Packs vs. tandems, tradition vs. change, shortened races and 2012 surprises
Jeff Gordon: Tradition or entertainment? (ASP, Inc.)
Tradition vs. Change. Shorten races vs. keeping them the same. Tandem drafting vs. pack racing. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council faced many choices with this week’s NASCAR survey.
There was more, including what has been the biggest surprise of the season to how they graded last weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Daytona. The opinions vary — and in some cases are quite strong. Here’s what the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say about these issues.
Tradition vs. Changes, which one matters most to you? Former champion Jeff Gordon was asked during a media session last weekend at Daytona about possible changes for the sport. Part of Gordon’s response included this statement: “What is more important — history and tradition or the most entertaining form of racing?” The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was asked that question — what means more to you? Tradition or changes to make the sport more exciting?
67.2 percent said traditions 32.8 percent said changes to make the sport more exciting
What Fan Council members said:
• Gimmicks are the road to ruin. This is a great sport, making changes to appease the fly-by-night fans will just alienate your most loyal fans while temporarily pleasing those who will leave you inevitably to follow some other trend.
• It's sad that some people need to be entertained. I prefer to keep the traditions. That said, I would understand if NASCAR was forced to make changes in order to compete. I just hope they realize they can keep the traditions while adding extra entertainment.
• I love the traditions, but I have to confess: If the entertainment value doesn't increase, I won't be watching much longer.
• I’m not an old fuddy-duddy veteran fan complaining all the time about these changes. I only started watching in 2005. I was confused by all the constant changing and thought it was strange. But isn’t the racing better?? I think so.
• This one was easy for me. In my opinion, history and tradition are exciting. I understand the need to tweak things now and then because the cars have changed and the level of competition has become more level. But major overhauls, such as instituting a playoff system where one was not only unnecessary but doesn't fit the sport, don't work. They provide a temporary shot of interest among non- or casual fans but when that dissipates (as it has done), the sport is left with unhappy core fans that are less prone to instill a love of the sport in their kids, which in turn creates a void in the fan base in the next generation.
• I think NASCAR is one of the few sports that have changed to make it more exciting. Traditions and history only will get you by for so long.
• It's nice to know we have input to NASCAR. At some point, the line needs to be drawn. The show is the show. Not all races are awesome and not all are stinkers. Whining about every flaw leads to constant criticism of our sport. NASCAR seems to be in good shape compared to some other forms of motorsports (AMA). I don't know exactly what criteria NASCAR uses to make changes, but I'd like to think they use surveys like this one.
• I would rather stick to our roots. Trying to give the fans what they want, in my opinion, has made the racing worse. Look at the All-Star Race in May. That race turned into a race of strategy rather than a showdown for a million bucks. Also, look at Bristol.
• I'm all for keeping the traditions in the sport so long as the teams are allowed to innovate and compete to be the best. If that doesn't happen, then you have to go the route of the WWE and do tricks to make the races/racing more exciting. There has to be more excitement even in the long races. Drivers/teams are riding around in the first half to 3/4 of the races just logging laps and then the exciting racing starts. Sad.
• Get back to basics and the numbers will improve.
• Sometimes traditions hinder progress.
What races need to be shortened (if any)? NASCAR Chairman Brian France said last weekend at Daytona that series officials would look to shorten races, noting it has “worked well” at Auto Club Speedway, Dover and Pocono. Fan Council members were asked what races, if any, needed to be shortened.
35.6 percent said the Atlanta race (500 miles ... last year’s race was 4 hours, 0 minutes) 34.9 percent said Texas fall race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 16 minutes last year) 34.2 percent said the Texas spring race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 7 minutes in April) 29.5 percent said “None” 27.4 percent said Charlotte fall race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 25 minutes last year) 26.0 percent said Talladega fall race (500 miles ... was 3 hours, 29 minutes last year) 18.8 percent said Talladega spring race (516 miles with GWC ... was 3 hours, 13 minutes in April) (Every track received votes, but no other track received more than 15 percent of the votes)
What Fan Council members said:
• This makes no sense at all. Why would anyone want the races shortened? Are they going to reduce ticket prices by an equal ratio? Doubtful.
• Just about anything with a 500 after it should be shortened.
• Might as well shorten both ’Dega races if these guys are just gonna ride.
• The race I really think needs shortening is the Coke 600. I know it's traditionally been the one marathon race, but we saw this year that with the style of racing we're seeing the extra 100 miles is dreadfully boring.
• Stop catering to ADD Nation! The sport needs a few long races. The Coke 600 and Southern 500 should never be shortened.
• For me, the races don't need to be shortened because of the time of the race (with few exceptions). They need to be shortened to prevent drivers from riding around until the end of the race. The plate races are the prime example of this. But we see this at a lot of tracks. I think the road courses, Phoenix, NHMS and a few other have races that are about the right distance.
• I'm never in favor of cutting from any race. If you need to cut laps and miles from a track to make a race more interesting, maybe you should be taking a look at the product that's being put out there.
• I wouldn't mind the length of any race if they actually raced. I'm sick of them riding around for two to two-and-a-half hours and then racing the last 50 to 100 laps.
• No sir, no sir, no sir! Do not shorten any more races!
• I think the time from Atlanta is deceiving because there were so many cautions for the bad weather.
• I think there needs to be only three races longer than 400 miles: the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 (at Darlington over Labor Day weekend) and the 600-miler at Charlotte. These days the cars and drivers can handle the 500-mile length no problem, so it's no longer a matter of whether they will last the grueling length. Now it's drivers just logging laps in the middle, so let's cut that down some, especially at the cookie-cutter tracks.
What’s been the biggest surprise of the Cup season?
36.9 percent said Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick among winless drivers this year 30.4 percent said Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing after the season 13.4 percent said lack of cautions this season 8.2 percent said Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s strength 7.2 percent said success of Michael Waltrip Racing 3.9 percent said “Other”
What Fan Council members said:
• The big names who are winless is a HUGE story, but things happen. The Kenseth story is UNBELIEVABLE and I never thought it would ever happen.
• I HATE Toyota, but MWR has been a huge surprise, I have to admit.
• I'm in total disbelief over Carl's season. Something's gotta give. And since when did he become Jack's red-headed stepson?
• There are a lot of mid-season surprises, but I am most surprised at the lack of wins and great performances from drivers like Edwards, Harvick and Gordon.
• Danica Patrick still running after both Darlington events. Anybody who understands the nature of that beast would have bet against it.
• I would have picked Junior’s strength a couple of weeks ago, but I still can't believe that Kenseth is leaving Rousch Fenway after so many successful years there.
• Lack of cautions is really making this boring, but with the way the CoT has been, it's not a surprise when NASCAR isn't throwing cautions for water bottles. Dale Jr. is the big one for me. We all knew he had the equipment and was getting accustomed to Steve Letarte, but he is far more confident and focused than I've ever seen him. He's not just doing the best he can to get in the Chase as his main goal. He BELIEVES he can win
• AJ Allmendinger getting suspended for failing a drug test eclipsed my surprise at Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing. I initially ignored the mentions of Matt's contract because I fully expected him to re-sign with Roush. I was surprised when the rumor began that he was really a free agent. AJ's suspension 90 minutes before (Saturday night’s) race came out of left field.
• The lack of cautions is by far the story this year. That long green run at Texas brought it to the forefront. When there are green flag pit stops at Martinsville, you have a problem.
Pack racing or tandem drafting? (ASP, Inc.)
Grading Saturday's Cup race at Daytona
47.6 percent called it Good 26.8 percent called it Fair 14.1 percent called it Great 11.5 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Same old restrictor plate race. Drive around for 120 laps and wreck for the last 40. I can't really blame the drivers for just riding in the beginning. If they didn't, there would be no one left. I'm really over plate races. I think they should be for cash only and no points. My driver won and I'm still saying this.
• Great race that had lots of action for everyone.
• The million-dollar wreckfest. This isn't racing, it's Barnum & Bailey-style entertainment. Single-file draft, tag team — this is nothing more than high speed soap box derby racing combined with bumper cars. It might be exciting to those interested in near-fatal crashes, but talent never makes an appearance here.
• The first half of the race was comparable to 1.5-mile racing (insanely boring) but the last quarter of the race was insane. Stewart winning from 42nd after qualifying second showed how good of a car he had. Smoke is not a great qualifier, so when he does well, its trouble for the field. All the lovers of pack racing and carnage got what they wanted, except Junior winning.
• I love the drama that restrictor plate races bring, but I wish the cars didn't run so hot because that really hindered what the drivers could do.
• Again, another week of NO PASSING! Who would have thought I would ever have graded a restrictor plate race Poor? *YAWN*
• The current rules package got rid of the tandem racing but also got rid of the competition up front. Now that we have only 12 lead changes vs. 50-plus, I am not a huge fan. Throw in the demolition derby at the end and I am quickly losing interest in the Cup races at plate tracks.
