Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Coca-Cola 600
Kevin Harvick earned his second win of 2013 in the Coca-Cola 600. (ASP, Inc.)
Fourteen leaders. 68 lead changes. A three-wide battle coming off a restart that decides the race. Read those two lines and you’re probably thinking, “typical NASCAR race at Talladega.”
Nope. Instead, those stats defined what could be the best Indianapolis 500 in a generation. As we look back at the Coca-Cola 600, it’s important to stop and recognize open-wheel’s glory day because the event was everything NASCAR was not. There was a sentimental winner, Tony Kanaan, whose post-race celebration from teams and crews became reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 “monkey off his back” victory of 1998. There was passing paired with a sense of urgency — and not just on Lap 190 of 200 — but throughout the entire event. Cautions were scarce, resulting in the fastest average speed in history, yet they weren’t needed to define and/or add excitement to the race. Oh, and should I mention a car even crashed on pit road and IndyCar kept the race under green?
Let’s compare that with Sunday night’s Charlotte event, one that will forever be defined by a piece of nylon rope. That snapped camera cable, from a FOX setup overhead, injured 10 fans, stopped the race and damaged three cars, including top contender Kyle Busch. Of the race’s 11 cautions, six were debris related and a few were positioned well by hot dog wrappers to bunch up the field in order to heighten the race’s entertainment. In a race 100 miles longer than Indy’s 500, there were just 11 leaders, 24 lead changes and three drivers (Busch, Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth) led 338 of 400 laps.
Does that mean Indy was perfect? Far from it; the race ended under yellow, drafting made it impossible for a strong car to pull away and there’s still too much homogeneity between teams. NASCAR had strong moments, including a surprise winner of its own in Kevin Harvick. But while the ratings likely won’t show it, in terms of pure competition, Sunday was the first time I can remember where IndyCar, head-to-head with the racing rival that unseated it from “top dog” inside the U.S., turned around, wound up and punched stock cars back, smack in the face in a bid to regain supremacy.
That won’t do much … yet. But at some point, that’s going to resonate with viewers and NASCAR would do well to pay attention. Turnarounds start with little victories like these.
Back to Charlotte…
FIRST GEAR: Kevin Harvick stole himself a Chase bid
He’s led 33 laps all season, good enough for just 17th on the Sprint Cup charts. Among those drivers listed ahead of him: Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin and Greg Biffle. But what none of those drivers have is a Cup win, let alone two. Harvick pulled another rabbit out of his hat on Sunday, the “Closer” playing it perfectly by taking two tires on the final caution while the leader, Kahne, stayed on track.
“It came down to a restart,” Harvick said bluntly, slotting in second after the stop and knowing clean air was all that was needed. “In the end, it was good enough to win the race.”
It’s also likely good enough to make the Chase. Now seventh in points, the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing team likely doesn’t have the speed to stay inside the top 10 long-term — not with Busch, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski among those sitting behind them. Over the course of the 26-race regular season, though, those two victories will be more than enough to snag a “wild card” position and put the pressure on Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and those who we know need the victories. It’s possible that those on the outside of the top 10 will have to come up with three wins to sneak into the postseason, which is not an easy feat with 14 races left.
As for Harvick’s unexpected victory? He survived; the epitome of what this race is all about. While problems befell the favorites, from the Busch brothers to Matt Kenseth to even a weakened Jimmie Johnson, the No. 29 car was put in position to win. As veteran Jeff Burton has slyly pointed out, that’s all you need. Sometimes, circumstances dictate the rest.
SECOND GEAR: The rope snap heard around the world
Until Sunday night, most people thought CamCAT was some sort of military DefCon mission or secret weapon you’d acquire in Call of Duty. Instead, it will forever stand for the camera whose ropes came toppling onto the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway, snapping into pieces on Lap 121 in an incident that sent three fans to the hospital, injured 10 and turned Kyle Busch’s front end, among others, into a mangled mess.
The technology, around since 2000, was being utilized by FOX for just the second time in NASCAR, following a successful Daytona 500 debut. One reason for its scarceness is the setup. It takes five days, including two cranes mounted on different sides of the track in Turns 1 and 4.
Three ropes make the camera tick, allowing it to slide above the track and deliver the type of breathtaking views fans love. But when one of those ropes broke, chaos broke loose and the snapping of the cable could have easily killed someone as debris kicked up everywhere. For the second time, NASCAR got lucky through a freak accident (see: February’s Nationwide race in Daytona) and was able to throw a red flag, clean up the mess and get fans treated (all have been released). It’s also to NASCAR’s credit that teams were allowed to fix cars torn apart by the cable. It’s one thing when a random event happens, like a hot dog wrapper or an overcooked engine that changes the course of a driver’s race. But when a TV crew broadcasting the event is involved in affecting the outcome through an equipment failure I think trying to reconstruct the race the way it was is perfectly reasonable.
Certainly, there’s some inconsistency within that, as Robby Gordon has lost a race in the past (Watkins Glen, early 2000s) through a TV malfunction. However, in this case NASCAR made the right call. And FOX is doing the right thing by suspending the camera going forward. The best thing to do here is chalk it up to “one of those freak things” and move on.
THIRD GEAR: Mark Martin’s rocky road
It’s been a long time since we’ve worried about the competitiveness of Mark Martin. But since late April, the now 54-year-old has done some things that make you scratch your head. At Richmond, he was involved in a heated incident with Kahne in which it looked like the veteran initiated contact. At Charlotte, it was another surprising mistake, as one of the sport’s cleanest drivers stuck his nose in the wrong place at wrong time, sparking a wreck that took out Chase contenders Jeff Gordon and Aric Almirola while hampering the nights of several others.
Suddenly, Martin’s year doesn’t look so rosy, with just one top-5 finish (third, Daytona) and zero laps led since February at Phoenix. A “lame duck” at Michael Waltrip Racing, you wonder if the impending departure will now begin to take its toll. After all, since leaving Roush, his sophomore campaigns at other teams, from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports, have always resulted in a downturn in performance. The big difference? None of them involved these types of uncharacteristic mistakes on the racetrack. Could this year finally be the one where Martin decides to call it quits?
Kasey Kahne had the preferred line, but Harvick had fresher tires and a propensity for restarts. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Don’t be fooled by bad luck blues
The sport’s biggest contenders in Sunday night’s race all got knocked out by problems not of their making. Kyle Busch, who led 65 laps, had another engine expire. Kenseth was involved in someone else’s mess. Kurt Busch had a battery fail while leading. And Kahne was caught by circumstances, a sitting duck once the final caution of the night came out. Perhaps the best car all weekend, Kahne was forced to settle for second in a no-win scenario: had he pitted for tires, like the rest of those up front, the No. 5 car would have likely come out 10th as others would have stayed out.
However, a look at the big picture shows that these four, believe it or not, are the biggest threats to Johnson’s sixth title as we speak. Kyle Busch, should his team correct the mechanical problems that dog him, has led 805 laps already and has the best average start (6.2) in the series, important for the Chase where track position racing is paramount. Kenseth, who has led a series-high 893 laps, has been the only one besides Johnson to be strong at every single track on the circuit, from the shorts to 2.5-mile superspeedways. Kurt Busch, as surprising as it seems, could be a “wild card” should he find some way to sneak into the postseason through winning races. After a third-place finish Sunday — one that could easily have been two better without a battery failure — he’s shown strength and potential consistency on the types of tracks that would make him a dark horse during a 10-race playoff.
