Against odds, Keselowski hanging with Johnson in Chase battle
Brad Keselowski. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Brad Keselowski is not supposed to be challenging for a NASCAR Sprint Cup title. At least this year’s title. Many expect him to be a championship contender for years to come but the prevailing thought entering the Chase was that this wouldn’t be his year.
The reasons varied:
• Dodge, the team’s manufacturer, is leaving NASCAR after this season.
• Keselowski hadn’t truly been in a race for the Sprint Cup title to the final race.
• Others viewed Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin as having a better shot.
Yet, with three races to go, Keselowski trails Johnson by two points. No other driver is within 25 points of Johnson. Unless something unexpected happens, the championship race is between Johnson and Keselowski.
So, how has Keselowski gotten to this point?
Crew chief Paul Wolfe says that the team has “put blinders on all of that and not really focused on the things around us.
“I think we’ve shown growth in this team. We’ve shown improvement from the beginning of the season. I think we were lacking speed earlier the season. We were able to run well and get good finishes and win some races, but we didn’t have dominant race cars. We continued to work on our stuff and as we got closer to the Chase and, as we’ve been in the Chase, there have been tracks where I feel we’ve been dominant or as good as anybody here and that’s the improvement part I see of having the speed in the car.”
The team also has shown little impact in Dodge’s announcement that it won’t return to the sport next year and that Penske Racing will switch to Ford. Keselowski has been fast and also benefited from Wolfe’s pit strategy to win two Chase races (Chicagoland and Dover).
Another key is how the team benefited from last year’s Chase even though its title hopes ended before the season finale. The No. 2 bunch was third in the point standings with four races to go in 2011, heading to Martinsville. Keselowski was sixth in that race when he was collected in a chain-reaction incident in the final laps. NASCAR didn’t throw a caution and it cost him about 10 positions, dropping him further behind Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards and all but ending his title hopes. Although Keselowski didn’t challenge to the end, Jeff Gordon recently said he thought that was a valuable experience that has helped that team for this season.
Such experience has helped even when things have not gone as planned in the Chase.
Keselowski stayed out an extra lap at Charlotte but ran out of fuel in a race he was dominant but finished 11th. They struggled at Kansas but still managed an eighth-place finish. Qualifying has been an issue, as Keselowski has not started in the top 20 in the last four races. Each time the team didn’t panic.
It’s why Keselowski is so close to winning the Sprint Cup championship.
“It shows the potential we have together and that we’re still growing together,” Keselowski said after finishing sixth at Martinsville last weekend. “I believe that we can do this, I really do. We’ve got work ahead of us, and I know that, but we’re doing all the right things. If you do that long enough, good things will happen to you and good things are happening to us.”
HITTING THEIR STRIDE Jimmie Johnson said his title run began months ago.
“I feel kind of mid-to-late summer we started hitting on all eight cylinders,” he says. “I guess the Indy weekend (in late July) would be a good landmark weekend for us.”
Since Indy, where he won, Johnson has scored nine top-10 finishes in 14 races. He’s led in all but two of those events.
“We were around it, hitting on things, but starting at Indy, everything started clicking really, really well for us,” Johnson says. “I feel as focused and prepared as I’ve ever been in my career. We have some very smart guys with experience. Everybody is managing their emotions well, working very hard on their individual positions and executing.”
BEST OF THE REST Kyle Busch’s runner-up finish at Martinsville continued his strong run. Although he didn’t make the Chase, he’s had five top-10 finishes, including four top 5s, in the last seven races.
The 232 points he’s scored in the Chase is more than what seven title contenders have tallied in the same period. He’s outscored Denny Hamlin (230 points), Martin Truex Jr. (228), Matt Kenseth (223), Greg Biffle (216), Tony Stewart (211), Kevin Harvick (203) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (148), who missed two races because of a concussion suffered at Talladega.
Jimmie Johnson has scored the most points in the Chase at 282 with Brad Keselowski next at 280.
Non-Chase drivers who have scored the most points in the Chase are Busch (232 points), Joey Logano (207), Ryan Newman (202) and Carl Edwards and Paul Menard (190 each).
AT THE TOP Michael Waltrip Racing has placed one of its drivers in the top 5 in eight of the last 10 races.
All four MWR drivers have scored at least one top-5 finish during that stretch. Clint Bowyer has four top 5s, Martin Truex Jr. has two, Mark Martin has two and Brian Vickers has one.
Only Hendrick Motorsports can top MWR’s streak of races with at least one driver in the top 5. Hendrick has had a top-5 finisher in 15 consecutive races.
CREW CHIEF SHUFFLE Richard Petty Motorsports announced Tuesday that it has hired Drew Blickensderfer to be the crew chief for Marcos Ambrose, replacing Mike Ford.
Blickensderfer moved over from Richard Childress Racing where he had been Jeff Burton’s crew chief this season. Shane Wilson will replace Blickensderfer for the season’s final three races. Luke Lambert, who is serving as Elliott Sadler’s crew chief for RCR in the Nationwide Series, will be Burton’s crew chief next season.
Damage at Pocono Raceway from Hurricane Sandy. (Photo via Brandon Igdalsky Twitter feed)
PIT STOPSBrandon Igdalsky, president of Pocono Raceway, tweeted a picture (right) Tuesday showing that one of the track’s steeples atop the grandstand had been knocked off as a result from the storm that went through that area. ... Chase drivers have won all seven Chase races. Kyle Busch’s second-place finish at Martinsville was the first time a non-Chase driver had finished in the top two in a Chase race this season. ... Paul Menard and Martin Truex Jr. are tied for first in most laps completed this season. Both have run 9,488 out of a possible 9,521 laps.
10. Richard Petty – 1964 Plymouth Belvedere
Back when stockcars essentially were stock cars, Petty’s ’64 Plymouth was significant for a number of reasons. First of all, look at it: clean and simple lines, looks as right dominating Daytona as it would Pomona … or Ponderosa — a perfect combination of accidental aerodynamics and the debut of Pachyderm Power under the bonnet. The 426 Hemi debuted at the 1964 Daytona 500, and when placed in the pointy Plymouth, it was game over, lights out, thanks for playing, as Petty drove to a one-lap victory over Paul Goldsmith in a Hemi Plymouth Belvedere. Note those 405 horsepower stickers on the hood. Yeah. Right. 405. At what, 3,500 rpm? Child please.
by Vito Pugliese
50 Shades of Gray
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9. Buddy Baker – 1977-1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme
The late 1970s and early ’80s were sad times for the auto industry on a number of levels. Smog-controlled engines, the advent of catalytic converters and poor quality control, as well as something known as “velour.” Such were the designs of these machines. There were a few notable exceptions: Smokey & The Bandit Trans Ams, Dodge’s Little Red Express Truck and this beast, Buddy Baker’s No. 28 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Nicknamed the Gray Ghost by its ability to stealthily blend into the racing surface due to its color scheme and the glare produced by the sun-lit overcast conditions. Baker dominated Speedweeks in 1980, including taking the pole at 194.009 mph. What about this car screams mid-190s? Well, it still owns the record for the fastest Daytona 500, and therefore deserves some love here.
by Vito Pugliese
It’s NOT The Catalina Wine Mixer!
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8. Fireball Roberts – 1962 Pontiac Catalina
In the early 1960s, NASCAR was coming of age. Moving from bullrings and dirt tracks to full-fledged, high-banked superspeedways used as the model for the majority of the tracks on the circuit today, the cars and safety equipment were not quite keeping up with the technology and horsepower. Banjo Matthews’ 1962 Pontiacs prepared by the legendary Smokey Yunick were among the best of that early breed, replete with his trademark black and gold paint scheme. Fireball Roberts swept both Daytona races that season, wearing a t-shirt and a polo helmet. Roberts' nickname was the result of his being able to throw a baseball, but would tragically come to fruition in 1964, after a horrific fiery wreck resulting from a split gas tank at Charlotte. He would succumb to his injuries six weeks later in July 1964 before the Daytona Firecracker race he won just two years prior.
by Vito Pugliese
Silver Fox Box
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7. David Pearson – 1976 Mercury Montego
Some cars look fast standing still, some are fast at speed, and some look like there’s no way it could be fast, — yet is very, very fast. David Pearson’s 1976 Mercury Montego, with its flat front end, was the cousin to Starsky and Hutch’s iconic sled, with which he drove to a 10-win season in 30 stars. He won the Daytona 500 after getting together with Richard Petty on the final lap, and limping across the finish line because he kept his engine running, while Petty stalled his. Of note: That Daytona 500 was Pearson’s only superspeedway win that year; Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough and Dave Marcis won the remaining events at Daytona and Talladega.
by Vito Pugliese
Give Me A Dew!
