Keselowski holds off Kyle Busch in green-white-checker finish
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Every five or six visits to NASCAR’s ultimate spectacle at Talladega Superspeedway, someone figures out a new way to conquer the beast. The freight train, the lead-the-conga-line, the tri-oval slingshot — all have taken their turns as last-lap moves du jour at the 2.66-mile behemoth in Alabama. In Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, Brad Keselowski introduced a new move.
As yet unnamed, Keselowski’s Turn 3 move — “Shake ’n’ Bake” need not apply — to stave off Kyle Busch with the checkered flag in the air was, according to the race winner, one of cool calculation.
“Those are the kind of moves, similar to the move made here in ’09, that you get one chance to make, that nobody wises up on,” Keseloski said. “From there, everybody knows how to make it work. I’m sure everybody will wise up on it from here and they’ll make their moves earlier, which will change the racing again.
“It’s just evolution. You get one shot to be that guy that helps to evolve it. We had the opportunity to do that today and that’s part of what helped us win the race.”
A green-white-checker restart — caused when Keselowski spun Kurt Busch’s No. 51 Chevy — precipitated his two-lap dash to his second career Talladega win.
The ensuing lap 185 restart played witness to a nine-car pile up in Turn 1 that marked the end of the day for Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Michael Waltrip, among others.
When the field next took the green flag, Matt Kenseth — who led a race-high 73 laps — led the pack, with teammate Greg Biffle immediately in arrears. Keselowski and Kyle Busch lined up along side.
Kenseth’s stout Ford pulled away immediately, but when he and Biffle briefly separated, their draft was broken, opening the door for the Keselowski/Busch freight train.
The latter pairing roared to the lead as the white flag was displayed and jumped out to an insurmountable lead. Recent history proved that running second was the preferred position on the final lap, as the runner-up had made a last-lap pass for the win in the previous four Talladega races.
However, with Busch hooked to his rear bumper, Keselowski dove from the high groove in Turn 3 to the low side of the track exiting Turn 4. The brief separation doomed Busch, who could not get close enough to execute a pass in the tri-oval.
“I just needed to make the move, (and I ) made it in (Turn) three,” Keselowski explained. “That disconnected us. That was the key right there. Once we got that air bubble in between the two cars, it was going to take two or three laps for him to pop that.”
For his part, Busch wasn’t immediately sure how Keselowski broke the draft.
“Unfortunately, I must have screwed something up, because we got to Turn 3 and come unhooked,” Busch said. “Just gave the win away over there. Not sure exactly what happened — we definitely need to go back and figure out what it was.”
Keselowski’s win was his second of the 2012 season, putting him in position for a Wild Card entry into the Chase for the Championship if he is not in the top 10 in points at the Richmond cutoff race in September.
Kenseth held on for a third-place run and sits second to Biffle (fifth at Talladega) in the standings. Kasey Kahne was fourth, while Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Trevor Bayne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 10.
Saturday evening’s Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway was not unlike many of the NASCAR Sprint Cup events over the past month. A dearth of cautions — only five, the second-least at RIR in 14 years — pockmarked the 300-mile event.
However, Richmond provided an exciting, and controversial, finish that produced an all-too-familiar victor in Kyle Busch.
While Busch had yet to win in the 2012 season, his victory marked the fourth consecutive win in Richmond’s spring race for the 26-year-old Las Vegas native. But while his past wins have been dominant, it took a string of bizarre events late in the race for Busch to cash in.
“Wherever that last caution came from, that was the saving grace — just the luck of the day,” Busch said of a debris caution on lap 388 of 400. “The guys did a fast pit stop, got us the lead off pit road, which was a huge advantage, just being able to give me the control of the restart and not have to wait on Tony (Stewart) or cause myself to spin my tires or what have you and get behind.
The fireworks started well before then, though.
A caution for debris on lap 311 changed the complexion of the race. Busch was awarded the Lucky Dog, placing him on the lead lap after being down one.
Race leader Jimmie Johnson was then issued a pit road penalty during his stop, sending him to the rear of the field. The subsequent restart found Tony Stewart the leader, with Carl Edwards to his outside. Edwards, though, believed his No. 99 Ford to be the lead car, and when the green waved, Stewart spun his tires, allowing Edwards to sprint away. NASCAR ruled that Edwards “jumped the restart” by taking off before crossing into the “restart box” — a pair of painted lines on the track prior to the start/finish line that mark when the leader can hit the gas.
Edwards was assessed a black flag, handing the lead back to Stewart. But just as it appeared Stewart would cruise to his third win of the season, the final debris caution was thrown, reportedly for an aluminum can on the backstretch.
