Johnny Benson Jr. and I have a lot in common. We’re both from Grand Rapids, Mich., both graduated from Forest Hills Northern High School and both had my second cousin as our Tech Drawing teacher in 11th grade. What I haven’t done though (yet) is barrel roll a yellow Lumina down the Michigan backstretch. Johnny’s first outing in Ernie Irvan’s Busch car in 1993 didn’t go so hot, as he went airborne on the first lap. No big deal though; Benson would win Rookie of the Year honors a year later, the Busch Grand National championship in 1995 and Winston Cup Rookie of the Year in ’96. But has he ever written for Athlon Sports…
by Vito Pugliese
9. Mr. Sadler's Wild Ride
2 of 11
Forget Brad Keselowski’s Atlanta accident in 2010 or Michael McDowell’s Texas tumble in ’08. Elliott Sadler went for one wild ride at MIS during practice in June 2000. Sadler blew a tire going down the frontstretch at the fastest part of the track, rolled over nine times and smashed the car against the pavement. Between this, the highest G-load hit ever recorded at Pocono in 2010 and his two Talladega flips in ’03 and 2’04, Sadler might lead the league in YouTube-able hard hits and airborne antics.
by Vito Pugliese
8. Irvan's Emotional Triumph
3 of 11
In 1993, tragedy struck the No. 28 Robert Yates Racing team, when driver Davey Allison was killed in a helicopter crash at Talladega. Just over a year later, the new driver of the No. 28 Ford, Ernie Irvan, nearly lost his life at Michigan International Speedway. Given a 10 percent chance of survival after a practice crash caused by a cut tire that sent him head-on into the backstretch wall, Irvan clung to life for days in a nearby hospital. He would sit out the 1995 season and return to racing in ’96 wearing a patch over his eye. Scoring two wins his first year back prompted his friend and fellow competitor Mark Martin to quip, “Ernie with one eye is still better than most of these guys with two.” Irvan came full-circle at MIS in 1997, dominating the event and closing the chapter on what was one of the most miraculous recoveries in motorsports — at the track that nearly claimed his life. Sadly, Irvan would suffer another head injury at Michigan in 1999, enduring a crash in practice for a Busch race, effectively ending his career.
by Vito Pugliese
7. Another Heartbreaker for Benson
4 of 11
We’ve covered Johnny Benson Jr.’s trouble in his debut in 1993, but surely he’d be able to triumph at the track that is but 90 minutes from his hometown of Grand Rapids, right? In the 2008 Cool City Customs 200 Truck Series event, it was Benson and Erik Darnell battling in the closing laps for the win. As Ned Jarrett would say, it was a “pho-to finish” to say the least — and I’m still not convinced that Benson didn’t win. Pause the video at 2:58. Did Benson beat Darnell to the line? You be the judge.
by Vito Pugliese
6. Life Imitating Art … Sort of
5 of 11
Carl Edwards is genuinely regarded as a pretty nice guy — for the most part. Sometimes however, he gets mad. And the he gets even. In the 2006 Carfax 250 Busch Series race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got into the back of Edwards on the final lap, spinning him across the nose of Robby Gordon. After the race, Edwards went all Russ Wheeler on Junior, coming out of the pits and running into the side of Earnhardt on the cool-down lap. It might be the only time in recorded history that Earnhardt was greeted with boos after winning a race. Later, Edwards would walk into Victory Lane to, ah, “discuss” the issue with Junior — making for a tense encounter to say the least.
by Vito Pugliese
5. Earnhardt vs Earnhardt
6 of 11
It was the first time the Earnhardts were actually door-to-door in competition, and what better way than with 12 identically prepared Pontiac Trans Ams in an IROC race at MIS? The old man schooled the young’un this day, in an event that Earnhardt Jr. still laments as he recalled after winning here in the Sprint Cup Series in 2008.
by Vito Pugliese
4. Junior Nation Off Suicide Watch
7 of 11
In 2007, Dale Earnhardt Jr. jumped (or abandoned) ship at DEI to join Hendrick Motorsports. The ’08 season started off strong for Junior and crew chief/cousin/BFF Tony Eury Jr., culminating in a win for the duo in August at Michigan. What followed, however, was nearly four years of pain, agony, frustration and misery (and that was just Junior Nations) of 143 winless starts. All of that ended this June, when the No. 88 returned to Victory Lane in a dominating performance at the 2-mile oval.
by Vito Pugliese
3. Martin's Tough Week Gets Tougher
8 of 11
The 1998 season saw a seesaw battle between Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin for the Winston Cup title. Gordon won 13 races, while Martin tallied seven victories. Tragedy struck Martin midway through the year, though, as his father, stepmother and sister were killed in a plane crash. Ever the racer, Martin did not take the weekend off, soldiering through a difficult weekend in Michigan. He was in the middle of one of the most heart-warming stories in sports — leading handily following the final pit stop — until a caution came out with 21 laps to go. Martin took on four tires and got out first while Gordon, running seventh, took on just two. Gordon somehow got by Martin with nine laps to, and claimed his fourth consecutive Cup win, tying the modern era record. However, his reception upon exiting the car was less than cordial.
by Vito Pugliese
2. An Unlikely Last Lap
9 of 11
In 2009, Mark Martin made his return to full-time competition after running a partial schedule the previous two seasons to regroup, recharge and reconnect with family and friends who came second after nearly 17 years of full-time commitment to NASCAR. He had already won two races that season and was charging hard to crack the top 10 to make the Chase in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. Martin started 32nd in the LifeLock 400 but battled balky steering the entire afternoon. He started saving fuel on the final restart with 43 laps to go, never running wide open until coming to take the white flag. Turns out, the crafty ol’ vet saved slightly more than the dominant cars of Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson. Martin’s final-lap upset earned him his third win of the season and fifth career triumph at MIS.
