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.
The changes to Bristol may not have worked quite how track officials imagined, but most members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council liked what they saw there last weekend. Is it enough to get them back to the track? You might find those responses interesting. Also, Fan Council members updated their selection on who they think will get the wild card spots in the final two races before the Chase.
Grade Saturday’s Cup race at Bristol
49.7 percent called it Great 40.6 percent called it Good 7.0 percent called it Fair 2.7 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• I LOVED this race. Passing, crashing, sliding, cussing and even helmet throwing!! What's not to love? To me the best part is seeing so many different drivers up front (Vickers, Ambrose, etc.) as well as a lot of favorites. The fact that they all stay so close and race so close makes it very exciting. Enough yellows to keep them even more bunched up … it was just a really fun race to watch. I know the drivers hated the track, but man it was fun to watch!!
• I was opposed to the recent changes at Bristol, but I have to admit, it made for good racing. They struck a good balance of bumping and banging and racing.
• They fixed Bristol for the fans, ruined it for the drivers. LOVE IT!!!
• I was at the race and it exceeded my expectations!
• Finally! An exciting race at Bristol again. Absolutely loved it. The surprise that the top groove was the one that came in and proved fastest; the beating and banging; the emotion; pit, fuel and tire strategy all coming in to play. Seriously, if you didn't like this why are you even watching racing? It had everything.
• Don't like to watch wreckfests! That was AWFUL!
• If you did not think that Bristol was the best race of the year then perhaps you should switch the channel to ESPN3 and watch bowling for your excitement because clearly NASCAR is not for you.
• I was there and loved every minute of it. Not bad considering I left the same race with 150 to go last year.
• The changes Bruton made did exactly what I had hoped they would do. I was hoping for a hybrid between “Old” Bristol and “New” Bristol. The “New-New” Bristol had the side-by-side, rubbing, beating & banging with some tempers flying without the massive 12-car wrecks. No more conveyor belt! That is what we got! Tony throwing his helmet was just a bonus. I miss helmet (or heat shields if you are Ward Burton) throwing, and pointing to a driver you happen to be displeased with. I paid more attention to this race than any other this season! It's BRISTOL BABY!!!
• Not exactly the Bristol of old but pretty close to it! Good racing, lots of action — just out and out fun. Of course, Tony Stewart bringing back the helmet toss certainly didn't hurt and he wasn't the only one showing some temper. Good racing, good fun.
Did the Bristol race make you want to attend a race there more?
54.4 percent said Yes
45.6 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• Been a season ticket holder for eight years, but never have I been more excited about renewing!
• 25-year season ticket holder and will never return!
• I gave up my season tickets two years ago, but after (Saturday) night, I will be getting them back.
• I'm still boycotting Bruton Smith's tracks after the I-71 parking lot.
• I've always wanted to go to Bristol's night race and Saturday night made me want to go even more. I will be working on plans to hopefully go next year!
• No, in fact. I was a season ticket holder and will not be renewing my tickets. I can see a demolition derby anytime I want to at the local fairgrounds.
• Used to attend Bristol until my school district decided to change the starting date. Too early in the year to take time off, but I might have to reconsider next year.
• Hearing about all the gouging of the fans on hotel rates will keep me away from this track.
• Absolutely! From the atmosphere during pre-race on through the race, it seems like an exciting and fun place to be. Lord willing, I WILL be there next year.
• I've made the trip to Bristol twice, once for "original Bristol,” once for progressive-banking Bristol. My personal preference was the progressive banking, and since that's now gone and likely not to return, I doubt I'll pay the airfare and outrageous hotel bills to go watch another race there live.
What was the best race at Bristol last weekend?
84.4 percent said the Cup race 11.7 percent said the Nationwide race 3.9 percent said the Truck race
What Fan Council members said:
• The Truck Race was just awful, and the Nationwide race was pretty boring. So the Cup race wins by default.
• I thought all three races were pretty good — even the Truck race where Peters led every lap. More of the racing from the Cup race sticks out in my mind, so that's why I picked the Cup race as the best race of the weekend.
• The Whelen Modified race was the best race at Bristol last week. It was awesome! The battles, the passing, the surprises. It was virtually non-stop action and kept me on the edge of my seat until the end.
• I watched all three races and hands down the Cup race was the best. It was one of the most entertaining races I have seen in a long time. It had everything. Top entertaining moment has to go to Tony and Matt. Think Tony will be nominated for one of his own Stewie Awards this year for throwing his helmet at Matt's car.
• Usually I have to say the Trucks have the better racing of the three series, but this week I will say the Cup racing was the best. The racing was great all night long and never really had a dull moment. I'm usually always checking Twitter during the Cup races, but this race, I didn't want to stop watching the TV. Was really exciting for a change.
• I picked the Nationwide race because Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick had a long battle for the lead ... and maybe I have lower expectations of the Nationwide drivers so the multitude of cautions in that race didn't bother me so much.
Who will make the Chase via wild card?
