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.
Every year the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits a stretch of the season in which it is premature to judge the championship hunt, but cogent enough to pinpoint problems with underperforming drivers and teams. It’s an odd stretch, for sure. Through eight races we have seen some unexpected strong performances from non-household names, while also getting much of the same from the usual title-contending suspects, some of which you will read about below. It’s been a crazy, competitive year that has provided plenty of statistical fodder.
As usual, that’s why I’m here. Use this knowledge to increase your understanding of the sport, to strengthen your fantasy roster or to look the like the smartest NASCAR fan at any race-watching party you attend. I prefer the third option, but warning: you’ll be perceived as annoying after a while. Resort to chips and dip if that happens.
4.5 Busch’s 4.5-place average finish in the last six Richmond races is the best in the series by three whole positions.
He also has three victories and five finishes of sixth or better in those six starts. He has twice led over 50 percent of the race (spring 2010 and spring 2011) and his lone win in a lean 2012 season for the No. 18 team came on the .75-mile track. With hometown favorite Denny Hamlin potentially still sidelined due to injury, Busch is Richmond’s heavy-footed favorite.
15.7 Kyle Busch’s No. 18 team holds the most inconsistent finish deviation (15.7) in the Cup Series.
In a season thus far bookended by finishes of 34th at Daytona and 38th last weekend in Kansas, Busch has scored five top-5 finishes which include two victories. The winning is good; never knowing when the fickle No. 18 will flip from Jekyll to Hyde isn’t. After five consecutive top-5 runs, two crashes prompted by an ill-handling car highlighted his afternoon at Kansas. It’s a good thing Richmond is next on the schedule, considering Busch ranks as the track’s most productive driver, with a 6.250 PEER there in the last 12 races.
A trip to RIR should warm Dale Earnhardt Jr. up. (ASP, Inc.)
+19.5% Despite Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s three-race skid, the No. 88 team is still picking up positions late in races, as seen in its plus-19.5 percent position retainment difference.
Earnhardt and team actually moved up two positions in the final 27 laps last weekend in Kansas, though it only bumped them up to a 16th-place finish. For a team that is focused on getting back to the Chase after Earnhardt’s injury derailed any chances of a championship in last year’s final 10 races, doing what they do best — protecting and gaining positions late in races — amid a slump (Earnhardt has averaged a 23rd-place finish in the last three races) is a positive sign. Another positive sign? Richmond. Earnhardt won at RIR in the pre-CoT era, but struggled when driving the Gen-6’s predecessor (he amassed a 0.875 PEER and just two top-5 finishes in the last 12 races there). With the Gen-6, though, it’s a new day and Earnhardt has taken to the non-skewed machine like a duck to water.
27.69% Paul Menard and the No. 27 team, following a 10th-place finish at Kansas, hold a 27.69 percent probability of making the Chase.
That percentage is the 16th highest of 33 driver-team combinations and has catapulted since Daytona thanks to four top-10 finishes in the first eight races. The 2011 Brickyard 400 winner is a long shot, of course, to make NASCAR’s playoffs, but his continued growth as a driver in the last three seasons — he earned a serviceable PEER (1.375) for the first time in six Cup Series seasons in 2012 — is a promising sign. He has developed into a driver that seldom makes race-killing mistakes and it shows in his results. His 10th-place spot in the point standings is aided by the fact that he has finished in the top half of the field (21st or better) in each race this season.
12.8 Ryan Newman has a 12.8-place average finish … in races that he finishes.
Another fringe Chase contender with a 36.78 percent probability (ranks 13th), Newman doesn’t have the mistake-free reputation like the one Menard is currently building. He is best in class at Stewart-Haas Racing despite finishes of 40th at Phoenix, 38th at Las Vegas and 31st at Martinsville. High point-paying finishes at Richmond and Talladega can enhance those odds in a season when his crew appears to be scratching their heads on all things Gen-6.
24.07% J.J. Yeley’s abysmal 24.07 percent pass efficiency Sunday at Kansas is the worst single-race mark in the series this season.
Yeley got chewed up and spit out by competitors, passed 41 times compared to the 13 times when he acted as the passer. The poor showing led to a 35th-place finish. He also had a similar performance earlier this season at Phoenix when he notched a comical 31.43 percent passing mark.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Martinsville Speedway
Jeff Gordon (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
1. Back to the scene of the (original) crime
With the he-said, he-said war of words and fenders that Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin have participated in during the last three weeks, it's been easy to forget that the final laps of Martinsville's spring race one year ago was the ultimate catalyst for last season's most-talked about rivalry.
