Top Teams Hold Top Spots But Hendrick Motorsports Surges

Jimmie Johnson was one of four Hendrick Motorsports drivers to finish among the top six at Kentucky, which emphasized the fact that he is well in contention to win a sixth championship.

The current driver standings in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings are indicative of what is true about today’s competitive environment.

To wit, NASCAR’s “super teams,” those multicar operations that manage to acquire the abundant resources needed to succeed, entirely occupy the top 10.

Some have multiple positions. Some, perhaps, have performed above expectations while others have not. But they are all there.

Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Penske Racing all have drivers in the top 10.

Other multicar teams like Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports are absent from the rankings.

But then they have operated at a lower level and their results have shown that – at least to date.

At Kentucky, many of the drivers who rank in the top 10 displayed why they are there.

Roush’s Matt Kenseth again displayed his strategic style, in which he sometimes seems to “prey” rather than charge to the front, was there at the finish and earned seventh place.

It was his 12th top-10 finish in 17 races and it allowed him to keep his grip on No. 1 in the standings – which he has held for five weeks now.

Gibbs’ Denny Hamlin could not run as hard as he would have liked over the final laps in order to save fuel. He did so to finish third at Kentucky and is entrenched in fifth place in the standings. He’s the only Gibbs driver among the top 10.

He thought his Kentucky outing could – should -have been better.

“I ran the least hard as I could all run,” Hamlin said of the closing laps. “I had to save fuel. I could have run harder, really, the whole run and try to give Brad Keselowski a run for his money, but I needed a good finish coming off two straight DNFs.”

In other words, Hamlin did what he had to do and thus held his spot in the standings.

MWR’s Martin Truex Jr. hasn’t won a race this year but his consistency has rewarded him with eighth place in the standings, one spot behind teammate Clint Bowyer.

Truex Jr. finished eighth at Kentucky, his ninth top-10 run of the year. Given that his car did not drive particularly well, he took it.

“It’s tough,” Truex Jr. said. “We weren’t very good all night. We had a good finish – I guess. It pushed like hell all night and they could never fix it.

“But we came out of here still in the top 10 and that’s where we need to be.”

Indeed as one of only two drivers in the top 10 without a win – RCR’s Kevin Harvick, at No. 6, is the other – Truex Jr. has to think points, because he does not have the “wildcard” insurance victory offers.

Hendrick's Jeff Gordon still has yet to win, which he must do to have any hope of making the Chase this year. However, his recent good, competitive outings have increased his confidence and momentum.

At Kentucky, these drivers served as examples of what they have often done to help put their teams in the top 10.

Kentucky also offered examples of top-tier drivers who didn’t, or couldn’t, sustain good runs – but slips in one race haven’t booted them from the top 10, yet.

There were two other noteworthy accomplishments at Kentucky, one of which has virtually assured a driver a spot in the Chase.
The other, which involved four drivers, showed why two of them are among the top 10 and the other two may have gained, or maintained, enough momentum to ultimately beat the odds and make the Chase.

When Brad Keselowski won the Quaker State 400, it meant two things: The Penske driver held on to his tenuous No. 10 standing in points.

But, more important, it was his season-leading third victory of the season which, given wins are critical to “wildcard” entry, means he almost certainly will be a championship contender.

There is one other thing: Keselowski’s victory indicated strongly he is ready to move to true NASCAR stardom.

Hendrick Motorsports took four of the top six positions at Kentucky. Kasey Kahne battled back from a loose wheel to finish second, a solid rebound from his previous three weeks during which he could finish no higher than 14

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fourth-place finish was his 13 of what he calls his “best season ever.” He is second in points, has a victory at Michigan that broke a 143-race losing streak and is poised to contend for his first-ever title.

“I’m just proud of the team,” he said. “I hope we can keep it up. I’d like to win another race.”

That he won just two races ago means little to Earnhardt Jr. The time for the next win is now.

“I ain’t going to be as patient this time,” he said.

Jeff Gordon, mired in a season that has seen him suffer team miscues and mechanical maladies, finished fifth. In three races he has now finished fifth and sixth twice.

Jimmie Johnson, the Hendrick driver who won an unprecedented five consecutive championships, finished sixth.

