Sunday's Daytona 500, the 55th in the long, storied history of The Great American Race, officially has the field set. There are endless stories emanating from NASCAR's biggest event, but here are the five that will most impact Sunday's race.
No horsing around: Harvick is the favorite
There's just one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver batting 1.000 with trophies on the line in 2013: Kevin Harvick. Both of those trophies, of course, have come in the last week at Daytona where NASCAR's resident "lame duck" has scored impressive wins in the last Saturday's Sprint Unlimited and the first race of Thursday's Budweiser Duel at Daytona.
But statistics aren't the only thing supporting Harvick's case as the head-turning favorite before Sunday's race. Instead, it's the manner in which Harvick has taken control at the end of both races and held on with the grip of a vice.
In the Sprint Unlimited, Harvick first moved to the lead on lap 34 of the 75-lap, three-segment race. Just twice, and for two total laps, did the No. 29 not cross the start-finish as the designated leader. And when the heat turned up on the final lap, Harvick was able to play both lanes and make a bold, sweeping block of Greg Biffle on the backstretch of the money lap. He wasn't pressured again before the checkered flag.
Thursday was much the same in his 150-mile qualifying race, except Harvick was better. A savvy move exiting pit road pinned Trevor Bayne — the only other driver to lead Duel No. 1 — against the infield grass and then behind him as the two rushed through the gears to get up to speed. Bayne never recovered and eventually ended up in a crash while Harvick maintained his position. Even the restart wasn't a hassle for the No. 29, as Harvick managed the high then low line to keep competitors at bay and the Budweiser victory lane bath in sight.
Afterward, many of his competitors noted handling played a huge role in their ability to challenge. Harvick seemed almost incredulous at the thought.
"We never experienced any of that," Harvick said. "I think it's a matter of how you came down here with the balance of your race car."
Translation: the No. 29 is good. You can bet the field has taken notice.
Follow the leader
One factor playing into Harvick's hand as he has dominated so far is the apparent advantage held by the leader in the Gen-6 chassis when drivers form the long, snake-like lines of cars. Just seven different drivers led in the qualifying races Thursday, with just four of them leading for more than one lap.
"It's hard to pass the leader," Kyle Busch said after winning the second Duel race. "Just stay out front when you can get out front and you can run pretty good and just try to hold everybody off behind you."
That showed on the final lap of Busch's race when Kasey Kahne, with a push from Austin Dillon, edged under Matt Kenseth in second but couldn't punch past Busch. Kahne never even got alongside Busch.
"It's really tough to pass. When another car gets near your rear tire, it's like you threw the parachute out," Jimmie Johnson said.
Harvick and Jeff Gordon said Daytona now requires more planning to make a pass for position — not just finding someone to push like the recent years of tandem racing at restrictor plate tracks. The consequences can be dire.
"You've just got be precise in your moves," Harvick said. "If you get yourself in the wrong spot like we did at the beginning of the race in the middle, you just can't go anywhere. The only place you're going is backwards. It's hard to get yourself into the hole that you need when you make a mistake."
Gordon agreed, saying Daytona in 2013 feels like the Daytona of old.
"This is a real thinking race now. It comes down to the way it used to," Gordon said. "You get yourself in position. Everybody kind of rides, and thinks about what they have. You have to have your car handling pretty good, which is tough to do further back in traffic."
But Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, doesn't think passing the leader will be completely impossible come Sunday”
"You have got to have somebody go with you; you can't do it by yourself. But you can get a run, definitely. No doubt about it.”
Handling the unexpected
In order to get the kind of run Gordon is talking about, and to time it at the point where it'll put a driver in prime position to walk away with that coveted Harley J. Earl trophy, a driver has to first be in the position to make that move. In a 500-mile race, that's no easy feat.
No, the Daytona 500 isn't the same test of attrition that it once was. Parts last longer. Teams hit setups with more regularity. Drivers, typically, are smarter.
But 500 miles is still 500 miles — especially with a new car putting drivers more on the edge than they were with the stuck-to-the-track Car of Tomorrow chassis. Ryan Newman found that out during Wednesday's practice, and Denny Hamlin found it out late in the first qualifying race Thursday. Both suddenly lost control of race cars that weren't handling particularly poorly before they encountered a set of aerodynamic variables strong enough to send the car into a spin quicker than a blink of an eye. That will happen again Sunday and a driver (or drivers) in contention will pay the price.
It's a measure of the new car that has several, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., searching for answers in the two days of practice left before the 500.
"I didn't anticipate really the balance being a big deal because the car does have a good downforce package; we thought the balance would be pretty close," Earnhardt Jr. said. "(I) figured we would be fighting loose a little bit. We have to work on it."
Should drivers withstand that challenge, they'll have to be ready to execute flawless pit stops, too. Kyle Busch took the lead in the second qualifying race thanks to a call for no tires during his pit stop. Trevor Bayne lost his lead in the first race partially because he locked up his tires coming to pit road under green, necessitating a change. Busch wound up winning his qualifying race; Bayne wrecked.
"Pit crews are going to make a huge difference on Sunday," said Tony Stewart. "That's going to be the difference between which pack you come out in. You're going to have to have good stops to stay up there all day."
Like Gordon said, Sunday will feel more like Daytona of old. Carl Edwards, despite wrecking four times at Daytona, is looking forward to that.
"There will be groups of cars that separate themselves, some pit strategy and some guys that slide around and can't keep up," Edwards said. "I think it will make it a really dynamite, fun race."