After Jeff Gordon (329 laps) and Jimmie Johnson (111) combined to lead well over four-fifths of last year's event, the inevitable happened when a caution flag waved with just two laps remaining. The race now headed for a green-white-checkered overtime finish, Johnson and Gordon both hoped to scoot away on the restart and battle for the win amongst themselves.
They didn't even make it through Turn 1.
Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman charged low on the restart with Bowyer trying to block Newman. The move shot Bowyer over the Turn 1 curbing and directly in the side of Gordon. The contact forced Gordon into Johnson, sending both spinning into a mess of wrecked race cars piling in from behind.
Newman eventually found his way to improbable victory while Gordon, especially, steamed at Bowyer's late race antics. Those emotions, of course, boiled over in Phoenix many months later when Gordon took exception to another round of contact from Bowyer and intentionally wrecked the No. 15 to instigate a garage-area fracas. Logano was also collected.
Martinsville could serve as the next best place for Bowyer to return Gordon's favor — if he's still thinking retribution — or a great place for Logano to ruffle even more feathers with a payback to the No. 24. Whatever happens, perennial Martinsville favorite Johnson is concerned that the rough 'em up style Martinsville is known for could cause more problems than normal.
"With the new race cars, I think contact is going to be a question mark for me," Johnson says. "We have fiberglass panels and stuff, now, where it used to all be steel. I’ve seen some crash damage after just a small impact where they had to cut the nose completely off the car. So that could be the issue come race time there. Some minor contact could cause major cosmetic damage."
We'll have to wait to see if his concerns ring true.
Defending race winner Ryan Newman. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
2. Short tracks? Sounds good for Ryan Newman
Would you believe that last year's surprise win for Newman at Martinsville was just his third in the Sprint Cup Series since he won the 2008 Daytona 500? Or, if you include Daytona, just Newman's fourth win since the fall of 2005?
Admittedly, those numbers are a bit shocking when considering that Newman scored 11 wins during his first three seasons in the sport. The decrease in total winning has also produced another interesting nugget on where Newman has found his best results: short tracks.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has 11 career wins on tracks 1-2 miles in length, but since 2008 he's scored top-10s on short tracks at a 58 percent clip. On all other tracks? Newman's top-10 finish rate is just 34 percent.
"I like the short tracks. I like having the character added to the program of modulating the brake," Newman says. "In my opinion, the driver has a little more of an impact on the end result at short tracks than some of the bigger racetracks, and I like that.
The more the drivers are involved, the more I think you get to race and, from that standpoint, I think it’s more fun.”
Fun or not, also note that his two wins since the Daytona 500 triumph outside of last year's Martinsville win came at Phoenix International Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway — both tracks requiring braking and finesse instead of raw speed and aerodynamic handling.
3. Rick Hendrick could become winningest Martinsville owner
With Johnson and Gordon spinning out of the lead on that late restart a year ago, Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick also watched his organization lose out on tying Petty Enterprises as the winningest Sprint Cup Series organization ever at the small Virginia track.
Of course, Johnson took care of that in the fall with his win that tied the organizations at 19 each. HMS will offer more shots at breaking the long-standing record Sunday.
Petty Enterprises, which folded into Richard Petty Motorsprots in 2009, actually scored its 19 wins at Martinsville in fewer starts (158) than Hendrick (182) but took considerably longer. Lee Petty first won at Martinsville in 1954 and John Andretti scored No. 19 for Petty in the spring of 1999 — a span of 45 years.
Hendrick's Martinsville dominance has been much faster after Geoff Bodine scored the organization's first ever win there in 1984. Johnson or Jeff Gordon have won 11 of the last 20 races at Martinsville alone.
Few would bet against Johnson again Sunday. A big reason is that Johnson just seems to have a knack for NASCAR's oldest venue.
“Martinsville is just a quirky track. Once I figured out how to drive it – and, frankly, once Tony Stewart lapped me there in my sophomore year – it just made sense how to drive the track and I’ve had it ever since," Johnson says.
4. Please welcome back the long last NASCAR Truck Series
Remember way back when, at Daytona, before Jimmie Johnson sprayed champagne and before Kyle Larson's wicked crash left us gasping? Do you remember there was a race just before that, a Friday night affair? Do names like Paludo, Sauter or Hornaday ring a bell?
If any of that brings back memories, what you remember is the last time the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series was on track. Yes, as a matter of fact, NASCAR's third-tier national series has started its 2013 campaign. I certainly can't blame you if you forgot, though.
