Racing NASCAR's Trucks at Eldora and surprises in Kansas
Is it time for NASCAR to look in a different direction to run a race? Maybe something old school. You know, some place dirt-y? Of all that happened last weekend in Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas, what was the most impressive feat? Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debated those and other questions this week. Here’s what they said:
Earnhardt to make NASCAR Sprint Cup return in Martinsville
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been medically cleared to race this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports announced Tuesday.
Earnhardt missed the past two races after suffering a concussion Oct. 7 in a last-lap crash at Talladega Superspeedway. It was his second concussion within six weeks. He suffered a concussion in a crash during an Aug. 29 tire test at Kansas Speedway.
Earnhardt’s rehabilitation program was directed by Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, who also consulted with Dr. Micky Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program.
“Dale Jr. has done everything asked of him,” Petty said in a statement issued by Hendrick Motorsports. “He hasn’t had a headache since Oct. 12, and we have not been able to provoke any symptoms since that time. I have informed NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports that he is medically cleared for all NASCAR-related activity.”
Earnhardt sought Dr. Petty because of lingering headaches after the Talladega race.
“The one symptom that is more important than all the tests is headache, and as long as there’s any headache, the brain is not healed,” Petty said Oct. 11 during a press conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway announcing that Earnhardt would miss the next two races because of a concussion.
“We want him to have four or five days after he has no headache, and then we'll give him some sort of test like to get his pulse rate up, see if we can provoke a headache, and then if we can't, we'll let him go out and drive a lap or two and see how that goes, and if that goes well, we'll probably clear him to race.”
Earnhardt drove 123 laps in a Sprint Cup car Monday at the half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga., without any issues.
Crew chief Steve Letarte wrote on Twitter after the test that Earnhardt “looked great and ran some awesome laps.”
Petty monitored the test. He cleared Earnhardt Tuesday morning after a final neuropsychological evaluation in Charlotte.
On Sunday at Kansas Speedway, car owner Rick Hendrick said that it was never a consideration to hold Earnhardt the rest of the season.
“He’s burning up to get in the car,” Hendrick said. “He wanted to run this weekend. He’s very anxious. He wants to get back. No way you’re going to hold him out unless the doctor wouldn’t clear him, but he’s good to go.”
While Earnhardt was out, Regan Smith drove his car. An engine failure left Smith with a 38th-place finish at Charlotte, but he placed seventh at Kansas last weekend.
Earnhardt is the second driver in NASCAR’s national series to suffer a concussion and miss races this season. Eric McClure suffered a concussion, along with other injuries, in a crash during the May 5 Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway. McClure, who suffered his third concussion in less than two years in that incident, sat out five races before returning.
Hendrick Motorsports’ announcement did not include a statement from Earnhardt. He’s scheduled to talk to the media Friday morning at Martinsville Speedway before practice.
Matt Kenseth (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
LAME DUCK? Sure, Matt Kenseth is leaving Roush Fenway Racing after this season to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, but he’s won two of the last three Cup- races. Had it not been for some mechanical issues earlier in the Chase, Kenseth, who won at Talladega two weeks ago, might have a chance to contend for the title.
“We've had two great races where they couldn't be better, and we had four that probably couldn't be a lot worse, other than Loudon,” Kenseth said after his 24th career Cup victory. “It's been up and down. I thought last year we were really strong. I thought in the Chase last year we had a shot to win the championship as far as performance. I feel like I let my guys down and didn't do a good enough job making decisions on the track or even off the track. I felt like I cost us, but our cars were fast enough to win.
“This season we started off real fast and could run in the top five every week it felt like. We went through a couple months where we didn't perform as well. Unfortunately, one of those months ran into the Chase. I just felt like we were a little off as a group, plus we made a few mistakes that we typically never make, have had some other problems that cost us some finishes. It feels good to get here, have a fast car, have everything happen right, be able to get the win.”
Another driver on the move after this season is Joey Logano, who will leave Joe Gibbs Racing for Penske Racing’s No. 22 ride. Although he finished 19th at Kansas on Sunday, he’s placed in the top 10 in four of his last six races.
PIT STOPS AJ Allmendinger is back in the car for Phoenix Racing this weekend at Martinsville. Allmendinger finished a career-best second there in the spring for Penske Racing. ... Points leader Brad Keselowski has an average finish of 13.4 in five previous starts there. ... Jimmie Johnson, second in the points, has six wins at Martinsville and has finished outside the top 10 there only twice since 2002 (20 races). ... Denny Hamlin, third in the points, has four Martinsville victories and only two finishes outside the top 20 there since 2005 (14 races).
Kenseth survives, notches third Sprint Cup win of 2012
Matt Kenseth in Victory Lane at Kansas. (ASP, Inc.)
There is typically one race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship that throws the Sprint Cup field the proverbial curveball.
The perils of Talladega are well known, so drivers and teams approach it with a survivalist’s mentality. The 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway appears staid when compared to the aforementioned 2.66-mile behemoth or even the cramped confines of the half-mile Martinsville Speedway. But with a fresh coat of new asphalt, a narrow groove and changing weather conditions throughout the weekend, Kansas proved to be anything but normal.
Ill-timed pit stops, spins, hard crashes, paybacks and an emotional winner highlighted the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway. Matt Kenseth, on his way out at Roush Fenway Racing after a celebrated 14-year tenure, proved the “lame duck” tag doesn’t apply to him or his No. 17 team. Kenseth survived a harrowing moment early in the race to lead the final 49 laps en route to his third win of the 2012 season, and second in the last three weeks.
