The second race of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season — the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway — served as a weekend of redemption for Denny Hamlin.
Fuel-strategy-gone-bad at PIR wrecked his championship hopes in 2010, when Hamlin's tank ran dry and he fell from first to 12th on the pylon. It was a blow from which Hamlin would not recover, as he lost the title to Jimmie Johnson the following week and a 2011 hangover that cost crew chief Mike Ford his job, ensued
So Hamlin took a different approach to the 2012 season by seeing a sports psychologist and getting out of the NASCAR hub that is Charlotte, N.C. Ironically, it was to the Phoenix area that Hamlin retreated, spending a relaxing offseason on the golf course and basketball courts for a warm winter away from all-things NASCAR.
And after a strong fourth-place showing in the Daytona 500, Hamlin and new crew chief Darian Grubb — who won the 2011 championship with Tony Stewart — put the series on high alert that their pairing may be a potent one. Hamlin conserved just enough gas in the waning laps at Phoenix on Sunday, outlasting Kevin Harvick to grab his first win of the 2012 season.
“This is as good as it can get for me,” Hamlin said. “I consider this my offseason second home. I’ve got a lot of friends and whatnot out here now, and so coming back to the track where essentially we did lose the championship in 2010 … it just feels so good to come out and be competitive again.
“We’ve been non-existent for 14 months, and now, here we come.”
Jimmie Johnson led 55 laps and was the dominant player through the event’s halfway point. However, a loose wheel dropped him deep in the field and he spent the rest of the afternoon methodically working his way through it. Instead, it was Hamlin and Harvick that battled for the win over the final 60 laps. When Harvick’s fuel tank ran dry with one-and-a-half laps remaining, Hamlin cruised to his 18th career Cup win.
Greg Biffle, who ran third in Daytona, Johnson and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 5.
“I don’t know that I could get to him,” Harvick, who led a race-high 88 laps, said when asked if he could have gotten by Hamlin if not for the fuel issue. “Our cars were so evenly matched. He was a little bit better on the restarts than I was. If I could get out front on the restart and have enough room to slide my car around, then I could take off after that. But he was able to get out there and get in front of me.”
As the series stays out west for a trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Hamlin, Grubb and their Joe Gibbs Racing team look to be the early-season squad to beat — a surprising and scary notion considering they have all of two points-paying races together.
“We haven’t even gotten some things in our racecars that Darian wants to put in them,” Hamelin said. “The chemistry and all is still so new — Darian is still learning the system within JGR. There’s a lot of reasons why we’re going to be going forward even more in the next few weeks. So to start out a year like this with a fresh new relationship with him … it’s just a great feeling. I can’t really put it into words.”
As if starting out the 2012 NASCAR season by getting turned mid-pack on the second lap of the Daytona 500, it was announced Wednesday that Chad Knaus, crew chief for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, will be suspended for six races and fined $100,000 for tinkering with the C-posts of the car prior to qualifying for Daytona. Also on involuntary leave will be car chief Ron Malec, another key cog to the five straight championships Jimmie Johnson and team won from 2006-10.
Should the suspensions hold up — team owner Rick Hendrick has stated they will appeal the penalties — Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t exactly hurt for a talent pool from which to pull. It is rumored that a potential replacement atop the pit box could be No. 48 lead engineer Greg Ives, or Mike Baumgartner, former car chief on the No. 24 team of Jeff Gordon.
“Our organization respects NASCAR and the way the sanctioning body governs our sport. In this case, though, the system broke down, and we will voice our concerns through the appeal process,” Hendrick said in a statement following the announcement of the penalties.
Chief among Hendrick’s concerns (as well as mine): If what NASCAR found was repaired before the car went onto the racetrack, why are suspension being handed down? That’s akin to slapping a radar detector on the windshield, but never actually pulling onto the highway at 90 mph.
The C-post sheet metal on a Cup car is a manufactured and stamped piece that is produced for the teams, and in NASCAR terms, not something they encourage be modified and fiddled with — even though there were some cars during Speedweeks in Daytona that had similar modifications, though not to the same degree as the No. 48.
