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.”



JUNIOR JOHNSON: In 1988, To Be Neutral In NASCAR’s ‘Tire Wars’ Was Right Thing

In 1988, Junior entered into his second year of NASCAR Winston Cup competition with Terry Labonte as his driver. No one knew it at the time, but the season was to be forever known as "Tire Wars."

By most standards, to have the kind of season Terry Labonte and Junior Johnson did in 1987 would have been considered excellent.

Labonte won a race with 20 finishes among the top 10. He was third in the final point standings.

But it was not the kind of season to which Johnson had become accustomed. Yet it was only the first year with Labonte as his driver and there was plenty of reason to believe things could get much better in 1988.

However, the season would be characterized by something that hadn’t been part of NASCAR for decades – a battle between two tire manufacturers for supremacy on the Winston Cup circuit.

This battle, which became known as the “Tire Wars,” had a profound effect on competition.

However, it didn’t have much effect on Junior Johnson & Associates. Johnson simply chose not to be a part of it.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

After Terry won for us at North Wilkesboro in October, finally, I let myself hope we could win a few more times before the end of the 1987 season.

There were four races left in the campaign and I thought we had gained enough momentum to win at least one of them.

Well, we might have gained momentum, but it didn’t work. We didn’t win during the last four weeks of the season.

Not that Terry didn’t run well. He did. He finished fourth at Charlotte, fifth at Rockingham and eighth at Riverside. He was 28th at Atlanta, but only because a flywheel broke on our Chevrolet.

For 1987, Terry and Junior Johnson & Associates won one race, finished among the top five 13 times and had 20 finishes among the top 10.

Terry wound up third in the final point standings behind Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott.

As nearly everyone predicted Dale ran away with the championship. He locked up the title at Rockingham, two races before the end of the season, where his runnerup finish gave him an insurmountable points lead over Bill.

Dale won 11 races in 29 starts. He had 24 top-10 finishes in 29 starts. That is a remarkable record.

But, really, for me as a team owner, it wasn’t anything new. In 1981-82, when Darrell drove for us and won consecutive titles, he had 24 wins and 45 top-10 finishes in 60 races. That sure ain’t bad.

Since 1987 was by no means a poor inaugural season with Terry, I had reason to think 1988 would be better.

Labonte seemed well on his way to another solid season with Junior. He won his first race, at North Wilkesboro, in only the seventh event of 1988.

But with the new year came a new twist for stock car racing. Hoosier Tires, a small outfit in the Midwest, announced it was going to enter NASCAR competition in 1988.

The significance of this was that Hoosier was going to be the first tire company to challenge Goodyear in decades – at least on a full-time basis.

Goodyear had been part of NASCAR ever since it began in 1948 and had become very adept at manufacturing tires that were durable, fast and safe.

But Hoosiers were cheaper and the company had plenty of racing experience. Its tires were used regularly on many Midwestern short-track circuits.

I admit I didn’t know entirely what the presence of two tire companies would do for NASCAR. But I had a strong suspicion.

And I didn’t want any part of any tire company other than Goodyear. It’s not that I thought Hoosier couldn’t win races. But I knew Goodyear’s performance and safety records were excellent.

Also, Goodyear was a giant company that had more than enough money to make all the changes it needed to overcome Hoosier.

Hoosier got the upper hand pretty quickly. Morgan Shepherd won the pole at Richmond, only the second race of the year, on Hoosiers. Neil Bonnett, driving for Rahmoc, won the race – also on Hoosiers.

And Neil won again the next week at Rockingham

The battle was on. In NASCAR lore, 1988 was the year of the “Tire Wars.”

At certain tracks teams would use Hoosiers.  Then they would switch to Goodyears for other races. Sometimes teams would switch from one brand to the other in the middle of an event. Can you imagine that?

Eventually it worked out that Hoosier had a softer, faster tire while Goodyear had a more durable, safer one.

It wasn’t long before Goodyear did what I thought it would do. It spent money to make its tire as fast as Hoosier’s while maintaining safety. And sure enough, Goodyear gained the competitive edge.

One major, unpleasant result of the “Tire Wars” was the high number of accidents in 1988. Hoosiers, or tires for that matter, didn’t cause all of them – just a heckuva lot of them. At least a dozen drivers were injured that season.