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6. Darrell Waltrip – 1981-82 Buick Regal
1981 was the first year for the downsized cars, running on a 110” wheelbase. After a decade of running at 115” in big slabs of blubber, the new cars were trim, lean, mean and almost exclusively Buicks due to its more aerodynamic nose (compared to the squared off Grand Prix and Ford Thunderbird). Dodge was an afterthought with the Mirada by this time, so it was up to Darrell Waltrip to establish the new era with the assistance of team owner Junior Johnson in their Mountain Dew machine. And that they did. Waltrip won 12 of 31 races that year= en route to his first championship. He’d win 12 races again a year later in the same car, forever banishing the myth of green racecars being bad luck.
by Vito Pugliese
Awesome Bill from Dawsonville
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5. Bill Elliott – 1983-86 Ford Thunderbird
At the dawn of the small-car era of the early 1980s, Ford was all but absent from circle track competition. Actually, outside of Bob Chandler’s “Big Foot” running amok in stadiums, Ford was all but absent from the motorsports map. When the new swoopy Thunderbird debuted in ’83 that all changed. Its debut didn’t go so hot, as it flew wildly threw the air at Daytona, nearly killing Ricky Rudd in the process. However, as Bill and Ernie Elliott began showing up with their Melling Racing Thunderbirds, the aero-wars began anew. Elliott’s ’85 T-bird was especially dominate, winning the Daytona 500, the first offering of the Winston Million and making up two laps to win at Talladega under green. That’s two laps. At Talladega. Under green flag competition. No Lucky Dog, no waive-around. Every fast car has its secret and theirs was no different; it was actually 9/10 scale in size, so it literally was cheating the wind. Elliott will likely forever hold the fastest lap in competition setting the record with a 212.809 mph.
by Vito Pugliese
The King’s Chariot
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4. Richard Petty – 1972-74 Dodge Charger
Every driver has a car that defines him (or her) and his (or her) career. For Richard Petty and his 200 wins and seven titles, there are two cars: his ’67 Plymouth and the ’74 Dodge Charger pictured here. 31 wins and two titles (including two runner-up championship runs). How does that math work? It used to be you could run a model for four years in NASCAR, and with the garbage rolling out of Detroit back then (particularly for the post-musclecar era for mother Mopar), the best bet was sticking with a proven bullet. The third generation Charger would rule the roost in NASCAR until the 1977 season; in 1978, Petty’s Dodge Mangum produced the King’s first winless season. Petty often mentions the ’73 Charger as is favorite and most memorable car, but the ’74 is essentially the same car. Plus he had that awesome Fu Man Chu.
by Vito Pugliese
From Daytona to Bonneville
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3. Bobby Isaac – 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona
Everybody loves the winged warriors, and Bobby Isaac’s No. 71 K&K Insurance 1969 Dodge Daytona is probably the most successful of the bunch. The Daytona was Dodge’s answer to the Ford Torino Talladega and Mercury Comet Cyclone. The standard Dodge Charger, while looking fast, was a turbulent turd at the big tracks, and the Charger 500 was a Band-Aid fix until the big guns arrived. Isaac won 11 races and the championship during the 1970 season, running the winged ’69 on the high banks and a regular ’70 Charger on the shorts. He would later take it to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1971 to set several land speed records. The Daytona was also the reason Richard Petty defected to Ford (Chrysler wouldn’t let him drive one – he was a Plymouth man), and why Plymouth would later release the Superbird, to bring him back into the fold. A far cry from today, where they can’t even find an engine supplier to recruit a team they desperately needed. Ah, the good old days …
by Vito Pugliese
Always Bet on Black
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2. Dale Earnhardt – 2000-01 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
By the time the late 1990s rolled around, downforce was the name of the game and Chevrolet was a little late to the part. While Jeff Gordon’s Monte Carlo was about the only Chevy to get a whiff of the ovid-shaped Taurus and its crushing downforce numbers, the design was getting a bit long in the tooth. And the General’s other soldier, the Pontiac Grand Prix, was starting to steal a bit of Chevy’s limelight on the intermediate tracks. Enter the Y2K MC SS. As Todd tells Jeremy upon unveiling his disturbing painting in “The Wedding Crashers,” “It’s both sexual and violent!” You may remember this iteration of the Intimidator’s chariot inching out a win over Bobby Labonte in an Atlanta photo finish, or slicing through the field at Talladega from 18th to the lead in the final four laps for what would be his final – and arguably greatest — win.
by Vito Pugliese
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1. Mark Martin – 1992-95 Ford Thunderbird
The early 1990s will be remembered as the Golden Era of the Modern Era. During this period of the sport’s history, NASCAR managed to catch lightning in a bottle with the perfect balance of aerodynamics, horsepower, tires and innovation allowed within – or just outside — of the rules. The cars looked reasonably close to their production counterparts, and actually had to have the hood, rear deck lid and rearview mirror of their showroom cousins. Martin’s No. 6 Valvoline Roush Ford Thunderbird was probably the best looking racecar and paint scheme of this (or any) era. Try to freehand draw that No. 6 and not screw it up or have it look goofy. Ford dominated the first half of the 1992 season, while Alan Kulwicki and Bill Elliott battled down to the last lap to determine the championship in Atlanta. It was suddenly cool to run a Ford in Cup in the early to mid-’90s, even as Earnhardt and Gordon continued to compile wins and Cups. At least Ford had the good sense to not name the mythical winged creature after a dust-buster-ized minivan.
Dale Earnhardt had quite a reputation for doing whatever it took to win a race. And although he didn’t make it to Victory Lane in the 1993 Fram Filters 500K Busch Series race at Talladega, he called a spade a spade. “Intensive” research (read: a trip to racing-reference.info) shows that Tracy Leslie was “that boy in the 72.” I’d hate to have been Tracy Leslie that day.
by Matt Taliaferro
Ol’ Sterling tells it like it is
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“I guess we’ll do what we dun again at Daytona 'n wreck ‘em all again.” Sterling Marlin was never one to mince words, so I won’t either: Sterling was mad about restrictor plate racing and opened up a can on NASCAR in this post-race interview from 2001. For all the things Sterling brought to NASCAR—Tennessee drawl, chest hair, rugs—he is missed.
by Matt Taliaferro
Ryan Newman draws NASCAR’s ire
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For Ryan Newman, racing with restrictor plates is about as enjoyable as taking out the garbage. Maybe that’s because, more often than not, his racecar becomes garbage. But perhaps the scariest of all his incidents occurred in 2009, when the Car of Tomorrow came oh-too-close to losing its perfect safety record. That caused this classic tirade—one of the stronger criticisms from a package that draws constant negativity from drivers inside the garage. A lack of control over his own outcome? That’s the perfect inspiration for a driver to spout off about lack of respect. And, for NASCAR, the perfect opportunity to hit him in the wallet for 50 large.
by Tom Bowles
Waltrip (of course) injects some humor
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With Talladega’s big, windy packs that keep all 43 cars superglued together, a “Big One” involving multiple drivers is almost inevitable. And the other scary sidelight that seems to come with those crashes? One car, if not more, flipping faster than flapjacks at a Sunday morning diner. In this race in 2005, it was Michael Waltrip that was the innocent victim, getting dizzy in a wreck that didn’t sap the fun out of his day–but it certainly injected some fear into competitors wary of high speeds and high impact that could cause a serious injury at any time.
by Tom Bowles
Mark Martin … Soprano?
