Denny Hamlin in Victory Lane at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
Few topics in NASCAR have been as polarizing as track owner Bruton Smith’s decision to “narrow up” the historic half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway.
Once the scene of some of NASCAR’s most memorable on- and off-track antics, the rough ’n’ tumble short track in East Tennessee recently played nicer, thanks to progressive banking that allowed drivers to safely run two- and three-wide into Bristol’s massive turns. Smith’s call to shave off a groove’s worth of concrete near the wall was intended to force drivers low and into a more aggressive mode.
Turns out, Smith got it wrong. But in being wrong, he got it right.
Drivers were initially forced to the low and middle grooves, but as the night progressed, the ground-down high groove took on rubber — so much rubber, in fact, that the high groove was the only place to run with meaningful speed.
A rotating door of drivers spent time leading the field (22 lead changes among 13 drivers) thanks to varying pit strategies. But in the end, the proverbial cream rose to the top. Denny Hamlin, in the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, muscled his way past Carl Edwards with 39 laps remaining and pulled away, winning his third race of the season and first career Cup event at Bristol.
“Honestly, it’s just a different kind of racing,” Hamlin said of the track that favored one-lane, upper-groove racing. “There’s nothing (Smith is) going to do that’s going to make us run the bottom — that’s not the fastest way around the track. But it was the same thing; we were all running in the line, and just waiting on the next guy to screw up to get around.
“So that’s what you’ve got to do at the old Bristol and that’s exactly what we had to race today. The slide job was an option to pass, which, you know, that won us the race.
“I don’t think that we saw as much side-by-side racing but you didn’t see side-by-side racing with the old Bristol. You saw a bunch of cars waiting in line to get knocked out of the way or mess up, and that’s the same thing we had today.”
Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top 5.
Whether the grounding process was the main reason for a more intense race, the fact was the drivers were feeling friskier than normal.
Thirteen cautions punctuated the event (11 for wrecks), the most witnessed at the track since March 2007. Two incidents, in particular, brought back memories of Bristols-past.
The first involved Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart — a pair with a history — who took one another out on the frontstretch while racing for the lead on lap 334. After climbing out of his wrecked car, Stewart waited for Kenseth to exit pit road, where he fired his helmet at the No. 17 Ford in disgust, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Stewart’s unofficial teammate, Danica Patrick, had a surprisingly solid run going in her first Cup start in the bullring. While running 19th and on the lead lap, Patrick was turned into the backstretch fence by Regan Smith with just 64 laps remaining. In turn, she waited for Smith to pass under caution, waiving a disapproving finger in his direction.
Even the soundbites were classic Bristol, with Stewart vowing to “run over (Kenseth) every chance I get for the rest of the year,” and Patrick’s crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, threatening to strangle Smith.
In the end, fans seemed pleased with the mayhem, while drivers were split.
Five-time Bristol winner Kyle Busch had the most critical comments, deadpanning that the track was “terrible.” While another five-time winner, Jeff Gordon, sang its praises:
“I say grind the whole place. That was awesome. That reminded me of old-school Bristol. It was pretty exciting.”
So while tempers and soundbites were the order of the night, the true measuring stick of whether Smith’s plan was a success will be seen at the turnstiles next season.
Until then, Bristol will remain as polarizing as ever.
Ambrose's Chase chances, Stewart's grueling schedule and Edwards' winning ways in Michigan
Marcos Ambrose in Victory Lane at Watkins Glen. (ASP, Inc.)
Buoyed by his victory at Watkins Glen on Sunday, Marcos Ambrose said the goal is quite simple for the next four races as he and his team vie for a wild card spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.
“Our focus has to be being aggressive on our strategy, being aggressive with the car and me on the race track being aggressive to try to get that next win because without that we’re going to be racing for 15th or 16th in the championship and that’s not what we’re after,” Ambrose said in a teleconference with reporters Tuesday.
Ambrose ranks fifth in the wild card standings with only the top two getting into the Chase. Kasey Kahne currently holds one wild card spot with two wins while Ryan Newman holds the other spot by a slim margin. Newman has one win and leads Kyle Busch, who also has a single victory, by six points. Jeff Gordon, who has one win, is 10 points behind Newman. Ambrose is 44 points behind Newman, thus Ambrose needs a second victory to have a shot at a wild card berth.
“There’s no easier formula than if you’re not first, you’re last,” Ambrose said. “That’s the way we’re approaching this weekend and the next three. We have to go out there on full attack mode.”
