1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
We’ve said all along that Earnhardt’s consistency warranted the top spot, but a lack of any wins kept him from it. Well, the 143-race national nightmare is over, and Junior can now lead the way.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Replace the engine and start in the rear of the field? No problem for Chad Knaus and crew. They just handed the ball to J.J., who drove it to a fifth-place finish with blistered tires and an empty gas tank.
3. Matt Kenseth
Third-place runs at Dover and Michigan bookend a seventh at Pocono. Kenseth maintains his lead in the point standings heading to Sonoma, where neither he nor Earnhardt are ... well, good.
4. Greg Biffle
Looked to be the class of the field on Sunday until lap 70, when Earnhardt took to the point and Biffle’s handling went away just slightly. Still, a fourth-place finish works in the grand scheme of things.
No truth to rumor Nick Cage was driving. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
5. Denny Hamlin
Denny “Ghost Rider” Hamlin’s day went up in a blaze of glory after an accident on lap 134 at Michigan, capping an awful day for Joe Gibbs Racing.
6. Tony Stewart
Continuing his roller-coaster type trend, Stewart records runs of third and second following consecutive 25th-place finishes. It’s all about the Chase, right Smoke?
7. Clint Bowyer
In 15 events, Bowyer and his Michael Waltrip Racing team have 12 finishes between fourth and 13th. Not bad considering it’s a bunch with a new crew chief and driver.
8. Brad Keselowski
Has averaged a 12.6-place finish in the five races since his Talladega win. It wasn’t until this time last season that his Penske Racing team really started to take off.
9. Kevin Harvick
His season has mirrored Tony Stewart’s 2011 run thus far: Nothing splashy, zero wins, very few laps led. That said, he’s still sixth in points and as we all know, it’s all about performing in the Chase.
10. Kasey Kahne
His seven-race top-10 streak has come “crashing” down to the tune of 29th- and 33rd-place finishes. Not that it matters if you don’t finish, but his 7.5-place average starting spot is best on circuit.
11. Martin Truex Jr.
Free-agent-to-be is making a strong case for his services in 2013.
12. Carl Edwards
Free-agent-that-was made a strong case for his services last year but has failed to deliver in 2012.
13. Joey Logano
Keeping with the free agent theme, will Logano’s Pocono win convince JGR to re-sign him?
14. Jeff Gordon
Top 10s every three or four weeks won’t get Gordon anywhere near the Chase.
15. Kyle Busch
Hard to blame engine issues on the driver. JGR needs to iron out some things at the shop.
Just off the lead pack: Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane on Sunday. (ASP, Inc.)
Four years and 143 races. That’s how long it had been since NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had won a Sprint Cup Series race.
In that time, the sport’s favorite son went from wildly popular to wildly questioned. The theories from fans and talking heads alike grew in relation to his winless skid: Would Earnhardt ever be a championship contender again? Heck, was he even capable of engineering a race win? Was he all “show” and no “go?” Had the surname simply carried him this far, to a cushy ride at stock-car behemoth Hendrick Motorsports? Was he the Anna Kournikova of NASCAR, or a great athlete slumping beneath the pressures of his singular situation?
The answers, of course, are as elusively undetermined as the questions are radically rash and, often, unfair, borne out of ignorance of the sport, the driver and/or the circumstances that have shaped his career. But that comes with the territory when a legion of fans — residing within the sport and in the hazy midst of casual onlookers that value sticks ’n’ balls over gears ’n’ lugs — expect, then simply yearn, for results. Big-time results. Race-winning results. Results that are assumed when interest resides at a fever-pitch.
All that said, Earnhardt’s 2012 season has been more successful than most in the Sprint Cup ranks. A series-best 11 top 10s in the season’s first 14 races — including two runner-up and two third-place showings — found him second in the point standings. He and crew chief Steve Letarte have been on the brink of a return to Victory Lane, but until the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, it had eluded them.
On Sunday, that consistency was trumped by dominance, as Earnhardt led a race-high 95 laps en route to a nearly 4.5-second win over Tony Stewart.
It was a performance that harkened back to his six-win season in 2004.
“I feel like we are getting stronger,” Earnhardt said of his team’s performance. “One of the things that we did last year throughout the season was kind of maintain, and I was a little — even though I was happy as hell to be with Steve and be able to run well and be competitive — I was a little disheartened that I didn’t progress through the year. I didn’t find more speed as the year went on.
“This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick and we have gotten quicker, and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that’s been a thrill for me.”
His No. 88 team certainly did not disappoint on Sunday. With a repaved racetrack, record speeds and new tires flown in to curtail blistering, the event had the feel of a perfect storm —a perfect storm of uncertainty, that is.
But while other drivers came and went — Stewart, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth all spent time atop the pylon — Earnhardt’s crew took one big setup-adjustment swing in the early stages of the race and left the driver to do the rest. It worked, as Earnhardt ascended to the point on lap 70 and remained there for 95 of the remaining 130 circuits.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane in 2008. (ASP, Inc.)