When the CWTS takes the green Saturday as the lone support race for Sunday's Sprint Cup festivities, it will have been 43 days since the last time those drivers and that series competed in anger. For perspective, back at Daytona North Korea wasn't blatantly threatening us, baseball's spring training was just days old and Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin were on slightly more amicable terms.
Johnny Sauter won February's CWTS race and will likely face the stiffest test to continue his winning ways from Kevin Harvick. One of three three-time winners at Martinsville in CWTS, Harvick could be trouble if he finds the lead. In his three wins (2009, 2010 and 2012) there have been a total of 11 lead changes.
5. Kurt Busch aims to match quirky stat from 2005
Speaking of threes, Kurt Busch and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team will look to do something the 2004 Sprint Cup champion hasn't done since 2005.
Busch, now with his third team since departing Roush Fenway Racing after the 2006 season, hasn't pulled together three consecutive top-5 finishes since the second-place, third-place and third-place finishes he reeled off to begin the 2005 season. Of course, Busch hasn't been bad since then — he's scored 54 more top 5s since that streak along with 13 victories — but that he has a chance to match that streak in his first full season at FRR is a testament to the stable success he's seems to locating at the Colorado-based team.
Busch picked up a fourth-place finish at Bristol two races ago and a fifth-place run in the most recent outing at Auto Club Speedway.
“We’re not concerned about statistics,” says Busch. “We just want to continue our momentum and keep plugging forward.
Busch, who has led just one lap this season, won at Martinsville in 2002 after leading 111 of 500 laps. With FRR to close out 2012, Busch scored a 15th-place finish at the short track.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Auto Club Speedway
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Strong start, but when does Dale Earnhardt Jr. win?
Depending on how you judge these things, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the most impressive start to a NASCAR Sprint Cup season in his career. The claim comes with Earnhardt, now second in the point standings, putting together his best average finish (5.0) after four races since he started full-time in 2000.
Or, you could say that it's just been a really consistent start for NASCAR's top-billed man that rivals the start he worked in 2004. That season, he won the Daytona 500 and the season's fourth race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a start only derailed by a miserable day at Las Vegas in the season's third race.
Each, of course, has their merits. But only one — the incredibly consistent current campaign — matters now. It also begs the question we've asked of Earnhardt plenty in the last half decade: when he is going to win?
A trip to Auto Club Speedway for Earnhardt may provide that answer. It's a track that he both welcomes as a driver's venue and one where he's shown moderate past success. It doesn't hurt that four of the last nine races have been won by Hendrick Motorsports.
"You can run the bottom; you can run on the apron; you can run on the top. It’s a very fun racetrack to drive," Earnhardt said. "And so I’ve got a good attitude about it. I think Steve (Letarte, crew chief) is going to give me a good car. We ran good last year because Steve gave me a good car.”
Earnhardt was scored third last year when rain ended the race on lap 129, good for his fourth top 5 at ACS in 20 career starts.
"There are opportunities to pass when you run a guy down, you can change the line you’re running and get some clean air on your car," Earnhardt said. "You feel confident that if you do the right thing and drive the car well, that you can make a pass. I love that about that racetrack."
2. Toyota still waiting on the checkers to blow their way.
Another Sprint Cup entity hoping to break in to the win column Sunday is a bit larger than even Earnhardt. Toyota, winners of the last nine Nationwide Series races contested at ACS, has yet to find Victory Lane in a Sprint Cup car at the southern California speedway that stands closest to the Torrence, Calif.-based Toyota Racing Development facility where all TRD engines and other parts are manufactured for Toyota teams.
To do so Sunday, they'll have to break a five-race streak of wins held by the Chevrolet camp in NASCAR's top division. Helping the cause will be the addition of Matt Kenseth to the Toyota fold. The former Roush Fenway Racing Ford driver has three wins in Fontana. Kenseth, already a winner at Las Vegas two weeks ago, appeared on pace to grab another before Jeff Gordon's flat tire forced his exit at Bristol last week.
Kenseth will be pushed by his teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin was running second last year until an ill-advised pit stop as rain closed in on the track dropped him back in the pack to finish 11th. Kyle Busch was also plenty strong a year ago at ACS, leading 80 of 129 completed laps before taking second to Tony Stewart.
“We’ve had really fast race cars everywhere we’ve gone so far. Fontana is another place where I’ve always fared well over the years, and I’m hoping we can finally get that victory we’ve been looking for this weekend," Busch said.
Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Stewart-Haas Racing ready for turnaround?