by Vito Pugliese
1. DJ Gets Well-Earned First Win
10 of 11
MIS gets a bad rap from fans for producing long, drawn out green flag runs and, dare we say it, boring fuel-mileage races. Honestly, it’s probably no more or less than Pocono, Charlotte or either road course, but there are also those races that everybody remembers — and this one is no exception. It was his first career win, and he did it in style with one of the most revered and honored organizations of Ford racing lore: The Wood Brothers. And just outside of Detroit, to boot. Dale Jarrett going door-to-door with Davey Allison (with Bob Jenkins providing the classic call) was the ultimate ending to the 1991 Champion Spark Plug 400. The margin of victory — in a time before electronic scoring and timing — is officially listed as 10-inches.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for the Pure Michigan 400
Michigan's June winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
After a wild late-race battle for the win at Watkins Glen, the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Irish Hills of Michigan for this weekend's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Returning to MIS for the second time this season, the Chase is fast approaching and the action is heating up. In June, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended his 143-race winless streak and made the NASCAR Nation happier than a kid chowing down on some Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia.
This time, however, the series returns in the heat of the race to the Chase. With playoff implications all around and teams on varying strategies and objectives, things could get interesting.
Four drivers — Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth — have the opportunity to clinch their respective spot in the Chase in Sunday's race. At the same time, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and others are battling for the two wild card spots.
While the mindset of the teams and drivers may be different from earlier in the summer, one thing that will remain the same is the high speeds created by the new racing surface.
When the series first hit the freshly-paved 2-mile, D-shaped oval, the drivers were laying down some of the fastest speeds of the year recorded in practice and qualifying. After seeing some blistering on the tires, Goodyear officials made a late change in the compound and brought in a tougher left side tire for Sunday's race. Prior to returning this weekend, Goodyear worked with NASCAR, the track and the competitors to test various combinations to bring back a better tire. A total of 27 teams partook in the test on July 30.
One of the drivers most pleased with the test was Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has two wins, eight top 5s and 11 top 10s in nineteen starts in Detroit’s backyard, and is this week's fantasy favorite.
Over the last four Michigan races, Biffle has led a total of 258 of 803 laps en route to a pair of fourth-place finishes (including the June race), a 15th and a 20th (which came after sitting on the pole).
Sitting second in the series standings, just one point behind the five-time champion Johnson, Biffle has only one win this season, meaning he would fall behind Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin when the Chase field is reset after the Richmond race. Another win would go a long way in Biffle's quest to earn his first Sprint Cup Series title.
If Biffle wants to earn his second win of the season and first Cup title, he will likely have to beat Johnson for both. Always a contender at Michigan, Johnson has four top 5s and nine top 10s, but has yet to seal the deal and score a win.
Given the performance of the No. 48 organization over the four weeks, it is safe to say they will be a contender yet again this weekend.
The last time the series was in Michigan, it was Earnhardt Jr. that scored the win and ended the longest winless drought of his career. After a disappointing end to a solid day in Watkins Glen, Earnhardt lost the points lead, but is headed to a track he is very capable of sweeping.
Also keep an eye on Keselowski this weekend. Although he has an average finish of 21.0 at Michigan, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe always have an eye on pit strategy and could shake things up late in the race and have proven capable of winning on most any type of track at any given time.
Five Favorites: Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth
While Richard Petty Motorsports was celebrating a win last week at Watkins Glen, the team cars of Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose could have another strong showing this weekend.
Although they may not take The King to victory lane two weeks in a row, the teammates have had strong showings in the June race, with Ambrose leading 15 laps and finishing ninth, and Almirola coming home 17th in his first Sprint Cup start on the big oval.
Given their solid performance in June, along with the momentum built from last week's win, you may want to consider including Almirola and Ambrose in your lineup this week.
The ageless wonder, Mark Martin, returns to action this weekend behind the wheel of Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota. The timing could not be better, as Michigan is Martin's best track.
Although he fell out of the June race with an engine issue, Martin has a career-high five victories at Michigan. Given the success of the No. 55 team — especially with Martin behind the wheel — look for the Rodney Childers-led bunch to have a strong run on Sunday.
Martin’s teammates, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, have average finishes just outside the top 10 best at Michigan. Sitting sixth and seventh, respectively, in the series standings, both drivers could further solidify their spot in the Chase with good runs — and tack on bonus points with wins.
Five Undervalued Picks: Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.
With only four races left before the Chase field is set, time is running out for Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. Both sitting outside the top 10 in points, Edwards is without a win, while Gordon is currently fourth in the wild card battle behind Kahne, Newman and Kyle Busch.
Edwards enters the weekend with the best average finish among active drivers (8.4) and two wins at MIS. However, in his last five starts at Michigan, Edwards has three finishes outside the top 10 (including a 36th in the race last August).
If the 2011 championship runner-up wants the opportunity to make the Chase field, time is running out and the season that has yet to get on track needs to do so this weekend. At this point, solid finishes are not enough.
Much like Edwards, Gordon finds himself outside the Chase field at the moment. Needing wins, before the final cutoff race at Richmond, it is time for the No. 24 team to step up to the plate and get the job done. A victory two weeks ago at Pocono gave the four-time champion Chase hopes, but a late-race spin in the oil at Watkins Glen did his wild card hopes no favors.
