Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Michigan
Jason Leffler (ASP, Inc.)
1. Reflecting on Jason Leffler, forever a hard charger
News of Jason Leffler’s death after a New Jersey sprint car crash ran fast, far and wide this week. His passing is, as it too often becomes, a startling reminder that race car drivers don’t compete in an arena like most other athletes.
Racing isn’t just entertainment. It’s a way of life — an often difficult one — for those who pursue it. For every NASCAR national series driver traveling by jet and racing in front of tens of thousands, there are hundreds of others hopefully scraping enough dollars together for new tires every few races or working through the night to make repairs from the last time out.
They do it for the thrill of a well-executed pass, or to feel the joy of victory lane one more time. They do it for the speed, for the rush and for the adventure that’s forever locked inside the walled confines of a racetrack only available to those who work hard enough to enter. It’s an event of open participation, but an experience only a select few ever try.
I didn’t know Jason Leffler, and I never interviewed him. I won’t pretend to know what motivated him to slide in a race car for the first time so long ago, or know what he was seeking from racing Wednesday night at Bridgeport Speedway in an event that paid $7,000 to win. I just know that Jason Leffler was a race car driver in the purest sense with a style both brash and unbounded.
He pushed limits and occasionally stepped over them. He was unflinchingly aggressive when a gap opened — often to a fault — and was more than willing to seek retribution against a driver who had done him wrong. If Jason Leffler was in a race, you more than likely knew it regardless if he was first or 25th.
It all combined to produce in Leffler the status and goal every racer wishes to achieve: Winner.
Leffler didn’t win as often as he liked — no driver ever does — but he was a four-time champion in the USAC ranks in midget and silver crown cars. He started the Indianapolis 500 and he did score trips to victory lane in both the Nationwide Series and NASCAR’s truck series.
It was after his second and final Nationwide Series race win in 2007 at the former Indianapolis Raceway Park that perhaps told us all we need to know about why Leffler spent the majority of his life scrambling across the country to jump behind a steering wheel. Leffler, who had just beat Greg Biffle and David Reutimann using his standard strong-nosed tactics, went through the usual gratuitous crew and sponsor acknowledgements in the post-race interview before he paused, looked directly to the ESPN interviewer and shouted.
Jason Leffler loved his life of racing. And he especially loved the winning. It’s terribly unfortunate and greatly saddening that he lost his life in that continued pursuit. But it’s also comforting knowing that Leffler — at least occasionally — had found what he was chasing.
2. Anniversary brings talk of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
You may have read Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Michigan International Speedway last June. You may have heard that Sunday’s race is the one-year anniversary of Earnhardt’s last win. You may have also heard that the confluence of that event with Earnhardt’s great run at Pocono Raceway last week have made him a good pick for Sunday’s race.
While picking a race winner is often a trivial pursuit (unless you’re picking Jimmie Johnson every week), there are a lot of signs that Earnhardt should have a good car Sunday in Michigan.
Consider that Earnhardt had a top-10 finish at Auto Club Speedway earlier this season. Consider that he’s typically been strong on the tracks similar to Michigan this year. And consider that Earnhardt feels his car is measuring closer to the performance of the No. 48.
“I looked through the notes from last year, and we didn’t unload perfect. We had to work to get it right,” Earnhardt said. “You don’t go in with confidence that you are going to go there and it will be perfect. You have the confidence to know that we will get it dialed in.”
A win last year is certainly no guarantee of success for Earnhardt. But to come back to a track as a defending race winner riding the wave of confidence from recent good runs is a great start to a solid weekend.
3. Ride swaps on tap for Allmendinger, Labonte
Bobby Labonte has become an afterthought in the Sprint Cup Series in recent seasons. After filling the seat vacated by Marcos Ambrose in the JTG-Daughtery No. 47 in 2011, Labonte has just four top 10s to his name. None of those have come in 2013 for the 2000 series champion, and the team apparently is losing some patience with the direction to this point.
As a result, AJ Allmendinger was hired to drive the No. 47 Sunday at Michigan in an attempt to perhaps find some solutions to speed and handling issues in the Gen-6 car. Sunday’s event is the first of five races Allmendinger will drive for the team over the course of the season.
Meanwhile, Labonte will preserve his 702-race consecutive starts streak by jumping in the ever-rotating seat of James Finch’s No. 51.
While it’s not certain that this driver switch for the No. 47 officially opens the NASCAR silly season of driver and team changes, it’s not often that one driver takes over another driver’s ride for performance reasons — even if temporarily — without some larger adjustment down the road.
Mark Martin, seconds before impacting the pit road wall. (ASP, Inc.)
4. Return to the scene of Martin’s scary accident
Seeing as it’s been played in several commercials, television promos and in other places, you probably haven’t forgotten Mark Martin’s impossibly scary wreck in the August race last year at Michigan.
Martin was battling for the lead when he was swept up in a spin involving the lapped cars of Labonte and Juan Pablo Montoya exiting Turn 4. He slid down the track and on to pit road where the car looped in such a manner that Martin slid directly into an opening that allows cars to enter and exit the track from the garage area. Martin’s No. 55 then caught the end of the pit wall — narrowly missing scrambling crew members and others — with the wall impaling Martin’s car in the driver’s side.
The concrete wall (roughly two or three feet tall and six inches wide) broke right through the car’s sheet metal and roll cage and entered the cockpit less than a foot behind Martin’s seat. The consequences of Martin hitting that wall just a few inches more forward on the car are impossibly scary to think about.
In the three races I’ve attended so far in 2013, I’ve looked to see if tracks have made adjustments (or had previously constructed a different design) to prevent cars from hitting the pit wall in a similar fashion ever again. As of February, Daytona had still had an exposed end of a pit wall in at least one garage area opening, while Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway had placed concrete barriers perpendicular to the dangerous wall end.
Let’s hope Michigan has studied the incident and reacted appropriately.