More than just a win, the drivers representing Stewart-Haas Racing are looking merely for a few doses of good fortune. Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart are packed neatly together in the point standings at 23rd and 24th, respectively, and just ahead of rookie teammate Danica Patrick in 28th.
Already in 2013, Stewart has wrecked twice (a victim of a pack crash at Daytona and a flat tire at Bristol) while Newman has crashed due to a flat tire at Phoenix and a blown engine at Las Vegas. Stewart, at least, isn't worried. He thinks the finishes will come thanks in part to how well the Stewart-Haas organization has taken on the third full-time car with Patrick behind the wheel. He says the team has avoided alienating the new rookie driver in Patrick like he's seen others do in the past — to the extent that Newman and Patrick are akin to brother and sister.
They're also feeling some of the added home-track pressure usually reserved for racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Haas Automation, the company of team co-owner Gene Haas, is also located in southern California.
"(Newman and Patrick) get into conversation that I actually get uncomfortable with and I’m like, ‘Alright, you guys go ahead and talk about this, I’m leaving,'" Stewart said. "That’s hard to do with me, so she fits in really well with us as a group.'"
"I guess I give ourselves a better grade than where we were this time last year because everyone is working together a lot better and they’re a lot more comfortable with each other.”
4. Going’ back to Cali? Just fine for Jimmie.
The state of California, according a simple Wikipedia search, has been the subject of more than 390 songs recorded by a group of artists eclectic and diverse as the nation's third-largest state. A native son of The Golden State, Jimmie Johnson probably doesn't need even one of those for motivation to deliver results at Auto Club Speedway.
No, Johnson doesn't need any of The Beach Boys, Katy Perry or Notorious B.I.G. Even the Eagles can stay on pause. Especially the Eagles.
That's because the two-mile Southern California speedway could easily be argued as the very best track for Johnson and his No. 48 team. Johnson scored his very first Sprint Cup win in Fontana in 2002 (the first of now 61) and his since taken the checkered flag at ACS four more times. He has more wins at three other tracks, but Johnson's average finish at ACS is the best of any track outside of the two races he's participated in at Kentucky Speedway.
Johnson, 10th last year, hasn't finished outside the top-10 at ACS since 2006.
5. Championship race already taking shape?
Four races is entirely too small of a sample size to accurately pick title contenders when 22 races remain before the start this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. But in a year with a new car style, it's not outlandish to think the likelihood that those teams who are strongest to start the season will keep that pace through the end of it.
To that end, six of the top seven drivers in the current Sprint Cup point standings are the same ones who comprised the top six spots in the final rundown of last year's title fight. The seventh of that group — Dale Earnhardt Jr., now second in points — missed two races in the 2012 Chase thanks to concussion symptoms.
Certainly, nothing is a lock between Sunday's 400-miler and September's race in Richmond. But it's got to be ominous for the competitors of Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin to see how strong they've been to start this year. Of those six, only Biffle (down four spots in the standings year-to-year) and Hamlin (one spot back from post-Bristol 2012) have regressed from this time a year ago. Meanwhile, Keselowski is up 12 spots in the point standings from a year ago, Johnson is up 14 spots and Kasey Kahne is up an astounding 25 spots over last year.
Drivers who represented the back half of last year's final standings, though, are leaving their spots completely up for grabs as of now. Jeff Gordon, now 24th in the standings, is 17 spots lower than his finish a year ago. Tony Stewart is 15 spots down.
Sure, there's a ton of racing left. And sure, anything can and will happen. But when guys like Keselowski, Johnson and Bowyer are hot already, you have to wonder what everyone else is going to do to catch up.
The California Etc.
Five drivers have completed all 1,283 laps competed in the Sprint Cup Series so far in 2013, including Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. … Just as it did at Las Vegas and Bristol, Goodyear is bringing the same tire compound from 2012 to Auto Club Speedway. There was no test in the new Gen-6 car at the track … Sunday marks the 24th Sprint Cup Series race in Fontana, and three drivers (Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte) have started every race … Jimmie Johnson is the only current driver to finish on the lead lap in every start at Auto Club.
NASCAR: Five Things to Watch at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Denny Hamlin is not as happy now. (ASP, Inc.)
Five storylines for the Kobalt Tools 500 in Las Vegas
1. Hamlin draws NASCAR’s (thin-skinned) ire
NASCAR suddenly, quickly and, well, mistakenly landed a $25,000 shot to Denny Hamlin's wallet on Thursday as Sprint Cup teams set up shop in Las Vegas. And no: this wasn't a case of Brian France cleaning Hamlin's clock at a swanky blackjack table.
