Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses in Saturday's Quaker State 400
Kyle Busch crosses the finish line at Kentucky in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
Over the past three weeks the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has run on new surfaces twice at Pocono and Michigan. While Kentucky Speedway is not a new surface, Saturday night's Quaker State 400 is only the second Cup Series race on the 1.5-mile tri-oval. So while teams will have a slightly better idea of what to expect with the notes built from last year’s event, Kentucky Speedway still presents some unknowns.
One team that was a cut above the rest last year was Kyle Busch and his Dave Rogers-led No. 18 team for Joe Gibbs Racing. After scoring a victory in the Camping World Truck Series at Kentucky, Busch dominated the inaugural Cup event, leading 125 of the 267 laps en route to the win.
Yet, entering this weekend's race, Busch has been forced to swallow a string of poor finishes over the past month. After his Richmond win in April, Busch was able to score three-straight finishes of fourth or better. However, since the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, the No. 18 team has two DNFs, three finishes of 29th or worse with a best finish of 17th, which came last weekend in Sonoma. Busch commented on his poor luck earlier in the week through Twitter, saying he even bit through his tongue while eating lunch. Sometimes when guys have a string of bad luck, it's hard to kick.
Given his performance at Kentucky over the years in various series (and especially in last year's race), I expect Busch to knock the monkey from his back and get back to his contending ways.
If Busch wants to record his second-straight Sprint Cup Series victory at the track, he will have to beat his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano. Many expected the driver of the No. 20 Toyota to be a top contender in last year's race, given his previous success on the 1.5-mile track in the Nationwide Series. However, a 14th-place finish was a lackluster showing for the driver that won three consecutive Nationwide races in Sparta from 2008-10.
This year, however, Logano has a renewed confidence with a race win while the rumor mill churns around him. The performance of the No. 20 team has improved nearly each and every week. Despite a wreck in Michigan, Logano and his Jason Ratcliff-led team have three top 10s and one victory in the last four events.
Heading into the weekend, Logano will not be entered in the Nationwide Series event, allowing him to focus primarily on Saturday night's main event. Sitting 15th in the Sprint Cup standings, another solid run (or a second win) would certainly make the Chase a distinct possibility for the 22-year-old driver.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth
When the 2012 season got underway in Daytona, few would have imagined the quiet season last year's title runner-up Carl Edwards is having.
Despite missing out on his first Cup Series title thanks to a tie-breaker with Tony Stewart, Edwards and the No. 99 team have been lackluster at best through the first 16 races in 2012. Sitting just outside the top 10 in points in 11th, Edwards has not had a top-5 finish since Fontana in mid-March.
While he finished fifth in last year's inaugural event, Edwards has victories at Kentucky in both the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series. Looking to make it three-for-three, crew chief Bob Osborne is bringing a chassis that finished ninth at Charlotte and eighth at Texas earlier this year.
Could the news of Matt Kenseth's departure at the end of season give Edwards and the No. 99 team a boost of confidence (and resources) to drive through the summer months? Perhaps we shall see Saturday night in Kentucky.
Much like Logano, Stewart-Haas Racing's Ryan Newman is sitting outside the top 10 in points with one win and hoping for a spot in the Chase by the time the series rolls into Richmond in September. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet was fourth in last year's inaugural race after losing a lap and working with crew chief Tony Gibson to use pit strategy to get to the front.
Newman will need a solid showing Saturday if he wants to continue being a part of the Chase discussion, though. After scoring his only win of the season — in dramatic fashion — at Martinsville in April, Newman has failed to score another top-10 finish. In fact, the team's best showing came at Pocono, where they finished 12th on the repaved surface.
“We need to be a little bit better,” Newman admitted. “I think we’ll get things turned around. We’re still in a championship-contending position. We still have great opportunities with another win, and we still have plenty of time to move up in the points and be in the top 10. We just have to do a little bit better of a job.”
Will this be the weekend that Newman and his SHR team turn things around? A solid showing in last year's event seems to point to another good run, but the teams’ struggles over the last few months may be too large to overcome.
Five Undervalued Picks: Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart
Juan Pablo Montoya, tweeting about RC airplanes, no doubt. (ASP, Inc.)
Last year's outside pole-sitter Juan Pablo Montoya finished the race a disappointing 15th after a late speeding penalty on pit road mired him deep in the field. Prior to that infraction, Montoya ran in the top 10 for the majority of the race.
This season, Montoya and his No. 42 team have struggled to shake the gremlins that seem to haunt them each and every week. Since his dramatic start to the season in Daytona, Montoya's year has been up and down, to say the least.
The former open-wheel star struggled with a multitude of problems last week at Sonoma, traditionally one of his best tracks. Instead of contending for the win — or even a solid finish — Montoya recorded his worst result since Daytona (34th). In fact, this team has scored just two top 10s in the last 13 races.
Given his strong performance last year, Montoya may be a guy to keep an eye on Satuday night.
Could it be that Kurt Busch has shrugged his troubling ways and focused solely on racing and recording strong finishes? Not likely, but last week's third-place finish at Sonoma was a sure sign that the former Sprint Cup Series champion can still get the job done behind the wheel.
While Busch is one of the best on the road courses, he also finished ninth in last year's Kentucky race, albeit behind the wheel of Penske Racing equipment and amid much less drama and scrutiny. But do not rule Busch out of another solid finish this weekend — that is, if he can manage the race from start to finish and stay out of trouble on the track and under the helmet.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Regan Smith, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton
2011 Top 10 at Kentucky Speedway (laps led):
1. Kyle Busch (125)
2. David Reutimann (7)
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Ryan Newman
5. Carl Edwards
6. Matt Kenseth
7. Brad Keselowski (79)
8. David Ragan (3)
9. Kurt Busch (41)
10. Jeff Gordon
Kenseth's departure, Roush's title chances and the next driver to score a win
Matt Kenseth in Victory Lane at Daytona. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The announcement that Matt Kenseth will leave Roush Fenway Racing after this season has been the talk of NASCAR. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council didn’t hold back on what they thought about the move on if it was good or bad for Roush and how this might impact Kenseth’s title hopes.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council also weighed in on Sunday’s race at Sonoma, who between 11th and 20th in the points will make the Chase and more. Here’s what they had to say.
KENSETH LEAVING A GOOD OR BAD MOVE FOR ROUSH?
68.3 percent called it a bad move for Roush trading a former champ for a Cup rookie 31.7 percent called it a good move, trading a 40-year-old for a 24-year-old in a nod to future
What Fan Council members said:
• Although I hate to see Matt Kenseth go, there are only so many cars that Jack Roush can put out there and if Ricky did not end up in a Cup car, then he may end up there with another team and that would be a bigger loss.
• Stenhouse will be a star. Cheaper for Roush as well. Kenseth can get on with Gibbs (if the rumors are true). WIN WIN for everyone.
• Ricky will never be as good as Matt. Matt is a great driver, has a wonderful sense of humor and he's humble. Put up against Matt, Ricky will never measure up.
• Bad move for no other reason than a continuation of the Roush mentality of abandoning career drivers for others. Nothing but money. Re: Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch. Jack Roush is a businessman that is dedicated to money, not his employees. His counter ego would appear to be Coach Gibbs.
• For the short run, I'd rather have Kenseth, but in the long run, Stenhouse will be an elite Cup driver.
• JACK HAS LOST HIS MIND. WOW what a mistake — just like some of the others Jack has made.