5. Kahne, Kenseth look for positive result
For several races, it seemed like Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth had a magnetic draw pulling them together to compete for race wins. Kenseth’s victories at both Las Vegas and Kansas came after holding off valiant late-race charges from Kahne.
Now, both are reeling are consecutive weeks of poor finishes. Kenseth, of course, blew his engine while racing at the front in Dover two weeks ago, and then suffered handling issues and a spin at Pocono relegating the No. 20 to 25th.
Kahne crashed two weeks ago at Dover and then suffered a mechanical issue on the first lap of the Pocono race to field consecutive finishes of 23rd and 36th.
For as strong as each have been in the season’s first 14 races, it’s hard to imagine Kenseth and Kahne are sixth and eighth, respectively, in points despite combining for four wins and 13 total top 5s.
Picking the best Sprint Cup fantasy drivers at Michigan so you don't have to.
Johnson and Knaus: Looking for win No. 1 in Michigan. (ASP, Inc.)
To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s 9-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned drivers strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.
It’s round one of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Michigan International Speedway this weekend — and the one year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s most recent win. Oh, that’s the only thing everyone is talking about this week? Sorry about that. Jump in, make your picks and, hopefully, make us look like we know what we’re talking about.
A-List (Pick two, start one) Jimmie Johnson Johnson was so, so good at Pocono Raceway. Without a differing pit strategy from Ryan Newman, there’s a good chance Johnson could have led all but about 10 laps or so thanks to the green flag pit stops. Most worrisome for the field is that Johnson discussed after the race how the car’s demands are really sharpening in to focus for that team. In other words: Johnson and crew chief aren’t trying out new setup theories at this point, they’re improving on what’s already working. There’s a good chance Johnson erases his distinction of never winning at Michigan come Sunday.
Denny Hamlin Hamlin didn’t quite come through at Pocono like expected, and he’s now starting to reach desperation mode if the summer comeback from the four races he missed is going to happen. It was just two years ago that Hamlin drove away from the field to win at Michigan, and remember he was injured in a crash while battling for the lead earlier this year at Auto Club Speedway — Michigan’s sister track in shape and design. Last year, his Michigan race ended in a fire on pit road — knocking his average finish at MIS to 13.6.
Also consider: Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne
Greg Biffle Looking for win No. 4 in Michigan. (ASP, Inc.)
B-List (Pick four, start two) Greg Biffle I didn’t really see a second-place finish coming for Biffle at Pocono last week, and after the race he seemed to be surprised about it, too. Still, Biffle comes to the track where owns three career wins and the series’ best average running position in the last 16 races with a nice boost of confidence. Biffle’s driver rating in the last eight seasons is the best among all drivers at Michigan.
Carl Edwards Edwards may be Biffle’s most ardent challenger for the top Ford driver at Michigan on Sunday. His average finish of 8.2 is best among active drivers and has two wins in 17 starts. Edwards has been remarkably consistent at Michigan, too. He’s finished 100 percent of his starts and has just one finish not on the lead lap. His percentage of laps run inside the top 15 is second-best in the series.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Okay, I’ll fall for the trap. Yes, I think Dale Earnhardt Jr. will fare well Sunday. I’m not positive he can win — but then again, no one expected his dominating performance last year, either. That said, he’s been driving well lately and his team’s communication with the astoundingly-good No. 48 has apparently been improving. Earnhardt had a top 5 at Auto Club earlier this year and owns the fourth-best Michigan average finish among B-listers.
Mark Martin Martin didn’t perform as expected last week at Pocono, but he returns to Michigan after racing really well there last fall before getting caught in that scary crash on pit road. I like using him this weekend because Toyota’s engine situation is still somewhat volatile both with performance and reliability. Yes, Martin drives a Toyota, but the thinking goes that if the Toyota blows up or underperforms, losing a start from Martin in the season’s 15th race isn’t as painful as losing one to Kyle Busch. Head to head, Busch is only on average one spot better than Martin at Michigan in the last 16 races.
Also consider: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano
C-List (Pick two, start one) David Ragan Going purely on Ragan’s history at Michigan, the No. 34 could make for a decent return on C-List points if he can replicate his results from Fontana earlier this season. He was 24th that day — not great, of course — but better than most in this group. In his career, Ragan has an average finish of 18.2 in 12 Michigan starts.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. With the gamut of races coming (including Infineon and Daytona), starting Stenhouse at Michigan could turn some decent value. He’s never raced there in Sprint Cup, but turned a top-20 finish at Auto Club earlier in the season. At the least, one would think Roush Fenway would have a little extra focus on the track so close to Ford in Detroit and the traditional home of Jack Roush’s racing operations.
Also consider: Trevor Bayne, AJ Allmendinger, Casey Mears, David Reutimann
Picking the best Sprint Cup fantasy drivers at Pocono so you don't have to.
Denny Hamlin (ASP, Inc.)
To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s 9-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned driver strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.
NASCAR makes its first of two visits to Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania Sunday for the Party in the Poconos 400. With a race name like that, Clint Bowyer would appear to be the early favorite, right? Not so fast, says the following stringent analysis. Jump in, make your picks and, hopefully, make us look like we know what we’re talking about.
A-List (Choose two, start one) Denny Hamlin
After blowing a tire at Dover and smacking the wall, Hamlin’s summer scramble to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup felt the pressure intensify just a bit more. Good thing he’s coming to Pocono, where in 14 starts he’s moved to second in Pocono wins among active drivers. Expect Hamlin to both start (average 5.6) and finish (average 10.7) up front Sunday — especially after the blemish on his Pocono resume handed down in July last year when he was caught in Jimmie Johnson’s late-race crash. In total, Hamlin has led right at one of every four laps that he’s run at Pocono. That’s stout.
Gordon has plenty of glowing career statistics that aren’t so reflective of how well his No. 24 has performed in recent seasons. Such is the break of his astounding period from roughly 1995 to 2002. But stats enhanced long ago muddying the current waters isn’t the case for Gordon at Pocono. Three of Gordon’s last nine wins on the Sprint Cup tour have come at Pocono, and four of his last five starts have resulted in top-10 finishes. The five-race rate bests a career top-10 average at the 2.5-mile triangle of 70 percent.
