Predicting the best fantasy drivers in California so you don't have to.
Twitter masters. And not bad in Cali, either. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads back out west for the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Auto Club — or California, if you prefer — ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Why would you take anyone else this week? He has 10 consecutive top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway (average finish of 3.3 during that stretch) and has led laps in each of those races. He had an average finish of 3.0 in the first three races of the season and was headed for another top 10 before a blown tire sent him into the wall late at Bristol last week.
2. Matt Kenseth
He’s why you might want to pick someone else. Kenseth won at Las Vegas two weeks ago in the first test of the new car at a track where horsepower and aerodynamics matter (just like Auto Club Speedway). He had a teammate finish in the top five at Vegas, showing the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing on the big tracks. He’s also led more miles (323) than any other driver this season.
3. Brad Keselowski
Then again, there’s this guy. Keselowski has not finished worse than fourth in any of the first four races this season, collecting a bevy of points for those who put him on their team. He’s also led laps in each race this year.
4. Kasey Kahne
Finished second at Las Vegas and then won at Bristol. Has shown speed this season and that’s a good sign for Auto Club where he’s finished 14th, ninth and fourth in his last three starts.
5. Kevin Harvick
Has five consecutive top-10 finishes at this track, including a win in 2011 when he passed Johnson on the last lap.
6. Tony Stewart
Rallied late to finish 11th at Las Vegas after his car was awful in the first half of the race. Never had a chance at Bristol with a flat tire that sent him into the wall early. Needs a strong race this weekend and he’s coming to the right track. He’s won two of the last three at Auto Club.
7. Clint Bowyer
Both top-10 finishes this season have come at tracks one mile or less. Although he finished 27th at Las Vegas, his teammates placed eighth and 14th, showing that Michael Waltrip Racing could have some success at Auto Club.
8. Denny Hamlin
The center of controversy the past two weeks (NASCAR fine, Joey Logano dust-up), Auto Club has presented mixed results. He won the pole last year but has finished outside the top 10 in three of his last four races there.
9. Jeff Gordon
Was the only Hendrick driver who struggled at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Was never a factor, finishing 25th. Misfortune struck at Bristol, blowing a tire and crashing while leading. Needs a strong run or risks falling further behind the leaders in the points, but he’s finished 18th or worse in three of his last four starts in Fontana.
1. Kyle Busch
Finished fourth at Las Vegas and led 27 laps, showing the strength of a team with a new car in its first race at a big track. Also has been good at Auto Club Speedway, finishing in the top three the past two years there. Overall, he has six top-five finishes in 15 career starts.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has finished in the top 10 in each of the first four races of the season for the first time in his career, rewarding those who have put him on their team. Placed seventh at Las Vegas but knew they were a little off compared to the leaders. Will he close the gap this week? He finished third in Fontana last year.
3. Carl Edwards
Finished fifth at Las Vegas and now comes to a track where he’s placed in the top 5 in seven of his 15 career starts, one of the best marks among active drivers.
4. Martin Truex Jr.
Placed eighth at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Has finished in the top 10 in 10 of the last 11 races at non-restrictor-plate tracks of 1.5-miles and larger since last season.
5. Mark Martin
Back after taking Bristol off. Started third last year and finished 12th at Auto Club.
6. Ryan Newman
Has finished seventh or better in his last three starts in Fontana. When he’s made it to the finish he’s placed in the top 10 this season, but that’s happened only twice. In the other two races he was eliminated because of an accident or a blown engine.
7. Joey Logano
Certainly ran better than he finished at Bristol. He thought he was better than his 12th-place finish at Las Vegas but a pit road speeding penalty hurt him there. Can he avoid trouble and show where he can finish?
8. Kurt Busch
His fourth-place finish at Bristol last week was only the fourth top-five finish for Furniture Row Racing in 203 career starts. Busch has four top 10s in his last six starts at Auto Club Speedway, including a ninth-place finish in last year’s rain-shortened event with the underfunded Phoenix Racing team.
9. Greg Biffle
Auto Club Speedway has not been the best place for him. Although he finished sixth last year, he has placed outside the top 10 in eight of the last 12 races there.
10. Paul Menard
This marks the fourth consecutive year he’s been in the top 10 in points after four races — the only driver to accomplish that feat. Was 10th at Las Vegas, but Auto Club has not been as good to him. He’s never finished in the top 10 in 10 starts at the 2-mile oval.
11. Aric Almirola
Placed 16th at Las Vegas two weeks ago. He and Richard Petty Motorsports have shown greater success on the bigger tracks, going back to the end of last season.
12. Marcos Ambrose
Has finished between 18th and 22nd in each of his four starts this season.
13. Jeff Burton
Has one top-10 finish in his last seven starts at Auto Club Speedway. Has finished on the lead lap only once this year, placing 10th at Phoenix.
14. Jamie McMurray
His 10th-place finish at Bristol last week was his first top 10 in the last 26 races, dating back to last year. Has not finished in the top 10 in his last 11 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has not had a top-10 finish in his last 25 starts, dating back to an eighth-place finish at Michigan in June.
16. Bobby Labonte
Has finished better than 20th only twice in his last 15 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
Specifically for the "fantasy" aspect. (ASP, Inc.)
C-List 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Never run in Cup at this track but finished second and fourth in his last two Nationwide races there. One of only five drivers to have completed every lap in the first four Cup races of this season.
2. AJ Allmendinger
Car finished 21st at Las Vegas with Austin Dillon driving. Team placed in the top 10 at Auto Club Speedway in rain-shortened race a year ago with Kurt Busch driving.
3. David Gilliland
Finished 28th at Las Vegas. Has never finished better than 17th in 11 starts at Auto Club.
4. Casey Mears
Finished 29th at Las Vegas, two laps behind leaders. Has best finish of 11th in his last seven races at Auto Club.
5. Dave Blaney
Placed 24th at Las Vegas, finishing one lap behind the leaders. Has not finished better than 29th in last 10 Auto Club starts.
6. Danica Patrick
After finishing eighth in Daytona 500, she’s placed 39th (Phoenix), 33rd (Las Vegas) and 28th (Bristol). She’s been at least five laps off the leaders in each of the last three races.
7. Travis Kvapil
Has one top-20 finish in 10 starts at Auto Club.
8. David Ragan
His 21st-place finish at Bristol was the first time he’s finished inside the top 30 this year Has finished 20th or better in only two of his last 30 starts with team, dating back to last year.
9. Landon Cassill
Has not finished better than 32nd in three starts this year (did not run at Daytona).
10. David Reutimann
Since placing 16th in Daytona 500, has not finished better than 25th in the three races since. Placed 34th at Las Vegas.
11. David Stremme
Finished 32nd at Las Vegas. Placed 39th at Auto Club last year.
12. Josh Wise
Finished 35th at Las Vegas. Placed 37th at Auto Club last year in only start there.
13. JJ Yeley
Has not finished better than 35th in his last three starts at Auto Club Speedway.
14. Michael McDowell
Has run a total of 47 laps in the last two races, finishing last at Las Vegas and 42nd at Bristol.
15. Scott Riggs
Seeking to make second start of the season after failing to qualify at Bristol.
16. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish seven of his last eight races at Auto Club Speedway, finishing no better than 34th.
17. Mike Bliss
Has completed 37 of 816 possible laps in two starts this year, finishing 42nd at Phoenix and 43rd at Bristol.
18. Timmy Hill
Seeking to make first start of the Cup season.
