David Smith crunches the numbers for the million-dollar payday.
Matt Kenseth is on an intermediate track roll. (ASP, Inc.)
The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race isn’t a typical all-star event.
Unlike the stick ‘N’ ball all-star “breaks” that feature lackadaisical effort and are more celebrated for the parties that supplement the fan activities rather than the actual contests, the Sprint Cup Series version of an all-star event pits recent race winners and champions in a race comprised of dash-style formats which has a $1 million carrot dangling on the end of a stick. It’s wild, unpredictable and in no way resembles a normal NASCAR race.
It also doesn’t have much bearing on the following week’s Coca-Cola 600, which, like the All-Star Race, takes place at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3 in 13 Dating back to 2000, a span of 13 races, the All-Star Race winner has gone on to win the next week’s Coca-Cola 600 just three times.
Though they take place at the same facility, the two races don’t actually coalesce. The 600 not only requires a car capable of thriving on extended green-flag runs, but also a team that has built a setup to survive in both day and night conditions. The All-Star Race simply requires a setup for short runs, making the drivers and teams that excel at such a thing instant favorites.
3.2 Matt Kenseth has the highest average race rank (3.2) among all drivers in speed early in green-flag runs.
Kenseth, who also ranks first in the series in speed on restarts, has been a juggernaut at the drop of the green flag and for the ensuing 25 laps. While the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team has been stellar on intermediate tracks this season — two of its three wins came at Las Vegas and Kansas — it will be its affinity for immediate speed that separates it from the rest of the field in Saturday night’s event.
6 in 13 In the last 13 All-Star Races, six were won by drivers that had visited victory lane at an intermediate track in one of the prior races that same season.
The fact that Kenseth has captured two 1.5-mile (intermediate) track victories this season provides no guarantees for Saturday. It doesn’t take numbers — just common sense — to understand that this race is its own beast. A stout intermediate program like the one JGR is currently flaunting is always good to have, but the varying formats of the race don’t lend it to easy prognostication. If Kenseth becomes the victor, it will be because of the combination of car strength and short-run ability.
The All-Star Race format should benefit Kyle Busch. (ASP, Inc.)
56.89% With a 56.89 percent pass efficiency, Kyle Busch is the most efficient passer in the Cup Series.
Busch is in a good spot for this race. Not only is his No. 18 team good early in green-flag runs (it ranks second to Kenseth), but he has also been able to pass at will all season. That comes in handy when a driver is aiming for a $1 million winner’s purse. It also makes him a favorite in the bonus purse — a driver that wins all four segments of the event gets an additional $1 million — which will take both explosions out of restarts and, if that fails, adept passing. If there’s a pick to click for this unprecedented purse, it’s Rowdy.
54.55% Busch and his No. 18 team have finished in the top half of fields in six of 11 races, or 54.55 percent of the time.
So Busch is one of my drivers to watch for the All-Star race, but how about the championship? Presently there is a consistency problem, seen in that 54.55 number, which is on par with the likes of Jeff Burton and the No. 31 team and Kurt Busch and the No. 78 team. Aside from mechanical maladies, Busch has the second-worst crash frequency in the series (0.55), keeping them from recording high finishes in five races. That low of a percentage is something that can intervene in the team’s quest for a championship; it is the lowest percentage among drivers currently inside the top 12 in points.
0.64 Marcos Ambrose’s crash frequency of 0.64 is the worst in the series.
This year has been a house of horrors for Ambrose, who is currently sporting a replacement-level Performance in Equal Equipment Rating of 0.659 and sits 23rd in the standings while Aric Almirola, the driver of Richard Petty Motorsports’ sister car, is in Chase contention. It should be noted that Ambrose’s contract with RPM is up at season’s end. This likely isn’t the sort of start to the season for which the free agent-to-be was hoping.
Ambrose, by way of his 2012 victory at Watkins Glen, is entered in this weekend’s All-Star Race. It might be Hail Mary time for the struggling No. 9 team.
$1 million The winner’s share for this event, a cool $1 million, would benefit David Ragan and his Front Row Motorsports team in spectacular fashion.
Sponsorship has been hard to come by for the underdog organization that captured the surprise victory two weekends ago at Talladega. Ragan’s No. 34 team pocketed $3,524,091 in winnings during the 2012 season. It would take some radical setup strategy and a car unlike any they’ve ever had to score the $1 million jackpot, but that sum of money would represent roughly 28 percent of last year’s take. For them to earn that kind of money in one night’s work would be a miraculous achievement and go down as one of the greatest upsets in the sport’s history.
NASCAR: Five Things to Watch at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Denny Hamlin is not as happy now. (ASP, Inc.)
Five storylines for the Kobalt Tools 500 in Las Vegas
1. Hamlin draws NASCAR’s (thin-skinned) ire
NASCAR suddenly, quickly and, well, mistakenly landed a $25,000 shot to Denny Hamlin's wallet on Thursday as Sprint Cup teams set up shop in Las Vegas. And no: this wasn't a case of Brian France cleaning Hamlin's clock at a swanky blackjack table.
Hamlin is expected to pay up for doing, allegedly, at least $25,000 in damage to NASCAR's apparently fragile image for answering a completely legitimate question at Phoenix International Raceway about NASCAR's new race car. Hamlin's most grievous offense can be found in the following span of sentences:
“I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning.”
Athlon Sports regrets posting such serious and offensive comments.
That was exactly Hamlin’s reaction Thursday during a break from testing and later in the night when he released a statement on Twitter. NASCAR never contacted Hamlin before the fine was issued, even though it came later than usual. Hamlin has vowed to appeal the fine and voiced even greater concern for the message it sends.
“I feel as if today NASCAR lost one of its biggest supporters vocally of where our sport is headed,” Hamlin wrote in a tweet, conscious of his 2010 “secret” fine for saying things that also crossed NASCAR. “So in the end there are no winners.”
Hamlin said the statement was “taken out of context” and that the fine isn't about money. Instead it’s about his ability to give an honest and fair assessment to reasonable questions.
“Since being fined in 2010 I have been a lot more careful about what I say to media and I felt this past weekend felt completely in my rights to give an assessment of the question asked,” Hamlin wrote.
2. Testing, testing, 1… 2… 3…
Beyond the Hamlin episode, teams got down to work earlier than usual on Thursday, as NASCAR opened the track in Las Vegas to a full day of testing.
It wasn't the first time NASCAR's new Gen-6 car has been on a 1.5-mile intermediate track, but Thursday was the first day Sprint Cup drivers got to toss the new car design around Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR opened the track a day early for two sessions of car fitness tests that, unlike a typical race weekend practice session, allowed the use of data and telemetry recording devices.
