Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Pennsylvania 400
Fan- and Pennell-favorite (for Pocono), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the Pocono Mountains for the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway. When the series last hit the 2.5-mile oval in June, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Joey Logano that went to Victory Lane, leading 49 of the 160 laps and moving veteran Mark Martin out of the lead in the closing laps.
As the series heads back to Pocono, Logano is back in the rumor mill with his name being mentioned as a potential candidate for the No. 22 Penske Racing ride for 2013. While said rumor mill churns and silly season heats up, it is important to remain focused on the job at hand, and that is winning races — and for you, your weekly fantasy match up.
Last weekend at Indianapolis, it was five-time champion Jimmie Johnson that put on a dominant performance to earn his fourth Brickyard 400 trophy. The No. 48 car was the class of the field all day, with few cars even in the same zip code (to borrow a phrase).
This week, Johnson leads all drivers in average finish (8.8) and has two victories at Pocono. While he failed to lead a lap in June, the five-time series champion finished fourth. With the team looking as if it is rounding into championship form, it will be hard to pick against Johnson.
However, the two-time Pocono winner is not this week's fantasy favorite (although he is among the top five). That honor goes to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After his fourth-place finish last weekend at Indianapolis, Earnhardt took over the points lead from Matt Kenseth. Leading the championship standings for the first time since 2004, Earnhardt is enjoying his best season in years, but is still hungry for wins before the Chase field is reset for the final 10 races of the season.
In June, Earnhardt Jr. led 36 of the 160 laps at Pocono before finishing a disappointing eighth. One of the strongest cars that afternoon, crew chief Steve Letarte called his driver to pit road late in the race, concerned about making it to the end on fuel. When Logano and others on the same strategy stretched it to the end, Earnhardt understood it was too early in the season to start taking gambles and losing a host of points.
With six races left before the Chase field is set, Earnhardt is now in a position to gamble for wins. Hungry for victories and continuing his consistent ways, look for Earnhardt — who has finishes of sixth, ninth and eighth in his last three Pocono starts — to score his second victory of the season.
Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Tony Stewart
Carl Edwards ... still smiling (ASP, Inc.)
To say the 2012 season has been a disappointment for Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards would qualify as the understatement of the year. After losing last year's championship battle to Tony Stewart in a tie-breaker, Edwards and the No. 99 team have been off the mark in 2012, currently enduring a winless streak that dates back to March 2011 (53 races ago).
To make matters worse, Edwards has a new crew chief, Chad Norris, atop the pit box calling the shots while long-time pit boss Bob Osborne handles personal health issues away from the track.
Coming in at one of the most crucial times of the season, Norris now has the task of getting the near-champion into the Chase. Sitting 12th in the championship standings, Edwards is on the outside looking in, as Kyle Busch (1 win) and Kasey Kahne (2) currently hold the two Chase wild card spots.
Following another poor finish in Indy — this time caused by an engine issue — Edwards proclaimed they are done points racing and “officially racing only for wins” over the next six weeks.
“I think it will involve lots of pushing on the right pedal and turning left and going as fast as possible, Edwards said. “We have to take chances. We have to go race. We can do that; we can race like that. It will actually be a big relief in a way because there is no other choice. We just go race for wins. I wouldn’t bet against us. We can do it.”
With two wins, five top 5s, seven top 10s and an average finish of 13.6 at Pocono, this weekend provides a good locale for Edwards to get started on his quest for wins and a spot in the 12-driver Chase field.
In June, Edwards started the race from the outside of the front row, but was hit by pole-sitter Denny Hamlin in the first corner of the first lap and was forced to race his way through the field, placing 11th. Bringing the same car to the track this weekend, Edwards will be looking to finally turn his season before it's too late.
Also struggling to keep his Chase hopes alive is four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. Much like Edwards, Gordon's only hope of making into the final championship battle is to win, win, win.
While Gordon has finished inside the top 12 in the last six races, and advancing from 22nd to 15th in the standings, it is simply not enough for the veteran driver. However, there is no Chase for the fantasy racer, meaning you should not hesitate selecting him for the squad.
Gordon has been putting up solid numbers of late, and with time running out before the Chase field is set, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson will be doing all they can to include themselves in the elusive 12-driver field. With the third-best average finish at Pocono (10.4), look for the No. 24 car to be among the best cars in Sunday's race. While a solid finish may not go far in terms of Gordon's championship hopes, it may go a long way in determining this week's fantasy match up.