Biffle earns Ford's 1,000th NASCAR victory; Hendrick Motorsports falters late
Greg Biffle celebrates his win in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
At no point in the last decade has winning a Sprint Cup Series race at the Michigan International Speedway been of more importance in the NASCAR ranks. A renewed emphasis on “manufacturer” over “car number” or “driver” — largely at the behest of Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota, the Cup Series’ three auto makes — has placed a premium on home field bragging rights near America’s automotive capital.
On Sunday, Greg Biffle planted Ford’s flag in its home turf, winning the Quicken Loans 400 in Michigan, giving team owner Jack Roush his 13th career Cup win at MIS, the most all-time for any one organization.
Biffle held off a field of hungry Chevrolets, led late in the event by Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, to capture his second straight and fourth career Michigan win. It was also Ford Motor Company’s 1,000th win across NASCAR’s Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.
"I was really worried about the 48 (Johnson)," Biffle said. "He was really fast. But when this thing could get in clean air, it was all over.
“We’ve still got a little bit of work to do with these cars back in traffic but once we get out front, like at Pocono last week, we think we’re pretty good. We just need to work on our cars a little bit. It’s not for lack of effort. This is real exciting for me.”
Forty-seven of Biffle’s race-high 48 laps led came with under 50 circuits to go in the 200-mile affair. Biffle’s No. 16, along with teammate Carl Edwards’ No. 99, occupied the top two spots with 34 laps to go and green flag pit stops on tap. Edwards hit pit road first, going one lap down prior to the field cycling through, while Biffle stopped two laps later. As Biffle’s crew completed service, Jamie McMurray blew out a right front tire, bring out the day’s eighth and final caution.
Edwards found himself trapped in 24th, while Biffle — having completed his stops without yet dropping a lap to the field — inherited the lead.
His main competition — aside from the pole-sitter Edwards — came in the form of Johnson, who led 18 laps throughout the day, but was regulated to 11th on what would be the final restart, a result of having the No. 48 crew top off the fuel tank on the final stop.
When the green flag waved with 27 laps remaining, Biffle quickly pulled away in clean air while Johnson began what appeared to be an unrelenting assault through the field. Within eight laps, the five-time champion was ensconced in third; nine laps later he occupied the runner-up slot.
However, Biffle held a stout 1.6-second lead at a track that places importance on track position — clean air allowing the leader to sprint away with an aerodynamic advantage. And with three circuits remaining, Johnson made the mistake that sealed his fate and Biffle’s win, brushing the wall in an effort to run down the leader. He was forced to pit road with heavy right-side damage.
Biffle coasted from there, easily outdistancing Harvick for a nearly three-second victory. Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart rounded out the top 5. Contenders Edwards and Johnson finished eighth and 28th, respectively.
“I hate missing an opportunity,” Johnson said. “I want those (Chase) bonus points for winning races and feel like one got away from us today.”
Hendrick Motorsports once again seemed to be the organization to beat, as drivers Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne led for a total of 66 laps. However, Kahne blew a right front tire while out front on lap 105, slamming the Turn 2 wall and ending his day. He finished 38th. Earnhardt was his typical strong Michigan self until the engine in his No. 88 let go while running second on lap 132.
“We had such an awesome race car,” said Earnhardt, who finished 37th. “We actually improved the car on the last stop and I thought we were going to be able to give Jimmie a run. He probably was the best car out there.
“It’s frustrating. … I’m just real happy that we were able to turn around from what was a frustrating day (in practice) yesterday to put a great car on the starting grid, a car that was so competitive as it was today.”
Meanwhile, runner-up Harvick is quietly climbing his way through the point standings, having ascended from 12th to fourth in the last five races on the strength of five consecutive top 10s, including a victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I was pretty nervous as we finished practice yesterday,” Harvick said. “Those guys just did a great job again of talking through everything with myself and themselves to make some good decisions this morning — and they always do — and that's what makes this team good is they keep themselves in contention to be solid on days when you don't think you're going to be that great.”
With 11 races remaining in the Cup Series’ 26-race regular season, Johnson holds a 31-point advantage over Edwards, Clint Bowyer (-49), Harvick (-62) and Matt Kenseth (-82) in the championship standings.
It’s one thing to go after a guy with your helmet on, it’s another to take a swing at him while he’s sitting in his car. After a last lap tangle in 1995, Michael Waltrip went over to express his displeasure with Lake Speed – with his fist. Great commentary by “The King” afterwards. Ken Squier has a habit of calling some of NASCAR’s best fistfights.
by Vito Pugliese
11. 2009: Vexing Vickers
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Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch have had a war of words over the years in NASCAR. After being involved in a wreck at Martinsville with Busch, Vickers dropped a “you can’t fix stupid” bomb on him. Busch was not pleased after this Nationwide race in 2009 and was not short on insults, either. Vickers, however, was not going to let this go without a remark or two of his own.
by Vito Pugliese
10. 2011: Kurt Busch Radio Sweetheart Excerpts
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It’s been a while since we had some good Kurt Busch audio, so here are some gems from June 2011. Note him using the HANS device as a weapon against the defenseless in-car camera post-race while driving back to the hauler. I could write more, but why steal KB’s thunder? No earmuffs needed for this one.
by Vito Pugliese
9. 2003: Busch and Spencer: The Untold Story
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Ever wonder what happened to set off the real feud between Jimmy Spencer and Kurt Busch all those years ago? This snippet captures it all, including the incident post-race at Michigan in August 2003 around the 1:40 mark. Jimmy clocks Kurt, which led to an investigation by the Lenawee Sheriff’s Department. Spencer was suspended and Busch put on probation. How big of a deal was this? It made the Taipei Times. Seriously, check it out here.
by Vito Pugliese
8. 2010: Get Your Big Meat Hooks Off Me, Joey
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Following an incident not unlike the one between he and Denny Hamlin at Fontana this year, Joey Logano goes over to discuss things with Ryan Newman in 2010. Ryan wasn’t wanting to rationalize anything, having just knocked himself out of Chase contention, and as Ron Burgandy would say, “That escalated quickly!” Logano sounds a lot more reserved and not the iceman he has become as of late. If only he’d have some of Newman’s Tornados snacks, he might be able to even out the weight advantage.
by Vito Pugliese
7. 2012: The Dream Machine’s Nightmare
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Mark Martin’s No. 55 Aaron’s Toyota was leading the race and preparing to lap Juan Pablo Montoya and Bobby Labonte. However, Labonte loses it while Kasey Kahne piles into Martin (who recommended him for the No. 5 job), sending him spinning down through pit road. Martin lets off the brake and tries to swing the car around, which almost works – until it impales itself on the pit wall. Check out the intrusion into the driver’s compartment and oil tank. Martin pops out, issues stern reply to safety guy, waves to crowd.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 2009: Milking the Mileage
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This one has a bit of a happier ending for Mark Martin. After taking a couple of seasons to rest, regroup and re-evaluate, Martin came back with a full-time vengeance in 2009, scoring five wins and taking the title fight down to the final race at Homestead. His third win of the year was an improbable one. He qualified 32nd, battled radio problems all day, as well as steering that was locking up in the turns — which is probably a lot of fun at 205 mph. After working his way through the field, he ran the final 43 laps at three-quarter throttle, saving a thimble of fuel more than Greg Biffle and teammate Jimmie Johnson, who had decimated the field until theeir tanks went dry.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 1993: Johnny B. Airborne
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When you think of great names connected with NASCAR and Michigan, a few come to mind. Jack Sprague. Brad Keselowski. Vito Pugliese. Following an ASA title in 1992, Johnny Benson Jr. got his NASCAR shot in 1993 in Ernie Irvan’s Nationwide car. He didn’t get very far, as on the first lap he went skyward down the backstretch. It would be another seven until Elliott Sadler replicated the feat. Speaking of Sadler, click to the next clip.
