NASCAR: Will Danica Patrick and Stewart Turn It Around in 2016?

Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart

The crew chiefs in NASCAR have begun to rival the drivers when it comes to silly season rumors, but unlike F1, you tend to know earlier who the crew chiefs will be. Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick have brought in new crew chiefs for their respective cars.

Danica:

Patrick, who brings a whack of cash to the SHR organization is often vilified. On the other hand, there seems to be a reason as she changes crew and chiefs like red lights in Shanghai. She’s hard to work with is what most of my sources say. My sources who were close to her at one point tell me it’s the IndyCar effect: Most of the IndyCar drivers are used to working with engineers rather than old school crew chiefs.

Patrick has seemingly developed the attitude of the Diva. It’s a common occurrence in open-wheel: ‘It’s the car, not me.’ That’s something the drivers in IndyCar can get away with for only so long as everything they do in their cars is captured on software, so you can run, but you can’t hide from the dreaded software. It tells all.

Her former crew chief, Daniel Knost is heading for a new position in the SHR camp as manager of vehicle dynamics, Knost will oversee a number of the organization’s technical efforts, with a specific focus on track simulation and racecar performance.

The 36-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, has been a crew chief at SHR for two years, spending 2014 with the #41 team of Kurt Busch and 2015 with the #10 team of Patrick.

Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick

Knost joined SHR in 2008 when it was Haas-CNC Racing after earning Master of Science and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Childers remains as crew chief for the #4 team of Harvick and Tony Gibson remains as crew chief for the #41 team of Busch.

Don’t expect the dynamics to change as Patrick has a reputation for being the “Alonso” of the Cup Series. All one has to do is listen to her radio in snapshots from all of the races and you begin to see where the difficulty lies.

Maybe Billy Scott, the replacement for Knost, will have a better experience as the problem seems to lie in the chemistry department. Knost joined SHR in 2008 when it was Haas-CNC Racing after earning Master of Science and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The 38-year-old from Land O’ Lakes, Florida, comes to SHR from Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) where since 2014 he was the crew chief for the No. 55 team.

Stewart:

It had to be a very difficult season for Stewart with injuries and legal battles all the while trying to remain relevant as a team owner. It was a hard road for Stewart who unlike Patrick blames himself and not the car. Stewart has always been a driver who would look from within to seek the answers as opposed to calling the car out.

That’s a rare quality, how many drivers do you know who would say: ‘It’s my fault, not the car’. It’s very rare in all types of motor racing, but an admirable quality nonetheless.

Look for Stewart to try and capitalize on the 2016 package which should see the cars as tough to handle given the new low-downforce rules. However Stewart has to buckle down and try and develop the chemistry with his new crew chief, Michael Burgarwicz.

Michael Bugarewicz has been promoted from race engineer on the #4 team to crew chief for the #14 team of Tony Stewart. The 33-year-old from Lehighton, Pennsylvania, replaces Chad Johnston, who has left SHR to pursue a new opportunity. Bugarewicz joined SHR in 2014 where in his role as race engineer, he helped Kevin Harvick secure his first Sprint Cup championship.

You have to wonder how Kevin Harvick let him go, but Tony has the final say and seems to know what he’s doing. Uncle Gene, not withstanding.

There’s not much to say about Tony Stewart except one has to hope that he can emulate Jeff Gordon’s retirement year. If the 2016 low-downforce cars suit him, he will be a factor for the Chase. Well, if the Chase does have an eraser change before Daytona.

Let’s hope the best for Tony as the, hopefully, looser cars will suit his driving style.

He needs a spark and a good performance to motivate him as the 2015 season took a toll on Smoke.

But Hey, Smoke rises-right?

 

 

 

 

 

Chasing its Tail: NASCAR Chase Injects Drama, But Lacks Credibility

Harvick did what he had to do at Dover. Win.

Harvick did what he had to do at Dover. Win.

Listening to the television broadcast and published media reports, the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway this weekend was an amazingly captivating race, and delivered abundant drama. Except, lost in this headline is that we had a relatively uneventful competition on the track known as the Monster Mile, which Kevin Harvick dominated by charging to the front after starting 15th. From there, Harvick checked out, leading 355 of the 400 laps enroute to a must-win victory.

Harvick delivered a superstar “walk-off” performance with his “win and you’re in” advance to the next round, yet quality race passes throughout the field mostly depended on restarts and reinforced how aero-dependent the cars are under the current rules package. As my colleague Michele Rahal pointed out after Darlington (Chase Hasn’t Helped As Much As Low-Downforce, September 8), next year’s anticipated car specifications being tailored to a low downforce aero package cannot come soon enough to improve the on-track racing.