Now, with the long-awaited win behind him, the questions will shift to whether Earnhardt can maintain his winning ways. After all, following his last win in 2008 (which, ironically, came at Michigan International Speedway) his season slowly sputtered, from sitting as high as second in the championship standings to ultimately finishing a distant 12th.
“You know, I feel like we want to win some more races before the Chase starts, obviously, and we’ll think about where we are points-wise when that all happens after Richmond.
“But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. We have to go to Sonoma and figure out how to get around there and how to get my first top 10 at that place. We have a lot to accomplish this year.”
How much the team accomplishes in the season’s 21 remaining events may well go a long way in answering questions, both fair and frivolous alike, about the driver.
Logano scores second career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory
Joey Logano in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
Of all the race tracks to add a little spice to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Pocono Raceway was not expected to be it. A 2.5-mile, flat tri-oval that’s seen its share of strung-out racing, the speedway was also recently repaved — a move that doesn’t lend itself to door-banging action.
Sometimes, though, the racing gods smile on the fans when and where they least expect it.
After a bizarre first half of the race that saw numerous drivers get penalized for speeding on pit road and an event that appeared to be heading toward a fuel-mileage finish, a driver looking to break a 104-race winless skid used a bump-and-run move to get by a respected series veteran. And for the driver in question, a fuel-mileage win was the last thing he wanted.
Joey Logano, his future with the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team highly-speculated, used the ol’ “chrome horn” to scoot by Mark Martin with four laps remaining in the Pocono 400 to earn his second career Sprint Cup Series win in his fourth season on the circuit.
“You work so hard to do this, and them (JGR) teaming me up with Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) has been an awesome experience,” Logano said. “We’ve been growing together a lot lately and able to make our cars better. To get a victory, it meant so much, and pulling the Home Depot car into Victory Lane at a Sprint Cup race and winning it the right way was just an amazing, amazing feeling that you can’t replicate and you can’t explain what it means.”
Logano’s only other win came at New Hampshire in his rookie season of 2009, the result of a rain-shortened finished that saw his team gamble on staying out while others pitted. It paid off, as Logano, at 19-years-old, became the youngest winner in Cup Series history. The Pocono win, in contrast, was won not on strategy or weather, but on speed and pure racing.
“That feels awesome to win one the right way,” Logano yelled on his in-car radio as he took the checkered flag. “No stupid rain!”
Martin held on for second, while Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.
“It’s not how I would have done it,” Martin said of Logano’s bump-and-run move to get by. “But certainly if I’d have had a fast enough car, he would have gotten a return. But I couldn’t quite keep up with him.”
Logano’s move came after a restart with eight laps remaining. Martin, who restarted second, got by Logano and was pulling away. However, Martin’s Toyota wiggled in Turn 3 with five laps to go. The loss in momentum allowed Logano to close the gap down the 3,740-foot frontstretch, and as the two entered Turn 1, Logano nudged the rear bumper of Martin’s car. He sailed by on the low side and quickly scooted away, winning by nearly one second.
Fuel became a concern late in the going. When Kasey Kahne brought out a caution with 22 laps remaining, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had led 36 laps and was running third, pitted to top off the tank in his No. 88 Chevy.
However, fuel never factored, as an additional yellow for debris waved with 11 laps to go. The drivers that did not pit earlier — namely Logano, Martin, Stewart, Johnson and Hamlin — were able to conserve enough gas under the caution periods to make it to the finish without incident. Earnhardt settled for an eighth-place showing.
Points leader Greg Biffle limped to a 24th-place run after engine issues ruined his day. He surrendered the championship points lead for the first time since gaining the spot after the third race of the year.
Biffle’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, inherits the lead on the strength of a seventh-place finish at Pocono. Earnhardt sits 10 points back, while Biffle falls to third.
On Tuesday, Toyota became the latest manufacturer to unveil its 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup racecar. It is the second generation of the Car of Tomorrow, which debuted in the 2007 season to jeers and sneers — that is until Michael McDowell walked away from a head-on impact at 200 mph, tumbling down the three stories of banking and emerging unscathed. Since then, most have been on board with the new car, more so following the early 2010 refresh that saw the spoiler and the splitter going the way of the Convertible Division.
Toyota also confirmed that it has inked extensions to be the engine provider and car make for Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing for the foreseeable future. You can cross out these teams as potential candidates for Dodge, which is scrambling to find a team — and an engine provider — for 2013 and beyond. Toyota, in fact, is poised to add more teams to the fold, though not necessarily more organizations.
“We’re happy with the guys we’ve got,” Toyota Racing Development president Lee White says. “I would hope the economy turns around a little bit and we very easily could get back to eight or nine cars.”
One of the teams that Dodge was rumored to have been interested in was that of Joe Gibbs Racing. Gibbs had fielded Chevrolets and Pontiacs since its arrival in the sport 20 years ago, its first win coming one year after its debut in the 1993 Daytona 500. JGR’s move to Toyota in 2007, in part, set the stage for a departure by then two-time champion Tony Stewart. Stewart’s replacement was a driver who many had predicted would be the next Jeff Gordon: Joey Logano. To date, Logano has one race win in the iconic No. 20 Home Depot machine — compared to five championships by the other big-box home improvement chain retailer, Lowe’s.