by Vito Pugliese
4. 2000: Keep Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’
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One of the running jokes in racing is the term “practice crash” — as in, “What were you doing, practicing crashing?” Wrecks at speeds approaching 200 mph are no laughing matter, and neither is this tumble Elliott Sadler took during not-so-Happy Hour at MIS in 2000. Between this, his twin Talladega tumbles and that header into that dirt embankment at Pocono in 2010, Elliott may have the record for hardest hits in NASCAR history.
by Vito Pugliese
3. 2003: This Dodge Is On Fiyaaahhh
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In 2003, Penske Racing switched from long-time partner Ford to Dodge with its cantankerous driver duo of Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman. In both Michigan races in ’03, each suffered a massive fire which had them blinded by smoke and bailing out for safety; Newman in June, Wallace at the August race. Check out the flames on Newman’s car. You know it’s bad when it’s coming out of the cowl, tail panel and wheel wells.
by Vito Pugliese
2. 1999: Happy Father’s Day
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It was the first time Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the opportunity to race his father for real, and it was the closing laps of the IROC race at MIS in 1999. Junior had a shot at it coming off of Turn 4, but with a little bit of side-drafting and a push from Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was able to eek a .007 second victory — the closest finish in IROC history. After his Michigan Cup win in 2008, Junior recalled the moment with those in attendance, as he sat in the media center looking out at the track, saying, “Damnit, I had him!”
by Vito Pugliese
1. 1991: First Time Winner
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Before the “Dale and Dale Show” at the 1993 Daytona 500, it was the “Dale and Davey Show” in ’91. Bob Jenkins makes the call for this one, showing again how to cover the final laps of a race, neither cheering for a particular driver nor talking over the action and trying to be bigger than the moment. Pick things up at the 4:00 mark as the No. 28 and No. 21 battle it out for the win. Jarrett issues a slight rub and a side-draft off the 28 to get to the line first for the first of his 32 career Cup wins. The margin of victory? Since this was before the era of electronic timing and scoring, it was deemed a mere 10 inches.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Party in the Poconos 400
Jimmie Johnson was virtually untouchable in Pocono. (ASP, Inc.)
A five-time champion in their respective sport is rarely in need of motivation. So when you hand it to them on a silver platter, whatever the reason, you better hide yourself inside a bunker and hope for the best. After Dover’s fluky finish a week ago, where a restart penalty all but took a win away from Jimmie Johnson, something inside the 37-year-old snapped. Struggling to hold his tongue on several occasions, it was clear “Mr. Politically Correct” felt NASCAR made the wrong call, robbing him of what would be a record-setting Dover performance.
For a regular season race — sometimes used as test sessions for the No. 48 team — it’s been a long time since I’ve seen them enter the following Sunday so focused. Johnson, typically unflappable, was angry, even borderline insulted over it all. And we see what happens when star athletes get mad. Just ask LeBron James, Michael Jordan or even Joe Namath.
The Dover penalty, no matter what side you’re on, made Johnson “want it” more than anyone else at Pocono. And when a driver of that talent level gets prodded to the point they feel a statement must be made, what you get is the type of dominating snoozer Pocono turned out to be. It may not have been pretty — and at times, borderline unwatchable — but that kind of “whip the field” mentality is what’s made this guy the best NASCAR driver of the last decade … maybe more. Superstars are called that for a reason, and it’s not because they push their sport towards record ratings. That’s unfortunate for stock car racing, which has suffered under the Johnson era but you can’t suspend raw talent. You can only hope to contain it.
After seeing Sunday’s race, I doubt it will be contained anytime soon, especially after chief rivals seemed to stumble all over themselves. Their rough road ahead is what brings us “Through the Gears” after Pocono …
FIRST GEAR: Toyota’s loss is Jimmie Johnson’s gain
It’s easy to wax poetic about Johnson’s dominating performance, his first victory at Pocono since 2004. But to a point, that was expected considering the team’s level of anger, track position at a repaved facility (he started on the pole) and the momentum his No. 48 team has built over the past few months. Consistency-wise, they’re the best in the sport right now — no one else is remotely close.
Perhaps the bigger piece of news for Chevy’s top dog is how the top finishers shook out behind him. For the first time all season, not a single Toyota driver found his way inside the top 5 at race’s end. Mid-week changes at Toyota Racing Development to dial the engines back after a series of reliability problems turned the cars from Superman to Clark Kent. Denny Hamlin, the prototypical favorite at this track, failed to lead a lap, finished a quiet eighth and explained how suddenly, his Camry’s engine appeared to be hindered by kryptonite.
“By no means did we have a winning car this weekend,” he said. “I think all of us had to play defense on the straightaway, which is really tough.”
Add in Matt Kenseth’s rough day, slumping to 25th from fourth after contact with Juan Pablo Montoya, and a so-so sixth for Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole had an average finish of 13.0 with “Toyota engine, Version II.” That’s crucial for Johnson, whose lone obstacle, it seemed, entering the postseason was whether the durability of these rival motors would hold up. If the Toyotas have to dial it back that much, just to make each race the distance, they’re threatening to gift wrap the 2013 trophy for Johnson and hand it to him at Phoenix, the penultimate race — because he’ll still be able to skip Homestead and still win No. 6.
SECOND GEAR: Tough times for the Gen-6
Clearly, Pocono Raceway is not at fault for Johnson stomping the field. When a driver has a car that good, there’s only so much you can do to make the races exciting. To the Tricky Triangle’s credit, the crowd looked fairly full as track president Brandon Igdalsky continues to come up with great ways to maximize fan experience both inside and outside the track.
But no amount of free concerts, celebrity poker tournaments or cheap tickets can hide how awful NASCAR’s product was on Sunday. Behind Johnson, most of the field kept running in place while even a series of late restarts struggled to live up to their typical excitement. Several drivers appeared on cruise control, running in place, while side-by-side competition was nowhere to be found. It’s a puzzling development, especially at a triangular-shaped facility whose shortened distance last June provided one of the season’s best races and finishes.
When you end up with that type of flat, across-the-board product so soon after, it’s hard to point guilt anywhere other than NASCAR’s Gen-6. Fontana, at this point, seems a distant memory as the same type of aerodynamic issues are plaguing this new generation of car. High speeds, while good for the record books, have posed a problem when it comes to aggressive competition; drivers are chasing the racetrack, so much it makes running two-abreast too big of a risk to take. Add in the conservatism of making the Chase, with such a close battle for those positions (see point four below) and the final equation leaves what you’re watching seem like a conservative, single-file parade.
Is there a fix? One thought would be to slow the cars down; that, in turn, cuts down on the aero push and gives drivers more freedom to maneuver around the track. What made Fontana so great was its multiple grooves, giving drivers control over where to plant the car. Since then, I’ve heard the term “one-groove” track too many times to my liking. If drivers don’t feel they can control a car in a second groove (and under this point system) they’re not going to go there unless forced to — on those crazy restarts.
How you get those multiple grooves back in play? I’m not certain of the answer. But the right people should be racking their brains, because the optimism — and hype — this new car generated is threatening to fade.
Is Earnhardt's season taking a turn? (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Earnhardt hits his stride at the right time
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., this spring has been the season of discontent. His confidence eroding a bit as the No. 88 stayed out of the top-5 finishers for eight straight weeks. Meanwhile, shopmate Johnson ran circles around the competition while fellow Hendrick driver Kasey Kahne continues to threaten for wins. It seemed like Junior was vastly underperforming by comparison.