Yes, we had contrived excitement down to the final lap revolving around the elimination aspect of the Chase playoffs, and for a number of fans that seemed to be enough, depending on whether their favorite driver was on the bubble or not.

Additionally, we had the top playoff seed eliminated, as Jimmie Johnson, driver of the Lowe’s Chevy SS, had a broken rear axle seal cost the #48 team dearly in one race. Without a Chase playoff, Johnson would be 6th in total season points, Instead, Johnson was eliminated as the 14th place contender in the first Chase playoff round. Strikingly, Johnson may end up without a seat at the table for the top 10 Chasers celebration in Las Vegas, which would be a first for the six-time Champion.

Since introducing original Chase playoff format in 2004, NASCAR has made three extensive revisions in 2007, 2011, and in 2014. NASCAR has invested resources in marketing campaigns to explain this system to fans, as the sanctioning body attempts to draw new eyeballs to the sport. Grudgingly, countless fans have developed a complacent attitude to the Chase format, with a preference for just having stability in choosing a Champion from year to year.

The image says it all.

The image says it all.

When the most dramatic Chase changes were introduced in 2014, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France expressed his desire for more “Game 7” moments to decide the Sprint Cup Champion, not being satisfied with the prior format of a 26-race “regular season” and 10-race Chase that previously tallied points over the final 10 Chase races in determining a Champion (without elimination rounds).

As the final laps of the Dover elimination race wound down, Jeff Gluck (the esteemed motorsports writer for USA Today), tweeted the following “Even if you think the Chase is an artificial form of entertainment, I have a hard time thinking you don’t find this exciting.”

What followed was a substantial outpouring of responses in the Twitterverse, where I conservatively estimate that over 80% of the replies from fans covered negative reactions. A smattering of replies expressing displeasure or sarcasm were comparable to those comments below:

  • “This Chase format is artificial, manipulated and ridiculous. May as well add bonus points for jumping through hoops of fire”
  • “Maybe so, but to me excitement shouldn’t trump credibility when it comes to who you call Champion”
  • “Yes, watching cars parade around a second apart from one another is amazing
  • “Well, it is exciting, but it’s an injustice to crown a season champion in such a way”

The conundrum is that we, the fans, are being shortchanged with all points talk and no actual race talk.

Most troubling is that numerous enthusiasts have now ended up investing more time examining where Chase drivers stand in the running order, focusing on the point tallies rather than the actual race. Perhaps that is NASCAR’s goal, so that the actual quality of the race goes unnoticed. We get drama, entertainment, and shock value, similar to much of today’s reality TV.

The only problem is that the shock to the system may be too great for the patient to take. On the final restart of the race, the very real possibility existed that Harvick (had he finished second rather than first), Jimmie Johnson (already mathematically eliminated), and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (who just squeaked by Jamie McMurray for the one desperate position) would all have been eliminated in first round.

The potential for multiple eliminations of the sport’s biggest stars would have been a bombshell that likely would have sent NASCAR back to the drawing board to reinvent the Chase system yet again, as viewership would surely have fallen off over the remaining seven races.

Moreover, great performances by non-Chase drivers were completely overrun by the points tracker mentality. A stellar run by Aric Almirola, in the Richard Petty Motorsports #43 Ford, was totally ignored by NBC. Almirola finished 5th, but being a non-Chaser, that did not even merit a post-race interview.

Given its continuous tweaking by NASCAR, it’s hard to develop an effective solution, given the Chase playoff is here to stay. But, at some point, the unpredictability of this Chase playoff format will likely come back to haunt NASCAR. The current Chase format is now demonstrating that a driver can be penalized more for one bad race at the wrong time of year, as compared to the benefit of being a podium-consistent driver over the course of the Chase. Most Chase drivers typically are running in the top half of the field, so a mechanical issue that sends a driver to the garage in an elimination race creates an insurmountable deficit with 42 other cars in the field.

Perhaps the Chasers should instead be scored within their own group of 16 qualifiers. The Chase would still have elimination rounds, but an alternative would be to rank order each driver’s finish in each race from 1-16 (in essence “ignoring” the non-Chasers from a scoring perspective) and do the same in each successive elimination round. The analog is that this rank-order approach is already how the current Chase format determines the Champion among the four remaining drivers in the final race of the year, so it could be extended to earlier elimination rounds. Of course, this proposed approach might have its own challenges in explaining to fans, and would likely need to be “scenario-tested” to determine whether a more credible outcome is achieved.