• The only thing that stopped me from choosing “Great” is that the best car/driver (Kenseth) didn't win. Matt RACED the whole race and was in the thick of things all night. Stewart rode around in the back most of the time and ended up last man standing. That to me is NOT racing. Aside from that, the racing was very good.
• First great race of the year.
• Can we call it restrictor plate “racing” any longer? Four cars in contention for the win because the rest of the field has been wiped out behind them? Bring back the two-car tango, please. At least then it took true skill to win and not just blind luck.
Which do you prefer at restrictor-plate tracks: Tandem drafting or pack racing?
52.8 percent said pack racing evident in the Cup race 47.2 percent said tandem drafting evident in the Nationwide race
What Fan Council members said:
• I don't like tandem drafting, but the Nationwide race was more exciting than the Cup race, in my opinion.
• I thought the Nationwide race was very exciting. It kept me on the seat of my chair the entire time. Lots of lead changing and good solid racing. The Cup race was boring. By the end, most everyone had crashed. That’s what happens in pack racing … don't understand why everyone likes it so much!
• I do NOT like tandem because you are so dependent on getting pushed and to have to have a pusher to win the race is NOT racing in my opinion.
• I enjoyed the tandem drafting from the very beginning — I don't understand why people hate it so much.
• I like a mix of both.
• I was at both races and I felt the intensity more during the Nationwide race than the Sprint Cup race. It seemed like they were racing the last lap on every lap. The Sprint cars with the smaller radiators and restrictor plates kept the cars from getting too close to each other and hooking up for more than half a lap.
• Two by two is boring. This is racing, not boarding the Ark.
• Pack racing at least gives you the hope of some action, as the cars are side-by-side for several laps at a time.
• I think the pack racing is great. It makes for a more unpredictable race. And that is why I like tracks like Daytona and Talladega. I think it’s great because it gives the underdogs a shot a winning a race.
• I hate them both. I hate how so many cars get demolished. I know NASCAR has done a great job working on safety, but I feel like they are playing with fire with the plate races. Luckily, no one was injured and no cars went airborne.
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.
AJ Allmendinger issued his first public comments Tuesday since NASCAR temporarily suspended the Penske Racing driver before last weekend’s race at Daytona for a failed drug test.
“I have informed NASCAR that I have requested that the ‘B’ sample be tested, following the steps according to NASCAR’s 2012 rule book regarding this situation,” Allmendinger said in a statement.
“I fully respect NASCAR's drug usage policy and the reasons they have it. I am hoping this can get resolved as quickly as possible so that I can get back to driving the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge. I am sorry that this has caused such a distraction for my Penske Racing team, our sponsors and fans. Obviously, I would never do anything to jeopardize my opportunity here at Penske Racing or to my fellow drivers. I am very conscious about my training and health and would never knowingly take a prohibited drug.”
Penske Racing previously announced that Sam Hornish Jr. would drive for Allmendinger this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He drove for Allmendinger at Daytona, arriving from Charlotte, N.C., shortly before Saturday’s race and finished 33rd.
Allmendinger’s test results should be known later this week.
If his “B’’ sample affirms the previous drug test, then Allmendinger would remain suspended and be given a program he would have to undergo to regain his status to race in NASCAR. If his “B’’ sample disproves the previous sample, Allmendinger would be reinstated immediately.
With only a one-year contract with Penske Racing, Allmendinger’s future is further clouded. Car owner Roger Penske spoke on Sirius XM’s NASCAR Radio on Tuesday about Allmendinger’s future.
“I think that we’ll have to assess this situation,” Penske said. “You know, it’s something you just don’t do overnight. We’ll look at the details and understand it and we’ll make our moves accordingly. But at this point it would be way premature for me to speculate on what we might do. I think we’ve got to focus on our team and NASCAR, we’ve got good momentum and we’ve got to finish out this season strong. This will, obviously, the outcome of this will dictate what will be the future from the standpoint of ourselves and any member of our team that would be in this situation.”
Ryan Newman's US Army Chevrolet (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
ARMY LEAVING NASCAR Stewart-Haas Racing announced Tuesday that the U.S. Army would not return as a sponsor to the team next season and that “due to a reallocation of its marketing budget that will not include a presence in NASCAR.”
An official with the Army told USA TODAY Sports that the Army would not return because it was not receiving a return on investment for its sponsorship. The Army will spend $8.4 million on its NASCAR program, including sponsorship of Ryan Newman’s team for 12 races, this season.
NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps issued a statement about the Army leaving the sport after this season:
“The U.S. Army has been in our sport for more than a decade and has enjoyed great success as a NASCAR team sponsor during that time. The Army sponsorship served to connect our troops with the American public, to engage active service men and women around the world with the sport they love, and to assist with recruitment and retention.
“NASCAR and the military share many of the same values. NASCAR fans are twice as likely as non-fans to serve in the military and 37 percent of active service members and veterans are NASCAR fans. The Army made a budget decision that won’t allow it to return to NASCAR in 2013. However, NASCAR continues to be a powerful and critical part of the marketing mix for other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and more Fortune 500 companies than any other sport.”
PENALTIES NASCAR announced multiple penalties on Tuesday for infractions discovered last weekend at Daytona.
NASCAR docked Tony Stewart six driver and owner points for a post-qualifying infraction where series officials found an unapproved open vent inside the car.
NASCAR also fined crew chief Steve Addington $25,000 and placed him on probation until Aug. 22. NASCAR also placed car chief Jeff Meendering on probation until Aug. 22.
Greg Zipadelli, competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing, issued a statement after the penalties were announced.
“While we respect and accept NASCAR’s decision, we want to be clear that there was no malicious intent,” Zipadelli said. “In a rush to replace a cracked rear windshield that happened during tech inspection prior to qualifying, we jostled a cooling hose that was behind the seat. We understand NASCAR’s position and will abide by its decision.”
NASCAR also issued two Nationwide penalties Tuesday.
NASCAR penalized Austin Dillon six driver and owner points for an unapproved open vent hose inside the car, which was discovered in a post-qualifying inspection. NASCAR also suspended Dillon’s crew chief, Danny Stockman, who was already on probation, until July 25 and fined him $10,000. NASCAR also suspended car chief Robert Strmiska until July 25.
NASCAR also docked car owner Joe Gibbs six owner points after the team’s No. 18 Nationwide car did not meet the minimum front car heights after the Nationwide race. NASCAR fined crew chief Adam Stevens $10,000 and placed him on probation until Aug. 22. Car chief Christopher Landis also was placed on probation.
STAYING PUT Denny Hamlin recently signed a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and says his focus was to remain with the only team he’s raced for in Cup.
“(Joe Gibbs Racing) has been extremely generous to me in a lot of different ways,” said Hamlin, who made his Cup debut with the team in 2005 at Kansas Speedway. “They bent over backwards for me in a lot of different ways and really have helped me and put me with a great team.
“Really, when you look at where can you go and improve the seat that you're in, there just isn't any out there that you'd want to even consider. I feel like I'm with a championship-caliber team, obviously a championship crew chief. We've only been beat once by a JGR driver in points since I've been there. I feel like however Gibbs is capable of running is where we'll run and I feel like we have championship caliber cars.
“Any move that you make over money or something like that will eventually catch up to you. My thought was always to stay with Gibbs. You don't want to test the waters and end up shooting yourself in the foot because there's very few, both sponsors and teams out there that have the relationship with their driver that I feel like we have.”
EXPECT THE WORST AND HOPE FOR THE BEST That seems to be the philosophy Carl Edwards has taken into the remaining races before the Chase field is set after Richmond in September.
Edwards is 11th in the points but he remains winless this season and is not in position to get one of the two wildcard spots. He’s 31 points out of 10th, the final automatic spot to the Chase.
Edwards said he recently talked to his team about their situation.
“Our luck has been so bad this year that we can’t make any other mistakes,” he said. “We have to go forward assuming that the things that could go wrong are going to go wrong, so we need to go out and minimize the mistakes around the things that we can control.”
That was evident in Saturday night’s race when he returned the to pits under caution because he wasn’t sure a wheel was on tight with how the car was reacting. The team found no issue and Edwards continued without problems. He went on to finish sixth in the race.
BABY NEWS Kevin and DeLana Harvick celebrated the birth of their first child, a son, on Sunday. Keelan Paul Harvick weighed 6.8 pounds and was 19.5 inches at birth. Said Kevin Harvick: “Time literally stood still when I held our baby for the first time.” ... Darian Grubb, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, announced via Twitter on Monday that his wife had delivered the couple’s second child. Gabriella Grace weighed 6 pounds, 13 ounces and was 18.5 inches. ... Truck Series driver Timothy Peters recently announced that his wife, Sara, is expecting the couple’s first child. Due date is Dec. 17.
