Every year the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits a stretch of the season in which it is premature to judge the championship hunt, but cogent enough to pinpoint problems with underperforming drivers and teams. It’s an odd stretch, for sure. Through eight races we have seen some unexpected strong performances from non-household names, while also getting much of the same from the usual title-contending suspects, some of which you will read about below. It’s been a crazy, competitive year that has provided plenty of statistical fodder.
As usual, that’s why I’m here. Use this knowledge to increase your understanding of the sport, to strengthen your fantasy roster or to look the like the smartest NASCAR fan at any race-watching party you attend. I prefer the third option, but warning: you’ll be perceived as annoying after a while. Resort to chips and dip if that happens.
4.5 Busch’s 4.5-place average finish in the last six Richmond races is the best in the series by three whole positions.
He also has three victories and five finishes of sixth or better in those six starts. He has twice led over 50 percent of the race (spring 2010 and spring 2011) and his lone win in a lean 2012 season for the No. 18 team came on the .75-mile track. With hometown favorite Denny Hamlin potentially still sidelined due to injury, Busch is Richmond’s heavy-footed favorite.
15.7 Kyle Busch’s No. 18 team holds the most inconsistent finish deviation (15.7) in the Cup Series.
In a season thus far bookended by finishes of 34th at Daytona and 38th last weekend in Kansas, Busch has scored five top-5 finishes which include two victories. The winning is good; never knowing when the fickle No. 18 will flip from Jekyll to Hyde isn’t. After five consecutive top-5 runs, two crashes prompted by an ill-handling car highlighted his afternoon at Kansas. It’s a good thing Richmond is next on the schedule, considering Busch ranks as the track’s most productive driver, with a 6.250 PEER there in the last 12 races.
A trip to RIR should warm Dale Earnhardt Jr. up. (ASP, Inc.)
+19.5% Despite Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s three-race skid, the No. 88 team is still picking up positions late in races, as seen in its plus-19.5 percent position retainment difference.
Earnhardt and team actually moved up two positions in the final 27 laps last weekend in Kansas, though it only bumped them up to a 16th-place finish. For a team that is focused on getting back to the Chase after Earnhardt’s injury derailed any chances of a championship in last year’s final 10 races, doing what they do best — protecting and gaining positions late in races — amid a slump (Earnhardt has averaged a 23rd-place finish in the last three races) is a positive sign. Another positive sign? Richmond. Earnhardt won at RIR in the pre-CoT era, but struggled when driving the Gen-6’s predecessor (he amassed a 0.875 PEER and just two top-5 finishes in the last 12 races there). With the Gen-6, though, it’s a new day and Earnhardt has taken to the non-skewed machine like a duck to water.
27.69% Paul Menard and the No. 27 team, following a 10th-place finish at Kansas, hold a 27.69 percent probability of making the Chase.
That percentage is the 16th highest of 33 driver-team combinations and has catapulted since Daytona thanks to four top-10 finishes in the first eight races. The 2011 Brickyard 400 winner is a long shot, of course, to make NASCAR’s playoffs, but his continued growth as a driver in the last three seasons — he earned a serviceable PEER (1.375) for the first time in six Cup Series seasons in 2012 — is a promising sign. He has developed into a driver that seldom makes race-killing mistakes and it shows in his results. His 10th-place spot in the point standings is aided by the fact that he has finished in the top half of the field (21st or better) in each race this season.
12.8 Ryan Newman has a 12.8-place average finish … in races that he finishes.
Another fringe Chase contender with a 36.78 percent probability (ranks 13th), Newman doesn’t have the mistake-free reputation like the one Menard is currently building. He is best in class at Stewart-Haas Racing despite finishes of 40th at Phoenix, 38th at Las Vegas and 31st at Martinsville. High point-paying finishes at Richmond and Talladega can enhance those odds in a season when his crew appears to be scratching their heads on all things Gen-6.
24.07% J.J. Yeley’s abysmal 24.07 percent pass efficiency Sunday at Kansas is the worst single-race mark in the series this season.
Yeley got chewed up and spit out by competitors, passed 41 times compared to the 13 times when he acted as the passer. The poor showing led to a 35th-place finish. He also had a similar performance earlier this season at Phoenix when he notched a comical 31.43 percent passing mark.
This weekend provides a rare off day on the jam-packed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, but that doesn’t mean analysis will stop. After five races, there is a litany of story-telling statistics in a series that continues to one-up itself, to the delight of news desks everywhere.
Secondary to all the controversial opinions, fighting and crashing, the most popular driver in the sport is the one sitting atop the NASCAR mountain. Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the point standings, which, as you will read below, is well deserved.
4.4 and 2.3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team lead full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors in average finish (4.4) and finish deviation (2.3).
What does this mean? Earnhardt is the most consistent driver in the series right now — a zero deviation would mean the same finish over and over — while bringing home tremendous results. Junior Nation should be rejoicing, because that isn’t just the sort of thing that gets a driver to the Chase; what Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led race team are doing are habits of potential champions.
+54.2% Earnhardt’s finishes are an increase of 54.2 percent over his average running position with 10 percent of a race to go.
That plus-54.2 percent position retainment difference is another habit of a title contender. That increase is worth about 26 positions — think of that as 26 extra points — earned in the waning laps of each race. On fresh tires, Earnhardt navigated through a firestorm of activity last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, driving from 13th to second in the final 20 laps for his most lucrative home-stretch run of the season.
100% Four teams in the Cup Series have finished in the top half of fields in all five races for a relevance percentage of 100.
“Relevance” is finishing in the top half of fields (21st or better in the Cup Series). This is important because hitting the 80 percent mark through the 26-race regular season all but lands a team one of the 10 automatic Chase spots. Of the four driver-team combinations currently with perfect relevance percentages, two of them aren’t surprises (Earnhardt and the No. 88 team and Greg Biffle with his No. 16 team) and two sort of are (Paul Menard and the No. 27 team and rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and the new-look No. 17 team). It is no coincidence that all four teams are currently inside the top 12 of the point standings at this juncture.
41 The No. 16 team with Greg Biffle has gone 41 races without registering a DNF (Did Not Finish, a status frequently used in NASCAR box scores to indicate why a driver finished so poorly).