The Alan Gustafson-led team has run strong throughout the season, but have struggled to put complete races together at times, albeit the issues were not always of their making. If they can use notes from the in-house No. 88 team, stay out of trouble, play the right strategy throughout the race and be there in the end, look for the No. 24 team to have a shot at the win.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Landon Cassill
Best Average Finish at Michigan (Wins/Starts):
1. Carl Edwards — 8.4 (2/16)
2. Matt Kenseth — 9.3 (2/26)
3. Tony Stewart — 11.2 (1/27)
4. Jeff Gordon — 11.3 (2/39)
5. Greg Biffle — 12.4 (2/19)
6. Mark Martin — 13.6 (5/53)
7. Denny Hamlin — 13.8 (2/13)
8. Jimmie Johnson — 14.7 (0/21)
9. Kevin Harvick — 14.8 (1/23)
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 15.2 (2/26)
There’s nothing more tense in NASCAR these days then a green-white-checker restart. But how about for a driver seeking his first ever win in the series? For Marcos Ambrose, it has been “oh-so-close” too many times on road courses since entering the Sprint Cup full-time in 2009. This time around, he was sitting second as the field sorted itself out in Turn 1 – looking like a bridesmaid again. But a well-timed bump sent the leader’s car squirrelly, pushing Ambrose through just before one of the wildest wrecks in Watkins Glen history. Back in the pack, David Ragan was tapped by Boris Said, slammed the wall, then ricocheted into David Reutimann’s No. 00 in a crash that sent that Toyota flipping wildly in the middle of the track. Said later got into a war of words with Greg Biffle, unsettled anger over this mangled mess that might continue to play out at the Glen this Sunday.
by Tom Bowles
9. 1999: Near Miss by a Road Course Ringer
2 of 10
It got to a point in the 1990s that road course promoters should have just handed over the trophy to Jeff Gordon on Sunday morning. Three of Gordon’s nine right-turn wins came at the Glen from 1997-99, including this domination to finish off the three-peat. Ron Fellows — what NASCAR likes to call a “road course ringer” — came the closest he’s ever been (or any of these substitute drivers, for that matter), in NASCAR’s modern era to stealing a Cup victory on a road course, only to finish second. In the meantime, Dale Earnhardt Sr. crashed hard, a rarity as the changing of the guard continued during NASCAR’s close to the 20th Century.
by Tom Bowles
8. 2008: Watkins Glen and the “Big One”
3 of 10
It’s not often you put the “Big One” and NASCAR in the same sentence outside of Daytona and Talladega. But in a bizarre incident, with eight laps left at the Glen in 2008, nearly a dozen cars were destroyed. Michael McDowell sparked the wreck, making contact with David Gilliland coming off of Turn 11 and in mere seconds a hard hit to the styrofoam barrier left debris flying everywhere and the track blocked. The upcoming cars turned into Demolition Derby Central, plowing into sheet metal, guardrail and styrofoam with nowhere to go. A red flag ensued to clean up the incident, leading to plenty of frayed tempers in a clean race up to that point, as no one had even gone behind the wall during the event’s first 80 laps.
by Tom Bowles
7. 2011: Tony Stewart Switches with Lewis Hamilton
4 of 10
OK, so maybe it wasn’t an actual race. But how cool was it to see Formula 1’s brightest young star, Lewis Hamilton, take on a stock car while Tony Stewart made one last foray into open-wheel? Their swap, turning laps around the winding road course in Western New York, sparked rumors Hamilton was headed over to the United States – although quickly denied. So were possible future F-1 races at the Glen, with the U.S. date awarded to a new track in Austin, Texas. But there’s still plenty of years ahead for both the drivers and the tracks … who knows what will happen?
by Tom Bowles
6. 2000: Jimmie Johnson Loses his Brakes
5 of 10
Sick and tired of Johnson being politically correct? Think he’s had it easy? Then look at this 2000 crash from “Before He Was Five-Time.” Running in the Busch Series, the driver lost his brakes in the No. 92 car and went plowing into the Turn 1 wall at one of the fastest parts of Watkins Glen’s winding road course. Immediately, spectators feared Johnson was injured — or worse. Instead, the virtual unknown exited the car, jumped on the roof and waved to the crowd, assuming the Rocky pose before getting led into the infield care center for observation (he was fine). It just goes to show that no racecar driver makes it to the top without his fair share of rough rides.
by Tom Bowles
5. 1995: Mark Martin Three-peats at The Glen
6 of 10
Yeah, the finish was not super exciting, but it’s the accomplishment that puts Mark Martin on this list. How good was the Arkansas native in the early years of NASCAR at the Glen? He received the Driver of the Decade Award from the track in 1997. Martin’s late-race pass of former teammate Wally Dallenbach Jr. after a late caution bunched up the field made him the first driver ever to three-peat since the Cup Series returned to the track in 1986. Only one other wheelman (Gordon) has accomplished the feat since.
by Tom Bowles
4. 2000: Steve Park Wins His First
7 of 10
There’s nothing more exciting than winning your first race at stock car’s highest level. But for Steve Park, the final few laps of Watkins Glen were more pressure-packed than you could ever expect. Mark Martin, with three Glen victories to his credit sat perched on the rear bumper of Park’s No. 1 car, threatening to pass at every turn. It took all the third-year driver could muster to hold him off, the New York State native holding on to complete a comeback from serious injuries that cut his rookie season of 1998 in half. It was a post-race celebration to behold, bittersweet considering serious injuries in a Busch Series race one year later would ultimately cut short Park’s career at the top.
by Tom Bowles
3. 2010: Montoya Prevails over Ambrose
8 of 10
Two hungry drivers. Only one first-place trophy. Both road course veterans. What else do you need for a phenomenal side-by-side battle? Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya spent most of their 2010 trip to New York going at it, fighting tooth and nail in an epic war for first place that wound up tilting Montoya’s way. When all was said and done, Montoya led 74 laps to Ambrose’s eight, but that doesn’t tell the story of how razor-thin the margin was. “Two great road racers going at it,” was all ESPN’s Andy Petree could say in the midpoint of a call that left a packed house glued to their seats at The Glen.
