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.

 

Barring Disaster, Brad Keselowski Is Championship Contender

Among other things, Brad Keselowski got excellent help from his team, which did good work in the pits but also prepared a backup car for the race, which Keselowski won to earn his third victory of the season.

At the very least, Brad Keselowski had to leave Kentucky with the contented feeling that in 2012, he has it made.

That’s because the Penske Racing driver now knows that, barring a competitive collapse of major proportions, he is going to make the Chase – and have a chance to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

The 28-year-old Keselowski won the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky to earn his seventh career victory in his 106th start.

More important it was his third win of the season, more than any other driver, and it virtually assured him a position in the Chase as a “wildcard” driver – at the very least.

Keselowski, at No. 10, is among the top 10 in points who will be admitted into the Chase. But his three wins serve as a bedrock insurance policy.

Under the Chase’s format the two “wildcard” entries will come from those drivers with the most wins and who are ranked in the top 20.

It’s obvious Keselowski’s position is all but unassailable. Yes, he can miss the Chase but that would take a massive implosion over the course of just nine races.

Based upon the season he’s had so far, it’s more likely Keselowski will rise in the point standings.

“Who is leading right now with the most points doesn’t mean a thing,” said Keselowski, who has seven top-10 finishes this season. “The only thing that means anything is where you are going to restart when the Chase begins. That’s going to be based on who is in the top 10 and who has the most wins. That’s all that matters.”

Keselowski built a big lead during the final long green-flag run and retained enough fuel to win the race at Kentucky, only the second Sprint Cup event at the 1.5-mile track.

He finished well ahead of Kasey Kahne, the Hendrick Motorsports driver who earned his eighth top-10 finish of the year and his first at Kentucky.

Denny Hamlin was third, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fourth, Jeff Gordon fifth and Jimmie Johnson was sixth, which meant all four Hendrick competitors finished among the top six.

Carl Edwards, who nearly won the Sprint Cup title last year, had to pit late at Kentucky and finished 20th. Winless this season and ranked 11th in points, he is in danger of not making the Chase.

Keselowski was forced to go to a backup car after he wrecked his Dodge in a crash with Juan Pablo Montoya during practice – an incident that still irked Keselowski after his victory.

“My guys put together a backup car in 100-degree heat in less than an hour,” Keselowski said. “Not even an hour. It was 40 minutes.

“That’s what badasses do and that is what got us to victory lane.

“During practice, well, I don’t like being pushed around and that’s what I felt happened on the track. I hate it. Can’t stand it and won’t stand for it.”

Keselowski took the lead for the last time following a restart on lap 212. The race’s fourth caution period began on lap 210 after Ryan Newman and Joey Logano were involved in a crash in the second turn.

Keselowski led the final 56 laps. He was the race leader three times for 68 laps, second to Kyle Busch, winner of the inaugural Kentucky race a year ago who led five times for 118 laps. But Busch finished 10th due to a broken shock.

After his victory at Michigan, which ended a 143-race losing streak, Earnhardt Jr. was viewed as a championship contender.

His run at Kentucky was his 13th among the top 10, which ties him with teammate Johnson for the most this season.

It also moved Earnhardt Jr. into second place in the point standings, only 11 points behind Matt Kenseth, the lame duck driver at Roush Fenway Racing who finished seventh at Kentucky.

Earnhardt’s Chase position seems safe and, in fact, has improved largely because he has avoided the “summer swoon” which has plagued him in the past – and resulted in a tumble in the standings.

For example, in races 13-17 last year Earnhardt Jr. had finishes of second, sixth, 21st, 41st and 19th, respectively.

Over the same races this year, his results have obviously been better. In races 13-17, he has been fourth, eighth, first, 23rd and fourth, respectively.

All of the drivers currently ranked among the top 10 in points seem to have a good grip on Chase entry. However, two of them, sixth-ranked Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., in eighth place, do not have at least one insurance victory.

The present “wildcard” contenders include first candidate Busch, who is 12th in points, 42 out of 10th place, with one victory.

Kahne, 14th in points is next in line, followed by Newman, 15th in points and Logano, 16th in points. All have one victory and 463 points each – 74 out of the top 10.

Carl Edwards, who tied Tony Stewart in points following the Chase last year, but lost the tiebreaker, five wins to one, is presently 11th in points but ranks as No. 5 in the “wildcard” selection because he does not have a win this season.

Edwards was running among the top five at Kentucky when he was forced to pit for fuel with five laps to go and fell to 20th, one lap down.

It was a very disappointing finish for Edwards, who must, over the course of nine races, move into the top 10 or win at least two races to assure himself a spot in the Chase.

“We hoped there would be a caution at the end, but there wasn’t,” said Edwards, who said he would’ve pitted on the previous set of stops but feared he would miss the commitment line. “It is time for us to get it in gear. I am real frustrated, Bob (Osborne, crew chief) is real frustrated and I know we can do this.

“We ran as well as any Ford out here tonight. At the end, I think with some fuel we would have had a chance to win it.

“We need to get this in gear. We need to go.”

 

 

 

 

Quest To Learn More About Tim Richmond, NASCAR’s Fallen Hero

In just a short time Tim Richmond became one of NASCAR's most exciting, winning drivers. But during a good portion of his short career, he battled a very deadly disease.

Recently I’ve been reading about one of NASCAR’s fallen heroes, a driver from the 1980s whose star shown very brightly for an all too brief period of time. His name was Tim Richmond.

