Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Talladega
Front Row Motorsports teammates David Gilliland (left) and David Ragan. (ASP, Inc.)
Since it opened in 1969, Talladega has been NASCAR’s racetrack of extremes. When right, the sport’s decision to slap restrictor plates on brings out maximum excitement, the best opportunity for 43 teams to compete on a level playing field. Feel-good stories emerge, like the case of Bob Jenkins, a restaurant owner who has filtered more money into his three-car team just to run 25th, than most will make in a lifetime. Since 2005, he has toiled — once suffering through a season with more than 30 DNQs — and posting only two top-5 finishes in 403 starts prior to Sunday. The dream was to pursue a Sprint Cup victory, but a look at the stat sheet would point one towards financial self-destruction … or a man in need of mental help.
Now, Jenkins can point right back at his critics and towards a trophy that is rightfully his. Jenkins’ Front Row Motorsports drivers Ragan and David Gilliland produced the first 1-2 finish in team history in the Aaron’s 499, outclassing the Goliaths they race against through smarts and speed. At no other track — even Daytona, with NASCAR’s handling package — would such a victory be remotely possible. (Previous best finish for this team in 2013: Ragan’s 20th at Richmond.) It’s the type of victory that brings attention to the sport, giving executives something to sell, potential new car owners justification to compete and the backside of the NASCAR garage a reason for hope. No one will change the way these men feel about plate racing now; heck, you could strap a parachute to the car at Daytona and they’d be happy based on the parity that gives them a chance.
On the other side of the fence sits Ryan Newman whose season, if not more, was mere feet from being cut tragically short on Sunday when an entire car landed on the windshield of his No. 39 Chevrolet. As chaos unfolded in front of him, Kurt Busch’s Chevy entry landed, then rolled over Newman’s car in the midst of a 12-car melee that’s become all too common at Talladega. It’s not the first time the driver has been in physical danger; four years ago, this nasty flip (LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxE1_VZkQKI) left the roll cage bent mere inches from his head.
“We had a race here in the spring, complaining about cars getting airborne,” Newman said then. “I wish NASCAR would do something. That’s not what anyone wants to see.”
Four years later, he’s saying the same words again, this time more viciously after not feeling that NASCAR has lifted a finger on the rules. No one will change the way Newman feels about plate racing now, he just doesn’t want himself or a competitor to end up dead.
Talladega. The land of extremes, where guilt, grief, miracles, merriment, disaster, disgust, rage and redemption come together as one. It’s why everyone is pushing for change, but as they do human nature makes it impossible to look away – keeping us in the same cycle forevermore.
FIRST GEAR: Two Davids snookered the field
Make no mistake, Ragan’s slice ‘n’ dice to the front of the pack would not have been possible without two things. One: Teammate David Gilliland, sitting on his back bumper and not letting go until the two cars were sitting out front. Those feeling like the “push” of tandem drafting was completely dead need to take a second look on how these cars were stuck together like superglue down the stretch.
“I know he wishes that he was sitting in my shoes right now,” said Ragan of his teammate, now winless in 232 Cup Series starts. “I kind of wish that he would have had a chance to win the race, too.”
I’m not sure Gilliland cared much, though. His whole family was in attendance to watch Ragan’s post-race presser, a sign of the teamwork atmosphere this underdog organization has pushed since the beginning. Fact: Ragan now has as many wins with this team (one) in just 15 months as he did in five full seasons driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Turns out all the money in the world can’t buy that all-important chemistry needed for those moments when people need to bring out the best in each other.
“He was driving for a top-tier team, had UPS as a sponsor and when he left, he bought into what we were trying to do at Front Row,” said Jenkins. “His expectations of himself and his team never changed. He didn't look at it as if, ‘Hey, I'm taking a step down here, I realize I'm going to be a back marker.’ He continues to expect a lot out of himself and a lot out of his team, and I think what happened is people bought into that and they followed behind him and we've seen results.”
That belief system brings me to point No. 2: it wasn’t shared by his Sprint Cup competitors. Go ahead, you have my permission to review that final lap. Notice how Matt Kenseth drifts up on the backstretch to draft with Carl Edwards as if he needs to stick with the No. 99 to have a shot. Had he stayed in the middle, the FRM duo would have been blocked and we’d be talking about a different winner today. As for Edwards, he just didn’t see the freight train until it was too late, taking a prime opportunity to win a plate race away from a man who’s been victimized far too often there.