There was also plenty of torn up equipment, which forced some team owners to complain – they were spending huge dollars in repairs – and suggest NASCAR do something about it. They had become fed up with the tire situation.

But it didn’t take a genius to figure out there was nothing NASCAR could do. Hoosier played by the rules. And you can bet NASCAR didn’t want to deal with potential monopoly charges.

Junior Johnson & Associates wasn’t involved in the “Tire Wars” very much. Like I said earlier, I had a pretty good idea of the outcome.

So where other teams had drivers who were injured and faced increased costs because of damaged cars, well, mine never had to deal with any of that.

Ironically, it was a rival’s tire problem that helped us win our first race of the season.

Dale was leading at North Wilkesboro in April by more than two seconds over Terry. But with about 20 laps to go, Dale began to slow down.

He had a cut right-rear tire that went flat.

Terry sped into the lead with 11 laps to go and went on to give us our first win – and in just the first seven races of the year.

In 1987 it took us 25 races to get our first victory. In 1988 it took us only seven.

I thought that was a very good sign.

Wasn’t it?


Jeff Gordon Benefits From The Unpredictable, Which Is Nothing New In Racing

By a twist of fate, Jeff Gordon emerged as the winner of the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono. The victory was his first of the season and it propelled him into contention for a place in the Chase.

I’ve said many times over my many years as a motorsports writer that the only thing you can predict about racing is that it is unpredictable.

Very seldom, if ever, is anything certain. It just doesn’t work that way.

Here’s what I think is a perfect example of that. It happened this past weekend.

The Pennsylvania 400 was indeed a bizarre race. If you saw it, well, you know what I’m talking about.

Perhaps the only thing we might have thought was certain was a fourth victory of the season for Jimmie Johnson – and, no doubt, a big step toward the sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship of his career.

After all, Johnson was the race’s dominant driver. And he was in the lead when the race restarted following a caution period.

We all knew it was going to be the last restart of the race – menacing, dark skies loomed and a widely predicted storm was ready to erupt.

All Johnson had to do was stay in front for perhaps a lap or two and the ensuing downpour would end the race and ensure his victory.

But what happened was hard to fathom. Going into the first turn it appeared Johnson pushed his Chevrolet too far and too hard into the low portion of the track. It broke loose and slid upward into Matt Kenseth’s Ford.

That triggered an incident that involved several cars and, of course, assured Johnson he wasn’t going to be the winner. Instead he finished 14th.

Five-time champion Johnson made what most would consider a rookie mistake. For sure his maneuver, or lack of one, was something no one could expect from a veteran driver – not to mention one who was a multiple titlist.

Who could have possibly predicted that?

Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team ran well enough to be in position to win the race at Pocono. Unlike so many times in the past, this time there was no misfortune.

And who could have predicted what happened afterward?

When the dodging and scrambling came to an end in a most unusual turn of events, Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, inherited the lead.

Gordon came to Pocono winless for the season. He had only eight top-10 finishes and was 15th in points in a most uncharacteristically unproductive season.

Many speculated he would not make the Chase. He was finished, done for, toast, kaput ….

But there he was, in the lead under the yellow flag. He beseeched higher powers to let it rain. He pleaded and vented with a four-letter expletive or two.

After all, he was a desperate man who wanted – no, needed – to win and to hell with how he did it.

Sure enough, the rain, make that a deluge, came. The race was over and victory was Gordon’s for the first time since Labor Day weekend at Atlanta in 2011.

“Well, it’s never over until it’s over,” an elated Gordon said after the race. “I’ve won races like this here before. I tell you what; the way our year has gone we’ll definitely take it like this. Man, I’ve never seen the seas part quite like they did going down into Turn 1. “I got a great restart and was able to dive to the inside in front of Kasey Kahne and I saw Jimmie get sideways and he just took them all out.

“And I was like, wow!”

For Gordon, the victory was a powerful catalyst for change. His once seemingly hopeless chances for making the Chase have transformed.

From out of nowhere he is now the second leading contender to make the NASCAR “playoff” as one of two “wildcard” entries.

He’s 13th in the point standings with one victory –which is significant because wins are key for drivers outside the top 10 in points.

Only teammate Kahne, who is 11th in points with two victories, is ahead of him.

