1. Carl Edwards One win, three top 5s, four top 10s, two poles, an average finish of 7.8 and leading the point standings. There’s really no doubt who the man to beat is through five races.
2. Kyle Busch A couple late cautions in Fontana prevented Kyle from scoring his second straight win. He, along with Jimmie Johnson, look like Edwards’ main threats thus far.
3. Ryan Newman Newman is not the fireworks-like driver Busch is, but his consistency is nearly unmatched, having not finished outside of the top 10 since the Daytona 500.
4. Jimmie Johnson Anyone realize that J.J. hasn’t won a race yet? Of course, he’ll find Victory Lane soon enough, and in the meantime he’s finished second or third in three of the last four races.
5. Kevin Harvick Notched his first win of the year showing up out of nowhere like Houdini on the last lap at Auto Club Speedway. More W’s to follow.
6. Kurt Busch Busch was out to lunch from the moment his team unloaded in California but managed a 17th. He was top 10 in the first four races, but it’s hard to be sold on the championship caliber of this group.
7. Kasey Kahne The performance with his one ’n done Red Bull Racing team keeps getting better, with four consecutive top 15s.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior and new crew chief Steve Letarte have been an eighth- to 12th-place combo thus far. You have to figure that’s only going to improve with time.
9. Tony Stewart Late-race pit miscues are killing this team. If they get that figured out, it’ll be back to top-5 showings for Smoke and Co.
10. Matt Kenseth Hasn’t finished worse than 12th since Daytona, with consecutive fourth-place finishes in the last two events. Look out Carl, there’s some competition in your own stable.
11. Juan Pablo Montoya It’s the “Every Other Weekend” theory for JPM. Good, bad, good, bad, good, bad ...
12. Paul Menard Menard has been 17th or better in every race this year. Nice start, now keep it going.
13. Jeff Gordon Throw out the Phoenix win and 2011 hasn’t been very pretty for the 24 gang.
14. Martin Truex Jr. He’s led 84 laps through five races this season after leading 88 laps total in 2010.
15. Brian Vickers He looks good on the big intermediate tracks. Not so much anywhere else.
Just off the lead pack: Marco Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin
As the saying goes, the only lap that matters is the last. And in no race was that more evident than Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
Kevin Harvick pushed Jimmie Johnson into Turn 3 — loosening the five-time Cup champion — and burned by, using the high line as the duo came to the checkers, to lead his only lap of the day, giving Harvick his first win at Auto Club Speedway and first of the young season.
An accident on lap 187 of 200 set up a three-man, nine-lap dogfight consisting of Harvick, Johnson and Kyle Busch. Busch, who dominated the event to the tune of 151 laps led, led the field to green and, along with Johnson, sprinted away from the field. However, as the two battled side-by-side, Harvick caught them by keeping his momentum up working the high groove.
By the time Johnson slid past Busch with two laps remaining, Harvick was there. He quickly disposed of Busch and set his sights on the leader.
“We led the right one, that’s for sure,” Harvick said. “We were able to keep pace with them (Busch and Johnson) for a few laps. When they started racing side-by-side, we made up the ground. Kyle started to get loose (and I) drove around him.”
Harvick pulled flush with Johnson’s bumper on the backstretch of the white-flag lap, shoving the leader into Turn 3. He then sailed high and passed the No. 48 Chevy, which had led only three laps throughout the afternoon.
“I knew if I was going to hit the wall today, it wasn’t going to be till Turn 4 coming to the checkered,” Harvick explained. “It was tight, but it was the right time to go.
“I really had a good run coming off of Turn 2 and he (Johnson) rolled up in front of me, so I just laid on the back bumper all the way down the back straightaway, gave him a couple seconds to think about what was going to happen going into Turn 3. The reason I did that, I just needed the one lane up top. I knew what I was going to do. I was hoping he would just roll through the middle of the racetrack or on the bottom or something.”
He did, and Harvick blew by and beat Johnson to the line by .144 seconds.
“Him (Harvick) being that close and kind of breaking the plane of our bumper, certainly affect(ed) how my car drove,” Johnson said. “When he got to my bumper down the back, I felt like if he turned into the bottom and followed me, I was in trouble. I kind of wanted to run the bottom coming to the checkered flag. Felt like that was the place to be.
