AJ Allmendinger's damaged Dodge sits on pit road at Pocono. (ASP, Inc.)
One race can reveal only so much about a season but could Sunday’s event at Pocono forecast the future for some drivers? Joey Logano, AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch are among those trying to solidify their status for next season, yet Pocono pulled them in opposite directions.
One of the biggest questions from Sunday’s race is what did the victory do for Logano’s future with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Logano presents an interesting case. For all the talk that he has not fulfilled his potential, remember that he’s only 22 years old and now has two Cup victories. Jeff Gordon didn’t win his first Cup race (the Coca-Cola 600) until he was 22. Gordon’s second win (Indianapolis) didn’t come until days after he turned 23.
Logano’s win Sunday, though, was his first top-five finish of the season and only the second time he’s led a race this year.
“For sure right now my future is not set with anybody,” Logano said. “You need to go out there and win races. To get this win means a lot. It's at a perfect time.
“My hope is to obviously stay with what I’ve got. But you never know. You know, those things go back and forth and switch around a lot, and all I can do is stay focused on my job, and that’s driving the race car.”
Allmendinger, hired after last season to replace Busch at Penske Racing, hasn’t had it as good this season. Foxsports.com reports he’s in a contract year and Sunday’s race typified his struggles this season. He was collected in a crash on the second lap and finished 31st — the third time he’s placed 30th or worse in the last four races.
“In my worst nightmare, I didn’t think the season would go this bad,” Allmendinger said. “You’ve got two options: you quit or you keep working harder. I’ve been six years in this. I’ve experienced bad stuff before in NASCAR, so I ain’t going to quit. We’ll just keep working harder. We’ve got to figure out how to turn it around. It’s tough. I definitely don’t want to be in this position, nobody does.”
And then there’s Busch, who needed to prove he could avoid issues outside the car. That lasted barely a third of the way through the season after NASCAR suspended him a week for verbally abusing a reporter. The incident happened with Busch already on probation for incidents during and after the Southern 500 last month.
Tuesday, car owner James Finch met with Busch about his future with the team and later announced that Busch will continue driving for Phoenix Racing.
Those are just a few of the drivers who could switch teams after this season. Ryan Newman’s contract expires at season’s end, as does Martin Truex Jr.’s. The Sporting News reports that Matt Kenseth’s contract is up — but he’s expected to remain at Roush Fenway Racing — as is Jamie McMurray’s at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Regan Smith’s at Furniture Row Racing.
It likely will come down to sponsorship and what drivers companies want. Logano has the opportunity to rise among the free-agent list but he must back up his win with more strong finishes. If not, he could be bypassed for a ride by those also looking for a job next year.
FAST TIMES For the second weekend in a row, the Cup Series races on a repaved track. This time it’s Michigan International Speedway, where speeds neared 215 mph in a recent tire test.
“I did the tire test there, but it was a very comfortable feeling pace,” Jeff Gordon said. “The cars drove really good. They stuck to the race track. I like the tire that Goodyear brought there. Just like (at Pocono), we just need the groove to widen out a little bit. That is only going to come with laps.”
Points leader Matt Kenseth, who also participated in the tire test, said he’s not worried about the speeds.
“If you go off into Turn 1 and blow a tire at 200 (mph) compared to 207 or whatever we’re running now, I don’t know it’s much of a difference because you’re still gonna hit something pretty hard,” he said. “Other than that, it’s not any harder to drive here. It’s actually probably a little bit easier just because it’s not bumpy and the line is pretty defined where you’re going to run.”
SPONSOR SEARCH CONTINUES Todd Bodine won the Camping World Truck Series race earlier this month at Dover without a primary sponsor and also didn’t have one at Texas last weekend. Red Horse Racing owner Tom DeLoach recently shut down Daytona winner John King’s team for lack of sponsorship, leaving Bodine and Timothy Peters.
What happens to the two remaining teams will depend on sponsorship.
“My wife Janet is working really hard on getting us sponsorship and she's actually having some success,” Bodine said. “We’ve got some major corporations that are interested in doing things, unfortunately their time frame doesn't work the same as it does in our world. We need it yesterday and they're OK getting it five months from now.
“There’s three different deals, three different corporations we’re talking to and they all three called up and said they wish they were on (at Dover). That's a good thing.
“I can't speak for Tom saying that we're going to continue without sponsorship. But, I think Tom sees the light at the end of the tunnel and knows this is a great opportunity for his race team. Not only for right now, but for the future and when you see that kind of opportunity, there's times when you have to dig deep and keep going. I think that's where we're at.
“All I can say is stay tuned — we have a lot of great things happening at Red Horse Racing.”
