose-handling car, managing a sixth-place finish.
14. Marcos Ambrose Grabbed second straight pole and second straight top 10 (Michigan and Sonoma).
15. Kyle Busch He’s ranked in the top 15 on raw talent alone. Has averaged a 27th in the last four races.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Points leader Matt Kenseth will leave Roush Fenway Racing after this season and be replaced by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the team announced Tuesday.
Reports state that Kenseth is headed to Joe Gibbs Racing although it is unclear if it will be with a fourth team or in place of Joey Logano, who is in the final year of his contract.
Kenseth wrote on Twitter: “I’m very thankful to Jack Roush for the opportunities he’s given me over the past 14 years. Together we have enjoyed a lot of success and as a team we are committed as ever to the remainder of the 2012 season and chasing a 3rd sprint cup title for Jack and RFR.
“Although I have nothing to announce regarding 2013, I feel the timing of this announcement gives RFR ample time to get things lined up. Darian (Grubb) and Tony (Stewart) proved to us last year there is no such thing as a “lame duck” team or season. We will continue to go to work and race hard.”
With the move, Roush loses the defending Daytona 500 winner but also a driver who is 40 years old. Taking over the No. 17 car for Kenseth next year will be 24-year-old Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the defending Nationwide Series champion.
“Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has more than proved his abilities on the race track,” said team co-owner Jack Roush in a statement issued by the team “We feel that he is not only a key piece of our team’s future, but a key piece of the future of the sport. Roush Fenway is an organization with a wonderful past and present, as well as an extremely promising future, and I can’t think of a better candidate than Ricky to usher in the next era of success for the team.
“Of course, I’d like to thank Matt Kenseth for his many years of loyal service. Matt has been an integral part of this organization for well over a decade, and we are extremely appreciative of his accomplishments and contributions to the team, and will always consider him a part of the Roush Fenway family.
“We’re fortunate that we were able to tap into Matt’s potential and bring him on board many years ago, and I’m proud that together we were able to combine the tools and the resources of Roush Fenway with his talent and determination to forge a partnership that yielded a championship at the Cup level and all of his 22 Cup victories, including two Daytona 500 wins. The No. 17 is positioned extremely well this season, and I’m committed to providing the team the best resources to continue their run for the 2012 championship. I have no doubt that Matt will do his part.”
Kenseth has run all but one Cup race in his career for Roush. Kenseth made his debut in 1998, subbing for Bill Elliott at Dover so Elliott could attend his father’s funeral (he finished sixth). Kenseth drove in five Cup races for Roush the following season before running full-time in 2000 when he beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. for rookie of the year honors in the Cup Series.
Stenhouse ranks third in the Nationwide standings this season with three victories. He has five career series wins in 87 starts heading into this weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway.
CHANGING WAYS Progress can’t come fast enough at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. As the NASCAR Sprint Cup season heads toward the midway point, Jamie McMurray is 20th in the points and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya is 22nd.
After an offseason of changes, the EGR teams have struggled to put together strong finishes. McMurray has three top-10 finishes and Montoya has two. At this time a year ago, Montoya was 16th in points with five top-10 finishes, and McMurray was 27th in points with two top-10 finishes.
Montoya says one must look beyond the results to see the change taking place after the it hired Max Jones as team manager in December. It was among a number of changes car owner Chip Ganassi started making last season to revamp his competition department and his teams.
“I think we’ve done a lot of progress,” Montoya said. “If you really go to the team right now and see how different everything is working, it’s pretty amazing. We haven’t had the results we want to have, but there have been a lot of really good changes and we’ve been putting people in the right place.
“Just because you put somebody in the right place doesn’t mean that overnight you are going to run better. You want to run better overnight, but things have got to change. Everybody has to adapt and it’s a process. I really feel we made a lot of gains on the car; we made a lot of gains on how the whole engine department is working. We’re definitely making progress I think.”
McMurray said the way the teams have been re-designed, its created better cohesion between them.
“It’s all for the better and Chip is still out hiring people and looking for more engineers and people to make it better than what it is right now,” McMurray said. “I think for us, my guess is somewhere around the last 10 races you’re going to see a lot of the progress. It takes time. There’s different suspensions, different simulations every week and sometimes they don’t always work. It’s kind of testing and trying to get things better. It’s a big difference than where it was a year ago.
“You don’t go from running 15th to winning just overnight. It takes baby steps. But, I feel like we’re heading in the right direction. I kind of say the last 10 races because I think it’s going to take that long to get to where we need to be.”
Earnhardt Ganssi Racing hopes to be the new version of Michael Waltrip Racing in improving its performance.
Jeff Gordon (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
LEAN ON ME Jeff Gordon’s struggles to make the Chase were typified Sunday at Sonoma when he had a strong car but ran out of fuel during the race and lost track position slowly heading back to pit road. He had been running in the top 5 and fell to 15th afterward. He recovered to finish sixth. While he needs all the points possible, he also needs at least one and likely two victories to make the Chase. Gordon is 18th in the points.
Gordon’s car has been fast all year but something seems to happen to him each week — from being involved in incidents to self-inflicted problems that have denied him the chance to win a few races and put him in the position he is.
Gordon said that this “has really been a test for us,” before last weekend’s race at Sonoma.
“To not have any results to show for it is extremely frustrating and it has really tested us in a big way,” Gordon said of he, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the team. “I just give a lot of credit to Alan. I feel like he and I have really come together through this. We really had great talks over the offseason and I think we just bonded in a way where we have confidence that no matter what happens, we’re not going to let it tear us apart.
“There have been times where he’s really had to step-up and be that glue and then there’s been times where I’ve had to as well, which is not something I’ve really had to do in the past. For me, from a leadership standpoint, it’s really more of just going out and getting the results and I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to go get those results and get the team rallied around that. This year, I’ve had to do it more on a personal level one on one and in the team meetings of really kind of stepping out there and putting some words out there that I feel like could be key to keeping us together and getting us through those tough times.”
NEW STRATEGY Although 10 races remain until the Chase field is set, Kasey Kahne said last week he’s adjusting his strategy.
“I really thought we would be able to race our way into the top 10,’’ he said.
A 29th-place finish at Pocono and a 33rd-place finish at Michigan altered his thinking.
“The way I look at it is we just need to win,’’ Kahne said before last weekend’s race at Sonoma, where he finished 14th and fell to 17th in the points.
“We have to win at least one more race and maybe two to to have real strong shot at making the Chase this year.’’
Is on-track comfort to blame for "boring" racing in 2012?
Comfortable (adj.) — Providing physical ease and relaxation; comfy; cozy; free from stress or fear
When people speak that word, it’s most likely in reference to the summer vacations we’ll take within the next few of months. Comfortable is what we hope to achieve at our jobs, financial security that affords us to do the other things we want in life. In a cruel twist of irony, we watch sports to get comfortable, relaxation afforded after a long day on the job.