1. Greg Biffle Cemented his status as the points leader with an impressive win in Texas. Biffle has yet to finish worse than 13th this season, and is looking forward to Kansas — one of his best tracks — this weekend.
2. Jimmie Johnson Joins Biffle and the two Juniors — Dale Earnhardt and Martin Truex — as the only drivers on the circuit with five top 10s in seven races. Kansas will most likely make six.
3. Tony Stewart How does Stewart — who won at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway — tank to the tune of 24th at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway?
4. Matt Kenseth As steady as they come, Kenseth moves into a tie for second with a certain Most Popular Driver after a fifth at TMS. Of course, Kenseth’s Daytona 500 win trumps Junior’s, uh, zero wins … in 136 races.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK, so he hasn’t won in a long, long time. But Junior is averaging an 8.1-place finish, which is second best in the series. Still, it really is time to break that winless streak and move on.
6. Martin Truex Jr. Truex has averaged a 26.3-place finish at Kansas with zero top 10s. If he brings it home eighth or better like he has in five of seven races so far this year, we’re all on board.
7. Kevin Harvick Harvick’s only finish outside of the top 11 in any single race was a 19th at Martinsville. He’s been awfully quiet for running so well. Maybe Baby Otis has thrown him off his typically vocal ways.
It beats those creepy '70s-era family portraits. I guess. OK, maybe not.(ASP, Inc.)
8. Carl Edwards Edwards’ fifth- to 11th-place finishes are fine, but after seven races he still has not led a lap. Allow me to repeat that: Through seven races in 2012, Carl Edwards has not led a single, competitive lap.
9. Denny Hamlin Hamlin’s 12th-place run at Texas is far from cringe-worthy, but he’s finished between 11th and 20th in all three big intermediate track races this year. That’s not going to work.
10. Jeff Gordon A clean fourth-place finish in Texas. Is the rotten luck behind him?
11. Brad Keselowski Mechanical issues beginning to plague Penske’s Dodge camp. Kes is good for a couple more wins, though.
12. Mark Martin If he raced every week, Martin would rank in the top 5 on this list.
13. Ryan Newman When not finishing in the top 12, Newman finishes 21st. Seriously. It’s happened three times.
14. Clint Bowyer Still working out some kinks, but all things considered, this new bunch is holding its own.
15. Kasey Kahne See, when there are no cautions for wrecks, Kasey can drive his Chevy to a top-10 showing.
Just off the lead pack: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Saturday's race in Texas
Carl Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series shrugs off the much-needed weekend off and heads to Texas Motor Speedway for this Saturday night's Samsung Mobile 500.
Anytime the series makes its way to the high-speed, mile-and-a-half track in Fort Worth, the Roush Fenway brigade is the team to watch. Since the inaugural event in 1997, the Roush cars have been among the fastest and the “Cat in the Hat” is usually holding a trophy at the end of the day.
All told, Jack Roush has eight Sprint Cup Series victories in Texas, along with seven Nationwide Series wins and one Camping World Truck Series victory.
However, when Matt Kenseth won last April’s night race by a whopping eight seconds, it snapped a two-year winless streak at TMS for the Roush teams.
After Carl Edwards swept the 2008 races, that dominance was called into question by non-Roush drivers Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart. Although they were kept from victory lane, Kenseth, Edwards and Greg Biffle were constant threats.
During that time, Hamlin was among the strongest, sweeping the Texas races in 2010. Yet, last season Hamlin struggled in both races, finishing 15th (one lap down) in the April's race, and 20th (again, a lap off the pace) during November’s Chase race.
Hamlin has November’s race-winning crew chief Darian Grubb on his side this weekend, as the pair looks to score their second victory of the 2012 season. Grubb led defending champion Stewart to Victory Lane ahead of Edwards then, and will look to do the same with Hamlin this weekend.
However, while Hamlin will be a threat again this Saturday, the driver that will be celebrating with the pistols and cowboy hat is Edwards.
Although he has yet to set the world on fire with his performances in 2012 (the Missouri native has yet to lead a single lap), Edwards was third to Kenseth last April and finished second to Stewart during the Chase. Pleased to come away from Martinsville with an 11th-place finish — and fresh off a vacation — the No. 99 team is poised to earn its first win of the 2012 season.
In order to do so, Edwards will have to hold off not only his teammates, Kenseth and Biffle, but Hamlin and Stewart, as well. This is a crucial part of the schedule where momentum can lead to wins and confidence leading into May’s All-Star weekend. Look for Edwards to be among the strongest cars on Saturday night, regrouping and beginning his trek to the Chase.
Five Favorites: Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
This week's undervalued pick comes in the form of Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer.
Perhaps 13 is Bowyer’s lucky number, as he will make his 13th career start in Fort Worth and owns an average starting spot of 13.0 with an average finish of 13.0. Bowyer was second to Kenseth last April, and has six top 10s in the last eight races at the 1.5-mile track.
Thus far in 2012, Bowyer has finished 13th or better in all but one race (Phoenix). Consistently contending for a top 10 finish, the No. 15 team should continue that trend in the Lone Star State.
Kasey Kahne also has the opportunity to record a much-needed top 10 this weekend in Texas. After a dismal start to the season, his first with Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne heads to a track where he finished third in November and has one career win (2006).
