NASCAR: Kyle Larson Tops First-Time Championship Contenders

Kyle Larson is scorching hot at the right time.

Kyle Larsen is finally paying dividends.

The NASCAR regular season concluded at Richmond International Raceway, showcasing the continued supremacy of the Toyotas. Like 2015, the entire Joe Gibbs Racing stable of defending Champion Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth have all qualified for the Chase playoffs, along with the affiliated Toyota Furniture Row team of Martin Truex, Jr.

It’s a supreme overflow of riches for Toyota, given they have won 13 of the 26 regular season races. On Sunday at Richmond, winner Hamlin and the other Toyota drivers led 385 of 407 laps.

If NASCAR’s Chase playoff is to deliver any surprise moments during its final ten races, we may need to look for the four first-time qualifiers to possibly break the Toyota juggernaut, given all of these newbies have been competing in the Sprint Cup series for less than three seasons.

Given that three of the rookie qualifiers are previous champions in NASCAR XFINITY ladder series, how do these young guns stack up in their potential for securing one of the final four spots at the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale that will determine NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Champion?

Chris Buescher

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Despite talent, it’s doubtful that Chris Buescher makes it past the first Chase round.

Without doubt, the greatest shock was rookie Chris Buescher qualifying for the Chase by using a fuel strategy gamble to win the race-shortened race at Pocono. Completing his work-study program at Front Row Motorsports while Roush Fenway Racing leadership evaluates his future potential, Buescher is the only driver within the extended RFR family to have qualified for the Chase.

As a result, expect both Ford and RFR to be more willing to throwing human and technical resources behind Buescher’s long-shot bid for a Championship.

Regardless, his playoff stay will likely be short, as Buescher drives for small team in a Chase full of Goliaths. Including his victory, he has only two top 10 finishes with a season average finish of 26.7, and it is difficult to foresee him continuing beyond the first Chase round.

Austin Dillon

As most improved over the past three years, Dillon leads the Richard Childress Racing team as the sole contender to this year’s Chase, with veterans Paul Menard and Ryan Newman having failed to repeat this year as qualifiers.

A primary reason that Dillon locked in his first Chase berth is his increased consistency during 2016. He’s posted a seasons average finish of 14.6, as compared to a career average of 19.3 through his first two seasons. That consistency could carry Dillon through the first two rounds of the Chase, as Dillon has posted ten top 10 finishes during the regular season with only one DNF.

Right now, Dillon seems to manage his equipment well and make smart decisions; he just needs a little more speed to be in contention for wins. With a majority of intermediate tracks in the Chase, speed will be critical and the Dow No. 3 Chevrolet team still seems a little stunted in this department.

Chase Elliott

Taking over the iconic ride of the semi-retired Jeff Gordon, Elliott’s rookie season has been volatile with plenty of ups and downs. Still, Elliott collected enough points to qualify 14th. At times, Elliott has run exceptionally well. Elliott has delivered the most top ten finishes among the four first-timers, with thirteen top 10 and seven top 5 finishes.

Still, Elliott has not yet closed the deal with a regular season win.

He finished 2nd twice at Michigan, 3rd at Dover, and 4th at Bristol, but poor restarts have been his nemesis. Nonetheless, Chase Elliott may just still the best and biggest surprise of the newcomers, if he can just stop spinning the tires on restarts, given how critical restarts are to controlling the race in the closing stages.

My take is that Elliott will fall just short of the Homestead finale, with elimination in the 3rd round of playoffs. As a former XFINITY Series Champion, Elliott just needs a little more experience under his belt before he fulfills his potential.

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson is scorching hot at the right time. Closing out the last three races of the regular season, Larson has finished on the podium each time, with a 1st at Michigan, 2nd at Darlington, and 3rd at Richmond. Larson has ramped up with an average 10.6 finish in the 2nd half of the season, as compared to the 1st half season average of 20.3.

I respect Larson’s aggressiveness and his ability to experiment early on with new racing lines. He has confidence from his recent breakthrough win, and Larson is a strong collaborative position with teammate Jamie McMurray also having qualified for the Chase, which is a first for the Chip Ganassi Racing contingent. Additionally, the CGR team has been testing several new car chassis, and may just have a few extra bullets in the chamber for the Chase playoffs.

Larson is undoubtedly an exceptional talent; if he can keep it clicking with his new crew chief Chad Johnston during the playoffs, a few well-timed strategy gambles may just carry him to the Championship series finale.

The Chase playoff can be a wild and stressful ten-week stretch, with four successive elimination rounds to the Championship. These young guns must take it one race at a time, given a race victory in any round provides the golden ticket to automatically move on. But then again, wouldn’t it be a stellar narrative if one of these drivers can break through to spice up the NASCAR Championship?

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

 

Rare, Exciting Auto Club Finish Boon For At Least Two Drivers

Dale Earnhardt Jr. thrilled his fans with a second-place finish at Auto Club Speedway which allowed him to move into first place in the point standings. He has five top-10 finishes in five races.

I think it is more than fair to say that most of the races at Auto Club Speedway, a 1.5-mile facility in Fontana, Calf., have been categorized as anything from “routine” to “downright awful.”

Given its distance and configuration – and other things, of course – races at Auto Club Speedway were often ended as the dreaded “fuel mileage” variety- wherein one team manages to expertly save its gasoline and thus cruise to a victory – virtually unchallenged.

Hasn’t been much excitement in all of that. And frankly, when it came to a lack of drama, well, that was the norm at Auto Club Speedway.

Not this time.

The finish of the Auto Club 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race was perhaps the most dramatic and exciting in the speedway’s history. It was the type of finish that would delight any track that strives for a good show for its fans. It was the kind of finish about which people will talk – and for a long time.