If you missed his era you may not know a lot, or anything, about him. I became a fan of NASCAR in 1990 and missed everything about Richmond. While I was filling my coffers with all things NASCAR past, present and right now, Richmond’s name was rarely, if ever, mentioned.

Once I became active on Facebook, with its NASCAR and fan sites, his name came up more regularly.

I knew Richmond had a reputation for being a man with whom women wanted to associate and men wanted to emulate. His racing prowess was enviable – and, to be honest, so was his reputation as a lothario.

At a time when jeans, cowboy hats, and big belt buckles were the dress uniform for many drivers and crewmen in and around the garage, Richmond showed up in Italian suits, feathered and coiffed long hair and a devil-may-care attitude.

There was no mistaking his intensity. He was, forgive the pun, totally driven in a race car. Whether it was in IndyCar or NASCAR, Richmond drove a car to the outer limits. He won many poles in his short Winston Cup career, running hard and fast – some say even recklessly – but initially he found it difficult to win races.

In Richmond’s first two years in Cup, 1980 and 1981, he had no poles, wins, or top fives, but he did earn six top 10s.

Paired with a legendary crew chief Harry Hyde in 1986 on Rick Hendrick’s fledgling team, Richmond learned to rein in his aggressiveness just enough to produce wins and challenge for a championship.

He challenged, but his good friend Dale Earnhardt denied him the title. Regardless, in that season Richmond’s statistics were very impressive. He won eight poles, seven races, earned 13 top fives and 17 top 10s. Richmond finished third that year, only six points behind second-place Darrell Waltrip.

Richmond cut a dashing figure and was considered something new and different in NASCAR circles as far as drivers were concerned. But what he might have achieved was cut short by AIDS.

That was the pinnacle of Richmond’s career. Unbeknownst to many, a disease was riddling Richmond’s body, weakening him and stealing his thunder in the sport he so desperately loved.

Richmond, it’s now known, had contracted HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. This happened at a time when hysteria was high about the disease and knowledge was pathetically little.

Masking his illness with lies and bravado, Richmond was able to return to a partial schedule. In eight races in 1987, he earned one pole, two wins, three top fives and four top 10s. But those were the last glimpses of Richmond’s greatness.

By the summer of 1987 Richmond’s erratic behavior, reminiscent of drunkenness and/or drug abuse, caused uproar among many of NASCAR’s drivers, crew members, and officials.

Not knowing or understanding the true cause of Richmond’s behaviors – manic moods one moment and sleeping for hours afterward regardless of what appearances were on his itinerary – gave concern to those with whom he was in close competition.

Drug tests were implemented, results were mishandled, and judgments – mostly wrong – were made. All the while, Richmond continued to hide the fact he was stricken with AIDS.

He desperately took the only medicinal cocktail available at the time, AZT. He went so far as to take himself off the medicine to make certain he passed NASCAR’s drug test.

But it was too late. The prejudice against Richmond was palpable. His career was over in NASCAR. Unfortunately, his health was deteriorating at a rapid pace as well.

Richmond shook things up dramatically in NASCAR. The mostly Southeastern sport full of “good ol’ boys” was not sure how to handle the slick Midwesterner who was a natty dresser, had “pretty hair” and drove his race car full bore on every track.

Richmond not only provided a Hollywood feel to NASCAR during the time he was present, he also posthumously brought a discussion to the table about AIDS affecting the NASCAR community, not just the homosexual or Hollywood ones.

As for the man himself, all of that has only gone so far. Even after noted journalist David Poole wrote a book about Richmond, who died on August 13, 1989, entitled “Tim Richmond: The Fast Life And Remarkable Times Of NASCAR’s Top Gun” (2005), I still heard remarkably little about him and his place in the sport I had grown to love.

If nothing else, I’d love to read the thoughts, remembered and reminisced about Richmond from those who actually saw him race.

Teach me about the Tim Richmond I cannot access through books and YouTube clips. I’d love to learn more about the man some said was NASCAR’s most dynamic driver.

JUNIOR JOHNSON: 1987 Start Not Great For Labonte, But Earnhardt Caught Fire

In 1987, Junior Johnson's operation was reduced to one car after three years as a two-car team. Drivers Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnett had departed and Johnson finally selected Terry Labonte as his new driver.

Junior Johnson was unable to sign Dale Earnhardt as his driver for 1987 due to sponsor objection. So he turned to Terry Labonte, the 1984 Winston Cup champion.

Labonte was a quiet sort – certainly a different type than Darrell Waltrip, who had left Junior after six successful seasons.

But Johnson had no problem with that. He knew Labonte wouldn’t make waves and he hoped that the Texan would go on winning races in his cold, methodical way.

The ’87 season was a new start for Junior Johnson & Associates. Not only did it have a new driver, it also had been re-shaped to become a single-car organization after competing with two for three years.

Things began reasonably well.

But another driver came out of the gate so powerfully he quickly established himself as the man to beat for the championship.

He was the one Johnson had wanted.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

The fact that I wasn’t able to hire Dale as my driver for 1987 was disappointing, that’s for sure.

But I don’t want anyone to think I wasn’t pleased that Terry came on board at Junior Johnson & Associates.

He was a winning driver. He’d been winning races almost from the first time he showed up in NASCAR back in 1979.

He was the 1984 Winston Cup champion driving for Billy Hagan. Now, I am not taking anything away from Hagan – not at all. But I knew my team had more resources than his.