“It means lot,” an emotional Kenseth said in Victory Lane. “I just have to thank God for the opportunities he has put in front of me and the guidance he has given me throughout my whole life. I have to thank Jack Roush and (competition director) Robbie Reiser and (former teammate) Mark Martin. Without them, I would have never been at Roush Fenway Racing.”
Kenseth’s road to the winner’s circle was an arduous one. He slapped the wall on lap 173 of 267 while attmpting to miss a spinning Aric Almirola. That dropped him to 24th on the ensuing restart, deep in a field that had proven to be aggressive.
However, as Kenseth steadily advanced his position, others saw their hopes dashed.
Chase contenders Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart each spun, while Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman were involved in an altercation that will most certainly be continued before the season is over. Even Danica Patrick got into the action, spinning Landon Cassill and, in the process, wrecking herself, when she took exception to his on-track methods.
Kansas’ newly repaved surface narrowed the racing groove, forcing drivers to take advantage of any opportunity presented to them. A Kansas record 14 cautions was the result, as aggressiveness seemed the order of the day.
“The restarts were pretty wild,” Johnson said. “You had to run so hard that when something happened and you lost grip, the car just stood up on the tires and would take off and you couldn't control it, and guys were sliding everywhere.”
Johnson would know. He backed his No. 48 Chevy into the wall on lap 137. His team responded as title contenders do, furiously working on the car under yellow while remaining on the lead lap. Johnson finished ninth, one spot behind points leader Brad Keselowski.
“I’m glad I survived the carnage and brought back a decent car,” Keselowski said of his eighth-place run. “I dodged a bullet of a race.”
Keselowski’s lead over Johnson in the point standings remains at seven, while third-place Denny Hamlin lost five points due to a 13th-place showing. He sits third in the title hunt, 20 points back.
Clint Bowyer (sixth) finds himself still in contention, just 25 markers behind Keselowski. Kasey Kahne (fourth) has moved to within 30 points of the lead.
But while the championship continues to sort itself out—eyeing a final-race shootout in Homestead, Fla., Sunday was about Kenseth and the team that continues to give up.
“We still have some races left we want to win,” Kenseth said. “It says a lot about these guys—how hard they work to give me the best stuff and give me a chance to win every week.”
It was the first big plate-race wreck following the untimely passing of Dale Earnhardt. Sterling Marlin was an unwitting participant in that event, and was in this one as well. Bobby Labonte blew over on the backstretch, while Johnny Benson Jr. got hooked head on into the wall. Sterling, as eloquent as always, explains what was needed to make the plate racing safer. The cars now go 200 mph, still wreck, and still go flying through the air — but they’re safer, at least.
by Vito Pugliese
1986: Dude, who stole my car?
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OK, so this wasn’t in the plate era, but who could forget the guy who stole the pace car and took it for a hot lap prior to the 1986 Winston 500? And why in the hell wouldn’t we post it regardless of when it happened? Folks, gaze upon the glory of what an all-nighter in the Talladega infield will drive a man to do. Wonder if they got him for grand theft auto and DUI?
by Matt Taliaferro
1987: The One that Started it all
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The one that started the Restrictor Plate Era: Bobby Allison about parked it in the front row at Talladega in 1987 after losing the starter off his car, running over it and puncturing the tire in the process. That blew the quarter panel off the car and allowed gobs of air to pile under it at 210, sending it skyward. Had the catchfence and arrestor cables not done their job, it very well would have been the end of NASCAR. How’s this for irony: Bobby about takes out the flagstand while son Davey wins his first Cup race just a few hours later.
by Vito Pugliese
2003: NASCAR's No-Call
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Matt Kenseth about pulled a Tony Stewart here, swerving towards Dale Earnhardt Jr., causing him to go below the yellow line in what was a pretty blatant non-call in advancing your position. The yellow line rule was supposed to stop guys from trying to pull off a pass before the transition from the flat backstretch to the banking in Turn 3 … which is pretty much where Junior pulls off the pass. Replacement valences, duct tape, bent sheet metal … and they still were able to actually race on a plate track. This was plate racing at its best.
by Vito Pugliese
2010: Plate Racing as an art form
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As slick and calculating of a move as you’ll ever see at Talladega. In the “pod racing” period at Daytona and ’Dega, the Earnhardt-Childress engines were all but unstoppable. In this classic, Kevin Harvick executes a masterful tri-oval bump ‘n’ run of Jamie McMurray (both equipped with ECR powerplants, of course) to earn the engine shop a sweep of the plate races in 2010. A finer move may never be seen — well, except by the guy that once piloted Harvick's car.
by Matt Taliaferro
1996: One Tough Customer
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One of the scariest Talladega crashes, and one that looked fatal at first glance, was this grinding mess in 1996. Ernie Irvan and Sterling Marlin get together, sending Dale Earnhardt head-on into the non-SAFER Barrier frontstretch wall at nearly 200 mph. Earnhardt then suffers a T-bone hit to the roof by Derrike Cope, as an engine goes tumbling down the frontstretch. The toughest SOB in the garage emerged with a broken collarbone, holding true to his “One Tough Customer” persona and, two weeks later, put it on the pole at Watkins Glen. Naturally.
by Vito Pugliese
1998: Earnhardt Singes ’Stache
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A near-replay of the 1996 crash was this one between Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott, the two drivers who pretty much defined both eras of plate and non-plate racing at Talladega. Elliott got banged up pretty good in the crash, while Earnhardt singed his moustache. He ended up shaving it for a little while, which just looked downright awkward. Thankfully, the cookie duster returned a few weeks later. Right, like he’s going to up in a tree stand without it …
by Vito Pugliese
1993: Who goes higher, Rusty or Jenkins?
