NASCAR: For Matt Kenseth, Retribution Comes With A Cost

The crash that has NASCAR and it's fans divided on the future.

The crash that has NASCAR and it’s fans divided on the future.

Last weekend, NASCAR experienced one of those defining moments, and I’m not just speaking of Jeff Gordon’s ninth victory on the historic track of Martinsville Speedway, thereby stamping his ticket straight to the Championship 4 round at Homestead Miami Speedway in three weeks.

I’m referring to Matt Kenseth, while lurking in the shadows nine laps down, taking aim with his Joe Gibbs Racing #20 Toyota at the rear quarter panel of race leader Joey Logano’s Team Penske Ford and shoving him directly into the wall, ending Logano’s bid to win four races in a row and perhaps quelling his bid for the Sprint Cup Championship.

Today, NASCAR reacted in a big way by suspending Kenseth for two races and placing him on probation for six months to recognize that Kenseth’s behavior had crossed the proverbial line, which sometimes needs to be redrawn to recognize the specific circumstances.

NASCAR felt that it had to do something. In Kenneth's case it was to sit out the rest of the season.

NASCAR felt that it had to do something. In Kenneth’s case it was to sit out the next two races of the season.

Kenseth’s unsanctioned assassination of Logano, for what he considered inappropriate contact two weeks ago between these two drivers as they battled for the lead at Kansas, was retribution, pure and simple, and wrong on so many levels:

  • Reflecting back to Kansas, Kenseth chose not to seek out Logano to directly express his stance on Logano’s on-track actions that day. There is nothing wrong with a spirited post-race discussion in pit lane or the motorcoach lot; at least these two drivers would have had the opportunity to vent directly to one another. Instead, Kenseth waged his battle through the media, accusing Logano of “lying” about the on-track contact at Kansas. As such, nothing was resolved and the feud continued to simmer
  • NASCAR judged that the Kansas contact was acceptable, with Chairman Brian France even endorsing Logano’s “bump and run” to win the race as a quintessential NASCAR move. However, Kenseth instead chose to disregard the sanctioning body, and appointed himself both judge and jury, extracting his own vigilante punishment on Logano by booting him to the bottom of the eight remaining Chase playoff contenders
  • Premeditation was obvious in Kenseth’s on-track conduct at Martinsville, and clearly not incidental contact under race-like conditions. His actions were methodical and deliberately measured for an expected result of taking out another driver, without competing for position on the track, which is simply unacceptable
  • After the incident, Kenseth told his own whopper, alleging that he had a mechanical issue where the splitter was dragging and his car wouldn’t turn, while the rest of NASCAR nation could easily see that Kenseth had dropped the accelerator to wreck Logano right into the wall. Frankly, be bold enough to own up to it, Matt, and let the fans know that you ordered the “Code Red”
  • Kenseth’s actions manipulated the final race result, and surely did himself no favors on the track. For those fans that consider what Kenseth did acceptable, would you feel the same if Kenseth was being paid by a gambling syndicate to illegitimately “throw the outcome” of a race where the sport’s Championship was at stake?
  • Kenseth showed no remorse and did not apologize for his poor unsportsmanlike conduct after the Martinsville clash. His actions are damaging to the sport and he should be embarrassed as a former Cup Champion

By suspending Kenseth, NASCAR has placed Joe Gibbs Racing and its drivers on notice that hunting season is officially over. This modern Chase format has raised the stakes of a small trio of races for such silliness to compromise the sport’s integrity.

Otherwise, NASCAR falls into the trap of being seen as manipulating race outcomes, bordering on WWE histrionics. If Logano were to lead again at this weekend’s upcoming race at Texas Motor Speedway, we could witness a replay where Kenseth would have the same motivation to extract revenge again to ensure Logano does not win the Championship. Or Denny Hamlin, another eliminated JGR teammate, who is still stewing over the wreck fest at Talladega, could take aim at Kevin Harvick at Phoenix or Homestead, where Harvick won both races last year to secure his Championship.