That was obvious after Terry left him. Hagan was having financial problems.

So I thought that with better equipment Terry would be able to make more use of his talent – and that could mean really good things for my team.

But I also felt Dale was going to have a really good year, perhaps even a better one than his 1986 championship season.

Labonte joined Johnson's team as a winning driver and the 1984 Winston Cup champion. He left team owner Billy Hagan, with whom he had raced since 1979.

He and Richard Childress were beginning to really click; to hit their stride. I thought that in ’86 when Dale beat Darrell for the title and I reasoned that Dale’s success that year was only going to increase his momentum.

I certainly wasn’t the only one who believed that. Dale was getting a lot of media attention. And his popularity with the fans – well, maybe it’s better to say his notoriety – was increasing. Terry wasn’t nearly as flamboyant as Dale, not to mention Darrell. He was always known as a driver who quietly got the job done – and that was fine with me.

But things did not start very well. During the first four races of the year, the best we could finish was fourth at Atlanta.

Before that, we had problems at Daytona and finished three laps down to Bill Elliott. We were eighth at Rockingham and fifth at Richmond.

At that point I wasn’t overly concerned. I expected Junior Johnson & Associates to undergo a period of adjustment.

We had made major changes after the 1986 season, which should be obvious since we downsized to a single car after the departures of Darrell and Neil.

We had to make some personnel adjustments and while I think the core of people on the job was as talented as any I ever had, we still had some situations where guys had new jobs to which they had to adapt.

And, of course, we had a new driver and many times that requires some adaptations, particularly between driver and crew chief.

So to start 1987 with three top-10 finishes in four races wasn’t bad at all. It wasn’t a spectacular start, but it was a good, steady one.

But remember what I said about Dale’s momentum? It hit an even higher gear after the start of the season.

In four races he won twice and finished fifth once. His worst run was at Atlanta, where he wound up 16th.

He came into Atlanta as the points leader and although he didn’t have a good day, he was still on top when it was over. In fact, he increased his lead to 61 points over Bill, who suffered a blown engine.

Dale was red-hot. I was not surprised.

But we were still very much in the hunt and, yes, there was a long way to go.

Then trouble hit – hard.

At Darlington, only the fifth race of the season, Terry was injured in a severe wreck.

On the 145thlap, just 22 from the end, Benny Parsons looped his car and that set off a chain reaction. Morgan Shepherd and Terry were behind Benny, they had no place to go and they got their cars turned around.

The driver Johnson really wanted for 1987 was Dale Earnhardt. He couldn't get him and Johnson knew that Earnhardt was likely to have a banner season with owner Richard Childress.

If it had ended there everything would have been OK. But, unfortunately, our Budweiser Chevrolet was hit broadside by Ricky Rudd.

The impact broke Terry’s shoulder. I knew he wasn’t going to be able to drive, obviously. The question was, how long?

Oh, and Dale won the race. He slammed into the wall with four laps to go while he was cashing Bill, the leader.

But Dale kept going. Now, no one thought he was going to win, but darned if Bill didn’t run out of gas on the last lap. Dale cruised by for the victory.

He now had three victories in six races.

North Wilkesboro was the next race and as most of you know by now, that was my home track. My cars were always expected to win there, or at least do well.

But with Terry out I figured our chances to do either had dwindled.

I had to get a driver to replace him. I will admit that I really wasn’t satisfied with what few were available.

So I did something unusual. I selected a rookie, Brett Bodine, to drive our Chevrolet. I’m not sure if he had even competed in a race in 1987.

Yeah, that raised a few eyebrows, but I reasoned that he was anxious to get a chance. He was very hungry to prove himself.

And, as a rookie, he would listen to what he was told and be very careful with the car.

NASCAR rules said a rookie could not perform a relief appearance in a Winston Cup event. But NASCAR said Brett could drive for Terry. However, official records would list him as a relief driver only.

Fine with me – actually, that is the way we had it planned. Terry drove one pace lap and then turned the wheel over to Brett, who drove the entire race and did a darn good job.

He finished eighth. Terry got all 142 points Brett earned which meant we had another top-10 finish and we were still in contention for the championship.

But we were falling behind. For that matter, so was everyone else.

That’s because Dale easily won at North Wilkesboro. It was his fourth victory in six starts. He remained hot, very hot.

Hard to believe, but he was going to get even hotter in 1987.

I would like to tell you that we warmed up quite a bit, too. But I can’t.

 


 

With Current Scenario, Battle For Chase Spot Could Be Riveting

Brad Keselowski is currently in 10th place in the point standings and with two wins seems certain to make the Chase this year. But if he slips out of the top 10 and others behind him win again, his situation could well change.

As it stands now, we have a very interesting, even stimulating, situation when it comes to just which drivers are going to make NASCAR’s 2012 version of the Chase.

After Sonoma, there was a logjam of drivers scrapping for one of the 12 open positions. To be more exact, there are eight drivers in competition for one of four available spots.

The top 10 in points after the year’s 26th race, at Richmond, are automatically entered in the Chase. The remaining two, called the “wildcard” entries, are the drivers with the most wins who are ranked among the top 20 in points.

My opinion is that, currently, the drivers ranked one through nine in points seem to be secure – barring meltdowns, of course, which are always possible.