The Chase playoffs were intended to make drivers push harder to win and inject more drama for fans. Yet, unforgettable last lap passes and three-wide racing cannot simply be invented by trying harder, as many drivers are already giving 100% on the track. Rejiggering the Chase Championship format to artificially create Game 7 moments subjects NASCAR to long-term credibility issues in determining its Champion. Whether this new-found reality show with the intense pressure to stave off elimination brings back eyeballs or not remains to be seen, but the level of risk taking has surely stepped up under the second year of this Chase format.

By Ron Bottano. Follow me on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

NASCAR: The Chase Will Only Get Crazier After Chicagoland

Emotions grow to extreme levels with the pressure of the Chase looming.

Emotions grow to extreme levels with the pressure of the Chase looming.

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship got off to a wacky start at Chicagoland Speedway, where Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin came back from an early spin on lap 2, and subsequently going a lap down, to end up winning the race on a final restart with five laps to go. If the regular season was lacking in intensity, the first Race of the Chase was filled with unique storylines. Now heading to New Hampshire with nine races remaining, five crucial takeaways will continue to impact the action both on and off the track.

1) Restarts will be the key to victory (or defeat) in the Chase

Under the current aero package, track position means everything. As a result, drivers will seek out every advantage during the double file restarts after a caution flag has flown. At Chicagoland, with only six race cautions, three restarts stood out as the most dramatic moments of MyAFibRisk.com 400:

  • On a mid-race restart, Jimmie Johnson got shoved from behind by Joey Logano and ended up in no-man’s land on the non-banked apron, stuck in a three-wide situation with the leader Kevin Harvick. As Johnson slid up the race track, contact with Harvick ended up cutting his tire, resulting in Harvick’s #4 Chevy SS hitting the wall and finishing 42nd. As a result, the 2014 Sprint Cup Champion finds himself in a must-win situation in the next two upcoming races in order to advance to the Contender round
  • On the lap 145 restart, Jeff Gordon took the lead from Kyle Busch under a controversial restart. Both Gordon and Busch played mind games with each other on the restart, with Busch slowing down approaching the restart zone, while Gordon appeared to speed up. NASCAR reviewed, found no violation, and provided no further explanation, leaving a lot of wiggle room that will continue over the remaining nine races
  • The final restart with five laps to go shuffled up much of the field, with both Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon starting on the front row but choosing to not come in for fresh rubber. Gordon appeared to spin the tires and bobble on the restart, dropping anchor all the way back to 14th, while Kurt Busch ended up finishing 3rd and was disappointed with NASCAR’s decision to throw the final caution for debris. Conversely, Denny Hamlin was able to execute his “spin and win” victory on the final restart by getting out front early
    Hamlin masterfully got the jump on the final Chicagoland restart. They will be crucial.

    Hamlin masterfully got the jump on the final Chicagoland restart. They will be crucial.

Make no mistake, the restart rules will continue to have a big influence on the Championship, particularly given the ambiguous interpretation by the NASCAR officials. And if you desire chaos, look out if NASCAR chooses to “black flag” a Chase driver for jumping a restart. After the race, Jeff Gordon expressed his frustration that “the whole thing is just a mess because the (restart) box is just too small.”

2) Regardless of the on-track action, mainstream media will glamorize the feuds

When Johnson approached Harvick in the motorcoach lot after the race to share his take regarding the on-track contact, Harvick was having none of it, almost immediately striking Johnson in the chest and the two had to be separated. Only one race into the Chase, and the mainstream media is already toting this “punch” as a lights-out brawl. Fox News described the encounter as a violent attack (http://tinyurl.com/p2bvyap), while neglecting the proper spelling of Johnson’s first name. The vise-grip pressure of the Chase will continue to tighten moving forward, and all the contenders will be circling the fishbowl as the media watches intently. We saw similar behavior last year with Harvick, who blamed Matt Kenseth for wrecking him at Bristol and vowed that Kenseth would not win the Championship after taking him out. Don’t be surprised to see NBC use the highlight clips from the Harvick/Johnson feud as key promos for the upcoming Chase rounds.