Greg Biffle's lap of 189.427 mph late in the second of two sessions put his No. 16 Ford atop the speed charts — a familiar place for Roush Fenway Racing at LVMS. Kasey Kahne set the track record a season ago in Sin City at 190.456 mph.
“It doesn’t matter how long you have practice or how much testing you have, there will be cars on the track until NASCAR throws the red and black flag,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “And even after all of that, we will always think, ‘Darn, if we only had two or three more laps.’ We are always striving for perfection so there is never enough time in my opinion to get ready for Sunday’s race.”
Indeed, many teams placed focus on race setups to start the second weekend of the early-season West Coast swing for NASCAR. Nine of the top-10 drivers in the second session’s speed charts posted their fastest lap in either the second-to-last or last run of the day, likely with qualifying setups installed.
The last major test on 1.5-mile tracks for most teams came at Charlotte Motor Speedway in January. Snow postponed part of that test conducted in extremely cold conditions — a stark contrast from Thursday’s sunny and mild weather in Las Vegas.
Aric Almirola: A Vegas sleeper? (ASP, Inc.)
3. Trump cards could quietly be in The King's court
The temperature at that Charlotte test before the start of the 2013 campaign wasn't a factor for the Florida-born Aric Almirola. His No. 43 Ford turned the quickest lap during that test that proved to be a culmination of a lot of right steps that both he and his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose have taken on NASCAR's intermediate tracks of late.
Expect both to be under-the-radar contenders when Sunday’s 400-mile race gets underway.
“Toward the end of last season, we were really good at the mile-and-a-half tracks, and doing well at the test gives us some momentum going into this weekend,” Almirola said.
Almirola picked up a pair of top-15 finishes in last season’s final two intermediate track races at Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Tire troubles and a crash ruined an even stronger day just weeks before at Kansas Speedway — another 1.5-miler — after Almirola led 69 laps.
Ambrose, the road course ace, has shown flashes of strength on the same types of tracks. To start this season, he has a pair of 18th-place finishes in Daytona and Phoenix.
“We haven't had a great finish yet, but we haven't had a terrible one either. We just need to get a little better,” Ambrose said.
Las Vegas, where Ambrose has a best finish of fourth in 2011, could be just the place.
4. Edwards thought Las Vegas, not Phoenix, was his ace in the hole
The backflip Carl Edwards executed after track position and a good handling car sent him to victory last weekend at Phoenix looked pretty good for a guy who had waited 70 Cup races since his last one. It also looked good for a guy who felt his gymnastic move wouldn't be needed for at least another week.
Edwards admitted this week he didn't expect to snap his win drought at Phoenix.
“I know this is probably wrong to admit, but I didn’t really have Phoenix marked on the calendar as the one that we were going to go win the first race,” Edwards said. “I was looking at Vegas as the race that would be the really good one, so I’m really excited about Vegas.”
Edwards can probably point to the success of his still fledgling relationship with tough-nosed crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Their relationship — a meeting of alpha personalities — has been one to keep track of early in 2013. Fennig has changed a lot Edwards’ routine and at-track preparation.
“(Fennig) wants me to make sure that I understand the changes they have planned for practice, that I make sure to be there and be available to the engineers after practice, and that I’m actually sitting there engaged with them so we don’t miss something,” Edwards said. “I thought that was pretty cool for him to just lay it out there. He didn’t say, ‘How did you do it last year?’ He said, ‘This is exactly what I want. This is how I’m going to do it.’
“I think that leadership and knowing what he wants is something that’s going to pay off a lot.”
Edwards, already the owner of two career Sprint Cup wins at Las Vegas (both after the 2006 reconfiguration), is a decent pick to hit it big Sunday.
5. The tricky nature (or lack thereof) of Las Vegas’ Turn 1
The 2006 reconfiguration of LVMS created a remarkably different track than drivers had been used to since the first Sprint Cup event at the track in 1998. The track added banking — it was the first purpose-built progressive banking track in NASCAR — and watched the average pole speed jump more than 12 miles per hour.
Just as any track, LVMS has aged under the extreme heat that Nevada desert summers bring. That process allows the track and its foundation to move and settle. Such character, drivers say, can now be found in Turn 1 at LVMS where a set of bumps have created uncertainty from lap to lap in the driving line.
“You’ve got to tune your car around (the bumps),” David Gilliland said. “It puts more in the hands of the individual teams and drivers to make it work.”
The bumps haven’t proved a notorious causal factor for crashes in that end of the speedway. The numbers, though, are slightly raised. Since reconfiguration six races ago, there have been 19 cautions for incidents in Turns 1 and 2 and 15 for crashes in Turns 3 and 4.
“It has a rougher surface in that there are more bumps. The track has some character to it,” Ryan Newman said. “Over the past couple of years, the bumps in the track have typically been pretty tricky, but that’s something I like.”
The bumps seem to be more noticeable to some drivers than others. Even teammates.
“The track is really smooth and that lets you work on the attitude of your car, and I think that’s a luxury that we have there that we don’t necessarily always get everywhere else because every track has its unique set of bumps,” said Tony Stewart. “Vegas has bumps too, but for the most part, it’s so smooth that you can really fine-tune the attitude of the car.”
For now, we'll listen to Stewart. A win at Las Vegas in 2012 and a second-place finish in 2011 give him a bit of credibility.
The Las Vegas et cetera
Mark Martin, now the second-oldest pole winner in NASCAR history after last week's top qualifying effort at Phoenix, now takes aim at being the oldest Sprint Cup winner. Martin, 54, would top Harry Gant who was 52 when he won in 1992 … Martin also won the inaugural race at Las Vegas in 1998 … Las Vegas is the first of 16 Sprint Cup races at intermediate tracks this season … Most teams had extra transporters meet them in Phoenix after last Sunday's race to swap cars and parts, as making a trek from Phoenix to Charlotte and back to Las Vegas in time is nearly impossible … Just one of 15 Sprint Cup races have gone past the scheduled distance at LVMS.
The changes to Bristol may not have worked quite how track officials imagined, but most members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council liked what they saw there last weekend. Is it enough to get them back to the track? You might find those responses interesting. Also, Fan Council members updated their selection on who they think will get the wild card spots in the final two races before the Chase.
Grade Saturday’s Cup race at Bristol
49.7 percent called it Great 40.6 percent called it Good 7.0 percent called it Fair 2.7 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• I LOVED this race. Passing, crashing, sliding, cussing and even helmet throwing!! What's not to love? To me the best part is seeing so many different drivers up front (Vickers, Ambrose, etc.) as well as a lot of favorites. The fact that they all stay so close and race so close makes it very exciting. Enough yellows to keep them even more bunched up … it was just a really fun race to watch. I know the drivers hated the track, but man it was fun to watch!!