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For Mark Martin, his Charlie Brown-esque championship history (five runner-up finishes) also applies to many of his results at Talladega. It hasn’t always been pretty, with the driver flipping as recently as 2009, but perhaps the worst hit of all came in 1994. Back then, the focus on brake failure wasn’t quite so severe, so Martin was more relieved—even jovial—to come out of this incident feeling OK … except for one specific body part we fellas feel pretty sensitive about.
by Tom Bowles
What the “25 Points” was he thinking?
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With his win in the 2004 EA Sports 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. drafted into the points lead and looked like a title favorite as the calendar turned from September to October. However, a 25-point penalty levied against him for using a certain four-letter word on national television in Victory Lane dropped him 12 points behind Kurt Busch in NASCAR’s inaugural Chase. Although Junior won again five weeks later, he never fully recovered in the championship standings. Sidenote: A fun game has spawned from this. Instead of using your preferred four-letter word, substitute the words “25 points” in its place. You’ll be amazed at how funny it remains and how many people will instantly know what you’re referring to.
by Matt Taliaferro
"Sarcastic" Tony makes an appearance
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In this clip from May, Tony Stewart looked to be a mental disaster just moments after his No. 14 car wound up in the garage area. After years of drivers complaining about the plate package, Stewart decided to make his point by switching gears and doing the opposite: embracing its pitfalls. One of the more fascinating moments throughout this clip is the way in which the media seems baffled by Stewart’s responses, continuing to ask serious questions when the driver was anything but. Give him this: Dude can stay in character.
by Tom Bowles
Greatest collection of post-race quotes ever?
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Perhaps the most frightening incident seen at any NASCAR track in the recent past (naturally) spawned some of the most epic reactions. The Carl Edwards/Brad Keselowski battle royale of 2009 launched the former into the fence and the latter onto everyone’s radar. From the first-time winners' exuberance to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s James Finch-chuckle to Edwards’ genius sponsor plug—and bone-chilling description of his in-wreck concerns—this post-race summary has it all.
Fuel mileage, strategy, pay off for Keselowski, Penske Racing
Photo by ASP, Inc.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is only three races into its 10-race Chase for the Championship playoff stint. And thus far, three drivers seem to have separated themselves from the field.
One made a major statement in the AAA 400 from Dover International Speedway — a statement even bolder than Denny Hamlin’s perceived “called shot” and win a week earlier in New Hampshire.
Brad Keselowski led only 14 of 400 laps on Sunday, but 10 of those — the final 10 — were the most important of the day.
Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe executed a late-race fuel run to perfection, going the final 89 laps on a single tank of gas, outsmarting and outperforming Chase rivals Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, to score their second win in three playoff events.
“We slowly eked our way up from the 10th starting position up to fourth,” Keselowski said. “Kind of fell in there on that last run, after my pit crew got me out fourth, and that put us in position to really capitalize on good strategy and execution.
“My guys did that. They did a great job. Together we were able to manage it (fuel mileage) very well, which is important as anything else in racing these days.”
As with most races decided by fuel mileage, the best car wasn’t the one that completed the scheduled distance first. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch (302 laps led) and Hamlin (39), along with Johnson (43), were the unquestioned class of the field. However, as the laps wound down, all three realized a decision must be made: Run all-out and pit for fuel late, hoping for a caution flag, or slow down, conserve gas and settle for whatever respectable finish they could muster.
The Gibbs teams chose the former, as Busch pitted from the lead with 11 circuits remaining. That handed the lead to Hamlin, who hit pit road one lap later.
Johnson’s strategy had kicked in much earlier. Leading the race with 40 laps remaining, crew chief Chad Knaus radioed the driver that they would not make it to the end running their current pace. Johnson gave up the lead to Busch and peddled the car down the stretch.
Enter Keselowski and the No. 2 Penske Racing team, a bunch adept at stretching a tank of gas. Running a steady fourth with enough in the tank, they simply waited for others to make a mistake (Busch and Hamlin) or settle (Johnson).
Inheriting the lead on lap 391, Keselowski held off a charging Jeff Gordon to score his fifth win of the 2012 season and into the points lead.
Mark Martin was third, while Johnson’s fuel-saving gamble worked to the tune of a fourth-place run. Carl Edwards was fifth.
Busch finished one lap down in seventh while Hamlin was eighth.
“This fuel mileage game sucks,” a dejected Hamlin said. “All the hard work that you put in — drove as hard as I could drive for 400 laps — and then it’s like you look up and wonder why we’re eighth. That part of it is frustrating, but it’s just some people have different strategies. Some people have better fuel mileage, but not as good of a handling racecar. I’ll take good-handling racecars and good horsepower any day.”
So it’s Keselowski, with a pair of wins and a sixth-place showing through three Chase races, that finds himself leading the pack. But he’s not willing to play the role of championship favorite just yet.
“I can’t state loudly enough how much longer this (Chase) battle is,” Keselowski said. “It’s very tempting, whether it’s the media or the teams themselves, to get in a comfort zone of saying, ‘Such and such has control of this Chase.’ But there’s a reason why it’s 10 rounds. We’re not even halfway. We’re three rounds in.
“By no means do I feel like we’re the favorite. Certainly we’re not the underdog probably at this point.
“My perspective is we got a lot more racing to go. Let’s just let the racing play out and go from there.”
To those in the ranks of the Paul Menard Empire, they are known as “‘Nard Burns.” How awesome are they? Legend has it they’re easily worth two-tenths at a road course and 10 horsepower at a plate track. Wolverine wishes he could grow chops so grand. With the flavor savor to boot, it’s a wonder he has but one Sprint Cup Series victory — the 2011 Brickyard 400 — but at least it’s one on par with the load-bearing chops.
by Vito Pugliese
9. LeeRoy Yarbrough: “The Presley”
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Not many fans today know who LeeRoy Yarbrough is. Had it not been for what may have been post-concussive injuries that were later explained away as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Yarbrough would have undoubtedly won a championship or two. In 1969, he won the Daytona 500 by making up 11 seconds in 10 laps. He then won at Charlotte, lapping the field in the process, and passed David Pearson on the last lap to win the Southern 500, making him the first winner of NASCAR’s triple crown. In the process, he grew a pair of era-appropriate sideburns to match his Elvis-esque hair.
by Vito Pugliese
8. Richard Petty’s Fu Manchu
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Seven Daytona 500 victories? Check. Seven Cup championships? Check. 200 wins? Check. Ray Bans and a Fu Manchu? Check and Check. “The King” now sports a more demure lip appendage, but back in the early ’70s, his facial hair was as cutting edge as the wing on the back of his Plymouth Superbird.
by Vito Pugliese
7. Mark Martin’s Copstache
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People typically recognize Mark Martin for his commitment to physical fitness, nutrition and a buzz cut. However, there was a time back in the early 1980s when Martin sported some facial flash as well. He was running his own team at just 23 years of age and needed to look a little older as he was trying to find sponsorship. (Just what the hell was an Apache Stove anyway?) This photo is from his ASA days, although he went full-on ’stache from 1981-87 when he when made his way back to NASCAR.
by Vito Pugliese
6. Jeff Gordon: “The Wonderstache”
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I am still amazed that this was ever allowed to pass any sort of check and balance within any marketing department of any company, anywhere. This look came about when NASCAR was still kind of an underground sport, just beginning to pique the public’s interest. With all of the PR preparation and attention to detail for driver, car and crew you could imagine, Jeff Gordon was pre-packaged for primetime. Those in charge took a look at that beautiful flowing mullet and fuzzy muzzy and said, “Oh yeah, good to go … that’s the prototypical image for the racecar driver of the next millennium.” Gordon flirted with bringing it back for about a week when the 2012 Chase started, but then had to do a shoot with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so away it went. That, or he was scaring the children.