“David just got us,” Edwards said. “He did his job. As long as I’m not upside down, in the fence, it was pretty clean.”
SECOND GEAR: Is it all getting to Brad Keselowski?
One driver, though, was crying foul over Ragan’s miracle moment. Brad Keselowski, in several tweets after the race, felt his rival lined up in the wrong lane for the final restart. Several photos showed the cars trying to pass each other for position on the backstretch under yellow before NASCAR made the final call as to where Keselowski, Scott Speed and Ragan would line up. The verdict was Speed eighth, Keselowski ninth and Ragan 10th based on where they were at the last scoring loop when the caution came out. Were they right? Judge for yourself at the 2:42 mark of this clip. My take is that’s it’s far too close to call.
Either way, Keselowski was presumptuous to predict one change in lane would have earned him a victory – or cost Ragan one. Plate races are so unpredictable that you’ll get 1,000 different endings per 1,000 green-white-checker finishes. I just wonder, after a disappointing 15th-place finish, whether pressure is starting to get to the reigning champ. The final appeal for his Penske team is Tuesday, where 25 points and suspensions of his top four crew members appear imminent. Winless this season, he’s also posted back-to-back finishes outside the top 10 for the first time since Michigan and Sonoma last June. Every superstar, no matter his or her mental strength, goes through adversity; now might be Keselowski’s time, sitting fifth in points with just a single lap led over the last six events.
He just didn’t have to drag David Ragan into his own psychological hell.
THIRD GEAR: The racing was … what it was
I know. It sounds like a copout. Well, if you ask Newman, who joined Busch in the ranks of “Big One” Demolition Derbys, NASCAR racing here needs to be thrown in the trash bin:
"I am doing this interview to let everybody know I'm alright,” said Newman, who if NASCAR has any consistency (Denny Hamlin, anyone?) will be fined for the comments that follow. “They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls. But they can't get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the race track, and that's pretty disappointing. I wanted to make sure I get that point across. Y'all can figure out who 'they' is. That's no way to end a race ... I mean, you got what you wanted, but poor judgment and running in the dark and running in the rain.”
To be fair, most didn’t share the driver’s sentiment about the conditions of the track itself down the stretch. Only sprinkles could be felt in the final minutes and, while dark, the race ended earlier than the Nationwide Series event the day before. It’s the other part of Newman’s diatribe — the plate package — that would be under greater scrutiny if not for Ragan’s headline-saving win. I felt like Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it best:
“I don’t really know,” he said. “I don’t know – I thought it was alright, I guess.”
A classic “C, C+” type of response, and clearly not what NASCAR wants out of one of its fan-favorite facilities, especially after Earnhardt raved about the racing in Daytona. But that’s the truth. 30 lead changes were the least since 2002, when Earnhardt laid waste to the field. The draft, while handling multiple grooves unlike its sister track, had a tendency to “stop ‘n’ start.” There would be times when drivers would get stir crazy, and others — like for 30 laps after the rain delay — where they fell in line and passed the time.
It still seemed like, apart from the final lap, the line that had the most cars could make a difference, with the outside groove still holding a substantial edge. There’s work to be done here, although different rules can only do so much. Drivers are smarter. They know nothing matters at these races until less than 20 laps to go. Trying to force them to stay aggressive in the wake of what happened to Newman and Busch is like throwing them in the lion’s den and asking them to play.
Matt Kenseth led 142 of 192 laps on Sunday. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Gibbs’ plate race problems continue
Plate races place even the best drivers on Lady Luck’s roulette wheel. Take Jimmie Johnson, for example: four plate races last year, three wrecks and one blown engine. In 2013? He’s two-for-two in the top-5 finish category with a win. This year, the bad karma has made its way over to Joe Gibbs Racing. Matt Kenseth’s dominating performance at Talladega, in which he led 142 laps, went for naught with one bad choice on the final lap. He wound up eighth, still a far cry from teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Busch, lost in the shuffle of the afternoon rain delay, started the race’s first “Big One” that collected a dozen cars, including himself. And Hamlin? A return to the seat, which ended quickly and safely under the first caution on Lap 23 netted him just 10 points. Sub Brian Vickers was caught up in that wreck, leaving the driver 34th and actually increasing his deficit on the top 20 in points by five, (76 points behind Kurt Busch).