Not everyone will leave Daytona Sunday night using the words Edwards did, but you can bet one of NASCAR's three competing manufacturers will be celebrating well into the night.
For the first time since the 1990s, cars in the Sprint Cup Series actually resemble their showroom counterparts. It's been a concerted effort by NASCAR, after pressure from those manufacturers, to make those comparisons easier.
It also introduces the realistic potential of Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota having a slight advantage come race day thanks to their body design. NASCAR has worked to prevent the issues, but competitors are competitors, and competitors like to complain.
Just look at the starting lineup for Sunday's race: seven of the top-10 are Chevrolets. If the finishing order resembles that, Jack Roush's comments won't be far behind.
Danica Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson. (ASP, Inc.)
And of course, especially at the start, all eyes will be on the most historic moment Daytona has seen in years as Danica Patrick leads the field to green as the first woman to ever win the pole position of a Daytona 500 — or any NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Patrick, 17th in her qualifying race, didn't do much to turn heads in the one dose of racing experience she's had at Daytona this year. Her team's goal Thursday was to play it conservative and finish with the green No. 10 intact.
Mission accomplished — even if Patrick didn't feel she gleaned much from the racing.
"I'll be really honest, I didn't feel like I got a lot of experience on how to pass or the draft so much. I was able to hang with the group," Patrick said.
Patrick and Co. were worried about the car being too loose during the race and tightened the car up more and more leading to Thursday's 150-miler. She did later confirm that turning 60 laps in race conditions did prove at least somewhat valuable.
"I guess I did learn that being too tight is pretty detrimental here," Patrick said. "If you can't keep your foot in it and run up behind cars, then you're going to struggle to make moves. It looks really hard to pass, to be honest."
Patrick, who crashed on lap two in her first Daytona 500 start one year ago, should drastically improve her showing this time around. Expecting a win, though, is way too much.
by Geoffrey Miller. Check back each Friday, as Geoffrey Miller examines the five storylines to watch entering each NASCAR weekend. And follow Geoffrey on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
The theme of NASCAR Speedweeks in Daytona thus far?
New cars that do not line up square and are volatile in the draft; a supposed lack of quality body parts back at the team shops in North Carolina; valued information gleaned on specific cars that crew chiefs don’t want sacrificed.
For these reasons — and possibly because there’s no need to show one’s hand just yet — the action has been relatively staid at Daytona International Speedway.
In Thursday’s Budweiser Duel No. 1 — historically the crazier of the two — the much-ballyhooed No. 10 car of Danica Patrick led the field to green and, with teammate Tony Stewart, promptly drifted to the rear of the pack — part strategy play, part over-adjusted car.
Trevor Bayne inherited the lead and the field largely ran in formation in the high groove until lap 32 of 60, when Kevin Harvick led a train on the inside that propelled him to the lead with 14 laps to go. Like Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, when Harvick grabbed the point with 13 laps remaining en route to the win, it was a lead he would not relinquish.
He was forced to fight for it, though.
On lap 52, Denny Hamlin’s Toyota abruptly broke loose off of Turn 2 and collected Bayne, Carl Edwards and Regan Smith, setting up a four-lap dash when the green flag waved.
But with Jimmie Johnson planted on his bumper, Harvick held the lead, again utilizing the high groove after the restart. Greg Biffle and Juan Pablo Montoya tried in vain to mount separate assaults, but as in Saturday’s event, the No. 29 Chevy was too strong out front.
“Today, both lines were side-by-side and you were able to kind of feed each line a little bit of air (while leading) and try to keep ’em even,” Harvick said. “That's the best way to keep them at bay is keep them side-by-side.
“If we can get to that point and be able to dictate whether you need to block, move up, move down, side draft … you have options as the leader. That's the position I want to be in.”
Harvick, for certain, looks strong. In his final year with Richard Childress Racing, he’s started the year off by leading 40 of 75 laps in the Unlimited and 23 on Thursday, making him a favorite entering Sunday’s Daytona 500. He’ll do his best to downplay it, though, knowing the unpredictable nature of restrictor plate racing.
“We've been fortunate to win the first two races of Speedweeks," Harvick said. "We just got to keep a level head on our shoulders, not get too high over what we've done, just do the same things that we've done. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I think we definitely have the car and team to be in contention to do that.”
Kyle Busch celebrates Duel No. 2 win. (ASP, Inc.)
Duel No. 2 provided an even more docile 60-lapper. Jeff Gordon started on the pole and led the first 38 laps as the field, once again, largely flew in single-file formation.
However, a wacky round of pit stops on lap 39 shuffled the deck, as Gordon was penalized for speeding on pit road. It was a mistake from which he would not recover.
And that was when Kyle Busch took over.
Antsy running fourth prior to the stops and with no partner willing to work to make something happen, Busch’s crew chief obliged, making a call for no tires and a splash of fuel. That brief stint on pit road allowed the No. 18 Toyota to emerge second. When Gordon ducked to pit road to serve his penalty, the lead was handed to Busch — and that was that.
Busch led the final 19 laps, holding off a charging Kasey Kahne as teammate Matt Kenseth ran cover in the waning laps to capture the fourth starting spot for the 500.
“Our original plan was two tires, but he (crew chief Dave Rogers) called it,” Busch said. “They were just harping on me to make sure, don’t slide your tires. Because you don’t want to slide a left front (tire) and then have to take four.
