At The Last Minute – Again – Kahne Advances In Chase

Kasey Kahne became eligible for the Chase only two races before it began. He's now on the bubble to move into the next round.

Kasey Kahne became eligible for the Chase only two races before it began. He’s now on the bubble to move into the next round.

This season Kasey Kahne has gotten the job done. But the thing is, it’s always been at the last minute.

Kahne and his Hendrick Motorsports team have spent anxious weeks wondering if they were going to accomplish what they should in order to advance – and have any shot at a championship.

For most of the season it appeared Kahne would be the only Hendrick driver to fail to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

After the 24th race of the season, at Bristol, Kahne stood 13th in points. That was good enough to make the field of 16 for the Chase but there was a problem.

Kahne was one of eight drivers who had not won a race. Five of them ranked higher in points, which meant the only sure way Kahne was going to make the “playoffs” was to win – and he had only two races in which to do so before the Chase began.

He won at the next race at Atlanta on Labor Day weekend, the 25th event of the season. With the win Kahne advanced to 11th in points and was certain to qualify for the Chase.

After Richmond, where he finished 17th, Kahne remained 11th in points after re-seeding.

It wasn’t a very safe position. After three races in the Chase, the Contender Round would begin at Kansas – and only 12 drivers would compete. Four would be eliminated.

Kahne finished 13th at Chicagoland and 23rd at Loudon. He came to Dover, the final race in the Challenger Round, 11th in points – two positions from elimination.

Kahne raced his way into the Chase with a victory in Atlanta in August, his only win of the season.

Kahne raced his way into the Chase with a victory in Atlanta in August, his only win of the season.

He managed to pull it off and, again, at the last minute.

That Kahne would advance after Dover was doubtful. He had his own set of problems and it appeared he was often swapping the last qualifying position with Kurt Busch, the Stewart Haas Racing driver who was 14th in points when the race began.

Busch finished 18th, two spots better than Kahne. But it wasn’t enough.

Kahne held on to 12th in points, two positions and six points ahead of Busch.

“You can’t expect to advance running 18th,” Busch said. “You’ve got to have better lap times every time you go and hit the track. If you’re off, it’s hard to put the car up on your back and run it.

“I just chalk it up to me not getting the job done. It’s all my fault that we didn’t advance.”

The race wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for Kahne. He had his anxious moments.

“Early we drove to fifth and then we fell back a few spots on pit road, then drove back to sixth,” he said. “We fell back a few more spots and then we had a loose wheel.  

“From that point on I was just hoping the cautions didn’t come out or that they came out at the right time. Really, they just didn’t come out and we just had to race, race, race.”

Racing, Kahne added, was the only way he made it. If he had to rely on caution periods and top-flight pit stops, he wasn’t sure the day would’ve ended as he would’ve liked.

“I am glad NASCAR let us race for it today because that is the only way I could have gotten in,” Kahne said. “I guess if a couple cautions came out or something, we could have gotten the lucky dog but we had a better car than some of the other guys and we were able to race our way in. 

“Kenny (Francis, crew chief) did a great job and our team did a great job in preparation in giving us a top five or top three car.”

Kahne said he was comfortable in his Chevrolet and did not feel anxious – until almost the very end, that is. 

“I never really got nervous at all and I just raced real hard the whole time,” he said. “Kenny started telling me we were tied for 12th and this was with 30 to go. 

“Then he would tell me we were one point in and then maybe two points in, and then he wasn’t positive. 

“Then I started getting a little bit worried, so it was intense inside the car.”

For Kahne, the worrying isn’t over. At 12th, he’s in last place in points going into the Contender Round, which lasts three races – Kansas through the always-treacherous Talladega.

Afterward four drivers will be eliminated and only eight will move on to the Eliminator Round.

To make it Kahne has to rank eighth in points, or higher, or win a race.

The feeling here is that he doesn’t want to wait until the last moment to do either one.

 

 

 

Well, Here We Go: It’s All Down To Richmond

Matt Kenseth has made the field for the Chase after he finished second at Atlanta. Although winless, he's earned enough points to join the field of 16.

Matt Kenseth has made the field for the Chase after he finished second at Atlanta. Although winless, he’s earned enough points to join the field of 16.

As far as the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it all comes down to Richmond this weekend.

Fourteen of the 16 drivers who will compose the Chase field have already been determined. The latest entry is Kasey Kahne, who won his first race of the season at Atlanta and moved into the eighth seed in the “playoff” grid.

Matt Kenseth, who is winless to date, finished second at Atlanta and thus accumulated enough points throughout the season to guaranteed himself a spot in the Chase.

He stands third in points and takes the 14th seed in the grid.

“That was the goal, to have all three Joe Gibbs Racing cars in the Chase and we were able to accomplish that,” Kenseth said. “The ultimate goal is for one of us to be able to win the championship.

“I’m not a huge believer in momentum, but yet I feel like everyone is really clicking together and working well together and the pit stops are good. 