It has long been a point of contention with the HD brass that Sliced Bread isn’t exactly cutting the mustard in the results department; cutting the cheese is more like it.
With the manufacturer side of things sealed up for JGR, which no longer has to worry about manning an engine shop with TRD now the sole supplier for all Toyota Cup teams, might Coach and J.D. be looking to test the free agent market for a replacement for their No. 20 machine? After all, it was about a year ago that many had penciled in Carl Edwards to be the heir apparent to the No. 20, but after Ford Motor Company scratched a big check and a ton of stock for Edwards, Logano received a reprieve. Logano currently sits 15th in points, however the No. 20 has finished no better than 16th in points since Stewart jumped ship following the ’08 season.
Following the departure of long-time JGR crew chief Greg Zipadelli to become competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing — while monitoring the progress of Danica Patrick in her limited Cup appearances — the performance of the No. 20 seems to be slowly picking up. But will it improve enough to retain Logano, or will the sponsor wield the whip hand and demand a change be made with one of the available free agent drivers for 2013?
Ryan Newman has been mentioned as a viable candidate for the No. 20 car, which is an ironic choice following his run-in with Logano at Michigan in the August 2010 event. The timing makes a bit of sense as the Senate Armed Services Committee this week added an amendment to next year’s spending bill that would ban all military sponsorship of motorsports — which includes Newman’s US Army affiliation — leaving a sizeable hole to fill at SHR. Would Stewart forsake his friend and fellow Hoosier, Newman, if a supplement to the Army sponsorship does not materialize?
With Patrick waiting in the wings, expecting to announce a full-time 2013 campaign in the Cup Series shortly, it may come down to dollars and common sense. If SHR does not have the funding to prepare a third team for Patrick, the GoDaddy.com colors might only end up on the No. 10 next year, keeping the organization at a two-car level.
That leaves one other option on the table — one that could be deemed “The Nuclear Option.” Kurt Busch.
The stars have aligned seemlessly with this one. Busch is a free agent, serving his penance in post-Penske purgatory, driving on a handshake deal for James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team, an 18-employee independent team that receives cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Think of it as a poor-man’s Stewart Haas Racing. A damn-near-broke man’s Stewart Haas Racing. For the most part, Busch has kept his legendary temper at bay, until a self-inflicted flat tire in the closing laps of the Southern 500 at Darlington dashed any hopes of a top-10 finish.
Might Busch be JGR and Home Depot Toyota material?
Think back to 2011 and the biggest story of the summer stretch: Busch and Jimmie Johnson feuding following some last-lap dicing at Pocono. Busch had been taken out by Johnson at Pocono a year earlier in a vicious backstretch crash, as well as at Sonoma and Chicago in ’09. That sort of anti-48 sentiment might play well with Home Depot, which has been less-than-pleased watching Lowe’s garner the lion’s share of the championships over the last six years. In fact, Smoke’s last two titles bookend those by Johnson, the latter with a different Depot on the hood.
Kurt’s brother Kyle is currently in the No. 18 at Joe Gibbs Racing, and having migrated his Kyle Busch Motorsports team to Nationwide this season, helped his brother out by essentially splitting the schedule with him in his No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota — an appropriate sponsor given their struggles with respective inner green-rage monsters.
The matte black Toyotas have been fast, with Kyle narrowly clearing the last-turn pile-up at Daytona before getting hooked into the outside wall, and Kurt capturing the team’s first win at Richmond just a few weeks ago over the other JGR pilot, Denny Hamlin. Hamlin had his own run-in with the No. 48 team two years ago, and chucked his own bottle of water at his No. 11 in frustration following a fuel mileage foul-up at the penultimate race at Phoenix that prevented him from winning his first Cup title. Think back to Busch throwing a bottle of water of his own at the Miller Lite Dodge at Bristol in 2009, when he declared there were 41 other driver’s he’d rather finish second to, rather than that No. 48 car.
Might JGR be the perfect home for Busch — and, more important, Home Depot the ideal sponsor?
HD was more than patient with Stewart during his most volatile and petulant years. The sport had much more attention back then, and though Stewart nearly lost his ride at JGR during a tumultuous 2002 campaign, winning his first Winston Cup title went a long way to cure those ills. This was during a period when Stewart had to be physically restrained from going after NASCAR officials, kicking reporter’s tape recorders under trailers and allegedly pushing a fan. Kyle Busch faced a similar fate last season after turning Ron Hornaday Jr. head-on into the wall during a Truck Series race (albeit in a KBM rig, not Gibbs equipment); NASCAR sat him out for the Sunday Cup race.
It left the younger Busch reeling, wondering if he would even have a job in 2013. Message: delivered. And received.