“So, I felt like I got a really good pit road entry. I felt like I ran good pit road speed all of the way down pit road and getting into my box was great. The guys just filled the tank for five seconds. It’s all we needed and we ended up back here. We got out front where it mattered most and got teamed up with a couple of Toyota’s which was great."
So have the Unlimited or the Duels given any insight as to what Sunday’s 500-miler may provide? Possibly. Passing is at a premium, but it seems that if the race runs unimpeded for any number of laps, the giant packs of four-wide racing may not be as prominent. Drivers are complaining — quietly — that the Gen-6 cars are frightfully unstable in the draft and have them weary of taking unnecessary risks.
Therefore, the high groove acts as a cruising line of sorts, where drivers can click off laps. And with that in mind, the first half of the 500 may resemble Thursday’s Duels, as teams play it conservatively to be assured of simply seeing the finish.
Alternately, the low lane is a power groove to be utilized when it’s time to make a move. Harvick and Tony Stewart have demonstrated that a strong car can pull two or three others along if the drivers are willing to work together. If the Great American Race is to get crazy in the final laps, this is where the challenge will come.
And lastly, who are the favorites now that an exhibition race, pole day and two qualifying races are in the books? Harvick, obviously, has made the biggest statement with two wins in two races. And Biffle, with two runner-up showings in two starts, can’t be overlooked.
Neither can Stewart, whose name has been on most everyone’s lips in the garage since the Unlimited. And then there’s Busch, Gordon and Kenseth, who have all shown strength at one point or another.
All that said, an unknown rookie won the 500 in 2011 and another rookie is on the pole now. And with as many questions that remain concerning the behavior of the cars, the unexpected is almost assured.
Predicting the best drivers to hit the track this season.
As the 2013 NASCAR season revs up this weekend at Daytona, Athlon Sports offers up our preseason Top 25 Sprint Cup Series driver rankings. Click on each driver's name for a detailed preview of what fans can expect in 2013.
Running the facts, figures and numbers on the Daytona 500
Photo by ASP, Inc.
The Daytona 500 is an event that transcends its own sport, much the same as the Super Bowl, the World Series or the Masters. Over the last 54 years, a lot of history has been made just off the beach (and just on it) on Daytona International Speedway's 2.5-miles of asphalt. The following is a look at the numbers, facts and figures of NASCAR's biggest race.
NASCAR’s Super Bowl Explosion Winner’s Share In The First Daytona 500 (1959): $19,050 (Lee Petty) Winner’s Share In Last Year’s Daytona 500 (2012): $1,588,887 (Matt Kenseth) Full Purse, first Daytona 500 (59 starters): $67,760 Full Purse, 54th Daytona 500 (43 starters): $17,277,409 Last-place share in 1959: Ken Marriott, 59th place, $100 Last-place share in 2012: David Ragan 43rd place, $267,637 Average income, Middle-Class American: $41,560 per year (Source: http://bber.unm.edu/econ/us-pci.htm) -- U.S. Dept. Of Commerce)
This 500 … Brought to You by the Number Six
The big buzzword you’ve hear throughout Speedweeks sounds more like an education initiative than a race car. But “Gen-6” is NASCAR’s biggest change this decade, a new chassis type rolling out in 2013 designed to win back fans through a sleeker, “stock” look that make the Ford Fusions, Chevy SS models, and Toyota Camrys more like what you’d see on the street.
“The collaborative efforts between the manufacturers, teams, and NASCAR has been unparalleled in my 34 years in the sport,” crowed Robin Pemberton last month on the Gen-6’s pending Daytona debut.
Translation? NASCAR learned from the dreadful Car of Tomorrow communication debacle, where even CEO Brian France admitted recently “we made some errors” in a model that was highly criticized. This time, they’ve kept everyone from your low-level crewman, to tire specialist, to car owner, to their top R&D engineers on the same page in developing a car they believe will come out competitive.
Tandem Drafting No More
It’s the Valentine Day’s breakup even Cupid is privately cheering. In January testing, “Gen-6” hated being paired up, with even the slightest two-car bumpdraft causing instability to the point it just won’t happen in the 500. Even plate expert Dale Earnhardt Jr. started a 12-car wreck in testing by trying to lightly push Marcos Ambrose in the turns. The Sprint Unlimited witnessed the same thing, as a six-car wreck decimated the field just 15 laps into the event.
“I’m anticipating handling is going to be a little bit more of a premium than what we’ve had in the past,” says Jeff Gordon, pointing to less downforce in the rear of the car. Others claim the new drafting package is similar to what NASCAR had a decade ago, where drivers laid back to “set up” their slingshot moves inside a large pack.
A Guaranteed Photo Finish?
Say what you will about restrictor plates, first bolted onto the cars in 1988 at Daytona as a safety measure to keep fans and drivers safe. But one thing you can’t argue is that horsepower-sucking piece of metal virtually guarantees “close” finishes. 24 of the last 25 Daytona 500s, since the inception of this “plate” era have produced a margin of victory equaling roughly two car lengths or less. Only Darrell Waltrip’s fuel-mileage gamble, in 1989, was the exception to the rule (Waltrip won by a “comfortable” 7.64 seconds over Ken Schrader). No other sports’ premier event has such a track record of razor-close endings.
Can Kyle Busch break through for Toyota? (ASP, Inc.)
