Kasey Kahne grabs first NASCAR Sprint Cup win of 2013
Kasey Kahne in Bristol's Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
After leading the most laps last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway only to run second to Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne felt he had something to prove on Sunday. And with Bristol Motor Speedway being the next stop on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, all the better, as Kahne had yet to win on the tough half-mile racetrack in East Tennessee.
And prove it he did. Kahne got the jump on Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin during the final restart of the Food City 500 and cruised, leading the final 40 laps to notch his first Cup victory on Bristol’s high banks.
“This is a big race (win) for me,” Kahne said. “I just feel like when you’re racing in the Sprint Cup Series, Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver you really feel like you need to win at, you want to win at. There's so many things that are thrown at you when you come to this place.
“We've been trying (to win at Bristol for) a long time. So to pull it off, I felt like it was a big accomplishment for our guys and myself. Just feel really good about it.”
Kahne, who led 109 laps, dueled with Hamlin at the front of the field throughout the afternoon. Keselowski joined the fray with less than 100 laps remaining and the trio swapped the point until Jimmie Johnson blew a tire to bring out the caution with 46 laps to go.
The nine cars at the front of the pack — led by Keselowski and Kahne — elected not to pit. When the green flag waved, Keselowski was bumped from behind by Hamlin, causing his No. 2 Ford to bobble. That momentary loss of traction was all Kahne’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevy needed.
Kahne held off the aggressive trio of Kyle Busch, Keselowski and Clint Bowyer for five laps, then pulled away to a 1.7-second victory. Busch, Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Bowyer rounded out the top 5.
“I just know my rear tires were off the ground before I got to the restart zone,” Keselowski said of the deciding restart. “Eventually I got hit so hard it pushed my foot in the gas pedal. That was the deal. Never had another chance.”
The win was Kahne’s first of 2013 after stumbling out of the gate to 36th- and 19th-place finishes. Keselowski’s third-place run was his fourth top 5 in four races this year. He leads in the point standings by nine over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who logged a sixth at Bristol.
As is typical in Bristol’s tight confines, it was a physical 500-mile affair. The race was slowed 10 times for cautions. The most notable came on lap 391, when Jeff Gordon blew a right front tire while leading. He collected second-place Kenseth in the process, ending each driver’s day.
Post-race fireworks erupted when Joey Logano had to be restrained from Hamlin’s parked No. 11 Toyota. Logano had been spun by his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate while the former ran second on lap 349.
“That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car — probably the worst teammate I ever had, so I learned that now,” Logano said. “He decided to run into the back of me … I have a scorecard and I’m not putting up with that. What goes around comes around.”
“He said he was comin’ for me,” Hamlin stated, when asked what Logano said upon confronting him. “I usually don’t see him (on the track), so it’s usually not a factor.
“It’s Bristol racing and everyone is fighting for the top. He knew he had to get to the top (groove) as soon as he could, but I was up there. I did mean to (hit him), but I didn’t mean to wreck him. That was a mistake.”
Logano wasn’t buying it.
“Oh, OK, sure,” Logano said. “If he didn’t mean to wreck me he would have said he was sorry, but he didn’t say that. It’s just frustrating.”
The two drivers engaged in a war of words on Twitter following the Daytona 500, when Hamlin tweeted to Logano's Penske Racing teammate, Keselowski, that he was “sorry I couldn’t get close to you (to draft) cuz your genius teammate was too busy messing up the inside lane 1 move at a time.”
The events at Bristol spilled over to the popular social media site once again.
Logano started the string of tweets, saying about their confrontation: “Hey @dennyhamlin great job of protecting that genius brain of yours by keeping your helmet on.”
“Why’s that … what would you do?” replied Hamlin.
“Show you some love and appreciation.”
“Last time I checked he had my cell and direct message button to choose from if he’s got a problem,” Hamlin concluded. “Otherwise, hush little child.”
The Kool-Aid Man on the hood of Michael Waltrip’s No. 30 Pontiac probably didn’t let loose with an “Oh Yeah!!!” after busting through the wall at Bristol in a Grand National race back in 1990. Michael was knocked a little loopy – well, more so than usual – giving quite a scare to everyone in attendance and watching on TV. Sure, people can joke about it now, but at the time it was say-a-prayer moment for all involved.
—by Vito Pugliese
11. 1994: Mark Martin vs. The Flagman
2 of 13
Before Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing decided to launch an all-out assault on the minor leagues of NASCAR a few years ago, Mark Martin’s No. 60 Winn-Dixie Ford was the scourge of what was then the Busch Grand National Series. Martin put on a clinic, leading 195 of the 250 laps on this day in Bristol, while a late-race crash between Hermie Sadler and Robert Pressley saw the race concluding under caution – no green-white-checker finishes in those days. As the field was coming up to congratulate Martin, he was shifting gears, preparing to go run final practice in his Cup car. He had radio problems all day, and Jack Roush who would spot for him, was on his way down off the stand. Martin ducked to find Victory Lane one lap early, surrendering the win to eventual 1994 champ David Green. Ironically, it would be Green’s only win of his title year.
10. 2002: “Hey, you’re tearin’ our s*%! up!”