Drivers and teams to watch as the circuit hits its mid-summer classic in Daytona
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (please don’t call it the Pepsi 400 — Firecracker 400, however, will be accepted) marks the halfway point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
The year’s third restrictor plate race was once run on the morning of the fourth to beat the oppressive North Florida heat and humidity. “On the track by 11:00, on the beach by 2:00,” was the mantra before lights and night racing. NASCAR’s signature speedway has endured wildfires and truck fires in recent years, as well as Turn Two disemboweling itself in the middle of an event, but all should be solid as we’re knee-deep in the Summer Stretch. And as the championship chase begins to take shape, the contenders have begun to separate themselves from the pretenders. Unless, of course, it’s 2011 and you’re Tony Stewart, stumbling into the Chase like the town lush, but suddenly start running like Tony Stewart once the title fight begins.
But I digress. Let’s review our current top 10 in points, how they got here, and who on the outside looking in has to get their stuff together if they have any hopes of contending for the Cup come September.
1. Matt Kenseth Wins: 1 (Daytona 500)
Let’s see, Daytona 500: Check. Points leader: Check. Bailing on team mid-season: WTF? Kenseth’s announcement that he is leaving the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford at season’s end sent shockwaves through the fanbase. His likely destination appears to be Joe Gibbs Racing, although a proposed Andretti Autosport venture into NASCAR with Dodge assistance has been bandied about. It’s bad enough that Jack Roush’s former flagship No. 6 has been mothballed, but now the tried-and-true driver of the No. 17? Tragically coincidental — since it was the original driver of the No. 6, Mark Martin, who sold Roush on Kenseth, convincing him to field the No. 17 Cup ride for him in 2000. The last driver to win the Winston Cup in 2003 has been a model of consistency this year, much as he was that season. Kenseth’s low-key demeanor and approach will likely serve him well during what will prove to be a tumultuous few months in the Ford camp. With a win, eight top 5s and 12 top 10s to his credit this year, if Kenseth and the Wisconsin Mafia can keep the distractions at bay they very well could exit in style, giving Roush his third Cup Series championship. But distractions and fallout associated with being a “lame duck” lurk around every corner.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins: 1 (Michigan)
All together now: “JUUUUUNE-YEEERRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!” Finally, after 143 races and four years of futility, Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke into the winner’s circle at Michigan, the site of his last win in 2008. That victory did more for the psyche than the stat sheet, as Earnhardt is what Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket would deem, “Definitely born again hard.” With a win, seven top-5 and an even more impressive 13 top-10 finishes, the No. 88 team has done more in four months than it had in the last … well, forever. Credit Steve Letarte and Rick Hendrick, who essentially put Earnhardt with Jeff Gordon’s former team last season. The Prince of Kannapolis is doing his fans proud, so don’t be surprised to see a lot of old, red No. 8 gear being dusted off and thrust back into service in the coming months. Take heart Junior Nation — you’ve earned it, and your man is back near the top. Junior hasn’t been in a fierce title battle in so long, it’s hard to predict what type of showing he’ll make. But if a late-season slide doesn’t derail his momentum (and with Letarte calling the shots, it shouldn’t), Earnhardt is looking gbetter than he has in … well, forever.
3. Jimmie Johnson Wins: 2 (Darlington, Dover)
Oh yeah, don’t forget the “other driver” at Hendrick Motorsports. When he’s not cruising around with Mr. H on his windowsill, Jimmie Johnson is just being Jimmie Johnson; going about his business with painful precision and without much fanfare. Like a Glock pistol, he may be short on flash and flair, but he is dead-nuts reliable and never fails when the money is on the line. His nine top 5s and 13 top 10s are the most in both categories, and should serve as a harbinger of things to come in the fall. As in the past, the No. 48 team vets and fetters out the junk and finds what works during the summer months, then sets “phasers to kill” come September. For those who have tired of the “Five-Time” moniker, don’t worry. You may be calling him “Six-Time” by Thanksgiving.
4. Greg Biffle Wins: 1 (Texas)
Biffle started off the season strong, posting a trio of top-3 finishes in the first three races. He made a mockery of the last half of the April event at Texas Motor Speedway, and led the points from Las Vegas in early March until a 24th-place finish at Pocono, when he surrendered the top spot to his soon-to-be former teammate, Kenseth. A Roush veteran since his 1998 Truck Series debut, Biffle will prove to be the backbone of the team with Kenseth’s impending departure. While the No. 16 team started strong, it has stumbled in recent weeks, posting two sub-20th-place runs in the last four races. It was the No. 16 team that stopped Roush’s win skein in 2010, when the company got off track with misleading data simulation and sucky software on the engineering side. If there is a trend that must be watched with this bunch, it is that Biffle tends to go through crew chiefs quickly. Eight top 5s and 10 top 10s are a testament to his consistency, as well as the effect that current chief Matt Puccia has had for the driver who is in position to be the first in NASCAR history to win a championship in all three touring series.
5. Denny Hamlin Wins: 2 (Phoenix, Kansas)
What a difference a year makes. This time last season, Denny Hamlin was, to be honest, a mess. With three top 5s and six top 10s, coupled win a number of cryptic comments made during interviews that at best sounded whiney, Hamlin was still suffering the side-effects from his team’s 2010 implosion. Now with a new attitude and re-found mental toughness (and 2011 championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb making decisive calls), Hamlin has a pair of wins, and eight top-5 finishes. Those runs account for nearly all of his top 10s, and it must be noted that he has two DNFs in his last three races — courtesy of a fiery exit in Michigan and the front bumper of teammate Joey Logano at Sonoma. If Hamlin can keep from getting wrecked or exploding — and a TRD IED does not find its way between the fenders of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota — he will likely find himself in contention to win the title, as he was in 2010. This time, however, he will be better prepared mentally and strategically to contend.
6. Kevin Harvick Wins: 0
The driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet hasn’t had a lot to brag about this year — but he hasn’t had much to really complain about, either. Usually the first one to ride his crew if they make the smallest of errors, Harvick has achieved his position not so much with poise and audacity, but on reliability and finishing races. A smattering of eight top 10s and three top 5s is decent, but not exactly championship caliber. If Harvick were to have a catastrophic failure in the coming weeks — which would lose him say, 40 points — the impact would be significant, and could potentially drop him out of the top 10 in points. He’s gotten by on a number of eighth- to 14th-place runs, but if he’s to solidify his place in the Chase, the No. 29 operation as a whole needs to step it up on the track, in the pits and in the garage while prepping the car for Sunday.
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
7. Clint Bowyer Wins: 1 (Sonoma)
Not only do you see him every 15 minutes in a 5-Hour Energy or NASCAR.com commercial, you now see him up front, leading and winning races. Bowyer’s move to Michael Waltrip Racing was seen by many as a risky move, albeit one he was essentially forced into after he lost his ride in the No. 33 at RCR (despite winning a Nationwide title in 2008 and qualifying for the Chase three times in six seasons). With former RCR crew chief and competition director Scott Miller making the move to MWR as well, the performance of all involved has risen substantially. With six top 5s and nine top 10s, the occasional win, or at least contention for the win, is no longer an oddity. This, coupled with some veteran leadership from Mark Martin in a part-time arrangement in the No. 55, along with teammate Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 56 group, finds MWR becoming this generation’s — dare I say it? — RCR.
8. Martin Truex Jr. Wins: 0
Martin Truex Jr. is enjoying his best season in Cup competition since his 2007 rookie campaign when he won a race, made the Chase and ended the year 11th in points. Currently sitting in eighth position on the strength of four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes, Truex has been a key cog in the MWR Renaissance of 2012. However, there may be storm clouds on the horizon. Truex’s finishes have begun to waver, his eighth-place run at Kentucky ending a string of three races without a top 10. Now is not the time to mix inconsistency into the equation, particularly with the crapshoot that is a restrictor plate race at Daytona on the docket. While Truex is only 10 points out of fifth in the standings, he’s also less than 20 points from 10th. If he keeps the steady-as-she-goes performance trend and avoids any back-to-back disasters or mechanical maladies, he looks to be a safe bet to make the Chase field for the first time in five years.
9. Tony Stewart Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Fontana)
Towards the bottom of the top 10, we find a pair of drivers on the tail end of making the Chase, but who are arguably the most potent in the field. Tony Stewart has seven top-5 finishes and eight top 10s, but it is how he came to those numbers that are the most telling: two wins, back-to-back second-place runs and three third-place showings. Add in some mechanical woes by way of EFI foul ups, and you have created the crusty Tony of old the last couple of months. Quite possibly the only person in the country who was not cheering the Earnhardt victory in Michigan, Smoke has found that delicate balance of diplomacy and irritability that has guided him to three championships. Streaky performances be damned, he’s in prime position to add a fourth to the mix — half of which would be as an owner/driver, something not seen since The King’s heydays of the 1970s.