Daytona: Toyota’s Achilles’ Heel
As the first foreign automaker to win in NASCAR’s Cup level since Jaguar in 1954, the Toyota Camry has been competitive at NASCAR’s top level. But when it comes to the Triple Crown of success on which each car is judged — drivers’ championship, manufacturers’ title and the Daytona 500 — Toyota has fallen short. The Great American Race, in particular, has been a Great American Debacle for the Toyota camp.
In its first year on the circuit, two-time 500 winner Michael Waltrip’s team was nearly expelled from the track for attempting to put jet fuel inside the engine of his NAPA Toyota. While Toyota has improved dramatically since, even winning the summer race here with Kyle Busch in 2008, it’s done no better than third in February.
The “Intimidator” Curse: From Zero To Hero?
Even casual sports fans remember Dale Earnhardt’s “reverse of the curse,” winning the 1998 Daytona 500 after 20 years’ worth of black cats, broken mirrors, cut tires and virtually every type of hard-luck story imaginable. In the 15 years since, no superstar has quite matched Big E’s legendary levels of frustration but there are plenty of drivers looking to break an “0-for” in the sport’s biggest race. Here’s a look:
Mark Martin 500 Record: 0-for-28 The Lowdown: 40 career wins, 55 poles, over 12,700 laps led. At 54 years old and a freee agent at season’s end, could this be Martin’s last great shot? Best 500 Finish: 2nd, 2007 Best Shot Thus Far: The sport’s best supporting actor with five runner-up finishes in the point standings had a similar “oh so close” moment at Daytona six years ago. Leading 26 laps in a Herculean effort with an organization that would go broke six months later, he was leading entering the final lap. But as a melee broke out behind him off Turn 4, Martin slowed ever so slightly, anticipating a caution that never came. Kevin Harvick slid by for the victory in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history and left Martin’s beach dreams adrift in the tide. The veteran has been no better than 10th since.
500 Record: 0-for-14 The Lowdown: 47 wins in exactly 500 series starts, three Cup titles and wins at all but two tracks currently on the circuit (Darlington and Kentucky). Best 500 Finish: 2nd, 2004 Best Shot Thus Far: With nearly 300 laps led in the 500, no modern driver in NASCAR matches more with Earnhardt’s tales of woe. The lowest of the low came in 2007-08. The first year, Stewart was arguably the fastest car until being caught up in a wreck with rival Kurt Busch while cruising in formation well ahead of the field. Then, he had the trophy in sight entering the last lap in ’08, only for he and Toyota teammate Kyle Busch to get drafted past by Ryan Newman and (again) Busch.
500 Record: 0-for-19 The Lowdown: 21 Cup wins, four top-5 points finishes Bes 500 Finish: 2nd, 2000 Best Shot Thus Far: Burton, who didn’t even lead a lap in the big race until his ninth start (2002) has finished 24th or worse in the 500 nine times. But if there’s a darkhorse for the race, he could be it: both of Burton’s top-5 finishes in 2012 came at Daytona and teammate Kevin Harvick showed the muscled to win last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited.
Other Notables Seeking Redemption: Bobby Labonte (0-for-20), Kurt Busch (0-for-12), Greg Biffle (0-for-10), Kasey Kahne (0-for-9), Carl Edwards (0-for-8, won last year’s 500 pole), Kyle Busch (0-for-8), Denny Hamlin (0-for-7), Clint Bowyer (0-for-7).
Crash And Burn? Daytona’s “Big One” Looms
With plate racing keeping most cars locked together in close quarters, the question of a major wreck in the 500 is not a case of “if” but “when.” Here’s a look at the multi-car incidents that have most affected the race:
1992: Leaders Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Ernie Irvan go three-wide before Irvan pushes it a bit too far. The 14-car wreck that ensues takes out almost all contenders, as well as Richard Petty in his last 500. Only five cars end the race on the lead lap.
1999: A 12-car wreck, started between teammates Kenny Irwin Jr. and Dale Jarrett wipes out the two-time 500 champ along with Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin.
2001: Overshadowed by Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death 25 laps later, a 19-car wreck saw Tony Stewart’s No. 20 flip wildly in what was almost another tragedy. Thankfully, no one came out hurt.
2002: An 18-car Demolition Derby incident on Lap 150 takes out Ken Schrader, who had led 46 laps at that point and considerably thins the field.
2009: As a lapped car, Dale Earnhardt Jr. tangles with Brian Vickers to start a 10-car melee that takes out a dominant Kyle Busch, who had led 88 of the first 123 laps of the race.
2011: Just 29 laps into the event, Michael Waltrip’s ill-timed bumpdraft wipes out 14 vehicles, including five-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson.
Opposites Attract: Inside the List of 500 Champs Youngest: Trevor Bayne, 20 years, one day (2011) Oldest: Bobby Allison, 50 years, two months, 11 days (1988) Fastest Average Speed: 177.602 mph (Buddy Baker, 1980) Slowest Average Speed: 124.740 mph (Junior Johnson, 1960) Best Starting Position: Pole, nine times (Fireball Roberts, 1962; Richard Petty, 1966; Cale Yarborough, 1968; Buddy Baker, 1980; Cale Yarborough, 1984; Bill Elliott, 1985 & ’87, Jeff Gordon, 1999; Dale Jarrett, 2000) Worst Starting Position: 39th (Matt Kenseth, 2009)
Doubles and Triples Three-Consecutive 500 Winners
1973-74: Richard Petty
1983-84: Cale Yarborough
1994-95: Sterling Marlin
Owners Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske have also accomplished the “double dip” feat, with Ganassi pulling an unprecedented Triple Crown: he captured Daytona, the Indy 500, and NASCAR’s Indy race (the Brickyard 400) all in the same 2010 season.