• I was opposed to the recent changes at Bristol, but I have to admit, it made for good racing. They struck a good balance of bumping and banging and racing.
• They fixed Bristol for the fans, ruined it for the drivers. LOVE IT!!!
• I was at the race and it exceeded my expectations!
• Finally! An exciting race at Bristol again. Absolutely loved it. The surprise that the top groove was the one that came in and proved fastest; the beating and banging; the emotion; pit, fuel and tire strategy all coming in to play. Seriously, if you didn't like this why are you even watching racing? It had everything.
• Don't like to watch wreckfests! That was AWFUL!
• If you did not think that Bristol was the best race of the year then perhaps you should switch the channel to ESPN3 and watch bowling for your excitement because clearly NASCAR is not for you.
• I was there and loved every minute of it. Not bad considering I left the same race with 150 to go last year.
• The changes Bruton made did exactly what I had hoped they would do. I was hoping for a hybrid between “Old” Bristol and “New” Bristol. The “New-New” Bristol had the side-by-side, rubbing, beating & banging with some tempers flying without the massive 12-car wrecks. No more conveyor belt! That is what we got! Tony throwing his helmet was just a bonus. I miss helmet (or heat shields if you are Ward Burton) throwing, and pointing to a driver you happen to be displeased with. I paid more attention to this race than any other this season! It's BRISTOL BABY!!!
• Not exactly the Bristol of old but pretty close to it! Good racing, lots of action — just out and out fun. Of course, Tony Stewart bringing back the helmet toss certainly didn't hurt and he wasn't the only one showing some temper. Good racing, good fun.
Did the Bristol race make you want to attend a race there more?
54.4 percent said Yes
45.6 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• Been a season ticket holder for eight years, but never have I been more excited about renewing!
• 25-year season ticket holder and will never return!
• I gave up my season tickets two years ago, but after (Saturday) night, I will be getting them back.
• I'm still boycotting Bruton Smith's tracks after the I-71 parking lot.
• I've always wanted to go to Bristol's night race and Saturday night made me want to go even more. I will be working on plans to hopefully go next year!
• No, in fact. I was a season ticket holder and will not be renewing my tickets. I can see a demolition derby anytime I want to at the local fairgrounds.
• Used to attend Bristol until my school district decided to change the starting date. Too early in the year to take time off, but I might have to reconsider next year.
• Hearing about all the gouging of the fans on hotel rates will keep me away from this track.
• Absolutely! From the atmosphere during pre-race on through the race, it seems like an exciting and fun place to be. Lord willing, I WILL be there next year.
• I've made the trip to Bristol twice, once for "original Bristol,” once for progressive-banking Bristol. My personal preference was the progressive banking, and since that's now gone and likely not to return, I doubt I'll pay the airfare and outrageous hotel bills to go watch another race there live.
What was the best race at Bristol last weekend?
84.4 percent said the Cup race 11.7 percent said the Nationwide race 3.9 percent said the Truck race
What Fan Council members said:
• The Truck Race was just awful, and the Nationwide race was pretty boring. So the Cup race wins by default.
• I thought all three races were pretty good — even the Truck race where Peters led every lap. More of the racing from the Cup race sticks out in my mind, so that's why I picked the Cup race as the best race of the weekend.
• The Whelen Modified race was the best race at Bristol last week. It was awesome! The battles, the passing, the surprises. It was virtually non-stop action and kept me on the edge of my seat until the end.
• I watched all three races and hands down the Cup race was the best. It was one of the most entertaining races I have seen in a long time. It had everything. Top entertaining moment has to go to Tony and Matt. Think Tony will be nominated for one of his own Stewie Awards this year for throwing his helmet at Matt's car.
• Usually I have to say the Trucks have the better racing of the three series, but this week I will say the Cup racing was the best. The racing was great all night long and never really had a dull moment. I'm usually always checking Twitter during the Cup races, but this race, I didn't want to stop watching the TV. Was really exciting for a change.
• I picked the Nationwide race because Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick had a long battle for the lead ... and maybe I have lower expectations of the Nationwide drivers so the multitude of cautions in that race didn't bother me so much.
Who will make the Chase via wild card?
89.2 percent said Kasey Kahne
47.6 percent said Kyle Busch
34.8 percent said Jeff Gordon
9.8 percent said Carl Edwards
4.7 percent said Ryan Newman
4.4 percent said Marcos Ambrose
1.7 percent said Joey Logano
0.3 percent said Paul Menard
What Fan Council members said:
• I see Gordon and Kahne getting in just for the fact that they are HMS. Hendrick is bringing everything to the table these next two weeks. Everyone else on this list is a long shot in my opinion.
• I'd love for a surprise driver to grab a wild card spot such as Joey Logano or Marcos Ambrose, but I think Kasey and Kyle will hold on to take the wild card spots.
• Kahne is easy to call. Second driver is harder. I really think Kahne will pass Stewart for 10th and Stewart will be 11th. But you didn't give me that choice. So I'm giving it to you.
• Kasey is not only a lock but may well get into the top 10 (on points). Carl's luck cannot keep being this bad can it? Roush has always run well at Atlanta generally and Carl specifically, so I have a feeling he wins Atlanta and outscores Kyle in points over the last two races for the last spot.
• If the trends continue the way they are now, I think Tony Stewart falls out of the top 10 and Kasey Kahne makes the Chase on points. Stewart and Kyle Busch will be the wild cards for the Chase. Hopefully Stewart can focus on his own championship, and his threats don't come to fruition, which could in turn costs Kenseth a shot at a championship.
• I say Kasey and Kyle. I know that Carl Edwards is capable of doing it if he gets one win, but they really haven't been close to being competitive in any race this year.
• Poor strategies in two races recently have cost Carl. He seems to be missing opportunities to move into the top 10 by bad pit calls.
• I picked Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch as of right now but I really think it’s going to be Tony Stewart and Busch getting the wild cards. Kahne is fast right now and Tony isn’t doing as well. Kasey closed the gap from 33 points to 16 (Saturday) with a wrecked racecar. I say he makes the top 10.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for the Bristol Night Race
The Blue Deuce, looking racy at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
The Race for the Chase is heating up and after two weeks of late-race drama the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Thunder Valley for the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
When the series hits the high-banks, it will be on a much different racing surface than the drivers have been accustomed to over the past few seasons. After the 2007 reconfiguration of the track, progressive banking was added in the corners, allowing for multiple grooves and two- and three-wide racing.
The racing on the new configuration was exciting and competitive, however many fans bemoaned the changes and called for a return to the Bristol of old. While it may have been the changes to the track, a lagging economy, or a host of other reasons, attendance fell from 160,000 in August 2007 to 102,000 earlier this year.