It was fashioned after the race’s ninth and final caution flag, caused when Clint Bowyer spun in the third turn on lap 186 of 200.

At the time Joey Logano for Penske Racing and Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing were battling for the lead. Gibbs’ Kyle Busch, the race’s dominant driver, was in third place.

On the restart on lap 189, Hamlin and Logano constantly battled side-by side and made contact on the last lap. Hamlin slid hard off that track into an inside retaining wall.

As he did so, Busch took the high line around the track and, under caution, took the victory nearly everyone thought should have been his is in the first place.

Understand, Busch had been clearly dominant. After his victory in the Nationwide Series race at California, on March 23, the 54th of his career on the circuit, the buzz was he could make it a sweep at Auto Club. Make no mistake, he and Jimmie Johnson were the heavy pre-race favorites.

Joey Logano was battling for the victory with Denny Hamlin until the two whacked each other and allowed Busch to pass on the high side on the last lap and win the race. Logano finished third.

Indeed, Busch made it a sweep. He led led125 laps to bring Gibbs its first Fontana victory and the 25th of his Cup career. It was his first win since Richmond in the spring of 2012.

“We had to get by before Denny and Joey wrecked,” Busch said. “You know, when they both went to the bottom side of three and four – I’m like, ‘Oh man, this is golden. I got enough up here I can make this happen.’

“Lo and behold, I put my foot to it and drove around the outside of them before they started crashing or maybe as they were crashing, I’m not sure.  Man, feels so good to finally win.  We weren’t going to win if it wasn’t for those two battling.  If they would have been single file and just racing, it would have gone down in order.”

With his victory, Busch has found some quick redemption for last season. In which he won only once and narrowly failed to make the Chase. He wound up 13th in points after four DNFs between races 13 and 21. It was only the second time he had missed the Chase since 2009.

“We worked so hard last year and we missed the Chase by three points,” Busch said. “And, then it sort of defines your season as missing the Chase.  And, then we go off and rattle off great finishes throughout the Chase but we never win.  That weighed on our shoulders and we didn’t know if we could do this or not.

“And, then again this year we started out the season and we had a little issue at Daytona, and then Phoenix we had to start in the back.  I tried to carry the deal on my shoulders and I messed up.

“Then we go to Vegas and run up front, we lead some laps, we just didn’t have a good long run car. Then last week at Bristol we had a good car, we sped on pit road and got back in traffic, never really made our way back up to the front on good tires.

“Then here this weekend we had the best car, we led the most laps, and felt like it was our race to win, but in reality it was our race to lose when all those guys kept pitting behind us and putting on tires.

“We felt like track position was the best for us, although tires were worth a lot of speed.  So we finally had a little bit of luck on our side that we didn’t have all last year and it seemed like we weren’t quite having this year.”

With his victory Busch solidified his position among the top 10 in points, rising from 10th to sixth. He now has three top-10 finishes in five races.

But, undoubtedly what will receive the most attention, by far is that after Auto Club, Dale Earnhardt Jr. assumed the top spot in points.

He and his Hendrick Motorsports team overcame a few obstacles in the Auto Club 400 to finish second, and thus earn a fifth top-10 finish in five races, tops among all competitors.

Earnhardt Jr. is12 points ahead of Brad Keselowski and 16 in front of Johnson, who was no factor at Auto Club with an ill-handling car and wound up 12th.

“We had a good car all day, and sort of just got off sequence and all screwed up on tire strategy there at the end with all the cautions and guys coming for four and two,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We were able to take advantage of that on that last caution, get four tires, and starting on the inside was terrible.

“I would lose five, six spots down there trying to get going on the inside, and finally that last restart we started 18th but we were on the outside and we were ninth by the time we come back around for the first lap under green. It was just really important to get that outside restart.

“Just happy we were able to finish.  I thought the car was good enough to finish in the top five, so I’m glad we got a good finish up there.”

Among other things, the terrific finish at Auto Club should prompt many to learn that the track is not entirely devoid of competitive events.

And in this particular case, for at least a couple of drivers, it provided some very beneficial results.

 

 

Leonard Was Creative Bedrock For Wood Brothers Success

David Pearson drove for the Wood Brothers for several years during the 1970s and one of his most spectacular wins was in the 1976 Daytona 500, where he bested Richard Petty after a last-lap crash.

When I did my first one-on-one interview with the Wood brothers, Glen and Leonard, I was scared to death.

It was about 42 years ago when I was starting out as a motorsports writer for The Roanoke Times and the Woods, with driver David Pearson, were scorching the NASCAR Winston Cup competition.

The late Dick Thompson, the superb public relations director at Martinsville Speedway, recruited me to do a story on the Woods for his race program.

At first, I didn’t want to do it.

“Dick, I hardly know the Woods,” I said. “I don’t think anyone does. They aren’t exactly outspoken and outgoing in the garage area.”

“You’ll do fine,” Thompson said. “I’ll set up the interview at their shops up in Stuart (Va.).”

A couple of days later Thompson called me.

“Well, that wasn’t easy,” he said. “They wanted to know things like who you were and how long it would take. I told ‘em you would be as quick as possible. Get on up there.”

You have to understand that among the media of the day, the Woods were considered one of the best teams in NASCAR.

They had a small organization but they could hold their own – and beat – such powerhouses as Holman & Moody, Petty Enterprises and Bud Moore Engineering.

But it seemed they were distant. They weren’t sociable. They went about their tasks efficiently and silently.

Leonard Wood was a master tire changer during pit stops, but he also contributed to the Wood Brothers’ greatness through his talents as an innovator and engine builder.

And when it came to interviews, their answers were brief and enigmatic. The Woods never gave a straight response when it came to explanations of how they won a race.

The media, jokingly, often referred to a “magic chassis change” as the secret to their success.

In truth they didn’t have the slightest idea.