"There have been other tracks that have separated the men from the boys. This is the track that will separate the brave from the weak after the boys are gone." – Driver Jimmy Thompson on the first Daytona 500
Daytona: By the Numbers
Husband/wife driver combinations to compete in the 500. Of course, we only mention this because of that little Danica Patrick/Ricky Stenhouse Jr. relationship. Could we be seeing the pair change that in a couple years? Yeah, probably not.
Jet dryer explosion in 53 years of the race (Juan Pablo Montoya, 2012 – luckily no one was hurt.)
Father/son duos to win the 500 in just 53 events: Lee & Richard Petty, Bobby & Davey Allison, and the Earnhardts (Dale Sr. & Jr.)
The number of different manufacturers to win the 500: Chevy, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Ford, Plymouth, Mercury, Dodge and Buick.
The average number of laps led by the last six Daytona 500 winners, proving in this age of NASCAR parity the only lap that matters is the last one.
The number of Daytona 500 wins for Chevrolet, the most of any manufacturer. Ford, however, has won three of the last four (they’re second with 13 wins overall).
The highest number of Daytona 500 starts without a victory, held by Wisconsin’s Dave Marcis. The independent driver, famous for wearing his wingtip shoes in the cockpit, made 32 consecutive appearances from 1968-99, then retired after the 2002 Daytona race but never led more than three laps in any of them. (Best finish: 6th twice – 1975 & ’78)
Most Cup wins of any driver, all-time, without a Daytona 500 on their resume (Rusty Wallace). The 1989 Cup Series champ and a short track specialist, Wallace was never better than third in the big race. (Tony Stewart holds the record amongst active drivers, with 47.)
The record number of cars that started the 1960 Daytona 500; 39 finished the race. NASCAR adopted the current max of 43 cars in 1998.
The fastest pole speed, in miles per hour, recorded for the 500. Accomplished by Bill Elliott in 1987, the advent of the plates a year later have made attaining those speeds impossible. Experts estimate without the slowdown, NASCAR vehicles today could soar over 230 mph heading into Daytona’s high-banked turns.
The fewest miles run by any Daytona 500 winner in history. Michael Waltrip won the 2003 version of the race with just 109 of 200 laps complete after a drenching rainstorm cut the finish short.
Starts by Michael Waltrip before earning his first NASCAR Cup victory: the 2001 Daytona 500. It’s the longest anyone has raced in the sport’s top division before hitting Victory Lane.
The Harbaugh Brothers are both in Super Bowl XLVII, but are not the only active siblings in sports.
The Harbaugh Brothers are hogging — or Har-gging or whatever — all the attention at Super Bowl XLVII. But little Johnny and Jimbo aren’t the only tikes in the backyard turned titans in the world of sports. Here’s a rundown of the top 30 sets of active athlete siblings, with the combined accomplishments of the top 10 brothers, sisters and twins.
Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Carl Edwards' new crew chief, Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
Until last week, crew chief Jimmy Fennig admits he had “very seldom’’ talked to Carl Edwards in their years together at Roush Fenway Racing.
“I’m the type of crew chief that I focus in on the job at hand and the driver I have and don’t really pay too much attention to other drivers,” said Fennig, who most recently was Matt Kenseth’s crew chief.
Next season, Fennig and his crew will partner with Edwards as Kenseth drives for Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s part of a series of changes taking place at Roush Fenway Racing. Two-time defending Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. replaces Kenseth in the No. 17 Cup car. Trevor Bayne takes Stenhouse’s Nationwide ride. The Cup team of Greg Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia will remain intact.
Fennig, who became a crew chief in 1986 and won the 2004 championship with Kurt Busch, admits he doesn’t know Edwards too well but doesn’t see that as a hinderance in their pairing.
“My goal has always been to win races,” said Fennig, the winning crew chief in the 1988 Daytona 500 with Bobby Allison and this year’s Daytona 500 with Kenseth. “No matter who drives the car, that’s what I try to do every week and that’s something I know we already have in common.”
Fennig will be Edwards’ third crew chief since the start of the 2012 season. Bob Osborne started with Edwards. Osborne, citing health issues, stepped down as crew chief in July and was replaced by Chad Norris.
Edwards was winless this season and finished 15th in the points a year after losing the championship on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. Edwards scored only four top-10 finishes in the 17 races with Norris as crew chief, thus a change wasn’t surprising.
“We all just sat down and looked at it and Chad and I talked at length about it,” Edwards said of the change. “Everyone agrees the opportunity to have the experience of Jimmy Fennig on the box to get ... back to Victory Lane is what we should do. It wasn’t something that I single-handedly requested or just that Jack (Roush) wanted to do it. As a team we thought this was the best thing to do. The biggest thing at Roush is that he has so many good people that we can move people around and do things like this and it is good for the whole company.”
Along with that move, Roush will pair Stenhouse Jr. with crew chief Scott Graves. Both will be rookies in Cup.
“I would normally not be an advocate for bringing a crew chief who hadn’t been established with a rookie driver into the Cup Series, but Scott Graves – in my words – he’s been a prodigy for the small amount of experience he’s had making the final decisions,” Roush said.
“He made great decisions for Carl at Watkins Glen and he’s made great decisions for Ricky when he’s been with him this year. So I think given the fact he’s a mechanical engineer as well as an experienced team engineer, he’s going to bring enthusiasm and creativity to Ricky that we might not otherwise be able to achieve with somebody that had more experience.”
