The odd makers have spoken — and Vito Pugliese piles on
Photo by ASP, Inc.
As will be pointed out ad nauseam on FOX this weekend, Las Vegas is the home to gambling, betting, taking chances and all sorts of other illicit activities. So if you want to dial a cliché, cue up NASCAR’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. To honor this yearly tradition, the Vegas odds makers have beaten everybody to the punch and are already taking bets on who will win the race this Sunday.
Below is how things are shaping up according to the LVH Superbook. If you happen to be going this weekend or have buddy at a bachelor party on site (or still have access to some clandestine off-shore gambling sites) here are the top-10 drivers who stand a shot at making you some cash. Assuming nobody’s right front tire blows out.
JIMMIE JOHNSON 5-1
So far in 2013, Johnson has finished first and second — and he was whining about the latter result — so you know he’s going to be loaded for bear. The Hendrick camp always comes correct when there’s a new car, plus his sponsor is on the walls this weekend. Remember when Charlotte was Lowe’s Motor Speedway and he’d win everything in sight? This could be the second coming of this for JJ and company this weekend at a track where they’ve won four times in only 11 starts.
KYLE BUSCH 8-1
It has been an inauspicious start to 2013 for Kyle Busch, who blew an engine at Daytona and cracked the nose at Phoenix. He dominated the Nationwide race last Saturday in his Monster Energy car, but the odds makers are only concerned about what happens on Sunday. Las Vegas is Busch’s hometown, so it is the one track on the circuit where he won’t be showered with the kind of boos that are typically reserved for third world dictators once they’ve passed. Yah, hear that Hugo?! As high as Rowdy is on the list, he may find a rough go of it this weekend. Kyle does have a pair of poles and a win here back in 2009, but his last three finishes have been 23rd, 38th and 15th.
BRAD KESELOWSKI 8-1
Brad Keselowski is making great strides to project the persona of a Sprint Cup champion. His brutal honesty has gotten him in some hot water with NASCAR, but I seem to remember The Intimidator making a few pointed comments here and there that ended up helping the sport, as well. In 2013, Keselowski has had to work with a new car, a new manufacturer, his fourth teammate in two years and a new engine shop. No matter – a pair of fourth-place finishes have been the result, with Daytona being a constant battle with garbage bag bodywork. The Keselowski/Paul Wolfe combo have once again put this team on their collective back. You saw his championship interview at Homestead, so you know he likes to party. The Blue Deuce will be ready for Vegas.
MATT KENSETH 8-1
Matt Kenseth has shown muscle early in his move from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing. Two races in, and the No. 20 is running as it did in the Tony Stewart days. Kenseth had what may have been the strongest car in Daytona (at least the strongest car left) before it fell out with engine failure. He was near the front most of the day in Phoenix, as well. He and crew chief Jason Ratcliff are still working to get on the same page as far as adjustments and late-race decisions, but that is part of a process that takes time to perfect. Kenseth has won twice at LVMS, but back in the, uh, Generation 4 cars, though he did win a pole as recently as 2011. The understated Kenseth has made his bones in recent years on superspeedways, but he’s still a 1.5-miler at heart.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
CARL EDWARDS 9-1
After he crashed out of the Daytona 500, wiping out his fourth car of Speedweeks, Edwards declared that, “We’re just going to go to Phoenix and win.” He did just that, snapping a 70-race winless streak and showing Jay Glazer how to do a backflip without knocking yourself silly. Roush cars always run well at Las Vegas, having won seven of the 15 Cup races. Edwards snatched one away from Tony Stewart here in 2011, which coincidentally was the last race he had won before the Phoenix performance. Might we be seeing the resurgence of Edwards as a Sprint Cup contender? Vegas will be telling.
KASEY KAHNE 9-1
This season was supposed to be the year that Kasey Kahne went on a tear in his now-familiar Hendrick surroundings. So far, that tear has been more of a tear (i.e., the kind that run down your face when you are overwhelmed with unfathomable sorrow). Kahne was turned early at Daytona, and after a front row qualifying effort in Phoenix, the No. 5 faded to a 19th-place finish. The season is young, and so is Kahne, and girls still think he’s dreamy. The Beiber haircut is a bit disconcerting, but No. 5 is about to come alive as it did in 2009 and challenge for the championship. Half of Kahne’s 14 career wins have come on banked tracks 1.5 miles or larger (Charlotte, Texas, Michigan and California). Las Vegas fits that bill. So, there you go girls: he has a shot at winning this weekend. Just don’t try to claw at Miss Sprint Cup if she’s smiling at him in Victory Lane. That’s her job.
DENNY HAMLIN 10-1
Denny Hamlin seems to be regaining the performance, perspective and promise that he showed throughout the 2010 season when he won eight races and came this close to being a titlist. How his $25,000 fine — levied by NASCAR after he supposedly criticized the Gen-6 car — will affect him is a mystery. He was mad as hell during Thursday’s test session, which could serve him well. However, what he really needs are some wins to help set things off. That last lap banzai pass attempt on Jimmie Johnson missed by only about six inches at PIR, but his record of late in Vegas may come up even shorter: 20th, seventh, 19th and 22nd isn’t an encouraging stat-line.