Most secure among this group are five-time champ Jimmie Johnson, fourth in points with two victories, fifth-place Tony Stewart, who also has two wins, and Denny Hamlin, ranked eighth with a couple of victories.

That each has two wins means they have solid insurance policies for the Chase, even if they slip in points.

Brad Keselowski also has two wins and he ranks 10th in points. That should be enough, but then, if he falls out of the top 10 he could be in a scramble with other drivers. After all, he’s only 11 points ahead of Carl Edwards, who presently ranks No. 11.

It’s well known that Edwards figured to be a championship contender this year after he lost the 2011 title to Stewart on the first tiebreaker in NASCAR history – Stewart have five wins, Edwards one.

Edwards could solve his dilemma by doing one of two things, or both. He certainly needs to advance in points. But wins would be very beneficial.

Edwards agrees and says his strategy is to win.

If he can’t advance in points and can’t win, Kyle Busch is ready to pounce. The Joe Gibbs driver is 12th in points, just 20 behind Edwards and, most important, he has a victory.

Lately, his racing luck has been horrendous. He suffered three consecutive blown engines before he finished 17th at Sonoma.

Still, right now, Busch has the edge. If the Chase began today he would be in and Edwards out.

But even Busch cannot be comfortable. Ryan Newman is 13th in points and has a victory at Martinsville. Joey Logano is 15th with a win at Pocono and Kasey Kahne, whose season started horribly, was triumphant at Charlotte and is 17th in points.

Another win for any of them puts Busch on the hot seat.

And this scenario intensifies the delicacy of Edwards’ position. He would be fifth in line if the Chase began today.

But the Chase hasn’t begun. Ten races remain before it does.

Anything can happen.

A driver who seems certain to make the Chase may find himself struggling to remain among the top 10 and thus have to rely on an earned win, or wins.

For example, after the race at Kansas in early June last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood third in points. He had not won a race but the assumption was he was high enough in the standings to overcome that.

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson seems almost assured of making the Chase and have a chance at a sixth title. He is fourth in points with two victories, a very comfortable spot.

He almost didn’t. He had a horrible summer. By the race at Pocono in the first week of August, he had tumbled to 10th in points and the Chase was five weeks from its beginning.

He stayed in 10th for another week, then climbed to No. 9, where he remained for four races and was his position at Richmond, the season’s 26th race.

At Richmond Earnhardt Jr. finished 16th and fell to 10th in points – he held on to survive a near meltdown.

This year he’s already gained that insurance victory and his summer has begun very well.

He had already earned more top-10 finishes than any other driver by Dover in early June. He finished fourth there, eighth at Pocono and won at Michigan, after which he was second in points, four behind Matt Kenseth.

Earnhardt fell to third in points after a 23rd-place finish at Sonoma but to be honest that was not a major surprise. He has not done particularly well at the road course.

He has never earned a top-10 finish. He’s been 11th three times.

But, consider that over the same number of summer races last year, Earnhardt Jr. fell from third to seventh in points.

Which means he’s on a much better path this year – and, certainly, his victory offers him major assurance.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion. Not only is he distant from the top 10 in points – 18th – he doesn’t have a victory to put him in title contention.

He has 10 races to earn one. Fact is, he’s likely going to have to win twice to be a Chase player.

He thinks it’s possible and there’s no reason do doubt him.

He did win three times last year to comfortably move into the Chase – and one of them came over the summer’s10-race span that ended at Richmond. Gordon won at Atlanta.

But, this year, one win isn’t going to cut it.With so many scenarios and possibilities, it seems highly likely the competition for a spot in the Chase is going to be very keen.

That should spark a great deal of interest among fans – and the media – which should, in turn, be very beneficial for NASCAR.

Ambrose, Bowyer: Tale Of Two Drivers At Sonoma

Clint Bowyer was not considered by many to be a potential winner at Sonoma because his racing background was primarily on oval tracks. But he ran exceptionally well to win for the first time this season.

Road course racing seems to bring out an array of emotion each time NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers and teams travel to Sonoma or Watkins Glen.

Unlike the high-banked speedways that make up the majority of the 36 races on the Cup schedule, the twisting left and right turns can give the very best in the business their fair share of headaches.

Two drivers possibly the most surprised at Sonoma this past Sunday were race winner Clint Bowyer and eighth-place driver Marcos Ambrose.

Bowyer, a farm boy from Kansas who openly admits road courses are a challenge, high-fived his crew in victory, while Ambrose, a noted road racer who honed his talents in his native Australia before coming to the United States, struggled for an eighth-place finish.
Indeed, Bowyer sets his sights on winning every race he enters. But was his name mentioned among those such as Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon or even Kurt Busch as Sonoma favorites? He would probably say no.

To get his first win with Michael Waltrip Racing on a road course was an unexpected surprise. But he was strong from the start of the 110-lap race.

The move to MWR is obviously beginning to pay off.

“I’m super excited for everybody involved to be in victory lane with this group so early in the season. It’s a dream come true,” Bowyer said. “I’m very proud of all our partners, especially everybody at MWR.

“To switch teams like I did was a huge risk and it was obviously a chance for me to showcase my talents. I’m proud of everybody back home at the shop. Thank you, guys, for building us real good race cars.”

It’s June and Bowyer can’t help but think of finding his place among the 12 drivers eligible for the Chase following the Richmond race on Sept. 8.