Gordon went from pretender to contender in the space of one week – or one race. Could you have predicted that?

Gordon admitted he couldn’t. But he added victory, however accomplished, was due.

“To see this race unfold the way it did, you know, it certainly makes up for a lot of those ‘would have,’ ‘could have,’ ‘should haves’ this year,” he said. “Things are coming together at the right time.

The attitude of this team is that we don’t ever give up.

We go to the race track to win. Today we got the win.

“It’s nice to know that things can still go our way. I hate it for Jimmie and his guys – what happened, anyway?

“But we haven’t had a whole lot go our way this year. To have the first four cars in front of you all slide up the race track, you go by and win the race with the rain – I mean, it’s nice to know that things can still go our way. So this is a big boost for us as a team.”

It can be assumed that, as of now, Gordon is a solid contender for the Chase, given his new status. Considering his twist of fortune at Pocono – yes, it was unpredicted – he might be a lock to avoid a “playoff” shutout for the first time since 2005.

Gordon won’t even think along those lines. He knows that with five races before the Chase begins, anything can happen.

It’s all so unpredictable.

“Now, now, typical media,” Gordon said. “You guys start getting ahead of yourselves here.

“We knew how badly we needed a win and we got it.  But that’s half the battle.

“Now in my opinion, this only puts more pressure on us over these next several weeks, but we’re ready for the challenge.

“I think with all we’ve been through this year – I said this also – if we can get to victory lane and get some things to go our way, this team, because of what we’ve been through, that we’ve stayed together and haven’t pointed fingers, it will make us stronger.”

If Gordon wins again before the Chase begins, or at the least runs well enough to make it, his thinking is no one should consider it as, well, unpredictable.

“It wasn’t like we just kind of fluked into it today,” he said. “We put ourselves into position for that good fortune to happen.

“That’s all we’ve been talking about as something we need to do more of and we did it today.

“And we can do it again. We can.”





After Wild Pocono, Brad Keselowski Still Gets Championship Nod

With his fourth place finish in the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono, Brad Keselowski advanced from ninth to seventh in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings and tightened his grip on a place in the Chase.

LONG POND, Pa. – The rain-shortened Pennsylvania 400 was, obviously, a most unusual race.

NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered transmission failure and his incredible streak of consistency – he completed every lap in 20 straight races this year – comes to an end.

Race-dominant Jimmie Johnson, who rarely makes mistakes, gets loose on the last restart and the ensuing wreck, among other things, takes out Matt Kenseth, the driver who only a week ago lost the points lead.

As a result, a crippled Earnhardt somehow remains the points leader. Go figure.

While you’re at it, figure this: Jeff Gordon, so desperately in need of a victory to have any chance at making the Chase, is the leader when storms rake Pocono yet again.

The bad weather forces an end to the race after 98 of scheduled 160 laps. Improbably, Gordon is the winner.

And just like that … he’s launched from oblivion to No. 2 in the “wildcard” standings, which means that if the Chase started this weekend, Gordon would be in it.

But there are now five races before the Chase begins. To assure his participation, Gordon has work to do.

Jeff Gordon was the winner of the rain-shortened Pocono race and as such, he won for the first time this year and vastly improved his chances for making the Chase and a chance at a fifth career title.

On the other hand, it would appear Brad Keselowski doesn’t have much to worry about.

The driver of the Penske Racing Dodge finished fourth in the Pennsylvania 400, which moved him from ninth to seventh in points. He’s just one point behind Tony Stewart.

But, like Stewart, Keselowski has three victories this season and therefore is all but assured a place in the Chase.

But let’s go a step further.

I am on record as saying that Keselowski will win the 2012 championship.

That may seem like I’m going out on a limb with defending champion Stewart and five-time titlist Johnson currently tied with Keselowski with three wins this season to date, but I can’t shake the feeling.

Keselowski, of course, tested my fortitude by qualifying 31st for the Pennsylvania 400. This has been an all-too-often scenario for the Penske No. 2 team.

As Keselowski noted, “I didn’t get a very strong qualifying run but that’s kind of been the story of our season.”

But what Keselowski and team lack in qualifying they seem to make up for in competition – as was the case at Pocono.

“The most important thing is race trim and the speed you have there,” he said. “Also it’s the execution that you have out of your team and, certainly, the driver and I’m proud of where we’re at in those categories.”