“I feel like we’re doing everything right now, we just need a little more speed to be able to start getting those wins.”

Now that he’s in the Chase, Kenseth is confident he can win. He feels he can capitalize on the consistency he’s displayed all season. He has 16 finishes among the top 10 in 25 races.

Ryan Newman is also winless going into Richmond, but under certain circumstances he'll make the Chase if he finishes 41st or better.

Ryan Newman is also winless going into Richmond, but under certain circumstances he’ll make the Chase if he finishes 41st or better.

“I think our team has a lot of confidence, knock on wood,” Kenseth said. “We haven’t had any kind of mechanical failures.  I feel like the team is really ready, we just need a little more speed. 

“I feel like we’re doing everything we can, we just need a little bit more to get over that hump and be standing over there in victory lane.”

The Chase scenarios at Richmond are plentiful and somewhat complicated. Kenseth gets in no matter if there is a repeat winner or a new winner – which could be him.

And any current winless driver who wins at Richmond, and is in the top 30 in points, clinches a spot in the Chase. Yeah, that includes Kenseth – and several others.

Is it clear now that Kenseth is in?

Heading into Richmond, the two winless drivers ranked behind Kenseth in the gird are Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle. They are 15th and 16th, respectively, in the grid and ninth and 10th in the point standings.

Newman seems to be on firm ground as he seeks to be the only Richard Childress Racing driver to make the Chase.

If there is a repeat winner or Kenseth is victorious, all Newman has to do is finish 41st or better.

If there is a new winner, and it’s not Kenseth, Newman is in if he finishes 18th or better.

Things aren’t certain for Newman but the odds are in his favor.

Biffle, who has had a disappointing season with Roush Fenway Racing, needs to finish 22nd or better if he doesn’t win – or if there is a repeat winner.

If there is a new winner and it’s not Kenseth or Newman, Biffle must out-point Newman by 19 points – not an easy task – and stay ahead of Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson, who lurk just outside the grid.

Biffle is not happy with his season, in which he’s earned just three top-five finishes and 10 among the top 10.

“Quite honestly, the worst we ran, the harder we worked, the more we tested, the more meetings we had – the worse we became,” Biffle said. “We were pushing down a wrong road on aerodynamics, theory, balance and everything else.

“We have righted the ship. We saw what we were doing wrong. We don’t know everything yet but we know about plenty we have done wrong.

“We are fortunate to be in the Chase right now. But we can’t celebrate right now.”

Bowyer was part of the Chase until an unfortunate race at Atlanta, where he finished 38th, put him on the outside looking in by one position.

He’s under the gun at Richmond. So are a few others.

But then, someone could just come right out of the mist and surprise us all this weekend.

It’s happened before.

 

 

 

 

 

Kahne And Team Still Searching For What It Takes

Kasey Kahne has been successful in the past but this year he is winless and has become the weakest member of the Hendrick Motorsports team.

Kasey Kahne has been successful in the past but this year he is winless and has become the weakest member of the Hendrick Motorsports team.

These are not the best of times for Kasey Kahne.

He’s one of four drivers employed by powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, currently the best team in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

Kahne can avail himself of the best in personnel and equipment.

But that doesn’t seem to do him much good, at least at this point in the season.

Kahne is winless this year with only five finishes among the top 10, two of them, a third at Kansas and a fourth at Michigan, are among the top five.

He languishes at 19th in the point standings.

All of this is no doubt disappointing for Kahne for a couple of reasons. First, he won twice last year with 11 finishes among the top five – six of them in second – and 14 among the top 10. He made the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Second, and this is probably more disturbing for Kahne, he has become the weakest member of the Hendrick clan.

Teammates Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have six victories among them and are certain to make the Chase.

They occupy the top three positions in points, with Gordon first, Johnson just 15 points behind and Earnhardt Jr. 23 in arrears.

That’s quite a chasm between Kahne and his three teammates.

Kahne believes that for his team to progress it has to be able to run entire races without problems. That has happened a couple of times this year, but more is needed.

Kahne believes that for his team to progress it has to be able to run entire races without problems. That has happened a couple of times this year, but more is needed.

There’s always the question why, and if the answer was easy, it’s certain Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis would have already found it.

It’s only logical that they would gain knowledge from their successful teammates and apply it to their situation – or so you would think.

But what has been proven so many times over the years is that teammates often find they can’t share. What works for one or more simply doesn’t for the other.

Remember that it took Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus 12 races this season to solve their competitive problems. Then they won three of four races.

It could be that, given some changes and better fate, it might be the same for Kahne.

“I think there has been a touch of bad luck and then we just haven’t put together full races,” he said. “We’ve had great practices over the last month, maybe a little more than that. We’ve been really good in practice; great at times during the race, but we haven’t put together the full race.

“And when we have, it’s been one and then we forget how for the next three, and then come back for the fourth one and run pretty well. That side of it’s been tough and we’re all looking at that together to try to make it better.”