89.2 percent said Kasey Kahne
47.6 percent said Kyle Busch
34.8 percent said Jeff Gordon
9.8 percent said Carl Edwards
4.7 percent said Ryan Newman
4.4 percent said Marcos Ambrose
1.7 percent said Joey Logano
0.3 percent said Paul Menard
What Fan Council members said:
• I see Gordon and Kahne getting in just for the fact that they are HMS. Hendrick is bringing everything to the table these next two weeks. Everyone else on this list is a long shot in my opinion.
• I'd love for a surprise driver to grab a wild card spot such as Joey Logano or Marcos Ambrose, but I think Kasey and Kyle will hold on to take the wild card spots.
• Kahne is easy to call. Second driver is harder. I really think Kahne will pass Stewart for 10th and Stewart will be 11th. But you didn't give me that choice. So I'm giving it to you.
• Kasey is not only a lock but may well get into the top 10 (on points). Carl's luck cannot keep being this bad can it? Roush has always run well at Atlanta generally and Carl specifically, so I have a feeling he wins Atlanta and outscores Kyle in points over the last two races for the last spot.
• If the trends continue the way they are now, I think Tony Stewart falls out of the top 10 and Kasey Kahne makes the Chase on points. Stewart and Kyle Busch will be the wild cards for the Chase. Hopefully Stewart can focus on his own championship, and his threats don't come to fruition, which could in turn costs Kenseth a shot at a championship.
• I say Kasey and Kyle. I know that Carl Edwards is capable of doing it if he gets one win, but they really haven't been close to being competitive in any race this year.
• Poor strategies in two races recently have cost Carl. He seems to be missing opportunities to move into the top 10 by bad pit calls.
• I picked Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch as of right now but I really think it’s going to be Tony Stewart and Busch getting the wild cards. Kahne is fast right now and Tony isn’t doing as well. Kasey closed the gap from 33 points to 16 (Saturday) with a wrecked racecar. I say he makes the top 10.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Biffle, Earnhardt, Stewart and Truex making Cup Series news
Roush Fenway teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. (ASP, Inc.)
Greg Biffle credits an aggressive approach with his team’s return to the points lead and says once NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup starts, there won’t be any backing down.
Biffle regained the points lead after his victory at Michigan and held it despite finishing 19th last weekend at Bristol. That finish was good enough to clinch a Chase spot and return him to NASCAR’s playoffs after missing it last year.
Biffle has three finishes of sixth or better in the last five races, including the Michigan win and a third-place finish at Indianapolis. He notes that with his team comfortably in the playoffs, they could try more things and, often, the experiments have worked.
“We have been decent in the points so we have kind of tried to step out of the box and do some things to try and learn for the Chase and really be more aggressive with the setup and go for the win and say, ‘Hey, if it doesn’t work we won’t cry over spilled milk,’” says Biffle, who led the points after 11 races earlier in the season. “That is all you can do. You can’t flip a switch. We are already running as hard as we can.”
Once the Chase begins, Biffle says little will change on how the team races.
“I think we will be and we will have to be pretty aggressive on the setups simply for the fact that we will have to be conscious of our finishes,” he notes. “That is going to be a huge factor, but it is almost like if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. What we are doing is working. We are having consistent races so we are only going to be six points ahead of about half the guys in the Chase (after the points are reset). We are only going to be three behind, as of right now, four of them. That could change this weekend but it is going to be really tight in the points.
“That 12-20 point cushion (on the top four) I have is all going to disappear and it is going to be really super tight on the points. Each position is super-important. I think everybody realizes that going to Chicago.”
CHASE-CLINCHING SCENARIOS Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth clinched Chase spots last weekend at Bristol. Kenseth clinched only a wild card spot. He can clinch a full Chase spot (and thus use the bonus points for his win) by finishing 40th at Atlanta, finishing 41st and leading a lap or finishing 42nd and leading the most laps.
Any driver who leaves Atlanta 49 points ahead of 11th place in the points clinches a Chase spot.
Other Chase-clinching scenarios are:
• Martin Truex Jr: Finish 14th or place 15th and lead a lap or finish 16th and lead the most laps.
• Clint Bowyer: Finish 11th or place 12th and lead a lap or finish 13th and lead the most laps.
• Brad Keselowski: Finish seventh or place eighth and lead a lap or finish ninth and lead the most laps.
A victory would secure at least a wild card spot for Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick or Tony Stewart. They would need help from others to clinch a top-10 Chase spot at Atlanta.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND CHANCES Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked last weekend at Bristol if as an owner he would ever consider hiring a driver who had previously failed a drug test.
“Well, I think it would be difficult to convince certain people — whether it be sponsors or just any individuals,” Earnhardt said. “Some people are always going to be skeptics when you have a failed drug test.
“I believe in second chances and if I felt a guy was talented and felt he could help my race team and be competitive I wouldn’t have any problem with hiring him. I would want to understand the rehabilitation process and want to feel good about his current state, but yeah, if I felt like he could help my team I wouldn’t have any problem hiring him.”