Also consider: Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth
Ryan Newman (ASP, Inc.)
B-List (Choose four, start two)
Newman won from the pole at Pocono in 2003 — one of fourteen race winners to accomplish that feat at Pocono. He’s not won since, but he hasn’t finished worse than 14th there since 2008. In his last sixteen Pocono starts, Newman is averaging a running position of 11.1. That’s better than A-List drivers like teammate Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth. Stewart-Haas Racing also tested at Pocono this season.
This marks two straight weeks that we’ll recommend starting Martin. The craziest statistic for Mark at Pocono? He’s never won in 52 starts. But just behind that in the crazy department is the fact that Martin has never finished worse than 19th at Pocono in the 46 races he’s completed to the checkered flag. The other six races — in the span dating to 1982 — were DNFs split evenly between crashes and engine failures. Use a Martin start this weekend, and it just might pay off in the form of his 21st Pocono top-5 finish.
Logano likely zapped any looming doubts concerning his abilities at the Sprint Cup level with his win for Joe Gibbs Racing last season at Pocono. Now with Penske Racing, Logano is riding a wave of under-the-radar yet stellar races at Charlotte and Dover back to the site of his most recent win. He started from the pole last June — Logano has two Pocono poles in his last three races — and led 49 laps.
Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya’s best two seasons so far — 2009 and 2010 — included three Pocono top-10 finishes. The Columbian may be starting to find that same groove after a dismal start to 2013. Three of the last five races have produced top-10 finishes and he just missed wins at Richmond and Dover. Montoya has led laps in four of the last five Pocono races.
Also consider: Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch Greg Biffle
C-List (Choose two, start one)
Allmendinger returns from IndyCar life after a disappointing street course outing at Detroit with a strong desire to rinse the horrible taste of two first lap wrecks in two days from his mouth. Pocono’s road course-like traits, where he’ll drive James Finch’s No. 51, offers a good re-acclimation to Sprint Cup cars. In 10 Pocono starts, he has the best average running position of the C-Listers (21.4).
Mears surprised everyone who has to deal with the nightmare that is C-List selections by scoring a 16th at Dover last weekend. The good run followed six straight finishes of 23rd or worse for the Germain Racing team — or enough time for all of us to waste starts on Mears after he recorded consecutive finishes of 15th, 15th and 16th (Bristol, California and Martinsville) earlier this year. We’re betting — especially in the interest of preserving some Ricky Stenhouse Jr. starts at a track he’s only raced (and crashed!) in ARCA — that Mears may be starting another of those mini streaks that basically count as wins for a driver on the C-List.
Also consider: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., David Ragan, David Gilliland, Danica Patrick
It’s been a while since we’ve heard Kurt Busch go bat guano over the radio, and we’re all a little worse off for it. Here’s some classic Kurt commentary after he gets hit with a pit road speeding violation. Ear muffs! NSFW.
by Vito Pugliese
11. 2012: Trouble Off of Two
2 of 13
A theme you’ll notice in many of these is early-race wrecks. As in, the first 20 laps. Interesting, considering that Dover is often cited as one of the most grueling and physically demanding tracks on the schedule. So much so, they shortened it from 500 laps to 400 in 1997.
by Vito Pugliese
10. 1997: Racing Before the "Bump 'N' Run
3 of 13
With eight laps to go, Mark Martin is tracking down Ricky Rudd, who was working on extending his streak of winning at least one race a year to 15. Rudd was also one of the few owner/drivers in the sport at this time. Dale Jarrett and teammate Ernie Irvan had dominated the event, leading a combined 406 of 500 laps. It would be the final 500-lap race at Dover, and one of the closest finishes ever at the track between two veterans, who show us how to race with respect.
by Vito Pugliese
9. 1996: Spencer Loses It. Literally.
4 of 13
NASCAR always asks the drivers to drop their window nets after an accident to alert the safety crews that they’re OK. They do not, however, ask that you bound from your wrecked rig, in your Extra-Medium purple firesuit, and go after Wally Dallenbach. With cars still speeding by, Jimmy Spencer comes unglued. Dallenbach, in turn, offers a crying towel and a different version of the incident. Of note, Spencer – finely tuned athlete that he has always been – had sponsors McDonald’s, Smokin’ Joes, and Winston over the course of a five-year period.
by Vito Pugliese
8. 1995: You Big Dummy!
5 of 13
Talladega and Daytona aren’t the only tracks to offer “The Big One.” Fred Sanford’s moniker for his chest-grabbers was joined by another of his famous lines by Mark Martin after the entire field was involved in a first-lap pile up in 1995. (You know he’s really mad when he gets all squeaky and goes up an octave.) The “Big Dummy” in question was Rusty Wallace, after Ricky Craven and John Andretti conspired to eliminate the competition one lap into it. The race would eventually be won by Kyle Petty – his eighth and final win in NASCAR competition.
by Vito Pugliese
7. 2004: "There Goes Everybody!"
6 of 13
Another race, another track blocker — this time with 44 laps to go, as cars were fighting to keep from going to go a lap down after a restart. With absolutely nowhere to go to escape the carnage, DW sums up the situation perfectly.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 2011: Video Game Wreck
7 of 13
The old adage in NASCAR is to aim for where the wreck starts because it should be gone by the time you get there. That doesn’t work when Joey Logano comes ricocheting off the wall at 150 mph into your path, as Clint Bowyer found out as he gets launched airborne and into the inside retaining wall. At least this track blocker occurs at the end of the race and more importantly, nobody was injured. Coincidence or irony: race sponsor would become Clint Bowyer’s Cup sponsor a year later.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 2008: Guess What? The Track’s Blocked. Again.