10. Brad Keselowski Wins: 3 (Bristol, Talladega, Kentucky)
The one driver barely clinging to top-10 status is also the lynchpin in the Chase scenario. Keselowski has won three races at three diametrically different tracks: Bristol, Talladega and Kentucky. Plate track, short track, intermediate — it doesn’t seem to matter where the Miller Lite Dodge goes, it can be a force to be reckoned with. It would appear that the strategy being employed by the No. 2 team is to focus on wins ahead of all else. Three of his top 5s are victories while the other two barely made it as fifth-place performances. His top 10s are then comprised of a pair of ninth-place finishes, with the rest being mid-teens or worse-than-30th finishes. The only DNF they suffered was post-Tweet at the Daytona 500 in February, and it was about this time last year that Keselowski made the transition from promising driver to leader and motivator following a broken ankle during a testing crash. It remains a mystery why Penske is leaving Dodge to join forces with Ford, what with the modest win totals of the two-car team over the last few seasons. However, it remains committed to its current manufacturer and stands to make some noise for the Mopar faithful if its flagship No. 2 team can avoid any calamities in the coming weeks. Of course, even a tumble out of the top 10 finds Keselowski in the catbird seat, with three-times the wins as anyone from 11th to 20th in the standings.
On the Outside Looking In
To think that Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch would be reduced to relative obscurity in October is nearly unfathomable, especially considering Edwards’ 2011 consistency, Gordon’s seemingly resurrected career with crew chief Alan Gustafson and Busch’s ability to hammer out wins in quick succession. However, all three have missed the Chase before, and they’re nearing the point of no return without some wins. Nine races remain before the Chase for the Championship begins in Chicago, and of the three, only Busch has a 2012 win. Edwards’ and Gordon’s teams have had both bad luck and bad calls that have kept them out of Victory Lane, while the engines supplied to the No. 18 from TRD have been straight up TuRDs, with three straight engine failures conspiring to drop Busch to 12th in points.
Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman all reside within the top 20, and each have one win. Among them, only Kahne has displayed any sort of consistent speed to threaten breaking into the top 10. Even if that happened, it would likely require Keselowski and Stewart to fall out. With The Big Keselowski having three wins and Smoke two, that would also require Logano and Newman to crank out a couple of more wins apiece if they were to qualify — not out of the realm of possibility, but certainly not expected.
Paul Menard, in 13th, will need to repeat last year’s Brickyard 400 triumph to have a shot at taking one of the two open wildcard spots, as he has yet to claim a win this year. Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton are over 100 points out of 10th and have struggled to find the top 10, much less score wins. Marcos Ambrose isn’t in much better shape, though a trip to Watkins Glen may get him back in the wildcard conversation.
Kenseth's departure, Roush's title chances and the next driver to score a win
Matt Kenseth in Victory Lane at Daytona. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The announcement that Matt Kenseth will leave Roush Fenway Racing after this season has been the talk of NASCAR. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council didn’t hold back on what they thought about the move on if it was good or bad for Roush and how this might impact Kenseth’s title hopes.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council also weighed in on Sunday’s race at Sonoma, who between 11th and 20th in the points will make the Chase and more. Here’s what they had to say.
KENSETH LEAVING A GOOD OR BAD MOVE FOR ROUSH?
68.3 percent called it a bad move for Roush trading a former champ for a Cup rookie 31.7 percent called it a good move, trading a 40-year-old for a 24-year-old in a nod to future
What Fan Council members said:
• Although I hate to see Matt Kenseth go, there are only so many cars that Jack Roush can put out there and if Ricky did not end up in a Cup car, then he may end up there with another team and that would be a bigger loss.
• Stenhouse will be a star. Cheaper for Roush as well. Kenseth can get on with Gibbs (if the rumors are true). WIN WIN for everyone.
• Ricky will never be as good as Matt. Matt is a great driver, has a wonderful sense of humor and he's humble. Put up against Matt, Ricky will never measure up.
• Bad move for no other reason than a continuation of the Roush mentality of abandoning career drivers for others. Nothing but money. Re: Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch. Jack Roush is a businessman that is dedicated to money, not his employees. His counter ego would appear to be Coach Gibbs.
• For the short run, I'd rather have Kenseth, but in the long run, Stenhouse will be an elite Cup driver.
• JACK HAS LOST HIS MIND. WOW what a mistake — just like some of the others Jack has made.
• As a die-hard Matt fan, I think it's a bad move and I blame it on the RFR sales department. Even in a down economy, it shouldn't be this hard to find sponsors for a championship-caliber driver on the track and a class individual off the track. Considering the same RFR sales department couldn't even sign any sponsors for Trevor Bayne after he won the 500 last year, I guess I shouldn't be surprised at their inability to do so (now).
• I can't believe the coldness with which a champion who is leading the points is dumped for a cheap, child driver. This is the same attitude toward employees that is killing this country. I'm sure Fenway had a big say in this.
• The financial environment is unwittingly making NASCAR more and more like major league sports with free agency. There is no loyalty any more, not that the teams wouldn't like to stay together, but because the finances don't work out. For whatever reason, Roush Fenway doesn't seem to be able to sell sponsorships well or at least at a level that permits them to field teams for their talent. Matt's ride this year was barely filled, and undoubtedly they all knew that sponsor commitments (or lack of) would make it impossible for RFR to pay him what his asking price was for next year.
• Kenseth is in position to win the championship and you're going to do that to him? That is beyond ridiculous. Stenhouse is a good driver with a bright future and there is no reason why they don't just bring back the fourth car since he apparently can get sponsorship and Trevor Bayne can't, which I don't understand, either.
• Stupid, stupid move on Roush's part! Wish Kenserh the best though ... as long as he doesn't go to Toyota!
• Nothing against Ricky, but if they cannot get Matt sponsorship for a full season who do they think will come aboard for a rookie with less talent?
• It's the only move Roush could make. Kenseth is going to command a very large new contract and Roush hasn't had a full slate of sponsors for him for a couple of years now. Kenseth can go to Gibbs and Home Depot and cash in and Roush can start his rebuild with a great young driver. I think Stenhouse is going to be a little like Tony Stewart: better in a more powerful Cup car than the Nationwide car. Those dirt guys love all that extra power. I think Kenseth will be a great asset at Gibbs as a calming influence, plus I think he might just have a title or two left in him. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
HOW WILL THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT KENSETH IS LEAVING AFTER THIS SEASON IMPACT HIS TITLE HOPES? Matt Kenseth noted on Twitter that he doesn't believe that announcing he'll leave the team after this season will hurt his title chances, noting crew chief Darian Gurbb knew he would not return with Tony Stewart last year and they won a title together. Fan Council members were asked what they thought.
51.6 percent said Kenseth’s titles chances will be unaffected 39.1 percent said Kenseth hurt his title chances 9.3 percent said Kenseth helped his title hopes since there will be a greater drive to win the title in the final year with the team
What Fan Council members said:
• I believe as long as his team believes in him and themselves he has just as much chance as anyone else to win the title.
• I think he could still go on to win it. But, just like contract talks, etc., at mid-season even though they "say” it doesn't affect them they always admit when it is over that it did. It has to. A NASCAR driver ain't no fry cook at McDonalds. This is big money and big impact at a high level.
• 1. A crew chief is not as public of a position as a driver. 2. Grubb's move wasn’t made public until AFTER the championship. 3. Grubb and Stewart didn't decide he was leaving until Charlotte IN THE CHASE. You can't tell me Biffle won't get better equipment knowing he'll be there next year. This may help Carl make the Chase now.
• Matt has always said over the years that he doesn't let front office issues (contracts, sponsorships, etc.) affect his racing, so I would like to think that would continue. Being the top-tier driver he is, it's not like he needs to worry about not being able to find a ride next year (even if a JGR agreement isn't already in place).
• Matt has gained the points lead during the most difficult point in his negotiations with Roush and his future team. The announcement has been made and Matt is liberated, free from care and any consternation, free to focus on his goal of winning the Sprint Cup.
• Grubb wasn't announced. It was all internal and there were no "extra" spotlights on Grubb/Stewart. ALL eyes will focus on ANY shift in performance with Kenseth the rest of the year. Stick a fork in his title hopes.
• Can anyone say “Quack, Quack!” This might not affect Matt right now, but once he announces where he is headed and then Roush starts uninviting him to team meetings, that is when you will see the effect.
• Solidarity amongst the entire team is necessary to win a title. What Tony Stewart did last year was super-human. I do not feel Matt Kenseth is of the same caliber of driver as Tony. I feel the driver leaving a team is more troubling than a crew chief.
• I still think the championship is going to come down to Johnson, Stewart and Kenseth this year. It might be tempting for Roush to play favorites and give Biffle some extra attention, but I don't think he will — Matt has been too important to Jack's company for him to do that. I think they will end this relationship in a classy way.
• I think what Matt said is totally right. Grubb knew he was out five races early and still ended up with the title, so it doesn't really matter. It may be a slight issue, especially since Matt's directly involved with where he goes, but not enough to distract him that bad. He is a championship driver still, even as a lame duck.