3) Despite the premium for race victories, point consistency will remain critical for advancement

Only one race into the Chase, and Ryan Newman is running his points playbook to perfection that ensured his advancement last year to the Championship final at Homestead. The outcry from NASCAR Nation if the sport ends up with a winless Champion would be deafening, likely sending NASCAR back to the drawing board to redesign the Chase playoff system. Yet Newman, who managed to run most of the Chicagoland race in stealth mode (an average running position of 10th while leading no laps), took advantage of the final restart to finish 4th and is now solidly positioned 8th in the points for probable advancement to the next round.

In regular season everybody's a friend. After the knockout scenario starts....not so much.

In regular season everybody’s a friend. After the knockout scenario starts….not so much.

4) The Chase Challengers will take no prisoners

With everything at stake in each Chase race, the drivers will have no friends and memories are short. Last year, Harvick won his first Championship, and acknowledged that one of his closest mentors in that title hunt was the six-time Champion, Jimmie Johnson. The two have a long friendship going back to their California roots, with their NASCAR racing careers intersecting early on in Charlotte as house guests of Ron Hornaday, the four-time Truck series Champion.

After the race, Johnson, rather than taking to Twitter, chose to seek out Harvick for a private discussion regarding what happened on the track, beyond the reach of media microphones. Given Harvick had earlier sat on pit road for 51 laps while his car was being repaired, he clearly had the opportunity to calm down and review the replay of the racing incident. Instead, Harvick gave Johnson no “benefit of the doubt”, showing no willingness to hear out the six-time Champion.

5) NBC’s Perfect Grid payday of $16 million is likely safe for another year

Harvick, who statistically was the best driver this season with the most laps led and odds-on Vegas favorite to make the Championship final, may end up being eliminated in the first round. No telling how many Chase fantasy grids likely had Harvick at least moving past the first round, given some of the weaker teams. Already 22 points behind the 12th place driver cut-off, Harvick is now on the brink of elimination unless he wins one of the next two races.

The potential shock of a leading driver being upset echoes the adage that anything can and will happen in racing. With the reigning 2014 Champion on the ropes, the only certainty is that we will surely encounter more driver surprises under NASCAR’s unique playoff system. I, for one, know that I did not anticipate that in filling out my fantasy grid.

By Ron Bottano. Follow on Twitter: @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

NASCAR: Don’t Expect Joe Gibbs Racing To Chase Off With the Cup

Based on the calculations laid out in this article, 'Little E' has a shot.

Based on the calculations laid out in this article, ‘Little E’ has a shot.

With the NASCAR regular season now concluded, the Chase playoffs are upon us with 16 drivers set to battle for the Sprint Cup Championship. As anticipated, except for a quick push by Aric Amirola to break into the sweet 16 during the final laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400, the Richmond race lacked in suspense, being dominated by a single driver who led the majority of laps, just like the earlier April race.

So, with NBC Sports offering a $16 million bounty for a perfect Chase grid, along with Draft Kings’ promotion of weekly plays, which drivers will steer into the final Championship 4 round at Homestead Miami Speedway in November?

Right now, pundits point to Joe Gibbs Racing, which served up a statement race at Richmond. Symbolic of JGR’s dominance was the Lap 126 Richmond restart, where teammates Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Carl Edwards pulled away like LMP Prototypes separating from the GTLM field at LeMans. JGR has now won eight of the last eleven Sprint Cup races.

The Chase playoff, however, is a different animal altogether. While NASCAR has again ramped up a “communication strategy” to explain it, the Chase playoff boils down to three playoff rounds comprised of three races each (nine total), with four drivers eliminated in each round, with the final remaining four drivers competing in a one round “Super Bowl” Championship race at Homestead.

Additionally, the ten Chase races are overweighted towards the larger 1.5 mile speedways that tend to be more aero dependent, where JGR’s dominance was not in evidence earlier this year. With the kickoff race set for Chicagoland this weekend, the full 2015 aero rules package will be back in effect on 1.5 mile ovals for the first time since May. Perhaps the Hendrick Motorsports camp has been in stealth mode working under DARPA-like conditions, knowing that the key to winning the title would be success with the 2015 rules package on such speedways.

NEVER count out Kyle Busch and JGR.

NEVER count out Kyle Busch and JGR.

So, which drivers are likely to survive through the various rounds of Chase elimination? In business school, my Finance professor always stressed “seeking the Alpha”; screening for those stocks that deliver the most consistent returns with the least amount of volatility. Applying similar theory to the Chase playoff, where one bad race can ensure a team’s elimination, requires testing one basic principle:

Which drivers have delivered superior, yet consistent finishes over rolling three race segments during the regular season (mirroring the three race Chase elimination format)? 