TONY STEWART 12-1
Tony Stewart shows up to win in Las Vegas, particularly after becoming an owner, with finishes of seventh, second and first in the last three trips. The second-place run would have been a win, but miscommunication during a pit stop after leading 163 laps was his undoing. Stewart needs a rebound performance, especially after the crushing disappointment that was his Daytona 500. Stewart’s teammate has been getting most of the attention lately — not that that’s a bad thing — as has talk of Kevin Harvick coming on board at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. No matter. A few good finishes (and possibly a win this weekend) to follow up last season’s Vegas triumph will have Smoke catching fire en route to a possible fourth championship. How’s that for bad clichés?
JEFF GORDON 12-1
Gordon is in a similar situation as Stewart. A multiple-time champion who had bad luck at Daytona with rising water temps and falling water pressure had him falling back at the end after leading 31 laps. A top-10 run at Phoenix was steady, but there’s been nothing remarkable thus far. His last few years at LVMS have been up and down – sixth, third, 36th and 12th in the last four visits. Gordon has one win here (2001) but his most vivid Vegas memory was a last lap crash in ’08 that ripped the radiator and front end off the car. Hopefully, he doesn’t put the new Gen-6 car to the test this weekend in a similar fashion.
DALE EARNHARDT JR 12-1
This year looks to be picking up where 2012 left off for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Before he got a concussion at Talladega, that is. Second in points through two races with a pair of top 5s, Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte look to be killing ’em with consistency again. His recent record in Vegas is OK – 10th, 16th, eighth and 10th. At the very least, he’ll net a top-10 run, but wins are all that matter for the most part. If you’re picking him for a top-three run, he’s still a solid pick, as the Hendrick cars typically adapt quicker to car changes. And this one is supposed to drive more like the Generation 4 car, which Junior drove to 17 wins.
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Las Vegas so you don't have to.
Tony Stewart took checkers in Vegas last year. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season rolls on to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering up his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes—A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Las Vegas, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag (or at least finishing toward the front):
Won last year’s race after finishing second there the year before. Has led 290 of 534 laps (54.3 percent) run in the last two races at Las Vegas.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Has the highest driver rating (110.9) in the last eight races at Las Vegas. Also has the highest average finish of 9.4 during that span. Has a victory and a runner-up finish in last five starts but placed 16th or worse in the other three starts in that stretch.
3. Clint Bowyer
Has finished eight or better in three of the last four Las Vegas races. Also has qualified in the top four in three of the last four races on 1.5-mile tracks (same size as Las Vegas).
4. Jeff Gordon
Has run a series-high 84 percent of his laps in the top 15 in the last eight races at Las Vegas. Also has led the most laps (370) during that time, among current drivers.
5. Kevin Harvick
Has two top-five finishes in his last five Las Vegas races and has led 15 laps during that stretch.
6. Kasey Kahne
Has three poles in Vegas, including last year, but only finished 19th in the race.
7. Matt Kenseth
Won the pole in Vegas in 2011, but has one top-10 finish in last five starts here.
8. Denny Hamlin
Has never started better than 16th at Las Vegas. Has one top-10 in his last four starts there, a seventh in 2011. Has never led a lap in a Cup car at Vegas.
9. Brad Keselowski
Has never finished better than 26th in four career starts at Las Vegas. Best starting position in that time is a 13th in 2009. Also has led only one lap there.
Kyle Busch is in need of a solid finish. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch
Has started no worse than fifth in the last five races at his hometown track, but has only one top-10 finish, a win in 2009, during that stretch. Does have eight top-10 finishes in the last nine races on 1.5-mile tracks in the series.
2. Carl Edwards
Phoenix winner has finished fifth and first in his last two starts at Las Vegas.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has started in the top four twice in the last three years at Vegas and has four top-10 finishes in last five races here. Started fourth and finished 10th last year, leading 70 laps.
4. Greg Biffle
Has four top-10s in last five Las Vegas races, including a third last year, and has led 57 laps during that stretch. He’s also been running at the finish a series-high 38 consecutive races.
5. Ryan Newman
Has two consecutive top-five finishes at Las Vegas.
6. Mark Martin
Has one top-10 in last four Las Vegas races.
7. Kurt Busch
Scored two top-10 finishes in the four races on 1.5-mile tracks he ran with Furniture Row Racing at the end of last season.
8. Jamie McMurray
Finished eighth at Las Vegas last year, the second time in the last four races here he scored a top-10 finish.
9. Paul Menard
Finished 11th or better in two of the last three races on 1.5-mile tracks last season, including a third at Kansas. Placed seventh at Las Vegas last year.