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I will go on record as saying this is easily the best single race of the restrictor plate era. This was the race that started the advent of running three-wide, 15-rows deep in the field. This race had everything, from Mark Martin’s team having to hot wire his car to get it started, a constant threat of rain, and a ridiculous finish that didn’t need a green-white-checker gimmick to make it happen. Watch as Martin peels the paint off the wall coming to the white, and then as Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Ernie Irvan, Jimmy Spencer and Rusty Wallace dice for the win. Earnhardt launches his buddy Rusty skyward, which ushered in the roof flaps we still see today. Rusty ended up with a broken wrist, which the team would Velcro to the shifter for the next week’s race at Sonoma. The early-mid 1990s was the Golden Era of modern NASCAR. If only they could catch lightning in a bottle once again …
by Vito Pugliese
Cole vs. Ricky
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Talladega, Darlington ... close enough.
by Matt Taliaferro
2003: Sadler’s Pirouette
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The Car of Tomorrow is a pretty hearty beast, but the old car was no slouch either — as Elliott Sadler proves by bouncing it off the pavement several times at Talladega. Sadler executed a similar test at Michigan in 2000. The camera angle used at the 4:08 mark really shows the speed and violence of the wreck, and how much ground they’re actually covering. Wish the networks would use this angle more often. Worst part of this clip? The longing it stirs to hear Benny Parsons in the booth once again.
by Vito Pugliese
1996: Eight Miles High & Falling Fast
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This one brought to you by Depends. Ricky Craven is likely relishing his new role as an analyst with ESPN after this four-story horror in May 1996. Huntsville Rocket City, USA? It seems Craven went Saturn V in Eastaboga, as five cars pass underneath him as he careens down the banking. Again, the old car held up rather well even in wrecks such as these that look absolutely lethal. Interesting to see how much faster and unstable these cars are going at 195 mph versus 205 mph today. They’re barely turning 7,000 rpm and making less horsepower than the GT500 Mustang pace car was at the race this Sunday.
by Vito Pugliese
2006: Cole Trickle to the rescue
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Sorry, couldn't help ourselves.
by Matt Taliaferro
2009: Catchfence Carl
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You knew this one was going to top the charts. This race was significant for a number of reasons. Many didn’t think the original CoT could get airborne, ungainly sled that it was. Turns out that wings create a lot of lift (who knew?), and that, as Tony Stewart found out the hard way on Sunday, blocking on the last lap when leading usually turns out bad. Brad Keselowski got his first career win in James Finch’s ride, which would propel him to his current position of leading the points leaving Talladega just three and a half years later. Ryan Newman gets a windshield full of Cousin Carl, which could have ended much worse. And not everybody escaped unscathed; a fan sitting in the grandstands had her jaw shattered when a PA speaker mounted on the fence was jettisoned free as 3,500 pounds of Ford Fusion clobbered it at 190 mph. Edwards, ever the classy guy he is, visited with the young fan before the fall race.
At first it looked like the Big One wasn’t going to happen this weekend at Talladega. Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon all had world-class saves, lurid slides that looked more like something out of the movie “Ronin” rather than a 200 mph chess match. Even Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch limited the carnage by holding on to their cars and keeping them out of traffic when spinning.
Matt Kenseth’s win Sunday at Talladega completed one of the greatest seasons of restrictor-plate racing in NASCAR since 1988, the first season the plates were used for all the races at Daytona and Talladega.
Kenseth won the Daytona 500, finished third at Talladega in the spring, was third at Daytona in July and won at Talladega last weekend, giving him an average finish of 2.0 in those four plate races.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. owns the greatest average finish in NASCAR history in those four plates races at 1.5 in 1999. He won two of those races and finished second in the other two. Next is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2004 season when he had an average finish of 1.75 in the restrictor-plate races, recording two wins, one second-place finish and a third-place finish.
Kenseth’s 2.0 average finish is next, tied with what Dale Earnhardt Sr. did in 1990 and 1993.
Kenseth’s total might have been better. He led the next-to-last lap at Daytona in July before Tony Stewart took the lead and won. Kenseth led with two laps to go at Talladega in the spring before losing the lead to Brad Keselowski, who went on to win the race.
In an era where restrictor-plate racing can be a game of chance—Jimmie Johnson was collected in crashes in three of those four races and blew an engine in the other—Kenseth’s run is remarkable. Add to it that Kenseth isn’t known for his restrictor-plate prowess and the accomplishment is even more impressive.
“I feel like through my career, honestly, it’s been one of my weak points,” said Kenseth, whose average finish in plate races last year was 22.5. “I never felt like I was very good at it, felt like we’d make not the right decisions when we had really fast cars. I felt like that a couple of times, the second Daytona and the first Talladega, both of them races were mine to lose and I lost them for my team. I thought they gave me the stuff to win both of those races as well. Super, super thankful we were able to win this (past) weekend.
“I had no idea our plate stuff was going to run that good. After the 150 (-mile qualifying race at Daytona) with this package, I felt like we learned a few things and I learned a few things. Honestly, from the 150s all the way until we got done with the race last Sunday we’ve been surprisingly good.”
SPOKE TOO SOON Dale Earnhardt Jr. had some strong words to say about the racing at Talladega after he was collected in a 25-car crash on the last lap of a green-white-checker finish.
“If this is what we did every week I wouldn’t be doing it I will just put it to you like that,” Earnhardt said. “If this is how we raced every week I would find another job.”
When a reporter suggested that fans enjoyed such a chaotic finish with cars spinning and crash, Earnhardt said: “Really? It’s not safe. Wrecking like that is ridiculous. It’s bloodthirsty if that is what people want. It’s ridiculous.”