by Tom Bowles
2. 2007: Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Kevin Harvick
9 of 10
In this corner … a hard-nosed Colombian, Cup Series rookie whose reputation is to give no quarter to anyone. And in this corner … a Budweiser-drinking, successor to Dale Earnhardt whose temper tantrums both inside and outside the car are well documented. Throw these two volatile personalities together, have them wreck out of the race and what do you get? A NASCAR shoving match: Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Kevin Harvick that kick-started a career’s worth of bad blood between them. The funny part about this wreck five years ago is neither one was to blame: Martin Truex Jr. actually made contact with Montoya, spinning him out entering Turn 1. But try telling that to Harvick, who claimed: “Juan runs over someone every week” after getting up in Montoya’s face. The rookie’s response? “I don’t appreciate that. I have no respect for the guy.” Ah, the good ol’ days of NASCAR…
Brad Keselowski isn’t afraid to question why something is or isn’t done in NASCAR. He’s inquisitive, reflective and thoughtful. Some ideas lead to fruitful discussions and some don’t.
Either way, Keselowski looks ahead, never satisfied with what is happening. It doesn’t mean he has the right answers for every issue or that every idea is wrong. What he does is make others ponder issues he raises.
Keselowski looks at the racing in NASCAR and knows it can be better. Certainly many fans say the same thing. But how? Aerodynamics dictate so much about the sport. So what then?
How about the tires? Keselowski wonders if it would be better for NASCAR to consider a soft and hard compound similar to what is done in Formula 1 and the Izod IndyCar Series, which uses two different tire compounds at road and street course events
Here’s how Keselowski explains his notion:
“I think our sport has evolved to where aerodynamics are generating the majority of the grip in the racecars, which naturally creates an issue when we’re in a pack to where the guy that’s in the front has a supreme advantage over the guys that are in the back — and that goes against I think what we all consider quality racing.
“As a sport we have a decision to make, we can either step backwards and remove aerodynamics from racing — and I think we all know that it’s impossible to really move backwards because we’ll keep pushing and we’ll find it back as we did with this new car.”
Keslowski notes that when the current Cup car was introduced in 2007 it produced about 1,700 pounds of downforce. Teams have refined the car to where it produces about 2,200 pounds now, an increase of more than 20 percent he notes.
“The teams persevered and we will with the money and resources that we dedicate,’’ Keselowski said. “So as you look forward to the issue of how to make the racing better, you can try to take a step backwards and remove aerodynamics or we can try to take a step forward and include new ideas that improve the quality of the racing.
“One of the easiest is to look over at what F1 has with their soft and hard (tire) options that create the possibility for coming in (pitting) at the end of the race and changing compounds and overcoming the aerodynamic deficiencies of the cars that run toward the back of the pack, and I think that will improve quality of the racing for us all.”
Interesting concept. Can it work in NASCAR since nearly all of its races are on ovals as opposed to Formula 1 and IndyCar?
Not everyone is convinced.
Mark Martin calls Keselowski’s idea “brilliant” but he also notes it’s flawed. Martin says this reminds him too much about what happened with the tires when Goodyear and Hoosier were competing in Cup.
“You can’t fuss with the tires,” Martin says. “You’ve got the fastest tire that you can put on now. If you make them any faster, they’re dangerous.
“Brad Keselowski didn’t live the tire war. He isn’t permanently injured from that. Many of us drivers carry permanent injuries for life from that. I know the cars are better now. I know the walls are better now. We don’t need that.
“They bring the best tire they can bring and have but if you made one that was worse ... put him out on them and let’s see if he still wants them. Let’s see how he likes them.”
Jeff Burton admits that “it’s always healthy that we’re looking to improve our sport,” but he’s not convinced this is the right idea.
“I’m not a proponent nor an opponent of talking about different ways to come up with better racing,” Burton says. “I think there’s been a general consensus that Goodyear has done a really, really good job on the tire, maybe too good. Maybe the tire needs to fall off a little more so that we lose speed as the run goes on.
“Things that we can do in the sport that don’t jeopardize the integrity of the sport to make the competition better, then we always need to be looking at that. Whether the tires will do that or not, I just don’t know.”
Stu Grant, Goodyear’s general manager of global race tires, said there hasn’t been any work on such a plan.
Grant notes that tire usage in NASCAR is greater than in IndyCar and Formula 1 because there are so many more teams and that would create among many issues.
“From a logistical standpoint, there is a lot of cost associated with that for everybody in the sport, for us as well the competitors as you pass on ... all that inventory on a second set of tires,” he says.
Grant says there’s no way Goodyear could provide a softer tire than what it has.
“If I did it, they would fail,” he notes. “They would blister. They would wear out. They would lose air and we would crash. Nobody wants that.
“The only option would be to make a harder tire. In the end it’s NASCAR’s call. We’re the tire supplier. We have not had any discussion with NASCAR about that. We have not looked at that.
“We would have to make a worse tire that they would have to run. Is that something the sport wants? I’m not so sure.”
Kenseth's departure from Roush Fenway Racing just business, not personal
Matt Kenseth and Jack Roush in Victory Lane in 2009. (ASP, Inc.)
The divorce of one of NASCAR’s longtime partnerships has raised plenty of eyebrows this week. Matt Kenseth, the current point leader in the Sprint Cup Series, has been driving car owner Jack Roush’s No. 17 Ford full-time for over a dozen years. Only four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon, driving for Hendrick Motorsports since ’93, has been with a team longer; and only Mark Martin, a future Hall of Famer, gave the Roush organization more victories (35, to Kenseth’s 22). A former Cup Series champion — the only such driver on Ford’s current roster — 2003’s top dog, who captured NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 in February, has plenty of good years left (at only 40). Talent-wise, there are only a handful of better, more proven, drivers on the circuit.