Pocono is one track on which Keselowski has always felt comfortable. He won there a year ago despite a broken ankle but finished 18th in June.

“For obvious reasons so it’s nice to return to a track where you’ve had success,” he said. “It just makes you feel even that much better about the outlook for the weekend.”

Keselowski explained that returning to a track for the second time means his team “always gets better.”

“I don’t think this weekend will be any exception,” he added prior to the Pennsylvania 400. And he was right.

“You know, we had a decent run coming together the last time we were here with the new pavement,” Keselowski said. “We had some electronics issues that caught us and we just never got a shot to fully recover from that.

“I think you know all things being even and not having those issues we could have had a top-five, top-10 day and I think we’re even more competitive this time around.

“So you know for those reasons I always look forward to coming back to tracks in the summer stretch.”

What impresses me about Keselowski is the depth of talent in the driver and the momentum he’s carried over from last year. He is a force with which to be reckoned this season.

As for his successes this season, Keselowski said, “I’m part of a competitive team. I enjoy going to the race track. It’s a good time in my life.”

With what looks to be a guaranteed spot in the Chase, and a strong position once there, Keselowski’s future continues to look bright.

But he adds, “The only thing I really am concerned about now is winning a race and winning another race and then another race. That’s what drives me before the Chase starts.”

With the 31st qualifying position it might have appeared a good finish would be difficult today, but Keselowski has proven throughout the season that a tough starting position will not keep him down.

He proved it again in the Pennsylvania 400.

His resiliency and his season record make him my favorite for this year’s title.





Now Tops In Points, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Still Looking For More

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will compete at Pocono today as the NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader, a position he hasn't held in eight years. The Hendrick Motorsports driver starts from the eighth position.

LONG POND, Pa. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings as the Pennsylvania 400 is scheduled to get underway under cloud-covered skies. The Hendrick Motorsports driver comes to the “Tricky Triangle” with a growing confidence and a positive attitude.

“I’m just ready to go try it out and see what we’ve got. It should be a good weekend.” Earnhardt Jr. said.

Another win by Earnhardt Jr. would be crucial to his season once the Chase begins, a fact that does not go unnoticed.

In response to whether he feels vindicated by his win at Michigan earlier in the summer Earnhardt Jr. said, “Aside from winning a few more races I don’t know how much more of a statement I could have made than what we made this year.

“That’s not quite as important to me as just trying to make the best of this year with the final result being more wins and a championship.

“The closer we get to the Chase, the more real the opportunity seems. So all that stuff comes to the forefront. I know what I need to be focusing on and it’s not whether I got back at somebody or vindicate myself as much as just focusing on what we are trying to do today, this weekend, next weekend, and so forth.”

Earnhardt Jr. is not only trying to win the race today for his team but also for a lucky member of the racing audience who will be $100,000 wealthier if he makes it to victory lane. Pocono Raceway president and CEO Brandon Igdalsky offered the bounty to a lucky fan if Igdalsky’s pick – Earnhardt Jr. – wins.

“Yeah, I really don’t know much about it other than I guess the guy at the race track is going to pay someone some money if we win,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “That would be good for whoever gets the money and we’ll be enjoying the trophy in victory lane. Everybody wins, I suppose.”

What Earnhardt Jr. does know and embraces is he is the current points leader. He’s thrilled about it.

Earnhardt Jr. broke a long losing streak with his victory at Michigan this year. While he knows that win did much for him and his career, he's looking for more as the season moves toward the Chase.

“It’s been a long time since I was in the points lead,” he said. “It’s been forever. I can’t even recall when the last time we were in the conversation about the championship.

“So, these things are really validating the effort and the work we’ve done. We’ve worked really hard.”

And now that the hard work is paying off for Earnhardt Jr. he admits his attitude has changed.

“It’s 180 degrees really the way I feel and approach the sport and my job now,” he said. “When I wasn’t competitive that’s all you wanted to be, to run up front and run in the top five. Just have good runs.”

“It didn’t make a difference to be in the Chase if you weren’t going to win the thing and didn’t feel like you could win the championship, you were just taking up a spot – just like Tony (Stewart) felt last year when the Chase started.”