10. Joey Logano
Has one top-10 in four career starts at Las Vegas.
11. Juan Pablo Montoya
Placed third at Las Vegas in 2011 but finished 25th here last year.
12. Marcos Ambrose
Has never finished worse than 20th in four starts at Las Vegas, placing 13th, fourth, 14th and 20th.
13. Martin Truex Jr.
Has one top-10 finish in seven career starts at Las Vegas.
14. Jeff Burton
Did not have a top-10 finish in any of the 11 Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks last season (best finish on such tracks was a 12th at Atlanta).
15. Bobby Labonte
Has finished 26th, 24th and 38th in last three Las Vegas races.
16. Aric Almirola
Has never finished better than 24th in a Cup car at Las Vegas in four starts.
1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
One of 12 drivers to have completed every lap in the first two races of the season.
2. Austin Dillon
Making Cup debut at Las Vegas. Finished seventh in Nationwide race here last year. Won a truck race at the track in 2010.
3. Casey Mears
Has a best finish of 13th in last five races at Las Vegas.
4. Danica Patrick
Making Cup debut at the track but has three Nationwide races here with finishes of 12th, fourth and 36th.
5. David Ragan
Finished seventh at Las Vegas in 2008, only time in six starts here he’s placed in the top 20.
6. David Stremme
Best finish at track is an 18th, which came in 2009
7. Dave Blaney
Finished no better than 29th in last three starts here.
8. Travis Kvapil
Has not finished better than 24th in last three Las Vegas starts.
9. David Gilliland
Has not finished better than 30th in last three Las Vegas starts.
10. David Reutimann
Finished 31st here last year. Best finish at track was a fourth in 2009.
11. Scott Speed
Finished 22nd at Las Vegas in 2010, last time he raced Cup here.
12. JJ Yeley
Failed to finish the last two races at Las Vegas.
13. Ken Schrader
Has not had a top-20 at Las Vegas since 2000.
14. Michael McDowell
Has never finished better than 38th in three career starts at track.
15. Mike Bliss
Finished 39th in 2010 in last start at the track.
16. Josh Wise
Finished 40th here last year in only Cup start at track.
17. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish in each of his last five starts here.
Honestly, Carl Edwards hasn't been that bad. (ASP, Inc.)
The Gen-6 car for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, after a two-race introduction, appears to be a work in progress. Passing last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway was at an all-time low for its current configuration (1,213 green-flag passes, down from 1,995 in the 2012 race) and pit stop speed decided the race for a driver who hadn’t seen Victory Lane in almost two calendar years.
This weekend’s race at speedy intermediate Las Vegas Motor Speedway is expected to provide a jump in on-track excitement. While I can’t possibly guarantee a more enticing product, there are some intriguing story lines within the numbers this week that should pique your interest and they involve a bevy of fan-favorite drivers. So that’s some excitement there, right?
12.8 and 84.29 percent During the Carl Edwards 70-race winless streak, the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team averaged a 12.8-place showing and finished in the top half of fields 84.29 percent of the time.
Those numbers aren’t awful. Despite not winning, Edwards and team were, for most intents and purposes, admirable across that two-year winless stretch. The perceived slump is just that; any team in the Cup Series would welcome the finishing average and that high of a relevance mark (finishes in the top half of fields encapsulates a team’s ability to avoid mistakes). The No. 99 team was never a downtrodden unit. It just didn’t win for an extended period of time. The last place Edwards won at prior to Phoenix? Funny you should ask …
6.750 With two Vegas wins in the last five races, Edwards leads the series in track-specific PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating) during that time frame.
The most recent winner in the Cup Series just happens to be a stud on the Vegas 1.5-mile quad-oval track. His performance has been feast with a little bit of famine; outside of his two victories at LVMS in the CoT era, he has finished fifth (last year), 12th and 17th. His winning past doesn’t make him a lock for the victory this weekend, but with the recent headlines, he’ll be one of a handful of drivers in the spotlight.
Does Kyle Busch have something figured out? (ASP, Inc.)
+54 Kyle Busch’s combined pass differential in the Cup Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series races last weekend at Phoenix was a plus-54.
By virtue of a bad pit stop in the Nationwide Series race and a pre-race motor change in the Cup Series race, Busch was given the task of having to navigate through the field from a low-ranking position. The plus-26 differential — he made 26 more green-flag passes than the amount of times he got passed — resulted in his first Nationwide win since 2011; however, his march on Sunday had a different result. His plus-28 differential was one of the afternoon’s best on a day in which passing came at a premium — it was down over 39 percent from last year’s race — but his early-race spin placed him off the lead lap. Still, if passing in the Gen-6 is an elusive trait, Busch has demonstrated that he might be one of the few that is able to positively maneuver in traffic.
+56.3 percentDale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team have been stalwarts in the final 10 percent of races, improving their running positions by 56.3 percent.