Too bad that’s not where the real talent needs to be these days. Every charismatic move on-track has fallen flat for Kenseth in the boardroom, losing primary sponsor Crown Royal last year and struggling mightily to replace it in 2012. Patchwork deals for three, six, eight races have failed to provide long-term stability, forcing Roush himself to dip into savings and pay for several races out-of-pocket. So this divorce, like many in sports, isn’t about what happens on the track but off it, a classic case of human nature taking control. Once those bank statements dwindle, insecurity about the future trumps success in the present; at some point, the business side of entertainment has to take charge. We all have that survival instinct inside us, concerns about a paycheck causing desperation in order to salvage, retain or advance a career.
For Roush, putting long-term stability in front of loyalty has always been an easy choice. In 2004, top driver Jeff Burton entered the season without a primary sponsor, a scenario playing out remarkably similar to what we’re seeing now with Kenseth. At the beginning of the year, both sides said they would make it through the season, and then some — but by July, the sobering reality of a lack of sponsorship stepping up full-time had caused both sides to start “cheating” behind the scenes. Before you knew it, Burton left his ride midseason, jumping ship to Richard Childress Racing while being forced out by some young, upstart rookie. You see, Roush hoped that with a fast start (combined with charisma and potential) that replacement could have a better chance of attracting a Fortune 500 company to adorn the No. 99’s hood.
It was a gamble that paid off in spades. Within weeks, Carl Edwards had a multitude of top-10 finishes and a multi-million dollar backer. One year later, he finished the season third in points. His tenure with Roush has included AFLAC once sponsoring his car for the princely sum of $26 million a year. With the move, Roush’s No. 99 went from his biggest expense to his source of greatest excitement; just last season, Edwards and Co. came within one on-track position of a championship.
So here we are, in 2012, and Roush has a young, upstart river with charisma tearing up the Nationwide Series in Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Why wouldn’t he think about rolling the dice a second time?
On the other side of the coin, Kenseth sees how Burton’s career wound up at Richard Childress Racing. There, driving the No. 31, the veteran has four Chase appearances and a handful of wins. But more importantly, Burtin has a seemingly lifetime contract for helping restore RCR to prominence. Burton’s sponsor, Caterpillar, doesn’t care about “young” or “old” and appreciates the type of spokesman Burton can be for the company. When you’re 40, having someone back you until retirement becomes a little more important — and that changes the last career decision you make as an athlete.
Joe Gibbs Racing, if that’s where Kenseth is to wind up, has had a sponsorship relationship with the Home Depot since 1999. With its main rival, Lowe’s, attached to Jimmie Johnson the school of thought is it won’t be headed anywhere anytime soon with the right championship driver behind the wheel. For a driver in Kenseth, a man who pleaded in Victory Lane last year for his former full-time backer to stay on board, the stress relief of knowing the bills are paid takes priority.
As people, we like to see the same loyalty given to friendship, marriage and even your local ice cream shop paid off by the people we admire as athletes. But sports remains the most fragile of careers, where anything from an injury to an insult can fracture relationships to the point of disrepair. For me, the surprise isn’t that Roush and Kenseth are breaking up. It’s that they were able to stay together this long.
Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
To break one trend, Marcos Ambrose knows he’ll likely endure another when the Sprint Cup Series competes at Sonoma in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday in the first of two races at road courses this season.
Ambrose, who won at Watkins Glen last year for his first Cup victory, seeks to break a string of seven different winners on road courses. To do so, he’ll have to avoid the litany of trouble that lurks on the tight, 12-turn road course.
The last couple of races on the Northern California course have featured beating and banging synonymous with short-track racing.
“It is a technically challenging track, it’s hard to make passes,” Ambrose says. “Even if it’s clean, it’s very easy to make contact.
“The drivers understand that you’re going to have to do a few bump-and-runs, and you’re going to have to make contact to win the race. We’re all prepared for that, and we all understand the consequences of that.”
Ambrose, who is 17th in the point standings, needs a victory to have a chance at a wildcard spot in the Chase.
“We still feel like we’ve got a chance to make the Chase if we can win some races,” he says. “We’ve got speed. We just have to convert those speed runs into good results.”
Ambrose has finished between ninth and 14th in four of the last five races. He goes to Sonoma with higher expectation since his racing background is in road racing.
After finishing 42nd in his first time at Sonoma in 2008, Ambrose has not finished worse than sixth since. He led 35 laps in 2010 but lost the lead when, as he was saving fuel, he turned the engine off and couldn’t restart it under caution. A few cars passed him when he stopped on course and NASCAR placed him in the lineup where he regained caution speed. Only seven laps remained and the mistake cost Ambrose a chance to win. That helped Jimmie Johnson win and continue the streak of different winners on road courses.
On the other road course at Watkins Glen, Ambrose has recorded four top 5s in four Cup starts and owns a 2.2-place finish.
Kyle Busch started the different-winner streak when he won at Watkins Glen in ’08. Kasey Kahne won at Sonoma and Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen in ’09, while Jimmie Johnson was victorious at Sonoma in 2010 and Juan Pablo Montoya was first at Watkins Glen. Last season, Kurt Busch won at Sonoma and Ambrose won at Watkins Glen.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane in Michigan. (ASP, Inc.)
ATTENTION GETTER The question was straightforward, leaving no room to hide: “Do you think Jimmie Johnson is better than you?”
“No,” was the first word Dale Earnhardt Jr. uttered after he was asked that question in April at Kansas. “He’s a hell of a racecar driver, but I feel like I’m the best. I think that’s the way you have to feel. I feel that I’m smarter than everybody and I can drive better than everybody and I know a lot of people ain’t going to agree with that, but I feel pretty strong about it.”