• As a die-hard Matt fan, I think it's a bad move and I blame it on the RFR sales department. Even in a down economy, it shouldn't be this hard to find sponsors for a championship-caliber driver on the track and a class individual off the track. Considering the same RFR sales department couldn't even sign any sponsors for Trevor Bayne after he won the 500 last year, I guess I shouldn't be surprised at their inability to do so (now).
• I can't believe the coldness with which a champion who is leading the points is dumped for a cheap, child driver. This is the same attitude toward employees that is killing this country. I'm sure Fenway had a big say in this.
• The financial environment is unwittingly making NASCAR more and more like major league sports with free agency. There is no loyalty any more, not that the teams wouldn't like to stay together, but because the finances don't work out. For whatever reason, Roush Fenway doesn't seem to be able to sell sponsorships well or at least at a level that permits them to field teams for their talent. Matt's ride this year was barely filled, and undoubtedly they all knew that sponsor commitments (or lack of) would make it impossible for RFR to pay him what his asking price was for next year.
• Kenseth is in position to win the championship and you're going to do that to him? That is beyond ridiculous. Stenhouse is a good driver with a bright future and there is no reason why they don't just bring back the fourth car since he apparently can get sponsorship and Trevor Bayne can't, which I don't understand, either.
• Stupid, stupid move on Roush's part! Wish Kenserh the best though ... as long as he doesn't go to Toyota!
• Nothing against Ricky, but if they cannot get Matt sponsorship for a full season who do they think will come aboard for a rookie with less talent?
• It's the only move Roush could make. Kenseth is going to command a very large new contract and Roush hasn't had a full slate of sponsors for him for a couple of years now. Kenseth can go to Gibbs and Home Depot and cash in and Roush can start his rebuild with a great young driver. I think Stenhouse is going to be a little like Tony Stewart: better in a more powerful Cup car than the Nationwide car. Those dirt guys love all that extra power. I think Kenseth will be a great asset at Gibbs as a calming influence, plus I think he might just have a title or two left in him. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
HOW WILL THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT KENSETH IS LEAVING AFTER THIS SEASON IMPACT HIS TITLE HOPES? Matt Kenseth noted on Twitter that he doesn't believe that announcing he'll leave the team after this season will hurt his title chances, noting crew chief Darian Gurbb knew he would not return with Tony Stewart last year and they won a title together. Fan Council members were asked what they thought.
51.6 percent said Kenseth’s titles chances will be unaffected 39.1 percent said Kenseth hurt his title chances 9.3 percent said Kenseth helped his title hopes since there will be a greater drive to win the title in the final year with the team
What Fan Council members said:
• I believe as long as his team believes in him and themselves he has just as much chance as anyone else to win the title.
• I think he could still go on to win it. But, just like contract talks, etc., at mid-season even though they "say” it doesn't affect them they always admit when it is over that it did. It has to. A NASCAR driver ain't no fry cook at McDonalds. This is big money and big impact at a high level.
• 1. A crew chief is not as public of a position as a driver. 2. Grubb's move wasn’t made public until AFTER the championship. 3. Grubb and Stewart didn't decide he was leaving until Charlotte IN THE CHASE. You can't tell me Biffle won't get better equipment knowing he'll be there next year. This may help Carl make the Chase now.
• Matt has always said over the years that he doesn't let front office issues (contracts, sponsorships, etc.) affect his racing, so I would like to think that would continue. Being the top-tier driver he is, it's not like he needs to worry about not being able to find a ride next year (even if a JGR agreement isn't already in place).
• Matt has gained the points lead during the most difficult point in his negotiations with Roush and his future team. The announcement has been made and Matt is liberated, free from care and any consternation, free to focus on his goal of winning the Sprint Cup.
• Grubb wasn't announced. It was all internal and there were no "extra" spotlights on Grubb/Stewart. ALL eyes will focus on ANY shift in performance with Kenseth the rest of the year. Stick a fork in his title hopes.
• Can anyone say “Quack, Quack!” This might not affect Matt right now, but once he announces where he is headed and then Roush starts uninviting him to team meetings, that is when you will see the effect.
• Solidarity amongst the entire team is necessary to win a title. What Tony Stewart did last year was super-human. I do not feel Matt Kenseth is of the same caliber of driver as Tony. I feel the driver leaving a team is more troubling than a crew chief.
• I still think the championship is going to come down to Johnson, Stewart and Kenseth this year. It might be tempting for Roush to play favorites and give Biffle some extra attention, but I don't think he will — Matt has been too important to Jack's company for him to do that. I think they will end this relationship in a classy way.
• I think what Matt said is totally right. Grubb knew he was out five races early and still ended up with the title, so it doesn't really matter. It may be a slight issue, especially since Matt's directly involved with where he goes, but not enough to distract him that bad. He is a championship driver still, even as a lame duck.
GRADE SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT SONOMA
47.3 percent called it Good 32.4 percent called it Fair 10.8 percent called it Great 9.5 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• My husband and I went to the race. I felt there was a lot of single-file racing, not a lot of action and got kind of bored during the race. Still liked being there, though.
• Typical road racing, very little passing or real racing. The only saving grace was Kurt Busch's valiant challenge near the end. Otherwise, completely sans drama or excitement.
• I had no problem with the race. Some will say it’s boring, but at least there was driving ability and strategy involved in this win.
• The race itself was good — if you don't count my driver's "genius crew chief" finding another way to lose a race. The TNT coverage, however, was an unmitigated disaster, capped by showing the GWC restart through the BACK of the grandstand. Seriously. They did that. I don't know how ANYONE would have found Sunday's telecast compelling.
• I thought the duel at the end between Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer was awesome. The rest of the race was so-so.
• I graded this race as fair just because for some reason there was no excitement. I'm not one that needs cautions or wrecks to have excitement but this race was just plain boring. But then again they all can’t be awesome all the time.
• I was there, and it was AWESOME!!
• Not crazy about road courses, but TNT's coverage just about ruined it all for me. Not quite sure about all that went on as they really showed none of what was happening. The lack of cautions and the bad luck my driver faced is making me rate this race as only “fair.”
• Had really high hopes for this race, but it turned out to be a real snoozer
• This was by far the WORST telecast of the season. Stuff was happening left and right and TNT completely ignored it or did a poor job presenting it. Even later on they would not go back to (or mention) important race happenings. Shame on you TNT. Thank goodness for Twitter so I actually knew what was going on with my driver and with the race.
Will Jeff Gordon be next? (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
WHO’S NEXT TO WIN? Nine drivers who won a race in 2011 have yet to win this year. Fan Council members were asked who among this group will win a race next?
48.2 percent said Jeff Gordon 29.9 percent said Kevin Harvick 14.0 percent said Carl Edwards 5.6 percent said Kurt Busch 1.7 percent said Marcos Ambrose 0.3 percent said Trevor Bayne 0.3 percent said Paul Menard
What Fan Council members said:
• Wow, I found this question to be very hard. I realize nothing hinges on my answer, but it really made me think about the list of drivers who did win last year and are having problems this year. And wow — what an impressive list. I picked Ku Busch but could have gone with Kevin Harvick. Just feel the luck factor for most of the others is all bad.
• I have to believe that the worst luck he has ever had has to come to an end and I say NOW would be the time. I believe Jeff Gordon — my sentimental favorite — wins next. He truly has had great cars and could have won races already.
• Wow, that's an interesting list. With the way most of these peoples’ seasons are going it's not looking too good. I would have to say Cousin Carl would be next on that list just because the way his teammates are running.
• I believe that Kevin Harvick will probably break into the winners circle next. I think he is going to start being more aggressive to get himself a win or two before the Chase starts.