Listening to the fans, Speedway Motorsports, Inc.'s Bruton Smith took measures into his own hands and altered the track layout for the second time in six years. By grinding down the top racing groove, Smith hopes to create the style of racing Bristol was synonymous with when the grandstands were full and there was a waiting list for tickets.
Yet for many of the drivers, the change to Bristol is an unwelcome sight. Making changes based solely off the opinion of fans, Smith did not consult the competitors before taking away the top groove, boasting, "I do not consult race drivers when I am building a speedway."
After a painstaking process of removing embanked concrete intended to last “15 to 18 years,” according to track general manager Jerry Caldwell, Goodyear brought in Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer for a two-day tire test of the new configuration.
Each of the drivers confirmed the field would be unable to race around the top groove, forcing drivers to fight for space on the bottom of the track.
“The drivers aren’t going to be happy, but the spectators probably will be because it is going to put more cars in a closer space,” Burton said following the June tire test. “By taking away that groove, it is going to change your mind about going up there. I think it is going to be two grooves, unless Goodyear brings a tire with a lot of grip. If that is the case, you’ll want to run around the bottom. Making the groove smaller is a good thing, it is going to put the action back to the bottom and middle of the track.”
So, now that the track has changed, what can you expect for your fantasy outlook?
Well, I wouldn’t stray far from the statistics — new Bristol or old. While the groove may have changed, the drivers that excel at Bristol will continue to do so this weekend under the lights.
To find the hottest driver at BMS the past two events, look no further than the man that has finished second the last two weeks: Brad Keselowski. The Penske Racing driver is the defending race winner, went to Victory Lane in dominant fashion here in March and is looking for his fourth win of the 2012 season.
Currently fifth in the Sprint Cup standings, Keselowski is tied with former champions Stewart and Jimmie Johnson with the most wins on the season. A win Saturday night would not only mean a sweep of the year's Bristol races, but would also move Keselowski into the top seed heading into the Chase.
In March, Keselowski dominated the final race on the multi-groove surface, leading 232 of the 500 laps. In the past two weeks, the No. 2 car has been in contention for the win, losing out by only a slight margin to Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen and Greg Biffle at Michigan.
Since his victory in Kentucky seven races ago, Keselowski has five top 5s and seven top 10s. So obviously, this team has been on a roll as of late — and that roll should continue right through the mountains of East Tennessee. With confidence on his side and the team gunning for another win or two before the Chase, it is hard to bet against Keselowski Saturday night under the lights.
Much like last weekend, if Keselowski wants to end up in Victory Lane, he will have to beat Johnson. Looking as if he was on his way to his fourth victory of the season last week at Michigan, a blown motor in the final laps resulted in a frustrating 27th-place finish.
A former winner at Bristol, Johnson is always a threat on the high-speed short track. In his last seven races at BMS, the five-time champion has one win, four top 5s and six top 10s.
While Keselowski took advantage of Johnson's issues last Sunday, it was Kyle Busch who lost the win late in the race two weeks ago in Watkins Glen. Currently 14th in the standings, Busch is third in the Chase wild card hunt behind Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman. While the past few months have been more than frustrating for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota (only three top 10s in the last 11 races), there could be no better track for Busch than Bristol to get back into contention.
With the second-best average finish (10.6), Busch has five wins at Bristol, including four of the last seven races. With time running out before the Chase cut-off, Busch will need to get up on the wheel and get the job done.
Admittedly off at Bristol since his March 2011 win, he and crew chief Dave Rogers will have to dial the car in to the new configuration without over-thinking the setup, as they have done in the past.
Also consider last week's winner (and current points leader) Biffle, as well as fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. for your lineup Saturday night. Both have been extremely strong as of late and have run well at Bristol in the past.
MWR's Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr. at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
When part-time driver Brian Vickers gets the chance to pilot the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, he does his best to make the most of the opportunity. He certainly did that in his first start for MWR at Bristol in March.
Despite starting from the 25th spot, Vickers made his way to the front in the No. 55 car and led 125 of the 500 laps en route to a fifth-place finish. In Vickers' five starts thus far for MWR, has two top 5s, an 18th at Martinsville, a 15th at Loudon and a disappointing 43rd at Watkins Glen, due to a grenaded engine.
Running strong in the bottom groove so successfully in March, Vickers is optimistic he can have a solid showing under the lights.
“We had a great car that ran very well on the bottom and led a lot of laps,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how the upper groove has changed and how it will effect the racing. They wanted it like the ‘old Bristol,’ so we'll see. But again, we had the best car in the lower groove so hopefully it won't effect us too much.”
In fact, all of the MWR cars should be strong at Bristol this weekend. During the March race, the trio was in contention, with Martin Truex Jr. leading the team to third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes with Clint Bowyer and Vickers following suit, marking the first time MWR had all three cars finish in the top 5.
Five Undervalued Picks: Brian Vickers, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano
With only three races left before the Chase field is set, Kyle Busch is not the only driver in desperate need of a win. Both Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards have had their fair share of struggles over the season, but now is the time to put those behind and get the job done.
While both are former winners at Bristol (Gordon has five wins, Edwards two), they are darkhorse picks for the second week in a row considering the desperation that is setting in at this point.
The potential for a win is there for both drivers, but in March each found trouble early in the going with Gordon finishing 35th and Edwards coming home 39th. If you use either of these drivers in your fantasy lineup, do so with caution.
Much like the MWR cars, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing had a stellar showing at Bristol in March with Jamie McMurray finishing seventh and Juan Pablo Montoya right behind in eighth. McMurray was able to use pit strategy early in the race to make his way to the front, while Montoya took advantage of late-race cautions and fresh tires to score a solid finish.
This 2012 season has been nothing short of disappointing for the EGR organization after an offseason of drastic changes behind the scenes. The top 10 finish at Bristol was one of only three for McMurray and one of only two for Montoya. If the team can rekindle some of the success they had in March, they could score some worthy fantasy points.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose
For many, the look of Saturday night's race will be a bit of an unknown. With the change in the racing surface, the side-by-side racing could be much more difficult than in the past few seasons.
Judging by Wednesday night's Camping World Truck Series races, though, it appears while the very top goove is gone, the racing has remained much the same. Be sure to pay attention to Friday evening's Nationwide Series race to get a better idea of what Saturday night's race will look like.
Just remember, no matter how strong the stats, short track racing with multiple agendas and Chase implications on the line mean anything can — and probably will — happen.