Kudos to other underdogs with solid performances Sunday. Phoenix Racing, which has pulled a “Front Row” in the past here (Keselowski, April 2009) was sixth with Regan Smith, but Leavine Family Racing was perhaps more impressive. Scott Speed (ninth) scored the first top-10 result for the organization and just the fourth of his journeyman career. … Bobby Labonte, in his 700th start ran 20th for JTG Daugherty Racing. It’s a tale of two careers for the veteran; he earned 20 wins and a title in his first 350 starts behind the wheel, but just one victory since. … NASCAR’s “Air Titan” was credited for saving the day, as its track drying efforts allowed for time to finish Sunday’s race. So why did it still take two-plus hours to dry the track? I thought it was advertised as a 30-minute fix. It’s still a work in progress, in my opinion.
Regan Smith wins a wreck-marred Aaron's 312 at Talladega Superspeedway
A wild finish to Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway once again led to confusion concerning how the sanctioning body scores finishes on the sport’s two restrictor plate tracks.
10. 1984: Putting the “super speed” in “Superspeedway”
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200 mph laps in Monte Carlos, Thunderbirds and Regals — cars that actually look stock. If there's a reason we don't use these camera angles anymore, it would be nice to know why. Look how friggin' fast these things are going! The in-car shots are awesome, cars buffeting about, half a turn into the steering wheel without any appreciable change in direction of the cars. And another great Ken Squier last lap Talladega quip: “Dale Earnhardt, winds it up, fires it in there…”
by Vito Pugliese
9. 2009: A Georgia Bulldog Representing in Bama
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Not all the best finishes come in Cup races. David Ragan's first NASCAR win would occur at Talladega in 2009, making the type of last-lap, last-second slingshot move that would have been impressive in any era, in any division and under any circumstances. With one lap to go, tell me if Ragan even looked like he had a shot at anything other than a good points day.
by Vito Puglise
8. 2011: Four Rows of Two
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After conceding that the CoT was a PoS, NASCAR removed the “Fast & The Furious” surfboard spoiler and Erector Set splitter in favor or traditional aerodynamic accouterments. This brought about the unintended consequence of tandem drafting between teammates. Here, one guy would push and another would steer while each remained in radio contact — kind of like a 200 mph rail cart. It's always hard to beat Hendrick Motorsports on a big track, and the HMS guys make quite a charge at the 3:00 minute mark with two to go … and Junior wouldn’t have any of the flag afterward.
If you have a few minutes, just watch the whole thing. If not, pick it up from the 20:00 mark. Hall of Fame broadcaster Ken Squier touches on why fans cheer for the cars – not just their favorite drivers. Dig the mid 70s music score, sucka – and the last lap battle between two legends of superspeedway competition: Buddy Baker and Richard Petty. Plenty of bowl cuts and Brady Bunch music for all.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 1981: Where’d Bouchard Come From?
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Back before the days of Danica, not all rookies were subject to intense scrutiny with regards to their appearance or personal life. Such was the case of Fitchburg, Mass.’ Ron Bouchard. The first year of the downsized car gave hope to those who may have been skeptical about a field full of Buick's. Jump ahead to the 1:17:40 mark to watch the “impossible finish” between Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte and Ron Bouchard. This finish remains one of Waltrip's most memorable races and non-wins. Also, check out Brent Musberger, before he started creeping on QB's girlfriends in BCS games.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 2001: Little E and the Big One
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The EA Sports 500 at Talladega was a typical plate race affair with the roof wicker rules package. Business picks up around the 7:00 minute mark when some Bobby-on-Bobby violence ensues — Labonte goes for a roll and Hamilton gets turned into the wall — while Dale Earnhardt Jr. cruises through for the win and a million dollar bonus. Ricky Craven gets out of his car and calls it a day, while Sterling Marlin offered his summation of what the response would be to fix plate racing: “I guess we'll do what we done agee-an.”
by Vito Pugliese
4. 2008: A Block by any Other Name …
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Thought I'd throw this one in since Tony Stewart is so averse to blocking. I'd include last fall's Talladega melee as well, but the finish wasn't really that close because of it. Regan Smith would have to wait another three years before he'd score his first “official” victory.
by Vito Pugliese
3. 1993: Irvan vs. Earnhardt
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What is it with David Hobbs calling a NASCAR race that gives it a little extra sense of legitimacy? Kyle Petty is leading late in the going in his Mello Yello Pontiac, with Dale Earnhardt, Ernie Irvan, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin in tow. Pontiac vs. Chevy vs. Ford – how's that for parity? These, uh, “Generation 4” cars look every bit the equal of the Gen 6 to me. Check out Earnahardt's Lay-Z-Boy seating position and truck door mirror laid sideways. Gotta love Ken Squire's late race call — “five seconds to pay-dirt,” and his nonchalant call for a .005-second margin of victory.
by Vito Pugliese
2. 1993: Rusty Goes for a Ride
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If there is ever a book written about NASCAR's golden era of racing (OK, fine, I'll write it), the 1993 Winston 500 will go down as the definitive superspeedway race. NASCAR rolled the field off early under the threat of thunderstorms, while Mark Martin's crew had to hot wire his car on pit road. The first few laps of the race got so wild and chaotic that Benny Parsons and the broadcast crew gave up trying to call it and just implored fans to sit back, watch and listen for themselves. With one lap to go all hell breaks lose with Martin sandblasting the outside frontstrech wall, guys running out of gas and Rusty Wallace going Orville and Wilbur after contact from Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt was visibly shaken afterwards, as the interview shows.
by Vito Pugliese
1. 2000: "3" Forever
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The final win of Dale Earnahardt Sr.'s illustrious career would happen, predictably, at Talladega — a track he was known for his mastery of. Earnhardt charged from 17th to the lead in just four laps to complete a most unlikely comeback. If NASCAR is looking to improve superspeedway racing, this package may have been the best. Not much more needs to be said — just sit back and watch the master at work.
Fans hurt in ugly Nationwide Series wreck in Daytona
Photo by ASP, Inc.
DAYTONA BEACH, FL — A violent ending to Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway marred an exciting race and left numerous fans injured and a sport shaken.
As a pack of cars sprinted to the start-finish line on the event’s final lap, a massive crash broke out when Regan Smith attempted to block Brad Keselowski while racing for the lead. Smith’s car clipped the nose of Keselowski in the tri-oval and impacted the wall head-on. Keselowski also spun, and chaos ensued when drivers took evasive action to miss the accident.
The car of Kyle Larson became entangled with Keselowski and others, spinning into the wall, then catapulting into a crossover gate built into the speedway’s protective catchfencing.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
While Larson’s car was deflected back onto the track, the engine lodged in the fencing and car parts — shrapnel and a wheel and hub assembly — were launched into the crowded grandstand. Over a dozen cars were involved in the accident. Tony Stewart was flagged the winner.
Attention immediately turned to the grandstand, where fans waved wildly for emergency personnel to assist injured spectators. A video taken in the stands that made its way to YouTube showed a tire lodged into a seat some 10 rows up.
Emergency workers were dispatched to the Campbell Grandstand in a section just shy of the start-finish line. Uninjured fans were ushered from the scene into the concourse while stretchers carried the injured to waiting ambulances.
Fourteen fans were transported to local hospitals while 14 others were treated at the speedway’s care center. USA Today reports that two people are in critical condition. One suffered head trauma, the other is a minor.
“As we responded to the incident, we transported immediately those patients that needed critical assistance,” Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood said. “We’ll review (the incident) ourselves, in terms of where the debris flew and what we need to do with that.”
NASCAR Senior Vice President Steve O’Donnell told the assembled media that the Daytona 500 will go on as scheduled on Sunday and that the affected area of the grandstand will be open for seating.
Chitwood said no changes in safety procedures will be made for the 500, although the crossover gate will not be operational, replaced by fencing. Repairs to the catchfence were already underway.
“After every event we review our property from an asphalt perspective and a fencing perspective, so we did that after the Duels and after the Truck race,” Chitwood said. “We’ll do the same thing to make sure that we’re ready for tomorrow.”
Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Carl Edwards' new crew chief, Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
Until last week, crew chief Jimmy Fennig admits he had “very seldom’’ talked to Carl Edwards in their years together at Roush Fenway Racing.
“I’m the type of crew chief that I focus in on the job at hand and the driver I have and don’t really pay too much attention to other drivers,” said Fennig, who most recently was Matt Kenseth’s crew chief.
Next season, Fennig and his crew will partner with Edwards as Kenseth drives for Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s part of a series of changes taking place at Roush Fenway Racing. Two-time defending Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. replaces Kenseth in the No. 17 Cup car. Trevor Bayne takes Stenhouse’s Nationwide ride. The Cup team of Greg Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia will remain intact.
Fennig, who became a crew chief in 1986 and won the 2004 championship with Kurt Busch, admits he doesn’t know Edwards too well but doesn’t see that as a hinderance in their pairing.
“My goal has always been to win races,” said Fennig, the winning crew chief in the 1988 Daytona 500 with Bobby Allison and this year’s Daytona 500 with Kenseth. “No matter who drives the car, that’s what I try to do every week and that’s something I know we already have in common.”
Fennig will be Edwards’ third crew chief since the start of the 2012 season. Bob Osborne started with Edwards. Osborne, citing health issues, stepped down as crew chief in July and was replaced by Chad Norris.
Edwards was winless this season and finished 15th in the points a year after losing the championship on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. Edwards scored only four top-10 finishes in the 17 races with Norris as crew chief, thus a change wasn’t surprising.
“We all just sat down and looked at it and Chad and I talked at length about it,” Edwards said of the change. “Everyone agrees the opportunity to have the experience of Jimmy Fennig on the box to get ... back to Victory Lane is what we should do. It wasn’t something that I single-handedly requested or just that Jack (Roush) wanted to do it. As a team we thought this was the best thing to do. The biggest thing at Roush is that he has so many good people that we can move people around and do things like this and it is good for the whole company.”
Along with that move, Roush will pair Stenhouse Jr. with crew chief Scott Graves. Both will be rookies in Cup.
“I would normally not be an advocate for bringing a crew chief who hadn’t been established with a rookie driver into the Cup Series, but Scott Graves – in my words – he’s been a prodigy for the small amount of experience he’s had making the final decisions,” Roush said.
“He made great decisions for Carl at Watkins Glen and he’s made great decisions for Ricky when he’s been with him this year. So I think given the fact he’s a mechanical engineer as well as an experienced team engineer, he’s going to bring enthusiasm and creativity to Ricky that we might not otherwise be able to achieve with somebody that had more experience.”
JR Motorsports' Regan Smith. (ASP, Inc.)
JR MOTORSPORTS MOVES JR Motorsports announced a new crew chief for Regan Smith on Tuesday and hinted that it could run just one team full-time next season in the Nationwide Series.
The team announced that Jimmie Johnson’s longtime engineer, Greg Ives, would become Regan Smith’s crew chief next season. Ives was the engineer for all five of Johnson’s Cup championships.
JR Motorsports also noted in a release how it “continues to streamline its race program.” The release stated that the team is preparing for the “likelihood” that it will run one full-time team with Smith as driver and one part-time with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and select drivers. This past season, Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt were the team’s two full-time drivers. Patrick is moving to Cup to drive full-time with Stewart-Haas Racing and has stated a desire to run some Nationwide events.
ROOKIES OF THE YEAR Ty Dillon was selected as the Rookie of the Year in the Truck series, marking the third consecutive year a Richard Childress Racing driver won that honor. Austin Dillon won it in 2010 and Joey Coulter won it last year. ... Austin Dillon was selected as the Nationwide Rookie of the Year and Stephen Leicht won the rookie of the year honors in Cup.
SEEKING SPONSORSHIP Kyle Busch said after Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race that Dollar General will not return as a sponsor on his Kyle Busch Motorsports entry.
“Unfortunately, we’re sponsor-less next year, so we’ll see what happens through the offseason,” Busch said.
The team announced earlier this month that Joey Coulter will drive full-time for it in the Truck series next year.
PIT STOPS Joe Gibbs Racing confirmed Monday that Elliott Sadler will join the team to run in the Nationwide Series next year. ... Paul Menard ran the most laps in Cup this season. He completed 10,406 of the 10,442 laps run (99.7 percent) this season. ... Jimmie Johnson led the most laps in Cup this season at 1,744. Kyle Busch was next, having led 1,436 laps. ... There were 15 different winners in Cup this season, down from 18 last year. This season marked the second consecutive year no driver won more than five Cup races. Champion Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin each won a series-high five races this year.
Racing NASCAR's Trucks at Eldora and surprises in Kansas
Is it time for NASCAR to look in a different direction to run a race? Maybe something old school. You know, some place dirt-y? Of all that happened last weekend in Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas, what was the most impressive feat? Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debated those and other questions this week. Here’s what they said:
Earnhardt to make NASCAR Sprint Cup return in Martinsville
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been medically cleared to race this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports announced Tuesday.
Earnhardt missed the past two races after suffering a concussion Oct. 7 in a last-lap crash at Talladega Superspeedway. It was his second concussion within six weeks. He suffered a concussion in a crash during an Aug. 29 tire test at Kansas Speedway.
Earnhardt’s rehabilitation program was directed by Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, who also consulted with Dr. Micky Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program.
“Dale Jr. has done everything asked of him,” Petty said in a statement issued by Hendrick Motorsports. “He hasn’t had a headache since Oct. 12, and we have not been able to provoke any symptoms since that time. I have informed NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports that he is medically cleared for all NASCAR-related activity.”
Earnhardt sought Dr. Petty because of lingering headaches after the Talladega race.
“The one symptom that is more important than all the tests is headache, and as long as there’s any headache, the brain is not healed,” Petty said Oct. 11 during a press conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway announcing that Earnhardt would miss the next two races because of a concussion.
“We want him to have four or five days after he has no headache, and then we'll give him some sort of test like to get his pulse rate up, see if we can provoke a headache, and then if we can't, we'll let him go out and drive a lap or two and see how that goes, and if that goes well, we'll probably clear him to race.”
Earnhardt drove 123 laps in a Sprint Cup car Monday at the half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga., without any issues.
Crew chief Steve Letarte wrote on Twitter after the test that Earnhardt “looked great and ran some awesome laps.”
Petty monitored the test. He cleared Earnhardt Tuesday morning after a final neuropsychological evaluation in Charlotte.
On Sunday at Kansas Speedway, car owner Rick Hendrick said that it was never a consideration to hold Earnhardt the rest of the season.
“He’s burning up to get in the car,” Hendrick said. “He wanted to run this weekend. He’s very anxious. He wants to get back. No way you’re going to hold him out unless the doctor wouldn’t clear him, but he’s good to go.”
While Earnhardt was out, Regan Smith drove his car. An engine failure left Smith with a 38th-place finish at Charlotte, but he placed seventh at Kansas last weekend.
Earnhardt is the second driver in NASCAR’s national series to suffer a concussion and miss races this season. Eric McClure suffered a concussion, along with other injuries, in a crash during the May 5 Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway. McClure, who suffered his third concussion in less than two years in that incident, sat out five races before returning.
Hendrick Motorsports’ announcement did not include a statement from Earnhardt. He’s scheduled to talk to the media Friday morning at Martinsville Speedway before practice.
Matt Kenseth (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
LAME DUCK? Sure, Matt Kenseth is leaving Roush Fenway Racing after this season to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, but he’s won two of the last three Cup- races. Had it not been for some mechanical issues earlier in the Chase, Kenseth, who won at Talladega two weeks ago, might have a chance to contend for the title.
“We've had two great races where they couldn't be better, and we had four that probably couldn't be a lot worse, other than Loudon,” Kenseth said after his 24th career Cup victory. “It's been up and down. I thought last year we were really strong. I thought in the Chase last year we had a shot to win the championship as far as performance. I feel like I let my guys down and didn't do a good enough job making decisions on the track or even off the track. I felt like I cost us, but our cars were fast enough to win.
“This season we started off real fast and could run in the top five every week it felt like. We went through a couple months where we didn't perform as well. Unfortunately, one of those months ran into the Chase. I just felt like we were a little off as a group, plus we made a few mistakes that we typically never make, have had some other problems that cost us some finishes. It feels good to get here, have a fast car, have everything happen right, be able to get the win.”
Another driver on the move after this season is Joey Logano, who will leave Joe Gibbs Racing for Penske Racing’s No. 22 ride. Although he finished 19th at Kansas on Sunday, he’s placed in the top 10 in four of his last six races.
PIT STOPS AJ Allmendinger is back in the car for Phoenix Racing this weekend at Martinsville. Allmendinger finished a career-best second there in the spring for Penske Racing. ... Points leader Brad Keselowski has an average finish of 13.4 in five previous starts there. ... Jimmie Johnson, second in the points, has six wins at Martinsville and has finished outside the top 10 there only twice since 2002 (20 races). ... Denny Hamlin, third in the points, has four Martinsville victories and only two finishes outside the top 20 there since 2005 (14 races).
Popular driver will sit out at least two NASCAR events after Talladega wreck
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and team owner Rick Hendrick. (ASP, Inc.)
Hendrick Motorsports announced on Thursday that driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. will sit out the upcoming NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway after suffering a concussion at Talladega on Sunday.
In a release, the company stated that Earnhardt was diagnosed with a concussion Wednesday afternoon in Charlotte and that Regan Smith will serve as the No. 88 team’s substitute driver in his absence.
Earnhardt currently sits 11th in the Chase for the Championship, a distant 51 points behind leader Brad Keselowski. Earnhardt was involved in a final-lap crash in the Oct. 7 Good Sam 500 that also collected 24 other cars.
Earnhardt revealed that he suffered an initial concussion during a wreck on Aug. 29 while conducting a tire test at Kansas Speedway.
“I decided to push through it,” Earnhardt said of the concussion at Kansas. “I’d had concussions before and knew exactly what I was dealing with. I felt pretty good after a week or two and definitely 80 to 90 percent by the time the Chase started (Sept. 23) and by the time we got to Talladega I felt 100 percent.”
Earnhardt said that while the impact at Talladega was roughly half as hard as the Kansas hit, the proximity of the two concussions raised concerns.
“If you have more than one in a small period of time you need to take that quite seriously. The one in Kansas was really bad and to get shaken up so quickly (at Talladega) over something so trivial—that one shook me up and I thought I should take that seriously.
“I knew that I had sort of regressed and had a bit of a setback. You know how your body is and if something is not quite right. I knew as soon as it happened that I had re-injured myself.
“I went a couple days wondering how my body would react and sort of waited for it to process what was happening. I was still having some headaches — that was really the only symptom I was having. So I took it upon myself to contact my sister (Kelley Earnhardt Miller) and we talked about seeing a neurosurgeon and ended up getting steered toward Dr. Petty.”
Dr. Jerry Petty is a Charlotte neurosurgeon that consults for NASCAR as well as the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Dr. Petty stressed that an MRI on Earnhardt came back normal, meaning no damage was found.
After conducting tests, Earnhardt explained that Petty spent the night thinking about the situation and decided he could not clear the 38-year-old to race.
“His neurological exam was normal. He had no amnesia after either incident, which is very important,” Petty said. “We want to give him four or five days without a headache and then we’ll try to invoke a headache. Then we’ll let him go out and drive a lap or two and see how that goes. If that goes well, we’ll probably clear him to race.”
Earnhardt said that he did not seek medical advice about the concussion he suffered at Kansas and that he regretted not doing so.
“I was stubborn and I’d had concussions before and thought I knew what I was dealing with. I felt like I was capable of doing my job and I had called Steve (Letarte, crew chief) and we talked about how I was feeling, but I really wouldn’t know if I would be able to compete until I got in the car.
“When you have a concussion the symptoms can be really mild and then they’ll typically go away after a couple of days and you feel perfectly normal. But when you get in a car and go around a track at a high rate of speed, you start to understand that some things aren’t quite where they need to be; some reactions just aren’t as sharp.”
He was hesitant to get checked out with his team being in championship contention.
“If I was to volunteer myself to medical attention and be removed from the car, I didn’t know how difficult it’d be to get back in.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick praised Earnhardt for taking action.
“One thing everyone admires about Dale is how honest and up-front he is,” Hendrick said. “When he knew there was something not right, he went to see Dr. Petty. We were so happy yesterday that the MRI was completely normal—that no damage had been done.
“He has a lot of years left to race. And I applaud Dale for getting checked out.”
In 2002, Earnhardt admitted that he had raced for months with a concussion suffered at Auto Club Speedway earlier in the season. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Operations, addressed the subject of drivers not revealing injury, saying, “You saw a driver (Earnhardt) who is racing for a championship, who is our most popular driver, get up here and ask to go see a doctor and get out of a car. That takes a lot of guts. I think it also shows where our sport has come, and they know that safety is first and foremost.”
He also outlined NASCAR’s procedure in evaluating injuries—specifically concussions:
“First and foremost, a driver is evaluated in the (track’s) infield care center where we've got board certified emergency technicians or doctors. If the driver complains of any symptoms or if the emergency room physician believes there may be symptoms, we refer them to a neurologist—in most cases, it is Dr. Petty.
“At that point he's required to go through the tests, then it's up to our neurologists to make the call on whether or not that driver's going to be back. We (NASCAR) take ourselves out of that, and rely on our doctors to make the call on whether or not the driver could be back.”
In missing the upcoming events, Earnhardt will not only be eliminated from title contention—although his chances were slim as it was—but he will break a streak of 461 consecutive Cup Series starts. The streak was the fifth longest among active drivers.
“I'm really going to feel pretty odd not being in the car,” Earnhardt said. “I'm real anxious just to get back into the car and get back. I think you learn not to take things for granted, and I just hate that this has caused such a fuss.”
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and Clint Bowyer (15). (ASP, Inc.)
