Favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's LENOX Industrial Tools 301
Defending Loudon winner Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
The race may have ended Saturday night, but the smoke has yet to settle following the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway — both literally and figuratively.
Defending series champion Tony Stewart did what few could Saturday night, passing Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle for the lead. The two were attached at the bumper and out ahead of the pack for the majority of the night, leading a combined 124 of the 160 laps. Yet in the final frantic laps, Stewart was able to work with Kasey Kahne and push around the pair on the outside.
Earning his third victory of the year, Stewart tied Brad Keselowski with the most wins this season, and further solidified his spot in the Chase. Aside from a 32nd-place finish at Kentucky, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have one win and four finishes of third or better in the last five events.
The two-time champion typically hits his stride during the summer stretch, and that seems to be the case again this year, so the competition should pay heed at New Hampshire, a track where Stewart owns for victories.
At times is seems Stewart performs at his best when faced with adversity and distractions abound for his organization at the moment. With the U.S. Army pulling all funding from NASCAR at the end of the year and Ryan Newman's name coming up in the Silly Season talk, Stewart is going to have to start answering questions soon.
However, there are bigger controversies, more time for that to develop, and Smoke just so happens to be heading to one of his best tracks, statistically speaking.
Over the past two seasons, Stewart has one win and two runner-up finishes in four races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That 24th-place finish in the other event? He led 100 of the 300 laps, but ran out of fuel on the final lap giving the win to Clint Bowyer in September 2010.
Stewart-Haas Racing was the class of the field in this race last season when Newman led the organization to a 1-2 sweep of both qualifying and the race. Newman also led 62 laps in September's Chase race, but was among those short on fuel in the closing laps.
Despite a win this season, Newman currently trails Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in the wild card standings. A strong run (or a win) would move the No. 39 team closer to the championship battle.
Bowyer, the Sonoma winner, is another driver with his eye on the wild card standings. After scoring the win on the road course, Bowyer has dropped from seventh to 10th in the standings after a 16th at Kentucky and wreck-induced 29th in Daytona.
Bowyer is strong in Loudon though, with two wins and four top 5s in his 12 visits, however, also has seven finishes of 17th or worse. He has led a combined 229 laps in the last three New Hampshire races, with one win (Sept. 2010), a 17th and a 26th after running out of fuel with the lead in the final laps.
Five Favorites: Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin
The aforementioned wild card battle continues to intensify with each race, as Busch, Logano, Newman and Kahne jockey for the final two Chase spots over the next eight weeks. The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Busch and Logano currently hold the two transfer positions, but there is a lot of racing left before anything is decided.
While Busch has been trying to kick the trend of poor finishes, Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s in the last five races. Along with his strong runs on the Cup slate, Logano has also been tearing things up in the Nationwide Series (four wins, a fifth and a sixth in the last six events), leaving the 22-year-old feeling comfortable and confident behind the wheel, despite being a prominent figure in the Silly Season rumor mill.
The July New Hampshire race has been good to the driver of the No. 20 Toyota throughout his young career. In his three July starts at the “Magic Mile” Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s. Logano has not fared as well in the fall race, however, with three finishes outside the top 20 in four attempts.
Look for the trend of strong runs to continue this weekend as Logano and crew chief Jason Ratcliff go after their second win of the year, positioning themselves for a Chase berth.
Five Undervalued Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton
Darkhorse pick of the week: Brian Vickers. (ASP, Inc.)
As teams and sponsors look to 2013, free agent drivers shopping for rides are doing their best to impress. For Brian Vickers, who is driving a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, much must be accomplished in limited time.
In his three 2012 starts behind the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota, Vickers has two top 5s (Bristol, Sonoma) and an 18th at Martinsville. Team owner Michael Waltrip was behind the wheel of the No. 55 last weekend at Daytona, surviving the carnage at the end to finish inside the top 10.
Vickers was fifth in Loudon last September, but finished 34th in the July event. In fact, in his 13 starts at NHMS, Vickers has five finishes of 34th or worse. With so much on the line for his future — along with the success of the No. 55 throughout the season —Vickers is this weekend's darkhorse pick.
If a three-time Loudon winner can be considered a darkhorse, then Jeff Gordon is it for Sunday's 300-miler. While the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has the third-best average finish in New Hampshire (10.8), his luck this season has been devastating to his playoff hopes. Strong runs at historically successful tracks have gone to waste due to mechanical failures, wrecks and a host of other issues.
There is no doubt the four-time series champion will be a contender Sunday, but can his team put together a full race free of issues — self-inflicted, luck-related or otherwise? Given they are just on the outside of the wild card hunt and need solid finishes, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson understand they need to do all they can to score wins.
“We are not afraid of trying things with the setup or during the race,” Gordon says. “We're not afraid to take some risks. Each race that goes by without a win (means) the more risk we are willing to take. But I feel like we're still a long way from being out of this thing.”
Five Darkhorse Picks: Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr.
Best Average Finish at New Hampshire (wins):
1. Denny Hamlin — 9.0 (1)
2. Jimmie Johnson — 10.0 (3)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.8 (3)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (3)
5. Ryan Newman — 13.0 (3)
6. Jeff Burton — 13.6 (4)
7. Kurt Busch — 13.9 (3)
8. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (0)
9. Matt Kenseth — 14.0 (0)
10. Kevin Harvick — 14.1 (1) *Mark Martin, with one win and an average finish of 12.5, is not entered in this weekend’s event.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Coke Zero 400
Carl Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
Here's hoping all the NASCAR fantasy players out there had a happy and safe Fourth of July holiday. After a week of firework displays around this great nation, the grand finale will come Saturday night under the lights at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 — let's just keep Juan Pablo Montoya away from any jet dryers, OK?
In all seriousness, this weekend's annual July stop at the beach is one in which drivers are racing with multiple agendas on one of the sport's biggest stages. Each time the series heads to Daytona, nearly anyone in the field has a shot at upsetting the world — or at least scoring a solid finish at a crucial part of the season.
With only nine races left before the Chase field is set, the battle for the wild card spots and the fight for the top 10 in the standings is intensifying.
Perhaps one of the biggest names currently outside the top 10 in points looking to score his first win of the season this is Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards. Last year's runner-up in the championship battle has yet to win in 2012, and currently sits 11th in points.
Edwards had a deceptively strong run going in Kentucky, but a late pit stop for fuel dropped the No. 99 Ford to a 20th-place finish at the end of the night. The finish was Edwards' fifth-straight outside the top 10. To find Edwards' last top-5 finish, you would have to go back to Fontana in March. Edwards did not lead a single lap of competition until Kansas, when he led one, then backed it up at Richmond by leading 206 of the 400 laps. Since then, Edwards has led a grand total of zero.