In today’s NASCAR, with Chase implications attached to every position gained or lost, consistency matters. That starts with finishing races, which is something Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia have done in their sleep over the last year. Their most recent DNF was an engine failure in the 2011 season finale at Homestead, so credit the Roush Yates engine department for holding strong behind one of Ford’s best entries. Biffle himself deserves a tip of the cap for being able to avoid accidents well enough to go 76 races without an accident-related DNF.
Casey Mears (ASP, Inc.)
3 Casey Mears and the No. 13 Germain Racing team have scored three top-15 finishes through five races this season.
That is an intriguing factoid considering this driver-team combo only secured one top-15 finish all of last year. The improvement should be attributed to Mears, who is finishing in the top 15 at a rate 54 percent higher than the amount of laps he is running in the top 15. This time last season, the No. 13 ranked 28th in average green-flag speed. They currently rank 27th on this year’s average speed chart, making it difficult to see any discernible improvement in regular on-track performance.
13.3 The average finish of AJ Allmendinger and the No. 51 Phoenix Racing team, through three starts, is 13.3.
It’s a nice upgrade from the 26.1-place finish the team averaged in 2012 with Kurt Busch behind the wheel for the majority of the races. The team is currently ninth in the Cup Series owner point standings, after Regan Smith finished seventh at Daytona and Austin Dillon secured a 21st-place finish at Las Vegas. Is it early-season luck for the plucky crew out of South Carolina? Or do results change when the team isn’t crashing in just under half of the races as Busch did last year?
0.80 David Gilliland has a series-high 0.80 crash frequency.
The season has gotten off to a rough start for Gilliland, who has crashed four times in five races. He holds a -0.250 Production in Equal Equipment Rating (ranks 34th of 35 drivers), has a best finish of 24th (Bristol) and has his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team ranked 35th in the owner standings. If car counts for future events expand and his 27th-place average starting spot gets worse, he could be in danger of missing races.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Food City 500 at Bristol.
Bristol: Far from capacity. (ASP, Inc.)
There’s nothing about a rough start to the NASCAR season a short track can’t fix. During a thrilling weekend in Bristol, the sport had a near-photo finish in Saturday’s Nationwide race (remember this name: Kyle Larson) and several thrilling moments during Sunday’s big show. After plenty of criticism — from a driver’s $25,000 fine to fans railing about Daytona’s single-file 500 — it’s hard to find anyone complaining about the action in Thunder Valley. But honestly, when’s the last time fans left a short track feeling they threw their hard-earned money down the toilet?
It certainly wasn’t last spring at Martinsville, when the Clint Bowyer – Jeff Gordon feud officially began. Or last fall at Richmond, where Gordon’s epic charge to second knocked Kyle Busch out of the Chase. My point? These three speedways, even in the worst of times, make fans flock to them faster than this Sunday’s two-mile tedium, otherwise known as Auto Club Speedway ever will.
With all that said …
FIRST GEAR: Bristol’s back. So why is the attendance still awful?
The number of empty seats at Bristol, one year after Bruton Smith’s latest reconfiguration recommended by the fans themselves, was an eye-opener. A track which once sold out for 55 consecutive Cup races, from 1982-2009, had chasms full of unsold tickets noticeable both at the track and on television. (NASCAR no longer releases official attendance). Considering Bristol has over 160,000 seats, even 50 percent capacity is more than a sellout at Martinsville, Darlington or other facilities which don’t even have that much room in the stands. But it’s also highly disturbing considering its “crown jewel” reputation as one of the sport’s must-see events.
It’s a shame, considering Sunday offered the perfect mix of Bristol’s magic elixir: unpredictability. 110 laps before the finish, leader Jeff Gordon blew a tire and took out himself and second-place Matt Kenseth, changing the complexion of the race. The personal fireworks were also there, in the form of a budding rivalry between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano (see below). Record speeds combined with a healthy 17 lead changes mixed side-by-side action with the on-track rubbing still needed at times to get by other competitors.
Two theories abound here. One: fans, skeptical of the sport and the Gen-6 car chose to stay home, sending a message that both drivers and track need to be worthy of their cash. (The night race, in August and closer to NASCAR’s Chase, draws better.) But the more likely scenario surrounds a disturbing amount of price gouging still prevalent within the region. Lodging that typically would be $100 or less a night during a typical weekend went for four-, five-, even six-times that.
No amount of ticket price discount can fix that hit to a blue-collar fan’s wallet. That’s especially true considering the track’s location, so close to many other fine facilities. If you’re a fan from Charleston, S.C., for example, why spend $1,000 on lodging, plus mileage when you’ve got Talladega, Atlanta and Charlotte within a similar driving distance — for half the price.
The economy always makes an argument here; in smaller markets, the races are the only major event hitting the region, meaning hotels have to maximize profits in order to survive. But the TriCities unemployment rate, along with job creation, has generally been stronger than the national average. Add in Smith’s billions and there’s no excuse to get this problem fixed, even though he’s powerful enough (see: getting the state of Kentucky to custom build roads for his speedway in Sparta).
Looks like its time for Smith to flex some muscle again. Otherwise, it’ll be years (if ever) before his most prized possession fills up to capacity.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s third wheel pushing for first-rate attention
Kasey Kahne’s Bristol success, while continuing a sizzling 2013 start, was a bit of a shock. Even after Sunday, his highest career average finish at any short track is Richmond, with a mediocre 18.0. That’s also the location of his last win at an oval this small, scoring his first Cup victory there in May 2005 before bookending his victory total with a 1.7-second, cruise-control performance down the stretch on Sunday.
“This is a big race for me,” he said Sunday after scooting ahead of Brad Keselowski on the final restart. “Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver, you really feel like you need to win at. It’s a big confidence builder.”
So is his habit of qualifying up front — a 3.5-place average start leads all drivers, along with 223 laps led in 2013. But most importantly, he’s not digging the type of 2012 hole that expended almost all this team’s energy simply to make last year’s Chase. Instead, he’s showcasing the type of versatility (second at Las Vegas, first at Bristol, one of the favorites at Daytona before wrecking out) that one needs to take home a title in this sport.
To do it, Kahne would have to leapfrog Johnson within the organization, a feat once thought impossible. But keep in mind, head wrench Kenny Francis — not from the Hendrick mold — can step outside the box of Chad Knaus. Those at HMS were impressed with the ideas he brought to the table in ’12 and many credit them for the organization’s resurgence. Francis, working out of a different shop, won’t have to play nice as consistently this fall and has the better pit crew, Johnson’s Achilles Heel, in each of the last two seasons.