The one benefit for Ambrose is that the series is heading to Michigan this weekend where he won the pole in June and finished ninth, so he has shown an ability to run well there but will have to be markedly better to score his first career oval win in the Cup series.
NEARING 100 Although the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has only 38 races (36 points races and two exhibition races), Tony Stewart will run in nearly 100 races this year. He’s boosting that total with a number of sprint car races at dirt tracks — where he spent much of his early days in racing.
“I feel like the more time I spend in a race car the better it’s making me as a driver,” says Stewart, who has won a pair of World of Outlaw sprint car races this year. “Everybody kind of has that feeling that you’ve got to get away from it at some point and recharge your batteries, but that does recharge my batteries.
“If we don’t get rained out here these next couple of weeks we are going to be right around 95 races at the end of the year that I’m going to run. It’s going to be a full schedule for sure but it’s a lot of fun. It’s one of the most fun years I’ve ever had in a race car.”
Stewart was the first driver in USAC history to sweep its top three series in the same year, winning titles in the midget, sprint car and Silver Crown divisions in 1995. He admits going back and forth between sprint cars and his Cup car is not much of an adjustment for him with his schedule.
“I’ve run I think 40 races already this year with it so it’s a lot easier for me to adapt because I’m doing it so much,’’ he explains. “It is hard. That is probably the hardest two cars to try to go back and forth between because their handling characteristics and the physics of them. It doesn’t take Kasey (Kahne) as long as he likes to explain to you. He goes out and kicks butt with it too. It would take guys awhile to go from that type of car to here, just like it would take time for anybody that runs a Cup car to go over there and run those cars.”
LOOKING AHEAD After this weekend’s race at Michigan, the Cup Series heads to Bristol where the top lane has been altered to narrow the racing grooves and get cars closer together on the track.
So, what it will be like? It’s something Martin Truex Jr. admits he’s been thinking about.
“I'm interested to see what it's like,” Truex says. “The last few races there, I've ran second and third — pretty much ran the extreme high side, which has been ground away. I'm not really looking forward to finding out if it's going to be that much worse. Guys seem to run the middle of the race track and we were able to run the middle.
“I think it's going to be different because that extreme high side is not going to have the speed it's had in the past few years. I think we'll have to adjust our setup a little bit and work on some things.”
Tony Stewart talks with teammate Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
RIGHT PLACE RIGHT TIME? Carl Edwards, in need of a victory to have a chance at a wild card spot for the Chase, has an average finish of 8.3 at Michigan — best among active drivers. Edwards has two wins, nine top-five finishes and 12 top-10 results in 16 starts at the track. Yet, he has finished outside the top 10 in each of his last two races there. He was 36th in the race last year and placed 11th in June.
NUMBER CRUNCHING Tony Stewart has five consecutive top-10 finishes at Michigan. ... Greg Biffle has run all but two of the 5,836 laps run this season, best in the Cup Series. ... Brad Keselowski has scored a series-high six top-10 finishes entering this weekend’s race at Michigan. ... Regan Smith has finished ninth each of the last two races.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Darlington
Brad Keselowski ... lookin' up. (ASP, Inc.)
In honor of Mother’s Day, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the “Lady In Black” for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. On the schedule for 62 years, Darlington is steeped in NASCAR history and is one of the toughest tracks on the circuit.
One crew chief called Darlington “the most unique track” the series runs at throughout the year. The egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval has one of the most unique grooves in the sport, and with nearly every driver earning the well-known “Darlington Stripe” the crews will have the bondo and hammers on hand.
More than any track in the sport, drivers will truly have to race the track and not the competition to be successful Saturday night under the lights. The pit crews will have to get the job done on pit road as well, especially leading into next week’s Sprint Pit Crew Challenge.
Be sure to keep an eye on the best 10-lap average stat after both Friday practice sessions before setting your lineup. That stat didn’t matter too much last weekend at Talladega, where Brad Keselowski pulled away on the final lap to score his second win of the season. Leading on the final lap with Kyle Busch tucked behind in tandem, it appeared Keselowski was a sitting duck to Busch. However, Keselowski was able to disconnect from Busch’s car and had the race in hand off Turn 4.
Making his 100th career Sprint Cup Series start, Keselowski heads to the Track Too Tough To Tame as this week’s NASCAR fantasy favorite.
With two wins in the first 10 races of the season, the Penske Racing driver is confident he will be in the Chase as a championship contender and feels “the shackles are off” in the remaining races before the final regular season race at Richmond. In layman’s terms, he’s focused on adding more trophies to his collection as opposed to “point racing.”
Keselowski also considers Darlington one of his favorite tracks. He currently holds the second-best average finish (7.3) behind Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin (6.5), but is without a win at the legendary facility.
Series points leader Greg Biffle certainly knows the joys of winning at Darlington, with back-to-back Southern 500 wins in 2005 and ’06. The Roush Fenway Racing driver comes off a fifth-place finish at Talladega, his sixth top 5 and seventh top 10 of the season.
Despite his two wins, Biffle has only two top 10 finishes in the five Darlington races since his victoreis. However, he has momentum on his side heading to this weekend’s race, making him another fantasy favorite.
Another driver entering this weekend’s race with “the shackles off,” as Keselowski put it, also happens to have the best average finish among active drivers at Darlington. Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb have been solid together throughout the first 10 races, and Hamlin has one win at Darlington, so expect the No. 11 team to be a strong contender Saturday night.
Five Favorites: Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch
Regan Smith enters this weekend’s race as the defending winner, earning his first official NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory last May on older tires over Carl Edwards. That win was one of only two top-10 finishes up to that point in 2011. This season, Smith heads to Darlington with zero top 10 finishes, suffering through a disappointing stretch of races.
An engine failure last week dropped the Furniture Row Racing’s driver to 27th in the standings. Looking to break his slump and kick-start his season before the All-Star break, Smith is a solid pick for this weekend’s race. Despite his poor start to 2012, Smith and his team will walk through the garage the defending champions for the weekend. That confidence boost could go a long way for a team that is looking to turn things around.
While Smith is the defending winner, Edwards goes into Darlington with three top-5 finishes in his last five starts — two of those being second-place showings. Searching for that first victory at Darlington — as well as his first of 2012 — look for Edwards to be among the front-runners on Saturday.
If there is one group of drivers that the Lady In Black favors, it is the veterans. Therefore, consider Jeff Burton,Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon as well. They have a combined 11 Darlington wins.
Five Undervalued Picks: Regan Smith, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon
Martin Truex Jr. ... lookin' cool. (ASP, Inc.)
Michael Waltrip Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. is coming off the two worst finishes of his season, but registers as our darkhorse pick for Saturday night’s Southern 500. The New Jersey-native considers the egg-shaped demon among his best on the circuit. While he only has two top-10 finishes in six Darlington starts, his worst finish is 19th (2010). Looking to rebound from a pair of disappointing outings, expect Truex to put up solid fantasy numbers.
Typically known for their road course skills, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya both enter this weekend’s race as darkhorse fantasy picks.
In each of his three starts, Ambrose has had a solid qualifying effort (three top-10 starts), but has struggled to produce the results. His best finish was 13th last May. This season has not been the best for Ambrose and the Richard Petty Motorsports team. It seems each week they bounce between top-15 and sub-25th-place runs. Coming off a 14th-place finish in Talladega, Ambrose may be on course for another lackluster finish, so pay attention to Friday’s practice session.
Montoya has an average finish of 18.8 in five Darlington starts, with his best finish (fifth) coming in 2010. This season has also been an up-and-down ride for Montoya, but prior to his 32nd-place finish at Talladega, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver had one top 10 and six top 20s. Montoya will not score you the big points this weekend, but he may give you that solid 12th- to 20th-place finished needed to push you past your opponents.
In case you haven’t heard, some driver named Danica Patrick will be making her first career start at the famed Darlington Raceway. It is uncertain how the stock-car convert will handle the Lady in Black on her maiden voyage. If you’re feeling adventurous, put her in the lineup. But know the consequences.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Ragan, Danica Patrick
Best Average Finish at Darlington Raceway (wins):
1. Denny Hamlin — 6.5 (1)
2. Brad Keselowski — 7.3 (0)
3. Jimmie Johnson — 9.8 (2)
4. Jeff Gordon — 11.1 (7)
5. Ryan Newman — 11.6 (0)
6. Jeff Burton — 12.1 (2)
7. Mark Martin — 12.2 (2)
8. Tony Stewart — 12.3 (0)
9. Martin Truex Jr. — 12.3 (0)
10. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (0)
For whatever reason, Daytona International Speedway enjoys playing with some of NASCAR’s most successful drivers, making them endure years of anguish before winning the 500. Darrell Waltrip waited 17 years, Dale Earnhardt 20. Tony Stewart is at 13 and counting.
Waltrip and Earnhardt showed how much their Daytona victories meant when they finally achieved them. Waltrip danced. Earnhardt exclaimed. “Yes!’’ Earnhardt said as he climbed from the roof of his car after winning the 500.
“The Daytona 500 is ours,’’ Earnhardt said in Victory Lane that day in 1998. “We’ve won it. We’ve won it. We’ve won it.’’
Those are experiences Stewart can’t share. Maybe some day. Maybe even Sunday.
Stewart again will be a favorite to win the 500 after another sterling Speedweeks where he finished second in the Bud Shootout before winning his qualifying race Thursday.
Of course, Stewart’s success during Speedweeks is not new. It’s the 500 that he has problems with. Just like Kyle Busch finds ways to falter in the Chase, Stewart has misfortune in the 500.
He is the only driver in NASCAR history with three or more championships who does not have a Daytona 500 victory.
Consider that he was winless in five attempts at the Indianapolis 500, and, for as talented as he is, Stewart is without a victory in the crown jewels of two racing series that he has won championships.
Stewart likely will never get another chance to win the Indy 500 but for how long will the Daytona 500 frustrate him?
Recently asked where winning the Daytona 500 ranked among his personal bucket list, Stewart said: “Very high on it.’’
Stewart can win any other race at Daytona — his 17 overall victories put him second on the all-time wins list there behind Earnhardt’s 34.
While not as dramatic as some of Earnhardt’s Daytona defeats, Stewart’s disappointments have been nearly as great.
Last year, he was beside Trevor Bayne on the final restart but got detached from Mark Martin, who was pushing him, and fell back in the field.
In 2007, Stewart won the Shootout and his qualifying race only to finish last in the 500 after he was wrecked by Kurt Busch. In 2008, Stewart’s worst finish in all of Speedweeks was a third-place showing — in the 500.
In 2005, Stewart led a race-high 107 laps, falling out of the lead in the final laps and engaging in a spirited duel with Jimmie Johnson that continued after the race and sent both to the NASCAR hauler to meet with series officials.
In ‘04, he led a race-high 97 laps only to watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. take the lead with 20 laps to go and beat him by a few yards. In ‘02, Stewart won the Shootout, placed second in his qualifying race and then finished last when his engine blew on the third lap.
It is this past that keeps Stewart from boasting even after the week he’s had.
“Even though we had success today, it’s no guarantee that can happen Sunday,’’ Stewart said of the 500, moments after his Duel win. “I think we showed the rest of the field that we have a car that has good speed. That’s a really strong point, just like Trevor Bayne showed last year he had a strong car, so people wanted to go with him. Hopefully, that will work for us on Sunday, too.’’
Maybe this will be Stewart’s year. Then again ...
Photo by ASP, Inc.
ROUSH RESURGENCE Even after watching Matt Kenseth win the second qualifying race on Thursday, car owner Jack Roush admitted to being embarrassed by it.
It was the first time in 25 years a Roush car had won a qualifying race at Daytona.
Kenseth’s victory means that three of the top four starting spots in Sunday’s race will be Roush Fenway Racing entries. Carl Edwards won the pole with teammate Greg Biffle second. Kenseth will start fourth.
The resurgence goes back to last season. Hendrick Motorsports swept the pole for all four restrictor-plate races but the Wood Brothers, who are aligned with Roush, had success. Eventually that information transferred to the Roush cars and they began to qualify better at those races as the year progressed. That trend has continued.
The key now is to continue Ford’s success at Daytona. Ford won both Cup races there last year with Bayne winning the 500 and Roush’s David Ragan winning the July race.
PIT STOPS A number of drivers complained about overheating issues in the Gatorade Duel. With temperatures expected to be much cooler for Sunday’s race, it might not be as big a problem in the 500. ... Danica Patrick on her impact at the end of the first qualifying race: “You just have to brace yourself,’’ she said. “I just have to be glad that I’m a small driver and that I’ve got room.” ... Regan Smith finished second to Matt Kenseth in the second qualifying race. It marked the second year in a row Smith finished second in a Daytona qualifying race. ... Jimmie Johnson wasn’t thrilled with some cars not on the lead lap racing with the leaders on the last lap: “It was unfortunate there at the end that there were some lapped cars that were kind of mixed in with the leaders. It would have been nice if they would have let us race there; at least from the white flag on. I understand trying to get a lap back, but when the white (flag) came out I wish they would have gotten out of there and I would have had a shot at winning that thing.”
Get Dustin's thoughts weekly throughout the 2012 NASCAR season at AthlonSports.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter: @DustinLong
As is usually the case, there was one wild and crazy Gatorade Duel race at Daytona International Speedway, and one much more staid. Such was the case on Thursday, when the field was set for the 54th annual Daytona 500.
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.”