When asked what changes he’d like to see, Earnhardt said: “The way we are going ain’t the right direction. There are plenty of engineers out there I’m just a driver. There are plenty of smart people out there that can figure something out where when one guy gets in trouble we don’t have 30 cars tore up at the expense of it. I mean it’s awesome in a word and everybody can get on the chip about it and get excited about all that which just happened, but for the longevity of the sport that ain’t healthy.”
Tuesday, Earnhardt told SBNation.com he regretted what he said.
“I regret making a bit of a scene and not considering the fact we're going to be in a totally different racecar for 2013. It's probably going to present a totally different style of racing at those tracks, so I probably have a bit more of a positive outlook on the potential for that style of racing to be really good with the next car.
“It was a bit heat of the moment, and I kind of regret getting that emotional about it. But I was just really upset about how that all went down. We'd run so good. I was really, really happy with my car in that race and I thought we should have been able to finish really good.”
TV RATINGS FOR ’DEGA DOWN ESPN reported that Sunday’s broadcast of the Talladega Sprint Cup race earned a 3.7 household rating. That’s down from last year when the race drew a 3.9 household rating. In 2010, the race drew a 3.6 household rating.
ESPN also noted that the Talladega race drew an average audience of 5.1 million viewers. To compare, the Dover race the previous week on ESPN drew an average audience of 3.5 million viewers.
A GOOD SIGN The points leader after the fifth race in the Chase has gone on to win the title in five of the previous eight years.
The years the champion was not the points leader after the fifth race was 2011 when Tony Stewart was fifth in the points after the fifth race, 2007 when Jimmie Johnson was second in the points and 2006 when Johnson was sixth in the points. Saturday night’s Charlotte race is the fifth race in the Chase.
It’s a NASCAR theme that plays out as regularly as the seasons on the calendar change—in fact, it occurs seasonally, as NASCAR’s four restrictor-plate dates reside in February, May, July and October: The perils of “pack racing” at the sport’s largest venues, Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
Quarterly, television commercials sell viewers on the promise of intense, white-knuckle, photo-finish action, complete with a major-league version of the local Saturday night Demolition Derby.
Make no mistake, the selling points are true. Horsepower-sapping restrictor plates put a ceiling on the power each engine produces. The result is a giant pack of sleek racecars, jostling just inches from one another at nearly 200 mph.
The spectacle is undeniable; the outcome all-too-predictable. Drivers, hellbent on leading the only lap that counts—the last one—fight for every inch of real estate in the race’s final circuits. Inevitably, the paint-swapping turns too aggressive and savagery commences.
Such was the case on Sunday, when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series made its fall pilgrimage to Talladega, Ala., home to the 2.66-mile behemoth superspeedway, with its lurching tri-oval and 33-degree-banked turns.
Filling in the event’s template this trip, it was Matt Kenseth that avoided the big wreck on the final lap of a green-white-checker overtime finish, taking the win. Sunday’s version of the “Big One” was, in fact, an actual big one, as 25 cars piled into one another.
Tony Stewart accepted blame for this trip’s destruction, which occurred as the 30-car pack barreled through Turns 3 and 4. Defending the lead, his ill-timed block of Michael Waltrip’s surging machine ignited the grinding melee that saw Stewart’s car turn upside down, only to land on all four wheels. He, along with all others involved, walked away physically unharmed.
“I just screwed up,” Stewart said. “I turned down across Michael (Waltrip) and crashed the whole field. It was my fault blocking to try to stay where I was.
“I was trying to win the race. Michael got a great run on the bottom, a big head of steam. When I turned down, I turned down across Michael’s racecar. Just a mistake on my part that cost a lot of people.”
Kenseth, meanwhile, had the good fortune to be on the high side of the three-wide pack. As chaos ensued behind his Ford, he had clean track in the windshield and sailed through the tri-oval unchallenged to take the checkered flag.
Somehow (and there’s always a “somehow” in these wrecks) Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch skated past the mess and finished second and third.
Kenseth, as most race-winning survivors state, had little insight into what happened. After all, he was in front of the incident. The obligatory, “I’m really proud to be in Victory Lane with these guys; they worked on it hard today,” and “I don't know how that happened,” was all the victor could muster.
However, other drivers—even those not involved— had strong words about the style of racing on NASCAR’s two largest tracks.
“At the end you know it’s going to get aggressive,” Gordon said. “It started to ramp up, so you’re pretty sure there’s going to be a caution, and then with the green-white-checker, you know you’re not making it back to the checkered (flag).
“I remember when coming to Talladega was fun, I really do, and I haven’t experienced that in a long, long time. I don’t like coming here. I don’t like the type of racing that I have to do.”
The most unlikely critic this time (and there’s always at least one post-race critic), was the man who once championed pack racing: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“If this is what we did every week, I wouldn’t be doing it, I will just put it to you like that,” said Earnhardt, who was swept up in the accident and finished 20th. “If this is how we raced every week, I would find another job.
“I don’t even want to go to Daytona or Talladega next year, but I ain’t got much choice.”
But return the series and its band of driver will. Daytona testing is scheduled for January while Speedweeks at the same facility culminates with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24.
And the same story will be written then. Just insert here the race-winner’s quote, offending-party’s name and number of cars involved in the last-lap crash.