But perhaps the most important name on the list is Kahne. Take away two wrecks (Daytona and Talladega) and he would quietly be in the points lead instead of Johnson. The No. 5 car has been battling with Kenseth for “best of the intermediates,” with three runner-up showings (Las Vegas, Kansas and Charlotte). That’s a title you want to have with a postseason that includes five such 1.5-milers.
Kudos to AJ Allmendinger, who was seventh in his Indy 500 debut driving for Roger Penske. Only a faulty seat belt which forced an unscheduled stop prevented one of the cooler feel-good victories in recent memory. It looks increasingly clear NASCAR is losing this one to the “other side.” … No drivers did the double this season and Brian France remains uninterested in jumpstarting talks to make that Indy 500/Coke 600 feat repeat itself again. Why do both series insist on shooting themselves in the foot? Publicity from that type of thing only helps the entry lists, national visibility and ratings for all sides. … Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose engine blew Sunday night, has slid outside the top 5 in points. June is an important month for him, with the one-year anniversary of his last win at Michigan slotted in between potential weaknesses at Pocono and Sonoma. Could the No. 88 team be on the bubble for the Chase once more?
David Smith crunches the numbers for the Memorial Day marathon in Charlotte
All-Star victor Jimmie Johnson. (ASP, Inc.)
Jimmie Johnson stirred up the masses with his second straight Sprint All-Star Race win on Saturday. Johnson, historically dominant at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track that was once referred to as “his house” when his car and the facility shared primary sponsor branding, now looms large as the driver to beat in this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600. At least that’s the narrative, as I understand it.
The truth is, the All-Star Race and the 600 don’t correlate. As we learned in this space last week, in 13 tries dating back to 2000, the winner of the All-Star Race has gone on to 600 glory just three times. One of those three was Johnson in 2003, but it shouldn’t have any bearing for two reasons.
First, the short-burst speeds that excelled last weekend won’t help in this Sunday’s 400-lap motorized marathon. The two races are practically different disciplines for drivers and teams.
Second, Johnson isn’t the Johnson of old. If Charlotte is his house, then quite a few squatters have thrown house parties unbeknownst to him. The difference from the old Johnson at Charlotte and the Johnson now is a matter of pavement.
Charlotte was repaved in 2006 after a botched diamond-grating job in 2005. A repaved track usually means that old setup and strategy notes are thrown out, because the tricks that used to work now do not. That is why Johnson is no longer the clear-cut class of the field. His average finish helps tell the story.
6.67 Johnson and the No. 48 team averaged a 6.67-place finish in nine races prior to the 2006 repaving project.
Five of those nine races resulted in victory for Johnson, who led 22 percent of the 3,882 total laps in that time frame. There was very little doubt as to who the car to beat was in the pre-repave era at CMS.
That quickly changed.
16.92 In the 12 races since the repave, Johnson and team have averaged a finish of 16.92.
Johnson does have a win to his credit (Oct. 2009) in the “new era” of Charlotte, but his sheer dominance is a distant memory. The No. 48 bunch has finished third or better in five of those 12 races, but the eclectic nature of his results — his 13.97 finish deviation in these races suggests his finishes ranged from good to bad to middle of the road — means he is no longer the consistent win threat he once was.
A few other drivers have made waves recently at Charlotte, including one driving alongside Johnson under the Hendrick Motorsports banner.
5.250 Kasey Kahne ranks first in Charlotte-specific PEER among 57 Cup Series drivers with a 5.250 rating.
Last year’s Coca-Cola 600 race winner was the king of CMS in the CoT era, winning twice and finishing eighth or better on seven occasions. Considering he led just over seven percent of the laps in the last 10 races, he might be the most inconspicuous top producer among all drivers and tracks.
Unlike Kahne, the driver who ranks second in PEER — a measure of performance in all-equal equipment — didn’t win at Charlotte the last five years, but his showings were filled with tremendous gusto.
20.6% Kyle Busch has led 722 laps, or 20.6 percent of total laps, at Charlotte in the last 10 races there.
That none of these dominant outings have translated into a win is sort of a joke, but these races at Charlotte are long, providing plenty of room for parity in varying strategies. Busch’s modus operandi is to get out front and stay there, a strategy that a team is hard-pressed to execute successfully in a daunting 600-mile race.
17.22 Clint Bowyer averaged a 17.22 finish, with a best finish of sixth, in the nine Charlotte races leading up to his win there during the Chase last fall.
There must be some mighty fine magic in Brian Pattie’s fuel-saving elixir. Bowyer’s win in the fall wasn’t a surprise in the broad sense — he and the No. 15 team finished second in last year’s standings — but in the Charlotte-specific sense, it was, because Bowyer had a rough go of it through the majority of the CoT era. Assuming his crew chief’s innovative strategies don’t work this Sunday, Bowyer could be in for a lengthy, mind-numbing battle for track position.
0.300 Tony Stewart ranks 37th in Cup Series PEER at Charlotte.
Stewart’s bad year is likely to get worse, because his production rating at Charlotte ranks below those of Scott Riggs (0.833), Elliott Sadler (0.583) and Landon Cassill (0.450). His best finish in the last 10 Charlotte races is eighth, which conveniently came during his thunderous Chase run in 2011. His efforts there haven’t been crash-ridden — he has actually led 165 laps across five races in that span and hasn’t finished lower than 25th — just mediocre compared to his past results on other racetracks.
4 hours Three of the last four Coca-Cola 600s, in which all of the scheduled 400 laps were completed, went past the four-hour mark.
If you’re watching from home, get comfortable. This is an endurance contest invented because the good folks at CMS wanted to trump Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend in the worst of ways. (What’s one way to make a race seem bigger than the Indianapolis 500? Call it the World 600, which was this event’s original name.)
While I’m not suggesting the race will be a boring one, keep in mind that teams tend to outlast the daylight and conserve equipment for the majority of the race. It isn’t a race that lends itself to aggression.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at the All-Star Race
Jimmie Johnson wins the All-Star Race. Again. (ASP, Inc.)
Say what you want about Jimmie Johnson. Critics have a long list of rebuttals for why he’s not the greatest driver of this era: Chad Knaus, superior equipment and more money through sponsor Lowe’s than his closest rivals. But it’s hard to argue the stats on paper. Johnson’s fourth win in the All-Star Race, a NASCAR record, launched him past teammate Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.
With five Cup championships, 62 wins and another decade or so to add to that total, it’s time to give the man his due. Yes, he may be paired forever with a political correctness label that leaves him scorned by much of the fan base. Surely, Knaus and owner Rick Hendrick’s “New York Yankees” model of having the best of the best in all positions helps immensely. But someone still has to drive the car. Johnson had to hold off a hungry Kasey Kahne, side-by-side and initially charge forward from a starting spot of 20th place. That was no easy feat, a goal that could only be reached by a select few.
This All-Star Race was another reminder that, like it or not, Johnson is clearly in the “Greatest Driver of His Era” category. A decade from now, when all is said and done in his career, Saturday night will surely not be the only record he’ll leave behind.