Kurt went through a similar situation with both Roush and Penske Racing. An incident involving a traffic stop for suspected impaired driving on race weekend in Phoenix in 2005 saw Roush suspend Busch for the final two races of the year, even while being a Chase driver, while the team issued the release that Roush Racing was “done being Kurt Busch’s apologists.” Busch was noticeably moved by the incident, barely holding back legitimate tears when interviewed about it. What followed at Penske Racing were six seasons of salty salutations over the team radio, indicating everyone from the crew chief, engineers and the owner himself, addressing revered team owner Roger Penske not be his well-known nickname, but rather as “Dude.”
The Captain did not abide.
Things came to a head during the 2011 Chase with Busch melting down during driver intros and issuing a terse response to ESPN reporter Jamie Little en route to his car — a car that did not pass tech inspection initially — at Loudon. He followed that up with the now famous YouTube video of Busch being less than cordial with ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch following an early exit at the season finale at Homestead. Actually, everything got off to a poor start as soon as the 2011 Chase began. Following the final race of the regular season at Richmond, Busch went after NASCAR.com reporter Joe Menzer in the garage, slapped away a member of his PR camp, and then got into it with AP writer Jenna Fryer, tearing up a Dodge press release in the media center following a disagreement over a quote about getting inside Jimmie Johnson’s head.
The real question is, could Joe Gibbs get into Kurt’s head the way he has his brother, and the way both Roush and Penske were unable to? There are already signs of cracking on the surface after the incident on pit road at Darlington, as well as a colorful meeting with the press outside of his hauler at Charlotte last week.
This is not meant to pick apart Busch with the well-documented history of a short temper and manic outbursts. He remains a championship-winning (and contending) driver, who clearly gets more out of the equipment than virtually anyone else in the series — short of his brother. His one step forward/two-steps back anger management program seems to stall out every few months, and the new dynamic of a smaller team this season was to be an audition to prove to the racing world that he is a changed man, not the acid-tongued driver on the verge of meltdown.
His Nationwide ride with KBM has provided him with some brotherly love and proved that he’s still a race winner — not that it was ever really in doubt. Could a partnership with Gibbs, an owner well known for being both a man of faith and having the patience of a saint, provide Kurt with just the place to be born again?
It very well might be the type of environment that he needs to get back to the form that saw him win the first Chase in 2004.
All-Star queries, Kurt Busch's penalties and grading Darlington
Fans at Darlington, God love 'em. (ASP, Inc.)
Is NASCAR still on a high as Tony Stewart says? What should have been done to Kurt Busch and others for the incidents at Darlington? What about the All-Star Race? Are changes needed there?
Those were among the topics members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debated this week. And some of their responses might surprise you. Check them out.
DO YOU AGREE WITH TONY STEWART’S COMMENTS ABOUT THE SEASON? Asked if he was surprised that some people are questioning the racing in NASCAR after the high the sport experienced at the end of last season, Tony Stewart said at Darlington: "I still think it's on a high. The racing has been awesome this year. You look at the whole Richmond weekend, the whole Richmond weekend the races were great. I think it's proof that the sport is still on a high right now.''
Fan Council members were asked if they agreed with Stewart’s statement:
54.4 percent said Yes 45.6 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• NASCAR is on a possible competitive "high" but the competition is greater than it ever has been and it is very difficult to get a setup right to win. BUT, NASCAR fans want drama. The fuel-mileage strategies added drama. The Kurt Busch/Ryan Newman wreck with six laps ago was drama. The No. 39 gasman going after Busch added post-race drama. We as fans need more than great competition, we need some drama to stay interested.
• Stewart is NOT the one who are sitting at home watching the so-called "great racing" on TV. A lot of it has stunk worse than Pepe Le Pew.
• I'm not hard to please. If they are racing, I like it.
• I think the racing has been great. I'm a race fan though, not a crash fan. I don't go to the track or tune in on TV to see crashing. Personally I think the fans that do that should just go away.
• Most of what I've seen has been follow-the-leader racing where the only passing came on infrequent restarts or on pit road. That's not racing in my book — that's freeway driving.
• The racing is boring. Maybe you could ask Tony why, if the racing is so great, I changed the channel and watched the NBA playoffs half way through the Southern 500
• I agree with Smoke. The racing this year has been good despite many naysayers.
• It seems that, instead of enjoying our sport, everyone is analyzing it to death. On the broadcast at Darlington, during the long green flag, all that was talked about was the lack of cautions. During a 500-mile race the drivers are always laying back until the end. Are you new here? It got exciting at the end the way all the races do. Just watch the race and enjoy it and shut up!
• It's certainly not on the high it was at the end of last year, but it's still "up" from where it has been.
• I believe the drivers and even the media (to a degree) think the sport is "on a high". I went to the Bristol race and thought the racing was great … because I was there. I don't necessarily think the racing is bad, but FOX is doing a horrible job of capturing the race. Just look at Twitter during a race. FOX has a ton of commercials & the production of the race is poorly done. That gets fans into a negative mood and therefore they perceive the racing as bad.