Like Earnhardt Jr., Johnson has 13 top-10 finishes for the season but two victories.

There seems to be little doubt Johnson will be challenging for his sixth title.

Presently, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson are the only Hendrick drivers who should make the Chase without difficulty.

It won’t be the same for Kahne. He’s 14 in points but his one victory – earned at Charlotte – has made him he No. 2 “wildcard” candidate.

“Yeah, a top-five here is good but it’s not going to get us into the Chase,” Kahne said after Kentucky. “We need to win another race or two.”

“But to see how great the Hendrick cars are now and to be a part of that, well, it’s just great.

“All of the guys should be happy. They’ve prepared us some nice cars and great engines.”

Gordon, back in 18 place, has no choice but to win if he’s going to make the Chase. He knows this.

But he also knows his last three outings in his Hendrick cars have helped with confidence and momentum.

“This team has been awesome,” Gordon said of Hendrick. “The cars have definitely shown that. We’re getting the results. We can add some momentum to that.”

Overall in Kentucky we saw some drivers do what they have done all season to be among the top 10.

We saw one driver stake his claim to stardom.

We saw a team, Hendrick Motorsports, illustrate why it is perennially ranked as perhaps NASCAR’s best – and why it clearly should have strong momentum going into Daytona.

Despite Great Competition, NASCAR Must Still Deal With An Ongoing Problem

 Menard

Paul Menard's victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, after which he and his team got to "kiss the bricks," was one of the unexpected moments of 2011 that led it to become one of the most competitive, and historical, seasons in NASCAR's history. Menard was one of five first-time winners in the past season.

The sport of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing faces a familiar problem in 2012, one that has bedeviled it for the last three years.

However, that problem is certainly not the quality of its competition. For once NASCAR didn’t have to come up with obscure facts and figures to tout itself as the most competitive form of motorsports in this country – which, incidentally, is a claim it has made repeatedly over the years.

In 2011, there can be little argument that it was, indeed. And no one has to search high and low for statistics to prove it.

Now, I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating. Not only was the past season highly competitive, it was also, in many ways, historical.

All it takes to understand that is a quick look at what happened and who made it happen.

There were 18 different winners in Cup racing, which matched those in 2002 and fell just one short of the record of 19 set in 2001.

Five of those winners won for the first time in their careers, and, to make this unprecedented, four of those winners were victorious in four of the circuit’s most prestigious races at three of its most prominent speedways.

Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500. Regan Smith won the Southern 500. David Ragan won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400.

Not one of these drivers was considered a victory candidate in any of these races – if, indeed, in any other.

That these relatively unheralded drivers won as they did for the first time – and all in one season – has never been done before in NASCAR.

And Marcos Ambrose became the fifth first-time winner when he was victorious on the road course at Watkins Glen.

It was routinely believed that if Australian Ambrose won in NASCAR it would be on a road course. That he did so was no surprise.

That may be, but judging from response, his victory enhanced NASCAR’s international appeal – at least in one part of the world. Ambrose is a hero in his native country.

The battle for the championship was like no other in NASCAR’s history.

It came down to a two-man war between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart that wasn’t settled until after the final race of the season at Homestead.

Stewart won that race while Edwards finished second, yet another in a series of Chase races in which the two finished within a single position of each other.

The result was the first tie in points ever in NASCAR. Each had 2,403 points.

Stewart won with the tiebreaker – the most wins in a season. He had five, Edwards one.

But the championship drama goes beyond that. It wasn’t simply because Stewart won it in historically close fashion, it was also how he did so.

He started the 10-race Chase ninth in points without a single victory to his credit.

But once the “playoff” began Stewart surged like a tsunami. He won five races, rose quickly to No. 1 in points and, with four wins under his belt, was second when Homestead began, just three points in arrears to a remarkably consistent Edwards.

That set up the dramatic finish.

Stewart has to receive credit for one of the most impressive, come-from-behind runs for a title in NASCAR’s history.

Any decent statistician could put up some other numbers that would support the excellent competitiveness of the 2011 season – laps lead, most lead changes, cars running at the finish and such.

But I don’t believe they are needed. What has been presented here – and, I admit, earlier – should offer solid proof that NASCAR is in no way suffering when it comes to the quality of its competition.