Hamlin is expected to pay up for doing, allegedly, at least $25,000 in damage to NASCAR's apparently fragile image for answering a completely legitimate question at Phoenix International Raceway about NASCAR's new race car. Hamlin's most grievous offense can be found in the following span of sentences:
“I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning.”
Athlon Sports regrets posting such serious and offensive comments.
That was exactly Hamlin’s reaction Thursday during a break from testing and later in the night when he released a statement on Twitter. NASCAR never contacted Hamlin before the fine was issued, even though it came later than usual. Hamlin has vowed to appeal the fine and voiced even greater concern for the message it sends.
“I feel as if today NASCAR lost one of its biggest supporters vocally of where our sport is headed,” Hamlin wrote in a tweet, conscious of his 2010 “secret” fine for saying things that also crossed NASCAR. “So in the end there are no winners.”
Hamlin said the statement was “taken out of context” and that the fine isn't about money. Instead it’s about his ability to give an honest and fair assessment to reasonable questions.
“Since being fined in 2010 I have been a lot more careful about what I say to media and I felt this past weekend felt completely in my rights to give an assessment of the question asked,” Hamlin wrote.
2. Testing, testing, 1… 2… 3…
Beyond the Hamlin episode, teams got down to work earlier than usual on Thursday, as NASCAR opened the track in Las Vegas to a full day of testing.
It wasn't the first time NASCAR's new Gen-6 car has been on a 1.5-mile intermediate track, but Thursday was the first day Sprint Cup drivers got to toss the new car design around Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR opened the track a day early for two sessions of car fitness tests that, unlike a typical race weekend practice session, allowed the use of data and telemetry recording devices.
Greg Biffle's lap of 189.427 mph late in the second of two sessions put his No. 16 Ford atop the speed charts — a familiar place for Roush Fenway Racing at LVMS. Kasey Kahne set the track record a season ago in Sin City at 190.456 mph.
“It doesn’t matter how long you have practice or how much testing you have, there will be cars on the track until NASCAR throws the red and black flag,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “And even after all of that, we will always think, ‘Darn, if we only had two or three more laps.’ We are always striving for perfection so there is never enough time in my opinion to get ready for Sunday’s race.”
Indeed, many teams placed focus on race setups to start the second weekend of the early-season West Coast swing for NASCAR. Nine of the top-10 drivers in the second session’s speed charts posted their fastest lap in either the second-to-last or last run of the day, likely with qualifying setups installed.
The last major test on 1.5-mile tracks for most teams came at Charlotte Motor Speedway in January. Snow postponed part of that test conducted in extremely cold conditions — a stark contrast from Thursday’s sunny and mild weather in Las Vegas.
Aric Almirola: A Vegas sleeper? (ASP, Inc.)
3. Trump cards could quietly be in The King's court
The temperature at that Charlotte test before the start of the 2013 campaign wasn't a factor for the Florida-born Aric Almirola. His No. 43 Ford turned the quickest lap during that test that proved to be a culmination of a lot of right steps that both he and his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose have taken on NASCAR's intermediate tracks of late.
Expect both to be under-the-radar contenders when Sunday’s 400-mile race gets underway.
“Toward the end of last season, we were really good at the mile-and-a-half tracks, and doing well at the test gives us some momentum going into this weekend,” Almirola said.
Almirola picked up a pair of top-15 finishes in last season’s final two intermediate track races at Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Tire troubles and a crash ruined an even stronger day just weeks before at Kansas Speedway — another 1.5-miler — after Almirola led 69 laps.
Ambrose, the road course ace, has shown flashes of strength on the same types of tracks. To start this season, he has a pair of 18th-place finishes in Daytona and Phoenix.
“We haven't had a great finish yet, but we haven't had a terrible one either. We just need to get a little better,” Ambrose said.
Las Vegas, where Ambrose has a best finish of fourth in 2011, could be just the place.
4. Edwards thought Las Vegas, not Phoenix, was his ace in the hole
The backflip Carl Edwards executed after track position and a good handling car sent him to victory last weekend at Phoenix looked pretty good for a guy who had waited 70 Cup races since his last one. It also looked good for a guy who felt his gymnastic move wouldn't be needed for at least another week.
Edwards admitted this week he didn't expect to snap his win drought at Phoenix.
“I know this is probably wrong to admit, but I didn’t really have Phoenix marked on the calendar as the one that we were going to go win the first race,” Edwards said. “I was looking at Vegas as the race that would be the really good one, so I’m really excited about Vegas.”