The No. 5 team has speed, but have suffered from terrible luck. Kahne is excited about the team’s potential at mile-and-a-half tracks, though, and its luck has to turn around eventually. Look for that to happen this weekend.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton
Richard Childress Racing’s Paul Menard is this week’s underdog pick in Texas. Traditionally a fast starter, Menard has continued the trend this year with three top-10 finishes through the first six races — and he has solid numbers in the last three events at Texas Motor Speedway.
The No. 27 team came home with a fifth-place finish after a strong showing last April, while Menard finished 15th in November. Coming off a disappointing 26th in Martinsville, Menard and his Slugger Labbe-led crew will be looking to rebound from their poor showing.
Also keep an eye on 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne as he returns to the Sprint Cup Series this weekend in the iconic Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford. The young driver has finished 17th in each of this three previous starts at the 1.5-mile speedway, which was also the site of his first Nationwide Series win last November.
Five Underdog Picks: Paul Menard, Trevor Bayne, Ryan Newman, Bobby Labonte, Marcos Ambrose
Qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway provides some of the fastest speeds on the Cup circuit all season. The teams will have to find the perfect balance of speed and handling as they work to get the car working over the bumps in the corners. A team that can balance raw speed with favorable handling on Friday will find itself with good track position and a preferred pit stall on raceday.
Best Average Finish at Texas (Wins):
1. Matt Kenseth — 8.7 (2)
2. Denny Hamlin — 10.2 (2)
3. Jimmie Johnson — 10.2 (1)
4. Tony Stewart — 12.6 (2)
5. Kevin Harvick — 12.9 (0)
6. Clint Bowyer — 13.9 (0)
7. Mark Martin — 13.7 (1)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 14.1 (1)
9. Kurt Busch — 14.5 (1)
10. Carl Edwards — 15.5 (3)
Taking stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series at the Easter break
Tony Stewart has two wins in 2012. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Taking Stock of the 2012 Sprint Cup at the Easter Break
Six weeks into the 2012 NASCAR season, the Sprint Cup Series heads into the first of only two off-weekends of the year. With no race this weekend, and thus no fantasy picks to make, let’s take a look at some of the biggest surprises thus far, which drivers and teams are on track for a solid season and which need to turn their season around before it is too late.
There is no doubt the hottest team in NASCAR is Stewart-Haas Racing. The defending series champion, Tony Stewart, has had an uncharacteristic start to the year, winning two races (Las Vegas, Fontana), while teammate Ryan Newman used an aggressive move during a green-white-checker finish to score his first career Cup win at Martinsville.
Typically slow starters, both SHR drivers have hit the ground running after last year's impressive showing in the Chase. Stewart currently sits third in points, while Newman climbed two spots to eighth after last week’s victory.
The mood is soaring at Stewart-Haas, the strong finishes and wins keep coming, the new partnership between Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington continues to roll on smoothly, but can that momentum continue through the summer months and into the Chase?
While the SHR brigade has been scoring wins and making headlines, Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle has quietly and consistently raced his way to the points lead. After starting the season with three consecutive third-place finishes, Biffle took command of the series standings after Las Vegas and has yet to relinquish the spot.
Frustrated and clearly upset with his team’s 16th-place points finish in 2011, Biffle had high expectations coming into this year and his performances to date have shown the changes made behind the scenes at Roush Fenway Racing have made all the difference.
Although The Biff has yet to hit Victory Lane, he hasn’t finished worse than 13th, with three top 5s and a sixth-place run to his credit. Determined to put last year's disappointing results behind him, expect Biffle and his No. 16 team to continue to lead the way at RFR as the season rolls on in two weeks in Texas — a track at which Biffle could easily break his 49-race winless skid.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Also on the verge of breaking a winless streak is perennial fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. Through the first six weeks of the season, the No. 88 team has been the workhorse of the Hendrick stable with three top 5s and four top 10s. Earnhardt nearly scored his second Daytona 500 victory to open the season, finishing second and proving he’ll be a contender at the plate tracks so long as “pack racing” is the draft du jour. He was oh-so-close yet again last weekend in Martinsville before settling for his second straight third-place finish.
Sitting second in the standings, Earnhardt appears confident in his team, the speed in his cars, crew chief Steve Letarte and, perhaps most importantly, himself. His average finish of 7.8 is impressive to say the least, and he has already led more laps in the first six races (75) than he did in all of 2011 (58).
While Junior’s winless streak has now reached 135 races, he truly only has two victories in the last 212 events, stretching back to 2006. His last multi-win season came in ’04 while racing for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. when he earned a career-high six trophies.
With the constant pressure to perform and deliver wins, Earnhardt appears more comfortable with his situation than he has since joining HMS is 2008. This team is nipping at the heels of a victory, and I expect them to be the group to deliver team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th Sprint Cup Series victory, lead the series standings throughout the course of the summer and be a serious contender come Chase time.
As Earnhardt Jr. has started the season with a bang, the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports stable has struggled with poor luck, disappointing finishes and controversy.
The team’s newest addition, Kasey Kahne, was expected to hit the ground running at Hendrick, competing for wins and battling for the points lead. Instead, the No. 5 team has two DNFs and a best finish of 14th, which came in the rain-shortened event in Fontana. Kahne has completed only 76.9 percent of the total laps this year and has four finishes of 39th or worse.
Mired deep in the standings at 31st, Kahne and his Kenny Francis-led team now have to focus on righting the ship and going after wins. Despite the slow start, Kahne's talent and ability to win could easily bump this team into the Chase “wild card” conversation as the season rolls into the summer months that are dominated by big intermediates tracks — a Kahne specialty.