That plus-56.3 percent position retainment difference is helped by his 12th-to-second run in the waning laps at Daytona, but Earnhardt, crew chief Steve Letarte and team were also factors at Phoenix — where they finished fifth — a track previously unkind to them during the CoT era. Their 3.5-place average finish through the first two races this season places them second in the current Cup Series standings.
290 Across two races and 534 total laps in the last two Las Vegas races, Tony Stewart has led a combined 290 laps.
That’s a 54.3 percent take, which is dominant to say the least. These performances resulted in finishes of second and first in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Through the last five races in Vegas, which includes a last-place finish in 2008, he ranks second to Carl Edwards in track-specific PEER. Fans of Smoke can expect a concerted charge for the win on a track that he’s averaged a 3.3-palce finish the last three years, especially considering he and the No. 14 team are currently rank 23rd in the point standings.
-0.750 Las Vegas native Kurt Busch’s Las Vegas-specific PEER is -0.750, which ranks 45 out of 49 drivers with at least two starts in the last five seasons.
This isn’t the kind of homecoming Busch would prefer. He finished ninth behind the wheel of a Penske Racing entry in 2011, but beyond that, his showings have been dismal. Finishes of 38th (DNF), 23rd, 35th (after starting on the pole) and 35th (DNF) constitute the norm for him during the CoT era. Additionally, he’s only led briefly; he has paced the field for a total of two laps in that five-race sample size.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 from Phoenix.
Track position was key in Phoenix. (ASP, Inc.)
In the midst of a near two-year winless skid on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, Carl Edwards, perhaps more than any driver, needed a confidence boost. And after winning the Subway Fresh Fit 500 — in only his second start with crew chief Jimmy Fennig — that’s exactly what the Missouri native received at Phoenix International Raceway.
After the No. 99 team wrecked five cars during a devastating two months at Daytona — perhaps Roush Fenway Racing’s most expensive Speedweeks ever — Edwards rebounded big at Phoenix. Ending a 70-race winless streak puts him in perfect early-season position to make the Chase — a feat he failed to accomplish in 2012. But besides that stat-busting, feel-good ending, did NASCAR have anything else to hang its hat on with the Gen-6 chassis in its first competitive visit away from a plate track?
Whether they made the grade on an unrestricted track starts us “Through the Gears” on stock car competition out in the desert…
First Gear: Gen-6 + Goodyear + Phoenix = Needs Improvement
All you needed to know about the tires at Phoenix came from a mid-race pit stop. Mark Martin, who had been leading along with Tony Stewart, took four tires while most everyone else took two. That left both sitting mid-pack, hoping fresh rubber would lead to better speed in the long run.
It didn’t. With passing at a premium, Stewart claimed his car arguably handled worse as both men were stuck in neutral, near the back half of the top 20. Under the right scenarios, each would have had top-5 cars but were handicapped by the horror of the words that continue to plague NASCAR racing: track position.
Track position means you can turn off the television when Carl Edwards wins a race off pit road with 70-something laps remaining. Track position racing means you can see two cars, running nose-to-tail in a battle for position, never get side-by-side. It means a race gets won by a call a crew chief makes in his head, which is fun for engineering students but harder to translate into a three-hour, on-air television broadcast. There’s a reason they don’t televise chess on FOX, after all.
So what was the problem at Phoenix? New pavement coupled with Goodyear tires that just never seemed to wear out proved a poor combination. Indeed, it was a feast-or-famine type of day; either your tires held up, leaving you holding position or excessive brake heat, due to ill-handling equipment, melted a bead and found you in the outside wall. The Stewart-Haas Racing cars of Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman, among others, had spectacular tire failures that ended their days early.
Having little-to-no tire wear makes things tough enough — drivers are stuck at the same speed, making the old racing adage of preserving your equipment virtually meaningless. But the post-race quote that raised my eyebrows came from (who else?) reigning Cup champ Brad Keselowski, who ran fourth.
“I think these cars probably drive easier than any race car I’ve ever driven in my life by themselves,” he said. “And probably the hardest to drive of any race car I’ve ever driven in traffic.”
Uh-oh. Trouble in traffic? Isn’t that what killed the Car of Tomorrow on intermediate tracks? We better not see the same type of concern next week, at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, or the single-file phenomenon that turned intermediate racing into a day at the library will be very much front and center.
“I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars,” added third-place Denny Hamlin. “Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up.”
Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
Second Gear: Ford’s front man is relevant again
Carl Edwards, after losing the 2011 title in a tiebreaker, was handsomely rewarded by Ford with a new contract that made him the manufacturer’s de facto figurehead. His repayment? Spending 2012 its highest-paid flop. Running a career-worst 15th in points and losing crew chief Bob Osborne to health-related issues midseason, the one-time weekly contender looked lost. That’s why over the offseason, Roush Fenway Racing charged the best head wrench in its shop, Jimmy Fennig, to rebuild confidence from the ground up on the 99 team. Fennig oozes experience, having won the 1988 Daytona 500 with Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and the 2004 championship with the contentious Kurt Busch. There isn’t a mood he can’t fix, a problem he won’t solve and a crisis where he’ll lose his cool.