• Was Stewart giving a sarcastic answer again? I'm not sure why, or what to change, but I don't seem to be as into NASCAR recently as I have been in the past. I still watch the races on a weekly basis, however, I'm not scouring the internet for news articles during the week as I would normally do.
• Yes we are blessed with the best racing in the world.
Kurt Busch (ASP, Inc.)
WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE IN REGARDS TO THE KURT BUSCH INCIDENT WITH RYAN NEWMAN AFTER THE DARLINGTON RACE? NASCAR announced Tuesday it was fining Busch $50,000 and placing him on probation until July 25 for an incident on pit road late in the race and for running into Newman on pit road after the event. Fan Council members were asked what they would do if they were NASCAR:
38.0 percent said they would do Nothing 29.6 percent said they would place Busch on probation for the rest of the year and do nothing to Newman 25.6 percent said Other 6.8 percent said they would place both drivers on probation
What Fan Council members said:
• Unfortunately, I think Kurt is reverting to the "old" Kurt who cannot control his temper. Probation might be the best thing to keep him in check.
• I do have some issues with Kurt flying through the 39 pit box during the race, so I do think he needs to be spoken too in the hauler about that. But since we all know probation is somewhat of a joke, I'm opting for nothing.
• NASCAR set a precedent this year in Talladega of not parking Danica, so nothing should be done.
• I think he should be suspended for his outrage driving through Newman's pit.
• Boys have at it, end of story. If this were anyone but Kurt, this wouldn't even made news after it happened.
• I have a serious issue with driver(s) carrying over frustration and anger on to pit road: it is simply too crowded with people, both during the race and after. Keep that crap on the track, where it belongs. As for this incident: Busch claims it was an accident, Newman says it was intentional. Given that Newman apparently did nothing to precipitate Busch's action (other than be pitted next to him, I guess), the punishment should be handed out solely to Busch. However, probation is useless so I suggest a massive fine and points.
• This is a professional sport and they need to act like professionals especially when innocent bystanders can get injured.
• Kurt should be parked indefinitely. How many times is this going to happen? Until he hurts an innocent person?
Judging from what Newman said about Kurt, there is something more to Kurt's story that we don't know about. Maybe we'll hear more in the coming weeks.
IS THE ALL-STAR RACE WORTH HAVING OR SHOULD IT BE MADE INTO A POINTS-PAYING EVENT?
90.3 percent said keep the All-Star Race as is 9.7 percent said make the All-Star Race a points-paying race
What Fan Council members said:
• Keep the All-Star Race. Move it around to other tracks. And invert the field!
• The All-Star race is one of the better races all year because drivers and teams put everything they have into this race. Winning is definitely all that matters. If you can't win, bring it back wadded up after you tried something crazy to win.
• Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.
• It’s a tradition, but maybe keep playing with the format to keep it intriguing (No figure 8's).
• I guess I am one of a minority. I have been a dedicated NASCAR fan since the late ‘70s and I have never been much of a fan of the "All-Star Race". It is exciting to watch, but in the end it is just a bunch of wrecked racecars and nothing has been gained.
• Keep the All-Star but make it Wednesday or Thursday night the week of the Coke 600 in primetime. They all have separate cars for both races anyway ...
• It shouldn't be a full points race. HOWEVER, it would be cool if it were somehow linked to the Chase. I would like to see the winner maybe get five bonus points when Chase time arrives. Even better, have a guaranteed Chase spot on the line. THAT would shake things up, especially if a guy like Jeff Gordon would pull it off.
• My choice would be do away with the All-Star Race completely and give the teams another off weekend. But since NASCAR wants to keep it, I think it should be a points race of some kind. I'm getting tired of it being at Charlotte every year.
• This race is so worth looking forward too! I love it with no points on the line. This is really boys have at it at its best. Truly exciting!
• Definitely keep the All-Star Race as it is. No other sport has such an event that their athletes participate in with such intensity. It's no-hold barred racing, with not having to worry about losing points to go for the win!
GRADE SATURDAY NIGHT’S CUP RACE AT DARLINGTON
55.4 percent said it was Good 22.3 percent said it was Fair 19.9 percent said it was Great 2.4 percent said it was Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• The first half of the Southern 500 was just basic racing. The second half of the race had more cautions, fuel strategies, a G-W-C finish and a massive gasman coming after a much smaller driver with an attitude. This was good overall, but not great.
• I thought it was a rather boring race for Darlington until the last 100 laps. The way it has been going, there is no reason to watch the first half of any race any more.
• Darlington is an awesome place to have a race! Everyone always talks about more short tracks, I say more tracks like Darlington where the track can get a little nasty, and the driver has to stay on his or her A-game to get the job done.
• OK, I struggled with this answer and landed on "Good". The first half was a snoozefest. Everyone was so stretched out with so few cars on the lead lap, it was really boring. The last half of the race made up for it and catapulted the rating to "Good". Crews were able to work on their cars and get back on the lead lap and start racing each other.
• Racing was everywhere! Drama in the end. Good stuff.