IS MORE BETTER? Kyle Busch is entered in the Camping World Truck, Nationwide and Sprint Cup races this weekend at Atlanta. That’s a rarity for Busch, who used to run double- and triple-duty often. That changed after he wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Truck race at Texas last year. NASCAR barred him from competing in the Nationwide and Cup races that weekend while Busch’s team Cup team owner, Joe Gibbs, was forced to make nice with sponsor Mars/M&M’s. Since, he’s limited his racing outside of Cup.
This will be Busch’s 15th Nationwide start and first Truck start of the season.
Busch was asked at Bristol if running more Nationwide and Truck races could help him in Cup.
“Not necessarily, I think our Cup program is fine, it's running good, it’s fast,” said Busch, who is battling for a wild card spot to make the Chase. “The only other thing I can do is run more Nationwide and Truck races to get my bad luck out of the way there so it doesn’t move over to Sunday. Besides that, how much better do you want me to run before an engine blows up or before a brake rotor falls off or before you blow a right-front tire. You name it, we’ve had it.”
PIT STOPS Michael Waltrip Racing has a press conference scheduled for Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway where it is expected the team will announce the signing of Martin Truex Jr. and sponsor NAPA to contract extensions. ... NASCAR announced it would not penalize Tony Stewart for tossing his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car at Bristol on Saturday. That’s not a surprise since NASCAR didn’t penalize Todd Bodine for throwing his helmet at Nelson Piquet’s truck at Pocono earlier this month. ... Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose have each scored four consecutive top-10 finishes, the longest active streak in Cup. Ambrose’s 160 points earned in that time leads the series.
Denny Hamlin in Victory Lane at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
Few topics in NASCAR have been as polarizing as track owner Bruton Smith’s decision to “narrow up” the historic half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway.
Once the scene of some of NASCAR’s most memorable on- and off-track antics, the rough ’n’ tumble short track in East Tennessee recently played nicer, thanks to progressive banking that allowed drivers to safely run two- and three-wide into Bristol’s massive turns. Smith’s call to shave off a groove’s worth of concrete near the wall was intended to force drivers low and into a more aggressive mode.
Turns out, Smith got it wrong. But in being wrong, he got it right.
Drivers were initially forced to the low and middle grooves, but as the night progressed, the ground-down high groove took on rubber — so much rubber, in fact, that the high groove was the only place to run with meaningful speed.
A rotating door of drivers spent time leading the field (22 lead changes among 13 drivers) thanks to varying pit strategies. But in the end, the proverbial cream rose to the top. Denny Hamlin, in the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, muscled his way past Carl Edwards with 39 laps remaining and pulled away, winning his third race of the season and first career Cup event at Bristol.
“Honestly, it’s just a different kind of racing,” Hamlin said of the track that favored one-lane, upper-groove racing. “There’s nothing (Smith is) going to do that’s going to make us run the bottom — that’s not the fastest way around the track. But it was the same thing; we were all running in the line, and just waiting on the next guy to screw up to get around.
“So that’s what you’ve got to do at the old Bristol and that’s exactly what we had to race today. The slide job was an option to pass, which, you know, that won us the race.
“I don’t think that we saw as much side-by-side racing but you didn’t see side-by-side racing with the old Bristol. You saw a bunch of cars waiting in line to get knocked out of the way or mess up, and that’s the same thing we had today.”
Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top 5.
Whether the grounding process was the main reason for a more intense race, the fact was the drivers were feeling friskier than normal.
Thirteen cautions punctuated the event (11 for wrecks), the most witnessed at the track since March 2007. Two incidents, in particular, brought back memories of Bristols-past.
The first involved Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart — a pair with a history — who took one another out on the frontstretch while racing for the lead on lap 334. After climbing out of his wrecked car, Stewart waited for Kenseth to exit pit road, where he fired his helmet at the No. 17 Ford in disgust, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Stewart’s unofficial teammate, Danica Patrick, had a surprisingly solid run going in her first Cup start in the bullring. While running 19th and on the lead lap, Patrick was turned into the backstretch fence by Regan Smith with just 64 laps remaining. In turn, she waited for Smith to pass under caution, waiving a disapproving finger in his direction.
Even the soundbites were classic Bristol, with Stewart vowing to “run over (Kenseth) every chance I get for the rest of the year,” and Patrick’s crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, threatening to strangle Smith.
In the end, fans seemed pleased with the mayhem, while drivers were split.
Five-time Bristol winner Kyle Busch had the most critical comments, deadpanning that the track was “terrible.” While another five-time winner, Jeff Gordon, sang its praises:
“I say grind the whole place. That was awesome. That reminded me of old-school Bristol. It was pretty exciting.”
So while tempers and soundbites were the order of the night, the true measuring stick of whether Smith’s plan was a success will be seen at the turnstiles next season.
Until then, Bristol will remain as polarizing as ever.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for the Bristol Night Race
The Blue Deuce, looking racy at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
The Race for the Chase is heating up and after two weeks of late-race drama the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Thunder Valley for the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
When the series hits the high-banks, it will be on a much different racing surface than the drivers have been accustomed to over the past few seasons. After the 2007 reconfiguration of the track, progressive banking was added in the corners, allowing for multiple grooves and two- and three-wide racing.