Five Undervalued Picks: Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer
The last time the Sprint Cup Series raced at Pocono Raceway, it did so without former champion Kurt Busch. Suspended from NASCAR competition following a post-race incident with a reporter at Dover, Busch had to sit out the 14th race of the season while the rest of the competition broke the new track surface in.
Although Busch was not in the race, his Phoenix Racing team finished 21st in the with David Reutimann behind the wheel.
Despite a rocky 2012 season, Busch owns the 10th-best average finish at Pocono (15.5). In a great showing with his former team, Penske Racing, the former champion sat on the pole once and finished second and third in both 2011 events.
If he can keep the car out of trouble, the team can get the job done on pit road — and if the engine lasts the full 400 miles — look for Busch to score a decent finish, which could make the difference for your fantasy team.
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind situation at Busch's former team, Penske Racing, as it has been forced to deal with the suspension of AJ Allmendinger. Stepping into the ride and getting a much-unexpected second chance has been Sam Hornish Jr.
Thrust into an awkward situation, Hornish has made the best of things to date and has been named the driver of the No. 22 for the “foreseeable future” by team owner Roger Penske. Perhaps auditioning for his future behind the wheel of the No. 22, Hornish scored a 22nd-place finish in Loudon and a 16th-place finish last weekend at Indianapolis.
Now four races into this unexpected venture, Hornish and the entire team head to Pocono as a bunch focused on working together as a cohesive unit and producing good results.
Perhaps no better track could come for Hornish and the Todd Gordon-led team. Hornish considers Pocono to be among his favorite tracks on the schedule, with one top 5, two top 10s and an average finish of 19.9.
“I’ve raced there enough that I can go to that track with a lot of confidence,” he says. “I think I can handle the compromising challenge pretty well. I think that there's a lot of guys that don't like going there, so they've already got this negative opinion about it. Their attitude is probably not in the right place.”
With this team finally coming together behind Hornish and his confidence level high, look for them to record a respectable finish.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, Regan Smith
Best Average Finish at Pocono (Wins/Starts):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 8.8 (2/21)
2. Denny Hamlin — 9.3 (4/13)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.4 (5/39)
4. Mark Martin — 11.1 (3/51)
5. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (2/27)
6. Ryan Newman —12.7 (1/21)
7. Carl Edwards — 13.6 (2/15)
8. Matt Kenseth — 13.9 (0/25)
9. Kevin Harvick — 14.0 (0/23)
10. Kurt Busch — 15.5 (2/22)
Favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson in Victory Lane at Phoenix last season. (ASP, Inc.)
After a well-deserved off week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the famed yard of bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend's Crown Royal presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard.
The annual Brickyard 400 is considered one of the most prestigious races of the season by those in the garage area. In 18 visits, 11 drivers have put their name on the winner's trophy at the famed speedway, seven of them former series champions. Winning at Indianapolis is no simple feat, and will rank among the most important victories in a driver's career.
Veteran Jeff Gordon knows just how special it is to score a victory at IMS. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won the inaugural event in 1994, and has since gone on to collect a total of four Brickyard 400 wins, the most among all Cup drivers.
In last year's event, Gordon had one of the strongest cars in the field, leading 36 of the 160 laps. While he had plenty of fuel to make it to the end, his task was to chase down leader Paul Menard, who was attempting to stretch his fuel mileage to the end. Gordon charged nearly to the back bumper of Menard's No. 27 Chevrolet, but was forced to settle for second as Menard went on to score his first career Sprint Cup Series victory.
As the season moves to Indianapolis this weekend, Gordon is mired in 17th in the series standings and running out of time if he wants to be a part of the championship battle in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. An up-and-down season has left him scratching his head for answers, it seems things have finally started to fall into place for Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led team.
Since their 35th-place showing at Darlington in May, Gordon’s No. 24 team has scored five top 10s in the last eight races — moving him from 24th in points to 17th. Headed to one of his best tracks (he holds the second-best average finish), the four-time champion is in dire need of a win. Going off their notes from last year, look for the veteran to record his name in the record books again and kiss the bricks for the fifth time.
If Gordon wants to score that all-important fifth Brickyard 400 win and join the in Chase wild card discussion, he will have to beat teammate Kasey Kahne and defending series champion Tony Stewart.