8 of 13
Sixteen laps into this one from 2008 and they’re at it already. Elliott Sadler comes down and into the path of David Gilliland – who had a few yards to lift – and the exit of Turn 2 with zero visibility is blocked once again. The result…yeah, you guessed it: carnage.
by Vito Pugliese
4. 2001: Junior's Patriotic Win
9 of 13
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 suspended everything in our country, with attention turned to more pressing matters in New York City, Washington D.C. and a field in Pennsylvania. The next race on the schedule would be Dover, held by Dover Air Force Base, which always provides a strong military presence on race weekends. What could be more American than Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning a race in the iconic Budweiser No. 8, doing donuts with American flag in hand?
by Vito Pugliese
3. 1984: Petty Wins No. 199
10 of 13
That storybook 200th win at Daytona in July with Ronald Reagan on hand would never have happened if not for Dover serving up No. 199 for The King. This was back when the race was 500 laps, rather than today’s fan- and driver-friendly 400. This was also back before any sort of meaningful driver cooling aids, hydration systems or reliable power steering – and Petty looks none the worse for wear. Check out the names of the guys he beat that day as well: Tim Richmond, Terry Labonte, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip; 12 titles among those guys, in the prime of their careers.
by Vito Pugliese
2. 2007: Tony Tangles with Kurt
11 of 13
What happens when you mix the two most volatile personalities in NASCAR in a claustrophobic one-mile concrete bowl after a weekend rainout? You get Tony Stewart clipping Kurt Busch, pushing him a half-mile down the frontstretch and Busch going Cole Trickle on pit lane. NASCAR parked Busch and fined 100 points for his actions (about 20 under today’s points system).
by Vito Pugliese
1. 2009: Logano Kept A-Rollin'
12 of 13
Joey Logano’s first year in the Cup Series was a rocky one. Coincidentally, the rolling stone gathered momentum as it tumbled down the concrete cliffs of Turn 3 at Dover. Logano was unharmed, but the top-heavy CoT showed one of its weaknesses: a tendency to get upside down and roll over on command like a yellow lab.
Picking the best fantasy drivers at Dover so you don't have to.
(Photo by ASP, Inc.)
To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its first visit to the other DIS — Dover International Speedway — this weekend for 400 miles around, as one driver calls it, “a one-mile roller coaster.” Delaware’s standard oval features corners lower than the banked straightaways, giving drivers the sensation that they “drop” into the turn and “climb” back up to the straights.
Choosing a fantasy lineup for Dover can sometimes be just as random as a card shuffle at the track’s backstretch casino thanks to the tight confines of the track occasionally producing massive multi-car accidents that wipe out a slew of contenders in one stroke. Still, we’ll take a stab.
Note: This fantasy preview is a bit different this week as we try a new format. Instead of ranking every driver at Dover, we’ll make it easier on you by telling you which drivers to call up and be ready to start for Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.
A-List Drivers (choose two, start one)
With consideration for many players conserving starts for Johnson until later in the season when he inevitably gets hot, Dover is almost a no-brainer time to have Johnson in your lineup for race day. Consider this: in the last 16 Dover races going back eight seasons, Johnson is averaging 121 laps led per race.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver has averaged a finish of sixth in that period (his average career finish in all races is 11th) and has turned the fastest lap 878 times, which is good for nearly 400 more than the second-most fastest laps in that period by Carl Edwards. Oh, one other thing: Johnson’s seven career wins at Dover are three more than any active driver. Beyond the wins, he has four more top-5 finishes and nine more top-10 finishes.
Sure, you could bet he’ll have an off weekend at a track he dominates in the name of conserving the No. 48’s start until the fall. But is that really wise a week after Johnson wrecked by himself at Charlotte? If anyone is coming back with a vengeance, it’s Mr. Five Time.
So you’ve used Johnson a few too many times to your liking this early in the year and you’re looking for a suitable replacement? If you haven’t overused Matt Kenseth to this point (I hope you’ve used Matt Kenseth plenty at this point), he’s your guy. But one driver who likely has plenty of starts remaining on your fantasy roster is Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer is riding a Dover streak of four straight races where he’s finished in the top 10 — moderately impressive considering the span included races with both Michael Waltrip Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Bowyer has led just 30 laps in those four starts, but those finishes and overall performances contributed to make him the third-best Dover driver among A-Listers during the last eight seasons.
Other picks: Matt Kenseth (Average running position of eighth; 18 top 10s, 2 wins) Jeff Gordon (Four career wins; 73 percent of laps in top 15 during last eight races)
B-List Drivers (choose four, start two)
Would you believe Carl Edwards was one spot away from making it four straight top-10 finishes last week? Quietly and steadily, Edwards and Roush-Fenway Racing seem to be making inroads on catching the dominance of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Dover should continue the recent positive trend.
Edwards crashed in the spring Dover race a year ago and wound up 26th, marking his first finish of worse than 11th at the concrete oval since 2006. He was one win in that period and his fifth-place run last fall marked his eighth career top 5 at Dover. Only Johnson and Kenseth have a better Dover driver rating than Edwards in the last 16 Dover races.
Thanks to his limited schedule, you’ll probably not run through all nine available starts for Mark Martin this season. That makes him an easy choice at Dover.
Last year, Martin had two top-15 finishes at the Monster Mile — including a third-place run in the fall that tied for his second-best finish of the 2012 season. Beyond that, Martin has been good at Dover both recently and throughout his career. In the last eight seasons, he has an average finish of 11th and has spent more than three-fourths of his laps in the top 15. He’s tied with Jeff Gordon for the second-most Dover wins among active drivers (4) and he hasn’t finished worse than 23rd there since 2002.
Last year Dover — land of local seafood restaurants featuring fresh catches from the nearby Atlantic Ocean — proved to be the Sea of Heartbreak (hat tip, Don Gibson!) for Kyle Busch. The No. 18 blew an engine in the spring race just past halfway as Joe Gibbs Racing cars are wont to do. Busch stormed back in the fall in his missed-Chase rage to lead 302 laps before a fuel mileage finish dropped him to 14th. It was a leave-the-track-without-comment kind of day for Kyle.
Even with those issues — and two other blown engines at Dover in his career — Busch’s numbers there make him a good bet Sunday. In his last 16 Dover starts, Busch has led the third-most laps of any active driver.
Biffle is another driver you’ve likely used sparingly this year, waiting for RFR to finally find fourth gear amid a mostly middling start. Remember, at his point one year ago Biffle held a 10-point lead in the series standings. Now, he’s 13th and 121 points back.
Dover has long been good to the Biff with a recent average finish of 9.6 and an average running position of 10th. His percentage of fastest in-race laps in that 16-race period is the highest among B-Listers. Though he has struggled some recently at the track where he’s won twice, Biffle is due to jumpstart his season after three finishes of 31st or worse in his last four races. That team is too good to continue a poor streak like that.
Other picks: Ryan Newman (Three career Dover wins; second-best track for career average finish) Kurt Busch (Surging team returns to site of Kurt’s last win) Martin Truex Jr. (Site of lone career race win in 2007; two top 10s in 2012)
C-List (Choose two, start one)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Undoubtedly, you’ve used Stenhouse plenty this season thanks to the lack of other consistent, quality talent in the C-List. He’s still the best pick for Dover among the group — and he’s likely better than almost half of the B-Listers. Stenhouse finished 12th in his lone Sprint Cup start at Dover, five spots ahead of his 17th-place start.
At a place like Dover, Smith seems to be as good a bet as any in the C-List. He drives for James Finch’s team for the seventh time this year Sunday following his 17th-place run last weekend at Charlotte. No, that car hasn’t had noteworthy speed and, no, a top 20 isn’t guaranteed. But Smith has yet to come home worse than 25th in that car this season. Better yet, he’s finished nine of his 10 career Dover races.
Other picks: David Reutimann (Average Dover finish is 20th) David Ragan (Average Dover finish is 24th)
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Coca-Cola 600
Kevin Harvick earned his second win of 2013 in the Coca-Cola 600. (ASP, Inc.)
Fourteen leaders. 68 lead changes. A three-wide battle coming off a restart that decides the race. Read those two lines and you’re probably thinking, “typical NASCAR race at Talladega.”
Nope. Instead, those stats defined what could be the best Indianapolis 500 in a generation. As we look back at the Coca-Cola 600, it’s important to stop and recognize open-wheel’s glory day because the event was everything NASCAR was not. There was a sentimental winner, Tony Kanaan, whose post-race celebration from teams and crews became reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 “monkey off his back” victory of 1998. There was passing paired with a sense of urgency — and not just on Lap 190 of 200 — but throughout the entire event. Cautions were scarce, resulting in the fastest average speed in history, yet they weren’t needed to define and/or add excitement to the race. Oh, and should I mention a car even crashed on pit road and IndyCar kept the race under green?
Let’s compare that with Sunday night’s Charlotte event, one that will forever be defined by a piece of nylon rope. That snapped camera cable, from a FOX setup overhead, injured 10 fans, stopped the race and damaged three cars, including top contender Kyle Busch. Of the race’s 11 cautions, six were debris related and a few were positioned well by hot dog wrappers to bunch up the field in order to heighten the race’s entertainment. In a race 100 miles longer than Indy’s 500, there were just 11 leaders, 24 lead changes and three drivers (Busch, Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth) led 338 of 400 laps.
Does that mean Indy was perfect? Far from it; the race ended under yellow, drafting made it impossible for a strong car to pull away and there’s still too much homogeneity between teams. NASCAR had strong moments, including a surprise winner of its own in Kevin Harvick. But while the ratings likely won’t show it, in terms of pure competition, Sunday was the first time I can remember where IndyCar, head-to-head with the racing rival that unseated it from “top dog” inside the U.S., turned around, wound up and punched stock cars back, smack in the face in a bid to regain supremacy.
That won’t do much … yet. But at some point, that’s going to resonate with viewers and NASCAR would do well to pay attention. Turnarounds start with little victories like these.
Back to Charlotte…
FIRST GEAR: Kevin Harvick stole himself a Chase bid
He’s led 33 laps all season, good enough for just 17th on the Sprint Cup charts. Among those drivers listed ahead of him: Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin and Greg Biffle. But what none of those drivers have is a Cup win, let alone two. Harvick pulled another rabbit out of his hat on Sunday, the “Closer” playing it perfectly by taking two tires on the final caution while the leader, Kahne, stayed on track.
“It came down to a restart,” Harvick said bluntly, slotting in second after the stop and knowing clean air was all that was needed. “In the end, it was good enough to win the race.”
It’s also likely good enough to make the Chase. Now seventh in points, the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing team likely doesn’t have the speed to stay inside the top 10 long-term — not with Busch, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski among those sitting behind them. Over the course of the 26-race regular season, though, those two victories will be more than enough to snag a “wild card” position and put the pressure on Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and those who we know need the victories. It’s possible that those on the outside of the top 10 will have to come up with three wins to sneak into the postseason, which is not an easy feat with 14 races left.
As for Harvick’s unexpected victory? He survived; the epitome of what this race is all about. While problems befell the favorites, from the Busch brothers to Matt Kenseth to even a weakened Jimmie Johnson, the No. 29 car was put in position to win. As veteran Jeff Burton has slyly pointed out, that’s all you need. Sometimes, circumstances dictate the rest.
SECOND GEAR: The rope snap heard around the world
Until Sunday night, most people thought CamCAT was some sort of military DefCon mission or secret weapon you’d acquire in Call of Duty. Instead, it will forever stand for the camera whose ropes came toppling onto the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway, snapping into pieces on Lap 121 in an incident that sent three fans to the hospital, injured 10 and turned Kyle Busch’s front end, among others, into a mangled mess.
The technology, around since 2000, was being utilized by FOX for just the second time in NASCAR, following a successful Daytona 500 debut. One reason for its scarceness is the setup. It takes five days, including two cranes mounted on different sides of the track in Turns 1 and 4.