That played well during the days after Speedweeks, when an abundance of crushed sheet metal could have crippled this team. Instead, it pushed a desire to focus, with Fennig having his crew poised to seize the moment. On average, the pit crew churned out stops consistently a second better than the No. 48 team at Phoenix, including a crucial final one in order to take control of the race.
“Those guys are bad to the bone,” said Edwards, who ended a 70-race victory drought for the second straight time – right here at this track. “This win feels as good or better than any I’ve had.”
His only concern down the stretch came not from the competition, but a possible jump on the restart. Not once, but twice, he built substantial leads before the start-finish line on a restart while the second-place car (Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Jimmie Johnson) looked like they spun tires.
“I felt like Carl didn't follow the restart protocol and was slower than the pace car on his last two restarts,” Johnson claimed. “It gives the leader a huge advantage when that happens. You're supposed to wait until you get between the two lines and take off and this was all going on before it.”
In his defense, Edwards claimed Johnson took a little too long to go on the final restart. My take? Borderline decision — and in sports, “makeup calls” are part of the game. I seem to remember a restart in Richmond last season where Edwards was called for a restart penalty no one seemed to agree with.
He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.
Third Gear: Team Hendrick is tops on the Gen-6 development list
No, Hendrick Motorsports didn’t win Phoenix, but days after a whirlwind media tour wore out Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, his No. 48 team cruised to a runner-up showing. That has him leading the point standings, with shop-mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. tied for second after two strong top-5 results to start the season.
Quick flashback to the last time NASCAR rolled out a new car in 2007. Who was on top? Hendrick’s lead shop, led at the time by Chad Knaus (Johnson’s crew chief) and Jeff Gordon’s then-head wrench, Steve Letarte. Their drivers combined for 16 race wins that year – nearly 50 percent of the schedule – ran 1-2 in the Chase and collected 54 of a possible 72 top-10 finishes.
Flash forward to 2013: the main mechanical minds remain in place, with Earnhardt, not Gordon, now poised to reap the benefits. At this point, the rest of the competition should be very, very scared of what could be coming.
Fourth Gear: Good teams, bad starts, Chase trouble?
People hate to talk about the championship this early, but in a 26-race regular season, with 20 or so drivers realistically in contention to make the Chase by points, slow starts can be an absolute killer. Three drivers, in particular, stand out as being in trouble. “Lame duck” Kevin Harvick, after a 42nd at Daytona, didn’t lead a single lap Sunday at a track where he won last fall. Running 13th, he’s tied for 29th in the standings when on paper, based on a superior Speedweeks, he should be solidly inside the top 5.
Second on the list is Kyle Busch, shoveling a hole in the points for a second straight year. He was a force at Daytona until the engine blew. Then another engine issue at Phoenix left him starting from the rear. Overaggressive in his quest to drive to the front, Busch spun out early, lost a lap and got it back far too late to climb back through the field (23rd). He’s 29 points outside the top 10.
But the driver in arguably the worst position is 2012 surprise Chaser Martin Truex Jr. Two mechanical issues to start the year — first an engine, then a rear axle — leave him a distant 34th in the standings. Carrying a five-year winless streak, the “wild card” qualifying method for the Chase seems a remote possibility for this bunch, meaning they’re already out of mulligans.
Check back each Monday throughout the season as Tom Bowles highlights the four themes of each weekend’s race.
Edwards survives green-white-checker finish in Subway Fresh Fit 500
Carl Edwards celebrates in Victory Lane in Phoenix. (ASP, Inc.)
A new season brings new hope. And no one in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is in more need of hope than Carl Edwards.
On the outside looking in at last season’s Chase for the Championship, Edwards has been mired in a winless skid that dates back to March 6, 2011. And his 2013 season got off to a dubious start in Daytona during Speedweeks, where he was involved in four wrecks (and a fifth in a test session in January), ultimately finishing 33rd in the Daytona 500.
Factor in a new contract that he signed in 2011 with Roush Fenway Racing that made the 33-year-old Ford Racing’s figurehead, as well as being given RFR’s ace crew chief in Jimmy Fennig, and it’s easy to understand how the pressure has mounted on Edwards to perform.
Consider the weight lifted.
Edwards led the final 78 laps in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Sunday, holding off Jimmie Johnson in a green-white-checker finish en route to the win at Phoenix International Raceway.
“It’s tough to go that long without winning, “Edwards said. “And then you come into the season with Jimmy (Fennig) who did so well last year (three wins with Matt Kenseth) … and everybody did so well. We’ve got the fastest pit crew on pit road — and I thought ‘We’ve got to go win some races.’”