“This is big for our confidence level, for this team and for the Chase,” Bowyer said. “This is a young organization that’s going to be in this sport a long time, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

That Ambrose won the pole at Sonoma was no surprise, as his outings are always impressive on the road courses.

“I put a lot of effort into this race and everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports and the whole Stanley team have been rock solid behind me for the road course program,” Ambrose said after securing the pole. “Ford Racing has done a lot of hard work here too and we brought a brand new hot rod for this race and it is even better than what we had here last year.

“I am glad we could convert the effort into a great result with this pole. You just have to be really precise with your marks and very aggressive and carry momentum through these tight corners.”

Marcos Ambrose was listed as a pre-race favorite at Sonoma due to the Australian's road racing background and proven skill. He won at Watkins Glen last year. He took the Sonoma pole but, surprisingly, struggled to earn a top-10 finish.

Petty felt confident Ambrose would lead the field after the green flag fell for the race.

“Well, winning the pole this week was not as unexpected as what last week was (at Michigan),” Petty said. “I tried to tell him that and I didn’t want to put any pressure on him for when he did come out here. I guess everything went good.

“Anytime you can sit on the pole it is good but the big deal now is getting ready for the race. I think we won the race here with Richard Petty Motorsports a couple three years ago, so some of the guys know how to win here also.

“We have a driver we think that gave one of them away out here so it is time he got one back for us.”

Petty won 200 races during his career, including four on the now defunct Riverside International Raceway.

“I was not very smooth, that is for sure,” Petty said. “I came from dirt tracks so when I had a chance to run into the dirt at Riverside, I did.

“They had all those big cement deals and stuff that would keep me from running off in the dirt. The fastest way around any race track is on the race track.

“Riverside was completely different circumstances, a different race track and I had to do what I thought I had to do at that time to win the race. I always liked Riverside because it had high speed and low speed too. We did pretty good and won a few races there.

“We ran a lot of cars that would move around. Today, these cars are strictly race cars and have to stay on the race track. There is nobody better at that than Marcos.”

Ambrose and his team tested at Sonoma last month and felt confident they could win.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.

“We really missed it. I just feel bad for my Stanley team,” said Ambrose, whose Ford faded badly during long runs. “We missed it bad and we did good to recover and get a top 10 out of it. We will take it and move on.

“We got the pole and had a lot of speed; we just missed it for the race. We were slow. It was just terrible. We had no speed in the car and we paid the price.”

Unlike Bowyer, Ambrose isn’t concentrating on points. Strong top-five finishes during the second half of the season will help to improve his 16th-place position.

“I’m not thinking about the Chase or championships or what not. I am out there to try to do the best I can every single weekend,” Ambrose said. “The points will take care of themselves if you do your job well.

“That being said, we have got speed, there is no doubt about that. We had trouble at the start of the year converting our speed into good results. I am focused on the results and the championship will take care of itself if you do your job right.”

This weekend, it’s back to turning left on the oval at Kentucky Speedway.

Then there are four more oval track races at Daytona, New Hampshire Indianapolis and Pocono. Then it’s on to Watkins Glen on Aug. 12 for the next road-course test – which will be highly welcome for the select few who are established masters.

Ultimately, Sonoma Provided Drama With Bowyer, Vickers, Busch Unlikely Stars

Clint Bowyer was a surprise winner at Sonoma Raceway as he earned his first victory with Michael Waltrip Racing. He led a MWR charge that also included Brian Vickers, who finished fourth.

To be bluntly honest, the two comments most often heard during the running of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway were:

— The race was extremely boring. All the talk was that the double-file restarts after cautions would be treacherous and exciting.

Problem was that for the majority of the race there were no cautions and thus, no restarts. The 110-lap event ended with just two cautions for seven laps.

Two caution periods is a Sonoma record, breaking the mark of three set four times previously. The seven caution laps ties the record set in 1992.

— The race broadcast on TNT was mediocre, or downright bad, as some declared. There were far too many commercials – during which on-track incidents and lead changes were missed – and too much attention was given to camera “trickery” rather than outright racing.

All of that may be, indeed, true – depending upon your opinion, of course. But what cannot be denied is that a couple of late race incidents helped to set up a truly exciting finish that involved some improbable players.

In other words, when it was all over, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 saved the best for last.

And the cast for this finale was not entirely composed of today’s NASCAR’s most prominent, winning stars.

Clint Bowyer won the race and was victorious for the first time since Talladega last October, when he drove for Richard Childress. It was his first win with Michael Waltrip Racing.

He won over Tony Stewart, who has won twice this season and has seldom been apart from fan or media attention.

In what has to be a truly unforeseen development, Brian Vickers finished fourth in only his third NASCAR Sprint Cup start of the season.

Vickers drives for MWR in races not scheduled for Mark Martin. Once a driver for the defunct Red Bull Racing team, Vickers has battled back from health problems – he entered only 11 events in 2010 because of blood clots – and is in search of a full-time ride on the Cup circuit.

This season he has been most impressive. His fourth-place run at Sonoma is his second among the top five in three starts. He finished fifth at Bristol in March.

At Sonoma he helped give MWR two finishes among the top four.

Then there was the much-maligned Kurt Busch, who won at Sonoma last year. However, at the time he was racing for Penske Racing, which let him go at the end of the season because of his confrontations with the media and overall impertinent, unacceptable off-track behavior.

Busch drives for James Finch this season. And, unfortunately, it appears the lack of control that got him into trouble last year (and in years before that), did not abate.

NASCAR suspended him from the race at Pocono earlier this month after he made threatening remarks to a motorsports writer following the Nationwide race at Dover a week earlier.

However, at Sonoma, Busch once again proved that he has, inarguably, driving talent. In a car considered at best a second-tier contender, Busch spent most of the race at the front, battled with Bowyer for the lead and wound up in third place.

It is his only top-five finish of the season. And as much credit as he deserves, a fair measure must be given to Finch’s team, which obviously prepared and serviced its Chevrolet well at Sonoma.

For his part, Bowyer admitted he was uncertain about his ability to establish success at MWR, especially after he had become rooted with Childress – which might have never become dismantled had proper sponsorship had been found for 2012.

But results have been most favorable. With his win Bowyer tightens his grip on a spot in the Chase. He’s seventh in points and his victory serves as an insurance policy.

Teammate Martin Truex Jr., who ran well at Sonoma for a time, is in ninth place. It’s been a good year for MWR.

“It’s huge towards the Chase and everything else,” Bowyer said of his victory. “This is big for our
confidence level.

“It’s a young organization that’s going to be in this sport a long time and I’m proud to be a part of it.

“What a wonderful opportunity at this stage in my career to make this jump and make it work.

“All these guys work together; the crew chiefs and engineering staff  – everybody at TRD (Toyota Racing
Development) – and that’s what it takes.”

Had Vickers been a non-entity in the race it’s likely few would have been surprised.

Instead, he was a star and as such, it would appear he has increased his worth as a driver who should have a full-time ride.

“It was a great run for us, I’m just really happy,” said Vickers, who competed at LeMans this year.

“I haven’t had many Cup races this year, but we’ve made the most of them.

“Can’t thank the effort by the guys enough. They gave me a great car. It took me a few laps to get used to
it.

It’s been a while since I’ve driven a big, heavy car. I’ve been racing sports cars.”

Vickers admitted he knew how important it was for him to acquire good finishes if he wanted to make a
full-time return to NASCAR.

“If two top-fives doesn’t do it, then I don’t know what will,” he said. “I can’t take all the credit.

Everyone at MWR is putting great cars on the race track.

“Rodney (Childers, crew chief) has done a great job. All the guys have done a great job. They’ve all made it possible for me to take the car and put it in the top five.”

For his part, Busch drove a gallant race. His duel with Bowyer over the closing laps was riveting and the result might have been different if not for a small mistake and the pressure Busch felt from behind as Stewart challenged him.

“The final restart with 20 something to go, I was patient. I was very patient with Bowyer,” Busch said.

“I got to his rear bumper, three, four times in turn 11 and bumped him.

“No banzai moves here. There’s a lot of respect that I was trying to give.

“I’m a bit choked up. I just made a little mistake there in turn 11. Those tires have never been bolted down,ever, and I clipped a set of tires and it broke the front suspension and the rear panel bar and I couldn’t compete for the win after that, so a mistake there.

“But if I can get my head on straight here and after the coming races, then I’m able to compete every weekendand go for victories.”

Yes, it might have been dull for quite a while but in the end, the Infineon race provided its share of drama.

And with an unlikely cast of characters.

Will The Champ Be The Winner Of An Earnhardt Jr.-Kenseth Battle?

With his victory in Michigan, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has solidified his position as a contender for the 2012 championship. In the point standings he trails rival Matt Kenseth by only four points.

As the NASCAR world celebrates – or in some cells maligns – Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, there is quieter activity that is taking place amidst the hoopla of late.

Before Earnhardt Jr.’s win all eyes were on Hendrick Motorsports for its all-important 200th win. Jimmie Johnson pulled that off at Darlington before the All-Star break in May.

Next was the debate over when Kasey Kahne would score his first win for Hendrick. That came at Charlotte in the Coca Cola 600.

Johnson won again in Dover, continuing Hendrick’s forward momentum, which prompted many rumblings that this indeed was another year for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to win a championship.

Joey Logano’s victory at Pocono followed. It was a good thing for Logano’s struggling Cup career, but it did little to sway the belief that Hendrick was in the hunt.

Then came Earnhardt Jr.’s win at MIS. After a four-year, 143-race drought, and a solid 2012 season that has seen him finish among the top 10 more than any other driver, Earnhardt Jr. finally won. Jubilation set in immediately for him, his team, and the countless fans of the “Junior Nation” that steadfastly, patiently and unconditionally supports their driver.

But that’s not the real story if one looks at the situation from afar. Once enough distance is made and the balloons and confetti are cleared, it is evident the story isn’t Johnson, Kahne, or even prodigal son Earnhardt Jr.

It’s all about the man known as “The Silent Assassin,” Matt Kenseth.

Kenseth, the winner of the Daytona 500, has earned a reputation as a driver who quietly gets the job done. He's now No. 1 in points, but, among other things, he faces a challenge from Earnhardt Jr.

While fans of the Hendrick drivers have had much to celebrate of late, their drivers have not once been in the Sprint Cup points lead this season. Roush-Fenway driver Greg Biffle dominated in the top spot for most of the first part of the season, and now teammate Kenseth has tacitly ascended to the position.

Kenseth currently has one win this season, at the celebrated Daytona 500. His consistency, which is widely recognized, has bolstered him to the top of the points after Pocono this year.

Kenseth has eight top-fives and 11 top-10s this season.