“When I went off into (Turn) 3 with the extra speed, had my car kind of sideways getting in there, I couldn’t get a real good arc into the corner. I heard that he was looking outside near the middle of the corner. Once he got there and broke the plane of my bumper, spotter said, ‘Outside,’ I was dead in the water.”
Busch had been the only story of the day until the final dramatic laps. He first jumped to the point on lap 22, when he passed his Joe Gibbs Racing teamamte, Denny Hamlin. He lead 151 of the next 175 laps but took the loss as well as could be expected.
“Just real, real unfortunate and frustrating and disappointing — all in one — that we weren’t able to seal the deal today,” Busch said afterward. “(It) just came down to the last few laps there with Jimmie first and then Kevin got into it, too, with us.
“You ask a little bit more from your racecar at the last moments, (and if) it doesn’t have anything left to give, you’re essentially a sitting duck waiting for those guys to drive by you. Couldn’t get any more out of the car. That was it.”
From the Spotter's Stand
Jimmie Johnson’s first successful drive for five of 2010 came at Auto Club Speedway — the site of JJ’s first win of the season, first career win and 48th career victory. The 48 car led 101 laps and capitalized on a little pit road luck to claim Johnson’s fifth win of the first 21 races in the 14-year history at the Fontana track.
After the race, runner-up Kevin Harvick claimed that Johnson and Chad Knaus “have a golden horseshoe stuck up their…” uh, tailpipe — referring to a caution flag that gave the 48 valuable track position.
In October, Tony Stewart kept his Chase hopes alive with his first win at Fontana. But this year, the second Cup stop at “Cali-boring-ya” has been eliminated.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Getting the car to turn in California’s long, sweeping, flat turns after carrying a ton of speed down the straightaways is the real trick to winning. From a setup point of view, it’s hard to get a car dialed in there, and front end geometry equates to good finishes. Plus, it’s probably the hardest track on engines, hands down, and Michigan is the only track that’s even close. The difference is probably the California heat. Drivers like to run the high groove, but the stopwatches say the bottom is better, so you’ve got to persuade them to try that.”
Looking at Checkers: If you’re picking against the 48, you’re picking wrong. Three of those wins have come in the last five races. Pretty Solid Pick: Three of the four Roush boys (Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth) make fine picks this week. Good Sleeper Pick: David Reutimann has taken to the big intermediates. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Marcos Ambrose, no matter the sheet metal.
Insider Tip: Bottom line is they’re going to have to go through Jimmie and Carl.
Classic Moments at Bristol
A tense race weekend turns emotional at what was then known as California Speedway in 2001.
On Friday, rumors spread that defending Cup champion Bobby Labonte has been fatally injured in a plane crash. Putting those false reports to rest, Labonte goes out and wins the pole for the NAPA Auto Parts 500.
In the race, Rusty Wallace is clearly the man to beat, and the cagey veteran doesn’t disappoint. Wallace outduels Jeff Gordon by .27 seconds to win on what would have been Dale Earnhardt’s 50th birthday. Wallace salutes his fallen friend by flying an Earnhardt flag out the driver-side window on his cool-down laps.
Wallace’s 54th career win also marks his 16th straight season with at least one victory. That streak would come to an end the following year.
Bristol Motor Speedway is sometimes referred to as the “Cathedral of Racing.” For years obtaining tickets to the events at the alter of speed was harder than getting the homecoming queen to give it up on prom night — after all, there were divorce settlements where people took the Bristol season tickets over the 401k account. However, that all changed last March when the 53-race consecutive sellout streak at the world’s fastest half-mile came to an end. While there’s been continued debate over what, exactly, is keeping the fans away, the inarguable fact is that they are staying away in droves.
Speedway Motorsports, Inc., purchased Bristol in 1996 when the seating capacity was roughly 71,000. Over the next 10 seasons, track general manager and president Jeff Byrd along with the deep pockets of owner Bruton Smith, more than doubled the capacity to somewhere in the neighborhood of 160,000 seats.