However, things have been shaken up of late at RFR. Daytona 500 champion and current points leader Matt Kenseth will be leaving the organization at the end of the season with Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moving up to the Cup ranks as his replacement. With a multitude of sponsorship support behind him and many beginning to ask questions, Edwards is determined to turn his season around at the halfway point.
The driver of the No. 99 has been among the best on the high banks of Daytona in recent visits. He was runner-up to Trevor Bayne in last year's Daytona 500. He entered last year's Coke Zero 400 the points leader, but was turned around while running third early in the race by teammate Greg Biffle, leading to a 37th-place finish. This season, Edwards sat on the pole for the 500 and came home eighth. And if there’s one thing that’s obvious in the Ford camp, it’s that their engineers have figured out how to keep the Blue Ovals running cooler — a major advantage on the plate tracks, circa 2012.
Looking to race his way back into the top 10 in points, earn his first win of the season and turn his year around, Edwards is this week's fantasy favorite.
While Edwards may be the fantasy favorite, the perennial fan favorite is Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has two wins on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, one of which came in the Coke Zero 400 on July 7, 2001. With Saturday night's race coming on July 7 once again, could seven be the lucky number for Earnhardt?
Although he is always counted among the best at Daytona — he finished second to Kenseth in February — Earnhardt's last win on the high banks was in 2004. With one victory already this season, the No. 88 team is eager to add to the win column and start collecting bonus points for the Chase.
Whether or not drivers are willing to admit it, momentum is a hard thing to beat, and right now Brad Keselowski has a lot of it. Coming off a strong performance last week in Kentucky, Keselowski’s three wins lead the circuit. He’s good on all types of tracks (with wins on short, plate and intermediate venues), making him a must-watch.
Based on their recent finishes at Daytona, never count out Edwards’ Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Biffle. Kenseth was second in this race last season and won his second Daytona 500 in February, while Biffle was third. The Roush cars are typically strong here, with former driver David Ragan besting Kenseth last July.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Like Keselowski, Sonoma race-winner Clint Bowyer proved he can get the job done on any style track — but especially on the high banks of Daytona and Talladega. His average finish of 14.8 at DIS is second-best among active drivers, however Bowyer has yet to score a win at Daytona.
Also like Keselowski, Bowyer has momentum on his side as the series hits the halfway point of the season. A winner two weeks ago on the road course, Bowyer is seventh in the standings and has only two finishes worse than 17th all season (a 30th, Phoenix; 36th, Kansas).
The month of July has historically been good to Bowyer in the past. Of the three tracks the series hits this month — Daytona, New Hampshire and Indianapolis — Bowyer has two wins, a pole, six top 5s and 12 top 10s. Expect him to add to those totals on Saturday.
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and teammate Clint Bowyer (15) at Daytona. (ASP, Inc.)
Bowyer's MWR teammate, Martin Truex Jr., has not had much luck when it comes to Daytona, but expect that to turn around this weekend. In his 14 previous starts on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Truex has a best finish of sixth in the 2010 Daytona 500 and an average finish of 21.5. In fact, that sixth-place finish is his lone top 10 at Daytona. Statistically, Truex has struggled mightily in the annual July event, with a best finish of 13th in 2007. Aside from that event, Truex has four finishes of 25th or worse in six races.
However, Truex and his No. 56 team have shown strength this season. Already 17 races into the season, Truex has more top 5 finishes (four) than in the last four seasons combined, and nearly as many top 10s (nine). Sitting eighth in the standings, Truex is looking to move further away from that 10th-place Chase cut off, break his winless streak dating back to 2007 and start building bonus points for the Chase.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson
There have been quite a few surprises throughout the first half of the 2012 season, but one that jumps out is the driver sitting just outside the top 10 in the standings in 13th-place. Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard has consistently stayed in contention, yet just outside the Chase cutoff, ahead of race-winners Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
Although he has only four top-10 finishes this season, Menard's average finish has been 16.1. Consistently finishing inside the top 20 is not enough to make the Chase or content for the title, so Menard needs to either score a win and enter the Chase via wild card, or make a run at the top 10.
Daytona is a great place for Menard to make a statement run as he did last year at Indianapolis. Heading into this weekend's race, Menard has three consecutive top-10 finishes at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, the only driver on the circuit to currently own such a streak, and something that should continue Saturday night.
Another of the biggest surprises this season has been the abysmal showing of AJ Allmendinger in his new Penske digs. For as successful a year as his teammate, Keselowski, has had, Allmendinger's year has been equally tough to swallow. Poor luck and other struggles have led to six finishes of 31st or worse. However, the driver of the No. 22 Dodge is coming off back-to-back top-10 finishes at Sonoma and Kentucky — his first such “streak” of the season.
Allmendinger showed strength in Daytona early in the season but sustained damage to the nose on pit road just 15 laps into the event. A solid run at Talladega also went to the wayside late in the race when he and Denny Hamlin got together on a late-race restart.
With the season at the halfway point and speculation beginning to build about Penske’s plans for the No. 22 Dodge in 2013, it is time for a solid string of runs through the summer months. With back-to-back top 10s in his pocket, look for Allmendinger to be a factor if he can make it through the entire event without any issues.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger, Landon Cassill, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray
Top 10 average finish at Daytona (points-paying wins):
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.5 (2)
2. Clint Bowyer — 14.8 (0)
3. Kevin Harvick — 15.0 (0)
4. Bill Elliott — 15.6 (4)
5. Jeff Gordon — 16.2 (6)
6. Tony Stewart — 16.7 (3)
7. Matt Kenseth — 16.7 (2)
8. Kurt Busch — 17.3 (0)
9. Carl Edwards — 17.3 (0)
10. Paul Menard — 17.3 (0)
Drivers and teams to watch as the circuit hits its mid-summer classic in Daytona
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (please don’t call it the Pepsi 400 — Firecracker 400, however, will be accepted) marks the halfway point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
The year’s third restrictor plate race was once run on the morning of the fourth to beat the oppressive North Florida heat and humidity. “On the track by 11:00, on the beach by 2:00,” was the mantra before lights and night racing. NASCAR’s signature speedway has endured wildfires and truck fires in recent years, as well as Turn Two disemboweling itself in the middle of an event, but all should be solid as we’re knee-deep in the Summer Stretch. And as the championship chase begins to take shape, the contenders have begun to separate themselves from the pretenders. Unless, of course, it’s 2011 and you’re Tony Stewart, stumbling into the Chase like the town lush, but suddenly start running like Tony Stewart once the title fight begins.
But I digress. Let’s review our current top 10 in points, how they got here, and who on the outside looking in has to get their stuff together if they have any hopes of contending for the Cup come September.