JR Motorsports' Regan Smith. (ASP, Inc.)
JR MOTORSPORTS MOVES JR Motorsports announced a new crew chief for Regan Smith on Tuesday and hinted that it could run just one team full-time next season in the Nationwide Series.
The team announced that Jimmie Johnson’s longtime engineer, Greg Ives, would become Regan Smith’s crew chief next season. Ives was the engineer for all five of Johnson’s Cup championships.
JR Motorsports also noted in a release how it “continues to streamline its race program.” The release stated that the team is preparing for the “likelihood” that it will run one full-time team with Smith as driver and one part-time with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and select drivers. This past season, Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt were the team’s two full-time drivers. Patrick is moving to Cup to drive full-time with Stewart-Haas Racing and has stated a desire to run some Nationwide events.
ROOKIES OF THE YEAR Ty Dillon was selected as the Rookie of the Year in the Truck series, marking the third consecutive year a Richard Childress Racing driver won that honor. Austin Dillon won it in 2010 and Joey Coulter won it last year. ... Austin Dillon was selected as the Nationwide Rookie of the Year and Stephen Leicht won the rookie of the year honors in Cup.
SEEKING SPONSORSHIP Kyle Busch said after Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race that Dollar General will not return as a sponsor on his Kyle Busch Motorsports entry.
“Unfortunately, we’re sponsor-less next year, so we’ll see what happens through the offseason,” Busch said.
The team announced earlier this month that Joey Coulter will drive full-time for it in the Truck series next year.
PIT STOPS Joe Gibbs Racing confirmed Monday that Elliott Sadler will join the team to run in the Nationwide Series next year. ... Paul Menard ran the most laps in Cup this season. He completed 10,406 of the 10,442 laps run (99.7 percent) this season. ... Jimmie Johnson led the most laps in Cup this season at 1,744. Kyle Busch was next, having led 1,436 laps. ... There were 15 different winners in Cup this season, down from 18 last year. This season marked the second consecutive year no driver won more than five Cup races. Champion Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin each won a series-high five races this year.
Keselowski outduels Johnson, wins first Cup for Roger Penske
2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski. (ASP, Inc.)
Brad Keselowski entered Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a 20-point lead in NASCAR’s Chase standings.
Problem was, his competition came in the form of a five-time champion.
Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team enjoyed a reign that lasted from 2006-10, and they won the championship in every way imaginable in that time: Going away, coming from behind, with consistency and utilizing a glut of wins.
So by no means had anyone conceded the 2012 edition of the sport’s playoff to Keselowski’s upstart No. 2 Penske Racing outfit. Yet, as Championship Week in South Florida drew on, it appeared that even in the face of Johnson’s strategically-placed smack talk, the Michigan native remained focused on the task at hand, which was to finish 15th or better in the finale.
That he did — in fact, he finished 15th — in the 400-miler. But not before some mid-race curveballs found Johnson on the brink of overtaking Keselowski.
The architect of Johnson’s five titles, crew chief Chad Knaus, employed a pit scheme that would allow the No. 48 team to make one less stop than the incumbent No. 2 bunch. And if the race were to play out caution-free, Keselowski may have been stuck one lap down — with no guarantee of finishing worse than 15th, but on thin ice, nonetheless.
The story began to play out with 61 laps remaining when Keselowski ran out of fuel on his way to pit road for a scheduled stop. Though all went well once in his pit box, the time lost dropped him to 24th, one lap down to Johnson, who was leading.
However, just 10 laps later Johnson’s regularly-scheduled green flag pit stop threw the favor back in Keselowski’s court. A missing lug nut by the No. 48 crew precipitated a penalty that knocked the Hendrick team one lap down, in 25th.
The coup de grace occurred a handful of laps later, when a rear-gear failure on Johnson’s Chevy relegated it to the garage and, ultimately, a 32nd-place finish.
“I knew it was big,” Johnson said of when his car started leaking fluid. “We were in the cat bird’s seat. We were in position to win the race. We were ahead of the 24 (Jeff Gordon) and the 24 won the race.”
From there, Keselowski cruised while Gordon, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer vied for the race win. Gordon came out the victor — outrunning his newly minted rival Bowyer — scoring career Cup win No. 87.
Bowyer’s runner-up finish vaulted him past Johnson in the final championship tally, but a distant 39 points behind Keselowski.
For team owner Roger Penske, the title was a rare first in an illustrious motorsports career. For all the success he has achieved in open-wheel racing (12 IndyCar championships, 15 Indianapolis 500 wins), he had yet to win a title in NASCAR’s premier series.
“I feel amazed that I’ve been able to achieve this in racing,” Penske said. “I’ve lauded the people that have been on that (championship) stage for so many years and to be able to join this elite group and say that I’m a champion in NASCAR means a lot.”
Penske’s Cup program received its catalyst in the form of Keselowski in 2010, when he ran his first full season on the premier level. A natural leader, Keselowski had a vision to take the organization from race-winner to titlist. The team he helped put together persevered through a rough initial season. That’s when Keselowski’s Nationwide Series crew chief, Paul Wolfe, was asked to step up.
Having won the 2010 Nationwide title together, driver and crew chief spearheaded a three-win Cup campaign in 2011 and came out like gangbusters in 2012, winning five races en route to their second NASCAR championship in three years.