NASCAR was relishing its biggest boom in popularity at the time. And since every seat was continually filled, there was no question the additional investment was paying off. Unfortunately, just prior to those seats being completed, the sanctioning body switched to the Chase format and ultimately the new style of racecars, which took away much of the personality of the vehicles on the track and impacted how they raced.
In 2007, the track’s surface was beginning to crumble due to years of hot summers and cold winters in the area, so while the track was resurfaced with new concrete, it was also reengineered to have progressive banking, allowing for side-by-side racing. Couple these fundamental changes with one of the most damaging economic downturns in the history of the United States and the end result was a drastic reduction in attendance that culminated with a just over half-full venue at last weekend’s Jeff Byrd 500.
There is no exact answer as to which of the different changes had the most impact, but it may very well be certain parts of all of them. What’s obvious is that people who used to spend their money at the track are now choosing to keep it for other uses.
The Chase format definitely had an impact on the racing at Bristol. The track once offered single-file racing, which encouraged — no, mandated — bump-n-run maneuvers that set tempers boiling and passions flaring. With the advent of the Chase, a more conservative, “good points day” mentality prevailed, as the goal of the drivers in the early spring and again in early fall is to simply qualify for the playoffs. Tearing up one’s equipment going all-out for a win is a fool’s way of missing the cut.
The new car design has presented a problem not just at Bristol, but across the circuit. The lack of personality and its IROC-feel have been complaints of the fans (and some drivers, behind closed doors, of course) since it was introduced at Bristol in 2007. Television ratings and attendance across the entire schedule have gone down for the most part since the new car rolled out. The sanctioning body is working hard to bring brand identity back into the series, and the redesign of the car that will be rolled out in 2013 may bring back a feeling that the cars on the track are at least somewhat identifiable with the cars fans drive on the street. While racecars have evolved too far to ever get back to the point that they look exactly like street cars, the folks in Daytona now know that distinguishing a Chevy from a Ford is paramount in the eyes of the sport’s lifeblood — its fans.
Despite cries from the government that the recession has ended (or at least the economy is beginning to rebound), NASCAR and much of its largely blue-collar fanbase wouldn’t know it. Staffers at Bristol that contacted fans who did not renew season tickets stated that the majority coming to Bristol travel over six hours, and with gas prices up and lodging rates on race weekends gouged, they simply can’t afford to make the trip.
Bristol is a “destination race,” meaning the sole destination for the incoming race fan is the track itself. There is no NASCAR Hall of Fame, Vegas Strip or big city nightlife to act as a two-in-one vacation. If a fan is going to spend a mortgage payment on a race weekend, said fan can at least belly up to a blackjack table or cruise the Sunset Strip by choosing other races.
The last factor is one that brings up the most disagreement between fans, media and competitors alike: The aggressive nature of Bristol — which is no longer evident — brought fans to the track. The bumping and banging, bent sheet metal, flying sparks, heightened tempers and occasional fisticuffs defined what many felt was true short-track racing. However, when the track was reconfigured with progressive banking added, the racing groove opened up, allowing cars to run from the bottom of the track to the top. No longer do drivers have to follow one another nose-to-tail and “move” the car in front in order to advance. Drivers can now spend multiple laps running door-to-door around the half-mile racing surface, and while contact does take place, it isn’t a continual activity. Drivers say the “new” Bristol provides great racing, but they fail to understand that fans also require great entertainment.
Multiple fans voiced their opinions on countless internet forums after last weekend’s empty seats were so evident. The vast majority maintained that the reason they aren’t interested in attending races at Bristol anymore is because the racing has changed and they no longer enjoy it. They’re basically saying that the repaving project that gave the drivers multiple racing grooves and allowed for more passing and lead changes is not what they want at Bristol. Ironically, the racing at Bristol now resembles that of Richmond, which is typically touted as the track that provides the best racing (and facility) on the schedule.
Apparently that’s not what fans want from Bristol, and they’re speaking with their wallets.
There is no question that Bristol is an amazing venue with a half-mile oval surrounded by bleachers that reach some eight stories into the sky. It’s an awe-inspiring sight that should be on any true sports fan’s bucket list. Unfortunately, as competitive as the racing is, it doesn’t appear to be what fans are interested in watching.