• Good, solid action on the track (I was there so I didn't have to deal with TV). Pretty amazing to go 172 laps without a caution. It was fun to watch the good drivers really work the track and pass.
• Darlington is never going to be a track that produces great side-by-side racing. It's one of those tracks where you like to have the drivers have to drive. Having said that, I thought it was a good race for Darlington.
• Having so few cars on the lead lap is never exciting to me. Add the lack of passing for position as well as the near elimination of the crossover pass took a lot of the fun away. Even the wrecks didn't come from tight, hard racing. I'm not a member of the "wrecking is always good" club. If they're a by-product of very hard racing, that's where the excitement is.
• Boring first half. AMAZING race after the first caution.
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.
NASCAR fined Kurt Busch $50,000 on Tuesday for his actions toward the end and after Saturday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington.
Busch was one of three people fined and one of four people placed on probation.
NASCAR put Busch on probation until July 25, citing Busch for “reckless driving on pit road during the race’’ and for being involved in an altercation with another competitor after the race.
Busch’s reckless driving on pit road was for shooting through Ryan Newman’s pits after a stop late in the race. Newman’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, said that his pit crew had “to jump out of the way ... and try not to get hit.”
After the race, Busch ran into Newman’s car on pit road. Newman told SI.com that Busch said it was an accident and it happened as he was taking off his helmet.
“I’m pretty sure there were 42 other guys that are taking their helmets off and doing whatever for the last 10 years and that’s the first time that’s happened to me. Circumstances, I think, are that he lied and was so frustrated that he doesn’t know how to deal with his anger.”
As for when Busch fired out of his pit stall late in the race, Newman told SI.com: “I’m not sure why [Busch] did it and tried to run over our guys and NASCAR officials. And nobody is. I think the chemical imbalance speaks for itself.”
Busch will be on probation for the All-Star Race, along with the Coca-Cola 600 and races at Dover, Pocono, Michigan, Sonoma, Kentucky, Daytona and New Hampshire. Provided he has no other issues, his probation would end before Indianapolis.
NASCAR also issued other penalties for an incident after the race between the teams.
• NASCAR fined Newman’s gas man, Andrew Rueger, $5,000 and placed him on probation until June 27 for failing to comply with a directive from a NASCAR official.
• NASCAR placed Gibson on probation until June 27 since the crew chief assumes responsibility for the actions of his team members.
• NASCAR fined Craig Strickler, Busch’s motorcoach driver, $5,000 and placed him on probation until Dec. 31 for interfering with a member of the broadcast media.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
TEST PASSED Danica Patrick didn’t crash and she didn’t wreck anyone else. While it wasn’t easy, she made it through a full weekend at Darlington, running a total of 635 laps between her Sprint Cup and Nationwide cars in races, practices and qualifying.
She admitted that she isn’t as comfortable running beside the wall and it was evident that her line through the corners during the Cup race was half a car width further from the wall than many drivers at times.
Still, she made it through the weekend. For those who questioned why car owner Tony Stewart wanted her to run one of her 10 Cup races this year at that track since the series runs there only once a year, the answer is simple. It’s difficult. Very difficult. She’s going to face this challenge at some time, so she might as well do it now.
“I accomplished all the things I wanted to accomplish,’’ Patrick said after finishing 31st in the Cup race, six laps behind the leaders. “Things went good on the Nationwide side. Here on the Cup side, my goals were to be respectable out there. I think I held my own alright. And, the other one was to finish, and both of those things happened. I will be much less worried coming back to this place.
“I definitely got a feel for all the elements. Starts, restarts and pitting, obviously I made a mistake there; and all that stuff. Just how to get runs on cars. What to do when the car feels a certain way. Which lines to take, and to accommodate for the car and how it feels.”
Said Stewart, her Cup car owner: “What she did in these two days is hard to do. To have the result, the way she ran (in the Nationwide race, finishing 12th), I’m sure I’ll get a chance to watch more of what she did after we get home. The time I was around, got to watch, she did a really good job.”
PROPER MENTALITY Denny Hamlin on what type of mentality a driver has to have for this weekend’s All-Star race: “Bulldog. You have to be just a guy that puts it all on the line. Nowadays, more than ever, the All-Star Race — teams pretty much take disposable cars that they know there’s a good chance it’s not going to come back.
“The driver’s mentality is that it’s all for money, so there’s nothing to lose. It takes someone who’s willing to drive 100 percent qualifying lap every single lap. Those are the guys that are usually successful in winning.”
NATIONWIDE DEBUT Darrell Wallace Jr., who has been a part of the Drive for Diversity program, will make his Nationwide debut this weekend at Iowa Speedway driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“The goals have to be just kind of running up front, hopefully making a name for myself, running top 10,” Wallace said.
SILENT TREATMENT Kevin Harvick was asked if he ever talked to Kyle Busch about their incident in last year’s Southern 500 that led to a post-race pit road altercation. Harvick said: “I don’t talk about Kyle or to Kyle.”