Other gears to shift through after NASCAR’s greatest exhibition include…
FIRST GEAR: The All-Star Race Needs a retool
The All-Star Race has long been billed as one where sparks fly, rivalries ignite and drivers let it all hang out. So what have we gotten these last nine years during the Chase era? A total of one pass for the lead within the last five laps. There have been few, if any, incidents of close racing let alone contact between drivers that would spark fan interest. On Saturday night, Johnson needed two laps to fully dispose of Kahne before cruising to the checkers, part of a 90-lapper that had only one major incident (Mark Martin being spun out by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.). Not exactly the type of marketing the sport needs for an exhibition race, right?
Clearly it’s not all the driver’s faults. Charlotte has struggled as a racetrack since a 2005 “levigation” experiment gone awry, producing asphalt that’s left Goodyear in a pickle. In the first race run after the process, a 500-miler was nearly stopped as tires blew every 15-20 laps; in response, the tire company has acted more scared there than a five-year-old without a nightlight in his room. The rubber they produce, every time out, has been far too conservative, forcing the drivers to race the same, as little falloff (creating similar lap times) combined with high speeds make passing difficult at best.
With that in mind, Saturday night still felt like a missed opportunity from a garage that’s not too happy with each other right now. From Kasey Kahne-Kyle Busch to Denny Hamlin-Joey Logano, the list of drivers who feel they “owe” somebody for some past on-track issue is lengthy; Don King could have a field day with a Friday Night Boxing Special on HBO. So with a chance to take a “free shot,” all these drivers did … was nothing. Absolutely nothing but ride around, make laps and watch as the prohibitive favorite (Johnson) entering the event took control and pulled away. It was anticlimactic, paired with a staggering amount of empty seats and with a format based on best average finish for the final segment that left fans referring to an abacus. Add in a graphical mistake by SPEED that made it look like NASCAR was manipulating the rules for “Five-Time,” and the whole show took on the feel of a debacle.
Clearly, major changes for this race need to happen, and they need to happen now. Stick ‘n’ ball sports are struggling with All-Star formats too, but no one seems to need to go back to the drawing board more than NASCAR.
SECOND GEAR: Kurt Busch proving his worth
Furniture Row Racing, as a single-car team, has just one victory in its near-decade of NASCAR competition. Expect that to change soon. Kurt Busch is on a tear, winning the pole for the All-Star Race (as well as the pole at Darlington the week prior) and winning two of the first four segments of the race. Only a slow pit stop kept the No. 78 from Victory Lane, as Busch lost track position for the final 10 laps and was forced to settle for fifth.
In the past, that incident would cause the once-tempestuous driver to explode. Make no mistake, Busch has had his in-race moments in 2013, but Saturday night was another example of Busch keeping those mood swings in check. Yes, he let his frustration be known over the in-car radio, but the fury was nowhere near on par with past outbursts, and there certainly was no throwing the crew under the bus — instead, he was roundly complimentary.
No doubt, that belies a level of confidence the driver feels with this program, more heavily linked with Richard Childress Racing than ever before, as the big man himself considers potentially placing the driver in a top-tier ride in the RCR camp come 2014.
Still in the top 20 in points, Charlotte’s 600-miler presents one of several opportunities for this team to steal a win in the coming weeks (Michigan, Sonoma and Daytona are others that come to mind). With a “win or wreck” mentality, Busch is likely to run around 20th in points, which means he’s the biggest roadblock for Denny Hamlin should this team break out and reach Victory Lane multiple times.
The “wild card” race is about to ramp up.
THIRD GEAR: Ford’s failure
Brad Keselowski, blowing a transmission on the second lap, said it all for a Ford contingent that’s looking a step behind. Despite adding two cars to its roster this offseason through Penske Racing, Fords have only won twice this season in 11 starts (plus a 12th opportunity in the All-Star Race). For every feel-good story (Carl Edwards’ return to prominence, David Ragan’s Talladega miracle, Aric Almirola’s top-10 surge) there’s been a long list of tough ones. Greg Biffle has been maddeningly inconsistent, hitting the wall at Charlotte Saturday night and once again being a non-factor. Ditto Joey Logano, although his charg to a strong second behind Johnson in the closing laps of the All-Star Race was admirable. Marcos Ambrose was once again invisible and will need to rely on road course expertise to make the Chase.
With Hendrick and Gibbs clicking on all cylinders for Chevrolet and Toyota, respectively, there’s not one top team you can rely on across the board at Ford right now. They really need to take the two weeks while at home in Charlotte to study their notes, retool and get it together for NASCAR’s grueling summer stretch.
Danica Patrick road the fan vote to a 20th-place showing. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Pretty and popular doesn’t equal all-star
NASCAR’s two Most Popular Drivers — at least on paper — were non-factors Saturday night. Danica Patrick, the Fan Vote winner, was ninth in the sport’s preliminary race before using that support to sneak into the main event. But she ran 20th, the last car on the lead lap, finishing behind even under-funded David Ragan, Talladega’s surprise winner.
It wasn’t much better for Earnhardt, whose Hendrick Motorsports teammates sat on the front row for the final segment while the No. 88 languished at the back half of the top 10. Running seventh, he’s now led just once, for a single lap, in the last 10 races in what’s hardly described as an All-Star performance.
No doubt, these two names get the sport maximum publicity when running well. But it’s hard to put them on TV or celebrate their accomplishments no matter how hard NASCAR tries when they can’t find the speed to keep up.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch in the All-Star Race
1. All-Star race, qualifying format changes in store
The most exciting NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying event of the season happens Friday night at 6:00 pm EST.
That's a fact even without the new hair-raising rule change allowing drivers to speed both away from pit road (like always) as well as enter it without a speed limit (new).
Qualifying for drivers in the Sprint All-Star Race is unique in that it demands three total laps around the track and must include a four-tire pit stop. In the past, that's been plenty exciting because NASCAR hasn't enforced a pit road speed limit after the pit stop — forcing drivers to manage 800-plus horsepower hooking up to their rear wheels from a dead standstill.
Now, they'll be doing the same coming to pit road. Lassoing a race car from the corner banking to pit road while slowing down is an event right on the edge. Nursing it down without scrubbing speed has the potential to go flying over that edge.
Additionally, NASCAR initiated the "Johnson Rule" for this season after last year's winner Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus played the strategy too well. Johnson won the first of four segments in 2012 to earn the pole for the 10-lap heat race at the end. In the remaining three segments, he sandbagged to keep his car in one piece.
This year, NASCAR will use a method that makes sense but one without a thought to how fans at the track will be able to compute it. Essentially, the 10-lap finale returns after a mandatory pit road visit. But instead of individual segment winners getting automatic priority, NASCAR will set the pre-pit road lineup by average finish.
It's a smart fix, but a silly one all at once thanks to the calculators required to know who even leads.
2. Johnson aims for All-Star record
Defending All-Star race winner Johnson is bound to get plenty of coverage this weekend as he guns for a fourth win in the midseason exhibition race. A checkered flag for Johnson — or teammate Jeff Gordon, for that matter — would set a new bar for the most wins in the event.
Only one other driver has ever scored three wins in the race for not much else than money and pride. Of course, that's Dale Earnhardt.
