NASCAR: Kyle Larson Tops First-Time Championship Contenders

Kyle Larson is scorching hot at the right time.

Kyle Larsen is finally paying dividends.

The NASCAR regular season concluded at Richmond International Raceway, showcasing the continued supremacy of the Toyotas. Like 2015, the entire Joe Gibbs Racing stable of defending Champion Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth have all qualified for the Chase playoffs, along with the affiliated Toyota Furniture Row team of Martin Truex, Jr.

It’s a supreme overflow of riches for Toyota, given they have won 13 of the 26 regular season races. On Sunday at Richmond, winner Hamlin and the other Toyota drivers led 385 of 407 laps.

If NASCAR’s Chase playoff is to deliver any surprise moments during its final ten races, we may need to look for the four first-time qualifiers to possibly break the Toyota juggernaut, given all of these newbies have been competing in the Sprint Cup series for less than three seasons.

Given that three of the rookie qualifiers are previous champions in NASCAR XFINITY ladder series, how do these young guns stack up in their potential for securing one of the final four spots at the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale that will determine NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Champion?

Chris Buescher

080616-nascar-chris-buescher-vresize-1200-675-high-67

Despite talent, it’s doubtful that Chris Buescher makes it past the first Chase round.

Without doubt, the greatest shock was rookie Chris Buescher qualifying for the Chase by using a fuel strategy gamble to win the race-shortened race at Pocono. Completing his work-study program at Front Row Motorsports while Roush Fenway Racing leadership evaluates his future potential, Buescher is the only driver within the extended RFR family to have qualified for the Chase.

As a result, expect both Ford and RFR to be more willing to throwing human and technical resources behind Buescher’s long-shot bid for a Championship.

Regardless, his playoff stay will likely be short, as Buescher drives for small team in a Chase full of Goliaths. Including his victory, he has only two top 10 finishes with a season average finish of 26.7, and it is difficult to foresee him continuing beyond the first Chase round.

Austin Dillon

As most improved over the past three years, Dillon leads the Richard Childress Racing team as the sole contender to this year’s Chase, with veterans Paul Menard and Ryan Newman having failed to repeat this year as qualifiers.

A primary reason that Dillon locked in his first Chase berth is his increased consistency during 2016. He’s posted a seasons average finish of 14.6, as compared to a career average of 19.3 through his first two seasons. That consistency could carry Dillon through the first two rounds of the Chase, as Dillon has posted ten top 10 finishes during the regular season with only one DNF.

Right now, Dillon seems to manage his equipment well and make smart decisions; he just needs a little more speed to be in contention for wins. With a majority of intermediate tracks in the Chase, speed will be critical and the Dow No. 3 Chevrolet team still seems a little stunted in this department.

Chase Elliott

Taking over the iconic ride of the semi-retired Jeff Gordon, Elliott’s rookie season has been volatile with plenty of ups and downs. Still, Elliott collected enough points to qualify 14th. At times, Elliott has run exceptionally well. Elliott has delivered the most top ten finishes among the four first-timers, with thirteen top 10 and seven top 5 finishes.

Still, Elliott has not yet closed the deal with a regular season win.

He finished 2nd twice at Michigan, 3rd at Dover, and 4th at Bristol, but poor restarts have been his nemesis. Nonetheless, Chase Elliott may just still the best and biggest surprise of the newcomers, if he can just stop spinning the tires on restarts, given how critical restarts are to controlling the race in the closing stages.

My take is that Elliott will fall just short of the Homestead finale, with elimination in the 3rd round of playoffs. As a former XFINITY Series Champion, Elliott just needs a little more experience under his belt before he fulfills his potential.

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson is scorching hot at the right time. Closing out the last three races of the regular season, Larson has finished on the podium each time, with a 1st at Michigan, 2nd at Darlington, and 3rd at Richmond. Larson has ramped up with an average 10.6 finish in the 2nd half of the season, as compared to the 1st half season average of 20.3.

I respect Larson’s aggressiveness and his ability to experiment early on with new racing lines. He has confidence from his recent breakthrough win, and Larson is a strong collaborative position with teammate Jamie McMurray also having qualified for the Chase, which is a first for the Chip Ganassi Racing contingent. Additionally, the CGR team has been testing several new car chassis, and may just have a few extra bullets in the chamber for the Chase playoffs.

