Predicting the best fantasy drivers in California so you don't have to.
Twitter masters. And not bad in Cali, either. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads back out west for the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Auto Club — or California, if you prefer — ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Why would you take anyone else this week? He has 10 consecutive top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway (average finish of 3.3 during that stretch) and has led laps in each of those races. He had an average finish of 3.0 in the first three races of the season and was headed for another top 10 before a blown tire sent him into the wall late at Bristol last week.
2. Matt Kenseth
He’s why you might want to pick someone else. Kenseth won at Las Vegas two weeks ago in the first test of the new car at a track where horsepower and aerodynamics matter (just like Auto Club Speedway). He had a teammate finish in the top five at Vegas, showing the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing on the big tracks. He’s also led more miles (323) than any other driver this season.
3. Brad Keselowski
Then again, there’s this guy. Keselowski has not finished worse than fourth in any of the first four races this season, collecting a bevy of points for those who put him on their team. He’s also led laps in each race this year.
4. Kasey Kahne
Finished second at Las Vegas and then won at Bristol. Has shown speed this season and that’s a good sign for Auto Club where he’s finished 14th, ninth and fourth in his last three starts.
5. Kevin Harvick
Has five consecutive top-10 finishes at this track, including a win in 2011 when he passed Johnson on the last lap.
6. Tony Stewart
Rallied late to finish 11th at Las Vegas after his car was awful in the first half of the race. Never had a chance at Bristol with a flat tire that sent him into the wall early. Needs a strong race this weekend and he’s coming to the right track. He’s won two of the last three at Auto Club.
7. Clint Bowyer
Both top-10 finishes this season have come at tracks one mile or less. Although he finished 27th at Las Vegas, his teammates placed eighth and 14th, showing that Michael Waltrip Racing could have some success at Auto Club.
8. Denny Hamlin
The center of controversy the past two weeks (NASCAR fine, Joey Logano dust-up), Auto Club has presented mixed results. He won the pole last year but has finished outside the top 10 in three of his last four races there.
9. Jeff Gordon
Was the only Hendrick driver who struggled at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Was never a factor, finishing 25th. Misfortune struck at Bristol, blowing a tire and crashing while leading. Needs a strong run or risks falling further behind the leaders in the points, but he’s finished 18th or worse in three of his last four starts in Fontana.
1. Kyle Busch
Finished fourth at Las Vegas and led 27 laps, showing the strength of a team with a new car in its first race at a big track. Also has been good at Auto Club Speedway, finishing in the top three the past two years there. Overall, he has six top-five finishes in 15 career starts.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has finished in the top 10 in each of the first four races of the season for the first time in his career, rewarding those who have put him on their team. Placed seventh at Las Vegas but knew they were a little off compared to the leaders. Will he close the gap this week? He finished third in Fontana last year.
3. Carl Edwards
Finished fifth at Las Vegas and now comes to a track where he’s placed in the top 5 in seven of his 15 career starts, one of the best marks among active drivers.
4. Martin Truex Jr.
Placed eighth at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Has finished in the top 10 in 10 of the last 11 races at non-restrictor-plate tracks of 1.5-miles and larger since last season.
5. Mark Martin
Back after taking Bristol off. Started third last year and finished 12th at Auto Club.
6. Ryan Newman
Has finished seventh or better in his last three starts in Fontana. When he’s made it to the finish he’s placed in the top 10 this season, but that’s happened only twice. In the other two races he was eliminated because of an accident or a blown engine.
7. Joey Logano
Certainly ran better than he finished at Bristol. He thought he was better than his 12th-place finish at Las Vegas but a pit road speeding penalty hurt him there. Can he avoid trouble and show where he can finish?
8. Kurt Busch
His fourth-place finish at Bristol last week was only the fourth top-five finish for Furniture Row Racing in 203 career starts. Busch has four top 10s in his last six starts at Auto Club Speedway, including a ninth-place finish in last year’s rain-shortened event with the underfunded Phoenix Racing team.
9. Greg Biffle
Auto Club Speedway has not been the best place for him. Although he finished sixth last year, he has placed outside the top 10 in eight of the last 12 races there.
10. Paul Menard
This marks the fourth consecutive year he’s been in the top 10 in points after four races — the only driver to accomplish that feat. Was 10th at Las Vegas, but Auto Club has not been as good to him. He’s never finished in the top 10 in 10 starts at the 2-mile oval.
11. Aric Almirola
Placed 16th at Las Vegas two weeks ago. He and Richard Petty Motorsports have shown greater success on the bigger tracks, going back to the end of last season.
12. Marcos Ambrose
Has finished between 18th and 22nd in each of his four starts this season.
13. Jeff Burton
Has one top-10 finish in his last seven starts at Auto Club Speedway. Has finished on the lead lap only once this year, placing 10th at Phoenix.
14. Jamie McMurray
His 10th-place finish at Bristol last week was his first top 10 in the last 26 races, dating back to last year. Has not finished in the top 10 in his last 11 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has not had a top-10 finish in his last 25 starts, dating back to an eighth-place finish at Michigan in June.
16. Bobby Labonte
Has finished better than 20th only twice in his last 15 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
Specifically for the "fantasy" aspect. (ASP, Inc.)
C-List 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Never run in Cup at this track but finished second and fourth in his last two Nationwide races there. One of only five drivers to have completed every lap in the first four Cup races of this season.
2. AJ Allmendinger
Car finished 21st at Las Vegas with Austin Dillon driving. Team placed in the top 10 at Auto Club Speedway in rain-shortened race a year ago with Kurt Busch driving.
3. David Gilliland
Finished 28th at Las Vegas. Has never finished better than 17th in 11 starts at Auto Club.
4. Casey Mears
Finished 29th at Las Vegas, two laps behind leaders. Has best finish of 11th in his last seven races at Auto Club.
5. Dave Blaney
Placed 24th at Las Vegas, finishing one lap behind the leaders. Has not finished better than 29th in last 10 Auto Club starts.
6. Danica Patrick
After finishing eighth in Daytona 500, she’s placed 39th (Phoenix), 33rd (Las Vegas) and 28th (Bristol). She’s been at least five laps off the leaders in each of the last three races.
7. Travis Kvapil
Has one top-20 finish in 10 starts at Auto Club.
8. David Ragan
His 21st-place finish at Bristol was the first time he’s finished inside the top 30 this year Has finished 20th or better in only two of his last 30 starts with team, dating back to last year.
9. Landon Cassill
Has not finished better than 32nd in three starts this year (did not run at Daytona).
10. David Reutimann
Since placing 16th in Daytona 500, has not finished better than 25th in the three races since. Placed 34th at Las Vegas.
11. David Stremme
Finished 32nd at Las Vegas. Placed 39th at Auto Club last year.
12. Josh Wise
Finished 35th at Las Vegas. Placed 37th at Auto Club last year in only start there.
13. JJ Yeley
Has not finished better than 35th in his last three starts at Auto Club Speedway.
14. Michael McDowell
Has run a total of 47 laps in the last two races, finishing last at Las Vegas and 42nd at Bristol.
15. Scott Riggs
Seeking to make second start of the season after failing to qualify at Bristol.
16. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish seven of his last eight races at Auto Club Speedway, finishing no better than 34th.
17. Mike Bliss
Has completed 37 of 816 possible laps in two starts this year, finishing 42nd at Phoenix and 43rd at Bristol.