The racing on the new configuration was exciting and competitive, however many fans bemoaned the changes and called for a return to the Bristol of old. While it may have been the changes to the track, a lagging economy, or a host of other reasons, attendance fell from 160,000 in August 2007 to 102,000 earlier this year.
Listening to the fans, Speedway Motorsports, Inc.'s Bruton Smith took measures into his own hands and altered the track layout for the second time in six years. By grinding down the top racing groove, Smith hopes to create the style of racing Bristol was synonymous with when the grandstands were full and there was a waiting list for tickets.
Yet for many of the drivers, the change to Bristol is an unwelcome sight. Making changes based solely off the opinion of fans, Smith did not consult the competitors before taking away the top groove, boasting, "I do not consult race drivers when I am building a speedway."
After a painstaking process of removing embanked concrete intended to last “15 to 18 years,” according to track general manager Jerry Caldwell, Goodyear brought in Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer for a two-day tire test of the new configuration.
Each of the drivers confirmed the field would be unable to race around the top groove, forcing drivers to fight for space on the bottom of the track.
“The drivers aren’t going to be happy, but the spectators probably will be because it is going to put more cars in a closer space,” Burton said following the June tire test. “By taking away that groove, it is going to change your mind about going up there. I think it is going to be two grooves, unless Goodyear brings a tire with a lot of grip. If that is the case, you’ll want to run around the bottom. Making the groove smaller is a good thing, it is going to put the action back to the bottom and middle of the track.”
So, now that the track has changed, what can you expect for your fantasy outlook?
Well, I wouldn’t stray far from the statistics — new Bristol or old. While the groove may have changed, the drivers that excel at Bristol will continue to do so this weekend under the lights.
To find the hottest driver at BMS the past two events, look no further than the man that has finished second the last two weeks: Brad Keselowski. The Penske Racing driver is the defending race winner, went to Victory Lane in dominant fashion here in March and is looking for his fourth win of the 2012 season.
Currently fifth in the Sprint Cup standings, Keselowski is tied with former champions Stewart and Jimmie Johnson with the most wins on the season. A win Saturday night would not only mean a sweep of the year's Bristol races, but would also move Keselowski into the top seed heading into the Chase.
In March, Keselowski dominated the final race on the multi-groove surface, leading 232 of the 500 laps. In the past two weeks, the No. 2 car has been in contention for the win, losing out by only a slight margin to Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen and Greg Biffle at Michigan.
Since his victory in Kentucky seven races ago, Keselowski has five top 5s and seven top 10s. So obviously, this team has been on a roll as of late — and that roll should continue right through the mountains of East Tennessee. With confidence on his side and the team gunning for another win or two before the Chase, it is hard to bet against Keselowski Saturday night under the lights.
Much like last weekend, if Keselowski wants to end up in Victory Lane, he will have to beat Johnson. Looking as if he was on his way to his fourth victory of the season last week at Michigan, a blown motor in the final laps resulted in a frustrating 27th-place finish.
A former winner at Bristol, Johnson is always a threat on the high-speed short track. In his last seven races at BMS, the five-time champion has one win, four top 5s and six top 10s.
While Keselowski took advantage of Johnson's issues last Sunday, it was Kyle Busch who lost the win late in the race two weeks ago in Watkins Glen. Currently 14th in the standings, Busch is third in the Chase wild card hunt behind Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman. While the past few months have been more than frustrating for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota (only three top 10s in the last 11 races), there could be no better track for Busch than Bristol to get back into contention.
With the second-best average finish (10.6), Busch has five wins at Bristol, including four of the last seven races. With time running out before the Chase cut-off, Busch will need to get up on the wheel and get the job done.
Admittedly off at Bristol since his March 2011 win, he and crew chief Dave Rogers will have to dial the car in to the new configuration without over-thinking the setup, as they have done in the past.
Also consider last week's winner (and current points leader) Biffle, as well as fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. for your lineup Saturday night. Both have been extremely strong as of late and have run well at Bristol in the past.
MWR's Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr. at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
When part-time driver Brian Vickers gets the chance to pilot the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, he does his best to make the most of the opportunity. He certainly did that in his first start for MWR at Bristol in March.
Despite starting from the 25th spot, Vickers made his way to the front in the No. 55 car and led 125 of the 500 laps en route to a fifth-place finish. In Vickers' five starts thus far for MWR, has two top 5s, an 18th at Martinsville, a 15th at Loudon and a disappointing 43rd at Watkins Glen, due to a grenaded engine.
Running strong in the bottom groove so successfully in March, Vickers is optimistic he can have a solid showing under the lights.
“We had a great car that ran very well on the bottom and led a lot of laps,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how the upper groove has changed and how it will effect the racing. They wanted it like the ‘old Bristol,’ so we'll see. But again, we had the best car in the lower groove so hopefully it won't effect us too much.”