by Vito Pugliese
5. Ernie Irvan, Pre-Goatee
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It’s kind of hard not to like Ernie Irvan. The survivor of two near-death accidents within a five-year period, he remains true to what got him paid in the first place: that big cookie duster. Irvan wore an eye patch after nearly losing his sight – and life – in a crash during practice at Michigan in 1994. Couple the patch with the ’stache that he’s sported since he was welding up grandstands at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and he’s even that much more of a certifiable badass. There should be little question why Dale Earnhardt Sr. tapped him to drive his Busch car, which helped jumpstart Irvan’s career.
by Vito Pugliese
4. Tom Giacchi’s 19-month growth
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Carl Edwards’ motor coach driver, Tom Giacchi, thought it would be fun to help motivate Edwards to win a race by refusing to shave until he won. That was all well and good, but the joke was on Tom, as he had to wait through an agonizing streak of 52 races from November 2005 to June 2007. Edwards is currently in the midst of another winless drought, having last gone to Victory Lane in March 2011. This year had to be a trying one for Giacchi if the bet still stands. The way the 99 team has been running, he might be waiting until Vegas 2013. At least it’s almost winter, Tom.
by Vito Pugliese
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chin Muffler
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When a man makes the conscious decision to grow a beard, it says a couple of things about him. Namely, “I am a liberal college professor,” or “I have given up.” It is the hygienic equivalent of wearing sweatpants on your face – all day long – in public. Whether he was channeling his inner Grizzly Adams, Joaquin Phoenix or Billy Gibbons, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s appearance matched his demeanor as his beard sprouted forth. How you can drive with that thing suffocating you in the middle of a sticky August evening in Bristol, Tenn., is beyond me. Junior shaved off the scruff this year, threw his lid on backwards and finished the regular season second in points. As the Chase has started, he let his hunting beard grow in, and the performance has fallen off a bit. Time to once again spin that hat around — and pour out a few Budweisers for good measure.
by Vito Pugliese
2. Tim Richmond’s ’80s Greatness
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Tim Richmond was a microcosm of the 1980s. “Sophisticatedly Trashy” – a hint of mullet, acres of taco meat sprouting forth from his fire suit topped with a totally legitimate mustache. Not one of these new hipster-style ones, either; a straight up, I-am-growing-a-mustache-and-peeling-out-in-an-IROC-and-picking-up-a-ton-of-chicks mustache. Tim loved women and they loved him. I mean what’s not like — the guy lived on a boat and got trophies made of Miller High Life cans. If only our sport had more like him … long since gone but not soon forgotten.
by Vito Pugliese
1. Dale Earnhardt: “Iron Stache”
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You know why he was called “The Intimidator”? That’s right: Because you’d be crazy to piss off a guy with a mustache straight out of the OK Corral. Mix in the Gargoyles and the Man-In-Black persona, and you have a seven-time-championship-worthy marketing machine that was about five years ahead of the souvenir curve. Earnhardt had a rather nasty wreck at Talladega in 1997 that singed his mustache and then had to go scuba diving or something, so he shaved it (clue us in on that again, Mikey). Of course, he looked downright weird without it. So back it came with a vengeance just in time for his Daytona 500 win in 1998. The next collectible idea for Teresa: “Earnhardt Chia Pet: Mustache Edition.”
In 2003, Matt Kenseth became the final Winston Cup Champion in less-than-dazzling fashion. He won all of one of 36 races while posting 24 top 10s for an average finishing position of 10.2. He clinched the title by merely starting the second to last race of the year at Rockingham. After promptly blowing an engine and finishing dead last, he ended the year 90 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, and 207 ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With new series sponsor Nextel coming on board for 2004, and a desire by NASCAR CEO Brian France to have his sport compete more closely – and resemble – the NFL, a playoff-type championship format was instituted. The Chase has evolved over the years, but the cumulative year-long points battle was replaced by a final 10-race title bout for 10-12 drivers.
With Chicagoland the site of the 2012 Chase this Sunday, let’s take a look back at the previous eight Chase campaigns, and how they rank.
1. 2004 Nextel Cup — The Chase Era Begins
When it was announced that the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion would be determined by a 10-race playoff, purists scoffed. How could any new champion be judged against the likes of Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson, or even Jeff Gordon? The first 10-race playoff – or “raceoff,” if you prefer – helped relieve much of that anxiety. Going into the final race at Homestead, there were five drivers with a chance to win the title. Kurt Busch held an 18-point lead (under the old Latford points system – the equivalent of a five-point lead today) over Johnson, with Gordon, Earnhardt and Mark Martin in close pursuit.
This Chase featured some of the greatest moments of the past decade, including Earnhardt winning for the seventh time at Talladega just weeks after suffering burns and being knocked semi-conscious in an ALMS crash – and then being docked 25 points for blurting out a profanity during his post-race interview. The second to last race at Darlington was a testament to it being one of the finest tracks on the circuit with a back and forth contest between Gordon, Johnson, and Martin. The 48 team showed early on why it would go on to win five titles (thus far), by winning four of the final six races, and finishing second at Homestead.
The most poignant moment? Busch suffering a blown right front tire, and the tire liberating itself from his No. 97 Sharpie Ford, which missed knocking down the pit wall by a paper-thin margin. As the wheel continued onto the track, a caution came out, keeping him from losing a lap. The race came down to a green-white-checker finish, with Busch’s teammate, Greg Biffle winning while keeping the No. 48 at bay.
Busch’s eight-point title win over Johnson, at the time, was the closest ever. Be that as it may, the purists were incensed further, noting that had the championship been decided by a year-long cumulative points total as it had since 1975, Gordon would have won his fifth title.
2. 2011 Sprint Cup — The Tiebreaker
Ever poo-poo guys who stay out to lead a lap to get a bonus point or wrench on their car after caving the side of it in, just to come back out 80 laps down in hopes of picking up a position? If so, the 2011 Chase should be the slap in the face that illustrates that every position counts.
Tony Stewart stumbled into the Chase like a drunk guy at the club demanding another Red Bull and vodka. Smoke even admitted weeks earlier that if his team did make the Chase, that they’d just be in the way. All of that changed at the drop of a hat, as the No. 14 took the first two wins of the Chase at Chicago and Loudon.
Stewart ultimately would win five races of the 10 (put the calculator down, it’s a 50 percent win percentage), to Carl Edwards’ zero victories. Edwards played it safe, taking the slow and steady route to what should have been the year that he broke through for a title. Edwards finished second at Homestead despite leading the most laps and Stewart won, despite having a piece of Kurt Busch’s bell housing lodged in his radiator ductwork. With the two tied at race’s end, the Chase went to the first tie-breaker: Wins. And Stewart’s five bested Edwards’ one, which came at Las Vegas in March — a skid he has yet to break.
A bit of coincidence regarding that Vegas race: Edwards only won due to fuel miscalculation by Stewart, who had the race in hand until the closing laps.
3. 2006 Nextel Cup — Johnson’s Rally
Jimmie Johnson’s first title will be remembered for starting a dynasty. However, the most amazing thing about Johnson’s 2006 Chase performance was the hole from which he climbed out of to win.
After finishes of 39th, 13th, 14th and 24th to begin the Chase, the 48 team found itself in a seemingly insurmountable 156-point hole to Jeff Burton. Sitting eighth in the standings, the team, which wasn’t THE TEAM at the time, began its comeback in modest-enough ways, finishing second at Charlotte.
Who could have guessed that that finish would begin a streak of five consecutive runs of second or better, relentlessly beating away all comers. Johnson made up 10 points on first at Charlotte, a dropped the hammer at Martinsville, narrowing his deficit to 41 points with a dominating win.
From there, it was child’s play, moving into second in the standings (-26) after Atlanta and by Matt Kenseth for first the following week at Texas. Another runner-up showing followed in Phoenix, and by Homestead he only needed to play it safe to protect his 63-ppoint advantage. He did so, of course, coming home ninth and beating Kenseth by 56 points.
4. 2005 Nextel Cup — Winning Races and Climbing Fences
By the time the 2005 season rolled around, a couple of constants had been confirmed: Tony Stewart liked to eat, loved Indianapolis Motor Speedway and climbing things (specifically, catchfencing). Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson was in his fourth full Cup campaign, and had racked up a whopping 16 wins by the time that season’s Chase began.
The 48 came out strong, winning the second race at Dover, but then triggered a 30 car pile-up at Talladega, which would ultimately be Johnson’s downfall (despite another win at Charlotte).
Roush Racing was poised to win its second straight Chase by sheer numbers, owning half of the Chase field with Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards. Edwards was in his first-full year of competition, but wasted little time in showing he was for real, snatching a win away from Martin at Texas and sweeping both Atlanta races for the year. Biffle won the season finale at Homestead by a bumper over Martin, but the title fight that day was on between Stewart and Johnson.
Johnson needed to win to beat Stewart for the title, but ended up beating themselves — as they had on more than one occasion that season. Johnson blew a left rear tire on lap 127 of 267 and nearly took out Jeff Gordon in the process. The incident capped a season of friction between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, leading to the now-famous “milk and cookies” meeting arranged by owner Rick Hendrick in the offseason.
Stewart, on the other hand, shimmied his bulbous behind up the fence yet again, claiming his second championship in four years and becoming the first driver to claim a Cup title under two different point systems since Richard Petty in 1979. Petty, in fact, won titles under four different points systems. Beat that, Tony.
5. 2009 Sprint Cup — Score One for the Geritol Gang … Almost
When you’re 50 years old, you’re usually planning the next decade of work so you can punch out a few years early and retire. When you’re Mark Martin, you take a new full-time job and still answer the bell at 0600 every morning to start pounding steel.
After taking a couple of years off from the mental and physical grind of a yearly 10-month prize fight, Martin joined Hendrick Motorsports for his last best shot at bringing home the hardware. Through the regular season, Martin and the No. 5 team racked up four wins – his most since 1998 – and served notice that there was a new contender to the throne, both at HMS and in the Cup Series.
Out of the blocks fast with a win in Loudon, it would be up to Johnson to battle back and beat Martin to win a fourth consecutive title. The 48 team responded, with a 271-lap leading drubbing at Dover and follow that up with wins at Fontana and Charlotte. At Talladega, Johnson appeared to be on the verge of suffering a big blow, with Martin running in the top 10 and Johnson hung out, barely in the top 20. A green-white-wreckers finish ensured a flip-flopping in the order, as Martin ended up on his roof while Johnson skating through for an eighth-place finish.
It looked like the 48 would be mailing it in from there on out, except for the first lap at Texas a week later, when Sam Hornish Jr. went Sam Hornish Jr., and clipped Johnson’s car, sending it head-on into the inside wall. A week later, though, Johnson won at Phoenix, with Martin following in fourth. At Homestead, Johnson came home fifth, while the 5 team struggled with a in 12th.
It would be Johnson’s fourth consecutive title, while Martin ended the season second in points for the fifth time in his career.
6. 2010 Sprint Cup – Hamlin’s Collapse
The 2010 season will be remembered for many things: Jimmie Johnson’s obscene fifth consecutive title (which would give credence to the notion that the Chase was simply not working) and for Denny Hamlin firing a Desani bottle at the side of his FedEx Camry.
It was a title for the taking for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team; Chad Knaus had fiddled with success, swapping out his crew mid-race at Texas with that of his No. 24 shop mates — a race Hamlin won, his seventh victory of the year. So confident was the No. 11 team that then-crew chief Mike Ford declare,d “I think our race team is better than their race team ... and I'm not afraid to go toe to toe with them to do it.”
About two seconds after he said that, you could pretty much guess what would happen next.
At Phoenix, the 11 team all but had things sewed up. Hamlin had led 190 of 312 laps, and was well on his way to locking down his first title and the fourth for Joe Gibbs Racing. Then Ford got cold feet on fuel mileage and had Hamlin pit. When others — including Johnson — went the distance, Hamlin finished 12th to Johnson’s fifth. What followed at Homestead was a meltdown of mammoth proportions. Hamlin qualified 37th, and on lap 25 was throwing up chunks of sod on the backstretch. It actually was a pretty good save, and he managed to bring the car home 14th. Only problem: Johnson finished second and won the championship by 39 points.
Of note, had this been under the prior points system, Kevin Harvick would have been the season champion by a staggering 285 points.
7. 2008 Sprint Cup – Jimmie Ties Cale
Usually when you win nine races in a season like Carl Edwards in 2008, you’re pretty much guaranteed to come home with a championship. That is, of course, you’re up against Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team and their seven wins. In a season that was dominated by the obsession over Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning only one race in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports (while Jeff Gordon won zero) and eight wins by the new plot of the No. 18, it was Johnson and Edwards that emerged as the two Chase contenders.
Heading into Charlotte for the halfway point in the Chase, Johnson held a 72-point lead over Edwards. A week earlier, Edwards attempted a last lap pass on Johnson for the win that was last seen executed during my 10th season in career mode of NASCAR Thunder 2003 for PS2. Edwards barely cleared Johnson for the lead – then promptly walled it.
At Charlotte, it as though Edwards was in position to keep it close for the second half of the playoffs. That was until his ignition system went bonkers, leaving him 17 laps down in 33rd place, while Johnson came home sixth. Edwards would rally to win Atlanta, Texas and Homestead, but it was not enough to eclipse Johnson and the No. 48 team.
Edwards lost the Chase that year by 69 points. Under the prior system, he would have won by 16 points.
8. 2007 Nextel Cup – The Bomb … and Not in a Good Way
One word comes to mind when describing the 2007 Chase: Brutal. The field was expanded to 12, and it was the first year of NASCAR’s baby, the over-hyped and under-stylized Car of Tomorrow. Top-heavy turds with cow-catchers and Erector-Set wings replaced the shovel-nosed, cock-eyed machines that were sealed off at the nose, riding on collapsed front suspensions.
Jeff Gordon essentially dominated the year, posting a ridiculous 30 top 10 finishes, 21 top 5s, six wins and five second-place finishes. Unfortunately, he ran up against his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who was coming off his first title (and was on quite the tear himself, winning 10 races). With Charlotte being the halfway point of the Chase, Gordon won in a green-white-checker finish after Ryan Newman wrecked with two laps to go. Gordon had a 68-point lead and was heading to Martinsville, where Gordon has seven career wins. Naturally, the inevitable happened.
Johnson won four races in a row.
Gordon tried to keep pace, meeting each win with a top-10 run, but that didn’t work for long. Heading into the final race of the season, Gordon’s title hopes were virtually DOA, trailing J.J. by 86 points. Gordon finished fourth while Johnson cruised around in eighth en route to his second of five straight titles.
Just how bad did these two decimate the field in the first appearance of the CoT? While Johnson beat his teammate by 77 points, third-place Clint Bowyer was 346 points behind in third. Ninth-place Carl Edwards? 501 points — and he won Dover two races into the Chase. Had it been the points system used the first 26 races for the final 10, Gordon would have waltzed to his fifth career championship (sixth if the same criteria was used in 2004). Under the points system used from 1975-2003, he would have beat Johnson by 354 points and Tony Stewart by 706 points.
Considering that sort of margin, you can thank the Chase for helping to curb some real stinkers over the past eight years. If you’re a 24 or 99 fan, though, you’ll probably curse it for denying Gordon the chance at closing to within one title of Petty and Earnhardt, and Edwards from winning a title of his own.
Either way, you can blame Matt Kenseth.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and Clint Bowyer (15). (ASP, Inc.)
The race shop was once a movie theatre. The team’s finances proved as stable as a house of cards. No surprise that one of NASCAR’s biggest dreamers was the owner.
Five years later, Michael Waltrip’s team is in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time. Michael Waltrip Racing brings an intriguing mix with drivers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., who both have shown the ability to string several strong races together this season.