18. Timmy Hill
Seeking to make first start of the Cup season.
Biffle earns Ford's 1,000th NASCAR victory; Hendrick Motorsports falters late
Greg Biffle celebrates his win in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
At no point in the last decade has winning a Sprint Cup Series race at the Michigan International Speedway been of more importance in the NASCAR ranks. A renewed emphasis on “manufacturer” over “car number” or “driver” — largely at the behest of Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota, the Cup Series’ three auto makes — has placed a premium on home field bragging rights near America’s automotive capital.
On Sunday, Greg Biffle planted Ford’s flag in its home turf, winning the Quicken Loans 400 in Michigan, giving team owner Jack Roush his 13th career Cup win at MIS, the most all-time for any one organization.
Biffle held off a field of hungry Chevrolets, led late in the event by Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, to capture his second straight and fourth career Michigan win. It was also Ford Motor Company’s 1,000th win across NASCAR’s Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.
"I was really worried about the 48 (Johnson)," Biffle said. "He was really fast. But when this thing could get in clean air, it was all over.
“We’ve still got a little bit of work to do with these cars back in traffic but once we get out front, like at Pocono last week, we think we’re pretty good. We just need to work on our cars a little bit. It’s not for lack of effort. This is real exciting for me.”
Forty-seven of Biffle’s race-high 48 laps led came with under 50 circuits to go in the 200-mile affair. Biffle’s No. 16, along with teammate Carl Edwards’ No. 99, occupied the top two spots with 34 laps to go and green flag pit stops on tap. Edwards hit pit road first, going one lap down prior to the field cycling through, while Biffle stopped two laps later. As Biffle’s crew completed service, Jamie McMurray blew out a right front tire, bring out the day’s eighth and final caution.
Edwards found himself trapped in 24th, while Biffle — having completed his stops without yet dropping a lap to the field — inherited the lead.
His main competition — aside from the pole-sitter Edwards — came in the form of Johnson, who led 18 laps throughout the day, but was regulated to 11th on what would be the final restart, a result of having the No. 48 crew top off the fuel tank on the final stop.
When the green flag waved with 27 laps remaining, Biffle quickly pulled away in clean air while Johnson began what appeared to be an unrelenting assault through the field. Within eight laps, the five-time champion was ensconced in third; nine laps later he occupied the runner-up slot.
However, Biffle held a stout 1.6-second lead at a track that places importance on track position — clean air allowing the leader to sprint away with an aerodynamic advantage. And with three circuits remaining, Johnson made the mistake that sealed his fate and Biffle’s win, brushing the wall in an effort to run down the leader. He was forced to pit road with heavy right-side damage.
Biffle coasted from there, easily outdistancing Harvick for a nearly three-second victory. Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart rounded out the top 5. Contenders Edwards and Johnson finished eighth and 28th, respectively.
“I hate missing an opportunity,” Johnson said. “I want those (Chase) bonus points for winning races and feel like one got away from us today.”
Hendrick Motorsports once again seemed to be the organization to beat, as drivers Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne led for a total of 66 laps. However, Kahne blew a right front tire while out front on lap 105, slamming the Turn 2 wall and ending his day. He finished 38th. Earnhardt was his typical strong Michigan self until the engine in his No. 88 let go while running second on lap 132.
“We had such an awesome race car,” said Earnhardt, who finished 37th. “We actually improved the car on the last stop and I thought we were going to be able to give Jimmie a run. He probably was the best car out there.
“It’s frustrating. … I’m just real happy that we were able to turn around from what was a frustrating day (in practice) yesterday to put a great car on the starting grid, a car that was so competitive as it was today.”
Meanwhile, runner-up Harvick is quietly climbing his way through the point standings, having ascended from 12th to fourth in the last five races on the strength of five consecutive top 10s, including a victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I was pretty nervous as we finished practice yesterday,” Harvick said. “Those guys just did a great job again of talking through everything with myself and themselves to make some good decisions this morning — and they always do — and that's what makes this team good is they keep themselves in contention to be solid on days when you don't think you're going to be that great.”
With 11 races remaining in the Cup Series’ 26-race regular season, Johnson holds a 31-point advantage over Edwards, Clint Bowyer (-49), Harvick (-62) and Matt Kenseth (-82) in the championship standings.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Michigan
Jason Leffler (ASP, Inc.)
1. Reflecting on Jason Leffler, forever a hard charger
News of Jason Leffler’s death after a New Jersey sprint car crash ran fast, far and wide this week. His passing is, as it too often becomes, a startling reminder that race car drivers don’t compete in an arena like most other athletes.
Racing isn’t just entertainment. It’s a way of life — an often difficult one — for those who pursue it. For every NASCAR national series driver traveling by jet and racing in front of tens of thousands, there are hundreds of others hopefully scraping enough dollars together for new tires every few races or working through the night to make repairs from the last time out.
They do it for the thrill of a well-executed pass, or to feel the joy of victory lane one more time. They do it for the speed, for the rush and for the adventure that’s forever locked inside the walled confines of a racetrack only available to those who work hard enough to enter. It’s an event of open participation, but an experience only a select few ever try.
I didn’t know Jason Leffler, and I never interviewed him. I won’t pretend to know what motivated him to slide in a race car for the first time so long ago, or know what he was seeking from racing Wednesday night at Bridgeport Speedway in an event that paid $7,000 to win. I just know that Jason Leffler was a race car driver in the purest sense with a style both brash and unbounded.
He pushed limits and occasionally stepped over them. He was unflinchingly aggressive when a gap opened — often to a fault — and was more than willing to seek retribution against a driver who had done him wrong. If Jason Leffler was in a race, you more than likely knew it regardless if he was first or 25th.
It all combined to produce in Leffler the status and goal every racer wishes to achieve: Winner.
Leffler didn’t win as often as he liked — no driver ever does — but he was a four-time champion in the USAC ranks in midget and silver crown cars. He started the Indianapolis 500 and he did score trips to victory lane in both the Nationwide Series and NASCAR’s truck series.
It was after his second and final Nationwide Series race win in 2007 at the former Indianapolis Raceway Park that perhaps told us all we need to know about why Leffler spent the majority of his life scrambling across the country to jump behind a steering wheel. Leffler, who had just beat Greg Biffle and David Reutimann using his standard strong-nosed tactics, went through the usual gratuitous crew and sponsor acknowledgements in the post-race interview before he paused, looked directly to the ESPN interviewer and shouted.
Jason Leffler loved his life of racing. And he especially loved the winning. It’s terribly unfortunate and greatly saddening that he lost his life in that continued pursuit. But it’s also comforting knowing that Leffler — at least occasionally — had found what he was chasing.
2. Anniversary brings talk of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
You may have read Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Michigan International Speedway last June. You may have heard that Sunday’s race is the one-year anniversary of Earnhardt’s last win. You may have also heard that the confluence of that event with Earnhardt’s great run at Pocono Raceway last week have made him a good pick for Sunday’s race.
While picking a race winner is often a trivial pursuit (unless you’re picking Jimmie Johnson every week), there are a lot of signs that Earnhardt should have a good car Sunday in Michigan.
Consider that Earnhardt had a top-10 finish at Auto Club Speedway earlier this season. Consider that he’s typically been strong on the tracks similar to Michigan this year. And consider that Earnhardt feels his car is measuring closer to the performance of the No. 48.