• This is a tossup between Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. Both are running decent but bad luck seems to strike at the wrong moment. The first one to run a full race without any bad luck will win. Of course, what was Tony Stewart doing at this time last year?
• Jeff Gordon is due and has been running the best of these drivers, just has not had the finishes to show. He is a champ and will find victory lane. Next in line is Kevin Harvick, though that team still has some problems to iron out.
• I'm going with Kurt Busch for whatever tantrums he throws, he has proven he's a great driver and (Sunday) he was so close. Fingers crossed for him.
WHO WILL MAKE THE CHASE? Fan Council members were given a list of the drivers between 11th and 20th in the points and asked which ones would make the Chase.
60.9 percent said Kyle Busch 39.1 percent said Kasey Kahne 38.0 percent said Carl Edwards 29.0 percent said Jeff Gordon 22.2 percent said Ryan Newman 14.8 percent said Joey Logano 3.0 percent said Marcos Ambrose 2.0 percent said Paul Menard 1.7 percent said Jeff Burton 1.0 percent said Jamie McMurray
What Fan Council members said:
• Kyle and Carl are drivers who have been able to step it up in the past, and they don't have as far to go as the others.
• It might be wishful thinking, but I believe Joey Logano will continue to put up top-5 results and inch his way into the Chase. I believe Kasey Kahne will win another race or two and get the wild card spot. Kyle Busch may also make the Chase if JGR can calm the engine issues and allow him to put in some quality performances.
• Carl and Kyle are givens, and Joey will be fighting for his job and will slip right in on wins.
• I see Ryan Newman getting in. I hope Jeff Burton can get in the top 10 as well.
• I'm not sure ANY of them will make it into the top 10; it is going to come down to those wild card wins.
• Truex will fall out and Edwards will get in. Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon get in via the wild card.
• I'll go with Kahne and Newman because they each have a win and one more would essentially lock them in. Edwards is hungover from last year, in my opinion.
• I like Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch to make it. I know Kahne has fallen off a bit since his win in the Coke 600, but he has a lot of good tracks coming up and I see him getting at least one more win before the Chase. As for Kyle Busch, he is the kind of guy who can get it done anywhere. Once they figure out there engine woes, I see Kyle getting to victory lane and possible in 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.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350
Marcos Ambrose, following his win at Watkins Glen in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
After two weeks of high speeds and flat out racing, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the twists and turns of Sonoma Raceway for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The 12-turn, 1.99-mile road course is the first test for the teams this season as they turn left and right.
Over the past few years, road course races have turned very aggressive, with more torn up racecars than some short track afternoons. These events also have a tendency to turn into fuel-mileage contests, with strategy playing a major role in how the race unfolds.
One driver that understands the importance of fuel conservation at Sonoma is Richard Petty Motorsports' Marcos Ambrose. The former Australian V-8 Supercar champion has long been known as a road course specialists, and nearly scored his first Sprint Cup Series victory at Sonoma in 2010.
After leading 35 of the 110 laps, Ambrose was attempting to save fuel under caution in the event’s waning laps by shutting his engine off and coasting around the circuit. When the pace car led the field up the hill past the start/finish line, Ambrose's car would not re-fire and dropped him back in the running order. The mistake was costly for Ambrose, who would have to wait until the 2011 race at Watkins Glen International to score that elusive first win.
This weekend, Ambrose heads back to Sonoma with much better equipment, the seventh-best average finish at the track, and is this week's NASCAR fantasy favorite.
Throughout the 2012 season, Ambrose has shown he is no longer simply a road course specialist. Sitting 17th in the series standings, he is coming off three finishes of 13th or better in the last three weeks. Despite a 32nd-place finish in Charlotte for an issue with the left front hub, the No. 9 Ford was among the fastest that weekend, as well.
Heading to one of his best tracks, Ambrose is confident in his team's ability to get the job done week-in and week-out.
“People know we’re around and it’s a good situation to be in,” he said. “I feel good about our team. I feel good about being part of the growth of Richard Petty Motorsports and I think that curve is continuing to go upwards. I think you’ve yet to see the best of us and you’ve yet to see the best of me.”
While Ambrose may enter the favorite, you can never count out five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon. The veteran driver has been nipping on the heels of solid finishes each week, but his season has had about as many twists and turns as this weekend's race.
Gordon has the best average finish among active drivers at Sonoma (8.7), and was second in this race last year. Celebrating his 20th season at the Sprint Cup level, Gordon is now the only Hendrick driver without a win this year, something that could change on Sunday.
Much like Ambrose, former open-wheel driver Juan Pablo Montoya is also considered a threat any time the Sprint Cup Series heads to the road course in Sonoma. Montoya went to Victory Lane in his first attempt at Sonoma in ’07, but has yet to record a top-5 finish since. While he has the second-best average finish (9.0), the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver was 22nd in last year's event.
While the 2012 season has been a struggle for Montoya, he is coming off an eighth-place finish last weekend at Michigan, only his second top 10 of the year. If Monotya can keep the car in one piece and crew chief Chris Heroy can play the right strategy, the No. 42 team could score some solid fantasy points.
Five Favorites: Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson
There's no telling what Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick are discussing. (ASP, Inc.)
Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer may not be the first driver you think of when it comes to road course racing, but the former dirt tracker is this weekend's undervalued pick of the week.
Although he has yet to score a win at Sonoma, Bowyer has the third-best average finish (11.2) with three top 5s and four top 10s in his last five trips out west.
Bowyer has also been fairly consistent over the past seven races. Since losing an engine in front of his hometown crowd in Kansas, Bowyer and his Brian Pattie-led team have recorded five top 10s, with their worst finish (13th) coming at Charlotte.
Pocono winner Joey Logano carried momentum into last weekend's race at Michigan, but ended the day with a wrecked racecar and a 35th-place finish. While Logano only has three starts at Sonoma, he is the defending pole sitter, and led five laps en route to a sixth-place showing.
This year, Logano has proven that previous statistics at tracks are not a great indication of how he will perform. Trying to put last week's disappointing finish behind him, he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff will focus on getting the No. 20 Toyota to handle well and power through the slow U-turn breaking zone in Turn 11.
Logano's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, also had a rough outing at Michigan. In fact, since scoring the win at Richmond and following it up with second-, fourth- and third-place runs in April and May, Busch has failed to finish better than 29th (at Dover, Pocono and Michigan), the victim of engine troubles that JGR has vowed to correct.
Despite his recent troubles, Busch is a skilled road course racer. He swept the roadies in 2008, was 11th in this race last year, and sat on the pole, led 49 and finished third at Watkins Glen last August.
This is a great week for Busch to get the bad luck monkey off his back and record a solid finish, leading to solid fantasy points.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick
How can last week's winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., be a darkhorse pick just one week later? Simple: Just look at Earnhardt's numbers at Sonoma, which is one of only three tracks on the Cup schedule where he has yet to deliver a top-10 finish (the other two are Homestead and Kentucky). In fact, in 12 starts, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has only five finishes inside the top 15. Last year's 41st-place finish was his worst of the entire season.
However, Earnhardt is carrying a ton of momentum enter Wine Country and has been one of the most consistent entries in 2012. While he most likely will not record his first Sonoma win, do not be surprised if the perennial fan favorite finishes well inside the top 10 for the first time in his career.
Fresh off a European trip to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Brian Vickers is back behind the wheel of the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota this weekend at Sonoma. Vickers tested with the team at Virginia International Raceway in preparation for the weekend.