When the field hit pit road for a final set of tires, Busch beat Stewart out and quickly jumped to a sizable lead on the restart.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. also got by Stewart, but when his brakes began to fade, the race was clearly in Busch’s hands.
“That’s what it looked like to me,” a curt Stewart said of the debris afterwards. “I mean, it was out of the groove. It had been sitting there for eight laps. When the caution is for a plastic bottle on the backstretch, it’s hard to feel good about losing that one.”
As for Edwards’ penalty, he and crew chief Bob Osborne questioned NASCAR about it during and after the race, even meeting with officials in the NASCAR hauler.
Their contention was that the team’s spotter was told by an official that they were the lead car, prompting Edwards to bring the field to green. He was also posted on the track’s pylon as the leader.
NASCAR vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton, made it clear after the race that Edwards was not the leader and that he did jump the start. So his point was moot regardless.
“We had to just agree to disagree, and that’s the way it is,” Edwards said after his meeting with NASCAR. “They run the sport, and they do the best job they can, and I drive a racecar and do the very best job I can.”
Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte stretch unequalled on schedule
Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte stretch unequalled on Cup schedule
Much was made of the first five races of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule being run on diametrically diverse tracks. From the season opening restrictor plate Daytona 500, to the bumper-car bonanza that made up the closing laps at Martinsville, and the intermediate downforce contests in Las Vegas and Fontana.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Richmond
Denny Hamlin (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits Richmond International Raceway for some good ol’ fashioned short track racing in the hopes of putting on an exciting race — something many fans are clamoring for after a dull month. Typically one of the more action-packed tracks on the schedule, Richmond has averaged 10.8 cautions since 2007 and last year's September race saw a total of 15 yellow flag periods.
In short, expect more action Saturday night under the lights in the Capital City 400 than the last five weeks combined.
Sunday's race in Kansas primarily featured green flag racing, yet came down to a good battle to the checkered flag. Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. was the dominant car on the day, leading 173 of the 267 laps.
However, Denny Hamlin and his Darian Grubb-led crew were in position in the end to jump out front with 31 laps to go. Clearly the best car of the day, Truex's Toyota didn't work well on the final set of tires, allowing Hamlin to take advantage.
This weekend, the Virginian driver-crew chief duo head to their home state with momentum, confidence and the advantage of two race wins already under their belts.
To say Hamlin considers Richmond his home track would be quite the understatement. Hamlin is from nearby Midlothian, the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown is held at RIR and he has two wins, six top 5s and eight top 10s in 12 Sprint Cup starts on the three-quarter mile oval. He is also the defending champion of the Nationwide Series race, a title he will attempt to defend this weekend.
Hitting its stride early in the season, the No. 11 team is fifth in points, with two wins, three top 5s and four top 10s through the first eight races. Hamlin has been the class of the JGR field in 2012, a trend that will continue this weekend in Richmond.
With an average finish of 7.6 at RIR, plus the momentum from last week's win and the excitement of heading back to Virginia, Hamlin, Grubb and the No. 11 crew are this week's overwhelming fantasy favorites.
Frustrated on missing out on last week’s win, Truex's disappointment is a testament to how far the No. 56 NAPA team has come. Throughout the first part of the season, the group has been on its game, as it sits second in points with three top 5s and six top 10s in the first eight races while chasing a winless drought that dates back to June 2007.
While Truex’s results are not noteworthy at RIR through his two seasons with MWR — he has only one top 10 (seventh, 2010) — he and the team are running well regardless of track at the moment. Given the strong start, Truex could disappoint Hamlin's hometown crowd Saturday night by cashing in on the win that is coming.
Also keep an eye on Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch. Currently 14th in points, Busch has not had the greatest of starts to the season. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has only one top 5 and three top 10s to go along with three finishes of 23rd or worse.
Busch holds the best average finish of any active driver at RIR (5.0), with three wins, 11 top 5s and 12 top 10s in 14 starts. Dating back to ’09, Busch has won each of the spring races and is looking to continue that trend Saturday night. In fact, Busch has never finished worse than fifth (2006) in the spring race at RIR.
Five Favorites: Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart
The Hendrick Motorsports brigade has been hot on the heels of that elusive 200th win for team owner Rick Hendrick of late. Unable to capture the historic win over the last 14 races, they’ll soldier on at Richmond this weekend.
HMS has 10 Cup wins at Richmond, the last of which came in 2008 when Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag. Since then, Hendrick cars have been shut out of Victory Lane, but perennial fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. could fly under the radar this weekend and end two winless streaks that many fans would like to see come to an end.
