Against odds, Keselowski hanging with Johnson in Chase battle
Brad Keselowski. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Brad Keselowski is not supposed to be challenging for a NASCAR Sprint Cup title. At least this year’s title. Many expect him to be a championship contender for years to come but the prevailing thought entering the Chase was that this wouldn’t be his year.
The reasons varied:
• Dodge, the team’s manufacturer, is leaving NASCAR after this season.
• Keselowski hadn’t truly been in a race for the Sprint Cup title to the final race.
• Others viewed Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin as having a better shot.
Yet, with three races to go, Keselowski trails Johnson by two points. No other driver is within 25 points of Johnson. Unless something unexpected happens, the championship race is between Johnson and Keselowski.
So, how has Keselowski gotten to this point?
Crew chief Paul Wolfe says that the team has “put blinders on all of that and not really focused on the things around us.
“I think we’ve shown growth in this team. We’ve shown improvement from the beginning of the season. I think we were lacking speed earlier the season. We were able to run well and get good finishes and win some races, but we didn’t have dominant race cars. We continued to work on our stuff and as we got closer to the Chase and, as we’ve been in the Chase, there have been tracks where I feel we’ve been dominant or as good as anybody here and that’s the improvement part I see of having the speed in the car.”
The team also has shown little impact in Dodge’s announcement that it won’t return to the sport next year and that Penske Racing will switch to Ford. Keselowski has been fast and also benefited from Wolfe’s pit strategy to win two Chase races (Chicagoland and Dover).
Another key is how the team benefited from last year’s Chase even though its title hopes ended before the season finale. The No. 2 bunch was third in the point standings with four races to go in 2011, heading to Martinsville. Keselowski was sixth in that race when he was collected in a chain-reaction incident in the final laps. NASCAR didn’t throw a caution and it cost him about 10 positions, dropping him further behind Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards and all but ending his title hopes. Although Keselowski didn’t challenge to the end, Jeff Gordon recently said he thought that was a valuable experience that has helped that team for this season.
Such experience has helped even when things have not gone as planned in the Chase.
Keselowski stayed out an extra lap at Charlotte but ran out of fuel in a race he was dominant but finished 11th. They struggled at Kansas but still managed an eighth-place finish. Qualifying has been an issue, as Keselowski has not started in the top 20 in the last four races. Each time the team didn’t panic.
It’s why Keselowski is so close to winning the Sprint Cup championship.
“It shows the potential we have together and that we’re still growing together,” Keselowski said after finishing sixth at Martinsville last weekend. “I believe that we can do this, I really do. We’ve got work ahead of us, and I know that, but we’re doing all the right things. If you do that long enough, good things will happen to you and good things are happening to us.”
HITTING THEIR STRIDE Jimmie Johnson said his title run began months ago.
“I feel kind of mid-to-late summer we started hitting on all eight cylinders,” he says. “I guess the Indy weekend (in late July) would be a good landmark weekend for us.”
Since Indy, where he won, Johnson has scored nine top-10 finishes in 14 races. He’s led in all but two of those events.
“We were around it, hitting on things, but starting at Indy, everything started clicking really, really well for us,” Johnson says. “I feel as focused and prepared as I’ve ever been in my career. We have some very smart guys with experience. Everybody is managing their emotions well, working very hard on their individual positions and executing.”
BEST OF THE REST Kyle Busch’s runner-up finish at Martinsville continued his strong run. Although he didn’t make the Chase, he’s had five top-10 finishes, including four top 5s, in the last seven races.
The 232 points he’s scored in the Chase is more than what seven title contenders have tallied in the same period. He’s outscored Denny Hamlin (230 points), Martin Truex Jr. (228), Matt Kenseth (223), Greg Biffle (216), Tony Stewart (211), Kevin Harvick (203) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (148), who missed two races because of a concussion suffered at Talladega.
Jimmie Johnson has scored the most points in the Chase at 282 with Brad Keselowski next at 280.
Non-Chase drivers who have scored the most points in the Chase are Busch (232 points), Joey Logano (207), Ryan Newman (202) and Carl Edwards and Paul Menard (190 each).
AT THE TOP Michael Waltrip Racing has placed one of its drivers in the top 5 in eight of the last 10 races.
All four MWR drivers have scored at least one top-5 finish during that stretch. Clint Bowyer has four top 5s, Martin Truex Jr. has two, Mark Martin has two and Brian Vickers has one.
Only Hendrick Motorsports can top MWR’s streak of races with at least one driver in the top 5. Hendrick has had a top-5 finisher in 15 consecutive races.
CREW CHIEF SHUFFLE Richard Petty Motorsports announced Tuesday that it has hired Drew Blickensderfer to be the crew chief for Marcos Ambrose, replacing Mike Ford.
Blickensderfer moved over from Richard Childress Racing where he had been Jeff Burton’s crew chief this season. Shane Wilson will replace Blickensderfer for the season’s final three races. Luke Lambert, who is serving as Elliott Sadler’s crew chief for RCR in the Nationwide Series, will be Burton’s crew chief next season.
Damage at Pocono Raceway from Hurricane Sandy. (Photo via Brandon Igdalsky Twitter feed)
PIT STOPSBrandon Igdalsky, president of Pocono Raceway, tweeted a picture (right) Tuesday showing that one of the track’s steeples atop the grandstand had been knocked off as a result from the storm that went through that area. ... Chase drivers have won all seven Chase races. Kyle Busch’s second-place finish at Martinsville was the first time a non-Chase driver had finished in the top two in a Chase race this season. ... Paul Menard and Martin Truex Jr. are tied for first in most laps completed this season. Both have run 9,488 out of a possible 9,521 laps.