Now, Earnhardt Jr. has one win amid a consistent season with six top-fives and 12 top-10s. He sits comfortably four points behind Kenseth.

These men are not unaccustomed to this scenario. Throughout their NASCAR careers, from the Busch Series through Cup, they have found themselves in direct competition with one another.

In 1998 and 1999 Earnhardt Jr. won back-to-back Busch Series championships, edging out Kenseth.

Kenseth beat out Earnhardt Jr. for Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors in Cup in 2000.

Kenseth is the only one to have Cup title. He earned his in 2003. That season, with Kenseth’s one win and domination of the points lead for an unprecedented 33 weeks, led directly to the implementation of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Now these two competitors are neck and neck. They are once again becoming NASCAR’s primary rivals and a battle on the tracks is taking shape.

Consistency is definitely key for a championship and both of these drivers are proving that week in and week out. But, as history has shown, consistency plus wins is the formula that creates a title.

Do either of these drivers have what it takes to hoist the NASCAR Sprint Cup at season’s end – or will Johnson, Biffle, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin or Brad Keselowski have something to say about it?

We’ll just have to keep watching to find out, obviously.

 

 

 

 

In NASCAR, Road Racing ‘Specialists’ Are Part Of The Long Past

There was a time, not all that long ago, that when NASCAR’S hulking stock cars came to the road courses, some teams opted to make changes.

Juan Pablo Montoya has won two races on road courses and will be considered a favorite at Sonoma this weekend. But he knows that to win on an oval track will cement his NASCAR career.

They dropped their regular drivers – who had honed their skills on oval tracks – for those who were considered “road racing specialists.”

For some teams that wanted to succeed on a road course, it seemed to be only logical to replace their “good ol’ Southern boy” driver with a guy with a foreign-sounding name. Or at least one who was a veteran of “them sporty cars.

Not to take anything away from those “sporty car” drivers. When hired, most of them did an admirable job piloting an unfamiliar stock car around a twisting, turning road course.

In fact, during the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the “sporty car” drivers dominated races at Riverside International Raceway in California, then the only road course in NASCAR.

From 1963-68, Dan Gurney won five times at Riverside. Of course, that he drove for the Wood Brothers had something to do with that.

Ray Elder won twice, in 1971 and 1972. And in 1973, Mark Donohue, driving an AMC Matador for Roger Penske, was another winner at Riverside.

He was the last “road course specialist” to win at the track, which ceased to exist after 1988.

In fact, he is the last of the “sporty car” drivers to win on any NASCAR road course – which, today, are at Watkins Glen in New York and Sonoma in California, the next stop on the 2012 Sprint Cup schedule.

A Sprint Cup regular has won every road course race over the past three decades.

Yes, specialists continued to be employed, and make no mistake they were first-rate drivers, with names like Boris Said, Tommy Kendall, Bill Schmitt and Ron Fellows – just to name a very few.

But they could not match their NASCAR counterparts for one very good reason. The Southern boys became adept on road courses. They learned how to race on tracks other than ovals.

Years ago a new generation of competitors rose to the forefront of NASCAR. Several of them did not come from the South. They had been weaned on twisting go-kart races or on dirt tracks, where skills other than simply turning left – kidding here – were mandatory.

NASCAR became infused with competitors who knew how to negotiate a road course.

They had names like Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte. Although not as highly touted, competitors such as Ernie Irvan, Mark Martin, Davey Allison and Kyle Petty also won on road courses.

Road course stalwarts such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch came along to replace their generation and are still considered favorites to win today. Each will be touted at Sonoma this weekend.

However, there is something else to consider.

In 2011, Marcos Ambrose won his first NASCAR race on the road course at Watkins Glen. He thinks he has made significant progress in his career and now is ready to win on an oval track.

Today, there are NASCAR regulars who are acknowledged to be what were once called “road course specialists.”

What this means is that while they may pursue a complete NASCAR schedule as recognized regulars, they are seldom, if ever, considered pre-race favorites at an oval track.

But they rise to the top at road courses.

Presently, only two of them compete – Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Marcos Ambrose at Richard Petty Motorsports.

And they have, indeed, proven their worth on road courses.

Montoya, from Colombia, earned his first NASCAR victory at Sonoma in 2007 and followed that up with his win at the Glen in 2010.

Ambrose, an Australian who hails from Tasmania, broke though in 2011 when he won at the Glen to garner his only NASCAR win to date.

Neither will be ignored when potential winners are mentioned this weekend.

However, they are just about everywhere else.

While this seems to be a bit unfair, I think it bears the ring of truth: Drivers – especially foreigners – with road-racing savvy who compete in NASCAR aren’t considered “real” stock car racers until they win on an oval track.

That’s pretty harsh. And, now that I think about it, it is indeed unfair. But that opinion has been prevalent, if silent, for years.

I get a very strong feeling both Ambrose and Montoya fully realize the sentiment is out there.

In Montoya’s case it seems ridiculous. For me, it is very hard to classify a man recognized as one of the most versatile and successful drivers in the world as merely a road racer when he’s won the Indianapolis 500.

He nearly won the Brickyard 400 a couple of seasons ago when, while leading comfortably, he was caught speeding on pit road.

Ambrose won his first pole position on an oval track last week at Michigan and ran well in the race, leading four times for 15 laps en route to a ninth-place finish.

But he fully realizes that his quest to win in NASCAR has been difficult, if for no other reason than when he became a stock car driver, it was all completely foreign to him. He now has a sense of accomplishment.