Veteran Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon has also been hit with the bad luck bug, resulting in disappointing finishes thus far. An engine failure in Daytona set the tone for the No. 24 team’s season, with poor luck continuing nearly each and every week. Although he scored an eighth at Phoenix and a 12th in Las Vegas, Gordon is stuck in 21st in the championship standings, with three finishes outside the top 25.
Last weekend’s dominating performance at Martinsville seemed to show the tide might be turning for the four-time Sprint Cup champion, but a late-race spin battling for the lead and then subsequently running out of fuel resulted in a 14th-place finish. The No. 24 team has been strong at times this season, but the results simply have not shown.
Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson’s start to the 2012 season has been filled with drama and controversy instead of race wins and celebrations. A rules infraction at Daytona set the stage for a showdown between the No. 48 team and NASCAR that stretched on for weeks.
NASCAR's initial penalty on the No. 48 team would have kept crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec away from the track for a total of six weeks, plus cost Johnson 25 driver points. Leaving Daytona 42nd after a Lap 2 wreck and with the penalty hanging over the team’s head, things looked grim.
Yet after multiple appeals, Hendrick Motorsports got the answer it wanted. The suspensions levied on Knaus and Malec were dismissed, as was the points penalty for Johnson. Jumping from deep in the standings, Johnson climbed within reach of the top 10.
Despite all the drama surrounding the penalty and appeals, Johnson was able to knock off four top 10s in the ensuing four weeks. His battle with Gordon on Sunday at Martinsville was shaping up to be one for the ages, but Johnson was forced to swallow a 12th-place finish after also getting collected in the G-W-C melee at the front of the field.
So while things started off rough for Team 48, its performances are proving it has put the drama behind and are as focused as ever going for that sixth championship.
The 2012 season, while still in its initial stages, has been anything but dull. From rain delays, to jet-dryer fires, to appeals drama, to surprise success and surprise struggles, the storylines have been deep.
Following this weekend’s Easter break, the Cup Series hits a stretch of continuous racing that lasts until mid-July. As the temperatures soar, so will the intensity on the track and off. Expect slow starters like Kahne, Gordon, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards to make some noise, while Biffle, Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart hope to maintain their solid starts.
Be sure to take time this week to look over your spot in the fantasy standings, examine the good calls and questionable mistakes you've made in setting your lineup and look ahead to the upcoming events in the next few weeks. Much like the drivers and teams, preparation is the key to success in any fantasy league.
Tony Stewart ended Jimmie Johnson’s championship reign last year but are NASCAR fans witnessing an end of an era? For a driver who, on average, once won about one out of every six starts, Johnson has two victories in his last 50 races.
While many drivers would gladly take two victories in such a span, Johnson’s stretch raises questions. This is the driver who won so many races in the final 10 laps, either taking the lead or holding off those trying to take it from him. This is the driver whose team put him in position to win. This is the driver whose car often was so much better than anybody else.
Now, this driver and team are no longer as dominant.
Yet, before one laments Johnson’s woes, consider Johnson’s record in the last 50 races:
• Johnson has finished in the top five 44 percent of the time (Stewart finished in the top five in 26 percent of those races).
• Johnson has finished in the top 10 66 percent of the time (Stewart finished in the top 10 in 50 percent of those races).
Johnson’s feat is impressive but expectations are so high that when he doesn’t win, it gains attention.
“I look back and I think of five or six races that got away,” Johnson said before Sunday’s race at Martinsville — another one that got away after he was collected in a late-race incident.
“Making those mistakes, I didn’t make those in years past or the team didn’t make them. There are some things that boiled down to strategy and others down to restarts that have been on me.
“I heard Jeff (Gordon) say something a long time ago, when he won 13 races or something like that in a year. He said he won every race he should have and then some that he shouldn’t have. We need to win the races we should be able to win and that we have a shot to win.”
There’s no doubt that Johnson’s team has lost a bit of its edge. Yet for all his struggles, he left Martinsville 10th in the points, hindered by his 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500 when he was wrecked on the second lap. Since then, he’s finished no worse than 12th and that came Sunday at Martinsville after he was spun while battling for the lead in the final laps.
“Nothing is eating at me,” Johnson said before Sunday’s race. “Right now I’m very optimistic about our season. I have not paid attention to a stat or a number since our last win. I feel that we’re knocking on the door and we’re running on the race track where we should, and up front, and that’s going to give us chance to win.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE John Wes Townley drove in this past weekend’s Camping World Truck Series race after his team sat him out of the Daytona race because he was arrested and charged with DUI after crashing his 2012 BWM on Feb. 7 near Athens, Ga.
RAB Racing reinstated him for Martinsville. NASCAR placed Townley on probation for the rest of the year and he will be subject to random drug and alcohol testing. Townley said his team also has placed “internal sanctions” on him that he would not discuss.
Townley, who was cited in Feb. 2010 for underage possession of alcohol in Las Vegas, says he’s abstained from drinking since the February crash.
“That night I was having a few drinks with some friends and that morning I had to get up really early to go to Charlotte to go get some seats done and I left really early in the morning,” Townley said of what happened Feb. 7. “It was really foggy. It was really rainy outside, and I ran off the road and I hit my head pretty bad. I was disoriented. I went up to somebody's door because I left my cell phone back at the house and when that all happened — that's where I was.
“But I don't want of those conditions to undermine the decision that I made, because it's on me. It was up to me. I’m the one who got in the car. It was just a perfect storm that everything happened that night. I want to send my deepest apologies to anybody.”