Kahne started on the outside of the front row in last year's event, led 48 laps, but was foiled in the fuel mileage gamble in the closing laps and finished 18th. This season, Kahne has been making the most of his time at Hendrick Motorsports, scoring two wins, including the last Cup Series race at Loudon two weeks ago.
While Gordon may hold the most wins at Indianapolis, Stewart holds the best average finish among active drivers (8.1). The former open-wheel star has two wins at the Brickyard and has finished inside the top 10 in nine of his 13 starts. This season Stewart and his Steve Addington-prepped team have three wins, and this organization knows how to step up when it matters most. It’s safe to say that anytime the circuit hits the brickyard, Stewart is on everyone’s radar.
Five Favorites: Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth
Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick has flown a bit under the radar thus far in the 2012 season, but that is about to change as the series heads closer to the Chase. Currently sitting sixth in the championship standings, Harvick has three top 5s and nine top 10s through the first 19 races.
The proud new father has been solidly consistent this year, finishing outside the top 20 on only two occasions. Harvick is the 2003 Brickyard 400 champion and also holds the third-best average finish (10.0) among active drivers.
Although it appears Harvick is a safe bet to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a win would go a long way when the 12-driver field is reset following Richmond in September. Look for Harvick and his Shane Wilson-led crew to contend for that win on Sunday.
Whenever any form of motorsports heads to Indianapolis, one name stands above the rest is Roger Penske. The famed team owner has a total of 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500, but is searching for his first NASCAR victory at the yard of bricks.
While the majority of attention surrounding this organization has focused on AJ Allmendinger’s failed drug test and the fallout from that announcement, Brad Keselowski is set to put the attention back where it belongs: on the track.
“It definitely gives you a sense of pride when you go to Indy as a member of Penske Racing," Keselowski said. "You look at everything Mr. Penske has been able to accomplish there in open-wheel racing. It would be one of the coolest things I could ever do in a racecar if I could get him his first win in the Brickyard 400. I really think we have a good chance to do that on Sunday.”
Keselowski is among the best in the garage at overcoming adversity and rising to the occasion at the most significant times, and this week should be no different. At the famed speedway, Keselowski holds the 10th-best average finish (14.0) and was ninth in last year's race.
With three wins to his credit in 2012, Keselowski is 10th in the championship standings, but in search of more victories. Overcoming adversity and stepping up on the sport's biggest stages are among Keselowski's most notable attributes, so look for a solid day out of the No. 2 team this weekend.
The defending Brickyard 400 winner, the aforementioned Menard, was able to score that illusive first career Sprint Cup Series victory last year by stretching his fuel mileage to the end, but result was no fluke, as he also had one of the strongest cars of the day. Only once has the defending race winner gone on to win the following year at Indianapolis (Jimmie Johnson, 2008 and ’09), but could Menard be the second?
Much like in 2011, Menard is currently on the outside of the top 10 in championship standings in 15th. With time running out before the Chase field is set, a win would once again put Menard solidly in the wild card discussion heading to Richmond.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer
It is not often that a former race winner at a track is a darkhorse pick, but considering the type of season Jamie McMurray and his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, are having, it is hard not to consider them as such.
McMurray, the 2010 Brickyard 400 winner, has the seventh-best average finish (13.1) among active drivers with one win, three top 5s and five top 10s. McMurray was fourth in last year's event, but has finished outside the top 15 on four occasions.
This season, however, both McMurray and Montoya have been out to lunch. After a host of internal changes during the offseason, the expectations were high for team owner Chip Ganassi, however his cars currently sit 20th and 21st in the championship standings.
Of course, this is Indy, and much like fellow team owner Penske, Ganassi expects to run well here. Montoya has been a contender throughout the years in the Brickyard 400, only to have mistakes on pit road and accidents ruin solid runs. In fact, aside from finishing second in his first attempt at Indy in a stock car in 2007, Montoya has finished 28th or worse in three of his five starts.
This weekend, however, the Ganassi teammates are running in Friday’s Grand-Am Road Racing Series at Indy. Whether this will take away or contribute to the team's overall effort is up for debate.
Another former Indianapolis 500 winner you may want to keep an eye on is Penske Racing's Sam Hornish Jr. Taking the reins of the No. 22 Dodge from the suspended Allmendinger, Hornish now has the rare opportunity at a second chance in the Sprint Cup Series.