Edwards seemingly had the scheduled 312-lap race in hand, cruising nearly a half-second in front of Johnson as the laps wound down. However, a caution for Ken Schrader’s blown tire with three circuits remaining forced the event into NASCAR’s version of an overtime finish. And with fuel an issue, many were unsure if they had enough in the tank to survive the caution laps and a three-lap shootout on Phoenix’s one-mile layout.
The leaders — Edwards, Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — had plenty in reserve, though. When the green waved, Keselowski pushed Edwards, on the inside lane, by Johnson and the driver of the No. 99 did the rest. In clean air, the Missouri native easily held off the pack, winning his 20th career Cup race.
“I was trying to suspend my emotions after that last caution.” Edwards said. “There was two laps to go and I’m saying, ‘Were going to win this race.’ And Brad pushed me — that sealed it right there. I knew that if we were the first ones down into the corner (Turn 1), we’d win this thing.”
Meanwhile, Johnson, Keselowski and Hamlin engaged in a thrilling battle for second. With Johnson and Keselowski door-to-door exiting Turn 2 on the final lap, Hamlin cut across the apron of the track in the dogleg, blocking Keselwoski and pulling even with Johnson. The two came to the finish line trading paint, with Johnson edging out Hamlin. Keselowski was fourth, Earnhardt Jr. fifth.
Johnson, though, was none-too-happy with the deciding restart.
“The leader is not supposed to slow down before he takes off (coming to the green),” Johnson said. “And he (Edwards) did that twice. It put me in a bad position with the 2 (Keselowski) inside of me … and off we went.”
“I was going for anything,” Hamlin said of the finish. “I didn’t have much all day. The pit crew and Darian (Grubb, crew chief) really carried us today getting track position. (It was) just so hard to pass. You’re going to hear it a lot this week that we’ve got a lot of work to do this week to get these cars to pass each other.”
Johnson, with finishes of first and second is off to a hot start this season, but Sunday was about Edwards, his new crew chief, a re-tooled team in only their second race together and NASCAR’s Gen-6 car, which seems to like clean air as much as its predecessor.
Is Phoenix an indication of what lies ahead for the 99 team? Will Edwards be a driver to deal with throughout the season as he was in 2011, or will he fade into obscurity like 2012?
“I think we are (back),” said Edwards. “But next week I think is going to be the true test (for the car) — at the mile-and-a-half (track in Las Vegas).”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup season is a long and winding road consisting of 36 points-paying races held on 23 racetracks across America. The venues are diverse, with half-mile bullrings, twisting road courses, high-speed intermediates and white-knuckle plate tracks. Some thrill, some bore, some are in steeped in history, others lack any semblance of uniqueness.
NASCAR: Five Things to Watch at Phoenix International Raceway
Jimmie Johnson must re-focus. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Gen-6 downforce track debut
NASCAR's two weeks of warm sunshine in Daytona Beach provided the first on-track action of the much-acclaimed new car in the Sprint Cup Series. It proved to be amicable, handing drivers more input in restrictor plate-style car setup. In the race, it proved to be just a little too dominant as a lead car.
But for all that teams now know about how these cars race with the throttle essentially taped to the floor, none of that matters when the track opens for practice Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Fortunate or unfortunate as that may be depending how Daytona went for specific drivers, Phoenix invites a weekend where the Gen-6 platform will reveal quite a bit more about its racing ability and character. The proverbial NASCAR onion is destined to expose several more layers.
"This weekend will be one of the most difficult and challenging ever," said Alan Gustafson, crew chief on Jeff Gordon's No. 24. "Our new Chevy SS has significantly more downforce than last year's car. With the new Gen-6 car, the new rules, a new tire compound and new inspection process, we don't really have anything that we can base this weekend off of."
In the Toyota camp, Martin Truex Jr. predicts a weekend with "a lot of things that come up that we didn't expect" while his teammate is ready to take a swing at NASCAR's qualifying record books thanks to increased downforce from the old car.
“I think when we get in these cars at Phoenix they are going to stick like glue," Mark Martin said. "These new Gen-6 cars are going to break a lot of track records in 2013 and I think that could start as soon as Friday in Phoenix."
Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, however, thinks the biggest leap for the new piece is still a week away. Viva, Las Vegas, he says.
"I feel when we get to Vegas, we will have a downforce track under our belts," said Johnson, "We'll have a chance to see an amazing race at Vegas — great side-by-racing that everybody will want to see."
2. Can Johnson re-focus after a taxing week?
Johnson may also be looking ahead to Las Vegas because of what a week's worth of responsibilities as winner of the Daytona 500 has done to him. His public relations representative Kristine Curley tweeted Wednesday night that Johnson will have made stops in eight cities for interviews, events, media appearances and more since popping the champagne corks in Daytona's Victory Lane.
"It's going to be hard to re-focus," Johnson said. "There's such a high that comes from winning the 500 — and then the type of racing that starts now is so different than what we just had. It will be a challenge."