Will it happen? I’ll still believe it when I see it. But four races in, Kahne has started making a case.
Joey Logano (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Old teammates, new rivalry?
It wasn’t long on Sunday before Joey Logano’s post-race shouting match with Denny Hamlin transcended typical NASCAR media and went national. It’s the second time in a month the two drivers have been at war. In February, it was over Daytona drafting that went awry and cost both a better finish.
“That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car – probably the worst teammate I ever had,” Logano said afterwards. “I had to put up with him for years, so… he’s just driving like an idiot.”
In his defense, Penske’s newest addition was right to place blame. Hamlin may not have meant to spin him, but all it takes is one frustrating bump at Bristol. The two have since taken to Twitter, spouting back and forth like high-schoolers (Hamlin, in particular, could sell t-shirts over his “Hush, little child” slam alone.)
What’s next? Both drivers are the emotional type, so this incident won’t get swept under the rug. Most importantly, Logano’s now matched with Brad Keselowski, who has a colorful history with Hamlin, and who had his own issues with the No. 11 on Sunday. The one who pushed to pair up, Kes has taken Logano under his wing, the type of mentorship Hamlin or Kyle Busch never gave at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s possible some bitterness still exists there, along with a push from the reigning champ to “stand up for yourself” that will only increase. Stay tuned.
FOURTH GEAR: Where there’s Smoke, there’s a slump
Say what you will about Danica Patrick. But four races into 2013, she’s got as many top 10s, more poles and more laps led than her boss. The race wasn’t 10 laps old Sunday before Tony Stewart hit the wall, his second wreck in four races that’s left him 24th in points. That’s one spot ahead of Ryan Newman, who was seventh at Bristol but has suffered two other spectacular DNFs.
Typically, that wouldn’t be a problem for Smoke; he’s noted for not winning much until May. But landing 30 points outside the top 10, even this early in the season, could prove problematic. There’s a lot of talent to jump over, a potential “wild card” threat already in Matt Kenseth (reading three-four wins, just as many DNFs to keep him needing that fallback) and the dangers of falling too far behind development of NASCAR’s Gen-6. The more damaged cars, the more costly it becomes, and with over a dozen races unsponsored amongst his three teams, the money is not exactly growing on trees.
Danica, though, presents the biggest question of all. Could her struggles, combined with the media scrutiny surrounding them, make it that much harder to get on the same page? It’s the biggest mess Stewart’s had since purchasing the team in ’09. Has he matured as a boss to keep calm and work his way through it?
OVERDRIVE Paul Menard, RCR’s most consistent driver in 2013, has run better each week. He was 21st, 20th, then 10th before running ninth on Sunday. … Brad Keselowski’s the first since rival Jimmie Johnson, in 2005, with four top-5 finishes in the first four races. The difference? Johnson picked up a win (Las Vegas) with 270 laps led overall. No wonder why Penske’s top dog is so ticked. … Considering Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s freshman-year start in the Nationwide Series – four races, four wrecks – you have to give him credit for his start in Sprint Cup. Four straight top-20 finishes, leaving him 11th in points is the perfect foundation considering he should improve as the season progresses.
The defending winner of the Food City 500, Brad Keselowski. (ASP, Inc.)
Bristol Motor Speedway received a re-tooling of sorts following last spring’s race, so there will be a bevy of unknowns this weekend when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series takes to the high-banked half-mile oval.
What is known is that three races are in the books and two of the usual suspects, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, are running on all cylinders as others — and you’ll read of one below — are experiencing early-season struggles. We also know what we were able to learn from the Bristol race last August, an exciting caution flag-fueled event that paid dividends to those that had the ability to either move through the field or retain track position.
3.7 and 0.6 Brad Keselowski is averaging a 3.7-place finish, grouped with a strong 0.6 finish deviation.
Holy Keselowski! The Penske Racing No. 2 team is really, really good right now. The act of them being good isn’t a shock; the extent of their goodness is what is amazing. Through three races, the championship-winning entry from 2012 has amassed a 3.7-place average finish. How legitimate is that? Their 0.6 finish deviation — and mind you, zero is perfectly consistent — tells us the team isn’t wavering much from that average. Keselowski and team are both staggeringly fast and pinpoint consistent. If the champs want to repeat, they’re off to a blazing start.
-42.1 percent Jeff Gordon and team can’t hold onto positions late in races, suggested by their negative-42.1 percent position retainment difference.
What is going on with the No. 24? Averaging a 12.7-place running position at the 10 percent-to-go mark, a precipitous drop occurs in the final stages of races, in which they average an 18th-place finish. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson were more balanced position retainers last year, with a plus-3.4 percent difference. Races like last weekend at Las Vegas, in which they dropped from 21st to a finish of 25th in the final 27 laps, can’t be tolerated for a team hoping to land a Chase spot.
17.0 Thanks to a 17.0-place average finish, Paul Menard is the highest ranked Richard Childress Racing driver in the Cup Series standings.
Who would have thought? It’s true. After three races, Menard and team are the lead dogs in the RCR yard, ranking 12th in Cup Series standings; however, that’s probably not something that will last. Both Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton crashed out of Daytona, while Menard’s team has finished in the top half of the field in all three events. Harvick’s No. 29 team doesn’t often leave races on the table, evident by the team’s 88-plus Relevance percentage (read: percentage of races in a season finished in the top half of fields) in each of the last three years.
Brian Vickers will race MWR's No. 55 Toyota at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
4.000 Through eight races in 2012, Brian Vickers, who makes his 2013 Cup Series debut Sunday, earned a series-best 4.000 PEER, which measures the on-track production of a race car driver in an “all equipment even” scenario. Two of those races were at Bristol.
Surface schmurface, Vickers was good on both Bristol iterations last season, finishing fifth in the spring race (he led 125 laps) and fourth in August. Considering this specific facility comprised 25 percent of his schedule last season, it’s no wonder that the Hendrick castoff produced at a rate far beyond his average.
Bristol might also be a haven for Vickers in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race; after two finishes of 17th or worse have relegated him to seventh in the series standings, a kind track could alleviate the relatively underwhelming results for the former series champ driving in stellar equipment.