The way the infraction was discovered seems a bit obtuse, as well. While there wasn’t a stated specific rule against what was used, the first statement regarding the piece was that NASCAR “didn’t like how it looked.” Further explanation from competition director John Darby that NASCAR, “did some additional inspections with gauges and stuff,” which resulted in the pieces being cut off, replaced, and more in line with what NASCAR wanted to see on that area of the Lowe’s Chevrolet.
Which brings me back to my original point of contention, as well as that of Hendrick and many in the garage: If the part was never used in competition, was identified and remedied during inspection for the biggest race of the year, where really is the justification for such a staunch set of penalties?
Adding further fuel for confusion is the track history this particular car had established over the last year, having won a race (Talladega) and competed in three others. The car had also been taken to the NASCAR R&D Center for evaluation, where apparently nothing egregious or objectionable was discovered. There was not a statement from NASCAR that the car was ordered to never come back to the racetrack, nor was it confiscated and held for evaluation like the tail section of the stealth helicopter used by SEAL Team Six in the Bin Laden raid and as one of Tony Stewart’s JGR Chevrolets was several years ago when NASCAR didn’t like what it saw.
Knaus is a bit of an anomaly in NASCAR. Name one other crew chief that is given the credit (or even recognized) for the success of a driver and race team as much as he has been since 2002. It’s usually the driver who gets the credit and the crew chief who shoulders the blame if things go wrong when a pilot is unable to produce. Not until Johnson won his fifth straight title did the driver start to receive due credit for actually winning these things; most attributed it to Knaus building a better mouse trap than his competitors — including the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports (and Stewart-Haas Racing) stablemates.
While improved safety was the initial focus when NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow was rolled out in 2007, it was also engineered to prevent the mangled and twisted bodies of the previous generation of NASCAR racecar. The Bizzaro World smeared and bent bodies were constructed to develop maximum downforce and sideforce while in the corners did not remotely resemble anything on a car dealership lot. These machines also required a substantial amount of time and dollars spent in the wind tunnel, money that has been long in coming since the economic downturn of 2008.
With the dawn of the second iteration of the CoT, the 2013 machines legitimately do look like their street-going counterparts, and in the interest of cost control and maintaining aesthetic integrity, further body massaging on NASCAR racecars will continue to be discouraged more than close contact at a high school dance.
Part of the allure and lore of NASCAR, that has been missing in recent years, has long centered on the trick cars and pieces that have actually been on the track in competition — and won. From Junior Johnson’s “Flying Banana,” to Bill Elliott’s 9/10-scale Thunderbird that dominated the super speedways of the mid ’80s, to Smokey Yunick driving his car away after NASCAR had removed the gas tank as a result of questions about its fuel mileage, it used to be the individuals who prepared the cars were recognized as much as those who wheeled them into Victory Lane.
That Knaus is routinely singled out for trying to exploit the rules and simply build a better car — some of which never even make it into competition — flies in the face of NASCAR’s efforts the last few years of returning to its roots, and getting back to the formula that worked so well in the past. He also seems to be singled out for simply doing a better job than his competition, which is to build faster racecars that win races and championships. If there isn’t a specific rule against it, how is it illegal? And if something is out of tolerance during pre-race inspection (key word: “pre”), and is then brought up to code, what is the justification for suspending the guy for a month and a half?
While fines and suspensions are bad enough, even more damaging is the 25-point docking in both driver and owner points, levied, putting Johnson in the awkward position of having -23 points going into the second race of the season. It has been a rough start to 2012 for HMS, with virtually every affiliated car suffering damage or falling out of the Daytona 500 (the exception, of course, being Dale Earnhardt Jr.).
So what does this mean for the No. 48 team at Phoenix? Is the season over before it even really started? Knaus and Malec will still be allowed to show up and compete until the appeal process runs its course. The potential for distraction is clearly evident, though, as these types of penalties for a championship-caliber team will likely overshadow anything revolving around Danica Patrick or Matt Kenseth’s second Daytona 500 victory.
It might also provide some foreshadowing as to the future of Knaus within the walls of HMS.
As the stress and friction of the 2011 season took its toll, Knaus took a rare vacation and extended time away from the shop prior to the start of the 2012 campaign, going on an African safari. Knaus’ time, effort and expectations of his team are legendary (and borderline obsessive compulsive). With as much success as he has had overseeing operations on the No. 48, might he want to pull back off the road and move into a leadership role within Hendrick Motorsports as a whole?
While a $100,00 fine is nothing to sneeze at — relative to sponsorship dollars, race winnings, exposure and championships that have been generated since Knaus and Johnson were united in 2002 — it is a pittance compared to what has been generated since then. But is Knaus going to tire of the constant hen pecking, suspension, fines and bad press that come whenever he tugs on a fender or is in the lab of his little shop of horrors trying to put together the missing piece for “The Fix for Six”?
In the end, should the suspension hold up and Knaus is sent home for six weeks, NASCAR might just have woken a sleeping giant. If he’s not at the racetrack, that simply leaves him more time to cook up new ideas of Lex Luthor-like diabolical proportions.
Few could have predicted the 2012 season would open with such historic and unforeseen events taking place at Daytona. Rain delays, prime-time racing on a Monday, jet dryer explosions … I‘m surprised the Mayan calendar didn’t signal the end of civilization when the checkered flag fell.
The Backseats Drivers Fan Council is back! While NASCAR and tracks have their own fan councils, most people don’t see the results of what fans are asked. That’s why I started a fan council last year where anyone could answer questions about the sport and see the results, along with comments fellow council members made.
So on to Year 2 of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council.
NASCAR has suspended Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec six races for C-posts on the No. 48 Chevrolet that the sanctioning body did not approve of in pre-qualifying inspection in Daytona. Both will also be on probation until May 9. In addition to the suspensions, Knaus has been fined $100,000 and driver Jimmie Johnson and car owners Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick have been penalized with the loss of 25 driver and 25 owner points.
The suspensions will be deferred, however, until an appeal hearing is completed.
A statement released on Wednesday stated: "The No. 48 car was found to be in violation of Sections 12-1 (actions detrimental to stock car racing); 12-4J (any determination by NASCAR officials that race equipment used in the event does not conform to NASCAR rules detailed in Section 20 of the rule book or has not been approved by NASCAR prior to the event); and 20-2.1E (if in the judgment of NASCAR officials, any part or component of the car not previously approved by NASCAR that has been installed or modified to enhance aerodynamic performance will not be permitted -- unapproved car body modifications)."
A closer look at the NASCAR Rulebook reveals this about Rule 20-2.1E: "Streamlining the contours of the car, beyond that approved by the series director, will not be permitted. If, in the judgment of NASCAR officials, any part or component of the car not previously approved by NASCAR that has been installed or modified to enhance aerodynamic performance will not be permitted."
Hendrick Motorsports responded with a statement of its own, saying it plans to appeal the penalties.
“Our organization respects NASCAR and the way the sanctioning body governs our sport,” said owner Rick Hendrick. “In this case, though, the system broke down, and we will voice our concerns through the appeal process.”
The rumor mill is working overtime as reports are coming out that Broncos QB Tim Tebow and singer Taylor Swift were spotted having dinner Monday night at an Italian restaurant. The possible pairing has already earned the nickname Swebow. Of course, we kind of like the sound of Taybow.
For a moment, well, actually about two hours on Monday night, it appeared as if the Daytona 500 would conclude one of the greatest weekends in racing upsets.
As crews doused a jet fuel fire and then washed Turn 3 with Tide, Dave Blaney was in the lead. Rain appeared on its way. The race was past the halfway mark. If it was called, Blaney, who had to race his way into the 500, would be the winner.
It seemed a fitting end to what had been a crazy few days at the track. Wild rides, wild finishes and unlikely winners made Daytona a place where dreams come true — instead of that Disney place about an hour down the road.
It began with the Camping World Truck race when John King, making only his eighth career series start, won and upon climbing out of his truck in Victory Lane, said: “Man, I’m a rookie, I’m not supposed to be here. Oh my gosh. This is unreal.’’
King, in his first race for Red Horse Racing, had never finished better than 15th in a Truck race before Daytona. He called Friday’s victory “feature win number three’’ for his career, noting he’d won one dirt late model racing and one late model race.
His victory didn’t come without controversy, though. Contact from King’s truck caused leader Johnny Sauter to crash during the second of the three attempts to finish the race under green.
“I’ve never pushed in my life,’’ King said of the drafting at Daytona. “I apologize from the bottom of my heart.’’
The next day, the Nationwide Series topped King’s dramatics when James Buescher, running 11th in the final corner of the final lap, won. Yes, he was 11th on the final corner and won the race when the 10 cars in front of him wrecked.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Buescher said of his victory.
It was hard to believe, considering those collected in the crash among the leaders included Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
So, it was with those finishes as a backdrop, the sport faced a trifecta of upsets with Blaney in first as the clock moved beyond 11 pm EST on Monday.
But the track was repaired, the rain didn’t stop the race and Blaney didn’t win (finishing 15th). Instead, Matt Kenseth held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle in a car that had overheating issues, fuel problems, a bad tachometer and radio woes throughout the race to score his second Daytona 500 victory. Kenseth’s victory brought a sense of order — the Roush Fenway Racing cars had been strong all week and Kenseth won his qualifying race — amid all the chaos of Speedweeks.
PRIMETIME Sunday’s rainout and rain Monday afternoon gave the sport and its fans a chance to see what it would be like to have a prime-time weeknight Cup race.
It’s something some fans have called for in recent years. The theory being that it would draw a larger TV audience than a Sunday afternoon race or a Saturday afternoon race.
FOX reported that Monday night’s Daytona 500 drew an 8.0 rating, down eight percent from last year’s race, which was held on Sunday afternoon. Monday night’s rating was up four percent from the 2010 Daytona 500, which was twice delayed by a pothole.
FOX also reported that the total audience watching at least a portion of Monday night’s race was 36.5 million, up from last year’s 30 million.
So, let the debate continue if it’s worth it for the sport to run a prime-time weeknight race.
FUNNY BUSINESS? Did Greg Biffle protect teammate Matt Kenseth, who was leading, from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the green-white-checker finish that decided the Daytona 500?
Here’s what Earnhardt and Biffle had to say about the final lap:
Earnhardt: “I know that they're teammates, but his group of guys that specifically work on that car or travel down here to pit the car during the race, his crew chief, Greg himself, they work way too hard to decide to run second in a scenario like that. I'm pretty sure that … if (Biffle) had an opportunity to get around Matt and had a chance to win the Daytona 500, he would have took it immediately.
“He's trying to do what he could do. If I were him, I can't imagine what his game plan was in his head, but if I were him, I would have tried to let me push him by and then pull down in front of Matt, and force Matt to be my pusher and then leave the 88 for the dogs.’’
Said Biffle: “Once (Earnhardt) got against my bumper ... I was about three-quarters throttle, and then once we got straight I pushed the gas down. I thought that we would drive up on the back of (Kenseth’s car) without a problem. It must have just pushed enough air out in front of my car that it pushed (Kenseth’s) car out about five or six feet in front of me and I couldn’t get any closer.
“We were all going the same speed, so when I moved over, Matt moved over real easy and Junior is against my back bumper. So, I am trying not to wreck because he is shoving on me, and I am doing this down the back(stetch) thinking, ‘I am not going to be able to get a run at him.’
“The only thing I could have done was got real straight down the backstretch and pushed the brake pedal down and kept going straight and slow our cars down a fair enough and then let Junior make a run at Matt around (turns) three and four and we could have moved up beside him coming off the corner and then Junior and I would have had to dice it out to the line. That is probably what I should have done.’’
PIT STOPS Matt Kenseth collected $1,589,387 for winning Sunday’s Daytona 500. David Ragan, who finished last, collected $267,637. Ragan ran one lap before he was eliminated by a crash. ... Last year, eight of the 12 drivers who made the Chase finished 20th or worse in the Daytona 500. That could be good news for Jimmie Johnson (42nd Monday), Jeff Gordon (40th), Brad Keselowski (32nd), Kasey Kahne (29th) and Ryan Newman (21st). ... The difference in limiting the tandem draft? Last year’s Daytona 500 featured 74 lead changes. Monday night’s race had 25 lead changes.
Driver crashes into jet dryer, sparking massive fire
Although Matt Kenseth took home the checkered flag at the Daytona 500 last night, most spectators will be talking about the bizarre crash involving driver Juan Pablo Montoya. The crash took place while under caution when Montoya crashed into a jet dryer filled with about 200 gallons of jet fuel. The collision sparked a massive fire that scorched the track and delayed the race for more than an hour.
The 1979 Daytona 500 is considered by many to be the most noteworthy in the event’s 54-year history. A snowstorm blanketed much of the East Coast, providing a captivated audience; a last-lap battle for the win, ending in a wreck and a surprise winner; and of course, an infamous post-race fight in the infield between Cale Yarborough and brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison.
The 2012 edition of The Great American Race did its best to top it. And just may have done so.
Rained out for the first time ever, the Daytona 500 took NASCAR’s premier turn on a weeknight, prime-time slot on network television, and it didn’t take long for the storylines to develop. A wreck on Lap 2 eliminated five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, along with Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick, Trevor Bayne and David Ragan.
A somewhat subdued period followed, as drivers filed in line, ran in formation and waited to make their moves as the possibility of rain kept crew chiefs chewing their pencils. A Ryan Newman single-car spin, a blown engine in Jeff Gordon’s Chevy and another blown powerplant, this in David Stremme’s ride, punctuated a largely two-by-two affair.
And then, it all went up in flames.
While under caution for Stremme’s blown engine, Juan Pablo Montoya’s rear wheels locked up as he was catching up to the field due to a faulty transmission. His No. 42 Chevy crashed violently into a jet dryer that was blowing debris off of the track, igniting the safety vehicle into a ball of jet-fueled fire. Two hundred gallons of jet fuel burned on the track as safety personnel attempted to put out the blaze and then remove the vehicle while questions circulated that the race may not be resumed.
A two hour and five minute red-flag period ensued while NASCAR and track personnel repaired the surface, cleaning the spilt fuel and patching damaged areas of the surface. Meanwhile, drivers exited their parked cars on the backstretch, taking to Twitter — Brad Keselowski is believed to have gained 55,000 followers during the break — huddling around unlikely leader Dave Blaney’s car and doing television interviews.
Once racing resumed — at midnight in the eastern time zone — and with 40 laps remaining, Matt Kenseth inherited the lead. And it was a lead he would hold for the duration, which included two additional wrecks, the first with 13 laps to go that involved seven cars and the second, an eight-car affair that took the race into a green-white-checker finish.
In the two-lap overtime conclusion, Kenseth held off teammate Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the pair failed to piece together a run that could dethrone Kenseth’s powerful Ford.
“It was like the 17 (Kenseth) had more motor at the end,” an incredulous Biffle said. “It was like he floored it and we couldn’t catch him.
“I thought Junior would push up to his back bumper and I’d side-draft him (Kenseth) and go by him and then it’d be me and Junior over here at the (finish) line. But it wasn’t meant to be.”
Earnhardt squeezed by Biffle for second. Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 5.
The win was Kenseth's his second of Speedweeks 2012 after taking checkers in his Gatorade Duel race on Thursday, and his second Daytona 500 triumph in the last four years. It was also earned under difficult circumstances, as his Ford experienced water system issues early in the race (nearly falling a lap down) and radio problems late.
“Our car, for some reason, was a lot faster out front than it was in traffic,” Kenseth said. “It took a long time to get to the front, but like Thursday (in the Duel) once we were in the front, it was hard for anybody to get locked onto you.
“My car was one of the faster cars, so it was harder for some of the cars to push you and stay locked onto you. And I learned a little bit on Thursday about the last couple laps there, and kind of what to do and what not to do and what this car liked. And we had enough speed once we took the white (flag), I felt sort of OK about it, but I still thought they were going to get a run and pass me. By the time I got to (Turn) 3 and could see they couldn't get enough speed mustered up to try to make a move.”
So while the final lap may have lacked the fireworks seen in the ’79 edition, the rest of the event certainly had more twists, turns and downright surreal circumstances. Earnhardt, for one, was just happy to get out of a long Speedweeks with a clean car and a solid finish.
“You know, you bring such a nice car down here, and the chances of you tearing it up is pretty high. Odds are always kind of high you get caught up in something like what we saw at the end of the race. But I was really happy to be able to take the car home in one piece, and liked the way the motor ran, liked the way the car drove.”
And in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, following a race that was supposed to be completed on Sunday afternoon, Earnhardt summed up a marathon weekend well: “It was a little bit of a bizarre week with the rain and all that, but you know, we stuck around and got it all done.”