Gordon and Johnson, however, haven't had the best of relationships with the All-Star event in recent seasons. For Gordon, a top 10 in the exhibition race hasn't happened since his third-place run in 2006 and he hasn't won since his epic 2001 victory in a back-up car after a rain shower on the first lap caused a massive Turn 1 crash.
Johnson, meanwhile, went three seasons (2009, ’10 and ’11) without an All-Star top 10. That's not exactly futility, sure, but we are talking about Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3. Gibbs still looks for first All-Star win
One of the greatest oddities left in the always odd weekends produced by the All-Star Race is that Joe Gibbs Racing has never been to Victory Lane in the event.
It's not like JGR has paraded slouches into the race. The lack of checkered flag success has occurred despite drivers like Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett all giving it a go.
JGR, though, will be the hot pick this weekend. A week after a near-miss on a 1-2-3 finish at Darlington Raceway, the Toyotas from that camp have proven to be the fastest machines this season despite reliability. Matt Kenseth, riding high off win No. 3, should be the team's primary favorite.
It will also be worth watching how the recently returned Hamlin will compete Saturday night. Will he be willing to take major chances for a win so soon after his return from his back injury?
We'll find out.
4. Using the All-Star Race for Coca-Cola 600 knowledge
The All-Star weekend festivities are the traditional kickoff of the Charlotte region's own version of Daytona's Speedweeks. Between the opening of Sprint Cup practice Friday for participants in the All-Star Race and the start of the Coca-Cola 600 next Sunday evening, drivers and teams are scheduled to have four hours and 50 minutes of open practice.
That doesn't even include the race conditions teams will get to experience Saturday night.
The result of all of this track time is often a line of thinking saying the teams who fare well this weekend have the inside line to a win — or at least record a good finish — in the 600 next weekend. Results, though, tell a different story.
In fact, five of last 10 All-Star Race winners haven't even finished in the top 10 of the following Coca-Cola 600. Plus, the last 10 years has produced an average of just four drivers scoring top-10 finishes in both events.
Whether you chalk it up to the normalization of racing or blame the effects of a 600-mile race, the result stays the same: a good run Saturday night doesn't guarantee a good one the following Sunday.
5. NASCAR remembers fun-loving, hard-charging Dick Trickle
News that former NASCAR driver Dick Trickle took his own life Thursday in North Carolina spread across the sport in a startling, sad fashion. By the evening, words from every corner of the sport were spoken, typed or sent expressing remorse.
The grief for Trickle, both for his death and in the somber realization of the extreme personal baggage he carried in the waning period of his life, had no bounds and reflected the wake he left in his now long-retired career. The most remarkable part of Trickle's impact, of course, is that his NASCAR numbers were never remarkable.
Trickle didn't drive a full season in today's Sprint Cup Series until he was 47 years old in 1989. Just three times — 1990, ’92 and ’95 — did the Wisconsin short track ace ever qualify for every race on a season's schedule. He made 303 Cup starts, scoring just 15 top-5 finishes and never a Cup win. He did rope two career Nationwide (then Busch) Series wins (1997, ’98).
Trickle's mark on the sport came in both his legend from his midwest short track days and the number of drivers he raced along the way. Of course, his trademark of enjoying a cigarette during a race's caution flag was unforgettable to even casual race fans in the 1990s.
It's not a stretch to wonder if today's NASCAR — good or bad — would ever have room for a character like Trickle that helped the sport's narrative in ways that leading laps and hoisting trophies could never do.
David Smith crunches the numbers for the million-dollar payday.
Matt Kenseth is on an intermediate track roll. (ASP, Inc.)
The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race isn’t a typical all-star event.
Unlike the stick ‘N’ ball all-star “breaks” that feature lackadaisical effort and are more celebrated for the parties that supplement the fan activities rather than the actual contests, the Sprint Cup Series version of an all-star event pits recent race winners and champions in a race comprised of dash-style formats which has a $1 million carrot dangling on the end of a stick. It’s wild, unpredictable and in no way resembles a normal NASCAR race.
It also doesn’t have much bearing on the following week’s Coca-Cola 600, which, like the All-Star Race, takes place at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3 in 13 Dating back to 2000, a span of 13 races, the All-Star Race winner has gone on to win the next week’s Coca-Cola 600 just three times.
Though they take place at the same facility, the two races don’t actually coalesce. The 600 not only requires a car capable of thriving on extended green-flag runs, but also a team that has built a setup to survive in both day and night conditions. The All-Star Race simply requires a setup for short runs, making the drivers and teams that excel at such a thing instant favorites.
3.2 Matt Kenseth has the highest average race rank (3.2) among all drivers in speed early in green-flag runs.
Kenseth, who also ranks first in the series in speed on restarts, has been a juggernaut at the drop of the green flag and for the ensuing 25 laps. While the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team has been stellar on intermediate tracks this season — two of its three wins came at Las Vegas and Kansas — it will be its affinity for immediate speed that separates it from the rest of the field in Saturday night’s event.
6 in 13 In the last 13 All-Star Races, six were won by drivers that had visited victory lane at an intermediate track in one of the prior races that same season.
The fact that Kenseth has captured two 1.5-mile (intermediate) track victories this season provides no guarantees for Saturday. It doesn’t take numbers — just common sense — to understand that this race is its own beast. A stout intermediate program like the one JGR is currently flaunting is always good to have, but the varying formats of the race don’t lend it to easy prognostication. If Kenseth becomes the victor, it will be because of the combination of car strength and short-run ability.
The All-Star Race format should benefit Kyle Busch. (ASP, Inc.)
56.89% With a 56.89 percent pass efficiency, Kyle Busch is the most efficient passer in the Cup Series.
Busch is in a good spot for this race. Not only is his No. 18 team good early in green-flag runs (it ranks second to Kenseth), but he has also been able to pass at will all season. That comes in handy when a driver is aiming for a $1 million winner’s purse. It also makes him a favorite in the bonus purse — a driver that wins all four segments of the event gets an additional $1 million — which will take both explosions out of restarts and, if that fails, adept passing. If there’s a pick to click for this unprecedented purse, it’s Rowdy.
54.55% Busch and his No. 18 team have finished in the top half of fields in six of 11 races, or 54.55 percent of the time.
So Busch is one of my drivers to watch for the All-Star race, but how about the championship? Presently there is a consistency problem, seen in that 54.55 number, which is on par with the likes of Jeff Burton and the No. 31 team and Kurt Busch and the No. 78 team. Aside from mechanical maladies, Busch has the second-worst crash frequency in the series (0.55), keeping them from recording high finishes in five races. That low of a percentage is something that can intervene in the team’s quest for a championship; it is the lowest percentage among drivers currently inside the top 12 in points.
0.64 Marcos Ambrose’s crash frequency of 0.64 is the worst in the series.
This year has been a house of horrors for Ambrose, who is currently sporting a replacement-level Performance in Equal Equipment Rating of 0.659 and sits 23rd in the standings while Aric Almirola, the driver of Richard Petty Motorsports’ sister car, is in Chase contention. It should be noted that Ambrose’s contract with RPM is up at season’s end. This likely isn’t the sort of start to the season for which the free agent-to-be was hoping.
Ambrose, by way of his 2012 victory at Watkins Glen, is entered in this weekend’s All-Star Race. It might be Hail Mary time for the struggling No. 9 team.