At the top, five drivers rise above the remaining eleven, with a high probability that at least three of these five will make the Championship 4 finale:

  1. Kevin Harvick – no surprise here, having amassed fifteen top 3 finishes so far this season. That’s about as consistent as it gets
  2. Joey Logano – again, his consistent results are second only to Harvick, and actually slightly better than Harvick during the second half of the regular season
  3. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – few experts are picking him to make the Championship 4 round, yet he has been Hendrick’s most consistent driver this year, finishing the regular season third in points. His average finish of 6.1 on the 1.5 mile ovals that predominate in the Chase, combined with his restrictor plate prowess at Talladega, make him a compelling choice
  4. Brad Keselowski – solid but not spectacular this year, Keselowski is a proven Champion that is hungry to win another title and cement his legacy
  5. Kyle Busch – lacking a full season of results, the JGR driver has been on fire since his return, and shows no signs of letting up. Busch can wheel a car anywhere, and already demonstrated the consistency needed to qualify for the Chase in spite of missing almost 40% of the regular season

Conversely, in the initial Challenger elimination round, there is real pain to be had, based on the cards that have been shown so far by the teams. Looking at their three-race season averages, four drivers are at the bottom, having simply not demonstrated the needed consistency to advance in this year’s Chase:

  • Paul Menard – welcome to your first Chase, Paul, but your stay will be short
  • Jeff Gordon – something has just been off for the #24 team this year, having never got a handle on the rules package. Unless Alan Gustafson can figure it out quickly, Gordon and his crew chief will likely need to play the strategy card with some mid-race gambles if he is to advance beyond the first round
  • Clint Bowyer – relieved just to make the Chase, the pressure may now be off, but with Michael Waltrip Racing shutting its doors at the end of the season, Bowyer and team are likely looking for their next gig
  • Carl Edwards – an enigma, Edwards has shown streaks of success but lacks consistency; in the four car JGR stable, he is still the new kid on the block

So, quickly, who is the most consistent, stable Chase driver that we have not yet mentioned? For the second season in a row, Ryan Newman, a Chase qualifier in the middle of the pack, delivers highly stable, albeit not spectacular finishes typically in the low teens. The #31 team has this strategy down pat, such that we now can coin his performance as “Newmaning” the field. He and his crew chief, Luke Lambert, typically do not gamble on race strategy, thereby bringing home solid, repeatable finishes. That strategy worked last year to get him into the Championship round, and don’t be surprised if Newman’s consistency takes him deep into the Chase again.

There is no debate that this has been “the summer of JGR” for NASCAR, particularly with Kyle Busch’s storming return to the track. However, as my colleague Michele Rahal called out in his commentary this week, auto racing is inherently unpredictable and anything that can happen usually does, particularly in light of the Chase elimination format. Last season, the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut was expected to dominate the Chase.

Instead, we indulged in a Championship finale at Homestead that didn’t include a single Hendrick driver and went down to the final lap. So sit back, enjoy, as the Battle of Nations is upon us, and hopefully we will once again get the “Game 7” moments that NASCAR intended under this revised Chase playoff system.

By Ron Bottano. Follow on Twitter: @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

Kyle Busch Will Clinch Chase Berth At The Glen

JD Gibbs of JGR

JD Gibbs of JGR

Barring any crashes, or mechanical failures, Kyle Busch will earn a chase berth this weekend at the Watkins Glen Cheez-It 355.

Yes it’s a road race, which have become tantamount to a short track Saturday night brawl. Anything could happen, but Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing are ready to clinch their spot with the Toyota M&M’s team.

What that means is staying as far out of trouble as possible, running as clean a race as possible and delivering a car that Kyle Busch can feel comfortable in driving. That, in and of itself is no stretch, this isn’t their first road racing rodeo.

Kyle Busch is a no-nonsense hard charging wheelman that is no stranger to victory lane in road races having won at Sonoma and repeatedly challenging at Watkins Glen.

He’s being referred to as a ‘Wild Card’ by mainstream media sports writers to whom NASCAR is usually an afterthought. This just isn’t the case.

Technically, a wildcard is defined by the Urban Dictionary as: “A person who is generally unpredictable and has no defined role in a group of friends, and their often reckless and wacky behavior can either benefit or hurt the group depending on the situation.”

What has Toyota found in their engines giving them an advantage?