While the speedway is not likely to rip up the surface again any time soon, the aging of the concrete may result in the loss of some grip, eventually returning it to a single-file battle royale. When that occurs the fans that left will return, but there may be another faction of fans — the ones who don’t need carnage to enjoy good racing — and they might slowly fill up the coliseum as the economy continues to heal.
In the meantime, one thing is for sure: Although the stands may have been only half-full, Bristol still welcomed over 80,000 people. And that’s in a down year. Better times are ahead.
1. Carl Edwards The train kept a rollin’ ... Edwards and crew churning out great runs, with five finishes of second or better in the last six races dating back to last season.
2. Kurt Busch Going about things in a totally different way — but equally as effective — is Busch, who leads the point standings with unspectacular, yet solid, top-10 showings.
3. Kyle Busch And then there’s younger brother Kyle, who once again stepped up at Bristol and did what he does best: Sweep the weekend’s Nationwide and Cup events.
4. Tony Stewart Smoke’s final results have been up and down, but Bristol was honestly the first race of the season that he wasn’t in contention at the end.
5. Jimmie Johnson Two third-place runs in the last three races prove Mr. Five Time and the boys are this close to hitting paydirt. And Auto Club Speedway is one of the 48 team’s best tracks.
6. Ryan Newman Sits third in the point standings, but has gone about his work quietly, notching runs of fifth, fifth and 10th in the last three races.
7. Paul Menard If you haven’t heard of the The Paul Menard Empire, you need to check it out on Facebook. The month of “Menarch” has been kind to him thus far.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s been an eighth- through 11th-placer so far this season, which is certainly an improvement from the last two seasons. Will Junior Nation finally accept a crew chief not named Tony Eury?
9. Kevin Harvick The fact that he drove back from a late spin at Bristol to finish sixth tells us he probably had something for Busch, Edwards and Johnson if only he'd had more laps.
10. Juan Pablo Montoya Third- and sixth-place finishes offset by 19th- and 24th-place runs this year. If he’s ever able to put it all together, look out.
11. Matt Kenseth Three consecutive runs of 12th or better and heading to Fontana, where he’s always tough.
12. Jeff Gordon Yeah, he has the Phoenix win, but the 24 team has been on a roller coaster otherwise.
13. Kasey Kahne Making the most of his brief association with Red Bull Racing.
14. Martin Truex Jr. Truex and crew chief Pat Tryson are quietly turning the 56 team around.
15. Mark Martin Steady as she goes for “the crazy old man” and his No. 5 group.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marco Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Bobby Labonte
Domination at the tough Bristol bullring in East Tennessee doesn’t come often, but when it does, it tends to run in streaks. Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch have gone on rolls of varying lengths over the last 35 years at the world’s fastest half-mile, and Kyle Busch is in the midst of his own.
Busch scored his fourth Cup win in the last five visits to Bristol on Sunday, leading 153 laps and pulling away from pole-sitter Carl Edwards and defending race-winner Jimmie Johnson down the stretch in the Jeff Byrd 500. But Busch was the first to admit that it wasn’t all about the drivers’ brilliance, rather, fast pit work that gave his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota the lead late in the race.
“Our guys on that last pit stop won this race coming out of the pits first,” Busch said of the stop with 71 laps remaining. “I don’t know if I could have gotten by Carl — Carl was good. Our car was definitely better on the longer run.”
Jimmie Johnson led to that point, with Busch content ton run second. However, when the field hit pit road under caution, crew chief Dave Rogers made the call for two tires, allowing Busch to beat Edwards, Greg Biffle and Johnson onto the track for the restart. The young Las Vegas native never looked back from there, fending off multiple challenges from Edwards over three separate restarts before eventually sprinting away to a .946-second victory.
When Edwards was asked what he could have done different, he referenced his dust-up with Busch three weeks ago in Phoenix, saying, “It’s simple: I should have hit him harder (on the final restart). He’s still got one coming from Phoenix, but it was too far from the end to start racing like that. I really thought I could get by him clean, but then his car took off and mine was loose. I still got one (payback) in my pocket.”
Johnson, who earned his first career Bristol win in this race last season, was forced to settle for third despite leading a race-high 164 laps.