Edwards can probably point to the success of his still fledgling relationship with tough-nosed crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Their relationship — a meeting of alpha personalities — has been one to keep track of early in 2013. Fennig has changed a lot Edwards’ routine and at-track preparation.
“(Fennig) wants me to make sure that I understand the changes they have planned for practice, that I make sure to be there and be available to the engineers after practice, and that I’m actually sitting there engaged with them so we don’t miss something,” Edwards said. “I thought that was pretty cool for him to just lay it out there. He didn’t say, ‘How did you do it last year?’ He said, ‘This is exactly what I want. This is how I’m going to do it.’
“I think that leadership and knowing what he wants is something that’s going to pay off a lot.”
Edwards, already the owner of two career Sprint Cup wins at Las Vegas (both after the 2006 reconfiguration), is a decent pick to hit it big Sunday.
5. The tricky nature (or lack thereof) of Las Vegas’ Turn 1
The 2006 reconfiguration of LVMS created a remarkably different track than drivers had been used to since the first Sprint Cup event at the track in 1998. The track added banking — it was the first purpose-built progressive banking track in NASCAR — and watched the average pole speed jump more than 12 miles per hour.
Just as any track, LVMS has aged under the extreme heat that Nevada desert summers bring. That process allows the track and its foundation to move and settle. Such character, drivers say, can now be found in Turn 1 at LVMS where a set of bumps have created uncertainty from lap to lap in the driving line.
“You’ve got to tune your car around (the bumps),” David Gilliland said. “It puts more in the hands of the individual teams and drivers to make it work.”
The bumps haven’t proved a notorious causal factor for crashes in that end of the speedway. The numbers, though, are slightly raised. Since reconfiguration six races ago, there have been 19 cautions for incidents in Turns 1 and 2 and 15 for crashes in Turns 3 and 4.
“It has a rougher surface in that there are more bumps. The track has some character to it,” Ryan Newman said. “Over the past couple of years, the bumps in the track have typically been pretty tricky, but that’s something I like.”
The bumps seem to be more noticeable to some drivers than others. Even teammates.
“The track is really smooth and that lets you work on the attitude of your car, and I think that’s a luxury that we have there that we don’t necessarily always get everywhere else because every track has its unique set of bumps,” said Tony Stewart. “Vegas has bumps too, but for the most part, it’s so smooth that you can really fine-tune the attitude of the car.”
For now, we'll listen to Stewart. A win at Las Vegas in 2012 and a second-place finish in 2011 give him a bit of credibility.
The Las Vegas et cetera
Mark Martin, now the second-oldest pole winner in NASCAR history after last week's top qualifying effort at Phoenix, now takes aim at being the oldest Sprint Cup winner. Martin, 54, would top Harry Gant who was 52 when he won in 1992 … Martin also won the inaugural race at Las Vegas in 1998 … Las Vegas is the first of 16 Sprint Cup races at intermediate tracks this season … Most teams had extra transporters meet them in Phoenix after last Sunday's race to swap cars and parts, as making a trek from Phoenix to Charlotte and back to Las Vegas in time is nearly impossible … Just one of 15 Sprint Cup races have gone past the scheduled distance at LVMS.
It's unlike any other race. As is its qualifying procedure.
Setting the starting lineup for the Daytona 500 can be a trial of confusion for those that choose not to read the syllabus. And let’s be honest, that’s why you’re reading this, right? You want the CliffsNotes.
Fair enough. So allow me to explain this as painlessly as possible.
Daytona. For the casual fan, it’s the one time a year in which tuning in is a must, not an option. For the hardcore fans and industry veterans, it’s a spiritual revival. It suffices as the start of a new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season when teams have spotless records and sky-high optimism.
For some drivers, there’s red still left over from the previous season’s ledger that they’re eager to erase. For a few, there are trends they’d like to keep on keepin’ on. This week’s batch of numbers shows those trends. Some of the metrics used are from my home site, MotorsportsAnalytics.com, but you’re encouraged to read a quick glossary of the terms.
3 and 2.3 Matt Kenseth has scored three victories and earned a 2.3 average finish across his last six restrictor plate races.
Kenseth, long lauded as an intuitive racer, has transformed himself into something of a restrictor plate racing stalwart. The 2.3-place average finish in that timeframe — and that includes a fifth-place run in last Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, his first outing for Joe Gibbs Racing — is easily the best among drivers in the Cup Series and his minuscule 1.6-position deviation for those six finishes indicates incredible consistency for races often dubbed “crapshoots.” His 7.853 PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating) on plate tracks is not only the highest among 50 drivers from the 2012 season, but also pure statistical absurdity. Kenseth is ridiculously good at this style of racing.