The crash is just part of his curious past. Townley suddenly left his ride and the sport in Sept. 2010 before the Richmond Nationwide race.
“I needed to step back and re-evaluate how I felt about continuing on with the sport,” he said. “I didn’t really know where I was at the time and I just needed that time to step back and re-think what I wanted out of life and coming back into it I really just wanted to give it another shot and certainly didn’t want to leave it the way I left it. So to answer your question, I really want to get back into it to show some people that I can really perform out there and give it another shot.”
Townley finished 23rd at Martinsville.
Ryan Newman and his Grandfather clock. (ASP, Inc.)
SPECIAL WIN Ryan Newman’s victory Sunday at Martinsville came on the 19th anniversary of former champion Alan Kulwicki’s death in a plane crash on the way to Bristol.
Newman’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, joined Kulwicki’s team in 1986 and was his car chief in 1992 when Kulwicki won the title. Gibson said he thought of the anniversary the night before Sunday’s race.
“A lot of the reason I’m where I’m at is because of Alan,” Gibson said. “You know, the fight to never give up, and always believe in yourself comes from him, too.
“It’s just pretty cool to be with Ryan with the engineering background, and he’s just like Alan. He's just like him. He’s wicked smart and when you ever try to catch him on something, he’s got a little bit better answer for you. So I don’t try that anymore.”
Said Newman of Kulwicki: “He was (an) inspiration for me. He was part of the reason why I chose to be an engineer and follow through with my racing career at the same time.”
PIT STOPS All three national NASCAR series are off this weekend. The Nationwide and Cup series compete April 13 and 14 at Texas Motor Speedway and the Camping World Truck Series races April 15 at Rockingham Speedway. ... After six Cup races, 15 drivers have collected at least $1 million in race winnings (typically divided between the team and the driver). Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth has collected the most at $2,344,947.
Rating the racing in California and early Chase prognostications
Tony Stewart is a virtual lock to make the Chase according to the Fan Council. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Dustin Long
Five races into the season and a few drivers expected to make the Chase are struggling. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne both are outside the top 20 in points. Last year’s runner-up, Carl Edwards, has not shown the strength he did last season just yet. Kyle Busch, a regular in the Chase, is 14th in points.
While there’s plenty of time to reverse course for those drivers — the Chase field won’t be set for more than five months — members of the Backstreet Drivers Fan Council are not confident all those drivers will be among the top 12 when the Chase field is set after Richmond in September.
This week, the Fan Council looks at who will make the Chase and who won’t, along with grading last weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.
WHO WILL MAKE THE CHASE?
After five races last year, nine of the top 12 (if you factor in the wildcard spots) went on the make the Chase. Backseat Drivers Fan Council members were given a list of the 12 drivers who would make the Chase (if it started today with the top 10 and two wildcard drivers) and asked which ones would make the Chase. Here’s how they voted:
98.3 percent picked Tony Stewart (4th in points but has 2 wins)
97.0 percent picked Kevin Harvick (2nd in points)
95.0 percent picked Jimmie Johnson (9th in points)
90.0 percent picked Matt Kenseth (6th in points with 1 win)
89.0 percent picked Brad Keselowski (would be 11th via wildcard with 1 win)
85.7 percent picked Greg Biffle (points leader)
83.4 percent picked Denny Hamlin (7th in points with 1 win)
76.4 percent picked Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3rd in points)
45.2 percent picked Ryan Newman (10th in points)
25.6 percent picked Clint Bowyer (8th in points)
18.3 percent picked Martin Truex Jr. (5th in points)
4.7 percent picked Paul Menard (11th in points)
What Fan Council members said:
• Hamlin and Newman are simply not showing the consistency and I don't think they will recover. If they make it, it will be by wildcard only. Truex, Bowyer and Menard are simply not strong enough in their current situations to make the Chase this year, though I do believe all three will (be a) threat and all will possibly get wins this season.
• Think the switch to Ford from Dodge is going to impact (Brad Keselowski) toward the end of the season. Not sure (Martin Truex Jr.) and (Paul Menard) still have the consistency needed.
• MWR cars (Truex and Bowyer) will not make it into the Chase. Their luck will run out.
• Junior still has his summer swoon coming. I think ultimately that and the fact that he doesn't win will keep him out. Truex will not be able to sustain nor will Menard or Bowyer.
• It's really too early to tell.
• Sorry, I just don't see Jr. having the consistency needed to make the Chase
• Believe it or not, I think it's Jimmie's year to miss it
• Not convinced on either Jr. or Menard, and I have Newman falling out too.
• The Biff will fade in time. The 39 has never really showed any strength. Martin Truex has a good team this year and will make it in.
Carl Edwards will not be on the outside looking in for long. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
SO WHO WILL MAKE THE CHASE OF THOSE NOT IN THE TOP 12?