“Oddly enough, clean air is important here,” Johnson said. “It makes a big difference. I knew the 18 and I were relatively equal and whoever had clean air could get a little gap … and that was kind of it. It came down to that last pit stop; we didn’t get off pit road first and that’s really where the race was gone at that point.”
Matt Kenseth and Paul Menard rounded out the top 5. For Menard, it was his best Bristol performance, and only his second career top-5 showing in the Cup Series with a car that was later revealed to be down a cylinder.
“I had a fast racecar all weekend,” Menard, in his first year with a new fourth team at Richard Childress Racing, said. “What’s cool is we’ve been to four different race tracks and had strong runs at all four. It’s a testament to Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) and everybody at RCR. There’s a lot of talent there and Slugger has built a helluva race team and we’re having a lot of fun right now.”
Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman comprised the rest of the top 10.
Through four races in the 2011 season, Kurt Busch clings to a one-point lead over Edwards in the point standings, followed by Tony Stewart, Newman and Menard.
From the Spotter’s Stand
Kyle Busch tripled his fun in his Doublemint Toyota at Bristol last August, capping off a historic weekend by winning the Cup race on Saturday after taking the checkers at the Nationwide race on Friday and the Truck Series event on Wednesday — becoming the first driver to sweep all three series in the same week. Rowdy bullwhipped the half-mile concrete bullring, leading 283 laps en route to his fourth career win at Bristol. Busch has won three of the last four runs at the high-stress, high-banked Tennessee track.
Jimmie Johnson spoiled both Busch brothers’ day in March, breaking up Kyle’s streak and upsetting Kurt (278 laps led) for JJ’s first victory at Bristol and 50th win of his career.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Having a car that handles well in the center of the corner off is a key to working through the pack. Track position is a key as well. As the race winds down, most crew chiefs opt for position over new tires, as getting through traffic quickly is next to impossible.
“For a driver, it's like walking a tightrope. If you’re tense, nervous or uncomfortable, you can’t function there. The great drivers say that if you can get settled in and get comfortable, everything seems to slow down, but there aren’t many with the skills to really reach that point. Most of them just say they do.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Kyle Busch is taking his turn as the Beast of Bristol. It runs in waves. Pretty Solid Pick: Since Jimmie Johnson doesn’t qualify for “Sleeper” status anymore ... Good Sleeper Pick: Junior qualifies, though — and makes a nice top-10 candidate. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Even in his heyday, Bobby Labonte never quite figured out Bristol. Insider Tip: They’re going to have to go through Kyle, one way or another, and races on the new surface are a lot easier to predict.
Classic Moments at Bristol
In the early- and mid-1980s, the only thing more certain than Darrell Waltrip winning the booing contest in pre-race introductions is his winning trophies at Bristol. Waltrip wins an astounding seven straight at the half-mile bullring between March 1981 and April 1984.
However, the streak comes to an end in August ’84 at the Busch 500. Waltrip leads 144 laps early but is plagued by myriad of issues late in the race. Instead, Terry Labonte battles back from two accidents — one a foreshadowing of things to come in the 1990s with Dale Earnhardt — to break Waltrip’s Bristol streak.
It’s Labonte’s fourth career victory and one that catapults him by Earnhardt into the championship lead. Labonte pulls away down the stretch from Harry Gant to win the 1984 Winston Cup.
The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is but three weeks old, yet off to one of its best starts in a decade. A genuinely thrilling Daytona 500 helped remind us why we started watching NASCAR to begin with, while Phoenix saw a legend rise from the ashes to greatness once again. Las Vegas was … well, Las Vegas — largely uneventful, save for several notables stubbing their toes at precisely the wrong time. But with so much momentum and good will having been built up in just under a month, what does NASCAR do?
Pull the plug on it.
The back-to-back West Coast weekends can be a bit of a strain for some teams, so NASCAR takes a week off right around the same time colleges are on Spring Break. While I wouldn’t advise travel to Mexico for anyone right now, some teams could probably benefit from a vacation, while others would like to keep the party going. With the concrete cereal bowl known as Bristol up next, let’s take a look at who’s good to go, and who should just sit this one out.