PIT STOPS Martin Truex Jr.’s fifth-place finish at Darlington was his fourth top-five finish of the season. He had only three top-five results last season. ... Five drivers have won the All-Star Race and series title in the same season: Darrell Waltrip (1985), Dale Earnhardt (1987, ’90, ’93), Rusty Wallace (1989), Jeff Gordon (1995, ’97, 2001) and Jimmie Johnson (2006). ... Jeff Gordon is 24th in the points. He’s one point behind Mark Martin, who has skipped three races this season.
1. Greg Biffle Found himself in roughly the same position at Talladega as he was in at Daytona ... which isn’t bad when you’re clicking off top 5s like it’s the ARCA Series.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Doesn’t seem able to finish outside of the top 10 if he tries, but this is Dale Earnhardt Jr. we’re talking about, so only a win will keep the critics at bay.
3. Matt Kenseth Kenseth has roared to within five points of Biffle’s lead in the standings on the strength of four top 5s in the last five races.
4. Denny Hamlin Hamlin was running in the top 5 at Talladega when he was the victim of a block-gone-bad. It’s hard to factor the resulting 23rd-place finish into these standings, so I will not.
5. Brad Keselowski He may not have the most consistent team on the circuit, but it’s one that has proven capable of winning on any given weekend. Bristol and Talladega are proof of that.
6. Tony Stewart Like Hamlin, it’s hard to fault Stewart for a mid-20s finish at Talladega. Unlike Hamlin, Stewart was in position to win despite running out of fuel twice and battling overheating issues throughout the day.
7. Jimmie Johnson The roll-of-the-dice tracks at Daytona and Talladega are the only ones that can consistently keep Johnson from a top-10 finish. Take plate racing as the anomaly it is and move on.
8. Kyle Busch Consecutive runs of first (Richmond) and second (Talladega) find Rowdy’s stock on the rise. Could this be the beginning of a scorching summer run?
Photo by ASP, Inc.
9. Kasey Kahne A fourth at Talladega made it four runs in a row of eighth or better for Kahne and the No. 5 team. It would come as no surprise if they — not the 24, 48 or 88 teams — earned Hendrick’s 200th win.
10. Carl Edwards Cousin Carl’s streak of five finishes of 11th or better came to a grinding (and wreck-induced) halt at Talladega. Expect big things in Darlington and Charlotte.
11. Kevin Harvick He’s been notably quiet this season — in the sense that he may be about to break out. And he’s still fifth in points.
12. Martin Truex Jr. May deserve to be ranked higher, but honestly, the track records of those listed previously factored.
13. Clint Bowyer Didn’t lead any laps at Talladega, but snuck in a solid sixth — with clean sheet metal.
14. Mark Martin If you got to pick and choose your starts you’d be smart to take a pass on Talladega, too.
15. Paul Menard Bet you didn’t realize that Menard is holding steady at 14th in the standings, just on the cusp.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya
Saturday evening’s Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway was not unlike many of the NASCAR Sprint Cup events over the past month. A dearth of cautions — only five, the second-least at RIR in 14 years — pockmarked the 300-mile event.
However, Richmond provided an exciting, and controversial, finish that produced an all-too-familiar victor in Kyle Busch.
While Busch had yet to win in the 2012 season, his victory marked the fourth consecutive win in Richmond’s spring race for the 26-year-old Las Vegas native. But while his past wins have been dominant, it took a string of bizarre events late in the race for Busch to cash in.
“Wherever that last caution came from, that was the saving grace — just the luck of the day,” Busch said of a debris caution on lap 388 of 400. “The guys did a fast pit stop, got us the lead off pit road, which was a huge advantage, just being able to give me the control of the restart and not have to wait on Tony (Stewart) or cause myself to spin my tires or what have you and get behind.
The fireworks started well before then, though.
A caution for debris on lap 311 changed the complexion of the race. Busch was awarded the Lucky Dog, placing him on the lead lap after being down one.
Race leader Jimmie Johnson was then issued a pit road penalty during his stop, sending him to the rear of the field. The subsequent restart found Tony Stewart the leader, with Carl Edwards to his outside. Edwards, though, believed his No. 99 Ford to be the lead car, and when the green waved, Stewart spun his tires, allowing Edwards to sprint away. NASCAR ruled that Edwards “jumped the restart” by taking off before crossing into the “restart box” — a pair of painted lines on the track prior to the start/finish line that mark when the leader can hit the gas.
Edwards was assessed a black flag, handing the lead back to Stewart. But just as it appeared Stewart would cruise to his third win of the season, the final debris caution was thrown, reportedly for an aluminum can on the backstretch.
When the field hit pit road for a final set of tires, Busch beat Stewart out and quickly jumped to a sizable lead on the restart.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. also got by Stewart, but when his brakes began to fade, the race was clearly in Busch’s hands.
“That’s what it looked like to me,” a curt Stewart said of the debris afterwards. “I mean, it was out of the groove. It had been sitting there for eight laps. When the caution is for a plastic bottle on the backstretch, it’s hard to feel good about losing that one.”
