I hope you all enjoyed restrictor plate action (or in this year’s case, inaction), short track madness and whatever it is we’re calling Fontana now, because all of that is in the rearview mirror. The intermediate tracks, referred to by some fans as “cookie cutters,” provide a semblance of statistical normalcy. Speed and strategy reins on these 1.5- and 2-milers, and while last year’s fall race at Texas Motor Speedway — this weekend’s destination — was an action-packed affair, the top finishers at these tracks are anything but random. We know who the key players will be, thanks to their statistical history on the tracks that comprise the bulk of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.
69.2% Jimmie Johnson led a whopping 346 laps (69.2 percent of the race) last Sunday at Martinsville, en route to this eighth win at the facility.
We are used to Johnson’s sheer dominance on the half-mile paperclip-shaped track, but in seven previous wins he never threw down a performance like the one witnessed last weekend. It was a showing of team strength and driving expertise. As he did last fall, Johnson departs Martinsville’s Victory Lane for Texas, where he won following an exciting late-race battle with Brad Keselowski.
64.56% Danica Patrick recorded her best single-race passing efficiency, winning 64.56 percent of her pass encounters in her debut race at Martinsville.
The 12th-place finish was aided by her plus-passing — her pass differential for the day was plus-23 — after starting from the rear of the field due to an engine change. On a track that isn’t often kind to first-time racers (ask Ricky Stenhouse), Patrick had, arguably, her best Cup Series performance to date.
5.700 In the 10 CoT races that took place at Texas Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth amassed a series-high 5.700 Production in Equal Equipment Rating.
A beacon of consistency in the Lone Star State, Kenseth has finished ninth or better in nine of the last 10 races for an incredible 6.2-place average finish (backed by an amazingly consistent 5.5 finish deviation). Strangely, his average green-flag speed and his finishes at TMS don’t often coalesce; the one time he had the fastest car at Texas, he won (April 2011), but it is more typical that he radically out-performs his equipment, like his fourth-place finish last fall while averaging the 10th-best green-flag speed, or under-performs, like his ninth-place score while averaging the fourth-fastest speed in the spring of 2008.
Greg Biffle: Texas Stud. (ASP, Inc.)
452 Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle, the reigning winner of this weekend’s event, has led a series-best 452 laps in the last 10 races at Texas.
As a team, Roush Fenway won four of the 10 CoT events held at Texas. Its cars are often speedy, but it helps when the drivers are also adept. Of the current roster, Biffle is the standout on this particular quad-oval track, holding onto a 5.200 Texas-specific PEER (ranked second to Kenseth) to go along with the most laps led across the last five years. Carl Edwards ranks fourth with a 3.850 PEER thanks to a sweep of 2008’s races.
4.8 Keeping with Roush Fenway’s Texas success, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. averaged a 4.8-place finish in the last four NASCAR Nationwide Series races there, including a victory in last year’s spring race.
Does past lower division performance indicate future success? Not necessarily. Stenhouse, a Cup Series rookie, won’t be anyone’s pick to claim the victory Saturday night at Texas (especially with a re-tooled No. 17 team with rookie crew chief Scott Graves still building his personal notebook), but he could be destined for a good finish, something that could help raise the 17.8-place average finish he has through six Cup races this season.
0.583 Brad Keselowski ranks 23rd in Texas PEER with a 0.583 rating.
Historically, Texas has not been the best track for the 2012 series champion, but considering his gritty second-place run last year, history might not matter. True, his best finish prior to last fall’s race was 14th and his average finish in nine starts is 22.7, but if we have learned anything about the driver that currently sits second in the point standings it’s that he shouldn’t be counted out solely based on past performance. His runner-up finish last year was legitimized by his third-place average running position and 75 laps (22.4 percent of the race) led.
23.1 Brian Vickers, the driver subbing for the injured Denny Hamlin this weekend, averaged a 23.1-place finish at Texas in his last seven starts.
Hamlin was a two-time winner at Texas in the CoT era, so Vickers represents a significant drop-off. Vickers ranks 43rd out of 47 drivers in Texas-specific PEER with a -0.536 rating and his best finish is 16th, twice, in 2008 and 2009. A fast car can hide a lot of blemishes, though, so fans of the consistently speedy No. 11 still might have something for which to root.
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.