Earnhardt has three wins on the short track in Richmond, but has struggled to produce the results of late. Since his last win in ’06, Earnhardt has only on top-5 finish and nine finishes of 15th or worse. Yet, the No. 88 team has been one of the best Hendrick cars throughout the early part of the 2012 season. Fourth in points, Earnhardt appears to be on the verge of snapping a winless skid that dates back to June 2008 nearly ever week. Running well seems to have rekindled a fire in both Earnhardt and the No. 88 team, led by crew chief Steve Letarte.
Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick enters Saturday night's race as the last driver to win on the .75-mile short track. The No. 29 team has had a solid — not flashy — start to the 2012 season, with a worst finish of 19th in Martinsville.
Aggressive short-track racing fits perfectly into “Happy” Harvick's style. Richmond illustrates that fact, as Harvick has enjoyed two wins, six top 5s, 14 top 10s and only two finishes of 25th or worse in 22 starts here.
Five Undervalued Picks: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson
Harvick's RCR teammate, Jeff Burton, also bears watching. The Virginia native will make his 36th career start at the track down the road from his hometown of South Boston. Throughout his career, Burton has one win, nine top 5s and 15 top 10s for an average finish of 14.8 at RIR.
Of late, Burton has struggled to produce solid results at Richmond, with his last top-5 finish coming in 2010. The veteran has also struggled throughout the start of the 2012 season, finishing 22nd or worse in five of the first eight races. After a 20th-place finish in last year's standings — his worst since 1995 — Burton was optimistic coming into the new season, especially working with new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. However, things have not gone according to plan, and now is the time this team can hit its stride at tracks like Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte.
Stewart-Haas Racing's Ryan Newman has also put up fairly consistent numbers at Richmond in his 20 Cup starts. His lone Cup Series win at RIR came in 2003, but he has eight finishes of 11th or better in the last 10 events at the track.
Already a race winner this year, Newman is gunning for more bonus points to secure a Wild Card spot (at the least) in the Chase. After taking the Grandfather clock in Martinsville, the No. 39 team has finished 21st (Texas) and 20th (Kansas). Look for a return to a short track to be kind on Saturday.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jeff Burton, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger, Joey Logano
Best Average Finish at Richmond (Wins):
1. Kyle Busch — 5.0 (3)
2. Denny Hamlin — 7.6 (2)
3. Clint Bowyer — 10.5 (1)
4. Tony Stewart — 10.9 (3)
5. Kevin Harvick — 11.5 (2)
6. Ryan Newman — 11.6 (1)
7. Mark Martin — 12.2 (1)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.4 (3)
9. Jeff Gordon — 14.5 (2)
10. Jeff Burton — 14.8 (1)
If Denny Hamlin can win races now, it makes one wonder what he’ll do later this season as the communication with new crew chief Darian Grubb improves and Grubb puts more of his stamp on the team’s cars being built.
Hamlin is one of only two drivers with multiple wins this season after eight races (Tony Stewart is the other) and Hamlin could be the first driver to win three races this season with the series heading to Richmond this weekend. He has won two of the last five races at his hometown track.
Even with the success, Hamlin has had his ups and downs. He won at Phoenix and Kansas but finished 20th at Las Vegas and Bristol. Since Bristol, he’s not finished worse than 12th. That’s helped Hamlin climb to fifth in the points.
“It's hard to analyze your program by a one-week performance,’’ Hamlin said after his Kansas victory, the 19th of his career. “You look at it in the grand scheme of things. (At Texas) on a mile-and-a-half (mile track), we went almost a lap down, but we ... hung around 10th place for most of the day.
“I'm not going to analyze and say that everything is good, we just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we'll be fine. There's always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we've identified those areas and we've gone to work on them. So right now I feel like we're bringing better race cars to the race track than what we have, and it's still going to take time. There's still things that myself and Darian need to work on with communication, things like that, but he's still working within Joe Gibbs Racing trying to get cars that he feels like can be better to the race track, and all that stuff takes time. You just can't do it — it's a big process now.’’
Says Grubb: “My confidence in Denny's feedback is getting better and better. I know when to take what he says with what inflection in his voice, what it means.’’
This also has been an adjustment period for Grubb in how things are done at Joe Gibbs Racing after moving over from Stewart-Haas Racing. That also takes time.
“The technology is drastically different between the organizations, so the actual lessons you learn and things, it's probably more the style of working and being able to manage people and get the best out of the people that are there,’’ Grubb said. “Now that I'm at Joe Gibbs Racing I'm starting to learn those personalities and what I can get out of them.’’
This team will be worth watching as the season progresses.
NEW LOOK Bruton Smith, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Chairman and CEO, is scheduled to announce Wednesday his plans for changing the track surface at Bristol. The work will be completed before the August race and is in reaction to fan complaints about the racing there.