“I looked through the notes from last year, and we didn’t unload perfect. We had to work to get it right,” Earnhardt said. “You don’t go in with confidence that you are going to go there and it will be perfect. You have the confidence to know that we will get it dialed in.”
A win last year is certainly no guarantee of success for Earnhardt. But to come back to a track as a defending race winner riding the wave of confidence from recent good runs is a great start to a solid weekend.
3. Ride swaps on tap for Allmendinger, Labonte
Bobby Labonte has become an afterthought in the Sprint Cup Series in recent seasons. After filling the seat vacated by Marcos Ambrose in the JTG-Daughtery No. 47 in 2011, Labonte has just four top 10s to his name. None of those have come in 2013 for the 2000 series champion, and the team apparently is losing some patience with the direction to this point.
As a result, AJ Allmendinger was hired to drive the No. 47 Sunday at Michigan in an attempt to perhaps find some solutions to speed and handling issues in the Gen-6 car. Sunday’s event is the first of five races Allmendinger will drive for the team over the course of the season.
Meanwhile, Labonte will preserve his 702-race consecutive starts streak by jumping in the ever-rotating seat of James Finch’s No. 51.
While it’s not certain that this driver switch for the No. 47 officially opens the NASCAR silly season of driver and team changes, it’s not often that one driver takes over another driver’s ride for performance reasons — even if temporarily — without some larger adjustment down the road.
Mark Martin, seconds before impacting the pit road wall. (ASP, Inc.)
4. Return to the scene of Martin’s scary accident
Seeing as it’s been played in several commercials, television promos and in other places, you probably haven’t forgotten Mark Martin’s impossibly scary wreck in the August race last year at Michigan.
Martin was battling for the lead when he was swept up in a spin involving the lapped cars of Labonte and Juan Pablo Montoya exiting Turn 4. He slid down the track and on to pit road where the car looped in such a manner that Martin slid directly into an opening that allows cars to enter and exit the track from the garage area. Martin’s No. 55 then caught the end of the pit wall — narrowly missing scrambling crew members and others — with the wall impaling Martin’s car in the driver’s side.
The concrete wall (roughly two or three feet tall and six inches wide) broke right through the car’s sheet metal and roll cage and entered the cockpit less than a foot behind Martin’s seat. The consequences of Martin hitting that wall just a few inches more forward on the car are impossibly scary to think about.
In the three races I’ve attended so far in 2013, I’ve looked to see if tracks have made adjustments (or had previously constructed a different design) to prevent cars from hitting the pit wall in a similar fashion ever again. As of February, Daytona had still had an exposed end of a pit wall in at least one garage area opening, while Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway had placed concrete barriers perpendicular to the dangerous wall end.
Let’s hope Michigan has studied the incident and reacted appropriately.
5. Kahne, Kenseth look for positive result
For several races, it seemed like Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth had a magnetic draw pulling them together to compete for race wins. Kenseth’s victories at both Las Vegas and Kansas came after holding off valiant late-race charges from Kahne.
Now, both are reeling are consecutive weeks of poor finishes. Kenseth, of course, blew his engine while racing at the front in Dover two weeks ago, and then suffered handling issues and a spin at Pocono relegating the No. 20 to 25th.
Kahne crashed two weeks ago at Dover and then suffered a mechanical issue on the first lap of the Pocono race to field consecutive finishes of 23rd and 36th.
For as strong as each have been in the season’s first 14 races, it’s hard to imagine Kenseth and Kahne are sixth and eighth, respectively, in points despite combining for four wins and 13 total top 5s.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Party in the Poconos 400
Jimmie Johnson was virtually untouchable in Pocono. (ASP, Inc.)
A five-time champion in their respective sport is rarely in need of motivation. So when you hand it to them on a silver platter, whatever the reason, you better hide yourself inside a bunker and hope for the best. After Dover’s fluky finish a week ago, where a restart penalty all but took a win away from Jimmie Johnson, something inside the 37-year-old snapped. Struggling to hold his tongue on several occasions, it was clear “Mr. Politically Correct” felt NASCAR made the wrong call, robbing him of what would be a record-setting Dover performance.
For a regular season race — sometimes used as test sessions for the No. 48 team — it’s been a long time since I’ve seen them enter the following Sunday so focused. Johnson, typically unflappable, was angry, even borderline insulted over it all. And we see what happens when star athletes get mad. Just ask LeBron James, Michael Jordan or even Joe Namath.
The Dover penalty, no matter what side you’re on, made Johnson “want it” more than anyone else at Pocono. And when a driver of that talent level gets prodded to the point they feel a statement must be made, what you get is the type of dominating snoozer Pocono turned out to be. It may not have been pretty — and at times, borderline unwatchable — but that kind of “whip the field” mentality is what’s made this guy the best NASCAR driver of the last decade … maybe more. Superstars are called that for a reason, and it’s not because they push their sport towards record ratings. That’s unfortunate for stock car racing, which has suffered under the Johnson era but you can’t suspend raw talent. You can only hope to contain it.
After seeing Sunday’s race, I doubt it will be contained anytime soon, especially after chief rivals seemed to stumble all over themselves. Their rough road ahead is what brings us “Through the Gears” after Pocono …
FIRST GEAR: Toyota’s loss is Jimmie Johnson’s gain
It’s easy to wax poetic about Johnson’s dominating performance, his first victory at Pocono since 2004. But to a point, that was expected considering the team’s level of anger, track position at a repaved facility (he started on the pole) and the momentum his No. 48 team has built over the past few months. Consistency-wise, they’re the best in the sport right now — no one else is remotely close.
Perhaps the bigger piece of news for Chevy’s top dog is how the top finishers shook out behind him. For the first time all season, not a single Toyota driver found his way inside the top 5 at race’s end. Mid-week changes at Toyota Racing Development to dial the engines back after a series of reliability problems turned the cars from Superman to Clark Kent. Denny Hamlin, the prototypical favorite at this track, failed to lead a lap, finished a quiet eighth and explained how suddenly, his Camry’s engine appeared to be hindered by kryptonite.
“By no means did we have a winning car this weekend,” he said. “I think all of us had to play defense on the straightaway, which is really tough.”
Add in Matt Kenseth’s rough day, slumping to 25th from fourth after contact with Juan Pablo Montoya, and a so-so sixth for Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole had an average finish of 13.0 with “Toyota engine, Version II.” That’s crucial for Johnson, whose lone obstacle, it seemed, entering the postseason was whether the durability of these rival motors would hold up. If the Toyotas have to dial it back that much, just to make each race the distance, they’re threatening to gift wrap the 2013 trophy for Johnson and hand it to him at Phoenix, the penultimate race — because he’ll still be able to skip Homestead and still win No. 6.
SECOND GEAR: Tough times for the Gen-6
Clearly, Pocono Raceway is not at fault for Johnson stomping the field. When a driver has a car that good, there’s only so much you can do to make the races exciting. To the Tricky Triangle’s credit, the crowd looked fairly full as track president Brandon Igdalsky continues to come up with great ways to maximize fan experience both inside and outside the track.
But no amount of free concerts, celebrity poker tournaments or cheap tickets can hide how awful NASCAR’s product was on Sunday. Behind Johnson, most of the field kept running in place while even a series of late restarts struggled to live up to their typical excitement. Several drivers appeared on cruise control, running in place, while side-by-side competition was nowhere to be found. It’s a puzzling development, especially at a triangular-shaped facility whose shortened distance last June provided one of the season’s best races and finishes.