Kenseth survives, notches third Sprint Cup win of 2012
Matt Kenseth in Victory Lane at Kansas. (ASP, Inc.)
There is typically one race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship that throws the Sprint Cup field the proverbial curveball.
The perils of Talladega are well known, so drivers and teams approach it with a survivalist’s mentality. The 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway appears staid when compared to the aforementioned 2.66-mile behemoth or even the cramped confines of the half-mile Martinsville Speedway. But with a fresh coat of new asphalt, a narrow groove and changing weather conditions throughout the weekend, Kansas proved to be anything but normal.
Ill-timed pit stops, spins, hard crashes, paybacks and an emotional winner highlighted the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway. Matt Kenseth, on his way out at Roush Fenway Racing after a celebrated 14-year tenure, proved the “lame duck” tag doesn’t apply to him or his No. 17 team. Kenseth survived a harrowing moment early in the race to lead the final 49 laps en route to his third win of the 2012 season, and second in the last three weeks.
“It means lot,” an emotional Kenseth said in Victory Lane. “I just have to thank God for the opportunities he has put in front of me and the guidance he has given me throughout my whole life. I have to thank Jack Roush and (competition director) Robbie Reiser and (former teammate) Mark Martin. Without them, I would have never been at Roush Fenway Racing.”
Kenseth’s road to the winner’s circle was an arduous one. He slapped the wall on lap 173 of 267 while attmpting to miss a spinning Aric Almirola. That dropped him to 24th on the ensuing restart, deep in a field that had proven to be aggressive.
However, as Kenseth steadily advanced his position, others saw their hopes dashed.
Chase contenders Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart each spun, while Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman were involved in an altercation that will most certainly be continued before the season is over. Even Danica Patrick got into the action, spinning Landon Cassill and, in the process, wrecking herself, when she took exception to his on-track methods.
Kansas’ newly repaved surface narrowed the racing groove, forcing drivers to take advantage of any opportunity presented to them. A Kansas record 14 cautions was the result, as aggressiveness seemed the order of the day.
“The restarts were pretty wild,” Johnson said. “You had to run so hard that when something happened and you lost grip, the car just stood up on the tires and would take off and you couldn't control it, and guys were sliding everywhere.”
Johnson would know. He backed his No. 48 Chevy into the wall on lap 137. His team responded as title contenders do, furiously working on the car under yellow while remaining on the lead lap. Johnson finished ninth, one spot behind points leader Brad Keselowski.
“I’m glad I survived the carnage and brought back a decent car,” Keselowski said of his eighth-place run. “I dodged a bullet of a race.”
Keselowski’s lead over Johnson in the point standings remains at seven, while third-place Denny Hamlin lost five points due to a 13th-place showing. He sits third in the title hunt, 20 points back.
Clint Bowyer (sixth) finds himself still in contention, just 25 markers behind Keselowski. Kasey Kahne (fourth) has moved to within 30 points of the lead.
But while the championship continues to sort itself out—eyeing a final-race shootout in Homestead, Fla., Sunday was about Kenseth and the team that continues to give up.
“We still have some races left we want to win,” Kenseth said. “It says a lot about these guys—how hard they work to give me the best stuff and give me a chance to win every week.”
It’s a NASCAR theme that plays out as regularly as the seasons on the calendar change—in fact, it occurs seasonally, as NASCAR’s four restrictor-plate dates reside in February, May, July and October: The perils of “pack racing” at the sport’s largest venues, Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
Quarterly, television commercials sell viewers on the promise of intense, white-knuckle, photo-finish action, complete with a major-league version of the local Saturday night Demolition Derby.
Make no mistake, the selling points are true. Horsepower-sapping restrictor plates put a ceiling on the power each engine produces. The result is a giant pack of sleek racecars, jostling just inches from one another at nearly 200 mph.
The spectacle is undeniable; the outcome all-too-predictable. Drivers, hellbent on leading the only lap that counts—the last one—fight for every inch of real estate in the race’s final circuits. Inevitably, the paint-swapping turns too aggressive and savagery commences.
Such was the case on Sunday, when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series made its fall pilgrimage to Talladega, Ala., home to the 2.66-mile behemoth superspeedway, with its lurching tri-oval and 33-degree-banked turns.
Filling in the event’s template this trip, it was Matt Kenseth that avoided the big wreck on the final lap of a green-white-checker overtime finish, taking the win. Sunday’s version of the “Big One” was, in fact, an actual big one, as 25 cars piled into one another.
Tony Stewart accepted blame for this trip’s destruction, which occurred as the 30-car pack barreled through Turns 3 and 4. Defending the lead, his ill-timed block of Michael Waltrip’s surging machine ignited the grinding melee that saw Stewart’s car turn upside down, only to land on all four wheels. He, along with all others involved, walked away physically unharmed.
“I just screwed up,” Stewart said. “I turned down across Michael (Waltrip) and crashed the whole field. It was my fault blocking to try to stay where I was.
“I was trying to win the race. Michael got a great run on the bottom, a big head of steam. When I turned down, I turned down across Michael’s racecar. Just a mistake on my part that cost a lot of people.”
Kenseth, meanwhile, had the good fortune to be on the high side of the three-wide pack. As chaos ensued behind his Ford, he had clean track in the windshield and sailed through the tri-oval unchallenged to take the checkered flag.
Somehow (and there’s always a “somehow” in these wrecks) Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch skated past the mess and finished second and third.