As for Edwards’ penalty, he and crew chief Bob Osborne questioned NASCAR about it during and after the race, even meeting with officials in the NASCAR hauler.
Their contention was that the team’s spotter was told by an official that they were the lead car, prompting Edwards to bring the field to green. He was also posted on the track’s pylon as the leader.
NASCAR vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton, made it clear after the race that Edwards was not the leader and that he did jump the start. So his point was moot regardless.
“We had to just agree to disagree, and that’s the way it is,” Edwards said after his meeting with NASCAR. “They run the sport, and they do the best job they can, and I drive a racecar and do the very best job I can.”
If Denny Hamlin can win races now, it makes one wonder what he’ll do later this season as the communication with new crew chief Darian Grubb improves and Grubb puts more of his stamp on the team’s cars being built.
Hamlin is one of only two drivers with multiple wins this season after eight races (Tony Stewart is the other) and Hamlin could be the first driver to win three races this season with the series heading to Richmond this weekend. He has won two of the last five races at his hometown track.
Even with the success, Hamlin has had his ups and downs. He won at Phoenix and Kansas but finished 20th at Las Vegas and Bristol. Since Bristol, he’s not finished worse than 12th. That’s helped Hamlin climb to fifth in the points.
“It's hard to analyze your program by a one-week performance,’’ Hamlin said after his Kansas victory, the 19th of his career. “You look at it in the grand scheme of things. (At Texas) on a mile-and-a-half (mile track), we went almost a lap down, but we ... hung around 10th place for most of the day.
“I'm not going to analyze and say that everything is good, we just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we'll be fine. There's always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we've identified those areas and we've gone to work on them. So right now I feel like we're bringing better race cars to the race track than what we have, and it's still going to take time. There's still things that myself and Darian need to work on with communication, things like that, but he's still working within Joe Gibbs Racing trying to get cars that he feels like can be better to the race track, and all that stuff takes time. You just can't do it — it's a big process now.’’
Says Grubb: “My confidence in Denny's feedback is getting better and better. I know when to take what he says with what inflection in his voice, what it means.’’
This also has been an adjustment period for Grubb in how things are done at Joe Gibbs Racing after moving over from Stewart-Haas Racing. That also takes time.
“The technology is drastically different between the organizations, so the actual lessons you learn and things, it's probably more the style of working and being able to manage people and get the best out of the people that are there,’’ Grubb said. “Now that I'm at Joe Gibbs Racing I'm starting to learn those personalities and what I can get out of them.’’
This team will be worth watching as the season progresses.
NEW LOOK Bruton Smith, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Chairman and CEO, is scheduled to announce Wednesday his plans for changing the track surface at Bristol. The work will be completed before the August race and is in reaction to fan complaints about the racing there.
Bristol will mark the fourth track this year that will have a new surface, joining Michigan, Pocono and Kansas. Work on Kansas’ track began after Sunday’s race. Since 2010, six of the 23 tracks that host at least one Cup race will have had new surfaces by the time the series races at Kansas in October. Phoenix was reconfigured and repaved last year and Daytona was repaved in time for last year’s Daytona 500 after a pothole delayed the 2010 race.
Jeff Gordon says that in some cases, the track is not as much the problem, especially Bristol.
“The drivers love it,’’ Gordon said. “It’s a great racetrack I think. I thought they made huge improvements. Now we hear they want to go back to the old way.
“Tracks are getting too much of the blame or even credit sometimes. This car for the last five or six years has sort of put Goodyear, the tracks, everything into a different box. I’m looking forward to the 2013 car, but I look forward to cars down the road to sort of take some of the things in this car that are in there we can’t take out. It will help the racing; things that are going to help Goodyear to make it better tire that is more suitable for the car.’’
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
LOOKING BACK Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent the last six months studying his family’s genealogy and its made him appreciate the past.
“I’m trying to put together some kind of a well-organized document to sort of be able to show to family members,’’ he said. “I had one interesting experience. Ralph’s (Earnhardt) father, I didn’t know who he was and never really cared who he was, never thought about who he was or what his family would be like.
“Never thought past Ralph all these years and I started getting into his father and Ralph’s grandfather and I found their burial plots and so me and my grandmother Martha and my sister and my mom Brenda and my girlfriend rode up there one day, just in Kannapolis or Concord and visited their burial plots and a lot of relatives that were born in like 1809 and 1822 and stuff like that.
“It’s really cool to stand there over somebody that is responsible for you being there.”
PIT STOPS The Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown will be Thursday night at Richmond International Raceway. Cup drivers scheduled to compete in the late model race that raises funds for charity are Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Aric Almirola and Michael Waltrip. ... Steve Wallace will make his 2012 Nationwide Series debut on Friday at Richmond. His Ford was prepared out of Rusty Wallace Racing with collaboration from JTG Daugherty Racing. Bobby Labonte’s Cup pit crew will service Wallace’s car and Labonte’s crew chief, Todd Berrier, will call the race for Wallace.