NASCAR: With 2 Wins, Jimmie Johnson Marches towards 7th Title

Jimmie Johnson has taken to the low downforce cars with a vengeance. Is this a sign he's going to take a 7th title?

Jimmie Johnson has taken to the low downforce cars with a vengeance. Is this a sign he’s going to take a 7th title?

NASCAR may be typecast as a blue collar sport; then again, based on the first five races of the 2016 season, its fans are part of the privileged class, with the latest race at Auto Club Speedway delivering another Hollywood ending. So far, so good.

Once maligned as perhaps the least exciting “cookie-cutter” circuit on the schedule, Auto Club Speedway continued its resurgence of sensational finishes over the past five years, with “superman” Jimmie Johnson, driver of the Lowe’s #48 Chevy, snatching an electrifying overtime victory from Kevin Harvick in the final restart.

At the start of 2016 Auto Club 400, anticipation was sky high that the worn, wide track with multiple grooves and long sweeping corners would deliver compelling theatre, and the race did not disappoint.

Jimmie Johnson soared to the front on the final restart with a power move, but he sowed his victory seeds much earlier in the race. Qualifying 19th, Johnson spent most of the day working up through the field, searching around the race track to uncover incremental speed.

Conversely, I studied Kevin Harvick’s line throughout the race, where he stuck to the high side near the wall, thereby carrying great momentum out of the turns while leading a race-high 142 of 200 laps. Harvick’s car was locked on rails and rock steady on long green flag runs, such that he did not have to vary his line much given the speed he was carrying.

Wearing the Superman Logo, Johnson is almost taunting his competitors.

Wearing the Superman Logo, Johnson is almost taunting his competitors.

On the final restart with the front contenders all sporting fresh rubber, Johnson restarted third — on the inside row — and pushed Kevin Harvick into the lead and then dove low to take the top spot and hold off Harvick in the high line once he completed the pass. Not surprisingly, Johnson last lap time was his fastest of the race.

Aside from the surprising finish, the supreme takeaway is that fans are discussing what happened on the track, rather than being relegated to discussing off-track drama (such as restart rules or post-race UFC sessions in the hauler lot).

Why was the day so good? Because auto racing enthusiasts, including those in the packed grandstands who were on their feet for a majority of the race, got most everything you could ask from a race:

  • 26 lead changes among 8 different drivers. But that was only part of the story. Many cars raced side by side for several laps as drivers who were passed looked for opportunities to return the favor. We had comers and goers throughout the field, and FOX Sports actually put its split screens to use by showing simultaneous races for position during course of the TV broadcast.
  • Despite immense effort, TV doesn’t always do justice to capturing all the action on the track as compared to being in the stands. Early in the race, one sequence I found fascinating was the back and forth battle between Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch for position within the top 10. Over the course of several laps, Busch would pass Almirola by drafting low off the front straight before the entry to Turn 1, while Almirola would return the favor by passing Busch with a sweeping arc out of Turn 4.
  • As another illustration, with 38 laps to go and 3 laps into a restart, we had six top drivers (Harvick, Johnson, Logano, Edwards, Keselowski, and Hamlin) still fanning out with different lines through the middle of Turn 4 and within three car lengths of each other. Listening to the in-car audio, you could hear drivers gingerly feathering the throttle throughout the corners while fighting for grip, showing they had their hands full with the low downforce package.
  • Many cars had a “Darlington” stripe on the right side from scraping the wall, except for the fact that they were running at Fontana. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. delivered a solid 5th place finish (his best finish since Bristol last spring), but his sponsors might request a credit given that he rubbed their logos off the right side of his car from working the fence.
  • Danica Patrick and Kasey Kahne will likely no longer swap pleasantries after their scuffle during the race. Kahne made contact with the rear of Patrick’s car after swerving down from the high side of the front straight, sending her hard into the outside wall. Patrick questioned the authenticity of the move, given she was completing a pass and generally holding her line into the upcoming corner and the fact that Kayne was a lap down by position, while Kahne contended he had no illicit intent. Kayne, for what it’s worth, seems to have lost his way out on the track, and has become the opaque horse in the Hendrick team stable.
  • Joey Logano, driver of the Team Penske #22 Ford, continues to not make any friends in the Toyota camp. Adding to his previous dust-ups with Toyota drivers’ Denny Hamlin at Auto Club Speedway in 2013 as well as the on-track theatrics with Matt Kenseth last year, Logano allegedly took the air off the rear bumper of Martin Truex Jr. on the rear straight on lap 151 while both were inside the top 10, loosening him up and sending him into the wall. It was unclear whether there was contact between the two, but each driver had their own viewpoint. Regardless, add Truex Jr. to the growing list of drivers stating their intent to race Logano “differently” from now on.
  • Kyle Larson had a violent wreck on the backstretch on Sunday, reminding us of the ever present risk of this sport, with a straight-on impact that crushed the front end and lifted his #42 Chevy off all four wheels after a tire went down. While dramatic, the benefits of recently installed SAFER barriers along entire length of the Speedway’s front stretch & back stretch walls was evident as Larson walked away from the crash.
  • Rookies showcased a bright future. Chase Elliott ran as high as 2nd prior to the final caution flag, while still managing to finish 6th after slipping during the final restart. Ryan Blaney also ran in the top 10 until a blown tire ruined his day.