Larson is undoubtedly an exceptional talent; if he can keep it clicking with his new crew chief Chad Johnston during the playoffs, a few well-timed strategy gambles may just carry him to the Championship series finale.

The Chase playoff can be a wild and stressful ten-week stretch, with four successive elimination rounds to the Championship. These young guns must take it one race at a time, given a race victory in any round provides the golden ticket to automatically move on. But then again, wouldn’t it be a stellar narrative if one of these drivers can break through to spice up the NASCAR Championship?

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

 

 

Johnson Lassos Keselowski Possibly Crushing Chase Hopes

Johnson stalked Keselowski like a boss, perhaps blocking him from the Chase.

Johnson stalked Keselowski like a boss, perhaps blocking him from the Chase.

During Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, we were treated to a superb showdown between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, two former NASCAR Sprint Cup Champions putting on a relentless driving clinic over the final 18 laps.

Johnson, driver of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet No. 48, took the lead with four laps remaining from Team Penske’s Keselowski, who started from the pole and dominated throughout on his way to leading 312 of 334 laps.

For Keselowski, a victory would have punched his ticket to the Championship 4 final at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks. Before the pass by Johnson, Keselowski seemed to do everything right, having punished the rest of the field on dominating restarts as well as long green flag runs.

But Johnson had other plans in chasing down Keselowski, keeping his Chase playoff record perfect, by ensuring he has now won at least one race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for the 12th consecutive season. His fifth victory of the season was also his record career sixth at Texas.

Both Johnson and Keselowski demonstrated how to race hard but clean, with Johnson patiently stalking Keselowski over the final 18 laps after a restart, smoothly moving around his line at the end to get a big run off the corner and make a slide job in front of Keselowski to take the lead.

Keselowski dominated at Texas this weekend only to be passed by Johnson just a few laps from the flag.

Keselowski dominated at Texas this weekend only to be passed by Johnson just a few laps from the flag.

Johnson commended Keselowski for their “mean yet clean” racing.

“Honestly, I race people how they race me,” Johnson explained. “Brad’s always raced me clean and hard. He did that again today. We both showed each other that same respect. What’s gone on between other drivers the last few weeks has no bearing on myself. You really handle your own situation. How people treat you, how respectfully they race you. We just had a good, hard race today.”

More astonishing was the grandstand reaction from the fans, with many more cheers than jeers for the six-time Champion as Johnson burned it down on the front straight for his post-race celebration. In prior Championship seasons, when Johnson was routinely closing out competitors under the old Chase playoff format, the chant was often “anybody but the No. 48.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at Monday, November 9, 2015  10.05.13 AM (2)Even Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth, having a little extra time on his hands due to his suspension last week, jumped in on Twitter to reinforce the point. 

From a Chase perspective, the net impact of Johnson’s victory is that both of the Team Penske drivers sit substantially below the cut line with Keselowski in sixth and Joey Logano in eighth position with only three remaining spots heading to the penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway next weekend.

This modernized Chase playoff format was altered last season to reward winning, as proven by Jeff Gordon punching his ticket to the Homestead Championship final as a result of last weekend’s victory at Martinsville Speedway. Yet, we are still left to speculate if something is missing from this Chase playoff system, given that several of the most dominant drivers this season have already been eliminated or are on the verge of elimination heading to Phoenix:

  • Texas winner Johnson has now won five races this season, but was already eliminated in the first Chase Challenger round at Dover due to a failure of a $15 rear axle seal that forced Johnson to take his No. 48 to the garage and resulted in a 41st place finish
  • Matt Kenseth, also a five-time winner this season, was eliminated two weeks ago, after an accident at Charlotte in the second Chase Contender round put Kenseth in a must-win situation at either Talladega or Kansas, a race where he mounted a feisty battle that fell just short
  • And then there is Joey Logano, Team Penske driver of the No. 22 Ford, having collected six wins this season, the most of any other driver. After experiencing a massive tire failure only eight laps into the Texas race, Logano now finds himself at the bottom of the remaining eight drivers in the Chase Eliminator round and in a must-win situation heading to Phoenix International Raceway, given that he is 63 points outside of the top four cut-off

So the three most prominent winners this season, assuming that Logano fails to win at Phoenix, are destined to miss the Homestead Championship final and are left to wonder what might have been.

With the extinguishing of each driver’s Championship quest, this new Chase format has validated just how critical all ten races are in the Chase – particularly in this contemporary round by round elimination format.

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

 

Talladega: Is Kevin Harvick a Genius?

Mike Helton

Mike Helton

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

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

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

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

Is Harvick really that smart? Yes he is.

Is Harvick really that smart? Yes he is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one really came out a winner on Sunday.

NASCAR: Richmond is Final Chase Race For Broken Hearts

Can Rick and the gang get it's groove back?

Can Rick and the gang get it’s groove back?

With the celebratory homecoming of the BoJangles Southern 500 to Darlington Raceway over the Labor Day weekend now in the rear view mirror, the Sprint Cup Series heads to Richmond International Raceway for its regular season finale on Saturday under the lights. I have great anticipation for my Virginia visit to the “State for Lovers”. Be forewarned, the last five unclinched spots in the NASCAR Chase playoff grid will be revealed when the checkered flag flies after 400 miles, and passion on pit road may be more than plentiful when the race concludes.

So, my column features the five crucial storylines to watch for during the Federated Auto Parts 400 this weekend.

1) Can Hendrick Motorsports get its groove back?

Likely the most dominant NASCAR team during the past two decades, Hendrick Motorsports had another night to forget under the lights of Darlington. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the highest finishing Hendrick driver, was 8th. With an average running position of 13th during the race, Dale Jr. actually struggled for much of the weekend, but worked out his issues near the end, noting “the (team) did a good job getting the car better all night long…just took us all weekend to get there and we were pretty far off when we got here, really bad.”

For the rest of the Hendrick stable, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson finished 12th, 16th, and 19th, respectively. Only Gordon ran in the top 5 over the course of the Southern 500, until two slow pit stops at the end dropped him back in the pack.

Richmond, Virginia may be for lovers, but a few hearts could be broken.

Richmond, Virginia may be for lovers, but a few hearts could be broken.

Shockingly, over the last six races, Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers have only achieved three top 5’s among them. You have to reach back two months to the Fourth of July weekend to find the last victory by a Hendrick driver (Earnhardt Jr.) at the Daytona Coke Zero 400.

With the Chase kicking off in Chicago in two weeks, the Hendrick Motorsports organization needs to quickly find answers if they intend to stay in the hunt for a 12th Sprint Cup Championship. Not only have the Hendrick cars lacked raw speed during qualifying, but its teams are making costly mistakes on pit road. The pressure of the Chase will only exacerbate the potential for pit road errors. If Hendrick drivers don’t pick up some momentum at Richmond, don’t be surprised if the three qualified Hendrick teams are knocked out in the early Chase rounds.

2) Will Kevin Harvick deliver on his “Closer” moniker?

As driver of the #4 Stewart-Hass Racing Chevy SS, the closer Harvick has been anything but. While he leads the season points and has the most laps led, he has “only” visited Victory Lane twice this year, defying the logic of those impressive running stats. Harvick has been a threat to win everywhere, with fifteen top 3 finishes (a staggering 60% of the regular season). His ten top 2 finishes represent 30 forgone Chase bonus points that have been left on the table, and Harvick is not pleased. Right now, Harvick is tied for 5th seed in the Chase playoff grid with only two wins during the regular season.

At Darlington, a poor final pit stop dropped Harvick from second to sixth. He recovered to finish fifth, but was sorely dismayed, parking his #4 and immediately departing without speaking with the media on pit lane. With the Chase now upon us and the mounting count of second-place finishes outstripping his few wins, Harvick has likely gone from simmer to slow boil.

Can Kevin Harvick play the role of 'Closer' at Richmond

Can Kevin Harvick play the role of ‘Closer’ at Richmond

3) Will Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance of the 2nd half of 2015 keep on rolling?

With Carl Edwards’ victory at Darlington, JGR has won seven of the last ten races. On short tracks like Richmond, they have amassed four victories among the eight races so far this year. As the leading Toyota Racing team, JGR has seriously collaborated and found speed that was missing from their engine program last year.