Neither likely will be among the Chase favorites, though, because most people will be smitten with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin or Dale Earnhardt Jr. All are worthy picks and make it easy to overlook Waltrip’s group.
While much will be made of Hendrick Motorsports putting all four cars in the Chase after Jeff Gordon’s determined drive at Richmond to secure the final wild card spot, just think what could have been for Waltrip’s team. Had Mark Martin run the entire schedule instead of a majority of races, he could have been in position to make the Chase and put all three MWR cars in it. Still, Waltrip’s team has more cars in the Chase than traditional powerhouses Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and defending champions Stewart-Haas Racing.
That’s a credit to what Waltrip has built along with co-owner Rob Kauffman, who joined the organization in Oct. 2007 and saved it with his infusion of cash.
“They hired the right people,” Denny Hamlin says. “They hired the right drivers. That's how you become successful.
“(MWR) is going to be around for a long time. You look at the progression of the race team, they’re legit now. I mean, they are guys you're going to have to beat week in, week out.”
Bowyer, who joined the team this season, enters the Chase with two wins after his victory last weekend at Richmond. He’s finished in the top 10 in five of the last six races.
“With everything new, never would (I) have dreamed in a million years all this would have happened this quickly,” Bowyer said after his win last weekend.
Asked about the possibility of winning the title, Bowyer said: “Jimmie (Johnson) seems like he has a blast doing it. I promise you I could throw a better party than him. Might not survive it, but we would have a lot of fun.”
As for Truex, he seeks his first win since 2007, but has shown signs of contending for victories, especially during a stretch in the spring where he finished fifth at Martinsville, sixth at Texas and second at Kansas — all Chase tracks. He had finished no worse than 11th in seven races until placing 21st at Richmond. Still, he’s lead in four consecutive races entering the Chase, his longest streak of the season.
"I'm going to be honest with you, the way our cars are running and as fast as we've been the last six or seven weeks we're dangerous,” Truex says. “I know we're kind of an underdog and not a lot of people expect us to do much. It's a good position to be in. We just need to be smart, make good decisions and our Toyotas are strong enough to do this thing. (I’m) looking forward to going out and having some fun and hopefully we'll put together 10 good races and be in the hunt.
Regan Smith (ASP, Inc.)
GETTING BETTER It’s easy to miss because Regan Smith has not been in contention for a Chase spot, but a team that showed promise last year, winning the Southern 500, is displaying signs of improvement after struggling much of this season.
Since Todd Berrier was hired as crew chief before Indianapolis, Smith has had an average finish of 17.0. Not spectacular by any means, but in the seven races before the crew chief change was made, Smith’s average finish was 28.0.
“We weren’t happy with what was going on at the beginning part of the year,” Smith says. “Certainly none of us were happy with how we were running, myself included. This is a race team that up until the start of the season, and maybe the last five races of last year, was on the uphill swing.
“We seemed to get better each week and seemed to learn new stuff each week and we went through a period there of probably 15 races or so until we made some changes a (few) weeks ago. We were having the same problems week-in and week-out and weren’t learning and weren’t fixing and didn’t understand them. Todd Barrier came in and he’s done a great job.”
NUMBER CRUNCHING Tony Stewart has the best average finish of any driver at Chicagoland Speedway, which hosts the opening Chase race Sunday. Stewart’s average finish there is 8.7 with three wins and nine top-10 finishes in 11 starts. ... Of the 10 Chase tracks, the series has raced at eight of them this season. Greg Biffle has the best average finish among this year’s title contenders at those tracks at 6.4. ... Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to have made the Chase all nine years.
PIT STOPS Matt Kenseth will debut a new chassis this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. ... The chassis Kevin Harvick will use was first raced by Austin Dillon (24th at Michigan) and then run by Harvick at Pocono (14th). ... The chassis Dale Earnhardt Jr. will drive was run at both Pocono races this season where his best finish with it was eighth in June. ... Kasey Kahne’s chassis will be one he’s raced three times this season, including at Charlotte when he won the Coca-Cola 600. ... Greg Biffle will use the same chassis this weekend that he won with at Michigan last month.
10. 1988 Pontiac Excitement 400 – Fairground Finale Fit For “The King”
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One week earlier, Richard Petty was simply lucky to survive. NASCAR’s King and his No. 43 STP Pontiac flipped wildly, tearing to pieces and smacked by several cars on the way in one of the most horrific Daytona 500 wrecks in history. But there he was, in the final race at the old Richmond Fairgrounds (before its expansion into the .75-mile facility it is today) gritting it out and running up front the following Sunday. Victory Lane that day was filled by a similar “tough” competitor – Neil Bonnett was still recovering from serious injuries suffered at Charlotte in 1987 – but Petty’s push to challenge for the top spot took center stage. In the end, a third-place result, at 50 years old, showed the type of resilience this Hall of Famer was always made of – how fitting for it to be the final top-5 performance of his great career.
At age 51, most fans would consider it a miracle for a driver to simply qualify for a Cup Series race. Not Harry Gant. In September 1991, he went on one of the most magical rides in NASCAR’s Modern Era, winning four straight races at that “AARP” stage in his life to move inside the top 5 in season-ending points. But it was a streak that nearly never happened at all; at Richmond, Davey Allison was the dominant car, leading 150 laps, and it took all Gant had to track down and pass the No. 28. Their battle for the top spot, competitive but clean, is a reminder of the lap-after-lap, side-by-side racing fans yearn for when they speak of the “good ol’ days.”
by Tom Bowles
8. 2011 Crown Royal 400 – Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Ryan Newman
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When you look at the video, the on-track action between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman last spring isn’t exactly Demolition Derby material … just ask Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski how much worse it can be. But sometimes, what doesn’t look bad on TV can turn into a frustrating final straw inside the cockpit. The real fireworks on this one occurred the week after the race, during a meeting about the incident in the NASCAR hauler where Newman reportedly threw a punch. After four-plus years of bad blood – the two actually made contact in Montoya’s first Cup race in November 2006 at Homestead – Newman literally took matters into his own hands to settle the feud. Too bad Montoya got the last laugh, in the form of a NASCAR secret fine after he reportedly phoned his lawyer and threatened to sue over the incident.
by Tom Bowles
7. 2004 Chevy Rock & Roll 400 – Mayfield’s Clutch Performance
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Long before drug tests, lawsuits, arrests and tabloid fodder, Jeremy Mayfield was remembered for being a pretty darn good wheelman. Perhaps his greatest win came in the 2004 regular season finale, a nail-biter in which no one knew what to expect from the sport’s new playoff format. A total of eight drivers entered Richmond battling for three final Chase spots, with the only way in at the time to finish inside the top 10 in Cup Series points. Mayfield sat 14th, 55 points out of 10th and was an afterthought in most of the postseason discussion. If anyone, hotshot rookie Kasey Kahne was expected to sneak inside the field, sitting ninth and in control of his own destiny. But when the smoke cleared during a wild evening, it was Mayfield who used an early gas-only pit stop to take control of the race. Leading for the first time on Lap 99, he wound up pacing the field for a race-high 151 circuits and remained in contention throughout. When Kurt Busch ran out of fuel, the No. 19 car was there to pounce, pushing ahead for Mayfield’s first win in four seasons in a shocking upset that left him sitting inside the postseason field. As for Mayfield’s teammate, Kahne? The rookie wrecked out. Chalk one up for the veterans …
by Tom Bowles
6. 1990 Pontiac Excitement 400 – Martin’s Tainted Win … And Lost Title?
