NASCAR: Daytona 500 Dazzles in Race Season Debut

Denny Hamlin wins the 2016 Daytona 500 in the closest finish ever recorded.

Denny Hamlin wins the 2016 Daytona 500 in the closest finish ever recorded.

Restrictor plate racing is an acquired taste. Some do not enjoy it, not all (including some drivers) look forward to it, yet most everyone is willing to pay attention to the last lap to see who will be crowned Daytona 500 Champion. For firsthand experience of this maxim, I observed that my wife, ever the casual fan, sat down to take in the last lap and was cheerily surprised by what she saw.

With a great last lap move to pull out of line from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Toyota, committed to the top and chased down teammate Matt Kenseth, brushed off a block and bump, and then wedged between Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. to squeak out the tightest finish — 0.010 seconds — in the 58-year history of the Great American Race.

How often do we get a photo finish where we must slow down the tape to see who won? Bottom line, this Daytona 500 finish will be remembered for years.

No doubt, certain racing purists see sheer boredom in superspeedway cars that have been “restricted” since 1988 from reaching their upper limits at Daytona and Talladega in the interest of safety, where stockers are confined to running in large packs and no one can generate a serious performance advantage over the duration of the race.

Daytona looked like it's old self with fan excitement everywhere.

Daytona looked like it’s old self with fan excitement everywhere.

Yet, Sunday’s Daytona 500 delivered in abundant ways for the start of the NASCAR season:

  • Hamlin wasn’t content to get a top 5 finish and solid points day, but gambled for the win. Hoisting the Daytona 500 trophy has always been a dream of this 35-year-old driver, with Hamlin’s mother Mary Lou tweeting out the essay that Hamlin wrote when he was in 2nd grade, declaring he would win the February 1998 Daytona 500. A dream realized, albeit 18 years later than planned.
  • We had genuine sportsmanship among the drivers at the end. Martin Truex Jr. wasn’t sure who had won when he and Denny Hamlin crossed the start-finish line, but maintained perspective. “I feel like we were in really good position just doing what we did,” Truex acknowledged. “Circumstances didn’t work out quite as well as they should have…I felt like I should have run Denny up the track a little bit. Two years ago I would have been sitting here with a sourpuss on my face. Today was (still) a great day.”
  • The validation of the $400 million DAYTONA Rising project was a crown jewel redevelopment, with all 101,500 stadium seats spoken for in the self-proclaimed World Center of Racing. Some on social media commented that they could see open seats in the aerial shots, but plentiful fans mingled on the interior concourses throughout the race. The new Daytona Rising stadium has captured the spirit that fans now look to attend social events centered around sports, given that tracks most offer something beyond the pure HD experience of watching on one’s home theater.
  • The weather was perfect, with no rain throughout Speedweeks to inflict havoc on scheduled race events.
  • We did not get the typical carnage of the “big one” associated with many superspeedway events, and cars remained on the track and not in the catch fence. Just once, it was a relief to not have to hold our breath after the finish with anticipation as to whether drivers would emerge safely from scattered sheet metal. Gratifyingly, there was no spectacle of jet dryers exploding from impact with an errant race car.
  • Strategy calls were evident throughout the race. Teams struggled with grip on the high banked corners. Handling was at a premium in the draft, as the daytime weather and slick track contributed to cars being tight in the corner. New rubber was at a premium, as teams had to speculate on whether to take two or four tire pit stops.
  • At plate tracks, the top drivers now rise to the top and have demonstrated sharpness and shrewdness at this time of racing. Leaders must showcase the command of the draft and which line is working best, often maintaining their position by taking the air off one lane, then moving to the other, thereby stalling out potential moves by the competition.
  • This year, we saw several of the sport’s top drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, and pole sitter Chase Elliott engage in epic slides on their own coming out of Turn 4, showcasing that cars were indeed on the handling edge. Elliott completed 18 laps Sunday before his Hendrick Motorsports #24 Chevrolet was taken to the garage with heavy front end damage, the result spin and infield nose-dive.
  • And if you wish to recreate multicultural last lap drama, check out the Fox Deportes Spanish language telecast of the finish. Victorioso is exciting in any language, and this clip will surely leave you smiling. https://twitter.com/FOXDeportes/status/701524567190171649

Plate races are a limited, distinct piece of the NASCAR schedule, but a legacy component of what NASCAR is. Daytona Speedweeks was a stellar start for the season, with fans at least talking about what happened on the track. The NASCAR show now moves forward to the real heart of the season. Bring on the new low downforce race pack for Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

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

 

Denny Hamlin Getting Out Of His Car Was Right Decision

Hamlin was right to turn over his car to Erik Jones at Bristol.

Hamlin was right to turn over his car to Erik Jones at Bristol.

This won’t be one of my lengthy diatribes on an issue. It’s pretty simple. Athletes that are in sports that expose them to repeated high g-force impacts are in danger of repercussions of their health in later years.

There have been a few calls from pundits in the motorsport media that question whether or not the present NASCAR rules are too easy for a driver to opt out of a race if they are a lock for the Sprint Cup Chase. It’s a legitimate question, but doesn’t address whether or not them opting out is legitimate if they are injured.

Football, boxing, UFC or any impact sport can have a cumulative effect on the individual. The most common concussion can have severe ramifications if the injured goes back onto the track or field too soon. It’s called “Second Impact” syndrome.

Racing cars while injured is nothing new. In the early days of Formula One the mortality rate was 50% in a given season. By the time Niki Lauda had arrived they had brought that statistic down to a 20% chance of being killed in any given race. Those odds are more in line with a war zone firefight than a sport.

The era of the invincible macho man driver is just not acceptable in the modern era.

There will always be danger in auto racing, if anything that was not thought of can happen in an event, it’s auto racing. However, to court disaster is foolish if you know you can prevent it.

Jim Fitzgerald. One of the kindest, nicest and inveterate competitors I've ever known.

Jim Fitzgerald. One of the kindest, nicest and most inveterate competitors I’ve ever known.

Denny Hamlin has suffered more than one injury. After spending 4 races sitting on the sidelines after a hard hit at Auto Club Speedway in 2013, Hamlin, no doubt, has a great appreciation for what broken bones, severely injured muscles or a potential cervical spine fracture might mean.

I know first hand from:

  • Crashing at the start of a motocross race in South Carolina, broken Coccyx. The lower tip of my spine. 45 years later and I still suffer from that pain.
  • Having had a mild concussion received from crashing at Lime Rock at the Uphill. I had headaches for 6 months. Macho man, didn’t let it get to me.
  • Training on a bicycle, very experienced, 200-300 miles per week, I was hit from behind by a car. Went through the windshield, was thrown back out and over 50 feet. Broken sternum, broken leg, fractured right arm, cracked vertebrae, crushed ankle and multiple lacerations. I was on crutches and rehab for over a year.

To this day I have pain unless I work out those areas religiously.

Had I been Denny Hamlin and my neck suddenly experienced severe shooting pains, Chase or no Chase, I would have gotten out of that car. It would have been the hardest thing I would have to have done, but necessary.

Injuries such as this are not to be trifled with.

A great friend of mine, Jim Fitzgerald was killed at St. Petersburg years ago. Basilar Skull Fracture, now we have the Hans device in NASCAR, long after the other forms of motorsport adopted it. It was only after Dale, Sr. was killed did that become mandatory.

Jeff Gordon hits the wall, next big thing: More Safer Barriers.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. crashes and doesn’t realize he has a concussion for three races. His vision started to blur. He sat out four races.

NASCAR made the rules. But did they make it too easy for the drivers to opt out? What professional driver is going to climb out of his/her racing car just because they have a little neck pain. It had to have been severe and disconcerting considering Hamlin’s past injuries.

Apparently Denny Hamlin’s pain was great enough that he knew something was wrong and to continue would likely exacerbate the problem potentially keeping him from one or more races forthcoming.

Hamlin made the right decision. You can race another race, but you only get one go round in this life.

 

Harvick’s Goof Puts Hamlin On Edge In More Ways Than One

Denny Hamlin was leading early in the night race at Bristol when he was taken out in an accident caused by Kevin Harvick. Hamlin remains in the Chase, but not safely.

Denny Hamlin was leading early in the night race at Bristol when he was taken out in an accident caused by Kevin Harvick. Hamlin remains in the Chase, but not safely.

Friends, competitors and racing fans – I come to explain Kevin Harvick, not to praise him.

He is a stout competitor. But like all others he makes mistakes. He has admitted so. To be honest, some of them never do.

But in Harvick’s case what occurred at Bristol was so obvious and had such negative results the Stewart Haas Racing driver could do nothing more than beg forgiveness.

Which he did, to his credit.

It happened on lap 161 of the 500-lap Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol, an event well known for mayhem and flaring tempers.

Let’s face it, when cars race at high speeds in close quarters on a 0.533-mile, high-banked track – the likes of which does not exist anywhere else – the margin for error is slight. And when mistakes occur, well, the result can be a mass of battered sheet metal.

There often follows explosive anger on the part of more than one competitor that has, in the past, led to confrontation – even fisticuffs.

But let’s be honest here, OK? That this is part of racing at Bristol is certainly a portion of its appeal. Fans expect a blown temper or two, even a nose-to-nose debate in which drivers question each other’s ancestry.

Now, it didn’t come to all of that when Harvick triggered the Hamlin accident.

Problem was Hamlin, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, was the leader at the time. He had won once this year and was in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, barely.

When a driver has a chance to win a race, there is nothing that makes him more furious than to be robbed of it.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was also involved in the Harvick-Hamlin incident and finished at the rear of the field.  But he remains firmly in the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was also involved in the Harvick-Hamlin incident and finished at the rear of the field. But he remains firmly in the Chase.

Which is exactly what happened to Hamlin on lap 161 when Harvick, trying to take the lead, slid up into Hamlin’s Toyota and triggered the mishap that brought out the race’s fourth caution flag.

It gets worse. Hamlin’s sliding Toyota crossed directly into the path of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevrolet. Heavy contact was made.

The result? Both Hamlin and Earnhardt Jr. were removed from the race. Hamlin finished 40th, Earnhardt Jr., 39th.

Incidentally, if for some reason you are a driver who wants to provoke the most fans possible, just wreck Earnhardt Jr. You may not make it home.

Earnhardt Jr. dropped to second in points behind teammate Jeff Gordon and Hamlin remained in 20th place.

Earnhardt Jr., a member of Hendrick Motorsports, has little to worry about. He has three wins this year and is Chase bound.

Hamlin? Well, his win lets us assume he will make it. But there are eight winless drivers ranked higher in points and if any one of them wins over the next two races, well, Hamlin’s seeding drops – even though he should be safe in the Chase.

No doubt he realized this at Bristol.

Hamlin emerged from his car unscathed but ticked. He tossed his HANS device at Harvick’s car as Harvick drove by.

“I just wish I had some kind of car left so I could show him the favor back,” Hamlin said. “We’re not even halfway, we’re racing for the lead – it’s a misjudgment.”

Harvick apologized on the radio (and on Twitter) afterwards and said the move was not intentional.

“Too many driver mistakes tonight,” he tweeted. “Apologize to my team for the speeding penalty and to ruin our night and to Denny for ruining his.”

The point of all this is nothing much has changed at Bristol.

Yes, Harvick goofed and ultimately wrecked two competitive cars.

But one driver, Earnhardt Jr., other than losing the points lead, is still locked into the Chase.

The other, Hamlin, has a more tenuous situation. He has a win, but, as mentioned, there are eight drivers ranked higher in points who could surpass him with a win at Atlanta or Richmond.

Now, to be honest, it doesn’t seem likely that will happen. But it is very possible.

As for Harvick, with two wins and a seventh-place in points, it’s not likely he’ll miss the Chase.

I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make him feel better. He goofed at Bristol. He knew it and admitted it. He receives no exoneration here.

None of this does anyone a bit of good – especially Hamlin.

But remember, this is racing. And this happens – time and time again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

      

Back On Track, Hamlin Aims To Prove He’s No ‘Weak Link’

Denny Hamlin was injured early in the 2013 season and missed four races. But he returned to racing and won at Homestead in the final event of the year.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When a driver misses part of a NASCAR Sprint Cup season due to injury or illness, when the next year rolls around and he’s healthy, he has one of two things to prove:

First, he intends to prove he’s back in competitive form and hopes to win races.

Second, he’s determined to show he’s fit as a fiddle and can withstand the physical rigors of racing.

Let’s be honest. The returning driver counts BOTH as his season goals. Can’t achieve one without the other.

Much has been said and speculated about Tony Stewart’s return to competition after he suffered a shattered right leg in a Sprint Car race midway through last season.

Now consider Denny Hamlin, driver of Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

In 2013 Hamlin was 10th in points and measured up for the Chase for the Sprint Cup when he crashed at Auto Club Speedway in March. Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his back.

If you have ever experienced back pain, you know a bit of what Hamlin was enduring.

Hamlin missed four races and fell to 28th in points. His hopes of making the Chase were over.

He had to take on a relief driver in his first race since his injury, at Talladega.

But the following week at Darlington he drove the entire race and finished second. Hamlin wasn’t fully cured but he was strong enough to race – if not as comfortably as he would have liked.

Hamlin has driven for Joe Gibbs Racing since 2006 and has earned 23 victories. His goals are to win again and make the Chase.

Hamlin won his only race of 2013 at the season’s last race at Homestead-Miami.

He ended the year on a very high note.

And he’s started 2014 on another high note. Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited on Feb. 15. He was No. 1 in NASCAR’s first on-track competition of the year.

“It was great to win,” Hamlin said. “And it’s good for the drivers who are part of the Unlimited to get the race rust off.

“We only do superspeedway racing four to five times a year so it is an art form of racing that the more you do it the better you’ll become at it.

“So I think it is a big advantage for us in the Unlimited being able to get a race under our belts before the 500, which is our biggest race.  It’s hard to go into the 500 cold turkey with no race experience the week before.”

With his 28th-place finish in points last year, compared to second for teammate Matt Kenseth and fourth for Kyle Busch, it would appear to be easy to call the driver from Chesterfield, Va., the “weak link” at Gibbs.

Hamlin thinks that would be wrong.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “At least not through the testing that I’ve seen. I’m up to speed, to say the least, within our race team.”

Hamlin does admit he might have a difficult go of it early in the season – and for reasons you might not ever suspect.

“Last year we were a little bit off of our teammates and we’re going to have a little bit of a struggle at the beginning of the year,” Hamlin said. “That’s because ultimately we have a bad parking spot in the garage and we’re going to miss the first 10 minutes of practice every week.

“Yes, you’re still going to be parked in the garage.  Not the haulers, but the cars.  We were so far back in points we would miss the first 10 minutes of practice every single week.

“So, until we get ourselves back up in points where we should be I think the first few races will be tough for us. Other than that I think we’ll be fine.

“I think we’re going to start as strong as JGR starts.”

Hamlin, who has won 23 races in his career – all with Gibbs – said he took something positive away from his experience last year. Namely, a driver just can’t rely on being competitive every season. Anything can happen.

“Last season was a dead one in a lot of ways,” Hamlin said. “What I take from it the most would be just the appreciation of when you do run well.

“I took for granted just making the Chase every single year and winning multiple races every year.  Just like it was easy and I really didn’t have to prepare for it.  I just showed up and we did it.

“And now, I think with the competition and how we ran at the end of last year, you’ve got to think about preparing for more weeks and preparing to be good.  You can’t just rely on talent to do it.”

Asked if Stewart faced tougher challenges than he in 2014, Hamlin laughingly said:

“I think Tony has less challenges because he’s more talented.”

Of course, that is a matter of opinion.

—- Hamlin continued to make it very clear he’s fully returned – and is no Gibbs “weak link” – with his victory in a Budweiser Duel qualifying race on Feb. 20. Hamlin took the lead after pit stops midway through the 60-lap race and was never challenged. Impressively, he has now won two of two races at Daytona.

 

Drivers Yearn To Win At Historic Indianapolis, But It’s Never Easy

Denny Hamlin, who won the pole for the Brickyard 400, says changing weather conditions can greatly affect handling at Indy.

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Every NASCAR Sprint Cup driver can tell you why they so badly want to win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But they differ somewhat on how to do it.

When the Brickyard 400 gets the green flag today, it will mark the 19th time NASCAR has conducted a race on the historic 2.5-mile Indy track.

And drivers will be trying to win just as hard as they did in the first one back in1994.

True, a driver tries to win any race he’s in. But the motivation to do so today isn’t based so much on the race alone. It exists because it’s at Indianapolis.

As has been said many times, Indy is hallowed ground. Over the decades it has become a motorsports shrine, largely due to the growth, and impact, of the Indianapolis 500 – called the single largest sporting event in the United States.

Some of the greatest drivers in racing history, Foyt, Mears, Andretti, the Unsers and so many others, have enriched their legends with victories at Indy.

While growing up and nurturing their future careers, many drivers dreamed of winning at Indy.

For years, when it came to Indy, stock car drivers were on the outside looking in. Even so, they coveted an opportunity to race there.

They’ve had that opportunity for 19 years now. And the Indy aura hasn’t faded one bit.

“When you come to this race track you know you are some place special,” said three-time Indy winner Jimmie Johnson. “After 11 years of racing, it still has the same feel for me.”

“This is Indianapolis and as a kid you grow up wanting to race Indy Cars and race in the Indy 500,” said Kevin Harvick of Richard Childress Racing. “Just to come to Indy and be able to race and be fortunate to win is something you will always remember.

“You can feel the rich history. You can see it and I think everybody respects that.”

Carl Edwards, on the front row at Indy, is one of many drivers who recognizes the history and tradition of the Brickyard.

“I think the opportunity to win would be unreal,” said Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards, who needs victories if he is going to make this year’s Chase. “Last night I took my brother out and we drove a little cart and we went out on the race track.

“We were like eight-year-olds talking about how awesome it was to be at Indianapolis on the race track.”

While it is true that some of Open Wheel racing’s greatest drivers have won at Indy, some of them more than once, the list of Brickyard 400 winners is composed of some of NASCAR’s most accomplished superstars.

Jeff Gordon has won four 400s, tops among all Cup drivers, while, as said, Johnson, Gordon’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, has won three times. Tony Stewart, like Gordon an Indiana native, has won it twice.

Other notable winners are Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd and Bobby Labonte.

But the race has also had some surprise winners – especially over the last two years.

Jamie McMurray won in 2010, the same year in which he also won the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600.

Last year Paul Menard outran Gordon to the checkered flag to win for the first time in his career. Indy has played a significant role in his family’s racing history.

“I watched a video of last year’s race yesterday at home,” Edwards said, “and my heart was beating in my chest watching Paul hold off Jeff for those last few laps.

“I was watching on my laptop and was getting anxious and nervous watching Paul. That’s how special this race is.”

It’s been firmly established that the Brickyard 400 is special. But what do you have to do to win such a special, meaningful race?

Here’s where opinions vary.

Unlike other 2.5-mile superspeedways, Indy is flat. There is minimal banking in the turns – which means that while speed is obviously necessary, tire grip and proper balance count for a great deal.

“Indianapolis is probably one of the trickiest tracks we go to on the schedule,” Kyle Busch said. “Pocono is one and Darlington is another.

“It’s so hard to find a line that really, really works for you or works for your car because the groove is so narrow. It’s plenty wide for one and one-half cars, but the line you run around here, you vary six inches and it’s so different.”

“If you make a mistake here or your car isn’t handling like you need in the turns – it’s loose or it’s tight – you have such a long straightaway to pay the penalty,” Johnson said. “A tenth in the corner translates to three or four tenths at the end of the backstretch or frontstretch.”

“You have to be very particular in car setup,” added Busch. “You go from practice, where there’s not a lot of rubber on the track, to the race with a lot of rubber on it.

“The trajectory of the corners changes. So how wide do you enter the corner? How sharp do you turn down?”

As it is at almost every race, tire management is important at Indy. But changing conditions can make that somewhat worrisome.

“We never put on a set of tires in practice,” said Biffle, who was quickest in “Happy Hour” at 181.499 mph. “We just worked on the old set of tires. I’ll be curious to see if the track picks up speed or grip.”

“When it comes to grip, Indianapolis is finicky,” said pole winner Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing. “It’s very weather sensitive. When the sun comes out, the handling of the car changes completely.

“You are constantly battling with that. You are battling the weather as much as you are battling the handling of the car or tire wear.”

It’s obvious many things have to be considered when it comes to preparation for a race at Indy. Teams strive for perfection – but then, they know a little good luck can help.

As much as the drivers want to win at Indianapolis, they know it is never an easy task.

“Experience does pay,” Johnson said. “It took me a long time to figure this place out.

“It’s one of the most demanding tracks we’re on from a driver’s mental capacity and line-specific. If you slip up at other ovals you can run in the second or third lane.

“You can’t do that here. You will lose way too much time.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Small Slip Can Ruin Great Outcome, Just Ask Denny Hamlin

After Denny Hamlin suffered a miscue on his final pit stop, Kasey Kahne inherited the lead at New Hampshire and led the final 66 laps to earn his second victory of the season.

Sometimes we tend to forget that when it comes to success in racing, a fast car and a savvy driver don’t always generate it.

The odds for victory improve greatly when you have both – obviously. But given that racing is a team sport that involves a lot of people performing many different tasks, car and driver alone guarantee nothing.

We all know how pit stops, both good and bad, can make a difference in the outcome of any event.

Pit stops are not just about crewmember speed and skill. They are also about driver conduct on pit road – speeding or missing a stall can be ruinous – and communication.

The most essential communication is, of course, between driver and crew chief. If there is any misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what is required during a stop, it can make all the difference in the outcome.

Ask Denny Hamlin. Or his crew chief Darian Grubb.

Hamlin was enjoying a Sunday drive in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 NASCAR Sprint Cup event at New Hampshire. In his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, the Virginian was steamrolling the competition.

Which, in fact, was not entirely unexpected. Hamlin qualified third, two positions behind pole winner and teammate Kyle Busch, and was fastest in final practice.

By lap 234, Hamlin had led 150 laps, more than any other driver. But then the race’s third and final caution period began after David Reutimann suffered a blown engine.

Hamlin led the parade down pit road in what was assumed to be a routine stop. But, unlike so many other competitors who underwent a two-tire change, the Gibbs team put four on its Toyota.

As a result Hamlin was no longer the leader when he returned to the track. He was in 14th place that was, obviously, a huge loss of track position.

It was quickly learned that a four-tire change was never intended. Hamlin said via radio he needed only “tires.” From that Grubb interpreted his driver wanted four, which, in his defense, is nearly always what drivers want when they say, “tires.”

Grubb said, indeed, that was the case. He added that once teams learned, via radio scanning, what was happening in the Hamlin pits, they opted for two-tire changes.

Poised for the restart Hamlin wanted to know what happened. Grubb told him. Hamlin sighed. Grubb fell on the sword and accepted the blame. “My bad,” he said.

He also encouraged his driver to give it all he had until the finish. Other than a lack of time there was no reason Hamlin couldn’t rally. His car had been the model of perfection all day.

In the space of 20 laps Hamlin moved from 14thto sixth. He was in fifth five laps later and then, after five more laps, he settled into fourth place.

With his victory Kahne improved his chances of making the Chase. He is 12th in points with two wins, more than any other driver outside the top 10. Only seven races remain before the Chase begins.

On lap 273, Hamlin was second, 2.9 seconds behind leader Kasey Kahne with 28 laps to go.

When Hamlin closed to within a second of Kahne with five laps remaining it seemed he had a real chance.

But it went away with just two laps to go when the hard-charging Hamlin slid high in the fourth turn.

For Hamlin a potentially great day was spoiled by a small miscommunication.

Of which he was acutely aware.

“It was just a miscommunication,” Hamlin said. “I said I needed tires and that was taken to mean I needed four of them.

“It was just a little miscommunication that turned into a second-place finish. You never know what could have happened on that last restart if we were taking two tires.

The 5 (Kahne) still may have been better, you never know.”

Fact is Hamlin shouldn’t have become the pursuer. But he made as much of it as he possibly could.

You try to be as optimistic as possible, but you know in your head that the stop was a death sentence, basically, for us,” Hamlin said. “I honestly didn’t think that we would get back to where we did.

“Kasey stretched out so far on that lead when we were about 10th. I was thinking top-five and then I was thinking I could get to the top three and then we made some good ground up there at the end.

“But I needed four or five more laps. I just needed to get within striking distance because I was going to rough him up.”

 

***** While a victory at New Hampshire would have certainly cemented Hamlin’s place in the Chase, with two wins and a fifth-place standing in points, it seems he doesn’t need it.

But for Kahne, his second win of the season may propel him into the “playoff.” He is 12th in points, 66 out of the top 10, but two wins put him No. 1 among the “wildcard” challengers.

“The first win with Hendrick Motorsports (at Charlotte) was pretty cool,” Kahne said. “The second one is really special to be a part of, especially as good as the cars are each and every weekend. “To be able to win two races now, and have a shot at the Chase – we’re still definitely not in it, but we have a better shot now than we did.”

Kahne admitted that he gained the most favorable track position following Hamlin’s pit miscue. But he added that he felt confident he could hold it – even as Hamlin made his assault during the closing laps.

“I was definitely focused on the lapped cars I was going by and how I could clear them quick,” Kahne said. “But I lost a ton of forward drive. I was getting pretty loose and Denny was coming on four tires.

“So I was paying attention to where he was, but I felt pretty good about the lead we had.”

Busch ranks No. 2 among “wildcard” contenders. He’s 13th in points with one victory. He’s one position ahead of Joey Logano and two ahead of Ryan Newman, the only other drivers outside the top 10 with at least one victory.

Busch, incidentally, ran strong at New Hampshire as he led 72 laps. But when he pitted for the final time on lap 232, he overshot his pits. The error cost him time and track position.

He fell out of second place and wound up 16th at race’s end.

With seven races remaining before the Chase begins following the conclusion of the Richmond race on Sept. 8, it appears the drivers who rank among the top 10 should make the Chase – some of them easily.

But outside the top 10, a couple of competitors face formidable challenges.

Carl Edwards, at No.11, is 46 points out of the top 10 with no victories. It seems certain now he has to win.

For four-time champion Jeff Gordon, 17th in points without a victory, the prospects for making the Chase continue to dwindle.

He has missed the “playoff” only once in his career and to avoid a second occurrence, at the least he has to win twice – certainly a daunting task.

 

 

 

 

 

A Few Random Thoughts On NASCAR 2012 – Part Two

To finish what I started, here are more thoughts about some of the competitors and teams as the beginning of the 2012 NASCAR gordoSprint Cup season at Daytona looms.

Jeff Gordon: Well, those “Wonderboy” days are long gone and I think that when it comes to another championship, the fifth of his career, more than a few folks have suggested it won’t happen.

Gordon hasn’t been the dynamo he once was – he won 33 races in three years when he was a kid, but only four in the last four seasons – let’s not forget he’s made the Chase and finished among the top 10 in points in every year but one since the “playoff” began in 2004.

For five of the last six years he’s been overshadowed by teammate Jimmie Johnson. But then, so has everybody else.

To me, there’s no doubt Gordon can win another championship. His skills haven’t eroded and let’s remind ourselves that he still drives for Hendrick Motorsports, which has long since proven its title-winning savvy.

But I personally believe – note I said personally – that Gordon, who will be 40 years old in August, might have adjusted his priorities.

He’s now the father of two children and I believe that any man who becomes a dad and wants to be fully dedicated to the care, health and welfare of his children often looks at his career differently.

He sometimes reaches the conclusion that, however and whenever possible, family must come first.

Which certainly does not mean Gordon won’t try his best in every race. But it does mean that he won’t make the kind of sacrifices he once did to achieve his goals.

It’s just no longer that important. Besides, Gordon has already carved his name into NASCAR lore and on the list for certain Hall of Fame membership.

Frankly, if he’s still racing at, say, age 45 I would be very, very surprised.

 

Denny Hamlin: He beat himself up pretty good throughout 2011 after losing the 2010 title to Johnson by 39 points after Hamlin won eight races that season, a personal best and tops among all competitors.

Last year, he won once, barely made the Chase and finished ninth in the final standings. That was quite a meltdown and Hamlin admitted he sometimes struggled emotionally.

I am no sports psychologist – word was one counseled Hamlin – but I would suggest to the Virginian that the best thing he can do is put 2011 behind him. Then compete this season with the fire of a man with something to prove.

My thinking is that Hamlin now has someone who can help him, perhaps immensely.ham

His new crew chief is Darian Grubb, who served as Tony Stewart’s pit boss last year but was, inexplicably to some, dismissed even though his boss won five races in the Chase and his third career title.

I can assure you Grubb was dealt an emotional blow. And I believe he’s going to be determined to perform at his best in 2012, if for no other reason than to prove his worth – and, yes, mostly to Stewart Haas Racing.

The union between Hamlin and Grubb is one that likely involves two men who have resolve and something to prove.

That’s a very powerful combination. And do not be surprised if it brings powerful results.

Richard Petty Motorsports: In many ways it is difficult to see the name of stock car racing’s once and forever “king” attached to an organization that has been beset with financial problems – and is a mere shadow of what Petty Enterprises once was.

But RPM has managed to survive and again will be part of the NASCAR landscape in 2012.

However, logic dictates that competitively, it’s not likely to do all that much. If nothing else, it can’t match the resources enjoyed by other organizations.

And, to be honest, its two drivers aren’t going to be listed as favorites to win any race.

Well, Marcos Ambrose will get due attention at any road course event since he won his first career Cup race at Watkins Glen in 2011.

Not sure Aric Almirola, the team’s new driver, will get much notice of any kind. This is nothing against him at all. Rather, it’s just that he’s had only 36 career starts with six different teams and earned only one finish among the top five.

He may well be a top competitor in the future, and but the future isn’t now, is it?

My thinking is that if Almirola takes advantage of his new opportunity and can put up a few good numbers, and Ambrose wins at least one oval track race and finds his way into the Chase, it will be a banner season for RPM.

A.J. Allmendinger and Kasey Kahne: Allmendinger, who raced with RPM in 2011, got the ride at Penske Racing. He replaced Kurt Busch.

Allmendinger is now with a proven winner and has the best opportunity he’s ever had to win his first Cup race and make the Chase.

I think he knows that. And it certainly helps that he won the 24 Hours of Daytona. No, it’s not a NASCAR race, but victory of any kind boosts a driver’s confidence and, in Allmendinger’s case, indicates that Penske may have made a very good decision.

Kahne is now with Hendrick Motorsports and he has, rightfully so, gushed about his excitement over his new opportunity.

Why would he not? He’s been without a victory for three seasons and, despite that, Hendrick thought enough of him and his ability to sign him as Mark Martin’s replacement.

What we have here are two guys who have been afforded opportunities of which they could probably only dream.

When competitors get the chance to improve their status and competitiveness – and ultimately their careers – that is exactly what they should strive to do.

Which, I think, is what Allmendinger and Kahne intend to do.

I think it will be very interesting to see how they fare this season.

Richard Childress Racing: I think it is better team, or should at least be so, than it has displayed in recent seasons.

Kevin Harvick has maintained his status as multiple race winner and championship contender. He won four times and finished third in points last year.

But that level of performance has not been maintained throughout the entire organization.

For example, few would have imagined that in 2011, Jeff Burton would sink to 20th in points with only five finishes among the top 10.

I realize that not every organization can always have all its teams win races or even make the Chase – although that’s happened.

However, I do think RCR can, and should, perform better. I’m not alone.

If nothing else, just ask Childress himself.

I’m done for now and thank you for your indulgence. Your thoughts are, as always, welcome.

 

It’s Simple: Guys On Top In The Chase Have Performed Better

Although some analysts claim that any driver who starts the Chase for the Sprint Cup with at least two decidedly poor performances has no chance to win a championship, I’ve maintained that, yep, the odds are against him – but nothing is impossible.

I simply think that the completion of a couple of races is too early to determine who is going to win a title or who is already eliminated from contention.

However, there is this truth: It does give us a much better idea of who is going to remain in the running and who’s got to beat some heavy odds to get back into it.

That’s pretty much the situation after the opening Chase races at Chicago and New Hampshire. We have a good sense of which drivers are comfortably in contention, which might feel a sense of urgency and which are hanging by a thread that could snap very quickly.

Not to belabor the obvious here, but how the competitors are sorted in points after two races reflects on their on-track performance. Those who are off to good starts are higher in points than those who have stumbled – hey, that makes sense, right?

Tony Stewart came out of nowhere and won twice in the opening two weeks of the Chase. He vaulted from ninth to first in points. He did the absolute best any driver could do and his reward, for the time being, is to be in the ideal position to win his third career championship.

Kevin Harvick was second in points when the Chase began and held it after his runnerup finish at Chicago. He might still be the leader if he hadn’t stumbled a bit at New Hampshire, where he finished 12th and opened the door for Stewart. Still, Harvick remains No. 2 in the standings, only seven points behind Stewart. Right now Harvick is comfortable.

So are these drivers:

** Brad Keselowski, third place in points, just 11 behind Stewart. Keselowski is the biggest surprise of the Chase, if not the season. He has won three times this year, which earned him entry into the Chase as a “wildcard” and in 11th in points.

He’s been propelled forward by two excellent finishes in the Chase – fifth at Chicago and second at New Hampshire.

** Carl Edwards, fourth in points, 14 behind Stewart. Edwards, to date the top dog in the Chase for Roush Fenway Racing, is another example of what consistency can do. He has finishes of fourth and eighth to date and thus has gained one spot in the standings.

** Jeff Gordon, fifth in points, 23 behind Stewart. Gordon has dropped two positions since the start of the Chase but that would not have happened if he hadn’t stumbled at Chicago with a 24th-place finish. He rebounded at New Hampshire, where he finished fourth. If he hadn’t done that it’s very likely he would be in a more difficult situation.

** Kyle Busch, sixth in points, 26 behind Stewart. The younger Busch came into the Chase seeded No. 1 based upon his four victories this season. But he was 22nd at Chicago and 11th at New Hampshire. His failure to crack the top 10 is the reason for his tumble. However, it could be worse.

** Matt Kenseth, seventh in points but, like Busch, 26 behind Stewart. Kenseth is another example of the benefit of a rebound performance. He was 21st at Chicago (and fell from fourth to 10th in points) before a beneficial sixth-place run at New Hampshire. It’s the same for him as it is for Busch – it could be worse.

Things are considerably more problematic for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, eighth through 12 in points, respectively.

Interestingly, only four of the group – Earnhardt Jr., the older Busch, Newman and Johnson – have a top-10 finish in the Chase, and all were achieved in the first race at Chicago.

At New Hampshire, they were 17th (Earnhardt Jr.) or worse, which, as you can easily determine, has put them on shaky ground.

Nearly everyone has suggested that Hamlin, who finished 31st at Chicago and 29th at New Hampshire, is already cooked. He is 12th in points, 66 points in back of Stewart, and it will take a near miracle for him to recoup.

Some have said that Johnson, the five-time defending champion, is also out of the competition. But I don’t think being 29 points out of first place entirely displaces him. Johnson has been known to make up plenty of lost ground in the past – he was 136 points behind in 2006 when it paid 175 points to win. Thus, percentage-wise, he’s not as far in arrears this year.

But he faces a tough task. He’s not alone.

It’s not an impossible one, however. Johnson and Hamlin are certainly capable of winning – even two races in a row. For that matter, so are all the drivers in the Chase.

Given that, starting at Dover this weekend, things could get topsy-turvy.

But it won’t make any difference for those drivers who continue to do what all racers who strive for a championship should – win races if possible; otherwise, be consistent.

Sounds logical, obvious and ridiculously simple, doesn’t it? But it’s an absolute fact. We’ve seen evidence of it in the Chase already and there will be more in the weeks to come.

Stewart’s Timing Perfect In First Chase Race

Making the right moves involves timing. And it appears Tony Stewart knows something about timing. At least, he showed that on Monday on the race track.

Disappointed and frustrated for most of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season in a fruitless search for victory, Stewart finally won his first race of the year in the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

The race was the first of 10 in the Chase and Stewart’s victory propelled him to second place in the point standings, just seven points behind new leader Kevin Harvick.

Since Stewart came into the Chicagoland race ninth in points – after sweating out several weeks of doubt that he would make it at all – finishing first was indeed a good move.

Stewart’s late-race strategy also proved to be a good move. The Geico 400 was yet another fuel mileage race. As usual, most of the competitors were doing their best to save gas, but many of them ran out anyway.

On the last lap, several of the lead-lap cars bailed, the victims of empty gas tanks. Had they been able to run the distance the final standings would have looked much different.

Stewart, however, followed his preservation strategy perfectly – another good move – and it paid off handsomely.

“You couldn’t pick a better weekend to get that first win of the year than here at Chicago, obviously,” said Stewart, who has now won at least one race in each of the last 13 seasons, his entire Cup career. “We felt like there were three or four opportunities earlier in the year that we let some get away from us.  But we have struggled.

“We’ve had a miserable year. But the last three weeks have really started coming into it. We had a really good run in Atlanta. Good solid run last week at Richmond.

“Then to come out this weekend, I don’t think Darian (Grubb, crew chief), or either one of us, thought that we had as good a car as we needed to win today. But it didn’t take long in the race to figure out that we were pretty solid.

“It was just getting the track position.”

Stewart got that position. Afterward it was a matter of saving fuel.

The final scenario was set up on lap 213, when a caution period began after debris was found on the track. The leaders pitted. Martin Truex Jr. stayed out on the track and was in first place when the race restarted.

Matt Kenseth was second and Stewart third.

Ten laps later Kenseth passed Truex Jr. to take the lead and 10 laps after that, Stewart moved into first place after dueling with Kenseth.

Truex Jr. pitted on lap 254 with just 13 laps left in the race. From that point on it was obvious none of the leaders was going to pit. The plan was to finish the distance and in some cases, it would be a huge gamble, as some crew chiefs felt their drivers would come up as much as three laps short.

“At the end you hate to have to play the fuel mileage game,” Stewart said. “But that’s just the way the caution came out. And we came in and got fuel and Darian told me we had to save a lap’s worth of fuel.

“So we had a whole run to do it. But we kept a lot of pressure on Matt and finally got by him and once we got out to a second and a half, two-second lead we could start backing off the pace and start saving fuel.

“And I felt like I’d saved enough to get us to the end. But we came off of Turn 2 after we got the checkered and the fuel pressure was down to two pounds, and it stayed there until just shortly after we picked up the checkered flag at the flag stand. We didn’t do any wild burnout or anything like that and ran out before we ever got on pit road.

“So we were closer than I wanted to be. But we didn’t have anything to lose. Where we’re at in The Chase right now, we had to press.”

Virtually everyone in the Chase still in contention for a top-10 finish pressed, too – it’s expected of them in the “playoffs.”

But it didn’t pay off all around. On the last few laps, especially the last, so many cars turned toward pit road or fell off the pace it looked like a fleet of commuters on the freeway backed up at an exit ramp.

Among those who ran out of gas were five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin and Kenseth.

Newman finished eighth, Johnson 10th and Kenseth 21st. All are championship contenders.

Their misfortune helped other competitors gain position at race’s end. Harvick, last week’s winner at Richmond, moved into second place.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had a good run most of the day, wound up in third place. Carl Edwards moved up to fourth and Brad Keselowski was fifth.

Earnhardt Jr., another driver concerned about making the Chase, soared from 10th in points to fifth, one position behind Kurt Busch. Edwards moved from fifth to third and Keselowski took a hike from 11th place as a “wildcard” entry to sixth.

Seventh through 12th in points are, in order, Newman, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and .

The Geico 400 certainly made an impact on the Chase. For some drivers, it was bad and for others, very good.

For Stewart it was perfect.

But it must be noted, again, that the race was the first of 10 that will determine the champion.

There is a long way to go. And a lot can happen.

Richmond Race Ranks As One Of The Best, For Many Reasons

RICHMOND, Va. – The Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway was the most entertaining race of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season for many reasons.

It lived up to its billing as a potentially emotion-charged event featuring some edgy drivers. It was also described as a race in which competitors with nothing to lose would entertain fans by taking chances, which they did.

It was characterized, often, as a race that would magnetize our attention because it would determine the starting field for the Chase.

And it was what it has always been: A race conducted on a tough short track that provides singular challenges to competitors. As they attempt to meet those challenges, anything can happen.

Saturday night at Richmond, it did.

Before it was half complete, the race looked like a demolition derby. It was supposed to be conducted by 43 of the best drivers in the world but to many it looked like they failed to show up and were replaced by amateurs.

Perhaps the numerous wrecks, and resulting caution periods, were simply coincidental. But it’s more likely hard racing fueled by daring and even desperation caused them.

It’s a given that for cars to get three abreast at Richmond is to invite disaster. It happened regularly.

Chase scenarios changed with almost every passing lap.

Early in the race it appeared the “playoff” hopes of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin – and even Clint Bowyer’s slim chances – were dashed. All three were involved in accidents.

The cars of Earnhardt Jr. and Hamlin were thoroughly beaten up. In fact, over the radio a disgusted and frustrated Earnhardt expressed his anger over his battered car’s performance.

While he was doing that, durned if he wasn’t involved in two more accidents. They were with Travis Kvapil. Kvapil whacked Earnhardt Jr. to create the first and the second? Well, suffice it to say it was payback from the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Earnhardt Jr. might have been frustrated for another reason. As he toiled just to hold his position in the back of the pack, Brad Keselowski, the man who could oust him from the top 10 in points, raced his way into the top 10 – and then into the top five.

For a long time Earnhardt Jr.’s hold on a Chase starting spot was tenuous. The last thing his anxious fans wanted to see was their favorite driver fail in the last race before the “playoffs” begin.

But as the race progressed, Keselowski faded and Earnhardt Jr. – who benefited from three “lucky dog” scenarios that allowed him to regain three lost laps – moved up a handful of positions.

When the race was over, Keselowski was in 12th place, Earnhardt Jr. 16th. Earnhardt Jr. held on to his top-10 position and eked into the Chase.

Keselowski is in as a “wildcard” entry by virtue of his three victories on the season.

Meanwhile, Hamlin, normally a force at Richmond, which is his hometown track, was not a factor, at least as far as victory was concerned.

He persevered to finish ninth and he also made the Chase – as the second and final “wildcard” selection.

For a time, it seemed Bowyer would buck the odds. He was 14th in points going into the race and had virtually no chance to make the Chase.

To do so, first, he had to win. He tried hard as he moved into the top five. But he, too, came up short as he finished 22nd.

As did David Ragan, who also had to win to move into the top 20 in points and made the Chase field with two victories on the season. Ragan also raced into the top five.

But at the finish he was in fourth place and out of the Chase – barely. It was a solid effort.

As if the ever-changing Chase scenarios didn’t make Richmond galvanizing enough, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch got into it again – not once, but twice.

After their run-in, confrontation and name-calling in Pocono, while virtually everyone figured Johnson and Busch wouldn’t have dinner together, they thought the case was closed.

Not so. At Richmond, Busch locked up his tires and slid into Johnson, who hit the wall. Johnson later deliberately clipped Busch’s rear end to cause both of them to spin.

Johnson completed 362 of 400 laps and finished 31st. Busch came home in fifth place. The name-calling continues and folks are eager to see what the two might do over the final 10 races of the season.

Kevin Harvick won the race to earn the second seed in the Chase. The top position went to Kyle Busch, sixth place at Richmond.

The three drivers in the most danger of not making the Chase prior to Richmond did indeed make the “playoffs” – but not, as said, before some very anxious moments.

Tony Stewart, who finished a comfortable seventh at Richmond, Earnhardt Jr., and Hamlin are all in. Stewart is the ninth seed, Earnhardt Jr. 10th and Hamlin 12th, behind Keselowski.

There were times during the Richmond race when it appeared not all of them would advance and would be overtaken by the prodigious efforts of others.

That’s one reason the Wonderful Pistachios 400, nearly always an exciting event on the challenging short track that is Richmond, was more riveting than ever – and one of the best races of the year.

Print This Post Print This Post