JGR’s positive energy was apparent among its drivers’ post-race interviews at Darlington. More importantly, Coach Gibbs has delivered on this year’s investment in adding the #19 piloted by Edwards, who collected his second victory on Saturday. Striking as well is the organization’s pit road success, where JGR drivers consistently gain positions on pit road (assisted by JGR’s “thunder” air guns that allegedly quicken tire changes). Crew members attribute their success to the team’s culture of pushing the envelope to be the fastest on pit road, with the risk tolerance that mishaps will occur when pushing limits. On Saturday, Edward’s victory was supported by gaining two to three positions on each of the last three pit stops, with his crew getting him out in the coveted leader position on the final stop. Remarkably, Edward’s pit crew was so fast, they even playfully renamed the Speedway signage from Darlington to “Carlington” during the team’s celebration on the frontstretch.

4) Will a “Wild Card” winner emerge at Richmond to secure one of the final Chase spots?

The determination of the 16 drivers competing for the Chase Cup has lacked surprise during the second half of the season, with the last nine races seeing repeat winners pad their bonus point standings.

Additionally, the point rankings remain stable with Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Paul Menard, and Clint Bowyer currently holding the final playoff slots. Kasey Kahne and Aric Amirola have a mathematical shot, but candidly, a surprise Richmond winner must emerge to break the stranglehold of these remaining five.

Not surprisingly, Richmond races like a short track where the best typically shine, and none of the last ten races have been won by a driver who does not already have an established position in the Chase grid. So I’m betting that we will see continued dominance from the top Chase drivers, with little suspense. So, if your favorite driver currently holds a seed within the Chase grid, go ahead and make your plans to join the post-race party as the qualifiers will likely remain unchanged.

5) Can NASCAR sustain the positive vibe coming off the Southern 500 into Richmond and the ensuing Chase?

Before the Southern 500 even began at Darlington Raceway, the hashtag “NASCARthrowback” was trending on Twitter, while the NBC race broadcast attracted the sport’s highest Labor Day weekend audience in eight years. By all accounts, the retro theme was a smashing success, fans filled the stands, and the on-track race product delivered on the hype of its low downforce aero specs (tested in anticipation of 2016 implementation), with side by side racing in evidence throughout the field.

So the question remains, can NASCAR build upon the momentum of the recent Bristol and Darlington races, reenergizing the fan base with an entertaining Richmond regular season finale as the prelude to the kick-off of the NASCAR chase playoffs? Unfortunately, with the aero package rules returning to the 2015 specs used in April at Richmond, we may see a repeat of Stewart-Haas Racing dominance. During the April race, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick finished 1-2, with Busch leading 291 of 400 laps.

However, that April race was rain delayed from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon. This weekend, the mounting pressure on drivers to secure their final spot in the Chase, combined with the hot weather and changing track conditions into the night, may deliver more excitement to keep the momentum charging forward. If not, there is always the post-race party on the frontstretch with Rutledge Wood and the 16 elite drivers whose championship dreams remain alive.

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

NASCAR: Chase Hasn’t Helped As Much As Low-Downforce

Edwards pulled out a great win over Brad Keselowski in Darlington over the weekend.

Edwards pulled out a great win over Brad Keselowski in Darlington over the weekend.

This coming weekend, Richmond is the last NASCAR domino to fall before the chain of qualifying events start to come into play. Has the Chase format and it’s subsequent tweaking over the years really helped NASCAR? My opinion is no. The numbers seem to support my opinion. Make the racing better with low down-force and tire packages for the tracks and tell everyone who hasn’t heard, how great the racing is. There is a formula for this sort of issue.

NASCAR suffers from the same problems that befall large corporations, whether they are public or private, and that is gridlock on decision and strategy. Why? Because everyone in their meetings is, no doubt, the smartest guy in the room.

There was a point, roughly two to three years ago, that it appeared as if the Chase would be effective in reviving the numbers of television viewers and those who might consider attending a NASCAR race. It had appeared to stop the bleeding, but the wound is open again and NASCAR is in full triage to stop it.

According to Sports Media Watch: “NASCAR Sprint Cup racing from Darlington drew a 3.4 overnight rating on NBC Sunday night, up 13% from the comparable Atlanta races last year and in 2013 (3.0 both years). Those telecasts aired on ESPN. According to NBC, the 3.4 is the highest for NASCAR on Labor Day weekend since 2007.”

The major networks do matter to NASCAR and it’s ability to effectively reach it’s fan base. Here’s the kicker: NASCAR is slowly returning to it’s status as a regional sport. It may never live in the obscurity that it once did, but make no mistake, the demographics are Southern.

Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, looks on from the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 5, 2015 in Darlington, South Carolina.  (Photo by Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images)

Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, looks on from the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 5, 2015 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images)

What to do? You have to look around carefully at the way we consume media. Mobile and non-traditional means of sports consumption are rapidly moving to mainstream. The cable networks are sweating bullets over freshly minted pimply faced kids creating the next Hulu, Apple TV or Netflix to come along and poach the domain they thought would never end.

My opinion on the racing so far in the 2015 season is that it is demonstrably better and Darlington proved that out. Less down-force has a lot to do with it, however the reduction in horsepower, while designed to cause the drivers to roll faster through the corners, has had a slightly negative effect. They would be much more of a handful with that 100 HP back.

But is that all it takes? Put out a great product and the eyeballs will show up? Not a chance. IndyCar is the perfect example. Some of the best balls out racing on the planet right now and yes, they are growing. They had to, they had no where to go but up and upwards they’re headed, albeit slowly.

But, you have to start somewhere and low down-force seems to be the answer de Jour. According to Carl Edwards, winner at Darlington: “I think we’re at a bigger crossroads than most people realize,” Edwards said after winning the Southern 500. “We can go with a package that makes our cars easier to drive and have a (boring) Talladega every week.

“Or we can make them harder to drive and show off the massive talents of our drivers and crew chiefs in these races. I hope they go with the latter and stay with this package.”

Most drivers believe if NASCAR starts 2016 with the current package and then removes more down-force, the racing will be even better. If you remove enough down-force, then the horsepower issue is diminished.

We should all be looking to see who is going to be the breakout kid in the Chase segment of this years Championship, but we should also be concerned that NASCAR is marketing the improved product with a vengeance.

One can only hope.

 

Consistency Got Winless Newman Into Championship Final

Ryan Newman had to take a big chance on the last lap of the race in Phoenix to make it to the Chase final. He did so and was successful.

Ryan Newman had to take a big chance on the last lap of the race in Phoenix to make it to the Chase final. He did so and was successful.

There are some observers who say that Ryan Newman should not be in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, much less one of the four drivers who are eligible to win this year’s championship.

Why? Because he has not won a race. And wasn’t this new Chase format designed to reward victory? It seems unreasonable for a driver who has not won to join three who have in the Chase’s final round at Homestead.

Yes, Newman hasn’t won. But he earned a berth in the finals not by victory, but by consistency. His steady, if unspectacular, performances in the Chase – and minimal involvement in accidents and mechanical maladies – not only kept him alive in each round of the Chase, but also moved him forward.

In the first three races of the Chase, known as the Challenger Round, Newman scored just one top-10 finish. Yet, overall, he was good enough to be in 9th place in points – comfortably among the 12 drivers that advanced.

In the next three races that composed the Contender Round, Newman fared much better. He didn’t have a finish below 7th and was solidly in third place among the eight drivers who moved ahead.

Then came the next three races known as the Eliminator Round. Newman started well with a third-place run at Martinsville but stumbled a bit when he finished 15th at Texas.

When that race was over Newman remained in third place but was only 10 points ahead of Jeff Gordon – which figured prominently in the round’s final race at Phoenix.

The final four was set thusly:

Kevin Harvick won the race and that granted him an automatic berth in the final.

Contenders Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano saved themselves with some gritty, determined racing. Both made up lost laps to finish fifth and sixth, respectively, and make it to Homestead.

Newman is winless this season but he has been solidly consistent, which put him into the Chase and a chance for the title.

Newman is winless this season but he has been solidly consistent, which put him into the Chase and a chance for the title.

Gordon was primed to be the fourth entry. He was running second to Harvick on the last lap. Newman was 12th and needed to pick up a single point, somehow, if he was going to make the final.

There is an unwritten rule in NASCAR that says when drivers are on the last lap and racing for a victory, rules don’t apply – well, at least for the most part.

What that means is one driver can nudge, shove, plow or root another out of the way to win a race. Wrecking him is a different story which creates immediate controversy – but it’s happened.

Newman had to do what he could. And what he did was to slide up into the side of Kyle Larson’s Chevrolet and send him high up the track, but not into the wall.

Newman finished 11th, good enough to remove Gordon from the Chase.

Newman, who drives for Richard Childress Racing, knew exactly what he was doing against Larson. He knew there was no other way.

“In the end we fought back hard, did what we had to as clean as I possibly could,” Newman said. “I wasn’t proud of it, but I will do what I got to do to make it to this next round. 

“Kyle Larson has got a lot of things coming in this sport.  He used me up like that at Eldora in a truck a couple of years ago.  From my standpoint I call it even, but I think if he was in my position he would have probably done the same thing.”

“It’s a little upsetting he pushed me up to the wall, but I completely understand the situation he was in, and can’t fault him for being aggressive there,” Larson said. “I think a lot of drivers out here would have done something similar if they were in that position.”

Newman has been criticized for his last-lap tactics but he stands by his strategy.

“I did what I had to do as clean as I could do it,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy to turn somebody, so I just drifted as much as I could to get in there. 

“My Chevy stuck on the apron and we made it.” Gordon, obviously, was not happy that he lost his last shot for at fifth career championship. But he did not blame Newman.“I don’t know if I’d say Newman wrecked him,” Gordon said. “He certainly ran him up the race track. That’s been OK everywhere we race.

“That’s the system that we have. Wait until next week when the championship is on the line. You’re going to see a lot more than that.

“That’s what NASCAR wants – to create intensity and interest and that’s what’s going to happen. You have to expect it.”

As said, some are not pleased that a winless Newman has a shot at a championship. Given that in its history no driver has ever won a title without winning a race, NASCAR is probably a bit concerned.

But what Newman has proven is that consistency is paramount in NASCAR. For years its point system was based exactly on that. It rewarded a driver who finished well week after week.

A competitor who regularly won a race and then tumbled to 40th in the next one never had a chance at the title.

Yes, the foundation of this Chase is victory.

But make no mistake – consistency is key. It was in the past and it remains so today.

 

 

 

At Texas, Johnson Returned To Familiar Form

Jimmie Johnson won at Texas to earn his first victory in the Chase, his third straight in a Texas fall race and the 70th of his career.

Jimmie Johnson won at Texas to earn his first victory in the Chase, his third straight in a Texas fall race and the 70th of his career.

Given that there was a great deal of attention paid to the Jeff Gordon-Brad Keselowski fracas after the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, some folks might have overlooked the fact that Jimmie Johnson won the race.

Let’s face it, Gordon and Keselowski got a lot more ink than Johnson.

But it should be noted that Johnson’s victory was significant for a few reasons: It was his third consecutive win in the fall Texas race. It was his first in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and it was the 70th of his career.

He’s eighth on NACAR’s all-time list.

As mentioned, Johnson won in the Chase for the first time, as hard as that might be to believe. Truth is he was mediocre in NASCAR’s “playoff,” and that’s the reason he was eliminated from championship contention after the second round.

Before Texas, Johnson’s best Chase finish was third at Dover, the second of the three opening races.

At Kansas, the opening race of the second round, Johnson finished 40th after being involved in a multicar accident.

He was 12th in points and on the bubble. He almost had to win to advance.

He didn’t come close. He was 17th at Charlotte – where he normally runs very strong – and 24th at Talladega, after which he stood 10th in points and out of contention.

Johnson’s struggles led to speculation that he was at odds with long-time crew chief Chad Knaus, acknowledged as one of the best in the business.

To some, tense radio transmissions between the two at Charlotte offered evidence things were not going smoothly.

Once out of championship contention, the only thing left for Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team to do was to perhaps prepare for 2015 – and to definitely win as many races as possible.

Victory seemed as distant as ever after Johnson finished 32nd at Martinsville, but it was at Texas that everything was set right.

Johnson returned to dominating form at Texas. He led 191 of 341 laps en route to his fourth victory of the season.

Johnson returned to dominating form at Texas. He led 191 of 341 laps en route to his fourth victory of the season.

Johnson looked like the six-time champion he is. He led 191 of 341 laps, the most he’s led since his victory at Dover in June.

He survived two green-white-checkered restarts, pulling away from Keselowski and runnerup Kevin Harvick on the last one.

Now, for Johnson, this was more like it.“We wanted to close out the year by having fun, and winning races helps you do that,” Johnson said. “But I have to give a lot of credit to our test session in Homestead earlier this week. 