+40 August 2012 Bristol victor Denny Hamlin was an adept passer in his race-winning effort, recording a pass differential of plus-40.
A good-passing race car can go a long way at any track. Bristol is no different. In last August’s race, the first on the re-worked surface, Hamlin scored the win after totaling 57 green-flag passes, 40 more than the amount of times he was passed. Similarly, Jimmie Johnson finished second thanks in large part to his +28 pass differential.
139 Joey Logano, in a Joe Gibbs Racing entry, led a race-high 139 laps (that’s over a quarter of the race) in last August’s 500-lap event at Bristol.
Logano started fourth, took his initial lead on lap 27 and led on three more occasions during the race. His average running position of 7.24 ranked second that evening, but led to an eighth-place finish. This nugget presents an interesting dynamic. Logano now drives for Penske Racing, an organization that fielded a winning entry for Brad Keselowski last season and a front-row effort for AJ Allmendinger. The No. 20 JGR car is now driven by Matt Kenseth, the winner of last week’s race at Las Vegas, who led 25 laps in last August’s race. Both Logano, the driver and No. 20, the car should be key players in Sunday’s race.
9 for 25+ Nine different drivers led 25 laps or more in last August’s race at Bristol.
Want some competition that includes different names in the lead? I can’t guarantee it, but if last August’s race was any indication, there could be a flurry of activity at the front of the field. The high laps-led total for each driver is a result of there being a large number of laps in the race (500 to be exact), but the wide array of names is a fascinating occurrence. Leading isn’t everything, though. Of the nine drivers that led — Logano (139), Hamlin (70), Jimmie Johnson (52), Carl Edwards (45), Martin Truex Jr. (44), Kasey Kahne (42), Greg Biffle (41), Casey Mears (26) and Kenseth (25) — only Hamlin and Johnson finished inside the top 5.
To those in the ranks of the Paul Menard Empire, they are known as “‘Nard Burns.” How awesome are they? Legend has it they’re easily worth two-tenths at a road course and 10 horsepower at a plate track. Wolverine wishes he could grow chops so grand. With the flavor savor to boot, it’s a wonder he has but one Sprint Cup Series victory — the 2011 Brickyard 400 — but at least it’s one on par with the load-bearing chops.
by Vito Pugliese
9. LeeRoy Yarbrough: “The Presley”
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Not many fans today know who LeeRoy Yarbrough is. Had it not been for what may have been post-concussive injuries that were later explained away as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Yarbrough would have undoubtedly won a championship or two. In 1969, he won the Daytona 500 by making up 11 seconds in 10 laps. He then won at Charlotte, lapping the field in the process, and passed David Pearson on the last lap to win the Southern 500, making him the first winner of NASCAR’s triple crown. In the process, he grew a pair of era-appropriate sideburns to match his Elvis-esque hair.
by Vito Pugliese
8. Richard Petty’s Fu Manchu
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Seven Daytona 500 victories? Check. Seven Cup championships? Check. 200 wins? Check. Ray Bans and a Fu Manchu? Check and Check. “The King” now sports a more demure lip appendage, but back in the early ’70s, his facial hair was as cutting edge as the wing on the back of his Plymouth Superbird.
by Vito Pugliese
7. Mark Martin’s Copstache
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People typically recognize Mark Martin for his commitment to physical fitness, nutrition and a buzz cut. However, there was a time back in the early 1980s when Martin sported some facial flash as well. He was running his own team at just 23 years of age and needed to look a little older as he was trying to find sponsorship. (Just what the hell was an Apache Stove anyway?) This photo is from his ASA days, although he went full-on ’stache from 1981-87 when he when made his way back to NASCAR.
by Vito Pugliese
6. Jeff Gordon: “The Wonderstache”
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I am still amazed that this was ever allowed to pass any sort of check and balance within any marketing department of any company, anywhere. This look came about when NASCAR was still kind of an underground sport, just beginning to pique the public’s interest. With all of the PR preparation and attention to detail for driver, car and crew you could imagine, Jeff Gordon was pre-packaged for primetime. Those in charge took a look at that beautiful flowing mullet and fuzzy muzzy and said, “Oh yeah, good to go … that’s the prototypical image for the racecar driver of the next millennium.” Gordon flirted with bringing it back for about a week when the 2012 Chase started, but then had to do a shoot with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so away it went. That, or he was scaring the children.
by Vito Pugliese
5. Ernie Irvan, Pre-Goatee
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It’s kind of hard not to like Ernie Irvan. The survivor of two near-death accidents within a five-year period, he remains true to what got him paid in the first place: that big cookie duster. Irvan wore an eye patch after nearly losing his sight – and life – in a crash during practice at Michigan in 1994. Couple the patch with the ’stache that he’s sported since he was welding up grandstands at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and he’s even that much more of a certifiable badass. There should be little question why Dale Earnhardt Sr. tapped him to drive his Busch car, which helped jumpstart Irvan’s career.
by Vito Pugliese
4. Tom Giacchi’s 19-month growth
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Carl Edwards’ motor coach driver, Tom Giacchi, thought it would be fun to help motivate Edwards to win a race by refusing to shave until he won. That was all well and good, but the joke was on Tom, as he had to wait through an agonizing streak of 52 races from November 2005 to June 2007. Edwards is currently in the midst of another winless drought, having last gone to Victory Lane in March 2011. This year had to be a trying one for Giacchi if the bet still stands. The way the 99 team has been running, he might be waiting until Vegas 2013. At least it’s almost winter, Tom.
by Vito Pugliese
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chin Muffler
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When a man makes the conscious decision to grow a beard, it says a couple of things about him. Namely, “I am a liberal college professor,” or “I have given up.” It is the hygienic equivalent of wearing sweatpants on your face – all day long – in public. Whether he was channeling his inner Grizzly Adams, Joaquin Phoenix or Billy Gibbons, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s appearance matched his demeanor as his beard sprouted forth. How you can drive with that thing suffocating you in the middle of a sticky August evening in Bristol, Tenn., is beyond me. Junior shaved off the scruff this year, threw his lid on backwards and finished the regular season second in points. As the Chase has started, he let his hunting beard grow in, and the performance has fallen off a bit. Time to once again spin that hat around — and pour out a few Budweisers for good measure.
by Vito Pugliese
2. Tim Richmond’s ’80s Greatness
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Tim Richmond was a microcosm of the 1980s. “Sophisticatedly Trashy” – a hint of mullet, acres of taco meat sprouting forth from his fire suit topped with a totally legitimate mustache. Not one of these new hipster-style ones, either; a straight up, I-am-growing-a-mustache-and-peeling-out-in-an-IROC-and-picking-up-a-ton-of-chicks mustache. Tim loved women and they loved him. I mean what’s not like — the guy lived on a boat and got trophies made of Miller High Life cans. If only our sport had more like him … long since gone but not soon forgotten.
by Vito Pugliese
1. Dale Earnhardt: “Iron Stache”
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You know why he was called “The Intimidator”? That’s right: Because you’d be crazy to piss off a guy with a mustache straight out of the OK Corral. Mix in the Gargoyles and the Man-In-Black persona, and you have a seven-time-championship-worthy marketing machine that was about five years ahead of the souvenir curve. Earnhardt had a rather nasty wreck at Talladega in 1997 that singed his mustache and then had to go scuba diving or something, so he shaved it (clue us in on that again, Mikey). Of course, he looked downright weird without it. So back it came with a vengeance just in time for his Daytona 500 win in 1998. The next collectible idea for Teresa: “Earnhardt Chia Pet: Mustache Edition.”
The changes to Bristol may not have worked quite how track officials imagined, but most members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council liked what they saw there last weekend. Is it enough to get them back to the track? You might find those responses interesting. Also, Fan Council members updated their selection on who they think will get the wild card spots in the final two races before the Chase.
Grade Saturday’s Cup race at Bristol
49.7 percent called it Great 40.6 percent called it Good 7.0 percent called it Fair 2.7 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• I LOVED this race. Passing, crashing, sliding, cussing and even helmet throwing!! What's not to love? To me the best part is seeing so many different drivers up front (Vickers, Ambrose, etc.) as well as a lot of favorites. The fact that they all stay so close and race so close makes it very exciting. Enough yellows to keep them even more bunched up … it was just a really fun race to watch. I know the drivers hated the track, but man it was fun to watch!!
• I was opposed to the recent changes at Bristol, but I have to admit, it made for good racing. They struck a good balance of bumping and banging and racing.
• They fixed Bristol for the fans, ruined it for the drivers. LOVE IT!!!
• I was at the race and it exceeded my expectations!
• Finally! An exciting race at Bristol again. Absolutely loved it. The surprise that the top groove was the one that came in and proved fastest; the beating and banging; the emotion; pit, fuel and tire strategy all coming in to play. Seriously, if you didn't like this why are you even watching racing? It had everything.
• Don't like to watch wreckfests! That was AWFUL!
• If you did not think that Bristol was the best race of the year then perhaps you should switch the channel to ESPN3 and watch bowling for your excitement because clearly NASCAR is not for you.
• I was there and loved every minute of it. Not bad considering I left the same race with 150 to go last year.
• The changes Bruton made did exactly what I had hoped they would do. I was hoping for a hybrid between “Old” Bristol and “New” Bristol. The “New-New” Bristol had the side-by-side, rubbing, beating & banging with some tempers flying without the massive 12-car wrecks. No more conveyor belt! That is what we got! Tony throwing his helmet was just a bonus. I miss helmet (or heat shields if you are Ward Burton) throwing, and pointing to a driver you happen to be displeased with. I paid more attention to this race than any other this season! It's BRISTOL BABY!!!
• Not exactly the Bristol of old but pretty close to it! Good racing, lots of action — just out and out fun. Of course, Tony Stewart bringing back the helmet toss certainly didn't hurt and he wasn't the only one showing some temper. Good racing, good fun.
Did the Bristol race make you want to attend a race there more?
54.4 percent said Yes
45.6 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• Been a season ticket holder for eight years, but never have I been more excited about renewing!
• 25-year season ticket holder and will never return!
• I gave up my season tickets two years ago, but after (Saturday) night, I will be getting them back.
• I'm still boycotting Bruton Smith's tracks after the I-71 parking lot.
• I've always wanted to go to Bristol's night race and Saturday night made me want to go even more. I will be working on plans to hopefully go next year!
• No, in fact. I was a season ticket holder and will not be renewing my tickets. I can see a demolition derby anytime I want to at the local fairgrounds.
• Used to attend Bristol until my school district decided to change the starting date. Too early in the year to take time off, but I might have to reconsider next year.
• Hearing about all the gouging of the fans on hotel rates will keep me away from this track.
• Absolutely! From the atmosphere during pre-race on through the race, it seems like an exciting and fun place to be. Lord willing, I WILL be there next year.
• I've made the trip to Bristol twice, once for "original Bristol,” once for progressive-banking Bristol. My personal preference was the progressive banking, and since that's now gone and likely not to return, I doubt I'll pay the airfare and outrageous hotel bills to go watch another race there live.
What was the best race at Bristol last weekend?
84.4 percent said the Cup race 11.7 percent said the Nationwide race 3.9 percent said the Truck race
What Fan Council members said:
• The Truck Race was just awful, and the Nationwide race was pretty boring. So the Cup race wins by default.
• I thought all three races were pretty good — even the Truck race where Peters led every lap. More of the racing from the Cup race sticks out in my mind, so that's why I picked the Cup race as the best race of the weekend.
• The Whelen Modified race was the best race at Bristol last week. It was awesome! The battles, the passing, the surprises. It was virtually non-stop action and kept me on the edge of my seat until the end.
• I watched all three races and hands down the Cup race was the best. It was one of the most entertaining races I have seen in a long time. It had everything. Top entertaining moment has to go to Tony and Matt. Think Tony will be nominated for one of his own Stewie Awards this year for throwing his helmet at Matt's car.
• Usually I have to say the Trucks have the better racing of the three series, but this week I will say the Cup racing was the best. The racing was great all night long and never really had a dull moment. I'm usually always checking Twitter during the Cup races, but this race, I didn't want to stop watching the TV. Was really exciting for a change.
• I picked the Nationwide race because Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick had a long battle for the lead ... and maybe I have lower expectations of the Nationwide drivers so the multitude of cautions in that race didn't bother me so much.
Who will make the Chase via wild card?
89.2 percent said Kasey Kahne
47.6 percent said Kyle Busch
34.8 percent said Jeff Gordon
9.8 percent said Carl Edwards
4.7 percent said Ryan Newman
4.4 percent said Marcos Ambrose
1.7 percent said Joey Logano
0.3 percent said Paul Menard
What Fan Council members said:
• I see Gordon and Kahne getting in just for the fact that they are HMS. Hendrick is bringing everything to the table these next two weeks. Everyone else on this list is a long shot in my opinion.
• I'd love for a surprise driver to grab a wild card spot such as Joey Logano or Marcos Ambrose, but I think Kasey and Kyle will hold on to take the wild card spots.
• Kahne is easy to call. Second driver is harder. I really think Kahne will pass Stewart for 10th and Stewart will be 11th. But you didn't give me that choice. So I'm giving it to you.
• Kasey is not only a lock but may well get into the top 10 (on points). Carl's luck cannot keep being this bad can it? Roush has always run well at Atlanta generally and Carl specifically, so I have a feeling he wins Atlanta and outscores Kyle in points over the last two races for the last spot.
• If the trends continue the way they are now, I think Tony Stewart falls out of the top 10 and Kasey Kahne makes the Chase on points. Stewart and Kyle Busch will be the wild cards for the Chase. Hopefully Stewart can focus on his own championship, and his threats don't come to fruition, which could in turn costs Kenseth a shot at a championship.
• I say Kasey and Kyle. I know that Carl Edwards is capable of doing it if he gets one win, but they really haven't been close to being competitive in any race this year.
• Poor strategies in two races recently have cost Carl. He seems to be missing opportunities to move into the top 10 by bad pit calls.
• I picked Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch as of right now but I really think it’s going to be Tony Stewart and Busch getting the wild cards. Kahne is fast right now and Tony isn’t doing as well. Kasey closed the gap from 33 points to 16 (Saturday) with a wrecked racecar. I say he makes the top 10.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Like the tortoise and the hare, sometimes the fastest car doesn’t always win in NASCAR. In 166 Cup Series starts, journeyman Paul Menard had collected just five top-5 finishes, leaving critics claiming his career was more a product of his moneymaking father than raw talent. Even after landing a ride driving for a powerhouse team, Richard Childress Racing, Menard was seldom considered a threat to win. But in last year’s Brickyard, saving a little extra gas put his No. 27 Chevy in the lead down the stretch, keeping the driver off pit road while other lead-lap cars were forced to stop. At one point, a hard-charging Jeff Gordon was gaining more than two seconds per lap on Menard but ultimately came up short, with the 30-year-old earning his first and only NASCAR Cup victory in a major upset. It was an emotional moment for Paul’s father, John, who had pursued the Indy 500 dream for decades as a car owner but was never able to win open-wheel’s biggest prize. “My heart was going 1,000 miles a minute,” he said. “I don’t know if I can take it. It’s unbelievable, a wonderful place. Our family has spent so much time here and now, to have Paul’s first victory here… it’s incredible.”
7. Two Legends Duel In Brickyard 400 Finish of 2002
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Rusty Wallace, the 1989 Cup champion was NASCAR’s short track ace but a bridesmaid in the races that seemed to count the most. Never a Daytona 500 winner, he finished second at Indy three times, leading 148 laps but could never pull off the big trophy. His third and last chance came in 2002, leading for 12 circuits and holding crucial track position and clean air entering the final 50 miles – you want to be out front at one of the sport’s most difficult tracks to pass. But NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Bill Elliott would not be denied as his No. 9 Dodge scuffled with, then slipped by Rusty en route to claiming victory. Why is this one so memorable? It was a “last hurrah” of sort for both men, front and center in this race but who would win a total of just twice more (one for each) before retiring full-time from the Cup Series.
6. 2002: Kurt Busch vs Jimmy Spencer
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Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer had a long and sordid history by the time the 2002 Brickyard 400 came around. And after getting shoved out of the way at Bristol that Spring, a move that made the difference on Victory Lane Jimmy Spencer reminded an audience of millions he never forgets. Hitting Busch’s rear bumper hard entering the corner, the move left Busch losing control and slamming the outside wall hard, totaling his No. 97 Ford. The younger Busch, then only in his second Cup season went on a rant against Spencer during and after the race, a feud that would simmer and boil over by August of 2003 in another incident that ultimately lead to Spencer’s infamous one-week suspension from the Cup Series.
5. Tire Problems At 2008 Brickyard 400
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Goodyear? More like Good God when it comes to the 2008 version of this event. With a tire compound incapable of lasting at high speed, steady blowouts kept the longest green-flag segment of the race at 13 laps. Big names like Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and Juan Pablo Montoya were among the innocent victims, ugly wrecks that turned the race into a game of low-speed, single-file survival. Jimmie Johnson took the checkers during a final “sprint” where simply keeping yourself from spinning out was considered successful. How bad was it? Some of the race’s top finishers admitted that even on the white-flag lap, they were driving at no more than “80 percent” of top speed to ensure their car made it to the checkers in one piece.
4. Tony Stewart Wins At His Hometown Track… Then Climbs The Fence
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Tony Stewart lives and breathes Indy. The Indiana native, an open-wheel convert had always put the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 at the top of his career list of races to win. But while the 500-miler has always been elusive, bad breaks and a full-time transition to NASCAR keeping him out of Victory Lane it took just seven years to claim success in a stock car. Passing Kasey Kahne in the race’s final 15 laps, Stewart pulled away to a convincing margin of victory and then celebrated by climbing the fence to the delight of 200,000+ hometown fans chanting, “Tony, Tony.” Sometimes cantankerous in public, it was a “let his hair down and relax moment” that helped spark a summer surge, one which ultimately propelled him to a second Cup Series championship by November.
3. Dale Earnhardt Tastes Victory At Indy
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The second Brickyard 400 took almost two days to complete, rain pushing the start of the race back several hours. When it did go green, it stayed there with just two caution flags, letting the cream rise to the top as it gave limited chances for drivers and teams to adjust their race cars. There is no better person to handle that strange scenario than NASCAR’s Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt; rising from his 13th starting spot, he took the lead for the first time with 28 laps remaining and held off a hard-charging rival in Rusty Wallace to take the checkered. After going 0-for-16 years at the sport’s other big race at the time, February’s Daytona 500 it was a relief for Earnhardt to get the monkey off his back for this prestigious race in start number two.
2. A Bodine Brothers Feud
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Racing brothers having bad blood between them? That’s nothing new; just ask Kurt and Kyle Busch. But having their argument play out on one of NASCAR’s biggest stages? Now that’s something different altogether, especially when it happens while battling for the lead. With 60 laps to go, Geoff’s No. 7 and Brett’s No. 26 made contact off Turn 4, spinning Geoff in front of the field of 40 cars coming right at him. Dale Jarrett couldn’t avoid it, causing a mess on the frontstretch and ending the hopes of perhaps the only car that could have run with Jeff Gordon that day. Brett? He finished second, but didn’t talk to his brother for a long time afterwards. "We've had some family problems,” said Geoff afterwards, “Some personal problems between the two of us, and (Brett) unforunately took it out on the race track and never expected he'd do it. He's my brother I love him, but he spun me out."
1. Jeff Gordon’s Win … And Ernie’s Flat Tire
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Heading into NASCAR’s first race at Indy, Jeff Gordon had the number “one” on the most important line on his resume: Victory Lane. Just 23, the man with Indiana roots and a superstar label so desperately wanted to put his name on the map; and for most of the day, it looked like it would be a walk in the park. But as the laps wound down, Ernie Irvan’s No. 28 creeped up, taking the lead with 11 laps remaining and setting up a frantic finish between the two. But it was then, just as the duo started slicing and dicing it all went kaput for the Texaco/Havoline Ford; a flat tire sent him scurrying to pit road while Gordon was left to cakewalk to Victory Lane.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's Coke Zero 400
Carl Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
Here's hoping all the NASCAR fantasy players out there had a happy and safe Fourth of July holiday. After a week of firework displays around this great nation, the grand finale will come Saturday night under the lights at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 — let's just keep Juan Pablo Montoya away from any jet dryers, OK?
In all seriousness, this weekend's annual July stop at the beach is one in which drivers are racing with multiple agendas on one of the sport's biggest stages. Each time the series heads to Daytona, nearly anyone in the field has a shot at upsetting the world — or at least scoring a solid finish at a crucial part of the season.
With only nine races left before the Chase field is set, the battle for the wild card spots and the fight for the top 10 in the standings is intensifying.
Perhaps one of the biggest names currently outside the top 10 in points looking to score his first win of the season this is Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards. Last year's runner-up in the championship battle has yet to win in 2012, and currently sits 11th in points.
Edwards had a deceptively strong run going in Kentucky, but a late pit stop for fuel dropped the No. 99 Ford to a 20th-place finish at the end of the night. The finish was Edwards' fifth-straight outside the top 10. To find Edwards' last top-5 finish, you would have to go back to Fontana in March. Edwards did not lead a single lap of competition until Kansas, when he led one, then backed it up at Richmond by leading 206 of the 400 laps. Since then, Edwards has led a grand total of zero.
However, things have been shaken up of late at RFR. Daytona 500 champion and current points leader Matt Kenseth will be leaving the organization at the end of the season with Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moving up to the Cup ranks as his replacement. With a multitude of sponsorship support behind him and many beginning to ask questions, Edwards is determined to turn his season around at the halfway point.
The driver of the No. 99 has been among the best on the high banks of Daytona in recent visits. He was runner-up to Trevor Bayne in last year's Daytona 500. He entered last year's Coke Zero 400 the points leader, but was turned around while running third early in the race by teammate Greg Biffle, leading to a 37th-place finish. This season, Edwards sat on the pole for the 500 and came home eighth. And if there’s one thing that’s obvious in the Ford camp, it’s that their engineers have figured out how to keep the Blue Ovals running cooler — a major advantage on the plate tracks, circa 2012.
Looking to race his way back into the top 10 in points, earn his first win of the season and turn his year around, Edwards is this week's fantasy favorite.
While Edwards may be the fantasy favorite, the perennial fan favorite is Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has two wins on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, one of which came in the Coke Zero 400 on July 7, 2001. With Saturday night's race coming on July 7 once again, could seven be the lucky number for Earnhardt?
Although he is always counted among the best at Daytona — he finished second to Kenseth in February — Earnhardt's last win on the high banks was in 2004. With one victory already this season, the No. 88 team is eager to add to the win column and start collecting bonus points for the Chase.
Whether or not drivers are willing to admit it, momentum is a hard thing to beat, and right now Brad Keselowski has a lot of it. Coming off a strong performance last week in Kentucky, Keselowski’s three wins lead the circuit. He’s good on all types of tracks (with wins on short, plate and intermediate venues), making him a must-watch.
Based on their recent finishes at Daytona, never count out Edwards’ Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Biffle. Kenseth was second in this race last season and won his second Daytona 500 in February, while Biffle was third. The Roush cars are typically strong here, with former driver David Ragan besting Kenseth last July.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Like Keselowski, Sonoma race-winner Clint Bowyer proved he can get the job done on any style track — but especially on the high banks of Daytona and Talladega. His average finish of 14.8 at DIS is second-best among active drivers, however Bowyer has yet to score a win at Daytona.
Also like Keselowski, Bowyer has momentum on his side as the series hits the halfway point of the season. A winner two weeks ago on the road course, Bowyer is seventh in the standings and has only two finishes worse than 17th all season (a 30th, Phoenix; 36th, Kansas).
The month of July has historically been good to Bowyer in the past. Of the three tracks the series hits this month — Daytona, New Hampshire and Indianapolis — Bowyer has two wins, a pole, six top 5s and 12 top 10s. Expect him to add to those totals on Saturday.
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and teammate Clint Bowyer (15) at Daytona. (ASP, Inc.)
Bowyer's MWR teammate, Martin Truex Jr., has not had much luck when it comes to Daytona, but expect that to turn around this weekend. In his 14 previous starts on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Truex has a best finish of sixth in the 2010 Daytona 500 and an average finish of 21.5. In fact, that sixth-place finish is his lone top 10 at Daytona. Statistically, Truex has struggled mightily in the annual July event, with a best finish of 13th in 2007. Aside from that event, Truex has four finishes of 25th or worse in six races.