Best Average Finish at Bristol (Wins/Starts):
1. Brad Keselowski — 10.4 (2/5)
2. Kyle Busch — 10.6 (5/15)
3. Matt Kenseth — 11.6 (2/25)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 11.8 (1/25)
5. Greg Biffle — 11.8 (0/19)
6. Jeff Gordon — 12.1 (5/39)
7. Kevin Harvick — 12.4 (1/23)
8. Kurt Busch — 13.1 (5/23)
9. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (2/16)
10. Jimmie Johnson — 14.6 (1/21)
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for the Pure Michigan 400
Michigan's June winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
After a wild late-race battle for the win at Watkins Glen, the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Irish Hills of Michigan for this weekend's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Returning to MIS for the second time this season, the Chase is fast approaching and the action is heating up. In June, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended his 143-race winless streak and made the NASCAR Nation happier than a kid chowing down on some Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia.
This time, however, the series returns in the heat of the race to the Chase. With playoff implications all around and teams on varying strategies and objectives, things could get interesting.
Four drivers — Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth — have the opportunity to clinch their respective spot in the Chase in Sunday's race. At the same time, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and others are battling for the two wild card spots.
While the mindset of the teams and drivers may be different from earlier in the summer, one thing that will remain the same is the high speeds created by the new racing surface.
When the series first hit the freshly-paved 2-mile, D-shaped oval, the drivers were laying down some of the fastest speeds of the year recorded in practice and qualifying. After seeing some blistering on the tires, Goodyear officials made a late change in the compound and brought in a tougher left side tire for Sunday's race. Prior to returning this weekend, Goodyear worked with NASCAR, the track and the competitors to test various combinations to bring back a better tire. A total of 27 teams partook in the test on July 30.
One of the drivers most pleased with the test was Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has two wins, eight top 5s and 11 top 10s in nineteen starts in Detroit’s backyard, and is this week's fantasy favorite.
Over the last four Michigan races, Biffle has led a total of 258 of 803 laps en route to a pair of fourth-place finishes (including the June race), a 15th and a 20th (which came after sitting on the pole).
Sitting second in the series standings, just one point behind the five-time champion Johnson, Biffle has only one win this season, meaning he would fall behind Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin when the Chase field is reset after the Richmond race. Another win would go a long way in Biffle's quest to earn his first Sprint Cup Series title.
If Biffle wants to earn his second win of the season and first Cup title, he will likely have to beat Johnson for both. Always a contender at Michigan, Johnson has four top 5s and nine top 10s, but has yet to seal the deal and score a win.
Given the performance of the No. 48 organization over the four weeks, it is safe to say they will be a contender yet again this weekend.
The last time the series was in Michigan, it was Earnhardt Jr. that scored the win and ended the longest winless drought of his career. After a disappointing end to a solid day in Watkins Glen, Earnhardt lost the points lead, but is headed to a track he is very capable of sweeping.
Also keep an eye on Keselowski this weekend. Although he has an average finish of 21.0 at Michigan, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe always have an eye on pit strategy and could shake things up late in the race and have proven capable of winning on most any type of track at any given time.
Five Favorites: Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth
While Richard Petty Motorsports was celebrating a win last week at Watkins Glen, the team cars of Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose could have another strong showing this weekend.
Although they may not take The King to victory lane two weeks in a row, the teammates have had strong showings in the June race, with Ambrose leading 15 laps and finishing ninth, and Almirola coming home 17th in his first Sprint Cup start on the big oval.
Given their solid performance in June, along with the momentum built from last week's win, you may want to consider including Almirola and Ambrose in your lineup this week.
The ageless wonder, Mark Martin, returns to action this weekend behind the wheel of Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota. The timing could not be better, as Michigan is Martin's best track.
Although he fell out of the June race with an engine issue, Martin has a career-high five victories at Michigan. Given the success of the No. 55 team — especially with Martin behind the wheel — look for the Rodney Childers-led bunch to have a strong run on Sunday.
Martin’s teammates, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, have average finishes just outside the top 10 best at Michigan. Sitting sixth and seventh, respectively, in the series standings, both drivers could further solidify their spot in the Chase with good runs — and tack on bonus points with wins.
Five Undervalued Picks: Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.
With only four races left before the Chase field is set, time is running out for Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. Both sitting outside the top 10 in points, Edwards is without a win, while Gordon is currently fourth in the wild card battle behind Kahne, Newman and Kyle Busch.
Edwards enters the weekend with the best average finish among active drivers (8.4) and two wins at MIS. However, in his last five starts at Michigan, Edwards has three finishes outside the top 10 (including a 36th in the race last August).
If the 2011 championship runner-up wants the opportunity to make the Chase field, time is running out and the season that has yet to get on track needs to do so this weekend. At this point, solid finishes are not enough.
Much like Edwards, Gordon finds himself outside the Chase field at the moment. Needing wins, before the final cutoff race at Richmond, it is time for the No. 24 team to step up to the plate and get the job done. A victory two weeks ago at Pocono gave the four-time champion Chase hopes, but a late-race spin in the oil at Watkins Glen did his wild card hopes no favors.
The Alan Gustafson-led team has run strong throughout the season, but have struggled to put complete races together at times, albeit the issues were not always of their making. If they can use notes from the in-house No. 88 team, stay out of trouble, play the right strategy throughout the race and be there in the end, look for the No. 24 team to have a shot at the win.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Landon Cassill
Best Average Finish at Michigan (Wins/Starts):
1. Carl Edwards — 8.4 (2/16)
2. Matt Kenseth — 9.3 (2/26)
3. Tony Stewart — 11.2 (1/27)
4. Jeff Gordon — 11.3 (2/39)
5. Greg Biffle — 12.4 (2/19)
6. Mark Martin — 13.6 (5/53)
7. Denny Hamlin — 13.8 (2/13)
8. Jimmie Johnson — 14.7 (0/21)
9. Kevin Harvick — 14.8 (1/23)
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 15.2 (2/26)
Watkins Glen had members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council talking from what should have been done at the end of the race with oil on the track to what they saw throughout the entire event. Fan Council members also shared their thoughts on Dodge’s recent announcement that it will leave NASCAR after this season. Here’s what the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say on those issues:
Grade Sunday’s Cup race at Watkins Glen
46.5 percent called it Great 42.8 percent called it Good 8.7 percent called it Fair 2.0 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council member said:
• OMG! I was there and the final incident between Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski happened right in front of me! It was not only the greatest road course race I’ve ever seen, it was in the top-5 finishes I’ve ever seen!
• Best race all year and my guy wasn’t even in the running.
• I still don’t understand why people don’t like the road course races. They’ve been more exciting than Bristol for the past few years.
• Outside of Smoke’s charge to the front and Junior’s surprise appearance in the top 10 at a road course during the race, this one was a snoozer until the end.
• Please! There was passing, there was spinning-out-of-nowhere, and then there was that FANTASTIC FINISH!!! Holy cow — I haven’t been that involved in a race in AGES! Loved it!
• More. Road. Courses. PLEASE! Especially one in the Chase. Phenomenal racing all day long.