So maybe Pocono becomes the race that turns it all around. Never one of his best tracks, Earnhardt started sixth, slid inside the top 5 early and kept that track position the entire day. While no match for Johnson on the late restarts, a third-place result was his best since Fontana in March and gives him a 46-point cushion over 11th place in points. With Michigan on the horizon this weekend — where Earnhardt is the defending champ — the boost couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We are all right,” he said after exiting his car Sunday. “We know what we need to do. Confidence is there … all the fans can rest assured we feel like we are on the right track.”
I wouldn’t go that far yet, but breathing room is important for Junior right now. It gives him a chance to mess up at Sonoma, even get caught up in a wreck at Daytona and still be OK without the pressure of having to win to make the Chase.
FOURTH GEAR: A logjam of parity
Greg Biffle’s second-place finish, his first top 5 since Texas, for Roush Fenway Racing brought him up to 10th in points. But he wasn’t the only one on the Chase bubble who put together a solid Pocono performance. Kurt Busch (seventh), Joey Logano (10th) and even Jeff Gordon (12th) pulled themselves closer to the top 10 while struggles by Brad Keselowski (16th), Kasey Kahne (36th) and Paul Menard (30th), whose late-race tire failure proved costly, kept them dropping back.
This reverse accordion effect has resulted in opening up the Chase to nearly two dozen drivers. Right now, with 12 races remaining in the regular season, the spread between ninth-place Keselowski and 21st-place Jeff Burton is just 42 points. Anyone between there could wind up safely inside the top 10 after Michigan. That’s a blessing for drivers like Busch, Logano and Gordon, whose bad luck in other years would leave them in near desperation mode. Just a few solid runs in succession will put them in a position where a victory isn’t necessary to make the championship field.
Is Stewart-Haas Racing on the upswing again? Two cars ran in the top 5 Sunday, including Tony Stewart who now has that type of back-to-back result for the first time since June 2012. … While Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been a very consistent rookie, he remains without a top-10 finish through 14 races. Add in Danica Patrick’s single top-10 showing and the 2013 freshman class seems several notches below average. … Bobby Labonte’s “replacement” at JTG-Daugherty Racing appears to be the beginning of the end for the 49-year-old there. All public statements say differently, but clearly “sub” AJ Allmendinger is getting an audition to prove himself. What are they gonna do if he gets a top-10 finish — which would be their first since October 2012 — throw him out of the car?
1. Denny Hamlin needs Pocono more than ever
A crash last Sunday at Dover International Speedway after a flat tire dented Denny Hamlin's hope of a strong run and probably didn't feel the best for a guy just weeks removed from a pretty serious back injury. Hamlin, however, seems to be worried about one thing: Making the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
One of — make that two of — the best things Hamlin his in his uphill climb to the redemption of entry into NASCAR's playoff system is a pair of visits to Pocono Raceway. You may remember that Hamlin won his first Cup race at Pocono in 2006 even after he cut a tire and crashed one-fourth of the way in. Since, he has four wins and sits just two behind Pocono active wins leader Jeff Gordon.
"We were certainly disappointed with the way Dover ended for us, and now it’s up to our FedEx team to dig down and capitalize on some of our better tracks coming up," Hamlin said.
Hamlin's continuing climb starts this week from 26th in Sprint Cup points, some 224 points behind the leader Jimmie Johnson. To get to 20th and become eligible for one of two at-large bids, Hamlin needs to make up 74 points on Ryan Newman (currently 20th) between Sunday and Richmond in September. And he’ll need, at the very least, one win.
A victory this weekend — and season sweep of Pocono, if he's really feeling greedy — would be immensely helpful.
2. Drivers appreciate Pocono's shift work
Plenty of scenes in Days of Thunder feature an oddity that Sprint Cup drivers never use: shifting mid-corner or mid-straightaway as a device to find more speed while already racing at normal pace. It won't be exactly how Cole Trickle does it in the movie this weekend at Pocono, but drivers will get to at least act like they are during each green flag lap.
Pocono's odd three-corner layout demands slow speeds in two corners that lay ahead of two extremely fast straightaways. The contrast bogs a car's engine in a low RPM range if just one gear for an entire lap is being used, which in turn depletes peak acceleration. Since the track opened in 1971, most drivers shifted between third and fourth gears to maximize performance until a new gear rule unexpectedly made that impossible in 2005. The gear rule changed again in 2011 and brought shifting back.
"It’s a fun race track and with the shifting it’s a really tough racetrack. It’s almost like a road course, it’s really tough on the cars and it’s a mentally challenging racetrack," said Carl Edwards.
"It's like a three-cornered, left handed road course, making it a lot of fun to drive," said Paul Menard.
Kasey Kahne (ASP, Inc.)
3. Kahne hoping confidence in Francis keys Pocono rebound
Kasey Kahne just made a mistake last weekend.
In the closing laps at Dover, Kahne got loose entering Turn 1 with what was probably a top-5 car. The car snapped around, slid sideways and then backed into the wall just enough to inflict damage requiring some extensive pit road repairs. He's trying to rebound at Pocono, a place where he once crashed briefly in the bushes lining the backstretch — and was pretty introspective before this weekend about his relationship with longtime crew chief Kenny Francis.
“We've had some things thrown at us over the years, and we've just always stuck together," Kahne said. “He's given me more opportunities to win in the situations we've been in than anybody else ever would have. I just have a lot of respect for Kenny Francis. There is no one else I want to work with, and I think he feels the same way right now. That is where we are at. We both feel that we have a team surrounding us that is capable of doing a lot this season.”
'Doing a lot' would also include a strong performance for Kahne at Pocono, a track typically not within his wheelhouse as far as finishes go. Kahne did win there in 2008, but he has just six top-10 finishes in 18 career starts. He finished runner-up in last July's rain-shortened race to break a spell of five finishes averaging 23rd.
4. Secret of Pocono success can be found in the tunnel
It's a corner sandwiched between straightaways of 3,055 feet and 1,780 feet. With a radius of just 750 feet, it's an element of Pocono that pales in comparison to the grand scale of the 2.5-mile behemoth. Its design hails from a place with just a bit more history: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It's Pocono's Turn 2, or more affectionately known as the "Tunnel Turn" thanks to its proximity above the tunnel allowing infield vehicle access at the track. And it's the corner that can make or break a lap around Pocono.
Scratch that, it's a corner that 160 times in Sunday's race could royally screw up the best of runs just by setting a wheel a little bit off line.
"Finding the edge and the limits is a little bit tougher on such a big racetrack with three unique corners," said Jeff Gordon. "The tunnel turn has always been one of the most hair-raising experiences on our schedule. It takes full commitment. When you hit it right, it's a beautiful thing."
5. Only Joey Logano plans to play doubles this weekend
Kyle Busch — rightly or wrongly — has generated some scorn thanks to the whippings he's applied lately to the fields of drivers in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series. He's won seemingly every race every week in the lower divisions. That's obviously not the whole truth, but his dominance has been domineering.
It has reignited the debate about why NASCAR allows the “major league” drivers to still compete in the lower levels. That battle should cool off this weekend, however, as Busch plans to just use one driving suit for the Sunday event. He won't travel to the first Nationwide standalone event of the year at Iowa Speedway or to the second for the Truck Series at Texas Motor Speedway on Friday night.
In fact, just one driver among the Pocono Cup ranks will play role of helmet-carrying jet setter this weekend. Joey Logano will scoot over to Iowa for Saturday's race following Sprint Cup practice on Saturday morning, and then return for Sunday's race.
“It’s going to be tough for sure, but we have a plan that will help me get as much rest as possible," Logano said. "I’ll get a chance to rest and debrief and change on the plane rides between Pocono and Iowa each night."
Meanwhile, Busch is hoping for the story topic to settle down for a bit — or at least until his next week of double or triple duty.
"Only 1 (race this weekend) so everyone can stay sane for a week. #Chill," Busch tweeted to a fan earlier this week.
David Smith crunches the numbers for the Party in the Poconos 400
Dover race-winner Tony Stewart. (ASP, Inc.)
Dover International Speedway, a high-banked one-mile concrete oval, and Pocono Raceway, a 2.5-mile asphalt triangle with three wildly different corners, are two tracks that shouldn’t warrant much comparison.
Tony Stewart, who slumped through the first third of this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season and broke out with a victory last week at Dover, hopes that the contrary is true. The manner in how he won last Sunday emulates a lot of his past success at Pocono, including his two most recent outings on the “Tricky Triangle.” If Stewart can translate what worked at one place into working at another, all of a sudden his flash-in-the-pan win last weekend (it wasn’t undeserved, but he’d be hard-pressed to duplicate the feat) becomes the ignition of a summer hot streak.
How big of a shock was last week’s win? How did he do it? And do his numbers suggest a second consecutive victory?
41st Prior to his win at Dover, Stewart ranked 41st out of 47 drivers in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) at the mile track.
In the five races leading up to the weekend, Stewart didn’t earn a finish at Dover better than 20th. Suffice to say, his win was a bit of a shock. Considering he averaged a 15th-place running position for the afternoon, the victory wasn’t one that seemed a foregone conclusion for those at home watching the race. One of the reasons that he pulled off the victory was because he dialed back the clock and found an element of his repertoire that made a younger Tony a Stock Car superstar.
54.05% Stewart’s single-race pass efficiency at Dover was 54.05 percent, above his season-long efficiency of 48.44 percent.
The three-time champ’s minus-passing for the year (“minus” is anything below 50 percent) has hindered his plodding approach at success in most races this season. Passing is a large part of what makes Stewart a future Hall of Famer, and what allowed him to surge from 12th to first in the final 40 laps to secure his first win at Dover since 2000.
Stewart fans might take comfort in the fact that one of his best racetracks is next on the schedule.
5.500 Stewart ranks third in Cup Series PEER at Pocono with a 5.500 rating. He is the only driver that secured top-5 finishes in both races there last year.
2012 was the first season that saw Pocono’s new pavement put to use. Historically, Stewart doesn’t fare well on new surfaces or new tire combinations. Pocono was different. Similar to his run last week at Dover, Stewart improved on his average running position by 10 spots in the spring race (from 13th to third) and eight spots in the summer race (from 14th to fifth). Can he capitalize on superb passing and a plodding approach once again? If last year was any indication, it is possible. He earned a 59.38 percent pass efficiency on 256 encounters across both races there last season.
44.9% Jimmie Johnson led 44.9 percent of last summer’s race at Pocono, but ultimately finished 14th.
If it wasn’t for a hurried rain-imminent finish that prompted Johnson and Greg Biffle to collide and take them out of the running for the win, it’s likely that the No. 48 team would have kept cruising.
In spite of that result, Johnson ranks fourth in Pocono-specific PEER with a 5.000 rating. A driver that probably should have two top-5 finishes on the new surface could right his perceived wrong from Dover — he was penalized for jumping the final restart — this weekend.
3.4 In his win at Pocono last year, Joey Logano averaged a race-best 3.4-place running position.
Logano’s second career Cup Series win was no fluke and didn’t come as the result of a rainout. Then driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, the youngster punished the field for 400 miles, showing a glimpse of what the future might hold for the racer once heralded as the sport’s top prospect.
It may have been a precursor to the uptick in production this season. Through 13 races in his new Penske Racing surroundings, Logano holds a 2.173 PEER, ranking higher than the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1.692), Greg Biffle (1.500) and Tony Stewart (1.442). Is the 23-year-old driver finally fulfilling his promise? If so, another shot at the Pocono crown might await.
0 for 2 Consummate frontrunner Kyle Busch failed to finish both Pocono races last year.
He blew an engine on lap 76 of the spring race and crashed out on lap 74 of the summer race. What does this mean for 2013? We don’t really know what to expect from Busch on the new Pocono surface.
Prior to the repave, Busch was finally coming into his own at Pocono. After averaging a 21.4-place finish in his first 10 starts there, he finished third or better in three out of four races in 2010 and 2011. With the script flipped via the new surface, and his sample size shallow in seat time, we don’t have enough to form a proper evaluation of how well the Cup Series’ top-ranked lap leader fares there.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the FedEx 400
Tony Stewart (ASP, Inc.)
A quick look at the leaderboard, 140 laps through Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover gave you a clear indication of who would be winning this race … or so it seemed. Kyle Busch was first, Matt Kenseth was second and the rest of the field was on another planet. For a good hour that duo swapped the point while only a handful of drivers, between cautions, remained within 10 seconds of contact. Meanwhile, the trio of Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya remained far back, dealing with various handling and track position issues that made a push for victory seem like a virtual impossibility.
Fast forward to the final 20 laps, perhaps the time you woke up from a mid-race nap once Busch and Kenseth’s pairs ice skating routine lulled you to sleep. The top 3, heading down the stretch, were none other than Montoya, Johnson and Stewart, until the No. 48 got a black flag for jumping the final restart. Suddenly, a heavyweight battle was at hand between the remaining duo, there was an on-track pass for the lead in the final five laps and one of the deepest slumps in the garage — Stewart’s 30-race winless streak — was torn to shreds at a track where he typically runs like a tow truck driver. For those who missed those hours in between thinking Busch and Kenseth were going to run away with it, three letters came to mind when looking at the final results sheet: W, T and F. (You can figure this one out.)
That’s a good thing for the sport, even though the quality of racing from NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis left something to be desired at Dover. For if the drivers can’t battle side-by-side for position to captivate an audience, at least you want to create an aura of unpredictability — that the guys you see running up front on lap 200 aren’t going to be the ones there at the finish. So far this season, NASCAR’s last five winners (Harvick twice, David Ragan, Matt Kenseth and Stewart) have led an average of 11 laps during their respective trips to Victory Lane; to me, that means mission accomplished.
Now, if only we could get this Gen-6 running right everywhere, a problem Mr. Stewart still faces as we go up through the gears after the Monster Mile.
FIRST GEAR: What does this win do for Stewart?
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s clear even Stewart knows this surprise victory, stolen with what was probably a 10th-place car, won’t suddenly make his self-owned team a pack of title contenders. Indeed, on the same day he was sitting there celebrating, teammate Ryan Newman was in hiding, leaving without comment after blatantly dumping David Gilliland on-track, wrecking both drivers out of the event. Danica Patrick, by comparison, nearly took out the field twice within the first 25 laps before a series of unscheduled pit stops to fix handling problems that left her well off the pace and on a “test session” the rest of the day.
“Just making the Chase, that’s not good enough,” said the three-time champ, who put himself in “wild card” position with the victory. “I would rather miss the Chase and be in the process of building our program. I want to get this whole program turned around to where all three drivers are feeling like they have an opportunity to go out and have a good result.”
Smoke’s got the right attitude for his team, and — aside from a brief rebuke at a media member surrounding rumors about possible crew chief changes — left Sunday in a picture perfect frame of mind. Sunday’s race, in which crew chief Steve Addington used pit strategy to work Stewart up through the pack, could be a turning point for a duo who’s had their share of hard luck. The summertime is typically when Smoke catches fire anyways, with the lion’s share of his 48 career victories occurring after June 1. They’ve got Hendrick chassis and horsepower, (and know-how, as HMS has proved to have mastered the Gen-6 with Johnson atop the points) and the resources and quality of personnel are there to at least turn the No. 14 into a success story.
“I think, as an organization, we have a lot to be proud of,” Stewart continued. “It gives Ryan and Danica and I confidence as a driver (that a Stewart-Haas car won). It gives the three crew chiefs confidence that we are making forward progress.”
Keep in mind we’re also in early June. The last time Stewart won a title, in 2011, he stumbled through July and August, barely made the Chase field and looked like he was going to embarrass himself in the postseason. Instead, he left holding the hardware. It’s the mark of being one of the sport’s great drivers: you can never count him out.
SECOND GEAR: Johnson’s botched restart … and Knaus’ cryptic code.
The debate from Dover is whether Johnson jumped the final restart of the race. Check out the footage for yourself. It’s clear the No. 48, against NASCAR rules, made it to the finish line first, despite restarting second and then never gave the position back to Montoya. Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton claims it’s an open-and-shut case, a Grand Canyon-like divide from where the No. 48 team was on the issue.
“I was half-throttle for the whole frontstretch,” Johnson claimed. “And at some point, I gotta go. NASCAR has the judgment to decide if you jumped it or not. But I’m like, he’s (Montoya) is not even going. So I’m not sure if his car broke or if it was off power or he spun the tires … I don’t know. So I’m running half-throttle down the frontstretch waiting for him and he never comes. And then, we were called on it. So, a bummer way to lose a race.”
Johnson had some support from fellow drivers, coming up to him after the checker flag and expressing their displeasure. Chad Knaus also chimed in, via radio to make their position clear: “They (NASCAR) don’t want you to win this race. You know that.”
But the winner, Stewart (who in a sense is a de facto teammate of Johnson) had no issues with how Montoya brought the field down.
“I feel bad for Jimmie,” Stewart said. “He didn't deserve to be in a situation at the end, but at the same time, he knows what the rules are, and he knows that the leader has to cross the start/finish line first. Juan is smart enough to not let the second place guy take advantage of the restart, and that's what he did.”
Stewart said a possible solution to the controversy would be to widen the restart zone, allowing the leader more leeway in when they accelerate and lessening the advantage for second place so they don’t get out in front. But in this case, I think it’s a combination of Montoya’s savvy and a little cheerleading from Knaus that went to Johnson’s head. Check out this transmission I caught just before the final restart:
“You're a lot faster than Montoya, we’ve seen that ... he's just a pain in the ass to pass. Get out there and check the f**k out.”
Johnson, back to second after Montoya beat him off pit road, might have been a little overeager. And the Colombian, not used to being up front, might have spun the tires or even intentionally stayed slow once Johnson jumped knowing if the No. 48 never gave the position back, he’d be black-flagged and the race would play out in his favor. Either way, it’s no harm, no foul for the points leader; he’s got a 30-point edge, is solidly in the Chase and showed he had the car to beat for the return visit to Dover in the fall. I’d forgive, forget and chalk it up as a lesson learned.
THIRD GEAR: Toyota’s engine woes … How will the affect things going forward?
For the second time this season, Matt Kenseth was in position to win until the motor in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota went kaboom. Out before the race’s midpoint, after having dominated up front with Kyle Busch, he was soon joined in the garage by fellow top-5 runner Martin Truex Jr. of Michael Waltrip Racing. It was a rough day for the Camry powerplants, which have blown up at a rate nearly six times that of rivals Ford or Chevrolet.
“I mean I feel like JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) has three of the strongest teams in the garage,” Kenseth said. “It seems like we got the best cars out there — or equal to the best. But, you know you have to finish these things. Obviously, there’s been some issues in that department.”
The veteran’s done a great job at keeping his composure, the perfect role model for teammate Kyle Busch as they hurtle towards the Chase as top contenders. But the 11 percent failure rate for JGR this season has to be alarming. That’s roughly one out of every nine races, meaning in the postseason they’re guaranteed to give up 40 points to a blown engine. It’s a mulligan they can’t afford, especially against a Hendrick opponent known for ironclad equipment.
The problem Sunday was a valve-train issue, but at this point it’s irrelevant. What Toyota needs are solutions for these things, and they need them now.
Carl Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Ford’s failing effort.
Ford Racing once dominated at Dover, but that wasn’t the case on Sunday. Only the Penske Racing duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano cracked the top 10; Roush Fenway’s trio was relegated to 13th, 14th and 15th. Adding insult to injury, Keselowski failed post-race inspection with a crew chief already on probation and a typically minor penalty (the car was too low) could result in additional penalties.
Overall, Ford has won just twice — at Phoenix in a track position race (Carl Edwards) and in the Russian Roulette restrictor plate atmosphere of Talladega (David Ragan). There is real concern in the RFR camp that Greg Biffle, who led the points for much last year’s regular season, could miss the Chase entirely. After Dover, Edwards spoke on what he believes is a systemic issue of missing speed inside the cars.
“When three different groups run the same speed and it is not fast enough, it means that we are doing a good job making the car as fast as it can go,” he said. “But it is up to all of us now to identify exactly where we are missing it. We will address it. We have time before the Chase starts. Now, it is just time to buckle down and work.”
Agreed on all counts.
The Monster Mile is not what it used to be, but it can still bite, as evidenced by Denny Hamlin’s hard hit down the stretch after blowing a tire. He was lucky not to re-injure his back, a reminder of the high risk/low reward scenario he’s currently in trying to squeeze into the Chase (the driver is now 74 points outside the top 20 with zero wins). … Jimmie Johnson’s rough ending left him 17th, his worst finish at the Monster Mile in nine years. But you can say that NASCAR’s calls evened out. An early debris caution in which the culprit was never shown kept Johnson, who started 24th, from going a lap down. … Dover’s crowd was upset over a weird stepped-up security procedure that kept some fans waiting up to an hour to get in. As race time edged closer, track officials seemed to “give up” and let people in much quicker. In the end, the crowd appeared weak, with less than 50 percent of the stands filled.
1. Crew chief returns to No. 2 as Brad Keselowski rides streak of poor finishes
Just a few hours before Brad Keselowski was slated to start the seventh race of the year at Texas Motor Speedway in his blue No. 2, all seemed to be fine. After a disappointing 23rd-place finish at Auto Club Speedway two races prior, Keselowski had rallied at Martinsville Speedway to score his fifth top 10 in the series first six races.
Then, as both he teammate Joey Logano's car rolled through pre-race inspection in Fort Worth, things started to fall apart. Both cars were required to make substantial changes in pre-race after NASCAR ruled a new rear suspension to be illegal. Keselowski rallied again to a Texas top 10 and a top 10 the next week at Kansas, but then bad luck started to bite.
Ultimately crew chief Paul Wolfe, his car chief and lead engineer were expelled from being at the track three total races (two points events) after an appeal for the Texas incident. Keselowski's finishes following the sixth-place Kansas run dropped considerably as he recorded results of 33rd, 15th, 32nd and 36th.
Wolfe and the rest of Penske's suspended crew make their triumphant — and sorely needed — return this weekend at Dover. Keselowski said after wrecking in last week's race at Charlotte that he hopes it's a good luck charm.