Three ropes make the camera tick, allowing it to slide above the track and deliver the type of breathtaking views fans love. But when one of those ropes broke, chaos broke loose and the snapping of the cable could have easily killed someone as debris kicked up everywhere. For the second time, NASCAR got lucky through a freak accident (see: February’s Nationwide race in Daytona) and was able to throw a red flag, clean up the mess and get fans treated (all have been released). It’s also to NASCAR’s credit that teams were allowed to fix cars torn apart by the cable. It’s one thing when a random event happens, like a hot dog wrapper or an overcooked engine that changes the course of a driver’s race. But when a TV crew broadcasting the event is involved in affecting the outcome through an equipment failure I think trying to reconstruct the race the way it was is perfectly reasonable.
Certainly, there’s some inconsistency within that, as Robby Gordon has lost a race in the past (Watkins Glen, early 2000s) through a TV malfunction. However, in this case NASCAR made the right call. And FOX is doing the right thing by suspending the camera going forward. The best thing to do here is chalk it up to “one of those freak things” and move on.
THIRD GEAR: Mark Martin’s rocky road
It’s been a long time since we’ve worried about the competitiveness of Mark Martin. But since late April, the now 54-year-old has done some things that make you scratch your head. At Richmond, he was involved in a heated incident with Kahne in which it looked like the veteran initiated contact. At Charlotte, it was another surprising mistake, as one of the sport’s cleanest drivers stuck his nose in the wrong place at wrong time, sparking a wreck that took out Chase contenders Jeff Gordon and Aric Almirola while hampering the nights of several others.
Suddenly, Martin’s year doesn’t look so rosy, with just one top-5 finish (third, Daytona) and zero laps led since February at Phoenix. A “lame duck” at Michael Waltrip Racing, you wonder if the impending departure will now begin to take its toll. After all, since leaving Roush, his sophomore campaigns at other teams, from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports, have always resulted in a downturn in performance. The big difference? None of them involved these types of uncharacteristic mistakes on the racetrack. Could this year finally be the one where Martin decides to call it quits?
Kasey Kahne had the preferred line, but Harvick had fresher tires and a propensity for restarts. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Don’t be fooled by bad luck blues
The sport’s biggest contenders in Sunday night’s race all got knocked out by problems not of their making. Kyle Busch, who led 65 laps, had another engine expire. Kenseth was involved in someone else’s mess. Kurt Busch had a battery fail while leading. And Kahne was caught by circumstances, a sitting duck once the final caution of the night came out. Perhaps the best car all weekend, Kahne was forced to settle for second in a no-win scenario: had he pitted for tires, like the rest of those up front, the No. 5 car would have likely come out 10th as others would have stayed out.
However, a look at the big picture shows that these four, believe it or not, are the biggest threats to Johnson’s sixth title as we speak. Kyle Busch, should his team correct the mechanical problems that dog him, has led 805 laps already and has the best average start (6.2) in the series, important for the Chase where track position racing is paramount. Kenseth, who has led a series-high 893 laps, has been the only one besides Johnson to be strong at every single track on the circuit, from the shorts to 2.5-mile superspeedways. Kurt Busch, as surprising as it seems, could be a “wild card” should he find some way to sneak into the postseason through winning races. After a third-place finish Sunday — one that could easily have been two better without a battery failure — he’s shown strength and potential consistency on the types of tracks that would make him a dark horse during a 10-race playoff.
But perhaps the most important name on the list is Kahne. Take away two wrecks (Daytona and Talladega) and he would quietly be in the points lead instead of Johnson. The No. 5 car has been battling with Kenseth for “best of the intermediates,” with three runner-up showings (Las Vegas, Kansas and Charlotte). That’s a title you want to have with a postseason that includes five such 1.5-milers.
Kudos to AJ Allmendinger, who was seventh in his Indy 500 debut driving for Roger Penske. Only a faulty seat belt which forced an unscheduled stop prevented one of the cooler feel-good victories in recent memory. It looks increasingly clear NASCAR is losing this one to the “other side.” … No drivers did the double this season and Brian France remains uninterested in jumpstarting talks to make that Indy 500/Coke 600 feat repeat itself again. Why do both series insist on shooting themselves in the foot? Publicity from that type of thing only helps the entry lists, national visibility and ratings for all sides. … Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose engine blew Sunday night, has slid outside the top 5 in points. June is an important month for him, with the one-year anniversary of his last win at Michigan slotted in between potential weaknesses at Pocono and Sonoma. Could the No. 88 team be on the bubble for the Chase once more?
NASCAR's greatest runs of success at it's most daunting racetracks
Jimmie Johnson’s eighth career win at Martinsville last Sunday highlighted his dominance at that particular track. Johnson has won seven of the last 14 visits to the track and in 23 starts has an average finish of 5.3. While he still has a way to go to match Richard Petty’s mark of 15 wins at the paperclip, it did bring to mind some past performances at other tracks by NASCAR stars who were able to hit on some unmistakable magic. Let's take a look at the top 12 most dominant streaks in NASCAR:
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Martinsville Speedway.
Joey Logano with the "buckled hood" look. (ASP, Inc.)
Joey Logano. Tony Stewart. Denny Hamlin. Clint Bowyer. Jeff Gordon. The list of NASCAR drivers ticked off, for one reason or another, entering Martinsville could even knock the former Jersey Shore castmates down a peg. Add in a half-mile paperclip oval — one of the sport’s best — two weeks to ponder what’s gone wrong and Sunday was supposed to be an all-out explosion of revenge.
Instead? I’ve seen senior center bingo arguments come off with more energy than how it all panned out. (I guess maybe that’s what you get when a 54-year-old steps into Hamlin’s seat?) For all those expecting fireworks of historic proportions, somebody forgot to tell the watchman responsible for lighting that fuse.