NASCAR had to counter in a big way to redraw the line for its competitors and restore credibility. Auto racing, particularly a format that embraces “rubbing is racing”, challenges a driver’s patience and requires a certain degree of tolerance of fellow competitors. With the Chase elimination rounds compressing the intensity into three race segments, all of the sports’ stakeholders are “learning on the job” as unforeseen consequences keep materializing. As such, drivers’ actions can have big-time consequences on Championship outcomes, and NASCAR was forced to clarify the rules of engagement.

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

 

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

 

Chase Elliott: What’s In A Name?

Chase Elliott's debut at Martinsville was hampered by a bad power steering unit.

Chase Elliott’s debut at Martinsville was hampered by a bad power steering unit.

Everyone one loves an overnight success, don’t they? The only problem with that affection is that it’s more often than not misplaced, or at least not accurate.

Auto racing and music are famous genres’ for this human perception and NASCAR’s young Chase Elliott is a shining example.

His Sprint Cup debut at Martinsville wasn’t what he, Hendrick or the uneducated masses, wanted it to be. But it was a start. You can only go up from 38th place. Richmond is up next.

To be completely fair, he had power steering problems at the worst time and in the worst place possible. At Martinsville you’re in a perpetual state of turning and turning a 3500 lb. car is no easy task.

The old adage that you have to walk before you run really does mean something in motorsports. There are several types of driver:

The Engineer: This type of driver has technical prowess and usually requires more experience to get up to speed even in the lower classes. They approach the effort as a project from a logical point of view using mathematics, software and a great deal of practice to hone the craft.

The Natural: The natural is just that, just naturally gifted. It’s someone who has an uncanny sense of what’s going on beneath them. Niki Lauda said it best: “I have the greatest ass in the world.” In other words, he could feel what the car was doing by the seat of his pants. However, in the world of modern racing, this ‘Gift’ will only take you so far.

Next up for Sprint Cup cars, Richmond.

Next up for Sprint Cup cars, Richmond.

Formula One’s Kimi Raikkonen only had 21 races of any kind under his belt before he sat in a Formula One Car, but it’s now taken years to get back to his ‘crashed onto the scene’ levels.

Then there’s the third type and it’s the rarest of all. The Natural Engineer. This driver has the ability to feel the car intimately but also be able to understand the dynamics of what they’re feeling. They don’t have to be expert engineers, just understand it and make decisions that reflect that understanding.

The common denominator among all three of these types is a very human one. Passion. To achieve the results of the engineer or natural you have to have passion and that emotion rarely comes together with a driver who is a natural and engineer, but when it does you have a Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and almost certainly, Chase Elliott on your hands.

These are rare individuals who seem to come out of nowhere and rise rapidly with very few races, or years under their belt.

Now it’s Chase Elliott. However, the kid has been at it for a while despite the fact that he’s only 19.

With Elliott, he had his famous Father, Bill Elliott, working with him and the passion to take it all in as well as a few years in the lower ranks to hone those skills.

This wont bode well for his future competitors.

There are a number of drivers at the top levels of motorsports, whether NASCAR, IndyCar or Formula One who have gotten to the top through the machinations of their famous Fathers. Most of these drivers have a very tough time living up to the family hype. Why?

They don’t really want it badly enough to have learned all of the aspects of racing that their Fathers didn’t face. It’s harder today than it was 20 years ago but Chase Elliott has put in the time, effort and passion to make it to the top and the near future will prove this out.

A famous name will only get you so far without the talent that you picked up as a result of being around and involved in the racing game.

Many of these divers have a mistaken sense of entitlement and that becomes obvious when they excelled in the lower ranks but seem mediocre at the very top. I wont name names, I don’t have to.

Chase Elliott doesn’t fit into that category.

He maybe in one of his own.

Hamlin, Not Harvick Made Martinsville Worth The Watch (Clock)

Hamlin watched the clock long enough he deserved to win it.

Hamlin watched the clock long enough he deserved to win it.

It looked for all the world as if Kevin Harvick was going to hold court again at Martinsville this past weekend, but Denny Hamlin and an ever changing racetrack denied him that. Denny Hamlin fought like hell and deserved the win for himself and JGR.