3 of 13
Whether he was grabbing a fistful of Tony Stewart’s uniform at Daytona, walking into traffic like Harry Callahan to blast a helmet at Michael Waltrip or cleaning house in Montreal, nobody would ever accuse Robby Gordon of laying down. In 2002, driving for Richard Childress, Gordon got into it with the sport’s new most popular driver. Junior had some choice words for Robby as well. Not as good as his “cue ball-headed fool” blast on Todd Bodine, but good nonetheless. He does lack some originality for copying Tony Stewart’s pit road PIT maneuver on Jeff Gordon, but worthy nonetheless. Doesn’t sound like the No. 31’s spotter was too cool with it however. Watch it now.
9. 1991: Rusty survives
4 of 13
Darrell Waltrip was the undisputed king of Bristol Motor Speedway until Rusty Wallace showed up. Ernie Irvan was the next up-and-comer, and had just collected his first career victory the prior race at Bristol in August 1990. This race was an eventful one, including a caution for an umbrella being blown onto the track and Sterling Marlin bailing out of his car, while on fire; Sterling that is – not just the car. A rain shower with 50 laps to go set up the final fight to the finish in another classic Bristol showdown that made this one of the toughest tickets in motorsports to get.
8. 2007: “This car sucks!”
5 of 13
It was the debut race for the Car of Tomorrow — a safe test since aerodynamics typically aren’t the deciding factor on a short track like Bristol — and the CoT, as hearty and ungainly as it was, had no problem beating and banging into other cars or the wall. Kyle Busch had all he could handle with Jeff Burton in the closing laps, but being Burton, at least he knew he was going to get a fair fight. If only Kyle had been so generous to the new car in Victory Lane. You want to know why you were fined, Denny? It stems from what Kyle said later in the winner’s circle.
7. 2002: Old School/New School
6 of 13
One of the reasons why Bristol is such a popular track is the throwback nature it possesses. Tempers can flare and paybacks are to be expected, as NASCAR was built on bullrings, not 1.5-mile cookie cutters and 200 mph corner-entry speeds. In March 2001, the sport and fans were reeling from the loss of Dale Earnhardt, so the Food City 500 was a welcome race — and two of NASCAR’s most legendary, respected and iconic teams were battling for the win. Pat Tryson made the call to keep Elliott Sadler out on old tires in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford as he held off John Andretti in The King’s No. 43 Dodge for the final 70 laps. Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon punts Tony Stewart late in the going and Smoke takes exception on pit road. Perhaps a little carry over from Watkins Glen, 2000.
6. 2008: Stewart vs. Harvick vs. Hamlin vs. Burton
7 of 13
Not sure what looked more out of place – the rear wing on the CoT, Tony Stewart’s ode to Steve Perry coif, or Smoke driving a Toyota. Whichever, both Stewart’s and teammate Denny Hamlin’s cars were stumbling and fumbling around with fuel pick up problems after dominating the race, leading a combined 365 of 500 laps. Harvick and Stewart get together on the last lap, which raised some questions if any of that was some residual spill-over from their tangle at The Brickyard 400 a year earlier. Sounds like Harvick had more issues with his spotter than Stewart, and five years later, Harvick has signed on to drive for Stewart in 2014.
5. 1997: The Bump ‘N’ Run
8 of 13
It’s hard to pinpoint at what place in time running into a guy on the last lap to pass him became an acceptable form of racing in NASCAR. Actually, no it’s not. It’s right here at Bristol in 1997. While Gordon’s “bump and run” is a bit innocuous compared to some of the later “dump and runs” that would follow, this helped set the stage for a number of finishes of less than honorable outcomes in years to come. Wallace had led 240 laps that day, including 85 of the final 86 laps; but not the one that counted.
4. 2006: Gordon’s pit road rage
9 of 13
Dicing with Matt Kenseth in the final laps of the Food City 500, Kurt Busch was on his way to victory during a wintery race weekend that saw brother Kyle firing snowballs into the crowd. Jeff Gordon gets turned on the final lap, and then commits the ultimate tough-guy no-no: goes after a helmet-less guy who’s apologizing, while wearing a helmet. Between Kenseth, Jeff Burton, and Clint Bowyer, who hasn’t Gordon taken a swing at?
3. 1990: Davey Allison vs. Mark Martin
10 of 13
In the days before electronic timing and scoring, this was one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history. The official margin of victory is listed as eight inches, though it’s a good thing ESPN had a camera trained on the start-finish line and not Sterling Marlin’s Oldsmobile spinning down the backstretch. This was Bristol before it was concrete, carved up, and cobbled up with variable banking. Though Martin may not have won this one, at least he didn’t plow into the back of Allison and pat himself on the back for it afterwards. Also, this may be the first recorded use of term “It’s a drag race!” to describe the run to the checkers.
2. 2002: Harmon vs. Wall vs. Sauter
11 of 13
There are some crashes in motorsports that stick in your mind forever — and this is one of them. Mike Harmon, a then Busch Series regular from Alabama, crashed in the same spot as Michael Waltrip 12 years earlier, during practice. As the exploded remains of his car lay on the track, along comes Johnny Sauter with nowhere to go, driving through the pile of wreckage, missing an exposed Harmon by inches. Sauter has been pretty vocal about his Christian and Catholic convictions of late — perhaps this is one of those turning points that helped shape his life. Safe to say the same would go for Harmon as well.
