Life can be tough at the top. Or even near it. And in the world of professional auto racing — where speed is not measured in horsepower, but dollars — it can be downright impossible to break through.
Don’t tell Blake Koch, though. The 25 year-old Florida native is attempting to make his mark in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series despite a lack of dollars that equate into miles per hour. Koch and his McDonald Motorsports team are fighting the good fight against the series’ powerhouse teams — think Roush Fenway and Joe Gibbs Racing — and they’re doing it the right way.
Koch has made eight career starts in the Nationwide Series since making the jump from NASCAR’s K&N West Series in 2009 — five this season — and he’s finished every one. In a climate where start and park entries are all but accepted in all three of NASCAR’s touring series, that’s saying something.
“At the beginning of the year I was paying all my own expenses,” Koch said prior to the 300-mile Nationwide race in Nashville. “Now Randy (McDonald, team owner) can help me out, but I still cover 90 percent of my own expenses. There’s no salary, no percentage of race winnings.”
Still, he’s willing to sacrifice now in order to find success later, regardless of the personal expense required.
“It’s difficult for my wife and I, but it’s what we love and we’re going to keep going with it.”
Does he feel some sense of resentment, though? After all, do Cup regulars Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, et al, really need to log Nationwide miles and collect hardware? Those big names attract big money, leaving table scraps for young teams and drivers trying to get a foothold in the sport.
“I don’t think it’s a huge impact for sponsors,” Koch shrugs. “I think it’s big that we can tell our potential sponsors that we’ll be racing against Dale Earnhardt Jr. this weekend or Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards or Trevor Bayne.
“I think it’s an advantage for us to tell them (sponsors) that we’ll be in the same race with those guys. We’re a low-budget team, and those lower-budget companies can get in the same race with the big-budget companies.”
In the meantime, Koch and McDonald have the backing of Daystar Television Network, a media company focusing on religiously-based programming. It’s a partner Koch and McDonald view as more than just a sponsor, but a belief and a way of life.
“Randy McDonald has the same vision we do,” Koch says. “We’re all believers in Christ and we like to take that platform out into the community.”
Still, all the belief and vision in the world won’t make up for a lack of funding, so Koch’s short-term expectations are modest ones.
“My expectations vary,” he says. “Typically, my expectations are to qualify top 25 and finish top 20 — but my goal is to finish top 15. But money buys speed, so … today, I hope to qualify 22nd.”
He just missed that, rolling off 30th in the Nashville 300 and finishing 25th. Still, the team has had its moments, like the 17th-place run in Memphis in 2009 and a 16th at Talladega last weekend. The Talladega race — his first at the superspeedway — was impressive on a number of levels.
“With the weather and trouble in tech, we missed the whole first practice and all but 15 minutes of the second practice,” he explained. “So NASCAR told us we had to get on the track for at least one lap or we couldn’t qualify.
“I’ve never even seen the track or played it on a video game, so I just had to go out there with pure faith and get it done. I didn’t get to bump draft at all (in practice), so come race time, that was the first time I’d been around cars. Luckily, Joey Logano picked us up on the second lap (in a two-car draft) and got us from 30th to 13th in like 28 laps.”
Koch kept his cool the rest of the day in recording his career-best finish. And with his hunger, a committed team and a supportive sponsor, it’s likely those career-best showings will continue to come.
Ever notice how everything that’s about 25 years old comes back in style again? There are many sayings that help corroborate the observation: Everything old is new again. Nothing is original – steal from anywhere. Heck it’s even in the Bible in Ecclesiastes 1:9: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Even Yogi Berra chimed in, saying, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
Restrictor-plate racing at NASCAR’s two largest ovals in Daytona and Talladega has always been known as a high-speed chess match — one that, more often than not, produces tight, thrilling finishes.
At no race was that more evident than at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, where Jimmie Johnson won by .002 seconds over Clint Bowyer in the Aaron’s 499, tying the record for closest margin of victory since NASCAR adopted electronic timing and scoring.
But Johnson and Bowyer were only two of the central characters in a frantic 11–lap dash to the finish. Four “pods” of teammates — Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bowyer and Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle — diced their way through a final lap that concluded with a nearly four-wide scramble at the finish line. The Johnson/Earhardt duo made the race-winning move to the low groove in the tri-oval, flirting with a yellow-line, out of bounds penalty, to complete a thrilling come-from-behind victory.
And in a style of racing that requires cooperation among competitors in hopes of victory, corporate teammates are an invaluable part of the equation. Exhibit A: Johnson and Earnhardt. The Hendrick Motorsports drivers stayed hooked together from the drop of the green, leading early, then dropping to the back of field in the mid-stages, only to make a run to the front late.
“He (Earnhardt) was committed, as was I, and it showed today,” Johnson said. “Neither one of us were selfish and we worked as a group. And at the end, he felt like the 48 car (Johnson’s) leading was faster; we agreed.
“We had a plan coming into the race, and stuck to it and learned a lot as the event went on, really Junior and I did, on how we would communicate, on what runs we could make, how we could set them up, how we could pass, how to have the guy push and could cool his car. Really, there was a lot of learning that went on through all of the laps throughout the race.”
So vital was the teamwork to orchestrating Johnson’s victory that he gave Earnhardt the checkered flag in lieu of a trophy.
“I handed it to him and he said, "Man, I don't want that,’” Johnson explained. “I said, ‘Well, I have to give you something for the push and working with me.’
“He said, ‘No, that's what teammates do.’ I smiled and I said, ‘Take the damn flag. I'll give you the trophy, too.’ He says, ‘No, I don't want the trophy. I'll take the flag, though.’”
Earnhardt joked that, "It'll be the one checkered flag I got that ain't mine!”
Earnhardt credited lessons learned from the previous day’s Nationwide Series race with Sunday’s game plan. In that race, he was separated from his JR Motorsports teammate, Aric Almirola, which resulted in eighth- (Earnhardt) and 10th- (Almirola) place finishes.
"We all had commitment phobia. Nobody really wanted to go all the way," Earnhardt said. "So I told (Johnson) today, ‘We gotta stay committed no matter what happens. Every lap. Every restart.’ And it worked out."
A third Hendrick driver — Gordon — was credited with third. Behind him, Earnhardt, Harvick, Edwards, Biffle and Martin rounded out the top 8.
When asked if there was any solace in knowing he lost by a record margin, runner-up Bowyer laughed, saying, “Hell no, that sucks! It's never very good to know you made NASCAR history by losing. Sooner or later I need to start making history by winning. That guy's won enough.”
The same cannot be said for Earnhardt, whose 100-race winless skid reached 101 with Sunday’s near-miss. However, the chemistry between he and crew chief Steve Letarte is undeniable, as evidenced by their seventh top-12 run in eight races. And with a return to Daytona’s plate action on the July Fourth weekend, maybe Johnson can return the favor.
“I think we take the exact same approach and see how it shakes out the end,” Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus said of the strategy for the next plate race. “If we get to Daytona and the roles are reversed that will be it — we will follow him across the line with sparks and fire a-blazing.”
Scientifically Treated Petroleum has been a staple of shade tree mechanics since 1953, but the product is perhaps best known for its involvement in motorsports. STP teamed up with Richard Petty in 1971, beginning a 29-year relationship that is the second longest in the history of motorsports. And after a decade’s hiatus, the iconic brand is coming back to NASCAR in a big way, encompassing more than just car sponsorship beginning in June.
In an era when many companies are reigning in motorsports budgets, it is refreshing to see a major commitment coming from a corporation that has been so identifiable with NASCAR through the years.
STP was started in 1954 by Charles “Doc” Liggett, Jim Hill and Robert DeHart with $3,000, a garage and a dream. The three men packaged their oil treatment product during the evenings and then loaded it into their trunks to sell during vacations and business trips. The initial product was designed to keep oil from thinning when operating at high temperatures, which made it an ideal aid for race teams. The success of their efforts — the product’s reputation spread primarily by word of mouth in the racing industry — allowed them to expand their business into gasoline treatment in 1960.
The company was so successful, in fact, that Studebaker bought it in 1961 and hired Andy Granatelli to be the CEO. Granatelli’s gregarious personality was infectious and made him a fan favorite when the company started sponsoring cars in open wheel racing, where Mario Andretti carried the colors to an Indianapolis 500 win in 1969.
The company’s involvement in stock car racing coincided nicely with NASCAR’s evolution into its modern era. STP first appeared on Richard Petty’s hood at Riverside Raceway in 1971, then adorned the now-iconic No. 43 for an eight-win ’72 campaign.
The partnership between STP and Petty Enterprises was as recognizable a marriage of driver and sponsor as there has ever been in the history of the sport. The combination of the Petty Blue and the STP Day-Glo Red made the No. 43 one of the most instantly distinguishable cars on the track and off. Petty scored 60 of his record 200 career wins and three championships flying the STP banner until his retirement in 1992.
The path to STP’s departure from the sport began in 1998, when the Clorox Company purchased First Brands, which at the time was the parent company of STP. Marketing decisions made in a boardroom — where bottom-line numbers outweigh emotional ties — ruled the day, and by the mid-point of the 2000 season, the No. 43 was without a big red oval on the hood.
Ten years later, in 2010, Avista Capital Partners acquired ArmorAll and STP from Clorox and renamed the business arm the Armored AutoGroup. The divestiture away from Clorox once again opened the door for STP to return to racing — and the brand is jumping back in with both feet.
STP’s renewed involvement will again revolve around one of the best-known slogans in the history of motorsports: “STP — The Racer’s Edge.” It will kick off its new campaign by sponsoring the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races at Kansas Speedway on its June 4-5 race weekend, as well as Chicagoland Speedway’s races — which includes the first Chase date — in September. Capitalizing on the popularity (and familiarity) of Petty’s affiliation with the brand, the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Ford will sport the classic 1972 paint scheme.
STP is also partnering with International Speedway, Corp. as a track sponsor at Daytona, Talladega, Chicago, Michigan, Kansas, Richmond and Darlington. In addition, the company has inked a deal with Speedway Motorsports, Inc., as a track sponsor at Infineon Raceway, which includes title sponsorship of its Wednesday night drag racing events.
Outside of NASCAR, the company will sponsor Tony Pedregon’s Nitro Funny Car NHRA entry at Las Vegas, Houston and Infineon and will serve as an associate sponsor for the remainder of the season. Lastly, STP will continue to sponsor Tony Stewart’s World of Outlaw Sprint Car with Donny Schatz behind the wheel, as well as providing additional sponsorship in the series.
In a time when NASCAR — and North American motorsports in general — is losing more sponsors than it’s gaining, STP’s renewed, aggressive re-entry into the sport is, hopefully, a sign of things to come. With NASCAR’s hardcore fan base eroding over the last decade due to a perceived interest in attracting newer fans (at the expense of the loyalists) having such an identifiable sponsor from “the good ol’ days” is the perfect way to kick-start the old school fan’s love affair with the sport.
From the Spotter's Stand
Drivers went after the checkers at Talladega last season like a spider monkey all hopped up on Mountain Dew, with a pair of too-close-to-call races that Ricky Bobby’s entire family — even Walker and T.R. — would be proud of.
Kevin Harvick beat Jamie McMurray by .011 seconds in a photo finish that was well worth the three attempts at a green-white-checkered flag finish it took to seal the deal in April. Along the way, Cup records were set for the number of leaders (29) and lead changes (88).
“The Big One” hit on the final lap in October, delaying the official announcement of Clint Bowyer’s victory — which came over Harvick, after “Shake ’n’ Bake” style help from Juan Pablo Montoya on Lap 187 of 188.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Being at the right place at the right time and picking a dancing partner wisely are the ultimate keys to winning at Talladega. While horsepower and aero are important, the CoT evens the playing field in the aero department, and the restrictor plates do so (although not to the same extent) under the hoods.
“Talladega is the track where you don’t have any control, particularly sitting on pit road. So much can happen. The driver’s got to be smart, and there can’t be any lapses. Even if there aren’t, he’s just in the hands of fate out there. They call it a high-speed chess match, and that’s pretty appropriate.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: He hasn’t won at Talladega, but Kurt Busch certainly has a knack for avoiding the big wreck here. Sometimes that’s fantasy gold. Pretty Solid Pick: Ah, to be young and hungry. Right Kes? Good Sleeper Pick: Gotta mention Jamie McMurray somewhere, don’t we? Runs on Seven Cylinders: Mark Martin and Ryan Newman are known for their dislike of the place. Insider Tip: A total crapshoot. Right place, right time, right dancing partner; right push at the end.
Classic Moments at Talladega
Local legend has it that the ground Talladega Superspeedway is built on was cursed by a medicine man from a tribe of Native Americans that were driven from its valley.
It’s hard to argue this logic — as strange occurrences have been the norm here throughout the years, from driver boycotts to car sabotage to drivers hearing voices inside their cars.
The inaugural event in 1969 is boycotted by most of the top drivers of the time due to safety concerns. A newly formed (yet short-lived) drivers’ union, led by Richard Petty, cites tire issues associated with speeds as the reason.
The race goes on with “scrubs,” however, and is won by Richard Brickhouse. Thus begins a pattern of drivers getting their first and/or only career win at Talladega.
"Missed the top spot by thaaaat much." (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Kyle Busch After runs of first, third and third, Busch slumped to 16th in Texas, courtesy of a persistent loose wheel. It can’t be a good feeling to run 200 mph into a turn knowing that a wheel could come off.
2. Carl Edwards If Kyle is No. 1, Carl may be No. 1a. It’s a toss-up at the top really, as their stats are near-mirror images through seven races this season.
3. Kevin Harvick Looking for three wins in a row, Harvick had pit-road issues all evening, getting pinned in a couple times and receiving a penalty on a third. Not that it mattered — he didn’t have the speed anyway.