During the early stages of the race Kevin Harvick kept moving in and out of place within the top ten and, mostly, top five to position himself for that last 20 laps of mayhem. He is “The Closer” after all. However the race track temperatures changed throughout the day and so did the strategies of the teams.Early in the race the top groove on the famous half-mile track refused to cooperate and ‘come-in’. In other words be drivable. It was too cool and not enough rubber had been laid down. As a result it was a dogfight to hold position until that set of circumstances presented itself.

Early in the race the top groove on the famous half-mile track refused to cooperate and ‘come-in’. In other words be drivable. It was too cool and not enough rubber had been laid down. As a result it was a dogfight to hold position until that set of circumstances presented itself.

Martinsville: Not the track of brotherly love.

Martinsville: Not the track of brotherly love.

Midway through the swirling event the rubber finally had come into play and the passing began, but it wasn’t going to last.

For a solid third, if not more,  the top groove of the track submitted to the rubber and was a perfect passing zone where Harvick, Gordon and Hamlin could move around with impunity. However, after what seemed like a million neck twisting turns the track turned on them. 

The cool temperature had taken the rubber and balled it up into little chunks as opposed to setting it into the track. On a warmer day the rubber would have ‘married’ the track and given it grip, instead it did just the opposite causing the drivers to slowly move back down into the lower groove.

What happened then? You guessed it, the “Rubbin is Racin, the Chrome Horn or Bump and Run” came into play, so did tire strategy that helped those towards the rear such as Tony Stewart.

Hamlin almost didn’t get a shot at it due to a pit road speeding penalty he received, if it had come any later it would have played out very differently. A similar penalty later on ruined Jeff Gordon’s day.

On the last tire change everyone set up for the final 20 laps and Harvick made an uncharacteristic mistake, he moved to the outside to affect a pass and got shuffled to the middle of the field. When you try to drive in the marbles you simply can’t steer the car. No one was dumb enough to let him back in.

In the meantime at the front Brad Keselowski had methodically moved up into position and began to work on Hamlin. It didn’t look as if he would catch him, but you wouldn’t know that from watching Hamlin’s in-car camera. He was looking in the rear view mirror more than Paris Hilton before a date.

Once Keselowski sets his sights on you he’s going to get there come hell or high water and he did, on the last lap. It was actually epic thinking that Brad was going to put the bumper to him, wreck him and win, but he didn’t, wreck him that is.

He did manage to get to Hamlin’s right rear quarter panel coming to the flag and move the Toyota around a bit, but Hamlin went to take the checkered flag and gurantee himself a spot in the chase. 

He has Brad Keselowski to thank for that and he did. He knew BK could have crashed him, but Keselowski knew his chase berth is all but set and decided the points were worth more.

It was a great race and a good call by Keselowski and a deserved win for Denny Hamlin who fought for it right up to the last corner of the last lap.

Martinsville: Old Hot Dog Harvick Will Win

He's peaking and on a roll, don't bet against him yet.

He’s peaking and on a roll, don’t bet against him yet.

I’ve never been sentimental when it comes to racing cars. I have no real ‘dogs in the hunt’ as drivers. I couldn’t care less what hot dog they serve at Martinsville or the double wide signature edition Grandfather clock as a trophy. But, I do look at that track with admiration as the first real test of who can drive the 2015 car on almost purely mechanical grip.

Bill Marlowe, our resident Cup car expert, gave me a quick lesson in driving Martinsville and what to expect with the race this weekend.

The top speed before entering turn 1 with the Gen 6 car in it’s current configuration at Martinsville is about 123 MPH. The minimum velocity for the aerodynamics, namely the lower downforce, is about 80 MPH. Given that, you would think that the rear spoilers would play a big role in how you get around turn one. Not so.

The biggest problem, according to Bill, is that drivers tend to want to brake too deep into turn one or turn two, too late. When this happens the car doesn’t want to turn in. In an effort to overcompensate, especially the new drivers, they will drive right towards the curbs that Martinsville is so famous for.

The masters here, Gordon, Johnson and Harvick, are about two feet off of the curb and therefore have an apex that seems unnatural. The reason they end up here is that they need to roll through the corner carrying as much speed as possible without the rear stepping out.

