Predicting the best fantasy drivers in California so you don't have to.
Twitter masters. And not bad in Cali, either. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads back out west for the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Auto Club — or California, if you prefer — ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Why would you take anyone else this week? He has 10 consecutive top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway (average finish of 3.3 during that stretch) and has led laps in each of those races. He had an average finish of 3.0 in the first three races of the season and was headed for another top 10 before a blown tire sent him into the wall late at Bristol last week.
2. Matt Kenseth
He’s why you might want to pick someone else. Kenseth won at Las Vegas two weeks ago in the first test of the new car at a track where horsepower and aerodynamics matter (just like Auto Club Speedway). He had a teammate finish in the top five at Vegas, showing the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing on the big tracks. He’s also led more miles (323) than any other driver this season.
3. Brad Keselowski
Then again, there’s this guy. Keselowski has not finished worse than fourth in any of the first four races this season, collecting a bevy of points for those who put him on their team. He’s also led laps in each race this year.
4. Kasey Kahne
Finished second at Las Vegas and then won at Bristol. Has shown speed this season and that’s a good sign for Auto Club where he’s finished 14th, ninth and fourth in his last three starts.
5. Kevin Harvick
Has five consecutive top-10 finishes at this track, including a win in 2011 when he passed Johnson on the last lap.
6. Tony Stewart
Rallied late to finish 11th at Las Vegas after his car was awful in the first half of the race. Never had a chance at Bristol with a flat tire that sent him into the wall early. Needs a strong race this weekend and he’s coming to the right track. He’s won two of the last three at Auto Club.
7. Clint Bowyer
Both top-10 finishes this season have come at tracks one mile or less. Although he finished 27th at Las Vegas, his teammates placed eighth and 14th, showing that Michael Waltrip Racing could have some success at Auto Club.
8. Denny Hamlin
The center of controversy the past two weeks (NASCAR fine, Joey Logano dust-up), Auto Club has presented mixed results. He won the pole last year but has finished outside the top 10 in three of his last four races there.
9. Jeff Gordon
Was the only Hendrick driver who struggled at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Was never a factor, finishing 25th. Misfortune struck at Bristol, blowing a tire and crashing while leading. Needs a strong run or risks falling further behind the leaders in the points, but he’s finished 18th or worse in three of his last four starts in Fontana.
1. Kyle Busch
Finished fourth at Las Vegas and led 27 laps, showing the strength of a team with a new car in its first race at a big track. Also has been good at Auto Club Speedway, finishing in the top three the past two years there. Overall, he has six top-five finishes in 15 career starts.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has finished in the top 10 in each of the first four races of the season for the first time in his career, rewarding those who have put him on their team. Placed seventh at Las Vegas but knew they were a little off compared to the leaders. Will he close the gap this week? He finished third in Fontana last year.
3. Carl Edwards
Finished fifth at Las Vegas and now comes to a track where he’s placed in the top 5 in seven of his 15 career starts, one of the best marks among active drivers.
4. Martin Truex Jr.
Placed eighth at Las Vegas two weeks ago. Has finished in the top 10 in 10 of the last 11 races at non-restrictor-plate tracks of 1.5-miles and larger since last season.
5. Mark Martin
Back after taking Bristol off. Started third last year and finished 12th at Auto Club.
6. Ryan Newman
Has finished seventh or better in his last three starts in Fontana. When he’s made it to the finish he’s placed in the top 10 this season, but that’s happened only twice. In the other two races he was eliminated because of an accident or a blown engine.
7. Joey Logano
Certainly ran better than he finished at Bristol. He thought he was better than his 12th-place finish at Las Vegas but a pit road speeding penalty hurt him there. Can he avoid trouble and show where he can finish?
8. Kurt Busch
His fourth-place finish at Bristol last week was only the fourth top-five finish for Furniture Row Racing in 203 career starts. Busch has four top 10s in his last six starts at Auto Club Speedway, including a ninth-place finish in last year’s rain-shortened event with the underfunded Phoenix Racing team.
9. Greg Biffle
Auto Club Speedway has not been the best place for him. Although he finished sixth last year, he has placed outside the top 10 in eight of the last 12 races there.
10. Paul Menard
This marks the fourth consecutive year he’s been in the top 10 in points after four races — the only driver to accomplish that feat. Was 10th at Las Vegas, but Auto Club has not been as good to him. He’s never finished in the top 10 in 10 starts at the 2-mile oval.
11. Aric Almirola
Placed 16th at Las Vegas two weeks ago. He and Richard Petty Motorsports have shown greater success on the bigger tracks, going back to the end of last season.
12. Marcos Ambrose
Has finished between 18th and 22nd in each of his four starts this season.
13. Jeff Burton
Has one top-10 finish in his last seven starts at Auto Club Speedway. Has finished on the lead lap only once this year, placing 10th at Phoenix.
14. Jamie McMurray
His 10th-place finish at Bristol last week was his first top 10 in the last 26 races, dating back to last year. Has not finished in the top 10 in his last 11 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has not had a top-10 finish in his last 25 starts, dating back to an eighth-place finish at Michigan in June.
16. Bobby Labonte
Has finished better than 20th only twice in his last 15 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
Specifically for the "fantasy" aspect. (ASP, Inc.)
C-List 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Never run in Cup at this track but finished second and fourth in his last two Nationwide races there. One of only five drivers to have completed every lap in the first four Cup races of this season.
2. AJ Allmendinger
Car finished 21st at Las Vegas with Austin Dillon driving. Team placed in the top 10 at Auto Club Speedway in rain-shortened race a year ago with Kurt Busch driving.
3. David Gilliland
Finished 28th at Las Vegas. Has never finished better than 17th in 11 starts at Auto Club.
4. Casey Mears
Finished 29th at Las Vegas, two laps behind leaders. Has best finish of 11th in his last seven races at Auto Club.
5. Dave Blaney
Placed 24th at Las Vegas, finishing one lap behind the leaders. Has not finished better than 29th in last 10 Auto Club starts.
6. Danica Patrick
After finishing eighth in Daytona 500, she’s placed 39th (Phoenix), 33rd (Las Vegas) and 28th (Bristol). She’s been at least five laps off the leaders in each of the last three races.
7. Travis Kvapil
Has one top-20 finish in 10 starts at Auto Club.
8. David Ragan
His 21st-place finish at Bristol was the first time he’s finished inside the top 30 this year Has finished 20th or better in only two of his last 30 starts with team, dating back to last year.
9. Landon Cassill
Has not finished better than 32nd in three starts this year (did not run at Daytona).
10. David Reutimann
Since placing 16th in Daytona 500, has not finished better than 25th in the three races since. Placed 34th at Las Vegas.
11. David Stremme
Finished 32nd at Las Vegas. Placed 39th at Auto Club last year.
12. Josh Wise
Finished 35th at Las Vegas. Placed 37th at Auto Club last year in only start there.
13. JJ Yeley
Has not finished better than 35th in his last three starts at Auto Club Speedway.
14. Michael McDowell
Has run a total of 47 laps in the last two races, finishing last at Las Vegas and 42nd at Bristol.
15. Scott Riggs
Seeking to make second start of the season after failing to qualify at Bristol.
16. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish seven of his last eight races at Auto Club Speedway, finishing no better than 34th.
17. Mike Bliss
Has completed 37 of 816 possible laps in two starts this year, finishing 42nd at Phoenix and 43rd at Bristol.
18. Timmy Hill
Seeking to make first start of the Cup season.
David Smith crunches the numbers for the Memorial Day marathon in Charlotte
All-Star victor Jimmie Johnson. (ASP, Inc.)
Jimmie Johnson stirred up the masses with his second straight Sprint All-Star Race win on Saturday. Johnson, historically dominant at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track that was once referred to as “his house” when his car and the facility shared primary sponsor branding, now looms large as the driver to beat in this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600. At least that’s the narrative, as I understand it.
The truth is, the All-Star Race and the 600 don’t correlate. As we learned in this space last week, in 13 tries dating back to 2000, the winner of the All-Star Race has gone on to 600 glory just three times. One of those three was Johnson in 2003, but it shouldn’t have any bearing for two reasons.
First, the short-burst speeds that excelled last weekend won’t help in this Sunday’s 400-lap motorized marathon. The two races are practically different disciplines for drivers and teams.
Second, Johnson isn’t the Johnson of old. If Charlotte is his house, then quite a few squatters have thrown house parties unbeknownst to him. The difference from the old Johnson at Charlotte and the Johnson now is a matter of pavement.
Charlotte was repaved in 2006 after a botched diamond-grating job in 2005. A repaved track usually means that old setup and strategy notes are thrown out, because the tricks that used to work now do not. That is why Johnson is no longer the clear-cut class of the field. His average finish helps tell the story.
6.67 Johnson and the No. 48 team averaged a 6.67-place finish in nine races prior to the 2006 repaving project.
Five of those nine races resulted in victory for Johnson, who led 22 percent of the 3,882 total laps in that time frame. There was very little doubt as to who the car to beat was in the pre-repave era at CMS.
That quickly changed.
16.92 In the 12 races since the repave, Johnson and team have averaged a finish of 16.92.
Johnson does have a win to his credit (Oct. 2009) in the “new era” of Charlotte, but his sheer dominance is a distant memory. The No. 48 bunch has finished third or better in five of those 12 races, but the eclectic nature of his results — his 13.97 finish deviation in these races suggests his finishes ranged from good to bad to middle of the road — means he is no longer the consistent win threat he once was.
A few other drivers have made waves recently at Charlotte, including one driving alongside Johnson under the Hendrick Motorsports banner.
5.250 Kasey Kahne ranks first in Charlotte-specific PEER among 57 Cup Series drivers with a 5.250 rating.
Last year’s Coca-Cola 600 race winner was the king of CMS in the CoT era, winning twice and finishing eighth or better on seven occasions. Considering he led just over seven percent of the laps in the last 10 races, he might be the most inconspicuous top producer among all drivers and tracks.
Unlike Kahne, the driver who ranks second in PEER — a measure of performance in all-equal equipment — didn’t win at Charlotte the last five years, but his showings were filled with tremendous gusto.
20.6% Kyle Busch has led 722 laps, or 20.6 percent of total laps, at Charlotte in the last 10 races there.
That none of these dominant outings have translated into a win is sort of a joke, but these races at Charlotte are long, providing plenty of room for parity in varying strategies. Busch’s modus operandi is to get out front and stay there, a strategy that a team is hard-pressed to execute successfully in a daunting 600-mile race.
17.22 Clint Bowyer averaged a 17.22 finish, with a best finish of sixth, in the nine Charlotte races leading up to his win there during the Chase last fall.
There must be some mighty fine magic in Brian Pattie’s fuel-saving elixir. Bowyer’s win in the fall wasn’t a surprise in the broad sense — he and the No. 15 team finished second in last year’s standings — but in the Charlotte-specific sense, it was, because Bowyer had a rough go of it through the majority of the CoT era. Assuming his crew chief’s innovative strategies don’t work this Sunday, Bowyer could be in for a lengthy, mind-numbing battle for track position.
0.300 Tony Stewart ranks 37th in Cup Series PEER at Charlotte.
Stewart’s bad year is likely to get worse, because his production rating at Charlotte ranks below those of Scott Riggs (0.833), Elliott Sadler (0.583) and Landon Cassill (0.450). His best finish in the last 10 Charlotte races is eighth, which conveniently came during his thunderous Chase run in 2011. His efforts there haven’t been crash-ridden — he has actually led 165 laps across five races in that span and hasn’t finished lower than 25th — just mediocre compared to his past results on other racetracks.
4 hours Three of the last four Coca-Cola 600s, in which all of the scheduled 400 laps were completed, went past the four-hour mark.
If you’re watching from home, get comfortable. This is an endurance contest invented because the good folks at CMS wanted to trump Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend in the worst of ways. (What’s one way to make a race seem bigger than the Indianapolis 500? Call it the World 600, which was this event’s original name.)
While I’m not suggesting the race will be a boring one, keep in mind that teams tend to outlast the daylight and conserve equipment for the majority of the race. It isn’t a race that lends itself to aggression.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at the All-Star Race
Jimmie Johnson wins the All-Star Race. Again. (ASP, Inc.)
Say what you want about Jimmie Johnson. Critics have a long list of rebuttals for why he’s not the greatest driver of this era: Chad Knaus, superior equipment and more money through sponsor Lowe’s than his closest rivals. But it’s hard to argue the stats on paper. Johnson’s fourth win in the All-Star Race, a NASCAR record, launched him past teammate Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.
With five Cup championships, 62 wins and another decade or so to add to that total, it’s time to give the man his due. Yes, he may be paired forever with a political correctness label that leaves him scorned by much of the fan base. Surely, Knaus and owner Rick Hendrick’s “New York Yankees” model of having the best of the best in all positions helps immensely. But someone still has to drive the car. Johnson had to hold off a hungry Kasey Kahne, side-by-side and initially charge forward from a starting spot of 20th place. That was no easy feat, a goal that could only be reached by a select few.
This All-Star Race was another reminder that, like it or not, Johnson is clearly in the “Greatest Driver of His Era” category. A decade from now, when all is said and done in his career, Saturday night will surely not be the only record he’ll leave behind.
Other gears to shift through after NASCAR’s greatest exhibition include…
FIRST GEAR: The All-Star Race Needs a retool
The All-Star Race has long been billed as one where sparks fly, rivalries ignite and drivers let it all hang out. So what have we gotten these last nine years during the Chase era? A total of one pass for the lead within the last five laps. There have been few, if any, incidents of close racing let alone contact between drivers that would spark fan interest. On Saturday night, Johnson needed two laps to fully dispose of Kahne before cruising to the checkers, part of a 90-lapper that had only one major incident (Mark Martin being spun out by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.). Not exactly the type of marketing the sport needs for an exhibition race, right?
Clearly it’s not all the driver’s faults. Charlotte has struggled as a racetrack since a 2005 “levigation” experiment gone awry, producing asphalt that’s left Goodyear in a pickle. In the first race run after the process, a 500-miler was nearly stopped as tires blew every 15-20 laps; in response, the tire company has acted more scared there than a five-year-old without a nightlight in his room. The rubber they produce, every time out, has been far too conservative, forcing the drivers to race the same, as little falloff (creating similar lap times) combined with high speeds make passing difficult at best.
With that in mind, Saturday night still felt like a missed opportunity from a garage that’s not too happy with each other right now. From Kasey Kahne-Kyle Busch to Denny Hamlin-Joey Logano, the list of drivers who feel they “owe” somebody for some past on-track issue is lengthy; Don King could have a field day with a Friday Night Boxing Special on HBO. So with a chance to take a “free shot,” all these drivers did … was nothing. Absolutely nothing but ride around, make laps and watch as the prohibitive favorite (Johnson) entering the event took control and pulled away. It was anticlimactic, paired with a staggering amount of empty seats and with a format based on best average finish for the final segment that left fans referring to an abacus. Add in a graphical mistake by SPEED that made it look like NASCAR was manipulating the rules for “Five-Time,” and the whole show took on the feel of a debacle.
Clearly, major changes for this race need to happen, and they need to happen now. Stick ‘n’ ball sports are struggling with All-Star formats too, but no one seems to need to go back to the drawing board more than NASCAR.
SECOND GEAR: Kurt Busch proving his worth
Furniture Row Racing, as a single-car team, has just one victory in its near-decade of NASCAR competition. Expect that to change soon. Kurt Busch is on a tear, winning the pole for the All-Star Race (as well as the pole at Darlington the week prior) and winning two of the first four segments of the race. Only a slow pit stop kept the No. 78 from Victory Lane, as Busch lost track position for the final 10 laps and was forced to settle for fifth.
In the past, that incident would cause the once-tempestuous driver to explode. Make no mistake, Busch has had his in-race moments in 2013, but Saturday night was another example of Busch keeping those mood swings in check. Yes, he let his frustration be known over the in-car radio, but the fury was nowhere near on par with past outbursts, and there certainly was no throwing the crew under the bus — instead, he was roundly complimentary.
No doubt, that belies a level of confidence the driver feels with this program, more heavily linked with Richard Childress Racing than ever before, as the big man himself considers potentially placing the driver in a top-tier ride in the RCR camp come 2014.
Still in the top 20 in points, Charlotte’s 600-miler presents one of several opportunities for this team to steal a win in the coming weeks (Michigan, Sonoma and Daytona are others that come to mind). With a “win or wreck” mentality, Busch is likely to run around 20th in points, which means he’s the biggest roadblock for Denny Hamlin should this team break out and reach Victory Lane multiple times.
The “wild card” race is about to ramp up.
THIRD GEAR: Ford’s failure
Brad Keselowski, blowing a transmission on the second lap, said it all for a Ford contingent that’s looking a step behind. Despite adding two cars to its roster this offseason through Penske Racing, Fords have only won twice this season in 11 starts (plus a 12th opportunity in the All-Star Race). For every feel-good story (Carl Edwards’ return to prominence, David Ragan’s Talladega miracle, Aric Almirola’s top-10 surge) there’s been a long list of tough ones. Greg Biffle has been maddeningly inconsistent, hitting the wall at Charlotte Saturday night and once again being a non-factor. Ditto Joey Logano, although his charg to a strong second behind Johnson in the closing laps of the All-Star Race was admirable. Marcos Ambrose was once again invisible and will need to rely on road course expertise to make the Chase.
With Hendrick and Gibbs clicking on all cylinders for Chevrolet and Toyota, respectively, there’s not one top team you can rely on across the board at Ford right now. They really need to take the two weeks while at home in Charlotte to study their notes, retool and get it together for NASCAR’s grueling summer stretch.
Danica Patrick road the fan vote to a 20th-place showing. (ASP, Inc.)
FOURTH GEAR: Pretty and popular doesn’t equal all-star
NASCAR’s two Most Popular Drivers — at least on paper — were non-factors Saturday night. Danica Patrick, the Fan Vote winner, was ninth in the sport’s preliminary race before using that support to sneak into the main event. But she ran 20th, the last car on the lead lap, finishing behind even under-funded David Ragan, Talladega’s surprise winner.
It wasn’t much better for Earnhardt, whose Hendrick Motorsports teammates sat on the front row for the final segment while the No. 88 languished at the back half of the top 10. Running seventh, he’s now led just once, for a single lap, in the last 10 races in what’s hardly described as an All-Star performance.
No doubt, these two names get the sport maximum publicity when running well. But it’s hard to put them on TV or celebrate their accomplishments no matter how hard NASCAR tries when they can’t find the speed to keep up.
The 2011 Sprint All-Star Race came down to Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin battling for the win. Denny fades high exiting Turn 2 as DW says, “Put ‘em een the wawll!!!” Kyle’s post-race reaction was succinct (ear muffs!) and complete with memorable radio wire yank from. I understand him being mad for getting run up into the wall, but did he really have it won? Busch never even got along side Hamlin …
by Vito Pugliese
11. 2004: With friends like this...
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Kurt Busch offers a hand to Roush teammate Greg Biffle here in 2004. Unfortunately, you can’t really bump draft with Gen 4 cars. And not at Charlotte. And not through the quad-oval. What results when one does is a 195 mph debacle, taking out the two team cars, nearly a third, as well as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and others. It also helped set the stage for Biffle’s then-girlfriend (now wife) Nicole getting into it with Busch’s then-wife (now ex) Eva at Texas two years later after a similar incident. By the way, check out Junior driving through that, managing to miss everything.
by Vito Pugliese
10. 2007: Oh Brother, Why Art Thou … Wrecking Me
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Witness Kyle Busch attempt to execute a move that I once tried in my fourth career season in NASCAR Thunder 2003. There’s no way in hell it’s going to stick, but it’s the All-Star Race and it was for the win. Mike Joy’s summation isn’t much different than what we’d hear over the next five years or so. This incident in part also helped set the stage for Busch’s move to Joe Gibbs Racing a year later. Kurt. Meanwhile, gives a great interview around the 3:00 mark. Joy’s comment following is even better. “So much ...”
by Vito Pugliese
9. 2001: Why NASCAR doesn’t race in the rain
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Picking up the action at 3:33, the race gets going just as it gets going raining, with cars sideways out of Turn 4 and into Turn 1 as the sky opens. NASCAR made the, uh, "unprecedented" decision to let those involved in the wreck go to back up cars since it was a non-points paying exhibition race. One of those involved, Jeff Gordon, rebounds to win in the replacement ride.
by Vito Pugliese
8. 2000: The rookie rules the roost
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Fresh off his first career win at Texas Motor Speedway just a month earlier, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pits while running second for a couple of adjustments to get him a car capable of contending for the win in the 200 All-Star Race. He proceeds to mow down the veterans in front of him setting up a duel with defending Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett. Junior wins the battle, and I find myself missing that exuberant guy celebrating with his team as opposed to the quiet and corporate dude of 2013. I also miss the other guy coming into congratulate him by putting him in a headlock.
by Vito Pugliese
7. 2002: The Mayor’s politically correct observation
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Sometimes the fastest car doesn’t win; the smartest team does. Jeff Burton’s No. 99 crew, led by crew chief Frankie Stoddard, did just that in the first segment of the 2002 running of The Winston. Burton’s pit stall was positioned just 50 yards from the start-finish line, so the required four-tire stop was able to be delayed until the last lap. Burton lapped the field as others pitted, then cruised to a runner-up finish in Segment 1.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 1998: The well goes dry
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In 1998, the new Ford Taurus was on a tear. Engineered from the get-go to make maximum downforce and excel on intermediate tracks like Charlotte, it was in a perfect position to continue its early season dominance. That is until Jeff Gordon and his Ray Evernham-engineered No. 24 showed up. Gordon and Mark Martin had dominated the event and the former was leading into the last lap of the final 10-lap segment with Martin and Bobby Labonte on new tires gobbling up his lead. As the 24 took the white flag, all went silent in the car. Later, Evernham would say they forgot to refuel it. Hmmm ... maybe. Or maybe they just didn’t want to call attention to something else. After all, Gordon would go on to win the 600 a week later.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 1985: Ka-ching and Ka-boom
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It’s been debated for nearly 30 years now. Did he or didn’t he? As Darrell Waltrip crosses the finish line in the inaugural Winston in 1985, the engine goes up in a thick cloud of smoke. Like, literally as he crosses the finish line. Did he clutch it? Or did car owner Junior Johnson build, as Mike Joy notes, a 105-mile hand grenade? Johnson is a legend and all, but what are the odds? Let the debate rage on.
by Vito Pugliese
4. 1996: Mikey makes his move
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Michael Waltrip had been racing for 10 years and made 309 career starts when he raced his way into The Winston in 1996. On the final lap, Dale Earnhardt rattles Terry Labonte’s cage, clearing the way for Mikey and the Wood Brothers Ford to cruise home to his first Cup win. As Waltrip would later recount, his first thoughts upon celebrating were, “It doesn’t count.” He would have to wait another five years for his first “official” Cup win.
by Vito Pugliese
3. 1987: The Pass in the Grass
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Yeah, it’s kind of a misnomer. It’s not really “a pass in the grass” so much as a “block Bill, almost spin yourself out and save it while in the grass.” There was something special about that mid- to late-80s generation of cars and bias-ply tires that was a thing of beauty to watch. Sliding sideways, smoking the rear tires at 17 0mph, cars that legitimately looked “stock” … and “Woaaah, Nelly!” how about Keith Jackson calling the action?
by Vito Pugliese
2. 1989: “I hope he chokes on that money.”
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While The Winston was first run in 1985, it wasn’t until ’89 that it really came of age with a watershed moment that “defined” what was to be expected forever more. Coming to take the white flag, Rusty Wallace makes ever-such-slight contact with a rejuvenated Darrell Waltrip — who had won three races already that season, including the Daytona 500. The contact sent DW’s Tide Ride sliding through the grass and triggered a fracas in the garage between the two teams. While the incident may have cost “Jaws” the $185,000 payday, it transformed him from heel to fan-favorite in an instant — propelling him to Most Popular Driver honors in ’89 and 1990.
by Vito Pugliese
1. 1992: One Hot Night
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While the 1989 dust-up between Darrell and Rusty may have ruffled some feathers and bruised some egos, the 1992 running of The Winston went further: it sent Davey Allison to the hospital. Guys in cars do weird things when there’s big money on the line, and on the last lap they did just that in NASCAR’s first 1.5-mile night race. Kyle Petty’s Mello Yello Pontiac pulls down to pass Dale Earnhardt, and things get interesting. Of note, much like Kyle Busch and Kasey Kasey last week at Darlington, Petty never makes contact with Earnhardt. This also proves you don’t have to be going 200 mph on a 1.5-mile track for the racing to be exciting, and why SAFER Barriers should not be taken for granted.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch in the All-Star Race
1. All-Star race, qualifying format changes in store
The most exciting NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying event of the season happens Friday night at 6:00 pm EST.
That's a fact even without the new hair-raising rule change allowing drivers to speed both away from pit road (like always) as well as enter it without a speed limit (new).
Qualifying for drivers in the Sprint All-Star Race is unique in that it demands three total laps around the track and must include a four-tire pit stop. In the past, that's been plenty exciting because NASCAR hasn't enforced a pit road speed limit after the pit stop — forcing drivers to manage 800-plus horsepower hooking up to their rear wheels from a dead standstill.
Now, they'll be doing the same coming to pit road. Lassoing a race car from the corner banking to pit road while slowing down is an event right on the edge. Nursing it down without scrubbing speed has the potential to go flying over that edge.
Additionally, NASCAR initiated the "Johnson Rule" for this season after last year's winner Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus played the strategy too well. Johnson won the first of four segments in 2012 to earn the pole for the 10-lap heat race at the end. In the remaining three segments, he sandbagged to keep his car in one piece.
This year, NASCAR will use a method that makes sense but one without a thought to how fans at the track will be able to compute it. Essentially, the 10-lap finale returns after a mandatory pit road visit. But instead of individual segment winners getting automatic priority, NASCAR will set the pre-pit road lineup by average finish.
It's a smart fix, but a silly one all at once thanks to the calculators required to know who even leads.
2. Johnson aims for All-Star record
Defending All-Star race winner Johnson is bound to get plenty of coverage this weekend as he guns for a fourth win in the midseason exhibition race. A checkered flag for Johnson — or teammate Jeff Gordon, for that matter — would set a new bar for the most wins in the event.
Only one other driver has ever scored three wins in the race for not much else than money and pride. Of course, that's Dale Earnhardt.
Gordon and Johnson, however, haven't had the best of relationships with the All-Star event in recent seasons. For Gordon, a top 10 in the exhibition race hasn't happened since his third-place run in 2006 and he hasn't won since his epic 2001 victory in a back-up car after a rain shower on the first lap caused a massive Turn 1 crash.
Johnson, meanwhile, went three seasons (2009, ’10 and ’11) without an All-Star top 10. That's not exactly futility, sure, but we are talking about Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3. Gibbs still looks for first All-Star win
One of the greatest oddities left in the always odd weekends produced by the All-Star Race is that Joe Gibbs Racing has never been to Victory Lane in the event.
It's not like JGR has paraded slouches into the race. The lack of checkered flag success has occurred despite drivers like Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett all giving it a go.
JGR, though, will be the hot pick this weekend. A week after a near-miss on a 1-2-3 finish at Darlington Raceway, the Toyotas from that camp have proven to be the fastest machines this season despite reliability. Matt Kenseth, riding high off win No. 3, should be the team's primary favorite.
It will also be worth watching how the recently returned Hamlin will compete Saturday night. Will he be willing to take major chances for a win so soon after his return from his back injury?
We'll find out.
4. Using the All-Star Race for Coca-Cola 600 knowledge
The All-Star weekend festivities are the traditional kickoff of the Charlotte region's own version of Daytona's Speedweeks. Between the opening of Sprint Cup practice Friday for participants in the All-Star Race and the start of the Coca-Cola 600 next Sunday evening, drivers and teams are scheduled to have four hours and 50 minutes of open practice.
That doesn't even include the race conditions teams will get to experience Saturday night.
The result of all of this track time is often a line of thinking saying the teams who fare well this weekend have the inside line to a win — or at least record a good finish — in the 600 next weekend. Results, though, tell a different story.
In fact, five of last 10 All-Star Race winners haven't even finished in the top 10 of the following Coca-Cola 600. Plus, the last 10 years has produced an average of just four drivers scoring top-10 finishes in both events.
Whether you chalk it up to the normalization of racing or blame the effects of a 600-mile race, the result stays the same: a good run Saturday night doesn't guarantee a good one the following Sunday.
5. NASCAR remembers fun-loving, hard-charging Dick Trickle
News that former NASCAR driver Dick Trickle took his own life Thursday in North Carolina spread across the sport in a startling, sad fashion. By the evening, words from every corner of the sport were spoken, typed or sent expressing remorse.
The grief for Trickle, both for his death and in the somber realization of the extreme personal baggage he carried in the waning period of his life, had no bounds and reflected the wake he left in his now long-retired career. The most remarkable part of Trickle's impact, of course, is that his NASCAR numbers were never remarkable.
Trickle didn't drive a full season in today's Sprint Cup Series until he was 47 years old in 1989. Just three times — 1990, ’92 and ’95 — did the Wisconsin short track ace ever qualify for every race on a season's schedule. He made 303 Cup starts, scoring just 15 top-5 finishes and never a Cup win. He did rope two career Nationwide (then Busch) Series wins (1997, ’98).
Trickle's mark on the sport came in both his legend from his midwest short track days and the number of drivers he raced along the way. Of course, his trademark of enjoying a cigarette during a race's caution flag was unforgettable to even casual race fans in the 1990s.
It's not a stretch to wonder if today's NASCAR — good or bad — would ever have room for a character like Trickle that helped the sport's narrative in ways that leading laps and hoisting trophies could never do.
David Smith crunches the numbers for the million-dollar payday.
Matt Kenseth is on an intermediate track roll. (ASP, Inc.)
The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race isn’t a typical all-star event.
Unlike the stick ‘N’ ball all-star “breaks” that feature lackadaisical effort and are more celebrated for the parties that supplement the fan activities rather than the actual contests, the Sprint Cup Series version of an all-star event pits recent race winners and champions in a race comprised of dash-style formats which has a $1 million carrot dangling on the end of a stick. It’s wild, unpredictable and in no way resembles a normal NASCAR race.
It also doesn’t have much bearing on the following week’s Coca-Cola 600, which, like the All-Star Race, takes place at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
3 in 13 Dating back to 2000, a span of 13 races, the All-Star Race winner has gone on to win the next week’s Coca-Cola 600 just three times.
Though they take place at the same facility, the two races don’t actually coalesce. The 600 not only requires a car capable of thriving on extended green-flag runs, but also a team that has built a setup to survive in both day and night conditions. The All-Star Race simply requires a setup for short runs, making the drivers and teams that excel at such a thing instant favorites.
3.2 Matt Kenseth has the highest average race rank (3.2) among all drivers in speed early in green-flag runs.
Kenseth, who also ranks first in the series in speed on restarts, has been a juggernaut at the drop of the green flag and for the ensuing 25 laps. While the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team has been stellar on intermediate tracks this season — two of its three wins came at Las Vegas and Kansas — it will be its affinity for immediate speed that separates it from the rest of the field in Saturday night’s event.
6 in 13 In the last 13 All-Star Races, six were won by drivers that had visited victory lane at an intermediate track in one of the prior races that same season.
The fact that Kenseth has captured two 1.5-mile (intermediate) track victories this season provides no guarantees for Saturday. It doesn’t take numbers — just common sense — to understand that this race is its own beast. A stout intermediate program like the one JGR is currently flaunting is always good to have, but the varying formats of the race don’t lend it to easy prognostication. If Kenseth becomes the victor, it will be because of the combination of car strength and short-run ability.
The All-Star Race format should benefit Kyle Busch. (ASP, Inc.)
56.89% With a 56.89 percent pass efficiency, Kyle Busch is the most efficient passer in the Cup Series.
Busch is in a good spot for this race. Not only is his No. 18 team good early in green-flag runs (it ranks second to Kenseth), but he has also been able to pass at will all season. That comes in handy when a driver is aiming for a $1 million winner’s purse. It also makes him a favorite in the bonus purse — a driver that wins all four segments of the event gets an additional $1 million — which will take both explosions out of restarts and, if that fails, adept passing. If there’s a pick to click for this unprecedented purse, it’s Rowdy.
54.55% Busch and his No. 18 team have finished in the top half of fields in six of 11 races, or 54.55 percent of the time.
So Busch is one of my drivers to watch for the All-Star race, but how about the championship? Presently there is a consistency problem, seen in that 54.55 number, which is on par with the likes of Jeff Burton and the No. 31 team and Kurt Busch and the No. 78 team. Aside from mechanical maladies, Busch has the second-worst crash frequency in the series (0.55), keeping them from recording high finishes in five races. That low of a percentage is something that can intervene in the team’s quest for a championship; it is the lowest percentage among drivers currently inside the top 12 in points.
0.64 Marcos Ambrose’s crash frequency of 0.64 is the worst in the series.
This year has been a house of horrors for Ambrose, who is currently sporting a replacement-level Performance in Equal Equipment Rating of 0.659 and sits 23rd in the standings while Aric Almirola, the driver of Richard Petty Motorsports’ sister car, is in Chase contention. It should be noted that Ambrose’s contract with RPM is up at season’s end. This likely isn’t the sort of start to the season for which the free agent-to-be was hoping.
Ambrose, by way of his 2012 victory at Watkins Glen, is entered in this weekend’s All-Star Race. It might be Hail Mary time for the struggling No. 9 team.
$1 million The winner’s share for this event, a cool $1 million, would benefit David Ragan and his Front Row Motorsports team in spectacular fashion.
Sponsorship has been hard to come by for the underdog organization that captured the surprise victory two weekends ago at Talladega. Ragan’s No. 34 team pocketed $3,524,091 in winnings during the 2012 season. It would take some radical setup strategy and a car unlike any they’ve ever had to score the $1 million jackpot, but that sum of money would represent roughly 28 percent of last year’s take. For them to earn that kind of money in one night’s work would be a miraculous achievement and go down as one of the greatest upsets in the sport’s history.
Who are the best young professional athletes in all of sports?
To suggest that any player in any sport after just a few seasons is a lock to make the Hall of Fame is ridiculous. But it is always fun to look at athletes who have had instant success and try to extrapolate long-term potential.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Darlington
Matt Kenseth (ASP, Inc.)
The Southern 500, while no longer held on Labor Day is still looked at as one of NASCAR’s biggest races. Darlington remains the place where, in 1950, an egg-shaped, awkward-looking asphalt track gave birth to superspeedway competition. Thirty-five years later, a million-dollar Chase by a man named Awesome Bill was another notch in the sport’s belt that wrapped the racetrack into our national consciousness. Like golf’s Masters, purists regard it as one of the sport’s crown jewels.
“I don’t know that I’ve had a win that feels bigger than this at this moment,” said Matt Kenseth on Saturday night. Keep in mind, the former Sprint Cup champ has had plenty of ‘em; well over two dozen, including two of the last five Daytona 500s. “There’s a lot of tradition here. This is one of the most storied and historic races anywhere, not just in NASCAR.”
To those Kenseth’s age and older, that will always ring true. The key is getting a new generation to embrace it. Overnight ratings at Darlington, for the 18-to-49 crowd according to zap2it.com lost out to the NBA Playoffs on ABC. “The Lady In Black” can tear a Chevrolet apart, but the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony? He slam dunks right in her face.
It’s a shame, as an initial marketing push for Darlington’s May date designed to keep the seats filled has faded through the years, leaving the “Track Too Tough To Tame” a “Track Too Easy To Forget.” For one of the most important races on the schedule, getting tucked into Mother’s Day weekend on a Saturday night makes the race now seem lost, not loved. The importance of the Chase has diminished its overall worth on the schedule; right now, it’s just another event, with no Winston Millions or even an extra $100 bill attached to the trophy. Having a track-position yawner of a race Saturday didn’t help, either, as Goodyear seems like it’s missing the mark here more often than not.
People say NASCAR has been losing its place on the national sports landscape for several years. Perhaps it’s because of simple decisions like this one, making a race its most dedicated supporters love just another notch on a long, monotonous conveyor belt. While Kasey Kahne feels like he deserves an apology this Monday, Darlington is looking for something much more simple: attention.
FIRST GEAR: Gibbs vs. Hendrick, anyone?
The brief moment sparks flew at Darlington between Hendrick’s Kahne and Gibbs’ Kyle Busch could be a sign of things to come down the road. In virtually every category you could come up with, their two organizations — totaling seven cars — have put a whooping on the 2013 Sprint Cup field. Kenseth’s win, earned when Busch had a right-rear tire go bad down the stretch, was his third in 11 races, a series high. Busch has tacked on two additional victories for JGR, as the teammates have combined for a series-leading 1,521 laps led – more than the next eight drivers on the list combined. Kenseth has been especially impressive, seizing opportunities (Las Vegas, Darlington) late in the race where others have dominated. And he did it this time with a temporary crew chief in Wally Brown, as Jason Ratcliff serves out a downgraded NASCAR penalty after an appeals court turned his Kansas engine issue into a blip on the radar screen.
Hendrick has countered with Jimmie Johnson, fourth on Saturday night and on virtual cruise control on top of the point standings. Winning twice, Johnson has just one result outside the top 20, remains a contender at every type of track and, this season, has avoided the sting of NASCAR’s inspection process. Teammates Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all look strong enough to make the Chase on points meaning 50 percent of the postseason field, at minimum, will be comprised of these two multi-car giants.
How dominant have these teams been? Just three of 11 races this season have been won by other organizations, and each can easily be explained away. Carl Edwards took Phoenix for Roush Fenway Racing in the second Gen-6 race, where rock hard tires meant no passing and track position roulette. Kevin Harvick captured Richmond for Richard Childress Racing, but he led just three laps in a bizarre, roll-the-dice green-white-checker ending. And David Ragan’s Talladega triumph last week? We know how much that race acts like your state’s lottery number machine.
So it’s clear that on the Chase tracks where handling, horsepower and head wrenches actually make the difference, HMS and JGR stand head and shoulders above the rest. With the season nearly halfway complete, it’s time for everyone else to start stepping up.
Kasey Kahne (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND GEAR: All-Star Race reuds coming?
While we’re at it, the Kahne-Busch battle is simply the latest in a long line that may need to be settled on Saturday night. While going for the lead late at Darlington, Kahne slid up in front of Busch only for the No. 18 to dive hard entering Turn 1. Whether there was contact or not is up for debate; the bottom line is it was too close for comfort. Kahne spun around, his chances to win went poof and the normally mild-mannered driver had the M&M’s Toyota to blame for a second week in a row.
“He’s got to just race me,” said Kahne about Busch. “I mean, I’ve never touched the guy in my life as far as on the race track. Three times this year, there have been other times in other years. I don’t really know what his deal is with me.”
Neither driver finished strong, as Kahne was 11th and Busch sixth to add fuel to their tempers going forward. So let’s see: that’s Kahne-Busch, Joey Logano-Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart-Kurt Busch … just the tip of the iceberg. If Charlotte’s amenable, this All-Star Race could finally see the types of settled scores that used to make it “must watch” event back in the day.
THIRD GEAR: Denny Hamlin is healthy
Perhaps the most understated run in a clean race that Gibbs dominated came from its driver of the No. 11 car. Darlington is one of the sport’s most physical tracks, as drivers take a beating on both mind and body. For Hamlin to return from an injury suffered in late May there, and not only come out of it feeling fine but running second shows that L1 Compression Fracture isn’t going to slow him much going forward.
“Really, it's like starting your season over,” he said, completing this distance for the first time since Fontana on March 24th. “It feels good to be competitive again. (But) I got to get back in racing shape. It will take time to get back to where I need to be.”
If that’s Hamlin in “out of shape” mode, drivers better beware. Clearly, the speed of JGR combined with a track position race helped his case. But second’s an A-plus baseline to start from when the task ahead is certainly brutal: Two-three wins, plus top 10s nearly every week to become Chase eligible by September.
FOURTH GEAR: Kurt Busch will put it together
It’s been a frustrating last few weeks for Busch, who’s been in position to win the last three races. At Richmond, he had a top-5 car down the stretch only to have circumstances and a bad last set of tires cost him. Then, at Talladega, he was in the lead pack of six cars, in position to make a run when a late caution bunched the field, jumbled up the draft and led to him being the bullseye in “The Big One.” Finally, at Darlington he won the pole at a track the No. 78 team has won at in the past, then led 69 laps only for his car to deteriorate on every pit stop once the green flag dropped. Busch stayed on the lead lap in the end, but wound up a disappointing 14th. No wonder why the driver’s been testing IndyCars, rumored to run a limited schedule in a crossover stunt later this year with Michael Andretti’s team after topping 218 mph in an Indy 500 rookie test (he won’t run that race this year).
But what’s been notable about this whole stretch in NASCAR land is how relatively calm the elder Busch has remained, even keeping his cool during a war of words post-race with Stewart at Richmond. The speed seems to be there from this team, and its presence up front makes it clear wins could come in the summer, whether at an intermediate (Charlotte? Michigan?) the road course at Sonoma or Daytona in July. Maturity finally may be making its mark. The question now may become where Busch feels his racing future should be, long-term.
OVERDRIVE Kyle Busch might be mad at what happened Saturday night, having left the track without comment, but Monday will offer the benefit of hindsight. With 265 laps led, he dominated and only bad luck kept him from Victory Lane, a curse that will change with time. Eleven times in his career he’s led 200-plus circuits in a race but scored the win in only three of them. ... As expected, the momentum for the two Davids’ thrilling one-two finish at Talladega came back to reality at a track where they just don’t have the horsepower to contend. The Front Row Motorsports cars were 29th and 39th Saturday night, with David Ragan blowing an engine and bowing out early. … What’s going on with Mark Martin? He hasn’t had a top-5 finish now with the No. 55 car since Daytona (third). The driver’s been involved in several on-track scuffles, some of his making and never so much as sniffed the top 20 at Darlington, a track right in his wheelhouse. Perhaps another indication this year will be his last in the series?
“Reganomics” was the rule last Saturday at Talladega and paid huge dividends for the winner Regan Smith in the Nationwide Series event. However, the first installment of Reganonmics was at the 2011 Southern 500. After getting jobbed out of a win at Talladega in 2008, Smith would have to wait three years to get another crack at one — and he delivered in the clutch in Darlington, holding off Carl Edwards on new tires for the final two laps. The win did get a bit overshadowed with the antics between Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in the final laps and on pit road following the race. To Busch’s credit, he actually did try to avoid confrontation twice before Harvick’s car went on a ghost ride into the wall. Busch would later claim his transmission wouldn’t grab reverse, and he didn’t want to get clobbered by Harvick.
by Vito Pugliese
9. 1965 Southern 500: Cale has left the building
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In recent years, NASCAR has made great strides in safety, notably with the installation of “soft wall” SAFER Barriers that line most walls around the circuit’s 23 tracks. Cale Yarborough could have used something like that at Darlinton at the 1965 Southern 500, as his Banjo Matthews owned No. 27 Ford ollies the guardrail and parks it with the fans outside of Turn 1. Check out his comments about it at 3:05 with Richard Petty, Benny Parsons and Darrell Waltrip — as well as those retro New Balances that have just been re-released.
by Vito Pugliese
8. 1997 Southern 500: Earnhardt punches out
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A scary moment in the opening laps of the 1997 Southern 500 occurred when Dale Earnhardt basically blacked out coming to take the green flag and then had trouble finding his way onto pit road. He would later say that he had an episode of double-vision before the incident, but then didn’t remember anything until he got out of the car. Doctors attributed it to a migraine-like episode or broken blood vessel in his brain. A couple of years later, Earnhardt would have surgery to remove a piece of metal from his skull that occurred during a shop incident in the 70’s. Fitting since he was nicknamed “Ironhead.”
by Vito Pugliese
7. 1970 Rebel 500: That’s why they now have window nets
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After seeing the rash of accidents at Talladega — including Kurt Busch barrel rolling and landing atop Ryan Newman’s windshield — it is a wonder nobody was injured. Such was not the case during the height of speedway racing in late 1960s and early ’70s. Richard Petty endures this violent head-on impact into the concrete retaining wall (nothing “soft” about these walls), blasting it apart, and then barrel rolling his Roadrunner, with his body hanging halfway out of the window. Petty would miss the next five races with a broken shoulder, and despite 18 wins that season, finished fourth in the final point standings.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 1993 Southern 500: Martin wins fourth straight
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Mark Martin’s No. 6 Valvoline Thunderbird was on a roll in 1993, and the train kept booking through Darlington. A race that was delayed once for rain, but only featured three caution flags was the perfect complement to the Roush team’s raked Ford that ran roughshod all summer long, tying the modern era record for consecutive wins at four. Ford honored the win by placing a full page ad in the USA Today that read, “It Was Labor Day Weekend, But We Celebrated The Fourth.” Pick up the action around the 3:04 mark and check out the banzai run by Dale Earnahardt. Think things were dark at ‘Dega last weekend? Check out the sun setting behind Turn 2 when Martin pulls into Victory Lane. Also, awesome hat.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 1997 Southern 500: Brother, can you spare a million bucks?
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Jeff Gordon was eligible for the Winston Million in 1997 after winning the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600. We pick up the action at 2:25, with five laps to go, as Jeff Burton gets past Dale Jarrett to get a shot at Gordon’s lead. Don’t let Tony Stewart see this last lap — he will lose it after seeing Gordon’s defensive maneuver coming to take the white flag. After the race, Burton said he would have nailed Gordon had he been able to get back to him. It was only the second time the Winston Million had been won at the time.
by Vito Pugliese
4. 2004 Southern 500: The final “true” Southern 500
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From 1950 to 2004, the Southern 500 was run on Labor Day Weekend. That changed in 2005, when the push for major market exposure meant that Labor Day weekends would move to — gulp! — Southern California. The final “true” Southern 500 was the set up to the inaugural Nextel Cup under the new Chase format. We pick up the action at the 21:00 mark, as the final “true” Southern 500 finds a great race with championship implications unfolding. Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray exchange the lead over the final 100 laps, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has battery problems and some new guy named Carl Edwards is making video game passes with 25 to go. Remind me again why they aren’t racing here twice a year?
by Vito Pugliese
3. 1985 Southern 500: Million Dollar Bill
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In 1985, Bill Elliott was deemed “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” after his Ernie Elliott-powered Coors Ford became the scourge of the speedways in NASCAR. He won the Daytona 500 and Talladega 500, making him eligible for the $1 million bonus put up by Winston for any driver who could win three of NASCAR’s four most prestigious races: Daytona 500, Talladega 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500. Equally awesome call by Larry Nuber here, as Elliott comes to the checkers to become the first winner of the Winston Million. The fans seem pretty excited too, even though he had to beat native South Carolina son Cale Yarborough to do so. Mind you, this was a million dollars in 1985 money — back before the days of multi-million dollar driver contracts, huge purses and lucrative endorsement deals. I mean because now, a million dollars is chump change …
by Vito Pugliese
2. 1979 Rebel 500: A changing of the guard
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Picking up the action at the 6:20 mark, three-time Formula 1 champion Jackie Stewart calls the final five laps with ABC’s “Wide World of Sports’” Jim McKay. This race is cited as the changing of the guard between the previous generation to the next, led by drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott. Richard Petty and Waltrip battle back and forth, exchanging the lead several times. Coincidentally, three of the four cars involved in dictating the final lap of the ’79 Daytona 500 are charging for the win, but this time the outcome is reversed. Of note, nobody makes contact with each other or executes a “bump ‘n’ run” to win. There was a different code back then. And some big-assed boats, ‘70s style.
by Vito Pugliese
1. 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400: Greatest finish in NASCAR’s Modern Era
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The best recipe for cookie cutter tracks and nap-inducing races? Head to the oldest of the old-school racetracks: Darlington. After all, what other track on the circuit can lay claim to the myth that a minnow pond dictated its layout? Larry Mac goes bat guano during the final laps calling this one, with plenty of “hah-side” and “drag race” quips, as Darrell Waltrip cheers on Ricky Craven to victory – which I guess is unbiased and all. Interesting observation, however, by DW, that the pointy Pontiac nose helped get the win for Craven. Ten years later, this is still the closest finish in NASCAR history at .002 seconds. And contrary to what you may think, Kurt Busch wasn’t upset afterwards.
Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Darlington
Darlington Raceway (ASP, Inc.)
1. Darlington celebrates a pair of 10-year milestones, good and bad
Darlington Raceway is the first place NASCAR ever raced on pavement, all the way back on Sept. 4, 1950. That event, the first Labor Day Weekend Southern 500, saw Johnny Mantz win his only NASCAR race as he beat Fireball Roberts and 73 other competitors by at least nine laps.
Saturday night's race will also be known as the Southern 500, but it'll mark the 10th season of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at Darlington without the race being held on the traditional end of summer weekend. NASCAR's shift of that race initially to a November date in 2004 and then completely off the schedule in favor of a second Auto Club Speedway race in 2005 remains one of its most controversial decisions of the past decade.
The race name returned to Darlington for the now-annual Mother's Day weekend race, but much of a the tradition hasn't. The Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend carried a certain swagger thanks to its holiday weekend placement and typically unforgiving daytime temperatures. It was a race every driver wanted to win thanks mostly to the cachet it awarded.
Saturday night's race also marks the 10th season since Darlington produced arguably the most riveting finish in the last decade, if not further. During the 400-mile 2003 spring race, Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven bounced off one another for much of the final three laps. Their tires worn and their cars growing ever more damaged, the pair came together for a final time exiting Turn 4 on the final lap.
Craven nipped Busch at the line by .002 seconds — a mark tied for the closest NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finish in history.
2. Denny Hamlin’s big return
Denny Hamlin's return to the driver's seat of his No. 11 a week ago at Talladega Superspeedway was short-lived, a bit contrived and ultimately unsuccessful in helping him claw back toward Chase for the Sprint Cup competition. Friday at Darlington, however, should mark the return of a full-time Hamlin to the series following his back injury at Auto Club Speedway on March 24.
He couldn't return to a better track, personally. Hamlin has a sterling average finish of 5.9 on the egg-shaped oval, and has led more than 50 laps in three of his seven Darlington starts. To follow up his career-worst 13th-place Darlington finish in 2009, Hamlin responded with his only win there in 2010.
Last year, Hamlin led 56 laps before falling to Jimmie Johnson by .781 seconds.
Saturday night's start marks the beginning of a critical stretch for Hamlin if he wants to bounce back from missing four starts so far in 2013 and qualify for the season's title fight. He's now 31st in points, 76 points behind 20th place and a possible wild card birth.
Should Hamlin nab a couple of wins and get inside the top 20 by Richmond in September, he'd be in excellent position to continue his seven-year streak of Chase qualifications.
"There is a formula," Hamlin said. "When this happened and we started figuring things out of missing races, if we just did what we did last year we would make it. But nothing is a given."
Defending race winner Jimmie Johnson. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Hendrick veterans tough to stop at the Track Too Tough to Tame
With Hamlin likely not physically 100 percent at Darlington, the door has opened a crack further for Hendrick Motorsports' longest tenured drivers in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson to continue their own excellence at the South Carolina track.
Combined, the two have 10 wins, 25 top 5s and 31 top 10s in 48 total starts at the track. Gordon ran into mechanical troubles last season as Johnson took the win, but went from 2004 to 2010 never once finishing worse than fifth. Johnson, meanwhile, led the most laps at Darlington last season (134) en route to his third career win at the track. Johnson's average finish is second best among active series drivers at 9.1, while Gordon's is 11.8 in 32 starts at the tricky speedway.
Gordon also celebrates a milestone Saturday night as he makes his 700th career Sprint Cup start. Gordon's feat also stands as the longest to start a Cup Series career, and will put him just 88 races away from Ricky Rudd's all-time record.
4. Air Titan ready for Round 2?
Rain affected all three races at Talladega Superspeedway a week ago. Sprint Cup and Nationwide both raced into near darkness after rain delayed their proceedings. ARCA had its race shortened Friday as showers rolled in.
It marked the first true test of NASCAR's Air Titan track drying system that early claims touted as being exponentially faster than the long-used jet dryer system. The combination of the two at Talladega didn't prove to be markedly faster — I know, I know, it's no shock that a NASCAR proclamation fell a bit short — but the system may have saved just enough time to get the full races in. All told, 16 of the Air Titan compressed air systems were used at Talladega alongside 10 jet dryers.
Based on forecasts for NASCAR's weekend in Darlington, they might be called in to action again as soon as Friday. Forecasters pinned a 20 percent chance of rain in the vicinity for Friday night's Nationwide Series race, and a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms all day and night Saturday.
Darlington’s 1.366-mile distance, of course, is considerably less than Talladega’s 2.66 miles and will undoubtedly take less time to dry. But rainouts aren't unprecedented at the South Carolina track. In 2007, the Saturday night race was pushed to Sunday afternoon — not long after FOX's Chris Myers insisted to viewers that the race would go off on the night originally planned.
5. Last chance for double All-Star Race qualification
David Ragan's surprising win during last weekend's seven-hour Talladega Superspeedway race gave him all the typical accolades befit that of a Sprint Cup race winner. It includes all of the essentials: the trophy, the points and the big check.
But it also paid off in the form two guaranteed entries to the main event of NASCAR's All-Star Race over the next two years. The race's rules permit entry for race winners in both the current and most recently completed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series seasons. Series and all-star event champions from the past decade also earn automatic entry to the race.
That leaves roughly 25 Sprint Cup regulars still on the outside looking in for next weekend's "A-main" that could pay as much as $2 million. Drivers like Jeff Burton, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. will have to find the checkered flag either Saturday night at Darlington or next weekend in the Sprint Showdown qualifier event.
A win at Darlington is much preferred because it counts in the same two-for-one fashion as Ragan's Talladega win. Before Ragan, Marcos Ambrose was the latest unqualified driver to earn a 2013 all-star event bid with his win last August on the road course at Watkins Glen.