When car owner Rick Hendrick heard Earnhardt’s comment, it struck him.
“He had not said anything close to that before,’’ Hendrick said Tuesday in a teleconference with reporters. “He, as a matter of fact, would say, ‘Man, Jimmie is unbelievable, Jeff is unbelievable, Kasey is really fast.’ But when he came out and said, ‘I'm getting the job done, I’m the “A” horse in the stable right now,’ and felt good about saying that, that just showed me that he was at max confidence.”
LOOKING AHEAD Nationwide points leader Elliott Sadler is focused on a championship this season but he also admits he’d liked to make it back to Cup, noting he has “some unfinished business there.”
Sadler, 37, ran in Cup from 1998-2010 before getting a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series in 2011 with Kevin Harvick Inc. Sadler moved to Richard Childress Racing this season when Harvick’s team merged with RCR.
“Of course I want to go back,” Sadler said of Cup. “Have to be in the right situation and right team to make that happen. Hopefully, one day it will. I’m not going to lie, it feels good to outrun some of the guys I outrun on Saturday and turn the TV on Sunday and watch those same guys run in the top 5 all day. I’m like, ‘We just outran them yesterday in the same equipment.’”
NEW LOOK Austin Dillon recently started wearing a cowboy hat regularly. Dillon’s cowboy hat is from the same company that makes Richard Petty’s cowboy hats. So, how did Dillon get on this habit?
“My hero is John Wayne,” says Dillon, grandson of car owner Richard Childress. “I used to watch John Wayne movies with my grandfather while we were out at Montana. Got a lot of pictures of when we were younger, me and my brother (Ty), both going camping and horseback riding and wearing our cowboy hats. I wore it at Texas last year (at) a Truck race. I have a country music singer who is one of my buddies, Tim Dugger. He’s like, ‘Why don’t you wear that hat?’ I started wearing it again. Now, it’s like a regular ballcap to me. I have fun wearing it wherever we go.”
SUMMER VACATION Mark Martin won’t race again until Indianapolis in late July, as he skips the next four races.
Brian Vickers, who raced last weekend at LeMans, will drive the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing car this weekend at Sonoma. Michael Waltrip returns to the seat to drive the car at Kentucky and Daytona before Vickers drives the car at New Hampshire next month.
Vickers already has competed twice for the team, finishing fifth at Bristol and 18th at Martinsville. His remaining races after Sonoma and New Hampshire will be Watkins Glen (Aug.), Bristol (Aug.), New Hampshire (Sept.) and Martinsville (Oct.). Waltrip’s remaining race after Kentucky and Daytona will be Talladega (Oct.). Martin will do the other races.
PIT STOPS With the Cup Series headed to the road course at Sonoma this weekend, there’s a few drivers fans don’t normally see who will be running. Robby Gordon is among them. He’s back for the first time since Phoenix (he failed to qualify at Las Vegas and Auto Club Speedway). Boris Said is scheduled to drive the No. 32 car for owner Frank Stoddard at Sonoma this weekend. ... Points leader Matt Kenseth has scored nine top-10 finishes in the last 10 races, but Sonoma is not one of his better tracks. He’s had one top-10 finish in 12 races there.
Logano scores second career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory
Joey Logano in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
Of all the race tracks to add a little spice to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Pocono Raceway was not expected to be it. A 2.5-mile, flat tri-oval that’s seen its share of strung-out racing, the speedway was also recently repaved — a move that doesn’t lend itself to door-banging action.
Sometimes, though, the racing gods smile on the fans when and where they least expect it.
After a bizarre first half of the race that saw numerous drivers get penalized for speeding on pit road and an event that appeared to be heading toward a fuel-mileage finish, a driver looking to break a 104-race winless skid used a bump-and-run move to get by a respected series veteran. And for the driver in question, a fuel-mileage win was the last thing he wanted.
Joey Logano, his future with the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team highly-speculated, used the ol’ “chrome horn” to scoot by Mark Martin with four laps remaining in the Pocono 400 to earn his second career Sprint Cup Series win in his fourth season on the circuit.
“You work so hard to do this, and them (JGR) teaming me up with Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) has been an awesome experience,” Logano said. “We’ve been growing together a lot lately and able to make our cars better. To get a victory, it meant so much, and pulling the Home Depot car into Victory Lane at a Sprint Cup race and winning it the right way was just an amazing, amazing feeling that you can’t replicate and you can’t explain what it means.”
Logano’s only other win came at New Hampshire in his rookie season of 2009, the result of a rain-shortened finished that saw his team gamble on staying out while others pitted. It paid off, as Logano, at 19-years-old, became the youngest winner in Cup Series history. The Pocono win, in contrast, was won not on strategy or weather, but on speed and pure racing.
“That feels awesome to win one the right way,” Logano yelled on his in-car radio as he took the checkered flag. “No stupid rain!”
Martin held on for second, while Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.
“It’s not how I would have done it,” Martin said of Logano’s bump-and-run move to get by. “But certainly if I’d have had a fast enough car, he would have gotten a return. But I couldn’t quite keep up with him.”
Logano’s move came after a restart with eight laps remaining. Martin, who restarted second, got by Logano and was pulling away. However, Martin’s Toyota wiggled in Turn 3 with five laps to go. The loss in momentum allowed Logano to close the gap down the 3,740-foot frontstretch, and as the two entered Turn 1, Logano nudged the rear bumper of Martin’s car. He sailed by on the low side and quickly scooted away, winning by nearly one second.
Fuel became a concern late in the going. When Kasey Kahne brought out a caution with 22 laps remaining, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had led 36 laps and was running third, pitted to top off the tank in his No. 88 Chevy.