Fact is, it’s thriving.

But, when it comes to being a business and not a sport, NASCAR and its teams are not thriving.

In 2008 this country, and the world, plunged into an economic disaster.

Stocks plummeted, banks failed, businesses folded, homes went into foreclosure and jobs were lost a thousand fold.

Nothing escaped, not even NASCAR. At the end of the 2008 season team members were laid off in droves. Other organizations folded. Sponsors, who suffered a loss of profits, pulled the plug on their NASCAR participation.

Sponsorship suddenly became a gift, not a given. Teams used to single-entity deals that brought in $20 million or more began to beg for limited schedule deals at reduced prices.

For those teams fortunate enough to have it, financial backing was acquired through multiple companies providing full support for 10-12 races here, 4-6 there and maybe even one or two.

And I think it is obvious that speedways suffered as well. Where they once were able to sell tickets with little difficulty, they now had to use creative public relations and marketing strategies to lure cash-strapped fans to come to their races.

It wasn’t easy. Empty grandstand seats prevailed.

I was one of many who said then that the economy was NASCAR’s biggest challenge. It remains so.

The economic malaise has not gone away. It hasn’t for the country and it hasn’t for NASCAR.

We already know of two teams that have ceased operations, both of them part of high-profile operations. Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing no longer have four teams, they have three. A lack of sponsorship has caused that.

And the Roush team that features past champion driver Matt Kenseth is still searching for financial backing – as are several other organizations at one level or another.

Red Bull Racing, and its two-car operation, folded. I’ll be honest. The economy might have had something to do with that but I suspect politics might have played a larger role.

Regardless, after 2011, think of the number of racing jobs that have been lost – again.

At present NASCAR does not have as many well-funded, full-time teams now as it did at the start of 2011.

Its speedways still have to find the means to get folks to part with their dollars. After all, the joblessness rate is still high, companies continue layoffs or job elimination (including among the motorsports media), real estate values remain low and gasoline prices are volatile, among many other things.

The problems NASCAR faced after 2008 are still its major concerns as 2012 approaches.

But it is clear that, at least for one season, competition is at an all-time high. That is something that can potentially lures fans, encourage needed media attention and honestly establish NASCAR as something it has always claimed to be – the best in this country.

If what we saw in 2011 is matched, or approached, by what happens in 2012, that can only be good for NASCAR and its continuing challenge to sell itself, and its teams, to the public and corporate America amid a still struggling economy.

If Evidence Is Anything, Edwards Earns Title Sooner Than Later

Edwards

Carl Edwards did all he could to win his first career Cup championship in 2011. He was the points leader for most of the Chase, but in the last race of the year he gave way to Tony Stewart, who won five times in the last 10 races. Edwards has learned from the experience and should again be a title contender.

If most of the media picked up on the vibes Carl Edwards emitted during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas, which I think they did, they got the sense that the Roush Fenway Racing driver enjoyed himself.

But he also clearly felt the disappointment of losing the Sprint Cup championship by the closest margin in NASCAR history.

Shoot, do you really have to be told that? NASCAR drivers are intense competitors who love to win and hate to lose.

To have a championship within grasp only to see it snatched away at the last moment has to be agonizingly frustrating.

Throughout NASCAR’s history there have been many types of competitors, ranging from those who raced as an expensive hobby, to those who won multiple championships and became legends.

There have also been some who have come very close to winning a championship, but never did so throughout their careers.

I don’t think Edwards is going to be one of them.

First, if experience in championship tussles means anything, Edwards has lots of it. He finished third in 2005, second in 2008 and fourth in 2010.

Of course, there followed the 2011 season. Edwards was the point leader going into the final race at Homestead, where he finished second.

Unfortunately, rival Tony Stewart won the race to forced a tie in points with Edwards at 2,403.

Stewart became champ on the tiebreaker, which was the most seasonal wins. Stewart had five – all in the Chase – and Edwards had only one. That proved to be his Achilles’ heel.

Second, Edwards has said that, rather than succumb to disappointment and continually bemoan his fate, he is going to learn from the experience and do just a bit better in 2012.

Edwards knows, and has told us more than once, that his team was clearly championship caliber in 2011. At no time during the Chase did he, or it, make a mistake too large to overcome.