GRADE SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT SONOMA
47.3 percent called it Good 32.4 percent called it Fair 10.8 percent called it Great 9.5 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• My husband and I went to the race. I felt there was a lot of single-file racing, not a lot of action and got kind of bored during the race. Still liked being there, though.
• Typical road racing, very little passing or real racing. The only saving grace was Kurt Busch's valiant challenge near the end. Otherwise, completely sans drama or excitement.
• I had no problem with the race. Some will say it’s boring, but at least there was driving ability and strategy involved in this win.
• The race itself was good — if you don't count my driver's "genius crew chief" finding another way to lose a race. The TNT coverage, however, was an unmitigated disaster, capped by showing the GWC restart through the BACK of the grandstand. Seriously. They did that. I don't know how ANYONE would have found Sunday's telecast compelling.
• I thought the duel at the end between Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer was awesome. The rest of the race was so-so.
• I graded this race as fair just because for some reason there was no excitement. I'm not one that needs cautions or wrecks to have excitement but this race was just plain boring. But then again they all can’t be awesome all the time.
• I was there, and it was AWESOME!!
• Not crazy about road courses, but TNT's coverage just about ruined it all for me. Not quite sure about all that went on as they really showed none of what was happening. The lack of cautions and the bad luck my driver faced is making me rate this race as only “fair.”
• Had really high hopes for this race, but it turned out to be a real snoozer
• This was by far the WORST telecast of the season. Stuff was happening left and right and TNT completely ignored it or did a poor job presenting it. Even later on they would not go back to (or mention) important race happenings. Shame on you TNT. Thank goodness for Twitter so I actually knew what was going on with my driver and with the race.
Will Jeff Gordon be next? (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
WHO’S NEXT TO WIN? Nine drivers who won a race in 2011 have yet to win this year. Fan Council members were asked who among this group will win a race next?
48.2 percent said Jeff Gordon 29.9 percent said Kevin Harvick 14.0 percent said Carl Edwards 5.6 percent said Kurt Busch 1.7 percent said Marcos Ambrose 0.3 percent said Trevor Bayne 0.3 percent said Paul Menard
What Fan Council members said:
• Wow, I found this question to be very hard. I realize nothing hinges on my answer, but it really made me think about the list of drivers who did win last year and are having problems this year. And wow — what an impressive list. I picked Ku Busch but could have gone with Kevin Harvick. Just feel the luck factor for most of the others is all bad.
• I have to believe that the worst luck he has ever had has to come to an end and I say NOW would be the time. I believe Jeff Gordon — my sentimental favorite — wins next. He truly has had great cars and could have won races already.
• Wow, that's an interesting list. With the way most of these peoples’ seasons are going it's not looking too good. I would have to say Cousin Carl would be next on that list just because the way his teammates are running.
• I believe that Kevin Harvick will probably break into the winners circle next. I think he is going to start being more aggressive to get himself a win or two before the Chase starts.
• This is a tossup between Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. Both are running decent but bad luck seems to strike at the wrong moment. The first one to run a full race without any bad luck will win. Of course, what was Tony Stewart doing at this time last year?
• Jeff Gordon is due and has been running the best of these drivers, just has not had the finishes to show. He is a champ and will find victory lane. Next in line is Kevin Harvick, though that team still has some problems to iron out.
• I'm going with Kurt Busch for whatever tantrums he throws, he has proven he's a great driver and (Sunday) he was so close. Fingers crossed for him.
WHO WILL MAKE THE CHASE? Fan Council members were given a list of the drivers between 11th and 20th in the points and asked which ones would make the Chase.
60.9 percent said Kyle Busch 39.1 percent said Kasey Kahne 38.0 percent said Carl Edwards 29.0 percent said Jeff Gordon 22.2 percent said Ryan Newman 14.8 percent said Joey Logano 3.0 percent said Marcos Ambrose 2.0 percent said Paul Menard 1.7 percent said Jeff Burton 1.0 percent said Jamie McMurray
What Fan Council members said:
• Kyle and Carl are drivers who have been able to step it up in the past, and they don't have as far to go as the others.
• It might be wishful thinking, but I believe Joey Logano will continue to put up top-5 results and inch his way into the Chase. I believe Kasey Kahne will win another race or two and get the wild card spot. Kyle Busch may also make the Chase if JGR can calm the engine issues and allow him to put in some quality performances.
• Carl and Kyle are givens, and Joey will be fighting for his job and will slip right in on wins.
• I see Ryan Newman getting in. I hope Jeff Burton can get in the top 10 as well.
• I'm not sure ANY of them will make it into the top 10; it is going to come down to those wild card wins.
• Truex will fall out and Edwards will get in. Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon get in via the wild card.
• I'll go with Kahne and Newman because they each have a win and one more would essentially lock them in. Edwards is hungover from last year, in my opinion.
• I like Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch to make it. I know Kahne has fallen off a bit since his win in the Coke 600, but he has a lot of good tracks coming up and I see him getting at least one more win before the Chase. As for Kyle Busch, he is the kind of guy who can get it done anywhere. Once they figure out there engine woes, I see Kyle getting to victory lane and possible in the top 10.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
We’ve said all along that Earnhardt’s consistency warranted the top spot, but a lack of any wins kept him from it. Well, the 143-race national nightmare is over, and Junior can now lead the way.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Replace the engine and start in the rear of the field? No problem for Chad Knaus and crew. They just handed the ball to J.J., who drove it to a fifth-place finish with blistered tires and an empty gas tank.
3. Matt Kenseth
Third-place runs at Dover and Michigan bookend a seventh at Pocono. Kenseth maintains his lead in the point standings heading to Sonoma, where neither he nor Earnhardt are ... well, good.
4. Greg Biffle
Looked to be the class of the field on Sunday until lap 70, when Earnhardt took to the point and Biffle’s handling went away just slightly. Still, a fourth-place finish works in the grand scheme of things.
No truth to rumor Nick Cage was driving. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
5. Denny Hamlin
Denny “Ghost Rider” Hamlin’s day went up in a blaze of glory after an accident on lap 134 at Michigan, capping an awful day for Joe Gibbs Racing.
6. Tony Stewart
Continuing his roller-coaster type trend, Stewart records runs of third and second following consecutive 25th-place finishes. It’s all about the Chase, right Smoke?
7. Clint Bowyer
In 15 events, Bowyer and his Michael Waltrip Racing team have 12 finishes between fourth and 13th. Not bad considering it’s a bunch with a new crew chief and driver.
8. Brad Keselowski
Has averaged a 12.6-place finish in the five races since his Talladega win. It wasn’t until this time last season that his Penske Racing team really started to take off.
9. Kevin Harvick
His season has mirrored Tony Stewart’s 2011 run thus far: Nothing splashy, zero wins, very few laps led. That said, he’s still sixth in points and as we all know, it’s all about performing in the Chase.
10. Kasey Kahne
His seven-race top-10 streak has come “crashing” down to the tune of 29th- and 33rd-place finishes. Not that it matters if you don’t finish, but his 7.5-place average starting spot is best on circuit.
11. Martin Truex Jr.
Free-agent-to-be is making a strong case for his services in 2013.
12. Carl Edwards
Free-agent-that-was made a strong case for his services last year but has failed to deliver in 2012.
13. Joey Logano
Keeping with the free agent theme, will Logano’s Pocono win convince JGR to re-sign him?
14. Jeff Gordon
Top 10s every three or four weeks won’t get Gordon anywhere near the Chase.
15. Kyle Busch
Hard to blame engine issues on the driver. JGR needs to iron out some things at the shop.
Just off the lead pack: Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
From the mountains of Pennsylvania to the rolling hills of Michigan, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400.
Racing on yet another repaved track, teams have two test sessions throughout the day on Thursday as they attempt to get acclimated with the new track surface, the higher speeds and how tires will react.
This is another great opportunity for NASCAR fantasy racers, as drivers will be in and out of the media center throughout the day providing insight that could go a long way when making your final lineup decisions.
While all teams will have the opportunity to hit the track for an extra day of testing, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya conducted a two-day tire test in April. Each of the drivers complimented the new surface's grip and indicated speeds were among the fastest they have experienced.
“This place is fast. I mean fast, fast,” Montoya said following the test session. “Our minimum speed this morning was over 180 mph through the corner when you think about it. We are doing easily over 210 mph at the end of the straight.”
Teams have backed that up as of mid-morning on Thursday, as drivers were clicking off average lap times of 200-plus mph. For perspective, Martin Truex Jr. was recorded at 218 mph going into Turn 1.
Already in the backyard of team owner Jack Roush and Ford Motor Company, the additional test in April should pay huge dividends for the current points leader, Kenseth.
Kenseth calls Michigan one of his “favorite tracks throughout the season,” and has two wins, 11 top 5s and 16 top 10s in 25 starts there. Veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig admits he has little use of the mountains of notes compiled prior to the April test session — instead, he will fall back on what they learned over that two-day period.