However, fuel never factored, as an additional yellow for debris waved with 11 laps to go. The drivers that did not pit earlier — namely Logano, Martin, Stewart, Johnson and Hamlin — were able to conserve enough gas under the caution periods to make it to the finish without incident. Earnhardt settled for an eighth-place showing.
Points leader Greg Biffle limped to a 24th-place run after engine issues ruined his day. He surrendered the championship points lead for the first time since gaining the spot after the third race of the year.
Biffle’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, inherits the lead on the strength of a seventh-place finish at Pocono. Earnhardt sits 10 points back, while Biffle falls to third.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Pocono 400
Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. (ASP, Inc.)
This week has certainly been an interesting one in the world of NASCAR.
Jimmie Johnson scored his seventh career Dover win on Sunday, tying him with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the most all-time wins at the Monster Mile. Kurt Busch was suspended for this weekend's race at Pocono after threatening Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass following Saturday's Nationwide Series race, also at Dover. Testing got underway on the freshly repaved Pocono Raceway, with Mark Martin leading the way on Wednesday. Kyle Busch won Wednesday night's Prelude to the Dream charity race at Eldora Speedway.
While much of the focus this week has centered around off-track news, it is time to put that aside and look ahead to this weekend's race a the Tricky Triangle.
With testing taking place Wednesday and Thursday, fantasy NASCAR players get a rare early glimpse of what teams are getting a handle on the freshly re-paved track.
To no one’s surprise, speeds have been much higher with the new pavement and tire combination provided by Goodyear. Martin’s top speed on Wednesday was 175.380 mph, while AJ Allmendinger was quickest in Thursday morning's session. Allmendinger's speed of 177.190 mph was nearly five miles per hour faster than the track record of 172.533 set in 2004 by Kasey Kahne.
“You never know what to expect when a race track gets paved,” Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton said on Wednesday. “This pavement is unbelievably nice, smooth. The quality of racing is going to be improved a great deal. [But] it’s still Pocono. It still has the same characteristics and the personality of Pocono, but just has more grip.”
AJ Allmendinger, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kahne, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top 10 speeds on Wednesday.
Keep an eye on the speed charts from Thursday's two test sessions, and even more so on Friday, when the Cup teams will enjoy nearly three hours worth of track time in both qualifying and race trim.
As Burton mentioned, the new pavement might have added more grip, but it is the same old Pocono. One of the trickiest tracks on the schedule, drivers and teams will have to setup their cars so they work through each of the track's three unique corners.
The same old Pocono also means Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon are three drivers to keep atop your list of fantasy favorites.
Coming off his second win of the season, Johnson and his No. 48 team are the hottest thing on the NASCAR circuit. While the championship battle is still many months ahead, the five-time champ seems to be preparing for a sixth title run.
Johnson also holds the best average finish at Pocono (9.0) with two wins, eight top 5s and 14 top 10s in 20 starts. The No. 48 car was third fastest in Wednesday's test session, so expect him to be among the front-runners come Sunday afternoon.
Whenever the series rolls into Pocono, Hamlin is also one of the drivers to beat. After sweeping the races in his rookie year, Hamlin has gone on to record a total of four wins on the 2.5-mile triangle. He has the second-best average finish (9.7) with seven top 5s and eight top 10s in 12 starts.
Like Johnson, Hamlin also has two wins this season, putting him fourth in the standings. With some security in his spot in the Chase, Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb are focused on scoring bonus points for wins and there is perhaps no better place for them to accomplish that than at Pocono.
If Hamlin wants to score his third win of the season, he'll have to best veteran Jeff Gordon, among others. Gordon has the third-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Pocono, with five wins, 17 top 5s and 27 top 10s in 38 starts.
Currently mired in a season plagued by bad luck, Gordon heads to Pocono on a mission to turn his season around and knock the monkey off his back. The No. 24 car was strong last Sunday in Dover, but a loose lug nut and a poorly-timed caution ruined any chance at a solid finish. If Gordon can avoid the poor luck that has been chasing him all season, expect the four-time champion to have a solid day on Sunday.
Also keep an eye on the ageless Martin and last August's Pocono winner Brad Keselowski.
As previously stated, Martin led the way in Wednesday's test session and has the fourth-best average finish (11.2) at Pocono, but the veteran has never been to Victory Lane.
Keselowski already has two wins this season, but is currently 11th in the standings. Look for him to try and work his way into the top 10 in points for the first time this season. Keselowski won here last August.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski
Kevin Harvick. #GrewOne (ASP, Inc.)
Although he has yet to win in Pocono, Kevin Harvick has always produced solid results on the 2.5-mile tri-oval. With the eighth-best average finish (14.0), Harvick has five top 5s and eight top 10s in 22 starts. In his last four Pocono starts, the driver of the No. 29 Chevy has three top 5s and finished 14th last August. Harvick was fourth-fastest in Wednesday's test session.
While Dover might be considered Martin Truex Jr.’s home track, Pocono Raceway is not far from his native New Jersey. Truex enters this weekend's race sixth in points, but still looking for that elusive win. With the 10th-best average finish (15.3) here, Truex has results of 12th or better in his last three races at Pocono. While he may not score the win, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver could lead to some solid fantasy points at the end of the day.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle
Another driver that could earn some strong fantasy points this weekend is Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard, who has only one top 10 at Pocono, but has four finishes of 16th or better in his last four starts.
Menard was able to score three top-10 finishes early in the 2012 season, but has run 13th to 18th over the last seven races. Do not expect Menard to be scoring his first win of the season, but he could easily have a strong day and provide some quality fantasy points.