Kurt Busch Last year he often lamented that he felt on an island unto his own, being essentially the only Dodge of substance in the Sprint Cup field. With Penske still promoting Pentastar pride with Busch and teammate Brad Keselowski, not much has changed since 2010 — except that Sam Hornish isn’t spinning out and hitting things.
With the series heading into an off-weekend, it is probably welcome relief for Busch and his Steve Addington-led team, who got off to a strong start at Daytona, winning the Bud Shootout, Duel 150 and led 19 laps in the 500, while leading another 31 laps at Phoenix. A little botched brake bias led to a spin and positions and points lost in Las Vegas, and a weekend to regroup might be best for Busch heading into Bristol, a track where he has five career Cup Series wins.
Off-Week Plans: Book the vacation … to the Gatornationals.
Tony Stewart Driving what is often cited as “a fifth Hendrick car,” owner/driver Tony Stewart finds himself in an awkward position. Will he ever be able to truly contend for a title against the likes of Hendrick heavy hitters Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin (sorry, I’m not convinced he’s leaving), when he sources chassis and engines from the mothership? While he is still certainly more cool, calm and collected as any owner these days (at least while stateside), Mount St. Smoke was about ready to erupt Sunday after having led a bundle of laps, yet finished second to Carl Edwards.
Stewart was felled by a pit road penalty when an air gun hose got hooked on his car and exited the pit box. He was quite vocal about having to take the week off, wanting instead to get back to racing and maintain the momentum his team built with finishes of 13th, seventh and second. I’ll take his word for it. Besides, I don’t want to get cracked in the face.
Off-Week Plans: Staycation. Bummer for Smoke.
Juan Pablo Montoya He has the most followers on Twitter of any NASCAR driver, yet rarely says anything controversial or critical. It is normally just a statement about playing golf, going swimming or how awesome his radio-control plane is. Something else that is awesome is the start to his 2011 season, which echoes that of his ’09 campaign, which saw him contend for the title deep into the Chase. Finishes of sixth, 19th and third are a good indication that JPM is back on track after a dismal 2010 season that, a Watkins Glen win aside, was host to yet another failed Brickyard 400 attempt. Instead, his teammate, Jamie McMurray came away the victor. I’m not saying Juan isn’t a team player, but it has to sting a little.
I would say this off week would be a negative considering how the No. 42 team has performed, but if you check his Twitter feed this weekend, you will probably see it is for the best.
Off-Week Plans: Fly the friendly skies … RC style.
Carl Edwards It wasn’t that long ago that everyone wondered what was going on with Carl Edwards (and the entire Roush Fenway team) — and Ford as a whole, for that matter. While Jimmie Johnson still hasn’t lost a championship since gas was $2.40 a gallon, fortunes have definitely changed for the Blue Oval brigade. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that if for a little bit of luck, Edwards and the Bob Osborne-led No. 99 team would have five wins in a row, dating back to the last two events of 2010. A runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, and a Phoenix car that was untouchable — except when touched by Kyle Bush — were prologue to his win Sunday in Vegas.
Many more back flips are to follow in 2011, but not this weekend — and that’s only because there isn’t a race.
Off-Week Plans: Skip the break. Summer is coming soon enough. Back and bi’s, bro!
Jimmie Johnson What’s this? Superman is 13th in the point standings? This must be the year! Finally, Chad and Jimmie have been vanquished, and not even an oddly-timed pit crew swap can save them!
Pffft … please. Figures lie and liars figure.
The 48 got whacked in the Big One at Daytona, had a car capable of winning at Phoenix and a bit of experimenting was in play in Las Vegas with a long-run late-race setup that actually showed some promise, but was not reflected in the final finishing order. It’s kind of silly to count this team out anywhere, and Johnson is the defending champion for the next race at Bristol.
I don’t think anything short of a tornado during a race would do much to fluster this bunch. They’ve seen, done and beat it all — including coming from behind in the last race to win their fifth straight title last year.
Off-Week Plans: This bunch doesn’t take vacations.
Kyle Busch Kyle Busch has had a decent start to the season, but the first two races really could have been wins. Normally, that kind of missed opportunity would be cause for a Tiger Blood-fueled rant from the driver who Mike Joy insists on calling “Wild Thing” — which, if current events had happened a few years ago, would be strangely appropriate.
