Biffle finds Victory Lane in the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway
Photo by ASP, Inc.
by Matt Taliaferro
The NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings have always been more consistency-based than win-centric. This season alone, two-time race winner Tony Stewart found himself third in the standings behind winless drivers Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Biffle and Earnhardt — both saddled with winless skids of 49 or more races — had employed the tried and true “top-10 ’em to death” method in 2012, each with four in six races.
However, Biffle separated himself at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday evening, scoring his first Cup Series victory since October 2010 in the Samsung Mobile 500.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” Biffle said of whether a win validated his position atop the point standings. “To win like this and put a bunch of ground on the guys — all the cars behind us — that certainly makes a statement, I think, for all the people that were wondering if this was kind of a fluke that we were still leading the points this far in.”
Biffle assumed the points lead following the third race of the season, which marked his third consecutive third-place finish.
On Saturday, Biffle had to hold off a determined Jimmie Johnson, who now has only two wins in the last 50 races — a relative stat, yet one that opens eyes when it’s the five-time champion. Johnson led a race-high 156 laps, but was beat by Biffle’s slide job exiting Turn 4 with 31 laps to go. Johnson eventually skated up and into the wall while trying to catch Biffle’s No. 16 Ford, and limped to a second-place finish, 3.25-seconds behind the race winner.
“The last two or three runs the 16 and I were pretty equal, run(ning) pretty similar lap times,” Johnson said. “I just got tangled up in some lapped traffic and (Biffle) made a great move and got by me. And then I was pacing him from there and didn’t have anything left to go get him. I tried and ran out of grip going into Turn 3 and drilled the fence.”
Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 5.
The strong early-season performance of Michael Waltrip Racing’s three cars continued. Martin, who is splitting driving duties in the No. 55 Toyota with Brian Vickers, notched the team’s second top 5 and fourth top 10 this year. Martin Truex Jr. turned heads once again with a sixth-place showing, his fifth top 10 in the No. 56 NAPA machine. Truex sits fourth in the point standings.
“The teamwork I’m feeling right now at MWR is second to none I’ve ever been at,” Martin said. “Martin Truex Jr., is really, really engaged, and he’s working hard to help the whole program.
“We’re racing three cars to put two in the Chase for sure and win races and try to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Hendrick and Roush and those guys. That’s a tall order for right now. I’m very proud of the results we’re getting. It’s coming from a lot of good attitudes and hard-working people.”
The other storylines of the evening were a lack of cautions throughout the 500-mile race. Only two yellow flags — both for debris on the track — marred an otherwise spotless event that lasted just over three hours. The strength of the Texas wind also grabbed drivers’ attentions.
“The wind was a huge factor,” Biffle said. “The wind was blowing you all over the place. I was swatting flies all night long. The wind was blowing the car back and forth and over ... that could be a factor in why there was no accidents. You would think that would cause one. Well, it made it so you couldn’t really race side by side with a guy.
“I wouldn’t run up on a guy coming off the corner like I normally would. I’d leave more room because I wasn’t sure when the wind was going to blow my car one way or another. I was cautious when I was around (other) cars, and I think probably everybody else was tonight.”
MWR experiencing banner year in 2012 with revamped driver lineup
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and Clint Bowyer (15). (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Vito Pugliese
“I’m sorry guys, I just … can’t drive my racecar …”
Those words, tinged with embarrassment, pain and reservation, served as both the low point and springboard for Michael Waltrip Racing. Sitting in his crumpled Camry on the backstretch at Charlotte after wrecking on his second lap of qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 in 2007, Michael Waltrip’s transition from racecar driver to team owner was going anything but smooth. From crashing out during time trials and having to head home on Fridays, shoddy performance and reliability, to a divorce and a much-publicized incident that saw him barefoot and beating a hasty retreat from the scene of a tipped over truck, the upstart organization that Waltrip started to coincide with Toyota’s arrival in the Cup Series has long since been referred to as a “second-tier” team.
But, while once said with a bit of condescension and hesitation, it appears safe to finally say it with assurance: Michael Waltrip Racing is for real.
Last year, Robby Gordon deemed his fledgling racing operation “a marketing company that races.” Despite two wins with former driver David Reutimann, that same observation so wryly stated could have been attributed to MWR not that long ago — but no longer. Don’t believe me? Watch any NASCAR race (or NASCAR-related programming), and tell me how many commercial breaks are absent a 5-Hour Energy commercial with Clint Bowyer, a NAPA spot without Waltrip or Martin Truex Jr., or an Aaron’s commercial without Mark Martin and Waltrip.