Since hosting its first NASCAR race in 1997, Auto Club Speedway has not required a repave, having aged to be one of the gems of NASCAR’s Spring West Coast swing. One can only dream that track owner International Speedway Corporation never needs to repave Auto Club Speedway. With strong momentum, NASCAR now heads to the heart of several short tracks in April, resuming in Martinsville on April 3rd after the Easter break.

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

 

Phoenix: Finally NASCAR is Worth Watching Again

Harvick celebrates his 8th Phoenix win. There's a reason they call him "The Closer".

Harvick celebrates his 8th Phoenix win. There’s a reason they call him “The Closer”.

I know, villagers, pitchforks and all that. However the truth is, at least for me, is that NASCAR over the past decade has been a once popular child that had lost it’s way. A victim of group-think.

It never seems to amaze me just how hard it is for large corporations to change their processes, marketing or product to suit what the consumer want’s and needs.

For me, I just sat in amazement years ago, or rather disbelief, as they rolled out the ‘Car of Tomorrow’ and steadily tried to make an Edsel into a Ferrari. All those wasted years. No matter, they seem to have turned the corner, at least so far in the 2016 season.

The lower down-force cars have certainly been a step in the right direction if Phoenix is to be used as the barometer de jour for a functioning formula.

I watched the Phoenix race yesterday and sat back in amazement at how long it took NASCAR to get to this point. Over a decade to recover the hard on-track battles that had been the norm pre COT. Incredible.

However, the past is the past and looking too far back on it does no one any favors. Lets just hope NASCAR will build on the platform it has. Translation: Don’t be afraid to take more down-force off of these cars.

Phoenix was the one race I had looked forward to seeing simply because it’s a flatter and more challenging track in many ways than the 1.5 milers. To me that was to be the first of several tests that would reflect the success or failure of the new aero platform. Fontana is the next.

I don’t think anyone could argue that to date Phoenix was the best race for both the fans in the seats and the television viewers. Multiple passes, Kyle Busch’s early dominance not withstanding, were the norm throughout the race.

Edwards did everything he could to beat Harvick. Just .01 seconds made the difference.

Edwards did everything he could to beat Harvick. Just .01 seconds made the difference.

A few bugs here and there were the tires that left Newman, Menard, Stenhouse and Keselowski in the outhouse, but not something that Goodyear can’t work with for the upcoming one milers and shorter.

No one should be surprised that even though the drivers wanted less down-force, the teams will and should try to add back as much of the invisible grip as they can. The only cure for it is to mandate, albeit slowly, less down-force.

There is a point where removing down-force will end and we’ll be looking at a locked in spec series. One could argue that it is now, but in this case what we’ve had in the past will make the newest platforms brilliant by comparison.