$1 million The winner’s share for this event, a cool $1 million, would benefit David Ragan and his Front Row Motorsports team in spectacular fashion.
Sponsorship has been hard to come by for the underdog organization that captured the surprise victory two weekends ago at Talladega. Ragan’s No. 34 team pocketed $3,524,091 in winnings during the 2012 season. It would take some radical setup strategy and a car unlike any they’ve ever had to score the $1 million jackpot, but that sum of money would represent roughly 28 percent of last year’s take. For them to earn that kind of money in one night’s work would be a miraculous achievement and go down as one of the greatest upsets in the sport’s history.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Darlington
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
The Southern 500, while no longer held on Labor Day is still looked at as one of NASCAR’s biggest races. Darlington remains the place where, in 1950, an egg-shaped, awkward-looking asphalt track gave birth to superspeedway competition. Thirty-five years later, a million-dollar Chase by a man named Awesome Bill was another notch in the sport’s belt that wrapped the racetrack into our national consciousness. Like golf’s Masters, purists regard it as one of the sport’s crown jewels.
“I don’t know that I’ve had a win that feels bigger than this at this moment,” said Matt Kenseth on Saturday night. Keep in mind, the former Sprint Cup champ has had plenty of ‘em; well over two dozen, including two of the last five Daytona 500s. “There’s a lot of tradition here. This is one of the most storied and historic races anywhere, not just in NASCAR.”
To those Kenseth’s age and older, that will always ring true. The key is getting a new generation to embrace it. Overnight ratings at Darlington, for the 18-to-49 crowd according to zap2it.com lost out to the NBA Playoffs on ABC. “The Lady In Black” can tear a Chevrolet apart, but the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony? He slam dunks right in her face.
It’s a shame, as an initial marketing push for Darlington’s May date designed to keep the seats filled has faded through the years, leaving the “Track Too Tough To Tame” a “Track Too Easy To Forget.” For one of the most important races on the schedule, getting tucked into Mother’s Day weekend on a Saturday night makes the race now seem lost, not loved. The importance of the Chase has diminished its overall worth on the schedule; right now, it’s just another event, with no Winston Millions or even an extra $100 bill attached to the trophy. Having a track-position yawner of a race Saturday didn’t help, either, as Goodyear seems like it’s missing the mark here more often than not.
People say NASCAR has been losing its place on the national sports landscape for several years. Perhaps it’s because of simple decisions like this one, making a race its most dedicated supporters love just another notch on a long, monotonous conveyor belt. While Kasey Kahne feels like he deserves an apology this Monday, Darlington is looking for something much more simple: attention.
FIRST GEAR: Gibbs vs. Hendrick, anyone?
The brief moment sparks flew at Darlington between Hendrick’s Kahne and Gibbs’ Kyle Busch could be a sign of things to come down the road. In virtually every category you could come up with, their two organizations — totaling seven cars — have put a whooping on the 2013 Sprint Cup field. Kenseth’s win, earned when Busch had a right-rear tire go bad down the stretch, was his third in 11 races, a series high. Busch has tacked on two additional victories for JGR, as the teammates have combined for a series-leading 1,521 laps led – more than the next eight drivers on the list combined. Kenseth has been especially impressive, seizing opportunities (Las Vegas, Darlington) late in the race where others have dominated. And he did it this time with a temporary crew chief in Wally Brown, as Jason Ratcliff serves out a downgraded NASCAR penalty after an appeals court turned his Kansas engine issue into a blip on the radar screen.
Hendrick has countered with Jimmie Johnson, fourth on Saturday night and on virtual cruise control on top of the point standings. Winning twice, Johnson has just one result outside the top 20, remains a contender at every type of track and, this season, has avoided the sting of NASCAR’s inspection process. Teammates Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all look strong enough to make the Chase on points meaning 50 percent of the postseason field, at minimum, will be comprised of these two multi-car giants.
How dominant have these teams been? Just three of 11 races this season have been won by other organizations, and each can easily be explained away. Carl Edwards took Phoenix for Roush Fenway Racing in the second Gen-6 race, where rock hard tires meant no passing and track position roulette. Kevin Harvick captured Richmond for Richard Childress Racing, but he led just three laps in a bizarre, roll-the-dice green-white-checker ending. And David Ragan’s Talladega triumph last week? We know how much that race acts like your state’s lottery number machine.
So it’s clear that on the Chase tracks where handling, horsepower and head wrenches actually make the difference, HMS and JGR stand head and shoulders above the rest. With the season nearly halfway complete, it’s time for everyone else to start stepping up.
Kasey Kahne (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND GEAR: All-Star Race reuds coming?
While we’re at it, the Kahne-Busch battle is simply the latest in a long line that may need to be settled on Saturday night. While going for the lead late at Darlington, Kahne slid up in front of Busch only for the No. 18 to dive hard entering Turn 1. Whether there was contact or not is up for debate; the bottom line is it was too close for comfort. Kahne spun around, his chances to win went poof and the normally mild-mannered driver had the M&M’s Toyota to blame for a second week in a row.
“He’s got to just race me,” said Kahne about Busch. “I mean, I’ve never touched the guy in my life as far as on the race track. Three times this year, there have been other times in other years. I don’t really know what his deal is with me.”
Neither driver finished strong, as Kahne was 11th and Busch sixth to add fuel to their tempers going forward. So let’s see: that’s Kahne-Busch, Joey Logano-Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart-Kurt Busch … just the tip of the iceberg. If Charlotte’s amenable, this All-Star Race could finally see the types of settled scores that used to make it “must watch” event back in the day.
THIRD GEAR: Denny Hamlin is healthy
Perhaps the most understated run in a clean race that Gibbs dominated came from its driver of the No. 11 car. Darlington is one of the sport’s most physical tracks, as drivers take a beating on both mind and body. For Hamlin to return from an injury suffered in late May there, and not only come out of it feeling fine but running second shows that L1 Compression Fracture isn’t going to slow him much going forward.
“Really, it's like starting your season over,” he said, completing this distance for the first time since Fontana on March 24th. “It feels good to be competitive again. (But) I got to get back in racing shape. It will take time to get back to where I need to be.”
If that’s Hamlin in “out of shape” mode, drivers better beware. Clearly, the speed of JGR combined with a track position race helped his case. But second’s an A-plus baseline to start from when the task ahead is certainly brutal: Two-three wins, plus top 10s nearly every week to become Chase eligible by September.
FOURTH GEAR: Kurt Busch will put it together
It’s been a frustrating last few weeks for Busch, who’s been in position to win the last three races. At Richmond, he had a top-5 car down the stretch only to have circumstances and a bad last set of tires cost him. Then, at Talladega, he was in the lead pack of six cars, in position to make a run when a late caution bunched the field, jumbled up the draft and led to him being the bullseye in “The Big One.” Finally, at Darlington he won the pole at a track the No. 78 team has won at in the past, then led 69 laps only for his car to deteriorate on every pit stop once the green flag dropped. Busch stayed on the lead lap in the end, but wound up a disappointing 14th. No wonder why the driver’s been testing IndyCars, rumored to run a limited schedule in a crossover stunt later this year with Michael Andretti’s team after topping 218 mph in an Indy 500 rookie test (he won’t run that race this year).