“We ran very competitive laps times against some guys that are considered the road race experts,” he said. “So I am pretty pumped about that. I’ve had some success at Sonoma, too. The last being the pole in 2009 and leading a bunch of laps before getting caught up in an incident.”
Like everyone else, if Vickers can keep the fenders on the car, he could continue the solid runs the Rodney Childers-led team have built upon thus far in 2012.
Also consider Penske Racing's AJ Allmendinger, but keep in mind his poor luck throughout the season. A former open-wheel driver, Allmendinger has the chance to turn his season around, but the frustration could also continue.
Independent owner/driver Robby Gordon is back in a Cup car for only the third time in 2012. While he recorded two DNFs at Daytona and Phoenix, Gordon will be in his element this weekend at Sonoma, where he finished second in 2010. His aggressive driving style could be an issue throughout the race, but it could also lead to a good finish.
Kurt Busch is the defending race winner at Sonoma, and can never be considered a non-factor on the road courses, regardless of the equipment. However, the tumultuous past few weeks raise a major red flag with the elder Busch brother. Be sure to weigh the risk versus reward when considering this choice.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brian Vickers, AJ Allmendinger, Robby Gordon, Kurt Busch
Best Average Finish at Sonoma (Wins):
1. Jeff Gordon — 8.7 (5)
2. Juan Pablo Montoya — 9.0 (1)
3. Clint Bowyer — 11.2 (0)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (2)
5. Ryan Newman — 12.4 (0)
6. Marcos Ambrose — 14.0 (0)
7. Jimmie Johnson — 14.7 (1)
8. Greg Biffle — 15.8 (0)
9. Kevin Harvick — 16.1 (0)
10. Carl Edwards — 16.6 (0)
* Mark Martin (one win, 11.9-place average finish) is not entered in this weekend's race. Brian Vickers will drive the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
We’ve said all along that Earnhardt’s consistency warranted the top spot, but a lack of any wins kept him from it. Well, the 143-race national nightmare is over, and Junior can now lead the way.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Replace the engine and start in the rear of the field? No problem for Chad Knaus and crew. They just handed the ball to J.J., who drove it to a fifth-place finish with blistered tires and an empty gas tank.
3. Matt Kenseth
Third-place runs at Dover and Michigan bookend a seventh at Pocono. Kenseth maintains his lead in the point standings heading to Sonoma, where neither he nor Earnhardt are ... well, good.
4. Greg Biffle
Looked to be the class of the field on Sunday until lap 70, when Earnhardt took to the point and Biffle’s handling went away just slightly. Still, a fourth-place finish works in the grand scheme of things.
No truth to rumor Nick Cage was driving. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
5. Denny Hamlin
Denny “Ghost Rider” Hamlin’s day went up in a blaze of glory after an accident on lap 134 at Michigan, capping an awful day for Joe Gibbs Racing.
6. Tony Stewart
Continuing his roller-coaster type trend, Stewart records runs of third and second following consecutive 25th-place finishes. It’s all about the Chase, right Smoke?
7. Clint Bowyer
In 15 events, Bowyer and his Michael Waltrip Racing team have 12 finishes between fourth and 13th. Not bad considering it’s a bunch with a new crew chief and driver.
8. Brad Keselowski
Has averaged a 12.6-place finish in the five races since his Talladega win. It wasn’t until this time last season that his Penske Racing team really started to take off.
9. Kevin Harvick
His season has mirrored Tony Stewart’s 2011 run thus far: Nothing splashy, zero wins, very few laps led. That said, he’s still sixth in points and as we all know, it’s all about performing in the Chase.
10. Kasey Kahne
His seven-race top-10 streak has come “crashing” down to the tune of 29th- and 33rd-place finishes. Not that it matters if you don’t finish, but his 7.5-place average starting spot is best on circuit.
11. Martin Truex Jr.
Free-agent-to-be is making a strong case for his services in 2013.
12. Carl Edwards
Free-agent-that-was made a strong case for his services last year but has failed to deliver in 2012.
13. Joey Logano
Keeping with the free agent theme, will Logano’s Pocono win convince JGR to re-sign him?
14. Jeff Gordon
Top 10s every three or four weeks won’t get Gordon anywhere near the Chase.
15. Kyle Busch
Hard to blame engine issues on the driver. JGR needs to iron out some things at the shop.
Just off the lead pack: Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
From the mountains of Pennsylvania to the rolling hills of Michigan, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400.
Racing on yet another repaved track, teams have two test sessions throughout the day on Thursday as they attempt to get acclimated with the new track surface, the higher speeds and how tires will react.
This is another great opportunity for NASCAR fantasy racers, as drivers will be in and out of the media center throughout the day providing insight that could go a long way when making your final lineup decisions.
While all teams will have the opportunity to hit the track for an extra day of testing, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya conducted a two-day tire test in April. Each of the drivers complimented the new surface's grip and indicated speeds were among the fastest they have experienced.
“This place is fast. I mean fast, fast,” Montoya said following the test session. “Our minimum speed this morning was over 180 mph through the corner when you think about it. We are doing easily over 210 mph at the end of the straight.”
Teams have backed that up as of mid-morning on Thursday, as drivers were clicking off average lap times of 200-plus mph. For perspective, Martin Truex Jr. was recorded at 218 mph going into Turn 1.
Already in the backyard of team owner Jack Roush and Ford Motor Company, the additional test in April should pay huge dividends for the current points leader, Kenseth.
Kenseth calls Michigan one of his “favorite tracks throughout the season,” and has two wins, 11 top 5s and 16 top 10s in 25 starts there. Veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig admits he has little use of the mountains of notes compiled prior to the April test session — instead, he will fall back on what they learned over that two-day period.
“There was a ton of grip, and I assume it would be a little faster as the track gets dusted off and rubbered in, so speeds should pick up a bit,” Kenseth said. “When we were in race trim, we were almost four seconds faster than we were racing last year, which is quite a difference.”
Taking the points lead for the first time since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Kenseth enters this weekend with a 10-point advantage of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For Earnhardt, the arduous task of ending his 143-winless streak returns to the site of his last victory. Coming off one of his strongest performances to date in Hendrick equipment at Pocono last week, Earnhardt and the No. 88 team head to Michigan with Victory Lane at their fingertips.
After leading 36 laps and finishing eighth last week, the frustration was clear on Earnhardt's face after he climbed from the car. Do not mistake this frustration as that of years past, though. Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led team are one of the most consistent teams in the series right now — with a circuit-best 11 top 10s this season — yet the one thing eluding them is a win.
Since his ’08 win, Earnhardt has only one top 5 and two top 10s on the two-mile D-shaped oval, with three consecutive finishes of 14th or worse. However, with the new racing surface, teams have thrown out their notes from previous years. While the No. 88 team did not take part in the April tire test, Hendrick’s No. 24 did, which may pay dividends.
That fact might have been evident in Thursday's test session, as Earnhardt was one of the fastest cars of the day, topping 200 mph (more than six mph faster than Ryan Newman's qualifying record set in 2005).
Other drivers to consider as favorites this weekend are Keselowski, the hometown hero, two-time Michigan winner Gordon, and Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards.
Five Favorites: Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards
The last time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was in Michigan, it was Kyle Busch that survived a green-white-checker finish to score the win. Busch has suffered from inconsistency over the years at MIS, but finished third and first in both races last year, leading a combined 81 laps.
Coming off consecutive engine failures at Dover and Pocono, Busch fell three spots to 12th in the series standings. While it is certainly not time to panic, Busch and the No. 18 team would be a lot more comfortable racing through the summer stretch inside the top 10 in points. Busch was also among the fastest cars in Thursday's test session.