Earnhardt Jr. critiques his current season by saying, “We’ve been quick, but in my opinion we’ve only been the fastest guy probably once or twice this year and I don’t know if that is good enough.

“I’m gonna say it’s not good enough. I know our team would like to win more races. To be able to contend for the championship our team needs another 10 to 15 percent.”

With Earnhardt Jr. starting eighth in today’s running of the Pennsylvania 400, which starts at noon, he should have a good opportunity to find that next win.



President Brandon Igdalsky Plans Expansion, Change For Pocono Raceway

Brandon Igdalsky, president and CEO of Pocono Raceway, is the grandson of the speedway's founder, the late Dr. Joe Mattioli. Many improvements have been made at the track under Igdalsky's supervision.

LONG POND, Pa. – Brandon Igdalsky walks around Pocono Raceway in an unassuming manner with a huge smile on his face and a friendly demeanor.

He is visible, present, and clearly pleased to have throngs of people milling about his track days before the Pennsylvania 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race occurs.

Igdalsky is, of course, president and CEO of Pocono Raceway. He is also grandson of well-loved founder and patriarch of the track, the late Dr. Joe Mattioli.

Mattioli created Pocono Raceway with a dream and a ton of gumption when he was tired of the rat race and just wanted to have fun. Now, in the wake of Mattioli’s passing, his grandson seems to be living in a similar manner.

Interested in staying true to his grandfather’s vision while taking Pocono Raceway to the next level, Igdalsky is implementing a ton of changes to the track.

The recent repave was a fabulous upgrade resulting in faster speeds. A plan to resurface and reconfigure the infield will be implemented this fall.

Social media is another tool that Igdalsky utilizes to stay attuned to the race fans.

From gleaning information, tackling criticisms, and staying in touch with people – Igdalsky recently had a Q&A on Twitter for an hour – he recognizes the importance of social media.

He credits NASCAR journalists who first used social media to bring fan and action on the track together and says that the people who did that will be seen as revolutionary in much the way Chris Economaki was with motorsports reporting.

While Pocono is recognized as a fan-friendly track, which offers attendees opportunity to see their favorite drivers, Igdalsky plans more activities and entertainment venues for the future.

What I learned about Igdalsky when I visited the track last month and spoke to several Pocono employees (who didn’t know I was a motorsports journalist) was how revered he is by his staff.

Not one negative word was uttered and many compliments were bestowed.

One employee told me, “Brandon is a real good guy. He has done every job here at the track from picking up garbage to painting and on up. The whole family is wonderful!”

And, the truth of the matter is, he is and they are from every account.

This weekend a fan will love Igdalsky for 100,000 different reasons. A lucky audience member who registers at the track will win $100,000 if Igdalsky’s pick to win the Pennsylvania 400 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. – gets the victory.

Igdalsky got the idea while watching the Presidential campaign unfold and decided to piggy back on the idea. He has coined the event as the 2012 Presidential Pick for the last NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the 2012 season at Pocono.

In this economy the offer is thrilling and another lure for fans.

But, it is plainly obvious the crowds will gather at Pocono regardless of generous and fun offers by Igdalsky.

The city that springs up seemingly overnight at the track is a hodgepodge of people from all over the country and abroad who share a commonality while here.

Many would not miss it and, although actual statistics are not provided, several sources have told me that Pocono was the only venue on the Sprint Cup circuit that sold out both of its dates last year.

From the look of the grandstands, a sellout is probable tomorrow.

It’s easy to see why the fans are so loyal and consistently return to these major NASCAR events.

People who are family run the facility.

From Igdalsky, his brother Nicholas and their charming mother Louis Mattioli Igdalsky, to the tightknit staff and the thousands of volunteers that gather for NASCAR race weekends, everybody feels they are a part of the family. And it’s genuine.

Idgalsky’s goal for the future of Pocono Raceway is to expand its role as an entertainment center, not just a racing facility. He envisions concerts, festivals, and the like in addition to the numerous race dates scheduled throughout the year.

One thing is certain; Pocono Raceway is in the finest of hands.

Although I never had the great pleasure to meet Doc Mattioli, I can only presume that he would be supremely happy with the job his grandson is doing in steering his track into the future.

How Much More Can Jimmie Johnson Accomplish?

Jimmie Johnson had quick success in NASCAR and that didn't necessarily sit well with all fans. However, he has gone on to win five consecutive championship and earn increasing respect from race followers.