Bristol will mark the fourth track this year that will have a new surface, joining Michigan, Pocono and Kansas. Work on Kansas’ track began after Sunday’s race. Since 2010, six of the 23 tracks that host at least one Cup race will have had new surfaces by the time the series races at Kansas in October. Phoenix was reconfigured and repaved last year and Daytona was repaved in time for last year’s Daytona 500 after a pothole delayed the 2010 race.
Jeff Gordon says that in some cases, the track is not as much the problem, especially Bristol.
“The drivers love it,’’ Gordon said. “It’s a great racetrack I think. I thought they made huge improvements. Now we hear they want to go back to the old way.
“Tracks are getting too much of the blame or even credit sometimes. This car for the last five or six years has sort of put Goodyear, the tracks, everything into a different box. I’m looking forward to the 2013 car, but I look forward to cars down the road to sort of take some of the things in this car that are in there we can’t take out. It will help the racing; things that are going to help Goodyear to make it better tire that is more suitable for the car.’’
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
LOOKING BACK Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent the last six months studying his family’s genealogy and its made him appreciate the past.
“I’m trying to put together some kind of a well-organized document to sort of be able to show to family members,’’ he said. “I had one interesting experience. Ralph’s (Earnhardt) father, I didn’t know who he was and never really cared who he was, never thought about who he was or what his family would be like.
“Never thought past Ralph all these years and I started getting into his father and Ralph’s grandfather and I found their burial plots and so me and my grandmother Martha and my sister and my mom Brenda and my girlfriend rode up there one day, just in Kannapolis or Concord and visited their burial plots and a lot of relatives that were born in like 1809 and 1822 and stuff like that.
“It’s really cool to stand there over somebody that is responsible for you being there.”
PIT STOPS The Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown will be Thursday night at Richmond International Raceway. Cup drivers scheduled to compete in the late model race that raises funds for charity are Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Aric Almirola and Michael Waltrip. ... Steve Wallace will make his 2012 Nationwide Series debut on Friday at Richmond. His Ford was prepared out of Rusty Wallace Racing with collaboration from JTG Daugherty Racing. Bobby Labonte’s Cup pit crew will service Wallace’s car and Labonte’s crew chief, Todd Berrier, will call the race for Wallace.
It’s been nearly two weeks since Bruton Smith said that he would order changes to Bristol Motor Speedway’s track surface after a sharp decline in attendance for the spring race and an increase in fan complaints about the racing. Yet Smith has yet to announce what those changes will be made before NASCAR returns to the half-mile track in a little more than four months.
“I think it would be incredible if they paved the track asphalt,’‘ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I am not sure if that would work out but it would be awesome to try it.’’
Any changes to Bristol’s surface before the August race will mean the Cup Series will race at four tracks that have been changed since last season. Kansas Speedway is set to be repaved after its race later this month. Michigan has been repaved and drivers nearly topped 215 mph at a recent Goodyear tire test there. Pocono Raceway also has been repaved and has Goodyear tire test scheduled for April 24-25.
While some drivers are thrilled that Smith will change Bristol — count Kevin Harvick among that group who says, “It’s about time,’’ — Denny Hamlin wonders if the tires should be changed for Bristol instead of the track.
“If you look at Bristol, it had the least amount of fall off of any tire that we had during this year,’’ Hamlin said. “I think you start off around 16.40 fast time (seconds per lap) and you ended 100 laps later running 16.90s. That's just not enough fall off.
“You have to have overtaking and to have overtaking, you have to have cars that are running faster than others. If you look at any point during a Bristol race, everyone's running the same exact speed and you're not going to have any overtaking. You're not going to have any wrecks because no one's running close to each other to wreck.
“Back in the day when people used to lap the whole field and no one complained about the racing, it's because overtaking was happening. Cars were getting passed. You could watch your guy move from 15th to wherever up to the front. Now, it's like he's got to make all the room, all the space up in the first five laps of a restart and then he sits there for the rest of the run. That's because we don't have enough fall-off.
“It's a tough job to make a tire that does that and will live and ultimately not put our safety at risk of blowing tires. Really, Goodyear has made tires that are idiot proof now. We can't abuse them enough to blow them out. That's why you don't see the passing that we used to have."
Even with Smith’s declaration of change, as Carl Edwards notes, it doesn’t guarantee that things will be better.
“The thing that makes me nervous for Bruton and those guys is to spend all this money to change something and then it may not yield the result that you want,’’ Edwards said. “I think that’s the risk they take, but Bruton Smith seems like he doesn’t mind taking risks and going for it. If it works out like most things he does, it’ll probably work, but I give him a ton of credit for saying he’s gonna change this and make an adjustment.’’