New storylines will emerge at Speedweeks in Daytona
It’s been a unique start to Speedweeks in Daytona for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Though technically, I guess most starts are unique. This one, however, has taken a new (if not predictable) turn since Danica Patrick went public concerning her relationship with fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to re-hash, quote-for-quote, the events of the week.
Peppered with questions on Media Day — coincidentally held on Valentine’s Day this year — the couple, as well as most all other drivers, answered a bevy of most un-race-oriented queries largely in stride. The mere existence of questions, of course, drew the ire of many fans and media members alike, though in defense of those interested there hasn’t been much else to talk about.
After all, a similar “Media Tour” was held just three weeks ago in Charlotte with the sport’s principles. Then, drivers, crew chiefs and owners dutifully answered competition-related questions. On their teams’ 2013 outlook, drivers were “excited;” on the new cars, crew chiefs toed the NASCAR line, praising the new body lines, noses and whatever else makes this new “Gen-6” car unique (there’s that word again) from homogenized models used since 2007. Owners smiled, talked of optimism in filling out sponsorship livery, practically giddy in how new personnel were coming together to make this season what’s sure to be their best yet.
Patrick waited until after the Media Tour to admit to the Associated Press that the long-circulated rumor of a budding romance with Stenhouse was, in fact … uh, fact. And with only closed team tests in the two weeks that followed, there honestly hasn’t been much from a competition perspective to reveal, aside from prognostication and conjecture.
So here we are, three weeks later and facing a similar volley of questions about the season and the new car that have already been answered. The only new development? Yep, you guessed it.
But take note, because this is the reality of the situation (good, bad or indifferent): Media outlets, circa 2013, are in a race of their own. It’s a race to coax page views and hits in a new and up-to-the-minute informational landscape. There are ad dollars at stake for sites that have found monetizing the internet a challenge, and without those precious funds, less money to send journalists to cover the real meat ‘n’ potatoes of the sport. The truth is that Patrick attracts said hits even when there’s nothing new to cover. But when there’s a love angle? It’s a viral feeding frenzy. And in all fairness — and despite what some may opine — “The Danica Thing” (I refuse to go “TomKat” or “Bennifer” with this) is news for no other reason than a couple in a relationship will compete against one another at the highest level of their chosen sport. (Save the Patty Moise/Elton Sawyer comparison — this isn’t 1990, Moise was not “a brand” and neither were running on the Cup circuit for Rookie of the Year.)
So look on the bright side, race fans: Cars are now, finally, on the track. Practice sessions are underway, an exhibition race is in the offing and a week of drama awaits in preparation for the sport’s most prestigious event, the Daytona 500.
I promise you, the storylines of Speedweeks 2013 will evolve. Drivers will win races, cars will crash, rules will be tweaked and trophies will be hoisted. “The Danica Thing” will live on, likely to find a tertiary spot in the season’s ongoing storylines, and the focus will shift to what drew fans to the sport in the first place: competition.
Just be patient. And remember that each season begins with its own unique set of circumstances.
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.
The first time Brad Keselowski asked Paul Wolfe to be his crew chief, Wolfe didn’t flinch.
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘No, I don’t want to do it,’” Keselowski said. “I think he was kind of mad at me because I had wrecked (his car).”
It was Aug. 2009 when Keselowski posed the question to Wolfe, a former driver turned crew chief working for CJM Racing.
A few months later, as Keselowski and Penske Racing officials made plans for the following season, they told Keselowski they were considering Wolfe as his crew chief.
“I kind of laughed and said, ‘good luck,’” Keselowski said. “They said, ‘We’ve been talking to him the last two weeks and he wants to do it.’”
So, what changed? What led to the pairing of a driver and crew chief on the cusp of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship this weekend at Homestead?
Simple, the funding for Wolfe’s team wasn’t there. He had said no to Keselowski because of his loyalty to CJM Racing but with the lack of funding a question, Wolfe considered other options, including Penske.
“As I sat down and looked at them, I had raced with Brad and seen what he was able to do,” Wolfe said. “I felt like together, him and I, could hopefully win races and contend for championships. The opportunity was here at Penske to do that.”
Keselowski says he first approached Wolfe to be his crew chief because he saw something most outside the sport couldn’t see in what Wolfe was doing.
“He was a guy who outperformed his resources,” Keselowski said. “In this sport excellence is defined by the media and the fans as those who win. Those inside the sport, those who actually compete, define excellence as those who outperform their resources. So if you’re running 20th in 30th-place equipment, that’s how we would define excellence as a driver or as a crew chief you’re putting together race-winning cars with a team that has C- or D-level budget. That’s how you define excellence. That’s what I saw in Paul. That’s what he saw in me.”
Now, they are on the verge of winning the Cup title two years after they combined to win the Nationwide championship.
TITLE RACES Here’s a look at the clinch scenarios for each of NASCAR’s three national series this weekend in Homestead.
Sprint Cup: Brad Keselelowski has a 20-point lead on Jimmie Johnson. Keselowski wins the title, regardless of what Johnson does, by finishing at least 15th. Keselowski also can clinch the title by finishing 16th and collecting a bonus point for leading a lap or by finishing 17th and adding the bonus point for leading the most laps.
Nationwide: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has a 20-point lead on Elliott Sadler. Stenhouse wins the title, regardless of what Sadler does, by finishing 16th or better. Stenhouse also can clinch the title by earning the bonus point for leading a lap and finishing 17th or by adding the bonus point for leading the most laps and finishing 18th.
Camping World Trucks: James Buescher has an 11-point lead on Timothy Peters. Buescher clinches the title, no matter what Peters does, by finishing seventh or better. Peters also can clinch by securing the bonus point for leading a lap and finishing eighth or adding the bonus point for most laps led and finishing ninth.
NATIONWIDE SCHEDULE RELEASED Mid-Ohio will replace the Montreal road race on the 2013 Nationwide schedule, series officials announced Tuesday.
The Mid-Ohio race will be Aug. 17. It marks the first time the series has run on the 2.4-mile, 15-turn course. Mid-Ohio will be one of three road courses on the schedule, joining Road America (June 22) and Watkins Glen (Aug. 10).
Mid-Ohio was added after the Montreal race promoter decided not to renew its contract with NASCAR since it could not get a Sprint Cup race. The Mid-Ohio course is located about an hour drive from Columbus, Ohio, which is home of series sponsor Nationwide Insurance.
The 33-race Nationwide schedule for next season features six standalone races — Iowa (June 8 and Aug. 3), Chicagoland Speedway (July 21), Kentucky Speedway (Sept. 21), Mid-Ohio and Road America. The remaining 27 races will be run on the same weekend with the Cup Series.
The Nationwide season will open Feb. 23 at Daytona and end Nov. 16 at Homestead.
STREAKING As NASCAR’s top three series head into the final weekend of the season, a few drivers are trying to keep streaks alive. Among them:
Ryan Newman is seeking to win a Cup pole for a 12th consecutive season. Only Jeff Gordon (20 consecutive years) has a longer streak among active drivers.
Kurt Busch is looking to win a Cup race for the 11th consecutive season. Only Tony Stewart (14 years in a row) and Jimmie Johnson (11) have longer streaks among current drivers.
In the Nationwide Series, Kyle Busch seeks a win to extend his streak of consecutive seasons with at least a victory to nine.
In the Camping World Truck Series, both Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday need a win to extend their streak of consecutive seasons with at least a victory to eight. Hornaday’s streak of seven consecutive seasons with at least a pole will end if he doesn’t win the pole this weekend.
PIT STOPS Tony Stewart will make his 500th career Cup start Sunday at Homestead. He’s scored 47 wins, 174 top-5 and 282 top-10 finishes in his first 499 career Cup starts. ... Homestead will mark Jeff Gordon’s 689th consecutive start, third on the all-time list. Ricky Rudd holds the record with 788 consecutive starts and Rusty Wallace is next at 697. With the current schedule at 36 races, Gordon could pass Rudd late in the 2015 season.
by Dustin Long Follow Dustin Long on Twitter:@DustinLong
The 2013 Sprint Cup, Brad Keselowski's spike in popularity and Kyle Busch's hot streak
Chevrolet's as-yet-unveiled 2013 Cup car. (ASP, Inc.)
A Goodyear tire test Tuesday and Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway could provide a clue as to how racy NASCAR’s 2013 Sprint Cup car can be.
While the focus will be on tires at the test, NASCAR also will experiment with the car in hopes of making it easier for drivers to run closer together. One of the reasons mentioned this year for the relative lack of cautions was that it was so hard to race close together for a stretch, although Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski showed it can be done late in last weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, said Monday that “there are some things that we are working on that show promise” and could create tighter racing when the cars debut next season.
He noted that officials are experimenting with the car’s underbody, along with the front of it and the rear spoiler.
Andy Graves, Toyota’s Cup manager, notes that when a car is alone in clean air, it has maximum downforce, thus is compressed and as close to the ground as possible. When two cars are running near each other, the trailing car loses some of that air pressure and the car rises.
“If the car is very pitch-sensitive and very ride-height sensitive, then, unfortunately, you lose more downforce when you’re behind someone,” Graves says.
“We’re trying to develop from the splitter, the spoiler, studying the data, looking at wind tunnel information that is more advanced than it’s ever been; we’re trying to understand and come up with some characteristics that performance stays the same whether you’re all by yourself or in traffic. That is going to help the racing.”
Pemberton said he’s confident that the new car will be better than when the current car debuted as the Car of Tomorrow in 2007.
“It goes back to us spending more time getting the car closer developed when we hand the car off,” he says. “It will be a far, far, better racing car to start off with and then the teams will take it to the next level.”
Brad Keselowski suggests not judging the car’s performance too early next season, though.
“The odds are that this car is not going to come out of the gate perfect,” he says. “It’s going to take time. But much like if you unveiled a new iPhone and rolled it out and said, ‘In a year we’ll have it working right,’ your customers probably aren’t going to be happy about that. I think we all know that and are braced for it, but we know long-term that this car is going to be part of the solution for getting NASCAR as strong as it possibly can be.”
If everything goes as NASCAR hopes, Graves says the cars should be easier to drive than the current cars but says the driver ability will still matter.
“Making cars hard to drive, that’s not what separates talent on the race track,” he says. “It’s all the other intangibles. It’s operating in traffic from setting someone up for the pass, it’s managing your tires, managing the race, understanding fuel mileage. There’s a lot of different aspects, in my opinion, rather than making the cars hard to drive and say the best driver is going to be the guy that best manages that.”
NEW FAVORITE At one point during last weekend’s race at Texas, the crowd roared when Brad Keselowski took the lead. He missed that.
“I would have liked to have heard that,” Keselowski said. “That’s one of my biggest regrets of being a race car driver is missing out on those moments. In other sports, like football or basketball or baseball when they do something and the crowd cheers, you really feel it, (but) racing, you’ve got none of that. It’s really a big bummer because I would have loved to have heard that.”
Keselowski knows that he’s gained fans during this Chase as he battles five-time champion Jimmie Johnson for the championship.
“I think I have a lot of Jimmie-hater fans,” said Keselowski, who trails Johnson by seven points with two races to go.
“I’m not sure how I feel about it. I try really hard to engage a very informed and positive fan base. That might not be necessarily along those lines, but I’ll take every fan I can get.”
Keselowski understands why some fans feel the way they do toward Johnson.
“It’s American culture, build somebody up just so you can tear them down, whether it’s the president or sports star,” he said. “It’s just American culture. Maybe one day I’ll be so fortunate as to be torn down.”
CHARGING Although not a title contender, Kyle Busch has scored 274 points in the Chase, fifth-most among all drivers. Busch is coming off a third-place finish at Texas last weekend, his fifth top-5 finish in the Chase.
“I wish we were in the deal,” Busch said after last weekend’s race at Texas, “but that’s what next year is for.”
TITLE RACES With two races to go, Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse are tied for the points lead in the Nationwide Series. Austin Dillon is third, 21 points behind them.
In the Camping World Truck Series, James Buescher has a 15-point lead on Ty Dillon with Timothy Peters 25 points back and Parker Kligerman 27 points out with two races to go.
PIT STOPS NASCAR announced Tuesday that comedian Howie Mandel will host the Sprint Cup Series Awards program on Nov. 30 in Las Vegas. ... Donny Schatz won the World of Outlaws championship driving for Tony Stewart’s team. ... Kyle Larson, a development driver for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, won the K&N Pro Series East championship last weekend with a sixth-place finish in the season finale at Rockingham Speedway. ... Sunday’s Cup race marks Danica Patrick’s 10th and final one of the season. She is coming off her career-best Cup finish of 24th last weekend at Texas. ... Jimmie Johnson, victorious last weekend at Texas, has won 22 races in the Chase. Next on the list is Tony Stewart with 11 Chase victories.
Kenseth's departure, Roush's title chances and the next driver to score a win
Matt Kenseth in Victory Lane at Daytona. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The announcement that Matt Kenseth will leave Roush Fenway Racing after this season has been the talk of NASCAR. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council didn’t hold back on what they thought about the move on if it was good or bad for Roush and how this might impact Kenseth’s title hopes.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council also weighed in on Sunday’s race at Sonoma, who between 11th and 20th in the points will make the Chase and more. Here’s what they had to say.
KENSETH LEAVING A GOOD OR BAD MOVE FOR ROUSH?
68.3 percent called it a bad move for Roush trading a former champ for a Cup rookie 31.7 percent called it a good move, trading a 40-year-old for a 24-year-old in a nod to future
What Fan Council members said:
• Although I hate to see Matt Kenseth go, there are only so many cars that Jack Roush can put out there and if Ricky did not end up in a Cup car, then he may end up there with another team and that would be a bigger loss.
• Stenhouse will be a star. Cheaper for Roush as well. Kenseth can get on with Gibbs (if the rumors are true). WIN WIN for everyone.
• Ricky will never be as good as Matt. Matt is a great driver, has a wonderful sense of humor and he's humble. Put up against Matt, Ricky will never measure up.
• Bad move for no other reason than a continuation of the Roush mentality of abandoning career drivers for others. Nothing but money. Re: Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch. Jack Roush is a businessman that is dedicated to money, not his employees. His counter ego would appear to be Coach Gibbs.
• For the short run, I'd rather have Kenseth, but in the long run, Stenhouse will be an elite Cup driver.
• JACK HAS LOST HIS MIND. WOW what a mistake — just like some of the others Jack has made.
• As a die-hard Matt fan, I think it's a bad move and I blame it on the RFR sales department. Even in a down economy, it shouldn't be this hard to find sponsors for a championship-caliber driver on the track and a class individual off the track. Considering the same RFR sales department couldn't even sign any sponsors for Trevor Bayne after he won the 500 last year, I guess I shouldn't be surprised at their inability to do so (now).
• I can't believe the coldness with which a champion who is leading the points is dumped for a cheap, child driver. This is the same attitude toward employees that is killing this country. I'm sure Fenway had a big say in this.
• The financial environment is unwittingly making NASCAR more and more like major league sports with free agency. There is no loyalty any more, not that the teams wouldn't like to stay together, but because the finances don't work out. For whatever reason, Roush Fenway doesn't seem to be able to sell sponsorships well or at least at a level that permits them to field teams for their talent. Matt's ride this year was barely filled, and undoubtedly they all knew that sponsor commitments (or lack of) would make it impossible for RFR to pay him what his asking price was for next year.
• Kenseth is in position to win the championship and you're going to do that to him? That is beyond ridiculous. Stenhouse is a good driver with a bright future and there is no reason why they don't just bring back the fourth car since he apparently can get sponsorship and Trevor Bayne can't, which I don't understand, either.
• Stupid, stupid move on Roush's part! Wish Kenserh the best though ... as long as he doesn't go to Toyota!
• Nothing against Ricky, but if they cannot get Matt sponsorship for a full season who do they think will come aboard for a rookie with less talent?
• It's the only move Roush could make. Kenseth is going to command a very large new contract and Roush hasn't had a full slate of sponsors for him for a couple of years now. Kenseth can go to Gibbs and Home Depot and cash in and Roush can start his rebuild with a great young driver. I think Stenhouse is going to be a little like Tony Stewart: better in a more powerful Cup car than the Nationwide car. Those dirt guys love all that extra power. I think Kenseth will be a great asset at Gibbs as a calming influence, plus I think he might just have a title or two left in him. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
HOW WILL THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT KENSETH IS LEAVING AFTER THIS SEASON IMPACT HIS TITLE HOPES? Matt Kenseth noted on Twitter that he doesn't believe that announcing he'll leave the team after this season will hurt his title chances, noting crew chief Darian Gurbb knew he would not return with Tony Stewart last year and they won a title together. Fan Council members were asked what they thought.
51.6 percent said Kenseth’s titles chances will be unaffected 39.1 percent said Kenseth hurt his title chances 9.3 percent said Kenseth helped his title hopes since there will be a greater drive to win the title in the final year with the team
What Fan Council members said:
• I believe as long as his team believes in him and themselves he has just as much chance as anyone else to win the title.
• I think he could still go on to win it. But, just like contract talks, etc., at mid-season even though they "say” it doesn't affect them they always admit when it is over that it did. It has to. A NASCAR driver ain't no fry cook at McDonalds. This is big money and big impact at a high level.