Kahne doubtless felt some relief after his fourth-place run at Michigan, his first top-five finish in over a month.

But he’s not ready to proclaim that he and his team have made a turnaround. At Michigan he said one good finish isn’t going to silence the critics – nor should it.

“I look at it as we need to score as many points as we can each week,” Kahne said. “Our stretch of tracks that we run really well at started about three weeks ago. 

It goes for another month, so hopefully we can hit on something over this little span that we have. 

“We haven’t yet, but we are in a good group of tracks for myself and Kenny and our team. 

We just have to do the best we can and hopefully as a group we figure it out and can start putting full races together.

It sounds so simple. But it isn’t. There isn’t one team in the doldrums that will tell you it is.

But there has been plenty of proof that it can be done.

“We just need to put 400-500 miles together,” Kahne said. “If we can do that we will be in a good spot in a hurry because of the points system and the way that it is now. 

“We’re definitely not out until Richmond and I guess that is when you would be out. 

You have a much better shot this way to make the Chase even if you are not running very well throughout the first half of the year.“We are trying.  We are working at it.  We just need to hit on it.

Once we do hopefully we can run with it for a while.”

 

 

 

‘Frankentire Factor’ – Fantasy Insight Atlanta

Kasey Kahne

Another factor that crosses over from horse race handicapping to fantasy race handicapping is the equipment change. In the past I have talked at length about how you have to mentally adjust someone’s chances in a particular race if you see the driver in different equipment.

But one other factor that affects each driver in the race is tires. This week at Atlanta Motor Speedway Goodyear is introducing the tire dubbed as “Frankentire” and the fantasy handicapper has to wonder how this might change the dynamic of the race. This week the “Frankentire Factor” needs to be considered in addition to the other variables.

When it comes to tires we have one useful piece of data to consider. NASCAR and the tracks let us know which drivers went to tire testing. If we combine that info with the Power Ratings we can diagnose if one of the drivers that tested a new tire at a track might have an advantage.

The right side tire at AMS this week is unique because it uses a compound used at Kansas and Michigan on the inside three inches of the tire with the compound used at Atlanta in the past on the rest of the tire. We usually do not have test times to compare one driver to the next so it is more about familiarity with the tire than pure speed that helps us develop our educated guess on the “Frankentire Factor” this week.

They say familiarity breeds contempt in relationships but in tires familiarity can be the key to a trip to Victory Lane. Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Paul Menard, David Ragan, David Reutimann, Martin Truex Jr. and J.J. Yeley were the drivers testing at Atlanta on the new tire.

Kasey Kahne was the only driver involved in the tire test to choose the new tire that returned for the regular test at Atlanta. This gives Kahne a slight advantage on the “Frankentire” and when combined with the third best Power Rating that makes Kahne my choice this week.

Good luck with your fantasy racing picks this week and don’t forget to send in your pick for “Whiteboard Fantasy Racing” this week for Atlanta.      

Send in your pick to win this week’s Cup race to dennis@racetalkradio.com for a chance to win a copy of the National Speedway Directory from SpeedwaysOnline.com.

National Speedway Directory

Hot off the press the 2013 edition of the National Speedway Directory is now available. For over 3 decades the NSD has given race fans and teams information about every track in North America. Order your copy today at http://speedwaysonline.com

Weather Report

Variable cloudiness with a threat of thunderstorms; high temp in the mid to upper 80s; temps falling into the mid 70s during the race.

If you have a question about Fantasy Racing send it to dennis@racetalkradio.com and get it answered next week.

NASCAR by the Numbers

Using a proprietary race analysis technique we take the fans inside the numbers every week. DMIC’s rating system has been in use since 2002 and has proven to pick the contenders from the pretenders!

Consistency is King (Last Five Races)

Joey Logano

Driver

Last 5

J Logano

94

K Kahne

91

R Newman

89

JP Montoya

89

Ku Busch

88

C Bowyer

88

Ky Busch

88

J Gordon

87

M Kenseth

87

C Edwards

86

Horses for Courses (Track Rating)

Driver

Course

J Gordon

92

M Kenseth

91

Brian Vickers

90

JP Montoya

90

K Harvick

89

Ku Busch

89

D Hamlin

87

AJ Allmendinger

86

Ky Busch

86

B Keselowski

85           

Type Casting (Track Type Factor)

Driver

Type

J Johnson

92

J Logano

92

C Edwards

92

M Truex

92

D Hamlin

92

Ky Busch

91

M Kenseth

91

K Kahne

90

K Harvick

90

B Keselowski

89

Power Rating (240 Minimum to Qualify as Contender)