Also keep an eye on Juan Pablo Montoya. In his last six Pocono starts, Montoya has four top-10 finishes, including a second in 2009. The driver of the No. 42 was seventh in last June's race, but finished 32nd when the series returned in August. With the new pavement, Montoya had the 10th-fastest time in Wednesday's test session. Sitting 20th in points, Montoya is looking to turn his season around before heading into the long summer months leading to the Chase.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer
Again, be sure to take advantage of the two days of testing leading up to this weekend's action at Pocono. It is a rare treat for NASCAR fantasy participants to get an early glimpse of who is fast, who is struggling, and who to watch out for on Sunday. With no testing being televised, check the speed charts and hold off until Friday’s Happy Hour session is complete before setting set your lineup.
Best Average Finish at Pocono (Wins):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 9.0 (2)
2. Denny Hamlin — 9.7 (4)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.2 (5)
4. Mark Martin — 11.2 (0)
5. Tony Stewart — 11.8 (2)
6. Ryan Newman — 12.7 (1)
7. Carl Edwards — 13.8 (2)
8. Kevin Harvick — 14.0 (0)
9. Matt Kenseth — 14.2 (0)
10. Martin Truex Jr. — 15.3 (0)
Kasey Kahne (5) and Jeff Gordon (24). (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The Long and Short of It
What was supposed to be a celebration has become a burden for Hendrick Motorsports. Mired in a 15-race winless drought, its longest since 2002-03, the organization remains at 199 Cup victories as the series heads to Talladega.
Whenever the team scores its 200th victory — a significant number in a sport that reveres Richard Petty’s 200 career victories as a driver — it will be more relief than triumph.
Yet, even as some focus on what Hendrick hasn’t done, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is second in the point standings and Jimmie Johnson is sixth. It’s surprising they haven’t won. Earnhardt has finished second or third four times and Johnson has done so three times. Hendrick has placed at least one car in the top 5 in each of the last five races. Twice it has had two cars among the top 5 in that stretch, including last weekend at Richmond when Earnhardt was second to Kyle Busch and Kahne placed a season-best fifth.
What makes this winless drought less dire for this organization is how much speed many of these cars have. It’s not like they’re struggling to stay on the lead lap in many races. Still, there are issues.
Gordon has struggled in qualifying. His three top-10 starts came at the short tracks. While he’s led 339 laps, second only to Johnson’s 362, nearly all of the laps Gordon came at Martinsville. He, Johnson and Earnhardt appeared as if they would all finish in the top three and give Hendrick his noteworthy victory at a track where he won his first Cup race. A late caution bunched the field and Gordon and Johnson got knocked out of the lead on the restart, symbolizing how agonizing close they’ve been to victory at times this season.
Gordon understands how important it is to score a victory soon.
“Well, it’s always important to win,” he says. “And we’re always trying to win as hard as we possibly can. It’s just like getting ready for the All-Star race. No points involved; we’re going to really go all-out to win. Well, we do it every weekend.
“But we do recognize that at this point, and it’s not completely out of the question that we could make up those points and get in the top 10 legitimately. If you look at our season last year, the amount of points that we made up from this point until the Chase, we did it. And we can do it again. But we’ve got to get a lot more things going our way than what’s happening right now. And we’ve definitely put ourselves at a huge deficit.”
Kahne has had all sorts of misfortune. He had only two finishes in the top 20 in the first six races. He fell out of one race because of an accident and another with engine problems. Gordon also had an engine problem, coming in the Daytona 500.
Even with such issues, it’s not hard to think that it won’t be long before a Hendrick car arrives in Victory Lane. Maybe this weekend. Gordon’s six victories at Talladega are most among active drivers and Earnhardt is next with five.
Johnson, the last Hendrick driver to win a Cup race, remains confident.
“My mindset from when I started and through the championships and still now, is if you run in the top 5, especially the top three week after week, you’re going to win your fair share of races,” says Johnson, who has seven top-10 finishes, tying Earnhardt for most this season. “And I fully believe in that statement. And although there are times I’ve left the track disappointed with a second or a third or whatever it may be — or 12th at Martinsville because I felt like we had a good shot at it — I still really believe in that philosophy and I’m very happy with how we’re running and the speed we have in our cars.”
LOOK AT THIS KID The talk beforehand was about Travis Pastrana making his Nationwide Series debut last weekend at Richmond, but 18-year-old Ryan Blaney had people talking afterward when he finished seventh in his series debut.
“It exceeded my expectations a little bit,’’ said Blaney, the son of Cup driver Dave Blaney. “We thought coming out ... with the racecar all still intact and a good top-15 finish would be real nice.”
He’ll return to the series in a couple of weeks at Darlington — a track he’s never visited.
Blaney said he’ll prepare for Darlington by watching tapes of the racing as he did before the Richmond race, along with talking with other drivers.
Mark Martin (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
NOT GOOD TO BE NO. 1 Mark Martin continued the trend the pole-winner not winning the race. No pole winner has won a race this year. No pole winner has won in the last 27 races. The average finishing position for the pole winner during those races is 16.5.
The last pole winner to win a race was Ryan Newman at New Hampshire in July 2011.
This streak likely will continue. The pole-winner has won only once in the last 27 races at Talladega.
PIT STOPS Kevin Harvick has been running at the end of all 22 starts he’s had at Talladega. ... Matt Kenseth has failed to finish in the top 10 in each of the last 10 races at Talladega. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth are the only Cup drivers to have completed all 2,926 laps in the first nine races of the season. ... This weekend will be the first race for Mike Ford as crew chief for Aric Almirola on the No. 43 car. Ford helped Denny Hamlin nearly win the series title in 2010. ... Carl Edwards will use the same chassis at Talladega that he used to win the Daytona 500 pole.