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Mark Martin’s not known as a short track guy. So when he won Richmond, the second race of the 1990 season, you knew the No. 6 Ford would be a strong contender at every track. Jumpstarting one of the driver’s finest seasons, his second career victory could have been a benchmark in what became a neck-and-neck championship battle with Dale Earnhardt. But trouble brewed the minute NASCAR took the car apart for post-race inspection. Earnhardt’s owner, Richard Childress, pointed feverishly at Martin’s carburetor spacer and claimed the driver’s car broke the rules. NASCAR agreed, assessing a penalty that’s debated to this day, as the half-inch “violation” is claimed by many to have given the car no advantage over the course of the race. The 46-point deduction proved the difference in a title decided in favor of Earnhardt by just 26; it was the first of what would be a record five runner-up finishes for Martin without a Cup Series title to show for it. Added bonus in this clip: Check out how young Jack Roush, Steve Hmiel and Robin Pemberton are!
by Tom Bowles
5. 1982 Richmond 400 – Dave Marcis Scores One For The Independents
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When NASCAR fans hear the word “independent” today, they typically think of an unsponsored program that starts and parks. But there was a time when the small little teams, sitting inside the back of the garage, could come out and win races with the right circumstances and a little boost from Lady Luck. Dave Marcis was the poster child for that, his little-team-that-could No. 71 a recipient of one of the big surprise victories we’ve ever seen in the sport. With threatening skies overhead at Richmond, Joe Ruttman appeared to have the race won with a dominating performance. But all of a sudden, the rear end broke, causing a wreck just as a raging downpour drenched the track. Inexplicably, a number of lead-lap cars pitted, including would-be winner Richard Petty thinking all other competitors behind them were a lap down. But Ruttman’s crash allowed one other car, Marcis’, to get back on the lead lap and the No. 71 team smartly kept the car on the track. Inheriting the top spot, the Wisconsinite then got an assist from Mother Nature when the rain forced the race to get called 150 laps early. “It’s been a long, tough road,” he said of ending a 137-race winless streak, but the road would never exactly get brighter after that – it was the last trophy in a Cup career that would run all the way through the 2002 Daytona 500.
by Tom Bowles
4. 2001 Chevy Monte Carlo 400 – Harvick vs. Rudd … Where It All Began
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Rookie Kevin Harvick was known for ruffling feathers, but he ruffled a little too much on this night. Battling for the lead with Ricky Rudd, and with the laps winding down, the No. 29 Chevrolet slammed into Rudd’s No. 28 – on the middle of the back straightaway. How Rudd didn’t wreck, we will never know, but the fantastic save left Harvick with a clean track and a path to Victory Lane. Seemingly out of it, Rudd taught us then how anger can be the best motivator; in the matter of a dozen laps, he closed the gap back up on Harvick, pile-drove him out of the way in the corner and drove on to an easy victory. The bad blood between the two would remain, though, sparking up in this race two years later when Rudd wrecked Harvick, sparking a feisty WWF-life post-race confrontation on pit road.
by Tom Bowles
3. 1998 Pontiac Excitement 400 – The Iceman’s Bump-and-Run
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Dale Jarrett thought he had it made, out front with the laps winding down at Richmond. But when a late, multi-car wreck with 10 laps remaining seemingly ended the race NASCAR shocked the field by changing course – throwing a red flag to ensure the event ended under green. In what would become the precursor to a green-white-checker finish, the move threw the No. 88 off guard and gave Terry Labonte, an ace on short runs, an opportunity to try and move up front. Charging from third to first, he knocked back Jarrett in Turn 3, pulling a rare bump-and-run on a night the sport changed course on its finishes forever.
by Tom Bowles
2. 2008 Crown Royal 400 – The Spin Heard ’Round The World
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been knocking on the door of Victory Lane, running strong in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. Former Hendrick driver Kyle Busch stalked behind him in second at Richmond, though, ready to show up his former employer who pushed the “Rowdy” aside for “Mr. Popular” at the conclusion of the 2007 season. Two drivers, giving 110 percent … only one winner. So as the No. 18 dove inside the No. 88, you could tell entering the turn there just wasn’t going to be enough room. “He turned him!” DW cried, as 100,000 fans groaned, Earnhardt slamming into the wall while Clint Bowyer darted past a slowing Busch. In the end, that’s who entered a shocked Victory Lane, while for Busch it was a victory to simply make it out alive. How bad did it get for wrecking NASCAR’s “golden boy?” Armed guards were by his side for close to a month offering protection.
by Tom Bowles
1. 1986 Miller High Life 400 – Waltrip vs. Earnhardt
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It’s the crash that defined The Intimidator’s hard-nosed reputation. Battling with Darrell Waltrip for the lead in the closing laps, neither driver would give an inch. Waltrip had knocked Dale Earnhardt sideways several times and his rival had no problem returning the favor. But a fascinating battle turned destructive with two laps left when Earnhardt, inexplicably hooked the No. 11 of Waltrip entering Turn 3. The resulting wreck eliminated not just those two but the third- and fourth-place cars, leaving a surprised Kyle Petty the first one to survive the carnage. All of a sudden, it was The King’s son in Victory Lane while Waltrip was left to wonder what the heck happened. And as for Earnhardt? He simply stated that, “Just hung up with ol’ Darrell … we got in the wall.”
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's AdvoCare 500
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Coming off another exciting race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads south to Atlanta Motor Speedway for this weekend's AdvoCare 500. Only two races remain before the Chase for the Cup gets underway in Chicago, and if the past few weeks are any indication of things to come, you better hold on a lot tighter than Tony Stewart holds onto one of his helmets.
Since the series hit the summer stretch in June, there have been 11 different winners in 11 races, dating back to Joey Logano's win at the repaved Pocono Raceway. Last week, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin that broke in the new configuration at Bristol and went to Victory Lane.
Just as the battle for wins each week has heated up, so has the battle to secure a spot in the 12-driver Chase field.
Hamlin's victory was his third of the season, making it a four-way tie for the most win on the seasons with Hamlin, Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. So far, only four drivers have locked themselves into the Chase: Johnson, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. This weekend, eight other drivers could mathematically lock themselves into the field.
While the top 10 is settling things amongst themselves, the fight for the two wild card spots are very much up for grabs. Entering this weekend's race, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch hold the coveted position, but anything can change, as Sunday night's race proved. Among those looking to secure a spot in the Chase through via wild card are Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards.
In the meantime, we've seen wild races over the course of the last three weeks. Last-lap drama, helmet throwing, finger pointing, accusations of teams testing the boundaries of the rulebook … you name it, it’s happened.
With a 500-mile race under the lights on the fast, high-banks of the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, the stage is set for yet another dramatic weekend for the Cup Series.
However, look for that streak of 11 different winners to end this week as Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the entire No. 48 team look to solidify their spot as the top seed heading into the Chase.
This organization has shown it is once again in championship form, with a win at Indianapolis, a second last week at Bristol, a third at Watkins Glen and a 14th at Pocono. Don’t forget, the 27th-place finish at Michigan is very deceiving as Johnson lost a motor leading in the closing laps.
A three-time winner in Atlanta, Johnson enters the weekend as the fantasy favorite. Already locked into the Chase, Johnson and Knaus are now looking solely for wins. While this group has not been to Victory Lane at AMS since it swept the races in 2007, Johnson was second last year and third in the September 2010 event. Look for him to improve that finishing position by one spot Sunday night and emerge as the Chase favorite heading to Richmond.
While questions arose about when last year's Atlanta event would be run after rain washed out the race until Tuesday, there was no question as to who had the best car when the green flag finally flew. Veteran Jeff Gordon dominated the day, leading seven times for a total of 146 laps en route to his fifth Atlanta win.
Marking the 20th anniversary of his historic first start in the Cup Series, the four-time series champion is on the verge of missing out on this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Currently third in the Chase wild card battle, with one win (Pocono), Gordon is 55 points out of the top 10, but only 16 behind fellow wild carder Kyle Busch. If Gordon can score his second win of the season, it would go a long way towards his quest to make the Chase.
The No. 24 team, led by crew chief Alan Gustafson, has been strong of late, but two poor finishes at Watkins Glen and Michigan have made things much more difficult. Expect Gordon to be a contender throughout Sunday night's race and be there in the end, challenging for the win.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne
This year, veteran Mark Martin has proven that you are only as old as you feel. The 53-year-old is running a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, but each time he climbs behind the wheel, he’s a threat for the win. Making only 15 starts thus far in 2012, Martin leads the series in poles (four) and has two top 5s and five top 10s.