Nor did either give in to Stewart and his Stewart-Haas team. As the season came to an end, Edwards and Stewart fought for every point they earned in the Chase. One never attained a significant gain over the other.

Edwards lost the title by, perhaps, the only way he could have: because of a scintillating, come-from-behind performance in the Chase by Stewart.

Edwards looks at racing as his career, during which he wants to get better with each passing season. Therefore, he looks at 2011 as a stepping stone, something from which he has learned valuable lessons.

He vows he will not let emotions rule performance. If he slips competitively in 2012 it won’t be because “We got messed up in the head over not winning the championship.”

Let’s add proper attitude to experience as another ingredient for a championship.

Edwards has both.

Which is why I think that sooner or later – most likely sooner – he’s going to earn one.

As an aside, it’s going to be interesting to see how hard Edwards presses for victories next year. Something else I suspect he learned in 2011 is that the more he wins, the better his chances will be to emerge a champion if it all goes down to the wire.

If the outcome was disappointing, nevertheless Edwards’ championship run was the high-water mark for the Roush organization in 2011.

Edwards and his team took the lead in the four-car organization. Those that followed had seasons rated very good to unexpectedly unproductive.

Matt Kenseth was the only other Roush driver to join Edwards in the Chase. After the reseeding, he was fourth in points with two wins, one position ahead of Edwards.

Kenseth had five top-five finishes in the Chase, including a victory at Charlotte.

Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth (left) put up some good numbers for Roush Fenway Racing and joined Edwards as the only team drivers to make the Chase. Greg Biffle did not have the type of season expected of him and wasn't eligible for the Chase. He was 15th in points when the 10-race "playoff" began.

He rose as high as second in points following Talladega, the sixth race of the Chase, but finishes of 31st at Martinsville and 34th at Phoenix greased the path for his fourth-place standing at season’s end.

Kenseth, the 2004 champ, can certainly claim another title for Roush. His team can, and does, win races. However, perhaps a little more consistency would seal the deal.

Greg Biffle never figured in the Chase. With no wins, only one top-five finish and seven among the top 10, when the Chase began he was 15th in points and on the outside looking in.

I’m pretty sure Biffle – and Roush – are not pleased with all of that and I don’t think it’s too harsh to say that something needs to be done at Biffle’s team. I strongly suspect that is something the organization already knows.

With his victory in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, David Ragan won his first career a long way toward fulfilling the potential Jack Roush saw in him.

Ragan flirted with making the Chase, hoping that the victory would be enough to land him in one of the final two slots in the 12-car field.

It didn’t work out that way and Ragan finished 19th in points.

It seems all but certain he won’t be with Roush next year. The UPS sponsorship his team enjoyed has moved on and with no new financial backing on the horizon, Roush has released Ragan to search for work elsewhere (Penske?).

It appears Roush will be a three-car team next year – and it still needs to locate sponsorship for Kenseth’s team.

While Roush may be one of several organizations downsizing – or closing – because of the economic situation, I don’t think anyone should be surprised if it puts, at the very least, one car into the Chase in 2012.

Nor should we be surprised if that car is driven by Carl Edwards.

2011 Had Its ‘Top Moments,’ But History Was Also Made

 

Stewart

Tony Stewart's five victories in the Chase and his battle with Carl Edwards for the Sprint Cup championship were considered two of the most memorable moments of the 2011 season. The championship was unprecedented as Stewart and Edwards tied in points, but Stewart won because he had more wins.

Already multiple presentations on the “top moments” of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season have been published or broadcast and, quite frankly, I’m inclined to agree with most of them.

I certainly agree with many others that Jeff Gordon’s 85th career victory at Atlanta was memorable. Gordon, the four-time champion, won three times in 2011 and is now in sole possession of third place on NASCAR’s all-time victory list.

I won’t argue with those who listed Danica Patrick’s achievement as one of the season’s best moments. Patrick finished fourth at Las Vegas in March to set the record as not only the highest finish recorded by a female driver in Nationwide Series competition, but also as tops among all females in any NASCAR national series event.

Patrick broke the long-standing mark of fifth place set in 1949 by Sara Christian in Heidelberg, Pa.