• The race was good. People will say it was great because of the ending, but I was disappointed that a missed call impacted the finish. Even had I been OK with the ending of the race, I do not believe that a race is judged by it’s ending. Instead, it is the pit strategies and side-by-side racing throughout the race that I consider.
• Race was great from start to finish ... and what a finish! That last lap literally got me up on my feet (and I have no idea when the last time THAT happened!!). Probably a bad call on NASCAR’s part to not throw the caution, but damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I agree with BK: Now that was racing!! Kudos to Ambrose!
• I thought most of the race was awful, especially when the cars got strung out with big gaps. The last lap was incredible, but not enough to save the rest of it.
• I’m really beginning to like these road courses — and not just for the last lap. This race was really good all the way through. And the length of the race was perfect!!
• What was not to like? Even if you don’t care for road courses, there was action all over the track, even when it was a little spread out up front for a while. The last few laps with Kyle, Brad and Marcos was fantastic. And seeing Tony Stewart mow through the field after his penalty was pretty outstanding!
What did you think of the end of the Watkins Glen race? With some drivers saying there was oil on the track, NASCAR did not throw a caution. Series officials said afterward that their spotters positioned around the track couldn’t see the oil. The oil played a role on the last lap with Kyle Busch running through it and allowing Brad Keselowski to close. They hit, with Busch spinning. Then Keselowski and winner Marcos Ambrose ran off course and into each other in a duel to the finish. So, what did Fan Council members think of the finish?
47.5 percent said it was racing the way it should be 38.8 percent were conflicted — they’re not for what they saw but not against the action 13.7 percent said it was embarrassing to the sport to allow oil to impact the finish
What Fan Council members said:
• NASCAR’s hands were tied because there was no oil visible on the track. Drivers scream their heads off about debris when they believe it will benefit them and NASCAR knows better than to call a caution without first confirming it for themselves. Now granted, a majority of the field was reporting oil, but at that point the white flag was already in their air and it would have been a big controversy had NASCAR thrown the yellow and ended the race on the final lap. People would have been livid for not letting it play out. I believe NASCAR got this one right, it was a bad set of circumstances and they went with their gut. It was a fantastic finish we all would have missed out on had a caution been thrown prematurely.
• NASCAR is always saying they don’t want to throw the yellow because it will impact the end of the race. Well, by them not throwing the yellow it impacted it. It seems like there is something clouding their vision lately of making the right calls.
• The drivers almost to a man said that they couldn’t see the oil. If they can’t, how would NASCAR see it? I think that by the time the driver complaints over the radio reached NASCAR, it was too late to stop the race. The best driver won the race, in my view.
• The “that was racing the way it should be” was for the skill of the three drivers — they were very entertaining and put on a good show. But I do think that NASCAR should have heard the drivers complaining of oil. There were lots of comments on Twitter and in-car radios, so (NASCAR) should have known. While it was exciting and fun, it put people in danger. I think we are only talking about the excitement because no one got hurt, but it was lucky that no one did. If we had had the same end to the race that we had last year with a big giant wreck, and if someone had gotten hurt, the “excitement” wouldn’t have been what we talked about on Monday. Shame on NASCAR for not better protecting the drivers.
• As much as I hate it when NASCAR throws bogus debris cautions, a caution for oil at the end was necessary. When oil on the track affects drivers’ finishes and has such substantial impact on the points, something needs to be put in place so it does not happen again. That said, the finish from an action perspective was great. Great car control, great racing — but it is almost invalidated because of the oil that created it.
• So, nobody saw the oil, what were they supposed to do, stop the race because it seemed like something might be slippery due to people spinning out? That happens sometimes in racing. It’s not necessarily because of something on the track. If they start micro-managing split-second moments at the end of races, NASCAR is dead on arrival.
• NASCAR was in a no-win situation. By the time everyone realized what was going on, the white flag had flown. If NASCAR had flown the caution after that, then they would have gotten crucified for not letting the race finish as it would have ended under caution.
• Everyone, including the drivers talking about the oil, said you couldn’t SEE the oil. If that’s the case, then why would NASCAR throw the caution? I believe NASCAR when they said the on-track officials didn’t see anything so they didn’t throw the yellow. Lastly, if the oil was THAT bad, wouldn’t a lot more of the drivers have spun out? Jeff Gordon aside, most of the guys completed the last lap just fine, thank you.
• The end of the race was just silly. NASCAR is supposed to offer real racing, not sliding around like a demolition derby.
• I’m somewhat glad NASCAR chose to follow the old dictum “Leave well enough alone.” Had the outcome been different, I’m certain to have complained with greater vigor.
Dodge is leaving NASCAR after this season. Does it matter to you?
50.3 percent said No
49.7 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• I really don’t care for Dodge, however, competition amongst the manufacturers is part of what makes the sport great and the money they bring to the sport leads to development of new technologies. I hope Dodge is able to put something together that they can be competitive with and return in 2014.
• Sad to see Dodge go away but I am not biased toward one manufacturer or another. I pull for drivers who race, not corporations.
• I think it is sad that the only two American manufacturers in NASCAR are Ford and Chevy. I have been a fan since way back when all manufacturers (I remember the Matador!) were racing. It added a lot more to the race and manufacturer loyalty actually meant something. NASCAR has its own self to blame for all the rule changes, and the so-called “Car of Tomorrow.” The only thing left to pull for is decals. I’m glad to see the new car changes coming next year and hope it improve things.
• Nope! I have driven a Ford and now own a Chevy so I’m not that worried about Dodge dropping out. Now if we could just get Toyota out so we can once again call it “The Great AMERICAN Sport”…
• Not really. I could give a rip about manufacturers. I have, however, wondered why Nissan isn’t in NASCAR. And frankly, I’d like to see “stock” cars for other manufacturers (i.e., BMW, VW) compete in NASCAR.
• Dodge is my favorite manufacturer in the sport and the Challenger and 2013 Charger are two of the best looking cars I’ve seen in the sport and I’ll be disappointed to not see them again — or in the case of the Charger, never get to see it. I think they could have taken a mid-level team like a Furniture Row or Front Row and given them solid support and made them a contending team.
• I’d rather have every manufacturer be represented strongly at some level, but I’d rather see no Dodges than see a half-hearted effort with a third-level team. Besides, how would Dodge even know how good they were if, say, Front Row Motorsports was their flagship team?
• If it does not make good sense for Dodge to spend millions in NASCAR with little return, they should keep their money and get out. It does not bother me that Dodge is leaving with three other strong manufacturers left in the sport.
• It’s a very bad sign for NASCAR, and that matters to me.