Michigan has been known to be tough on engines, so be mindful of Joe Gibbs Racing's powerplant issues of late and chose carefully.
After slipping up in the final laps last week in Pocono, veteran Mark Martin heads to Michigan looking for another solid run. With 52 starts at MIS, Martin should be a threat again this weekend as he has five wins, 18 top 5s and 31 top 10s, giving him the seventh-best average finish among active drivers. And he — like many — was fast on Thursday, being the first to break the 201 mph barrier.
Much like Busch, however, Martin and his Toyota engines have suffered from issues throughout the year. In his 11 starts this season, Martin has had two engine failures, at Kansas and Charlotte.
It is hard to imagine five-time champion Jimmie Johnson could be an undervalued pick in any sense of the imagination. However, Michigan is one of only five tracks the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has yet to win. Despite having the 10th-best average finish, Johnson has come up short in each of his 20 starts here — and on a couple of occasions, coming up short has meant running out of fuel on the final lap.
Last June, Johnson struggled here, starting 21st, failing to lead a lap and coming home 27th. When the series returned in August, though, Johnson drove from a 19th starting spot up to a second-place finish, leading 18 laps in the process. Over the course of his last seven Michigan starts, Johnson has only two top-10 finishes, but has led an impressive 323 laps.
Kevin Harvick also enters this weekend's race as an undervalued pick. The Richard Childress Racing driver has the ninth-best average finish at Michigan, but was fast in Thursday's morning test session, breaking the 200 mph barrier.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman
Martin Truex Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
Throughout the 2012 season, Martin Truex Jr. has been within reach of Victory Lane, only to come up short. Coming off a hard-fought 20th-place finish at Pocono, Truex enters this weekend's race looking for consistency. After a solid start to the year, the No. 56 team has three finishes of 20th or worse in its last six events.
Despite his lackluster performance over the years at Michigan, Truex has been solid on the intermediate tracks this season. Not to mention, he was among the cars quick in Thursday's morning test session, joining Harvick in the plus-200 club.
Truex's Michael Waltrip Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer, has quietly worked his way into the top 10 in the series standings thanks to consistent runs. Coming off a fifth at Dover and a sixth at Pocono, Bowyer is looking for that breakout run that could jumpstart his season and make him a contender. Although he struggled in his early years at Michigan, Bowyer finished eighth in both races last season.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard, Kurt Busch
Much like last week, fantasy racers have a bit of an advantage this week thanks to Thursday's two test sessions on the repaved oval. As mentioned earlier, speeds were well over the track record in the morning session. While teams may be experimenting with a few things on Thursday, others are getting a head start on the weekend and practicing as normal. Check the speed charts from both sessions and keep an eye to the driver comments throughout the day for the best information. Be sure to take advantage of the extra day on the track before setting your lineup.
Best Average Finish at Michigan (Wins):
1. Carl Edwards — 8.2 (2)
2. Matt Kenseth — 9.5 (2)
3. Jeff Gordon — 11.4 (2)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (1)
5. Denny Hamlin — 12.1 (2)
6. Greg Biffle — 12.8 (2)
7. Mark Martin — 13.3 (5)
8. Brian Vickers — 14.9 (1)
9. Kevin Harvick — 15.0 (1)
10. Jimmie Johnson — 15.2 (0)
Is on-track comfort to blame for "boring" racing in 2012?
Comfortable (adj.) — Providing physical ease and relaxation; comfy; cozy; free from stress or fear
When people speak that word, it’s most likely in reference to the summer vacations we’ll take within the next few of months. Comfortable is what we hope to achieve at our jobs, financial security that affords us to do the other things we want in life. In a cruel twist of irony, we watch sports to get comfortable, relaxation afforded after a long day on the job.
On Tuesday, Toyota became the latest manufacturer to unveil its 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup racecar. It is the second generation of the Car of Tomorrow, which debuted in the 2007 season to jeers and sneers — that is until Michael McDowell walked away from a head-on impact at 200 mph, tumbling down the three stories of banking and emerging unscathed. Since then, most have been on board with the new car, more so following the early 2010 refresh that saw the spoiler and the splitter going the way of the Convertible Division.
Toyota also confirmed that it has inked extensions to be the engine provider and car make for Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing for the foreseeable future. You can cross out these teams as potential candidates for Dodge, which is scrambling to find a team — and an engine provider — for 2013 and beyond. Toyota, in fact, is poised to add more teams to the fold, though not necessarily more organizations.
“We’re happy with the guys we’ve got,” Toyota Racing Development president Lee White says. “I would hope the economy turns around a little bit and we very easily could get back to eight or nine cars.”
One of the teams that Dodge was rumored to have been interested in was that of Joe Gibbs Racing. Gibbs had fielded Chevrolets and Pontiacs since its arrival in the sport 20 years ago, its first win coming one year after its debut in the 1993 Daytona 500. JGR’s move to Toyota in 2007, in part, set the stage for a departure by then two-time champion Tony Stewart. Stewart’s replacement was a driver who many had predicted would be the next Jeff Gordon: Joey Logano. To date, Logano has one race win in the iconic No. 20 Home Depot machine — compared to five championships by the other big-box home improvement chain retailer, Lowe’s.
It has long been a point of contention with the HD brass that Sliced Bread isn’t exactly cutting the mustard in the results department; cutting the cheese is more like it.
With the manufacturer side of things sealed up for JGR, which no longer has to worry about manning an engine shop with TRD now the sole supplier for all Toyota Cup teams, might Coach and J.D. be looking to test the free agent market for a replacement for their No. 20 machine? After all, it was about a year ago that many had penciled in Carl Edwards to be the heir apparent to the No. 20, but after Ford Motor Company scratched a big check and a ton of stock for Edwards, Logano received a reprieve. Logano currently sits 15th in points, however the No. 20 has finished no better than 16th in points since Stewart jumped ship following the ’08 season.
Following the departure of long-time JGR crew chief Greg Zipadelli to become competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing — while monitoring the progress of Danica Patrick in her limited Cup appearances — the performance of the No. 20 seems to be slowly picking up. But will it improve enough to retain Logano, or will the sponsor wield the whip hand and demand a change be made with one of the available free agent drivers for 2013?
Ryan Newman has been mentioned as a viable candidate for the No. 20 car, which is an ironic choice following his run-in with Logano at Michigan in the August 2010 event. The timing makes a bit of sense as the Senate Armed Services Committee this week added an amendment to next year’s spending bill that would ban all military sponsorship of motorsports — which includes Newman’s US Army affiliation — leaving a sizeable hole to fill at SHR. Would Stewart forsake his friend and fellow Hoosier, Newman, if a supplement to the Army sponsorship does not materialize?
With Patrick waiting in the wings, expecting to announce a full-time 2013 campaign in the Cup Series shortly, it may come down to dollars and common sense. If SHR does not have the funding to prepare a third team for Patrick, the GoDaddy.com colors might only end up on the No. 10 next year, keeping the organization at a two-car level.
That leaves one other option on the table — one that could be deemed “The Nuclear Option.” Kurt Busch.
The stars have aligned seemlessly with this one. Busch is a free agent, serving his penance in post-Penske purgatory, driving on a handshake deal for James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team, an 18-employee independent team that receives cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Think of it as a poor-man’s Stewart Haas Racing. A damn-near-broke man’s Stewart Haas Racing. For the most part, Busch has kept his legendary temper at bay, until a self-inflicted flat tire in the closing laps of the Southern 500 at Darlington dashed any hopes of a top-10 finish.
Might Busch be JGR and Home Depot Toyota material?
Think back to 2011 and the biggest story of the summer stretch: Busch and Jimmie Johnson feuding following some last-lap dicing at Pocono. Busch had been taken out by Johnson at Pocono a year earlier in a vicious backstretch crash, as well as at Sonoma and Chicago in ’09. That sort of anti-48 sentiment might play well with Home Depot, which has been less-than-pleased watching Lowe’s garner the lion’s share of the championships over the last six years. In fact, Smoke’s last two titles bookend those by Johnson, the latter with a different Depot on the hood.
Kurt’s brother Kyle is currently in the No. 18 at Joe Gibbs Racing, and having migrated his Kyle Busch Motorsports team to Nationwide this season, helped his brother out by essentially splitting the schedule with him in his No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota — an appropriate sponsor given their struggles with respective inner green-rage monsters.
The matte black Toyotas have been fast, with Kyle narrowly clearing the last-turn pile-up at Daytona before getting hooked into the outside wall, and Kurt capturing the team’s first win at Richmond just a few weeks ago over the other JGR pilot, Denny Hamlin. Hamlin had his own run-in with the No. 48 team two years ago, and chucked his own bottle of water at his No. 11 in frustration following a fuel mileage foul-up at the penultimate race at Phoenix that prevented him from winning his first Cup title. Think back to Busch throwing a bottle of water of his own at the Miller Lite Dodge at Bristol in 2009, when he declared there were 41 other driver’s he’d rather finish second to, rather than that No. 48 car.
Might JGR be the perfect home for Busch — and, more important, Home Depot the ideal sponsor?
HD was more than patient with Stewart during his most volatile and petulant years. The sport had much more attention back then, and though Stewart nearly lost his ride at JGR during a tumultuous 2002 campaign, winning his first Winston Cup title went a long way to cure those ills. This was during a period when Stewart had to be physically restrained from going after NASCAR officials, kicking reporter’s tape recorders under trailers and allegedly pushing a fan. Kyle Busch faced a similar fate last season after turning Ron Hornaday Jr. head-on into the wall during a Truck Series race (albeit in a KBM rig, not Gibbs equipment); NASCAR sat him out for the Sunday Cup race.
It left the younger Busch reeling, wondering if he would even have a job in 2013. Message: delivered. And received.
Kurt went through a similar situation with both Roush and Penske Racing. An incident involving a traffic stop for suspected impaired driving on race weekend in Phoenix in 2005 saw Roush suspend Busch for the final two races of the year, even while being a Chase driver, while the team issued the release that Roush Racing was “done being Kurt Busch’s apologists.” Busch was noticeably moved by the incident, barely holding back legitimate tears when interviewed about it. What followed at Penske Racing were six seasons of salty salutations over the team radio, indicating everyone from the crew chief, engineers and the owner himself, addressing revered team owner Roger Penske not be his well-known nickname, but rather as “Dude.”
The Captain did not abide.
Things came to a head during the 2011 Chase with Busch melting down during driver intros and issuing a terse response to ESPN reporter Jamie Little en route to his car — a car that did not pass tech inspection initially — at Loudon. He followed that up with the now famous YouTube video of Busch being less than cordial with ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch following an early exit at the season finale at Homestead. Actually, everything got off to a poor start as soon as the 2011 Chase began. Following the final race of the regular season at Richmond, Busch went after NASCAR.com reporter Joe Menzer in the garage, slapped away a member of his PR camp, and then got into it with AP writer Jenna Fryer, tearing up a Dodge press release in the media center following a disagreement over a quote about getting inside Jimmie Johnson’s head.
The real question is, could Joe Gibbs get into Kurt’s head the way he has his brother, and the way both Roush and Penske were unable to? There are already signs of cracking on the surface after the incident on pit road at Darlington, as well as a colorful meeting with the press outside of his hauler at Charlotte last week.
This is not meant to pick apart Busch with the well-documented history of a short temper and manic outbursts. He remains a championship-winning (and contending) driver, who clearly gets more out of the equipment than virtually anyone else in the series — short of his brother. His one step forward/two-steps back anger management program seems to stall out every few months, and the new dynamic of a smaller team this season was to be an audition to prove to the racing world that he is a changed man, not the acid-tongued driver on the verge of meltdown.
His Nationwide ride with KBM has provided him with some brotherly love and proved that he’s still a race winner — not that it was ever really in doubt. Could a partnership with Gibbs, an owner well known for being both a man of faith and having the patience of a saint, provide Kurt with just the place to be born again?
It very well might be the type of environment that he needs to get back to the form that saw him win the first Chase in 2004.
NASCAR fined Kurt Busch $50,000 on Tuesday for his actions toward the end and after Saturday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington.
Busch was one of three people fined and one of four people placed on probation.
NASCAR put Busch on probation until July 25, citing Busch for “reckless driving on pit road during the race’’ and for being involved in an altercation with another competitor after the race.
Busch’s reckless driving on pit road was for shooting through Ryan Newman’s pits after a stop late in the race. Newman’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, said that his pit crew had “to jump out of the way ... and try not to get hit.”
After the race, Busch ran into Newman’s car on pit road. Newman told SI.com that Busch said it was an accident and it happened as he was taking off his helmet.
“I’m pretty sure there were 42 other guys that are taking their helmets off and doing whatever for the last 10 years and that’s the first time that’s happened to me. Circumstances, I think, are that he lied and was so frustrated that he doesn’t know how to deal with his anger.”
As for when Busch fired out of his pit stall late in the race, Newman told SI.com: “I’m not sure why [Busch] did it and tried to run over our guys and NASCAR officials. And nobody is. I think the chemical imbalance speaks for itself.”
Busch will be on probation for the All-Star Race, along with the Coca-Cola 600 and races at Dover, Pocono, Michigan, Sonoma, Kentucky, Daytona and New Hampshire. Provided he has no other issues, his probation would end before Indianapolis.
NASCAR also issued other penalties for an incident after the race between the teams.
• NASCAR fined Newman’s gas man, Andrew Rueger, $5,000 and placed him on probation until June 27 for failing to comply with a directive from a NASCAR official.
• NASCAR placed Gibson on probation until June 27 since the crew chief assumes responsibility for the actions of his team members.
• NASCAR fined Craig Strickler, Busch’s motorcoach driver, $5,000 and placed him on probation until Dec. 31 for interfering with a member of the broadcast media.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
TEST PASSED Danica Patrick didn’t crash and she didn’t wreck anyone else. While it wasn’t easy, she made it through a full weekend at Darlington, running a total of 635 laps between her Sprint Cup and Nationwide cars in races, practices and qualifying.
She admitted that she isn’t as comfortable running beside the wall and it was evident that her line through the corners during the Cup race was half a car width further from the wall than many drivers at times.
Still, she made it through the weekend. For those who questioned why car owner Tony Stewart wanted her to run one of her 10 Cup races this year at that track since the series runs there only once a year, the answer is simple. It’s difficult. Very difficult. She’s going to face this challenge at some time, so she might as well do it now.
“I accomplished all the things I wanted to accomplish,’’ Patrick said after finishing 31st in the Cup race, six laps behind the leaders. “Things went good on the Nationwide side. Here on the Cup side, my goals were to be respectable out there. I think I held my own alright. And, the other one was to finish, and both of those things happened. I will be much less worried coming back to this place.
“I definitely got a feel for all the elements. Starts, restarts and pitting, obviously I made a mistake there; and all that stuff. Just how to get runs on cars. What to do when the car feels a certain way. Which lines to take, and to accommodate for the car and how it feels.”
Said Stewart, her Cup car owner: “What she did in these two days is hard to do. To have the result, the way she ran (in the Nationwide race, finishing 12th), I’m sure I’ll get a chance to watch more of what she did after we get home. The time I was around, got to watch, she did a really good job.”
PROPER MENTALITY Denny Hamlin on what type of mentality a driver has to have for this weekend’s All-Star race: “Bulldog. You have to be just a guy that puts it all on the line. Nowadays, more than ever, the All-Star Race — teams pretty much take disposable cars that they know there’s a good chance it’s not going to come back.
“The driver’s mentality is that it’s all for money, so there’s nothing to lose. It takes someone who’s willing to drive 100 percent qualifying lap every single lap. Those are the guys that are usually successful in winning.”
NATIONWIDE DEBUT Darrell Wallace Jr., who has been a part of the Drive for Diversity program, will make his Nationwide debut this weekend at Iowa Speedway driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“The goals have to be just kind of running up front, hopefully making a name for myself, running top 10,” Wallace said.
SILENT TREATMENT Kevin Harvick was asked if he ever talked to Kyle Busch about their incident in last year’s Southern 500 that led to a post-race pit road altercation. Harvick said: “I don’t talk about Kyle or to Kyle.”
PIT STOPS Martin Truex Jr.’s fifth-place finish at Darlington was his fourth top-five finish of the season. He had only three top-five results last season. ... Five drivers have won the All-Star Race and series title in the same season: Darrell Waltrip (1985), Dale Earnhardt (1987, ’90, ’93), Rusty Wallace (1989), Jeff Gordon (1995, ’97, 2001) and Jimmie Johnson (2006). ... Jeff Gordon is 24th in the points. He’s one point behind Mark Martin, who has skipped three races this season.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Darlington
Brad Keselowski ... lookin' up. (ASP, Inc.)
In honor of Mother’s Day, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the “Lady In Black” for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. On the schedule for 62 years, Darlington is steeped in NASCAR history and is one of the toughest tracks on the circuit.
One crew chief called Darlington “the most unique track” the series runs at throughout the year. The egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval has one of the most unique grooves in the sport, and with nearly every driver earning the well-known “Darlington Stripe” the crews will have the bondo and hammers on hand.
More than any track in the sport, drivers will truly have to race the track and not the competition to be successful Saturday night under the lights. The pit crews will have to get the job done on pit road as well, especially leading into next week’s Sprint Pit Crew Challenge.
Be sure to keep an eye on the best 10-lap average stat after both Friday practice sessions before setting your lineup. That stat didn’t matter too much last weekend at Talladega, where Brad Keselowski pulled away on the final lap to score his second win of the season. Leading on the final lap with Kyle Busch tucked behind in tandem, it appeared Keselowski was a sitting duck to Busch. However, Keselowski was able to disconnect from Busch’s car and had the race in hand off Turn 4.
Making his 100th career Sprint Cup Series start, Keselowski heads to the Track Too Tough To Tame as this week’s NASCAR fantasy favorite.
With two wins in the first 10 races of the season, the Penske Racing driver is confident he will be in the Chase as a championship contender and feels “the shackles are off” in the remaining races before the final regular season race at Richmond. In layman’s terms, he’s focused on adding more trophies to his collection as opposed to “point racing.”
Keselowski also considers Darlington one of his favorite tracks. He currently holds the second-best average finish (7.3) behind Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin (6.5), but is without a win at the legendary facility.
Series points leader Greg Biffle certainly knows the joys of winning at Darlington, with back-to-back Southern 500 wins in 2005 and ’06. The Roush Fenway Racing driver comes off a fifth-place finish at Talladega, his sixth top 5 and seventh top 10 of the season.
Despite his two wins, Biffle has only two top 10 finishes in the five Darlington races since his victoreis. However, he has momentum on his side heading to this weekend’s race, making him another fantasy favorite.
Another driver entering this weekend’s race with “the shackles off,” as Keselowski put it, also happens to have the best average finish among active drivers at Darlington. Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb have been solid together throughout the first 10 races, and Hamlin has one win at Darlington, so expect the No. 11 team to be a strong contender Saturday night.
Five Favorites: Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch
Regan Smith enters this weekend’s race as the defending winner, earning his first official NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory last May on older tires over Carl Edwards. That win was one of only two top-10 finishes up to that point in 2011. This season, Smith heads to Darlington with zero top 10 finishes, suffering through a disappointing stretch of races.
An engine failure last week dropped the Furniture Row Racing’s driver to 27th in the standings. Looking to break his slump and kick-start his season before the All-Star break, Smith is a solid pick for this weekend’s race. Despite his poor start to 2012, Smith and his team will walk through the garage the defending champions for the weekend. That confidence boost could go a long way for a team that is looking to turn things around.
While Smith is the defending winner, Edwards goes into Darlington with three top-5 finishes in his last five starts — two of those being second-place showings. Searching for that first victory at Darlington — as well as his first of 2012 — look for Edwards to be among the front-runners on Saturday.
If there is one group of drivers that the Lady In Black favors, it is the veterans. Therefore, consider Jeff Burton,Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon as well. They have a combined 11 Darlington wins.
Five Undervalued Picks: Regan Smith, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon
Martin Truex Jr. ... lookin' cool. (ASP, Inc.)
Michael Waltrip Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. is coming off the two worst finishes of his season, but registers as our darkhorse pick for Saturday night’s Southern 500. The New Jersey-native considers the egg-shaped demon among his best on the circuit. While he only has two top-10 finishes in six Darlington starts, his worst finish is 19th (2010). Looking to rebound from a pair of disappointing outings, expect Truex to put up solid fantasy numbers.
Typically known for their road course skills, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya both enter this weekend’s race as darkhorse fantasy picks.
In each of his three starts, Ambrose has had a solid qualifying effort (three top-10 starts), but has struggled to produce the results. His best finish was 13th last May. This season has not been the best for Ambrose and the Richard Petty Motorsports team. It seems each week they bounce between top-15 and sub-25th-place runs. Coming off a 14th-place finish in Talladega, Ambrose may be on course for another lackluster finish, so pay attention to Friday’s practice session.
Montoya has an average finish of 18.8 in five Darlington starts, with his best finish (fifth) coming in 2010. This season has also been an up-and-down ride for Montoya, but prior to his 32nd-place finish at Talladega, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver had one top 10 and six top 20s. Montoya will not score you the big points this weekend, but he may give you that solid 12th- to 20th-place finished needed to push you past your opponents.
In case you haven’t heard, some driver named Danica Patrick will be making her first career start at the famed Darlington Raceway. It is uncertain how the stock-car convert will handle the Lady in Black on her maiden voyage. If you’re feeling adventurous, put her in the lineup. But know the consequences.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Ragan, Danica Patrick
Best Average Finish at Darlington Raceway (wins):
1. Denny Hamlin — 6.5 (1)
2. Brad Keselowski — 7.3 (0)
3. Jimmie Johnson — 9.8 (2)
4. Jeff Gordon — 11.1 (7)
5. Ryan Newman — 11.6 (0)
6. Jeff Burton — 12.1 (2)
7. Mark Martin — 12.2 (2)
8. Tony Stewart — 12.3 (0)
9. Martin Truex Jr. — 12.3 (0)
10. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (0)
Danica's no-call, Gordon's Chase hopes and plate racing at Talladega
Danica Patrick (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Talladega always leaves fans with something to talk about and last weekend was no different from Danica Patrick’s bump that sent Sam Hornish Jr. into the wall after the checkered flag in the Nationwide race to the Jeff Gordon’s woes and the type of racing fans saw.