What has Toyota found in their engines giving them an advantage?

Kyle Busch, unpredictable? He has been at times. Whacky, at times and it can’t defended. But reckless, not really, he’s fast he has unmatched car control and he can road race. Hence the definition of ‘WildCard’ may fit to those who don’t like him, but the term doesn’t fit Busch’s determination or skill level. Kyle Busch will lock himself into the Chase this weekend.

The biggest caveat is he gets taken out early by someone else or somehow loses sight of the fact that he needs to lock in this weekend, not win the race.

It can be argued, and should be, that driving to win is the surest way to make the playoff, however the unpredictability of a road race, not Busch, is the real ‘Wildcard’ is it’s a road race.

Now comes the subject of Toyota’s new found engine energy. I say energy as it seems that since Indianapolis and Kentucky the Toyota’s have found more than just horsepower. They have found power in the entire power-band, not just top speed.

That alone is an advantage at any road race. Having torque upon corner exit is a beautiful thing for a road racing driver. Being able to utilize the power of an engine throughout it’s power range is what is necessary to go from high speed down to slow corners and then utilizing that horsepower coming out onto a straight.

sThis is where passes are made and smoothness counts.

The Toyota’s have found something and it’s working. This plays to Kyle Busch’s strengths. He’s now able to utilize everything the Toyota has to offer and Watkins Glen is exactly one of those tracks where this should be a winning combination.

A ridiculously fast driver, a well grounded and strategic team and useable horsepower throughout the power-band.

What could possibly go wrong, it’s only a road race.

 

 

Busch In The Hunt As Talladega Looms Next In Chase

Kyle Busch has had nothing but top-10 finishes so far in the Chase. As a result, he's moved up to second place in the point standings.

Kyle Busch has had nothing but top-10 finishes so far in the Chase. As a result, he’s moved up to second place in the point standings.

If Joey Logano, the points leader as the Chase for the Sprint Cup moves into the final race of the Contender Round at Talladega, happens to hear someone breathing down his neck, well, it’s Kyle Busch.

Logano, who drives for Team Penske, has been sensational in the Chase. He’s won twice and finished fourth three times in the five races held so far. His latest victory, at Kansas, moved him comfortably into the Eliminator Round.

But as good as Logano has been, Busch, who races for Joe Gibbs Racing, is nearly his equal.

Busch is second in points and he is only six behind Logano – a difference that can easily be made up in a single race.

In the Chase, Busch has not finished out of the top 10. His lowest finish has been 10th at Dover but in the last two weeks he’s taken third at Kansas and fifth at Charlotte.

Busch was ranked eighth in points with one victory when the Chase began. He’s gained six spots in five races.

Obviously, Busch likes the way things are going.

“It certainly feels good that we’re heading in the right direction at the right time of the year,” he said. “It’s all about peaking at the right time. Hopefully we haven’t peaked yet, and we still have a way to climb. I feel like we do, anyways.

“We haven’t won in the Chase. There’s opportunity there.

“Again, it’s just trying to get ourselves smarter each and every week about making the right decisions and unloading with the right setups in these cars.

Joey Logano, shown here leading Busch, is No. 1 in the standings but Busch is only six points behind after five Chase races.

Joey Logano, shown here leading Busch, is No. 1 in the standings but Busch is only six points behind after five Chase races.

Busch suggested that although he and his team are running well, they would have to be as good – or better – than several others if they hope to ultimately challenge for a championship.

“We certainly have been fighting really hard at Joe Gibbs Racing to get ourselves up to running with the level of competition that we’ve been seeing from our competitors,” Busch said. “Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have really been the cars to beat this year.

“Looking at those four, you automatically punch those four all the way through to the end and those are the guys who are going to be racing for the championship.”

Right now, one would think that Busch might just be racing for the championship also. He and his team have displayed the caliber of performance it takes.

Busch, however, thinks more can be done.

“All the pieces are coming together and they’re all coming together at the right time, as I said,” Busch said. “You can do great things.

“For us, hopefully, there’s still a continuation of that here in the next five weeks. We’ll have to have it.”

The next race of the Contender Round is at Talladega, unquestionably the most challenging track in NASCAR. High speeds in the draft and very close-quarters racing – lap after lap – create a situation where a single mistake can create a massive accident.

And who knows who will be involved?

“Being a winner at Talladega doesn’t matter at all,” Busch said. “It’s such a crapshoot that you never really know who is going to win, what’s going to happen, and where the wreck is going to come from.