In fact, all of the MWR cars should be strong at Bristol this weekend. During the March race, the trio was in contention, with Martin Truex Jr. leading the team to third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes with Clint Bowyer and Vickers following suit, marking the first time MWR had all three cars finish in the top 5.
Five Undervalued Picks: Brian Vickers, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano
With only three races left before the Chase field is set, Kyle Busch is not the only driver in desperate need of a win. Both Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards have had their fair share of struggles over the season, but now is the time to put those behind and get the job done.
While both are former winners at Bristol (Gordon has five wins, Edwards two), they are darkhorse picks for the second week in a row considering the desperation that is setting in at this point.
The potential for a win is there for both drivers, but in March each found trouble early in the going with Gordon finishing 35th and Edwards coming home 39th. If you use either of these drivers in your fantasy lineup, do so with caution.
Much like the MWR cars, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing had a stellar showing at Bristol in March with Jamie McMurray finishing seventh and Juan Pablo Montoya right behind in eighth. McMurray was able to use pit strategy early in the race to make his way to the front, while Montoya took advantage of late-race cautions and fresh tires to score a solid finish.
This 2012 season has been nothing short of disappointing for the EGR organization after an offseason of drastic changes behind the scenes. The top 10 finish at Bristol was one of only three for McMurray and one of only two for Montoya. If the team can rekindle some of the success they had in March, they could score some worthy fantasy points.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose
For many, the look of Saturday night's race will be a bit of an unknown. With the change in the racing surface, the side-by-side racing could be much more difficult than in the past few seasons.
Judging by Wednesday night's Camping World Truck Series races, though, it appears while the very top goove is gone, the racing has remained much the same. Be sure to pay attention to Friday evening's Nationwide Series race to get a better idea of what Saturday night's race will look like.
Just remember, no matter how strong the stats, short track racing with multiple agendas and Chase implications on the line mean anything can — and probably will — happen.
Best Average Finish at Bristol (Wins/Starts):
1. Brad Keselowski — 10.4 (2/5)
2. Kyle Busch — 10.6 (5/15)
3. Matt Kenseth — 11.6 (2/25)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 11.8 (1/25)
5. Greg Biffle — 11.8 (0/19)
6. Jeff Gordon — 12.1 (5/39)
7. Kevin Harvick — 12.4 (1/23)
8. Kurt Busch — 13.1 (5/23)
9. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (2/16)
10. Jimmie Johnson — 14.6 (1/21)
Johnson, Keselowski in frenzied battle for supremacy
Junior putting a new meaning to the term, "Dumpster Diving." (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson Loses a second one in three weeks in heartbreaking fashion. That may derail some teams, but with the 48, you get the feeling it only makes them more determined.
2. Brad Keselowski Keselowski and the boys are rounding into form nicely, with seven consecutive runs of ninth or better. They’re going to be a handful at Bristol this weekend.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. After a broken transmission and a spin in the oil knocked Junior’s bunch back the last two weeks, they rebounded in fine fashion to the tune of a fourth-place finish in Michigan.
4. Greg Biffle Earned his second win of the season at the 2-mile Michigan track. His other was at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. For those keeping score, there are five such tracks in the Chase.
5. Matt Kenseth It’s been a rocky month for Kenseth, who suffered a cut tire late at Michigan while running in the top 5. As luck would have it, the 17th-place result actually bumped him up a notch to second in the standings.
6. Kasey Kahne Since a 33rd in the June Michigan race, Kahne has been spot-on, recording eight straight top-15 runs. Like Biffle, the tracks in the Chase line up well for Kahne and his engineer/crew chief-extraordinaire, Kenny Francis.
7. Clint Bowyer A solid seventh at Michigan did the trick. However, if this team — albeit a relatively new team — is going to challenge in the Chase, it needs more than a boatload of fifth- to ninth-place showings.
8. Martin Truex Jr. Truex, like his teammate Bowyer, has been as steady as they come this season. However, his No. 56 team must push beyond the sixth- to 10th-place pattern it has fallen into and win races.
9. Denny Hamlin Virtually invisible at Michigan, Hamlin may have notched the most under-the-radar 11th-place finish in NASCAR history. You have to wonder, with a Chase spot virtually sown up, if this team is doing some testing.
"All I'm saying is that "The Pit Bulls" is a cool nickname. "The Geek Squad?" Not so much." (ASP, Inc.)
10. Tony Stewart A failed valve spring felled Stewart at Michigan — the track where he finished second in June. Would have been interesting to see what he could’ve done with a healthy engine.
11. Jeff Gordon Outside of the Pocono surprise, Murphy’s Law has ruled for Gordon and the 24 bunch.
12. Ryan Newman A 7.8-place average finish over the last six races finds Newman in the second wild card spot.
13. Kyle Busch Another win — think Bristol and/or Richmond — would do wonders for Busch right about now.
14. Marcos Ambrose After 10th-, first- and fifth-place runs, imagine if Ambrose won Bristol ... hey, he’s not that bad there.
15. Carl Edwards Gets the 15th-place nod this week for being the highest-finishing “best of the rest-er” at Michigan.
Just off the lead pack: Kevin Harvick, Sam Hornish Jr., Joey Logano, Paul Menard, Regan Smith
Watkins Glen had members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council talking from what should have been done at the end of the race with oil on the track to what they saw throughout the entire event. Fan Council members also shared their thoughts on Dodge’s recent announcement that it will leave NASCAR after this season. Here’s what the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say on those issues:
Grade Sunday’s Cup race at Watkins Glen
46.5 percent called it Great 42.8 percent called it Good 8.7 percent called it Fair 2.0 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council member said:
• OMG! I was there and the final incident between Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski happened right in front of me! It was not only the greatest road course race I’ve ever seen, it was in the top-5 finishes I’ve ever seen!
• Best race all year and my guy wasn’t even in the running.
• I still don’t understand why people don’t like the road course races. They’ve been more exciting than Bristol for the past few years.
• Outside of Smoke’s charge to the front and Junior’s surprise appearance in the top 10 at a road course during the race, this one was a snoozer until the end.
• Please! There was passing, there was spinning-out-of-nowhere, and then there was that FANTASTIC FINISH!!! Holy cow — I haven’t been that involved in a race in AGES! Loved it!
• More. Road. Courses. PLEASE! Especially one in the Chase. Phenomenal racing all day long.
• The race was good. People will say it was great because of the ending, but I was disappointed that a missed call impacted the finish. Even had I been OK with the ending of the race, I do not believe that a race is judged by it’s ending. Instead, it is the pit strategies and side-by-side racing throughout the race that I consider.
• Race was great from start to finish ... and what a finish! That last lap literally got me up on my feet (and I have no idea when the last time THAT happened!!). Probably a bad call on NASCAR’s part to not throw the caution, but damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I agree with BK: Now that was racing!! Kudos to Ambrose!
• I thought most of the race was awful, especially when the cars got strung out with big gaps. The last lap was incredible, but not enough to save the rest of it.
• I’m really beginning to like these road courses — and not just for the last lap. This race was really good all the way through. And the length of the race was perfect!!
• What was not to like? Even if you don’t care for road courses, there was action all over the track, even when it was a little spread out up front for a while. The last few laps with Kyle, Brad and Marcos was fantastic. And seeing Tony Stewart mow through the field after his penalty was pretty outstanding!
What did you think of the end of the Watkins Glen race? With some drivers saying there was oil on the track, NASCAR did not throw a caution. Series officials said afterward that their spotters positioned around the track couldn’t see the oil. The oil played a role on the last lap with Kyle Busch running through it and allowing Brad Keselowski to close. They hit, with Busch spinning. Then Keselowski and winner Marcos Ambrose ran off course and into each other in a duel to the finish. So, what did Fan Council members think of the finish?
47.5 percent said it was racing the way it should be 38.8 percent were conflicted — they’re not for what they saw but not against the action 13.7 percent said it was embarrassing to the sport to allow oil to impact the finish
What Fan Council members said:
• NASCAR’s hands were tied because there was no oil visible on the track. Drivers scream their heads off about debris when they believe it will benefit them and NASCAR knows better than to call a caution without first confirming it for themselves. Now granted, a majority of the field was reporting oil, but at that point the white flag was already in their air and it would have been a big controversy had NASCAR thrown the yellow and ended the race on the final lap. People would have been livid for not letting it play out. I believe NASCAR got this one right, it was a bad set of circumstances and they went with their gut. It was a fantastic finish we all would have missed out on had a caution been thrown prematurely.
• NASCAR is always saying they don’t want to throw the yellow because it will impact the end of the race. Well, by them not throwing the yellow it impacted it. It seems like there is something clouding their vision lately of making the right calls.
• The drivers almost to a man said that they couldn’t see the oil. If they can’t, how would NASCAR see it? I think that by the time the driver complaints over the radio reached NASCAR, it was too late to stop the race. The best driver won the race, in my view.
• The “that was racing the way it should be” was for the skill of the three drivers — they were very entertaining and put on a good show. But I do think that NASCAR should have heard the drivers complaining of oil. There were lots of comments on Twitter and in-car radios, so (NASCAR) should have known. While it was exciting and fun, it put people in danger. I think we are only talking about the excitement because no one got hurt, but it was lucky that no one did. If we had had the same end to the race that we had last year with a big giant wreck, and if someone had gotten hurt, the “excitement” wouldn’t have been what we talked about on Monday. Shame on NASCAR for not better protecting the drivers.
• As much as I hate it when NASCAR throws bogus debris cautions, a caution for oil at the end was necessary. When oil on the track affects drivers’ finishes and has such substantial impact on the points, something needs to be put in place so it does not happen again. That said, the finish from an action perspective was great. Great car control, great racing — but it is almost invalidated because of the oil that created it.
• So, nobody saw the oil, what were they supposed to do, stop the race because it seemed like something might be slippery due to people spinning out? That happens sometimes in racing. It’s not necessarily because of something on the track. If they start micro-managing split-second moments at the end of races, NASCAR is dead on arrival.
• NASCAR was in a no-win situation. By the time everyone realized what was going on, the white flag had flown. If NASCAR had flown the caution after that, then they would have gotten crucified for not letting the race finish as it would have ended under caution.
• Everyone, including the drivers talking about the oil, said you couldn’t SEE the oil. If that’s the case, then why would NASCAR throw the caution? I believe NASCAR when they said the on-track officials didn’t see anything so they didn’t throw the yellow. Lastly, if the oil was THAT bad, wouldn’t a lot more of the drivers have spun out? Jeff Gordon aside, most of the guys completed the last lap just fine, thank you.
• The end of the race was just silly. NASCAR is supposed to offer real racing, not sliding around like a demolition derby.
• I’m somewhat glad NASCAR chose to follow the old dictum “Leave well enough alone.” Had the outcome been different, I’m certain to have complained with greater vigor.
Dodge is leaving NASCAR after this season. Does it matter to you?
50.3 percent said No
49.7 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• I really don’t care for Dodge, however, competition amongst the manufacturers is part of what makes the sport great and the money they bring to the sport leads to development of new technologies. I hope Dodge is able to put something together that they can be competitive with and return in 2014.
• Sad to see Dodge go away but I am not biased toward one manufacturer or another. I pull for drivers who race, not corporations.
• I think it is sad that the only two American manufacturers in NASCAR are Ford and Chevy. I have been a fan since way back when all manufacturers (I remember the Matador!) were racing. It added a lot more to the race and manufacturer loyalty actually meant something. NASCAR has its own self to blame for all the rule changes, and the so-called “Car of Tomorrow.” The only thing left to pull for is decals. I’m glad to see the new car changes coming next year and hope it improve things.
• Nope! I have driven a Ford and now own a Chevy so I’m not that worried about Dodge dropping out. Now if we could just get Toyota out so we can once again call it “The Great AMERICAN Sport”…
• Not really. I could give a rip about manufacturers. I have, however, wondered why Nissan isn’t in NASCAR. And frankly, I’d like to see “stock” cars for other manufacturers (i.e., BMW, VW) compete in NASCAR.
• Dodge is my favorite manufacturer in the sport and the Challenger and 2013 Charger are two of the best looking cars I’ve seen in the sport and I’ll be disappointed to not see them again — or in the case of the Charger, never get to see it. I think they could have taken a mid-level team like a Furniture Row or Front Row and given them solid support and made them a contending team.
• I’d rather have every manufacturer be represented strongly at some level, but I’d rather see no Dodges than see a half-hearted effort with a third-level team. Besides, how would Dodge even know how good they were if, say, Front Row Motorsports was their flagship team?
• If it does not make good sense for Dodge to spend millions in NASCAR with little return, they should keep their money and get out. It does not bother me that Dodge is leaving with three other strong manufacturers left in the sport.
• It’s a very bad sign for NASCAR, and that matters to me.
• Sad to see an American manufacturer leave the sport. I just hope it doesn’t lead to another foreign manufacturer.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
"They use this finger to call me No. 1, Kyle." (ASP, Inc.)
1. Jimmie Johnson Once an Achilles heel, Johnson rolled to his fourth consecutive road course top 10 with a third at Watkins Glen. In the process, he vaulted to the top of the championship point standings. Last week: 1
2. Brad Keselowski Dating back to his Kentucky win in late June, Keselowski has racked up six straight finishes of ninth or better — including a runner-up finish at the Glen that will be talked about for quite some time. Last week: 4
3. Matt Kenseth An eighth at the Glen was his best road result since another eighth, which came at Sonoma in June 2008. The timing couldn’t have been better, as Kenseth sits two points behind Johnson in the standings. Last week: 3
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Tried his best to not throw NASCAR under the bus for the no-call for oil on the track at the Glen. Try as he might, he didn’t do a very good job. Last week: 2
5. Greg Biffle Slowly (and very quietly) making himself a major player in the championship race. His sixth at the Glen moved him to within one point of Johnson at the top of the standings. Last week: 8
6. Kasey Kahne His wild card position is looking stronger each week, as Kahne sits 11th in the standings with a pair of wins. And the Hendrick engines and chassis aren’t hurting, either. Last week: 9
7. Jeff Gordon The hot streak comes crashing down at the Glen for Gordon, who now sits 10 points behind Ryan Newman for the second wild card Chase spot. Last week: 7
8. Tony Stewart Once the man to beat in Watkins Glen, when he won five events from 2002-09, Stewart has showings of 27th and 19th the last two visits. This is a hard team to figure. Last week: 6
9. Denny Hamlin Hamlin has five finishes of 25th or worse in the last eight races, so he may not deserve this ranking. However, those two wins on his scorecard are hard to dismiss. Last week: 5
10. Clint Bowyer Couldn’t follow up his road win in Sonoma with another at the Glen, but a fourth-place run was impressive, considering the battle royale that was going on at the front of the field. Last week: 11
Despite what the shirt says, he's not lovin' it. (ASP, Inc.)
11. Kyle Busch A win at the Glen would have given him a Chase spot. Maybe Bristol will provide the boost. Last week: 14
12. Ryan Newman Doing his best to be a wild carder, having averaged a 7.8-place finish over the last five races. Last week: 12
13. Martin Truex Jr. Claims a contract renewal with Michael Waltrip Racing and NAPA is all but done. Last week: 10
14. Kevin Harvick Is basically a 13th- to 15th-place finisher at this point. Can they turn it around for the Chase? Last week: 13
15. Marcos Ambrose Hard to keep this week’s winner out of the top 15. Now he must learn how to stay here. Last week: Unranked
Just off the lead pack: Carl Edwards, Sam Hornish Jr., Joey Logano, Paul Menard, Regan Smith
Ambrose's Chase chances, Stewart's grueling schedule and Edwards' winning ways in Michigan
Marcos Ambrose in Victory Lane at Watkins Glen. (ASP, Inc.)
Buoyed by his victory at Watkins Glen on Sunday, Marcos Ambrose said the goal is quite simple for the next four races as he and his team vie for a wild card spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.
“Our focus has to be being aggressive on our strategy, being aggressive with the car and me on the race track being aggressive to try to get that next win because without that we’re going to be racing for 15th or 16th in the championship and that’s not what we’re after,” Ambrose said in a teleconference with reporters Tuesday.
Ambrose ranks fifth in the wild card standings with only the top two getting into the Chase. Kasey Kahne currently holds one wild card spot with two wins while Ryan Newman holds the other spot by a slim margin. Newman has one win and leads Kyle Busch, who also has a single victory, by six points. Jeff Gordon, who has one win, is 10 points behind Newman. Ambrose is 44 points behind Newman, thus Ambrose needs a second victory to have a shot at a wild card berth.
“There’s no easier formula than if you’re not first, you’re last,” Ambrose said. “That’s the way we’re approaching this weekend and the next three. We have to go out there on full attack mode.”
The one benefit for Ambrose is that the series is heading to Michigan this weekend where he won the pole in June and finished ninth, so he has shown an ability to run well there but will have to be markedly better to score his first career oval win in the Cup series.
NEARING 100 Although the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has only 38 races (36 points races and two exhibition races), Tony Stewart will run in nearly 100 races this year. He’s boosting that total with a number of sprint car races at dirt tracks — where he spent much of his early days in racing.
“I feel like the more time I spend in a race car the better it’s making me as a driver,” says Stewart, who has won a pair of World of Outlaw sprint car races this year. “Everybody kind of has that feeling that you’ve got to get away from it at some point and recharge your batteries, but that does recharge my batteries.
“If we don’t get rained out here these next couple of weeks we are going to be right around 95 races at the end of the year that I’m going to run. It’s going to be a full schedule for sure but it’s a lot of fun. It’s one of the most fun years I’ve ever had in a race car.”
Stewart was the first driver in USAC history to sweep its top three series in the same year, winning titles in the midget, sprint car and Silver Crown divisions in 1995. He admits going back and forth between sprint cars and his Cup car is not much of an adjustment for him with his schedule.
“I’ve run I think 40 races already this year with it so it’s a lot easier for me to adapt because I’m doing it so much,’’ he explains. “It is hard. That is probably the hardest two cars to try to go back and forth between because their handling characteristics and the physics of them. It doesn’t take Kasey (Kahne) as long as he likes to explain to you. He goes out and kicks butt with it too. It would take guys awhile to go from that type of car to here, just like it would take time for anybody that runs a Cup car to go over there and run those cars.”
LOOKING AHEAD After this weekend’s race at Michigan, the Cup Series heads to Bristol where the top lane has been altered to narrow the racing grooves and get cars closer together on the track.
So, what it will be like? It’s something Martin Truex Jr. admits he’s been thinking about.
“I'm interested to see what it's like,” Truex says. “The last few races there, I've ran second and third — pretty much ran the extreme high side, which has been ground away. I'm not really looking forward to finding out if it's going to be that much worse. Guys seem to run the middle of the race track and we were able to run the middle.
“I think it's going to be different because that extreme high side is not going to have the speed it's had in the past few years. I think we'll have to adjust our setup a little bit and work on some things.”
Tony Stewart talks with teammate Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
RIGHT PLACE RIGHT TIME? Carl Edwards, in need of a victory to have a chance at a wild card spot for the Chase, has an average finish of 8.3 at Michigan — best among active drivers. Edwards has two wins, nine top-five finishes and 12 top-10 results in 16 starts at the track. Yet, he has finished outside the top 10 in each of his last two races there. He was 36th in the race last year and placed 11th in June.
NUMBER CRUNCHING Tony Stewart has five consecutive top-10 finishes at Michigan. ... Greg Biffle has run all but two of the 5,836 laps run this season, best in the Cup Series. ... Brad Keselowski has scored a series-high six top-10 finishes entering this weekend’s race at Michigan. ... Regan Smith has finished ninth each of the last two races.