But what’s been notable about this whole stretch in NASCAR land is how relatively calm the elder Busch has remained, even keeping his cool during a war of words post-race with Stewart at Richmond. The speed seems to be there from this team, and its presence up front makes it clear wins could come in the summer, whether at an intermediate (Charlotte? Michigan?) the road course at Sonoma or Daytona in July. Maturity finally may be making its mark. The question now may become where Busch feels his racing future should be, long-term.
OVERDRIVE Kyle Busch might be mad at what happened Saturday night, having left the track without comment, but Monday will offer the benefit of hindsight. With 265 laps led, he dominated and only bad luck kept him from Victory Lane, a curse that will change with time. Eleven times in his career he’s led 200-plus circuits in a race but scored the win in only three of them. ... As expected, the momentum for the two Davids’ thrilling one-two finish at Talladega came back to reality at a track where they just don’t have the horsepower to contend. The Front Row Motorsports cars were 29th and 39th Saturday night, with David Ragan blowing an engine and bowing out early. … What’s going on with Mark Martin? He hasn’t had a top-5 finish now with the No. 55 car since Daytona (third). The driver’s been involved in several on-track scuffles, some of his making and never so much as sniffed the top 20 at Darlington, a track right in his wheelhouse. Perhaps another indication this year will be his last in the series?
“Reganomics” was the rule last Saturday at Talladega and paid huge dividends for the winner Regan Smith in the Nationwide Series event. However, the first installment of Reganonmics was at the 2011 Southern 500. After getting jobbed out of a win at Talladega in 2008, Smith would have to wait three years to get another crack at one — and he delivered in the clutch in Darlington, holding off Carl Edwards on new tires for the final two laps. The win did get a bit overshadowed with the antics between Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in the final laps and on pit road following the race. To Busch’s credit, he actually did try to avoid confrontation twice before Harvick’s car went on a ghost ride into the wall. Busch would later claim his transmission wouldn’t grab reverse, and he didn’t want to get clobbered by Harvick.
by Vito Pugliese
9. 1965 Southern 500: Cale has left the building
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In recent years, NASCAR has made great strides in safety, notably with the installation of “soft wall” SAFER Barriers that line most walls around the circuit’s 23 tracks. Cale Yarborough could have used something like that at Darlinton at the 1965 Southern 500, as his Banjo Matthews owned No. 27 Ford ollies the guardrail and parks it with the fans outside of Turn 1. Check out his comments about it at 3:05 with Richard Petty, Benny Parsons and Darrell Waltrip — as well as those retro New Balances that have just been re-released.
by Vito Pugliese
8. 1997 Southern 500: Earnhardt punches out
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A scary moment in the opening laps of the 1997 Southern 500 occurred when Dale Earnhardt basically blacked out coming to take the green flag and then had trouble finding his way onto pit road. He would later say that he had an episode of double-vision before the incident, but then didn’t remember anything until he got out of the car. Doctors attributed it to a migraine-like episode or broken blood vessel in his brain. A couple of years later, Earnhardt would have surgery to remove a piece of metal from his skull that occurred during a shop incident in the 70’s. Fitting since he was nicknamed “Ironhead.”
by Vito Pugliese
7. 1970 Rebel 500: That’s why they now have window nets
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After seeing the rash of accidents at Talladega — including Kurt Busch barrel rolling and landing atop Ryan Newman’s windshield — it is a wonder nobody was injured. Such was not the case during the height of speedway racing in late 1960s and early ’70s. Richard Petty endures this violent head-on impact into the concrete retaining wall (nothing “soft” about these walls), blasting it apart, and then barrel rolling his Roadrunner, with his body hanging halfway out of the window. Petty would miss the next five races with a broken shoulder, and despite 18 wins that season, finished fourth in the final point standings.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 1993 Southern 500: Martin wins fourth straight
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Mark Martin’s No. 6 Valvoline Thunderbird was on a roll in 1993, and the train kept booking through Darlington. A race that was delayed once for rain, but only featured three caution flags was the perfect complement to the Roush team’s raked Ford that ran roughshod all summer long, tying the modern era record for consecutive wins at four. Ford honored the win by placing a full page ad in the USA Today that read, “It Was Labor Day Weekend, But We Celebrated The Fourth.” Pick up the action around the 3:04 mark and check out the banzai run by Dale Earnahardt. Think things were dark at ‘Dega last weekend? Check out the sun setting behind Turn 2 when Martin pulls into Victory Lane. Also, awesome hat.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 1997 Southern 500: Brother, can you spare a million bucks?
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Jeff Gordon was eligible for the Winston Million in 1997 after winning the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600. We pick up the action at 2:25, with five laps to go, as Jeff Burton gets past Dale Jarrett to get a shot at Gordon’s lead. Don’t let Tony Stewart see this last lap — he will lose it after seeing Gordon’s defensive maneuver coming to take the white flag. After the race, Burton said he would have nailed Gordon had he been able to get back to him. It was only the second time the Winston Million had been won at the time.
by Vito Pugliese
4. 2004 Southern 500: The final “true” Southern 500
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From 1950 to 2004, the Southern 500 was run on Labor Day Weekend. That changed in 2005, when the push for major market exposure meant that Labor Day weekends would move to — gulp! — Southern California. The final “true” Southern 500 was the set up to the inaugural Nextel Cup under the new Chase format. We pick up the action at the 21:00 mark, as the final “true” Southern 500 finds a great race with championship implications unfolding. Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray exchange the lead over the final 100 laps, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has battery problems and some new guy named Carl Edwards is making video game passes with 25 to go. Remind me again why they aren’t racing here twice a year?
by Vito Pugliese
3. 1985 Southern 500: Million Dollar Bill
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In 1985, Bill Elliott was deemed “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” after his Ernie Elliott-powered Coors Ford became the scourge of the speedways in NASCAR. He won the Daytona 500 and Talladega 500, making him eligible for the $1 million bonus put up by Winston for any driver who could win three of NASCAR’s four most prestigious races: Daytona 500, Talladega 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500. Equally awesome call by Larry Nuber here, as Elliott comes to the checkers to become the first winner of the Winston Million. The fans seem pretty excited too, even though he had to beat native South Carolina son Cale Yarborough to do so. Mind you, this was a million dollars in 1985 money — back before the days of multi-million dollar driver contracts, huge purses and lucrative endorsement deals. I mean because now, a million dollars is chump change …
by Vito Pugliese
2. 1979 Rebel 500: A changing of the guard
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Picking up the action at the 6:20 mark, three-time Formula 1 champion Jackie Stewart calls the final five laps with ABC’s “Wide World of Sports’” Jim McKay. This race is cited as the changing of the guard between the previous generation to the next, led by drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott. Richard Petty and Waltrip battle back and forth, exchanging the lead several times. Coincidentally, three of the four cars involved in dictating the final lap of the ’79 Daytona 500 are charging for the win, but this time the outcome is reversed. Of note, nobody makes contact with each other or executes a “bump ‘n’ run” to win. There was a different code back then. And some big-assed boats, ‘70s style.
by Vito Pugliese
1. 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400: Greatest finish in NASCAR’s Modern Era
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The best recipe for cookie cutter tracks and nap-inducing races? Head to the oldest of the old-school racetracks: Darlington. After all, what other track on the circuit can lay claim to the myth that a minnow pond dictated its layout? Larry Mac goes bat guano during the final laps calling this one, with plenty of “hah-side” and “drag race” quips, as Darrell Waltrip cheers on Ricky Craven to victory – which I guess is unbiased and all. Interesting observation, however, by DW, that the pointy Pontiac nose helped get the win for Craven. Ten years later, this is still the closest finish in NASCAR history at .002 seconds. And contrary to what you may think, Kurt Busch wasn’t upset afterwards.