You’d be hard pressed to find a team owner that is as big a piece of marketing his racing operation as the two-time Daytona 500 champion. Waltrip is now also a commentator alongside Chris Myers during FOX race broadcasts, and last year was one of the hosts of Showtime’s “This Week in NASCAR.” It is that popularity and familiarity with die-hards and casual fans alike that has helped Waltrip’s race team bridge the gap from pretender to contender in the span of a few short years.
MWR suddenly boasts, along with Roush Fenway Racing, perhaps the best-balanced driver line-up in the sport. After Carl Edwards declined overtures from Joe Gibbs Racing in 2011, Bowyer became the next most-eligible driver at the end of his contractual rope. Sponsor 5-Hour Energy came a-calling — which in today’s world of finding a ride is as essential as having a helmet. When Richard Childress Racing could not honor Bowyer’s salary demands, it was MWR that offered him a home, much to the bewilderment of many in the media.
Was one of the hottest properties in NASCAR taking a step backward? After all, it was Bowyer who, after being involved with a wreck with Waltrip at Bristol in 2008, deemed him, “The worst driver in the history of NASCAR. Period.”
Bowyer is a driver who has made the Chase for the Championship three times in his six-year Cup career, as well as a Nationwide Series championship in ’08.
As it turns out, his defection to MWR has been anything but a step backward. His No. 15 has been fast weekly, albeit with a couple of stumbles with some blown tires and wall contact at Phoenix, but has since rebounded with a sixth at Las Vegas, fourth at Bristol, and a 13th in California. Sitting eighth in points, just 38 markers out of first, Bowyer’s Chase chances — and opportunities to win — are materializing quicker than most had suspected.
Think of his team as the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne without the hype or horrendous luck.
Truex has been in a similar situation as Bowyer. Since winning what was the Busch Series championship in 2004 and ’05, his Cup pursuits have been left wanting. He joined what had been Dale Earnhardt, Inc. as driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet as it was devolving from Earnhardt’s business built for his children into a diluted conglomeration of other teams that were both failing and floundering.
Truex has one NASCAR Cup win — a Monday running of a rained-out Dover event on the day that Bill France Jr. passed away — and Chase appearance to his credit, both of which were in 2007. Since joining MWR, Truex has little to show beyond having the most appearances in a commercial break.
However, in the last five races of 2011, Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston strung together four top-10 finishes and built upon that with runs of seventh, third and eighth in 2012. And this from a team that, prior to its hot streak, taped together only three top 5s and 15 top 10s in nearly two seasons.
The Mark Martin/Brian Vickers ride. (ASP, Inc.)
On the other end of the driver spectrum is Martin. The 53-year old veteran who five years ago went to a limited scheduled — then back to a full-time ride with Hendrick Motorsports for three seasons — is now back to a part-time arrangement at MWR. Taking over what was formerly the No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine, Martin’s re-branded No. 55 has been perhaps the company’s most consistent force over the first five races of 2012.
Martin was up front for the second half of the Daytona 500 before finishing 10th. The following week he won the pole at Phoenix and was running in the top-three until gremlins in the EFI reared their ugly head and saddled the 55 with a “disappointing” ninth-place finish. Martin was then headed to the front in the closing laps at Las Vegas until he tangled with Dale Earnhardt Jr with a handful of laps remaining, relegating him to an 18th-place showing. His 12th at the Southern California 250 last weekend has him 17th in points — despite taking a week off at Bristol (and the tangle with Junior that cost him 10 points).
Bristol brings us to the other half of the No. 55 story — and a fitting counterpoint to Martin.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Brian Vickers was winning the Busch Series championship at 20 years of age. Following a one-win stint at Hendrick Motorsports (a controversial win, at that), Vickers too jumped aboard the Toyota train as part of Red Bull Racing’s foray into NASCAR in 2007. Driving the No. 83 Red Bull Camry, Vickers established himself as the lead driver with the most experience for the organization and the face of Toyota in the sport. While it took Red Bull a few years to “get right,” a win and a Chase birth in 2009 was evidence that things were headed in the right direction.