-1.050 Danica Patrick’s replacement-level PEER ranked last in the Cup Series in 2012. PEER measures the on-track production of a race car driver in an “all equipment even” scenario. For perspective, Ken Schrader, in a 13-race S&P effort, registered at 49th, with a -.250 PEER. That’s a large gap.
Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a pole in the history of the Cup Series last weekend and the fourth rookie to win the pole for the Daytona 500 (following Loy Allen, Mike Skinner and Jimmie Johnson). Cue pandemonium.
But let’s be real for a sec; we’re discussing a rookie driver who amassed a negative replacement-level PEER across 10 races last season (translation: beyond bad). At Daytona specifically, she competed in two races — her qualifying Duel race and the 500 — and crashed out of both. If you’re a Danica fan, enjoy the moment. Eat, drink and be merry, but also, be realistic. It’s feasible she’ll lead laps on Sunday, but pump the brakes on the delusion of Chase-making grandeur.
3 Jimmie Johnson has crashed out in each of the last three races at Daytona; last year’s Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 and this year’s Sprint Unlimited.
Johnson Tweeted about his frustration following Saturday night’s race. Come on, Five-Time. Every chance you’ve had to get some drafting practice in (i.e. January testing, practice last Friday), you didn’t even attempt to take advantage. You need it; that 47th-best -0.167 plate track PEER you earned last year won’t get better without putting in the work.
Newman has a fast car ... that can pass. (ASP, Inc.)
3 of 5 Stewart-Haas Racing was the first organization to crack the code of Gen-6 restrictor plate speed after timing in first, fourth and fifth in Daytona 500 qualifying, or three cars in the top 5.
Danica Patrick is on the pole, but Ryan Newman (fourth) and Tony Stewart (fifth) have some fast Chevrolet’s underneath them as well. Take note of whatever Stewart is able to do in his Thursday qualifying race because he was a sight to behold in last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited, winning the first segment and bouncing around the field in search of Gen-6 draft intel, you know, because he could.
-229 Ryan Newman’s abysmal pass differential from 2012 has to be corrected. What this stat tells us is that Newman — despite the “Rocketman” nickname, was passed 229 more times than he made a pass.
It’s something to monitor, considering Newman is on a one-year contract with Stewart-Haas Racing and Kevin Harvick has, reportedly, signed with the organization already in advance of 2014. Is Harvick heading to an additional car or is he Newman’s replacement? If Newman struggles navigating through traffic for a second full season in a row, he could make the decision really easy for Stewart and team vice president Brett Frood.
0.00 Greg Biffle’s Terminal Crash Frequency for 2012 was spotless. Simply put: Biffle was not involved in a single accident last season that ended his day. Pretty impressive, huh?
He was, however, involved in a total of five accidents last year (a Crash Frequency of 0.14), but his series-best DNF avoidance rate none of those incidents were terminal — helped turn his No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing team into one of the year’s most consistent forces and the top points earner after the 26-race regular season. His last DNF for any reason was in the 2011 season finale when his engine expired after 190 laps. His last DNF due to an accident came 71 races ago, in the 2011 Daytona 500.
3.333 That PEER mark is the ninth-best rating for Cup Series drivers on plate tracks and it belongs to … Travis Kvapil. Seriously.
Is Kvapil a race-win candidate for the Daytona 500? Probably not. He did yeoman’s work, though, in his three plate starts of 2012, finishing 12th, 12th and eighth (good for a 10.6-place average finish) while playing out a conservative game of runs in his BK Racing ride. He’ll likely pedal patiently again on Sunday in an attempt to wait out the inevitable high attrition until check-cashing time.
Daytona Beach, Fla., is steeped in motorsports history. Known as “the birthplace of speed,” land speed records have been set on its white sand beaches. Drivers from a variety of disciplines have visited its victory lanes. One of the world’s great monuments to auto racing, the Daytona International Speedway, sits nestled within the city limits.
Gordon/Bowyer melee mars AdvoCar500; Keselowski turns tables on Johnson in points battle
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Once the smoke cleared, the cars (or what was left of them) were loaded and the Sunday sun set over Phoenix International Raceway, a new championship landscape had emerged in NASCAR. But tempers as hot and raw as the surrounding Sonora Desert shifted the focus of the Sprint Cup Series’ AdvoCare 500 from said title battle—and the race’s previously-MIA winner—to wrecked racecars, fist fights and talk of on-track payback.
Kevin Harvick, last seen in Victory Lane following a Cup Series event in Sept. 2011, led the final 15 laps to notch his third career Cup win in Avondale, Ariz.
However, a shakeup atop the Chase standings took center stage when Jimmie Johnson—the points leader entering the race—spent over 20 laps behind the wall after his right front tire’s bead melted, resulting in a hard hit to his No. 48 Chevy. That opened the door for Brad Keselowski to execute a 27-point swing by finishing sixth in the event while Johnson limped to a 32nd-place showing, and regain the points lead by a daunting 20 markers with one race remaining in the 2012 campaign.
But a dose of on-track retribution and off-track fisticuffs trumped even the championship fight, as Jeff Gordon wrecked Clint Bowyer with just over one lap remaining in the scheduled 312-lap event. Gordon, upset with Bowyer for contact that wounded his No. 24 moments earlier and for incidents that he deemed had “escalated over the year,” waited on the latter and hooked him into the Turn 4 wall. The crash also swept up Aric Almirola and Joey Logano and nearly involved Keselowski, who was able to scoot low to avoid the mess of tangled cars.
As Gordon exited his demolished car in the garage, Bowyer’s team rushed to the scene and engaged the No. 24 team in what resembled a Wild West bar room brawl in Tombstone.
Gordon was ushered into his hauler without contact while Bowyer emerged from his injured vehicle on pit road and sprinted into the garage where he attempted to confront Gordon but was unsuccessful.
“Clint has run into me numerous times, wrecked me,” a curt Gordon said as he exited the track. “He got into me on the back straightaway and pretty much ruined our day. I had it. That was it, and I got him back.”
Said Bowyer: “I barely touched him and then I feel him get into Turn 3 and try to turn me and he missed and then next thing I know Brett’s (Griffin, spotter) telling me on the radio that he’s waiting on me. It’s pretty embarrassing for a four-time champion and what I consider one of the best this sport’s ever seen. To act like that is just completely ridiculous.”
Photo by ASP, Inc.
The incident also ended any title aspirations Bowyer may have had, however slim.
“That was my opportunity to try to get myself back in the championship hunt,” Bowyer said. “When you’re disrupting a championship run like that, it’s too bad. They ask us not to do that in the drivers’ meeting and there’s usually a lot of respect there.”
The drama was far from over, though, as the field went back to racing in a green-white-checker restart. With Harvick holding off Kyle Busch—who led a race-high 237 laps—Danica Patrick was spun in Turn 3 but no caution was displayed. As she slowly rolled her car away, an oil slick was visible in Turns 3 and 4 and down the frontstretch.
As the pack raced at speed through the oil, cars began bouncing off one another with the checkered flag in the air, triggering an accident that collected a half dozen cars. Even Keselowski got a piece of the action, but managed to bull through to finish sixth.
Denny Hamlin, Busch, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.
The post-race fallout, however, centered around the Gordon/Bowyer skirmish.
“The sport was made on fights. We should have more fights,” a victorious Harvick deadpanned. “I like fights. They’re not always fun to be in—sometimes you’re on the wrong end—but fights are what made NASCAR what it is.”
His simplistic, if not tongue-in-cheek, opinions were not reflected by the new points leader.
“It just drives me absolutely crazy that I get lambasted for racing somebody hard (the previous week in Texas) without there even being a wreck and then you see stuff like this, and that’s OK from the same people that criticized me,” Keselowski said. “It’s OK to just take somebody out, but you race somebody hard, put a fender on somebody and try to go for the win, and you’re an absolute villain. That’s ridiculous.
“But then we can just go out and retaliate against each other and come back in and smile about it, and it’s fine? That’s not what this sport needs. It needs hard racing, it needs people that go for broke, try to win races and put it all out there on the line, not a bunch of people that have anger issues. That’s not good for anybody, and it really hurt my feelings to be a part of a Chase race for the championship and have that jeopardized from people that can’t keep control of their emotions.”
Keselowki goes to the season finale having only to finish 15th in Sunday’s Ford 400—and that’s if Johnson leads the most laps and wins the race.
“Unfortunately, we lost a lot of control, or all control, in the championship,” Johnson said. “We can go down there and win the race and do everything on our behalf and it still won’t net us a championship. So, we’ll go down and do our part and just see how things unfold. Today was proof that anything can happen in this sport and we’ll see how things shake out in Miami.”
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro