Joey Logano Must Gamble for NASCAR Playoffs

Joey Logano is down to his final two races to make NASCAR's playoffs

Joey Logano is down to his final two races to make NASCAR’s playoffs

Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Penske Racing Ford, is down to his final two racetrack spins of the regular season.  And the odds may be more stacked against him making the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup playoffs than your winning the latest Powerball drawing.

Logano’s struggle to qualify for the playoffs is arguably the greatest shock of the NASCAR season, given that Logano made it all the way to the final round of Championship 4 drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2014 and 2016.

Even though Logano won at Richmond Raceway in April, that victory doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race.

Mathematically eliminated in terms of points, Logano is in a must-win situation to qualify for the playoffs with only a return to Richmond and Darlington Raceway left in the regular season.

Two weeks ago, Logano confessed at Michigan International Speedway to being desperate, but felt the final stretch of regular-season tracks was a good fit for his driving style.

Yet, at Bristol where he has won twice previously, Logano wrestled his way to a 13th place finish in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, lacking corner entry stability and having to rebound from being a lap-down by utilizing the free-pass.

Since the Richmond penalty was announced, which included a loss of team points and crew chief suspension for two races, the momentum has been sucked out of the #22 team.  In his last 14 NASCAR Cup races, Logano has led only 7 laps.

Logano was all smiles after winning Richmond in April, but was later penalized for car template violations

Logano was all smiles after winning Richmond in April, but was later penalized for car template violations

Back in February, Logano was on top of the world, as he, crew chief Todd Gordon, and sponsor Shell signed contract extensions running through 2023, delivering the team stability that Roger Penske craves.

Logano, saying it was a day he would never forget, proclaimed, “When a seven-year deal is thrown in front of you, obviously you jump on that opportunity to go out there and win championships together.”

So, will Logano be able to cash in on victory lane in either of the two remaining regular season races?

Richmond is the better bet of the two tracks, given Logano has won there twice (including the “encumbered” April win).  His average finish of 8.9 over last 10 races is 2nd among active drivers.

Darlington, with its odd egg-shaped design and legend as the “track too tough to tame”, is a definite shortcoming in Logano’s repertoire.  His average finish of 18.4 is 17th best among active drivers, including just two top-5’s in eight starts.

Logano maintains optimism, asserting “Every moment becomes more and more important on the racetrack, and that’s ok.  That’s where you find out what you’re made of, so I’m all right with that.”

Logano is spot-on.  The #22 team has had its back against the wall before and Team JL has delivered.

Crew Chief Gordon will need to tap his playbook to make crafty pit calls

Crew Chief Gordon will need to tap his playbook to make crafty pit calls

However, right now, the Penske Fords just haven’t been fast enough and appear off.

Penske’s two teams of Logano and Keselowski can crank a fast lap time in practice and qualifying, but they’re just not drivable in race conditions, either due to a shortfall of aero downforce or mechanical grip in race conditions.

Luck, of course, plays a big factor, and a shrewd pit call by master crew chief Todd Gordon could rescue the day at either track.  But, time is now the enemy, and this perplexing season may leave Team JL with mixed emotions given its early season success, followed by its recent struggles.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Will Logano make the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

 

Aric Almirola, No. 43 On a Hot Streak Going Into Tough Ol’ Darlington

To date, Aric Almirola is having a very productive season with Richard Petty Motorsports. He goes into Darlington with four consecutive top-10 finishes, tops among all competitors.

DARLINGTON, S.C. – There was a time when a blue No. 43 car was one of the most successful, and popular, in NASCAR.

The car was perhaps the most familiar in NASCAR. From the early 1960s through 1992 – when the blue paint scheme was trimmed in red – every stock car racing fan recognized the car immediately.

And, I might add, its driver as well.

Richard Petty, a seven-time champion, has always been associated with the No. 43 – which has become symbolic of his illustrious career.

However, after Petty retired in 1992, the glory that was the No. 43 car began to fade – badly.

The venerated Petty Enterprises organization became a shell of itself. Unlike how it was during Petty’s prime, the team went season after season without a victory.

The last time it won was with John Andretti – one of an assortment of drivers employed over the years – in 1999.

Petty Enterprises ceased to exist after the 2008 season. It was 60 years old.

But Petty the man has never gone away. And today – after many financial struggles and organizational realignments – there exists Richard Petty Motorsports.

And it fields a blue No. 43 car.

Don’t look now, but it appears that No. 43 car has shown at least a flicker of what it used to be.

In 2013 the car has become more competitive than it has in years. And its driver, Aric Almirola, can claim a share of the credit.

Coming into the Southern 500 at Darlington, Almirola and the No. 43 have posted four top-10 finishes in a row.

That hasn’t happened before in the one and one-half seasons Almirola has driven for Petty – not even close.

Presently Almirola is seventh in points. He has never been higher. Fact is, his best effort was 20th in 2012.

Fans have taken notice. And for some of the veterans who cheered Petty during his prime, perhaps there are stirs of hope that, at the very least, the No. 43 will return to respectability.

Almirola said he’s not surprised over the team’s surge in performance.

Almirola, shown here with team owner Richard Petty (left) and entertainer Mario Lopez, hooked up with Petty toward the end of the 2010 season and came back full-time in 2012.

“We sure are on a roll lately,” Almirola said. “I think we are the only people that aren’t surprised we are seventh in points and have the longest current top-10 streak in the series.

“Todd (Parrott, crew chief), the guys and I are really clicking.”

Almirola, 29, has had something of a topsy-turvy NASCAR career. He broke into Sprint Cup competition in 2007 with Joe Gibbs Racing, for which he drove in six races.

In 2008, he competed in 12 races with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the next season, he entered nine races for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

He was still a part-timer in 2010. He split time with James Finch and Richard Petty Motorsports, which he joined late in the season.

Almirola did not compete on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2011. Instead he raced on a full Nationwide Series schedule with JR Motorsports.

During his fractured career from 2007-2010, Almirola earned just two top-10 finishes.

But in 2011, with JR Motorsports, he earned 18 top-10 finishes – seven in the top five – and finished a healthy fourth in Nationwide Series points.

That was enough for Richard Petty Motorsports to bring him back in 2012.

And it is paying off.

A year ago, Almirola, who has two victories on the Camping World Truck Series, finished among the top 10 four times and earned his first career Sprint Cup pole position at Charlotte in May.

It has gotten better.

In the 10 races to date in 2013, Almirola earned his consecutive top-10 runs at Texas (seventh), Kansas (ninth), Richmond (eighth) and Talladega (10th).

“We worked hard over the off-season to maintain our momentum that we had going in 2012 and it worked,” Almirola said. “We just need to keep it up and start moving to top-fives and hopefully a win soon.”

If Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports stay hot past Darlington, it will be a noteworthy accomplishment.

The tough, old track has a way of dousing momentum and breaking hearts.

Almirola made his Darlington debut with the No. 43 last year. He started 13th and finished 19th. He has two Nationwide starts at the track and one in trucks.

“Last year, I felt like I learned a lot during the race and got into a good rhythm by the end,” Almirola said. “We had a decent finish for my first time out and only a few ‘Darlington stripes.’”

Almirola said he would rely on Parrott, a seasoned crew chief with a lot of Darlington experience, to help him have a competitive run.

“Darlington is a long race from daylight to night, so it’s really important to keep up with the track changes and make the right adjustments,” Parrott said. “Our team’s relationship is stronger than ever, which is important here.

“It will be key to have good communication from Aric about what the car is doing, so we can stay ahead of the track with changes.”

If Almirola earns yet another top-10 finish at Darlington, considered NASCAR’s toughest track, even more attention will befall the No. 43 team.

But Almirola is looking for even better things.

“Obviously, our goal is to get another top-10 finish, but we are really eyeing victory lane,” Almirola said. “I think if we can put ourselves in a good position during the majority of the race, we can have a good shot at getting the 43 its first win since 1999.”

 

 

 

Mr. Smith’s Improbable Journey At Darlington Raceway

A couple of points to consider after the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway:

** Sometimes racing rewards us with the unexpected, the unanticipated.

Something happens that is so far beyond the limits of our belief that we really can’t fathom it. We can only can only stand there in amazement, somewhat slack-jawed as we say to ourselves and anyone else who cares to listen, “I don’t believe what I just saw.”

We had such a moment in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington. For years it has been one of NASCAR’s most prominent and venerated races. It’s the oldest held on an asphalt track. It’s conducted on a 1.366-mile layout that is considered the toughest in all of stock car racing.

It is a race that has been won by the likes of David Pearson, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and other giants of the sport. Journeymen and, essentially, nobodies do not win it.

Now, however, it has been done. The Southern 500 will go into lore as one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history and one of the most feel-good finishes of all time.

That’s because it was won by Regan Smith – yes, the same Regan Smith who is part of an underfunded, one-car team, which has 64 employees, uses a pit crew from Stewart-Haas Racing, engines from Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing and chassis from Richard Childress Racing.

It’s the same Regan Smith who has routinely began regarded as, at best, an also-ran in any race he’s entered.

And, perhaps, the same Regan Smith many of us regarded as a nobody. Trust me, after Darlington he is somebody special, indeed.

“I’m not supposed to do this,” said the 27-year-old Smith as he choked up with tears in victory lane. “I’ve never even had a top five.”

At Darlington, Smith wasn’t handed anything. He earned it.

He gambled and stayed on track when most of the leaders pitted for tires with 10 laps remaining. He told us later that the strategy was one he hoped crew chief Pete Rondeau would adopt.

Smith appeared to be a sitting duck. Behind him on the restart was Carl Edwards, who had been a strong as nine rows of garlic throughout the trace and, unlike Smith, was on fresh tires.

Smith spun his tires on the restart but held the lead. He caught a bit of a break when Brad Keselowski wedged himself between Smith and Edwards.

He caught another when he bobbled – only to have Edwards do the same thing.

Despite his newer tires, Edwards could never reach Smith, who managed to keep his Chevrolet in the fresh air.

Smith led Edwards, the points leader, over the green-white-checkered finish and in so doing, put his name alongside those of the sport’s greats.

Smith’s accomplishment was not lost on others. Among those who congratulated him afterward were Kurt Busch, Greg Biffile and Edwards, who said that if he couldn’t win it was good that Smith did.

Smith is the 2008 Sprint Cup rookie of the year who has gained some notoriety of late because of excellent qualifying efforts.

But he’s seldom, if ever, been considered a victory contender. Everything seems to have worked against him – a small team based in Denver, Colo., of all places, and one that has never been given any chance against the sport’s powerhouses, like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and the like.

Smith, however, came close to victory prior to Darlington. In 2008, he passed Tony Stewart for what appeared to be a win at Talladega until NASCAR took it away because Smith went below the yellow, out-of-bounds, line.

This victory will not be taken away from Smith.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Smith, who earned his first NASCAR victory and admittedly, first of any kind that he can remember. “When I walked to the car today, I literally thought we could win the race. I think that every week when we walk to the car. The difference was this week, we did.

“I can’t believe his. It’s too cool.”

What Smith has given us, and NASCAR, is yet another unanticipated moment when an underdog proves his mettle.

We saw it in Daytona this year when young Trevor Bayne shocked, and pleased, everyone with his victory in the 500 – which restored immeasurable luster to the tarnished, yet venerated, team known as Wood Brothers Racing.

When you think about it, isn’t to have someone succeed despite odds and adversity a true essence and beauty of sports?

Of course it is.

 

 

** Now we move from the sublime to the ridiculous.

It’s too bad that with his victory, Smith had to share the limelight, even in the slightest, with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

Truth is that after the Southern 500, most of the talk and TV highlights will be about these two.

They engaged in some bumping and grinding on the track and that carried over a postrace confrontation in which Harvick took a couple of swings at Busch as the two stopped post-race on the track, just above pit road.

Look, I’ll be the first to tell you fans and media alike enjoy driver dust-ups. If nothing else, they smack of the good ol’ days of NASCAR, when competitors settled issues among themselves with fists, tire irons or maybe even a .38.

And there’s nothing wrong with venting, if for no other reason than that given by Tony Stewart, who said that blowing off steam never fixed a car, but it often made a driver feel better.

Hope Busch and Harvick feel better because they certainly did themselves no service.

When it comes to incidents between drivers, NASCAR has tried extremely hard to let the issues be settled among themselves.

Doesn’t always work, as was made clear in the latest episode of Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Ryan Newman.

However, when NASCAR does decide to act that’s when a team can potentially suffer, especially if the sanctioning body responds with loss of points, probation, etc.

When Montoya seemed to show no signs of perceived over aggressiveness in the Southern 500, reportedly NASCAR conveyed its dislike.

Montoya retreated into a shell and was a non-entity for the remainder of the race. Didn’t serve him well in points.

As for Busch-Harvick, we don’t yet know if NASCAR is going to take the matter into its own hands. But you can bet the farm it will.

That’s because when Harvick decided to take a poke at Busch, Harvick’s unattended car rushed across pit road and slammed into the inside pit wall.

That car could have hit any number of people or, worse, pinned someone against the wall.

NASCAR may be relenting when it comes to driver vs. driver, but anytime their actions threaten the well being of others, the sanctioning body wastes no time in judgment.

They may not have been intentional, but Harvick’s actions posed a serious danger on pit road. This is something NASCAR will not tolerate.

I would be stunned if Harvick does not receive a rather stiff punishment sometime this week – maybe Busch, too, but certainly Harvick.

It’s just one example of how a confrontation can get out of hand and become, in the end, much more than for what a driver bargained.

 

The Glory The Woods Held At Darlington, Until …

Darlington Raceway’s lore is filled with men, machines, races, controversy and even the fantastic and unbelievable.

The have been great failures, unusual winners, accidents seemingly triggered by a spectral hand, pit stops gone askew for reasons no one could fathom, and much more.

Much of this has been attributed to the speedway itself and its unique 1.366-mile layout, in which no two sets of turns are alike, and, for years, with its cheese grader-like racing surface – the one filled with crushed oyster shells – that tore up tires so quickly a car raced only a precious handful of laps before it was junk. The question became how to get the piece of junk down the straight and through the tough turns as fast as possible.

Not all the junks could do it and sometimes, they couldn’t get out of their own way or escape a faster car and mayhem ensued.

The teams that won were nearly always those whose cars always produced speed, but at the same time learned much about tire management. Simply put, their cars were faster at the start and were faster than others when tire wear began to kick in.

Petty Enterprises, DiGard Racing Co., Junjor Johnson and Associates, Harry Ranier Enterprires and Wood Brothers Racing were a few of the teams who understood the complexities of racing at Dalrington, and, as such won most of the races through the 1970s.

At that time, easily the most successful of the aforementioned teams was the Woods and their driver David Pearson.

Pearson hand already won two Grand National championships by the time he joined the Woods in 1972. He earned his first in 1966 with Cotton Owens swept the ’68 and ’69 titles with Holman-Moody.

The fact that the Woods were not going to pursue a championship, and thus not compete in as many as 50 races per season, appealed to Pearson – himself tired of the grind.

In 1972, the Woods entered only 17 races. But, with Pearson, they won six of them.

1973 was a remarkable season. The Woods entered just 18 races but – get this – with Pearson, they won 13 of them – an unheard of and since unmatched 72% winning percentage.

In 1974 The Woods and Pearson won seven of nineteen, in ’75 it dropped to three of 21, but it ’76 it rose to 10 of 22, then to 2 of 22 and four of 22 in ’78.

In 1979, Pearson was again united with the Woods and again expectations were high. But ironically, it would all come to an end during an unexpected incident on pit road – where the Woods usually excel.

Things began to unravel when Pearson entered pit road on lap 302. He’s thinking was that the Woods were going to put on two right-sides only. So when that was complete, Pearson shot toward the exit of pit road at high speed with the lug nuts dangling on the left-side tires.

Horrified over the situation, crew chief Leonard Wood hollered into the radio: “Whoa!” “Whoa!”

Pearson thought he had hollered, “Go!” “Go!” And so he did. He got to the end of pit road, where the left side tires on his Mercury flopped to the ground.

Pearson wound up 12th in the race, won by Darrell Waltrip over Richard Petty.

Later in the week, Wood Patriarch Glen Wood announced that Pearson was no longer part of the team. He admitted that the Darlington pit-road incident had something to do with it. It was the climax of several little things.

Leonard, however, denied the miscue at Darlington was to be blamed. He added that certain matters hadn’t been worked out. He cryptically added that with 12 different teams capable of winning, new strategies had to be planned out.

Hard to figure what strategies a team, which had won 29 supespeedway races since 1972, could adapt.

In the years ahead, for the Woods, there weren’t that many glorious years. Oh, there were victories, but they never again came in the abundance they did before Darlington in 1979.

 

The Tale Of The First Closest-Ever NASCAR Finish In 2003

As you no doubt know by now, Jimmie Johnson’s .002-second victory over Clint Bowyer in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway tied the record for the closest finish in NASCAR history.

The mark was originally established in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway on March 18, 2003.

That race didn’t end with a gaggle of eight cars running in 2×2 drafts – heck, that style of racing is about as far removed from Darlington as it can be.

The final laps at the crusty old track consisted of two cars beating and banging on each other as their drivers desperately fought for an advantage – however small it might be.

At the checkered flag, Ricky Craven, driving a Pontiac and Kurt Busch, in a Ford, seemed to cross the finish line glued together. Few could tell who had won. Many thought it was a dead heat.

But television replays clearly showed that Craven, on the inside, had crossed the finish line ahead of Busch by fractions of an inch – or .002-second.

At the time it stood alone as the closest finish in NASCAR’s long history.

It remains the closest in Darlington’s history, which is littered with memorable finishes, achieved by some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.

The historic Craven-Busch outcome was just one milestone reached at Darlington in the spring of 2003. The Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 was the speedway’s 100th NASCAR Winston Cup Series race.

Terry Labonte made his 750th career start, Bill Elliott his 700th, Kyle Petty his 650th, Dale Jarrett his 500th and for Jeff Burton, it was start No. 300.

Neither Craven nor Busch were anywhere near such longevity. Craven began racing full-time in Cup competition in 1995 with team owner Larry Hedrick, with whom he won the rookie of the year title.

Busch came onto the scene in 2000 as a Jack Roush protégé. He won four races in 2002 and was considered a rising star.

By 2003, Craven, on the other hand, was racing on borrowed time – although he didn’t know it.

In 1997, Craven, a Maine native, caught a huge break. He signed on with Hendrick Motorsports. In the season’s first race, the Daytona 500, Craven finished third behind winner Jeff Gordon and runnerup Labonte – both teammates.

It was a one-two-three Hendrick sweep.

For Craven, things looked very promising, indeed.

But fate dealt him a cruel blow.

During practice for the inaugural Interstate Batteries 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Craven crashed hard into the wall. He sustained a concussion and missed the next two races.

He returned to win the Winston Open at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.

But the side effects of his injury would not go away. They grew so severe in 1998 that Craven was re-evaluated and declared a victim of post-concussion syndrome.

He missed most of the season. When he did return he competed in just four more races for Hendrick before he was released.

For the next couple of seasons Craven raced, unspectacularly, for second-tier teams.

Since most organizations wouldn’t take a chance on a driver who had suffered a head injury, with lingering effects, it would not have been a great surprise if Craven’s career had simply melted away.

But in 2001 he caught another break. He was signed to replace Scott Pruett at Cal Wells Motorsports. Craven latched on with a new team, but one with potential.

That potential was realized in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 15 of that year. In an intense battle with Dale Jarrett, Craven emerged the victor in, yes, an extremely close finish.

It was Craven’s first career Cup victory – very popular among fellow competitors and fans – and an emotional one for him. His career had been resurrected.

Craven, or anyone else for that matter, could not have known what was to happen two years later.

At Darlington it all came down to the final three laps.

Busch was the leader. Craven latched on to his rear bumper and went low in the fourth turn in an attempt to pass. He couldn’t.

On the next lap, Craven drew alongside Busch out of the fourth turn and the two raced down the frontstretch side-by-side.

Craven took the lead in the first turn by crowding Busch to the outside. Busch tapped the right rear of Craven’s Pontiac and took the lead as the white flag flew.

The crowd was enraptured by the action. Fans, all out of their seats, were screaming.

Out of the fourth turn on the last lap, Craven slammed into the side of Busch’s Ford, which yanked the wheel out of the Roush driver’s hands.

They were locked side-by-side at the checkered flag. Sparks were flying.

Neither knew who had won the race – until Craven looked at the scoring tower and saw his car number on top.

Afterward, both Craven and Busch, who shared an emotional experience as they congratulated each other in victory lane, remarked that the finish was fun, exciting and one of which each was proud to be a part. They knew they had become fixtures in NASCAR history.

It was Craven’s last shining moment in racing.

Three-quarters of the way through the 2004 season he was replaced at Wells by Bobby Hamilton Jr.

His Cup career ended after 278 starts.

Busch, of course, has gone on to greater things.

But they remain, and always will, a part of NASCAR lore. They were the drivers who established the closest finish in NASCAR’s history.

Since that time, of course, it has been equaled – but then, never bettered.

 

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