1. Denny Hamlin
2,012 points; four wins
Hamlin certainly appears to be a changed driver from the one that, along with then-crew chief Mike Ford, cracked under the pressure of a 2010 title fight. Quiet confidence abounds with his No. 11 team, led by the unassuming yet firm guidance of Darian Grubb (you know, the lame-duck crew chief that strapped on a pair and led a team that was an afterthought to last year’s championship). Despite his series-best four wins, only delivering in the clutch will wash away memories of Denny’s monumental collapse two years ago.
by Matt Taliaferro
2. JIMMIE JOHNSON
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2. Jimmie Johnson
2,009 points; three wins
Based on their track record alone, you can never count out Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus when the playoffs role around. This season will undoubtedly be no different, and by the way, if you’re making any other team the favorite, you’re not being honest with yourself. That’s not to say the 48 team is predestined to win this whole dog ‘n’ pony show, but make no mistake: This bunch is the favorite. Johnson has won Chases coming from behind, pulling away, winning in bundles and in being consistent. Contrary to popular (and short-sighted) belief, a team doesn’t have to win in spades during the Chase to be crowned the champion. This team probably will, though.
by Matt Taliaferro
3. TONY STEWART
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3. Tony Stewart
2,009 points; three wins
For proof that a team doesn’t have to win races in the Chase to be a champion, look no further than Stewart’s 2005 title run. You’ll find he had zero Chase wins and that an 8.7-place average finish did the trick. Ironically, Tony’s 2011 five-win Chase spurt is the performance that perpetuated the “gotta-win-big” notion. Here’s the straight-talk concerning Stewart: He’s not going to win five of the next 10 but he probably won’t get skunked, either. But this probably isn’t his year to earn title No. 4.
by Matt Taliaferro
4. BRAD KESELOWSKI
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4. Brad Keselowski
2,009 points; three wins
A little bit DW, a little bit JJ, Keselowski is the breath of fresh air this sport has needed for awhile. Keselowski is a champ-in-waiting — strike that, a multiple-time champ-in-waiting. Somewhere amid the media savvy, the heads-up racing style, the mind games and the raw talent lies an intangible factor that’s hard to pinpoint (thus, its intangibility). BK’s time may indeed be now … and the window may close for a year or so depending on how his Penske Racing organization adapts to its new Ford sheet metal and new factory mates. Don’t be surprised if we see a first-time Cup champ this year.
by Matt Taliaferro
5. GREG BIFFLE
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5. Greg Biffle
2,006 points; two wins
Who? Oh yeah, the guy who won the regular season championship — not that NASCAR bothers to recognize the admirable feat. Perpetually flying under the radar, Biffle appears to be the Terry Labonte of his era — a great wheelman who never was viewed among the sport’s elite despite all evidence to the contrary. Of course, to be on par with Labonte, you have to win a Cup title and thus far, that’s eluded him. That said, he stands his best chance this year, with teammate and media-hound Carl Edwards out of the running and BFF Matt Kenseth on his way out at Roush Fenway Racing. Can the points leader after race No. 26 be considered a darkhorse? If so, Biffle’s your man.
by Matt Taliaferro
6. CLINT BOWYER
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6. Clint Bowyer
2,006 points; two wins
Michael Waltrip Racing’s much-ballyhooed two-car 2012 Chase effort makes for a great story. And seriously, it’s good to see an upstart operation legitimately delivering the goods in its sixth year of Cup competition. However, let’s be honest: MWR isn’t going to win a title this year … right? Don’t tell that to Bowyer, who is one of only seven drivers on the circuit to cash in for multiple victories this year. And probably one of only seven drivers on the circuit that’ll buy YOU a beer down the street if he pulls a stunner.
by Matt Taliaferro
7. DALE EARNHARDT JR.
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7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2,003 points; one win
Even with NASCAR putting the clamps on Hendrick’s bushings (yes, that sounds painful … and just a bit dirty), you have to figure the 88 team has been doing some live-fire testing the last few weeks. Junior’s consistency is unquestioned and, as stated previously, that’s the real key here. Once he’s back at full song expect a return to the fourth- to 10th-place showings that were the hallmark of what’s been Earnhardt’s most successful post-DEI season to date. I’m of the opinion Junior will factor in this Chase — though whether or not he can trade licks with Johnson, Hamlin, et al, down the stretch is somewhat of an unknown.
by Matt Taliaferro
8. MATT KENSETH
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8. Matt Kenseth
2,003 points; one win
Let’s get the lame duck thing out of the way first: Yes, Kenseth is out at Roush Fenway Racing at season’s end. And having already been introduced and serenaded in front of the media by his new roomies, it may have an effect in the current neighborhood. However, if any driver/crew chief combo can work past the circumstances at hand it’s Kenseth and Jimmy Fennig. It’s hard to imagine Uncle Jack not at least attempting to over-deliver for the driver that’s been the bedrock of his foundation for the last decade. But it’s also hard to imagine the 17 team actually breaking through with so many other teams running at full bore with no distractions.
by Matt Taliaferro
9. KEVIN HARVICK
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9. Kevin Harvick
2,000 points; zero wins
If there’s a Tony Stewart-like run coming in this year’s Chase, you have to figure this is the driver and team to do it. There have been some Kevin Harvick sightings since his reunion with new/old crew chief Gil Martin, and the ceiling is still a ways up. The bigger issue here is whether the 29 team can rise above what seems to be an organization-wide lack of speed at Richard Childress Racing. If the magic that propelled Harvick and Martin to consecutive third-place points finishes is back, this could be a fun group to watch crash the party.
by Matt Taliaferro
10. MARTIN TRUEX JR.
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10. Martin Truex Jr.