Kenseth, as most race-winning survivors state, had little insight into what happened. After all, he was in front of the incident. The obligatory, “I’m really proud to be in Victory Lane with these guys; they worked on it hard today,” and “I don't know how that happened,” was all the victor could muster.
However, other drivers—even those not involved— had strong words about the style of racing on NASCAR’s two largest tracks.
“At the end you know it’s going to get aggressive,” Gordon said. “It started to ramp up, so you’re pretty sure there’s going to be a caution, and then with the green-white-checker, you know you’re not making it back to the checkered (flag).
“I remember when coming to Talladega was fun, I really do, and I haven’t experienced that in a long, long time. I don’t like coming here. I don’t like the type of racing that I have to do.”
The most unlikely critic this time (and there’s always at least one post-race critic), was the man who once championed pack racing: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“If this is what we did every week, I wouldn’t be doing it, I will just put it to you like that,” said Earnhardt, who was swept up in the accident and finished 20th. “If this is how we raced every week, I would find another job.
“I don’t even want to go to Daytona or Talladega next year, but I ain’t got much choice.”
But return the series and its band of driver will. Daytona testing is scheduled for January while Speedweeks at the same facility culminates with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24.
And the same story will be written then. Just insert here the race-winner’s quote, offending-party’s name and number of cars involved in the last-lap crash.
Fuel mileage, strategy, pay off for Keselowski, Penske Racing
Photo by ASP, Inc.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is only three races into its 10-race Chase for the Championship playoff stint. And thus far, three drivers seem to have separated themselves from the field.
One made a major statement in the AAA 400 from Dover International Speedway — a statement even bolder than Denny Hamlin’s perceived “called shot” and win a week earlier in New Hampshire.
Brad Keselowski led only 14 of 400 laps on Sunday, but 10 of those — the final 10 — were the most important of the day.
Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe executed a late-race fuel run to perfection, going the final 89 laps on a single tank of gas, outsmarting and outperforming Chase rivals Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, to score their second win in three playoff events.
“We slowly eked our way up from the 10th starting position up to fourth,” Keselowski said. “Kind of fell in there on that last run, after my pit crew got me out fourth, and that put us in position to really capitalize on good strategy and execution.
“My guys did that. They did a great job. Together we were able to manage it (fuel mileage) very well, which is important as anything else in racing these days.”
As with most races decided by fuel mileage, the best car wasn’t the one that completed the scheduled distance first. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch (302 laps led) and Hamlin (39), along with Johnson (43), were the unquestioned class of the field. However, as the laps wound down, all three realized a decision must be made: Run all-out and pit for fuel late, hoping for a caution flag, or slow down, conserve gas and settle for whatever respectable finish they could muster.
The Gibbs teams chose the former, as Busch pitted from the lead with 11 circuits remaining. That handed the lead to Hamlin, who hit pit road one lap later.
Johnson’s strategy had kicked in much earlier. Leading the race with 40 laps remaining, crew chief Chad Knaus radioed the driver that they would not make it to the end running their current pace. Johnson gave up the lead to Busch and peddled the car down the stretch.
Enter Keselowski and the No. 2 Penske Racing team, a bunch adept at stretching a tank of gas. Running a steady fourth with enough in the tank, they simply waited for others to make a mistake (Busch and Hamlin) or settle (Johnson).
Inheriting the lead on lap 391, Keselowski held off a charging Jeff Gordon to score his fifth win of the 2012 season and into the points lead.
Mark Martin was third, while Johnson’s fuel-saving gamble worked to the tune of a fourth-place run. Carl Edwards was fifth.
Busch finished one lap down in seventh while Hamlin was eighth.
“This fuel mileage game sucks,” a dejected Hamlin said. “All the hard work that you put in — drove as hard as I could drive for 400 laps — and then it’s like you look up and wonder why we’re eighth. That part of it is frustrating, but it’s just some people have different strategies. Some people have better fuel mileage, but not as good of a handling racecar. I’ll take good-handling racecars and good horsepower any day.”
So it’s Keselowski, with a pair of wins and a sixth-place showing through three Chase races, that finds himself leading the pack. But he’s not willing to play the role of championship favorite just yet.
“I can’t state loudly enough how much longer this (Chase) battle is,” Keselowski said. “It’s very tempting, whether it’s the media or the teams themselves, to get in a comfort zone of saying, ‘Such and such has control of this Chase.’ But there’s a reason why it’s 10 rounds. We’re not even halfway. We’re three rounds in.
“By no means do I feel like we’re the favorite. Certainly we’re not the underdog probably at this point.
“My perspective is we got a lot more racing to go. Let’s just let the racing play out and go from there.”
Hamlin decimates field, scores fifth win of NASCAR season
Denny Hamlin's hat tip to Babe Ruth. (ASP, Inc.)
It appeared Denny Hamlin had a good idea that he would win the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Or at least run well. Maybe.
Actually, it’s hard to know exactly what he was thinking leading up to the second race of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
After dropping from a top-10 finish to 16th with an empty fuel tank the previous week at Chicagoland Speedway, Hamlin tweeted, “This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week.”
Most took it as a prediction; a called-shot of sorts. And why not? Since his Sprint Cup Series debut in 2005, Hamlin has shown a flare for NASCAR’s flat tracks, registering 10 of his 22 career wins on the minimally-banked facilities in Loudon, N.H., Martinsville, Va., Phoenix, Az. and Pocono, Penn.
At the least it was a bold statement, even from a driver touted as a title favorite . However, Hamlin clarified his social-media sentiment on Friday, when he again took to Twitter, saying, “Not really sure what all the buzz in the media is about my tweet last week. I didn’t guarantee, didn’t promise, just made a statement.”