We went down there and Chad and the guys started making me happy.  I guess I’ve been unhappy for a while. 

“These guys put some great speed in the race car, got me really comfortable with the car. 

We were able to bring a lot of that here and get the car off the truck right away, it was quick, qualified third, and then dominated and won the race.”

Johnson acknowledged he would like to be in the hunt for the championship.

But he said that to be able to run as well as he did at Texas takes away some of the sting.He also emphasized that his relationship with Knaus is as it always was.“It’s tough when you’re going through watching, you know, a championship opportunity slip away from you,” Johnson said. “People ask me questions about us raising hell with one another on the radio.  But that’s part of the process.  “That’s one thing that has been good about us. 

We’ve always been able to be honest with one another and say tough things. 

“Sure, you might not want to hear it, it might sting a little bit.  But it’s what has kept us together for all these years and provided the 70 wins and six championships.”

Knaus said that not winning created a lack of confidence for him and Johnson, a situation that has been removed with victory.

“It was difficult,” he said. “My confidence was definitely low.  I know Jimmie’s was definitely low. 

“You know, look, winning cures a lot of things, but the proof is in how we react beyond this point, how we go to Phoenix, how we produce there, how we go to Homestead, how we race there.  “Those will be the true tales of where we’re at.”

 

 

 

 

 

Next Round Ahead, Competitive Harvick Presses Forward

Kevin Harvick has been steady in the Chase, as he's moved into second place in points as the third elimination round begins.

Kevin Harvick has been steady in the Chase, as he’s moved into second place in points as the third elimination round begins.

And Kevin Harvick moves along – surely and steadily.

Harvick enters the three-race Elimination Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup second in points and in a good position to challenge leader Joey Logano.

The points for the eight drivers who have made the third round of the Chase were reset to 4,000 each. But their positions in points did not change, save for Brad Keselowski’s elevation to eighth place by virtue of his victory at Talladega.

Harvick advanced by one position. He was third after his victory at Charlotte.

More important, that Charlotte win gave Harvick automatic admittance into the Eliminator Round. Therefore, he didn’t have to worry about how he finished in the always unpredictable and often treacherous Talladega race.

Talk about being relieved.

“I’m gonna park and watch the race at Talladega,” Harvick said. “It’s gonna be crazy, offensive racing.”

Talladega was indeed a tense affair. Four drivers would be eliminated from the Chase afterward and those in peril included Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Keselowski.

As it turned out Keselowski, of course, was saved by his victory. Kenseth advanced after his second-place finish.

Victimized were Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne.

Harvick's victory at Charlotte strengthened his position in the Chase and automatically advanced him into the next elimination round.

Harvick’s victory at Charlotte strengthened his position in the Chase and automatically advanced him into the next elimination round.

For his part, Harvick didn’t park and watch the race. But he kept pretty much out of the spotlight.

He led only once for two laps – and this is a guy who has led more laps than any other driver in every race but one in the Chase.

Truth be known, he likely wanted it that way. He wanted to run a safe race and figured that might be done best if he didn’t scrap for position at the head of the pack.

Not, however, that he ever planned not to race as strongly as possible.

“Obviously it takes a lot of pressure off by not having to worry about a strategy,” Harvick said. “You just go race. The guys have worked hard on the cars to make them as good as they can no matter the scenario.

“At the bare minimum, we owe it to them and the fans to race as hard as we can and take the same approach as we have all year – try to run well in practice, qualify well, lead laps and try to win a race.

“But the thing that comes out of Charlotte is, if it works out, fine and if doesn’t, fine. Just race hard.”

Turned out it worked out pretty well. Harvick finished a comfortable ninth at Talladega, his fourth top-10 finish in six races.

Harvick considers his Chase performance, including the win at Charlotte, all the result of a maturation process.

“I look at Charlotte as what we’re supposed to do and what we should have done a number of times if it wasn’t for crazy things happening, mistakes and different things,” Harvick said. “But I think that’s part of the building process.

“You look at last week as great timing for our circumstances. With building a new team at Stewart Haas Racing, having new people in new situations and a lot of things to learn, this format has allowed us to mature throughout the process of a year.

“Hopefully we’re getting to a refined point that you think is where you need to be to race for a championship.”

Given his points position it certainly appears Harvick has reached where he needs to be in an effort to race for a championship. After all, he’s only one of eight drivers in contention and only one – Logano – is in a better position than he at this point.

“We’re doing as good a job in anything I’ve been involved in,” Harvick said. “The main thing is the speed in the race cars. You know what piece has been there all year and you don’t have to worry about that.

“We’ve continued to have that and it becomes a matter of controlling all the things we can control.

“I feel good about all those pieces we have.”

 

 

 

      

At The Last Minute – Again – Kahne Advances In Chase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Despite Chase Start, It’s Too Early To Count Johnson Out

Jimmie Johnson hasn't had a particularly good start in the Chase, but he's fourth in points and eight races remain.

Jimmie Johnson hasn’t had a particularly good start in the Chase, but he’s fourth in points and eight races remain.

After only a couple of races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup the notion has arisen that defending champion Jimmie Johnson has, so far, been anything but a championship contender.

This would normally be only conjecture – not to mention a surprise. After all Johnson is the defending champ. He’s won six career titles including five in a row from 2005-2010.

He’s second in career championships only to Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who have seven each.

But the facts are these: Yes, Johnson has three wins this season. He’s won at Charlotte, Dover and Michigan – a clear indication he got hotter as the weather warmed up.

At the 26th race of the season, at Richmond before the Chase began, Johnson finished eighth and moved into fourth place in the Chase after re-seeding. He was one of four drivers to win three races.

So far, so good – I mean, nothing much different there for the veteran title contender.

But Johnson started sluggish out of the Chase. He finished 12th at Chicagoland, which isn’t all that bad of itself, but when compared to No. 1 seed Brad Keselowski, who won and earned his way into the second round of eliminations, well, it wasn’t all that good.

Johnson won three races earlier this year to easily make the Chase field of 16. One of his victories came at Michigan in June.

Johnson won three races earlier this year to easily make the Chase field of 16. One of his victories came at Michigan in June.

Johnson came back strong with a fifth-place finish at Loudon, but, again, it was Team Penske that held sway as Joey Logano won the race.

As it now stands Johnson is fourth in points behind Keselowski and Logano, the Penske drivers in first and second place, and the steady Kevin Harvick.

Let’s be honest. It doesn’t really matter that Johnson compiled four straight top-10 finishes before the Chase began or that he tripped a bit when it started.

It really doesn’t matter that he returned to form with a top-five at Loudon.

We’re talking about Johnson. We’re talking about a guy who is expected to contend for a championship. After all, given his record, could we anticipate anything else?

That he has not roared to the top of the point standings with at least one victory in hand seems something of an anomaly.

Johnson understands this scenario. He’s been there. And he knows that it will take a change in performance to establish what is expected of him and his team.

“To be honest about it, we hold ourselves to a higher level and expect to operate at a higher level,” he said. “But it’s the same that we’ve probably had through the majority of the year, where we’ve been good. We had a small window of being great.

“But in any competitive sport, if you’re not great, it’s hard to have a ray of sunshine shining through in certain areas. So we’re realists.

“As the No. 48 and in the culture of Hendrick Motorsports, we expect a lot out of ourselves, let alone what any outside pressure would be. And we’re not where we want to be.”

For the moment being not where he wants to be means that Johnson wants to attempt to drop no lower than fourth in points and, of course, rise from there with continued improved performance and even victories.

“I’m trying to get my head around how do I drive a tighter race car?” Johnson said. “And then, how do we get speed? We had it right for three races this year, so it’s in there.

“But, you all see how close the times are in practice and qualifying in the race. You’re not looking for a ton, just a half a tenth to a tenth will completely turn things around.

“So, we’re looking for just that little sliver of speed to get back to a dominant position.”

Truth be told, Johnson can do it.

Last year he won two races in the Chase. He won four in 2009, the season of his fourth title. He won three in 2008 and a remarkable four in a row in 2007.

So, with eight races remaining in the Chase how can we honestly say he won’t go on a similar hot streak that brings him another title – even though the odds seem to be against him?

“Believe me, we’re working our guts out to find the speed and to be that dominant car,” Johnson said. “But, truthfully, we’re not the dominant car right now. We’re a good car.

“We still have eight weeks to get our act together. If we continue to get the most out of our good car and have a great car at Homestead, if we’re in that position, then we can get a seventh championship.”

 

 

 

 

 

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