“I can only reflect on my own personal opinion and I feel like I’ve done a lot in this sport,” said Ambrose, who is hugely popular in Australia. “I feel like I’ve come from a long way behind.

“I came from a country that doesn’t have any oval racing. I come from a state at the other end of the world and doesn’t have any racing on it at all, so I’ve achieved a lot just to make it to NASCAR and then to make it to Sprint Cup and have a pole position and have won a race.”

But that isn’t enough for Ambrose. He feels that being with RPM and teammates who believe in him, he’s in a position to achieve more.

“I’m with a great team and I’m in the best position I’ve ever been in in the sport,” he said. “We want to win races on ovals. We want to win more than one race a year.

“As we sit here mid-season, we still feel like we’ve got a chance to make the Chase if we can win some races. We’ve got speed, we just have to convert those speed runs into good results.”

Ambrose and Montoya don’t have to prove they have talent. They have already done that.

But to break through a long-standing, stereotypical perception they share – as did others before them – they are going to have to win races on oval tracks.

It is my belief that they will.

 

 

 

 

 

Carl Edwards’ Strategy To Make The Chase Simple – Win

Carl Edwards figured to be a challenger for the Sprint Cup championship and he still may be. Now, however, he is trying to fight his way into the top 10 in points.

It’s a given that every NASCAR Sprint Cup driver experiences good seasons and some that, well, aren’t so good.

Right now Jeff Gordon would certainly agree with that. He’s a four-time champion who is presently mired in 20th place in the point standings.

It’s reached the point that in order to make the Chase, Gordon is going to have to remain in the top 20 and, most likely, win at least two races.

It hasn’t gone too well for Gordon – and rest assured that has been widely reported.

There’s another driver whose situation isn’t nearly as dire. However, he’s not having the type of competitive season to which he’s become accustomed.

Surprisingly, Roush Fenway driver Carl Edwards hasn’t won a race this season. He stands 11th in points, just outside the top 10 that will automatically qualify for the Chase.

Edwards could easily move into the top 10 – and as early as after this weekend’s race at Sonoma – but he would remain in a precarious position.

It would be a far more secure one if he could win a race.

If the Chase began this weekend Edwards wouldn’t be in it. That’s because the entry format admits the top 10 in points and two “wildcard” entries – drivers who have won races and are among the top 20 in points.

So Edwards would be pushed aside. The current “wildcard” candidates are Kyle Busch, 12th in points with a victory, Ryan Newman, 13th in points with a victory, and Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne, 15th and 16th in points, respectively, also with one win each.

As said, Edwards’ situation is not dire. Including this week’s Sonoma road-course event, there are 11 races remaining before the 10-lap Chase begins in September.

That’s plenty of time for Edwards to get more than he needs. There’s no reason to panic.

But then, there’s plenty of time for Edwards to falter even more.

“I think it is 50-50 right now,” he said. “The safest thing we can do is win races. We talked about it in the garage just the other day. I think that’s the best move – just go out there and win.

“Maybe with five races to go and we still haven’t won one and we are still on the bubble – which I don’t plan on being, I plan to be way up there – then we might say we have to focus on points.”

Edwards lost the 2011 title to Tony Stewart (left) on the first tiebreaker in NASCAR history, which was based on wins. Edwards had one; Stewart five.

Perhaps Edwards’ season would receive far less scrutiny had he not had an excellent campaign in 2011, which established him as a championship contender in 2012.

Edwards won only once last year but parlayed 26 top-10 finishes into first place in points at a season’s end. He earned 2,403 points.

Trouble was, that is the same number of points Tony Stewart earned. Victories gained by each driver broke the tie.

In a memorable performance Stewart won five of the 10 races in the Chase. Thus, the 2011 Sprint Cup title was his, the first time ever by a tiebreaker.

However, many thought, and rightly so, that Edwards would be one of the top 2012 title contenders.

He still may be. But there is, obviously, work to do.

Edwards has experienced roller coaster seasons before. In 2008, he won nine races – still his career’s season high – and earned 27 finishes among the top10.

But he lost the championship by 69 points to the Jimmie Johnson juggernaut.

Edwards was promptly labeled a 2009 title threat. He wasn’t. In an uncharacteristically mediocre season, he didn’t win a race and earned only14 top-10 finishes. He failed to make the Chase.

No question, it was quite a drop-off in performance.

Edwards righted himself in 2010 with two victories and a fourth-place finish in points. And, of course, he did even better last year.

But for Edwards the roller coaster is speeding downward – at least at the moment.

He’s had only two finishes among the top 10 in the last five races. His best has been a seventh at Darlington.

He’s also had two consecutive finishes of 11th, including last week at Michigan.

Things will have to pick up if Edwards plans to advance in points.

“I try to come to the race track each week with my game face on,” Edwards said. “I try to be fast and not think about last week.

“If you start to weigh things, then you get all messed up. I just try to do the best I can each week and regroup if it doesn’t go well.

“We try not to carry baggage.”

Edwards has already declared he’s not carrying any baggage when it comes to race strategy. He repeated that it was uncluttered; all very simple.

“It’s the safer play to try to win races,” he said. “It’s like insurance, more so than to run easy and hope for points.

“With the luck we’ve had – like the tire thing at Dover – that stuff can happen in an instant and points can go away quickly.

“Wins are good. But each week is a new race. Nothing carries over.”

 

 

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