• Sad to see an American manufacturer leave the sport. I just hope it doesn’t lead to another foreign manufacturer.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Ambrose's Chase chances, Stewart's grueling schedule and Edwards' winning ways in Michigan
Marcos Ambrose in Victory Lane at Watkins Glen. (ASP, Inc.)
Buoyed by his victory at Watkins Glen on Sunday, Marcos Ambrose said the goal is quite simple for the next four races as he and his team vie for a wild card spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.
“Our focus has to be being aggressive on our strategy, being aggressive with the car and me on the race track being aggressive to try to get that next win because without that we’re going to be racing for 15th or 16th in the championship and that’s not what we’re after,” Ambrose said in a teleconference with reporters Tuesday.
Ambrose ranks fifth in the wild card standings with only the top two getting into the Chase. Kasey Kahne currently holds one wild card spot with two wins while Ryan Newman holds the other spot by a slim margin. Newman has one win and leads Kyle Busch, who also has a single victory, by six points. Jeff Gordon, who has one win, is 10 points behind Newman. Ambrose is 44 points behind Newman, thus Ambrose needs a second victory to have a shot at a wild card berth.
“There’s no easier formula than if you’re not first, you’re last,” Ambrose said. “That’s the way we’re approaching this weekend and the next three. We have to go out there on full attack mode.”
The one benefit for Ambrose is that the series is heading to Michigan this weekend where he won the pole in June and finished ninth, so he has shown an ability to run well there but will have to be markedly better to score his first career oval win in the Cup series.
NEARING 100 Although the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has only 38 races (36 points races and two exhibition races), Tony Stewart will run in nearly 100 races this year. He’s boosting that total with a number of sprint car races at dirt tracks — where he spent much of his early days in racing.
“I feel like the more time I spend in a race car the better it’s making me as a driver,” says Stewart, who has won a pair of World of Outlaw sprint car races this year. “Everybody kind of has that feeling that you’ve got to get away from it at some point and recharge your batteries, but that does recharge my batteries.
“If we don’t get rained out here these next couple of weeks we are going to be right around 95 races at the end of the year that I’m going to run. It’s going to be a full schedule for sure but it’s a lot of fun. It’s one of the most fun years I’ve ever had in a race car.”
Stewart was the first driver in USAC history to sweep its top three series in the same year, winning titles in the midget, sprint car and Silver Crown divisions in 1995. He admits going back and forth between sprint cars and his Cup car is not much of an adjustment for him with his schedule.
“I’ve run I think 40 races already this year with it so it’s a lot easier for me to adapt because I’m doing it so much,’’ he explains. “It is hard. That is probably the hardest two cars to try to go back and forth between because their handling characteristics and the physics of them. It doesn’t take Kasey (Kahne) as long as he likes to explain to you. He goes out and kicks butt with it too. It would take guys awhile to go from that type of car to here, just like it would take time for anybody that runs a Cup car to go over there and run those cars.”
LOOKING AHEAD After this weekend’s race at Michigan, the Cup Series heads to Bristol where the top lane has been altered to narrow the racing grooves and get cars closer together on the track.
So, what it will be like? It’s something Martin Truex Jr. admits he’s been thinking about.
“I'm interested to see what it's like,” Truex says. “The last few races there, I've ran second and third — pretty much ran the extreme high side, which has been ground away. I'm not really looking forward to finding out if it's going to be that much worse. Guys seem to run the middle of the race track and we were able to run the middle.
“I think it's going to be different because that extreme high side is not going to have the speed it's had in the past few years. I think we'll have to adjust our setup a little bit and work on some things.”
Tony Stewart talks with teammate Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
RIGHT PLACE RIGHT TIME? Carl Edwards, in need of a victory to have a chance at a wild card spot for the Chase, has an average finish of 8.3 at Michigan — best among active drivers. Edwards has two wins, nine top-five finishes and 12 top-10 results in 16 starts at the track. Yet, he has finished outside the top 10 in each of his last two races there. He was 36th in the race last year and placed 11th in June.
NUMBER CRUNCHING Tony Stewart has five consecutive top-10 finishes at Michigan. ... Greg Biffle has run all but two of the 5,836 laps run this season, best in the Cup Series. ... Brad Keselowski has scored a series-high six top-10 finishes entering this weekend’s race at Michigan. ... Regan Smith has finished ninth each of the last two races.
Marcos Ambrose gives Richard Petty Motorsports first win of 2012
Richard Petty celebrates with Marcos Ambrose in Victory Lane at Watkins Glen. (ASP, Inc.)
Defending Watkins Glen race-winner Marcos Ambrose entered the Sprint Cup Series’ Finger Lakes 355 as the odds-on favorite to win. And Ambrose, who also has three Nationwide Series victories at the Glen, didn’t disappoint.
The Australia native with an extensive background in Sports Car racing used every bit of his expertise, capping a wild last-lap battle with Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch to give Richard Petty Motorsports its first win since this same race last season.
What made Ambrose’s performance all the more impressive was that he emerged the victor with an oil slick covering the track. Navigating through the oil — as well as a couple off-road excursions — arguably made the conclusion at the Glen the most memorable of the season.
“It was absolute chaos at the end,” Ambrose said. “The three cars were very evenly matched. Kyle had a head start on us there. I was trying to chase him. I burnt my tires off, really burnt off the brakes. I thought, ‘I’m going to be stuck here in second.’
“All of a sudden I’m starting to slide out on oil — couldn’t work out where it was coming from, if it was from my car or on the track. I saw Kyle backing up to us. It was absolutely crazy at the end.”
Busch led the trio to the white flag with a comfortable cushion. However, as the leader, he was the first of the three to hit the oil dropped from Bobby Labonte’s wounded Toyota. Busch quickly let up as his car skidded through the 11-turn road course. Keselowski got to the bumper of the No. 18 Toyota and the two made contact in Turn 2, sending Busch sideways and, ultimately, to a seventh-place finish.
The drama was just getting started, though, as Ambrose and Keselowski duked it out for the top spot over the final nine turns as both fought slick spots all over the track — at one point, both machines careened off course, sliding through the grass but staying in the gas and keeping both cars straight.
As the two came out of the seventh turn, Ambrose tagged Keselowski’s bumper and pulled to the inside. He won the drag race from there, out-muscling Keselowski’s Dodge to the checkered flag.
Despite finishing second in heartbreaking fashion, Keselowski could appreciate the spirited duel.
“I just think this is what racing should be,” he said. “I think this is what the fans come to expect out of NASCAR racing and why it grew to the popularity that it did.”
Ambrose was still elated later, when he spoke of the oil slick that made for an adventurous final 2.45 miles.
“You couldn’t see where the oil was at,” Ambrose explained. “If it was a black streak, it would be OK, (but) it was almost like a fine spray. I was the first one to start sliding on it. For whatever reason, my line, I slid into Turn 1. I thought I was blowing up — I thought it was my oil.