Some detractors might say that it’s the same old group of teams and drivers up at the front so it’s business as usual. To that mindset I have to say: What do you expect? It wouldn’t matter what rules you handed Hendrick or Penske, they are going to be at the front along with the hand picked drivers they employ. That’s why they are who they are.

We may be looking at a point in NASCAR where growth could come back to the sport, although that is going to take more time than folks might imagine. It’s always difficult to cultivate new fans all the while trying to keep the ones you have. Remediating lost fans is almost impossible.

However from what I’ve seen so far this season, they have my attention and I’m looking forward to the Auto Club race. High speed, flat track and low down-force. I’m sure that the fans who make the trek to Fontana will get their money’s worth.

 

NASCAR: 2015 Is Done, Is 2016 The Year For NASCAR Excellence?

Expect Harvick to be at the front in 2016.

Expect Harvick to be at the front in 2016.

The 2015 NASCAR Cup season is over and done. Did it rise to level of excellence, no. Did it rise to level of acceptance, yes. The television ratings were down again, but not in a dramatic way, the hemorrhaging has stopped and it’s down to a trickle. That’s actually progress.

2016 will start without Jeff Gordon who gave us the modern era of top notch drivers and competition. That’s a shame, but that’s progress. We move on.

What will 2016 look like given the path laid out for the competitors to win a championship? The first thing that comes to mind is that the teams will become more savvy with how to run their in-season strategy coupled with a flow through plan for getting through each level to the final race.

The Low Down-Force cars should be a learning and driving experience for the competitors as it will more clearly define who are the real wheelmen. It may give those on lesser teams a greater chance to show their skill as aero won’t be a crutch that the teams can lean on.

Don’t get me wrong, every team will take the low down-force cars and try to wring every bit of aero out of them that they can, not to mention the mechanical grip and integration of all of these into a cohesive chassis.

Don't be surprised to see Kyle Larson challenging for wins and the Championship in 2016.

Don’t be surprised to see Kyle Larson challenging for wins and the Championship in 2016.

We shouldn’t expect a miraculous change in the drivers we know are highly skilled such as Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson. Kurt Busch and many others. They are what they are, great drivers and inveterate competitors.

As for the Chase format, it’s time to quit worrying that it seems false, it isn’t. It belongs to NASCAR, they make the rules and you can either play by them or go elsewhere. It’s up to the teams to decide if they want to compete.

I see it as no different than the NFL. The very best team doesn’t always get to the Super Bowl.

We have to realize that in the grand scheme of the sport we call auro racing, NASCAR is still the 800 lb, gorilla in the United States and will remain so for the foreseeable future. IndyCar has raised it’s game, to be sure, but it isn’t going regain the luster it once had.

NASCAR will still be America’s choice for motorsports and 2016 seems to great promise in it’s ability to deliver a very competitive and exciting product.

We may be past the days of 100,00 people in the stands, but that’s a sign of the times. People want their leisure activity on-demand and they have many choices. NASCAR will have to continue it’s digital battle to capture new fans and retain the ones they currently enjoy.

Expect to see the usual suspects fighting it out, but expect to see a more entertaining battle.

The Target Is on the Back of Logano At Phoenix

Joey Logano has to win to make the Homestead show, but with no friends and multiple enemies, it looks unlikely.

Joey Logano has to win to make the Homestead show, but with no friends and multiple enemies, it looks unlikely.

Amaze your friends and build new bridges is an old adage used in commercials of yesterday, Charlton Heston comes to mind. This, however, does not apply to Joey Logano who will have his work cut out for him at Phoenix this weekend.

It won’t be because Logano isn’t fast, he is, but making too many enemies in a NASCAR Cup field can doom your chances at making a good impression or amazing anyone. There’ll be no magic act or dancing bears.

To make the final four he will have to win and to win at Phoenix you would have to have friends or more accuratley, ‘frienemies’, to do it. He has none, including his teammate, Brad Keselowski who is also going for a spot in the big show at Homestead.

Ford may very well rally the troops who aren’t eligible for the final three Homestead spots, which is everyone except the Penske squad, but their aren’t really any strong contenders for the Blue Oval in the actual race that might make a difference.

The main players here are the Hendrick crowd. They will block and make their cars as wide as possible in order to reduce the risk to Jeff Gordon when crunch time comes in Florida. It’s not a precedent, you saw it in action when Jimmie Johnson stalked down Brad Keselowski at Texas with surgical precision.

Keselowski, Logano's teammate, may fair better at Phoenix if he can stay clear of the field. Easier said than done.

Keselowski, Logano’s teammate, may fair better at Phoenix if he can stay clear of the field. Easier said than done.

There is a true strategy in play and NASCAR knows it. The only thing NASCAR doesn’t want to see is a repeat of the Kenseth hit on Logano, other than that, they want the dogfight we would expect from this caliber of drivers.

Make no mistake, Ford will have rallied it’s teams to do whatever they can to get Keselowski or Logano into the show, but both of these drivers have the GM faction gunning for them. But wait there’s more.

The intramural rivalry between the Hnedrick and Stewart–Haas camps will be in full song as well. The odds on favorite to win at Phoenix is Kevin Harvick and Harvick needs to win just to put the final nail in the box to make Homestead. But Hendrick wold love for him to somehow not make it to the Sunshine State, though that’s unlikely.

Crashes, pit road penalties, finishing orders…all will come into play, therefore the only insurance is to win and that is where Harvick has a statistical advantage, but anything can happen as we’ve seen so far.

For Joey Logano, however, the hoped coronation may have run him right over. No cigar, no champagne and no seat at the big table. He has made many enemies in the field from all sides, including his own Ford camp.

It seems to be more likely that Ford will concentrate on Keselowski, although Logano could run up front all day unmolested, in NASCAR you never know who, or when someone may want to extract revenge for some infraction from the past or leave you alone.

Right now, Logano is the prison concierge, the piñata of the year and each and every one of his competitors know it and are apparently ready to take a swing at him.

Harvick Will Be The Dominant Driver At Phoenix

Gordon's teammates will be playing chess at Phoenix in order to limit the competition for Gordon at Homestead.

Gordon’s teammates will be playing chess at Phoenix in order to limit the competition for Gordon at Homestead.

With this weekend’s NASCAR race at Phoenix looming four drivers will be out of the game and four will be in, Count on Kevin Harvick to be one of the drivers who advance to Homestead for the finale’.

Harvick has had one of those seasons that had the usual ebb and flow we’ve come to expect from top drivers and teams. Periods of excellence that move to mediocre results and then come back with a vengeance aren’t uncommon for those who are in the elite club. The trick is when to peak.

Kevin Harvick seems to be more than at home in Phoenix having won 5 consecutive races at the desert track as well as 8 wins overall. He’s the favorite to win again ensuring his Homestead spot for the chance at his second Cup championship.

There are no more chances, this race is it. Jeff Gordon is ready to go, having won Darlington. The top four drivers in points are: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr, who seems to many to be an outlier.

One thing is certain the games will be in play at Phoenix with virtually all 7eligible drivers getting no help from their teammates and Hendrick rallying it’s team to block as many strong contenders as it can from being a threat to Jeff Gordon’s chances at Homestead.

Edwards should be the favorite to transfer to the big show after Phoenix.

Edwards should be the favorite to transfer to the big show after Phoenix.

We were witness to that type of chess play when Jimmie Johnson so skillfully and stealthily ran down a dominant Brad Keselowski to take away a guaranteed spot for the Penske driver as well as further keep Joey Logano at bay.

That could actually play into Martin Truex, Jr’s hands, though the cards aren’t in his favor as his record at Phoenix are far from stellar and Furniture Row is a one car team.

When it’s all said and done, the money seems to point to Gordon, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards making the big show in South Florida.

Edwards has two wins at Phoenix and they are within the last few years rather than a decade old, so count him as a real threat to knock Truex out of the picture.

My picks going into Homestead: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards. Not a stretch, right?

My real hope is that Gordon goes out as a Champion and we can close the books on these cars with too much down force.

2016 is pivotal point for not only NASCAR but IndyCar and Formula One as well. It can’t come too soon for me.

NASCAR: Villains and Heroes At Martinsville Speedway

Jeff Gordon, driver of the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is still seeking his elusive fifth championship in his final season.

Jeff Gordon, driver of the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is still seeking his elusive fifth championship in his final season.

After the showdown at Talladega last weekend, I found myself astonished and speechless, given the dilemma of processing the spectacle that we witnessed on high banks in the final laps. So much transpired on the track that I considered seeking counseling. But the best advice I embraced was to simply “Let It Go”. I’m done with the Dega drama and ready to watch the final four 2016 Sprint Cup races play out.

The NASCAR circus now moves onto Martinsville Speedway for 500 laps on the tight half-mile oval known affectionately as the “paperclip”, with many simmering storylines. Like Talladega, Martinsville showcases intimate close quarters racing where drivers will be able to reach out and touch one another during the entire race. For those racers who have been keeping a mental checklist, the circumstances are ideal for a little bump and grind payback.

Villains and heroes have now emerged, in what had seemed a sedate season until the Contender round of the Chase played out. One of the unique obsessions within NASCAR is that each driver is able to build a reputation that the fans can partake in. With that mindset, I size up the forthcoming Eliminator Round contenders based on the character they have chosen to play in this latest round of theatre. The pressure of the Chase has demonstrated its ability to bring out both the best and worst in the drivers. Claims Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Crispy M&M Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

First, the Villains:

As the reigning Cup Champion, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet, was accused by at least four other drivers of triggering the 11-car accident at the end of Sunday’s race to avoid being eliminated from the Chase. NASCAR, however, said a review of the incident failed to show Harvick did anything intentional, and he also rejected his competitors’ claims.

Kevin has shown his icy demeanor, having confronted Jimmie Johnson earlier in the Chicago Chase race when he felt Johnson drove him wrong. On the Talladega incident, Harvick showed no regret. “They can look at it 100 different ways, but you can’t quit. You can’t roll over and be done with it and say, ‘We tried our best.'” And so Harvick remains tight-lipped, perhaps having already said too much on the radio to raise suspicions about his intention on that final restart (or was it the second final restart; I’m still unclear).

Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Team Penske Ford, is exposing his greed, having become the first driver to sweep all three races in a Chase playoff round and the first Ford driver to win three successive Sprint Cup races since Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace did it back in 1994. Likewise, Logano eliminated NASCAR’s perennial favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., after Junior led the most laps and seemed poised to take the checkered on the final restart until the caution flag flew. Finally, Logano’s “spin and win” move on Kenseth in the final laps of Kansas two weeks ago surely alienated the entire Joe Gibbs Racing contingent of drivers, with two of those drivers hungry to push him aside in order to secure their own first title.

Kyle Busch’s taunting attitude and smug demeanor, together with his ridiculous knack of winning in all three of NASCAR series, make him an extremely reviled dude. Of course, it’s easy to dislike a driver who has supernatural talent when it comes to driving a stock car. This week, Busch stirred up the NASCAR nation by spouting off on Jeff Gordon’s chance of winning his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship in his final season by saying: “I don’t see Jeff Gordon winning it this year, I just don’t see him going to Homestead and being able to beat the 4 (Kevin Harvick), (or) the 22 (Joey Logano) right now. Straight race to do that, to beat them, I don’t see that.” Massive speculation from a driver who seems to implode at some point in every Chase he has qualified for.

Lastly, Brad Keselowski is always outspoken and has cultivated an image of a brash outsider excluded from the inner circle, a “blue-collar” driver who has been to the school of hard knocks and paid his dues along the way. Brad is hungry for validation as he looks for his second Sprint Cup Championship to establish his true legacy. In last year’s Eliminator round, Keselowski got into a fight with Jeff Gordon on pit road at Texas Motor Speedway after Keselowski’s aggressive move up the middle while Gordon was leading on a restart in the final laps. “Bad Brad” still isn’t remorseful for the move he pulled on Gordon last November at Texas; in fact, he’s impressed and would surely try it again.

Now, the Heroes:

Furniture Row and Truex have a hard row to get to the title.

Furniture Row and Truex have a hard row to get to the title.

Jeff Gordon, driver of the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is still seeking his elusive fifth championship in his final season. He has been close several times, but has not won a Cup championship since 2001. Gordon has had a challenging year, having not yet won a race. Yet, for his legion of “Rainbow Warriors” fans, a victory and Championship would be a stellar walk-off for a driver that has given so much to NASCAR.

Kurt Busch has been flying below the radar screen, in contrast to the drama swirling around his Stewart-Haas teammate Harvick. Busch, driver of #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, is running quite well with solid top 10 results, but has stayed out of the limelight given his past PR antics. For a former Cup Champion who lost his Team Penske ride as a result of his hot-tempered attitude, this season has been a renaissance, culminated by adding a new sponsor for next year. With his fiancé, Ashley Van Metre, accomplished in the art of moving in high cotton circles, he’s marrying someone every bit his equal. Everyone loves a comeback story, and Busch’s would be stellar.

Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet, is another comeback story, in more ways than one. Truex lost his MWR ride in 2013 after the Richmond Chase cut-off race debacle, at first believing he had qualified for his first Chase, but subsequently docked 50 points to squelch his Chase playoff qualification. As he recalled, “I pretty much said, ‘Oh crap.’ It was like getting punched in the face. You just didn’t see it coming. It came out of nowhere”. Then consider that Truex has stood securely by the side of his long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, in her battle and recovery from ovarian cancer. Running for the only single car team in the Chase, many counted Truex out at the beginning of the Chase, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He is the classic underdog that has already conquered insurmountable odds.

Carl Edwards, driver of the #19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, has been running in the shadows. While his teammates Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth have been flaming in the sport’s headlines, Carl has kept a low profile and let his on-track performance do the talking. Heck, Cousin Carl doesn’t even have a Twitter account; how much more low profile can you get? Edwards is famous for flashing that majestic smile and is one of the best sponsor pitchmen in the business. As a sentimental favorite, Edwards is the same guy who showed true sportsmanship in congratulating Tony Stewart on his 2011 Cup Championship, after Edwards was heartbroken by losing on a point tiebreaker in the final race of the season. He took a big chance this year to leave Roush Fenway Racing and join Joe Gibbs Racing, and it just might payoff with his first Cup Championship.

With the curtain now rising for the third act, NASCAR is racing forward at wide open throttle since its visit earlier this year to the historic Virginia short track. If this week’s race plays out like the spring installment at Martinsville, we should be in for a thrilling race, and perhaps a few clashes both on and off the track.

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

 

Talladega: Is Kevin Harvick a Genius?

Mike Helton

Mike Helton

What in the Hell actually happened yesterday in that slice of unique America, perhaps more accurately a Principality, called Talladega? Forgive me, I don’t have the prose, thought process or word-smithing ability of our Ron Bottano, but I’m clueless as to why NASCAR allowed Harvick to stay out on that track in a green/white checker situation.

Let me be clear, I don’t think NASCAR manipulated the situation, far worse, they let the bear grow too big. It got away from them somehow. Have they now become a corporation where everyone involved is the smartest guy in the room?

That’s probably closer to the truth. Unless my tiny little South Carolina cracker brain is finally failing me like a pair of jumper cables at a redneck funeral, cars must be capable of maintaining a safe racing speed. I believe there is a minimum speed established for that, they must keep up with the pace car, unfortunately they seemed to throw that rule right out of the window when it came to Kevin Harvick.

Knowing that he could advance to the next round in the Chase elimination process, Harvick could be accused of deliberately crashing Trevor Bayne on the only Green/White checker opportunity that NASCAR would allow under their special Talladega rule. He has been accused of just that by everyone from the drivers to multitudes of Dale Earnhardt Jr fans.

Is Harvick really that smart? Yes he is.

Is Harvick really that smart? Yes he is.

The best read on the incident and aftermath may be by Bob Pockrass. Read it.

I’ve no reason to elaborate on what Bob wrote, but the whole incident does make you wonder just how easy it is to implement a rule or regulation only to run into the rabbit hole of “Unintended Consequences”. Did NASCAR really sit down and think this race, it’s ‘special’ rules and what permutations of consequence it might have?

It doesn’t look as if they did or they didn’t count on a driver at Harvick’s level being clever enough to pull of a frozen field scenario. I’m not saying Harvick crashed intentionally, but he’s is certainly intelligent enough to have figured it out without being outed on the radio. He is most definitely smart enough to have done so. That doesn’t mean he did. But if I were him, I would have.

I would have to say that whether he did it on purpose or not, it was incumbent on NASCAR to have forced him to the back of the line knowing that he could not accelerate and was a moving chicane in a field of wolves ready to drop the hammer.

If he did it on purpose then he’s a genius to have called that play alone in the car.

To me the big question is: Why would NASCAR allow the field to approach a start at 30 to 35 MPH? That pace car should have been pacing the field at 50 to 55 MPH on a track that size and on a green/white finish.

They didn’t, Harvick did, NASCAR lost a lot of credibility.

No one really came out a winner on Sunday.

Pope Leaving US Too Early For Kevin Harvick Miracle

It's now do or die at Dover for Kevin Harvick.

It’s now do or die at Dover for Kevin Harvick.

Saving souls is what the Pope is supposed to do, it’s his job. On the other hand, saving fuel when you either have to place yourself in the top 5 or win has apparently never been in Kevin Harvick’s job description.

No one should have any doubt that Kevin Harvick can drive, he’s one of Sprint Cup’s preeminent wheelmen. So how is it that he burns up the New Hampshire track all day and then runs out of fuel 3 laps from the end to hand the victory to Matt Kenseth?

Who knows? He knew that saving fuel and taking a 3rd or 4th at New Hampshire would put him in a less dire position going to Dover than he now finds himself. Now, he has to win at Dover next week. No insurance.

He is now 23 points outside of 12th place in the standings and overcoming that may require divine intervention. May I suggest the “Pope Toaster”? From now until Dover I would make good use of this must have device.

All levity aside, we all want to see these drivers go as hard as they can, but they have to finish to be in the hunt. Harvick didn’t get the memo. It’s mystifying that Harvick was the odds on favorite to win his second chase, based on his early season performances, but as Kyle Petty said: “They went from favorite to total chaos.”

Everyone should have one these! The Pope Toaster.

Everyone should have one these! The Pope Toaster.

Everyone, except Harvick and perhaps his crew chief, Rodney Childers, knew that was the situation. Now was not the time to roll the dice. The radio communication between the two was sparse, if not non-existent, at a time when ‘Save fuel, save fuel’ should have been the message blowing up the radio.

Harvick didn’t save fuel at a rate that would make up the 3 miles he was short and had very little to say to his crew chief during the later stages of the race. He was able to keep the Joe Gibbs Racing cars at bay, but spent far too much petroleum capital to make it stick. In fact, that was JGR’s strategy.

Kenseth was instructed to ‘run him out of gas’ and that’s exactly what Matt Kenseth did, thus locking himself into the next round of the Chase.

Last weekend at Chicagoland Harvick finished 42nd after not stopping to change an obviously damaged rear tire due to a controversial contact with Jimmie Johnson. This weekend should have been his win or a finish high enough to make Dover less daunting weekend.

Unfortunately it’s now a fact that Harvick is desperate, perhaps too desperate to listen to those around him and those charged with his strategy. It wouldn’t be the first time that Harvick has ignored warnings or put the clamps down on his crew.

If he can’t win next weekend, then you can safely say that the pressure really did get to him. Johnson, Kenseth, Busch and Edwards aren’t playing the game the way Harvick is, they are being strategic, which is how the Chase has to be played.

Kevin Harvick is undoubtedly one of the best drivers in NASCAR, a true wheelman. However in terms of strategy, maybe he should stop trying to occupy both the car seat and the pit-box.

But, there are still plenty of Papal toasters available. Perhaps Dover will be his pop-up miracle.

NASCAR: The Chase Will Only Get Crazier After Chicagoland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) The Chase Challengers will take no prisoners

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASCAR: Expect Jimmie Johnson To Come Alive In The Chase

Lowes extends Johnson's contract through 2017.

Lowes extends Johnson’s contract through 2017.

It’s a difficult thing to watch what was once a powerhouse NASCAR team slowly and painfully slip into obscurity. That team is Roush Racing. Many have started to forecast, with great vitriol at times, the same fate for Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson. Don’t make that mistake.

Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have 6 Championships because NASCAR engineered it. They didn’t throw false cautions to benefit Johnson or anyone else, Johnson and Chad Knaus took the same equipment and tools as his teammates and earned 6 Championships.

Sitting at the top of the charts for the 16 drivers who made it into the Chase is Johnson. Has he been the meteor of late like Kyle Busch? No. But the Hendrick organization knows where they stand, knows who is going to create the right strategy for the Chase and let them run with it.

After missing four months due to injury, Kyle Busch may now be in the right position to win his first title.

After missing four months due to injury, Kyle Busch may now be in the right position to win his first title.

It may not be such a coincidence that Johnson re-signed an extension on his contract through 2017 and just announced it, right after the Chase was set. Knaus’ extension runs through 2018. Check off the box that has ‘pressure on contract’.

Tom Lamb, the Chief Marketing Officer for Lowes said:

“Lowe’s has a longstanding history with NASCAR and knows its fans are some of the most loyal in all of sports,” said Tom Lamb, chief marketing officer of Lowe’s. “Our partnership with Jimmie and Hendrick Motorsports has been an amazing ride as we chase history, and more than 265,000 Lowe’s employees are proud to be part of such a legacy.”

That sounds like corporate word-speak, but having met, at length, with the CEO of Lowes prior to their NASCAR involvement, it’s genuine. This company want’s to win. They have and will again.

On the other side of the street, Jeff Gordon’s woes are regrettable, but time marches on and he may very well leave the sport with perhaps one win in 2015. His overall team just hasn’t been able to convert qualifying speeds into a start to finish racing strategy that has worked for him. He’s a deserving Champion but his run in the sport may be over.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are fully aware of what they face, having run a season under these rules. They won’t make the same mistakes they did last year. That’s not good news for Kevin Harvick, but no news to Kyle Busch. He could care less. Joe Gibbs and company will keep him in mission and on course to defeat all comers.

Harvick will be a contender from the first race in Chicagoland.

Harvick will be a contender from the first race in Chicagoland.

The real fight, in my opinion will be between Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. It’s possible that Joey Logano may mix it up as well as Keselowski, but I don’t see the strength at Penske that I do with Hendrick and JGR.

Joe Gibbs Racing miraculously came to life, seemingly when Kyle Busch returned to his seat after missing four months of racing. Let that soak in: Four months. He now sits second and has four wins.

These teams have different strategies that they employ during the Chase format and each of the drivers I believe will be fighting for that Championship all have top teams backing them on creating that strategy, which is always unfolding and evolving as the Chase narrows down it’s competitors.

The one thing that the fans can be sure of is that Hendrick want’s the mojo that JGR has found and Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing will have an appropriate strategy for each and every one of the remaining races complete with every scenario and response they can think of, it’s a ‘War Room’ mentality.

Will Johnson take another title? Who knows, this is auto racing where anything can and usually does happen.

One can only hope that the 16 drivers that are going for that Cup give us, the fans, the show we want to see and that NASCAR needs us to see.

It’s a dog eat dog world and these are the big dogs, no one is going to run away with this one.

 

 

 

 

 

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