Even more challenging for the duo over the course of the Chase was knowing that Penske’s affiliation with manufacturer Dodge ended when the checkered flag fell in Homestead. Making the switch to Ford in the offseason and with Dodge on its way out of the sport altogether, many questioned how the No. 2 team, with no real help in the form of a teammate, would outlast a rival as battle-hardened as Johnson’s No. 48 squad.
The answer, as Keselowski stressed afterward, was through the strength of team and the attitude with which he approached the task.
“Throughout my whole life I’ve been told I’m not big enough, not fast enough, not strong enough and I don’t have what it takes,” Keselowski said. “I’ve used that as a chip on my shoulder to carry me through my whole career. It took until this year for me to realize that that was right, man, they were right: I’m not big enough, fast enough, strong enough.
“No person is. Only a team can do that.”
With a team that is now not only battle-tested, but title-winning, a driver and crew chief in their respective primes, and a new home at Ford Racing awaiting in 2013, the Penske organization can now look forward to many more nights like Sunday’s celebration in South Beach.
The first time Brad Keselowski asked Paul Wolfe to be his crew chief, Wolfe didn’t flinch.
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘No, I don’t want to do it,’” Keselowski said. “I think he was kind of mad at me because I had wrecked (his car).”
It was Aug. 2009 when Keselowski posed the question to Wolfe, a former driver turned crew chief working for CJM Racing.
A few months later, as Keselowski and Penske Racing officials made plans for the following season, they told Keselowski they were considering Wolfe as his crew chief.
“I kind of laughed and said, ‘good luck,’” Keselowski said. “They said, ‘We’ve been talking to him the last two weeks and he wants to do it.’”
So, what changed? What led to the pairing of a driver and crew chief on the cusp of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship this weekend at Homestead?
Simple, the funding for Wolfe’s team wasn’t there. He had said no to Keselowski because of his loyalty to CJM Racing but with the lack of funding a question, Wolfe considered other options, including Penske.
“As I sat down and looked at them, I had raced with Brad and seen what he was able to do,” Wolfe said. “I felt like together, him and I, could hopefully win races and contend for championships. The opportunity was here at Penske to do that.”
Keselowski says he first approached Wolfe to be his crew chief because he saw something most outside the sport couldn’t see in what Wolfe was doing.
“He was a guy who outperformed his resources,” Keselowski said. “In this sport excellence is defined by the media and the fans as those who win. Those inside the sport, those who actually compete, define excellence as those who outperform their resources. So if you’re running 20th in 30th-place equipment, that’s how we would define excellence as a driver or as a crew chief you’re putting together race-winning cars with a team that has C- or D-level budget. That’s how you define excellence. That’s what I saw in Paul. That’s what he saw in me.”
Now, they are on the verge of winning the Cup title two years after they combined to win the Nationwide championship.
TITLE RACES Here’s a look at the clinch scenarios for each of NASCAR’s three national series this weekend in Homestead.
Sprint Cup: Brad Keselelowski has a 20-point lead on Jimmie Johnson. Keselowski wins the title, regardless of what Johnson does, by finishing at least 15th. Keselowski also can clinch the title by finishing 16th and collecting a bonus point for leading a lap or by finishing 17th and adding the bonus point for leading the most laps.
Nationwide: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has a 20-point lead on Elliott Sadler. Stenhouse wins the title, regardless of what Sadler does, by finishing 16th or better. Stenhouse also can clinch the title by earning the bonus point for leading a lap and finishing 17th or by adding the bonus point for leading the most laps and finishing 18th.
Camping World Trucks: James Buescher has an 11-point lead on Timothy Peters. Buescher clinches the title, no matter what Peters does, by finishing seventh or better. Peters also can clinch by securing the bonus point for leading a lap and finishing eighth or adding the bonus point for most laps led and finishing ninth.
NATIONWIDE SCHEDULE RELEASED Mid-Ohio will replace the Montreal road race on the 2013 Nationwide schedule, series officials announced Tuesday.
The Mid-Ohio race will be Aug. 17. It marks the first time the series has run on the 2.4-mile, 15-turn course. Mid-Ohio will be one of three road courses on the schedule, joining Road America (June 22) and Watkins Glen (Aug. 10).
Mid-Ohio was added after the Montreal race promoter decided not to renew its contract with NASCAR since it could not get a Sprint Cup race. The Mid-Ohio course is located about an hour drive from Columbus, Ohio, which is home of series sponsor Nationwide Insurance.
The 33-race Nationwide schedule for next season features six standalone races — Iowa (June 8 and Aug. 3), Chicagoland Speedway (July 21), Kentucky Speedway (Sept. 21), Mid-Ohio and Road America. The remaining 27 races will be run on the same weekend with the Cup Series.
The Nationwide season will open Feb. 23 at Daytona and end Nov. 16 at Homestead.
STREAKING As NASCAR’s top three series head into the final weekend of the season, a few drivers are trying to keep streaks alive. Among them:
Ryan Newman is seeking to win a Cup pole for a 12th consecutive season. Only Jeff Gordon (20 consecutive years) has a longer streak among active drivers.
Kurt Busch is looking to win a Cup race for the 11th consecutive season. Only Tony Stewart (14 years in a row) and Jimmie Johnson (11) have longer streaks among current drivers.
In the Nationwide Series, Kyle Busch seeks a win to extend his streak of consecutive seasons with at least a victory to nine.
In the Camping World Truck Series, both Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday need a win to extend their streak of consecutive seasons with at least a victory to eight. Hornaday’s streak of seven consecutive seasons with at least a pole will end if he doesn’t win the pole this weekend.