Hornish has struggled to adjust to the unexpected promotion to Cup over the past two races, but at a track he is comfortable racing at, perhaps this team will come into their own with Hornish as their driver this weekend at Indianapolis.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr., Regan Smith, Jeff Burton
If there is one certainty for this weekend's race at Indianapolis, perhaps it is going with Chevrolet drivers on your fantasy lineup. Since the Cup Series has been racing at IMS, the bowtie brigade has won 13 of 18 races, including the last nine events.
Among the most unique tracks on the schedule, the key to success at Indy will be a solid setup that makes the car work well throughout all four of the track's unique corners. Fuel mileage was a deciding factor in last year's race, and may play a major role in this year's race as well.
Best of luck to all the fantasy racers out there this weekend, and if you win, don't think twice about going out and kissing the bricks on your patio.
Best Average Finish at Indianapolis (Wins):
1. Tony Stewart — 8.1 (2)
2. Jeff Gordon — 9.1 (4)
3. Kevin Harvick — 10.0 (1)
4. Carl Edwards — 11.0 (0)
5. Clint Bowyer — 11.8 (0)
6. Mark Martin — 12.9 (0)
7. Jamie McMurray — 13.1 (1)
8. Greg Biffle — 13.1 (0)
9. Kyle Busch — 13.1 (0)
10. Brad Keselowski — 14.0 (0)
Driver's"B" test confirms original positive for banned substance
AJ Allmendinger (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Penske Racing driver AJ Allmendinger has been indefinitely suspended by NASCAR for violation of the sport’s substance abuse policy.
Initially suspended on July 7 after being informed he had failed a random drug test taken the previous week, Allmendinger had his backup, or “B” sample,” tested. It confirmed the original positive. NASCAR officials have not announced what substance Allmendinger tested positive for.
In a statement released Tuesday, Allmendinger’s business manager, Tara Ragan, had this to say:
“This was not the news we wanted to hear and we will work to get to the source of what may have caused this. To that end, we have secured the services of an independent lab to conduct thorough testing on every product within AJ's home and motor coach to find what might collaborate with his test, which created results that were within nanograms of accepted standards.
“We are working closely with NASCAR and Penske Racing to identify the next action steps in this process. We continue to be extremely grateful by the breadth and scope of support for AJ from his fans and partners. We would like to again thank NASCAR, Penske Racing and all our sponsor partners for the open communication, and for helping us at every step in this process. We expect to have further updates in the upcoming days.”
NASCAR does not reveal the substance a driver, crewman or series official tests positive for. Ragan stated last week that Allmendinger had tested positive for a “stimulant.”
Allmendinger can now choose to enter NASCAR’s “Road to Recovery,” a program tailored to individuals in the sport who have failed drug tests.
Sam Hornish Jr. has filled the empty seat in Penske’s No. 22 Dodge in Allmendinger’s absence and will do so again this weekend for the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He has finishes of 33rd (Daytona) and 22nd (New Hampshire) in the Cup Series while also running a full Nationwide Series slate, where he currently sits fourth in the championship standings.
Favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's LENOX Industrial Tools 301
Defending Loudon winner Ryan Newman. (ASP, Inc.)
The race may have ended Saturday night, but the smoke has yet to settle following the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway — both literally and figuratively.
Defending series champion Tony Stewart did what few could Saturday night, passing Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle for the lead. The two were attached at the bumper and out ahead of the pack for the majority of the night, leading a combined 124 of the 160 laps. Yet in the final frantic laps, Stewart was able to work with Kasey Kahne and push around the pair on the outside.
Earning his third victory of the year, Stewart tied Brad Keselowski with the most wins this season, and further solidified his spot in the Chase. Aside from a 32nd-place finish at Kentucky, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have one win and four finishes of third or better in the last five events.
The two-time champion typically hits his stride during the summer stretch, and that seems to be the case again this year, so the competition should pay heed at New Hampshire, a track where Stewart owns for victories.
At times is seems Stewart performs at his best when faced with adversity and distractions abound for his organization at the moment. With the U.S. Army pulling all funding from NASCAR at the end of the year and Ryan Newman's name coming up in the Silly Season talk, Stewart is going to have to start answering questions soon.
However, there are bigger controversies, more time for that to develop, and Smoke just so happens to be heading to one of his best tracks, statistically speaking.