"I’m very proud of everyone that stepped up during the last three weeks," Keselowski said. "We’ve really improved our depth at Penske Racing, but now everyone can go back to their normal jobs. Hopefully that means we can get some of our mojo back.”
Keselowski, of course, is Dover's most recent winner thanks to Wolfe's fuel mileage gamble last fall. Otherwise, last year's champion has a best Dover finish of 12th in six Cup starts.
2. Kyle Busch thinking sweep of NASCAR triple-header weekend
All three of the top NASCAR national series — Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck — will be in action this weekend at Dover. That marks the first time all three series will compete in a three-day period at the same track since the season-openers for all at Daytona International Speedway in February.
It also marks the second opportunity of the season for Kyle Busch to aim for three race wins in one race weekend, as he'll pilot his self-owned No. 51 in Friday's truck series event, Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 54 on Saturday in the Nationwide 300-miler and JGR's No. 18 on Sunday in the Sprint Cup 400-miler.
Winning the triple certainly is not out of reach of Busch as he showed in 2010 at Dover. Then, a mechanical issue dropped him out late in the truck race after leading 174 of the scheduled 200 laps. He went on to win the next two races of the weekend. A few months later he finally became the first driver to pull off a three-race weekend sweep at NASCAR's other concrete track — Bristol Motor Speedway.
Busch's odds to finally get the clean sweep of Dover stand to be pretty good. In the Nationwide Series, Busch has won six of the 10 events this season. And in Sprint Cup, Busch returns to the track where he led more than 300 laps in last fall's race before getting beat in a fuel mileage finish.
Jimmie Johnson (ASP, Inc.)
3. Johnson's Dover dominance spectacular even for his standards
There's not a whole lot that NASCAR's first driver to win five consecutive Sprint Cup titles hasn't accomplished or succeeded at in the sport. Knowing that, Jimmie Johnson's personal record at Dover is still nearing the edge of comprehension.
Johnson made his first Dover starts in 2002 and promptly swept both race weekends by leading 368 of 800 available laps. A harbinger of things to come, Johnson now leads the series among active drivers for wins on the one-mile oval and is tied with legends like Bobby Allison and Richard Petty for the most career wins there. Most remarkable is that Johnson tied those two NASCAR Hall of Famers in Dover wins in just his 21st Dover start.
The Dover dominance usurped a sterling record his teammate Jeff Gordon had began to accumulate, too. In 18 fewer Dover starts, Johnson has three more wins than Gordon and has led 29 more laps — despite completing 6,000 fewer circuits of the concrete oval.
And finally, there's this last statistical absurdity: not only has Johnson lead a lap in each of his last 10 Dover starts, but he has led fewer than 81 laps in those five years of twice-yearly events in just two of those starts. On average in that time period, Johnson is leading a merciless 176.4 laps per race.
4. Multi-car accidents just a blind corner away at Dover
Beyond the plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega, Dover may hold the third most notorious ranking as a track that can produce large, multi-car incidents.
Look no farther than last year's Dover spring race when on Lap 10, 12 cars stacked up on the backstretch. The incident started when Tony Stewart spun Landon Cassill exiting Turn 2 and the two cars split sideways. With the track blocked, drivers behind them tried to slow down and cut low at the exact worse place at Dover to try such a move.
The exit of Turn 2 to the backstretch is similar to hitting a bump on a country road in that it shoots the car up out of the corner and shifts the weight load off the rear tires. The result is controllable right up until a driver has to make an evasive move. Then, cars tend to spin — one after another — as they try to avoid the trouble at the track that produces blind corner entries and exits thanks to its low-elevation corner, high-elevation straightaway design.
Crashes as large as the 2012 incident are mostly rare at Dover, but still the overall frequency of incidents with numerous cars compared to other tracks seems to be higher at the one-mile oval. Consider: since 2003, eight different caution flags at Dover were the result of crashes that included a whopping total of 72 cars.
5. Stewart-Haas Racing tested at Dover
The struggles of Stewart-Haas Racing have been no secret this year.
Sure, expectations for the newest SHR driver in Danica Patrick haven't been sky high. But for Ryan Newman — in a contract year — and three-time series champion Tony Stewart the results have been unacceptable. The largest issue for the team hasn't been poor strategy or unfortunate luck, but rather an overall lack of handling in each driver's Chevrolet.
That tide may be swinging the other direction after the team scored a pair of top 10s at the Coca-Cola 600 and Stewart finally found a setup in the Gen-6 that delivered his desired handling characteristics.
“We finally got some stability in the car. One change there at the end of the race just made a huge, huge difference,” said Stewart after Charlotte.
SHR also heads to Dover with a bit of practice in the Gen-6 car already on the books. The three-car team used one of its testing day allotments at Dover a few weeks ago. Newman felt good about the information learned from the session, but admitted it put the team in a wrong frame of mind for the All-Star Race.
"We tested up there, all of Stewart-Haas tested up there, and feel like we made some improvements on our cars for sure, and we actually tried to do some of those things at Charlotte for the All-Star Race and just couldn't get it to click in practice," Newman said.
But fortunately, Newman noted, if the team can find the right stability early in the Dover weekend, the race should go well.
"If you usually get a car right at Dover you can keep it right the entire day," he said.
Picking the best fantasy drivers at Dover so you don't have to.
(Photo by ASP, Inc.)
To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its first visit to the other DIS — Dover International Speedway — this weekend for 400 miles around, as one driver calls it, “a one-mile roller coaster.” Delaware’s standard oval features corners lower than the banked straightaways, giving drivers the sensation that they “drop” into the turn and “climb” back up to the straights.
Choosing a fantasy lineup for Dover can sometimes be just as random as a card shuffle at the track’s backstretch casino thanks to the tight confines of the track occasionally producing massive multi-car accidents that wipe out a slew of contenders in one stroke. Still, we’ll take a stab.
Note: This fantasy preview is a bit different this week as we try a new format. Instead of ranking every driver at Dover, we’ll make it easier on you by telling you which drivers to call up and be ready to start for Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.
A-List Drivers (choose two, start one)
With consideration for many players conserving starts for Johnson until later in the season when he inevitably gets hot, Dover is almost a no-brainer time to have Johnson in your lineup for race day. Consider this: in the last 16 Dover races going back eight seasons, Johnson is averaging 121 laps led per race.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver has averaged a finish of sixth in that period (his average career finish in all races is 11th) and has turned the fastest lap 878 times, which is good for nearly 400 more than the second-most fastest laps in that period by Carl Edwards. Oh, one other thing: Johnson’s seven career wins at Dover are three more than any active driver. Beyond the wins, he has four more top-5 finishes and nine more top-10 finishes.
Sure, you could bet he’ll have an off weekend at a track he dominates in the name of conserving the No. 48’s start until the fall. But is that really wise a week after Johnson wrecked by himself at Charlotte? If anyone is coming back with a vengeance, it’s Mr. Five Time.
So you’ve used Johnson a few too many times to your liking this early in the year and you’re looking for a suitable replacement? If you haven’t overused Matt Kenseth to this point (I hope you’ve used Matt Kenseth plenty at this point), he’s your guy. But one driver who likely has plenty of starts remaining on your fantasy roster is Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer is riding a Dover streak of four straight races where he’s finished in the top 10 — moderately impressive considering the span included races with both Michael Waltrip Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Bowyer has led just 30 laps in those four starts, but those finishes and overall performances contributed to make him the third-best Dover driver among A-Listers during the last eight seasons.