1. Matt Kenseth Wins: 1 (Daytona 500)
Let’s see, Daytona 500: Check. Points leader: Check. Bailing on team mid-season: WTF? Kenseth’s announcement that he is leaving the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford at season’s end sent shockwaves through the fanbase. His likely destination appears to be Joe Gibbs Racing, although a proposed Andretti Autosport venture into NASCAR with Dodge assistance has been bandied about. It’s bad enough that Jack Roush’s former flagship No. 6 has been mothballed, but now the tried-and-true driver of the No. 17? Tragically coincidental — since it was the original driver of the No. 6, Mark Martin, who sold Roush on Kenseth, convincing him to field the No. 17 Cup ride for him in 2000. The last driver to win the Winston Cup in 2003 has been a model of consistency this year, much as he was that season. Kenseth’s low-key demeanor and approach will likely serve him well during what will prove to be a tumultuous few months in the Ford camp. With a win, eight top 5s and 12 top 10s to his credit this year, if Kenseth and the Wisconsin Mafia can keep the distractions at bay they very well could exit in style, giving Roush his third Cup Series championship. But distractions and fallout associated with being a “lame duck” lurk around every corner.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins: 1 (Michigan)
All together now: “JUUUUUNE-YEEERRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!” Finally, after 143 races and four years of futility, Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke into the winner’s circle at Michigan, the site of his last win in 2008. That victory did more for the psyche than the stat sheet, as Earnhardt is what Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket would deem, “Definitely born again hard.” With a win, seven top-5 and an even more impressive 13 top-10 finishes, the No. 88 team has done more in four months than it had in the last … well, forever. Credit Steve Letarte and Rick Hendrick, who essentially put Earnhardt with Jeff Gordon’s former team last season. The Prince of Kannapolis is doing his fans proud, so don’t be surprised to see a lot of old, red No. 8 gear being dusted off and thrust back into service in the coming months. Take heart Junior Nation — you’ve earned it, and your man is back near the top. Junior hasn’t been in a fierce title battle in so long, it’s hard to predict what type of showing he’ll make. But if a late-season slide doesn’t derail his momentum (and with Letarte calling the shots, it shouldn’t), Earnhardt is looking gbetter than he has in … well, forever.
3. Jimmie Johnson Wins: 2 (Darlington, Dover)
Oh yeah, don’t forget the “other driver” at Hendrick Motorsports. When he’s not cruising around with Mr. H on his windowsill, Jimmie Johnson is just being Jimmie Johnson; going about his business with painful precision and without much fanfare. Like a Glock pistol, he may be short on flash and flair, but he is dead-nuts reliable and never fails when the money is on the line. His nine top 5s and 13 top 10s are the most in both categories, and should serve as a harbinger of things to come in the fall. As in the past, the No. 48 team vets and fetters out the junk and finds what works during the summer months, then sets “phasers to kill” come September. For those who have tired of the “Five-Time” moniker, don’t worry. You may be calling him “Six-Time” by Thanksgiving.
4. Greg Biffle Wins: 1 (Texas)
Biffle started off the season strong, posting a trio of top-3 finishes in the first three races. He made a mockery of the last half of the April event at Texas Motor Speedway, and led the points from Las Vegas in early March until a 24th-place finish at Pocono, when he surrendered the top spot to his soon-to-be former teammate, Kenseth. A Roush veteran since his 1998 Truck Series debut, Biffle will prove to be the backbone of the team with Kenseth’s impending departure. While the No. 16 team started strong, it has stumbled in recent weeks, posting two sub-20th-place runs in the last four races. It was the No. 16 team that stopped Roush’s win skein in 2010, when the company got off track with misleading data simulation and sucky software on the engineering side. If there is a trend that must be watched with this bunch, it is that Biffle tends to go through crew chiefs quickly. Eight top 5s and 10 top 10s are a testament to his consistency, as well as the effect that current chief Matt Puccia has had for the driver who is in position to be the first in NASCAR history to win a championship in all three touring series.
5. Denny Hamlin Wins: 2 (Phoenix, Kansas)
What a difference a year makes. This time last season, Denny Hamlin was, to be honest, a mess. With three top 5s and six top 10s, coupled win a number of cryptic comments made during interviews that at best sounded whiney, Hamlin was still suffering the side-effects from his team’s 2010 implosion. Now with a new attitude and re-found mental toughness (and 2011 championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb making decisive calls), Hamlin has a pair of wins, and eight top-5 finishes. Those runs account for nearly all of his top 10s, and it must be noted that he has two DNFs in his last three races — courtesy of a fiery exit in Michigan and the front bumper of teammate Joey Logano at Sonoma. If Hamlin can keep from getting wrecked or exploding — and a TRD IED does not find its way between the fenders of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota — he will likely find himself in contention to win the title, as he was in 2010. This time, however, he will be better prepared mentally and strategically to contend.
6. Kevin Harvick Wins: 0
The driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet hasn’t had a lot to brag about this year — but he hasn’t had much to really complain about, either. Usually the first one to ride his crew if they make the smallest of errors, Harvick has achieved his position not so much with poise and audacity, but on reliability and finishing races. A smattering of eight top 10s and three top 5s is decent, but not exactly championship caliber. If Harvick were to have a catastrophic failure in the coming weeks — which would lose him say, 40 points — the impact would be significant, and could potentially drop him out of the top 10 in points. He’s gotten by on a number of eighth- to 14th-place runs, but if he’s to solidify his place in the Chase, the No. 29 operation as a whole needs to step it up on the track, in the pits and in the garage while prepping the car for Sunday.
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
7. Clint Bowyer Wins: 1 (Sonoma)
Not only do you see him every 15 minutes in a 5-Hour Energy or NASCAR.com commercial, you now see him up front, leading and winning races. Bowyer’s move to Michael Waltrip Racing was seen by many as a risky move, albeit one he was essentially forced into after he lost his ride in the No. 33 at RCR (despite winning a Nationwide title in 2008 and qualifying for the Chase three times in six seasons). With former RCR crew chief and competition director Scott Miller making the move to MWR as well, the performance of all involved has risen substantially. With six top 5s and nine top 10s, the occasional win, or at least contention for the win, is no longer an oddity. This, coupled with some veteran leadership from Mark Martin in a part-time arrangement in the No. 55, along with teammate Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 56 group, finds MWR becoming this generation’s — dare I say it? — RCR.
8. Martin Truex Jr. Wins: 0
Martin Truex Jr. is enjoying his best season in Cup competition since his 2007 rookie campaign when he won a race, made the Chase and ended the year 11th in points. Currently sitting in eighth position on the strength of four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes, Truex has been a key cog in the MWR Renaissance of 2012. However, there may be storm clouds on the horizon. Truex’s finishes have begun to waver, his eighth-place run at Kentucky ending a string of three races without a top 10. Now is not the time to mix inconsistency into the equation, particularly with the crapshoot that is a restrictor plate race at Daytona on the docket. While Truex is only 10 points out of fifth in the standings, he’s also less than 20 points from 10th. If he keeps the steady-as-she-goes performance trend and avoids any back-to-back disasters or mechanical maladies, he looks to be a safe bet to make the Chase field for the first time in five years.
9. Tony Stewart Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Fontana)
Towards the bottom of the top 10, we find a pair of drivers on the tail end of making the Chase, but who are arguably the most potent in the field. Tony Stewart has seven top-5 finishes and eight top 10s, but it is how he came to those numbers that are the most telling: two wins, back-to-back second-place runs and three third-place showings. Add in some mechanical woes by way of EFI foul ups, and you have created the crusty Tony of old the last couple of months. Quite possibly the only person in the country who was not cheering the Earnhardt victory in Michigan, Smoke has found that delicate balance of diplomacy and irritability that has guided him to three championships. Streaky performances be damned, he’s in prime position to add a fourth to the mix — half of which would be as an owner/driver, something not seen since The King’s heydays of the 1970s.
10. Brad Keselowski Wins: 3 (Bristol, Talladega, Kentucky)
The one driver barely clinging to top-10 status is also the lynchpin in the Chase scenario. Keselowski has won three races at three diametrically different tracks: Bristol, Talladega and Kentucky. Plate track, short track, intermediate — it doesn’t seem to matter where the Miller Lite Dodge goes, it can be a force to be reckoned with. It would appear that the strategy being employed by the No. 2 team is to focus on wins ahead of all else. Three of his top 5s are victories while the other two barely made it as fifth-place performances. His top 10s are then comprised of a pair of ninth-place finishes, with the rest being mid-teens or worse-than-30th finishes. The only DNF they suffered was post-Tweet at the Daytona 500 in February, and it was about this time last year that Keselowski made the transition from promising driver to leader and motivator following a broken ankle during a testing crash. It remains a mystery why Penske is leaving Dodge to join forces with Ford, what with the modest win totals of the two-car team over the last few seasons. However, it remains committed to its current manufacturer and stands to make some noise for the Mopar faithful if its flagship No. 2 team can avoid any calamities in the coming weeks. Of course, even a tumble out of the top 10 finds Keselowski in the catbird seat, with three-times the wins as anyone from 11th to 20th in the standings.
On the Outside Looking In
To think that Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch would be reduced to relative obscurity in October is nearly unfathomable, especially considering Edwards’ 2011 consistency, Gordon’s seemingly resurrected career with crew chief Alan Gustafson and Busch’s ability to hammer out wins in quick succession. However, all three have missed the Chase before, and they’re nearing the point of no return without some wins. Nine races remain before the Chase for the Championship begins in Chicago, and of the three, only Busch has a 2012 win. Edwards’ and Gordon’s teams have had both bad luck and bad calls that have kept them out of Victory Lane, while the engines supplied to the No. 18 from TRD have been straight up TuRDs, with three straight engine failures conspiring to drop Busch to 12th in points.
Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman all reside within the top 20, and each have one win. Among them, only Kahne has displayed any sort of consistent speed to threaten breaking into the top 10. Even if that happened, it would likely require Keselowski and Stewart to fall out. With The Big Keselowski having three wins and Smoke two, that would also require Logano and Newman to crank out a couple of more wins apiece if they were to qualify — not out of the realm of possibility, but certainly not expected.
Paul Menard, in 13th, will need to repeat last year’s Brickyard 400 triumph to have a shot at taking one of the two open wildcard spots, as he has yet to claim a win this year. Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton are over 100 points out of 10th and have struggled to find the top 10, much less score wins. Marcos Ambrose isn’t in much better shape, though a trip to Watkins Glen may get him back in the wildcard conversation.
With Toyota extending it’s deal with Michael Waltrip Racing, along with Joe Gibbs Racing and JTG Daugherty, it leads to the question of what will happen to Martin Truex Jr., who is in the final year of his contract at MWR.
Truex enters this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover sixth in the point standings with seven top-10 finishes in the first 12 races. He turns 32 later this month and with the improvements at MWR, seems set to show what he can do in the prime of his career. Then again, someone else also could be interested in his services.
“I’ll tell you this, I really hope to be back where I'm at right now,” Truex said last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I love this team. I love the direction we’re going. And, hopefully we’ll just have to see how everything lines up. My heart is with the team and that's where I want to be.
“I feel like we’ve come a long, long way. We’ve worked very, very hard to get to where we are. It would be a shame to have to do something different after coming this far. My career has been one of those where it seems like every time things would start going good — something big happened or something big changes and really hurt progress. Hopefully, that won’t be the case this time.”
This is Truex’s third season with Waltrip’s team and he’s headed toward his best season with the organization. His four top-five finishes thus far equal how many he’s had the past two seasons combined. His best finish in the points at MWR was last year when he was 18th.
Truex also notes that the extension with Toyota is important for Michael Waltrip Racing for various reasons.
“I think it’s a big thing for NAPA to know that Toyota is behind them 100 percent for the next number of years,” Truex said. “Great manufacturer, great support team — they do so much for Michael Waltrip Racing and really Toyota Racing Development ... has been a huge part of the turnaround and the resurgence of Michael Waltrip Racing. To have that support going forward for the next few years, it obviously has to make Michael (Waltrip, team owner) and Rob (Kaufmann, team owner) and everybody there feel good about the direction the team’s headed.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to get our deal done soon too and kind of coincide with all that and be able to go race and go after wins for a lot of years to come.”
GIVE-AND-TAKE Ryan Newman often was considered among the toughest drivers to pass during a race. He explains what earned him that distinction and how he’s changed over the years.
“I was never taught to give-and-take,” Newman said. “I was always taught to race hard. Going back to quarter midgets and then especially in the stock cars, I was always taught to race hard. Buddy Baker never taught me (about give-and-take). And I don’t think that they did that back in the ’80s.
“I always had fast-enough racecars that I never had to give. I could always take. And that came back to haunt me I guess for a few years there because I was the one getting turned around because I wasn’t giving it up and rightfully so — probably because I didn’t know and didn’t get taught that. So, I’m trying to be better at the give-and-take thing.
“I’ve had problems with other guys who are just as bullheaded as I am and I’m not afraid to say it. A guy like Paul Menard is just that. We race each other hard every time we got around each other. That’s just how we did it. And it was frustrating to both of us, but we made good out of it. We never crashed each other per se, so it was just the way we raced. So, we don’t do that quite so much anymore. We’ve both learned how to adjust to that a little bit and be faster in the end for both of us.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
STILL GOING Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver in the Cup Series who has completed all 3,888 laps run this season. Matt Kenseth had completed every lap this season entering the Coca-Cola 600 but lost a lap when he had to pit for a loose wheel just past the halfway mark and didn’t make it up before the finish.
Earnhardt’s consistency has helped him score a series-high nine top-10 finishes in the first 12 points races.
He’s looking for more, though.
“We want to win a race,” Earnhardt said after finishing sixth in the Coca-Cola 600. “We want to win so bad we can’t stand it. We’re getting kind of close. It feels good to be competitive. I don’t want to take our consistency for granted, but we would like to improve just a little bit more and get some wins.”
LAST STOP This weekend’s Cup race at Dover marks the final broadcast of the season for FOX. TNT will take over for the next six races, beginning at Pocono. ESPN/ABC then takes over at Indianapolis in late July and broadcasts the rest of the Cup season.
PIT STOPS Red Horse Racing announced Tuesday that it will suspend operations of its No. 7 Truck team due to a lack of funding. John King won at Daytona with that team. Red Horse Racing announced that it will continue to operate the No. 17 entry for Timothy Peters and No. 11 entry for Todd Bodine. ... Cup drivers who won last year but remain looking for a victory this season are: Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard, Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Darlington
Brad Keselowski ... lookin' up. (ASP, Inc.)
In honor of Mother’s Day, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the “Lady In Black” for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. On the schedule for 62 years, Darlington is steeped in NASCAR history and is one of the toughest tracks on the circuit.
One crew chief called Darlington “the most unique track” the series runs at throughout the year. The egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval has one of the most unique grooves in the sport, and with nearly every driver earning the well-known “Darlington Stripe” the crews will have the bondo and hammers on hand.
More than any track in the sport, drivers will truly have to race the track and not the competition to be successful Saturday night under the lights. The pit crews will have to get the job done on pit road as well, especially leading into next week’s Sprint Pit Crew Challenge.
Be sure to keep an eye on the best 10-lap average stat after both Friday practice sessions before setting your lineup. That stat didn’t matter too much last weekend at Talladega, where Brad Keselowski pulled away on the final lap to score his second win of the season. Leading on the final lap with Kyle Busch tucked behind in tandem, it appeared Keselowski was a sitting duck to Busch. However, Keselowski was able to disconnect from Busch’s car and had the race in hand off Turn 4.
Making his 100th career Sprint Cup Series start, Keselowski heads to the Track Too Tough To Tame as this week’s NASCAR fantasy favorite.
With two wins in the first 10 races of the season, the Penske Racing driver is confident he will be in the Chase as a championship contender and feels “the shackles are off” in the remaining races before the final regular season race at Richmond. In layman’s terms, he’s focused on adding more trophies to his collection as opposed to “point racing.”
Keselowski also considers Darlington one of his favorite tracks. He currently holds the second-best average finish (7.3) behind Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin (6.5), but is without a win at the legendary facility.
Series points leader Greg Biffle certainly knows the joys of winning at Darlington, with back-to-back Southern 500 wins in 2005 and ’06. The Roush Fenway Racing driver comes off a fifth-place finish at Talladega, his sixth top 5 and seventh top 10 of the season.
Despite his two wins, Biffle has only two top 10 finishes in the five Darlington races since his victoreis. However, he has momentum on his side heading to this weekend’s race, making him another fantasy favorite.
Another driver entering this weekend’s race with “the shackles off,” as Keselowski put it, also happens to have the best average finish among active drivers at Darlington. Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb have been solid together throughout the first 10 races, and Hamlin has one win at Darlington, so expect the No. 11 team to be a strong contender Saturday night.
Five Favorites: Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch
Regan Smith enters this weekend’s race as the defending winner, earning his first official NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory last May on older tires over Carl Edwards. That win was one of only two top-10 finishes up to that point in 2011. This season, Smith heads to Darlington with zero top 10 finishes, suffering through a disappointing stretch of races.
An engine failure last week dropped the Furniture Row Racing’s driver to 27th in the standings. Looking to break his slump and kick-start his season before the All-Star break, Smith is a solid pick for this weekend’s race. Despite his poor start to 2012, Smith and his team will walk through the garage the defending champions for the weekend. That confidence boost could go a long way for a team that is looking to turn things around.
While Smith is the defending winner, Edwards goes into Darlington with three top-5 finishes in his last five starts — two of those being second-place showings. Searching for that first victory at Darlington — as well as his first of 2012 — look for Edwards to be among the front-runners on Saturday.
If there is one group of drivers that the Lady In Black favors, it is the veterans. Therefore, consider Jeff Burton,Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon as well. They have a combined 11 Darlington wins.
Five Undervalued Picks: Regan Smith, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon
Martin Truex Jr. ... lookin' cool. (ASP, Inc.)
Michael Waltrip Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. is coming off the two worst finishes of his season, but registers as our darkhorse pick for Saturday night’s Southern 500. The New Jersey-native considers the egg-shaped demon among his best on the circuit. While he only has two top-10 finishes in six Darlington starts, his worst finish is 19th (2010). Looking to rebound from a pair of disappointing outings, expect Truex to put up solid fantasy numbers.
Typically known for their road course skills, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya both enter this weekend’s race as darkhorse fantasy picks.
In each of his three starts, Ambrose has had a solid qualifying effort (three top-10 starts), but has struggled to produce the results. His best finish was 13th last May. This season has not been the best for Ambrose and the Richard Petty Motorsports team. It seems each week they bounce between top-15 and sub-25th-place runs. Coming off a 14th-place finish in Talladega, Ambrose may be on course for another lackluster finish, so pay attention to Friday’s practice session.
Montoya has an average finish of 18.8 in five Darlington starts, with his best finish (fifth) coming in 2010. This season has also been an up-and-down ride for Montoya, but prior to his 32nd-place finish at Talladega, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver had one top 10 and six top 20s. Montoya will not score you the big points this weekend, but he may give you that solid 12th- to 20th-place finished needed to push you past your opponents.
In case you haven’t heard, some driver named Danica Patrick will be making her first career start at the famed Darlington Raceway. It is uncertain how the stock-car convert will handle the Lady in Black on her maiden voyage. If you’re feeling adventurous, put her in the lineup. But know the consequences.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Ragan, Danica Patrick
Best Average Finish at Darlington Raceway (wins):
1. Denny Hamlin — 6.5 (1)
2. Brad Keselowski — 7.3 (0)
3. Jimmie Johnson — 9.8 (2)
4. Jeff Gordon — 11.1 (7)
5. Ryan Newman — 11.6 (0)
6. Jeff Burton — 12.1 (2)
7. Mark Martin — 12.2 (2)
8. Tony Stewart — 12.3 (0)
9. Martin Truex Jr. — 12.3 (0)
10. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (0)
Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte stretch unequalled on schedule
Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte stretch unequalled on Cup schedule
Much was made of the first five races of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule being run on diametrically diverse tracks. From the season opening restrictor plate Daytona 500, to the bumper-car bonanza that made up the closing laps at Martinsville, and the intermediate downforce contests in Las Vegas and Fontana.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Richmond
Denny Hamlin (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits Richmond International Raceway for some good ol’ fashioned short track racing in the hopes of putting on an exciting race — something many fans are clamoring for after a dull month. Typically one of the more action-packed tracks on the schedule, Richmond has averaged 10.8 cautions since 2007 and last year's September race saw a total of 15 yellow flag periods.
In short, expect more action Saturday night under the lights in the Capital City 400 than the last five weeks combined.
Sunday's race in Kansas primarily featured green flag racing, yet came down to a good battle to the checkered flag. Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. was the dominant car on the day, leading 173 of the 267 laps.
However, Denny Hamlin and his Darian Grubb-led crew were in position in the end to jump out front with 31 laps to go. Clearly the best car of the day, Truex's Toyota didn't work well on the final set of tires, allowing Hamlin to take advantage.
This weekend, the Virginian driver-crew chief duo head to their home state with momentum, confidence and the advantage of two race wins already under their belts.
To say Hamlin considers Richmond his home track would be quite the understatement. Hamlin is from nearby Midlothian, the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown is held at RIR and he has two wins, six top 5s and eight top 10s in 12 Sprint Cup starts on the three-quarter mile oval. He is also the defending champion of the Nationwide Series race, a title he will attempt to defend this weekend.
Hitting its stride early in the season, the No. 11 team is fifth in points, with two wins, three top 5s and four top 10s through the first eight races. Hamlin has been the class of the JGR field in 2012, a trend that will continue this weekend in Richmond.
With an average finish of 7.6 at RIR, plus the momentum from last week's win and the excitement of heading back to Virginia, Hamlin, Grubb and the No. 11 crew are this week's overwhelming fantasy favorites.
Frustrated on missing out on last week’s win, Truex's disappointment is a testament to how far the No. 56 NAPA team has come. Throughout the first part of the season, the group has been on its game, as it sits second in points with three top 5s and six top 10s in the first eight races while chasing a winless drought that dates back to June 2007.
While Truex’s results are not noteworthy at RIR through his two seasons with MWR — he has only one top 10 (seventh, 2010) — he and the team are running well regardless of track at the moment. Given the strong start, Truex could disappoint Hamlin's hometown crowd Saturday night by cashing in on the win that is coming.
Also keep an eye on Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch. Currently 14th in points, Busch has not had the greatest of starts to the season. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has only one top 5 and three top 10s to go along with three finishes of 23rd or worse.
Busch holds the best average finish of any active driver at RIR (5.0), with three wins, 11 top 5s and 12 top 10s in 14 starts. Dating back to ’09, Busch has won each of the spring races and is looking to continue that trend Saturday night. In fact, Busch has never finished worse than fifth (2006) in the spring race at RIR.
Five Favorites: Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart
The Hendrick Motorsports brigade has been hot on the heels of that elusive 200th win for team owner Rick Hendrick of late. Unable to capture the historic win over the last 14 races, they’ll soldier on at Richmond this weekend.
HMS has 10 Cup wins at Richmond, the last of which came in 2008 when Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag. Since then, Hendrick cars have been shut out of Victory Lane, but perennial fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. could fly under the radar this weekend and end two winless streaks that many fans would like to see come to an end.
Earnhardt has three wins on the short track in Richmond, but has struggled to produce the results of late. Since his last win in ’06, Earnhardt has only on top-5 finish and nine finishes of 15th or worse. Yet, the No. 88 team has been one of the best Hendrick cars throughout the early part of the 2012 season. Fourth in points, Earnhardt appears to be on the verge of snapping a winless skid that dates back to June 2008 nearly ever week. Running well seems to have rekindled a fire in both Earnhardt and the No. 88 team, led by crew chief Steve Letarte.
Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick enters Saturday night's race as the last driver to win on the .75-mile short track. The No. 29 team has had a solid — not flashy — start to the 2012 season, with a worst finish of 19th in Martinsville.
Aggressive short-track racing fits perfectly into “Happy” Harvick's style. Richmond illustrates that fact, as Harvick has enjoyed two wins, six top 5s, 14 top 10s and only two finishes of 25th or worse in 22 starts here.
Five Undervalued Picks: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson
Harvick's RCR teammate, Jeff Burton, also bears watching. The Virginia native will make his 36th career start at the track down the road from his hometown of South Boston. Throughout his career, Burton has one win, nine top 5s and 15 top 10s for an average finish of 14.8 at RIR.
Of late, Burton has struggled to produce solid results at Richmond, with his last top-5 finish coming in 2010. The veteran has also struggled throughout the start of the 2012 season, finishing 22nd or worse in five of the first eight races. After a 20th-place finish in last year's standings — his worst since 1995 — Burton was optimistic coming into the new season, especially working with new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. However, things have not gone according to plan, and now is the time this team can hit its stride at tracks like Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte.
Stewart-Haas Racing's Ryan Newman has also put up fairly consistent numbers at Richmond in his 20 Cup starts. His lone Cup Series win at RIR came in 2003, but he has eight finishes of 11th or better in the last 10 events at the track.
Already a race winner this year, Newman is gunning for more bonus points to secure a Wild Card spot (at the least) in the Chase. After taking the Grandfather clock in Martinsville, the No. 39 team has finished 21st (Texas) and 20th (Kansas). Look for a return to a short track to be kind on Saturday.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jeff Burton, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger, Joey Logano
Best Average Finish at Richmond (Wins):
1. Kyle Busch — 5.0 (3)
2. Denny Hamlin — 7.6 (2)
3. Clint Bowyer — 10.5 (1)
4. Tony Stewart — 10.9 (3)
5. Kevin Harvick — 11.5 (2)
6. Ryan Newman — 11.6 (1)
7. Mark Martin — 12.2 (1)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.4 (3)
9. Jeff Gordon — 14.5 (2)
10. Jeff Burton — 14.8 (1)
What makes for good racing ... and would "phantom" cautions help NASCAR?
Photo by ASP, Inc.
What makes for good racing ... and would "phantom" cautions help NASCAR?
Ask a NASCAR fan a question about the sport and you’ll likely get a strong opinion. Ask the Backseat Drivers Fan Council about the sport and you get many strong opinions — especially when the questions focus on the racing.
Fan Council members were not shy with their feelings when asked if NASCAR should throw a caution to break up a long green-flag run in a race, a topic that has garnered considerable debate this season. Here’s what Fan Council members said about that issue and others this week.
SHOULD NASCAR THROW A CAUTION TO BREAK UP A LONG GREEN-FLAG RUN?
79.8 percent said No 20.2 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• I may stop watching NASCAR if that's what they go to. If anyone says yes to this question they are not a true fan of NASCAR or racing. Period the end.
• Strung out racing is boring. The most exciting points are restarts — so why not have more of them?
• NO, dear Lord. Please, please, please DO NOT start creating "phantom" cautions to bunch up the field or do anything to change the outcome of the race. I firmly believe that if you do not have enough of an attention span to watch a race from green to checkers, with the chance there may be little or no caution laps, then I'm sorry but NASCAR may not be your cup of tea. I want to watch racing not wrecking. Please take this opportunity to exit NASCAR and go to the local demolition derby if you are in this for nothing but wrecks.
• Yes, I'd definitely like to see more cautions but there is a difference between hoping for cautions and looking for wrecks. Don't lump us all in together — there are those who like cautions because they bunch up the pack and those that want cautions because they want to see wrecks. Too often those two thoughts are combined into one.
• Of course not! No way should NASCAR cheat. I can't believe anyone would want NASCAR to throw a fake caution after all the complaints over the years blaming them for cautions that benefited various drivers. That just proves that the fans who complain are only complaining to complain.
• Everyone wants a late caution to bunch the field... unless their favorite driver is the one with the 10-second lead.
• Once the race is under green I want NASCAR to stay out of the “show making” business. A race, like every other sporting event, is an organic event that needs to play out on its own. NASCAR needs to let the teams and drivers determine the outcome. Not every race is going to come down to a last-lap pass with a win by 0.001 seconds, just like not every baseball game ends in a walk-off grand slam. What NASCAR can/should do is work on ways to encourage more passing and competition in the field by somehow finding a way to reduce the influence of clean air.
• People complained about their artificial debris cautions, now they complain about NASCAR not finding a reason for a caution. You can't please everyone all the time, and I, for one, am loving the racing this season. Feels much more real, it accentuates the drivers’ real talents behind the wheel. I'd much rather see two drivers and their styles clash to see who comes out on ahead.
• They do need to do something to make these races a little more exciting. I know I have turned off the last two.
• HELL NO! If NASCAR starts artificially manipulating races, then I am out. I prefer to see how the race unfolds naturally. If a driver manages to get out to a great lead, so be it. If a driver leads the whole race, that is okay with me.
• NASCAR's number one purpose is to entertain. Without fans in the seats and fans watching the races on TV, there would be no NASCAR. But if NASCAR wants to turn this into WWE and fabricate the results, I will no longer be a fan. Arbitrarily throwing a caution to add entertainment value is wrong.
• The restarts were the exciting part of this week’s race, so for entertainment purposes, yes.
WHAT MAKES FOR GOOD RACING?
54.8 percent said passing throughout the field 19.4 percent said a close battle for the lead at the end of the race 13.6 percent said Other 10.4 percent said many lead changes 1.8 percent said numerous cautions
What Fan Council members said:
• Just good hard racing makes the race more exciting to watch. It gets boring when the cars get strung out and there is really no side-by-side racing.
• Battling for the lead is what I remember most from watching on TV. You see more passes back in the pack when you attend live, but passing for the lead is what makes a race exciting.
• A good race to me is many lead changes, passing throughout the field, and a close battle for the lead at the end. I don't ask for much. When I am at the track I only need the sights, sounds, and smell.
• What every fan wants is drama, which always seems to be missing at California, Michigan and multiple cookie cutters.
• In my mind, auto racing should be a combination of human skills and equipment quality and endurance, the perfect blend of human and mechanical structures organized into a symphony action, reaction with an unknown outcome.
• I love good side-by-side racing, especially at the tracks that make up the bulk of the schedule (the 1.5- and 2-mile tracks). It’s exciting and you stay tuned to see who is going to prevail. There is an exception though, at the short tracks (Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond, etc.). That's when I like to see beating and banging and cautions because that is what short track racing was built upon.
• Not just a close a battle at the end but throughout. Making sure the pit crews do their job, the crew chief calls a good strategy all race long. All that stuff makes up a good race. I also like seeing many cars going for it, not just two or a few. A little sideways to watch now and then doesn't hurt either, but I don't watch for wrecks.
• I would like the teams to have a chance to work on their cars under caution and give more drivers a shot to drive up through the field and contend for the lead. Such few cautions don't allow for drivers to work on anything and pretty much the top 10 stays the same from qualifying to the finish.
• The battle between Hamlin & Truex was very exciting (at Kansas) and kept me on the edge of my seat. Neither are my favorite drivers, but I was cheering for Truex at the end to pass Hamlin.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
GRADE SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT KANSAS
53.8 percent said Good 27.8 percent said Fair 9.4 percent said Poor 9.0 percent said Great
What Fan Council members said:
• I like the multiple racing grooves at this large track. I saw lots of racing for positions between drivers, and I enjoy watching that.
• I'm sick of these cookie cutters, and I don't care what anybody says about what kind of fan that makes me. I am a die-hard fan of this sport, I love to see a great race where drivers are working on each other for multiple laps and make the pass when the other makes a mistake, but at the same time I HATE to see the same race 14 races a year. I understand the concept that NASCAR had to expand to other parts of the country, but the people that built the tracks should have stopped building the same kind of mile-and-a-half track and should have dared to be different.
• Bored me so much, I went to the kitchen and washed the dishes
• It was a good, competent race, and I have learned to appreciate the intermediate tracks for what they are. People complaining about the boring races need to learn to love the intermediate tracks because we are stuck with them. NASCAR made their bed with all these cookie-cutter tracks, now they have to figure out how to market a bunch of races with not a lot of action.
• The race was fine and I'm pleased with the results. Now that the other teams seem to have caught up to Hendrick, you really never know for sure who's going to win and that makes it interesting.
• After turning off the race on Sunday, I immediately thought of this question and the only thought that came to my head was “forgettable.” Not that great of a race and not that bad, just a typical 1.5-mile race.
• Except for the battle at the end and the restarts ... not much else to talk about in this race. I was more excited by playoff hockey which has continuous action throughout.
• One of the best Kansas races in a long time even with long green runs. I work nights and was extremely tired (but the) race still held my attention all the way through.
• A little better than Texas because it was only 400 miles of boring racing.
• As a Truex fan it was great. As a race fan it was boring until the end.
• Love the green flag runs and pit stops. Team efforts are on full display for the results. Today the drivers had to push every lap or get left behind. Today was a race!
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Hamlin holds off Martin Truex Jr. to notch second Sprint Cup victory of 2012
Photo by ASP, Inc.
It seemed a formality that once Martin Truex Jr. had fended off a vicious challenge from Jimmie Johnson that Michael Waltrip Racing would score its first Sprint Cup Series win since 2010.
Truex had led 173 laps and seemed on virtual cruise control as the laps ticked away in the STP 400 from Kansas Speedway. He pulled away for chunks of laps at a time after green flag pit stops — 45, 81 and 43 consecutive laps led on successive occasions — separating himself from the runner-up competitor by whole seconds.
Then, with about 35 laps to go, something happened to Truex’s Toyota.
According to team co-owner Michael Waltrip, the sun came out and changed the track, loosening up the car. Truex, however, was unhappy with the last set of tires that he reckoned did not agree with his machine.
Whatever the reason, a charging Denny Hamlin caught Truex and got by shortly after the final round of green flag pit stops to score his second win of the season.
Hamlin’s race-winning pass came on lap 237 of 267, and despite a last-ditch banzai effort with three laps remaining by Truex to reclaim the lead, the aero advantage Hamlin enjoyed carried him to the win.
“I knew that the only advantage that I had is when his (Truex’s) car got so loose that last run, I was able to make up a lot of time on entry and a lot of time on exit (in and out of the corners) because he was really fighting his car,” Hamlin said. “So really, as the driver behind, you can manipulate his car and make it worse for him by getting up close to him — and that’s what I kind of did a few laps leading up to when we passed him, is that I tried to run as close up to him on entry as I could and as close on exit. It takes away rear grip, and to a car that was as loose as what his was, they have no choice really but to back off and not wreck their car.”
The win at the 1.5-mile intermediate oval was somewhat of a surprise, in that Hamlin’s best finish on a comparable track this season was 11th.
“We just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we’ll be fine,” Hamlin said. “There’s always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we’ve identified those areas and we’ve gone to work on them.
“So right now I feel like we’re bringing better race cars to the racetrack than what we have, and it’s still going to take time.
As for Truex, he and crew chief Chad Johnston continue to knock on Victory Lane’s door. Six of his finishes have been eighth or better this season and he has yet to finish outside of the top 20. That performance — he has averaged a 4.8-place finish in the last five races — places him second in the Sprint Cup point standings.
“The NAPA team was phenomenal today,” Truex said. “Just not really sure what to think about that last set of tires. (The) car had been really good all day, (then we) put the last set on and I was wrecking loose for the first 20 laps of that last run and Denny was able to get by me and once he did the race was over.
“(The) car got better longer in the run and I was able to get back to him, but I’d get three, four car lengths from him and pick up the aero push.”
Johnson held on for third after pit strategy forced him to climb out of a late-race hole. Matt Kenseth and points-leader Greg Biffle rounded out the top 5.
MWR's Three-Car Team Leading the Toyota Charge in 2012
Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. (56) and Clint Bowyer (15). (ASP, Inc.)
In its sixth full season of Sprint Cup competition, Michael Waltrip Racing is making a push at becoming a powerhouse on NASCAR’s premier circuit.
MWR’s three-team operation has combined for five top 5s and 12 top 10s thus far in 2012. Spearheaded by Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 56 NAPA team, MWR finds its two full-time drivers — Truex and Clint Bowyer — in the top 10 in the point standings.
Third-year MWR driver Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston concluded the 2011 season on an uptick, recording four top 10s in the final five races. That momentum carried through the offseason as the duo have yet to finish worse than 17th this year. Included are finishes of third (Bristol), fifth (Martinsville) and sixth (Bristol) and a fourth-place spot in the championship standings.
“It’s been a good start to the season for us,” Truex says. “Everybody at MWR has done a nice job. For us, it’s just about coming here and trying to keep it rolling.
“We’ve had about 10 or 11 good races in a row going back to last year. That feels good. We just need to continue to build on that.”
Bowyer, a high-profile free-agent hire from Richard Childress Racing, has found immediate chemistry with new MWR crew chief Brian Pattie. Leading the No. 15 team, they have managed runs of sixth (Bristol) and fourth (Las Vegas) and sit 10th in the point standings. Their consistent start is the difference between an organization that once contended for wins three or four times a year, but now, each weekend.
“When I started at RCR, there was nothing to prove there,” Bowyer says. “As a driver, the only thing you can do is not screw up the opportunity. Here, I’m going to have to be part of moving on with a championship-caliber organization. That’s exciting. That’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.”
Key to the turnaround, though, was the hiring of former Richard Childress Racing crew chief and competition director Scott Miller as the organization’s Vice President of Competition.
Miller is a NASCAR veteran, having sat atop the pit box for both Bowyer and Jeff Burton while at RCR. He brought a level of expertise and confidence to his new role at MWR when he signed with the company late in the 2011 season.
“I was very, very pleasantly surprised with what I found when I came in the door,” Miller told the Associated Press. “Obviously, there are still things we are working on, but MWR was not in bad shape at all when I got here. They had started working on new cars and new chassis in the summer. We just needed to clean up and get a little more efficient at what we do.”
Mark Martin, one of the most respected drivers in the sport, also brought a level of professionalism not seen at MWR when, shortly before the season began, he agreed to pilot the No. 55 car for 25 races in 2012.
“What strikes me the most about Mark is, he’s like a kid in a candy store — he’s ready for a new challenge,” Miller says of the driver who finished third in Texas last weekend. “He thrived in that part-time schedule he was in (2007 and ‘08) and I think he really enjoyed himself doing that — not necessarily getting caught up in the Chase race or the championship thing — but just enjoying his craft of driving a racecar.”
Martin’s absence in two races so far has given way to one of the feel-good stories of the 2012 season: Brian Vickers.
A casualty of Red Bull Racing’s departure from NASCAR, Vickers will drive the car in eight Cup races while team co-owner Waltrip picks up four others.
Using his first appearance in the No. 55 as an audition (and a statement), Vickers led 125 laps at Bristol en route to a fifth-place run. Between Vickers and Martin, the No. 55 team has yet to finish worse than 18th, with four top 10s to its credit. Those performances find the team — along with the Nos. 15 and 56 — ranked in the top 10 in the all-important owners standings, guaranteeing their place in the starting lineup each weekend.
That’s a far cry from MWR’s first full season on the circuit in 2007, when its three teams stumbled through a miserable debut effort that found it going home after qualifying a total of 39 times.
“You see all the championship organizations — they don’t just have one bullet, they have two, three or four,” executive vice president Ty Norris says. “We have three bullets every week.
“I still pinch myself because it’s so hard to believe that we’ve got these great people working on the cars, a great attitude and great drivers to get it done. It’s a very exciting time for us.”
And of course, there’s Waltrip, whose two Daytona 500 wins make up for an otherwise unimpressive Cup Series record.
It was Waltrip who founded the organization, placing its first car in what was then the Busch Series in 1994 — finishing third at Bristol with fellow Owensboro, Ky., native Jeff Green at the wheel.
Waltrip’s passion for racing, marketing savvy and business sense — he brought in car enthusiast and Fortress Investment Group founder Rob Kauffman as an investor and co-owner in 2007 — have taken the program from a backyard operation to the thriving, multi-million dollar entity it is today.
“Michael has a lot of passion to give,” Norris explains. “Whether it’s a charitable event or NASCAR racing, the things he cares the most about he just pours his heart into it. He just becomes obsessed with it and the energy he brings when he talks about this (MWR) that gets everybody excited.”
At the rate Waltrip’s teams are going, there will plenty more to be excited about in the very near future.