David Smith crunches the numbers for the Southern 500
Denny Hamlin at Darlington in 2012. (ASP, Inc.)
Denny Hamlin’s much-discussed return to the seat of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry became an afterthought at Talladega once Brian Vickers climbed into the seat and provided Hamlin with a paltry 10 points thanks to a crash-caused 34th-place result. Ouch.
Hamlin’s actual return comes at a racetrack which he’s enjoyed a fair share of success. His go-to tracks are commonly considered Martinsville and Richmond — rightfully, so — but Darlington Raceway has been a fixture in Hamlin’s career, rooted in significance. The driver made his first NASCAR Nationwide Series start there in 2004 when, as an unknown aspiring NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racer, he finished eighth. He’s had the attention of the stock car industry ever since.
This weekend, it will provide another key moment in the career of a potential champion. Just the return from serious injury in any sport is a monumental occurrence, but in Hamlin’s case, the track that he has chosen to make his full-race return might have bigger aspirations in store, so says this week’s numbers.
5.100 Welcome back, Denny Hamlin. The driver of the No. 11 is returning from injury at a track where he ranks first in driver production with a 5.100 PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating).
The storybook ending is entirely possible, and no, NASCAR doesn’t have to “rig the playing field” to make it happen. Hamlin is staggeringly adept at the 1.366-mile track. He is the only driver to score top-15 finishes in each Darlington race of the CoT era. This also gives him the highest average finish (5.8) in the series during that time frame.
27.58% Think Denny Hamlin can’t make the Chase? Think again. He currently has a 27.58 percent probability of qualifying into the Chase via an automatic top-10 spot, which is the 16th-best percentage among 33 eligible drivers.
Yes, he’s six spots out of a desired top-10 position, but it’s unlikely, based on relevant past averages, that he’ll qualify for the Chase in this manner (he is currently 31st in the point standings). His entry into NASCAR’s playoff would be by way of a wild card spot. In order to land one of these two golden tickets, a driver must first be in the top 20 in points (which the probability suggests he will be by the conclusion of Race 26 at Richmond). Then, the driver has to have the most or second-most wins out of drivers that meet the prerequisite. Hamlin will have to compile wins and that realistically could start as soon as this weekend.
322 Kyle Busch has led 322 laps, the most in the series, in the last five Darlington races.
Leading just over 17.5 percent of the laps through a five-race span usually results in winning. It did for Busch, who put on a spectacular display of car control in the 2008 race. It’s normal for Busch, who ranks second in Darlington-specific PEER (4.800), to lead a large quantity of laps, but he is strong in the finish column as well. He is one of two winning drivers to have earned three top-10 finishes during the CoT era.
Could Martin Truex Jr. break the winless skid at Darlington? (ASP, Inc.)
4.200 With a 4.200 PEER, Martin Truex Jr. is the most productive Darlington racer to have not captured a win at the track.
“The Lady in Black” has been a tease for Truex’s win column, but boy, is he a pretty spectacular driver at Darlington. He hasn’t finished lower than 19th there in the last five races and in four of the five, he led at least one lap. In last year’s race, he led 25 laps and had the fifth-highest average running position of the race (10.46) before finishing fifth, bringing his CoT-era Darlington finishing average to 10.8 in entries owned by Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Michael Waltrip Racing.
Truex has finished second six times since his last (and only) Cup Series win, which came in 2007. Suggesting that Darlington is a place that could break that spell isn’t an exaggeration.
-21.1% Truex’s top 15 efficiency through 10 races this season is -21.1 percent, or in other words, a largely aggressive approach to races.
Top 15 efficiency depicts the difference between laps run in the top 15 (in Truex’s case, 71.1 percent) and races finished in the top 15 (50 percent). The negative number isn’t necessarily bad — for instance, Kyle Busch is historically at his most productive when he is the holder of a large negative number — but Truex and the No. 56 team probably view this as a major concern. The 71.1 percent of laps run in the top 15 is the sixth-highest mark in the series, but it hasn’t translated into finishes. Truex and the No. 56 rank 11th in average finish this year among teams that have competed in each race. It’s a large discrepancy that the driver should focus on closing.
5.11% Following his win at Talladega, David Ragan now has a 5.11 percent chance to make the Chase.
That’s a long-shot probability to qualify into the Chase with a top-10 spot, but can the bonus win aid his quest? Probably not. Based on his and his team’s past relevant averages, he is slated to finish 25th following the final regular season race at Richmond. A driver must be 20th or higher in points to be wild card eligible. If he wishes to close the gap, it will take some significant work; between now and the Chase, he will need to raise his points-per-race average (19.2) to around 24 just to sneak into the top 20. A less than five-position improvement seems easy enough, but for an under-armed team like Front Row Motorsports, it’s a precipitous climb.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Richmond
Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Beaten down Joe Gibbs Racing should come out swinging
Matt Kenseth suffered perhaps the most crushing penalty NASCAR has ever assessed that isn't a driver suspension. Kyle Busch has a strong memory of team mistakes killing his chance to qualify for last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. And Denny Hamlin, the best Richmond International Raceway driver by advanced statistical measure in the last five-plus seasons, won't even get to suit up for Saturday night's race.
Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't had a good week, and it will be extremely interesting to see how it responds. Because it's Richmond, thinking that JGR will fold under the pressure seems almost impossible.
Since Busch joined the team in 2008, JGR six wins at RIR, just under half of the laps led (1,945 of 4,010) and 15 total top-5 finishes. It’s figured something out in the .75-mile track seemingly beyond other teams. It might have to do with Busch and Hamlin sharing similar demands from a race car at the short track, unlike other Cup venues.
"We do like similar setups there, unlike other mile-and-a-half tracks or two-mile tracks where we don’t run very similar setups," Busch says. "Richmond is one of those places where we both know what it takes to get around and we’re both similar to one another in that we both run well.”
Expect JGR to continue a streak more than a decade old Saturday night: having at least one car lead a lap. The last time that didn't happen? The fall of 2001.
Greg Zipadelli and Tony Stewart. (ASP, Inc.)
2. Racing the track, not the car, could be antidote to Stewart's slump
Tony Stewart has been in a funk. And Tony Stewart knows he's been in a funk.
“It’s not easy, for sure," Stewart says. "I mean, it was always hard as a driver, but it’s even worse as a driver-owner. When things are tough, the pressure and the burden is more on you knowing that you’re responsible for everything versus just being the guy driving the car."
A 21st-place finish at Kansas Speedway last weekend meant the No. 14 has gone nearly two months without a top-10 finish. Richmond provides relief in the form of not being a speedway track, and probably fits better into Stewart's comfort zone.
At the very least, it's an opportunity to race a track where style and line selection have more of a say than aerodynamic-focused Kansas.