1. 1993: Rusty wins one for Alan
12 of 13
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the passing of 1992 Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki. The underdog in the Underbird got to the pinnacle of the sport racing on the short tracks of the Midwest in the ASA Series, alongside the likes of Mark Martin, Dick Trickle and Rusty Wallace. After perishing in an airplane crash following a sponsor event, the Hooters No. 7 transporter left the track early, taking the checkered flag as it exited. It was a somber rainy weekend in Bristol, and nobody felt much like being there. Wallace, however, rose to the occasion, leading 376 of 500 laps and holding off Dale Earnhardt Sr. by just under a second. Wallace dedicated the win to Kulwicki and his team, celebrating with what Alan described as his “Polish Victory Lap” after his first career win at Phoenix in 1988.
Spring has sprung in most areas of the United States. The metric tons of snow that have fallen in the past two months are starting to melt, Canadian geese have returned north and either the battery in my smoke detector is going dead or I just heard a bird chirp this weekend. The NASCAR season is well underway, and one of the first signs of spring is the first of two races at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Bristol so you don't have to.
Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit rolls on to one of its most anticipated stops of spring for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. 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 Bristol, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
A-List 1. Jimmie Johnson
Hottest driver on the circuit. Johnson has an average running position of 4.2, best in the season’s first three races, and has the best average finishing position (3.0) in the series. Also, he has four consecutive top 10s at Bristol, most among active drivers.
2. Brad Keselowski
Not too far behind Johnson in the fast start category (average finish of 3.7) and heads to a track in Bristol where he’s won two of the last three races.
3. Matt Kenseth
Has led a series-high 128 laps this season with 86 of those coming in the Daytona 500. His 25th-place finish in the Bristol night race in August broke a string of six consecutive top-10 finishes there. He’s led in each of the last three Bristol races.
4. Denny Hamlin
Won the Bristol night race in August, leading 70 laps. Has two top-10 finishes in his last three starts there.
5. Kasey Kahne
Has best average start this season (4.0) on the circuit. Has three top-10 finishes in last five races at Bristol and led 42 laps there in the night race.
6. Clint Bowyer
Scored a pair of top-10 finishes last year at Bristol. Best finish so far this season is a sixth at Phoenix.
7. Jeff Gordon
Has been passed 44 more times under green than he’s passed this season and has an average start of 5.7 but average finish of 18.0 in 2013. Has not a had a top-10 finish in the spring Bristol race in the past three years.
8. Tony Stewart
Has not finished better than 14th in his last five Bristol races. Seems to be typical Tony where he starts the season slow (his best finish so far is an eighth at Phoenix).
9. Kevin Harvick
Harvick has an average running position of 16.6 in the first three races of this season. Has one top-10 finish in last eight races at Bristol.
Kyle Busch (ASP, Inc.)
List-B 1. Kyle Busch
Has highest driver rating in the last 16 races at Bristol and has led the most laps among active drivers during that time. Busch has seven top-10 finishes, including four wins, in his last nine Bristol starts.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Off to the best start of his career with three consecutive top-10 finishes. Has the best average finish (9.9) of any active driver in the last 16 races at Bristol. However, he’s finished between 11th and 16th in his last five Bristol starts.
3. Brian Vickers
Making season debut in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 car. Finished in the top 5 in both Bristol races in this ride last year, leading 126 laps.
4. Carl Edwards
Last year marked the first time since 2009 that he did not have a top-10 finish in either Bristol race.
5. Greg Biffle
Has been hot and cold at Bristol. Biffle has not had a top-10 finish in his last three starts there. Before that, though, he had four consecutive top-10 results. He has started in the first two rows in three of the last four Bristol races.
6. Paul Menard
He’s among nine drivers to have completed every lap so far this season. Has three top-10 finishes in last four Bristol starts. Also ranks 10th in average running position through three races this year.
7. Martin Truex Jr.
Has three consecutive finishes of 11th or better at Bristol.
8. Ryan Newman
Last year marked the first time since 2005 that Newman did not score at least one top 10 at Bristol. Team could use a rebound after the tough start it has had with two consecutive DNFs (accident at Phoenix and engine at Las Vegas).
9. Jamie McMurray
Has four top-10 finishes in his last six Bristol starts. He’s also led laps in two of those races.
10. Joey Logano
Finished eight in last August’s night race and led 139 laps. It was his first top 10 there in eight Cup races. Coming off a 12th-place finish at Las Vegas, his best since joining Penske Racing.
11. Kurt Busch
Still knows his way around Bristol but has not finished better than 17th in his last three trips there.
12. Aric Almirola
Has finished between 13th and 16th in the first three races of the season.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has one top-10 finish in his last four Bristol starts.
14. Marcos Ambrose
Finished fifth in night race last August and led a lap. Has run in the top 15 in only 11.2 percent of the laps run this season.
15. Jeff Burton
Has one top-10 finish in his last five Bristol races.
16. Bobby Labonte
Has not finished better than 13th in his last 10 Bristol starts.
List-C 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Running his first Cup race at Bristol. Finished second in Nationwide race there last August and sixth in the spring. This season, he’s made more green-flag passes in Cup (359) than any other driver, but he’s been passed 358 times under green as well.
2. AJ Allmendinger
Finished in top 20 in last two Bristol starts.
3. Travis Kvapil
Placed 18th in most recent Bristol race, his best finish there in last six starts.
4. David Gilliland
Placed 20th in August race, his best Bristol finish in last nine starts there.
5. Michael McDowell
Finished 23rd in night race last August for best Bristol finish in five starts.
6. Casey Mears
Has an average finish of 24.0 in first three races of the season. His average finish in his last three Bristol races is 23.0.
7. Landon Cassill
Finished in top 30 in both Bristol starts last year (24th and 29th).
8. Danica Patrick
Finished 29th in lone Cup start at Bristol in her career but did finish ninth in August Nationwide race there.
9. David Ragan
Has finished no better than 16th in last six Bristol starts.
10. Dave Blaney
Has failed to finish six of the last eight Bristol races with his best finish during that time 25th.
11. David Reutimann
Has finished no better than 21st in last three Bristol races since placing second there in August 2010.
12. JJ Yeley
After 10th-place finish in Daytona 500, placed 28th at Phoenix and 36th at Las Vegas.
13. Scott Speed
Has failed to finish the last two races, placing 41st at Phoenix and Las Vegas.
14. Terry Labonte
This would mark only his second Bristol start since 2009. Last ran there in 2011 night race, finishing 33rd.
15. Josh Wise
Finished 38th and 43rd in Bristol races last year.
16. David Stremme
Has yet to run a lap in the top 15 in a race this season.
17. Scott Riggs
Has finished 41st or worse in each of his last three Bristol starts.
18. Mike Bliss
Finished 43rd in August race, only Bristol start he made last year. Has failed to qualify for two of the first three races of the season.
19. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish last seven Bristol races, placing no better than 39th.
The defending winner of the Food City 500, Brad Keselowski. (ASP, Inc.)
Bristol Motor Speedway received a re-tooling of sorts following last spring’s race, so there will be a bevy of unknowns this weekend when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series takes to the high-banked half-mile oval.
What is known is that three races are in the books and two of the usual suspects, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, are running on all cylinders as others — and you’ll read of one below — are experiencing early-season struggles. We also know what we were able to learn from the Bristol race last August, an exciting caution flag-fueled event that paid dividends to those that had the ability to either move through the field or retain track position.
3.7 and 0.6 Brad Keselowski is averaging a 3.7-place finish, grouped with a strong 0.6 finish deviation.
Holy Keselowski! The Penske Racing No. 2 team is really, really good right now. The act of them being good isn’t a shock; the extent of their goodness is what is amazing. Through three races, the championship-winning entry from 2012 has amassed a 3.7-place average finish. How legitimate is that? Their 0.6 finish deviation — and mind you, zero is perfectly consistent — tells us the team isn’t wavering much from that average. Keselowski and team are both staggeringly fast and pinpoint consistent. If the champs want to repeat, they’re off to a blazing start.
-42.1 percent Jeff Gordon and team can’t hold onto positions late in races, suggested by their negative-42.1 percent position retainment difference.
What is going on with the No. 24? Averaging a 12.7-place running position at the 10 percent-to-go mark, a precipitous drop occurs in the final stages of races, in which they average an 18th-place finish. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson were more balanced position retainers last year, with a plus-3.4 percent difference. Races like last weekend at Las Vegas, in which they dropped from 21st to a finish of 25th in the final 27 laps, can’t be tolerated for a team hoping to land a Chase spot.
17.0 Thanks to a 17.0-place average finish, Paul Menard is the highest ranked Richard Childress Racing driver in the Cup Series standings.
Who would have thought? It’s true. After three races, Menard and team are the lead dogs in the RCR yard, ranking 12th in Cup Series standings; however, that’s probably not something that will last. Both Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton crashed out of Daytona, while Menard’s team has finished in the top half of the field in all three events. Harvick’s No. 29 team doesn’t often leave races on the table, evident by the team’s 88-plus Relevance percentage (read: percentage of races in a season finished in the top half of fields) in each of the last three years.
Brian Vickers will race MWR's No. 55 Toyota at Bristol. (ASP, Inc.)
4.000 Through eight races in 2012, Brian Vickers, who makes his 2013 Cup Series debut Sunday, earned a series-best 4.000 PEER, which measures the on-track production of a race car driver in an “all equipment even” scenario. Two of those races were at Bristol.
Surface schmurface, Vickers was good on both Bristol iterations last season, finishing fifth in the spring race (he led 125 laps) and fourth in August. Considering this specific facility comprised 25 percent of his schedule last season, it’s no wonder that the Hendrick castoff produced at a rate far beyond his average.
Bristol might also be a haven for Vickers in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race; after two finishes of 17th or worse have relegated him to seventh in the series standings, a kind track could alleviate the relatively underwhelming results for the former series champ driving in stellar equipment.
+40 August 2012 Bristol victor Denny Hamlin was an adept passer in his race-winning effort, recording a pass differential of plus-40.
A good-passing race car can go a long way at any track. Bristol is no different. In last August’s race, the first on the re-worked surface, Hamlin scored the win after totaling 57 green-flag passes, 40 more than the amount of times he was passed. Similarly, Jimmie Johnson finished second thanks in large part to his +28 pass differential.
139 Joey Logano, in a Joe Gibbs Racing entry, led a race-high 139 laps (that’s over a quarter of the race) in last August’s 500-lap event at Bristol.
Logano started fourth, took his initial lead on lap 27 and led on three more occasions during the race. His average running position of 7.24 ranked second that evening, but led to an eighth-place finish. This nugget presents an interesting dynamic. Logano now drives for Penske Racing, an organization that fielded a winning entry for Brad Keselowski last season and a front-row effort for AJ Allmendinger. The No. 20 JGR car is now driven by Matt Kenseth, the winner of last week’s race at Las Vegas, who led 25 laps in last August’s race. Both Logano, the driver and No. 20, the car should be key players in Sunday’s race.
9 for 25+ Nine different drivers led 25 laps or more in last August’s race at Bristol.
Want some competition that includes different names in the lead? I can’t guarantee it, but if last August’s race was any indication, there could be a flurry of activity at the front of the field. The high laps-led total for each driver is a result of there being a large number of laps in the race (500 to be exact), but the wide array of names is a fascinating occurrence. Leading isn’t everything, though. Of the nine drivers that led — Logano (139), Hamlin (70), Jimmie Johnson (52), Carl Edwards (45), Martin Truex Jr. (44), Kasey Kahne (42), Greg Biffle (41), Casey Mears (26) and Kenseth (25) — only Hamlin and Johnson finished inside the top 5.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Kobalt Tools 400 in Las Vegas
Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff. (ASP, Inc.)
If Matt Kenseth were a betting man, he’d have bought a Play 4 ticket on the way out of Las Vegas.
The numbers? 3-3-3-3.
Kenseth, in the third race of the 2013 season, became career Sprint Cup driver number three to win a race on his birthday (joining Cale Yarborough and Kyle Busch). The new, third member of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable also has more career victories in Vegas (along with Auto Club Speedway) than any other track on the circuit: Three.
Too bad Richard Childress isn’t willing to part with that number, huh? To me, the number could also apply to something else we’re getting a sense of: the list of early title favorites. Has Kenseth snuck into that picture? Let’s find out while going “Through the Gears” after a weekend out in Sin City…
FIRST GEAR: The title is shaping up to be a Johnson-Keselowski affair
One driver was third, the other sixth. Neither was a factor for the win late at Vegas although they combined to lead a total of 78 laps. But a quick look at the first three races shows that Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, the same two men who battled down the stretch for the 2012 Cup Series title, are in cruise control up front.
Leading the points is the No. 48 team, with top-10 starting spots in every event, an average finish of 3.0 and a Daytona 500 trophy on the shelf. Crew chief Chad Knaus, who was lauded for being ahead of the curve with NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow chassis, was expected to do the same with the Gen-6. That’s what you expect from the best mechanic in the sport, and to his credit, Knaus has delivered.
Sitting five points behind Hendrick’s top team is Keselowski, who has battled through far more adversity but still has the same number of top-10 results (three-for-three). Considering the offseason changeover (new manufacturer, new teammate, new engines) the speed and versatility Penske Racing’s top team has shown is just as impressive. It’s driver’s confidence as reigning champ is palpable, retaining his outspoken nature while continuing a role as an emerging leader within the sport. While Denny Hamlin’s “slap on the wrist” from NASCAR caused him to be a bit off on Sunday, finishing 15th, Keselowski has had no such detours after his talking-to at Daytona. That’s what separates the good from the great: an ability to tune out distractions and fight through the pressure.
The Gen-6 car was supposed to provide a big opportunity for the other teams to catch up to this duo. But the standings three races in aren’t an indictment on those changes; instead, it’s a showcase of how this rivalry is elevating both drivers to remain head and shoulders above everyone else. Too bad we have to wait until the Chase in September for them to push down on the accelerator for good.
SECOND GEAR: Meanwhile, Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing sit as sleepers
No question, anyone with a brain and a pulse expected Kenseth to outpace Joey Logano in Joe Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota. But even the most optimistic of souls has to raise an eyebrow on what this new combination is doing. Three races in, Kenseth is one-half way towards the total number of victories that car has had in the past four years. His 128 laps led, a NASCAR best, is well on its way to eclipsing Logano’s four-year total of 337 in a matter of several weeks. If not for a faulty engine in the waning laps of the Daytona 500 this team could be out in front of everyone — a point that’s not been lost on its pilot.
“All three races we had a car, if everything would have went right, that we could have won,” he said Sunday night. “And it feels pretty awesome to have this win here.”
Kenseth’s emotions during and after Sunday’s victory made it clear he’s a man on a mission to prove the choice to leave Roush Fenway was the right one. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff has worked out well; his pit strategy of a fuel-only stop was the winning call.
So can JGR catch the top two? The beauty of it is that there is six months left in the regular season to fine-tune on intermediates. But unlike Kenseth, the rest of the stable has to stop shooting itself in the foot. Case in point: Kyle Busch’s speeding penalty, which knocked him out of the top spot at Vegas and threatened to derail his day. Denny Hamlin, for all the fan support he has surrounding the Gen-6 criticism, caused a huge distraction by reacting emotionally to the situation. Add in the motor problems and that’s why this Toyota trio remains a step below for the time being. But the speed is there.
Junior Nation: Loud and ... green. (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Earnhardt’s loss could be Gordon’s gain
This theme of “three” brings up the ghost of the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s late father, who is likely smiling down on how well his boy is handling the new Gen-6. Sitting third in points and joining Johnson and Keselowski as the only drivers with three top-10 results, the No. 88 car has shown a habit of improving consistently throughout an event. Part of that has to be the benefits of top equipment — after all, this team works in the same shop as Knaus and Johnson.
But for Earnhardt, there’s more at play. From the first day I arrived at Daytona, you couldn’t help but notice Earnhardt’s enthusiasm for 2013. It’s clear the Gen-6 chassis for him was considered a prime opportunity for redemption; he’s perhaps the only one unconditionally harping on its success every time the camera lights go on (or off). I remember, in particular, an unsolicited rant in the media center about how great the season would be after this year’s Daytona 500. It was something you would never have heard from him even two years ago, when crew chief Steve Letarte was just the last-ditch experiment and a slumping driver had lost his confidence. Now, Earnhardt has begun to believe, pushing forward mentally in a sport where the smallest edge can make the biggest difference.
Compare that to Jeff Gordon, whose success with the Gen-5 (a record 30 top-10 finishes in 2007, the first year it was introduced) was expected to repeat itself. Instead, three races in the fourth member of the Hendrick stable looks a level very much below his mates. What’s troubling here is the opposite of Earnhardt: Gordon goes backwards the second the green flag drops. His average start is 5.7, one of NASCAR’s best, yet the difference between those spots and where he finishes is a disappointing -37. He and Gustafson aren’t on the same page with adjustments, and that needs to change before it’s too deep a hole from which to recover.
FOURTH GEAR: The real Gen-6 grade: Incomplete, no matter how much NASCAR tries to push the issue
The official statistics say 22 lead changes, an increase over 2012. And the loop data for Vegas had 2,342 green-flag passes, the highest number in seven years. But despite the drivers trumpeting praise, seemingly as a result of Hamlin’s $25,000 fine for even suggesting the Gen-6 still needs some work, Sunday’s race was far from an A-plus. It wasn’t bad; clearly, the end-of-race battle alone with Kenseth and Kahne was worth the price of admission. But it still seems, as the cars settle in after a restart, passing 20 to 30 laps into a run is a risk drivers seem afraid to take.
One issue that might help continues to be the tires. Goodyear’s latest compound, while safe on Sunday, was so rock hard speeds didn’t fall off quickly enough. Considering Vegas’ surface is one of the more abrasive, there was a missed opportunity for a more “Atlanta” or “Rockingham” style race where that type of management came into play.
Instead, what we were left with was a race that had a few stops and starts but wasn’t the A++ version NASCAR covets. And a simple point in the wake of the Hamlin discipline remains: if things were so peachy with this new Gen-6, making everyone from fans to television partners happy, why feel the need to even control perception? Stepping in, managing a comment mostly forgotten gives the impression there’s something wrong even if those concerns are overblown.
Kenseth gets first win for Joe Gibbs Racing in third start.
Matt Kenseth celebrates in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
The biggest name in NASCAR's 2012 version of Silly Season made his presence known early in the 2013 season. Matt Kenseth, in only his third start with Joe Gibbs Racing, gave the No. 20 team its first win since June 2012, when he won the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Having spent the first 13 years of his Cup Series career at Roush Fenway Racing where he won two Daytona 500s and the 2003 title, Kenseth accepted one of the most coveted seats in the Sprint Cup Series with Gibbs’ No. 20 team — a group that had only two wins since Tony Stewart left the team following the 2008 season. In the season opener in Daytona, Kenseth was one of a handful of favorites but lost an engine while leading with just over 50 laps remaining. He followed that up with a workman-like top 10 at Phoenix.
On Sunday in Las Vegas, it all came together for the driver, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 bunch.
In classic Kenseth fashion, the Wisconsin native showed up when the money was on the line. In a race dominated by Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth assumed the lead late — with 41 laps remaining — and used clean air at the front of the field to his advantage.
A strategy call on a pit stop under yellow earned Kenseth the point. Taking zero tires while most others took two, he led the field to green and held the top spot even after the second-place machine of Brad Keselowski appeared to jump the start.
A blown engine in the Chevy of Ryan Newman precipitated another restart with 27 laps to go. Again, it appeared that Keselowski jumped the start, but no ruling came from NASCAR. Still, Kenseth recovered quickly, pulling by on the backstretch.
However, Kenseth’s toughest challenge would come from Kahne, who also disposed of Keselowski within a lap of the restart.
Kahne, who led a race-high 114 laps, prowled in Kenseth’s tire tracks for the final 26 laps, but in an ending that proved anti-climactic, never mounted a serious attempt at the pass. Clean air for the leader, coupled with a lack of front-end downforce on his No. 5 Chevy, forced Kahne to settle for second.
“We're only three weeks in, but man, all three races we had a car — if everything would have went right — that we could have won, and it feels pretty awesome to have this win here,” said Kenseth.
Keselowski, Busch and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5 on an afternoon that witnessed five caution periods.
NASCAR opened the track on Thursday for a test session to give teams extra time with the new Gen-6 car on the circuit’s first intermediate track stop. High-banked intermediate tracks — typically 1.5- or 2-miles in length — make up more than half of the Sprint Cup Series’ 36-race season. The new cars are designed with the intent to improve action on these tracks to allow more side-by-side racing.
Still, aero-dependency ruled the day on Sunday, as evidenced by Kahne not being able to pass Kenseth in the waning laps despite having newer tires — and by all outward appearances, a faster car.
“Clean air is like an extra tire,” said Carl Edwards.
“When I was out front my car was fast as heck,” Busch said. “As soon as (Kahne) went by me (for the lead) I was out of the racetrack, wrecking loose. I had to give up 10 car lengths to him in order to get my car comfortable again to where I could drive it.”
Those teams that were able to hit the setup thrived, as five cars — Kenseth, Kahne, Keselowski, Busch and Johnson — led 261 of the 267 laps. This on the heels of a largely single-file Daytona 500 and a veritably regular trip to Phoenix’s eccentric one-mile oval.
So while the cars may be a work in progress, the chemistry on JGR’s No. 20 team looks well ahead of the curve.
“I'm glad we got a win, but it's still only week three,” Kenseth said of his new team. “I feel like this is the beginning, you know, and I have a lot of confidence — I had a lot of confidence after our first meeting and decided to go do this and just had a great feeling about it. And I still do.”
NASCAR: Five Things to Watch at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Denny Hamlin is not as happy now. (ASP, Inc.)
Five storylines for the Kobalt Tools 500 in Las Vegas
1. Hamlin draws NASCAR’s (thin-skinned) ire
NASCAR suddenly, quickly and, well, mistakenly landed a $25,000 shot to Denny Hamlin's wallet on Thursday as Sprint Cup teams set up shop in Las Vegas. And no: this wasn't a case of Brian France cleaning Hamlin's clock at a swanky blackjack table.
Hamlin is expected to pay up for doing, allegedly, at least $25,000 in damage to NASCAR's apparently fragile image for answering a completely legitimate question at Phoenix International Raceway about NASCAR's new race car. Hamlin's most grievous offense can be found in the following span of sentences:
“I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning.”
Athlon Sports regrets posting such serious and offensive comments.
That was exactly Hamlin’s reaction Thursday during a break from testing and later in the night when he released a statement on Twitter. NASCAR never contacted Hamlin before the fine was issued, even though it came later than usual. Hamlin has vowed to appeal the fine and voiced even greater concern for the message it sends.
“I feel as if today NASCAR lost one of its biggest supporters vocally of where our sport is headed,” Hamlin wrote in a tweet, conscious of his 2010 “secret” fine for saying things that also crossed NASCAR. “So in the end there are no winners.”
Hamlin said the statement was “taken out of context” and that the fine isn't about money. Instead it’s about his ability to give an honest and fair assessment to reasonable questions.
“Since being fined in 2010 I have been a lot more careful about what I say to media and I felt this past weekend felt completely in my rights to give an assessment of the question asked,” Hamlin wrote.
2. Testing, testing, 1… 2… 3…
Beyond the Hamlin episode, teams got down to work earlier than usual on Thursday, as NASCAR opened the track in Las Vegas to a full day of testing.
It wasn't the first time NASCAR's new Gen-6 car has been on a 1.5-mile intermediate track, but Thursday was the first day Sprint Cup drivers got to toss the new car design around Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR opened the track a day early for two sessions of car fitness tests that, unlike a typical race weekend practice session, allowed the use of data and telemetry recording devices.
Greg Biffle's lap of 189.427 mph late in the second of two sessions put his No. 16 Ford atop the speed charts — a familiar place for Roush Fenway Racing at LVMS. Kasey Kahne set the track record a season ago in Sin City at 190.456 mph.
“It doesn’t matter how long you have practice or how much testing you have, there will be cars on the track until NASCAR throws the red and black flag,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “And even after all of that, we will always think, ‘Darn, if we only had two or three more laps.’ We are always striving for perfection so there is never enough time in my opinion to get ready for Sunday’s race.”
Indeed, many teams placed focus on race setups to start the second weekend of the early-season West Coast swing for NASCAR. Nine of the top-10 drivers in the second session’s speed charts posted their fastest lap in either the second-to-last or last run of the day, likely with qualifying setups installed.
The last major test on 1.5-mile tracks for most teams came at Charlotte Motor Speedway in January. Snow postponed part of that test conducted in extremely cold conditions — a stark contrast from Thursday’s sunny and mild weather in Las Vegas.
Aric Almirola: A Vegas sleeper? (ASP, Inc.)
3. Trump cards could quietly be in The King's court
The temperature at that Charlotte test before the start of the 2013 campaign wasn't a factor for the Florida-born Aric Almirola. His No. 43 Ford turned the quickest lap during that test that proved to be a culmination of a lot of right steps that both he and his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose have taken on NASCAR's intermediate tracks of late.
Expect both to be under-the-radar contenders when Sunday’s 400-mile race gets underway.
“Toward the end of last season, we were really good at the mile-and-a-half tracks, and doing well at the test gives us some momentum going into this weekend,” Almirola said.
Almirola picked up a pair of top-15 finishes in last season’s final two intermediate track races at Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Tire troubles and a crash ruined an even stronger day just weeks before at Kansas Speedway — another 1.5-miler — after Almirola led 69 laps.
Ambrose, the road course ace, has shown flashes of strength on the same types of tracks. To start this season, he has a pair of 18th-place finishes in Daytona and Phoenix.
“We haven't had a great finish yet, but we haven't had a terrible one either. We just need to get a little better,” Ambrose said.
Las Vegas, where Ambrose has a best finish of fourth in 2011, could be just the place.
4. Edwards thought Las Vegas, not Phoenix, was his ace in the hole
The backflip Carl Edwards executed after track position and a good handling car sent him to victory last weekend at Phoenix looked pretty good for a guy who had waited 70 Cup races since his last one. It also looked good for a guy who felt his gymnastic move wouldn't be needed for at least another week.
Edwards admitted this week he didn't expect to snap his win drought at Phoenix.
“I know this is probably wrong to admit, but I didn’t really have Phoenix marked on the calendar as the one that we were going to go win the first race,” Edwards said. “I was looking at Vegas as the race that would be the really good one, so I’m really excited about Vegas.”
Edwards can probably point to the success of his still fledgling relationship with tough-nosed crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Their relationship — a meeting of alpha personalities — has been one to keep track of early in 2013. Fennig has changed a lot Edwards’ routine and at-track preparation.
“(Fennig) wants me to make sure that I understand the changes they have planned for practice, that I make sure to be there and be available to the engineers after practice, and that I’m actually sitting there engaged with them so we don’t miss something,” Edwards said. “I thought that was pretty cool for him to just lay it out there. He didn’t say, ‘How did you do it last year?’ He said, ‘This is exactly what I want. This is how I’m going to do it.’
“I think that leadership and knowing what he wants is something that’s going to pay off a lot.”
Edwards, already the owner of two career Sprint Cup wins at Las Vegas (both after the 2006 reconfiguration), is a decent pick to hit it big Sunday.
5. The tricky nature (or lack thereof) of Las Vegas’ Turn 1
The 2006 reconfiguration of LVMS created a remarkably different track than drivers had been used to since the first Sprint Cup event at the track in 1998. The track added banking — it was the first purpose-built progressive banking track in NASCAR — and watched the average pole speed jump more than 12 miles per hour.
Just as any track, LVMS has aged under the extreme heat that Nevada desert summers bring. That process allows the track and its foundation to move and settle. Such character, drivers say, can now be found in Turn 1 at LVMS where a set of bumps have created uncertainty from lap to lap in the driving line.
“You’ve got to tune your car around (the bumps),” David Gilliland said. “It puts more in the hands of the individual teams and drivers to make it work.”
The bumps haven’t proved a notorious causal factor for crashes in that end of the speedway. The numbers, though, are slightly raised. Since reconfiguration six races ago, there have been 19 cautions for incidents in Turns 1 and 2 and 15 for crashes in Turns 3 and 4.
“It has a rougher surface in that there are more bumps. The track has some character to it,” Ryan Newman said. “Over the past couple of years, the bumps in the track have typically been pretty tricky, but that’s something I like.”
The bumps seem to be more noticeable to some drivers than others. Even teammates.
“The track is really smooth and that lets you work on the attitude of your car, and I think that’s a luxury that we have there that we don’t necessarily always get everywhere else because every track has its unique set of bumps,” said Tony Stewart. “Vegas has bumps too, but for the most part, it’s so smooth that you can really fine-tune the attitude of the car.”
For now, we'll listen to Stewart. A win at Las Vegas in 2012 and a second-place finish in 2011 give him a bit of credibility.
The Las Vegas et cetera
Mark Martin, now the second-oldest pole winner in NASCAR history after last week's top qualifying effort at Phoenix, now takes aim at being the oldest Sprint Cup winner. Martin, 54, would top Harry Gant who was 52 when he won in 1992 … Martin also won the inaugural race at Las Vegas in 1998 … Las Vegas is the first of 16 Sprint Cup races at intermediate tracks this season … Most teams had extra transporters meet them in Phoenix after last Sunday's race to swap cars and parts, as making a trek from Phoenix to Charlotte and back to Las Vegas in time is nearly impossible … Just one of 15 Sprint Cup races have gone past the scheduled distance at LVMS.