Fan Council members were given a list of the drivers who would not make the Chase if it started today and asked which ones will be there come September:
84.7 percent picked Carl Edwards (12th in points)
82.0 percent picked Kyle Busch (14th in points)
61.0 percent picked Jeff Gordon (25th in points)
27.7 percent picked Kasey Kahne (27th in points)
17.0 percent picked Jeff Burton (15th in points)
14.3 percent picked Joey Logano (13th in points)
8.3 percent picked AJ Allmendinger (26th in points)
7.7 percent picked Jamie McMurray (22nd in points)
7.3 percent picked Mark Martin (17th in points)
7.3 percent picked Juan Pablo Montoya (18th in points)
7.0 percent picked Marcos Ambrose (24th in points)
6.7 percent picked Kurt Busch (23rd in points)
6.3 percent picked Regan Smith (19th in points)
5.3 percent picked Bobby Labonte (20th in points)
5.3 percent picked Casey Mears (29th in points)
5.0 percent picked Aric Almirola (21st in points)
5.0 percent picked Dave Blaney (28th in points)
5.0 percent picked David Gilliland (30th in points)
What Fan Council members said:
• I don't see Joey Logano even winning a race this year and continuing to struggle to adapt to the Cup level. Jeff Burton has a winless streak almost as long as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and he needs to find victory lane again before he can contend for a championship.
• Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, & AJ would be possibilities. Chose Jeff just because he seems to have better luck.
• Carl and Kasey both have good equipment and just are having rotten luck. I don't think Carl is suffering from the Denny Hamlin-post-championship-loss syndrome.
• I think it is Joey's time. This year should see all 3 Gibbs cars in the Chase. I think that Kyle and Denny have the best chance of winning the championship. I think Gordon and the 24 team will get things on track and get back into the mix in the next 6-8 races, too.
• How sad is it that Juan Pablo Montoya and Jaime McMurray have been in each of the first five races this year, yet Mark Martin missed Bristol and is still ahead of both in points. EGR needs help.
• I do think that Kasey Kahne could possibly win multiple races and get in via the wildcard.
• I think Carl, Kyle and Jeff Gordon are head and shoulders above the rest of this group. Marcos Ambrose and JPM might have a shot at a wildcard if they can win the road races or finally pick up an oval win.
• I think Logano is gonna shock the world since this is his "contract" year. Expect him to have a breakout (year) like Brad K did last season.
• Think Carl Edwards will barely make it. Kyle Busch took such a blow to his ego last year not sure he will make it at all this time.
• Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Gordon. Too good to miss it.
GRADING SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY
41.2 percent called it Good 39.9 percent called it Fair 15.3 percent called it Poor 3.7 percent called it Great
What Fan Council members said:
• Last three years at this track have been much more enjoyable than prior to then, last year’s race probably being the greatest ever at the track. There was some really outstanding racing Sunday especially watching Tony Stewart race his way through the field, however it was about half and half exciting and boring. I think if the race had gotten a chance at going the distance, then we would have seen another great finish much like last year with Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson
• When drivers are racing the rain, the races are typically quiet and rather boring.
• With all the negative comments about Bristol and the lack of cautions, where are all those people this week?
• Fontana is just a boring race — add the rain & at least it put me out of my misery more quickly
• Fast and strange come to mind when thinking about this race. It really seemed as though they were trying to outrun the rain. I also wondered if the amount of pit road penalties in some sense was due to the impending rain. But it did make the whole rain-shortened race more exciting.
• I was at the race, and although there were no cautions, there were plenty of duels going on anywhere on the track. I'm guessing this didn't play as well on TV as it did if you were at ACS.
• The intensity of racing to halfway really drove up the level of driving. No one was just cruising.
• In the 13 years I’ve been watching the sport, that was the worst race I've ever watched.
• I know Cali is supposed to be boring, but I wasn't bored. Perhaps it was because of low expectations or perhaps TV camera coverage was better.
• I was on top of a motor home in turn 3. The racing looked great from there. I liked the fact that there were no cautions until the rain came.
• Any race that ends early can't be considered "good."
• I normally find the "racing" at Fontana boring because of the long green-flag runs that allows for the field to be strung out. This one, however, was exciting. It's amazing what looming rain will do to a boring race.
I don't particularly care for long green flag racing. I like it when drivers can come in and adjust their cars better than they can do in a green flag pit stop.
Fans can join the Backseat Drivers Fan Council by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race at Martinsville
by Jay Pennell
Few sports crisscross the United States quite like NASCAR, and with that, the Sprint Cup Series returns to the East Coast this weekend for the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Rain got the best of the series last weekend in Fontana, Calif., with defending champion Tony Stewart scoring his second win of the season in an event shortened by weather. Just five races into the year, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have hit their stride early as others are simply struggling to get their season started.
With momentum and confidence on his side, Stewart returns to the site of one of his most dramatic runs of the 2011 Chase.
After struggling for the majority of the event last fall, Stewart was able to fight to hold on to a lead lap position and eventually worked his way through the field and to the front of the pack. Besting Jimmie Johnson on the final restart of the day, Stewart went to Victory Lane and kept his title hopes alive. That race would have as much to do with his eventual championship as the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
On a roll already this season and coming off one of the most impressive performances in recent memory, Stewart is among this week’s stronger plays, but is not the overall favorite.
That honor belongs to none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
While Stewart was methodically working his way to victory at Martinsville last October, Earnhardt Jr. was beating and banging his way to a seventh-place finish. His aggressive style was an enjoyable sight to the fans, but also evidence of his ability to score a solid finish on the paper-clip short track.
Last spring, Earnhardt nearly broke a winless streak that dates back to 2008. However, Kevin Harvick was able to capitalize on a late-race charge to make the pass for the lead with four laps to go and score the win, relegating Junior to a second-place finish.
Entering this weekend, Earnhardt is enjoying a strong start to the season with two top 5s, three top 10s, and sitting third in the championship standings. Winless in his last 134 starts, Earnhardt is on the verge of snapping that streak and giving team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.
That opportunity could not come at a better facility. The Hendrick cars have been among the strongest at Martinsville since they began showing up. Geoffrey Bodine scored the team’s first victory here in 1984, while Hendrick cars have a total of 18 wins — second only to Petty Enterprises — as drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lead the active duty drivers in wins at Martinsville with seven and six, respectively.
Yet this weekend, it won't be “Five-Time”' or “Four-Time” that will be earning another Grandfather clock trophy. With the numbers adding up, momentum on his side and a string of strong performances at Martinsville backing him up, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is this week’s fantasy favorite.
Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart
While Gordon has been one of the most successful drivers at Martinsville over the years — he leads all active drivers in wins (seven), top 5s (25), top 10s (31), laps led (3,094) and lead-lap finishes (30) there — his 2012 season has gotten off to a rocky start.
Despite high hopes and great expectations leading into his 20th season in the Cup Series, the four-time champion is 25th in points and has only one top-10 finish on the year (eighth, Phoenix).
An ill-timed miscue on pit road last weekend in Fontana cost the No. 24 team a strong finish and the ability to move up the standings and back into contention. So has the season has gone for Gordon, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the entire No. 24 team.
Yet through it all, Gordon is encouraged by the fast racecars he has each week and knows all the team needs to get back on track is one “complete” race. And what better place for that to happen than at Martinsville?
Gordon is the type of driver that can hit a streak of solid runs and race for wins. After a slow start to the season, this is the weekend it turns it around for the No. 24 team.
Five Undervalued Picks: Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Martinsville is a track in which veterans such as Gordon are supposed to excel, not the young guys. But this week’s underdog pick goes to 21-year-old Joey Logano.
In six starts at Martinsville, Logano has completed all but five laps, has one top 5, two top 10s, zero DNFs and an average finish of 13.8 in six starts. While he has yet to set the world on fire or take home the trophy at Martinsville, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver did finish second to the ever-present favorite at Martinsville, teammate Denny Hamlin, in 2010.
Already in 2012, Logano has shown he has Chase potential. Through the first five races of the season, Logano has two top 10s and his worst finish was 24th last weekend in Fontana.
If he can keep the fenders on the car and avoid trouble throughout the day, Logano should score solid fantasy points for your team. He might not be the one celebrating the win, but he could give you those extra points needed.
Three Underdog Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger
Best Average Finish at Martinsville (Wins):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 5.4 (6)
2. Denny Hamlin — 6.5 (4)
3. Jeff Gordon — 6.9 (7)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 13.0 (0)
5. Tony Stewart — 13.4 (3)
6. Joey Logano — 13.8 (0)
7. Ryan Newman — 14.4 (0)
8. Brad Keselowski — 14.5 (0)
9. Jeff Burton — 14.6 (1)
10. Juan Pablo Montoya — 14.7 (0)
Stewart tops the list ... because, after all, wins count
This surf wagon actually beat three start & parkers. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington already have scored two wins this season — and in only five races. Hey, wins count above all else here.
2. Greg Biffle The points leader’s only misstep — and it was a only a small hiccup at that — was a 13th at Bristol. He’s been sixth or better in the other four events.
3. Kevin Harvick Happy and his retooled No. 29 team have been nearly as good as Biffle. Their worst performance thus far are a pair of 11th-place runs. Otherwise, they’re seventh or better every week.
4. Jimmie Johnson Things couldn’t look better for Johnson and Team 48. Not only have all suspensions and point penalties been rescinded, but they’re rolling through top 10s even with blown engines.
5. Matt Kenseth Kenseth is either top 3 by day’s end or forgotten somewhere in the mid-teens. Still, this is one of a handful of teams that can win on any given weekend.
6. Brad Keselowski See: Kenseth, Matt. The only thing that kept either from a top-10 result at Auto Club Speedway was pit road penalties and a rain-shortened event.
7. Carl Edwards Edwards and the No. 99 gang have two fifth-place runs in the last three weeks. Inexplicably, though, this group has yet to lead a single lap all season. That needs to change.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yes, Earnhardt is still mired in a winless skid that dates back to 2008, but top-15 finishes in every race this season — including second- and third-place runs — find him trending in the right direction.
9. Clint Bowyer Bowyer’s solid start with the surprising Michael Waltrip Racing operation shows an average finish of 12.8 with sixth- (Vegas) and fourth-place (Bristol) runs highlighting the early spring.
"Ear muffs!" (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
10. Denny Hamlin Hamlin had the same look on his face after the California race that he did after Phoenix 2010.
11. Kyle Busch The Gibbs cars are showing some impressive muscle on the big intermediates.
12. Martin Truex Jr. Truex has a 9.4-place average finish thus far. It’s amazing what a contract year will do for an athlete.
13. Ryan Newman Three consecutive performances of 12th or better aren’t as splashy as his teammate, but not bad.
14. Mark Martin When he’s in MWR’s No. 55 — and even when he’s not — the team is showing serious growth.
15. Paul Menard Quietly hanging tough at 10th in the standings with three top 10s.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray
What some fans say is wrong with NASCAR is what Brad Keselowski says was right for him. Keselowski credits running against Cup drivers in what was then called the Busch Series for his current success and helping him win on a variety of Cup tracks.
Keselowski’s victory at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday marked his fifth career Sprint Cup victory. Although it was his second consecutive Bristol win, his other victories have come at a unique set of tracks — Talladega (restrictor plate), Kansas (1.5-mile intermediate) and Pocono (2.5-mile flat track).
Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series is something that rankles some fans, who liken it to pro players competing in the minors. Many of those fans say when a Cup driver competes in the Nationwide Series, he prevents another “up-and-coming” driver from getting a chance to compete, blocking their path to Cup.
Keselowski sees the issue differently.
“I was very fortunate to race with some of the best,’‘ Keselowski said following his Bristol win. “I go back to my first Nationwide start for Dale (Earnhardt Jr. in 2007). It was in Chicago. To this day I think that race still has the record for the most amount of Cup drivers. But that's what I had to do to build my career. I mean, I had to go against the Cup drivers when I was still trying to figure out how to run Nationwide.’’
Keselowski raced against 25 Cup drivers in that Chicago race when he made his first start for JR Motorsports. Kevin Harvick won, as Cup drivers took the top nine spots. Keselowski placed 14th and was the second-highest finishing Busch regular. Stephen Leicht was the highest-finishing series regular, placing 10th.
“What I'm trying to say, it obviously frustrates me a little bit when I take some heat — any Cup driver takes some heat from the press, media, fans, whatever — about running the Nationwide Series, because it's really a character builder,’’ Keselowski said. “If you can run well over there, you can come here (to Cup) and get the job done.
“That series helped me build a lot of character. It helped me learn in a smaller spotlight. I feel like when I got over here (to Cup) that the learning process was a lot quicker. It just came down to getting with the right team that I jelled with and that believed in me.’’
Certainly, different methods help different drivers.
The varying style of tracks that Keselowski has won at so far compares favorably with other drivers.
Jeff Gordon’s first five victories were at Charlotte (1.5-mile banked intermediate), Indianapolis (2.5-mile flat), Rockingham (1-mile intermediate), Atlanta (1.5-mile banked intermediate) and Bristol (.5-mile short track).
Variety isn’t the only way to succeed. Three of former champion Kurt Busch’s first five victories came on short tracks. Three of Kevin Harvick’s first five victories came at 1.5-mile speedways.
While there aren’t as many Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series as in that ’07 Chicago race — Saturday’s Nationwide race at Bristol featured nine drivers who would start the Cup race the next day — Keselowski shows that drivers can compete against the Cup regulars in the Nationwide Series and move on to greater success.
Greg Biffle: The Studio Version. (ASP, Inc.)
READY TO GO Although points leader Greg Biffle saw his string of third-place finishes end at Bristol (he finished 13th), it doesn’t dampen his excitement heading to Auto Club Speedway this weekend.
“I am really excited about Fontana,’’ Biffle said. “We have a brand new car that has really good wind tunnel numbers and are really happy with the car. We feel it’s our best car in our fleet so far to date. I am really pumped up about going to California and seeing how this car drives. With the new fuel injection and all the data we will be able to keep a better eye on not burning our engine up, which is what we did there that one time. California is going to be a good race track for us. We will run very well there.”
CHANGE OF PLANS Travis Pastrana announced this past weekend at Bristol that he’s altering his plans to run the full NASCAR K&N Pro Series East schedule.
Pastrana is adding the Global RallyCross series to his schedule. Three of the series’ six events will conflict with K&N races for Pastrana.
“NASCAR's where I want to go, but unfortunately, or fortunately, my background in Rally, the sponsors know that I can do well,’’ Pastrana said. “I've had a proven record in Rally.
“We're funding a lot of the NASCAR races through the Global RallyCross and, I tell you what, that's a fun series. The problem was GRC actually just announced their schedule as of a couple of weeks ago, so it changed. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make three of the K&N races and the initial plan was to do the entire K&N championship, so that was very disappointing.’’
PIT STOPS All four manufacturers have won a race after four events in the Cup season. Ford won at Daytona with Matt Kenseth. Toyota won at Phoenix with Denny Hamlin. Chevrolet won at Las Vegas with Tony Stewart. Dodge won at Bristol with Brad Keselowski. It wasn’t until race 13 last year that each make had at least one Cup win. ... In 17 career starts at Auto Club Speedway, Jimmie Johnson has five wins and 12 top-five finishes. His average finish at the track is 5.1.
1. Greg Biffle Biffle’s team was the one under the Roush Fenway banner that laid low during the offseason. The result has been third-place finishes across the board. Bristol is usually good to them, too.
2. Jimmie Johnson It’s highly unlikely Chad Knaus’ appeal is overturned, but by appealing, Hendrick Motorsports bought Johnson a pair of top-5 finishes. Win or lose with the committee, this team remains a lock for the Chase.
3. Denny Hamlin We’ll take the 20th-place finish at Vegas as a hiccup. Although, after fourth- and first-place runs at Daytona and Phoenix, the dip at an intermediate track was notable.
4. Tony Stewart “Hey Darian, anything you can do, I can do better!” One week after Stewart’s former pit boss earned his first win with Hamlin, Stewart and new boss Steve Addington even the score.
5. Kevin Harvick Worst finish so far this season is 11th. Harvick and the re-tooled No. 29 team have an uncanny knack for always being “there.” A couple wins in the next month or so could be on tap.
6. Matt Kenseth Kenseth was on the business end of a Carl Edwards late-race move once again. For some reason, those never work out too well for the 2003 champ.
7. Carl Edwards “The Aggressor” raced on to a fifth-place finish, his second top 10 of the year. Strangely, Edwards has yet to lead a lap this season. Is another hangover in store for last season’s championship runner-up?
8. Mark Martin Says he’s OK with Dale Earnhardt Jr. after their dust-up in Vegas. The odds of anything spilling over to Bristol would have already been long — and those odds are off the board since Martin won’t even run there.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. The dominating run in the first half of the Vegas race was encouraging, but fading to 10th was all-too-familiar. Bristol should be another top-10 performance, though.
10. Kyle Busch “Rowdy” is ranked here more on 2012 potential than 2012 accomplishment. Bristol may change that.
11. Joey Logano So far, so good for the new Logano/Jason Ratcliff pairing. Wonder if he’ll be looking for the 24 this weekend?
12. Brad Keselowski A fifth is sandwiched between two 32nd-place finishes. Again, potential/accomplishment. And again, that could change this weekend.
13. Paul Menard Has quietly enjoyed two top-7 runs at Daytona and Vegas. He was fifth in last year’s spring Bristol race.
14. Martin Truex Jr. If this team ever learns how to finish a race, it’ll be dangerous.
15. Marcos Ambrose An excellent Bristol darkhorse, Ambrose has three top 10s in six Cup Series starts.
Just off the lead pack: Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman
It took 27 races for Tony Stewart to find Victory Lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last year. Four additional wins followed in the remaining nine weeks and Stewart earned his third Cup championship in one of the more dramatic finales in the sport’s history.
Stewart made it known on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that his No. 14 team will not only be a force in the Chase, but in NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, as well. Stewart dominated the Kobalt Tools 400, leading a race-high 127 laps, holding off all challengers through three restarts in the final 34 laps to score his first win of the 2012 season.
“It seemed like if we could get six or eight laps under our belt, we could start building that margin out again,” Stewart said of leading the field in the closing laps. “As soon as you started pulling away, the caution would come out again. You hate having to reset it like that, knowing for the first three laps you had to be spot on and not let them take advantage of a restart like that.
“You sit there and go, ‘How many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart? Something is going to get taken away from us because of this.’ It's very nerve-wracking.”
Stewart’s eventual race-winning move came on the first of the final three restarts. When the green flag waved with 34 laps remaining, Stewart, lined up in row three, shot his car to the tri-oval apron and around Brad Keselowski for the lead in Turn 1.
“The big thing was, that was when Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie (Johnson) had taken four tires and we had taken two. We knew if we could clear those guys, it would give us a little bit of a buffer and have some lap cars that would keep them occupied. We didn't know we were going to have three or four restarts after that. It was key to get out front right away and try and build a gap.”
Johnson held on for second, his second straight top-5 finish after a disappointing 42nd in the Daytona 500. Greg Biffle inherited the lead in the point standings with his third consecutive third-place run. Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
The win was notable for Stewart in that it was his first career Cup triumph as Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway (which was added to the Cup schedule last season) are the only two active tracks where Stewart has yet to notch a Cup win.
“I take a lot of pride in being good in different types of cars, at least being competitive in different types of cars, being competitive at different racetracks,” Stewart said. “This is one we've been close a couple times and it got away. To finally check this off the list … that's what makes today so special — not so much the time of year we're getting it, just the fact we finally got this one.”
Encouraging run for Earnhardt Dale Earnhardt Jr. started second in the Kobalt Tools 400. By the exit of Turn 2, he wrested the lead from teammate Kasey Kahne and held it for the next 43 laps. So dominant was his Chevy that Earnhardt chose to not report a tight condition on his car because the speed was so good.
“Knowing how it drove that first run, even though it was really fast, we should have worked on it and I should have told Steve (Letarte, crew chief) more about it,” Earnhardt said. “I should have let him understand what was going on.”
The car tightened up further once in traffic, and he was never able to fight back to the point. He finished 10th. Still, his 70 laps led bested the 52 he led in the entirety of the 2011 season.
Watch what you say Brad Keselowski saw a good run go bad when his car appeared to run out of fuel on a restart with 17 laps remaining while running second.
Keselowski was fined last year for criticism of NASCAR’s new Electronic Fuel Injection system.
“We're not doing this because it's better for the teams,” Keselowski said in November. “I don't think we're really going to save any gas. It's a media circus, trying to make you guys happy so you write good stories. It gives them something to promote. We're always looking for something to promote, but the honest answer is it does nothing for the sport except cost the team owners money.
“Cars on the street are injected with real electronics, not a throttle body (like in NASCAR). So we've managed to go from 50-year-old technology to 35-year-old technology. I don't see what the big deal is.”
Following the 32nd-place finish in Vegas, Keselowski took to Twitter, noting that the problem he experienced was not an empty gas tank, but a lack of fuel being delivered to the engine: “Just to be clear. On the last restart the engine ran out of fuel, the fuel tank still had gas. This means the fuel system had a problem.”
Play nice, teammates Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards may need to have a meeting of the minds before drivers take the gloves off at Bristol.
Edwards dove beneath Kenseth on the race’s final restart with four laps remaining while both ran in the top 5. The move put Kenseth in a precarious middle-lane position as the bunched-up field maneuvered through Turns 1 and 2. Kenseth’s car broke loose on corner exit and sideswiped the wall. Edwards drove on to a fifth-place finish while the damage dropped Kenseth to 22nd.
“Carl just laid back and got me three-wide, and it just didn’t seem there was a lot of room getting into (Turn) 1,” Kenseth said. “And then I did get clear behind him and he just stopped in the middle of the corner. I don’t really know what happened.”
“Matt spun his tires a little bit (on the restart) and I got a run on him, “Edwards explained. “And then Greg (Biffle) and I went around him and he ended up getting wrecked. I feel terrible.”