• 1. A crew chief is not as public of a position as a driver. 2. Grubb's move wasn’t made public until AFTER the championship. 3. Grubb and Stewart didn't decide he was leaving until Charlotte IN THE CHASE. You can't tell me Biffle won't get better equipment knowing he'll be there next year. This may help Carl make the Chase now.
• Matt has always said over the years that he doesn't let front office issues (contracts, sponsorships, etc.) affect his racing, so I would like to think that would continue. Being the top-tier driver he is, it's not like he needs to worry about not being able to find a ride next year (even if a JGR agreement isn't already in place).
• Matt has gained the points lead during the most difficult point in his negotiations with Roush and his future team. The announcement has been made and Matt is liberated, free from care and any consternation, free to focus on his goal of winning the Sprint Cup.
• Grubb wasn't announced. It was all internal and there were no "extra" spotlights on Grubb/Stewart. ALL eyes will focus on ANY shift in performance with Kenseth the rest of the year. Stick a fork in his title hopes.
• Can anyone say “Quack, Quack!” This might not affect Matt right now, but once he announces where he is headed and then Roush starts uninviting him to team meetings, that is when you will see the effect.
• Solidarity amongst the entire team is necessary to win a title. What Tony Stewart did last year was super-human. I do not feel Matt Kenseth is of the same caliber of driver as Tony. I feel the driver leaving a team is more troubling than a crew chief.
• I still think the championship is going to come down to Johnson, Stewart and Kenseth this year. It might be tempting for Roush to play favorites and give Biffle some extra attention, but I don't think he will — Matt has been too important to Jack's company for him to do that. I think they will end this relationship in a classy way.
• I think what Matt said is totally right. Grubb knew he was out five races early and still ended up with the title, so it doesn't really matter. It may be a slight issue, especially since Matt's directly involved with where he goes, but not enough to distract him that bad. He is a championship driver still, even as a lame duck.
GRADE SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT SONOMA
47.3 percent called it Good 32.4 percent called it Fair 10.8 percent called it Great 9.5 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• My husband and I went to the race. I felt there was a lot of single-file racing, not a lot of action and got kind of bored during the race. Still liked being there, though.
• Typical road racing, very little passing or real racing. The only saving grace was Kurt Busch's valiant challenge near the end. Otherwise, completely sans drama or excitement.
• I had no problem with the race. Some will say it’s boring, but at least there was driving ability and strategy involved in this win.
• The race itself was good — if you don't count my driver's "genius crew chief" finding another way to lose a race. The TNT coverage, however, was an unmitigated disaster, capped by showing the GWC restart through the BACK of the grandstand. Seriously. They did that. I don't know how ANYONE would have found Sunday's telecast compelling.
• I thought the duel at the end between Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer was awesome. The rest of the race was so-so.
• I graded this race as fair just because for some reason there was no excitement. I'm not one that needs cautions or wrecks to have excitement but this race was just plain boring. But then again they all can’t be awesome all the time.
• I was there, and it was AWESOME!!
• Not crazy about road courses, but TNT's coverage just about ruined it all for me. Not quite sure about all that went on as they really showed none of what was happening. The lack of cautions and the bad luck my driver faced is making me rate this race as only “fair.”
• Had really high hopes for this race, but it turned out to be a real snoozer
• This was by far the WORST telecast of the season. Stuff was happening left and right and TNT completely ignored it or did a poor job presenting it. Even later on they would not go back to (or mention) important race happenings. Shame on you TNT. Thank goodness for Twitter so I actually knew what was going on with my driver and with the race.
Will Jeff Gordon be next? (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
WHO’S NEXT TO WIN? Nine drivers who won a race in 2011 have yet to win this year. Fan Council members were asked who among this group will win a race next?
48.2 percent said Jeff Gordon 29.9 percent said Kevin Harvick 14.0 percent said Carl Edwards 5.6 percent said Kurt Busch 1.7 percent said Marcos Ambrose 0.3 percent said Trevor Bayne 0.3 percent said Paul Menard
What Fan Council members said:
• Wow, I found this question to be very hard. I realize nothing hinges on my answer, but it really made me think about the list of drivers who did win last year and are having problems this year. And wow — what an impressive list. I picked Ku Busch but could have gone with Kevin Harvick. Just feel the luck factor for most of the others is all bad.
• I have to believe that the worst luck he has ever had has to come to an end and I say NOW would be the time. I believe Jeff Gordon — my sentimental favorite — wins next. He truly has had great cars and could have won races already.
• Wow, that's an interesting list. With the way most of these peoples’ seasons are going it's not looking too good. I would have to say Cousin Carl would be next on that list just because the way his teammates are running.
• I believe that Kevin Harvick will probably break into the winners circle next. I think he is going to start being more aggressive to get himself a win or two before the Chase starts.
• This is a tossup between Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. Both are running decent but bad luck seems to strike at the wrong moment. The first one to run a full race without any bad luck will win. Of course, what was Tony Stewart doing at this time last year?
• Jeff Gordon is due and has been running the best of these drivers, just has not had the finishes to show. He is a champ and will find victory lane. Next in line is Kevin Harvick, though that team still has some problems to iron out.
• I'm going with Kurt Busch for whatever tantrums he throws, he has proven he's a great driver and (Sunday) he was so close. Fingers crossed for him.
WHO WILL MAKE THE CHASE? Fan Council members were given a list of the drivers between 11th and 20th in the points and asked which ones would make the Chase.
60.9 percent said Kyle Busch 39.1 percent said Kasey Kahne 38.0 percent said Carl Edwards 29.0 percent said Jeff Gordon 22.2 percent said Ryan Newman 14.8 percent said Joey Logano 3.0 percent said Marcos Ambrose 2.0 percent said Paul Menard 1.7 percent said Jeff Burton 1.0 percent said Jamie McMurray
What Fan Council members said:
• Kyle and Carl are drivers who have been able to step it up in the past, and they don't have as far to go as the others.
• It might be wishful thinking, but I believe Joey Logano will continue to put up top-5 results and inch his way into the Chase. I believe Kasey Kahne will win another race or two and get the wild card spot. Kyle Busch may also make the Chase if JGR can calm the engine issues and allow him to put in some quality performances.
• Carl and Kyle are givens, and Joey will be fighting for his job and will slip right in on wins.
• I see Ryan Newman getting in. I hope Jeff Burton can get in the top 10 as well.
• I'm not sure ANY of them will make it into the top 10; it is going to come down to those wild card wins.
• Truex will fall out and Edwards will get in. Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon get in via the wild card.
• I'll go with Kahne and Newman because they each have a win and one more would essentially lock them in. Edwards is hungover from last year, in my opinion.
• I like Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch to make it. I know Kahne has fallen off a bit since his win in the Coke 600, but he has a lot of good tracks coming up and I see him getting at least one more win before the Chase. As for Kyle Busch, he is the kind of guy who can get it done anywhere. Once they figure out there engine woes, I see Kyle getting to victory lane and possible in 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.
Points leader Matt Kenseth will leave Roush Fenway Racing after this season and be replaced by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the team announced Tuesday.
Reports state that Kenseth is headed to Joe Gibbs Racing although it is unclear if it will be with a fourth team or in place of Joey Logano, who is in the final year of his contract.
Kenseth wrote on Twitter: “I’m very thankful to Jack Roush for the opportunities he’s given me over the past 14 years. Together we have enjoyed a lot of success and as a team we are committed as ever to the remainder of the 2012 season and chasing a 3rd sprint cup title for Jack and RFR.
“Although I have nothing to announce regarding 2013, I feel the timing of this announcement gives RFR ample time to get things lined up. Darian (Grubb) and Tony (Stewart) proved to us last year there is no such thing as a “lame duck” team or season. We will continue to go to work and race hard.”
With the move, Roush loses the defending Daytona 500 winner but also a driver who is 40 years old. Taking over the No. 17 car for Kenseth next year will be 24-year-old Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the defending Nationwide Series champion.
“Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has more than proved his abilities on the race track,” said team co-owner Jack Roush in a statement issued by the team “We feel that he is not only a key piece of our team’s future, but a key piece of the future of the sport. Roush Fenway is an organization with a wonderful past and present, as well as an extremely promising future, and I can’t think of a better candidate than Ricky to usher in the next era of success for the team.
“Of course, I’d like to thank Matt Kenseth for his many years of loyal service. Matt has been an integral part of this organization for well over a decade, and we are extremely appreciative of his accomplishments and contributions to the team, and will always consider him a part of the Roush Fenway family.
“We’re fortunate that we were able to tap into Matt’s potential and bring him on board many years ago, and I’m proud that together we were able to combine the tools and the resources of Roush Fenway with his talent and determination to forge a partnership that yielded a championship at the Cup level and all of his 22 Cup victories, including two Daytona 500 wins. The No. 17 is positioned extremely well this season, and I’m committed to providing the team the best resources to continue their run for the 2012 championship. I have no doubt that Matt will do his part.”
Kenseth has run all but one Cup race in his career for Roush. Kenseth made his debut in 1998, subbing for Bill Elliott at Dover so Elliott could attend his father’s funeral (he finished sixth). Kenseth drove in five Cup races for Roush the following season before running full-time in 2000 when he beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. for rookie of the year honors in the Cup Series.
Stenhouse ranks third in the Nationwide standings this season with three victories. He has five career series wins in 87 starts heading into this weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway.
CHANGING WAYS Progress can’t come fast enough at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. As the NASCAR Sprint Cup season heads toward the midway point, Jamie McMurray is 20th in the points and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya is 22nd.
After an offseason of changes, the EGR teams have struggled to put together strong finishes. McMurray has three top-10 finishes and Montoya has two. At this time a year ago, Montoya was 16th in points with five top-10 finishes, and McMurray was 27th in points with two top-10 finishes.
Montoya says one must look beyond the results to see the change taking place after the it hired Max Jones as team manager in December. It was among a number of changes car owner Chip Ganassi started making last season to revamp his competition department and his teams.
“I think we’ve done a lot of progress,” Montoya said. “If you really go to the team right now and see how different everything is working, it’s pretty amazing. We haven’t had the results we want to have, but there have been a lot of really good changes and we’ve been putting people in the right place.
“Just because you put somebody in the right place doesn’t mean that overnight you are going to run better. You want to run better overnight, but things have got to change. Everybody has to adapt and it’s a process. I really feel we made a lot of gains on the car; we made a lot of gains on how the whole engine department is working. We’re definitely making progress I think.”
McMurray said the way the teams have been re-designed, its created better cohesion between them.
“It’s all for the better and Chip is still out hiring people and looking for more engineers and people to make it better than what it is right now,” McMurray said. “I think for us, my guess is somewhere around the last 10 races you’re going to see a lot of the progress. It takes time. There’s different suspensions, different simulations every week and sometimes they don’t always work. It’s kind of testing and trying to get things better. It’s a big difference than where it was a year ago.
“You don’t go from running 15th to winning just overnight. It takes baby steps. But, I feel like we’re heading in the right direction. I kind of say the last 10 races because I think it’s going to take that long to get to where we need to be.”
Earnhardt Ganssi Racing hopes to be the new version of Michael Waltrip Racing in improving its performance.
Jeff Gordon (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
LEAN ON ME Jeff Gordon’s struggles to make the Chase were typified Sunday at Sonoma when he had a strong car but ran out of fuel during the race and lost track position slowly heading back to pit road. He had been running in the top 5 and fell to 15th afterward. He recovered to finish sixth. While he needs all the points possible, he also needs at least one and likely two victories to make the Chase. Gordon is 18th in the points.
Gordon’s car has been fast all year but something seems to happen to him each week — from being involved in incidents to self-inflicted problems that have denied him the chance to win a few races and put him in the position he is.
Gordon said that this “has really been a test for us,” before last weekend’s race at Sonoma.
“To not have any results to show for it is extremely frustrating and it has really tested us in a big way,” Gordon said of he, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the team. “I just give a lot of credit to Alan. I feel like he and I have really come together through this. We really had great talks over the offseason and I think we just bonded in a way where we have confidence that no matter what happens, we’re not going to let it tear us apart.
“There have been times where he’s really had to step-up and be that glue and then there’s been times where I’ve had to as well, which is not something I’ve really had to do in the past. For me, from a leadership standpoint, it’s really more of just going out and getting the results and I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to go get those results and get the team rallied around that. This year, I’ve had to do it more on a personal level one on one and in the team meetings of really kind of stepping out there and putting some words out there that I feel like could be key to keeping us together and getting us through those tough times.”
NEW STRATEGY Although 10 races remain until the Chase field is set, Kasey Kahne said last week he’s adjusting his strategy.
“I really thought we would be able to race our way into the top 10,’’ he said.
A 29th-place finish at Pocono and a 33rd-place finish at Michigan altered his thinking.
“The way I look at it is we just need to win,’’ Kahne said before last weekend’s race at Sonoma, where he finished 14th and fell to 17th in the points.
“We have to win at least one more race and maybe two to to have real strong shot at making the Chase this year.’’