Other picks: Matt Kenseth (Average running position of eighth; 18 top 10s, 2 wins) Jeff Gordon (Four career wins; 73 percent of laps in top 15 during last eight races)
B-List Drivers (choose four, start two)
Would you believe Carl Edwards was one spot away from making it four straight top-10 finishes last week? Quietly and steadily, Edwards and Roush-Fenway Racing seem to be making inroads on catching the dominance of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Dover should continue the recent positive trend.
Edwards crashed in the spring Dover race a year ago and wound up 26th, marking his first finish of worse than 11th at the concrete oval since 2006. He was one win in that period and his fifth-place run last fall marked his eighth career top 5 at Dover. Only Johnson and Kenseth have a better Dover driver rating than Edwards in the last 16 Dover races.
Thanks to his limited schedule, you’ll probably not run through all nine available starts for Mark Martin this season. That makes him an easy choice at Dover.
Last year, Martin had two top-15 finishes at the Monster Mile — including a third-place run in the fall that tied for his second-best finish of the 2012 season. Beyond that, Martin has been good at Dover both recently and throughout his career. In the last eight seasons, he has an average finish of 11th and has spent more than three-fourths of his laps in the top 15. He’s tied with Jeff Gordon for the second-most Dover wins among active drivers (4) and he hasn’t finished worse than 23rd there since 2002.
Last year Dover — land of local seafood restaurants featuring fresh catches from the nearby Atlantic Ocean — proved to be the Sea of Heartbreak (hat tip, Don Gibson!) for Kyle Busch. The No. 18 blew an engine in the spring race just past halfway as Joe Gibbs Racing cars are wont to do. Busch stormed back in the fall in his missed-Chase rage to lead 302 laps before a fuel mileage finish dropped him to 14th. It was a leave-the-track-without-comment kind of day for Kyle.
Even with those issues — and two other blown engines at Dover in his career — Busch’s numbers there make him a good bet Sunday. In his last 16 Dover starts, Busch has led the third-most laps of any active driver.
Biffle is another driver you’ve likely used sparingly this year, waiting for RFR to finally find fourth gear amid a mostly middling start. Remember, at his point one year ago Biffle held a 10-point lead in the series standings. Now, he’s 13th and 121 points back.
Dover has long been good to the Biff with a recent average finish of 9.6 and an average running position of 10th. His percentage of fastest in-race laps in that 16-race period is the highest among B-Listers. Though he has struggled some recently at the track where he’s won twice, Biffle is due to jumpstart his season after three finishes of 31st or worse in his last four races. That team is too good to continue a poor streak like that.
Other picks: Ryan Newman (Three career Dover wins; second-best track for career average finish) Kurt Busch (Surging team returns to site of Kurt’s last win) Martin Truex Jr. (Site of lone career race win in 2007; two top 10s in 2012)
C-List (Choose two, start one)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Undoubtedly, you’ve used Stenhouse plenty this season thanks to the lack of other consistent, quality talent in the C-List. He’s still the best pick for Dover among the group — and he’s likely better than almost half of the B-Listers. Stenhouse finished 12th in his lone Sprint Cup start at Dover, five spots ahead of his 17th-place start.
At a place like Dover, Smith seems to be as good a bet as any in the C-List. He drives for James Finch’s team for the seventh time this year Sunday following his 17th-place run last weekend at Charlotte. No, that car hasn’t had noteworthy speed and, no, a top 20 isn’t guaranteed. But Smith has yet to come home worse than 25th in that car this season. Better yet, he’s finished nine of his 10 career Dover races.
Other picks: David Reutimann (Average Dover finish is 20th) David Ragan (Average Dover finish is 24th)
David Smith crunches the numbers for the FedEx 400
Last year at Dover, Jimmie Johnson proved a driver will do anything for the sponsor. (ASP, Inc.)
“The Monster Mile” isn’t just a title for the purposes of ticket sales. It is a fine summation of a truly unique racetrack that causes fits for the majority of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver roster twice a year.
Dover International Speedway is a one-mile, high-banked attention grabber of a facility with fast closing speeds and diminished reaction time. It also offers some of the greatest lore in modern day NASCAR.
Jimmie Johnson is supremely dominant; so dominant, in fact, that it’s said he can’t be beaten, unless fuel mileage becomes a factor. Denny Hamlin is admittedly awful, so bad that he had to consult a sports psychologist prior to last fall’s race just so that he wouldn’t be mentally defeated before ever making the trip to Delaware.
The numbers from recent seasons seemingly back the mythology. For Hamlin, it is a troublesome track. For Johnson and others, it’s a tremendous coliseum.
5.958 Jimmie Johnson’s 5.958 PEER at Dover is the best in the Cup Series.
With four wins in the last eight races, Johnson is arguably better at Dover than any driver at any other track — Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen offers a valid opposition — and easily ranks as the series’ most productive racer. This stems not only from winning, but winning with gusto. His affinity for pacing the field on the Monster Mile is of legendary proportions.
65.6% In his four victories at Dover during the CoT era, Johnson had an average laps led percentage of 65.6.
This means Johnson doesn’t just win. He dominates. That’s sort of his general modus operandi when it comes to Dover, considering he has led 52.5 percent of the total laps there dating back to the 2009 spring race. In that time frame he averaged a running position of third place or better. Dover delivers a hectic day to most drivers, so it figures that Johnson has dwindled his competition down to about one or two other drivers in races there the last few years. This is also evident in his passing numbers.
78 Johnson converted 39 pass encounters out of a comparatively low two-race total of 78 into green-flag passes during the 2012 races at Dover.
That 50 percent passing efficiency on a low number of encounters is a byproduct of running in the front of the field all day. That he was able to avoid “for-position” traffic for the majority of the races at Dover is fairly advantageous for a team looking to take care of its car and come away with a victory. Aside from lapped traffic, Johnson didn’t often find himself in harm’s way that much last season.
75.5% Kyle Busch did his best Johnson impression at Dover in last fall’s race, leading 75.5 percent of the race’s total laps. He did not win.
Instead, a rare fuel mileage-predicated ending awarded the win to Brad Keselowski, but Busch demonstrated that he was perfectly able to do “Kyle Busch things” on the dicey one-mile oval. Taking into account how dominant he has been in 2013, Busch is a win threat this weekend despite his sixth-best Dover-specific production rating (3.042).
4.833 Tied for second in Dover PEER with a 4.833 rating is Matt Kenseth, who might serve as a potential spoiler for this weekend’s event.
It takes me aback that there are those that are surprised by Kenseth’s success behind the wheel of a Joe Gibbs Racing car early this season. Kenseth has always been a savvy driver from track to track, but now he is piloting equipment that offers a bigger “home run” threat, so to speak, compared to his former Roush Fenway Racing digs. It appears that JGR is benefiting from the Gen-6 more than a lot of the other heavyweight teams in the sport, so the always-reliable Kenseth is in a plum position to score wins at tracks on which he has always been a skilled producer. Dover is one such track.
Dover: Not Denny Hamlin's cup of concrete. (ASP, Inc.)
28.09% Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team currently have a 28.09 percent probability of making the Chase, which is the 17th best chance in the series.
Making the Chase conventionally via the top 10 automatic spots is likely not an option for Hamlin, who missed four races due to injury. He is still on track to finish inside the top 20, which is one of the two prerequisites for wild card accumulation (the other is win total). Dover provides a significant hurdle for Hamlin, who is historically rotten there (his career average finish is 19.6) with a replacement-level 0.417 PEER that ranks 26th out of 47 drivers. A good finish will see his probability of cracking the top 20 skyrocket (he is currently 24th). A win, albeit a shock, could be all he needs to put himself in the Chase.