PIT STOPS Clint Bowyer on if he’s surprised by some of the struggles at Richard Childress Racing, his former team: “I’m not there anymore. I guess you never wish bad things upon anybody, but if you’re not there anymore, you don’t really care as long as they are behind you.” ... Jimmie Johnson on his hunger for a sixth title: “That desire is there, and when that desire fades I guess it’s time to hang up the helmet.” Tony Stewart, after Tuesday's tire test at Bristol: "You've definitely lost the top groove. There's going to be less room to race, that's for sure. We've gone from a three-groove track to two grooves."
Logano scores second career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory
Joey Logano in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
Of all the race tracks to add a little spice to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Pocono Raceway was not expected to be it. A 2.5-mile, flat tri-oval that’s seen its share of strung-out racing, the speedway was also recently repaved — a move that doesn’t lend itself to door-banging action.
Sometimes, though, the racing gods smile on the fans when and where they least expect it.
After a bizarre first half of the race that saw numerous drivers get penalized for speeding on pit road and an event that appeared to be heading toward a fuel-mileage finish, a driver looking to break a 104-race winless skid used a bump-and-run move to get by a respected series veteran. And for the driver in question, a fuel-mileage win was the last thing he wanted.
Joey Logano, his future with the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team highly-speculated, used the ol’ “chrome horn” to scoot by Mark Martin with four laps remaining in the Pocono 400 to earn his second career Sprint Cup Series win in his fourth season on the circuit.
“You work so hard to do this, and them (JGR) teaming me up with Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) has been an awesome experience,” Logano said. “We’ve been growing together a lot lately and able to make our cars better. To get a victory, it meant so much, and pulling the Home Depot car into Victory Lane at a Sprint Cup race and winning it the right way was just an amazing, amazing feeling that you can’t replicate and you can’t explain what it means.”
Logano’s only other win came at New Hampshire in his rookie season of 2009, the result of a rain-shortened finished that saw his team gamble on staying out while others pitted. It paid off, as Logano, at 19-years-old, became the youngest winner in Cup Series history. The Pocono win, in contrast, was won not on strategy or weather, but on speed and pure racing.
“That feels awesome to win one the right way,” Logano yelled on his in-car radio as he took the checkered flag. “No stupid rain!”
Martin held on for second, while Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.
“It’s not how I would have done it,” Martin said of Logano’s bump-and-run move to get by. “But certainly if I’d have had a fast enough car, he would have gotten a return. But I couldn’t quite keep up with him.”
Logano’s move came after a restart with eight laps remaining. Martin, who restarted second, got by Logano and was pulling away. However, Martin’s Toyota wiggled in Turn 3 with five laps to go. The loss in momentum allowed Logano to close the gap down the 3,740-foot frontstretch, and as the two entered Turn 1, Logano nudged the rear bumper of Martin’s car. He sailed by on the low side and quickly scooted away, winning by nearly one second.
Fuel became a concern late in the going. When Kasey Kahne brought out a caution with 22 laps remaining, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had led 36 laps and was running third, pitted to top off the tank in his No. 88 Chevy.
However, fuel never factored, as an additional yellow for debris waved with 11 laps to go. The drivers that did not pit earlier — namely Logano, Martin, Stewart, Johnson and Hamlin — were able to conserve enough gas under the caution periods to make it to the finish without incident. Earnhardt settled for an eighth-place showing.
Points leader Greg Biffle limped to a 24th-place run after engine issues ruined his day. He surrendered the championship points lead for the first time since gaining the spot after the third race of the year.
Biffle’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, inherits the lead on the strength of a seventh-place finish at Pocono. Earnhardt sits 10 points back, while Biffle falls to third.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's FedEx 400
Defending Dover winners Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
The two-week homestretch in Charlotte is now in the books and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the Monster Mile in Dover, Del., for Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.
Not only is Dover one of the most demanding tracks on the NASCAR schedule, it also kicks off the seven-week summer stretch that takes the series to the newly-repaved tracks of Pocono and Michigan, the road course in Sonoma, night races at Kentucky and Daytona, then to New Hampshire before another break in the action.
Teams will be looking to build momentum towards the Chase for the Sprint Cup during this time. Some will try to maintain their spot in the top 10 in points, while those just on the outside will be looking to claw their way in.
At the same time, for those well outside the top 10, the name of the game is “Win, Win, Win.” The Wild Card aspect of the Chase will play a major role in the coming weeks as drivers and teams look to win their way into a spot in the championship battle.
First, those teams will have to conquer the Monster and survive Sunday's 400 miles around the high-banked concrete oval — which is no simple task … unless you drive with the Roush Fenway brigade.
The Roush cars have been stellar at Dover over the past 10 years, scoring six wins in that time. Current drivers Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth have all been to Victory Lane at Dover and enter the weekend as the organization to beat.