When you end up with that type of flat, across-the-board product so soon after, it’s hard to point guilt anywhere other than NASCAR’s Gen-6. Fontana, at this point, seems a distant memory as the same type of aerodynamic issues are plaguing this new generation of car. High speeds, while good for the record books, have posed a problem when it comes to aggressive competition; drivers are chasing the racetrack, so much it makes running two-abreast too big of a risk to take. Add in the conservatism of making the Chase, with such a close battle for those positions (see point four below) and the final equation leaves what you’re watching seem like a conservative, single-file parade.
Is there a fix? One thought would be to slow the cars down; that, in turn, cuts down on the aero push and gives drivers more freedom to maneuver around the track. What made Fontana so great was its multiple grooves, giving drivers control over where to plant the car. Since then, I’ve heard the term “one-groove” track too many times to my liking. If drivers don’t feel they can control a car in a second groove (and under this point system) they’re not going to go there unless forced to — on those crazy restarts.
How you get those multiple grooves back in play? I’m not certain of the answer. But the right people should be racking their brains, because the optimism — and hype — this new car generated is threatening to fade.
Is Earnhardt's season taking a turn? (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Earnhardt hits his stride at the right time
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., this spring has been the season of discontent. His confidence eroding a bit as the No. 88 stayed out of the top-5 finishers for eight straight weeks. Meanwhile, shopmate Johnson ran circles around the competition while fellow Hendrick driver Kasey Kahne continues to threaten for wins. It seemed like Junior was vastly underperforming by comparison.
So maybe Pocono becomes the race that turns it all around. Never one of his best tracks, Earnhardt started sixth, slid inside the top 5 early and kept that track position the entire day. While no match for Johnson on the late restarts, a third-place result was his best since Fontana in March and gives him a 46-point cushion over 11th place in points. With Michigan on the horizon this weekend — where Earnhardt is the defending champ — the boost couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We are all right,” he said after exiting his car Sunday. “We know what we need to do. Confidence is there … all the fans can rest assured we feel like we are on the right track.”
I wouldn’t go that far yet, but breathing room is important for Junior right now. It gives him a chance to mess up at Sonoma, even get caught up in a wreck at Daytona and still be OK without the pressure of having to win to make the Chase.
FOURTH GEAR: A logjam of parity
Greg Biffle’s second-place finish, his first top 5 since Texas, for Roush Fenway Racing brought him up to 10th in points. But he wasn’t the only one on the Chase bubble who put together a solid Pocono performance. Kurt Busch (seventh), Joey Logano (10th) and even Jeff Gordon (12th) pulled themselves closer to the top 10 while struggles by Brad Keselowski (16th), Kasey Kahne (36th) and Paul Menard (30th), whose late-race tire failure proved costly, kept them dropping back.
This reverse accordion effect has resulted in opening up the Chase to nearly two dozen drivers. Right now, with 12 races remaining in the regular season, the spread between ninth-place Keselowski and 21st-place Jeff Burton is just 42 points. Anyone between there could wind up safely inside the top 10 after Michigan. That’s a blessing for drivers like Busch, Logano and Gordon, whose bad luck in other years would leave them in near desperation mode. Just a few solid runs in succession will put them in a position where a victory isn’t necessary to make the championship field.
Is Stewart-Haas Racing on the upswing again? Two cars ran in the top 5 Sunday, including Tony Stewart who now has that type of back-to-back result for the first time since June 2012. … While Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been a very consistent rookie, he remains without a top-10 finish through 14 races. Add in Danica Patrick’s single top-10 showing and the 2013 freshman class seems several notches below average. … Bobby Labonte’s “replacement” at JTG-Daugherty Racing appears to be the beginning of the end for the 49-year-old there. All public statements say differently, but clearly “sub” AJ Allmendinger is getting an audition to prove himself. What are they gonna do if he gets a top-10 finish — which would be their first since October 2012 — throw him out of the car?
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the FedEx 400
Tony Stewart (ASP, Inc.)
A quick look at the leaderboard, 140 laps through Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover gave you a clear indication of who would be winning this race … or so it seemed. Kyle Busch was first, Matt Kenseth was second and the rest of the field was on another planet. For a good hour that duo swapped the point while only a handful of drivers, between cautions, remained within 10 seconds of contact. Meanwhile, the trio of Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya remained far back, dealing with various handling and track position issues that made a push for victory seem like a virtual impossibility.
Fast forward to the final 20 laps, perhaps the time you woke up from a mid-race nap once Busch and Kenseth’s pairs ice skating routine lulled you to sleep. The top 3, heading down the stretch, were none other than Montoya, Johnson and Stewart, until the No. 48 got a black flag for jumping the final restart. Suddenly, a heavyweight battle was at hand between the remaining duo, there was an on-track pass for the lead in the final five laps and one of the deepest slumps in the garage — Stewart’s 30-race winless streak — was torn to shreds at a track where he typically runs like a tow truck driver. For those who missed those hours in between thinking Busch and Kenseth were going to run away with it, three letters came to mind when looking at the final results sheet: W, T and F. (You can figure this one out.)
That’s a good thing for the sport, even though the quality of racing from NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis left something to be desired at Dover. For if the drivers can’t battle side-by-side for position to captivate an audience, at least you want to create an aura of unpredictability — that the guys you see running up front on lap 200 aren’t going to be the ones there at the finish. So far this season, NASCAR’s last five winners (Harvick twice, David Ragan, Matt Kenseth and Stewart) have led an average of 11 laps during their respective trips to Victory Lane; to me, that means mission accomplished.
Now, if only we could get this Gen-6 running right everywhere, a problem Mr. Stewart still faces as we go up through the gears after the Monster Mile.
FIRST GEAR: What does this win do for Stewart?
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s clear even Stewart knows this surprise victory, stolen with what was probably a 10th-place car, won’t suddenly make his self-owned team a pack of title contenders. Indeed, on the same day he was sitting there celebrating, teammate Ryan Newman was in hiding, leaving without comment after blatantly dumping David Gilliland on-track, wrecking both drivers out of the event. Danica Patrick, by comparison, nearly took out the field twice within the first 25 laps before a series of unscheduled pit stops to fix handling problems that left her well off the pace and on a “test session” the rest of the day.
“Just making the Chase, that’s not good enough,” said the three-time champ, who put himself in “wild card” position with the victory. “I would rather miss the Chase and be in the process of building our program. I want to get this whole program turned around to where all three drivers are feeling like they have an opportunity to go out and have a good result.”
Smoke’s got the right attitude for his team, and — aside from a brief rebuke at a media member surrounding rumors about possible crew chief changes — left Sunday in a picture perfect frame of mind. Sunday’s race, in which crew chief Steve Addington used pit strategy to work Stewart up through the pack, could be a turning point for a duo who’s had their share of hard luck. The summertime is typically when Smoke catches fire anyways, with the lion’s share of his 48 career victories occurring after June 1. They’ve got Hendrick chassis and horsepower, (and know-how, as HMS has proved to have mastered the Gen-6 with Johnson atop the points) and the resources and quality of personnel are there to at least turn the No. 14 into a success story.
“I think, as an organization, we have a lot to be proud of,” Stewart continued. “It gives Ryan and Danica and I confidence as a driver (that a Stewart-Haas car won). It gives the three crew chiefs confidence that we are making forward progress.”
Keep in mind we’re also in early June. The last time Stewart won a title, in 2011, he stumbled through July and August, barely made the Chase field and looked like he was going to embarrass himself in the postseason. Instead, he left holding the hardware. It’s the mark of being one of the sport’s great drivers: you can never count him out.
SECOND GEAR: Johnson’s botched restart … and Knaus’ cryptic code.
The debate from Dover is whether Johnson jumped the final restart of the race. Check out the footage for yourself. It’s clear the No. 48, against NASCAR rules, made it to the finish line first, despite restarting second and then never gave the position back to Montoya. Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton claims it’s an open-and-shut case, a Grand Canyon-like divide from where the No. 48 team was on the issue.
“I was half-throttle for the whole frontstretch,” Johnson claimed. “And at some point, I gotta go. NASCAR has the judgment to decide if you jumped it or not. But I’m like, he’s (Montoya) is not even going. So I’m not sure if his car broke or if it was off power or he spun the tires … I don’t know. So I’m running half-throttle down the frontstretch waiting for him and he never comes. And then, we were called on it. So, a bummer way to lose a race.”
Johnson had some support from fellow drivers, coming up to him after the checker flag and expressing their displeasure. Chad Knaus also chimed in, via radio to make their position clear: “They (NASCAR) don’t want you to win this race. You know that.”
But the winner, Stewart (who in a sense is a de facto teammate of Johnson) had no issues with how Montoya brought the field down.
“I feel bad for Jimmie,” Stewart said. “He didn't deserve to be in a situation at the end, but at the same time, he knows what the rules are, and he knows that the leader has to cross the start/finish line first. Juan is smart enough to not let the second place guy take advantage of the restart, and that's what he did.”
Stewart said a possible solution to the controversy would be to widen the restart zone, allowing the leader more leeway in when they accelerate and lessening the advantage for second place so they don’t get out in front. But in this case, I think it’s a combination of Montoya’s savvy and a little cheerleading from Knaus that went to Johnson’s head. Check out this transmission I caught just before the final restart:
“You're a lot faster than Montoya, we’ve seen that ... he's just a pain in the ass to pass. Get out there and check the f**k out.”
Johnson, back to second after Montoya beat him off pit road, might have been a little overeager. And the Colombian, not used to being up front, might have spun the tires or even intentionally stayed slow once Johnson jumped knowing if the No. 48 never gave the position back, he’d be black-flagged and the race would play out in his favor. Either way, it’s no harm, no foul for the points leader; he’s got a 30-point edge, is solidly in the Chase and showed he had the car to beat for the return visit to Dover in the fall. I’d forgive, forget and chalk it up as a lesson learned.
THIRD GEAR: Toyota’s engine woes … How will the affect things going forward?
For the second time this season, Matt Kenseth was in position to win until the motor in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota went kaboom. Out before the race’s midpoint, after having dominated up front with Kyle Busch, he was soon joined in the garage by fellow top-5 runner Martin Truex Jr. of Michael Waltrip Racing. It was a rough day for the Camry powerplants, which have blown up at a rate nearly six times that of rivals Ford or Chevrolet.
“I mean I feel like JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) has three of the strongest teams in the garage,” Kenseth said. “It seems like we got the best cars out there — or equal to the best. But, you know you have to finish these things. Obviously, there’s been some issues in that department.”
The veteran’s done a great job at keeping his composure, the perfect role model for teammate Kyle Busch as they hurtle towards the Chase as top contenders. But the 11 percent failure rate for JGR this season has to be alarming. That’s roughly one out of every nine races, meaning in the postseason they’re guaranteed to give up 40 points to a blown engine. It’s a mulligan they can’t afford, especially against a Hendrick opponent known for ironclad equipment.
The problem Sunday was a valve-train issue, but at this point it’s irrelevant. What Toyota needs are solutions for these things, and they need them now.
Carl Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Ford’s failing effort.
Ford Racing once dominated at Dover, but that wasn’t the case on Sunday. Only the Penske Racing duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano cracked the top 10; Roush Fenway’s trio was relegated to 13th, 14th and 15th. Adding insult to injury, Keselowski failed post-race inspection with a crew chief already on probation and a typically minor penalty (the car was too low) could result in additional penalties.
Overall, Ford has won just twice — at Phoenix in a track position race (Carl Edwards) and in the Russian Roulette restrictor plate atmosphere of Talladega (David Ragan). There is real concern in the RFR camp that Greg Biffle, who led the points for much last year’s regular season, could miss the Chase entirely. After Dover, Edwards spoke on what he believes is a systemic issue of missing speed inside the cars.
“When three different groups run the same speed and it is not fast enough, it means that we are doing a good job making the car as fast as it can go,” he said. “But it is up to all of us now to identify exactly where we are missing it. We will address it. We have time before the Chase starts. Now, it is just time to buckle down and work.”
Agreed on all counts.
The Monster Mile is not what it used to be, but it can still bite, as evidenced by Denny Hamlin’s hard hit down the stretch after blowing a tire. He was lucky not to re-injure his back, a reminder of the high risk/low reward scenario he’s currently in trying to squeeze into the Chase (the driver is now 74 points outside the top 20 with zero wins). … Jimmie Johnson’s rough ending left him 17th, his worst finish at the Monster Mile in nine years. But you can say that NASCAR’s calls evened out. An early debris caution in which the culprit was never shown kept Johnson, who started 24th, from going a lap down. … Dover’s crowd was upset over a weird stepped-up security procedure that kept some fans waiting up to an hour to get in. As race time edged closer, track officials seemed to “give up” and let people in much quicker. In the end, the crowd appeared weak, with less than 50 percent of the stands filled.
Picking the best fantasy drivers at Dover so you don't have to.
(Photo by ASP, Inc.)
To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its first visit to the other DIS — Dover International Speedway — this weekend for 400 miles around, as one driver calls it, “a one-mile roller coaster.” Delaware’s standard oval features corners lower than the banked straightaways, giving drivers the sensation that they “drop” into the turn and “climb” back up to the straights.
Choosing a fantasy lineup for Dover can sometimes be just as random as a card shuffle at the track’s backstretch casino thanks to the tight confines of the track occasionally producing massive multi-car accidents that wipe out a slew of contenders in one stroke. Still, we’ll take a stab.
Note: This fantasy preview is a bit different this week as we try a new format. Instead of ranking every driver at Dover, we’ll make it easier on you by telling you which drivers to call up and be ready to start for Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.
A-List Drivers (choose two, start one)
With consideration for many players conserving starts for Johnson until later in the season when he inevitably gets hot, Dover is almost a no-brainer time to have Johnson in your lineup for race day. Consider this: in the last 16 Dover races going back eight seasons, Johnson is averaging 121 laps led per race.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver has averaged a finish of sixth in that period (his average career finish in all races is 11th) and has turned the fastest lap 878 times, which is good for nearly 400 more than the second-most fastest laps in that period by Carl Edwards. Oh, one other thing: Johnson’s seven career wins at Dover are three more than any active driver. Beyond the wins, he has four more top-5 finishes and nine more top-10 finishes.
Sure, you could bet he’ll have an off weekend at a track he dominates in the name of conserving the No. 48’s start until the fall. But is that really wise a week after Johnson wrecked by himself at Charlotte? If anyone is coming back with a vengeance, it’s Mr. Five Time.
So you’ve used Johnson a few too many times to your liking this early in the year and you’re looking for a suitable replacement? If you haven’t overused Matt Kenseth to this point (I hope you’ve used Matt Kenseth plenty at this point), he’s your guy. But one driver who likely has plenty of starts remaining on your fantasy roster is Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer is riding a Dover streak of four straight races where he’s finished in the top 10 — moderately impressive considering the span included races with both Michael Waltrip Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Bowyer has led just 30 laps in those four starts, but those finishes and overall performances contributed to make him the third-best Dover driver among A-Listers during the last eight seasons.
Other picks: Matt Kenseth (Average running position of eighth; 18 top 10s, 2 wins) Jeff Gordon (Four career wins; 73 percent of laps in top 15 during last eight races)
B-List Drivers (choose four, start two)
Would you believe Carl Edwards was one spot away from making it four straight top-10 finishes last week? Quietly and steadily, Edwards and Roush-Fenway Racing seem to be making inroads on catching the dominance of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Dover should continue the recent positive trend.
Edwards crashed in the spring Dover race a year ago and wound up 26th, marking his first finish of worse than 11th at the concrete oval since 2006. He was one win in that period and his fifth-place run last fall marked his eighth career top 5 at Dover. Only Johnson and Kenseth have a better Dover driver rating than Edwards in the last 16 Dover races.
Thanks to his limited schedule, you’ll probably not run through all nine available starts for Mark Martin this season. That makes him an easy choice at Dover.
Last year, Martin had two top-15 finishes at the Monster Mile — including a third-place run in the fall that tied for his second-best finish of the 2012 season. Beyond that, Martin has been good at Dover both recently and throughout his career. In the last eight seasons, he has an average finish of 11th and has spent more than three-fourths of his laps in the top 15. He’s tied with Jeff Gordon for the second-most Dover wins among active drivers (4) and he hasn’t finished worse than 23rd there since 2002.
Last year Dover — land of local seafood restaurants featuring fresh catches from the nearby Atlantic Ocean — proved to be the Sea of Heartbreak (hat tip, Don Gibson!) for Kyle Busch. The No. 18 blew an engine in the spring race just past halfway as Joe Gibbs Racing cars are wont to do. Busch stormed back in the fall in his missed-Chase rage to lead 302 laps before a fuel mileage finish dropped him to 14th. It was a leave-the-track-without-comment kind of day for Kyle.
Even with those issues — and two other blown engines at Dover in his career — Busch’s numbers there make him a good bet Sunday. In his last 16 Dover starts, Busch has led the third-most laps of any active driver.
Biffle is another driver you’ve likely used sparingly this year, waiting for RFR to finally find fourth gear amid a mostly middling start. Remember, at his point one year ago Biffle held a 10-point lead in the series standings. Now, he’s 13th and 121 points back.
Dover has long been good to the Biff with a recent average finish of 9.6 and an average running position of 10th. His percentage of fastest in-race laps in that 16-race period is the highest among B-Listers. Though he has struggled some recently at the track where he’s won twice, Biffle is due to jumpstart his season after three finishes of 31st or worse in his last four races. That team is too good to continue a poor streak like that.
Other picks: Ryan Newman (Three career Dover wins; second-best track for career average finish) Kurt Busch (Surging team returns to site of Kurt’s last win) Martin Truex Jr. (Site of lone career race win in 2007; two top 10s in 2012)
C-List (Choose two, start one)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Undoubtedly, you’ve used Stenhouse plenty this season thanks to the lack of other consistent, quality talent in the C-List. He’s still the best pick for Dover among the group — and he’s likely better than almost half of the B-Listers. Stenhouse finished 12th in his lone Sprint Cup start at Dover, five spots ahead of his 17th-place start.
At a place like Dover, Smith seems to be as good a bet as any in the C-List. He drives for James Finch’s team for the seventh time this year Sunday following his 17th-place run last weekend at Charlotte. No, that car hasn’t had noteworthy speed and, no, a top 20 isn’t guaranteed. But Smith has yet to come home worse than 25th in that car this season. Better yet, he’s finished nine of his 10 career Dover races.
Other picks: David Reutimann (Average Dover finish is 20th) David Ragan (Average Dover finish is 24th)
David Smith crunches the numbers for the FedEx 400
Last year at Dover, Jimmie Johnson proved a driver will do anything for the sponsor. (ASP, Inc.)
“The Monster Mile” isn’t just a title for the purposes of ticket sales. It is a fine summation of a truly unique racetrack that causes fits for the majority of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver roster twice a year.
Dover International Speedway is a one-mile, high-banked attention grabber of a facility with fast closing speeds and diminished reaction time. It also offers some of the greatest lore in modern day NASCAR.
Jimmie Johnson is supremely dominant; so dominant, in fact, that it’s said he can’t be beaten, unless fuel mileage becomes a factor. Denny Hamlin is admittedly awful, so bad that he had to consult a sports psychologist prior to last fall’s race just so that he wouldn’t be mentally defeated before ever making the trip to Delaware.
The numbers from recent seasons seemingly back the mythology. For Hamlin, it is a troublesome track. For Johnson and others, it’s a tremendous coliseum.
5.958 Jimmie Johnson’s 5.958 PEER at Dover is the best in the Cup Series.
With four wins in the last eight races, Johnson is arguably better at Dover than any driver at any other track — Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen offers a valid opposition — and easily ranks as the series’ most productive racer. This stems not only from winning, but winning with gusto. His affinity for pacing the field on the Monster Mile is of legendary proportions.
65.6% In his four victories at Dover during the CoT era, Johnson had an average laps led percentage of 65.6.
This means Johnson doesn’t just win. He dominates. That’s sort of his general modus operandi when it comes to Dover, considering he has led 52.5 percent of the total laps there dating back to the 2009 spring race. In that time frame he averaged a running position of third place or better. Dover delivers a hectic day to most drivers, so it figures that Johnson has dwindled his competition down to about one or two other drivers in races there the last few years. This is also evident in his passing numbers.
78 Johnson converted 39 pass encounters out of a comparatively low two-race total of 78 into green-flag passes during the 2012 races at Dover.
That 50 percent passing efficiency on a low number of encounters is a byproduct of running in the front of the field all day. That he was able to avoid “for-position” traffic for the majority of the races at Dover is fairly advantageous for a team looking to take care of its car and come away with a victory. Aside from lapped traffic, Johnson didn’t often find himself in harm’s way that much last season.
75.5% Kyle Busch did his best Johnson impression at Dover in last fall’s race, leading 75.5 percent of the race’s total laps. He did not win.
Instead, a rare fuel mileage-predicated ending awarded the win to Brad Keselowski, but Busch demonstrated that he was perfectly able to do “Kyle Busch things” on the dicey one-mile oval. Taking into account how dominant he has been in 2013, Busch is a win threat this weekend despite his sixth-best Dover-specific production rating (3.042).
4.833 Tied for second in Dover PEER with a 4.833 rating is Matt Kenseth, who might serve as a potential spoiler for this weekend’s event.
It takes me aback that there are those that are surprised by Kenseth’s success behind the wheel of a Joe Gibbs Racing car early this season. Kenseth has always been a savvy driver from track to track, but now he is piloting equipment that offers a bigger “home run” threat, so to speak, compared to his former Roush Fenway Racing digs. It appears that JGR is benefiting from the Gen-6 more than a lot of the other heavyweight teams in the sport, so the always-reliable Kenseth is in a plum position to score wins at tracks on which he has always been a skilled producer. Dover is one such track.
Dover: Not Denny Hamlin's cup of concrete. (ASP, Inc.)
28.09% Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team currently have a 28.09 percent probability of making the Chase, which is the 17th best chance in the series.
Making the Chase conventionally via the top 10 automatic spots is likely not an option for Hamlin, who missed four races due to injury. He is still on track to finish inside the top 20, which is one of the two prerequisites for wild card accumulation (the other is win total). Dover provides a significant hurdle for Hamlin, who is historically rotten there (his career average finish is 19.6) with a replacement-level 0.417 PEER that ranks 26th out of 47 drivers. A good finish will see his probability of cracking the top 20 skyrocket (he is currently 24th). A win, albeit a shock, could be all he needs to put himself in the Chase.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Coca-Cola 600
Kevin Harvick earned his second win of 2013 in the Coca-Cola 600. (ASP, Inc.)
Fourteen leaders. 68 lead changes. A three-wide battle coming off a restart that decides the race. Read those two lines and you’re probably thinking, “typical NASCAR race at Talladega.”
Nope. Instead, those stats defined what could be the best Indianapolis 500 in a generation. As we look back at the Coca-Cola 600, it’s important to stop and recognize open-wheel’s glory day because the event was everything NASCAR was not. There was a sentimental winner, Tony Kanaan, whose post-race celebration from teams and crews became reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 “monkey off his back” victory of 1998. There was passing paired with a sense of urgency — and not just on Lap 190 of 200 — but throughout the entire event. Cautions were scarce, resulting in the fastest average speed in history, yet they weren’t needed to define and/or add excitement to the race. Oh, and should I mention a car even crashed on pit road and IndyCar kept the race under green?
Let’s compare that with Sunday night’s Charlotte event, one that will forever be defined by a piece of nylon rope. That snapped camera cable, from a FOX setup overhead, injured 10 fans, stopped the race and damaged three cars, including top contender Kyle Busch. Of the race’s 11 cautions, six were debris related and a few were positioned well by hot dog wrappers to bunch up the field in order to heighten the race’s entertainment. In a race 100 miles longer than Indy’s 500, there were just 11 leaders, 24 lead changes and three drivers (Busch, Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth) led 338 of 400 laps.
Does that mean Indy was perfect? Far from it; the race ended under yellow, drafting made it impossible for a strong car to pull away and there’s still too much homogeneity between teams. NASCAR had strong moments, including a surprise winner of its own in Kevin Harvick. But while the ratings likely won’t show it, in terms of pure competition, Sunday was the first time I can remember where IndyCar, head-to-head with the racing rival that unseated it from “top dog” inside the U.S., turned around, wound up and punched stock cars back, smack in the face in a bid to regain supremacy.
That won’t do much … yet. But at some point, that’s going to resonate with viewers and NASCAR would do well to pay attention. Turnarounds start with little victories like these.
Back to Charlotte…
FIRST GEAR: Kevin Harvick stole himself a Chase bid
He’s led 33 laps all season, good enough for just 17th on the Sprint Cup charts. Among those drivers listed ahead of him: Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin and Greg Biffle. But what none of those drivers have is a Cup win, let alone two. Harvick pulled another rabbit out of his hat on Sunday, the “Closer” playing it perfectly by taking two tires on the final caution while the leader, Kahne, stayed on track.
“It came down to a restart,” Harvick said bluntly, slotting in second after the stop and knowing clean air was all that was needed. “In the end, it was good enough to win the race.”
It’s also likely good enough to make the Chase. Now seventh in points, the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing team likely doesn’t have the speed to stay inside the top 10 long-term — not with Busch, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski among those sitting behind them. Over the course of the 26-race regular season, though, those two victories will be more than enough to snag a “wild card” position and put the pressure on Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and those who we know need the victories. It’s possible that those on the outside of the top 10 will have to come up with three wins to sneak into the postseason, which is not an easy feat with 14 races left.
As for Harvick’s unexpected victory? He survived; the epitome of what this race is all about. While problems befell the favorites, from the Busch brothers to Matt Kenseth to even a weakened Jimmie Johnson, the No. 29 car was put in position to win. As veteran Jeff Burton has slyly pointed out, that’s all you need. Sometimes, circumstances dictate the rest.
SECOND GEAR: The rope snap heard around the world
Until Sunday night, most people thought CamCAT was some sort of military DefCon mission or secret weapon you’d acquire in Call of Duty. Instead, it will forever stand for the camera whose ropes came toppling onto the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway, snapping into pieces on Lap 121 in an incident that sent three fans to the hospital, injured 10 and turned Kyle Busch’s front end, among others, into a mangled mess.
The technology, around since 2000, was being utilized by FOX for just the second time in NASCAR, following a successful Daytona 500 debut. One reason for its scarceness is the setup. It takes five days, including two cranes mounted on different sides of the track in Turns 1 and 4.
Three ropes make the camera tick, allowing it to slide above the track and deliver the type of breathtaking views fans love. But when one of those ropes broke, chaos broke loose and the snapping of the cable could have easily killed someone as debris kicked up everywhere. For the second time, NASCAR got lucky through a freak accident (see: February’s Nationwide race in Daytona) and was able to throw a red flag, clean up the mess and get fans treated (all have been released). It’s also to NASCAR’s credit that teams were allowed to fix cars torn apart by the cable. It’s one thing when a random event happens, like a hot dog wrapper or an overcooked engine that changes the course of a driver’s race. But when a TV crew broadcasting the event is involved in affecting the outcome through an equipment failure I think trying to reconstruct the race the way it was is perfectly reasonable.
Certainly, there’s some inconsistency within that, as Robby Gordon has lost a race in the past (Watkins Glen, early 2000s) through a TV malfunction. However, in this case NASCAR made the right call. And FOX is doing the right thing by suspending the camera going forward. The best thing to do here is chalk it up to “one of those freak things” and move on.
THIRD GEAR: Mark Martin’s rocky road
It’s been a long time since we’ve worried about the competitiveness of Mark Martin. But since late April, the now 54-year-old has done some things that make you scratch your head. At Richmond, he was involved in a heated incident with Kahne in which it looked like the veteran initiated contact. At Charlotte, it was another surprising mistake, as one of the sport’s cleanest drivers stuck his nose in the wrong place at wrong time, sparking a wreck that took out Chase contenders Jeff Gordon and Aric Almirola while hampering the nights of several others.
Suddenly, Martin’s year doesn’t look so rosy, with just one top-5 finish (third, Daytona) and zero laps led since February at Phoenix. A “lame duck” at Michael Waltrip Racing, you wonder if the impending departure will now begin to take its toll. After all, since leaving Roush, his sophomore campaigns at other teams, from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports, have always resulted in a downturn in performance. The big difference? None of them involved these types of uncharacteristic mistakes on the racetrack. Could this year finally be the one where Martin decides to call it quits?
Kasey Kahne had the preferred line, but Harvick had fresher tires and a propensity for restarts. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Don’t be fooled by bad luck blues
The sport’s biggest contenders in Sunday night’s race all got knocked out by problems not of their making. Kyle Busch, who led 65 laps, had another engine expire. Kenseth was involved in someone else’s mess. Kurt Busch had a battery fail while leading. And Kahne was caught by circumstances, a sitting duck once the final caution of the night came out. Perhaps the best car all weekend, Kahne was forced to settle for second in a no-win scenario: had he pitted for tires, like the rest of those up front, the No. 5 car would have likely come out 10th as others would have stayed out.
However, a look at the big picture shows that these four, believe it or not, are the biggest threats to Johnson’s sixth title as we speak. Kyle Busch, should his team correct the mechanical problems that dog him, has led 805 laps already and has the best average start (6.2) in the series, important for the Chase where track position racing is paramount. Kenseth, who has led a series-high 893 laps, has been the only one besides Johnson to be strong at every single track on the circuit, from the shorts to 2.5-mile superspeedways. Kurt Busch, as surprising as it seems, could be a “wild card” should he find some way to sneak into the postseason through winning races. After a third-place finish Sunday — one that could easily have been two better without a battery failure — he’s shown strength and potential consistency on the types of tracks that would make him a dark horse during a 10-race playoff.
But perhaps the most important name on the list is Kahne. Take away two wrecks (Daytona and Talladega) and he would quietly be in the points lead instead of Johnson. The No. 5 car has been battling with Kenseth for “best of the intermediates,” with three runner-up showings (Las Vegas, Kansas and Charlotte). That’s a title you want to have with a postseason that includes five such 1.5-milers.
Kudos to AJ Allmendinger, who was seventh in his Indy 500 debut driving for Roger Penske. Only a faulty seat belt which forced an unscheduled stop prevented one of the cooler feel-good victories in recent memory. It looks increasingly clear NASCAR is losing this one to the “other side.” … No drivers did the double this season and Brian France remains uninterested in jumpstarting talks to make that Indy 500/Coke 600 feat repeat itself again. Why do both series insist on shooting themselves in the foot? Publicity from that type of thing only helps the entry lists, national visibility and ratings for all sides. … Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose engine blew Sunday night, has slid outside the top 5 in points. June is an important month for him, with the one-year anniversary of his last win at Michigan slotted in between potential weaknesses at Pocono and Sonoma. Could the No. 88 team be on the bubble for the Chase once more?
Picking the best fantasy drivers at Charlotte so you don't have to.
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit runs the longest race of the year Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch in the All-Star Race
1. All-Star race, qualifying format changes in store
The most exciting NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying event of the season happens Friday night at 6:00 pm EST.
That's a fact even without the new hair-raising rule change allowing drivers to speed both away from pit road (like always) as well as enter it without a speed limit (new).
Qualifying for drivers in the Sprint All-Star Race is unique in that it demands three total laps around the track and must include a four-tire pit stop. In the past, that's been plenty exciting because NASCAR hasn't enforced a pit road speed limit after the pit stop — forcing drivers to manage 800-plus horsepower hooking up to their rear wheels from a dead standstill.
Now, they'll be doing the same coming to pit road. Lassoing a race car from the corner banking to pit road while slowing down is an event right on the edge. Nursing it down without scrubbing speed has the potential to go flying over that edge.
Additionally, NASCAR initiated the "Johnson Rule" for this season after last year's winner Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus played the strategy too well. Johnson won the first of four segments in 2012 to earn the pole for the 10-lap heat race at the end. In the remaining three segments, he sandbagged to keep his car in one piece.
This year, NASCAR will use a method that makes sense but one without a thought to how fans at the track will be able to compute it. Essentially, the 10-lap finale returns after a mandatory pit road visit. But instead of individual segment winners getting automatic priority, NASCAR will set the pre-pit road lineup by average finish.
It's a smart fix, but a silly one all at once thanks to the calculators required to know who even leads.
2. Johnson aims for All-Star record
Defending All-Star race winner Johnson is bound to get plenty of coverage this weekend as he guns for a fourth win in the midseason exhibition race. A checkered flag for Johnson — or teammate Jeff Gordon, for that matter — would set a new bar for the most wins in the event.
Only one other driver has ever scored three wins in the race for not much else than money and pride. Of course, that's Dale Earnhardt.
Gordon and Johnson, however, haven't had the best of relationships with the All-Star event in recent seasons. For Gordon, a top 10 in the exhibition race hasn't happened since his third-place run in 2006 and he hasn't won since his epic 2001 victory in a back-up car after a rain shower on the first lap caused a massive Turn 1 crash.
Johnson, meanwhile, went three seasons (2009, ’10 and ’11) without an All-Star top 10. That's not exactly futility, sure, but we are talking about Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3. Gibbs still looks for first All-Star win
One of the greatest oddities left in the always odd weekends produced by the All-Star Race is that Joe Gibbs Racing has never been to Victory Lane in the event.
It's not like JGR has paraded slouches into the race. The lack of checkered flag success has occurred despite drivers like Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett all giving it a go.
JGR, though, will be the hot pick this weekend. A week after a near-miss on a 1-2-3 finish at Darlington Raceway, the Toyotas from that camp have proven to be the fastest machines this season despite reliability. Matt Kenseth, riding high off win No. 3, should be the team's primary favorite.
It will also be worth watching how the recently returned Hamlin will compete Saturday night. Will he be willing to take major chances for a win so soon after his return from his back injury?
We'll find out.
4. Using the All-Star Race for Coca-Cola 600 knowledge
The All-Star weekend festivities are the traditional kickoff of the Charlotte region's own version of Daytona's Speedweeks. Between the opening of Sprint Cup practice Friday for participants in the All-Star Race and the start of the Coca-Cola 600 next Sunday evening, drivers and teams are scheduled to have four hours and 50 minutes of open practice.
That doesn't even include the race conditions teams will get to experience Saturday night.
The result of all of this track time is often a line of thinking saying the teams who fare well this weekend have the inside line to a win — or at least record a good finish — in the 600 next weekend. Results, though, tell a different story.
In fact, five of last 10 All-Star Race winners haven't even finished in the top 10 of the following Coca-Cola 600. Plus, the last 10 years has produced an average of just four drivers scoring top-10 finishes in both events.
Whether you chalk it up to the normalization of racing or blame the effects of a 600-mile race, the result stays the same: a good run Saturday night doesn't guarantee a good one the following Sunday.
5. NASCAR remembers fun-loving, hard-charging Dick Trickle
News that former NASCAR driver Dick Trickle took his own life Thursday in North Carolina spread across the sport in a startling, sad fashion. By the evening, words from every corner of the sport were spoken, typed or sent expressing remorse.
The grief for Trickle, both for his death and in the somber realization of the extreme personal baggage he carried in the waning period of his life, had no bounds and reflected the wake he left in his now long-retired career. The most remarkable part of Trickle's impact, of course, is that his NASCAR numbers were never remarkable.
Trickle didn't drive a full season in today's Sprint Cup Series until he was 47 years old in 1989. Just three times — 1990, ’92 and ’95 — did the Wisconsin short track ace ever qualify for every race on a season's schedule. He made 303 Cup starts, scoring just 15 top-5 finishes and never a Cup win. He did rope two career Nationwide (then Busch) Series wins (1997, ’98).
Trickle's mark on the sport came in both his legend from his midwest short track days and the number of drivers he raced along the way. Of course, his trademark of enjoying a cigarette during a race's caution flag was unforgettable to even casual race fans in the 1990s.
It's not a stretch to wonder if today's NASCAR — good or bad — would ever have room for a character like Trickle that helped the sport's narrative in ways that leading laps and hoisting trophies could never do.