As you know, many more memorable achievements have been mentioned and I daresay all of them deserve a place on anyone’s list.

But I think I’ll go a little further. In 2011, the accomplishments of many were more than “top moments.”

Because of who they are, what they achieved and where they achieved it, all made the 2011 season unique – and even historical.

Frankly, some things happened this past season that have never happened before in NASCAR’s history.

Patrick’s accomplishment is one of them.

But there are many more. And that’s part of the reason 2011 was a unique season.

Consider Tony Stewart. That he won five races in the Chase – his only five wins of the season, by the way – to come from ninth in points to a championship in just 10 races is worthy, by itself, as a “top moment.”

But what makes it more compelling, and history making, is that Stewart won a championship battle that was unlike any other in NASCAR’s existence.

At the end of the season’s final race at Homestead Stewart and rival Carl Edwards were tied for No. 1 in points at 2,403 apiece.

That was a first in NASCAR and it meant the champ would be crowed via the tiebreaker: the driver with the most wins. That hadn’t happened before, either.

That was Stewart with five – all of them, ironically, earned in the Chase. Edwards had only one victory for the season.

The unprecedented closeness of the championship fight was even more impressive, and unique, by its very nature.

Stewart and Edwards raged mortal combat. Unlike how it has been many times in the past, neither made a mistake to give the title to the other.

They stood toe-to-toe and slugged it out. They finished within one position of each other in three of the last four races – and never out of the top 10.

It was truly a scrap for a championship and not one decided by a twist of fate.

Smith

Regan Smith (left) and Trevor Bayne were two of the four first-time winners in 2011. The others were David Ragan and Paul Menard. These drivers not only won for the first time, they won four of NASCAR's most prestigious and popular races.

Yes, Stewart’s five victories are memorable. But the very character of the 2011 championship was unlike any other in NASCAR.

First-time winners always carve a niche for themselves in any season. So it was in 2011, but with a couple of notable exceptions.

Perhaps at no other time in NASCAR were there so many first-time winners. But what makes it all so much more unique is not that they won, but where they won.
I daresay few ever heard of Trevor Bayne, the young driver under contract with Jack Roush who was lent to the Wood Brothers for selected Cup races in 2011.

At age 20 years and one day, Bayne led the final six laps to win the Daytona 500 in only his second Cup start. It was the fourth 500 victory for the Woods team and the 600th for Ford.

Bayne isn’t the first surprise Daytona winner. But, unlike so often in the past, he didn’t win because circumstances turned in his favor. He won because he was competitive and raced like a veteran.

At Furniture Row Racing, Regan Smith was thought of as one of those guys competing with a second-tier team who was most likely to run at the rear of any race.

But, as improbable as it was, Smith, who had no wins, top-fives or top-10s in 104 starts, won the venerated Southern 500 at Darlington.

He led the final 11 laps and held off Edwards by 0.198-second to win.

Many considered Paul Menard as the weakest link in the four-car chain of teams at Richard Childress Racing. Feel free to disagree, of course.

But Menard proved, nicely, that he could win. He did so for the first time in his career in the Brickyard 500 at Indianapolis. He outgunned Gordon, a four-time Indy winner, to earn the victory.

Twenty-five-year-old David Ragan earned his way to a ride with Roush and was, essentially, “under development” for a successful Cup career.

He took a huge step in that direction when he won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July. Before he gained his first career victory, the best Ragan had finished was third, three times.

Five first-time winners – including Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen – would make any season memorable. But 2011 was a bit more so.

Four drivers who won – Bayne, Smith, Ragan and Menard – did so at three of NASCAR’s most prestigious venues and in four of its most distinguished and popular races, the Daytona 500, the Southern 500, the Coke Zero 400 and the Brickyard 400.

I can heartily assure you that it’s never happened before in NASCAR.

It’s a first in a season I thought had more than its share of them.

Which means that while we all got the chance to see more “top moments” in NASCAR, we also had the opportunity to witness history being made.

That does not happen very often.

Coke Zero 400: Let’s Be Friends


After last weekends Sonoma Sprint Cup race you’d think that retaliation would be on everyones mind. Nope, not at Daytona, there’s too much to lose in a plate race. Points are paramount and payback can wait. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com

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