The theme persisted in his media availability later in the day, when he stated that, “I’ve had confidence before and I said at Pocono and different race tracks (that), ‘I expect to win’ — and it’s no different. Given our history here, given how we ran the first practice and hopefully how we run tomorrow, I’ll expect to win.”
Regardless of what it was, Hamlin backed it up on Sunday. Starting 32nd due to incorrect air pressure in his tires during qualifying, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver sliced through the field after the green flag waved.
By lap 30 he had entered the top 15, and 64 laps later took the point, passing teammate Kyle Busch.
From there, the route was on, as Hamlin led 193 of the final 206 laps to earn his series-best fifth victory of the season. In the process, he vaulted to within seven points of championship leader Jimmie Johnson.
“Once we got to about lap 50 and started working our way to sixth, seventh position, I knew that we had the winning car,” Hamlin said.
To find anyone else in the field that thought different would be a tall order. Second- and third-place finishers Johnson and Jeff Gordon could only shake there heads in retrospect.
“No,” was Gordon’s definitive response when asked if anyone had anything for Hamlin’s Toyota. “I don’t think that thing bobbled all day.”
“Never slipped,” Johnson concurred.
The only reason for concern on Hamlin’s part — and hope on Johnson’s — came when NASCAR threw a yellow flag for debris with 26 laps remaining. Hamlin, who enjoyed a nearly six-second lead at the time, could only show his disgust over the team’s in-car radio.
“Really, I don’t understand why they do this,” he complained after his spotter informed him that a caution had been thrown for “phantom debris.”
Hamlin got the jump on the lap 278 restart, though, and quickly pulled away for the 2.67-second win.
“I had a little bit of hope for just, you know, a quarter of a lap there,” Johnson said of possibly wresting the lead from Hamlin on the final restart. “And then it was like, ‘Uh-oh, don’t lose second.’ And then pulled away from Jeff and got going from there.”
And with victory claimed and burnouts complete, Hamlin threw one final “called-shot” innuendo into play — furthering the “did he or didn’t he” question — striking a Babe Ruth, circa 1932, home run pose after completing victory burnouts on the frontstretch.
"Third?! I'm gonna tear @MattTaliaferro a new one on Twitter." (ASP, Inc.)
1. Denny Hamlin Hamlin slips ahead of Jimmie Johnson thanks to having the strongest car for a third consecutive week (despite the fact he didn’t win). He also gets a hat tip for those four regular season victories. Last week: 2
2. Jimmie Johnson Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are bringing the car that they dominated and won with at Dover and Indianapolis to Chicago. My thought is it goes three-for-three this season. You heard it here first. Last week: 1
3. Brad Keselowski Drove to a quiet seventh at Richmond, his ninth top-10 showing in the last 10 races. This kid is for real, people, and his time is now. Last week: 3
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Give him props for the consistency throughout the regular season. Now the question becomes whether this team and its driver can deliver in crunch time or get passed by the heavy-hitters. Last week: 4
5. Jeff Gordon Gets a huge bump up the rankings this week after being Mr. Clutch the last three weeks, with finishes of third, second and second. Now we’ll see if they have any gas left in the tank. Last week: 10
6. Clint Bowyer One win per season is impressive and all, but multiple victories rachet a team and its driver up the “keep an eye on” list. Bowyer and the 15 bunch are there — and at just the right time. Last week: 8
7. Greg Biffle Lest we forget about the “Regular Season Champion” — that is, if there were one. When is NASCAR going to at least acknowledge that achievement? At the least, an “Atta boy!” would do. Last week: 5
8. Matt Kenseth Kenseth’s standing takes a hit based more on what others have done as opposed to the performance of his No. 17 team. That said, there are still questions how this team will do in the Chase. Last week: 7
9. Kasey Kahne Many are looking at Kahne as a nice darkhorse Chase pick. It’s hard to argue with those types, especially when you consider that his two wins this year have come on Chase tracks (Charlotte, Loudon). Last week: 9
"My one team has more cars in the Chase than both of yours!" (ASP, Inc.)
10. Martin Truex Jr. Was once again strong, but failed to cash in. Make no mistake, this team has performed admirably this season, but if you can’t finish out a race, how can you finish out a championship? Last week: 6
11. Kevin Harvick Showings of 15th, fifth and 10th since the crew chief swap. Can Harvick be this year’s Tony Stewart? Last week: 12
12. Tony Stewart Speaking of Stewart, his fourth at RIR was his first top 10 in over a month. Last week: 13
13. Kyle Busch Will be interesting to see if this team comes out firing or packs it in after a failed Chase bid. Last week: 11
14. Marcos Ambrose Has averaged an 8.8-place finish over the last six weeks. Will a new crew chief improve that? Last week: 14
15. Ryan Newman Eighth-place finishes at Michigan and Richmond bookend two weeks worth of crashes. Last week: N/R
Just off the lead pack: Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Sam Hornish Jr., Mark Martin, Paul Menard
10. 1988 Pontiac Excitement 400 – Fairground Finale Fit For “The King”
1 of 11
One week earlier, Richard Petty was simply lucky to survive. NASCAR’s King and his No. 43 STP Pontiac flipped wildly, tearing to pieces and smacked by several cars on the way in one of the most horrific Daytona 500 wrecks in history. But there he was, in the final race at the old Richmond Fairgrounds (before its expansion into the .75-mile facility it is today) gritting it out and running up front the following Sunday. Victory Lane that day was filled by a similar “tough” competitor – Neil Bonnett was still recovering from serious injuries suffered at Charlotte in 1987 – but Petty’s push to challenge for the top spot took center stage. In the end, a third-place result, at 50 years old, showed the type of resilience this Hall of Famer was always made of – how fitting for it to be the final top-5 performance of his great career.
At age 51, most fans would consider it a miracle for a driver to simply qualify for a Cup Series race. Not Harry Gant. In September 1991, he went on one of the most magical rides in NASCAR’s Modern Era, winning four straight races at that “AARP” stage in his life to move inside the top 5 in season-ending points. But it was a streak that nearly never happened at all; at Richmond, Davey Allison was the dominant car, leading 150 laps, and it took all Gant had to track down and pass the No. 28. Their battle for the top spot, competitive but clean, is a reminder of the lap-after-lap, side-by-side racing fans yearn for when they speak of the “good ol’ days.”
by Tom Bowles
8. 2011 Crown Royal 400 – Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Ryan Newman
3 of 11
When you look at the video, the on-track action between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman last spring isn’t exactly Demolition Derby material … just ask Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski how much worse it can be. But sometimes, what doesn’t look bad on TV can turn into a frustrating final straw inside the cockpit. The real fireworks on this one occurred the week after the race, during a meeting about the incident in the NASCAR hauler where Newman reportedly threw a punch. After four-plus years of bad blood – the two actually made contact in Montoya’s first Cup race in November 2006 at Homestead – Newman literally took matters into his own hands to settle the feud. Too bad Montoya got the last laugh, in the form of a NASCAR secret fine after he reportedly phoned his lawyer and threatened to sue over the incident.
by Tom Bowles
7. 2004 Chevy Rock & Roll 400 – Mayfield’s Clutch Performance
4 of 11
Long before drug tests, lawsuits, arrests and tabloid fodder, Jeremy Mayfield was remembered for being a pretty darn good wheelman. Perhaps his greatest win came in the 2004 regular season finale, a nail-biter in which no one knew what to expect from the sport’s new playoff format. A total of eight drivers entered Richmond battling for three final Chase spots, with the only way in at the time to finish inside the top 10 in Cup Series points. Mayfield sat 14th, 55 points out of 10th and was an afterthought in most of the postseason discussion. If anyone, hotshot rookie Kasey Kahne was expected to sneak inside the field, sitting ninth and in control of his own destiny. But when the smoke cleared during a wild evening, it was Mayfield who used an early gas-only pit stop to take control of the race. Leading for the first time on Lap 99, he wound up pacing the field for a race-high 151 circuits and remained in contention throughout. When Kurt Busch ran out of fuel, the No. 19 car was there to pounce, pushing ahead for Mayfield’s first win in four seasons in a shocking upset that left him sitting inside the postseason field. As for Mayfield’s teammate, Kahne? The rookie wrecked out. Chalk one up for the veterans …
by Tom Bowles
6. 1990 Pontiac Excitement 400 – Martin’s Tainted Win … And Lost Title?
5 of 11
Mark Martin’s not known as a short track guy. So when he won Richmond, the second race of the 1990 season, you knew the No. 6 Ford would be a strong contender at every track. Jumpstarting one of the driver’s finest seasons, his second career victory could have been a benchmark in what became a neck-and-neck championship battle with Dale Earnhardt. But trouble brewed the minute NASCAR took the car apart for post-race inspection. Earnhardt’s owner, Richard Childress, pointed feverishly at Martin’s carburetor spacer and claimed the driver’s car broke the rules. NASCAR agreed, assessing a penalty that’s debated to this day, as the half-inch “violation” is claimed by many to have given the car no advantage over the course of the race. The 46-point deduction proved the difference in a title decided in favor of Earnhardt by just 26; it was the first of what would be a record five runner-up finishes for Martin without a Cup Series title to show for it. Added bonus in this clip: Check out how young Jack Roush, Steve Hmiel and Robin Pemberton are!
by Tom Bowles
5. 1982 Richmond 400 – Dave Marcis Scores One For The Independents
6 of 11
When NASCAR fans hear the word “independent” today, they typically think of an unsponsored program that starts and parks. But there was a time when the small little teams, sitting inside the back of the garage, could come out and win races with the right circumstances and a little boost from Lady Luck. Dave Marcis was the poster child for that, his little-team-that-could No. 71 a recipient of one of the big surprise victories we’ve ever seen in the sport. With threatening skies overhead at Richmond, Joe Ruttman appeared to have the race won with a dominating performance. But all of a sudden, the rear end broke, causing a wreck just as a raging downpour drenched the track. Inexplicably, a number of lead-lap cars pitted, including would-be winner Richard Petty thinking all other competitors behind them were a lap down. But Ruttman’s crash allowed one other car, Marcis’, to get back on the lead lap and the No. 71 team smartly kept the car on the track. Inheriting the top spot, the Wisconsinite then got an assist from Mother Nature when the rain forced the race to get called 150 laps early. “It’s been a long, tough road,” he said of ending a 137-race winless streak, but the road would never exactly get brighter after that – it was the last trophy in a Cup career that would run all the way through the 2002 Daytona 500.
by Tom Bowles
4. 2001 Chevy Monte Carlo 400 – Harvick vs. Rudd … Where It All Began
7 of 11
Rookie Kevin Harvick was known for ruffling feathers, but he ruffled a little too much on this night. Battling for the lead with Ricky Rudd, and with the laps winding down, the No. 29 Chevrolet slammed into Rudd’s No. 28 – on the middle of the back straightaway. How Rudd didn’t wreck, we will never know, but the fantastic save left Harvick with a clean track and a path to Victory Lane. Seemingly out of it, Rudd taught us then how anger can be the best motivator; in the matter of a dozen laps, he closed the gap back up on Harvick, pile-drove him out of the way in the corner and drove on to an easy victory. The bad blood between the two would remain, though, sparking up in this race two years later when Rudd wrecked Harvick, sparking a feisty WWF-life post-race confrontation on pit road.
by Tom Bowles
3. 1998 Pontiac Excitement 400 – The Iceman’s Bump-and-Run
8 of 11
Dale Jarrett thought he had it made, out front with the laps winding down at Richmond. But when a late, multi-car wreck with 10 laps remaining seemingly ended the race NASCAR shocked the field by changing course – throwing a red flag to ensure the event ended under green. In what would become the precursor to a green-white-checker finish, the move threw the No. 88 off guard and gave Terry Labonte, an ace on short runs, an opportunity to try and move up front. Charging from third to first, he knocked back Jarrett in Turn 3, pulling a rare bump-and-run on a night the sport changed course on its finishes forever.
by Tom Bowles
2. 2008 Crown Royal 400 – The Spin Heard ’Round The World
9 of 11
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been knocking on the door of Victory Lane, running strong in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. Former Hendrick driver Kyle Busch stalked behind him in second at Richmond, though, ready to show up his former employer who pushed the “Rowdy” aside for “Mr. Popular” at the conclusion of the 2007 season. Two drivers, giving 110 percent … only one winner. So as the No. 18 dove inside the No. 88, you could tell entering the turn there just wasn’t going to be enough room. “He turned him!” DW cried, as 100,000 fans groaned, Earnhardt slamming into the wall while Clint Bowyer darted past a slowing Busch. In the end, that’s who entered a shocked Victory Lane, while for Busch it was a victory to simply make it out alive. How bad did it get for wrecking NASCAR’s “golden boy?” Armed guards were by his side for close to a month offering protection.
by Tom Bowles
1. 1986 Miller High Life 400 – Waltrip vs. Earnhardt
10 of 11
It’s the crash that defined The Intimidator’s hard-nosed reputation. Battling with Darrell Waltrip for the lead in the closing laps, neither driver would give an inch. Waltrip had knocked Dale Earnhardt sideways several times and his rival had no problem returning the favor. But a fascinating battle turned destructive with two laps left when Earnhardt, inexplicably hooked the No. 11 of Waltrip entering Turn 3. The resulting wreck eliminated not just those two but the third- and fourth-place cars, leaving a surprised Kyle Petty the first one to survive the carnage. All of a sudden, it was The King’s son in Victory Lane while Waltrip was left to wonder what the heck happened. And as for Earnhardt? He simply stated that, “Just hung up with ol’ Darrell … we got in the wall.”
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Federated Auto Parts 400
(Photo by ASP, Inc.)
After 25 races, the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season will roll into Richmond International Raceway for the final event before the 12-driver Chase field is set. While the top 10 is essentially a lock, the race for the wild card positions is all about wins, with eight drivers still eligible for the two spots.
Although the points will reset for the Chase drivers after the checkered flag falls on Saturday night, the fantasy NASCAR season will roll on. What you will need to pay close attention to is what each driver in Saturday night's field has at stake.
With a host of differing agendas, many look at this race as a “no-holds-barred,” anything-goes contest. There is a ton of risk for those trying grab the two wild card spots, yet no risk at all for many others.
While Kasey Kahne leads the wild card contenders with two victories, the drivers to watch Saturday night are Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon. The two with the most on the line this weekend, both have stellar records at Richmond and will be doing all they can to put their cars in Victory Lane.
For Busch, there could be no better track than the .75-mile Richmond International Raceway. His lone win this season came here in April, he has the best average finish among active drivers (4.7), and has four wins in the last seven races — winning every other race dating back to May 2009.
However, this season has been anything but ordinary for Busch and his Dave Rogers-led team. Inconsistency, poor luck, wrecks and engine failures have led to his most difficult campaign since his sophomore season in 2007. Given the struggles, Busch says he feels “OK” about his chances of making the Chase, but knows there are no guarantees going into Saturday night’s race.
“I’m not saying I’m for sure going to be in at all,” he admits. “Anything can happen. Jeff is no slouch at Richmond, either. He will be fine. I feel like he’s the guy we’re racing — the 24 car. We’ll just have to see how it all plays out. Jeff could give us a run for our money.”
Truer words have never been spoken by young Busch. If he wants to make the Chase he must beat a four-time series champion in Gordon to do so.
Since the summer stretch kicked off, Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led team have been in contention to win nearly every week. In the 11 races since Michigan in June, Gordon has scored one win, five top 5s and eight top 10s, with a 21st-place finish at Watkins Glen due to a late-race spin in oil. In the last five races alone, Gordon has one win, a second and a third.
However, for one of NASCAR’s most decorated drivers, those numbers have not been enough to secure a Chase bid. He knows in order to celebrate his 20th season in the Cup Series with a shot at title No. 5, he has to win on Saturday night.
Taking a different approach than Busch, Gordon’s attention will be on his race — not the competitions’.
“Our focus won’t be on what ‘this team’ is doing or what ‘this driver’ is doing,” he says. “We’re just going to focus on our own program like we always do. We’ll focus on tuning the car, communicating and working the setup the best we possibly can to try to have the fastest racecar. I’m not going into the race thinking that we’ve got to finish 12 positions ahead of Kyle. I’m thinking we have to win.”
Unless Busch and Gordon suffer the poor luck that has put them in this situation in the first place, both should run and finish up front, capable of solid fantasy points.
That said, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin, heads to Richmond fresh off consecutive wins, giving him four on the season. Carrying momentum, confidence and the support of the hometown crowd behind him, the driver of the No. 11 Toyota will be hard to beat.
In 13 Cup starts at Richmond, Hamlin has only one finish outside the top 20, three finishes outside the top 10, six finishes of third or better and two wins. With 12 bonus points on his side heading into the Chase, the Virginia native has the opportunity to score another three bonus points with a win Saturday night. For fantasy players, Hamlin is about as sure of a bet as you will find in the field.
For the past few weeks, Carl Edwards has been our fantasy darkhorse pick. Nearly every week he has lived up to that title — while carrying the risk associated with a darkhorse — mixing strong runs with, ultimately, poor finishes.
Down and out after an engine failure ended his Atlanta race (and Chase hopes) early, Edwards struggled to come to terms with his situation after nearly winning the title last season. When the series last raced in Richmond, though, Edwards had the strongest car in the field. Leading 206 of the 400 laps, he was hit with a late-race penalty for beating the leader to the line on a restart and was penalized, forced to swallow a bitter 10th-place finish.
Feeling as if NASCAR stole a win out from under them, Edwards and his No. 99 team are heading to RIR looking for redemption, a little luck and a win. While he has yet to win at Richmond, the Roush Fenway Racing driver has three top 5s and five top 10s in his last five starts. The series runner-up in 2011 is likely to miss the Chase this season, but expect him to go out swinging, scoring strong fantasy points for your team.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ryan Newman. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
As the majority of focus will be on the wild card battle (as Danica Patrick is not entered), one driver that can fly under the radar and score his second win of the season is Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer.
A former Richmond winner, Bowyer has the third-best average finish (10.2) and MWR has been on a roll of late. While teammate Martin Truex Jr. has been making the most noise in the past few weeks, some of Bowyer’s best tracks begin with Richmond this weekend.
Much like Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman could sneak up and have a strong run Saturday night. Also a former winner at Richmond, Newman has the sixth-best average finish (11.8) among active drivers. However, over the past few weeks Newman has dealt with off-track contractual issues, has been caught up in two wrecks in two weeks and fallen from one of the top wild card contenders to 17th in the standings.
While a win would go a long way for Newman’s Chase hopes, he has not been on the competitive level of Busch and Gordon. If he can avoid trouble, expect Newman to have a strong night for your fantasy squad.
With two wins this season, Kahne is nearly a lock for this year’s Chase. As the rest of the field will be fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot, expect Kahne and his Kenny Francis-led team to do all they can to protect theirs. Solid fantasy points are certainly obtainable here, but the M.O. of the evening may not be to risk it all for a win.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin
Once a former champion, Bobby Labonte has not made much noise on the NASCAR circuit in quite some time. With only one top 10 this season, the driver of the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Toyota has moved to a mid-pack racer for the most part.
However, Labonte and crew chief Brian Burns have posted finishes of 14th (Bristol) and 19th (Atlanta) the last two weeks. Also, Labonte has finished 20th and 17th in his last two starts at Richmond.
Like Gordon, Labonte is celebrating his 20th season in the Sprint Cup Series. Unlike Gordon, the 2000 series champion will not contend for the win Saturday night, but he could easily score a solid top-20 finish and provide a good value pick.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears, Macros Ambrose, Jamie McMurray, Landon Cassill
Best Average Finish at Richmond (Wins):
1. Kyle Busch — 4.7 (4)
2. Denny Hamlin — 7.3 (2)
3. Clint Bowyer — 10.2 (1)
4. Tony Stewart — 10.6 (3)
5. Kevin Harvick — 11.8 (2)
6. Ryan Newman — 11.8 (1)
7. Mark Martin — 12.1 (1)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 13.9 (3)
9. Jeff Gordon — 14.7 (2)
10. Carl Edwards — 14.8 (0)
Hamlin, Johnson, Keselowski separate from the pack
"Hmmm ... what should I ask him?" (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson Denny Hamlin may be the hottest driver on the Cup circuit at the moment, but Johnson’s team will still be the one everyone keeps an eye on going into the Chase.
2. Denny Hamlin Became the first driver since Tony Stewart in last season’s playoffs to score consecutive wins on the Cup circuit, with victories at Bristol and Atlanta. This is not the Denny Hamlin of 2011, folks.
3. Brad Keselowski Throw out Keselowski’s disastrous night in Bristol (which is a real rarity) and you’ll find a driver with eight straight runs of ninth or better. Along with Johnson and Hamlin, he has to be a title favorite.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Persevered for a respectable seventh-place showing on what was shaping up to be an off night in Atlanta. The consistency is unquestioned, but can Junior post a couple wins in the Chase?
5. Greg Biffle Was expecting more out of the points leader at the fast and slick Atlanta track. That said, his team of intermediate-track specialists will be ready for the Chase kickoff at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway.
6. Martin Truex Jr. Victory slips through Truex’s fingers once again. He and the No. 56 team’s performance in the closing laps at Atlanta are what separate the “title contenders” from the “playoff participants.”
7. Matt Kenseth One has to wonder how his Roush Fenway bunch will react now that Kenseth has walked the halls and officially announced his Joe Gibbs Racing relationship.
8. Clint Bowyer Moved into the top 10 from a rear-of-the-field starting spot at Atlanta before battery issues cost him three laps. Could Bowyer be a guy who breaks up the Kyle Busch/Jeff Gordon battle royal in Richmond?
Truex's 2013 Toyota. Pretty spiffy. (ASP, Inc.)
9. Kasey Kahne Looking to make up the 19 points he’ll need to slide ahead of Tony Stewart in the standings and take advantage of the bonus points he’ll receive for the two wins. That may be a lot to ask.
10. Jeff Gordon Gordon regretted not putting the fender to Hamlin on the final lap at Atlanta. Considering all that’s riding on a win, I’m scratching my head as to why he didn’t, either.
11. Kyle Busch Busch can win at Richmond, no doubt. But can JGR give him a piece that lasts the whole race?
12. Kevin Harvick The last couple of weeks makes me wonder why Harvick and Gill Martin split up in the first place.
13. Tony Stewart Point to ponder: Danica Patrick is currently the only driver at SHR with full sponsorship for 2013.
14. Marcos Ambrose Valiant performances by Ambrose and the team over the last month is example of too little, too late.
15. Paul Menard Here’s betting the “Paul Menard Empire” is the only group that knew he has three straight top 10s.
Just off the lead pack: Carl Edwards, Sam Hornish Jr., Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman
Kenseth, Logano and Chase wild cards take center stage
2012 Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth. (ASP, Inc.)
As a Green Bay Packers fan, Matt Kenseth knows the shock many had seeing quarterback Brett Favre wear another team’s uniform. Kenseth says he doesn’t think his fans will be as shocked with his new look at Joe Gibbs Racing next season after being with car owner Jack Roush’s team since 1999.
“I’ve had about 25 different uniforms in the last two years,” Kenseth said, exaggerating the numerous sponsors cobbled together to fund his Cup team. “I think most of my fans eventually are going to appreciate only having two different uniforms and paint jobs next year instead of 10. I’m really looking forward to the stability of the sponsorship and the team.”
What had been known for some time became official Tuesday when Joe Gibbs Racing introduced Kenseth as its driver for next season. Kenseth replaces Joey Logano, who is headed to drive the No. 22 car at Penske Racing in 2013. Home Depot and Dollar General will sponsor Kenseth’s No. 20 car. Jason Ratcliff will serve as his crew chief.
Team officials said having the 40-year-old Kenseth replace the 22-year-old Logano was good for the company’s future.
“It doesn’t matter what age you are, it doesn’t matter your experience, the question is are you good and can you communicate and can you be a part of a team?” said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. “I think Matt will fit that well for Denny (Hamlin) and for Kyle (Busch).”
Gibbs said that with Kenseth coming over, the team wanted Logano to do a full Nationwide schedule next season and some Cup races, but once the Penske ride opened, knew that they couldn’t compete with that. Gibbs could only offer such a program to Logano because of what sponsorship the team had available.
“We love Joey, he’s been here a long time, so we have a real fondness for him, but at the same time we understand that when he has an opportunity there, it’s hard to pass that up,” Gibbs said.
Kenseth said his focus the rest of this season is winning the championship at Roush Fenway Racing. Once his Roush contract ends, he’ll plan to spend as much time as possible with Ratfcliff and discuss the car and their program
“I know without a doubt it is the right place for me,” Kenseth said of moving to Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
DOWN TO TWO Officially eight drivers have a chance to gain a wild card spot at Richmond and make the Chase, but Kyle Busch admits he thinks it will be between he and Jeff Gordon for the final playoff spot. Kasey Kahne, who has two wins, is expected to make the Chase, most likely via the other wild card spot.
Busch leads Gordon by 12 points heading into Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway, the final one before the Chase field is set. Only once in 15 races they’ve raced each other at Richmond has Gordon finished more than 12 spots ahead of Busch. Also, Busch’s career average finish at Richmond is 4.7 (four wins). Gordon’s average finish in those 15 races is 17.0 (zero wins).
Busch said he doesn’t anticipate needing reports during the race to keep up with what Gordon is doing.
“If (Gordon) is front of me and I can’t see him, obviously we’re not having a good enough night, but if (Gordon) is in front of us and I can see him, I think everything will be fine,” Busch said.
Carl Edwards and team owner Jack Roush. (ASP, Inc.)
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN Carl Edwards, who lost last year’s title by a tiebreaker, needs to win Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond, have Kyle Busch finish 24th or worse and Jeff Gordon place 12th or worse to make the Chase.
Unless Edwards makes the Chase, it will mark the fifth consecutive year that the runner-up in the points finished no better than seventh the next season.
So, how did he get into this situation while teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are in the Chase?
“There are a couple reasons we’re in this position in points,” Edwards said. “One of them is not the fact that we finished second last year in the championship, truly. We’re adults. We’re good competitors and we’ve finished second before. I’ve had disappointment.
“As we went through the season there are two things that happened that I think really set us behind. Number one, terrible luck. Think of qualifying at Michigan the first time we went there, the bolt came off the secondary for fuel injection for the butterflies. I mean, it seems like things like that have happened to us. We got in that wreck at Bristol.
“We had the spark plug wire come off at Indy running fourth, I think. We’ve had all these things that happened during the year combined with, I believe, (former crew chief) Bob (Osborne) and his (health) situation – him not being able to really perform at the highest level that he has over the last few years – I think all of that kind of added up to just mediocre performance combined with terrible luck.”
PIT STOPS Travis Pastrana will drive the No. 60 Nationwide car for Roush Fenway Racing this weekend at Richmond. Pastrana didn’t have any more Nationwide races scheduled for the season before this one-race deal. ... Denny Hamlin goes for his third consecutive Cup victory on Saturday at his home track of Richmond, in a race that he won in 2009 and 0’10. The last time a driver won three Cup races in a row was Jimmie Johnson, who won four consecutive races during the Chase in 2007. He won at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix. … The NASCAR baby boom continues, as Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola and wife Janice welcomed a baby boy, Alex, into their family on Tuesday.