“There was a ton of grip, and I assume it would be a little faster as the track gets dusted off and rubbered in, so speeds should pick up a bit,” Kenseth said. “When we were in race trim, we were almost four seconds faster than we were racing last year, which is quite a difference.”
Taking the points lead for the first time since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Kenseth enters this weekend with a 10-point advantage of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For Earnhardt, the arduous task of ending his 143-winless streak returns to the site of his last victory. Coming off one of his strongest performances to date in Hendrick equipment at Pocono last week, Earnhardt and the No. 88 team head to Michigan with Victory Lane at their fingertips.
After leading 36 laps and finishing eighth last week, the frustration was clear on Earnhardt's face after he climbed from the car. Do not mistake this frustration as that of years past, though. Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led team are one of the most consistent teams in the series right now — with a circuit-best 11 top 10s this season — yet the one thing eluding them is a win.
Since his ’08 win, Earnhardt has only one top 5 and two top 10s on the two-mile D-shaped oval, with three consecutive finishes of 14th or worse. However, with the new racing surface, teams have thrown out their notes from previous years. While the No. 88 team did not take part in the April tire test, Hendrick’s No. 24 did, which may pay dividends.
That fact might have been evident in Thursday's test session, as Earnhardt was one of the fastest cars of the day, topping 200 mph (more than six mph faster than Ryan Newman's qualifying record set in 2005).
Other drivers to consider as favorites this weekend are Keselowski, the hometown hero, two-time Michigan winner Gordon, and Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards.
Five Favorites: Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards
The last time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was in Michigan, it was Kyle Busch that survived a green-white-checker finish to score the win. Busch has suffered from inconsistency over the years at MIS, but finished third and first in both races last year, leading a combined 81 laps.
Coming off consecutive engine failures at Dover and Pocono, Busch fell three spots to 12th in the series standings. While it is certainly not time to panic, Busch and the No. 18 team would be a lot more comfortable racing through the summer stretch inside the top 10 in points. Busch was also among the fastest cars in Thursday's test session.
Michigan has been known to be tough on engines, so be mindful of Joe Gibbs Racing's powerplant issues of late and chose carefully.
After slipping up in the final laps last week in Pocono, veteran Mark Martin heads to Michigan looking for another solid run. With 52 starts at MIS, Martin should be a threat again this weekend as he has five wins, 18 top 5s and 31 top 10s, giving him the seventh-best average finish among active drivers. And he — like many — was fast on Thursday, being the first to break the 201 mph barrier.
Much like Busch, however, Martin and his Toyota engines have suffered from issues throughout the year. In his 11 starts this season, Martin has had two engine failures, at Kansas and Charlotte.
It is hard to imagine five-time champion Jimmie Johnson could be an undervalued pick in any sense of the imagination. However, Michigan is one of only five tracks the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has yet to win. Despite having the 10th-best average finish, Johnson has come up short in each of his 20 starts here — and on a couple of occasions, coming up short has meant running out of fuel on the final lap.
Last June, Johnson struggled here, starting 21st, failing to lead a lap and coming home 27th. When the series returned in August, though, Johnson drove from a 19th starting spot up to a second-place finish, leading 18 laps in the process. Over the course of his last seven Michigan starts, Johnson has only two top-10 finishes, but has led an impressive 323 laps.
Kevin Harvick also enters this weekend's race as an undervalued pick. The Richard Childress Racing driver has the ninth-best average finish at Michigan, but was fast in Thursday's morning test session, breaking the 200 mph barrier.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman
Martin Truex Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
Throughout the 2012 season, Martin Truex Jr. has been within reach of Victory Lane, only to come up short. Coming off a hard-fought 20th-place finish at Pocono, Truex enters this weekend's race looking for consistency. After a solid start to the year, the No. 56 team has three finishes of 20th or worse in its last six events.
Despite his lackluster performance over the years at Michigan, Truex has been solid on the intermediate tracks this season. Not to mention, he was among the cars quick in Thursday's morning test session, joining Harvick in the plus-200 club.
Truex's Michael Waltrip Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer, has quietly worked his way into the top 10 in the series standings thanks to consistent runs. Coming off a fifth at Dover and a sixth at Pocono, Bowyer is looking for that breakout run that could jumpstart his season and make him a contender. Although he struggled in his early years at Michigan, Bowyer finished eighth in both races last season.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard, Kurt Busch
Much like last week, fantasy racers have a bit of an advantage this week thanks to Thursday's two test sessions on the repaved oval. As mentioned earlier, speeds were well over the track record in the morning session. While teams may be experimenting with a few things on Thursday, others are getting a head start on the weekend and practicing as normal. Check the speed charts from both sessions and keep an eye to the driver comments throughout the day for the best information. Be sure to take advantage of the extra day on the track before setting your lineup.
Best Average Finish at Michigan (Wins):
1. Carl Edwards — 8.2 (2)
2. Matt Kenseth — 9.5 (2)
3. Jeff Gordon — 11.4 (2)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (1)
5. Denny Hamlin — 12.1 (2)
6. Greg Biffle — 12.8 (2)
7. Mark Martin — 13.3 (5)
8. Brian Vickers — 14.9 (1)
9. Kevin Harvick — 15.0 (1)
10. Jimmie Johnson — 15.2 (0)
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Pocono 400
Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. (ASP, Inc.)
This week has certainly been an interesting one in the world of NASCAR.
Jimmie Johnson scored his seventh career Dover win on Sunday, tying him with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the most all-time wins at the Monster Mile. Kurt Busch was suspended for this weekend's race at Pocono after threatening Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass following Saturday's Nationwide Series race, also at Dover. Testing got underway on the freshly repaved Pocono Raceway, with Mark Martin leading the way on Wednesday. Kyle Busch won Wednesday night's Prelude to the Dream charity race at Eldora Speedway.
While much of the focus this week has centered around off-track news, it is time to put that aside and look ahead to this weekend's race a the Tricky Triangle.
With testing taking place Wednesday and Thursday, fantasy NASCAR players get a rare early glimpse of what teams are getting a handle on the freshly re-paved track.
To no one’s surprise, speeds have been much higher with the new pavement and tire combination provided by Goodyear. Martin’s top speed on Wednesday was 175.380 mph, while AJ Allmendinger was quickest in Thursday morning's session. Allmendinger's speed of 177.190 mph was nearly five miles per hour faster than the track record of 172.533 set in 2004 by Kasey Kahne.
“You never know what to expect when a race track gets paved,” Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton said on Wednesday. “This pavement is unbelievably nice, smooth. The quality of racing is going to be improved a great deal. [But] it’s still Pocono. It still has the same characteristics and the personality of Pocono, but just has more grip.”
AJ Allmendinger, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kahne, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top 10 speeds on Wednesday.
Keep an eye on the speed charts from Thursday's two test sessions, and even more so on Friday, when the Cup teams will enjoy nearly three hours worth of track time in both qualifying and race trim.
As Burton mentioned, the new pavement might have added more grip, but it is the same old Pocono. One of the trickiest tracks on the schedule, drivers and teams will have to setup their cars so they work through each of the track's three unique corners.
The same old Pocono also means Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon are three drivers to keep atop your list of fantasy favorites.
Coming off his second win of the season, Johnson and his No. 48 team are the hottest thing on the NASCAR circuit. While the championship battle is still many months ahead, the five-time champ seems to be preparing for a sixth title run.
Johnson also holds the best average finish at Pocono (9.0) with two wins, eight top 5s and 14 top 10s in 20 starts. The No. 48 car was third fastest in Wednesday's test session, so expect him to be among the front-runners come Sunday afternoon.
Whenever the series rolls into Pocono, Hamlin is also one of the drivers to beat. After sweeping the races in his rookie year, Hamlin has gone on to record a total of four wins on the 2.5-mile triangle. He has the second-best average finish (9.7) with seven top 5s and eight top 10s in 12 starts.
Like Johnson, Hamlin also has two wins this season, putting him fourth in the standings. With some security in his spot in the Chase, Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb are focused on scoring bonus points for wins and there is perhaps no better place for them to accomplish that than at Pocono.
If Hamlin wants to score his third win of the season, he'll have to best veteran Jeff Gordon, among others. Gordon has the third-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Pocono, with five wins, 17 top 5s and 27 top 10s in 38 starts.
Currently mired in a season plagued by bad luck, Gordon heads to Pocono on a mission to turn his season around and knock the monkey off his back. The No. 24 car was strong last Sunday in Dover, but a loose lug nut and a poorly-timed caution ruined any chance at a solid finish. If Gordon can avoid the poor luck that has been chasing him all season, expect the four-time champion to have a solid day on Sunday.
Also keep an eye on the ageless Martin and last August's Pocono winner Brad Keselowski.
As previously stated, Martin led the way in Wednesday's test session and has the fourth-best average finish (11.2) at Pocono, but the veteran has never been to Victory Lane.