Kenseth, who sits second in points to Biffle, he is the defending race winner, and this week's fantasy favorite. All told, Kenseth has two wins, 12 top 5s and 17 top 10s in 26 Dover starts, giving him the second-best driver rating at the one-mile oval.
Not only does Kenseth have a stellar record at Dover, he describes the demanding track as his favorite on the schedule.
“The track is so fast and challenging, and it’s unique because of the way you drive up out of the turns,” Kenseth says. “The turns sit a bit lower than the straightaways and you can feel it when you’re driving out there.”
Dover is the type of track that suits Kenseth’s driving style, so look for him to surpass Biffle in the points while scoring his second win of the season.
While Biffle has maintained his points lead since the third race of the year, Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are steadily cutting into that lead.
One of the most consistent drivers this season, Biffle has bounced between finishes inside the top 5 and outside the top 10 week-to-week, of late. Following a fifth-place finish at Kansas, Biffle was 18th at Richmond. Then came a fifth at Talladega, followed by a 12th at Darlington, then a fourth in last Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.
While this trend might pass at such a strong track for Biffle, it is definitely worth keeping in the back of your head when setting your lineup.
Edwards has struggled to back up his near-championship run of 2011 through the first 12 races of the 2012 season. The Missouri native has one win at Dover and is coming off a ninth-place finish in Charlotte and is on a run of seven finishes of 11th or better in the last eight races.
What is striking about Edwards’ season, however, is he has led in only two races — one lap at Kansas and 206 at Richmond. In last year's races at Dover, Edwards led a combined 233 circuits, so look for him to produce when it comes time on Sunday.
Given the success of the Roush organization this season (and at Dover), it is very likely we could se a reply of the Sept. 2008 event in which Biffle, Kenseth and Edwards battled lap after lap for the win and swept the top-3 spots.
While the Roush cars may consistently be among the best, they will have to contend with six-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson. The five-time series champion has the second-best average finish (9.3) at the Monster Mile, the series-best average running position (7.9), as well as the series-best driver rating, fastest laps run, average green flag speed and laps in the top 15. Not too shabby.
To boot, Johnson has been on quite the roll of late. His win at Darlington gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career Cup win, his pit crew won the Sprint Pit Crew Challenge during All-Star week, he scored his third All-Star Race victory in Charlotte, and was in contention in the Coca-Cola 600 until a botched pit stop late in the race.
Heading to one of his best tracks on the circuit, Johnson will be looking to tie Bobby Allison and Richard Petty for the all-time winningest drivers at Dover. If his Chad Knaus-led pit crew can keep its composure and execute without mistakes, Johnson will factor.
Five Favorites: Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch
Jeff Gordon (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Who would have ever thought four-time series champion Jeff Gordon would become that dreaded “fourth car” at Hendrick Motorsports? It seems each year, one of Hendrick’s four teams struggle to keep pace despite the resources, equipment and all-around talent.
Now in his 20th season in the Sprint Cup Series, Gordon has become “that” driver within the organization struggling to keep pace. After the first 12 races of the season, Gordon is 22nd in the standings with only one top 5 and three top 10s.
Yet, throughout the season, the No. 24 team has shown up with fast cars and solid outings. The problem for this group has not been bad performances, but bad luck. This weekend at Dover, I expect that luck to turn around.
While Gordon has four Dover wins on his resume, his last top-10 finish there came in 2009. Although the results have not been spectacular, he has only one finish outside the top 20 (a 26th in 2009) in his last 12 Dover starts.
Gordon has remained confident in his team's ability throughout these trying times, finding solace in their fast racecars.
“We are a good team and we’re just having some bad stuff happen,” he said. “And we’re being tested and I hope there is a reason why we’re being tested that’s going to make us stronger because of it; and that we do recover and get out of it and learn from it.”
Gordon is the type of driver that can gain momentum and start contending for wins week-in and week-out, and following a seventh-place finish in Charlotte, the momentum may be starting to build.
Five Undervalued Picks: Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick
Another driver that has been snake-bit this year is Penske Racing's AJ Allmendinger. Despite having solid equipment, problems have cost Allmendinger from scoring the results many expected when he was named Kurt Busch’s replacement in the No. 22 Dodge.
In 2010, he led 143 laps at Dover before finishing a disappointing 10th after a flat tire ruined his day. Last year, Allmendinger had a solid car, started on the outside of the front row, but suffered an engine failure that resulted in a 37th-place finish. In the fall Chase race, he started seventh and finished seventh.
Also keep in mind that Allmendinger was part of the Goodyear tire test held at Dover in April.
“To me, I just show up to the race track and I am excited to be there,” he said. “I just genuinely like the race track and think when you are able to do that you can go there and have a good attitude about it and be pretty fast.”
Five Darkhorse Picks: A.J. Allmendinger, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch
Just like any track on the schedule these days, track position will be paramount during Sunday's 400-miler. Look for pit strategy to come into play as the trend of long green-flag runs should continue. The team that can manage the race from start to finish, stay on top of making changes throughout the afternoon and keep the car full of fuel to the end will be the one celebrating in Victory Lane.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600
Photo by ASP, Inc.
A happy Memorial Day weekend to all the fantasy NASCAR racers out there. This week it’s the most demanding 600 miles on the schedule, the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The annual tradition dating back to 1960 tests the best of driver, equipment and team. Coming one week after the All-Star Race, the Coke 600 also marks the next phase of the NASCAR season.
Teams have ebbed and flowed thus far over the season, but with a week of practice under their belts on the 1.5-mile speedway in Charlotte, this Sunday’s 600 miles provides an opportunity to make a statement, maintain consistent finishes, or turn a difficult season around before it is too late.
One team that certainly made a statement in Saturday night’s All-Star Race was the No. 48 team of Hendrick Motorsports. Driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus knew if they won the first of the five segments, the night would fall into their laps.
Starting from the sixth spot, Johnson was able to make his moves to the front in the first 20-lap segment. After taking the caution flag for the break, it was all about avoiding trouble in the back of the pack and making adjustments to the racecar throughout the night. Restarting in the lead for the final 10-lap segment, Johnson powered out front on the green flag and never looked back.
While the format of the All-Star Race is dramatically different from the one we'll see Sunday afternoon and evening, there are a lot of things that will transfer over. Primarily, the fact the No. 48 is the team to beat.
Coming off an historic 200th career win for Hendrick Motorsports in Darlington, the No. 48 team beat the two-time defending champion No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew for the 2012 Pit Crew Challenge. That momentum carried over into the All-Star Race, where the 48 Chevrolet was the dominant car on the evening.
Enjoying the extended time in the Charlotte area these past two weeks, Hendrick Motorsports enters the Coca-Cola 600 weekend with a ton of momentum, loads of confidence, and the rest of the field looking up at Johnson.
All told, Johnson has six career wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway, including three consecutive Coca-Cola 600 wins from 2003-05. However, Johnson has not found Victory Lane at Charlotte since 2009.
The win Saturday night gives the No. 48 team confidence heading into Sunday's marathon race, but Johnson knows it will not be easy.
“Even though we won the race, I saw a lot of strong cars tonight,” Johnson said following his third All-Star Race win. “I think track position at the end of the 600 is going to be key. Two or three pit stops from the end, being in the right position, having the right strategy, if it's fuel, two tires, four, none, whatever it might be, that’s going to be key.”
While Johnson will be this week’s fantasy favorite, also keep an eye on a few guys that had solid cars in Saturday's All-Star Race.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne ran down to the wire in a photo finish to end the third segment of the night. Both drivers had strong cars in that race and carry momentum from the past few weeks as well. Keselowski will be searching for his first victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway, while Kahne, a three-time winner at Charlotte, will be looking to rekindle some of his past success.
Roush Fenway Racing's Matt Kenseth also knows how to get the job done on the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 17 Ford was third in Saturday's All-Star Race after struggling on the outside on the final restart. The long 600-mile event is the type of race that falls right into Kenseth's style, so look for him to be a strong contender as well.
Fan-favorite and hometown hero Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally scored a win last week, but unfortunately it was in the Sprint Showdown to qualify for the All-Star Race. Although the win was not a points-paying event, and will not eliminate his winless streak dating back to 2008, the fact is Earnhardt won that event and won the fourth 20-lap segment in Saturday's main event.
Earnhardt has a lot of confidence and momentum on his side, not to mention that he nearly won last year's Coca-Cola 600. Leading on the final lap, his No. 88 Chevy ran out of fuel coming through the final corners, giving the win to Kevin Harvick. The team is bringing the same car they ran the All-Star Race with, so expect Earnhardt to bring fans to their feet late in the race and possibly end that daunting winless streak.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
One driver that caught my eye throughout last weekend's All-Star events was Richard Petty Motorsports’ Marcos Ambrose. Although he did not lead a single lap, Ambrose was one of, if not the, strongest cars on each restart. Whenever the No. 9 Ford restarted on the outside line, Ambrose had passed a handful of cars before exiting Turn 2 onto the backstretch.
Ambrose scored two top-10 finishes at Charlotte last year, and is hungry to score that elusive oval win. This team has ratcheted it up a notch, and I expect them to be a solid contender in Sunday's race, leading to solid fantasy points at the end of the day.