Much has been made of the “New Kyle,” as his outbursts and tantrums have been dialed down a bit (that is, until the Chase starts and all hell breaks loose). Maybe getting married in the offseason has mellowed him out a little bit, making for a calmer Kyle. Then again, is that what you really want? Heck no — you want a full-on, narcissistic, Carlos-Estevez-peaking-on-seven-gram-rocks-esque-tirade, ripping out radio cords and fake-drinking NOS Energy syrup.
Off-Week Plans: Duh … Bi-vacationing.
Jeff Gordon Jeff Gordon has had quite an up and down year so far. After the in-house swap that moved Gordon over to Mark Martin’s No. 5 team with Alan Gustafson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. inheriting Gordon’s No. 24 group, it was generally accepted to be for Junior’s benefit and little else. But to quote John McClane, “Errrghhh!!! Wrong answer, Hans!”
Gustafson is the worst best-kept secret weapon at Hendrick Motorsports, and already has paid huge dividends this year. Gordon qualified on the front row for the Daytona 500 and won in just his second outing with Gustafson in Phoenix. All of that momentum came to a screeching halt in Las Vegas when a blown tire sent the No. 24 into the wall and back to the garage on lap 193, dropping him to 14th in points.
However, I seriously doubt the Vegas lick will have much of an impact. This is a team and driver that have traditionally bounced back from such an event in fine form. Normally I would say he’d be itching to get back to business as soon as possible, but he’s kind of an old guy now and has two kids.
Off-Week Plans: Load up the Family Truckster, Ingrid. We’re going to Wally World!
Like every other NASCAR landing page on the web, Athlon Sports has a little fun each week ranking the drivers and teams of the Sprint Cup circuit. Our rankings go beyond how each finished the weekend prior and/or where they sit in the official championship standings.
The rankings you’ll see here represent what we (read: I) think are the strongest overall teams on tour, from top to bottom, based on performance, resources, strength of team/organization, overall talent of driver and, yeah, a tip of the cap to a job well done if they won the last race Think of it as Athlon’s NASCAR version of the college basketball Top 25.
Keep in mind these are subjective, and often done somewhat tongue-in-cheek (depending on my mood), so have some fun with them and take them for what they are: a weekly spin around the circuit, highlighting the best teams and their drivers.
Oh, and our rankings have a cool name … why no one thought of “Horsepower” Rankings before is beyond me. That said, kick back for five minutes of leisurely reading that require no real thought on your part:
1. Carl Edwards Edwards has three wins and a second in his last five races going back to 2010. It’s like the boy has tiger blood and Adonis DNA. #Winning (I promise, that's the last Sheen reference I'll ever make.)
2. Kurt Busch The only driver to have recorded three top 10s in the three 2011 races, Busch is somehow flying under the radar while being tied for first in the point standings.
3. Tony Stewart Smoke just can’t close the deal. For the third consecutive race, he was in it to win it in the closing laps, only to come up short.
4. Ryan Newman If you said you realized Newman was running fifth in the standings on the strength of two top 5s (and that he led the most laps in the Daytona 500), you'd be lying.
5. Juan Pablo Montoya Another early-season surprise, Montoya has two top 10s and is tied with Edwards for third in the standings. He's first in the Twitter standings, though, with 276,821 followers.
6. Jeff Gordon The right side of his car has been taking a lot of abuse this season. Three races, three crumpled fenders. Of course, he still managed to win one of those.
7. Kyle Busch Ran eighth and second in the first two races, then blew up in Vegas. Despite the two solid runs, he dropped from first to 14th in the standings with the 38th on Sunday. That’s harsh.
8. Jimmie Johnson In Johnson’s last eight Vegas starts he has four wins and four finishes of 16th or worse. Not sure how to quantify that.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior Nation showing measured optimism after consecutive top 10s with new crew chief Steve Letarte. The smart money says he’ll be good at Bristol, too.
10. Denny Hamlin Hamlin’s face is off the milk carton after a seventh at LVMS. Honestly, it was a quiet seventh, so maybe his mug is still there.