The race shop was once a movie theatre. The team’s finances proved as stable as a house of cards. No surprise that one of NASCAR’s biggest dreamers was the owner.
Five years later, Michael Waltrip’s team is in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time. Michael Waltrip Racing brings an intriguing mix with drivers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., who both have shown the ability to string several strong races together this season.
Neither likely will be among the Chase favorites, though, because most people will be smitten with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin or Dale Earnhardt Jr. All are worthy picks and make it easy to overlook Waltrip’s group.
While much will be made of Hendrick Motorsports putting all four cars in the Chase after Jeff Gordon’s determined drive at Richmond to secure the final wild card spot, just think what could have been for Waltrip’s team. Had Mark Martin run the entire schedule instead of a majority of races, he could have been in position to make the Chase and put all three MWR cars in it. Still, Waltrip’s team has more cars in the Chase than traditional powerhouses Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and defending champions Stewart-Haas Racing.
That’s a credit to what Waltrip has built along with co-owner Rob Kauffman, who joined the organization in Oct. 2007 and saved it with his infusion of cash.
“They hired the right people,” Denny Hamlin says. “They hired the right drivers. That's how you become successful.
“(MWR) is going to be around for a long time. You look at the progression of the race team, they’re legit now. I mean, they are guys you're going to have to beat week in, week out.”
Bowyer, who joined the team this season, enters the Chase with two wins after his victory last weekend at Richmond. He’s finished in the top 10 in five of the last six races.
“With everything new, never would (I) have dreamed in a million years all this would have happened this quickly,” Bowyer said after his win last weekend.
Asked about the possibility of winning the title, Bowyer said: “Jimmie (Johnson) seems like he has a blast doing it. I promise you I could throw a better party than him. Might not survive it, but we would have a lot of fun.”
As for Truex, he seeks his first win since 2007, but has shown signs of contending for victories, especially during a stretch in the spring where he finished fifth at Martinsville, sixth at Texas and second at Kansas — all Chase tracks. He had finished no worse than 11th in seven races until placing 21st at Richmond. Still, he’s lead in four consecutive races entering the Chase, his longest streak of the season.
"I'm going to be honest with you, the way our cars are running and as fast as we've been the last six or seven weeks we're dangerous,” Truex says. “I know we're kind of an underdog and not a lot of people expect us to do much. It's a good position to be in. We just need to be smart, make good decisions and our Toyotas are strong enough to do this thing. (I’m) looking forward to going out and having some fun and hopefully we'll put together 10 good races and be in the hunt.
Regan Smith (ASP, Inc.)
GETTING BETTER It’s easy to miss because Regan Smith has not been in contention for a Chase spot, but a team that showed promise last year, winning the Southern 500, is displaying signs of improvement after struggling much of this season.
Since Todd Berrier was hired as crew chief before Indianapolis, Smith has had an average finish of 17.0. Not spectacular by any means, but in the seven races before the crew chief change was made, Smith’s average finish was 28.0.
“We weren’t happy with what was going on at the beginning part of the year,” Smith says. “Certainly none of us were happy with how we were running, myself included. This is a race team that up until the start of the season, and maybe the last five races of last year, was on the uphill swing.
“We seemed to get better each week and seemed to learn new stuff each week and we went through a period there of probably 15 races or so until we made some changes a (few) weeks ago. We were having the same problems week-in and week-out and weren’t learning and weren’t fixing and didn’t understand them. Todd Barrier came in and he’s done a great job.”
NUMBER CRUNCHING Tony Stewart has the best average finish of any driver at Chicagoland Speedway, which hosts the opening Chase race Sunday. Stewart’s average finish there is 8.7 with three wins and nine top-10 finishes in 11 starts. ... Of the 10 Chase tracks, the series has raced at eight of them this season. Greg Biffle has the best average finish among this year’s title contenders at those tracks at 6.4. ... Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to have made the Chase all nine years.
PIT STOPS Matt Kenseth will debut a new chassis this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. ... The chassis Kevin Harvick will use was first raced by Austin Dillon (24th at Michigan) and then run by Harvick at Pocono (14th). ... The chassis Dale Earnhardt Jr. will drive was run at both Pocono races this season where his best finish with it was eighth in June. ... Kasey Kahne’s chassis will be one he’s raced three times this season, including at Charlotte when he won the Coca-Cola 600. ... Greg Biffle will use the same chassis this weekend that he won with at Michigan last month.