Especially reticent was Glen, the elder brother listed as the team owner. His younger brother Leonard, the chief mechanic and able pit crew member, was a little better. At least he smiled a lot.

In fact it was Leonard who answered virtually all my questions during the interview. Now, admittedly, most of what I asked was mere prattle because I knew the Woods weren’t about to let loose of any of their competition secrets.

I heard, “No, let’s not go there,” more than once.

But then something happened.

I asked the Woods how hard it was to keep up with NASCAR’s seemingly endless rule changes – which, at the time, were made to keep competition equal and the auto manufacturers happy.

Leonard abruptly left the room.

He came back carrying a box. He emptied the contents on the floor.

Carburetor restrictor plates of myriad sizes and shapes were spread out all over the floor.

“See this?” Leonard asked. “This is what I have to do constantly to make sure we’re fast and within the rules. It’s not easy and it takes up a lot of time.”

Then he smiled.

“You can’t take a photo of all this,” he said.

Then the reason that was the center of the Woods’ success hit me. Leonard had just very dramatically shown me how hard he worked, how experimental he was and how dedicated he was in his role as the team’s engine builder.

No wonder the Woods were the toast of NASCAR. By 1972 their cars had been driven to multiple victories by the likes of Curtis Turner, Marvin Panch, A.J. Foyt and Cale Yarborough.

In ’72, their first with Pearson, they won six times.

That was just a harbinger of things to come. The Woods won 11 of 18 races in 1973 and seven more in 1974.

They were making the most of Glen and Leonard’s leadership and mechanical skills.

It has always been reasoned that Glen was the strategist. The Woods never ran for a championship. They competed only in superspeedway races, which paid the most money.

Glen opted for the combination of a higher income and fewer expenses. I also think he preferred to race where the team was strongest.

The only exception was their hometown track, the half-mile Martinsville Speedway. Suffice it to say, uh, they were “compensated.”

Meanwhile, it was Leonard who was the technical genius. He didn’t learn from schools or manuals. He was a naturally talented mechanic who could build motors from the time he was 13 years old.

As an engine builder he was diabolical – almost like a mad scientist. No one knew exactly what he did, and he sure wasn’t about to tell anyone, but his engines were routinely the most powerful on every superspeedway. The numbers proved it.

It didn’t end there. Leonard was also the architect of a Wood Brothers pit stop – routinely the fastest in NASCAR.

Leonard was one of the best tire changers in the sport – yes, his duties with the team were many – but he was also responsible for modernizing the equipment of the day.

He created a lightweight jack, one far lighter than the 70-80 pounders of they day. With the use of hydraulics, Delano Wood, jackman and the most flamboyant of the Wood Brothers, could have a car lifted in two pumps. It took other teams as many as 10.

Leonard is also credited with finding ways to get the team’s air guns to remove and replace lug nuts more quickly and modifying the gas dump cans to allow fuel to flow faster.

Without Leonard’s natural skills and creativity, the Wood Brothers would have never achieved the status and notoriety they hold to this day.

That’s the biggest reason why Leonard is one of the latest inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Rusty Wallace and Cotton Owens join him this year.

Pearson was a member of the hall’s second class and his tenure with Woods certainly had much to do with that.

Leonard will join Glen as a hall of fame member. It’s only appropriate. They established their greatness together.

Over the years Leonard and I became friendly acquaintances who could converse easily and laugh often.

Of course, I have never asked him what he did or how he did it.

I think he’d smile. But he wouldn’t answer. Not to this day.

 

 

 

Bristol Results Bring About Another Change To Chase Scenario

Ryan Newman's (39) crash in the night race at Bristol cost him in points. He fell from 13th to 15th and is no longer the second-ranked candidate for a "wildcard" spot in the Chase.

The landscape of the NASCAR Chase For The Sprint Cup changed, again, after the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Which, incidentally, should not be unexpected, especially since the race returned to the bumping, grinding, caution-filled, fan-pleasing event it had been for years.

Given that, a shakeup in points was almost certain.

Indeed, it happened – although not as great as it might have.

The competitor most affected was Ryan Newman. The Stewart Haas driver came to Bristol 13th in points, 47 out of the top 10.

But, with one victory this season, he was ranked as the No. 2 “wildcard” candidate behind Kasey Kahne, who was No. 11 in points with two wins.

At Bristol Newman was involved in a three-car accident in the fourth turn on lap 192 of 500. Apparently the left-rear tire on his Chevrolet had gone flat, which triggered a spin that collected Jeff Burton and Juan Pablo Montoya.

“Well Ryan just said somebody got into the left-rear of him and cut the left rear tire,” said Tony Gibson, Newman’s crew chief. “The lap before that he started getting really loose and then the very next lap, it just turned around on him. “So, he didn’t say anything about the No. 42 car (Montoya). I think we were going to spin no matter what with that left-rear tire. By the time we saw it he had already spun. It’s a shame.”

Newman’s team would have made all repairs possible to return to the race and salvage points. But it simply couldn’t be done.

“The crash drove the frame into the motor and it’s just too far gone,” Gibson said. “We couldn’t fix it; not safe enough to go back out.”

Consequently, Newman finished 36th at Bristol and fell to 15th in the point standings. Kyle Busch, with a sixth-place run, has moved into 13th in points and now holds the No. 2 “wildcard” slot.

Two “wildcard” candidates with the most victories will be allowed into the Chase provided they are among the top 20.

With his two wins Kahne is currently the top “wildcard” candidate.

Five drivers – Jeff Gordon, Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano, all have one victory each and are among the top 20 in points.

Of those five, Gordon fared best at Bristol. He wound up third and thus moved from 16th to 14th in points.

Like the others, Gordon’s cause will be helped tremendously if he can win another race. But, again like the others, time is running short. There are only two races remaining before the Chase begins.

Although positions were indeed swapped after Bristol, the drivers among the top 10 entering the race all remained there.

Gregg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rank first through third, respectively. Johnson moved into the runnerup spot from fourth place.

All three are officially assured entry into the Chase.

Denny Hamlin, the winner at Bristol, jumped from eighth to sixth in points. The victory was his third of the season – which ties him with Johnson and Brad Keselowski for the most this year and virtually assures him a spot in the Chase.

The final two races before the Chase begins are at Atlanta this weekend and at Richmond two weeks from now.

 

 

 

In The End, And No Matter How, It Was Return To ‘Old’ Bristol

In a wreck-filled, emotion-charged night race at Bristol, Denny Hamlin emerged the winner with a daring move to pass Carl Edwards with 39 laps to go. The victory was Hamlin's third of the season.

For those of you who wanted a return to the style of racing at the “old” Bristol, well, by and large, you got it in the Irwin Tools Night Race at the high-banked, 0.533-mile track.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup event was indeed a near-clone of the slugfests that characterized races at Bristol for so many years.

There were 13 caution periods for 87 laps, the most since 15 on March 25, 2007.

The track surface was again, essentially, a one-groove oval on which passing was difficult.

The difference was the groove was on the high side of the track whereas, in the past, the best way around was to stick to the bottom.

There were frayed tempers and confrontations, the most notable of which was an irate Tony Stewart’s response to Matt Kenseth – whom he blamed for their wreck on lap 334.

Stewart angrily threw his helmet at Kenseth’s Ford as it departed pit road during the caution. Incidentally, at Bristol, it wasn’t the first time an upset driver used another’s car for target practice.

Frankly, it was all very entertaining.

So it begs the question, did the grinding process ordered by Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., to return the track to the way it was before its 2007 reconfiguration work?

Well, depends upon your point of view.

As said, Bristol remains pretty much a one-groove track. The lower groove disappeared – or at least it was slow and thus the bump-and-run tactics used to pass there did not return.

Tempers flared because of several wrecks, which is nothing new for Bristol. Danica Patrick, knocked out of the race because of a crash, angrily points a finger at Regan Smith, the transgressor.

Instead, drivers utilized the upper portion of the track, which was clearly faster.

Maybe that means Bristol may not have changed completely, but through an improbable series of events, the night race returned to the exciting affair it once was.

There were moves that were reminiscent of the old bump and run. Already mentioned were the displays of temper.

Stewart was certainly not alone. Danica Patrick expressed her anger by pointing a rigid finger at transgressor Regan Smith following an accident on lap 436.

And winner Denny Hamlin’s move to take the lead on lap 461 of 500 was just like the old days.

Hamlin shot low in the first turn and slid up in front of Carl Edwards. Edwards had gained so much momentum he hit the rear end of Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

By rights, Hamlin should have spun out. Instead he kept his car straight, led the rest of the way and went on to win by 1.103 seconds over Jimmie Johnson.

“You did what you had to do,” said Hamlin, who has now won three times this year. “ The only thing you could do was slide in front of somebody. You still had the old Bristol. It’s still one line and you had to knock someone out of the way to make them move.

“Somehow, our car worked so phenomenal on the bottom all day. We made most of our passes without touching a soul. That was the difference.

“No matter what Bruton does nothing is going to make us stay on the bottom if it’s not the fastest way around the track. But we were able to make the most of it.”

Before the track grinding, Bristol had become a two-groove track. Drivers, now free to pass easier and race side-by-side more often, reveled in that.

Seems many fans did not and showed their disapproval by staying away from the spring race this year.

So Smith, with much publicity, announced the reconfiguration.

Again, while the race itself was entertaining and recalled the past, changes made to it were, perhaps, were at least marginally successful.

“Inside the car, to complete a pass, you had to set someone off and make a banzai pass to slide up in front of them,” said Johnson, who has also won three times this year and earned his 17th top-10 finish of 2012. “But when you are around the top, the pace was so high up there.

It was intense for us inside the car, but I don’t know if that crossed over for everyone.

“It was very difficult to pass. Over the years we had a period of time where it was easy to run side‑by‑side and now a big effort to get it back to a single‑file lane again.

“So in some ways it’s the same. We are just racing on different parts of the race track.”

Brad Keselowski was a pre-race favorite because he had won the previous two Bristol races. But he ended up as one of several unhappy victims of an accident.

He was taken out of the event on lap 272 after a backstretch incident with Bobby Labonte. Keselowski finished 30th.

“We were just fair,” Keselowski said. “ You know, we weren’t prepared for the track to drive this stupid and that’s what it is.  It’s the way it is.

“Yeah, I know the goal was to make a one-groove race track so there’d be more action. But it had an inverse affect to where now everybody is running up against the wall.

“And the pace of the field, combined with hard tires, has made the track just even more of an aerodynamic fest.”

As mentioned, there was plenty of driver intensity, which, most likely, the fans could feel.

Most of it was created when competitors were forced to adapt to the high side of the track – and then move even higher when more rubber was ground into the top side.

Adaptation was not easy.

“Yeah, I mean, the pace was fast,” said Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s teammate who finished third. “You could fly up around the top like that with all that rubber down.

“I don’t know what kind of lap times we were running, but I hit my rev limiter every single lap, we didn’t have it set right for that pace.  It was fast, and it was intense, because it was so tough to pass.”

But it was, in the end, the old-time Bristol. It was one groove, high speed and difficult to pass.

“Any time you feel like you’re better than the guy ahead you and he’s holding you up,” Gordon said,  “you look and the cars are lined up behind you, then you’re like, ‘Man, if I make a move, I’d better be sure that I’ve got him.’ ”

“It’s all the same thing,” said Hamlin. “We’re all running in a line and just waiting for a guy to screw up.

That’s what you had at the old Bristol.

“And it’s the way Bristol racing is supposed to be – rooting and gouging.”

 

 

Jeff Gordon Benefits From The Unpredictable, Which Is Nothing New In Racing

By a twist of fate, Jeff Gordon emerged as the winner of the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono. The victory was his first of the season and it propelled him into contention for a place in the Chase.

I’ve said many times over my many years as a motorsports writer that the only thing you can predict about racing is that it is unpredictable.

Very seldom, if ever, is anything certain. It just doesn’t work that way.

Here’s what I think is a perfect example of that. It happened this past weekend.

The Pennsylvania 400 was indeed a bizarre race. If you saw it, well, you know what I’m talking about.

Perhaps the only thing we might have thought was certain was a fourth victory of the season for Jimmie Johnson – and, no doubt, a big step toward the sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship of his career.

After all, Johnson was the race’s dominant driver. And he was in the lead when the race restarted following a caution period.

We all knew it was going to be the last restart of the race – menacing, dark skies loomed and a widely predicted storm was ready to erupt.

All Johnson had to do was stay in front for perhaps a lap or two and the ensuing downpour would end the race and ensure his victory.

But what happened was hard to fathom. Going into the first turn it appeared Johnson pushed his Chevrolet too far and too hard into the low portion of the track. It broke loose and slid upward into Matt Kenseth’s Ford.

That triggered an incident that involved several cars and, of course, assured Johnson he wasn’t going to be the winner. Instead he finished 14th.

Five-time champion Johnson made what most would consider a rookie mistake. For sure his maneuver, or lack of one, was something no one could expect from a veteran driver – not to mention one who was a multiple titlist.

Who could have possibly predicted that?

Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team ran well enough to be in position to win the race at Pocono. Unlike so many times in the past, this time there was no misfortune.

And who could have predicted what happened afterward?

When the dodging and scrambling came to an end in a most unusual turn of events, Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, inherited the lead.

Gordon came to Pocono winless for the season. He had only eight top-10 finishes and was 15th in points in a most uncharacteristically unproductive season.

Many speculated he would not make the Chase. He was finished, done for, toast, kaput ….

But there he was, in the lead under the yellow flag. He beseeched higher powers to let it rain. He pleaded and vented with a four-letter expletive or two.

After all, he was a desperate man who wanted – no, needed – to win and to hell with how he did it.

Sure enough, the rain, make that a deluge, came. The race was over and victory was Gordon’s for the first time since Labor Day weekend at Atlanta in 2011.

“Well, it’s never over until it’s over,” an elated Gordon said after the race. “I’ve won races like this here before. I tell you what; the way our year has gone we’ll definitely take it like this. Man, I’ve never seen the seas part quite like they did going down into Turn 1. “I got a great restart and was able to dive to the inside in front of Kasey Kahne and I saw Jimmie get sideways and he just took them all out.

“And I was like, wow!”

For Gordon, the victory was a powerful catalyst for change. His once seemingly hopeless chances for making the Chase have transformed.

From out of nowhere he is now the second leading contender to make the NASCAR “playoff” as one of two “wildcard” entries.

He’s 13th in the point standings with one victory –which is significant because wins are key for drivers outside the top 10 in points.

Only teammate Kahne, who is 11th in points with two victories, is ahead of him.

Gordon went from pretender to contender in the space of one week – or one race. Could you have predicted that?

Gordon admitted he couldn’t. But he added victory, however accomplished, was due.

“To see this race unfold the way it did, you know, it certainly makes up for a lot of those ‘would have,’ ‘could have,’ ‘should haves’ this year,” he said. “Things are coming together at the right time.

The attitude of this team is that we don’t ever give up.

We go to the race track to win. Today we got the win.

“It’s nice to know that things can still go our way. I hate it for Jimmie and his guys – what happened, anyway?

“But we haven’t had a whole lot go our way this year. To have the first four cars in front of you all slide up the race track, you go by and win the race with the rain – I mean, it’s nice to know that things can still go our way. So this is a big boost for us as a team.”

It can be assumed that, as of now, Gordon is a solid contender for the Chase, given his new status. Considering his twist of fortune at Pocono – yes, it was unpredicted – he might be a lock to avoid a “playoff” shutout for the first time since 2005.

Gordon won’t even think along those lines. He knows that with five races before the Chase begins, anything can happen.

It’s all so unpredictable.

“Now, now, typical media,” Gordon said. “You guys start getting ahead of yourselves here.

“We knew how badly we needed a win and we got it.  But that’s half the battle.

“Now in my opinion, this only puts more pressure on us over these next several weeks, but we’re ready for the challenge.

“I think with all we’ve been through this year – I said this also – if we can get to victory lane and get some things to go our way, this team, because of what we’ve been through, that we’ve stayed together and haven’t pointed fingers, it will make us stronger.”

If Gordon wins again before the Chase begins, or at the least runs well enough to make it, his thinking is no one should consider it as, well, unpredictable.

“It wasn’t like we just kind of fluked into it today,” he said. “We put ourselves into position for that good fortune to happen.

“That’s all we’ve been talking about as something we need to do more of and we did it today.

“And we can do it again. We can.”

 

 

 

 

Jeff Gordon’s Past Success At Indy Offers Wealth Of Hope

Jeff Gordon is currently 17th in points and without a win in 2012. However, next on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule is Indianapolis, where Gordon is a four-time winner and holds many track records.

When the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway rolls around, it’s hard not to think about Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon.

Indy has been the site of some of Gordon’s greatest successes. He has won the prestigious race four times, as the inaugural winner in 1994, and again in 1998, 2001 and 2004.

Gordon tops the list for most NASCAR victories at the 2.5-mile track. He also ranks first in poles with three, top-fives with 10, top-10s with 14, and laps led with 476 in 18 starts.

For Gordon, Indy is a very special place. Unknown to many race fans, he first aspired to become an Open Wheel driver with a dream to win the Indianapolis 500. He lived many of his childhood years in nearby Pittsboro and once went to the track as a fan and met his hero, legend Rick Mears.

When stock cars came into his life in 1990, Gordon changed his career path to NASCAR and, ironically, realized his dream as the first winner of the Brickyard 400 in 1994 while driving for Hendrick.

“Growing up here and going to the track numerous times as a kid, there is just something special about each trip,” Gordon said. “But that special feeling changes quickly when I get out on the track because this place is so challenging.

“The four corners look the same, but each is unique with different transitions and bumps. As a driver, factoring that in with the few little dips, the way the wind is blowing, the radius and everything else can give you an advantage.

“The car has to be good, as well. We’ve had the best car or one of the best cars in each of the races we’ve won here.”

The 2012 season has been one of the toughest in Gordon’s 20-year career in NASCAR. Seemingly everything has gone wrong. There have been many freak occurrences on track.  For example, the season began with a blown engine in the Daytona 500 in February  – and it’s been a challenge since.

Ranked a disappointing 17th going into Indianapolis this weekend, Gordon has had to deliver the same answers to the media all season long. The Vallejo, Calif., native tries to be upbeat, but you can hear the frustration and heartache in his voice.

“Obviously our season hasn’t gone the way that we had hoped it would,” Gordon said at New Hampshire. “We’ve shown a lot of speed. We’re capable of leading laps but we just haven’t come up with the results.”

Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team have had some misfortunes this year, but Gordon believes they are performing well on the track. They simply have to make those performances translate into victories.

Gordon finished sixth at Michigan, sixth at Sonoma, Calif., fifth at Kentucky, 12th at Daytona and sixth at New Hampshire. The No. 24 team seems to be making progress.

“I feel like we’ve turned a corner,” Gordon said. “I feel like in the last few weeks we’ve put some good results together and getting to the finish with the car in one piece and having good runs. These next several weeks are obviously crucial for us.

“We’ve got Indianapolis and a bunch of tracks coming up that we’re definitely capable of winning at. And we know that we’re going to have to win at those in order to get ourselves into the Chase.”

Gordon has been highly commended for the way he has handled himself – and the situation in which his team finds itself – with only seven races remaining before the Chase begins at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 16.

Gordon has kept much of his emotions to himself.

“Well, there are definitely feelings in the heat of the moment,” Gordon said. “Especially when you sense the frustration and it comes out in things you say on the radio or how you handle some of those situations behind closed doors.

“But, when it comes to how to handle it publicly, I just don’t think it does the team or myself or anybody any good to handle that negatively.

“So whatever frustrations and challenges that we’ve been dealt this year, we’ve just continued to try to handle them internally. And I would say that there has been very little questioning of anyone. It’s really been just how do we turn these great runs into great results.”

Gordon touched on the root of the problem. His impressive on-track performances haven’t been reflected in the finishing orders, which tends to spark thoughts the team is headed in the wrong direction.

“Obviously, what makes that even more challenging is the weeks go by and you don’t get the results,” Gordon said. “The fans, the media, the social media and all those things start to weigh on you heavily.

“So, it’s nice to have a lot of support out there as well, like our sponsors and our fans. But most importantly, it’s what the team does. This team is one that has gotten through some pretty tough times this year and has stuck together.

“I certainly hope that the worst is behind us, but I just feel like the last few weeks with things going more our way at the end of these races, that’s helped us to understand that hey, we’ve just got to keep sticking together and we’re going to get the results.

“Now, are they going to be enough to get us in the Chase? We’ll see. If we get in the Chase, are they going to be enough to win the championship? We’ll see. But I’ve been very proud of the way we’ve handled ourselves through all this.”

Should Gordon win his fifth career Indy race Sunday, it will definitely be the highlight of a season that’s considered one of his most disappointing. He gets hope from how well he and his team ran at IMS in 2011.

“I think back to last year at Indianapolis and how good we were,” Gordon said. “That’s what memory I’m going to have this year. How can we be that good and improve on our performance versus our competition in these next several weeks?”

Many don’t feel Gordon has much of a chance to make the chase. But wins, and the more the better, will get him into a “wildcard” spot. A win at IMS would be a huge boost for the team.

“I think most people look at us while we’re in 17th or 18th or wherever we are in the points and no wins, as ‘These guys don’t have a shot,’” Gordon said. “We look at it as, ‘Gosh, we’ve run so good at this track and this track and this track and this track. We are capable of winning multiple races.’

“We’ve got to put all the things together to pull off those victories. But we feel like we’ve run good enough to do it and are continuing to run good. And this is a good stretch of races for us to pull it off.”

 

 

 

 

Victory In Exciting Daytona Nationwide Race Is Redemption For Kurt Busch

The Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway was exciting and had its share of wrecks due to pack racing. Kurt Bush (No. 1) escaped this one and others to win the race.

(Editor’s Note: Mark DeCotis is a veteran journalist who spent 37 years in the newspaper business before beginning a second career combining leisure and earning a living.

He covered 26 Daytona 500s, numerous Pepsi/Coke Zero 400s, Busch/Nationwide, Trucks, more than a few Rolex 24s at Daytona, season finales at Homestead, Kevin Harvick’s emotional first win at Atlanta, IndyCar, sports car, NHRA, motorcycle, ATV and power boat racing.

His favorite race car driver interviews of all time were with 15-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force).

 

DAYTONA BEACH. Fla. – After more than half the field wrecked in six separate incidents in Friday night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona, Kurt Busch played the role of survivor and won the Subway Jalapeno 250 in overtime.

He managed to get through two big wrecks including the startling one in which pre-race favorite Danica Patrick walloped the inside retaining wall off Turn 2 with such ferocity that it drove the steering column in her JR Motorsports Chevy nearly to the roof.

The lap 83 wreck was unnervingly similar to the one Patrick was involved in coming off Turn 2 during practice for February’s Daytona 500. Fortunately for her, her team and the sport she walked away.

When the smoke and sparks finally dissipated Busch found himself in victory lane in a car damaged in one of the earlier wrecks. His smoky burnout capped a wild and entertaining evening which at times saw the field running four-wide on Daytona’s narrow racing surface and, not surprisingly, ended in a wreck involving Austin Dillon and others as the field came to the checkered flag.

At least 25 of the 43 cars were damaged in wrecks and24 of the 101 laps were run under caution. But the race did set a track record for lead changes with 42 involving 16 drivers.

Danica Patrick qualified and ran well in the race and might have had an excellent shot at victory had not she been involved in one of the race's multi-car crashes.

Unfortunately the attendance was sparse by Daytona standards. And those who stayed home missed a show that left Kurt Busch emotionally spent in victory lane – and his brother Kyle steaming in his wrecked car that he skidded to a stop just yards away while heading the wrong way on pit road following the finish.

If NASCAR was planning to penalize the sport’s premier pouter for the bonehead move was not immediately determined.

All that didn’t faze Kurt Busch.

“We just won at Daytona,” he exulted. “I’m hoarse because I’ve been screaming so loud. This is awesome.”

The victory marks a step toward redemption for the volatile Busch. He was suspended from his James Finch-owned ride in the Sprint Cup Series in June after a run-in with a reporter that followed his being put on probation after a run in with driver Ryan Newman and Newman’s team at Darlington.

He was retained after the Finch team voted to keep him in the driver’s seat and hopefully the victory was his first payment on the debt he owes.

“I’ve got only a couple of things to give and that’s heart and that’s passion,” Busch said.

Surely Finch will accept his driver’s effort and the first-place check that can only help his underfunded and understaffed operation.

While the riveting action up front kept the crowd on its feet, Dillon came from the back after his Richard Childress Racing Chevy failed post-qualifying inspection that negated his pole-winning run.

He eventually led and finished fourth sliding sideways across the finish line. It continued a wild two weeks that saw he and his team penalized for a failing post-race inspection following his first career victory at Kentucky.

“I never got really worried about getting to the front, I thought we had a car capable of getting there,” Dillon said.

As for the penalties: “We made another mistake that’s two in a row,” Dillon said. “My grandfather (Childress) is upset with the guys. It’s like ‘Man, we’ve got to stop doing that. We’ve got to be on our game.’ ”

Kurt Busch was surely on his game in winning for the fifth time in 23 career Nationwide starts and for the second time this season, the first for Finch. He won at Richmond in a Kyle Busch Motorsports car.

“It means more to me but it means more to these guys,” Busch said of his team. “I’m happy we were able to deliver. I couldn’t be more proud of this team effort tonight.

“We didn’t give up. It’s not vindication. You want to win for James Finch.”

As for his up and down career that has seen him lose Cup rides at Roush Racing and Penske Racing due to his mercurial nature, and whether the victory could put him on the right path, Busch maintained Friday night was not about him.

“When you win for James Finch in just a few starts in the Nationwide Series for these guys that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “I don’t care about me right now.”

 

Brian France: No Gimmicks But New Rules, Policies Will Come To Please Fans

NASCAR CEO Brian France admitted on Friday that he was very pleased to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. having a good season. He admitted that if Earnhardt Jr. is successful, that is very good for NASCAR.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark DeCotis is a veteran journalist who spent 37 years in the newspaper business before beginning a second career combining leisure and earning a living.

 He covered 26 Daytona 500s, numerous Pepsi/Coke Zero 400s, Busch/Nationwide, Trucks, more than a few Rolex 24s at Daytona, season finales at Homestead, Kevin Harvick’s emotional first win at Atlanta, IndyCar, sports car, NHRA, motorcycle, ATV and power boat racing.

His favorite race car driver interviews of all time were with 15-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force).

 

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France drew a very straight line in the sand – after all that’s where the sport’s rules have been written since its inception – when it came to improving things on track.

Speaking to reporters at Daytona on Friday France outrightly dismissed any notions of the sport adding any artificial ingredients to the porridge that is NASCAR’s racing product – his word not ours.

“It’s a very clear line to us,” France said. “What we’re not going to do are gimmicky things. I’ve heard we ought to throw a caution every 10 laps. That’s nonsense.

“We won’t do gimmicky things. But we’ll do things that incentivize performance, incentivize wins. That we are open to.  The wildcard does that. It does it in an authentic way. Anything that gets something better on the track and doesn’t employ a gimmick, we’d be reasonably open to.”

France said that NASCAR has to help find ways to satisfy fans better when it comes to television coverage. Many ideas will likely be discussed before the TV contracts expire in 2014.

That’s encouraging from a sport that has already given us cars getting a lap back for free – otherwise known as the “lucky dog” sans Michael Waltrip’s ubiquitous sponsor plug – and the overtime rule otherwise known as the green-white-checkered finish.

Overall France believes things are trending in the right direction especially since the sport’s crown prince Dale Earnhardt Jr. – a driver the boss has said is vital to NASCAR’s overall health – is having a good year with a victory and a second-place spot in the points.

In fact France was so eager to inject Earnhardt into the proceedings that it took him all of 37 seconds to mention him.

Keep up the good work Dale, Brian is turning his lonely eyes to you.

France also has his eyes focused on the future and the sport’s goal of providing “the most competitive and close competition as we possibly can.”

To achieve that goal France knows the sport has to continue to please its fans – among the most knowledgeable, demanding and yet self-entitled in all sports – both at the track and on TV, which is where the majority of its adherents get their fix, his word not ours.

With negotiations on renewing the TV contracts that expire at the end of 2014 reaching what France called the serious stage, NASCAR has a unique opportunity to blunt the rising tide of criticism of its product and its presentation from a glut of commercials to a dearth of live action – not to mention overly centric attention on certain drivers.

To accomplish that France promises an approach more focused on science than art. But he also stated no matter what new rules are put in place they like, the countless others that have been written over the years, will be authored in the shifting sands of Daytona Beach.

“Even when we get them where we want them, they’re going to change,” he said. “That’s just the nature of this business.”

That’s what has allowed NASCAR to become the behemoth it is. But the road ahead is fraught with challenges and the sport cannot traverse that road alone. It must bring along its fans, its teams and its partners – France’s word, not ours.

And NASCAR and its partners must enlist the best and brightest minds in their respective businesses to ensure the sport remains on course with the ultimate goal being the best show the fans’ money can buy, all gimmicks aside.

 

Going Into Daytona, Happy 75th Birthday To “King” Richard Petty

Known as stock car racing's "King," Richard Petty is celebrating his 75th birthday and this weekend will be back at Daytona, his favorite track and on which he's accomplished so much.

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams roll into Daytona for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday, stock car racing’s greatest star will have something very special to celebrate at his favorite track.

Richard Petty, who has long since been a Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series team owner, turned 75 years old today.

Rest assured plenty of birthday cake and Paydays (his favorite candy bar) have been consumed at his Level Cross, N.C., home.

Once he gets to Daytona we know there will be more cake and candles because of publicized celebrations.

He’ll also receive many goodwill wishes as he moves through the garage area smiling, waving to fans and signing autographs.

It’s a bit ironic that Petty’s birthday always comes around the week that NASCAR visits DIS for the second time each season. Some of his greatest successes have come on the famed 2.5-mile, high-banked speedway.

Petty raced for 32 years before he retired in November of 1992 following the race at Atlanta.

He won an incredible 200 races, which included seven Daytona 500 victories, more than any other driver in the track’s storied history.

Petty also won three 400-mile races at DIS in the July events of 1975, 1977 and 1984 – the year he won in a photo finish over Cale Yarborough to record his historic 200th victory with President Ronald Regan in attendance.

To go back 53 years, to 1959, when Petty first saw the mammoth 2.5-mile Florida speedway, it was a bit much to take in.

It was an incredible sight for a country boy who had previously raced on a variety of much smaller dirt tracks – and a few paved ones – around the country.

The biggest track raced on up to that point was the 1.3-mile Darlington Raceway. It was NASCAR’s only superspeedway for a decade, before Daytona opened for the inaugural 500 in 1959.

All of the stars of the era, such as Richard’s father Lee, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts – to name a few – simply shook their heads at the sight of such a mammoth speedway.

That they had to race their Plymouths, Buicks and Thunderbirds around such an incredible track caused more than one driver to question how they could complete a full 500 miles.

Petty’s first outing was less than remarkable. In the inaugural race he finished 57th in the 59-car field and collected mere $100.

Father Lee was, finally, named the race winner three days later after a controversial photo finish over Johnny Beauchamp. Lee received the winner’s check and trophy in the living room of the small frame house where he and wife Elizabeth raised their sons Richard and Maurice.

Petty ran in the first Daytona 500 in 1959 and has won there several times since, which includes a handful of victories in the July race, upcoming this weekend and known as the Coke Zero 400.

It took five years for Richard to win his first Daytona 500, in 1964. He also won his first of seven career championships that year.

He was to win six more titles, in 1967, ‘71, ‘72, ‘74, ‘75 and ‘79. The only other driver to win seven championships in a career was the late Dale Earnhardt.

In 1966, Petty became the first driver to win the 500 twice. He won his third in 1971 when he beat teammate Buddy Baker.

In 1973 Petty muscled by Baker again to win his fourth 500. A year later, Petty won the race again en route to his fifth championship. It was probably the strongest Daytona outing of his career.

Petty came off major stomach surgery to win his sixth 500 in 1979. He did so only after Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the backstretch on the final lap.

Emotions and angry words into a fistfight among Yarborough, Allison and his brother Bobby – still talked about today.

The unexpected brawl, which was captured on TV, helped NASCAR to become a nationally recognized sport.

In 1981, Petty won because of pit strategy. Crew chief Dale Inman called for fuel only on a late stop. It got Petty off pit road ahead of his closest competition and on to victory lane.

After his retirement 20 years ago, Petty could have elected to wave to the crowd and, many think, disappear.

But NASCAR has been a part of Petty’s life longer than he can remember.

“Racing is all I’ve ever known, you know what I mean?” Petty once said with a broad smile. “OK, the thing is, I really don’t know much about anything else. Racing is all I’ve ever done.

“So when I quit driving I decided to stick around and try to contribute wherever I could. I’ve always enjoyed my friends in the garage area and all the fans I visit with every week.

“Being in the garage area and being at the track is just part of the deal. Racing is something I really enjoy.”

Adds Inman, Petty’s cousin, “Richard has tried to stay home at times but he just doesn’t feel right unless he’s at the race track.

“His entire life has been about NASCAR from the time we were kids racing bicycles, playing football together and turning wrenches on Lee’s race cars. He’s still involved with Richard Petty Motorsports. We did so much together over 60 years of racing.”

Petty has been one of NASCAR’s greatest ambassadors, always touting the sport.

He, along with numerous stars of eras gone by, has worked hard to build interest in the sport, and more.

In recognition of that, we at MotorsportsUnplugged wish a very special 75th Happy Birthday to you, Richard.

You have been, and always will be, NASCAR’s greatest treasure in the hearts and minds of so many.

 

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