To accomplish this they actually will back off and begin their entry into the corner on turn one right at the spotters stand. So critical is this that many of the top teams actually will install a rev limiting chip that causes the rpm’s to max out at somewhere around 8800 RPM.

Martinsville: Not the track of brotherly love.

Martinsville: Not the track of brotherly love.

That means they have no choice but to back out of the throttle right about at the starters stand. Having come from a road racing background it seems unnatural to me, but apparently it’s all about rolling through the corners and mechanical grip.

Remember the cars have less horsepower and are 100 lbs lighter than they were, so carrying momentum into and through the corner is paramount in order to get out onto the next straight and the next and the next, etc.

According to the wily Mr. Marlowe, they actually use the road racing brakes on the Martinsville cars in order to get down to speed quickly and as much open air ducting as possible as the braking has to be quick, but smooth, and has to cool quickly to negotiate the next turn, which comes up at you very quickly on such a short track.

In my quest for knowledge I queried him on the chassis. So far, Hendrick has had an advantage here but that now seems to have shrunk somewhat as Stewart-Haas racing has somehow improved on it, not to mention that they have Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, both winners here.

I know, SHR uses Hendrick chassis, hell, Hendrick everything, but something so far this season has been different about them and you can see that in both Johnson and Gordon in the closing laps of the last several races. Mainly, they aren’t closing and Busch and Harvick are. I don’t want to leave Keselowski out here, but he has the Ford equivalent of the Hendrick car.

I fully expect that all four of the Hendrick based chassis and the two Fords of Penske to be at the front. With track position critical here, you don’t want to fall behind. Qualifying should be a must watch event if you’re truly a diehard NASCAR fan.

A lot has been made of the new car, the tweaks, the new rules and the first group of races. I personally think it’s the best start to a NASCAR season I’ve seen in years. Even though Harvick is a dominant force so far, Kurt Busch seems to have his number and one has to wonder what’s going to happen at such a physical track as Martinsville.

Bill Marlowe uses the phrase “10 lap magicians” to describe those drivers who have that little tiny extra, that ‘gift’ of being able to pull out a victory or pick up the game in closing laps. These are the drivers that on any given day have that ability to pull from somewhere mystical to make it happen.

Johnson, Gordon, Keselowski, Logano, Harvick, Busch (both of them) and potentially Kyle Larsen, who hasn’t quite crossed the magical Rubicon just yet but is close. Stewart was there, but so far he’s been backing up.

The winner should come out of this group and hopefully the fans will get to witness another Harvick/Busch fight.

Pick one of these drivers to win. I think it’s between Harvick and Busch but it’s racing and this is, after all, Martinsville.

 

 

 

 

For Earnhardt Jr., Martinsville Victory Is Great Personal Achievement

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his fourth race of the season at Martinsville. It was also his first career victory at the historic speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his fourth race of the season at Martinsville. It was also his first career victory at the historic speedway.

Sometimes disappointment is overcome by achievement.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to be disappointed when he was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup after six of 10 races.

It wasn’t a big surprise, really. Earnhardt Jr.’s Hendrick Motorsports team had not really been on top of its game since the beginning of the 10-race “playoff.”

Earnhardt Jr. had only one top-10 finish in the first five races and it was that fifth event, at Kansas, that did him in.

Tire problems helped send him to a 39th-place finish. That tumbled him to the bottom of the pile of 12 drivers still in the Chase.

He had to win at either Charlotte or Talladega. He finished 20th at Charlotte, which did not help his cause.

And despite a noble effort at Talladega where he led 31 laps and remained at the front of the pack most of the time, he lost position late in the race and couldn’t make it up.

He finished 28th – and was eliminated from championship contention.

Earnhardt Jr. was having one of his best seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, but failed to make the Chase. The Martinsville victory was a tonic - and very personal.

Earnhardt Jr. was having one of his best seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, but failed to make the Chase. The Martinsville victory was a tonic – and very personal.

It must have been hard for Earnhardt Jr. to take. He was having a particularly good season. Before the Chase he won three races, including the Daytona 500.

He also won at Pocono twice. Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t won three races in a season since he joined Hendrick in 2008.

On top of that, he was third in points after Richmond, the last race before the Chase began. He was comfortably in title contention.

He had reason to be confident, for sure.

The only thing predictable about racing is that it is unpredictable. Given his record and momentum, I doubt there were many who thought Earnhardt Jr. would be out of the hunt after just six races.

Every driver in Earnhardt Jr.’s situation will say the same thing: If a championship can no longer be attained, the goal now is to win as many of the remaining races at possible.

Earnhardt Jr. was no different. One big reason he wanted to win was to prove that the Chase may have been one thing, but the season-long performance by his Hendrick team was quite another.

And there was only one way to prove it.

Earnhardt Jr. did just that in the next race after his disappointment at Talladega.

He won at Martinsville, a speedway steeped in history and tradition. By doing so, Earnhardt Jr. achieved a goal that was more personal that professional.

Simply put, he won at Martinsville – at last.

“You know, I love the history of the sport and just can’t get enough of like all the pictures on the wall at Martinsville,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I just know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport.

“I’ve been coming here so many years, I’ve been coming here since the early ’80s, watching races here. Dad won and brought home several Grandfather Clocks. 

“I remember one in particular that set at the front door, in the hall by the stairs.  Had this little round rug right in that hallway that I’d run my Matchbox cars on, listening to the race on the Racing Motor Network.”

A combination of a strategic pit stop and Earnhardt Jr.’s ability to gain ground quickly was the reason for the victory at Martinsville.

“We just put tires on it, said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief. “Luckily we had a lot of lap-down cars between us and fourth and fifth.  As long as we had a decent stop, we thought we would maintain some decent track position. 

“Then Dale went out and did what he did.  That makes the pit call look good, which I appreciate him doing.”

Earnhardt Jr. assumed the lead on lap 497 and led the final four circuits.

Earnhardt Jr. has won bigger, more prestigious races in his career. But he was notably ecstatic over the Martinsville victory.

It was one he had coveted for so long. Add to that it was one that, as far as Earnhardt Jr. was concerned, emphasized his Hendrick team’s solid, season-long performance.

“I think the win reminded the team and the guys what they’re capable of,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Yeah, we’ve had some bad breaks with the tire at Kansas and just some poor runs where we got outrun. 

“Everybody knew it was very disappointing where we were at in the Chase coming into Martinsville.

“But now, we know we can accomplish some really good things and win more races.”

As for Earnhardt Jr., the Martinsville victory is more than just another victory. It’s a personal milestone.

“I couldn’t believe I won,” he said. “I still really can’t believe it.  The clock seems so hard to get, so this is so special. 

“I try not to get too caught up in the emotion of it because it’s a team deal, but this is very personal and very special to me to be able to win at Martinsville.”

 

This Is Martinsville, So The Odds Favor Hendrick, Johnson and Gordon

Jimmie Johnson is currently tied with the most wins at Martinsville – eight – tops among active drivers.

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Let’s say you came up to me to ask which driver, or drivers, would be a solid pick for victory in the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

My first question to you would be, “Why the heck are you asking me?”But if you insisted on an answer, I would say, “Pick Hendrick.

The odds are in your favor.”

Boy, that’s sticking my neck out, isn’t it?

I mean, Hendrick Motorsports is perhaps the strongest team in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition today. But there’s more to it than that.

Two of its drivers, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, share the record for most victories at Martinsville by active drivers.

They have eight apiece, twice as many as Denny Hamlin, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.

Gordon has led the most laps at Martinsville with 3,593 over 33 races. That’s considerably more than second-place Johnson, who has led 2,450 laps – but in just 16 races.

The two Hendrick drivers have dominated Martinsville almost as completely as Richard Petty – the all-time Martinsville leader with 15 victories – and Darrell Waltrip, who won 11 times, mostly with team owner Junior Johnson.

Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, also has eight wins at Martinsville.

Fact is, Gordon and Johnson are tied for third place behind the two Hall of Fame drivers.

Due credit must be given to the Hendrick organization, which has been able to provide all its drivers with top equipment and support.

But the driving skills of Gordon and Johnson certainly play a role in their success at Martinsville, a tight, demanding 0.056-mile track that came into existence at the birth of NASCAR 66 years ago.

Gordon, who has finished among the top 10 in four of five races this season, downplays his role.

“Great race cars, great race teams,” he said. “I think just the approach that we have had and that is built from having some success over the years.  “Hendrick has always given us great cars even from when I started coming here.  I found something that worked for me and I have been able to go back to when I come here and not a lot has changed.

“It’s nice to have something that you have learned that has worked and can be a constant that you can come back with and make it work over and over again.

“It’s probably similar for Jimmie since he has started having success here as well.”

Johnson admits that for him, to master Martinsville required some lessons. When he was a Hendrick newcomer he got many from Gordon during repeated test sessions.

But he learned much from an unexpected source.

“I think our second trip here, in the fall of my rookie year, I got lapped by Tony Stewart,” Johnson said. “It all came together when I followed Tony and could pick up the rhythm.

“This is a track where a half-tenth per each end of the race track is huge. And it’s so hard to even quantify that or see that.

“It took me following Tony and getting into that rhythm where I picked it up. I was fortunate enough to get my lap back and then I think we ran a top-15 or top-10, and from that point on I’m like ‘OK. I see it. I get it.’ I feel it and understand that rhythm.”

Johnson understood it so well that he, along with Gordon, has become a Martinsville master.

This is not the case for all of the Hendrick teams. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has yet to win at Martinsville after growing up in a house “full of grandfather clocks” won by his father. Instead of trophies Martinsville winners get handsome clocks.

“Yeah, this is a track I have been trying to get a win at for a long time,” said Earnhardt Jr., who has finished second twice at Martinsville. “We have had some good cars in the past here that I’ve felt like could have won races and we just weren’t able to get the job done for whatever reason, somebody was faster or whatever.

“I’m looking forward to having another opportunity. I love short-track racing. I love this track.  I love the history of this place, what it represents.”

Kasey Kahne, the fourth Hendrick driver, has also yet to win at Martinsville. But, like Earnhardt Jr., he has two runnerup finishes.

Many drivers recognize that if they want to win at Martinsville, they are going to have to beat at least two Hendrick drivers.

They admit they would like to know how to do that.

Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards, who won at Bristol this year and is the current points leader, admits he feels confident he can get his first Martinsville victory.

But he adds he’d feel more confident if he could race the track the way Gordon and Johnson do.

“I’ve talked to Jimmie a little bit about it and he just says, ‘You’ll figure it out.’  He’s really nice about it and then changes the subject,” Edwards said. “Those guys are very spectacular here.  They’ve very good.

“My first few years I would get out of the car and go down and stand and watch Jeff.  The way he drives around here is just so smooth and precise.

“They’re able to do things that I’m not able to do, so I’ve just got to keep working on it.”

Seems it’s the same for several other drivers.

Except, perhaps, Hamlin, who boldly said, “I am going to win this race. I promise you.”

OK, so place your bet.

 

 

 

 

 

Not Crazy if it Works – Fantasy Insight Martinsville 2

Jeff Gordon

There are funny NFL commercials running lately that show fans doing crazy things in order to bring good luck to their team. From wearing matching socks to putting labels out for a field goal, to inviting that obnoxious friend because the team never loses when he is there, the commercials are hilarious. Those commercials also are so true to life I think we have all seen ourselves in these spots with our own weird good luck charms. It really isn’t crazy if it works!

Don’t doubt the power of a good luck charm or the power of a curse! During the 1945 World Series a bar owner in Chicago tried to bring his pet goat to the game and was denied entrance. This fan was so outraged that he put a curse on the Chicago Cubs that lives to this day (How else could you explain Steve Bartman 10 years ago).

Last year during the finals of the Stanley Cup my beloved Chicago Blackhawks needed my help so despite the hot weather it was time to bring out the Blackhawks hoodie for game six. I might have sweated a small puddle but Lord Stanley’s Cup came home to Sweet Home Chicago!

When it comes to NASCAR there is nothing more powerful than the Pepsi Curse. Back when Jeff Gordon was winning 10 or more races a year it was all my fault he was so dominant. If I drank a Pepsi product on race day he won. On those days I switched to another beverage of choice he never won a race.

This weekend I am picking Jeff Gordon to break his winning drought at one of his best tracks. Forget the statistics I will be chugging a two-liter bottle with breakfast and another one during the race with my faux Martinsville hot dogs. Remember NASCAR fans…it really isn’t crazy if it works!  

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 Martinsville.       

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

Mostly sunny and cool with a high in the low 60s

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)

Jimmie Johnson

 

Driver

Last 5

J Johnson

94

D Earnhardt Jr

93

M Kenseth

92

J Gordon

91

K Harvick

91

Ky Busch

91

G Biffle

90

J McMurray

90

J Logano

89

C Bowyer

88 

Horses for Courses (Track Rating)

Driver

Course

J Johnson

95

J Gordon

94

C Bowyer

91

D Hamlin

89

D Earnhardt Jr

89

B Keselowski

89

K Harvick

87

Ky Busch

87

M Kenseth

86

G Biffle

86           

Type Casting (Track Type Factor)

Driver

Type

M Kenseth

95

C Edwards

94

K Harvick

91

J Gordon

91

D Earnhardt Jr

90

Ky Busch

89

J Burton

89

J Johnson

89

M Truex

88

J McMurray

87 

Power Rating (240 Minimum to Qualify as Contender)

Carl Edwards

 

Driver

Power

J Johnson

278

J Gordon

276

M Kenseth

273

D Earnhardt Jr

272

K Harvick

269

Ky Busch

267

C Edwards

265

C Bowyer

265

G Biffle

261

J McMurray

261

R Newman

257

J Burton

255

D Hamlin

254

M Truex

254

B Keselowski

253

J Logano

252

Ku Busch

252

A Almirola

249

P Menard

248

M Martin

248

JP Montoya

247

K Kahne

245

M Ambrose

234

R Stenhouse Jr

234

D Ragan

227

C Mears

225

D Gilliland

221

D Reutimann

220

D Patrick

218

D Blaney

217 

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 20th)  

Jeff Gordon- Best chance to end the winless drought this year

(6 to 1 Odds)

Best Long Shot (Odds of 20-1 or More) (Last Week Finished 21st)     

Carl Edwards- Only his recent woes get you high odds this week

(30 to 1 Odds)

Top Dogs (Group A in Yahoo) (Last Week Finished 13th)     

Jimmie Johnson- Wins the “Most Likely to Finish in the Top Five” award every week

(9 to 5 Odds)

Second Class (Group B in Yahoo) (Last Week 2nd)          

Jeff Burton- Excellent flat track driver

(100 to 1 Odds)

Middle Packer (Group C in Yahoo) (Last Week Finished 6th)              

Kyle Larson- His dirt track skills transfer well here

Crazy 8s for Martinsville

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

Lori won 3-2 in week 32 and Lori leads the game 18-14 for the year

Group 1: Lori picks Jimmie Johnson and Dennis picks Jeff Gordon

Group 2: Dennis picks Carl Edwards and Lori picks Brad Keselowski

Group 3: Lori picks Martin Truex Jr and Dennis picks Jeff Burton

Group 4: Dennis picks Mark Martin and Lori picks David Ragan

Group 5: Lori picks Kyle Larson and Dennis picks Ken Schrader

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! 

Once Dormant Vickers Has New Opportunities

Brian Vickers was hired by Michael Waltrip (left) to run a limited schedule in 2012 and Vickers is back with Waltrip this year – and more.

MARTINSVILLE, VA. – Brian Vickers has had a very peculiar racing career. Well, it certainly hasn’t been routine.

He has experienced things few other drivers have. He has been at the top of his game. He’s been unemployed. He’s had his team pulled right out from under him. And he’s experienced a physical malady that could have easily put an end to his driving days.

But Vickers presses on.

This year he will see plenty of action on the track. He has a full-time Nationwide Series ride with Joe Gibbs Racing.

He’s slated to drive in nine Sprint Cup races for Michael Waltrip Racing, swapping the seat with Waltrip and Mark Martin.

And there’s more. Vickers will substitute for the injured Denny Hamlin at JGR for four races, starting next week at Texas. Martin is in the No. 11 at Martinsville.

Vickers is all over the place.

Yes, he’s at Martinsville. He’ll compete in the No. 55 Toyota for Martin, who, as said, will race with JGR.

Are you keeping up?

“We had a good run here last year,” Vickers said. “Working with these guys has always been a pleasure and I’ve always liked Martinsville.  This is the first place that I ran in a stock car -Allison Legacy car to be exact. It’s a fun track.

“Next week I’m going to be in the 11 car, which I’m obviously excited about, but I’m sad how the opportunity came about.

“I know what it’s like to be pulled out of your car for health reasons – I’ve been in that boat before – and wish Denny a speedy recovery.  I will do the best job I can for him and everyone at Gibbs and Toyota until he returns.”

Vickers ran for Red Bull Racing for several years, but lost his job when the team folded.

Vickers’ racing career took off in 2003 when he was hired to replace Ricky Hendrick in a Chevrolet owned by Hendrick Motorsports.

Vickers won three races and the championship by 14 points over David Green; thus becoming the youngest champion in the history of the Nationwide Series at age 20.

Vickers made his Cup debut in the 2003 UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte, qualifying 20th and finishing 33rd in the #60 Haas Automation Chevy. He ran four more races that season in Hendrick’s Chevy, qualifying in the top five each time, but posting only one top 20 finish.

Vickers moved on to Red Bull Racing in 2007 and did well, winning numerous pole positions.

And in 2009, Vickers won at Michigan to give Toyota its first win there. Afterward, he signed a contract extension with Red Bull.

But things began to change for the worse.

On May 13, 2010, it was announced that Vickers, who had earned three top 10s in the first 11 races, would not be participating in the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover International Speedway due to an undisclosed medical condition, later revealed to be blood clots in his legs and around his lungs.

Casey Mears was announced as his replacement. This ended a streak of 87 consecutive starts, which dated back to Atlanta in 2007.

On May 21, 2010, six days after being released from a hospital for the aforementioned blood clot issue, it was announced that Vickers would miss the remainder of the season.

It was obvious doctors did not want Vickers to do any strenuous activity. Blood clots can move through the body and ultimately cause a stroke – or worse.

“For me, not being in my car was very tough,” Vickers said. “The first time I saw my car go around the track, I wasn’t sure if I would ever again be in it.

“You grow up watching lots of races that you’re not in. But to watch the ones you are supposed to be in with your car going around the race track – well it’s not an easy thing to do.”

Vickers was cleared to race in 2011, but didn’t have a particularly good season. He finished 25th in the point standings.

At the end of the year Red Bull announced it was pulling the plug on its NASCAR program, which left Vickers on the outside looking in – again.

Vickers started the 2012 season without a ride, but it was announced in early March that he would drive the No. 55 Toyota for MWR at both races at Bristol, Martinsville, and Loudon, sharing the ride with Martin and Waltrip.

In his first race in the No. 55, at Bristol, Vickers dominated the first half of the race, leading for 125 laps. He would eventually finish 5th.

MWR later announced that Vickers would drive at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, expanding his schedule to eight races for 2012.

Of course, now that he’s been tapped by JGR for a full tilt on the Nationwide Series, has four races slated in Gibb’s Cup Toyota and remains on a nine-race schedule with MWR, Vickers is busier than ever.

He’s come a long way since Red Bull’s departure in 2011.

“This is all a huge opportunity for me,” said the 29-year-old Vickers, from Thomasville, N.C. “I feel like I’m very fortunate to have both these opportunities. I’m with two great teams and two great cars. Needless to say, things like that don’t happen very often.

“Again, I reiterate it’s very sad how all of this has happened. Again, I know how Denny is feeling because I’ve been on the receiving end of this.

“I’m just happy to jump in and do the best I can.”

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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