Keselowski already has two wins this season, but is currently 11th in the standings. Look for him to try and work his way into the top 10 in points for the first time this season. Keselowski won here last August.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski
Kevin Harvick. #GrewOne (ASP, Inc.)
Although he has yet to win in Pocono, Kevin Harvick has always produced solid results on the 2.5-mile tri-oval. With the eighth-best average finish (14.0), Harvick has five top 5s and eight top 10s in 22 starts. In his last four Pocono starts, the driver of the No. 29 Chevy has three top 5s and finished 14th last August. Harvick was fourth-fastest in Wednesday's test session.
While Dover might be considered Martin Truex Jr.’s home track, Pocono Raceway is not far from his native New Jersey. Truex enters this weekend's race sixth in points, but still looking for that elusive win. With the 10th-best average finish (15.3) here, Truex has results of 12th or better in his last three races at Pocono. While he may not score the win, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver could lead to some solid fantasy points at the end of the day.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle
Another driver that could earn some strong fantasy points this weekend is Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard, who has only one top 10 at Pocono, but has four finishes of 16th or better in his last four starts.
Menard was able to score three top-10 finishes early in the 2012 season, but has run 13th to 18th over the last seven races. Do not expect Menard to be scoring his first win of the season, but he could easily have a strong day and provide some quality fantasy points.
Also keep an eye on Juan Pablo Montoya. In his last six Pocono starts, Montoya has four top-10 finishes, including a second in 2009. The driver of the No. 42 was seventh in last June's race, but finished 32nd when the series returned in August. With the new pavement, Montoya had the 10th-fastest time in Wednesday's test session. Sitting 20th in points, Montoya is looking to turn his season around before heading into the long summer months leading to the Chase.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer
Again, be sure to take advantage of the two days of testing leading up to this weekend's action at Pocono. It is a rare treat for NASCAR fantasy participants to get an early glimpse of who is fast, who is struggling, and who to watch out for on Sunday. With no testing being televised, check the speed charts and hold off until Friday’s Happy Hour session is complete before setting set your lineup.
Best Average Finish at Pocono (Wins):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 9.0 (2)
2. Denny Hamlin — 9.7 (4)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.2 (5)
4. Mark Martin — 11.2 (0)
5. Tony Stewart — 11.8 (2)
6. Ryan Newman — 12.7 (1)
7. Carl Edwards — 13.8 (2)
8. Kevin Harvick — 14.0 (0)
9. Matt Kenseth — 14.2 (0)
10. Martin Truex Jr. — 15.3 (0)
NASCAR fined Kurt Busch $50,000 on Tuesday for his actions toward the end and after Saturday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington.
Busch was one of three people fined and one of four people placed on probation.
NASCAR put Busch on probation until July 25, citing Busch for “reckless driving on pit road during the race’’ and for being involved in an altercation with another competitor after the race.
Busch’s reckless driving on pit road was for shooting through Ryan Newman’s pits after a stop late in the race. Newman’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, said that his pit crew had “to jump out of the way ... and try not to get hit.”
After the race, Busch ran into Newman’s car on pit road. Newman told SI.com that Busch said it was an accident and it happened as he was taking off his helmet.
“I’m pretty sure there were 42 other guys that are taking their helmets off and doing whatever for the last 10 years and that’s the first time that’s happened to me. Circumstances, I think, are that he lied and was so frustrated that he doesn’t know how to deal with his anger.”
As for when Busch fired out of his pit stall late in the race, Newman told SI.com: “I’m not sure why [Busch] did it and tried to run over our guys and NASCAR officials. And nobody is. I think the chemical imbalance speaks for itself.”
Busch will be on probation for the All-Star Race, along with the Coca-Cola 600 and races at Dover, Pocono, Michigan, Sonoma, Kentucky, Daytona and New Hampshire. Provided he has no other issues, his probation would end before Indianapolis.
NASCAR also issued other penalties for an incident after the race between the teams.
• NASCAR fined Newman’s gas man, Andrew Rueger, $5,000 and placed him on probation until June 27 for failing to comply with a directive from a NASCAR official.
• NASCAR placed Gibson on probation until June 27 since the crew chief assumes responsibility for the actions of his team members.
• NASCAR fined Craig Strickler, Busch’s motorcoach driver, $5,000 and placed him on probation until Dec. 31 for interfering with a member of the broadcast media.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
TEST PASSED Danica Patrick didn’t crash and she didn’t wreck anyone else. While it wasn’t easy, she made it through a full weekend at Darlington, running a total of 635 laps between her Sprint Cup and Nationwide cars in races, practices and qualifying.
She admitted that she isn’t as comfortable running beside the wall and it was evident that her line through the corners during the Cup race was half a car width further from the wall than many drivers at times.
Still, she made it through the weekend. For those who questioned why car owner Tony Stewart wanted her to run one of her 10 Cup races this year at that track since the series runs there only once a year, the answer is simple. It’s difficult. Very difficult. She’s going to face this challenge at some time, so she might as well do it now.
“I accomplished all the things I wanted to accomplish,’’ Patrick said after finishing 31st in the Cup race, six laps behind the leaders. “Things went good on the Nationwide side. Here on the Cup side, my goals were to be respectable out there. I think I held my own alright. And, the other one was to finish, and both of those things happened. I will be much less worried coming back to this place.
“I definitely got a feel for all the elements. Starts, restarts and pitting, obviously I made a mistake there; and all that stuff. Just how to get runs on cars. What to do when the car feels a certain way. Which lines to take, and to accommodate for the car and how it feels.”
Said Stewart, her Cup car owner: “What she did in these two days is hard to do. To have the result, the way she ran (in the Nationwide race, finishing 12th), I’m sure I’ll get a chance to watch more of what she did after we get home. The time I was around, got to watch, she did a really good job.”
PROPER MENTALITY Denny Hamlin on what type of mentality a driver has to have for this weekend’s All-Star race: “Bulldog. You have to be just a guy that puts it all on the line. Nowadays, more than ever, the All-Star Race — teams pretty much take disposable cars that they know there’s a good chance it’s not going to come back.
“The driver’s mentality is that it’s all for money, so there’s nothing to lose. It takes someone who’s willing to drive 100 percent qualifying lap every single lap. Those are the guys that are usually successful in winning.”
NATIONWIDE DEBUT Darrell Wallace Jr., who has been a part of the Drive for Diversity program, will make his Nationwide debut this weekend at Iowa Speedway driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“The goals have to be just kind of running up front, hopefully making a name for myself, running top 10,” Wallace said.
SILENT TREATMENT Kevin Harvick was asked if he ever talked to Kyle Busch about their incident in last year’s Southern 500 that led to a post-race pit road altercation. Harvick said: “I don’t talk about Kyle or to Kyle.”
PIT STOPS Martin Truex Jr.’s fifth-place finish at Darlington was his fourth top-five finish of the season. He had only three top-five results last season. ... Five drivers have won the All-Star Race and series title in the same season: Darrell Waltrip (1985), Dale Earnhardt (1987, ’90, ’93), Rusty Wallace (1989), Jeff Gordon (1995, ’97, 2001) and Jimmie Johnson (2006). ... Jeff Gordon is 24th in the points. He’s one point behind Mark Martin, who has skipped three races this season.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Richmond
Denny Hamlin (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits Richmond International Raceway for some good ol’ fashioned short track racing in the hopes of putting on an exciting race — something many fans are clamoring for after a dull month. Typically one of the more action-packed tracks on the schedule, Richmond has averaged 10.8 cautions since 2007 and last year's September race saw a total of 15 yellow flag periods.
In short, expect more action Saturday night under the lights in the Capital City 400 than the last five weeks combined.
Sunday's race in Kansas primarily featured green flag racing, yet came down to a good battle to the checkered flag. Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. was the dominant car on the day, leading 173 of the 267 laps.
However, Denny Hamlin and his Darian Grubb-led crew were in position in the end to jump out front with 31 laps to go. Clearly the best car of the day, Truex's Toyota didn't work well on the final set of tires, allowing Hamlin to take advantage.
This weekend, the Virginian driver-crew chief duo head to their home state with momentum, confidence and the advantage of two race wins already under their belts.
To say Hamlin considers Richmond his home track would be quite the understatement. Hamlin is from nearby Midlothian, the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown is held at RIR and he has two wins, six top 5s and eight top 10s in 12 Sprint Cup starts on the three-quarter mile oval. He is also the defending champion of the Nationwide Series race, a title he will attempt to defend this weekend.
Hitting its stride early in the season, the No. 11 team is fifth in points, with two wins, three top 5s and four top 10s through the first eight races. Hamlin has been the class of the JGR field in 2012, a trend that will continue this weekend in Richmond.
With an average finish of 7.6 at RIR, plus the momentum from last week's win and the excitement of heading back to Virginia, Hamlin, Grubb and the No. 11 crew are this week's overwhelming fantasy favorites.