4. Matt Kenseth Suddenly, we’re all wondering where Kenseth came from. Truth is, his only finish outside of the top 12 all season was when he got caught in the Big One in the Daytona 500.
5. Jimmie Johnson Johnson is averaging a 10th-place finish this season — including a runner-up and two thirds — while quietly lying in wait for that first victory.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK, this might be getting serious. Since a wreck at Daytona with six laps remaining, Junior has strung together six consecutive top-12 showings. Something’s working.
7. Kurt Busch To listen to him spew complaints and profanity on the radio during races, you’d think Busch was driving a Pinto. In actuality, he’s tied with little brother and Edwards with five top 10s this season.
8. Clint Bowyer Bowyer has finally found “it,” having racked up three consecutive top-10 runs, capped by a strong runner-up showing in a race at Texas that no one but Kenseth was going to win.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya Montoya has developed a knack for restrictor plate racing, and next up is Talladega, where he finished third in both events last season.
10. Ryan Newman A four-race top-10 surge has given way to 20th- and 14th-place runs. This weekend will be big for Newman, who has made his dislike of Talladega no secret.
11. Tony Stewart Another sure-fire top 5 slips through his fingers. This is beginning to become a habit.
12. Paul Menard He’s not race-winning caliber yet, but Menard sure is showing improvement at RCR.
13. Jeff Gordon Throw out the Phoenix win and Martinsville top 5 and it isn’t too pretty for Mr. Gordon.
14. David Ragan Records consecutive top 10s for the first time since late in the 2008 season.
15. Greg Biffle Running fourth on a big intermediate is exactly what Biffle is supposed to do. A sign of things to come?
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin
So much has been made of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless skid and the just-broken streak of Jeff Gordon that Matt Kenseth’s 76-race bout of futility has largely been overlooked. Not that Kenseth complained — after all, who wants a losing streak advertised? No, Kenseth flies under the radar, so even if he pieced together a four-race victory run, it likely wouldn’t get much play.
Kenseth didn’t fly under the radar on Saturday night. Instead, he took the bull by the horns at Texas Motor Speedway, leading a race-high 169 of 334 laps en route to a win in the Samsung Mobile 500 — his first since back-to-back triumphs that kicked off the 2009 season.
“We’ve had a couple (wins) like this, but not a lot,” Kenseth said. “Vegas is one that comes to mind, and that was a long time ago. It was, I think ’03, where we felt like we were a straightaway ahead all night, and the car was just about perfect.
“You don't get a lot of days in today’s competition level where you can lead that many laps and dominate a race and get a win.”
It wasn’t just a dominant performance by Kenseth, but by his Roush Fenway Racing team in general, as its three other drivers — Carl Edwards (third), Greg Biffle (fourth) and David Ragan (seventh) — all led laps and finished in the top 10. A fifth driver — Marcos Ambrose — registered a sixth-place run in his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, which receives engine and chassis support from RFR.
Richard Childress Racing’s Chevrolet entries of Clint Bowyer (second) and Paul Menard (fifth) were the only two finishers in the top 7 not under the Ford Racing banner.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do in 2011,” team co-owner Jack Roush said. “You know, we tuned up our engineering program with Ford’s help over the winter and we got a new Ford nose. Everybody got a new nose this year, but our new nose was better than our old nose, I think. And we’ve had our FR9 engine really up to speed.”
Ford’s FR9 engine was phased in last season to initially disappointing results. No Ford-supported team won until Biffle’s No. 16 bunch went to Victory Lane in August. He won again in October, but it wasn’t until Edwards took the last two races of the season that the kinks appeared to be worked out of the powerplant.
The 2011 season finds the Blue Oval brigade off to a flying start, having won three of the first seven races — including the Daytona 500 with the Wood Brothers’ iconic No. 21 entry.
That’s not to say that the Ford gang — led Saturday by Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig — were never challenged. Roger Penske’s Dodges of Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski combined to lead 82 laps. Busch, along with Tony Stewart, also tried to stretch their fuel mileage in a race that was slowed only five times for 24 laps. In fact, Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb appeared to have played the gas game to a tee, but were busted for speeding on pit road during a green-flag pit stop on lap 277 and had to serve a pass-through penalty, handing the lead back to Kenseth.
Kenseth held serve during the final round of pit stops and drove away nearly unchallenged over the event’s final 40 laps to record his 19th career Cup Series win.
“Those kind of races are fun when you’re the leader and the first one on pit row as long as there’s not a caution, because us know every lap they stay out there, you’re eating their lunch pretty bad,” Kenseth said. “Even if they pit a lap after you, you usually make a whole second on them.”
The Cup Series visits Talladega next weekend for a white-knuckle extravaganza before taking its annual Easter weekend vacation.