There was much to discuss after Talladega and members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council tackled some of those subjects.
SHOULD NASCAR HAVE PENALIZED DANICA PATRICK FOR HER ACTIONS AFTER THE TALLADEGA NATIONWIDE RACE? On the final lap of Saturday’s Nationwide race at Talladega, Sam Hornish Jr. squeezed Danica Patrick into the wall and Patrick retaliated after crossing the finish line by tapping Hornish, which sent him into the wall. Hornish said afterward he had a right front tire going down, which made it difficult to control his car. NASCAR did not call either driver into the hauler after the race — but will talk to both this weekend at Darlington. Patrick later apologized to Hornish. Fan Council members were asked if NASCAR should have penalized Patrick for her wrecking Hornish after the checkered flag flew:
41.4 percent said Patrick should be put on probation for the next few races 41.0 percent said Patrick should not be penalized in the era of “Boys have at it” 9.4 percent said Patrick should be put on probation until the next Nationwide plate race (Daytona in July) 8.2 percent said Patrick should have been suspended for at least the next Nationwide race
What Fan Council members said:
• If Busch gets tossed for wrecking Hornaday under caution, she should miss a race for wrecking Hornish on a cool down lap. FINED, at the very least.
• I don't think a warning is inappropriate. People were comparing that incident to Kyle vs. Hornaday at Texas, but I watched that with a stopwatch and Kyle was on Hornaday's bumper for five seconds under the caution, while Danica hit Hornish but didn't push him around the track like Kyle did.
• For me it was a racing deal. Sam said he had a tire going down and got into Danica. Danica felt she was run up the track and into the wall on purpose. She made her feelings known to Sam that she didn't like what happened. I have seen this happen before with other drivers and NASCAR didn't really do anything to them. It was not the extreme as it was with Kyle Busch plowing into Ron Hornaday at Texas where NASCAR had no choice.
• Yes, probation at the very least! You don't wreck drivers on the cool down lap, bottom line.
• Let it go. It's over and was clearly boys (and girls) have at it.
• No, I do not think she should be penalized. She is NOT KYLE BUSCH and intentionally wrecking anyone to affect the outcome of the race.
• I choose that she should be put on probation but that's such a meaningless penalty. I know they'll be talking to her at Darlington but I think they should have called her to the NASCAR hauler right after the race. Waiting a week makes it seem like they're only talking to her because fans were upset.
• I love “boys have at it” but there still has to be some policing of the drivers, Danica should at least be put on probation. This is nothing like the Kyle Busch/Ron Hornaday incident last year, but she still turned Hornish head on into the wall at over 100 mph, and given what took place with Eric McClure earlier in the race, there's no place for retaliation to that magnitude.
• While we are in the era of “boys have at it,” that doesn't extend to yellow flag or post-checkered flag car issues. If she wanted to punch him after the race, that's fine, but no retaliation with her car. I think a warning is a good first punishment. Kyle Busch was suspended because of a pattern of this type of behavior, she doesn't have the pattern (yet!), so a probation that lasts through the next plate race seems fair.
• Aren't we getting just a tad worked up about all things Danica? If this had been any other driver, it wouldn't be making headlines. Evidently NASCAR didn't see a problem with it. Get over it and stop scrutinizing everything she does.
Jeff Gordon (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
WILL JEFF GORDON MAKE THE CHASE? A crash relegated Jeff Gordon to 33rd in Sunday’s race at Talladega. That drops him to 23rd in the points with 16 races left until the Chase field is set. Fan Council members were asked if Gordon will make the Chase this year:
59.6 percent said No 40.4 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• I think he needs to win three races to get in as a wild card, so no. He’s out.
• He's running fast enough to possibly get a couple of wins and get in as a wild card. But it's looking unlikely that he drives his way into the top 10.
• His luck won’t turn around.
• I think some of the people higher in points than Jeff Gordon will have engine issues and other issues throughout the summer months and Gordon will end up in the Chase.
• I think he is a fantastic driver, but this just isn't his year. I feel bad for him.
• He’s toast. I’ll be surprised if he gets more than one win and it will take two to get a wild card. The field is way too competitive.
• Even though I’m not a fan of his — what makes him arguably one of the great drivers is his ability to get things turned around.
• I think we are witnessing the downfall of the great Jeff Gordon's career. It happens to everyone, it’s just his turn now.
• Jeff Gordon is one of the greatest drivers in history and is very capable of knocking off a string of top 10s and top 5s, as well as knocking off a couple or three wins between now and then. Looking at the run Brad Keselowski had from July to September last year to make the Chase, I believe Jeff Gordon will be able to fight his way in.
GRADING SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT TALLADEGA
62.3 percent said it was Good 18.5 percent said it was Great 14.6 percent said it was Fair 4.6 percent said it was Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• NASCAR needs a permanent fix instead these band-aids to fix tandem racing and high speeds … your customer base is growing impatient.
• It was great to see pack racing back at Talladega, and 3-wide and even 4-wide racing helped keep it interesting!
• Finally a race that had everything. Pack, train, tandem ... it was all there. More passing then I've seen in a while.
• I don't know what more people would want. It was interesting, sure it went green forever, but people were able to pass and race.
• I’ll say the race was GOOD... Can't give it a GREAT rating because the rules package wasn't amended to allow everyone to run in the pack without overheating. It was different though because it wasn't quite tandem racing and it wasn't quite pack racing. This is a crazy year in NASCAR!
• The best race of the year for me.
• Was very good race with action all over the track. The rules changes worked as far as preventing a two-car tandem from just taking off BUT the (engine) temp issue was a negative.
• Looks like the rule changes lived up to the expectations. Almost no two-car breakaways at all except on the closing laps. And with a G-W-C at the end, made it a great race.
• Can't say I am a fan of the plate races anymore. What we've seen the last couple of years at the plate tracks is not racing. I actually liked the two-car tango more than what we have now.
• I thought this race was good. There was plenty of action for everyone. There was pack racing, tandem racing, and for those people who like crashes, there was that.
Ab-so-lute-ly ridiculous that NASCAR refused to provide a fix for the overheating of engines. I hope Tony doesn't get into trouble for his comments. He hit the nail(s) on the head.
SHOULD A RESTRICTOR-PLATE RACE BE IN THE CHASE?
75.3 percent said Yes 24.7 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• Frankly, I'd be fine with no plate races in the Chase. Now that there is no tandem, I am back to loving them, but as far as the Chase goes, I’m not a fan of races where the drivers don't control their own destiny.
• Absolutely! I believe the Chase should include some of the tougher tracks like Talladega. Since the Chase is about the BEST drivers and the BEST teams racing for the championship, why shouldn't they race at the toughest tracks? Talladega combines strategy, performance, endurance and the element of surprise to give drivers a test of their driving skills, their stamina, their mental acuity, their abilities to manage the car, their reflexes and their powers of observation and quick thinking.
• Yes, I'm fine with it, but I wouldn't complain one bit if they took the plate race out of the Chase.
• A wild card race at Talladega adds a lot of excitement to the Chase. Although racing there is so different than anywhere else, it has become a tradition; and an important part of the NASCAR identity. It clearly deserves to have a place in the process from which we crown our champion.
• I'm kinda at the point where I don't think Daytona and Talladega should even pay points much less have one race in the Chase. It's too much like the lottery. Last year's fall Talladega race didn't have much to do with the title race but it has in the past.
• The Chase needs to showcase a sampling of all the tracks in the regular season.
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.