"You never really get anybody who gets their car perfect," Stewart says of Richmond. "Even the guy that gets the lead still isn’t happy with his car. So, it’s really trying to find that balance and trying to figure out how to balance both ends of the track together.”
The 42-year-old led 333 laps in 1999 at RIR to win his first career Cup race. He's won twice at Richmond since (2001 and 2002) and also has four consecutive top 10s since a lap-down finish in 2010.
3. Teams bringing ideas from the desert to tackle Richmond
In a season with limited track time behind a still new car, teams are searching for methods to speed up the process and use information they've already gleaned to make setup decisions for coming race weekends. Richmond, and its similarities to the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway, is the latest example.
Every single Roush-Fenway Racing entry plus its satellite teams at Richard Petty Motorsports will use the cars they raced at Phoenix as primary cars this weekend. Carl Edwards won the race in the desert.
"Our package in Phoenix was very good," Edwards says. "I’m thinking some of that will help us with our race setup for Richmond."
The Ford teams also will use information that RPM’s Aric Almirola learned at Richmond during a test last month.
“The track was really fast which really surprised me," Almirola says, noting his first lap on the track in race trim came close to the track qualifying record. “We learned a lot from the test and felt that it helped us figure out what we need for our short-track package.”
Other teams using Phoenix cars this weekend include Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fifth at Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson (second) and Mark Martin (21st).
4. McMurray slowly leading Earnhardt-Ganassi out of struggles
Three was a nice number for Jamie McMurray in 2010, when he scored a trio of big wins at Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte. Last season, three stood for head-shaking disappointment as his No. 1 team mustered just three top-10 finishes in 36 starts.
But early in this 2013 season, three is starting to look better for McMurray as he looks to shed two straight frustrating seasons at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. The No. 1 now has three top 10s in just eight races after a seventh-place finish last weekend at Kansas.
He was another driver — along with snakebitten teammate Juan Pablo Montoya — who tested at Richmond.
"We have had two strong runs on short-tracks already this year," McMurray says, referring to a 10th at Bristol and a seventh at Martinsville. "I hope we can carry some of that momentum into this weekend."
5. Short schedule magnifies importance of unloading a fast race car.
Richmond isn't a place where teams can show up, miss the car setup during the first practice, and then still run well in the race. The two-day format for the Sprint Cup Series with practice and qualifying on Friday before the Saturday race just doesn't allow the track time to make wholesale changes and improvements.
Should a team find a decent setup in Friday afternoon practice, it also has to hope the setup will match Richmond's night-race conditions. Even a four-time champion struggles with that.
"When you practice during the day and race at night, you have to guess and I feel like every time we race here something is changing," says Jeff Gordon.
More unnerving for teams is how important nabbing a qualifying spot near the front tends to be. Eight of every 10 Richmond winners in the 113-race history of the track have come from inside the top 10, and an almost equally staggering 30 percent of Richmond winners have been from the front row.
The front qualifiers having an advantage isn't a trend that's going away, either. Going back to 2003 — a span of 20 races — just four winners have come from outside the top 10.
Every year the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits a stretch of the season in which it is premature to judge the championship hunt, but cogent enough to pinpoint problems with underperforming drivers and teams. It’s an odd stretch, for sure. Through eight races we have seen some unexpected strong performances from non-household names, while also getting much of the same from the usual title-contending suspects, some of which you will read about below. It’s been a crazy, competitive year that has provided plenty of statistical fodder.
As usual, that’s why I’m here. Use this knowledge to increase your understanding of the sport, to strengthen your fantasy roster or to look the like the smartest NASCAR fan at any race-watching party you attend. I prefer the third option, but warning: you’ll be perceived as annoying after a while. Resort to chips and dip if that happens.
4.5 Busch’s 4.5-place average finish in the last six Richmond races is the best in the series by three whole positions.
He also has three victories and five finishes of sixth or better in those six starts. He has twice led over 50 percent of the race (spring 2010 and spring 2011) and his lone win in a lean 2012 season for the No. 18 team came on the .75-mile track. With hometown favorite Denny Hamlin potentially still sidelined due to injury, Busch is Richmond’s heavy-footed favorite.
15.7 Kyle Busch’s No. 18 team holds the most inconsistent finish deviation (15.7) in the Cup Series.
In a season thus far bookended by finishes of 34th at Daytona and 38th last weekend in Kansas, Busch has scored five top-5 finishes which include two victories. The winning is good; never knowing when the fickle No. 18 will flip from Jekyll to Hyde isn’t. After five consecutive top-5 runs, two crashes prompted by an ill-handling car highlighted his afternoon at Kansas. It’s a good thing Richmond is next on the schedule, considering Busch ranks as the track’s most productive driver, with a 6.250 PEER there in the last 12 races.
A trip to RIR should warm Dale Earnhardt Jr. up. (ASP, Inc.)
+19.5% Despite Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s three-race skid, the No. 88 team is still picking up positions late in races, as seen in its plus-19.5 percent position retainment difference.
Earnhardt and team actually moved up two positions in the final 27 laps last weekend in Kansas, though it only bumped them up to a 16th-place finish. For a team that is focused on getting back to the Chase after Earnhardt’s injury derailed any chances of a championship in last year’s final 10 races, doing what they do best — protecting and gaining positions late in races — amid a slump (Earnhardt has averaged a 23rd-place finish in the last three races) is a positive sign. Another positive sign? Richmond. Earnhardt won at RIR in the pre-CoT era, but struggled when driving the Gen-6’s predecessor (he amassed a 0.875 PEER and just two top-5 finishes in the last 12 races there). With the Gen-6, though, it’s a new day and Earnhardt has taken to the non-skewed machine like a duck to water.
27.69% Paul Menard and the No. 27 team, following a 10th-place finish at Kansas, hold a 27.69 percent probability of making the Chase.
That percentage is the 16th highest of 33 driver-team combinations and has catapulted since Daytona thanks to four top-10 finishes in the first eight races. The 2011 Brickyard 400 winner is a long shot, of course, to make NASCAR’s playoffs, but his continued growth as a driver in the last three seasons — he earned a serviceable PEER (1.375) for the first time in six Cup Series seasons in 2012 — is a promising sign. He has developed into a driver that seldom makes race-killing mistakes and it shows in his results. His 10th-place spot in the point standings is aided by the fact that he has finished in the top half of the field (21st or better) in each race this season.
12.8 Ryan Newman has a 12.8-place average finish … in races that he finishes.
Another fringe Chase contender with a 36.78 percent probability (ranks 13th), Newman doesn’t have the mistake-free reputation like the one Menard is currently building. He is best in class at Stewart-Haas Racing despite finishes of 40th at Phoenix, 38th at Las Vegas and 31st at Martinsville. High point-paying finishes at Richmond and Talladega can enhance those odds in a season when his crew appears to be scratching their heads on all things Gen-6.
24.07% J.J. Yeley’s abysmal 24.07 percent pass efficiency Sunday at Kansas is the worst single-race mark in the series this season.
Yeley got chewed up and spit out by competitors, passed 41 times compared to the 13 times when he acted as the passer. The poor showing led to a 35th-place finish. He also had a similar performance earlier this season at Phoenix when he notched a comical 31.43 percent passing mark.