It’s been almost 19 years since a 20-year-old Jeff Gordon made his first NASCAR Sprint Cup start. The day was November 15, 1992; the race the Hooter’s 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And it would go down as the most notable of the sport’s modern era.
Gordon making his first start, Richard Petty his last; six drivers entered the season finale with a mathematical shot at the title; the underfunded, single-car outfit of Alan Kulwicki edged Junior Johnson’s powerhouse team headed by Bill Elliott for the championship by outsmarting it. It’s a race talked about to this day and revered for its significance.
Fast forward to a 40-year-old Gordon, now a four-time champion and elder statesman of the sport. He may never catch Richard Petty’s unattainable 200 wins, but win No. 85 placed him alone in third on NASCAR’s all-time wins list — and the sight of the achievement came at a track that will always be linked to Gordon: Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“I’ve always enjoyed this racetrack,” Gordon said. “Running my first race here, winning some big races here, celebrating championships here — this place has always been a place I’ve enjoyed going to.”
Gordon fought protégé teammate and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson in a thrilling dogfight over the final 11 laps at AMS to win the AdvoCare 500.
“To me (this race) is going to stand out in my mind because it’s a great victory,” Gordon said. “And certainly when you’re battling with a guy as talented as Jimmie and a team as good as they are, it’s definitely going to be one (a win) that’s significant.”
The race was delayed nearly two days after heavy rains from what was Tropical Depression Lee saturated the Atlanta area, postponing Sunday’s Labor Day weekend race to Tuesday morning. Gordon, who started fifth, found the race lead by lap 46 and led 100 of the next 156 laps. On lap 202, the race went into a rain-induced caution and red-flag period. Another yellow for rain followed just one lap after the field had gone back to green.
Matt Kenseth, who led 64 laps, had taken control of the race by then, followed closely by Gordon, Johnson and Carl Edwards.
An accident involving Mark Martin and Regan Smith on lap 251 brought out the event’s final caution. Johnson, Edwards, Kenseth and Gordon occupied the first two rows when the race went green, and Johnson sprinted out to a decisive lead.
Gordon picked off the contenders one-by-one, though, passing Kenseth for third with 64 laps to go and Edwards for second with 60 remaining. Eleven laps later, he squeezed by Johnson and led for eight laps.
Green flag pit stops for fresh tires and gas found Gordon with a shrunken advantage over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate as the field’s stops cycled through. And although the duo sparred, slid and roared door-to-door through the race’s final dozen laps, Gordon never relinquished the lead.
“I just didn’t have enough to get by (Gordon),” Johnson said of the final duel. “I got inside of him a couple times, got to the outside once, and just didn’t have enough regroup to kind of get there and stay there. The time I got to the outside of him, I felt I was going to be in good shape. But I think we had a lap car get in the way there and use me as a pick a little bit, couldn’t complete the pass.”
Tony Stewart charged through the top 10 over the final 70 laps to finish third. Kurt Busch and Edwards rounded out the top 5.
Brad Keselowski finished sixth, but more importantly, secured one of the two wild card spots in the Chase. Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman also clinched Chase berths based on points earned.
Jeff Gordon, 40-years-old now, was just a wide-eyed 20-something when his biggest challenge was to topple the man they called “The Intimidator.” Dale Earnhardt Sr. called him Wonder Boy; Gordon often simply called him on the phone, angry, once the race was over after the Man In Black had used his bumper to make a point. Together, they clashed in one of the series’ most compelling rivalries: Gordon denied Earnhardt a record eighth championship in 1995 and went on to win two more over the next three seasons while Earnhardt began a precipitous decline.
Off the track, the two gradually became friends and business partners — but on it? The battles for position were filled with ferocity. Earnhardt, who detested the multi-car system — he never believed in the modern conception of a “teammate” — was forced to adapt as Richard Childress Racing expanded to combat the burgeoning Hendrick Motorsports dynasty. On-track, the sparring clearly went Gordon and Hendrick’s way in the end: 52 victories for the No. 24 compared to 17 for Earnhardt’s team from 1994-2000. Even now, in 2011, Earnhardt’s RCR organization has yet to win another title since Gordon’s first, always a step behind in the expansion from two cars, to three, to four.
And as for Hendrick? They’ve become the class of Sprint Cup’s elite, with five straight titles and nine overall since the beginning of the 1995 season.
I bring this all up because Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., has just inked his legacy with the very team that tortured his father on-track during the 1990s. I guess if you can’t beat ‘em … join ‘em. Earnhardt Jr.’s deal, running through 2017, means he’ll spend at least a decade driving for Hendrick Motorsports, running the No. 88 until the ripe old age of 43. That easily eclipses eight-plus years driving for his father’s former company, DEI, and becomes the place through which his NASCAR career will be forever judged. There will be no magical transfer to Richard Childress Racing or running the No. 3 car that made his father famous. And there will be no resurrection of his father’s company, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Instead, JR Motorsports, a non-Hendrick entity pretty much in name only keeps the extended family employed and the dollars rolling in to the Hendrick hub. Danica Patrick’s full-time addition to that roster in 2012 pretty much sealed the deal on an extension everyone knows was Earnhardt’s only desire for months.
“It’s great to have it all wrapped up so quickly and far in advance,” Earnhardt said in a press release announcing the signing. “Rick and I were on the same page from the first time we talked about it, so there wasn’t any sense in waiting. There were never any questions or hesitations from either of us. It was just, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’
“I’m really happy at Hendrick Motorsports and enjoy working with everyone here. The team’s been very competitive this season, and we’re all excited about the direction of things. I want to make sure we’re giving our fans something to cheer about for a long time.”
And so Junior smiles, for reasons unknown, as he has a single victory and 18 top-5 finishes in his first four years driving the No. 88. In comparison, Earnhardt, Jr. had six wins, 16 top 5s, and 21 top 10s in a single season driving his No. 8 DEI Chevrolet in 2004, a year he won the Daytona 500 and came just one Atlanta misfortune away from a title. With Johnson, Gordon and the incoming Kasey Kahne on the Hendrick roster for 2012, you wonder whether there will ever be room for Earnhardt to achieve such gaudy numbers again. Even this year — a promising rebuilding season under crew chief Steve Letarte — he’s on track to lead fewer laps (less than 100, in fact) than any season in his 12-year Cup career.
Of course, DEI was no longer an option the second Earnhardt, Jr. had the infamous falling out with stepmother Teresa. Fantasy endings for NASCAR’s favorite son, long a part of the “old guard” of millions of Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans, went out the window at that moment and Hendrick swooped in where the figment of their imagination left off. What’s left of that old DEI organization is being run almost exclusively by Chip Ganassi, signing on as a partner at the conclusion of 2008; even Earnhardt, Jr.’s nephew, Jeffrey, is now out of the fold, having signed to run Grand Am next year with Rick Ware Racing.
Meanwhile, Childress changed his focus long ago from reuniting with an Earnhardt to helping one of his grandsons develop into a champion. Austin Dillon, along with younger brother Ty, will hold the key to the organization’s success or failure over the course of the coming decade. Austin, contending for the Truck Series title, is even rumored to one day drive Dale Sr.’s former No. 3 at the Cup level. Of course, there’s only so long a car owner can wait for an opening. By 2017, Childress will be 72, possibly retired and handing the keys to son-in-law and longtime right-hand man Mike Dillon.
So who knows what the next six years will bring for Earnhardt at Hendrick. But all we know now is a man whose father set a path for his future will finish it the one place no one thought he’d ever be: behind the wheel of the team that brought his father down. In the end, when they write out this career resume, Hendrick and Earnhardt — names once on opposite sides of the spectrum — will join together for the legacy of the sport’s Most Popular Driver this century.
Yes, you wonder if the Intimdator is watching it all unfold, and how he must be reacting upstairs. God help his rivals in tonight’s Friday Night Short Track Spectacular up in Heaven…
Brad Keselowski had sniffed the lead all night long, but it wasn’t until the final restart of the Irwin Tools Bristol Night Race that he finally grabbed it and took it as his own. Keselowski shot past Martin Truex Jr. on the race’s final restart, and with clean air and a clean windshield, cruised to an impressive win at Bristol Motor Speedway’s famed night race.
Keselowski — the hottest young phenom on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit — used crafty pit road work by himself and his No. 2 Penske Racing team to position himself on the outside of the front row beside Truex after the race was flagged for its final caution period. And when the green flag waved with 80 laps remaining, his four tires propelled him past Truex’s two, and the Michigan native walked away with his third win of the season.
“The Bristol Night Race!” An ecstatic Keselowski yelled from Victory Lane. “This is a race like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt win — this is a race of champions! There’s races that pay more, there’s races that might have a little more prestige, but this is the coolest damn one of them all. We won today!”
Truex, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top 5.
Keselowski’s win is the latest result in a hot streak out of the second-year Cup driver that has witnessed runs of ninth, first, second, third and first in the last five races. In that time he has vaulted up the Sprint Cup championship rankings, from 23rd to 11th, just 21 points out of the final spot in the Chase for the Championship standings. Whether he catches Tony Stewart in 10th is almost irrelevant, as Keselowski’s three wins all but guarantee him a wild card slot in NASCAR’s Chase playoff system. However, wild card entries into the Chase are not awarded bonus points for wins, so if Keselowski fails to qualify via points, his victories — and the 30 points he would receive for them — would be voided.
“Twenty-one points is still a lot of points,”?Keselowski said. “That means you’ve got to beat the guy (in 10th) by over 10 positions over the course of two races. Beating Tony Stewart by an average of 10 positions over two races — that’s going to be pretty tough to be honest.
“I’m just happy with what we’ve done here tonight and I hate to look too far ahead, but having those (bonus) points for three wins would be huge in the Chase.”
Keselowski’s unlikely run began with a ninth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his fifth top-10 run of the season. But a broken ankle sustained in a practice crash at Road Atlanta looked to derail his Chase hopes. However, Keselowski soldiered on, notching a surprising win at Pocono just days later and followed that up with an even more unlikely runner-up showing at the road course in Watkins Glen. A third-place run at his home track in Michigan was his career best finish on the two-mile oval and preceded the unlikely Bristol triumph on Saturday.
“Keselowski (and) those guys are on a roll right now,” the four-time champ Gordon said. “We all have to keep our eye on him. He’s strong. They’re to me as strong of a team out there as there is.
“Since (the Road Atlanta crash) he’s been on fire. He proved to all of us he’s tougher than we thought. We always knew he was a great racecar driver.”
Johnson’s fourth-place finish tied him atop the point standings with Kyle Busch, who had an uncharacteristically off night at Bristol, finishing 14th.
The top 5 in the standings — Busch, Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick — are all locked into the Chase. Denny Hamlin currently occupies the final wild card spot courtesy of his win at Michigan in June.
The question that has been on everyone’s mind in NASCAR was finally answered last Thursday. No, not why Kyle Busch is suddenly sporting a demure part in his hair versus his normal spikey doo (you have to at least give the impression of being a mature, 26-year-old solid-citizen when zapped at 128 mph in a 45 while driving a loaner), but the announcement that has been nearly three years in the making: Danica Patrick is finally headed to NASCAR, full-time. Lock, stock and barrel.
Hmm, that’s odd … nobody really seems that surprised.
Clearly, the announcement was a bit anti-climatic. Ever since Patrick first wheeled something with fenders in a Daytona ARCA race in 2010, executing one of the best "Look-Ma-No-Hands!" saves through the infield grass, it was a foregone conclusion that the second-biggest name in North American motorsports would be heading south.
After starting off a bit rocky in her rookie season on the Nationwide trail in 2010 — that saw an early exit in the season opener at Daytona followed by laps-down runs and an average finishing position of 28th in 13 races — many thought that it would merely be a flash-in-the-pan performance and yet another reality check for open wheelers who have found the going tough in stock car country.
Not so fast. What former teammate and fellow IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti gave up on following half a season in 2008, Patrick is committing to for the entire 2012 season and beyond. She will run the full Nationwide Series schedule next season in the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for JR Motorsports as well as eight to 10 Sprint Cup Series races for Stewart-Haas Racing.
So with her future no longer in doubt, what should Patrick’s main concern be at the moment? It may just be to temper expectations.
Don’t take that as a knock against her — if anything, it is the polar opposite. For much of her IndyCar career, Patrick has been the main attraction for a struggling series that saw a distinct lack of American talent — and a proportionate amount of American eyes. Ever since the CART/IRL debacle of the mid 1990s, the Coca-Cola 600 has slowly become the premier Memorial Day weekend race on this side of the pond, as open-wheeled racing in America slid into obscurity. It was Patrick’s arrival at the Brickyard in 2005 as a rookie — and a female that finished fourth — that stood the racing world on its ear and made people take notice of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing once again.
Since then, the knock against Patrick has been that she simply hasn’t won anything and was quickly becoming auto racing’s Anna Kournikova. The comparisons and criticism was unfounded and way out of line, often thrown about by stick-and-ball beat writers who have next to no knowledge of the intricacies and nuances of motorsports. It’s one thing to question why Shaquille O’Neal can’t put a ball in a hole that he’s practically eye-level with and 15 feet away from; it’s another to ask somebody why they’re .10 seconds off a 220-plus mph pace against some of the greatest names in auto racing while driving for a late night talk show host.
Patrick’s peers have not had the easiest go of it in NASCAR, either. Paul Tracy made a handful of starts in the Nationwide Series in 2006, averaging nearly a 34th place finish — one of which was a 37th-place effort at the road course in Mexico City. Dario Franchitti averaged a 17.4-place finish in ’08, buoyed in part by a fifth at Watkins Glen. Franchitti ran 10 Sprint Cup races the same season for Felix Sabates (now Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing), failing to qualify twice while posting a best finish of 22nd at Martinsville, of all places. Most of his entries were miserable runs that resembled start-and-park efforts; consistent finishes in the mid- 30s and 40s, prompting his return to IndyCar.
Formula One winner Juan Pablo Montoya has found the going tough in NASCAR, too, posting only a pair of wins since entering the Cup Series full-time in 2007 — both coming on road courses. His average finish in his fifth full season is hovering around 20th, and he has only made the Chase once (2009). Another Formula One competitor, Scott Speed, has also struggled in stock cars, battling desperately to stay involved in the sport after showing promise in ARCA his first year out, and winning a Truck Series race in only his sixth start. Even former Ferrari ace Kimi Raikkonen had a hard time taming a Toyota Tundra at Charlotte this year in a Truck Series race.
Patrick, on the other hand, has a hard-fought fourth-place run (Las Vegas) and a pair of 10th-place showings (Daytona, Chicagoland) in seven starts this year. The Daytona run, in particular, was promising as — much like late in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 — she was leading with just four laps to go. So clearly she has the chops for this — more so than some of the other guys she is following from the same ranks.
One could argue that “Danicamania” in ’05 was the “Greatest Spectacle” the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had seen in nearly a decade. Leading with seven laps remaining in her first shot driving in the biggest race on the planet, Patrick ended up fourth, garnering more attention that day, and in the subsequent weeks, than the race winner — much to said-winner Dan Wheldon’s chagrin.
At the next race, Wheldon showed up sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “I Actually Won The Indy 500.”
In a sense, Patrick is in a similar position now as a full-time NASCAR competitor — albeit in the stepping-stone Nationwide Series. NASCAR’s former feeder series had over the course of the last seven or eight seasons been less about driver development than it had been about Cup teams and drivers getting an extra tire test on Saturday. With the recent revisions to the point system allotted and the introduction of a unique next-generation car featuring musclecar nameplates of Dodge’s iconic Challenger and the ubiquitous Ford Mustang, the NASCAR’S triple-A division has begun to generate its own identity and garner renewed focus. And with Patrick on board for 2012, there will be many more taking a second look on Saturday.
However, the appetizer on NASCAR’s weekly menu is just setting the stage for her eventual main course: the Sprint Cup Series. Running a third of the races in 2012, it will be yet another steep learning curve for Patrick. While 2013 marks the expected graduation to the top-level in NASCAR, it also marks the debut of the next generation CoT for the Cup Series — one that looks to evolve from its current incarnation, incorporating many of the features and attributes found on the current Nationwide CoT. This will help serve to prevent the confusion of trying to learn two different stock cars at once, which was part of the problem for Montoya in ’07 and Franchitti in ’08.
Also helping to sustain Patrick in this new venture is the fact that it would do the sport well to see her succeed. As if the daily "Drudge Report" headlines aren’t enough to remind you that we are one errant move away from collapsing the entire Jenga! stack that is our economy, finding money to fund race cars isn’t exactly at the top of every company’s to-do list. Since she arrived in 2010, Patrick has been coached and mentored by the best in the business. Veterans like Mark Martin, Johnny Benson Jr., Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all taken time to get her up to speed before and during races to accelerate her learning curve and curtail some of the stumbles that befell her first few races last season.
They say a rising tide floats all ships, and it is in NASCAR’s best interest for Admiral Patrick to set sail successfully, otherwise there are going to be a lot of teams, drivers and sponsors knocking each other over to get to the nearest lifeboat should their be red sky at morning in 2012.
So what should be considered a successful 2012 Nationwide Series season for Patrick?
A top-15 finish in the points is more than doable, considering the sparse amount of legit full-time entries running for a championship. She could even pull off a win at a restrictor plate track with a little help from her bevy of teammates in and around the Hendrick Motorsports/JR Motorsports/Stewart-Haas Racing umbrella. If she gets the feel and balance of the cars figured out, a win at an intermediate track isn’t totally out of the question either — and of course, there’s no shame in winning races on fuel mileage. Based on that criteria, Patrick would be in pretty solid standing — heck, just ask Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski or Brian Vickers.
Her biggest test will simply be learning all the tracks, how the car changes during a race, what to look for, what to ask for, staking her flag in the ground and not giving way to other drivers just because she’s “a girl.” Patrick has already done that twice in 2011 with James Buescher and Ryan Truex. Those two incidents didn’t turn out so hot, but they did serve to prove that she can take a hit and keep getting back up.
Besides, if all else fails, she’ll still probably fare better than Steven Wallace and not run into too many other cars. But God help them if anyone tries to pull her hair …
Danica Patrick and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
Dancia Patrick is coming to NASCAR full-time. The current IndyCar Series driver and “GoDaddy.com girl” announced on Wednesday that she will leave the open-wheel series at the conclusion of the 2011 season to drive the JR Motorsports GoDaddy.com No. 7 Chevrolet in a full Nationwide Series campaign in 2012. JR Motorsports is owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Patrick and GoDaddy.com CEO Bob Parsons held a press conference in Phoenix, Ariz. — Patrick’s and GoDaddy.com’s hometown — in which they each signed the driver/sponsorship contract and unveiled her 2012 paint scheme.
Patrick says they are planning a partial Sprint Cup Series schedule in 2012 in a Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy, but would not speculate on rumors that she will run in the season-opening Daytona 500 (though it is widely believed she will). Patrick stated she will likely run eight to 10 races, and that a full-time Cup schedule in 2013 is the goal.
As for the 2012 Indianapolis 500, Patrick said she was “still uncertain” as to whether she will participate.
In 20 NASCAR Nationwide Series starts in 2010-11, Patrick has one top-5 finish — a fourth at Las Vegas in March — and two additional top 10s (10th-place runs at Chicago and Daytona in 2011).
Currently in her seventh season on the IndyCar circuit, Patrick has one career win (Montegi, 2008) and 61 top-10 runs in 111 starts.
He looks like the "New Kyle" only when champagne is involved. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Kyle Busch “The Surgeon” begins to pull away … kind of like he’s going 128 mph and the rest of the field is doing the 45 mph speed limit.
2. Jimmie Johnson To those harping about how Johnson is ripe for the taking, take notice that he has only six finishes worse than 11th (in 23 races) this year and sits second in the point standings. Blue 48, prepare to make your Chase run.
3. Jeff Gordon The four-time champ has averaged a seventh-place finish since the calendar turned to June. And in this point system — even more than the last — consistency is key.
4. Brad Keselowski The Keselowski Express rolls on with a third-place showing at Michigan on the heels of first- and second-place showings. Is he a title contender? Let’s not go there yet, but man, is he turning heads.
5. Carl Edwards A stalwart atop the Horsepower Rankings throughout the season, Edwards’ performance was supposed to improve after he re-signed with Jack Roush, not plateau off in mediocrity.
6. Matt Kenseth Led a largely-disappointing Roush contingent at Michigan — one that saw teammate Greg Biffle win the pole and lead the most laps. But in the end, Kenseth’s 10th was the best Uncle Jack could muster.
Apparently, the Aflac duck wasn't available. It got roasted along with Carl's engine. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
7. Ryan Newman Newman is very quietly putting together a solid season. He’s no Kyle Busch, but if things continue along the current path, he could make a respectable showing in the championship standings.
8. Kevin Harvick Harvick has been awful quiet lately. Too quiet, in fact. Makes me wish for the days of his grandstanding with Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Rudd, Carl Edwards ... am I leaving anyone out?
9. Kurt Busch Wonder if, after 38th- and 34th-place runs, Kurt is wishing he was still behind the wheel of the Miller Lite Dodge? After all, his scripted sponsor plugs worked better then. Kind of.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior sits 10th here not because of his impressive performances, but because no one else has wrested it from him. And at this point, that wouldn’t be hard to do.
11. Mark Martin Showing real signs of speed the last few weeks — and there’s still time to sneak into this Chase.
12. Tony Stewart His cars aren’t handling right, he’s frustrated, Bristol is up next and he’s on the Chase bubble. NASCAR media beware!
13. Denny Hamlin Sometimes you get the feeling Denny gets inside his own head.
14. Greg Biffle At least he’s qualifying better these days ...
15. Clint Bowyer Somehow still hanging in at 11th in the standings, which may speak to the competition down there.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr.
Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter@MattTaliaferro
There was no fuel mileage or weather-related strategy involved in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway — only pure, unadulterated horsepower. And Kyle Busch had the most of it, pulling away from Jimmie Johnson on a green-white-checker restart to win his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of 2011, and in the process, take the lead in the championship standings.
Of course, the first order of business for Busch was disposing of Johnson, whose ascension to the top of the pylon was a fortuitous one. He was the first driver to make his regularly scheduled pit stop under green flag conditions with 32 laps remaining. As he exited his stall, the yellow flag was displayed, and when the rest of the lead lap cars hit pit road under caution, Johnson assumed the lead.
He held that position — followed by Busch — after the green waved until a hard-charging Busch passed the five-time champion with 18 laps remaining. Busch drove away from there, but was drawn back to the field when his brother, Kurt, blew a tire and hit the Turn 1 wall with four laps to go.
Under the ensuing caution, the top 8, including Busch, Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, stayed on the track while a number of cars — led by eighth-place Ryan Newman — hit pit road for tires.
No amount of new tires, yellow flags or green-white-checker restarts would stop Busch, though. He dusted Johnson at the line when the green waved and walked away for a .568-second victory.
“I saw the 2 (Keselowski) was going to restart on the inside,” Busch said of the final restart. “I didn't know whether he was going to push the 48 (Johnson) or try to make it three-wide. I figured I'd just give myself the best opportunity to win, and that was just to run the topside, keep my momentum rolling up through Turns 1 and 2.
“When we got down in there (Turn 1), we were side-by-side a little bit. Jimmie had to pinch his car a little bit too much being the inside guy. Whether you get tight or loose, it's going to be hard to hold yourself off that outside guy. I figured I'd just give myself all the room that I needed to my outside in case I needed to run as high I could. There wasn't much debate from my side.”
With the win, Busch became the first driver to clinch a Chase berth and now leads the series with four wins this year.
“I feel like it's anybody's game right now still,” Busch said of the championship. “Although the 99 (Carl Edwards) had problems today, they can still come back. (The) 48 is going to be tough; 29 (Kevin Harvick) is going to be good. Hopefully, we can get our teammate in there with the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and he'll be good, too.”
Edwards and Hamlin — two drivers that had experienced a plethora of success at Michigan over the last few years — were both snakebit on Sunday. Edwards had engine issues early that dropped him 28 laps off the lead lap and finished 36th. Hamlin hit the wall with 71 laps to go when a tire went down and wound up 35th.
The poor showing dropped Edwards from the points lead to a tie for third, 39 markers behind Busch. Hamlin’s day may prove to be much more costly. Already on the playoff bubble, last year’s Chase runner-up slipped to 14th in the standings; his only saving grace being a win that — as of this week — would qualify him as a wild card Chase participant.
The other current wild card qualifier is Keselowski, who finished third, marking his third consecutive top-3 finish. At 12th in the standings, he owns two wins which lead any driver outside of the top 12 — and with apologies to Busch and his No. 18 crew, may be the hottest driver and team on the circuit.
“One good run breeds another good run,” Keselowski said. “I'm not sure how to quantify that — how or why. I think I'm probably a little too close to the fire to truly understand it. But (the last three weeks have) been amazing. It's been more than I could ever ask for and exactly what we were looking for out of our team here at Penske Racing and everyone that supports us.”
Three races remain in NASCAR’s regular season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart sit ninth and 10th in the standings and, despite not having a win, would be the final two to qualify for the Chase via points. Clint Bowyer is 11th, 24 points behind Stewart, but does not have a wild card win to fall back on as of yet. Keselowski, in 12th, is 72 back of Stewart, followed by Greg Biffle (-58), Hamlin (-59, one win) and AJ Allmendinger (-62). Paul Menard and David Ragan are the only other two drivers ranked 11th-20th that have a wild card win, but they sit mired in 18th (Menard) and 20th (Ragan).
Brian Keselowski's Rockingham wreck — sans SAFER barriers. (Photo by Yvonne Leonard)
by Mike Neff
Word this past week that Rockingham Speedway is taking a step toward increased driver safety has sparked interest that the historic track could be moving a little closer to having NASCAR national touring series races return. The management of the facility has announced that SAFER barriers will be installed in two phases by the end of the year, ultimately covering the turns and the inside wall on the backstretch. Whatever the reason for the improvements to the facility, it is a very positive step for the track and any drivers who will compete there.
Rockingham Speedway is a one-mile track with high-banked corners that hosted NASCAR events from 1965-2004. Its high banking makes for high speeds that can translate into dangerous situations for drivers making contact with walls that are made of concrete or metal. This past spring, Brian Keselowski had a big wreck during the USAR Pro Cup race when a tire blew heading into Turn 1 — the fastest portion of the track. Whether they get a Nationwide and/or Truck race, putting SAFER barriers on the walls is a terrific move for the safety of anyone competing at the facility.
Rockingham has been working to return to national prominence since it reopened in 2008 with a much-ballyhooed ARCA race featuring Ken Schrader and Joey Logano. A huge crowd — in ARCA terms — filled the stands to celebrate the return of active racing to The Rock. Since then, track owner Andy Hillenberg and his group have hosted several races for the benefit of fans in the Sandhills region of North Carolina, from regional to national touring series. However, they have not been able to secure a NASCAR touring series date in any of its top three series. One of the big stumbling blocks has been the lack of SAFER barriers, which are required by NASCAR’s sanctioning body for a national touring division race.
The second step, and by far the bigger stumbling block for Rockingham to get back on the NASCAR national schedule, is the testing ban at NASCAR-sanctioned tracks. The niche that Rockingham has established for itself is that it’s a testing destination for the locally-based NASCAR teams. Between the big track and “Little Rock” — the Martinsville-esque half-mile also on the grounds — there is testing taking place at Rockingham hundreds of days a year. This testing has been the lifeblood of the track since the ban was implemented. Foregoing all of that testing is going to be a major revenue hit for the facility that will most likely be too big of a pill to swallow. Provided an agreement can be worked out where teams can still test at Little Rock, the move might make sense for Hillenberg.
The ultimate question for Rockingham is whether the fans are going to come out and support the track. We constantly hear complaints that NASCAR has turned its back on the shorter, local tracks — particularly in the Southeast — but when push comes to shove, the fans have not shown up when the opportunity has been presented. The UARA/Pro Cup doubleheader that was held at Rockingham earlier this year saw roughly 500 people in the stands. Another track, Nashville Superspeedway, has shut down because crowds continued to shrink after the initial boost from the opening of the track. North Wilkesboro Speedway was reopened and, while crowds were continuing to grow with each event that took place, the stands were far from full. In order for these tracks to survive, thrive and ultimately regain a position on the NASCAR touring schedules, the fans must support them with their attendance.
Putting on a Truck or Nationwide Series event is a major financial commitment for a racetrack. The overhead on race day is far greater than the kind of expense involved with hosting a UARA race. From a safety perspective, there isn’t much difference because the safety provided to competitors during a race is the same no matter the series; however, the additional financial obligation is far greater. More ushers, concessions workers, traffic directors, law enforcement officers, supplies and myriad other things are required to stage an elite-level event. On top of those expenditures, there are sanctioning fees that have to be paid to NASCAR, which balloon into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. When considering all of the expense involved — piled on top of the revenue that will be lost by not having testing at the big track — it is easy to see what a gamble it is for Rockingham to host a Truck or Nationwide race.
Fans have paid lip service for some time to the lack of respect for history and tradition NASCAR has shown over the last 15 years. As the economic recovery has struggled to take shape and tracks have been forced to allow national touring events leave their facilities, it has come to the point where the opportunity is presenting itself for the race fans to put up or shut up. If Rockingham chooses to put on a Truck or Nationwide race in the near future it will be up to the fans to prove to NASCAR the track’s worth by showing up in strong numbers for years — not just on opening day.
Fans can honestly affect the future NASCAR schedules by showing support for a small-market track. If the fans fail to show up for a race like that at Rockingham, they have no one but themselves to blame when tracks lose dates to shiny, newer facilities in bigger markets.
From the Spotter's Stand
Denny Hamlin had one Heluva Good! run at the June 2010 race with the sour cream dip sponsor, leading 123 of 200 laps and cruising to his second straight win — after taking the checkers at Pocono the week before — with a 1.246-second margin over runner-up Kasey Kahne and pole-sitter Kurt Busch (60 laps led).
The August trip in 2010 to the 2-mile oval in Brooklyn, Mich., was a little more exciting. Kevin Harvick became the first driver to clinch a spot in the Chase after outdueling runner-up Hamlin, passing the 11 ride on Lap 190 before taking a 1.731-second victory. Despite not taking tires on the final caution, Harvick was able to handle well enough for his first MIS win.
Earlier this season, it was Hamlin again finding Victory Lane. Although Greg Biffle led the most laps (68), but Hamlin's FedEx crew got the No. 11 Toyota on track first under a round of yellow-flag stops with under 10 laps remaining. He then outran Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards to grab his one and only win of the year thus far.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Michigan is a track that demands a driver hit his marks lap after lap, setting the car up for a run into the next corner. If the momentum is lost, the lap time goes with it. A delicate combination of balance, using downforce and grip, ultimately separates the contenders from the mid-packers. Drivers love Michigan, and a large part of that is because it’s easy. It’s wall-to-wall racing. The driver can run low, high or in the middle. It’s easy to pass. It’s not the fans’ idea of a perfect track, but it’s pretty close for the drivers. Michigan’s pavement has very low grip, but it’s not too big a problem because the track is so wide and there’s so much room.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Carl Edwards’ 12 top 10s in 14 starts (two wins) at MIS is ridiculous. Pretty Solid Pick: Carl’s Roush Fenway Racing teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Good Sleeper Pick: Red Bull Racing’s Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers could turn heads here, as each has one Michigan win already on the resume. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Despite being red hot lately, Brad Keselowski has been ice cold at his home track. Insider Tip: Fuel mileage will come into play. Know which teams get good MPG and have crafty crew chiefs.
Classic Moments at Michigan
It’s Awesome Bill’s most awesome performance at what may be his best racetrack, as Bill Elliott drives the iconic No. 9 Coors Melling Thunderbird to its fourth consecutive win at Michigan in the 1986 Champion Spark Plug 400.
Elliott leads 125 of 200 laps in an event that isn’t without controversy. A hard-charging Tim Richmond falls from second to fifth late in the race after confusion over when a caution is displayed. Richmond races back to second after the restart but is not able to run Elliott down on the last lap.
The race is also notable in that David Pearson makes his final NASCAR start. Pearson, who won a record nine races at MIS, finishes 10th in the No. 21 Chattanooga Chew Chevy.