2,000 points; zero wins
See: Bowyer, Clint; minus the wins. Mikey’s NAPA team has been the little engine that could this season, yet a lack of victories — and there have been opportunities — is worrisome. What Truex, Chad Johnston and the boys have done thus far in 2012 is admirable. However, to win a championship you first must prove able to win races. The ultimate underdog in a back half of a field chock-full of them, Truex will look to Dover as his sink-or-swim Chase moment.
by Matt Taliaferro
11. KASEY KAHNE
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11. Kasey Kahne
2,000 points; two wins
Wild card qualifier No. 1, Kahne is a tough one to figure, though he could make some serious noise. This new team at Hendrick Motorsports hit its stride around midseason and has been as consistent as any other since. The thinking on Kahne is that, for years, he’s been an able pilot stuck in eroding situations that were not of his making. That’s not the case anymore. Time for ol’ blue eyes and crew chief Kenny Francis to deliver.
by Matt Taliaferro
12. JEFF GORDON
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12. Jeff Gordon
2,000 points; one win
The post-Richmond talk has centered on Kyle Busch and his No. 18 team’s implosion, but credit Gordon and his 24 team: They flat out-raced the opposition down the stretch to the tune of third-, second- and second-place showings. History suggests that teams which “turn it on” late and sneak into the Chase have to take a breath once there, at which point the powerhouses that were stroking go flying by. Hard to imagine this being the case with Gordon and Alan Gustafson, who’ve made their own momentum the way championship-caliber teams are supposed to.
Handicapping the Chase and the year's biggest surprises
NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship is here and with it comes the question of who will win it. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council tackle that question and more, including what is the biggest surprise this year and if they think drivers give their best effort every race. Here’s what the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say about those issues and more.
In 2003, Matt Kenseth became the final Winston Cup Champion in less-than-dazzling fashion. He won all of one of 36 races while posting 24 top 10s for an average finishing position of 10.2. He clinched the title by merely starting the second to last race of the year at Rockingham. After promptly blowing an engine and finishing dead last, he ended the year 90 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, and 207 ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With new series sponsor Nextel coming on board for 2004, and a desire by NASCAR CEO Brian France to have his sport compete more closely – and resemble – the NFL, a playoff-type championship format was instituted. The Chase has evolved over the years, but the cumulative year-long points battle was replaced by a final 10-race title bout for 10-12 drivers.
With Chicagoland the site of the 2012 Chase this Sunday, let’s take a look back at the previous eight Chase campaigns, and how they rank.
1. 2004 Nextel Cup — The Chase Era Begins
When it was announced that the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion would be determined by a 10-race playoff, purists scoffed. How could any new champion be judged against the likes of Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson, or even Jeff Gordon? The first 10-race playoff – or “raceoff,” if you prefer – helped relieve much of that anxiety. Going into the final race at Homestead, there were five drivers with a chance to win the title. Kurt Busch held an 18-point lead (under the old Latford points system – the equivalent of a five-point lead today) over Johnson, with Gordon, Earnhardt and Mark Martin in close pursuit.
This Chase featured some of the greatest moments of the past decade, including Earnhardt winning for the seventh time at Talladega just weeks after suffering burns and being knocked semi-conscious in an ALMS crash – and then being docked 25 points for blurting out a profanity during his post-race interview. The second to last race at Darlington was a testament to it being one of the finest tracks on the circuit with a back and forth contest between Gordon, Johnson, and Martin. The 48 team showed early on why it would go on to win five titles (thus far), by winning four of the final six races, and finishing second at Homestead.
The most poignant moment? Busch suffering a blown right front tire, and the tire liberating itself from his No. 97 Sharpie Ford, which missed knocking down the pit wall by a paper-thin margin. As the wheel continued onto the track, a caution came out, keeping him from losing a lap. The race came down to a green-white-checker finish, with Busch’s teammate, Greg Biffle winning while keeping the No. 48 at bay.
Busch’s eight-point title win over Johnson, at the time, was the closest ever. Be that as it may, the purists were incensed further, noting that had the championship been decided by a year-long cumulative points total as it had since 1975, Gordon would have won his fifth title.
2. 2011 Sprint Cup — The Tiebreaker
Ever poo-poo guys who stay out to lead a lap to get a bonus point or wrench on their car after caving the side of it in, just to come back out 80 laps down in hopes of picking up a position? If so, the 2011 Chase should be the slap in the face that illustrates that every position counts.
Tony Stewart stumbled into the Chase like a drunk guy at the club demanding another Red Bull and vodka. Smoke even admitted weeks earlier that if his team did make the Chase, that they’d just be in the way. All of that changed at the drop of a hat, as the No. 14 took the first two wins of the Chase at Chicago and Loudon.
Stewart ultimately would win five races of the 10 (put the calculator down, it’s a 50 percent win percentage), to Carl Edwards’ zero victories. Edwards played it safe, taking the slow and steady route to what should have been the year that he broke through for a title. Edwards finished second at Homestead despite leading the most laps and Stewart won, despite having a piece of Kurt Busch’s bell housing lodged in his radiator ductwork. With the two tied at race’s end, the Chase went to the first tie-breaker: Wins. And Stewart’s five bested Edwards’ one, which came at Las Vegas in March — a skid he has yet to break.
A bit of coincidence regarding that Vegas race: Edwards only won due to fuel miscalculation by Stewart, who had the race in hand until the closing laps.
3. 2006 Nextel Cup — Johnson’s Rally
Jimmie Johnson’s first title will be remembered for starting a dynasty. However, the most amazing thing about Johnson’s 2006 Chase performance was the hole from which he climbed out of to win.
After finishes of 39th, 13th, 14th and 24th to begin the Chase, the 48 team found itself in a seemingly insurmountable 156-point hole to Jeff Burton. Sitting eighth in the standings, the team, which wasn’t THE TEAM at the time, began its comeback in modest-enough ways, finishing second at Charlotte.
Who could have guessed that that finish would begin a streak of five consecutive runs of second or better, relentlessly beating away all comers. Johnson made up 10 points on first at Charlotte, a dropped the hammer at Martinsville, narrowing his deficit to 41 points with a dominating win.
From there, it was child’s play, moving into second in the standings (-26) after Atlanta and by Matt Kenseth for first the following week at Texas. Another runner-up showing followed in Phoenix, and by Homestead he only needed to play it safe to protect his 63-ppoint advantage. He did so, of course, coming home ninth and beating Kenseth by 56 points.
4. 2005 Nextel Cup — Winning Races and Climbing Fences
By the time the 2005 season rolled around, a couple of constants had been confirmed: Tony Stewart liked to eat, loved Indianapolis Motor Speedway and climbing things (specifically, catchfencing). Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson was in his fourth full Cup campaign, and had racked up a whopping 16 wins by the time that season’s Chase began.
The 48 came out strong, winning the second race at Dover, but then triggered a 30 car pile-up at Talladega, which would ultimately be Johnson’s downfall (despite another win at Charlotte).
Roush Racing was poised to win its second straight Chase by sheer numbers, owning half of the Chase field with Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards. Edwards was in his first-full year of competition, but wasted little time in showing he was for real, snatching a win away from Martin at Texas and sweeping both Atlanta races for the year. Biffle won the season finale at Homestead by a bumper over Martin, but the title fight that day was on between Stewart and Johnson.
Johnson needed to win to beat Stewart for the title, but ended up beating themselves — as they had on more than one occasion that season. Johnson blew a left rear tire on lap 127 of 267 and nearly took out Jeff Gordon in the process. The incident capped a season of friction between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, leading to the now-famous “milk and cookies” meeting arranged by owner Rick Hendrick in the offseason.
Stewart, on the other hand, shimmied his bulbous behind up the fence yet again, claiming his second championship in four years and becoming the first driver to claim a Cup title under two different point systems since Richard Petty in 1979. Petty, in fact, won titles under four different points systems. Beat that, Tony.
5. 2009 Sprint Cup — Score One for the Geritol Gang … Almost
When you’re 50 years old, you’re usually planning the next decade of work so you can punch out a few years early and retire. When you’re Mark Martin, you take a new full-time job and still answer the bell at 0600 every morning to start pounding steel.
After taking a couple of years off from the mental and physical grind of a yearly 10-month prize fight, Martin joined Hendrick Motorsports for his last best shot at bringing home the hardware. Through the regular season, Martin and the No. 5 team racked up four wins – his most since 1998 – and served notice that there was a new contender to the throne, both at HMS and in the Cup Series.
Out of the blocks fast with a win in Loudon, it would be up to Johnson to battle back and beat Martin to win a fourth consecutive title. The 48 team responded, with a 271-lap leading drubbing at Dover and follow that up with wins at Fontana and Charlotte. At Talladega, Johnson appeared to be on the verge of suffering a big blow, with Martin running in the top 10 and Johnson hung out, barely in the top 20. A green-white-wreckers finish ensured a flip-flopping in the order, as Martin ended up on his roof while Johnson skating through for an eighth-place finish.
It looked like the 48 would be mailing it in from there on out, except for the first lap at Texas a week later, when Sam Hornish Jr. went Sam Hornish Jr., and clipped Johnson’s car, sending it head-on into the inside wall. A week later, though, Johnson won at Phoenix, with Martin following in fourth. At Homestead, Johnson came home fifth, while the 5 team struggled with a in 12th.
It would be Johnson’s fourth consecutive title, while Martin ended the season second in points for the fifth time in his career.
6. 2010 Sprint Cup – Hamlin’s Collapse
The 2010 season will be remembered for many things: Jimmie Johnson’s obscene fifth consecutive title (which would give credence to the notion that the Chase was simply not working) and for Denny Hamlin firing a Desani bottle at the side of his FedEx Camry.
It was a title for the taking for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team; Chad Knaus had fiddled with success, swapping out his crew mid-race at Texas with that of his No. 24 shop mates — a race Hamlin won, his seventh victory of the year. So confident was the No. 11 team that then-crew chief Mike Ford declare,d “I think our race team is better than their race team ... and I'm not afraid to go toe to toe with them to do it.”
About two seconds after he said that, you could pretty much guess what would happen next.
At Phoenix, the 11 team all but had things sewed up. Hamlin had led 190 of 312 laps, and was well on his way to locking down his first title and the fourth for Joe Gibbs Racing. Then Ford got cold feet on fuel mileage and had Hamlin pit. When others — including Johnson — went the distance, Hamlin finished 12th to Johnson’s fifth. What followed at Homestead was a meltdown of mammoth proportions. Hamlin qualified 37th, and on lap 25 was throwing up chunks of sod on the backstretch. It actually was a pretty good save, and he managed to bring the car home 14th. Only problem: Johnson finished second and won the championship by 39 points.
Of note, had this been under the prior points system, Kevin Harvick would have been the season champion by a staggering 285 points.
7. 2008 Sprint Cup – Jimmie Ties Cale
Usually when you win nine races in a season like Carl Edwards in 2008, you’re pretty much guaranteed to come home with a championship. That is, of course, you’re up against Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team and their seven wins. In a season that was dominated by the obsession over Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning only one race in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports (while Jeff Gordon won zero) and eight wins by the new plot of the No. 18, it was Johnson and Edwards that emerged as the two Chase contenders.
Heading into Charlotte for the halfway point in the Chase, Johnson held a 72-point lead over Edwards. A week earlier, Edwards attempted a last lap pass on Johnson for the win that was last seen executed during my 10th season in career mode of NASCAR Thunder 2003 for PS2. Edwards barely cleared Johnson for the lead – then promptly walled it.
At Charlotte, it as though Edwards was in position to keep it close for the second half of the playoffs. That was until his ignition system went bonkers, leaving him 17 laps down in 33rd place, while Johnson came home sixth. Edwards would rally to win Atlanta, Texas and Homestead, but it was not enough to eclipse Johnson and the No. 48 team.
Edwards lost the Chase that year by 69 points. Under the prior system, he would have won by 16 points.
8. 2007 Nextel Cup – The Bomb … and Not in a Good Way
One word comes to mind when describing the 2007 Chase: Brutal. The field was expanded to 12, and it was the first year of NASCAR’s baby, the over-hyped and under-stylized Car of Tomorrow. Top-heavy turds with cow-catchers and Erector-Set wings replaced the shovel-nosed, cock-eyed machines that were sealed off at the nose, riding on collapsed front suspensions.
Jeff Gordon essentially dominated the year, posting a ridiculous 30 top 10 finishes, 21 top 5s, six wins and five second-place finishes. Unfortunately, he ran up against his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who was coming off his first title (and was on quite the tear himself, winning 10 races). With Charlotte being the halfway point of the Chase, Gordon won in a green-white-checker finish after Ryan Newman wrecked with two laps to go. Gordon had a 68-point lead and was heading to Martinsville, where Gordon has seven career wins. Naturally, the inevitable happened.
Johnson won four races in a row.
Gordon tried to keep pace, meeting each win with a top-10 run, but that didn’t work for long. Heading into the final race of the season, Gordon’s title hopes were virtually DOA, trailing J.J. by 86 points. Gordon finished fourth while Johnson cruised around in eighth en route to his second of five straight titles.
Just how bad did these two decimate the field in the first appearance of the CoT? While Johnson beat his teammate by 77 points, third-place Clint Bowyer was 346 points behind in third. Ninth-place Carl Edwards? 501 points — and he won Dover two races into the Chase. Had it been the points system used the first 26 races for the final 10, Gordon would have waltzed to his fifth career championship (sixth if the same criteria was used in 2004). Under the points system used from 1975-2003, he would have beat Johnson by 354 points and Tony Stewart by 706 points.
Considering that sort of margin, you can thank the Chase for helping to curb some real stinkers over the past eight years. If you’re a 24 or 99 fan, though, you’ll probably curse it for denying Gordon the chance at closing to within one title of Petty and Earnhardt, and Edwards from winning a title of his own.
Either way, you can blame Matt Kenseth.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
"Third?! I'm gonna tear @MattTaliaferro a new one on Twitter." (ASP, Inc.)
1. Denny Hamlin Hamlin slips ahead of Jimmie Johnson thanks to having the strongest car for a third consecutive week (despite the fact he didn’t win). He also gets a hat tip for those four regular season victories. Last week: 2
2. Jimmie Johnson Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are bringing the car that they dominated and won with at Dover and Indianapolis to Chicago. My thought is it goes three-for-three this season. You heard it here first. Last week: 1
3. Brad Keselowski Drove to a quiet seventh at Richmond, his ninth top-10 showing in the last 10 races. This kid is for real, people, and his time is now. Last week: 3
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Give him props for the consistency throughout the regular season. Now the question becomes whether this team and its driver can deliver in crunch time or get passed by the heavy-hitters. Last week: 4
5. Jeff Gordon Gets a huge bump up the rankings this week after being Mr. Clutch the last three weeks, with finishes of third, second and second. Now we’ll see if they have any gas left in the tank. Last week: 10
6. Clint Bowyer One win per season is impressive and all, but multiple victories rachet a team and its driver up the “keep an eye on” list. Bowyer and the 15 bunch are there — and at just the right time. Last week: 8
7. Greg Biffle Lest we forget about the “Regular Season Champion” — that is, if there were one. When is NASCAR going to at least acknowledge that achievement? At the least, an “Atta boy!” would do. Last week: 5
8. Matt Kenseth Kenseth’s standing takes a hit based more on what others have done as opposed to the performance of his No. 17 team. That said, there are still questions how this team will do in the Chase. Last week: 7
9. Kasey Kahne Many are looking at Kahne as a nice darkhorse Chase pick. It’s hard to argue with those types, especially when you consider that his two wins this year have come on Chase tracks (Charlotte, Loudon). Last week: 9
"My one team has more cars in the Chase than both of yours!" (ASP, Inc.)
10. Martin Truex Jr. Was once again strong, but failed to cash in. Make no mistake, this team has performed admirably this season, but if you can’t finish out a race, how can you finish out a championship? Last week: 6
11. Kevin Harvick Showings of 15th, fifth and 10th since the crew chief swap. Can Harvick be this year’s Tony Stewart? Last week: 12
12. Tony Stewart Speaking of Stewart, his fourth at RIR was his first top 10 in over a month. Last week: 13
13. Kyle Busch Will be interesting to see if this team comes out firing or packs it in after a failed Chase bid. Last week: 11
14. Marcos Ambrose Has averaged an 8.8-place finish over the last six weeks. Will a new crew chief improve that? Last week: 14
15. Ryan Newman Eighth-place finishes at Michigan and Richmond bookend two weeks worth of crashes. Last week: N/R
Just off the lead pack: Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Sam Hornish Jr., Mark Martin, Paul Menard