LONG POND, Pa. – Jimmie Johnson is one of the few drivers who did not gain my support upon my reentry into NASCAR. Although I had sworn my allegiances were to all, not one, Johnson seemed to miss that cut.

My opinion was not unpopular. Many fans were not won over by the slick, calm and winning guy from California.

Johnson’s introduction to Cup in 2002 led to a fifth place in points for the season; most impressive. Johnson’s results from 2003 and 2004 were even more awe-inspiring – two second-place finishes back to back.

The next year, 2005, Johnson once again finished fifth. He and his team had gotten so close to championships, but had yet to seal the deal.

Four years after his Cup debut Johnson and the Hendrick Motorsports team led by Chad Knaus changed all of that as they won their first cup in 2006.

“Dialed in,” “well-oiled machine,” “evil genius” and other choice sayings were rolling off tongues as Johnson’s first championship season bled into a second, then a third, an unprecedented fourth, and a history-making fifth by the time 2010 was in the books.

The juggernaut, as it were, didn’t just seem unstoppable. For half a decade, it was decidedly impenetrable.

Last year Johnson and company were finally derailed. Tony Stewart handily won the title and Johnson had to settle for sixth.

I would argue that was the best thing to happen for Johnson’s career. Although his staid fans never faltered, the rest of the “NASCAR Nation” found his dominance at best annoying – and at worst intolerable.

I fell in the annoyed category.

Tony Stewart, seen here with President Barack Obama broke Johnson's chain of championships in 2011 as Stewart won the third title of his career. This year, however, Johnson seems well on the way to another title.

But, when I truly started to pay attention writing race recap after race recap last year, I noticed how brilliant Johnson and his team truly are and I was fascinated.

A bad day for the No. 48 team was usually salvaged to a top-10 finish – a bad day, indeed. Johnson, Knaus and the team never gave up, always plugged away and quietly did their business.

Unlike many others, Johnson’s post-race interviews are thoughtful, positive and never inflammatory. He maintains cohesion in his team and always looks to the future.

But even when Johnson tangled with Kurt Busch last year, that, I would conspire, was good for Johnson’s image. The Johnson who rarely showed much emotion, especially anger, was a bit hot-headed and it was fun for viewers.

This season Johnson once again appears on the move. The goal, as is well known since his debut, is to win championships. With three wins – Darlington, Charlotte, and Indianapolis – the No. 48 team is well on its way to the Chase and quite possibly another championship.

Johnson’s ripple effect in NASCAR is far from over. There is much left in this underrated champion. He has yet to get the respect in the sport that he has so plainly earned, a fact that stymies me to this day.

It seems to me that distance will shine a brighter more friendly light on Johnson and his incredible feats.

In the meantime, now that he is not the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, more and more people in the stands are offering their cheers.

That was clearly evident at Indy where Johnson won the Brickyard 400 last weekend. Cheers could be heard for the driver who, heretofore, was getting booed rather consistently for his dominating trends.

But perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or “NASCAR Nation,” like the whole of America, loves an underdog. Whatever the reason, I enjoy watching history unfold with Johnson.

Will Johnson tie or even surpass the seven championships of Richard “The King” Petty and Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt? Will he find his way past his mentor, car owner and teammate Jeff Gordon on the all-time wins list?

I’m not sure what Johnson’s legacy in the sport will be; I just know there will be one. And, I’m sure there will always be detractors of his career, but I’m no longer one of them.

I look anxiously to the future to see how much Johnson can accomplish. History, ladies and gentlemen, is in the making and we are all bearing witness to it.

Who doesn’t love a champion, especially one trying to make a comeback.

With Victory, Jimmie Johnson Adds To Hendrick Glory At Indy

Jimmie Johnson won the Brickyard 400 for the fourth time in his career. He and Jeff Gordon have combined to win eight races at Indy for Hendrick Motorsports.

SPEEDWAY, Ind-The list of NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers who have won at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the past 19 seasons is short. But it is composed of some of stock car racing’s most iconic stars.

Two are from Hendrick Motorsports, the Concord, N.C.-based powerhouse organization that has dominated the win column at IMS with eight victories in 19 years.

Hendrick’s success dates back to the race’s inaugural running in 1994, when Jeff Gordon drove to victory lane in the Brickyard 400, the second most prestigious NASCAR race, behind on the season-opening Daytona 500.

Gordon went on to win at Indy three more times for a total of four victories.

Jimmie Johnson, another of Rick Hendrick’s championship drivers, is now another four-time victor at IMS with his strong, winning performance in the 2012 Brickyard 400.

Johnson won what was officially known as Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at The Brickyard by a staggering 4.758 seconds over Kyle Busch. The victory was Johnson’s third of the 2012 season. He is fourth in the point standings.

Johnson joins Al Unser Sr., Rick Mears, Michael Schumacher – and Gordon – as four-time winners at Indianapolis

“To come here and win is a huge honor, then to have four wins – I’m at a loss for words,” Johnson said. “I can tell you this, I’m so proud of my team. I’m so proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports.

“(Crew chief) Chad Knaus gave me one heck of a race car today and pit road was awesome, too. It was a total team effort and we put it on them today that was nice.”

Johnson was especially appreciative of Gordon, what he has accomplished at IMS, and memories of coming to the track as a child – with a dream to win at the track in an Indy car.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth at Indy and that, along with Matt Kenseth's accident early in the race, has moved Earnhardt Jr. into first place in the point standings.

“I looked up to him (Gordon) and it’s really wild for me to get my start driving a Cup car for him,” Johnson said. “To tie (Gordon and hero Mears) and what they’ve accomplished, again, I just hoped to come here and race. I had no idea this would turn out.

“I can remember how I watched the Indianapolis 500 with my grandfather and my dad sitting on the couch. My grandfather told me stories about Indy and that he came here and was at the race track.

“I’m glad to have my own memories here for my family and also I must say I couldn’t do it without the support of my wife and daughter. It’s a total team effort on all fronts.”

Finishing third was Greg Biffle, followed by Hendrick Motorsports drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon. Pole position winner Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart rounded out the top 10.

The impressive top-five finish propelled Earnhardt Jr. into the Sprint Cup points lead. It’s the first time he has been in that position since 2004 at Talladega Superspeedway.

“We were looking forward to this race,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We wanted to run well here and wanted to win this race. We want to get a trophy here and go to victory lane. One of our teammates was able to do that so we are proud for the company.

“We’re happy with the finish. We are ready to start seeing a little bit more materialize for us. We’re really happy with what we are doing and trying to keep our minds focused on what is working for us.”

Matt Kenseth, driver of the Roush Fenway Racing Ford, fell to second in points after dropping to 35th in the race.

Kenseth was involved in a multi-car crash with Joey Logano and Bobby Labonte on lap 132 as he attempted to go high to move around the crash. He held the points lead since June 10th at Pocono Raceway.

Kenseth is considered a lame duck of sorts, having previously announced he will be leaving Roush at season’s end to drive for another team. He hopes to give team owner Jack Roush a championship before he leaves.

“Yeah, it is frustrating,” Kenseth said. “I got hung out on the restart which is one thing. I was trying to get through there and Tony Stewart wiped the whole side off my car in the straightaway for no reason and that kind of made me mad.

“I was in front of the Marcos Ambrose and saw he had a run, so I went down to block and he went across the grass and shot me up out of the groove there.

“It is crazy there at the end. You could see the wreck happening and I was just hoping I wasn’t going to be in it.”

Gordon ran strong throughout the 160-lap race. The former resident of nearby Pittsboro would have loved a fifth win at IMS, but was happy for Johnson and the No. 48 team he co-owns with Hendrick.

“I don’t think we could have passed Jimmie,” Gordon said. “Those guys were definitely the class of the field today and had the track position. They’re a strong team. They deserve that win today.

“I’m pretty disappointed really. It’s always nice to finish in the top five but at this point in the season, the way our season has gone with so many missed opportunities that we’ve had, I feel like it was a little bit of a missed opportunity today. We needed track position there at the end and we didn’t get it when it counted most and it cost us.”

Considering all the frustration and disappointment Earnhardt Jr. has been through over the past few seasons, Gordon was happy to see him take the point lead.

“I give them a lot of credit,” Gordon said. “It’s really awesome that they’re out front. They’ve been consistent and if they can keep that consistency up and maybe even take it up a notch when the Chase starts, they’re going to be a real threat for the championship. So, they’re running good.