11. Kevin Harvick Last year at this time Harvick was leading the point standings. This year? Not so much.
12. Mark Martin He looked like an older version of Kyle Busch in winning the Nationwide race in Vegas.
13. Paul Menard Don’t tear up your equipment and log some solid finishes — just what the new owner likes.
14. Martin Truex Jr. Truex and crew chief Pat Tryson are only getting stronger at Michael Waltrip Racing.
15. Kasey Kahne Clearly still learning the ropes with his new team, but things look good so far.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte
In Las Vegas, the hand you’re dealt doesn’t have to be great, just better than those you’re playing against. Such was the case on Sunday, when Carl Edwards outran a dominant Tony Stewart, who fell victim to a pit road penalty that dictated his strategy for the remainder of the event and ultimately doomed his chance at a win in the Kobalt Tools 400. Edwards, in turn, led the final 22 laps and cruised to a 1.2-second win at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“I think Tony was the car to beat all day,” Edwards said. “That car was just lightning fast. But those guys (Stewart’s crew) took two tires with 60 or 70 laps to go, and he took off, so Bob (Osborne, crew chief) said, ‘Hey, let’s try it, let’s take two tires.’ We came in, we pitted, the guys did a great job — I barely beat Juan Montoya once we got back on the race track — so this pit stop was key. If it would have been a half-second longer we would not have won the race.”
Ah, yes — back to Stewart. As Edwards referenced, it was his miscue — or rather, his misfortune — that set the tone for the remainder of the race.
Stewart started 15th, but worked his way into the lead on lap 99 and imposed his will on the field from there, leading 124 laps until a caution on lap 151 changed the complexion of the race. During the ensuing round of pit stops, Stewart pulled a lug wrench air hose out of his stall and was issued a pass-through penalty for taking equipment outside his pit box, dropping his No. 14 Chevy out of the lead and into 27th on the restart.
When a caution on lap 195 precipitated another round of yellow-flag stops, Darian Grubb, crew chief for the No. 14 team, made the call for two tires when the majority of the field took four in an effort to gain track position. Stewart won the battle off pit road as a result, and pulled away from the field when the green waved with 66 laps remaining.
When the fuel window re-opened with 32 laps to go, Stewart again hit pit road and was forced to take four tires, while others who had taken four on the previous stop — namely Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman — took two. That relegated Stewart to third when the stops cycled through, and handicapped his track position.
“I honestly think we had the car to beat today, we just gave it away,” Stewart said. “I don't know what happened on the pit stop there, but we had a miscue and had a penalty and had to go to the back, and unfortunately it kind of dealt our cards for us. Darian made a good call getting us the track position back, but it also showed everybody else that they could do it, too (take two tires), and we couldn't run two and a half runs on a set of left-side tires.”
Stewart’s assertion was accurate, as Bob Osborne, crew chief for Edwards’ No. 99 Ford, made the final two-tire stop based how the No. 14 pulled away from the pack in clean air with two tires.
“It definitely didn't hurt the decision-making process to see them (Stewart’s team) run extremely well with two tires,” Osborne said. “So yeah, I guess I was taking notes. Their car was very good regardless, and I thought our only opportunity was to leapfrog them on the racetrack and hope we were able to hold them off.”
Edwards did just that, leading the rest of the way for his second career win at LVMS. Stewart rebounded to finish second, while Montoya, Ambrose and Newman rounded out the top 5.
Stewart has been in position to win all three races thus far in the 2011 season, but has yet to close the deal. A similar two-tire stop at Phoenix ruined his chances last week when many in the field took four, and he lost his drafting partner after restarting second in a green-white-checker finish in the Daytona 500. Does he take solace in the fact that he now holds a tie for the points lead and is close to finding Victory Lane?
“I probably should, but that's not in my makeup,” Stewart said. “I mean, it kills me to throw a race away like that, especially at a place we haven’t won at yet. This was a big deal today, and when you lead that many laps (163 of 267) and have a car that’s that fast and you lose it … I’m sure tomorrow when the emotion dies down we’ll look back and say it was a great weekend, but man, it does not sit good right now.”
Stewart will have to wait to turn his near-misses into a victory, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit takes one week off before returning to action at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 20.