“Not until I saw Brad and Kyle sliding as well, I thought, ‘OK, there’s something on the track and we’re going to have to deal with it.”
Busch went directly to the NASCAR hauler after the race, presumably to ask why a caution wasn’t thrown on the final lap when there was obviously a substance that hindered the racing.
“I have nothing good to say,” was all Busch would offer concerning his meeting with the sanctioning body.
Other drivers had issues with the lack of a caution, as well, most notably Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
“There was just oil everywhere from somebody,” Earnhardt said. “You couldn’t see it so you didn't know where to run. I saw the leaders were coming and I was just trying to get out of the way. They were in oil and I was in oil and then I watched everything that happened in front of me. It was a bad deal, I think.”
NASCAR didn’t share the drivers’ view.
“We didn’t have any reports of oil,” Cup series director John Darby said. “The only corner-worker reports were that the 47 (Labonte) was smoking. They were asked repeatedly if he was dropping everything. The report back to us was: ‘No, Tower. The track’s clear.’
“On the last restart, where the whole field of cars goes all the way around the race track and one car spins out and the rest of them are racing, it was obvious to me it wasn’t that bad.”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the Northeast this weekend as it hits Watkins Glen International for the Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen. The second of two road course races this season, teams will have to adjust to turning both left and right, carrying high speeds and preparing for heavy braking with multiple elevation changes and opposite-side pit stops.
Always a challenge, some in the garage have excelled at the road course events while others have struggled mightily. While road racing experience and an open-wheel background may have made a significant difference in years past, the level of competition has evened out of late.
Track position, however, has always been a major factor in deciding a winner at Watkins Glen. Starting up front and staying there is one of the biggest keys to a successful day at the Glen. In the 29 Cup races here, 19 have been won from the top-5 starting spots — so pay attention Saturday’s qualifying.
Last year, race winner Marcos Ambrose used both road course experience and a solid starting spot to earn his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory. Always one of the strongest drivers at Watkins Glen, Ambrose leads the field in terms of average finish, with an impressive 2.3.
In fact, in his four starts at the Glen, Ambrose has failed to finish worse than third. In addition, the Australian-native has won three of the four Nationwide Series races he has run.
Given his prior success at Watkins Glen, Ambrose is definitely among the top 5 favorites in this week's fantasy outlook, but he is not the favorite. That belongs to a determined, hard-nosed, skilled road course driver known as “Rowdy.”
While Ambrose scored the victory in last year's event, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch that led the most laps (49 of 92). Although he led the field to the green flag on a final green-white-checker finish, Busch was muscled out of the way by Ambrose and Brad Keselowski, eventually settling in at the third spot. With one of the best cars that day, the third-place finish was a tough pill to swallow for the 2008 Watkins Glen winner.
Heading into this weekend's race, Busch is in need of not only a solid finish, but a win. After a disappointing 33rd-place finish last weekend at Pocono, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota is currently fourth in the wild card standings behind Kasey Kahne (2 wins), Jeff Gordon (1) and Ryan Newman (1).
Following the wreck at Pocono, Busch and his Dave Rogers-led team know if they want to be a part of the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup they have to win their way in. One of the most dangerous teams when it comes to recording a string of wins, the JGR driver admits their season struggles give them little hope. Despite having one win, six top 5s and nine top 10s, Busch also has eight finishes of 23rd or worse, including three DNFs.
Yet, if there was one driver and team that could turn their luck around in the final five regular-season races, it’s this one. Already a former winner at the Glen, Busch has an average finish of 9.3 (fourth best) at Watkins Glen and has finished in the top 10 in six of his seven Cup starts.
With playoff implications on the line and one of his best tracks in front of him, look for Busch and the No. 18 team to employ the right strategy and have a strong enough car to best the rest.
Among those Busch will have to beat is last week's winner at Pocono, Jeff Gordon.
Now in the thick of the Chase wild card battle after winning the rain-shortened race Sunday afternoon, Gordon has momentum on his side and is eager to celebrate his 20th year in the Sprint Cup Series by making the Chase. Although he admits the No. 24 team has struggled to find speed over the past decade at the Glen, that momentum and confidence can go a long way for a driver that could use another win in the next five races.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart
Sonoma winner Clint Bowyer. (ASP, Inc.)
The last time the Sprint Cup Series hit the road course, Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer earned his first win for the company in Sonoma, Calif.
While Bowyer has not fared as well in the past at Watkins Glen (he has only one top 10 and an average finish of 21.3), his crew chief Brian Pattie has victories in all three NASCAR touring series here.
Currently 10th in the standings, Bowyer and the No. 15 team are on the edge of the Chase cut-off spot. Bringing the winning car from Sonoma, Pattie knows it will take a different setup than earlier in the year to be successful on Sunday.
“Sonoma is slower speeds and probably closer to setting a car up for Martinsville,” Bowyer says. "Watkins Glen is big and fast. It has longer breaking zones and much higher speeds, so the setups are a lot different. If you bring the same setup that we used to win at Sonoma to Watkins Glen, (it) would be like taking a car built and setup for Martinsville and trying to use it for Dover. It’s that much different.”
With a confident crew chief, an undervalued road-course racer behind the wheel and Chase implications all around them, expect the No. 15 team to have a strong day and possibly contend for the win.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick
Much like this week's undervalued pick, the darkhorse pick for Sunday's Finger Lakes 355 comes out of the Michael Waltrip Racing stable. Back in the car this weekend for the fifth time in 2012, Brian Vickers is looking to continue his success behind the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota.
Fourth in the first road course race of the year in Sonoma, Vickers has quietly become a much better road racer over the years, and has found success in the No. 55 car in his first four starts with the team (fifth, 18th, fourth, 15th).
While Vickers has only one top 10 at the Glen (eighth, 2005), he has finished 18th or better in his last three trips to the Finger Lakes region. With his success this season in the No. 55 and the budding potential of MWR in 2012, look for Vickers to stand out as the darkhorse pick of the week.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Brian Vickers, Joey Logano, Jeff Burton, Sam Hornish Jr., Kurt Busch
Best Average Finish at Watkins Glen (Wins/Starts)
1. Marcos Ambrose — 2.2 (1/4)
2. Tony Stewart — 7.1 (5/13)
3. Carl Edwards — 8.7 (0/7)
4. Kyle Busch — 9.3 (1/7)
5. Brad Keselowski — 11.0 (0/2)
6. Juan Pablo Montoya — 11.4 (1/5)
7. Kevin Harvick — 12.9 (0/11)
8. Jimmie Johnson — 14.2 (0/10)
9. Martin Truex Jr. — 14.3 (0/6)
10. Jeff Gordon — 14.5 (4/19)