PIT STOPS Tony Stewart will make his 500th career Cup start Sunday at Homestead. He’s scored 47 wins, 174 top-5 and 282 top-10 finishes in his first 499 career Cup starts. ... Homestead will mark Jeff Gordon’s 689th consecutive start, third on the all-time list. Ricky Rudd holds the record with 788 consecutive starts and Rusty Wallace is next at 697. With the current schedule at 36 races, Gordon could pass Rudd late in the 2015 season.
by Dustin Long Follow Dustin Long on Twitter:@DustinLong
Gordon/Bowyer melee mars AdvoCar500; Keselowski turns tables on Johnson in points battle
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Once the smoke cleared, the cars (or what was left of them) were loaded and the Sunday sun set over Phoenix International Raceway, a new championship landscape had emerged in NASCAR. But tempers as hot and raw as the surrounding Sonora Desert shifted the focus of the Sprint Cup Series’ AdvoCare 500 from said title battle—and the race’s previously-MIA winner—to wrecked racecars, fist fights and talk of on-track payback.
Kevin Harvick, last seen in Victory Lane following a Cup Series event in Sept. 2011, led the final 15 laps to notch his third career Cup win in Avondale, Ariz.
However, a shakeup atop the Chase standings took center stage when Jimmie Johnson—the points leader entering the race—spent over 20 laps behind the wall after his right front tire’s bead melted, resulting in a hard hit to his No. 48 Chevy. That opened the door for Brad Keselowski to execute a 27-point swing by finishing sixth in the event while Johnson limped to a 32nd-place showing, and regain the points lead by a daunting 20 markers with one race remaining in the 2012 campaign.
But a dose of on-track retribution and off-track fisticuffs trumped even the championship fight, as Jeff Gordon wrecked Clint Bowyer with just over one lap remaining in the scheduled 312-lap event. Gordon, upset with Bowyer for contact that wounded his No. 24 moments earlier and for incidents that he deemed had “escalated over the year,” waited on the latter and hooked him into the Turn 4 wall. The crash also swept up Aric Almirola and Joey Logano and nearly involved Keselowski, who was able to scoot low to avoid the mess of tangled cars.
As Gordon exited his demolished car in the garage, Bowyer’s team rushed to the scene and engaged the No. 24 team in what resembled a Wild West bar room brawl in Tombstone.
Gordon was ushered into his hauler without contact while Bowyer emerged from his injured vehicle on pit road and sprinted into the garage where he attempted to confront Gordon but was unsuccessful.
“Clint has run into me numerous times, wrecked me,” a curt Gordon said as he exited the track. “He got into me on the back straightaway and pretty much ruined our day. I had it. That was it, and I got him back.”
Said Bowyer: “I barely touched him and then I feel him get into Turn 3 and try to turn me and he missed and then next thing I know Brett’s (Griffin, spotter) telling me on the radio that he’s waiting on me. It’s pretty embarrassing for a four-time champion and what I consider one of the best this sport’s ever seen. To act like that is just completely ridiculous.”
Photo by ASP, Inc.
The incident also ended any title aspirations Bowyer may have had, however slim.
“That was my opportunity to try to get myself back in the championship hunt,” Bowyer said. “When you’re disrupting a championship run like that, it’s too bad. They ask us not to do that in the drivers’ meeting and there’s usually a lot of respect there.”
The drama was far from over, though, as the field went back to racing in a green-white-checker restart. With Harvick holding off Kyle Busch—who led a race-high 237 laps—Danica Patrick was spun in Turn 3 but no caution was displayed. As she slowly rolled her car away, an oil slick was visible in Turns 3 and 4 and down the frontstretch.
As the pack raced at speed through the oil, cars began bouncing off one another with the checkered flag in the air, triggering an accident that collected a half dozen cars. Even Keselowski got a piece of the action, but managed to bull through to finish sixth.
Denny Hamlin, Busch, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.
The post-race fallout, however, centered around the Gordon/Bowyer skirmish.
“The sport was made on fights. We should have more fights,” a victorious Harvick deadpanned. “I like fights. They’re not always fun to be in—sometimes you’re on the wrong end—but fights are what made NASCAR what it is.”
His simplistic, if not tongue-in-cheek, opinions were not reflected by the new points leader.
“It just drives me absolutely crazy that I get lambasted for racing somebody hard (the previous week in Texas) without there even being a wreck and then you see stuff like this, and that’s OK from the same people that criticized me,” Keselowski said. “It’s OK to just take somebody out, but you race somebody hard, put a fender on somebody and try to go for the win, and you’re an absolute villain. That’s ridiculous.
“But then we can just go out and retaliate against each other and come back in and smile about it, and it’s fine? That’s not what this sport needs. It needs hard racing, it needs people that go for broke, try to win races and put it all out there on the line, not a bunch of people that have anger issues. That’s not good for anybody, and it really hurt my feelings to be a part of a Chase race for the championship and have that jeopardized from people that can’t keep control of their emotions.”
Keselowki goes to the season finale having only to finish 15th in Sunday’s Ford 400—and that’s if Johnson leads the most laps and wins the race.
“Unfortunately, we lost a lot of control, or all control, in the championship,” Johnson said. “We can go down there and win the race and do everything on our behalf and it still won’t net us a championship. So, we’ll go down and do our part and just see how things unfold. Today was proof that anything can happen in this sport and we’ll see how things shake out in Miami.”
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro