The Infineon Raceway’s annual NASCAR Sprint Cup date has seen its share of aggression the last few seasons. And Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 was no different, with a number of flared tempers, paybacks and plenty of bent sheet metal. So how does one go about winning at the Sonoma, Ca. road course? Stay in front of the fray.
That’s exactly what Kurt Busch did, leading a race-high 76 of 110 laps en route to his first Sprint Cup Series road course win and his first victory of the season.
“We had to conserve our rear tires,” Busch said of his team’s strategy to make only two pit stops when many others made three. “Once we had enough fuel mileage to make it, I started to pick up my pace.
“(The car) allowed me to do everything at an ‘A’ level. There's times when you can be A-plus on forward drive off or on your gear ratios for saving mileage, then you would have to save on overall speed for your speed ratios. Then you have the turn left, turn right. My car gave me the ability to do all areas very well.”
A 19-lap green-flag run to conclude the race enabled Busch to pull away from the field and beat Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose to the finish by 2.685 seconds on the 1.99-mile, 12-turn course. And although the final dash to checkers was caution-free, the event was marred by a series of incidents on the winding layout.
The first major scrap occurred in the tight, hairpin Turn 11 when Tony Stewart turned Brian Vickers, which collected a number of cars. Though none appeared seriously damaged, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the worst of it, as his contact with a sideways Vickers knocked a hole in the radiator, eventually causing the engine of his No. 88 Chevy to expire.
Vickers enacted revenge late in the race, when he used his injured vehicle to dump Stewart in the same turn on lap 88, which brought out the final caution.
“I probably had it coming, because I dumped him earlier,” Stewart said. “But I dumped him because he was blocking, so if anyone wants to block all year that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”
“(Tony) may not have noticed, but the 18 (Kyle Busch) was off the racetrack,” Vickers said of Stewart’s claim of blocking. “I was trying to avoid the 18 and I was on the inside of the car in front of me, so Tony was the least of my concern. But that’s what he felt it was and he sowed his oats and he reaped them.”
Juan Montoya had run-ins with a few drivers throughout the day, most notably Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski, while attempting a late-race charge to the front with fresh tires.
“They just don’t give me any room,” Montoya said. “It’s hard when people don’t know how to race on road courses and they think they do.”
Kahne didn’t share Montoya’s assessment, saying, “Montoya just drove through me. Last year when his cars were really good and (his teammate) Jamie McMurray was the man (winning three races), Juan still couldn’t win a race. It shows what he can do in NASCAR anyways.”
After the Kahne incident, Montoya attempted to get by Keselowski. However, when it got physical, Keselowski did not wait to be the victim.
“The body language of Juan’s car said he was going to wreck me,” Keselowski said. “I just made sure that didn’t happen.”
As a result of all the contact, Kahne was relegated to a 20th-place finish, while Montoya was 22nd. Keselowski survived to post a solid 10th-place showing.
Edwards increased his championship lead to 25 over seventh-place finisher Kevin Harvick. Jimmie Johnson sits third, 33 points back, and one point ahead of Kurt Busch. Earnhardt suffered the worst points-hit, falling from third to seventh, 65 points out, after finishing 41st with the blown engine.
From the Spotter's Stand
California kid Jimmie Johnson was finally king of the road at Infineon Raceway after winning his first race at the 12-turn, 1.99-mile Sonoma track last June.
Although Johnson’s 48 car did not cross the finish line in reverse, the five-time Cup champ did back his way into the victory thanks to Marcos Ambrose, who fell from first to seventh under caution after he shut his engine off while cruising uphill while attempting to conserve fuel.
As a result of the mistake made with five laps to go, Ambrose’s lead over Johnson faded away, becoming an easy 3.105-second victory for JJ — ahead of runner-up Robby Gordon, Kevin Harvick and pole-sitting 2009 Infineon winner Kasey Kahne.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Road races, particularly at Infineon, are strategy-fests. The trick is to count the laps backward, so a crew chief can calculate when to stop if the race comes down to a fuel-mileage battle.
“Infineon is not as fast as Watkins Glen, so a driver must have a car that gets a lot of mechanical grip — and he must feel comfortable with that grip — to negotiate all 12 turns. If you want to get right down to it, the biggest key to winning in Sonoma is keeping all four wheels on the ground all the time, and the cream usually rises to the top.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Don’t overthink this. Go with Juan Pablo Montoya. Pretty Solid Pick: Of course, Tony Stewart isn’t a bad way to go, either. Good Sleeper Pick: Betcha didn’t realize Greg Biffle is a pretty good little road racer. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a beer drinker, not a connoisseur of wine country. Insider Tip: At some point, a road-race ringer may break through for a win, but the series regulars have gotten so good at turning left and right that it’s not advised you stray from them.
Classic Moments at Infineon
Jeff Gordon fights Bobby Hamilton tooth and nail in the 1998 Save Mart/Kragen 350 to earn his first win at what is then known as Sears Point Raceway.
Gordon and Jerry Nadeau, in the No. 13 FirstPlus Financial Ford, start on the front row. Nadeau, though, overshoots Turn 2 on lap 13 and suffers a violent crash that sends him to the hospital.
In a physical duel with Hamilton as the race nears its conclusion, Gordon gets by on lap 102 of 112 and holds the spot despite a dogged attempt to reclaim the point by Hamilton in his No. 4 Kodak Chevy.
Gordon’s win is his first at Sonoma, and second of a six-race winning streak on NASCAR’s two road courses.
1. Carl Edwards No broken valves for Cuz at Michigan. As is usually the case, the Roush contingent was strong on the 2-mile oval, with Edwards padding his championship lead to 20 points — or about a JGR oil pan’s worth if converted to pounds.
2. Kyle Busch Consecutive third-place runs give Rowdy eight top-5 finishes on the season — a number matched only by Edwards.
3. Kevin Harvick Climbed to second in the point standings, in part due to Jimmie Johnson’s and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s sub-par finishes. Though you’d think, with three wins, he’d already be first.
4. Jimmie Johnson The Michigan jinx strikes Johnson again. MIS is one of four tracks — Chicagoland, Homestead and Watkins Glen being the other three — where Johnson has not won.
5. Matt Kenseth The Kenseth/Jimmy Fennig combo is looking more dangerous each week. Until this coming weekend, that is, when Kenseth will run 25th on a road course. Not even Boris Said atop the pit box will change that.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior doesn’t go after other drivers in the media often, which is why his assessment of teammate Mark Martin’s “careless” driving at Michigan was so surprising.
7. Denny Hamlin From 21st in the point standings to ninth in 10 races. And with the win, Hamlin becomes the sixth driver in the top 10 to earn a victory. Bonus points will be big.
8. Kurt Busch They’re doing something right at Penske Racing. Busch has three consecutive poles with finishes of fourth, second and 11th.
9. Jeff Gordon Gordon’s on-again/off-again routine is ongoing, as he follows up a win at Pocono with an uninspiring 17th at Michigan. Or as Gordon might say, “The car wasn’t awesome.”
10. Tony Stewart Random stat of the day: Smoke’s last four runs have netted finishes of 17th, eighth, 21st and seventh. Heck, he finished 20th at Eldora. I can’t explain any of that.
11. Greg Biffle Led the most laps at Michigan (68), but faded to 15th at the finish. This is a better team than its 13th-place points ranking would indicate. Or it should be.
12. Ryan Newman Ran a stealthy sixth at Michigan. Somehow hanging in at eighth in the point standings.
13. Clint Bowyer Rebounds from running in the mid-teens the three races prior to eighth at Michigan. Like Biffle, this bunch should be better than that.
14. Mark Martin “Junior, don’t be mad at me ... I might need a ride with JR Motorsports next season!”
15. Paul Menard Nabs a fourth at Michigan, his best finish since a runner-up at Talladega in 2008.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Juan Pablo Montoya, 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
The old racing adage that states “the best car doesn’t always win” has applied to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series more often than not in 2011. Fuel mileage, pit strategy and late-race track position have been the deciding factors through the spring and early summer, trumping good old fashioned horsepower.
Denny Hamlin, fresh off Sunday’s win at Michigan International Speedway, can relate.
“We were truly dominant one year ago in this race,” Hamlin said following the Heluva Good Sour Cream Dips 400. “(Today) we were a second- to third-place car. In the fall (August, 2010) we finished second. But today we actually were a little worse. But we got a win.”
“We” being the operative term. Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew bested those of Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch under a round of yellow flag stops with less than 10 laps remaining. When the green flag waved with five circuits to go, Kenseth — lined up on the front row to Hamlin’s inside — spun his tires. Hamlin got the jump he needed, and in clean air held off a charging Kenseth for a .281-second win.
“I was kind of painted in a box where my car was so tight the last few laps I had no choice but to make sure I cleared him (Kenseth) on corner exit (off of Turn 2),” Hamlin explained. “If he got beside me on corner entry, that was OK, as long as I was able to get back to the gas sooner than him.”
Kenseth, whose team had fueling problems earlier in the race that nearly cost him an opportunity to race for the win, admitted the final restart was key.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
“Unfortunately I didn’t do a great job on the restart,” Kenseth said. “I spun my tires. Denny saw me hanging back a little bit and took off. Once he’s clear, it’s really hard to pass — especially on a short run like that, the track gets black, it’s all slimy with the new tires.
“My car wasn’t good on a short run. (It) took us about 10 laps. Didn’t have enough to get around him once he cleared me there.”
Busch finished third, Paul Menard fourth and Edwards fifth.
The normally agreeable Edwards delivered a message to NASCAR following the race, frustrated with cars that he deemed too aerodynamically sensitive. In a television interview, Edwards called for car bodies that aren’t as affected by downforce when racing near others on the 1.5- and 2-mile tracks that comprise the bulk of the 36-race slate.
“Downforce is such a factor in these cars, and I’m really hoping NASCAR will take the opportunity in 2013 (when a new car body is scheduled to debut) to take downforce away so the fans can see the guys race cars and not race downforce. That would be cool. Track position was just huge and I just wish it wasn’t like that.”
Hamlin and Busch took two of the top three finishing positions despite drawing NASCAR’s ire during inspection on Friday, when all three Joe Gibbs Racing entries were found to have oil pans that had not been approved by the sanctioning body. The oil pans — which normally weigh four to five pounds — measured in at a whopping 20 to 30 pounds, possibly creating more of the downforce Edwards referred to.
“The oil pan thing ultimately was our responsibility to get,” JGR president J.D. Gibbs said. “When (the rule) says ‘things approved by NASCAR,’ (then) every piece has to be approved by NASCAR. A lot of times we bring stuff to the track. They’ll say, ‘Hey, run it this week, don’t bring it back, make these changes to it.’ Our fault was thinking we would have that conversation. When we got here, (NASCAR) didn’t like it. I think they thought it was a different issue than it actually wound up being.
“The reality of it is it was our fault for not bringing it to them and laying it out. It’s a good lesson learned.”
The win was Hamlin’s first of the season, vaulting him to ninth in the point standings. A championship contender one year ago, it has been a rocky start to the 2011 campaign for the Virginia native, who had five wins at this in the season last year.
“My goal is still to get in the top 5 in points,” Hamlin said. “If I wouldn’t have dug us such a big hole at the beginning of the year, we really could be possibly fighting for trying to lead the points going into the Chase. But we just started so far behind, it’s going to be tough to do that.
“My realistic goal is top 5 in points, (so I) don’t have to worry about any kind of wild cards once we get to Richmond.”
Stock car racing has been around for nearly a century, and NASCAR has been responsible for a vast majority of the growth of the sport since the early 1950s. From its humble beginnings — when Bill France Sr. pieced together an organization that ensured competitors received just payouts for risking their lives on-track — to today’s multi-million dollar purses and corporate sponsorships for most every aspect of the race weekend, the sanctioning body has made many positive advancements for stock car racing throughout its storied history.
Unfortunately, it has also made some incredibly bad choices that have served to alienate the fans of the sport and, from the sound of it, NASCAR may be on the verge of making another one.
One of the biggest complaints from fans today is that the national touring series have gotten away from their roots — focusing on mega 1.5- and 2-mile monstrosities — in lieu of the short tracks that made the sport what it is. This decision was initially made back in the 1970s, when new series title sponsor R.J. Reynolds pressured NASCAR to remove all races under 250 miles from the schedule. The result was a mass expulsion of tracks under a half-mile in length — including the last two dirt races on the schedule.
Since 1972, there have only been five racetracks on the Cup schedule that are under one-mile in length. The Nashville Fairgrounds (.596 miles) was on the docket through 1984, while North Wilkesboro Speedway (.635 miles) was raced by the top series through 1996. There are now only three tracks on the Cup schedule under one-mile and, since 1971, no dirt races. And as the series grew in popularity — especially in the ’90s — races were moved away from the traditional cradle of stock car racing in the southeast, where smaller towns historically supported the series, and placed across the country at larger venues in bigger markets designed to house more fans and increase exposure. This regional exodus removed much of the identity and character the series possessed, replacing it with a sterile, generic product at facilities that, for all intents and purposes, looked the same.
In the early part of this decade — at the height of the sport’s popularity — while television contracts were renegotiated, the NASCAR principles in Daytona also decided to chase the stick and ball sports, altering the way the series champion was crowned. While there have been many different point systems throughout the history of the sport, the one constant was all the prior systems based its champion on a full season of competition; sustained excellence was rewarded. That changed when the Chase for the Championship format was implemented in 2004. A “playoff format” placed drivers’ title hopes in a final 10-race block, of which, only 10 drivers (now 12) were eligible. While there have been many different factors at play in the decline of NASCAR’s popularity, the Chase is frequently cited as the main reason fans have abandoned the sport.
Shortly after the implementation of the Chase, the sanctioning body rolled out a new car design, which not only made the cars — regardless of make — aesthetically identical (except for headlight, grill and tail light decals), but also invoked ungainly front splitters and rear wings that resembled sports cars, not stock cars. The outcry from fans was so loud, NASCAR was forced to replace the wing with a traditional spoiler while hiding the splitter with a redesigned front valence. It should be noted that the new “Car of Tomorrow,” as it was known upon its inception, is a safer machine, although it’s widely believed the same safety improvements could have been made to the “old” car.
Now that NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series appears to be regaining some momentum from an attendance and television-ratings standpoint, and the Nationwide Series begins to show more strength of its own with a new, series-specific championship format, the sanctioning body is in discussions to screw up what may be the Nationwide Series’ most competitive and compelling event — the annual 200 lapper at the .686-mile Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly the Indianapolis Raceway Park).
Since 1982, when the Nationwide (then Budweiser) Series was formed from the Grand National Sportsman division, Kroger has sponsored the race, making it the longest running sponsorship of a racing event in the country, as well as one of the most successful partnerships in the history of stock car racing. While the sponsorship in and of itself is impressive, the competition on the race track simply provides the best Nationwide race of the season each and every year. This year’s race will mark the 29th anniversary of the event but, if the folks at the big track at 16th and Georgetown have their way, the last to take place at the historic little short track.
Reports by The Indianapolis Star indicate that Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials are in negotiations with NASCAR to move the Nationwide race to the 2.5-mile IMS for a Saturday afternoon race. The theory behind the move is that it will bolster the overall attendance at the big track for the entire weekend, although that logic would seem incredibly flawed.
The Cup race at the Brickyard has gradually lost attendance over the years for a few different reasons. When the track hosted its first Cup race in 1994, there were no other Cup races within 250 miles of the track — Michigan International Speedway was the closest venue where people could attend a Cup race. Now there is a new race at Kentucky Speedway just three weeks before the Brickyard 400, one at Chicagoland Speedway less than two months after the event, and a track in Kansas City with two dates which attracts many of the Midwestern fans that once traveled to Indianapolis.
Adding to the decline in interest is the Goodyear tire debacle of 2008, which continues to leave a bad taste in many long-time fans’ mouths. Also, with an economy that has yet to turn around for race fans, the racing dollars do not go as far as they once did, forcing fans to either attend a venue closer to home, one with more bang for their buck, or not at all. The end result is that the attendance at IMS — while still routinely in the top three crowds of the year — will most likely be south of 100,000 this trip, which will look horrendous in a venue with a seating capacity hovering around 250,000.
In short, moving the Nationwide race to the big track is going to have absolutely no impact on attendance at IMS. The people in town to see the Nationwide event are already in town — they’ll go to the Brickyard if they choose. Holding the support series race at IMS will only serve to reduce the number of people who attend the Nationwide event — think along the lines of 40,000.
There is no question that racing in the cozy confines of Lucas Oil Raceway results in close-quarter, full-contact racing, but it also affords the fans the opportunity to view the racing around the entire track. That, in contrast to attending a race at the behemoth 2.5-mile speedway, where sight lines restrict viewing of the large majority of the track — not to mention the quality of racing, which lends itself to single-file, aero-dependent parades.
Racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is special. There is a reason the Indianapolis 500 has been dubbed “the greatest spectacle in racing.” However, the racing at IMS is less about the exciting nature of the race, and more about history, spectacle and the ghosts of racers past. The more events IMS hosts, the more the uniqueness of running at such an historic venue is diminished and the draw of seeing the top series loses its luster. The focus should be on getting people back in the stands by promoting the event, the history and the experience rather than trying to stuff more events into a place that, for the better part of 83 years, held only one race per year.
The races at Lucas Oil Raceway are consistently the best on the schedule of both the Truck and Nationwide series. Two years ago, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch started 41st and 42nd in the Nationwide event and passed every car on the track en route to first- and second-place finishes — one doesn’t see that at IMS.
The loyal fans that have supported the series for 30 years deserve to keep “their” race the night before the Brickyard, at Lucas Oil Raceway, as it has been for 17 years. Just because the deep pockets in Gasoline Alley can throw around greenbacks doesn’t mean loyalty should be ignored. The time has come for NASCAR to remember its roots and stop ripping the sport up by them.
1. Carl Edwards Edwards had the most telling line of the weekend at Pocono: “What’s the point of having the points lead if you don’t use it?” Think about that. That’s deep stuff.
2. Jimmie Johnson A dearth of wins through the spring was a little surprising, but a summer lull is not. We’ve seen this before, right? He’ll be at full bore as the Chase starts.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. A legitimate case could be made for Junior to sit atop these rankings. The cold, hard fact is that you have to win before you’re the man to beat. And as close as he’s been, that hasn’t happened yet.
4. Kyle Busch We understand your sponsor may not be in agreement, but you can’t continue to let the boys at RCR push you around. Your brother’s “keep smiling” line is poor advice.
5. Kevin Harvick Speaking of the RCR bullies, here sits Harvick, fresh off probation and looking to stir the pot — as long as he’s in the safety of a 3,400-pound racecar or has his crewmen standing behind him.
6. Kurt Busch Whatever ailed Penske Racing seems to have been remedied. Kurt’s consecutive poles and finishes of fourth, ninth and second prove that.
7. Matt Kenseth Led 103 laps only to finish 14th in the Coca-Cola 600, which is his lowest result in the last four races — included in that a win at Dover.
8. Jeff Gordon The win at Pocono — his second of the season — likely locks him in as a wild card, at worse, for the Chase. Throw in some consistency and we got ourselves a legit contender.
9. Denny Hamlin The best car at Pocono was done in by a flat left rear tire. On a more positive note, at least his crew chief isn’t talking smack again.
10. Tony Stewart There’s a precipitous drop from ninth to 10th. Stewart had finished in the top 3 at Pocono in four of the previous five visits, so his 21st-place showing on Sunday is worrisome.
11. Clint Bowyer This team is a tough one to figure. Could still turn it on as Chase approaches and be dangerous.
12. Greg Biffle Like Bowyer, Biffle is riding a roller coaster. Is it time for some internal changes on the 16 team?
13. Kasey Kahne Kahne’s team must learn how to finish. It’s as simple as that.
14. Ryan Newman Sitting ninth in the point standings because no one has decided to take it away from him.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya Has led laps and looked racy in four straight events. Like Kahne, he has to finish.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Burton, Brad Keselowski, Mark Martin, David Ragan, 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
You know something big has happened when Jeff Gordon hits a career milestone. Gordon, NASCAR’s active leader in career victories and a four-time Cup champion, has a portfolio to rival any driver in professional motorsports worldwide.
But in winning the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, Gordon reached yet another mark — in fact, two — by earning his 84th career Cup victory, tying him for third all-time with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. The win was also his fifth at Pocono, which ties him with Bill Elliott for the most all-time wins at the 2.5-mile triangle.
“I really can't even express in words what it means to tie Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison at 84 wins,” Gordon said. “I just never thought it would ever happen for me, or really when I got in this sport for anybody to win that many races is amazing.”
It was win Gordon had to fight for in a grueling three hour and 26 minute race that witnessed more mechanical issues than accidents. The most noteworthy failure was a tire on the No. 11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin, a four-time Pocono winner, led 76 of the first 101 laps with a car that seemed to have the perfect balance of speed and handling. However, a flat tire with 42 laps remaining while the field circled under caution dropped him to 21st on the restart. That opened the door for Gordon, who took the lead from Juan Pablo Montoya when the green flag waved. He then led 37 of the remaining 41 laps — surrendering the point only under green flag pit stops — to bag his second win of the season.
“When we left pit road and have a flat tire … it’s just not your day,” a disappointed Hamlin said. “When it did that, it just sheared the tire, broke a brake line so I had no brakes… just a slew of problems.”
Pole-sitter Kurt Busch finished second, 2.965 seconds, behind Gordon.
“I’m exhausted,” Kurt Busch said. “It was a great, hard-fought battle with Jeff Gordon at the end. It started about 130 laps in, about 70 to go, where we were able to take the lead, stretch it out. Then there was a caution (and) the 24 beat us out of the pits.
“I thought we could gain on him after 15 laps into the run — we were able to do that most of the day. We were able to do that again at the end, but we just couldn't close the gap far enough. The old ‘Golden Boy’ had it in him today. He ran strong.”
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 5. Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota failed post-race inspection, where NASCAR officials found the car 1/16” too low on the left front. Any penalties that may come from the infraction will be announced on Tuesday. Busch’s probationary status will not factor into any potential fines or point-dockings.
Having tied Allison and Waltrip for third in all-time victories, Gordon now sets his sights on David Pearson’s 105 wins. However, Gordon’s three victories since the start of the 2008 season are a far cry from his 1995-2001 heyday, when he racked up an incredible 56 wins. And at 39 years of age, twilight may have set on a career that seemed to hold the promise of hitting the 100-win mark.
“There were moments in (1998) where I was like, ‘Man, this is kind of easy,’” Gordon said. “We won 13 races that year. I’m telling you, as soon as you start to think that, that’s when it comes up and smacks you upside the head. 1999 came and it got our attention (seven wins). Then 2000 came (three wins). To me, those are wake-up calls of how hard it is to win, how hard it is to win championships, and that what we were doing was just extraordinary, and it doesn’t last forever.
“That stuff is going to not come to an end, but you’re going to have some rough times. It’s just the way the world works and the way the competition works.”
Whether Gordon hits the magical 100-race win mark, his career has been remarkable — and groundbreaking. His first start was in the 1992 Hooter’s 500 — a race many cite as the most notable in NASCAR’s modern era. Richard Petty made his final career start that day at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Concurrently, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki settled a championship battle that found the former a winner by a scant 10 points. And along the way, Gordon has won all of NASCAR’s crown jewel events on multiple occasions, with three Daytona 500, four Brickyard 400, five Southern 500 and three Coca-Cola 600 triumphs to his credit.
As a 21 year-old rookie the following season, Gordon set the mold that many drivers were sculpted of through the 1990s and early 2000s. Young, marketable, clean-cut, well-spoken — Gordon was the representative the sport looked to as it rocketed to popularity in the late-’90s.
And now, 20 years after that first start, Gordon finds himself still winning and still chasing championships.
“I don't want to just be in the Chase,” Gordon said. “Being in the Chase, at 40 years old, is not enough. Our sponsors like it and all, but that’s not enough. I want to be a threat for the championship. I’m not saying we’re there, but today is definitely a big step in getting us there.”
From the Spotter's Stand
Denny Hamlin’s fourth career win at Pocono was the least exciting news from the 2.5-mile tri-oval in June. A nine-car wreck on the next-to-last lap at Long Pond resulted in a green-white-checker finish and a post-race shouting match between Hamlin’s teammate, Joey Logano, and then-points leader Kevin Harvick, who Logano claimed did not wear the firesuit in the family.
There were emotions of a different kind in August, when Greg Biffle dedicated his first win in 64 races to his ailing owner, Jack Roush, who was resting at the Mayo Clinic after being injured in a plane crash. After a rain delay, Biffle beat pole-sitter Tony Stewart to the line by 3.598 seconds to win one for the Cat in the Hat.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Low-end horsepower is needed exiting the three corners, and top-end muscle is needed on the long straights. Making the car turn in just one corner is difficult enough, and making it comfortable in all three turns of varying length is next to impossible. You always hear people talk about a ‘driver’s track.’ This one is a mechanic’s track, or maybe an engineer’s track. The reason people compare Pocono to a road course is because the road courses are the only other places where all the turns are radically different. It’s getting harder because the pavement’s deteriorating and the bumps are getting worse.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Throw out two stinkers (’08, ’09) and Denny Hamlin has been nearly unbeatable. Pretty Solid Pick: Smoke has 10 top 10s in his last 11 starts on the coathanger (we’re trying, at all costs, to use the term “tricky triangle”). Good Sleeper Pick: Since Juan Pablo Montoya figured the place out, he’s been pretty good. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Marcos Ambrose, who’s been 30th or worse since a sixth in his first time out. Insider Tip: Fuel mileage and rain often factor. A crafty crew chief is a plus.
Classic Moments at Pocono
After missing the first four months of the 1987 season due to a then-undisclosed illness, Tim Richmond wins in his second race back (his first was the All-Star event at Charlotte), the Miller High Life 500 at Pocono.
Richmond’s No. 25 Folger’s Chevy passes Dale Earnhardt on lap 153 of 200 and leads the final 47 after sitting on the point for a total of 82 circuits throughout the day. Richmond beats Bill Elliott to the line by one second. In Victory Lane, an emotional Richmond admits that he never saw the checkered flag through the tears in his eyes.
Richmond wins the following week at Riverside but runs only six races thereafter. He retires after the 1987 season and passes away on Aug. 13, 1989, from complications due to AIDS.
It’s hard to believe that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is already halfway through its regular season, but as the circuit heads to the melting mountains of Pocono, Pa., (seriously … it’s pushing 100 degrees up in these parts) that’s exactly where we stand.
It’s 13 races down, 13 races to go until the Chase in a year that’s already seen all four manufacturers win, three green-white-checker finishes, two first-time winners (in marquee races, no less) and one AARP owner who we also learned still packs a punch. But in this “renaissance season” that 2011 has become, with television ratings finally ticking upwards in the midst of unprecedented parity, the important number to remember for the playoffs is zero. That’s right, zero new Chase participants — Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s return aside — would be eligible if the postseason started today, a number that showcases that, for all the Trevor Baynes and Regan Smiths of the world, they’ve yet to break back into the sport’s “most important” part of its season: the playoffs.
What drivers, facts and figures deserve mention at this point? Let’s review where we stand at the halfway point:
Biggest Surprise (Race): Without a doubt, Trevor Bayne in the season-opening Daytona 500. The rookie impressed throughout Speedweeks, pairing up with veteran Jeff Gordon in the Duel 150s, but I don’t think anyone expected the rookie to actually win. Bayne’s perfectly-timed moves left him out front when pseudo-teammate David Ragan jumped the gun on a restart; from there, it was smooth sailing to becoming the youngest winner in the history of the Great American Race.
Ever since? It’s been “one-hit wonder” time for Bayne, with zero top-15 finishes paired with a serious, month-long illness that kept him out of the car and critics chanting “overrated!” while writing “get well soon.” But considering his age (20) and big-money backer (Roush), I’d say it’s highly unlikely Bayne becomes the second coming of Derrike Cope. And the fact he’s more innocent than a Disney movie, preaching faith and “straight edge” in a sport that pitches itself as a family product? It’s an added bonus — the type that makes executives drool, considering NASCAR’s ratings were up for three straight weeks after Bayne pulled into Victory Lane down in Florida.
Runner-Ups: Who you’d expect: Regan Smith, winning the Southern 500 and Brad Keselowski winning at Kansas.
Biggest Surprise (Season): Dale Earnhardt Jr. No, he hasn’t won, but check out the other statistics for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver turned … dare I say it … one of NASCAR’s most competitive drivers. Three top-5 finishes, matching his 2010 total, show crew chief Steve Letarte has turned this team around faster than anyone expected. And the consistency — long Earnhardt’s Achilles? heel — is what’s most impressive. A calm and collected driver and crew are now delivering the right adjustments on the final stop, not just the first, to ensure the highest possible result. But here’s what you’re not hearing about Junior: his 22.2-place average start in 2011, second-worst in his career, is paired with a 10.3-place average finish, his best. That’s right — better than the years he was actually contending for titles, back when Bud was on the hood and Jimmie Johnson was that guy who could never finish the job.
So is this the year Earnhardt makes his mark, contending for a title, at Hendrick? No, although making the Chase is a foregone conclusion. But considering the recent rash of “just misses,” you get the sense that when the No. 88 finally breaks through to Victory Lane, it’s going to be in bunches. After all, Earnhardt doesn’t issue a full-scale apology to his crew for nothing! (Or so his marketing machine says).
Runner-Up: Matt Kenseth (two wins, zero crew chief changes).
Biggest Disappointment No. 1: Joey Logano With a run of seventh-, sixth-, fifth-, fourth- and third-place finishes during the 2010 Chase, most expected the third season to be the charm for NASCAR’s “next generation” leader.
We’re still waiting. With one top 5, two top 10s and some ugly crew chief change rumors (denied) Logano’s sitting 25th in the standings, a whopping 82 points — nearly two race’s worth — behind 10th-place Ryan Newman. Barring a remarkable run of summer victories, he’ll miss the Chase for a third straight year in a ride, manned by Tony Stewart for a decade, that whiffed just once before his arrival. But perhaps most important of all, in a year where “young guns” are trying mightily to maintain some sort of relevance once again — think Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Cole Whitt — Logano has fallen into the background. On a team where Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin stand out, for different reasons, the man handpicked to lead his generation is simply a quiet face in the crowd.
That, of course, begs a major question for sponsor Home Depot, who’s watched Jimmie Johnson in a Lowe’s Chevy win championships for the last five years: How much more patience will Joe Gibbs Racing’s loyal backer have, particularly with free agents like Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer on the market? Could it wind up leaving the sport altogether, the latest sign of the sport’s economic times? It’s amazing to think at this point, with all the hype and seemingly unlimited potential, that Logano could be fighting for his career, but it’s hard to imagine 25th or lower in points being an acceptable way to end the season for the No. 20.
Biggest Disappointment No. 2: Jamie McMurray With the way the No. 1 team tackled 2010 — winning three major races and pulling the “feast or famine” approach — the 2011 “wild card” Chase rule change would have been perfect for their playoff chances. In fact, most everyone expected that McMurray would not only win this season, but he’d make the playoffs on merit after five top-11 finishes in the final 10 weeks in 2010 showed marked consistency.
Well, come 2011 this Earnhardt-Ganassi outfit has been consistent, all right … consistently terrible. Owner Chip Ganassi looks preoccupied with IndyCar’s 2012 chassis, teammate Juan Pablo Montoya’s getting into fights with Ryan Newman and McMurray seems without the support, horsepower or handling needed to be successful. Other than a pole at Martinsville that looked impressive, he’s totaled as many DNFs (2) as top-10 finishes, sitting 27th in the standings so far back that even the wild card is a virtual impossibility. As the kicker, tornadoes destroyed the driver’s hometown of Joplin, Mo., last month in a cruel twist of fate that showcases how the world only leaves you sitting at the top for so long.
Breaking Down the Current Chase Locks: Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth (two wins in case he falls out of the top 10) and·... Dale Earnhardt Jr. That’s right — at third in the standings, just one man (Elliott Sadler, 2005) has been this high through 13 races and then failed to make the playoffs.
Probables: 1) Tony Stewart Typically a guy who doesn’t get going until June, Stewart’s actually overachieving at this time of year at eighth in points. The only reason to have a shadow of a doubt: the recent firing of Bobby Hutchens, SHR’s Vice-President of Competition, which certainly raises some questions.
2) Kurt Busch Until the last few weeks, people were afraid to light a match in front of this combustible Busch for fear the poor man might explode. It’s been an R-rated spring on his radio, with public tirades and private tongue-lashings from Busch leaving Penske Racing on its toes. But with two straight top-10 finishes, combined with 155 laps led and teammate Brad Keselowski’s Kansas win, it looks like new engineering has worked to the point where he’ll be safe.
3) Clint Bowyer You never want to see someone’s car owner in the news for punching a driver out. But that $150,000 fine should hardly derail the efforts of Bowyer, who if not for an ugly start (zero top-10 finishes the first four weeks) would be right up there with teammate Kevin Harvick in the standings. The only worry is his pending free agency. What if Childress doesn’t offer a contract, he can’t find a sponsor or vice versa? As Mark Martin showed last season, those sort of circus-level distractions can disrupt your rhythm.
4) Denny Hamlin Welcome to the Jimmie Johnson Hangover Club, Denny! It’s happened to the best of them (Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin to be precise). On a serious note, considering how badly this team began the year it’s a miracle Hamlin’s pulled it to 11th in points. They’re far from out of the woods, though — engine problems still reign over at Joe Gibbs Racing — and after the Pocono/Michigan swing some of Hamlin’s shakier tracks remain. And the relationship between driver and crew appears inconsistent. Hamlin probably needs to buckle down and win Pocono twice to feel safe.
Vulnerable: 1) Ryan Newman Tenth in the point standings, he’s already on shaky ground, although the promotion of former crew chief Matt Borland helps (he’ll replace Hutchens at Stewart-Haas). Not a guy who wins all that often — just twice in the last three-plus years — and considering the quality of drivers behind him in the standings, that has to change.
2) Jeff Gordon Who knew the pairing of Alan Gustafson would work out to be the borderline worst of Hendrick’s three crew chief changes? Since a Phoenix win, the No. 24 car has been on a roller coaster ride until Kansas last weekend. Bad luck hasn’t helped (doesn’t it seem he hits the wall without a SAFER Barrier every time?), but that’s no excuse for several races where this team was plain out to lunch. At 13th in the standings, he sits poised in the “wild card” spot with that win for now, but he’ll need a second (and probably third) to feel secure.
Who Can Sneak In: 1) Greg Biffle Like Bowyer, Biffle suffered through an ugly start until a fuel-filling debacle at Las Vegas lit a fire under him. Twelfth in points and armed with Ford’s high-horsepower, low-cooling engine — and with a list of strong tracks ahead — this perpetual Chaser should knock someone out.
2) A true “Wild Card” Other than the Biff, well that’s pretty much it for a points Chase that has 13 drivers (two of which are the current “wild cards”) battling for those 10 spots. But, as we saw with Keselowski’s victory, this new system does open the door for a big surprise. Among those drivers capable of scoring two victories, which is what I almost guarantee you’ll need to make it through: Juan Pablo Montoya (15th in points, two road courses coming up), Kasey Kahne (18th in points, can win most anywhere), Marcos Ambrose (19th in points, again, the two road courses) and Brad Keselowski (tied for 21st, could add a second win at Daytona).
Stat That Should Shock You: Kevin Harvick has led the circuit with three wins this season but only led a total of 108 laps. That, more than anything, represents the way things have gone, with the first 85 percent of the races having little to do with dramatic twists in the end — as pit strategy, circumstances and pure sandbagging have handed victories to seemingly unlikely suitors.
Stat That Should Not Shock You: Jimmie Johnson, despite only one victory, is right on pace for consecutive title No. 6. He’s projected to have about the same number of top-10 finishes as last year (22 in ?11 vs. 23) along with the same number of laps led (1,307 vs. 1,315). And his average finish, at 10.6 through 13 races, is his best since 2008.
Six Questions To Ask Heading Into the Second Half of the Regular Season:
1. Did Roush Fenway Racing and Carl Edwards peak too soon? We’ve seen in years past that there’s a danger (Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart) to being far out in front of the standings before “go” time.
2. What will certain sponsors (UPS, Home Depot) do with drivers that have potential rather than real stats to back up their multi-million dollar contracts?
3. Is the glass half-full for this sport or half-empty? There are a record number of start-and-parkers each week … but TV ratings have inched upward. Attendance is down at places like Bristol, but up at others, like Charlotte, where a master marketing plan was enacted. Development drivers can’t find rides … but others, like Cole Whitt, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are finally moving their way towards Sprint Cup, leaving hope there might actually be a 2012 rookie class.
4. Where will the line at “Have At It, Boys” be, and does it involve someone being actually, physically hurt to draw a suspension? I’m not judging on the penalty here, but being totally serious. By not suspending Childress, NASCAR set a precedent that punching someone in the garage after the race is fair game. Is that a good or a bad thing over the long-term?
5. Will we end the year with the “New” Kyle Busch (mild-mannered, “everybody says he’s changed” version) or “Old” Kyle Busch? (the speeding ticket, Kevin Harvick-wrecking, Childress-tantalizing one that’s appeared over the last month.)
Three Questions We're Tired Of Hearing: 1. Will she or won't she come to NASCAR? (Take a guess).
2. Will Mark Martin finally retire?
3. Will Jimmie Johnson win that sixth straight championship?