However, Truex and his No. 56 team have shown strength this season. Already 17 races into the season, Truex has more top 5 finishes (four) than in the last four seasons combined, and nearly as many top 10s (nine). Sitting eighth in the standings, Truex is looking to move further away from that 10th-place Chase cut off, break his winless streak dating back to 2007 and start building bonus points for the Chase.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson
There have been quite a few surprises throughout the first half of the 2012 season, but one that jumps out is the driver sitting just outside the top 10 in the standings in 13th-place. Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard has consistently stayed in contention, yet just outside the Chase cutoff, ahead of race-winners Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
Although he has only four top-10 finishes this season, Menard's average finish has been 16.1. Consistently finishing inside the top 20 is not enough to make the Chase or content for the title, so Menard needs to either score a win and enter the Chase via wild card, or make a run at the top 10.
Daytona is a great place for Menard to make a statement run as he did last year at Indianapolis. Heading into this weekend's race, Menard has three consecutive top-10 finishes at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, the only driver on the circuit to currently own such a streak, and something that should continue Saturday night.
Another of the biggest surprises this season has been the abysmal showing of AJ Allmendinger in his new Penske digs. For as successful a year as his teammate, Keselowski, has had, Allmendinger's year has been equally tough to swallow. Poor luck and other struggles have led to six finishes of 31st or worse. However, the driver of the No. 22 Dodge is coming off back-to-back top-10 finishes at Sonoma and Kentucky — his first such “streak” of the season.
Allmendinger showed strength in Daytona early in the season but sustained damage to the nose on pit road just 15 laps into the event. A solid run at Talladega also went to the wayside late in the race when he and Denny Hamlin got together on a late-race restart.
With the season at the halfway point and speculation beginning to build about Penske’s plans for the No. 22 Dodge in 2013, it is time for a solid string of runs through the summer months. With back-to-back top 10s in his pocket, look for Allmendinger to be a factor if he can make it through the entire event without any issues.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger, Landon Cassill, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray
Top 10 average finish at Daytona (points-paying wins):
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.5 (2)
2. Clint Bowyer — 14.8 (0)
3. Kevin Harvick — 15.0 (0)
4. Bill Elliott — 15.6 (4)
5. Jeff Gordon — 16.2 (6)
6. Tony Stewart — 16.7 (3)
7. Matt Kenseth — 16.7 (2)
8. Kurt Busch — 17.3 (0)
9. Carl Edwards — 17.3 (0)
10. Paul Menard — 17.3 (0)
There are 16 races left in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and already it is being remembered as the “Year of the Upset.” And Paul Menard solidified that designation in the Brickyard 400 at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Menard, winless in 166 career Cup starts and a longshot in his No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevy, conserved enough fuel over the final 35 laps and held off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon to earn the unlikely win at the Brickyard.
In the process, he joined Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, Southern 500 winner Regan Smith and Coke Zero 400 winner David Ragan as first-time winners on the circuit this year. Three of those — Bayne, Smith and now Menard — not only hit paydirt for the first time, but did so in crown jewel events, marking a first in the Cup Series.
“I knew that we saved plenty of fuel, but I was more worried about the guys that pitted for fuel and were coming hard,” Menard said. “Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) told me where Jeff (Gordon) was and he how fast he was coming. They set me loose with three laps to go, and the car was really good.”
Gordon, who led 36 laps and had one of the best cars on the grid, finished second. Smith, 2010 Brickyard 400 winner Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth rounded up the top 5.
“As disappointing as it is not win this race, it sure was great to run that good,” Gordon said. “And I gotta congratulate Paul Menard. I don’t think there’s anybody in this garage area that appreciates a win here at the Brickyard more than Paul. He grew up here as a kid and I think that’s pretty cool.”
Ah yes, the back story on Menard and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Menard’s father, John, owns the Menards chain of home improvement stores throughout the Midwest. As a long-time supporter of automobile racing in the United States, he has sponsored numerous Indianapolis 500 entries going back to 1982 — including three cars manned by Tony Stewart (1996-98), as well as son Paul’s ride since his debut in NASCAR in 2003.
Needless to say, with the family’s history and affinity for Indianapolis, there could not have been a better track for 30-year-old Paul — having run full-time on the Cup circuit since 2007 — to get his first win.
“My first year here was in 1989 — that I can remember, anyway,” Menard said. “Just spent a lot of time in the garage area. I didn’t miss an Indy 500 from ’89 to 2003; I was here for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 — it’s just a really special place for my family and myself.”
No win at Indy comes easy, and this race was no exception. An otherwise staid race was thrown for a loop when Landon Cassill went for a spin with 41 laps to go. The top seven cars, led by Brad Keselowski, remained on track under the caution period, choosing track position over fuel and fresh tires. Menard, along with McMurray and Smith, among others, topped off their fuel cells just before the race went back to green with 34 laps remaining. Menard restarted 16th.
Once back to green, the majority of the field that had not pitted under caution made stops, as it cycled into a fuel window that would carry them to the end, handing the lead to Menard with 15 lap to go, although he was quickly passed by McMurray. Gordon, who pitted with 26 laps to go, found himself charging threw the field as the laps wound down, but was still 12 seconds out of the lead with only 12 laps to make something happen.
As the top-10 cars conserved fuel by running noticeably slower laps, Gordon surged, picking off positions as the race came to its conclusion. Menard was told to go full throttle with three laps remaining, as Labbe’s calculations showed the No. 27 machine had enough fuel. When the word came to the driver to punch it, he flew by McMurray and, although Gordon was able to work his way back to second just after Menard took the lead, the gap was too great for the four-time Brickyard winner, and Menard won the race to the checkered flag by .725 seconds.
“Every time I got to a car that was saving fuel it kind of held me up,” Gordon said. “I knew that we weren’t going to get to Paul, it was really about him running out of fuel.”
As for the race-winner, Menard not only enjoyed his most memorable day in NASCAR, but moved into a wild-card spot in the Chase for the Championship standings. NASCAR’s new Chase qualification rule states that positions 11 and 12 be awarded to the drivers with the most wins ranked 11th-20th. Menard and Denny Hamlin currently occupy the spots with six races until the playoffs begin.
“I think we're 14th (in points) now (and) with the wild card,” Menard said of the upcoming Chase. “We got five or six races left. We got a lot of work to do. We have Richmond and New Hampshire — those are two of our worst tracks, honestly. We have a lot of work to do.”