Over the past two seasons, Stewart has one win and two runner-up finishes in four races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That 24th-place finish in the other event? He led 100 of the 300 laps, but ran out of fuel on the final lap giving the win to Clint Bowyer in September 2010.
Stewart-Haas Racing was the class of the field in this race last season when Newman led the organization to a 1-2 sweep of both qualifying and the race. Newman also led 62 laps in September's Chase race, but was among those short on fuel in the closing laps.
Despite a win this season, Newman currently trails Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in the wild card standings. A strong run (or a win) would move the No. 39 team closer to the championship battle.
Bowyer, the Sonoma winner, is another driver with his eye on the wild card standings. After scoring the win on the road course, Bowyer has dropped from seventh to 10th in the standings after a 16th at Kentucky and wreck-induced 29th in Daytona.
Bowyer is strong in Loudon though, with two wins and four top 5s in his 12 visits, however, also has seven finishes of 17th or worse. He has led a combined 229 laps in the last three New Hampshire races, with one win (Sept. 2010), a 17th and a 26th after running out of fuel with the lead in the final laps.
Five Favorites: Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin
The aforementioned wild card battle continues to intensify with each race, as Busch, Logano, Newman and Kahne jockey for the final two Chase spots over the next eight weeks. The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Busch and Logano currently hold the two transfer positions, but there is a lot of racing left before anything is decided.
While Busch has been trying to kick the trend of poor finishes, Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s in the last five races. Along with his strong runs on the Cup slate, Logano has also been tearing things up in the Nationwide Series (four wins, a fifth and a sixth in the last six events), leaving the 22-year-old feeling comfortable and confident behind the wheel, despite being a prominent figure in the Silly Season rumor mill.
The July New Hampshire race has been good to the driver of the No. 20 Toyota throughout his young career. In his three July starts at the “Magic Mile” Logano has one win, two top 5s and three top 10s. Logano has not fared as well in the fall race, however, with three finishes outside the top 20 in four attempts.
Look for the trend of strong runs to continue this weekend as Logano and crew chief Jason Ratcliff go after their second win of the year, positioning themselves for a Chase berth.
Five Undervalued Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton
Darkhorse pick of the week: Brian Vickers. (ASP, Inc.)
As teams and sponsors look to 2013, free agent drivers shopping for rides are doing their best to impress. For Brian Vickers, who is driving a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, much must be accomplished in limited time.
In his three 2012 starts behind the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota, Vickers has two top 5s (Bristol, Sonoma) and an 18th at Martinsville. Team owner Michael Waltrip was behind the wheel of the No. 55 last weekend at Daytona, surviving the carnage at the end to finish inside the top 10.
Vickers was fifth in Loudon last September, but finished 34th in the July event. In fact, in his 13 starts at NHMS, Vickers has five finishes of 34th or worse. With so much on the line for his future — along with the success of the No. 55 throughout the season —Vickers is this weekend's darkhorse pick.
If a three-time Loudon winner can be considered a darkhorse, then Jeff Gordon is it for Sunday's 300-miler. While the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has the third-best average finish in New Hampshire (10.8), his luck this season has been devastating to his playoff hopes. Strong runs at historically successful tracks have gone to waste due to mechanical failures, wrecks and a host of other issues.
There is no doubt the four-time series champion will be a contender Sunday, but can his team put together a full race free of issues — self-inflicted, luck-related or otherwise? Given they are just on the outside of the wild card hunt and need solid finishes, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson understand they need to do all they can to score wins.
“We are not afraid of trying things with the setup or during the race,” Gordon says. “We're not afraid to take some risks. Each race that goes by without a win (means) the more risk we are willing to take. But I feel like we're still a long way from being out of this thing.”
Five Darkhorse Picks: Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr.
Best Average Finish at New Hampshire (wins):
1. Denny Hamlin — 9.0 (1)
2. Jimmie Johnson — 10.0 (3)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.8 (3)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (3)
5. Ryan Newman — 13.0 (3)
6. Jeff Burton — 13.6 (4)
7. Kurt Busch — 13.9 (3)
8. Carl Edwards — 13.9 (0)
9. Matt Kenseth — 14.0 (0)
10. Kevin Harvick — 14.1 (1) *Mark Martin, with one win and an average finish of 12.5, is not entered in this weekend’s event.