However, just as soon as the quirky newcomers came to the sport, they were gone.
Vickers had his own troubles during this time. A recurring problem with blood clots threatened to derail his racing career (and his life) in 2010. When he returned from near career-ending heart surgery though, it appeared as if “The Sheriff” had some scores to settle. Memorable run-ins with Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose and Matt Kenseth last season seemed to doom any efforts made in trying to find a ride once RBR made its exit. In short, Vickers had pissed off just about anybody who was in a position to help him.
When Chevrolet intervened and informed Elliott Sadler he was not to pilot MWR’s Toyotas in Martin’s absence, Vickers found his break. At Bristol two weeks ago, he led 125 laps en route to a fifth-place statement finish. He returns to the scene of last October’s crime this Sunday at the track he and Kenseth traded paint, body panels and barbs — and which nearly proved his undoing in the Cup Series. Instead, he’s offered a chance at redemption (and a legitimate shot at winning) with crew chief Rodney Childers atop the pit box, the same man who built the first go-karts Vickers began his racing career in some 20 years ago.
In the face of continuing difficult economic times, the landscape of NASCAR continues to change. From cars that are so sensitive you dare not tinker with a body panel lest you incur a six-week suspension, to EFI units that go bonkers once the engine gets hot or vibrates too much, to former mega-funded teams that have parked the very cars that got them into the sport in the first place, new teams and drivers are starting to emerge as legitimate weekly contenders. During this time, we’ve also seen virtual unknown teams — Furniture Row Racing, Phoenix Racing — and drivers — Trevor Bayne, Paul Menard — become winners.
After five years fraught with frustration, Michael Waltrip Racing’s three teams are now legitimate contenders with a cadre of drivers who have all had their shared struggles in the sport. It’s a long way to the top in NASCAR, but also a short fall to the bottom, and MWR has had a good view of both during its short time in the series. With the current lineup and early-season momentum, it is on the verge of establishing itself as one of the major forces in NASCAR competition for years to come.
Brad Keselowski celebrates in Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
There’s something about the half-mile Bristol bullring in East Tennessee that lends itself to certain drivers.
NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough (nine wins), Darrell Waltrip (12) and Dale Earnhardt (nine) each went on dominant runs at Bristol in the 1970s and ’80s. Rusty Wallace won nine of his own from 1986-2000. Jeff Gordon won five events from 1995-2002, while the Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, also have five wins each.
Following Sunday’s Food City 500, it appears a new name may be added to the exclusive list of Bristol dominators: Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski scored his second straight win at BMS, leading a race-high 289 laps — including the last 111 consecutively — en route to his first win of the 2012 season.
Keselwoski enjoyed a spirited, side-by-side duel with Matt Kenseth prior to pulling away in a race marked by its intense, door-to-door action.
“I mean, what can I say? I love Bristol and Bristol loves me,” Keselowski said. “There’s other places that perhaps have a little more prestige, and I said that last year as well, but this place defines a race team.
“It asks so much of you, whether it’s just in practice, being lined up on pit road, dealing with the noise, the havoc that practice can be, or the hot day of getting through tech, making those last adjustments, or as a driver 500 laps in a bowl trying to keep your composure. This racetrack can really test a team.”
Kenseth easily held on for second, while Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers swept positions three-five.
It appeared Kenseth jumped the final two restarts when Keselowski led, but NASCAR assessed no penalty and Keselowski was able to clear Kenseth’s Ford.
“I didn’t floor it till I got to the start/finish line,” Kenseth explained. “I don’t know if he (Keselowski) was trying to let me beat him on purpose. I was half throttle for five car lengths. I was finally, ‘I got to go or Martin (Truex) or whoever was behind me was going to go around me.’”
Since 2009, Keselowski has two wins on Cup Series short tracks to go along with plate (Talladega) and flat track (Pocono) wins. He was also second on the road course at Watkins Glen last season.
“My dad taught me this very early on, (that) it was important not to be a ‘One-Track Jack,’” Keselowski said of his versatility. “I think now that we have (the right team), I have the experience base to run competitively on almost every style of racetrack.
“I was able to learn that in a time and place where it was acceptable to make mistakes, which is what the Nationwide (Series) was for me. The training and the lower level series of NASCAR — the way they’re structured right now — certainly helped me when I got to this level to be perhaps more prepared than many drivers in the past.”
An early-race accident eliminated some of the favorites. Kasey Kahne got into Regan Smith on lap 25, triggering a seven-car pileup. The incident eliminated Kahne, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Marcos Ambrose from contention. Kevin Harvick sustained damage but continued on. Keselowski snaked through the melee with slight nose damage.
“Regan Smith was pretty slow,” Kahne said. “I was under him for a couple of laps. When my spotter cleared me in the center, I just took off, and he was there on exit. It is disappointing to have that good of a car and be out this early. I've had awesome race cars, and I have nothing to show for it.”
Keselowski moved from 21st to 13th in the championship standings by virtue of the max number of points (48) earned at Bristol. Greg Biffle, who enjoyed three consecutive third-place finishes to start the season, slumped to 13th at Bristol. He holds a nine-point lead over Kevin Harvick and 12-point advantage over Kenseth in the standings.
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the hills of East Tennessee for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. NASCAR’s modern day Colosseum has been home to some of the most dramatic moments in the sport’s history, and always produces great racing.
Once known for its rough-and-tumble ways, Bristol now has multiple grooves that allows for two, and at times, three-wide racing. The action is non-stop, fast-paced and full of action.
When it comes to Bristol, one name has stood out above the rest in recent years: Kyle Busch.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has a total of five Sprint Cup Series victories at the World's Fastest Half Mile, including four out of the last six events. When taking the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events into consideration, Busch has simply owned the place. All told, Busch has five Sprint Cup wins, four Nationwide Series wins (including the last three consecutively), and three straight Camping World Truck Series wins.
So, after a frustrating 23rd-place finish in front of his hometown crowd last week in Las Vegas, Busch is eager to get back to one of his best tracks on the schedule.
“It’s just a fun racetrack no matter what series I’m running there,” Busch said of Bristol. “You really have to be on your game because you make one mistake, or someone else makes one mistake — like what happened in the fall Nationwide Series race there in 2009 when a car with a flat tire came down the track and essentially ended our day — that’s it.”
After a lackluster start to the season — with only one top 5 in three starts — Busch and his Dave Rogers-led team should be at the top of their game this weekend. This bunch struggled during last year’s night race in August, relying too heavily on the Nationwide setup and fighting the changes throughout the Sprint Cup race. With that lesson learned and a proven history of success, Busch is this week's fantasy favorite.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski
Yet Kyle is not the only Busch to have success on the half-mile concrete oval. Older brother Kurt Busch also has five Sprint Cup Series wins at Bristol, the last of which came in 2006.
While the Busch brothers are tied with Jeff Gordon and NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson for third on the all-time Bristol wins list, younger brother Kyle is the only one of that group to have a victory on the new configuration.
As for older brother Kurt, this weekend is a monumental moment in his career. Returning to one of his most successful tracks, Busch is doing so with a humbled attitude and quite the hole to climb from. After the first three races with team owner James Finch’s Phoenix Racing, the ’04 series champion has a best finish of 15th (Phoenix International Raceway) and sits 30th in the standings. Since joining Phoenix Racing, Busch has said he believes this team can compete for wins — especially at a track like Bristol.
However, the season has not gotten off to the kind of start this group was looking for and Busch heads to Bristol with his eye on climbing back into contending for wins. That has the older Busch brother as my driver to watch this weekend. With this marking the 10th anniversary of his first career Sprint Cup Series victory, perhaps there is no better time to get back to his winning ways.
The former champion has the ability to give Finch his second career Cup win, but he’s also just as likely to bring home yet another wrecked race car.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
This week’s darkhorse pick goes to Martin Truex Jr. out of the Michael Waltrip Racing stable.
The driver of the No. 56 NAPA Toyota is in a “put up or shut up” season, with contract negotiations on the books for later in the year. To say the New Jersey native has underperformed over the past few seasons is a bit of an understatement. Many expected big things from the two-time Nationwide Series champion, but with only one Sprint Cup Series victory in 228 starts, time is running out.
Yet, Truex entered the season optimistic about the newly remodeled and upgraded MWR. The addition of teammates Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin and competition director Scott Miller has Truex pleased with fast race cars and the opportunity to run up front.
And run up front is exactly what Truex did in this race last season. Leading a total of 63 laps, it looked as if the No. 56 was set for a solid day until the handling went away and Truex faded late in the race. Learning from their mistakes, the team showed up prepared to finish the job in August, scoring a second-place finish behind race winner Brad Keselowski.
With Truex looking to quell the contract talk and get back to Victory Lane, Bristol might just be the place to make a statement. If he and crew chief Chad Johnston can avoid trouble and keep up with the changing racetrack throughout, I expect a solid day out of him.
Three Darkhorse Picks: Martin Truex Jr., Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray
Best of luck to all the fantasy NASCAR participants out there, and most importantly, don't forget to set your lineups!
Average Bristol Finish, Last Six Races (Wins)
1. Kyle Busch — 4.5 (4)
2. Ryan Newman — 8.8 (0)
3. Jimmie Johnson — 9.0 (1)
4. Kurt Busch — 9.0 (0)
5. Carl Edwards — 10.0 (0)
6. Matt Kenseth — 11.3 (0)
7. Jeff Gordon — 11.5 (0)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 11.7 (0)
9. Brad Keselowski — 12.8 (1)*
10. Jamie McMurray — 14.2 (0) * Four starts
Few could have predicted the 2012 season would open with such historic and unforeseen events taking place at Daytona. Rain delays, prime-time racing on a Monday, jet dryer explosions … I‘m surprised the Mayan calendar didn’t signal the end of civilization when the checkered flag fell.
Athlon Sports sits down with DEI’s new No. 1 driver
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2008 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Just 16 years removed from his first go-kart, Martin Truex Jr. has come a long way in the fashion most racers prefer: Fast.
This year's class of rookies may be the deepest in NASCAR history
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Brad Keselowski had sniffed the lead all night long, but it wasn’t until the final restart of the Irwin Tools Bristol Night Race that he finally grabbed it and took it as his own. Keselowski shot past Martin Truex Jr. on the race’s final restart, and with clean air and a clean windshield, cruised to an impressive win at Bristol Motor Speedway’s famed night race.
Keselowski — the hottest young phenom on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit — used crafty pit road work by himself and his No. 2 Penske Racing team to position himself on the outside of the front row beside Truex after the race was flagged for its final caution period. And when the green flag waved with 80 laps remaining, his four tires propelled him past Truex’s two, and the Michigan native walked away with his third win of the season.
“The Bristol Night Race!” An ecstatic Keselowski yelled from Victory Lane. “This is a race like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt win — this is a race of champions! There’s races that pay more, there’s races that might have a little more prestige, but this is the coolest damn one of them all. We won today!”
Truex, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top 5.
Keselowski’s win is the latest result in a hot streak out of the second-year Cup driver that has witnessed runs of ninth, first, second, third and first in the last five races. In that time he has vaulted up the Sprint Cup championship rankings, from 23rd to 11th, just 21 points out of the final spot in the Chase for the Championship standings. Whether he catches Tony Stewart in 10th is almost irrelevant, as Keselowski’s three wins all but guarantee him a wild card slot in NASCAR’s Chase playoff system. However, wild card entries into the Chase are not awarded bonus points for wins, so if Keselowski fails to qualify via points, his victories — and the 30 points he would receive for them — would be voided.
“Twenty-one points is still a lot of points,”?Keselowski said. “That means you’ve got to beat the guy (in 10th) by over 10 positions over the course of two races. Beating Tony Stewart by an average of 10 positions over two races — that’s going to be pretty tough to be honest.
“I’m just happy with what we’ve done here tonight and I hate to look too far ahead, but having those (bonus) points for three wins would be huge in the Chase.”
Keselowski’s unlikely run began with a ninth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his fifth top-10 run of the season. But a broken ankle sustained in a practice crash at Road Atlanta looked to derail his Chase hopes. However, Keselowski soldiered on, notching a surprising win at Pocono just days later and followed that up with an even more unlikely runner-up showing at the road course in Watkins Glen. A third-place run at his home track in Michigan was his career best finish on the two-mile oval and preceded the unlikely Bristol triumph on Saturday.
“Keselowski (and) those guys are on a roll right now,” the four-time champ Gordon said. “We all have to keep our eye on him. He’s strong. They’re to me as strong of a team out there as there is.
“Since (the Road Atlanta crash) he’s been on fire. He proved to all of us he’s tougher than we thought. We always knew he was a great racecar driver.”
Johnson’s fourth-place finish tied him atop the point standings with Kyle Busch, who had an uncharacteristically off night at Bristol, finishing 14th.
The top 5 in the standings — Busch, Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick — are all locked into the Chase. Denny Hamlin currently occupies the final wild card spot courtesy of his win at Michigan in June.
If you were a NASCAR crew chief on the hot seat, chances are this summer was brought to you by the color pink — as in pink slip. The roster of head wrenches this week underwent a major shift, with two additional replacements bringing the total up to four since June 5: Greg Erwin (No. 16), Pat Tryson (No. 56), Brian Pattie (No. 42) and Mike Shiplett (No. 43) have now been shown the door. That’s over 10 percent of NASCAR’s fully-funded programs, pulling the equivalent of firing their head coach mid-year with roughly two months of “regular season” races still to go.
It’s the earliest we’ve seen such turnover in several years, ever since sponsorship combined with a change in philosophy put the in-season pressure on the pit box, not the driver. (For those newer fans out there, turn the clock back to the mid-1990s and wheelmen’s jobs were about as safe as Rupert Murdoch’s these days; Mike Chase, in fact, once got fired from his ride just one race into the season). And while all of these crew chiefs were winless on the year, none found their drivers completely outside Chase contention. Truex, at 21st, was the lowest in points among the four programs that pulled the plug.
So why do it now? Why make a change while others having terrible seasons — like David Reutimann (24th in points), Jeff Burton (25th) and Jamie McMurray (29th), keep their crews and chemistry intact? Simple: NASCAR’s “wild card” playoff system has changed the game both on and off the track, providing extra incentive for teams willing to take a chance.
Let’s take Juan Pablo Montoya as an example. At 17th in points, he’s 59 behind 10th-place Denny Hamlin — and a Chase spot — with seven races left in the regular season, meaning there’s no margin for error if sneaking inside the top 10 is a possibility. In the past, teams would rely on the experience of Montoya and crew chief Brian Pattie, hoping they can pull a rabbit out of their hat, catch fire and sneak into the playoffs the only way they could: by scoring points, not wins. Any changes, if they were going to be made, wouldn’t happen until the Chase field was set in early September, in preparation for the next season’s run.
Greg Erwin and Greg Biffle by ASP, Inc.
But now, with NASCAR granting two playoff “wild card” spots to drivers with the most wins that are ranked 11th-20th, both Montoya and owner Chip Ganassi smell opportunity. Last season, Montoya was the top-performing car at Indy — the circuit’s next stop — and he enters Watkins Glen in August as the defending champ. Win those two races, and it’s virtually irrelevant how he does in the other five — the No. 42 has earned itself a postseason bid via wins. That means if Ganassi feels a jolt is needed, why not try to catch lightning in a bottle? If Pattie’s replacement, Jim Pohlman, proves the answer there’s still a chance for the organization to contend for the championship now, not next year. Pattie, considering the No. 42 had led only 99 laps on the year, may only have been able to guide Montoya to a top-5 finish in the aforementioned events. Pohlman’s fresh approach could be the energy needed to push the team over the top.
Of course, there’s a chance Pohlman proves to be the wrong move for Montoya, turning the last 17 races into a disastrous ending while turning an already mediocre year into a failure. With 17 races being a more-than-ample trial period, there’s a justified sample size to give Pohlman the axe for 2012 should things go south. By comparison, would the 10 races after Montoya missed the Chase under the old system (and philosophy of doing things) be enough to make the same decision? Possibly not.
This type of theory applies to Biffle, Allmendinger and even Truex. For Biffle, he’s the defending champ at the upcoming Pocono race and has the equipment to make it to Victory Lane — just ask 2011 winners and teammates at Roush, Carl Edwards, David Ragan and Matt Kenseth. As for Allmendinger, while winless in NASCAR, he had a fourth-place finish at Watkins Glen last August. The possibility exists for a new crew chief with fresh ideas to take a chance and improve on that promising run. Even Truex, now a month into working with Chad Johnston, is close enough to the top 20 that a win changes his postseason prospects. And already, his team has three top-10 finishes in six starts with Johnston at the helm.
For crew chiefs, this means the job is more tenuous than ever. Erwin, for example, saw a four-year relationship severed after just four months of struggle. But if there’s a silver lining to what’s been a difficult season for the sport, it’s how the buildup to the postseason for over half the field has turned the focus back to where it should be: winning races instead of settling for a “good points day.”