Driver

Power

M Kenseth

269

Ky Busch

265

K Kahne

264

K Harvick

264

J Logano

262

Ku Busch

261

J Johnson

260

B Keselowski

260

M Truex

260

Brian Vickers

259

C Edwards

259

G Biffle

258

JP Montoya

257

R Newman

257

J Gordon

256

D Hamlin

255

C Bowyer

254

P Menard

252

D Earnhardt Jr

251

AJ Allmendinger

248

M Ambrose

247

A Almirola

244

J McMurray

242

Austin Dillon

242

M Martin

242

J Burton

241

R Stenhouse Jr

236

C Mears

225

D Ragan

223

D Stremme

222

D Reutimann

221

D Gilliland

221

B Labonte

220

T Kvapil

219

D Patrick

219

D Blaney

218

Kyle Busch

DMIC’s Fantasy Picks presented by Speedwaysonline.com

Each week we will take you beyond the numbers to handicap the field from top to bottom to help your Fantasy Racing team succeed. You are also invited to join Lori Munro and I on “White Board Fantasy Racing” every Monday night on “Doin’ Donuts” at 8pm ET on RaceTalkRadio.com. Win fun prizes by picking just the race winners in our unique format. Send your picks to info@racetalkradio.com to enter.

Top Pick (Last Week Finished 11th)

Kasey Kahne- “Frankentire Factor” and strong Power Rating add up to a winning pick

(7 to 1 Odds) 

Best Long Shot (Odds of 20-1 or More) (Last Week Finished 4th)   

Joey Logano- Needs a win so team willing to take a strategy gamble

(20 to 1 Odds)

Top Dogs (Group A in Yahoo) (Last Week Finished 30th)

Jimmie Johnson- Should bounce back big from two sub par performances

(5 to 1 Odds)

Second Class (Group B in Yahoo) (Last Week 20th)         

Kyle Busch- Hottest driver in NASCAR right now

(7 to 1 Odds)

Middle Packer (Group C in Yahoo) (Last Week Finished 18th)         

Austin Dillon- Will offer a solid group pick to manage your Stenhouse usage

(100 to 1 Odds)

Crazy 8s for Atlanta

Each week Lori Munro and Dennis Michelsen battle in the most unique racing game around! We pick one driver each from each 8 driver group using the current points’ standings. Our picks can help you round out your fantasy racing lineup!

Dennis won 3-2 in week 24 and Lori leads the game 14-10 for the year

Group 1: Dennis picks Jimmie Johnson and Lori picks Matt Kenseth

Group 2: Lori picks Joey Logano and Dennis picks Brad Keselowski

Group 3: Dennis picks Paul Menard and Lori picks Denny Hamlin

Group 4: Lori picks Mark Martin and Dennis picks Danica Patrick

Group 5: Dennis picks Brian Vickers and Lori picks Austin Dillon

Do you have what it takes to handicap the races? Join Lori and Dennis every week and play in the Whiteboard Fantasy Racing Series! Send your pick for the Cup race to info@racetalkradio.com to enter. Weekly prize given away! 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Hendrick Teams Differ In Season Performance, But All Able To Win 600

Although he hasn't won since Michigan in 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has enjoyed a revitalized season in 2012 and has become a strong suit at Hendrick Motorsports. But he has yet to win.

CONCORD, N.C. – While Jimmie Johnson is considered a strong favorite to win the Coca-Cola 600, and thereby continue the resurgence of his Hendrick Motorsports team, his teammates won’t share his status.

Make no mistake, certainly they would like to win and it’s very possible that one of them will.

But, truth be known, they would likely be very pleased if they could finish among the top five – maybe even the top 10 – in the longest race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit.

Unlike Johnson, who has won the last two NASCAR events within a week, his three teammates have experienced different results this year.

Critics would give them “mixed” reviews.

One of them has had a solid year, but he still hasn’t won.

Another started his inaugural season with Hendrick horribly. But he has rebounded with top-10 finishes in each of the last five races.

The third has had such an uncharacteristically poor season that he’s even joked about it. Unless things improve dramatically he won’t make the Chase and get a shot at a fifth career championship.

Along with Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be considered a potential 600 winner. He, too, has been on a streak of sorts.

He won the Sprint Showdown and one segment of the Sprint All Star Race, won by Johnson. In the 600, Earnhardt Jr. will race the same Chevrolet in which he won the Showdown.

All of this seems to bode well for Earnhardt Jr. Additionally, even though his record in the 600 hasn’t been particularly good over the past several years, he was en route victory last year when he ran out of gas.

“You definitely feel you let one get away,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “When you come close to winning a race you definitely think about what you might have done different, or ‘If only this or that.’

“But you don’t think about that too much. You can get distracted and not really be thinking about what you’re trying to do that moment.”

Earnhardt Jr. was once the weakest link in the Hendrick chain. No longer.

This season he has finished out of the top 10 only twice and has five runs of seventh or better – including two runnerup and two thirds.

He’s been hovering near the points lead for most of the season. Going into the 600 he was in third place, just 14 points leader Greg Biffle. He’s two positions and 25 points ahead of Johnson.

Earnhardt Jr., who earned his last win at Michigan in 2008, has been flirting with victory so often that many supporters say it’s now only a matter of time.

That time could come at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I think we’re confident,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We know what kind of potential we have and we are all expecting to improve over some of the things we did last week.

“It’s (crew chief) Steve Legate’s and his group’s job to get together and squeeze a little more speed out of the car. We need to try to work harder to go better and to go faster.

“If the car is good enough and we do everything we need to do, we’ll be right there with an opportunity to win a race. That’s what you have to concentrate on.”

Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon (left) and Kasey Kahne have had their struggles this season. Kahne is making advances but Gordon is still slumping.

Team owner Rick Hendrick was among the many who thought Kasey Kahne would be a perfect fit at his organization.

After all, Kahne, who replaced the departed Mark Martin, came with excellent credentials. At age 32 with eight full seasons under his belt, he had won 12 races, including one with the lame duck Red Bull team last year at Phoenix.

But his season started miserably. Because of several misfortunes, his best run was a 14th at Fontana. He finished 29th or worse in four races. By the sixth race of the year he was 31st in points.

He been on a rally ever since. He came to Charlotte with a five-race string of top-10 finishes. He has climbed to 16th in points.

Obviously Kahne would like keep his good roll going at Charlotte.

“To me, the season hasn’t been great,” said Kahne, who will make his 300th career start at CMS. “But I do think some people may have thought it was much worse than what it was.

“I feel like we’ve been running pretty well since the start of the season. But we really haven’t made those big gains yet. We have speed and it’s obvious it’s right there. We just need to put it all together.”

Kahne isn’t sour about how his season started. He believes it was a result of certain circumstances.

“I am happy for everybody at Hendrick Motorsports over what’s been accomplished so far,” he said. “And as for the way we’ve run, I don’t think it’s necessarily me. Our team isn’t running as well as we would like – for now.

“But it is nice to know that everything we need is right there. We have the same stuff everyone else has and we’ve been able to use some of it to get better.

“If we hit on things hopefully we can run as good as the No. 48 (Johnson) has been running.”

Jeff Gordon is now in his 20th NASCAR season, all of which have been spent with Hendrick.

He has won 85 races and four championships. He was, without a doubt, the star player at Hendrick until Johnson’s rise, marked by five consecutive titles.

In 2012 what was once Gordon’s “star” has become a black hole.

He has only two finishes among the top 10 and seven of 20th or worse – including four beyond the top 30.

He’s been hammered by a series of improbable, unfortunate incidents that include everything from engine failure to poor pit stops to a tire that goes flat not once, but twice.

Gordon’s luck has been so bad Hendrick declared on national TV that he wouldn’t get in an airplane with him.

Even Gordon has been upbeat in post-race interviews following another disappointing race. He said there is a reason for that.

“What are you going to do other than keep your head up and work hard?” Gordon said. “You go to the next race and try to change it.

“We’ve got too good of a team and too good of a race cars to try to get down on ourselves about the way things are going. It’s tough.

“The timing gets tougher and tougher all the time because the more races that go by that we don’t get the results, the harder and harder that mountain is to climb.

“We just have to stay positive and say, ‘Hey, this is our week, this is our week.’ You can do that for only so long. We’re still doing it. Hopefully, we’ll see the results.”

For Gordon, who is 24th in points and in need of at least one victory to have any chance at the Chase as a “wildcard” entry, the results could come in the 600. He has won five times at Charlotte, one less than Johnson.

“I am excited about this weekend,” Gordon said. “At the All Star Race we learned a lot and also learned from Jimmie’s bunch, who dominated the race.

“We learned, as a team, on what we can do to be really, really good this weekend.”

In the 600 there will be four Hendrick teams on four different levels of performance. All of them, of course, hope for a good, productive outing.

One of them may have the ultimate performance.

That’s because any one of them could win. That’s a given.

 

A Tale Of Two Drivers On One Team: Dale Jr. And Kasey Kahne

Dale Earnhardt Jr. added to what has already been a very strong start to the 2012 Sprint Cup season with a second-place finish at Martinsville. It was his third finish among the top five and fourth among the top 10 in six races.

This is a tale of teammates, if you will.

Two guys racing for the same organization yet, so far in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, with decidedly different results.

As far as competition goes they are poles apart.

One, who has been with the team since 2008, is having what many consider to be his best season in perhaps a half-dozen years.

The other, a newcomer to the team, was expected to do very well with a fresh opportunity and reach the potential he has shown more than once during his career.

Instead he has fallen into a competitive abyss.

Again, these two drivers are on the same team – and not just any team. They race for Hendrick Motorsports, arguably the best organization in NASCAR which has won 199 races and

10 championships.

Hendrick’s standing in NASCAR, in fact in all of motorsports, is so lofty that when Dale Earnhardt Jr. came on board four years ago, he declared he was a member of a team with which he could win races and championships.

He hasn’t won a race since 2008. He hasn’t come close to a championship.

It reached the point where Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet, was considered the weakest link in the Hendrick armor.

He was the also-ran, the afterthought of an operation in which Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were the star players – Johnson especially so with five consecutive championships.

Even Mark Martin, who joined Hendrick in 2009 for the first of his three seasons with the team, did far better in his inaugural season.

He won five times and finished second to teammate Johnson in the final point standings.

That same year, a winless Earnhardt Jr. had only five top-10 finishes and wound up 25th in points – well out of the Chase.

Earnhardt Jr. put up better numbers over the next three seasons. But he still did not win.

It got to the point where some questioned his dedication, his focus and even his driving talent.

While his many, many fans were undoubtedly disappointed that their man couldn’t win, they never questioned his skill or desire.

They may get their ultimate reward this year.

Earnhardt Jr. is off to what is unquestionably his best start with Hendrick. In the first six races of the year he has earned four top-10 finishes.

Three of those have come among the top five and are a runnerup finish in the Daytona 500, a third-place run at Fontana and another second-place finish at Martinsville earlier this week.

Most important, Earnhardt Jr. ranks second in points, only six behind leader Greg Biffle, who, incidentally, is the only driver who can match Earnhardt Jr.’s record to date.

So what has made the difference? What has transformed Earnhardt Jr. from an afterthought to a potential championship challenger?

I’d be hard-pressed to explain it. I would assume there are many reasons.

But then, I would venture to say Earnhardt Jr.’s relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte is blossoming.

I recall once that Earnhardt Jr. said he had faith in Letarte and had to learn how to better communicate with him; to give him the information needed to improve competitiveness.

And I think Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence is back, perhaps even his optimism. During his pre-race press conference at Martinsville, if he said the word “confident” once, he said it a thousand times.

But if he knows what has created the turnaround, apparently he’s not saying – other than to, again, reveal his increased confidence.

“I don’t know what we have done and our team has done really,” he said. “But I’m happy with the way our car is running.”

He added that all the Hendrick teams have been faster so far in 2012.

“I think we are actually have more speed as a group, as a whole, than we did last year,” he said. “It’s encouraging.”

Kasey Kahne, the newest driver at Hendrick Motorsports, has not had the kind of season he, or anyone else, expected. He has yet to earn a top-10 finish because he's been plagued by misfortune on the track.

Reckon “encouraging” is about as far as Earnhardt Jr. needs to go. For him to make any grandiose pronouncements at this point would be foolish.

After all, the season has barely begun.

For which Kasey Kahne is thankful.

The newest member of the Hendrick team, who drives the No. 5 Chevrolet, has plenty of time to reverse what has been a disastrous beginning.

Kahne hasn’t gotten a whiff at a top-10 finish, much less a victory.

Fact is, he’s been awful.

He was 29th at Daytona, 34th at Phoenix, 19th at Las Vegas, 37th at Bristol, 14th at Fontana and 38th at Martinsville.

He’s presently 31st in the point standings.

Understand, all of this has been the result of circumstances well beyond Kahne’s control, such as wrecks and mechanical failures.

Call it bad luck, which has been so bad for Kahne it’s been suggested he’s been smacked with a voodoo mojo.

It’s certainly not what Kahne expected. Most of us didn’t either, for that matter.

He came to Hendrick with established credentials as a winner. He had 12 career victories, including six in 2006 with team owner Ray Evernham.

He even won a race with Red Bull Racing during that team’s lame duck 2011 season.

He knew then that he would join Hendrick in 2012 as Martin’s replacement.

And, as it was for Earnhardt Jr., it was going to be the revitalization of his career. He was going to be a part of a team with which he could win races and championships.

He may well be so, but certainly not at this pace.

For his part, Kahne appears stoic. He realizes things can change. He said so at Martinsville where, after he won his second pole of the year, he had engine problems.

“Well, I mean it is disappointing and yet it isn’t,” he said. “I am upset that we haven’t run great this year, but we were great on Friday and Saturday and we were fast again today.

“We have the speed. So when it’s our time we will be ready to take advantage of it.”

We have two drivers on the same team who are, at present, at different ends of the competitive spectrum.

Earnhardt Jr., at the top end, is cautiously optimistic that he can remain there – and enjoy a reversal of fortune.

Kahne, at the bottom, hopes his desperately needed reversal of fortune comes quickly.

For both, much time is left in the 2012 season. And time will tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sponsors Today May Have More Power While Spending Less

Single team sponsors, like Miller Lite, whose names and logos were on cars for the vast majority of a single season, are not as prevalent today. The economy has a lot to do with that as teams have to find funding from several sources to make it through a year.

That has never been more obvious than it is today, a time when, amid economic uncertainty, teams are scrambling to find every dollar they can.

Sometimes it’s not successful. You don’t have to be told about the teams that have folded or the high number of employees who have been laid off because of economic hardships.

This situation continues into 2012.

A dozen years ago things were far, far different.

It was a boom time for NASCAR. Its popularity soared. Races were sold out. National television came calling and paid huge fees for the rights to broadcast events.

With this “gold rush” teams found it easy to expand for at least one simple reason – they could ask for big dollars from companies that wanted to take advantage of a huge, relatively new market that fit their ideal demographics.

For NASCAR and its competitors it was an easy sell.

For corporate America, which was also flourishing at the time, it was an easy buy.

I’ve often said that NASCAR over a decade ago was not unlike America in the 1920s, when it was prosperous and carefree. But when the stock market crashed in 1929 everything changed and the world became more difficult and darker.

What has happened over recent years isn’t as dramatic, of course. But, and make no mistake, it’s close – and it could have been worse.

Today, this means a couple of things: Where teams could once demand $15-20 million for a single sponsor for one season – personally, I never believed they really needed that much money – they cannot today.

That is obvious, given the number of teams that have had to scramble to acquire multiple sponsorships to make it through a single season has increased significantly, so much so that it has become the norm.

You have, no doubt, noticed the various sponsor names and color schemes that have appeared on several cars during one season.

You will see it again in 2012.

And, as said, you already know that teams that have been unable to find suitable sponsorship, by whatever means, no longer exist.

That’s not unusual, given that it has happened in each of the last three seasons.

What’s happened has, in my opinion, created a shift in power, so to speak.

I believe that sponsors now have more control over the teams they support than at almost any other time.

Understand, sponsors have always been able to make demands when they fork over their dollars.

Contractually, they have been able to extract a certain number, or level, of driver personal and commercial appearances, performance requirements, logo placement on the cars, personal conduct standards and more.

And, for the most part, teams and drivers have cooperated fully. To do so was just common sense. They, and their drivers, were obligated.

For example, when Miller Lite sponsored Rusty Wallace, you would never find him with a Budweiser in his hand. Other drivers always acted in kind.

Here’s the major difference that exists today: Sponsors can make all the demands they once did – and even more – for a whole helluva lot less money.

In other words, they wield more power for less expense.

Think of it. If a company has the wherewithal to become a NASCAR sponsor today – and certainly fewer of them do – and teams are desperate for money, the balance of power has changed.

I believe it’s the sponsor who has control.

Proper driver conduct has always been a part of any sponsorship agreement. Today it might be more far-reaching than ever. When Kasey Kahne made controversial comments on Twitter it may well have prompted concerned response from Hendrick Motorsports supporters.

I think it’s logical to assume that the CEO of any company interested in NASCAR team sponsorship would, and should, make a high number of specialized demands to any organization pleading for dollars – and then settle for as many as agreed upon.

Notice I did not say it was happening. I only said that, given the overall economic situation, it could. And we should not be surprised if it has.

Evidence indicates that one thing that ranks as most important to sponsors is driver professional and personal behavior.

Which makes sense, by the way.

Surely any company would have a very difficult time explaining to its stockholders why it spends money for a race team that has a jackass as its driver.

Sponsors have, indeed, reacted to boorish driver behavior in the past. Home Depot, for example, responded to Tony Stewart’s physical confrontation with a media member by matching NASCAR’s punishment of a $50,000 fine.

But it’s likely that we will see ever more of this. It could be that we already have.

Perhaps it’s why M&Ms took its logos off the Joe Gibbs Racing car for two races after Kyle Busch deliberately wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. in a truck race.

Maybe Miller Lite suggested to Roger Penske that it was time to dump Kurt Busch after his profanity-laced tirade at Homestead on national TV.

It could be that after Kasey Kahne tweeted his disapproval of public breast feeding – and received a landslide of disapproval – that his new sponsors at Hendrick Motorsports suggested it would be in the team’s best interest if the matter be cleaned up as quickly as possible.

As an aside here, in addition to the public and the media, drivers now have to be aware of their comments, and interpreted behavior, on the social networks.

I don’t say that the sponsors involved in the aforementioned scenarios became directly involved in the resolutions.

But common sense dictates they were very aware of what happened and that, at the very least, someone on the team had some explaining to do – and for one ultimate reason: to keep the money coming in.

Again, I stress all of this is really nothing new.

However, I think there is one major difference. Sponsors today can wield as much, or more, influence over the teams as they once did.

But now they can do it by spending far less money.

Given the economy, teams have no recourse. It could be as simple, and dramatic as this: Do what it is asked – or go out of business.

Kasey Kahne and “BoobGate”, Formula One Musical Chairs: What’s Next In 2012?

Kasey Kahne finds himself in hot water with Women’s rights groups after tweeting disparinging remarks about the practice. Kimi Raikkonen draws friends and foe alike in his return to Formula One. The top story in 2011? Dan Wheldon is killed.

Improbable Phoenix Finish Sets Up Edwards-Stewart Title Showdown

Kahne

Kasey Kahne won at Phoenix for his his first win of the year and the 12th time in his career. For his Red Bull Racing team, the victory was a tremendous lift in a long season that, when over, could mean the team's demise.

I’m not sure even Hollywood would touch a script based upon what happened in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

The two guys vying for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship came into the race separated by a mere three points. Each one stages a terrific performance in an effort to keep, or take away, the points lead.

As it turns out neither one wins the race. But, remarkably, they finish second and third. Even more remarkable, their separation in points remains at three with just one race left in the season.

Hollywood ain’t buying.

Oh, it gets better. The guy who does win at Phoenix is not only ineligible for a championship, he also hadn’t been victorious in the last 81 races – over two years ago.

There’s more. The team for which he races will lose all its financial support at the end of the year and, unless it is sold, will no longer exist – which means that many talented people will become unemployed.

So with the victory the team gains a full measure of satisfaction and, if it should dissolve, at least it knows it had a glorious moment in the limelight before the end.

And yet, perhaps, its performance has been enough to prove its worth and entice a buyer who pulls it back from the brink of extinction.

Trust me, Hollywood sure ain’t buying this tale. I’m not sure even Disney or Spielberg would have anything to do with it.

But, as has been said often, sometimes reality can be far stranger than fiction. So it is after Phoenix.

When the race began Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards held a slim three-point lead over Tony Stewart, who moved into the role of title contender based upon his four wins in the Chase – easily more than any other driver.

At Phoenix, Stewart did all he could to overtake Edwards. Among other things, as he made a strong bid for win No. 5 in the Chase, he led the most laps.

But in the end circumstances dictated that Stewart would finish one position behind Edwards, who also made a strong run for victory but wound up in second place.

Edwards second; Stewart third and, as improbable as it sounds, they remain three points apart as the season comes to a close on Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Meanwhile, Kasey Kahne, who was 21st in points and hopelessly out of championship consideration when the Chase began at Chicago on Sept. 18, won at Phoenix to give Red Bull Racing its first, and to date only, victory of 2011.

It was announced weeks ago that Red Bull would cease its NASCAR operations after this season. Not that it would affect Kahne – who is headed to Hendrick Motorsports next season as Mark Martin’s replacement – but it would mean yet another wave of job losses unless the team is sold.

Finding a buyer has been a pressing task for team general manager Jay Frye. Maybe the job has now become a little bit easier because anyone interested in NASCAR team ownership must have sense enough to know that all the talent involved – not just that of the driver and crew chief – is the true measure of success.

Simply put, the victory certainly doesn’t hurt Frye’s efforts a darn bit, does it?

Kahne’s victory should come as no surprise. Given his performances in recent weeks many thought it was just a matter of time

Edwards-Stewart

As improbable as it sounds, Carl Edwards (left) finished second at Phoenix while Tony Stewart wound up third. That means the two are still only three points apart, with Edwards in front, in the fight for the title as the season comes to a close at Homestead this weekend.

During the Chase he has been the best among the non-qualifiers. In five of the six races preceding Phoenix, he did not finish lower than sixth – including a second place at Kansas and a third at Texas.

“It means a lot,” said Kahne, who last won at Atlanta in September of 2009 and now has 12 career victories. “Some of these guys haven’t won before and it felt like I haven’t won, either.

“For Kenny (Francis, crew chief, who will join Kahne at Hendrick) and the whole team that’s been together for a while at Red Bull, it’s been a long season. The guys haven’t given up. We keep getting better as the season goes and it takes time to finish things up. I just wanted to win for them really bad before the switch.

“Man, they’ve been a big part of NASCAR. I just hope in some way they are still a big part of NASCAR because I know everyone really enjoys them being here.”

The race-closing series of green-flag pit stops made the difference at Phoenix. With 21 laps remaining in the 312-lap race, Edwards pitted to surrender his lead.

Stewart pitted two laps later and suffered after an air pressure adjustment negatively affected his car’s handling.

With 14 laps to go leader Brad Keselowski pitted to give Kahne the lead he would hold until the finish.

On the last lap Stewart passed Jeff Burton to move into third place behind Edwards to set up the season’s most unlikely, and very dramatic, conclusion. It’s down to Edwards and Stewart. All other Chase contenders have been eliminated.

We did almost everything we needed to do,” said Stewart, a two-time champion. “We led a lap, led the most laps, and just came up two spots shy. But it was just a little bit too loose on entry the last two runs there.

“We were able to run Jeff down and get back to third. So we’re keeping Carl honest.

“We have a third and two wins in the last three races so we’re going to keep the pressure on him. We’ll make him sweat it out.”

“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Edwards, who has won two of the last three races at Homestead and may become the first driver to win a title with just one victory in a season since Matt Kenseth in 2003. “It is going to be fun. It is neat to go to Homestead and race it out.

“I love that place. It was a good hard fought day. I am really pumped for Homestead. I think it is going to be a good time.”

I don’t think there can be any doubt about that.

Nor should any of us be surprised if the race produces another scenario even Hollywood would not believe.

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