Johnson’s first Daytona 500 win in 2006 didn’t hamper his efforts a week later, however. He finished second to Matt Kenseth at Auto Club Speedway. Still, this week Johnson is putting a bit more on the shoulders of crew chief Chad Knaus.
“I know Chad's been buttoned up and the guys have been back at the shop all week, but from my side I've been very detached from my normal routine in preparing for the race,” Johnson said, detailing how he’s missed a debrief with Knaus and the entire Hendrick team. “I'll have to play catch-up as the week goes on and we get in to the weekend.”
It shouldn’t be terribly tough for the five-time champion: Johnson has four wins at Phoenix and also owns the best average running position of any current driver at the track. He’ll also have extra seat time this weekend as he’s racing the Nationwide Series event — the first oval event in that series he’s raced since 2008.
Tony Stewart looks to rebound. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Looking for a rebound
Forty-two other drivers haven’t been celebrating this week, dismayed from not winning NASCAR’s crown jewel. A select group, though, is looking for a staunch rebound from crashes and failures that dropped them from even having a shot at Johnson’s place in Victory Lane last week.
“If I told you I wasn’t heartbroken, I’d be lying to you,” Tony Stewart said after being caught up in Daytona’s first crash that collected nine cars and zapped contenders like Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne from a shot at a win.
Kahne, of course, has to be wondering if 2013 is starting with a bad case of déjà vu. A crash wiped him out of last year’s Daytona 500, too, and set him on a trajectory that left him without a top 10 until the season’s seventh race at Texas.
The mood is similar in Carl Edwards’s Roush-Fenway Racing camp. Last year’s Daytona polesitter couldn’t have left Daytona any worse after catching damage in five crashes during Speedweeks.
“I haven’t wrecked a car for a couple of days, so I hope our luck has changed,” Edwards said this week before Phoenix. Edwards will be looking for a solid finish using chassis RK-802, one used in Phoenix last fall by Matt Kenseth.
The timing of the Phoenix return should be good for Kevin Harvick. He’s the most recent winner in the desert, taking the checkers the very weekend that reports first leaked of his now-confirmed departure from Richard Childress Racing when 2013 wraps up.
One driver who won't be finding that redemption from Daytona in the Sprint Cup Series is Trevor Bayne. The Wood Brothers' No. 21 will be back on track in a week at Las Vegas.
4. Redemption for Kyle Busch?
Kyle Busch may be the driver raining on the parades of those looking to take a win after a Daytona defeat. He’s coming off his own bitter disappointment after his engine failed while running second in the 500.
Last year, though, Kyle Busch was marvelous around the Phoenix one-mile. He led 46 percent of the laps contested in the two Sprint Cup visits to the desert in 2012, but watched wins fall away from his grasp.
“I ran really well at Phoenix in both races last year, but I chose the wrong lane on the restart last November and ended up third,” Busch said. “It was devastating to be that dominant and not come home with the trophy.”
His teammate, Denny Hamlin, snared the victory in the spring race last year.
“The best way to get over the disappointment of the Daytona 500 is to get back in the car and have another chance at winning the next one,” Busch said.
5. Getting a grip
Along with the new car, Goodyear is bringing a new tire once again to PIR. The tire supplier tested at Phoenix last October with the early editions of NASCAR's Gen-6 race car to develop the best compound for a track surface heading for just its third Sprint Cup race weekend.
Goodyear will bring tire compounds for both left and right side tires that have never been used in competition before and that are designed to give cars more grip.
Phoenix has been a bit tricky for the tire manufacturer thanks to the increased speed and new pavement not providing ideal passing situations. However, the 2013 car test last year featured a heavier driver rotation than usual with Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Paul Menard, Regan Smith and Carl Edwards representing each of the sport's major teams.
Tire tests, of course, don't provide a team with free range on setup testing and other R&D but they can provide a baseline for setting up a new car. Those drivers who tested should have somewhat of a leg up this weekend — especially if Goodyear's chosen compound is similar to what was tested.
"We were fortunate to take the Miller Lite Ford to Phoenix for a Goodyear tire test last year and I came away feeling positive about how it will race," said Keselowski. "On top of that, Phoenix has had a couple years to cure so we should see the groove widen out a bit. I’m expecting a good race.
“I think we’re all anxious to see how the car performs this weekend when we all get on the track together. It’s our first true test.”
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Phoenix so you don't have to.
Jimmie Johnson (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season rolls on to Phoenix International Raceway for the Subway Fresh Fit 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports will be offering up our best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, we'll break down our picks according to its NASCAR driver classes—A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, NASCAR scribe Dustin Long's fantasy predictions for Phoenix, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag (or at least finishing toward the front):
1. Jimmie Johnson — Has the highest driver rating (115.8) in the last eight years at Phoenix. Also has the best average finish among current drivers at 6.7, scoring 12 top-five finishes in 19 starts
2. Kevin Harvick — Has three top-four finishes in his last four Phoenix starts, including a win last fall.
3. Denny Hamlin — Took second in the fall Phoenix race (46 laps led) and won the spring race last year (61 laps led).
4. Jeff Gordon — In the last three spring races at Phoenix, he’s finished eighth, first and second
5. Brad Keselowski — Finished no worse than seventh in his last five races at tracks 1.1 miles and under last season, including a sixth-place finish at Phoenix.