Part of the problem was that some of these drivers never even got close to one another. Logano and Stewart, for example, had just a handful of opportunities where they were racing bumper-to-bumper. But in a sport where the championship — or more accurately, the playoff — is front and center, drivers are thinking about consequences even early in the season. Just like Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson won’t show their cards now when the results matter less, there’s no reason for a struggling Stewart to risk wiping himself out, digging a deeper hole to climb up when it comes to what really matters for paying sponsors: the Chase.
Such is the nature of the NASCAR beast these days. Bottom lines mean every race can’t turn out like your wildest dreams — matching the sanctioning body’s hype — as drivers sometimes choose to use their head over their heart. It’s a shame, though. Most times, this race at Martinsville, with plenty of action throughout the pack, would get itself a “B” grade or better without hesitation. But we’re in 2013, which is quickly becoming a year of high expectations. A race at one of the best tracks on the schedule should be an automatic A-plus under the circumstances.
Anything less? Feels like a missed opportunity … even though the “temper, temper” moments could well come back into play this fall.
Let’s go through the gears…
ONE: Jimmie Johnson owns Martinsville.
For exceptional athletes, there’s always one venue that fits their style better than any other. Tiger Woods has Augusta, Roger Federer has a set of tennis courts in Queens and Michael Jordan once thrived in Madison Square Garden.
For Jimmie Johnson, that magical place is Martinsville, Va. With eight victories in 23 career starts, third to only Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, the half-mile oval launch his performances into another stratosphere. Sixteen times he’s finished top 5 or better, and a 34.7 percent winning clip basically guarantees a victory once every year and a half there. Considering 43 Cup competitors start each race and those types of odds happen oh, about next to never.
“His car is so much better than everybody else,” explained sixth-place finisher Brad Keselowski, “That he just plays with everybody the whole race just to make it look good.”
No one encapsulated this day any better. Even when Johnson was being challenged by Martinsville 0-fers Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, the vibe still leaned his way. Not once for a single lap did the No. 48 put itself in position to run outside the top 5, simple history dictating the track would eventually come to him.
“It’s probably the most calm, relaxed thought-out weekend that we've had as the 48,” said the winner. “We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that.”
The end result now sees Johnson with 14,000 laps led overall in the Cup Series, a career best 2,327 of them at Martinsville. In comparison, peer Jamie McMurray, a six-time Cup winner in his own right, has led just 1,416 laps during his whole career. It seems between pit road, crew chief strategy and driver ability, this short track brings out the best in the five-time champ – the sport’s new points leader, to boot.
SECOND: See Hendrick go. See Gibbs go. See everyone else watch and get jealous.
The new Gen-6 car, while promoting parity, is bound to be figured out by a few organizations quicker than most. A look at Sunday’s laps-led totals reaffirm the answer: 2013 is developing into Hendrick, Gibbs and then every man for himself.
Only Marcos Ambrose, who led lap 1 and Travis Kvapil, who paced the field a single lap under yellow, broke the 498-lap spell up front rotated by HMS’ Jimmie Johnson, JGR veteran Kyle Busch and newcomer Matt Kenseth. But their performances are far from one-hit wonders. This trio, along with JGR’s Denny Hamlin and HMS’ Kasey Kahne, make up the top 5 in laps led on the circuit, six races into a young season.
Yes, Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards has a win at Phoenix. And Brad Keselowski over at Penske Racing has kept up that championship consistency. But by and large, the teams showing the most strength these days are coming squarely out of two race shops. Of the seven drivers, Kenseth, has been the most surprising, leading more laps at Martinsville Sunday – one of his worst tracks – then in his 13-year career at the track up to that point. If they can make him into a contender here, that bodes well for the 1.5-mile ovals right in his wheelhouse coming up next.
Brian Vickers manning MWR's No. 55 Toyota. (ASP, Inc.)
THREE: Substitute driving ain’t easy.
Brian Vickers wasn’t allowed to jump into Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 at Martinsville. But in a way, it helped showcase how impressive his record of six top 10s in 10 races has been filling in for part-timer Mark Martin in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota. Martin, one of the most respected drivers on the circuit, had a hard go of it on Sunday. Battling a super-tight condition early, he ran outside the top 20 before his pit crew dropped the jack too early during a stop. Martin left, not realizing the tires weren’t fully on the left side and the resultant penalty of pitting outside the box cost him a lap. Involved in a nasty mid-race wreck, the car hit the checkered a shell of its former self, a 10th-place finish admirable under the circumstances, but feeling like 40th considering how often this car is a threat to win here.
“We were capable,” Martin said afterwards. “But we kept stubbing our toe. I did not fill Denny Hamlin’s shoes, I can tell you that much.”
The ailing driver, while praising his sub, indirectly agreed, tweeting after the race, “Jimmie Johnson won’t have it that easy, in the fall, I promise.”
“I'm more mentally tired then after a race I was in,” he added later. “I don't know what watching your child race is like but I'm sure it's a lot like this.”
Too bad the end result couldn’t have been slightly better.
FOUR: Danica’s day showcases a different problem – the wave-around rule.
For many, the other big story revolved around “the most notable 12th-place finish in recent history.” That’s how it seemed post-race when Danica Patrick, fresh off her first lead-lap, competitive result since Daytona fielded more questions than second- and third-place finishers Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon combined.
On the one hand, you’ve got to give her credit. After spinning early and causing the race’s first caution, she was two laps down, mired well outside the top 30. To come back from that is admirable, considering this track is one of the toughest on rookies. (Anyone remember David Ragan’s “dart without feathers” debut?) But Patrick’s return also revealed one of NASCAR’s lingering weaknesses: the wave-around rule.
This rule, which allows cars that don’t pit a chance to “earn” a lap back under yellow should lead-lappers in front of them stop, needs to be revised. On Sunday teams were taking full advantage, knowing that at a place like Martinsville, cautions breed cautions. Staying out, knowing that your position will be cemented one lap ahead a few moments later, makes this an easy decision for a struggling group.
You can’t blame Patrick’s team for doing it. Several, in fact, used the same strategy under the rules. But how can NASCAR go to a place like Charlotte, for example, and expect drivers to race hard all 600 miles under those circumstances? When a driver drops two laps off the pace only to earn them back through zero on-track effort, it makes running hard early in the race unadvisable. Overcoming adversity should be about talent and effort, not luck.
The solution? I’m an old school guy, so lapped cars on the inside are always the way to go in my book. It gives the whole field more exposure, puts everyone on a level playing field (how awful was it to be outside on the double-file restarts Sunday?) and that’s how NASCAR did it, growing successfully, for years. Simply put — and it won’t happen — but make teams earn it…
Jamie McMurray, seventh Sunday, now has two top-10 finishes in the first six races. Last season he had three in 36. … What is up with Ford and Martinsville? No car ran inside the top 5 (Brad Keselowski had its best run, sixth) while Fusions led only one lap all day. No Ford has reached Victory Lane there since Kurt Busch did it for Roush in the fall of 2002. … It was a poor day for NASCAR’s Most Popular Points Leader, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. tumbled from the top spot in the standings after the handling went away late in the going. Also suffering from a late-race spin, it didn’t help that teammate Jimmie Johnson put the No. 88 down an extra lap before Junior could get the thing fully re-fired.
From Tiny Lund to Jamie McMurray: NASCAR's most noted fill-ins.
With the flurry of press releases that were flying about last Friday, with the announcements and retractions regarding Mark Martin substituting for the injured Denny Hamlin, it brought to light one issue we haven’t had to tackle in a while: NASCAR Super Subs. They can be much more than a wheel holder, and often end up becoming a larger part of the team. It can be an audition for a future ride, or a once-in-a-lifetime shot at greatness. This week we present the Top 10 Super Subs in NASCAR:
In the 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races that took place at Martinsville Speedway during the Car of Tomorrow era, two drivers won nine races: Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. It is a track that rewards its best competitors more reliably than other tracks do with top-performing drivers, making the event somewhat of a cinch to prognosticate. Granted each race, especially in the current ultra-competitive Cup Series landscape, is subject to a heavy dose of randomness, past performance at Martinsville does, more often than not, indicate future success.
So a hint at who Sunday’s key players will be shines through past statistics. Here is a glimmer of what we all will be seeing — and in one notable case, missing — in this weekend’s rough-and-tumble race at Martinsville.
6.208, 1,111 and 4 What are we going to miss from Sunday’s race? A driver who ranks second at Martinsville in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) with a 6.208 rating, has led 1,111 laps and won four races.
Denny Hamlin’s absence impacts this race in a major way. Not only is he a race win contender, Martinsville is arguably one of his two best racetracks (Richmond is the other), in terms of production. With him sidelined due to injury, it opens the door for other good Martinsville drivers that have been on the cusp of winning in recent events there. One of them is a household name.
9 and 0 Jeff Gordon earned nine top-5 finishes in 12 CoT races. Zero of those finishes were victories.
Gordon ranks third in PEER with a 4.958 rating — PEER being a measure of a driver’s on-track production in an “all equipment even” scenario. That mark is crazy high considering he was unable to seal the deal in all those races. For the better part of the last six years, Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson were bestowed the crowns as kings of Martinsville; however, Gordon, despite the lack of wins, is also befitting of the throne.
1,309 Gordon has led 1,309 laps across the last 12 races at Martinsville.
That is absolutely absurd. It means he has led just over 21 percent of all laps there the last six seasons. That kind of dominance isn’t for the feint of heart; in eight of those races he led at least 90 laps. Yes, when the lap counts are high — Martinsville is a 500-lap race — the laps-led totals are inflated, but his 1,309 total laps led is the second most in the series over that span and noteworthy because, again, he won nary a race in all those dominant outings. He may be overdue.
3.93 and 3.62 Clint Bowyer averaged running positions of 3.93-place and 3.62-place in last year’s races at Martinsville.
Disappointingly, Bowyer finished 10th and fifth, respectively, in those races. His attempted pass for the lead in the waning laps of last year’s spring race took out Johnson and Gordon, but outside of that, he has been a pleasant (and quiet) producer at Martinsville throughout his career. His 2.708 track-specific PEER ranks seventh out of 54 drivers and he is one of five drivers with at least eight top-10 finishes in the last 12 races there.
12.67 Mark Martin, replacing Hamlin in the No. 11 for Joe Gibbs Racing, has averaged just under a 13th-place (12.67, to be exact) finish in his six CoT-era finishes at Martinsville.
Hamlin he ain’t, but Martin is not half bad at a track that, in a perfect world (for him, that is a partial schedule), he would elect to skip each year. He finished as high as second during that time frame while driving for Hendrick Motorsports and also secured three other top-10 results. He’ll need to redeem himself from his most recent outing there, which was a 28th-place finish that saw him earn a poor 44.7 percent passing efficiency along with a 21st-place average running position.
Brad Keselowski: No Martinsville slouch, either. (ASP, Inc.)
55.1% Brad Keselowski’s passing efficiency at Martinsville was 55.1 percent across both 2012 races.
Remember when there was a mild freakout after Keselowski qualified 32nd for the Martinsville Chase race last year? And then he finished sixth, which apparently was a major surprise to fans and mainstream media alike? Well, any success regardless of track position shouldn’t be a shock when it comes to the reigning champ. Keselowski can move through traffic arguably better than anyone in the series and his Martinsville production, though in a smaller sample size than the majority, is beyond serviceable (2.583 PEER, ranks eighth). The lesson? Don’t count him out of Sunday’s race until the checkered flag falls.
4 of 6 Four of the last six NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race winners at Martinsville were Cup Series interlopers.
Those four wins are split between Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Harvick is entered into Saturday’s companion race in a third entry for NTS Motorsports, which also fields trucks for Ron Hornaday and Brennan Newberry. As of now, Harvick is the only Cup Series regular entered, which could open the door for a Truck Series point-earner to swoop in and collect a victory. Hornaday, Johnny Sauter and Timothy Peters are former Martinsville winners that warrant your watching.