AJ Allmendinger drove his heart out in the Sprint Showdown to finish second and qualify for the night's main event. Once in the Sprint All-Star Race, Allmendinger powered his No. 22 Dodge to the front of the field on numerous occasions.
Since joining Penske Racing, Allmendinger has struggled mainly to find any luck on the track. This week he is looking to turn his poor luck around and finally score the all-so-difficult first Sprint Cup Series win.
Five Undervalued Picks: Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards
One organization that heads into this weekend looking to turn its season around before it is too late is the two-car Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team. After significant changes behind the scenes during the offseason, precious few result have come to pass in the first part of 2012.
However, both Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya enter this weekend's race as our darkhorse picks. McMurray has two wins at Charlotte, but struggled there in 2011. The 2010 fall Charlotte race winner nearly raced his way into Saturday night's All-Star Race, but came up one position short.
Montoya has one top-10 finish at Charlotte (2009), but has been knocking on the door over the past few years, finishing 11th, 12th and 14th in his last three starts. While this weekend may not be the one in which he scores his first oval win, he should put up solid fantasy numbers.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Aric Almirola, Landon Cassill
Best Average Finish at Charlotte (Wins)
1. Joey Logano - 8.2 (0)
2. Jimmie Johnson - 11.9 (6)
3. Carl Edwards - 12.6 (0)
4. Kasey Kahne - 13.4 (3)
5. Tony Stewart - 13.6 (1)
6. Matt Kenseth - 14.4 (2)
7. Bobby Labonte - 14.7 (2)
8. Jeff Burton - 15.4 (3)
9. David Reutimann - 15.8 (1)
10. Jeff Gordon - 15.9 (5)
Brad Keselowski’s victory in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega did more than put him in position to make the Chase again, it reaffirmed his position as one of the sport’s top drivers.
Over the past 26 races — the length of the “regular season’’ in the Sprint Cup Series — only Tony Stewart has more victories than Keselowski. Stewart has seven; Keselowski four. No other driver has more than two in that span, which dates to Pocono in August 2011.
Keselowski’s victories during that stretch have come at Pocono, both Bristol races and Talladega. He’s finished second twice.
Keselowski has done more, too. He has finished in the top 10 in 14 of the last 26 races and placed in the top five in 11 of 26 races as well as led at least one lap in 18 of 26 races.
“He’s matured a lot,” car owner Roger Penske says of Keselowski. “He’s been a tremendous asset to the team, not just for Brad Keselowski, for Penske Racing. You can see when he comes in the shop, he’s spending a lot of time. I wouldn't trade him for anybody right now.
“He came to me before he went to work for us, he said, ‘I’d like to come to Penske Racing and help build a winning Cup team.’ He’s certainly demonstrated that from the driving ability. His chemistry with (crew chief) Paul Wolfe and that whole team has made a difference.
“This is not about the driver, the car, the sponsor — it’s about the whole team. He's the real package. What we're trying to do is give him everything we can to make him a winner.”
Keselowski made the Chase via a “wild card” entry last year with three victories. Discounted as a title threat, he climbed to third in the standings and was 18 points out of the lead with four races to go. He was in position for a top-10 finish at Martinsville until he was wrecked in the final laps and finished 17th. That dropped him to fourth in the season standings, 27 points out of the lead. Keselowski and Wolfe were more aggressive with their strategy after that and it backfired as Keselowski ultimately finished fifth.
What he and the team learned last year could make it a stronger contender this year. With two wins in 2012, he seems sure to at least take a wild card spot again.
“I refuse to label this year a failure if we don’t win a championship,” Keselowski says. “Part of what defines a man is what code you live by. One of my codes — it’s probably my strongest code — is to be better today than I was yesterday, and to be even better tomorrow than I was today.
“We’ve shown that we’re better here at this point in the year than we were last year, at this point in the year, and we were better last year at this point in the year than we were the year before. You know, that’s my code. I'm surrounded by the proper people to execute it.”
It’s worked so far.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
POINTS RACING Even with the five yellow flags at Talladega, the number of cautions this season compared to last year remains down significantly. Last year, there were 86 cautions in the first 10 races. This year it’s 53. Many theories abound for the drop. Points leader Greg Biffle says the notion that the points system has led to more careful driving is not a cause for fewer cautions.
“A lot has been talked about how people might be racing careful because every point counts because of the way it came down at the end of the season with Carl (Edwards) and Tony (Stewart),” Biffle says, noting how Edwards and Stewart finished tied for the title with Stewart winning the crown based on the tiebreaker of having more victories last year.
“But if you really think about it, the points right now don’t count right now, provided if I make the Chase. It doesn’t matter if I finish seventh, fifth, 13th or second. The only way I can get points right now for the Chase is to win. To me, sixth or seventh means no difference simply from the fact that the only way I can get points for the Chase is to win. Our importance right now is to win. Yeah, we want to keep leading the points and that is important, but, in order to win the championship, we’ve gotta win races to get bonus points for the Chase.”
TOUGH START Marcos Ambrose finished 14th at Talladega. His best finish this season is 13th at Daytona and Las Vegas. He’s 21st in the points.
“It has been a disaster in terms of points,” Ambrose said of his season before the Talladega race. “We have had four or five top-10 runs that we have thrown away. It is just terrible and we know it. We want to turn our season around. We have had absolutely no luck and it is a shame. We should be sitting here solid in the points with three or four top 10s and feeling good about ourselves.”
PIT STOPS Brad Keselowski’s victory at Talladega marked the sixth consecutive restrictor-plate race with a different winner. Matt Kenseth won this year’s Daytona 500. Last year’s winners in plate races were Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Jimmie Johnson and Trevor Bayne. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth remain the only drivers to have completed all 3,120 laps this season. ... Clint Bowyer has not finished better than 31st in his last three starts at Darlington. ... Denny Hamlin has five top-10 finishes in six career Cup starts at Darlington. ... Bobby Labonte has finished 18th in three of the last four Darlington races. ... Ryan Newman has three consecutive top 10s at Darlington and placed in the top 10 in six of the last seven races at that track.
Keselowski holds off Kyle Busch in green-white-checker finish
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Every five or six visits to NASCAR’s ultimate spectacle at Talladega Superspeedway, someone figures out a new way to conquer the beast. The freight train, the lead-the-conga-line, the tri-oval slingshot — all have taken their turns as last-lap moves du jour at the 2.66-mile behemoth in Alabama. In Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, Brad Keselowski introduced a new move.
As yet unnamed, Keselowski’s Turn 3 move — “Shake ’n’ Bake” need not apply — to stave off Kyle Busch with the checkered flag in the air was, according to the race winner, one of cool calculation.
“Those are the kind of moves, similar to the move made here in ’09, that you get one chance to make, that nobody wises up on,” Keseloski said. “From there, everybody knows how to make it work. I’m sure everybody will wise up on it from here and they’ll make their moves earlier, which will change the racing again.
“It’s just evolution. You get one shot to be that guy that helps to evolve it. We had the opportunity to do that today and that’s part of what helped us win the race.”
A green-white-checker restart — caused when Keselowski spun Kurt Busch’s No. 51 Chevy — precipitated his two-lap dash to his second career Talladega win.
The ensuing lap 185 restart played witness to a nine-car pile up in Turn 1 that marked the end of the day for Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Michael Waltrip, among others.
When the field next took the green flag, Matt Kenseth — who led a race-high 73 laps — led the pack, with teammate Greg Biffle immediately in arrears. Keselowski and Kyle Busch lined up along side.
Kenseth’s stout Ford pulled away immediately, but when he and Biffle briefly separated, their draft was broken, opening the door for the Keselowski/Busch freight train.
The latter pairing roared to the lead as the white flag was displayed and jumped out to an insurmountable lead. Recent history proved that running second was the preferred position on the final lap, as the runner-up had made a last-lap pass for the win in the previous four Talladega races.
However, with Busch hooked to his rear bumper, Keselowski dove from the high groove in Turn 3 to the low side of the track exiting Turn 4. The brief separation doomed Busch, who could not get close enough to execute a pass in the tri-oval.
“I just needed to make the move, (and I ) made it in (Turn) three,” Keselowski explained. “That disconnected us. That was the key right there. Once we got that air bubble in between the two cars, it was going to take two or three laps for him to pop that.”
For his part, Busch wasn’t immediately sure how Keselowski broke the draft.
“Unfortunately, I must have screwed something up, because we got to Turn 3 and come unhooked,” Busch said. “Just gave the win away over there. Not sure exactly what happened — we definitely need to go back and figure out what it was.”
Keselowski’s win was his second of the 2012 season, putting him in position for a Wild Card entry into the Chase for the Championship if he is not in the top 10 in points at the Richmond cutoff race in September.
Kenseth held on for a third-place run and sits second to Biffle (fifth at Talladega) in the standings. Kasey Kahne was fourth, while Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Trevor Bayne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 10.
1. Greg Biffle Found himself in roughly the same position at Talladega as he was in at Daytona ... which isn’t bad when you’re clicking off top 5s like it’s the ARCA Series.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Doesn’t seem able to finish outside of the top 10 if he tries, but this is Dale Earnhardt Jr. we’re talking about, so only a win will keep the critics at bay.
3. Matt Kenseth Kenseth has roared to within five points of Biffle’s lead in the standings on the strength of four top 5s in the last five races.
4. Denny Hamlin Hamlin was running in the top 5 at Talladega when he was the victim of a block-gone-bad. It’s hard to factor the resulting 23rd-place finish into these standings, so I will not.
5. Brad Keselowski He may not have the most consistent team on the circuit, but it’s one that has proven capable of winning on any given weekend. Bristol and Talladega are proof of that.
6. Tony Stewart Like Hamlin, it’s hard to fault Stewart for a mid-20s finish at Talladega. Unlike Hamlin, Stewart was in position to win despite running out of fuel twice and battling overheating issues throughout the day.
7. Jimmie Johnson The roll-of-the-dice tracks at Daytona and Talladega are the only ones that can consistently keep Johnson from a top-10 finish. Take plate racing as the anomaly it is and move on.
8. Kyle Busch Consecutive runs of first (Richmond) and second (Talladega) find Rowdy’s stock on the rise. Could this be the beginning of a scorching summer run?
Photo by ASP, Inc.
9. Kasey Kahne A fourth at Talladega made it four runs in a row of eighth or better for Kahne and the No. 5 team. It would come as no surprise if they — not the 24, 48 or 88 teams — earned Hendrick’s 200th win.
10. Carl Edwards Cousin Carl’s streak of five finishes of 11th or better came to a grinding (and wreck-induced) halt at Talladega. Expect big things in Darlington and Charlotte.
11. Kevin Harvick He’s been notably quiet this season — in the sense that he may be about to break out. And he’s still fifth in points.
12. Martin Truex Jr. May deserve to be ranked higher, but honestly, the track records of those listed previously factored.
13. Clint Bowyer Didn’t lead any laps at Talladega, but snuck in a solid sixth — with clean sheet metal.
14. Mark Martin If you got to pick and choose your starts you’d be smart to take a pass on Talladega, too.
15. Paul Menard Bet you didn’t realize that Menard is holding steady at 14th in the standings, just on the cusp.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya
Kasey Kahne (5) and Jeff Gordon (24). (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The Long and Short of It
What was supposed to be a celebration has become a burden for Hendrick Motorsports. Mired in a 15-race winless drought, its longest since 2002-03, the organization remains at 199 Cup victories as the series heads to Talladega.
Whenever the team scores its 200th victory — a significant number in a sport that reveres Richard Petty’s 200 career victories as a driver — it will be more relief than triumph.
Yet, even as some focus on what Hendrick hasn’t done, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is second in the point standings and Jimmie Johnson is sixth. It’s surprising they haven’t won. Earnhardt has finished second or third four times and Johnson has done so three times. Hendrick has placed at least one car in the top 5 in each of the last five races. Twice it has had two cars among the top 5 in that stretch, including last weekend at Richmond when Earnhardt was second to Kyle Busch and Kahne placed a season-best fifth.
What makes this winless drought less dire for this organization is how much speed many of these cars have. It’s not like they’re struggling to stay on the lead lap in many races. Still, there are issues.
Gordon has struggled in qualifying. His three top-10 starts came at the short tracks. While he’s led 339 laps, second only to Johnson’s 362, nearly all of the laps Gordon came at Martinsville. He, Johnson and Earnhardt appeared as if they would all finish in the top three and give Hendrick his noteworthy victory at a track where he won his first Cup race. A late caution bunched the field and Gordon and Johnson got knocked out of the lead on the restart, symbolizing how agonizing close they’ve been to victory at times this season.
Gordon understands how important it is to score a victory soon.
“Well, it’s always important to win,” he says. “And we’re always trying to win as hard as we possibly can. It’s just like getting ready for the All-Star race. No points involved; we’re going to really go all-out to win. Well, we do it every weekend.
“But we do recognize that at this point, and it’s not completely out of the question that we could make up those points and get in the top 10 legitimately. If you look at our season last year, the amount of points that we made up from this point until the Chase, we did it. And we can do it again. But we’ve got to get a lot more things going our way than what’s happening right now. And we’ve definitely put ourselves at a huge deficit.”
Kahne has had all sorts of misfortune. He had only two finishes in the top 20 in the first six races. He fell out of one race because of an accident and another with engine problems. Gordon also had an engine problem, coming in the Daytona 500.
Even with such issues, it’s not hard to think that it won’t be long before a Hendrick car arrives in Victory Lane. Maybe this weekend. Gordon’s six victories at Talladega are most among active drivers and Earnhardt is next with five.
Johnson, the last Hendrick driver to win a Cup race, remains confident.
“My mindset from when I started and through the championships and still now, is if you run in the top 5, especially the top three week after week, you’re going to win your fair share of races,” says Johnson, who has seven top-10 finishes, tying Earnhardt for most this season. “And I fully believe in that statement. And although there are times I’ve left the track disappointed with a second or a third or whatever it may be — or 12th at Martinsville because I felt like we had a good shot at it — I still really believe in that philosophy and I’m very happy with how we’re running and the speed we have in our cars.”
LOOK AT THIS KID The talk beforehand was about Travis Pastrana making his Nationwide Series debut last weekend at Richmond, but 18-year-old Ryan Blaney had people talking afterward when he finished seventh in his series debut.
“It exceeded my expectations a little bit,’’ said Blaney, the son of Cup driver Dave Blaney. “We thought coming out ... with the racecar all still intact and a good top-15 finish would be real nice.”
He’ll return to the series in a couple of weeks at Darlington — a track he’s never visited.
Blaney said he’ll prepare for Darlington by watching tapes of the racing as he did before the Richmond race, along with talking with other drivers.
Mark Martin (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
NOT GOOD TO BE NO. 1 Mark Martin continued the trend the pole-winner not winning the race. No pole winner has won a race this year. No pole winner has won in the last 27 races. The average finishing position for the pole winner during those races is 16.5.
The last pole winner to win a race was Ryan Newman at New Hampshire in July 2011.
This streak likely will continue. The pole-winner has won only once in the last 27 races at Talladega.
PIT STOPS Kevin Harvick has been running at the end of all 22 starts he’s had at Talladega. ... Matt Kenseth has failed to finish in the top 10 in each of the last 10 races at Talladega. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth are the only Cup drivers to have completed all 2,926 laps in the first nine races of the season. ... This weekend will be the first race for Mike Ford as crew chief for Aric Almirola on the No. 43 car. Ford helped Denny Hamlin nearly win the series title in 2010. ... Carl Edwards will use the same chassis at Talladega that he used to win the Daytona 500 pole.
Hamlin holds off Martin Truex Jr. to notch second Sprint Cup victory of 2012
Photo by ASP, Inc.
It seemed a formality that once Martin Truex Jr. had fended off a vicious challenge from Jimmie Johnson that Michael Waltrip Racing would score its first Sprint Cup Series win since 2010.
Truex had led 173 laps and seemed on virtual cruise control as the laps ticked away in the STP 400 from Kansas Speedway. He pulled away for chunks of laps at a time after green flag pit stops — 45, 81 and 43 consecutive laps led on successive occasions — separating himself from the runner-up competitor by whole seconds.
Then, with about 35 laps to go, something happened to Truex’s Toyota.
According to team co-owner Michael Waltrip, the sun came out and changed the track, loosening up the car. Truex, however, was unhappy with the last set of tires that he reckoned did not agree with his machine.
Whatever the reason, a charging Denny Hamlin caught Truex and got by shortly after the final round of green flag pit stops to score his second win of the season.
Hamlin’s race-winning pass came on lap 237 of 267, and despite a last-ditch banzai effort with three laps remaining by Truex to reclaim the lead, the aero advantage Hamlin enjoyed carried him to the win.
“I knew that the only advantage that I had is when his (Truex’s) car got so loose that last run, I was able to make up a lot of time on entry and a lot of time on exit (in and out of the corners) because he was really fighting his car,” Hamlin said. “So really, as the driver behind, you can manipulate his car and make it worse for him by getting up close to him — and that’s what I kind of did a few laps leading up to when we passed him, is that I tried to run as close up to him on entry as I could and as close on exit. It takes away rear grip, and to a car that was as loose as what his was, they have no choice really but to back off and not wreck their car.”
The win at the 1.5-mile intermediate oval was somewhat of a surprise, in that Hamlin’s best finish on a comparable track this season was 11th.
“We just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we’ll be fine,” Hamlin said. “There’s always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we’ve identified those areas and we’ve gone to work on them.
“So right now I feel like we’re bringing better race cars to the racetrack than what we have, and it’s still going to take time.
As for Truex, he and crew chief Chad Johnston continue to knock on Victory Lane’s door. Six of his finishes have been eighth or better this season and he has yet to finish outside of the top 20. That performance — he has averaged a 4.8-place finish in the last five races — places him second in the Sprint Cup point standings.
“The NAPA team was phenomenal today,” Truex said. “Just not really sure what to think about that last set of tires. (The) car had been really good all day, (then we) put the last set on and I was wrecking loose for the first 20 laps of that last run and Denny was able to get by me and once he did the race was over.
“(The) car got better longer in the run and I was able to get back to him, but I’d get three, four car lengths from him and pick up the aero push.”
Johnson held on for third after pit strategy forced him to climb out of a late-race hole. Matt Kenseth and points-leader Greg Biffle rounded out the top 5.