6. Kasey Kahne — Joined Hamlin and Kyle Busch as only drivers to run every lap of last fall’s race in the top 15, finishing fourth.
7. Tony Stewart — Has never gone more than three consecutive races without a top-10 at Phoenix. Last two finishes there are 19th and 22nd.
8. Matt Kenseth — Last four finishes at Phoenix have been 14th, 13th, 34th and 12th. He’s led 52 laps during that time, leading 49 of those laps in November 2011 race before being eliminated in a crash.
9. Clint Bowyer — Has more finishes of 20th or worse (eight) in his career at Phoenix than he has top-10 finishes (five) there.
Kyle Busch (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch — Led 289 of the 631 laps run (45.8 percent) at Phoenix last season.
2. Ryan Newman — Has finished in the top 5 in five of his last six Phoenix races, including a win in 2010.
3. Mark Martin — Has qualified in the top four in two of his last three starts at Phoenix. Also has six top-10 finishes in his last eight runs there.
4. Kurt Busch — Finished eighth at PIR last fall while driving for Furniture Row. It was part of a season-ending, three-race streak of top-10 finishes after joining that team.
5. Carl Edwards — Best news is that Daytona is behind him after he was involved in numerous incidents during Speedweeks. As for Phoenix? It’s been a mixed bag lately with a first and a second along with three finishes outside the top 15 in his last five starts there.
6. Greg Biffle — While he has four top-10 finishes in his last eight Phoenix starts, he has not led a lap in any of those races.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Has one top-10 finish in his last eight races at Phoenix. Has not led a lap in his last seven races there.
8. Jeff Burton — Has more green-flag passes for position (854) than any other active driver in the last eight years at Phoenix. Also had the most green-flag passes for position (76) in last fall’s race there, finishing 13th.
9. Joey Logano — Has had two DNFs in last six Phoenix races but has finished 11th or better in the other four races during that stretch.
10. Martin Truex Jr. — Has one top-10 finish in his last six Phoenix starts.
11. Paul Menard — Two ninth-place finishes in the last three Phoenix races are the only times he’s scored a top-10 finish in 12 career starts there. Also has never led a lap at Phoenix.
12. Bobby Labonte — Ranks second among active drivers in green-flag passes for position (783) in the last eight years at Phoenix.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya — Has finished between 11th and 19th in each of his last five Phoenix races.
14. Marcos Ambrose — Best Phoenix finish in nine races there is an eighth, which he scored in November 2011.
15. Jamie McMurray — Has one top-10 finish in his last eight Phoenix starts.
16. Aric Almirola — Has best finish of 12th in four Phoenix starts and has yet to lead a lap there.
1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Running his first Cup race at Phoenix. Never finished outside the top 10 in six Nationwide races there.
2. Austin Dillon — Also running his first Cup race at Phoenix. Finished sixth and fourth in two Nationwide races there last season.
3. Danica Patrick — Started 37th but finished 17th in November in lone Cup start at Phoenix.
4. AJ Allmendinger — Making season debut. Started in top two in three of his last five races there. Started 15th and finished 18th in spring Phoenix race last year (did not run November race).
5. Casey Mears — Last five finishes at Phoenix: 22nd, 39th, 26th, 18th, 24th.
6. David Ragan — Last five finishes at Phoenix: 33rd, 25th, 33rd, 36th, 25th.
7. Dave Blaney — Has placed between 23rd and 27th in last three Phoenix starts.
8. David Stremme — Making his season debut after Michael Waltrip drove for the team at Daytona. Finished 34th and 29th in Phoenix races last year.
9. David Gilliland — Has not finished better than 22nd in last nine Phoenix starts.
10. Travis Kvapil — Placed 20th at Phoenix last November and led four laps.
11. David Reutimann — Finished 36th and 40th at Phoenix last season.
12. JJ Yeley — Coming off top 10 at Daytona. Has not finished better than 26th in last five Phoenix starts.
13. Ken Schrader — Last start at Phoenix was November 2008 when he finished 27th. Last top-10 finish at Phoenix was in 1997.
14. Scott Speed — Last made Phoenix race in November 2011, finishing 39th.
15. Mike Bliss — Career-best Phoenix finish came in 2005 when he finished 20th.
16. Josh Wise — Finished 37th and 38th at Phoenix last year
17. Joe Nemechek — Has recorded seven consecutive DNFs at Phoenix.
18. Michael McDowell — Announced on Wednesday via Twitter that his Phil Parsons Racing team would not make the trip to Phoenix.