Kasey Kahne (5) and Jeff Gordon (24). (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The Long and Short of It
What was supposed to be a celebration has become a burden for Hendrick Motorsports. Mired in a 15-race winless drought, its longest since 2002-03, the organization remains at 199 Cup victories as the series heads to Talladega.
Whenever the team scores its 200th victory — a significant number in a sport that reveres Richard Petty’s 200 career victories as a driver — it will be more relief than triumph.
Yet, even as some focus on what Hendrick hasn’t done, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is second in the point standings and Jimmie Johnson is sixth. It’s surprising they haven’t won. Earnhardt has finished second or third four times and Johnson has done so three times. Hendrick has placed at least one car in the top 5 in each of the last five races. Twice it has had two cars among the top 5 in that stretch, including last weekend at Richmond when Earnhardt was second to Kyle Busch and Kahne placed a season-best fifth.
What makes this winless drought less dire for this organization is how much speed many of these cars have. It’s not like they’re struggling to stay on the lead lap in many races. Still, there are issues.
Gordon has struggled in qualifying. His three top-10 starts came at the short tracks. While he’s led 339 laps, second only to Johnson’s 362, nearly all of the laps Gordon came at Martinsville. He, Johnson and Earnhardt appeared as if they would all finish in the top three and give Hendrick his noteworthy victory at a track where he won his first Cup race. A late caution bunched the field and Gordon and Johnson got knocked out of the lead on the restart, symbolizing how agonizing close they’ve been to victory at times this season.
Gordon understands how important it is to score a victory soon.
“Well, it’s always important to win,” he says. “And we’re always trying to win as hard as we possibly can. It’s just like getting ready for the All-Star race. No points involved; we’re going to really go all-out to win. Well, we do it every weekend.
“But we do recognize that at this point, and it’s not completely out of the question that we could make up those points and get in the top 10 legitimately. If you look at our season last year, the amount of points that we made up from this point until the Chase, we did it. And we can do it again. But we’ve got to get a lot more things going our way than what’s happening right now. And we’ve definitely put ourselves at a huge deficit.”
Kahne has had all sorts of misfortune. He had only two finishes in the top 20 in the first six races. He fell out of one race because of an accident and another with engine problems. Gordon also had an engine problem, coming in the Daytona 500.
Even with such issues, it’s not hard to think that it won’t be long before a Hendrick car arrives in Victory Lane. Maybe this weekend. Gordon’s six victories at Talladega are most among active drivers and Earnhardt is next with five.
Johnson, the last Hendrick driver to win a Cup race, remains confident.
“My mindset from when I started and through the championships and still now, is if you run in the top 5, especially the top three week after week, you’re going to win your fair share of races,” says Johnson, who has seven top-10 finishes, tying Earnhardt for most this season. “And I fully believe in that statement. And although there are times I’ve left the track disappointed with a second or a third or whatever it may be — or 12th at Martinsville because I felt like we had a good shot at it — I still really believe in that philosophy and I’m very happy with how we’re running and the speed we have in our cars.”
LOOK AT THIS KID The talk beforehand was about Travis Pastrana making his Nationwide Series debut last weekend at Richmond, but 18-year-old Ryan Blaney had people talking afterward when he finished seventh in his series debut.
“It exceeded my expectations a little bit,’’ said Blaney, the son of Cup driver Dave Blaney. “We thought coming out ... with the racecar all still intact and a good top-15 finish would be real nice.”
He’ll return to the series in a couple of weeks at Darlington — a track he’s never visited.
Blaney said he’ll prepare for Darlington by watching tapes of the racing as he did before the Richmond race, along with talking with other drivers.
Mark Martin (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
NOT GOOD TO BE NO. 1 Mark Martin continued the trend the pole-winner not winning the race. No pole winner has won a race this year. No pole winner has won in the last 27 races. The average finishing position for the pole winner during those races is 16.5.
The last pole winner to win a race was Ryan Newman at New Hampshire in July 2011.
This streak likely will continue. The pole-winner has won only once in the last 27 races at Talladega.
PIT STOPS Kevin Harvick has been running at the end of all 22 starts he’s had at Talladega. ... Matt Kenseth has failed to finish in the top 10 in each of the last 10 races at Talladega. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth are the only Cup drivers to have completed all 2,926 laps in the first nine races of the season. ... This weekend will be the first race for Mike Ford as crew chief for Aric Almirola on the No. 43 car. Ford helped Denny Hamlin nearly win the series title in 2010. ... Carl Edwards will use the same chassis at Talladega that he used to win the Daytona 500 pole.
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.