It’s just a matter of what Smith will do.
BACK AT ROCKINGHAM It’s not often that you see NASCAR return to a venue it left, but the Camping World Truck Series will compete Sunday at Rockingham Speedway. It marks the return of NASCAR since the Cup series last raced there in Feb. 2004.
NASCAR is back because of the work of track owner Andy Hillenburg, a former racer. He’s spent the money to update the facilities and add SAFER barriers to the track.
Now it’s up to the fans to determine if NASCAR returns to Rockingham after this race. If attendance is strong and shows potential, then maybe a Nationwide race can be added at some point. Just don’t expect the Cup Series to return there. With Cup races in Darlington, Charlotte, Martinsville and Bristol, the region has enough Cup events.
If that’s not good enough, then fans have to ask themselves if they would rather see some NASCAR racing at the track or see as much NASCAR racing as there is at North Wilkesboro?
NASCAR is giving the track and fans a second chance. Will fans take NASCAR up on it and show that the track deserves more races?
Jeff Burton (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
A DRIVER’S TRACK? There’s often the discussion about what is a driver’s track — or at least why some tracks might be considered a driver’s track. Jeff Burton, though, has his own take on the subject.
“Wherever a driver is good at that is what he thinks is a driver’s race track,’’ Burton said. “He thinks that is where drivers matter. The fact of the matter is that drivers matter everywhere. And the cars matter everywhere. You can’t take apart the car and the driver and say “it’s this or it’s that’.
“The reason why is to get the car to do what it needs to do, the driver has to be part of that. The way he drives the car, how he drives the car, and how he communicates with the team. All those things go into making a good racecar, and all those things go into making a good set up. So that communication with the team along with the driver is vital. You really can’t separate it.’’
PIT STOPS In his last two races, Jeff Gordon started 21st at Auto Club Speedway and climbed to fourth before pit road issues, including a penalty that led to a 26th-place finish in the rain-shortened event. Then, Gordon led a race-high 329 laps, lost the lead on a restart and ran out of fuel and finished 14th at Bristol. ... Kevin Harvick has an average finish of 9.0 in the first six races. It’s the second-best start of his career. He had an average finish of 7.83 in 2008. ... Kurt Busch will drive for younger brother Kyle’s Nationwide team in Friday night’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. It’s the first time Kurt has driven for Kyle in NASCAR. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. also is doing double-duty at Texas Motor Speedway. He’ll drive in Friday night’s Nationwide race and Saturday night’s Cup race. It’s the first time he’s run in both events at Texas since 2009.
Taking stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series at the Easter break
Tony Stewart has two wins in 2012. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Taking Stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup at the Easter Break
Six weeks into the 2012 NASCAR season, the Sprint Cup Series heads into the first of only two off-weekends of the year. With no race this weekend, and thus no fantasy picks to make, let’s take a look at some of the biggest surprises thus far, which drivers and teams are on track for a solid season and which need to turn their season around before it is too late.
There is no doubt the hottest team in NASCAR is Stewart-Haas Racing. The defending series champion, Tony Stewart, has had an uncharacteristic start to the year, winning two races (Las Vegas, Fontana), while teammate Ryan Newman used an aggressive move during a green-white-checker finish to score his first career Cup win at Martinsville.
Typically slow starters, both SHR drivers have hit the ground running after last year's impressive showing in the Chase. Stewart currently sits third in points, while Newman climbed two spots to eighth after last week’s victory.
The mood is soaring at Stewart-Haas, the strong finishes and wins keep coming, the new partnership between Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington continues to roll on smoothly, but can that momentum continue through the summer months and into the Chase?
While the SHR brigade has been scoring wins and making headlines, Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle has quietly and consistently raced his way to the points lead. After starting the season with three consecutive third-place finishes, Biffle took command of the series standings after Las Vegas and has yet to relinquish the spot.
Frustrated and clearly upset with his team’s 16th-place points finish in 2011, Biffle had high expectations coming into this year and his performances to date have shown the changes made behind the scenes at Roush Fenway Racing have made all the difference.
Although The Biff has yet to hit Victory Lane, he hasn’t finished worse than 13th, with three top 5s and a sixth-place run to his credit. Determined to put last year's disappointing results behind him, expect Biffle and his No. 16 team to continue to lead the way at RFR as the season rolls on in two weeks in Texas — a track at which Biffle could easily break his 49-race winless skid.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Also on the verge of breaking a winless streak is perennial fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. Through the first six weeks of the season, the No. 88 team has been the workhorse of the Hendrick stable with three top 5s and four top 10s. Earnhardt nearly scored his second Daytona 500 victory to open the season, finishing second and proving he’ll be a contender at the plate tracks so long as “pack racing” is the draft du jour. He was oh-so-close yet again last weekend in Martinsville before settling for his second straight third-place finish.
Sitting second in the standings, Earnhardt appears confident in his team, the speed in his cars, crew chief Steve Letarte and, perhaps most importantly, himself. His average finish of 7.8 is impressive to say the least, and he has already led more laps in the first six races (75) than he did in all of 2011 (58).
While Junior’s winless streak has now reached 135 races, he truly only has two victories in the last 212 events, stretching back to 2006. His last multi-win season came in ’04 while racing for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. when he earned a career-high six trophies.
With the constant pressure to perform and deliver wins, Earnhardt appears more comfortable with his situation than he has since joining HMS is 2008. This team is nipping at the heels of a victory, and I expect them to be the group to deliver team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th Sprint Cup Series victory, lead the series standings throughout the course of the summer and be a serious contender come Chase time.
As Earnhardt Jr. has started the season with a bang, the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports stable has struggled with poor luck, disappointing finishes and controversy.
The team’s newest addition, Kasey Kahne, was expected to hit the ground running at Hendrick, competing for wins and battling for the points lead. Instead, the No. 5 team has two DNFs and a best finish of 14th, which came in the rain-shortened event in Fontana. Kahne has completed only 76.9 percent of the total laps this year and has four finishes of 39th or worse.
Mired deep in the standings at 31st, Kahne and his Kenny Francis-led team now have to focus on righting the ship and going after wins. Despite the slow start, Kahne's talent and ability to win could easily bump this team into the Chase “wild card” conversation as the season rolls into the summer months that are dominated by big intermediates tracks — a Kahne specialty.
Veteran Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon has also been hit with the bad luck bug, resulting in disappointing finishes thus far. An engine failure in Daytona set the tone for the No. 24 team’s season, with poor luck continuing nearly each and every week. Although he scored an eighth at Phoenix and a 12th in Las Vegas, Gordon is stuck in 21st in the championship standings, with three finishes outside the top 25.
Last weekend’s dominating performance at Martinsville seemed to show the tide might be turning for the four-time Sprint Cup champion, but a late-race spin battling for the lead and then subsequently running out of fuel resulted in a 14th-place finish. The No. 24 team has been strong at times this season, but the results simply have not shown.
Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson’s start to the 2012 season has been filled with drama and controversy instead of race wins and celebrations. A rules infraction at Daytona set the stage for a showdown between the No. 48 team and NASCAR that stretched on for weeks.
NASCAR's initial penalty on the No. 48 team would have kept crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec away from the track for a total of six weeks, plus cost Johnson 25 driver points. Leaving Daytona 42nd after a Lap 2 wreck and with the penalty hanging over the team’s head, things looked grim.
Yet after multiple appeals, Hendrick Motorsports got the answer it wanted. The suspensions levied on Knaus and Malec were dismissed, as was the points penalty for Johnson. Jumping from deep in the standings, Johnson climbed within reach of the top 10.
Despite all the drama surrounding the penalty and appeals, Johnson was able to knock off four top 10s in the ensuing four weeks. His battle with Gordon on Sunday at Martinsville was shaping up to be one for the ages, but Johnson was forced to swallow a 12th-place finish after also getting collected in the G-W-C melee at the front of the field.
So while things started off rough for Team 48, its performances are proving it has put the drama behind and are as focused as ever going for that sixth championship.
The 2012 season, while still in its initial stages, has been anything but dull. From rain delays, to jet-dryer fires, to appeals drama, to surprise success and surprise struggles, the storylines have been deep.
Following this weekend’s Easter break, the Cup Series hits a stretch of continuous racing that lasts until mid-July. As the temperatures soar, so will the intensity on the track and off. Expect slow starters like Kahne, Gordon, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards to make some noise, while Biffle, Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart hope to maintain their solid starts.
Be sure to take time this week to look over your spot in the fantasy standings, examine the good calls and questionable mistakes you've made in setting your lineup and look ahead to the upcoming events in the next few weeks. Much like the drivers and teams, preparation is the key to success in any fantasy league.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race at Martinsville
by Jay Pennell
Few sports crisscross the United States quite like NASCAR, and with that, the Sprint Cup Series returns to the East Coast this weekend for the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Rain got the best of the series last weekend in Fontana, Calif., with defending champion Tony Stewart scoring his second win of the season in an event shortened by weather. Just five races into the year, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have hit their stride early as others are simply struggling to get their season started.
With momentum and confidence on his side, Stewart returns to the site of one of his most dramatic runs of the 2011 Chase.
After struggling for the majority of the event last fall, Stewart was able to fight to hold on to a lead lap position and eventually worked his way through the field and to the front of the pack. Besting Jimmie Johnson on the final restart of the day, Stewart went to Victory Lane and kept his title hopes alive. That race would have as much to do with his eventual championship as the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
On a roll already this season and coming off one of the most impressive performances in recent memory, Stewart is among this week’s stronger plays, but is not the overall favorite.
That honor belongs to none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
While Stewart was methodically working his way to victory at Martinsville last October, Earnhardt Jr. was beating and banging his way to a seventh-place finish. His aggressive style was an enjoyable sight to the fans, but also evidence of his ability to score a solid finish on the paper-clip short track.
Last spring, Earnhardt nearly broke a winless streak that dates back to 2008. However, Kevin Harvick was able to capitalize on a late-race charge to make the pass for the lead with four laps to go and score the win, relegating Junior to a second-place finish.
Entering this weekend, Earnhardt is enjoying a strong start to the season with two top 5s, three top 10s, and sitting third in the championship standings. Winless in his last 134 starts, Earnhardt is on the verge of snapping that streak and giving team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.
That opportunity could not come at a better facility. The Hendrick cars have been among the strongest at Martinsville since they began showing up. Geoffrey Bodine scored the team’s first victory here in 1984, while Hendrick cars have a total of 18 wins — second only to Petty Enterprises — as drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lead the active duty drivers in wins at Martinsville with seven and six, respectively.
Yet this weekend, it won't be “Five-Time”' or “Four-Time” that will be earning another Grandfather clock trophy. With the numbers adding up, momentum on his side and a string of strong performances at Martinsville backing him up, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is this week’s fantasy favorite.
Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart
While Gordon has been one of the most successful drivers at Martinsville over the years — he leads all active drivers in wins (seven), top 5s (25), top 10s (31), laps led (3,094) and lead-lap finishes (30) there — his 2012 season has gotten off to a rocky start.
Despite high hopes and great expectations leading into his 20th season in the Cup Series, the four-time champion is 25th in points and has only one top-10 finish on the year (eighth, Phoenix).
An ill-timed miscue on pit road last weekend in Fontana cost the No. 24 team a strong finish and the ability to move up the standings and back into contention. So has the season has gone for Gordon, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the entire No. 24 team.
Yet through it all, Gordon is encouraged by the fast racecars he has each week and knows all the team needs to get back on track is one “complete” race. And what better place for that to happen than at Martinsville?
Gordon is the type of driver that can hit a streak of solid runs and race for wins. After a slow start to the season, this is the weekend it turns it around for the No. 24 team.
Five Undervalued Picks: Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Martinsville is a track in which veterans such as Gordon are supposed to excel, not the young guys. But this week’s underdog pick goes to 21-year-old Joey Logano.
In six starts at Martinsville, Logano has completed all but five laps, has one top 5, two top 10s, zero DNFs and an average finish of 13.8 in six starts. While he has yet to set the world on fire or take home the trophy at Martinsville, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver did finish second to the ever-present favorite at Martinsville, teammate Denny Hamlin, in 2010.
Already in 2012, Logano has shown he has Chase potential. Through the first five races of the season, Logano has two top 10s and his worst finish was 24th last weekend in Fontana.
If he can keep the fenders on the car and avoid trouble throughout the day, Logano should score solid fantasy points for your team. He might not be the one celebrating the win, but he could give you those extra points needed.
Three Underdog Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger
Best Average Finish at Martinsville (Wins):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 5.4 (6)
2. Denny Hamlin — 6.5 (4)
3. Jeff Gordon — 6.9 (7)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 13.0 (0)
5. Tony Stewart — 13.4 (3)
6. Joey Logano — 13.8 (0)
7. Ryan Newman — 14.4 (0)
8. Brad Keselowski — 14.5 (0)
9. Jeff Burton — 14.6 (1)
10. Juan Pablo Montoya — 14.7 (0)
Stewart tops the list ... because, after all, wins count
This surf wagon actually beat three start & parkers. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington already have scored two wins this season — and in only five races. Hey, wins count above all else here.
2. Greg Biffle The points leader’s only misstep — and it was a only a small hiccup at that — was a 13th at Bristol. He’s been sixth or better in the other four events.
3. Kevin Harvick Happy and his retooled No. 29 team have been nearly as good as Biffle. Their worst performance thus far are a pair of 11th-place runs. Otherwise, they’re seventh or better every week.
4. Jimmie Johnson Things couldn’t look better for Johnson and Team 48. Not only have all suspensions and point penalties been rescinded, but they’re rolling through top 10s even with blown engines.
5. Matt Kenseth Kenseth is either top 3 by day’s end or forgotten somewhere in the mid-teens. Still, this is one of a handful of teams that can win on any given weekend.
6. Brad Keselowski See: Kenseth, Matt. The only thing that kept either from a top-10 result at Auto Club Speedway was pit road penalties and a rain-shortened event.
7. Carl Edwards Edwards and the No. 99 gang have two fifth-place runs in the last three weeks. Inexplicably, though, this group has yet to lead a single lap all season. That needs to change.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yes, Earnhardt is still mired in a winless skid that dates back to 2008, but top-15 finishes in every race this season — including second- and third-place runs — find him trending in the right direction.
9. Clint Bowyer Bowyer’s solid start with the surprising Michael Waltrip Racing operation shows an average finish of 12.8 with sixth- (Vegas) and fourth-place (Bristol) runs highlighting the early spring.
"Ear muffs!" (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
10. Denny Hamlin Hamlin had the same look on his face after the California race that he did after Phoenix 2010.
11. Kyle Busch The Gibbs cars are showing some impressive muscle on the big intermediates.
12. Martin Truex Jr. Truex has a 9.4-place average finish thus far. It’s amazing what a contract year will do for an athlete.
13. Ryan Newman Three consecutive performances of 12th or better aren’t as splashy as his teammate, but not bad.
14. Mark Martin When he’s in MWR’s No. 55 — and even when he’s not — the team is showing serious growth.
15. Paul Menard Quietly hanging tough at 10th in the standings with three top 10s.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray
Brad Keselowski celebrates in Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
There’s something about the half-mile Bristol bullring in East Tennessee that lends itself to certain drivers.
NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough (nine wins), Darrell Waltrip (12) and Dale Earnhardt (nine) each went on dominant runs at Bristol in the 1970s and ’80s. Rusty Wallace won nine of his own from 1986-2000. Jeff Gordon won five events from 1995-2002, while the Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, also have five wins each.
Following Sunday’s Food City 500, it appears a new name may be added to the exclusive list of Bristol dominators: Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski scored his second straight win at BMS, leading a race-high 289 laps — including the last 111 consecutively — en route to his first win of the 2012 season.
Keselwoski enjoyed a spirited, side-by-side duel with Matt Kenseth prior to pulling away in a race marked by its intense, door-to-door action.
“I mean, what can I say? I love Bristol and Bristol loves me,” Keselowski said. “There’s other places that perhaps have a little more prestige, and I said that last year as well, but this place defines a race team.
“It asks so much of you, whether it’s just in practice, being lined up on pit road, dealing with the noise, the havoc that practice can be, or the hot day of getting through tech, making those last adjustments, or as a driver 500 laps in a bowl trying to keep your composure. This racetrack can really test a team.”
Kenseth easily held on for second, while Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers swept positions three-five.
It appeared Kenseth jumped the final two restarts when Keselowski led, but NASCAR assessed no penalty and Keselowski was able to clear Kenseth’s Ford.
“I didn’t floor it till I got to the start/finish line,” Kenseth explained. “I don’t know if he (Keselowski) was trying to let me beat him on purpose. I was half throttle for five car lengths. I was finally, ‘I got to go or Martin (Truex) or whoever was behind me was going to go around me.’”
Since 2009, Keselowski has two wins on Cup Series short tracks to go along with plate (Talladega) and flat track (Pocono) wins. He was also second on the road course at Watkins Glen last season.
“My dad taught me this very early on, (that) it was important not to be a ‘One-Track Jack,’” Keselowski said of his versatility. “I think now that we have (the right team), I have the experience base to run competitively on almost every style of racetrack.
“I was able to learn that in a time and place where it was acceptable to make mistakes, which is what the Nationwide (Series) was for me. The training and the lower level series of NASCAR — the way they’re structured right now — certainly helped me when I got to this level to be perhaps more prepared than many drivers in the past.”
An early-race accident eliminated some of the favorites. Kasey Kahne got into Regan Smith on lap 25, triggering a seven-car pileup. The incident eliminated Kahne, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Marcos Ambrose from contention. Kevin Harvick sustained damage but continued on. Keselowski snaked through the melee with slight nose damage.
“Regan Smith was pretty slow,” Kahne said. “I was under him for a couple of laps. When my spotter cleared me in the center, I just took off, and he was there on exit. It is disappointing to have that good of a car and be out this early. I've had awesome race cars, and I have nothing to show for it.”
Keselowski moved from 21st to 13th in the championship standings by virtue of the max number of points (48) earned at Bristol. Greg Biffle, who enjoyed three consecutive third-place finishes to start the season, slumped to 13th at Bristol. He holds a nine-point lead over Kevin Harvick and 12-point advantage over Kenseth in the standings.