Over the past few seasons, however, Martin has struggled a bit on the high banks of Atlanta. Since finishing second in the spring 2006 race, he has only two other top--10 finishes and seven finishes outside the top 20 (including three DNFs).
Despite his not-so-stellar record in Atlanta of late, Martin appears renewed at MWR and is this week's undervalued pick of the week.
When looking for another undervalued driver for your fantasy lineup, you might want to consider Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola. While Almirola has only one start in Atlanta, he sat on the pole earlier this year at Charlotte Motor Speedway, another mile-and-a-half track. The No. 43 team has not set the world on fire this season, but with crew chief Mike Ford now calling the shots they have steadily improved.
Do not expect this team to get up there and battle Johnson, Gordon, et al, for the win, but they could score a solid finish and give you the fantasy points you need as the season winds toward its home stretch.
Five Undervalued Picks: Mark Martin, Aric Almirola, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard
Have you ever seen a kid trying to eat an ice cream cone when it is about 100 degrees outside? Typically it’s a losing battle. That's where Carl Edwards currently finds himself with only two races left before the Chase field is set.
For the past few weeks, Edwards has been our darkhorse pick of the week. Each week, he has proved why. A sixth at Michigan was a solid finish, but not what the team needed to make the Chase. Last weekend at Bristol, Edwards was out front leading, but made a mistake late in the race, bypassing a fuel stop under caution. The resulting 22nd-place finish was the result when the tank ran dry.
With only two top 5s and 11 top 10s, Edwards has rarely been in contention to win races this season. After losing last year's championship battle to Tony Stewart by virtue of a tiebreaker, the driver of the No. 99 has struggled to bounce back.
Admitting there is a "real sense of urgency" at the moment, Edwards also pointed out earlier in the week there are a lot of talented drivers in a similar situation.
"It’s almost hard to put into words how close the competition is and any loss you have, there are gonna be a ton of people who capitalize on it, and any gain you have it’s really hard to have a real positive gain over the field technically or competitive-wise, points-wise," he said. "I don’t think that it could be any more competitive. Misery likes company and right now we’ve got a little bit of company back there, but I don’t know if it makes me feel any better, but it is good to see that it can happen to anybody.”
Once again, though, Edwards heads to a track where he is very capable of winning. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has three wins, eight top 5s and 10 top 10s on the 1.5-mile track, finishing second in the September 2010 race and fifth last season.
Although his last win cam in 2008, if he and crew chief Chad Norris can put together a strong setup under the car, stay out of trouble both on the track and in the pits, as well as play the strategy right, this could be the weekend Edwards finally gets out and does his signature backflip — and then the wild card battle really gets crazy. If not, you can pretty much write off his Chase hopes for 2012.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Carl Edwards, Landon Cassill, Jamie McMurray, Regan Smith, Danica Patrick
Best Average Finish at Atlanta (Wins/Starts)
Jimmie Johnson — 10.0 (3/20)
Tony Stewart — 11.2 (3/25)
Jeff Gordon — 12.2 (5/38)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 12.8 (1/24)
Matt Kenseth — 12.9 (0/23)
Carl Edwards — 13.6 (3/14)
Greg Biffle — 16.1 (0/17)
Jeff Burton — 16.6 (0/34)
Juan Pablo Montoya — 16.9 (0/9)
Mark Martin — 17.3 (2/51)
Jimmie Johnson blows engine late, hands win to Biffle in Michigan
Greg Biffle in Victory Lane in Michigan. (ASP, Inc.)
Neither Greg Biffle nor team owner Jack Roush is unaccustomed to visiting Victory Lane at Michigan International Speedway. So it was no surprise that the duo ended up spraying champagne following Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 Sprint Cup race. What was a surprise were the circumstances that landed them there.
Running second to a scorchingly fast Jimmie Johnson, it looked as if Biffle would have to settle for a runner-up showing and “a good points day” after leading a respectable 19 laps and being a top-5 contender throughout the day.
However, as Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy streaked down Michigan’s long backstretch and near certain victory with six laps remaining, the engine sputtered, then detonated, becoming the fourth Hendrick powerplant of the weekend to experience problems.
As Johnson shifted to neutral, coasting to the garage on the track’s apron, Biffle assumed the lead as a yellow flag waved for oil dropped by Johnson’s shattered motor.
On the ensuing green-white-checker restart, Biffle fended off a gaggle of challengers as the field raced into Turn 1, nosing in front of Brad Keselowski and driving away in clean air to his second win of the 2012 season.
“It was going to be a great race no matter what,” Biffle said. “I felt like I could catch (Johnson), but we’ll never know. Passing him might have been a different story. But I certainly think that with seven (laps) to go, I probably could have pulled up close to him.”
Keselowski held on for second, while Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top 5. Johnson was relegated to a 27th-place finish and left the garage area, and then the facility, without speaking to reporters.
Keselowski, though, had plenty to say in his post-race press conference.
“I don’t know what to say other than I was just close to getting what would have been one of the biggest wins of my career,” the Michigan native said. “That would have been really special, but it wasn’t in the cards today.”
Then he took aim at the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared cars, which seem to have had a chassis advantage after winning seven of the last 13 races since early May.
“There’s parts and pieces on the car that are moving after inspection that make the car more competitive,” Keselowski explained when elaborating on a perceived advantage. “Some guys have it, some don’t. There’s a question to the interpretation of the rule. Penske Racing errs on the safe side because we don't want to be the guys that get the big penalty.
“Obviously, there’s a question to the interpretation (of the rule) that as of right now it’s legal, but I’m sure that Roger (Penske, team owner) doesn’t want to be the one caught red-handed.
“As a group at Penske Racing, we have not felt comfortable enough to risk that name and reputation that Roger has over those parts and pieces. Others have, which is their prerogative — I’m not going to slam them for it.”
He made it well known, though, that while Johnson may still be a pre-Chase title favorite, his No. 2 team is preparing for a 10-race war.
“The 48 has the most speed and the best history as far as the Chase is concerned,” Keselowski stated. “But it’s my job to not roll over and give it to them. We’re doing everything we can do and we nailed it on that last green-flag (pit) sequence (Keselowski beat Johnson off pit road). I’m proud as hell of my guys for doing that.
“The 48 might be the favorite for the championship, but we’re not going to roll over and just let them have it.”
So even in victory, Biffle, ironically the new points leader, flies under the radar — as he has throughout the season. And that seems just fine by him:
“I know that a lot of people don’t expect us to win the championship, don’t expect us to compete for the title. I don’t care what they say or who they want to talk about or what they talk about.
“We will be a factor when it comes down to Homestead, I promise you that.”
News & Notes: Michigan
• Hendrick Motorsports had four engines experience problems — or all-out failures — over the Michigan race weekend. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart experienced valve train failures in Sunday’s race, while Jimmie Johnson had engine problems in practice, prompting a change. He had another go terminal with six laps to go on Sunday, costing him a fourth win this season.
On the flipside of the Hendrick engine docket was Kasey Kahne, who finished third, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fourth) and Ryan Newman (eighth). Stewart and Gordon’s issues mirrored one another. As for Johnson, might ace crew chief Chad Knaus simply be testing the limits of durability prior to the Chase? For the time being, one can only speculate.
• Mark Martin was involved in a scary wreck while leading the Pure Michigan 400 on lap 65. After colliding with Juan Montoya, Kasey Kahne and Bobby Labonte, Martin’s car careened into the edge of an opening in the pit road wall. The edge of the wall impaled his No. 55 Toyota, puncturing the oil cooler just behind the seat of the car, nearly striking some bystanders. All walked away unhurt.
• Justin Allgaier nudged his way past Jacques Villeneuve and on to his first Nationwide Series win of the 2012 season at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. Allgaier used the bumper to move Villeneuve, who appeared to slow, on the final lap at the road course. Coincidentally (or not), Villeneuve used the same tactic to obtain the lead from Alex Tagliani on lap 66 of 81.