“The key there is to somehow stay out of trouble.

“If you can be a contender and stay in line on the bottom, you can make it a pretty easy and safe race.

“Normally, guys are not content doing that, so that’s when it starts to get crazy.”

 

 

Most Chase Leaders Qualify Well, But Race Is Different Matter

Jeff Gordon won the pole for the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte. It was his second pole of the season.

CONCORD, N.C. – As a rule, qualifying results seldom indicate which driver will win a race.

To be honest, practice sessions usually lend more evidence of driver strength – but they don’t guarantee anything, either.

Nevertheless, when a driver wins the pole or even qualifies well, not only does it provide a sense of accomplishment and confidence, it also suggests to many the driver will be one to watch during the race.

Let’s face it, after qualifying any driver would prefer to be at the front of the field than at the rear – especially if that driver is in contention for a championship.

The Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is the fifth race in the 10-event Chase for the Sprint Cup.

As it stands at the halfway point of the Chase, five drivers realistically have a shot at the championship. Three of them qualified in the top five, one made it into the top 10 and another barely cracked the top 20.

Jeff Gordon, fourth in points, won the pole. It was his second of the season, ninth at CMS and 74th of his career. He’s 32 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

He’s in good company. Kevin Harvick qualified second and at least gave himself a good start toward his second consecutive victory of the season. He won six days ago at Kansas.

Harvick ranks third in points, 25 behind Kenseth.

Kevin Harvick won at Kansas last week and his second-place qualifying run at CMS may increase his chances for a sweep.

Then there’s Jimmie Johnson. The five-time champion qualified fourth and, like the others, has given himself at least a good head start toward overtaking Kenseth, whom he trails by a mere three points.

Kyle Busch, fifth and 35 points behind Kenseth, will have to work a bit harder than the others to get to the front of the pack after he qualified ninth.

And then there’s Kenseth. The points leader qualified what was surely a disappointing 20th. Again, it must be said that where a driver starts by no means indicates where he’ll finish.

Kenseth, however, clearly has some work to do.

“We just weren’t very good,” said Kenseth, who has won seven races in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing. “We got out first in qualifying but I don’t think the draw meant a thing. It was cloudy all day.”

Kenseth clearly understood his dilemma. He’s going to have to race his way to a decent finish.

“At Dover our performance was pretty good, but then we slipped a little bit and Kansas was off,” he said. “To have a legitimate shot at winning this thing you have to be in the top-three or top-five, I think.

“You have to be in that group. And I hope our car is good enough to get us there Saturday.”

Kenseth has been first in points over the last five races and during that time, Johnson as steadily gained on him. He is a six-time CMS winner but hasn’t won since 2009 and has finished out of the top 20 four times.

“It’s a little different now than it was five or six years ago,” Johnson said. “That was when they resurfaced the track. So we’re still trying to find that magic we lost.

“I still feel we’re in that top-three or top-five group week-in and week-out. As long as Matt isn’t winning then a top three or five wouldn’t be too bad this weekend.”

A top-three or top-five wouldn’t be bad for Harvick, either. In fact, it would probably intensify his quest for a championship in his last season with Richard Childress Racing.

“Winning the pole at the race at Kansas and qualifying well here gives us a lot of confidence,” Harvick said. “That’s confidence in the things that we can do and need to do in order to keep ourselves in position to race for this championship.

“We’ve got a good shot here and we need to take advantage of it. As the schedule goes toward the end of the year the race tracks get better for us.

“And we can move right on down the line.”

Gordon, four times a champion, is winless this season yet he remains a title contender. In other words, his “Drive for Five” is indeed alive.

“It’s been a while since we’ve won a pole at Charlotte as well as doing it in the good fashion we did,” said Gordon, who has finished sixth or better in three of the last four races. “We needed to have a strong qualifying effort. That hasn’t happened a lot this year.

“A lot can happen but qualifying well, starting at the front and having a good pit stall makes for a good start to the race and a good start to the weekend.”

Gordon effectively summed up the value of a good qualifying run, even though it does not assure victory.

Let’s face it, every driver in the garage area would agree with Gordon – without hesitation.

 

 

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.

Johnson May Have Favorite Status, But Try Telling The Rest

Jimmie Johnson, by virtue of his 5 championships, is the odds on favorite. On the other hand, none of the other contenders such as Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards are buying into it. This is the most uneasy Chase yet.

Richmond: Thoughts On Busch, Montoya, Newman And A Bit More

A few random thoughts after the Crown Royal 400 at Richmond International Raceway:

** The 2011 Sprint Cup season is one-quarter over and, while it’s still too early to draw any real conclusions, some drivers whom we thought would be in the championship hunt, and aren’t, now have more pressure on them.

Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray are some of the drivers who figured to rank among the top 10 by now, and thus Chase eligible, in many pre-season reports.

However, at present, Biffle ranks 14th in points and the others are 17th and beyond. It’s especially surprising to see Hamlin at 17th, given that he was considered the man who could potentially bring Jimmie Johnson’s string of five consecutive championships to an end.

A couple of tasks face these drivers. First, they have to start piling up decent finishes, and somewhat quickly. That, obviously, could lead to a rise in the point standings.

It can be done. Clint Bowyer provides ample proof of that. At Richmond, where he finished sixth, the Richard Childress Racing driver posted his fifth consecutive top-10 of the season. He has gained 17 positions in points in the last five races. He’s presently seventh in the standings.

But, while it can be done, what Bowyer has achieved isn’t routine in NASCAR. It’s the exception, not the rule.

Consequently, the aforementioned drivers, who will certainly do their utmost to match or better what Bowyer has done, can’t rely it alone.

That brings up an alternate strategy – which is to win.

With its revamped requirements for the Chase this year, the top 10 in points are eligible after 26 races. Also in the field are “wildcard” entries consisting of the two drivers ranked among the top 20 who have won the most races.

So if the mentioned drivers, not all of whom currently rank in the top 20, by the way, and several others not in the top 10 can win a race, that adds a measure of insurance.

Jeff Gordon, who is 16th in points, is the only driver outside the top 10 in points who has a victory (yes, Trevor Bayne is another but he is not eligible for the Cup championship). So at the moment, Gordon has an advantage.

Several others would, at the least, like to match it.

But if putting together a series of high finishes is an exception and not the norm in NASCAR, what do you think winning is?

As said, it’s early in the year and there’s time for any number of scenarios to play out.

What could prove to be a very exciting one for fans is for a few drivers, desperate to make the Chase as its start looms, throw strategy and caution to the wind and make an all-out lunge for victory.

It could happen. No, make that it will happen.

 

** Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch demands respect as a race driver.

His Richmond victory was the 21st of his young Cup career. He ranks third in NASCAR to achieve that many wins by the age of 26, behind Jeff Gordon (26) and Richard Petty (22).

That Busch won should not have been all that surprising. He now has won Richmond’s spring race three consecutive times, which ties him with Petty. Hamlin has won the other two races at RIR in the last three years, which gives Joe Gibbs Racing five straight victories at the 0.75-mile track – and eight overall.

Hamlin, incidentally, was the runnerup in the Crown Royal 400 and he dominated the Nationwide Series race on the previous night.

It’s not likely that Busch will ever be NASCAR’s most popular driver – but you never know. Wiseguy Darrell Waltrip was once, like Busch, called a jerk. But he was the fans’ choice twice in his career.

You don’t have to like Busch. But I think his talent should always be recognized, even if grudgingly.

** The incidents between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman were not atypical of short-track racing.

First, Newman rubbed Montoya and sent him into the wall. Then, later in the race, Montoya did the same thing. Happens all the time.

The only difference was that while few chose to call Newman’s actions deliberate, there was little doubt about Montoya’s.

NASCAR warned both drivers about bad behavior and even told Montoya that if he got near Newman, his car would be ordered to its hauler.

Many media members felt the issue would spill over into the garage area, especially since the haulers of Montoya and Newman were parked almost alongside each other.

After the race there could be some good chin-to-chin action – or more. Hey, it’s happened.

Instead Montoya left the track without comment – a good move on his part. Newman went to the NASCAR hauler. He told the media he was going to ask the sanctioning body what it was going to do about all that happened.

In my opinion, that was another good move. If he did what he said he was going to do, Newman effectively put the ball into NASCAR’s court; for it to tell him, and all of us, how it is going to rule on the issue.

Had Newman and Montoya gotten into a scrap in the garage, NASCAR would have come down hard on both of them.

Had their entanglements on the track involved other cars, believe me, NASCAR would have acted swiftly.

As it is, it appears Newman stated his case to NASCAR and asked for a ruling. Smart move.

What will NASCAR do? If it hands out any punishment beyond probation I’d be surprised.

But NASCAR has surprised me many times.

 

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