Frustrated on missing out on last week’s win, Truex's disappointment is a testament to how far the No. 56 NAPA team has come. Throughout the first part of the season, the group has been on its game, as it sits second in points with three top 5s and six top 10s in the first eight races while chasing a winless drought that dates back to June 2007.
While Truex’s results are not noteworthy at RIR through his two seasons with MWR — he has only one top 10 (seventh, 2010) — he and the team are running well regardless of track at the moment. Given the strong start, Truex could disappoint Hamlin's hometown crowd Saturday night by cashing in on the win that is coming.
Also keep an eye on Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch. Currently 14th in points, Busch has not had the greatest of starts to the season. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has only one top 5 and three top 10s to go along with three finishes of 23rd or worse.
Busch holds the best average finish of any active driver at RIR (5.0), with three wins, 11 top 5s and 12 top 10s in 14 starts. Dating back to ’09, Busch has won each of the spring races and is looking to continue that trend Saturday night. In fact, Busch has never finished worse than fifth (2006) in the spring race at RIR.
Five Favorites: Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart
The Hendrick Motorsports brigade has been hot on the heels of that elusive 200th win for team owner Rick Hendrick of late. Unable to capture the historic win over the last 14 races, they’ll soldier on at Richmond this weekend.
HMS has 10 Cup wins at Richmond, the last of which came in 2008 when Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag. Since then, Hendrick cars have been shut out of Victory Lane, but perennial fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. could fly under the radar this weekend and end two winless streaks that many fans would like to see come to an end.
Earnhardt has three wins on the short track in Richmond, but has struggled to produce the results of late. Since his last win in ’06, Earnhardt has only on top-5 finish and nine finishes of 15th or worse. Yet, the No. 88 team has been one of the best Hendrick cars throughout the early part of the 2012 season. Fourth in points, Earnhardt appears to be on the verge of snapping a winless skid that dates back to June 2008 nearly ever week. Running well seems to have rekindled a fire in both Earnhardt and the No. 88 team, led by crew chief Steve Letarte.
Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick enters Saturday night's race as the last driver to win on the .75-mile short track. The No. 29 team has had a solid — not flashy — start to the 2012 season, with a worst finish of 19th in Martinsville.
Aggressive short-track racing fits perfectly into “Happy” Harvick's style. Richmond illustrates that fact, as Harvick has enjoyed two wins, six top 5s, 14 top 10s and only two finishes of 25th or worse in 22 starts here.
Five Undervalued Picks: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson
Harvick's RCR teammate, Jeff Burton, also bears watching. The Virginia native will make his 36th career start at the track down the road from his hometown of South Boston. Throughout his career, Burton has one win, nine top 5s and 15 top 10s for an average finish of 14.8 at RIR.
Of late, Burton has struggled to produce solid results at Richmond, with his last top-5 finish coming in 2010. The veteran has also struggled throughout the start of the 2012 season, finishing 22nd or worse in five of the first eight races. After a 20th-place finish in last year's standings — his worst since 1995 — Burton was optimistic coming into the new season, especially working with new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. However, things have not gone according to plan, and now is the time this team can hit its stride at tracks like Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte.
Stewart-Haas Racing's Ryan Newman has also put up fairly consistent numbers at Richmond in his 20 Cup starts. His lone Cup Series win at RIR came in 2003, but he has eight finishes of 11th or better in the last 10 events at the track.
Already a race winner this year, Newman is gunning for more bonus points to secure a Wild Card spot (at the least) in the Chase. After taking the Grandfather clock in Martinsville, the No. 39 team has finished 21st (Texas) and 20th (Kansas). Look for a return to a short track to be kind on Saturday.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jeff Burton, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger, Joey Logano
Best Average Finish at Richmond (Wins):
1. Kyle Busch — 5.0 (3)
2. Denny Hamlin — 7.6 (2)
3. Clint Bowyer — 10.5 (1)
4. Tony Stewart — 10.9 (3)
5. Kevin Harvick — 11.5 (2)
6. Ryan Newman — 11.6 (1)
7. Mark Martin — 12.2 (1)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.4 (3)
9. Jeff Gordon — 14.5 (2)
10. Jeff Burton — 14.8 (1)
It’s been nearly two weeks since Bruton Smith said that he would order changes to Bristol Motor Speedway’s track surface after a sharp decline in attendance for the spring race and an increase in fan complaints about the racing. Yet Smith has yet to announce what those changes will be made before NASCAR returns to the half-mile track in a little more than four months.
“I think it would be incredible if they paved the track asphalt,’‘ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I am not sure if that would work out but it would be awesome to try it.’’
Any changes to Bristol’s surface before the August race will mean the Cup Series will race at four tracks that have been changed since last season. Kansas Speedway is set to be repaved after its race later this month. Michigan has been repaved and drivers nearly topped 215 mph at a recent Goodyear tire test there. Pocono Raceway also has been repaved and has Goodyear tire test scheduled for April 24-25.
While some drivers are thrilled that Smith will change Bristol — count Kevin Harvick among that group who says, “It’s about time,’’ — Denny Hamlin wonders if the tires should be changed for Bristol instead of the track.
“If you look at Bristol, it had the least amount of fall off of any tire that we had during this year,’’ Hamlin said. “I think you start off around 16.40 fast time (seconds per lap) and you ended 100 laps later running 16.90s. That's just not enough fall off.
“You have to have overtaking and to have overtaking, you have to have cars that are running faster than others. If you look at any point during a Bristol race, everyone's running the same exact speed and you're not going to have any overtaking. You're not going to have any wrecks because no one's running close to each other to wreck.
“Back in the day when people used to lap the whole field and no one complained about the racing, it's because overtaking was happening. Cars were getting passed. You could watch your guy move from 15th to wherever up to the front. Now, it's like he's got to make all the room, all the space up in the first five laps of a restart and then he sits there for the rest of the run. That's because we don't have enough fall-off.
“It's a tough job to make a tire that does that and will live and ultimately not put our safety at risk of blowing tires. Really, Goodyear has made tires that are idiot proof now. We can't abuse them enough to blow them out. That's why you don't see the passing that we used to have."
Even with Smith’s declaration of change, as Carl Edwards notes, it doesn’t guarantee that things will be better.
“The thing that makes me nervous for Bruton and those guys is to spend all this money to change something and then it may not yield the result that you want,’’ Edwards said. “I think that’s the risk they take, but Bruton Smith seems like he doesn’t mind taking risks and going for it. If it works out like most things he does, it’ll probably work, but I give him a ton of credit for saying he’s gonna change this and make an adjustment.’’
It’s just a matter of what Smith will do.
BACK AT ROCKINGHAM It’s not often that you see NASCAR return to a venue it left, but the Camping World Truck Series will compete Sunday at Rockingham Speedway. It marks the return of NASCAR since the Cup series last raced there in Feb. 2004.
NASCAR is back because of the work of track owner Andy Hillenburg, a former racer. He’s spent the money to update the facilities and add SAFER barriers to the track.
Now it’s up to the fans to determine if NASCAR returns to Rockingham after this race. If attendance is strong and shows potential, then maybe a Nationwide race can be added at some point. Just don’t expect the Cup Series to return there. With Cup races in Darlington, Charlotte, Martinsville and Bristol, the region has enough Cup events.
If that’s not good enough, then fans have to ask themselves if they would rather see some NASCAR racing at the track or see as much NASCAR racing as there is at North Wilkesboro?
NASCAR is giving the track and fans a second chance. Will fans take NASCAR up on it and show that the track deserves more races?
Jeff Burton (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
A DRIVER’S TRACK? There’s often the discussion about what is a driver’s track — or at least why some tracks might be considered a driver’s track. Jeff Burton, though, has his own take on the subject.
“Wherever a driver is good at that is what he thinks is a driver’s race track,’’ Burton said. “He thinks that is where drivers matter. The fact of the matter is that drivers matter everywhere. And the cars matter everywhere. You can’t take apart the car and the driver and say “it’s this or it’s that’.
“The reason why is to get the car to do what it needs to do, the driver has to be part of that. The way he drives the car, how he drives the car, and how he communicates with the team. All those things go into making a good racecar, and all those things go into making a good set up. So that communication with the team along with the driver is vital. You really can’t separate it.’’
PIT STOPS In his last two races, Jeff Gordon started 21st at Auto Club Speedway and climbed to fourth before pit road issues, including a penalty that led to a 26th-place finish in the rain-shortened event. Then, Gordon led a race-high 329 laps, lost the lead on a restart and ran out of fuel and finished 14th at Bristol. ... Kevin Harvick has an average finish of 9.0 in the first six races. It’s the second-best start of his career. He had an average finish of 7.83 in 2008. ... Kurt Busch will drive for younger brother Kyle’s Nationwide team in Friday night’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. It’s the first time Kurt has driven for Kyle in NASCAR. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. also is doing double-duty at Texas Motor Speedway. He’ll drive in Friday night’s Nationwide race and Saturday night’s Cup race. It’s the first time he’s run in both events at Texas since 2009.