“It’s good to see it. I’

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

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

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

But they differ somewhat on how to do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s where opinions vary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








Kyle Busch Confident As Hectic Day For Cup Cars At Indy Moves In

Kyle Busch was the fastest driver in final practice for the Nationwide Series race, which is part of a hectic Saturday schedule at Indianapolis.

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – It was kind of surreal.

On a Friday, just two days before the Brickyard 400, there wasn’t a single NASCAR Sprint Cup car on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

There was no practice, no qualifying – nothing.

This was unlike anything in the past. Normally, a Friday before what is generally accepted as NASCAR’s second-most prestigious race would be a day swarming with activity.

The garage area would be teeming with crewmen scattering in every direction as they went about their tasks. Whistles would be shrilling constantly, warning everyone that a rumbling car was on it way to the track – or coming back to the garage.

But on this Friday, there was none of that.

That’s because NASCAR’s weekend schedule at the Brickyard has changed radically. The Sprint Cup race is still the highlight event on Sunday, of course, but it is now accompanied by companion events in the Grand-Am Series and the Nationwide Series.

The new schedule had practice for the Nationwide cars on Thursday and Friday was turned over completely to the Grand-Am sports cars.

Then, well, talk about a busy day – on Saturday Sprint Cup cars would have two practice sessions, followed by qualifying for the Nationwide Series, then Cup qualifying. Finally, at 4:30 p.m., the inaugural Indiana 250 Nationwide race would get the green flag.

That’s a packed schedule …

Most Cup drivers were not at the track on Friday. Those that were either had personal appearances or chose to watch the Grand-Am events.

A few, such as Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray, competed in the Grand-Am races.

Many more Cup drivers were active on Thursday as part of two (and only) practice sessions for the Nationwide event, which will be conducted at the Brickyard for the first time after years at nearby Indianapolis Raceway Park.

Busch is in his fifth season with Joe Gibbs Racing and hopes to be the third driver from the team, along with Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte, to win at Indy.

Seven of the 10 fastest cars in the final practice session were driven by Cup regulars – which should come as no surprise, given that they are far more familiar with Indy’s 2.5-mile oval.

The Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, posted the two fastest speeds of the day. Kyle led the way with a speed of 175.838 mph, over a mile per hour quicker than his sibling.

“It felt good for the first time here,” Kyle said. “We’ve just been trying to make the car snug to make it better in the long run. You’ve got to be snug here because the place is so flat.

“Hopefully the car will stay with us all day Saturday.”

Speaking of Saturday, the younger Busch knows – as do all other Cup drivers – that it is going to be very hectic, which means there will be precious little time to make any needed adjustments.

“It’s going to be tight for the crews,” Kyle said. “Their time to relax for a little bit in the garage is not going to happen because they will be swapping back and forth between practice, qualifying and races. There’s a lot to do.

“It is a tight schedule. It’s a good thing I’m not a rookie and I’ve been here a few times in the Cup cars, so the limited time shouldn’t be a problem.”

Regardless of where he qualifies, Kyle will be considered a victory contender in the Nationwide race. He hasn’t won in 2012, but it’s hard to ignore the fact he has 51 series wins, including 13 in 2010.

As for the Sprint Cup circuit, Kyle is 13th in points with one victory. He is currently ranked as the No. 2, and final, candidate for a “wildcard” spot, behind Kasey Kahne.

That’s good, but it could be better.

Even though it is the Brickyard 400, Kyle, whose best finish was a fourth in 2007, maintains there is no real change in his strategy to make the Chase.

“You have to approach the races leading up to the Chase the way you have all the other races all season,” he said. “You go there and try to do the best job you can.

“You want to win on any weekend, so all through practice you try to figure out what you need in you car to make it the fastest you can.

“If the car handles and drives well, you can try a little harder to make speed out of it.”

Now in his fifth season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Kyle hopes to join two former Gibbs drivers – Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte – as a winner at the Brickyard.

“I’m wishing I can put my name on that list by getting a win and running up front,” Kyle said. “You always want to win the big races, the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Brickyard 400, before your career is over.”

For Kyle, like it will be for every other driver, the opportunity to win at Indy will be greater if, on Saturday, total preparation is complete – and the sooner the better.




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